It’s been a long-standing tradition in film to present viewers with a sort of vicarious vacation. Movies like The Tourist allow their settings to be just as much of a main character as their beautiful leads are. Like the movie that hits Blu-ray today, all it takes is a few unrealistically gorgeous faces (Angelina Jolie, check; Johnny Depp, check) and a picturesque and breathtaking setting (Paris, check; Venice, check) to get viewers to feel like they just took a little two hour fantasy European excursion from the convenience of their couch or comfy theater seat. The Tourist is part of a long line of travel-inspiring films that span everything from the classics to teen movies, but they all accomplish the same thing. They all give the people what they want: beautiful people in even more beautiful places.
When you combine a few of these European adventures, you get a sort of virtual European tour through film and since The Tourist places us firmly in Venice, what would be a better place to start than the boot-shaped nation of Italy?
Obviously, Europe has a great many beautiful locations to offer, but Italy has quite a few vacation destinations. It would be worth spending a little extra time here and the numerous films that take place here are just further proof of that fact.
Pretty People: Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
You really can’t have a list of European excursion films without including the granddaddy of them all. This classic pits Hepburn’s sheltered princess against Peck’s hard-hitting, cantankerous reporter and they fall in love as they tour the classic city together. The film plays on the city’s rich history and beauty and gives us one of the most classic scenes in film, the Mouth of Truth test.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Pretty People: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow
Locale: Venice, Naples, Tuscany, Rome, Sanremo
Admittedly, this part of your tour is a little more stressful than the romantic adventure you get in Roman Holiday, but the film takes you all over the beautiful country and there are few things sexier than beautiful people in beautiful clothes navigating an extensive and mysterious plot in beautiful locations. One of the most breathtaking of the film’s locations is the island of Ischia (in the bay of Naples) which is full of beautiful Cliffside views, gorgeous beaches, and ancient ruins. Not a bad place to spend a few intriguing hours, eh?
Pretty People: Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei
Locale: Venice, Tuscany, Rome, Positano
Well, this film does start in dreary Pittsburgh, but it quickly takes us on a whirlwind tour of Italy all in the name of fate and true love. The plot is fairly pedestrian, but plays on some of our favorite classic films, especially Roman Holiday, and nothing can beat Robert Downey Jr. pursuing the woman of his dreams in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. The film’s climax takes place in Positano, a gorgeous city propped on a seaside cliff and if it doesn’t make you want to book an Italian vacation on your laptop as the romantic conclusion plays out there’s something wrong with you.
There aren’t as many films that take advantage of the beauty Spain has to offer, but there is one that truly merits a stop on this tour.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Pretty People: Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall
Locale: Barcelona (duh)
There’s little to complain about with this film, unless you hate gorgeous locales and super sexy people getting super sexed up. You don’t hate that do you? Barcelona feeds the sexual freedom seen in Cristina, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena and makes the cautious Vicky question her reserved ways. Barcelona is as integral to this film as Javier Bardem’s sheer magnetism is to well, life. (How hot is he?)
It’s long been touted as the location for the getaway of all getaways, the most luxurious sunny vacation you can imagine. It represents the height of luxury and class, so it’s no wonder it’s a stop on our little flight plan.
To Catch a Thief
Pretty People: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly
Locale: French Riviera, Cote d’Azur, Cannes, French Alps, Monaco (Technically not France, but we’ll allow it)
Not only do we have two of the most classically beautiful people unraveling the mystery behind a series of jewel heists (which as you know are the sexiest of all heists), but they’re doing so in one of the most beautiful places you can imagine. As they fall in love and Grant’s persistent John Robie straddles rooftops to catch the real jewel thief, you can’t help but allow the beauty of the setting to add to the sweeping adventure of it all.
Pretty People: Johnny Depp, Carrie-Anne Moss, Juliette Binoche
Locale: Rural France
This romantic little film combines our two favorite ingredients, beautiful people and beautiful places, with one other fantastic ingredient: CHOCOLATE. Um, hi. This sounds like paradise. Besides, it also includes a scene where our heroine gets to make out with Johnny Depp…in a boat…on a river…in France. I want to go to there.
Pretty People: Audrey Tatou, Mathieu Kassovitz
Locale: Every inch of Paris
Of course, this film is the fantastic tale of Amelie, the shy and sheltered little Parisian lady who finds love, but pursues it in her own eccentric way with encouragement from her friend, a wise old painter with brittle bones. (And the object of her desires, Nino, is just about as cute as button.) However, another character necessary to the plot is the living, breathing city of Paris, which lends beauty and shape to the film.
We don’t always think of England as being beautiful, it’s often thought of as nothing more than a gray and dreary landscape, but the beauty of the city of London is undeniable. The centuries of architecture are breathtaking and there are a few films that take advantage of that.
Pretty People: Colin Firth, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Rodrigo Santoro among others
The film follows eight couples (some of which are comprised of very, very pretty people) as they go through different bouts of love, but the beautiful backdrop for all this mushy stuff is the magnificence of the city of London. It may not be as instantly romantic as the streets of Paris or Rome, but it is beautiful and with the help of a little romance, the film really showcases that.
Germany (and Prague)
Neither of these places are touted for their beauty in most main stream culture, but a few films have managed to find ways to bring out the best in these locations.
Pretty People: Mandy Moore, Matthew Goode
Locale: Berlin, Prague, Venice, London
Yes, I know this was one of those run of the mill teen romantic comedies. Yes I know Mandy Moore isn’t that great it in, but she’s so pretty! And so is Matthew Goode for that matter and thanks to this movie we met him long before Match Point. The thing that puts this average movie above its contemporaries for me is the sheer beauty of the shooting locations. They don’t even touch Paris or Rome and they spend a great deal of time showing us the wonder of gorgeous European locales that get far less attention: Prague and Berlin. (No, xXx does NOT count.)
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why more romantic movies don’t take place in Vienna. I mean, just look at this and tell me you don’t want to book a ticket right now.
Pretty People: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
It’s the perfect beautiful people in beautiful places romance: it happens by chance, it’s brief and beautiful, and it feeds off of the classic city where it occurs. They meet on a train, Hawke’s character has no money for a hotel, so they simply spend the entire evening roaming the beautiful city in the best getting-to-know-you set up ever. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
If you thought the Viking Age was uninteresting in that old history textbook Pathfinder does it one better by actually upping the boring ante. In fact even ye Old World buffs out there will be disoriented. It’s set “600 years before Columbus ” when “people had to guard America’s shores from marauders.” One of those most noble guardsmen was Ghost (Karl Urban). Native Americans happened upon him as a young orphan boy and decided to raise him as one of their own--even though he was never truly accepted due to his unknown ancestry. Fifteen years pass and Ghost once a frail child has blossomed into a beast-sized man capable of warding off almost anyone. His size and skill set come in handy when Norse invaders look to raise hell in his village. Armed with horses swords and thorny helmets they kill and maim everyone in sight and mostly get away with it. That is until they mess with the object of Ghost’s affection Starfire (Moon Bloodgood) thereby seriously messing with Ghost. You don’t put Ghost in a corner! Beefcake actors are apparently a dime a dozen these days and Pathfinder lead Urban does nothing to separate himself from the supporting actors of his own movie let alone from the aforementioned Hollywood stereotype. Looking like a runway model on steroids the Lord of the Rings and Bourne Ultimatum star only stands out aesthetically here and is in danger of being pigeonholed and typecast for a long time to come. Unless he can somehow show a different side Urban will wind up on a long list with the likes of wrestlers-turned-actors who can’t act. Thing is in Pathfinder he can’t even manage the uber-virility his character is meant to project. Bloodgood (Eight Below) meanwhile owner of the best non-porn name in showbiz holds her own and softens things up in a movie otherwise completely dominated by males. And finally there's veteran Native American actor Russell Means (Natural Born Killers) who as the Pathfinder himself at least lends some desperately needed credibility. Looking up a director’s name and past work isn’t a fair way to pre-judge his or her movie but it may sometimes hint at what you’re in for. Take Pathfinder for example: Director Marcus Nispel's past work includes Texas Chainsaw Massacre and music videos. Massacre was terrible and music videos are stylized; thus we arrive upon Pathfinder which is terrible and stylized. When parents complain about violence in the movies this should be their focal point. Nispel like other offenders is unable to ever refrain and beheadings and such in all their slow-motion glory resemble fun video games. Not that his lack of morality makes Pathfinder the crap it is however. That blame rests on his apparent decision that such violence is all moviegoers want to see. And it is perhaps the sheer lack of a story that accentuates how mediocre the violent scenes really are--scenes that are meant to leave us agape in amazement as if we’ve never seen a loose eyeball on the screen before. On a (lone) positive note though the set design seems up-to-snuff.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
Ape descendant Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) gets yanked from the Earth by best friend and alien Ford Prefect (Mos Def) seconds before a Vogon constructor fleet destroys it to make way for a hyperspace expressway. Next thing he knows Arthur is aboard the Vogon ship reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (voiced by Stephen Fry) and wondering where he might get some tea. But he and Ford are not in the clear: the Vogons (some of whom look like the nightmarish drawings of Ralph Steadman come to life in S&M leather) want to throw them into the vacuum of space right after they read some of the third worst poetry in the known universe. Luckily the spaceship Heart of Gold picks up the stranded hitchhikers in the nick of time. Stolen by the dim but groovy President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) the ship has an Improbability Drive that causes certain mischief turning the stowaways into loveseats and later two missiles into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale. Also onboard is doe-eyed Earth girl Tricia "Trillian" McMillan (Zooey Deschanel) who previously ditched Arthur at a costume party on Earth to satisfy her wanderlust with Zaphod. The crew then embarks on a quest to find the Ultimate Question to Life the Universe and Everything after supercomputer Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren) found the answer: 42. On the run and without a home Arthur discovers that life's true meaning comes from the answers found within.
The slapstick antics and sharp dialogue evoke enough laughs to make one forget that the characters are rather one-note. Rockwell's Zaphod is a riot at first but the cheeky smile and devilish winks soon wear thin. Deschanel has little to work with playing Trillian though it's fun watching her wield a point-of-view gun on Zaphod. Mos Def mumbles some lines but does manage to act like someone from another planet. Freeman does an amiable job playing the fish-out-of-water Earthman but neglects to express the grief and bewilderment of someone who just lost his planet. Even John Malkovich as Humma Kavular--the spiritual leader of a cult awaiting the arrival of the Big Handkerchief--fails to make much of an impression in his brief appearance. Only Alan Rickman as the perpetually glum robot Marvin and Bill Nighy as the stammering planet designer Slartibartfast remain funny without becoming routine--though unfortunately Nighy only appears in the third act. A half-cocked romance between Arthur and Trillian is thrown in for good measure with the couple merely going through the motions.
Directed with considerable flair by first-timer Garth Jennings whose frantic visual style blends well with Adams' ironic wit the film looks as good as can be. CGI is used to display Adams' universe in ways never seen before: The massive concrete slabs of the Vogon fleet surrounding Earth the Heart of Gold tricked out in 1960's Formica kitsch the stark bureaucratic world of Vogosphere and the eye-popping factory floor on Magrathea are all vividly brought to life. Although the graphics of the Guide look more like Internet pop-up ads than stellar entries from the best-selling book in the galaxy the exposition from the Guide is clever and amusing though one should brush up on the material prior to viewing. Even with all the stunning visuals however the plot is still thin. Jennings and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) have trimmed the story--and witty banter--to its barest essentials leaving out some of the funnier bits to quicken the pace. Memorable exchanges--like the opening battle of wits between Arthur and Mr. Prosser--are reduced to a few meaningless lines while the always hinted-at love affair between Arthur and Trillian gets the full Hollywood treatment. In the past Adams who died of a heart attack in 2001 has allowed the Guide to change and progress with each incarnation so new additions--like the point-of-view gun and the cult of the Big Handkerchief--are welcomed. But the patchwork of wacky vignettes and neutered banter particularly between Arthur and Ford leave one yearning for something more meaningful.