Who wouldn’t want to live in a land of opportunity where money grows on trees? Doctored photos of all that America purportedly offers—chickens taller than ostriches onions the size of meteors—convince Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) that everything is bigger and better in the New World than it is in his native Italy. So the widower decides to take his two sons and aging mother across the Atlantic Ocean for a shot at a better life. Crialese chronicles the family’s journey in three stages: the trek from their poor Sicilian town to a port where thousands fight for room on ships sailing to America; the often-turbulent voyage from Italy to America; and the navigation of the bureaucratic obstacles that await them at Ellis Island. The route taken doesn’t require much of a map but Crialese ensures there are many bumps on the road that test Salvatore’s mettle time and time again. He must contend with a mother (Aurora Quattrocchi) upset at leaving Sicily a mute son whose inability/refusal to speak could prevent him from entering the United States and a beautiful and headstrong English woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with possibly dubious romantic inclinations toward Salvatore. And then there are the skeptical American officials at Ellis Island to contend with … At the foot of The Golden Door stands Vincenzo Amato. It is through Amato that we ache for the comfort of the Old World and are drawn to the mysterious allure of the New World. As the devoted patriarch of the Mancuso family Amato strikes a careful balance between concern and curiosity as he and his loved ones move closer and closer to their destination—and their fate. He also maintains a calmness that cannot be shaken even as the roughest waves of the Atlantic Ocean threaten to capsize their ship. As Lucy the elegant woman in distress who captures Salvatore’s heart Charlotte Gainsbourg once again proves to be as beguiling and enigmatic object of affection as she was in The Science of Sleep. She’s rapidly becoming the poster girl for strange and inventive love stories. Aurora Quattrocchi mines much humor and wisdom from Salvatore’s mother’s grumpy cynical and stubborn demeanor which serves to make her an endearing but ultimately tragic representative of Old World thinking. Filippo Pucillo does his best Harpo Marx impression—adopting his physical appearance and channeling his quirky mannerisms—as the mute Pietro. And in one of his final roles the late Vincent Schiavelli is delightfully slimy as a businessman more than willing to assist Lucy for a steep price of course. There’s certainly a good deal of Federico Fellini in Emanuele Crialese. Possessing a fondness for the absurd and the metaphorical Crialese takes us on a voyage that is as visually arresting as it is intelligent and moving. You know you are in for an unpredictable but memorable Atlantic crossing when Crialese opens with the sight of snails making a home in Pietro’s hair. Amato clearly is game for anything as revealed by his willingness to be buried deep in dirt or dropped into a river of milk by Crialese. The most breathtaking moment though comes when Crialese parts a huge crowd of people like the Red Sea as he reveals who’s going to America and who’s staying in Italy. But Crialese doesn’t allow the film to be overrun with vignettes filled with symbolism. He devotes as much time to ensuring we are emotionally invested in the Mancuso family however particular they may seem and their desire to start over. To this end Crialese always gives the proceedings with a sense of optimism even when the Mancuso family arrives at Ellis Island and is subjected to dehumanizing physical and psychological testing to determine their entry to the United States. Golden Door is a wonderful tribute to the grit and determination of those—many of whom are our ancestors—who gave up everything they had to live the American dream.
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.