Each year thousands of lovelorn women flock to Verona Italy the hometown of Shakespeare’s Juliet to solicit romantic advice from the tragic heroine. They deposit their pleading letters on a wall near the balcony where Romeo supposedly made his famous late-night visit and if they’re lucky receive a reply from one of Juliet’s crew of officially appointed ghostwriters known as the Secretaries of Juliet.
In Gary Winnick's Letters to Juliet young Sophie (the irresistible Amanda Seyfried) while working on a sort of temp assignment with the Secretaries winds up leading an elderly British widow (Vanessa Redgrave) on a quest to reunite her with the Italian boyfriend she abruptly — and regretfully — jilted nearly 50 years prior. It’s a contrived and far-fetched scenario to be sure but no more so than your average Hollywood rom-com and this one at least carries the pleasant side benefit of allowing the filmmakers to set most of the action in picturesque Verona where Seyfried and Redgrave traverse the countryside on their quixotic endeavor.
The charming mother-daughter dynamic that forms between Seyfried’s doe-eyed do-gooder and Redgrave’s wistful grandma carries Letters to Juliet and make its preposterous and unapologetically schmaltzy plot palpable. But their efforts are largely sabotaged by the mediocre men of Juliet Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel The Motorcycle Diaries) and Christopher Egan (Eragon TV's Kings).
The usually terrific Garcia Bernal is really more of a prop than a character in this film. As Seyfried’s future ex-fiance an ADD-addled restaurateur too preoccupied with procuring ingredients for his new menu to tend to his relationship he replays the same scene over and over as if in some sort of Twilight Zone sketch. His intended replacement played by Egan is an insufferable twit we’re meant to believe is some sort of hot-shot human rights lawyer back in his native England — a detail I wouldn’t believe if he held up his law school degree to the camera for us to see.
Equally incredulous is the romantic subplot that develops between him and Seyfried and when the story shifts to them the film rapidly loses steam. Male characters will always play second fiddle in a chick flick — even one written and directed by men — but in Letters to Juliet they’re almost an afterthought seemingly tossed in late in the game to bolster the film’s appeal to young female moviegoers. In the end even someone as talented as Seyfried can’t effectively sell us on her character's eventual pair-up with Egan’s whiny doofus no matter how loudly the Taylor Swift soundtrack presses her case.
Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) is an emotionally closed-off British ex-con who heads to Canada to visit an old lover. When he misjudges the distances between Ontario and Winnipeg he rents a car and starts driving across the snowy winter landscape. He encounters a charming young woman named Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire) who hitches a ride and begins to thaw out his frozen heart but then tragedy strikes as the pair has a terrible car accident and Vivienne is killed. Alex is left with terrible guilt and so drives to the little town of Wawa to offer condolences to Vivienne’s mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver). Surprisingly Alex discovers that Linda is a high-functioning autistic and as he agrees to help her plan the funeral an unlikely friendship develops. Meanwhile Alex also meets Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) Linda’s beautiful next-door neighbor; his relationships with those two very different women change him very unexpected ways. Forget Ripley from the Alien flicks! With Snow Cake Sigourney Weaver gives the performance of her life. She transforms completely into Linda Freeman a middle-aged woman whose life is framed – but not controlled – by her autism. From her slightly twitchy movements to the far-off look in her eyes Weaver masterfully captures the physical elements of the disorder; add in the completely believable dialogue that reveals Linda’s inner emotional state and the portrayal is one that just might bring Weaver an Academy Award for her work. Alan Rickman is equally affecting as a man whose personal anguish threatens to shut him down completely; his emotional reawakening is so real that we can’t help but empathize and root for him. Carrie-Anne Moss is quietly effective as the sexually restless neighbor and Emily Hampshire is a beam of sunshine in her short time on the screen as Linda’s daughter a real face to watch for the future. Welsh director Mark Evans cut his teeth on British television and small films like Trauma. With Snow Cake he proves that he’s got a talent for telling emotional stories without descending into sentimentality. That’s a fine line and one that makes this film sit head and shoulders above those Lifetime channel flicks that send a chill up the spine of every red-blooded male (and many of us females too). First-time screenwriter Angela Pell should get massive credit as well. She tapped into her personal experience as the parent of an autistic boy translating that knowledge into creating a portrait of a grown woman (and mother of a normal daughter) who has successfully made her way through life despite her disability. The potent combination of those two talents united with across-the-board fine acting make Snow Cake a supremely satisfying cinematic experience. Watch for this one during awards season later this year.
Veteran British actor Maurice (O'Toole) knows that his final curtain call is coming soon. Though he still earns booze and cigarette money playing small parts in TV movies his heyday is far behind him and his chief delight is gossiping and reminiscing about the old days with acting crony Ian (Leslie Phillips). But beneath Maurice's craggy creaky exterior the heart of a young rake still beats. That heart gets plenty of exercise when Ian's grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) appears on the scene. Fascinated by her youth and rawness Maurice takes the girl under his wing--and it's clear even before he dubs her his Venus that his motives aren't exactly grandfatherly. No innocent herself she responds by using her sexuality to manipulate him. As each learns more about the other their complicated relationship twists and turns in ways both predictable and unexpected. Whatever else can be said about Venus it's undeniably an actors' movie--particularly one actor. O'Toole gives one of the best performances of his career in a part that seems tailor-made for the acting legend. Whether he's staring at Jessie with a combination of sympathy and lust abruptly dissolving into tears of regret during a meal with ex-wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave) or sitting on his bed quietly and sadly alone O'Toole's Maurice is a fully fleshed-out thoroughly lived-in character. The spark he feels when he meets Jessie is clearly the most exciting thing that's happened to him in a long time and it's impossible not to sympathize with his newfound zest--even while raising an eyebrow at his pursuit. Newcomer Whittaker is also excellent adeptly shifting between Jessie's moments of brazen womanly confidence and naïve little-girl hurt and eagerness. Like its main character Venus isn't an easy movie to categorize. Just when it seems like a quiet dignified drama about one man's attempt to make peace with his own mortality the advent of Jessie turns it into one of filmdom's more unlikely May-December romances. And then there are the movie's comic moments (one of the best is when Maurice takes a pratfall while trying to spy on Jessie when she poses nude for an art class). Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill The Mother) takes all of these conflicting elements and weaves them into a compelling challenging whole. It's hard to say whether he would have succeeded without O'Toole--in another actor's hands Maurice could have been just another dirty old man and some scenes frankly require all of O'Toole's talent to overcome that obstacle. But with this star and this director Venus is artful.
As a wife and mother Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) has a seemingly idyllic life until a sudden accident rips her family away from her. That sets in motion a kind of healing reunion a year later. Her feisty friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) convince Sarah to join a few other friends on a caving expedition--including Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) a butch caver who impulsively does whatever she wants and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) an overly-cautious climber who needs to map out everything they do. Thing is this thrill-seeking challenge turns out to much more than they expected especially when they are trapped and suddenly notice white shadows squirming around them. Not good. The mostly unknown actresses in this scare fest are all decent in their Descent--and although grappling with one-dimensional characters the women still manage to convey the suffocating feeling of being confined in small spaces. In the dark dripping wet environ they deliver realistic reactions to the horror unfolding around them which is about as chilling as anyone can imagine. MacDonald as the long-suffering widow is a particular treat as she changes from a pitiful whiner to a kick-ass survivor who exacts revenge in different ways. Originally released in England British director Neil Marshall has handed us an appropriately creepy film which taps into primal fears--dark claustrophobic spaces things that go bump in the night--situations we usually see men deal with. So it's quite refreshing to watch women handle it especially in the way Marshall unravels the female camaraderie as expertly as the climbers tie their ropes. The Descent displays squirm-inducing violence that's not at all white-washed just because there are ladies involved. It's gory and brutal. The scariest moments are often obscured by the dark and in some scenes the film resorts to a Blair Witch Project point of view by watching the action through a camcorder. Although this Americanized version has a different ending from the British version (apparently one not so morbid) it's still far better than last year's abysmal The Cave. The Descent will definitely get your heart rate up!