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MALENA

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Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore hit the bull’s-eye with both the critics and the public with 1989’s “Cinema Paradiso,” a sweet-as-sugar coming-of-age tale coupled with a loving celebration of the power of movies. It copped the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1990 and charmed audiences worldwide. Unfortunately, Tornatore seems to be a one-shot wonder. His later films, at least as far as one can tell from those accorded U.S. distribution (1994’s “A Pure Formality,” 1995’s “The Starmaker” and last year’s “The Legend of 1900”) have all been serious disappointments. “Malena,” his newest effort, is, like all his pictures, beautiful to look at, but it’s also at once overly familiar and emotionally confused. It’s likely to appeal only to those more interested in a Sicilian travelogue than a dramatically effective film.

“Malena” is the name of a beautiful young widow (Monica Bullucci) struggling to survive in a small Sicilian town during World War II. Though her husband has reportedly been killed in action, she’s not treated by her neighbors with much sympathy. All the men gawk over her as she strides purposefully through the streets, decked out in revealing skirts and dresses, and all the women look upon her with envy and distaste. Malena becomes the prime object of attention for the horny young local lads, particularly the aptly-named Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro), who becomes madly infatuated with the woman. She becomes a sort of goddess over whom he fantasizes extravagantly (in inserts which mimic scenes from genre movies), to the extent of disturbing his ever-vigilant parents (Luciano Federico and Matilde Piana) with the noisy squeaking of his bedsprings; and he actually becomes a good-natured stalker, observing her assiduously from afar. Unfortunately, economic exigencies force Malena into prostitution, often with resident German soldiers, and after the liberation her fraternization with the enemy is the excuse for her mistreatment at the hands of those who had previously lionized Mussolini (female jealousy is, of course, the true cause). A closing twist allows the maturing Renato to intercede on her behalf, and the denouement has a vaguely mawkish hopeful tone.

The picture is, obviously, another coming-of-age tale, and, like “Cinema Paradiso,” it includes an affectionate attitude toward movies, but that’s where comparisons with Tornatore’s earlier success end. While the 1989 film boasted genuinely attractive characters whom the audience could easily embrace, the figures in “Malena” never seem more than a writer’s conveniences. Partially this is due to the stiff, wooden lead performances of Bullucci and Sulfaro. The former, a gorgeous cover-girl, spends most of her time standing in languorous poses or walking through cobblestone squares in splendid outfits as though she were striding down a runway at a fashion show. She does get to exhibit greater variety in the closing reel, when she’s abused by the crowd and later reappears as a subdued, humble housewife, but even then the character never really connects with us emotionally; she remains remote and detached, a distant figure whom we observe at too great a remove. The non-professional Sulfaro isn’t nearly as engaging as the child was in “Cinema Paradiso.” Indeed, he’s not adept enough to keep Renato’s obsession with Malena from seeming just a bit creepy; and in the later stages of the story, when he’s supposed to be older than his true years, he seems literally like a boy playing dress-up in his father’s suit. The supporting cast is, to put it charitably, a strenuous lot; most of them overdo the local color to an alarming degree.

That’s not entirely their fault, though. Tornatore, in both his writing and his directing, veers from near-farce to near-tragedy so abruptly (and unconvincingly) that even the finest actors couldn’t have hidden the seams. The smooth transitions that marked “Cinema Paradiso” are lacking here, and the picture doesn’t come off as the stylish reverie it aims to be. It’s more effortful than artful.

“Malena” uses its Sicilian locations well (it was filmed mostly in Siracusa), and anyone looking for lush, sun-drenched shots of the photogenic locales will be pleased at what he finds here. Unfortunately, the action and acting appearing against the backgrounds fail to match their splendor.

UNBREAKABLE

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“Unspeakable” might be a better title for M. Night Shyamalan’s followup to his 1999 smash “The Sixth Sense.” The picture mimics its predecessor in numerous ways, from its crushingly deliberate pacing and morosely blue-green color palette to a largely impassive lead performance by Bruce Willis and a Hitchcockian cameo by the writer-director himself (here as a drug dealer). It also shares with the earlier film a storyline laced with supernatural mystery and a sudden twist ending designed to take one’s breath away. Unfortunately, while “Sense” managed to maintain a sense of chilling plausibility despite its underlying outlandishness, the new picture imposes on its pulpish premise a weight it just can’t bear, and at the lugubrious speed at which the director plays the scenario out, it just grows sillier and more tiresome.

The conceit behind “Unbreakable” is that the idea of a special, nearly invulnerable being most clearly embodied in costumed comic-book superheroes might actually be a garbled reminiscence of an ancient human reality embedded in the common consciousness, and that there might really exist some chosen individuals almost impervious to harm and destined to serve as humanity’s saviors. When security guard David Dunn (Willis) emerges from a devastating train wreck without a scratch, he’s approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a dealer in comic art suffering from a genetic defect which makes him subject to easy injury; Price suggests that Dunn might be such an extraordinary individual fated to protect mankind from evil–physically the mirror image, as it were, of Price himself. As the narrative proceeds, Dunn, a laconic man troubled by family problems and personal regrets, entertains Price’s initially preposterous notion and begins to wonder whether he isn’t actually one of the (non-digi)destined, as it were.

In itself the premise positing a heroic defender of humanity, though inevitably pulpish, can serve as the basis for some thought-provoking fantasy: Harlan Ellison, for example, used the notion to good effect in his 1964 “Outer Limits” episode “Demon With a Glass Hand,” and an equally intriguing variant of it appeared in his story “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which was turned into one of the better segments of the “Twilight Zone” second series in 1985. But while Ellison’s riffs on the idea evinced a sort of mystical grandeur, Shyamalan’s relies on an unvaryingly turgid portentiousness which grows progressively infuriating as the picture unspools. It wouldn’t be cricket to reveal much of the narrative arc, but one can note that although Sherlock Holmes may be long gone, Dr. Moriarity proves to be alive and well in that dank vision of Philadelphia which is ShyamalanLand.

To be fair, one should admire the writer-director’s continuing interest in tackling philosophical, life-and-death issues in his work, even if he gives them a pop twist to make such musings palatable to a mass audience. (You can see his ambition along these lines not only in “The Sixth Sense,” but also in his lighter, little-seen first film “Wide Awake.”) One can also note that there is one element in “Unbreakable” that is a successful carry-over from “Sense,” namely the sweet, affecting relationship depicted between Dunn and his young son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Shyamalan seems especially skilled in getting fine performances out of adolescents, and although Clark doesn’t have nearly the screen time that Haley Joel Osment enjoyed in “Sense,” he creates a touching, affecting portrait of a boy in awe of his father but also in obvious turmoil over his parents’ marital difficulties. On the other hand, the writer-director seems less able to fashion convincing male-female relationships: the scenes between Dunn and his wife Audrey, played decently but somewhat reticently by Robin Wright Penn, lack the intensity they ought to have. Instead the emphasis turns to the growing friendship between Dunn, who in Willis’ performance remains an almost glacial presence even when involved in physical action, and the emaciated-looking Price, whose odd appearance (his hairdo almone sets him apart) and dogged determination in the face of adversity inevitably make him a sympathetic, if somewhat strange figure.

If you value a spooky atmosphere above all else in a film and don’t mind putting up with leaden pacing and a fairly ridiculous story to get it, you might find “Unbreakable” sufficiently moody to warrant a look. But most viewers–especially those swept up by “The Sixth Sense”–are likely to find it a grave disappointment.