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MOULIN ROUGE

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A glob of flamboyant, self-indulgent kitsch with pretensions to grandeur, Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant, anachronistic period musical is big, garish,loud and dumb as a box of Rockettes–less a coherent movie than a visual and aural assault on the senses. “Moulin Rouge” is set in the Paris of 1899, but it employs a variety of pop tunes, largely of the easy rock variety, to tell its crushingly sentimental story of a consumption-ridden chanteuse/courtesan at the titular establishment who falls for a penniless but talented writer, enraging the lustful nobleman who’s her chief financial backer and wants her entirely to himself. The shades of “Camille,” “La traviata” and “La boheme” hover over the picture like avenging angels, since it often plays more like a Monty Python takeoff than a homage; a cinematic blitzkrieg, it seems written for people with an IQ under ten, and is shot and edited with such breakneck ferocity that it could be properly appreciated only by viewers with an attention span of under a second.

Nicole Kidman plays the singer-prostitute Satine, who longs to be a great actress. Her boss and manager Zidler (Jim Broadbent) has enticed an arrogant duke (Richard Roxburgh) to pay for a big musical extravanza as a showcase for her by promising him her undivided sexual attention, but she mistakes callow author Christian (Ewan McGregor), who’s just fallen in with Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his band of merry bohemians, for the nobleman; and no sooner do they get together than they’re both hopelessly in love. The remainder of the picture finds the two surreptitiously continuing their affair under the nose of the sneering duke as they collaborate on the project he’s funding. Of course since the poor girl periodically faints and coughs up blood, it goes without saying that things can’t end up entirely happily.

Luhrmann has elected to tell this simple-minded tale in a quasi-operatic fashion, apparently believing that the idea of an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style show blown up to elephantine proportions and staged like a runaway tornado will be irresistible. He’s wrong. “Moulin Rouge” is wearyingly overstuffed from the very first frame, with virtually every scene chopped into tiny fragments by hysterically frenzied editing and disfigured by oppressive closeups. The idea of narrating the piece through pop songs is a poor variation of the “Pennies from Heaven” formula, and gives rise to some sequences that are literally jaw-droppingly awful. I thought that we had reached the appalling nadir with a grotesque version of “Like a Virgin” sung by Broadbent, accompanied by a Busby Berkeley (or is it “Hello Dolly”?) chorus of prancing waiters, but no such luck: the final act tops even that enormity with a gruesome massed Apache dance to the strains of “Roxanne” intercut with the duke’s attempted rape of Satine, followed by a concluding production number (a series of excerpts from the show the group’s premiering, interrupted by the melodramatic windup of the love triangle plot) that is so astoundingly ugly that one’s tempted to avert his eyes (it’s capped, moreover, by an crane shot ascending through the backstage area that’s cribbed from “Citizen Kane,” of all things). All of this is supposed to be taken, of course, as camp raised to a transcendent level and, as such,to make you swoon in wonderment at its lushness and romance, but in reality it exhibits all the inventiveness of a wildly overwrought sophomore-class skit in a college revue extended to a positively painful two hours.

The performers labor all too strenuously to meet Luhrmann’s demands, but to no avail. Despite occasionally coughing up a few discreet drops of red, Kidman remains a bloodless heroine–a pale alabaster statue of surpassing beauty who engenders little emotional response. McGregor is handsome and reveals a strong singing voice, but he suffers all too melodramatically; he resembles a tenor version of a heroine in a Fanny Hurst weepie. Leguizamo is a maniacal and unfunny troll, while Broadbent mugs and sweats so profusely that he seems on the verge of cardiac arrest. As the snarling duke, Roxburgh could be auditioning for the role of Snidely Whiplash. At Luhrmann’s urging, everybody else in the large, well-attired cast bugs out their eyes and grimaces like animated gargoyles.

Presumably one could get some enjoyment out of “Moulin Rouge” by reveling in the stunning art direction with its rich reds and blues, the cascading streams of music veering from Offenbach to The Beatles, the exquisite lighting and lustrous decor–and some people will probably get a chuckle just from recognizing fragments of long-cherished lyrics and melodies plugged into such an unlikely setting. But by all means, if you go, leave your brain at the door (and take a couple of airsick pills to lessen the possibility of distress at the constant bombardment of images). Better yet, just slip on a recording of “Traviata.” You’ll get better music and better singing, and avoid Luhrmann’s visual bludgeoning. The fellow undoubtedly has ambition; now all he needs is some taste to go along with it.

THE AMATI GIRLS

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Early on in “The Amati Girl,” one of the four grown sisters in an Italian Catholic Philadelphia clan–an aspiring singer, as it happens–croons away in a club while her siblings, widowed mother, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles, and current beau look on. She’s painfully bad, and her relatives can only react with stunned silence. It’s a moment with which viewers of Anne DeSalvo’s preachy faith and family flick can easily identify, because while it’s easy to see the good intentions behind the project, the result is so clumsy and heavy-handed that it’s difficult to sit through without giving in to derisive laughter. DeSalvo doesn’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between what warms the heart and what burns it.

The screenplay–DeSalvo’s first–was a finalist in a Sundance writing competition, which can only make one wonder about the quality of the thousands which were judged inferior. The central figures are the quartet of sisters, but they’re surrounded by a vast assortment of spouses and other relatives, and virtually everybody has some problem to overcome. Grace (Mercedes Ruehl) is overtaxed by family demands, and her husband Joe (Paul Sorvino) is an inconsiderate boor to whom she always defers, to the chagrin of two of her siblings. Christine (Sean Young) is separated from workaholic hubby Paul (Jamey Sheridan), who’s not sufficiently involved in the life of his ballet-dancing daughter. Denise (Dinah Manoff) is a gadabout single girl who won’t commit to her perfect boyfriend Lawrence (Mark Harmon). And Dolores (Lily Knight) is mentally disabled, we’re told, because the women’s mother, widowed Dolly (Cloris Leachman) fell down while chasing Christine during her pregnancy. Dolores, despite her difficulties, desperately wants a beau, while Dolly, pining for her late husband, spends most of her time making her funeral arrangements. And as if all of these character jostling for attention weren’t enough, we also have to deal with two elderly aunts, Dolly’s sisters, played by Edith Fields and Lee Grant. The fact that the latter’s character is named Splendora is a dead giveaway that’s she’s meant to be the colorful, free-spirited one.

“The Amati Girls” isn’t merely a Lifetime movie, however; as befits its Christian distribution company’s name, it’s basically a didactic piece about learning to accept the decisions of divine providence. So it’s really about making lemonade out of lemons–about overcoming the heartaches that intrude in events, finding the joy in simple things and coming to realize What’s Really Important in Life. To insure that we get the point, the script resorts to the most obvious of means. A motif of the piece is that Grace is an expert in patron saints for all seasons, for example, never hesitating to point out (especially to Dolores) which one it’s proper to pray to in any circumstance. (Given the quality of the writing, the saint overseeing the picture was most likely Jude, the patron of hopeless causes.) And occasionally we’re treated to a bit of dialogue that sets out some piece of homespun religiosity quite shamelessly, as when when one character inquires “Why do we pray?” and we listen to the response, or another, at a time of personal tragedy, demands “What do I have to be happy about?” and others happily tell her. But perhaps the most uncomfortable moment amidst these near-howlers comes when poor Dolores (played far too broadly by Knight) is told that someday her prince will come because “there’s a top for every pot.” (When the inevitable boyfriend-to-be finally appears, one almost wishes the cast would break out in an ensemble rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” to celebrate the fact. At least that would be intentionally funny.) And from a dramatic standpoint the screenplay resorts to the most crushingly shopworn devices to push the plot along: this is one of those movies in which, should somebody complain of a headache, it’s only a matter of time before it proves a terminal condition. Unfortunately, it also gives in to the worst sort of stereotyping. A trio of permanent fixtures at a local bar have a kind of nostalgic charm, but the flagrantly swishy ballet teacher is a caricature that should have been permanently retired.

Still, some good performers were attracted to the material, and their presence makes it seem a trifle less inept than it would have otherwise. Ruehl is always interesting, even in second- or third-rate projects, and both Harmon and Sheridan are commendably low-key. Even Leachman and Sorvino, despite their penchant for overdoing things, deliver a few poignant moments. Young and Manoff, on the other hand, are simply nondescript. All the actors’ efforts, however, can’t alter the fact that “The Amati Girls,” however well-meaning, is stuffed with enough sitcommy laughter-and-tears moments to have filled an entire season of a show like “Eight is Enough.” And that’s entirely too much.

One further piece of information. Although “The Amati Girls” is being released to theatres, arrangements have already been made to broadcast it on the Fox Family Network just a couple of months after its opening. The small screen might well prove a more hospitable venue for it–especially if it’s shown on a Sunday. We would therefore counsel the Christian virtue of patience to anyone interested in seeing it.