A Legend Slips

Goya's Ghosts are Milos Forman's Skeletons The Get Down Guide

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Movie Guru

by Brad Case

When venerable director Milos Forman ( One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) came out of a lengthy hiatus to direct Goya's Ghosts, the cinematic world anxiously waited to see what the aging, but hopefully refreshed, Czech legend had in store. The finished film can only leave it wondering whether the old master has lost his touch.

In Goya's Ghosts, Forman sets out to depict the life and times of controversial Spanish painter Francisco Goya as a means of making a statement about religious zealotry. Goya was the artist of record when the Spanish Inquisition came crashing head-first into the French Revolution. It was a time of turmoil, chaos, paranoia, and genocide, and Goya's work illustrated every brutal detail, to the point that he is arguably the earliest trailblazer of fine art as political satire.

But the film's fictionalized story is not really as much about Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) as the world he painted in. Trying to strike a balance between artistic integrity and financial realism, this pioneer of the Age of Romanticism played both sides of the coin nicely to position himself as Spain's most respected painterâ"which meant being on good terms with both the social elite and the Catholic Church. In Goyas's Ghosts , this balancing act sees him entangled in the fate of a young girl named Ines (Natalie Portman) who has been taken by the Church for suspicion of being a heretic. An upper-level clergy, Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) is indirectly responsible for the abduction, and as Goya has painted portraits of both Lorenzo and Ines on past occasions, the artist becomes involved as a less-than-willing intermediary.  

What starts out as a morality play begins to escalate into a mini-epic as the seminal historical events of the time exponentially broaden the scope of the story. It's then that this simple tale becomes unnecessarily complex and begins unraveling like a spool of yarn.

Forman's exposition is anything but subtle. Hackneyed plot devices in the form of convenient invasions, beheadings, and messages from afar pop up to deter from the narrative, making you wonder why a director of this caliber would resort to such clichés.   

All of this is curiously out of character for Forman, who has rarely conformed to convention in his films.  

Sadly, in this case, the Midas touch eludes the director. Usually a fine performer, Randy Quaid struggles as King Carlos the IV struggles mightily, but is ultimately laughable. More significantly, the casting of Portman, who is tasked with playing dual roles, is an even bigger gaffe. Required to reach way beyond her talents, the 25-year-old actress is never convincing in any degree with the material, though her roles are central to the narrative

Stellan Skarsgard's depiction of the title character doesn't fare much better as the Swedish actor brings little of interest to the screen. Whether he is the jovial, carefree Goya of the film's first act, or the obsessed moral compass of the third, Skarsgard's depiction is bloodless and conjures up little of the authentic passion you might expect from an artist of Goya's intensity. Only Javier Bardem offers some depth to villainous Brother Lorenzo.

It's never pretty to watch the great ones get sloppy. It happened to Stanley Kubrick with Eyes Wide Shut ; David Lean with Passage to India, and even Alfred Hitchcock with Family Plot. At 75, Forman, with multiple Oscars in tow, has enough artistic equity to get away with a turkey or two. But what's so bothersome here is not so much the clobber-you-over-the-head messages (religious zealots are and always have been a bad, bad lot!) that he is pushing, but the lack of panache with which they are presented.

Though new to Knoxville, Goya's Ghosts has been meandering around in limited release since late 2006; usually a red flag that a film is less than stellar. But the redemption that is so often the central theme of many of Forman's films may be just around the corner. Due out late next year is the biographical dramatization of legendary gambler Amarillo Slim starring Nicholas Cageâ"a fresh universe for the auteur to apply his special talents. If Slim shines, maybe we can just count this one as a Mulligan.

Movie Guru Rating:

Video a-Go-Go

Of course it was never intended to be a really great comedy, but director Paul Sapiano's The Boys & Girls Guide to Getting Down takes a pseudo-scientific look at L.A.'s incredibly vapid scenesters, and the many ways they tend to get down and dirty. Of course it's dumb. Of course it's a lousy film by any stretch of the imagination.

Yet there's something endearing each time the filmmakers riff off of an old cliché. Each time they delve into unmitigated hackney, it's almost adorable because they don't seem to know any better. So, as if they're telling us something new, the narrators begin with a tongue-in-cheek introduction, setting the parameters of their scientific study with the promise of ensuing hilarity.

If nothing else, The Boys & Girls Guide is a trite collection of skits, all of which have been loosely strung together into what is arguably a movie. It's the kind of flick that will get plenty of playtime in the freshmen dormitories, as thrill-starved co-eds drink Natural Light for the first time.

Thus, Sapiano has crafted a few vignettes that attempt to satirize a world that he clearly knows nothing about. There are a few hapless cokeheads, heading from party to party in search of sexual conquest. Horny men scan the bar in hopes of finding a last-call hookup. And a crew of intrepid scientists observes each scenario, offering insights into the socio-cultural complications of the late-night party scene.

The humor's overly sophomoric, and nauseatingly predictable. All at once, you know that you're supposed to be watching a comedy, but you're always left waiting for the payoff. If you're patient, there is some actual humor, the kind of benign shtick that may impress a few drunks, but the good moments are too few to matter as the movie goes on, awkwardly hoping for a few slack-jawed guffaws that never seem to come. â" Kevin Crowe

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