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Knight at the Movies: Reaching for the Moon; The Monuments Men
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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When Lucy Barreto met U.S. poet Elizabeth Bishop and her Brazilian landscape architect lover Carlota "Lota" de Macedo Soares at a cocktail party at their shared home—Soares' estate Samambaia—in the lush countryside outside of Rio in 1959, she never forgot the encounter. If this power couple—portrayed by Miranda Otto and Gloria Pires, respectively—were anything in real life like the duo portrayed in Reaching for the Moon, it's no wonder.

Decades later Barreto read Rare and Commonplace Flowers, author Carmen Oliveira's Portuguese-language chronicle of their lives; thinking back to that memorable cocktail party, she immediately purchased the film rights, convinced Bishop and Soares's story would make a great movie. Barreto had a director in mind—her son Bruno, renowned for Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the Oscar-nominated Four Days in September and Bossa Nova ( which starred his then-wife, Amy Irving ). Although it took several years to convince Bruno to come onboard—and to raise the money for this unabashed lesbian romance ( which was funded in large part by Brazilian culture organizations )—the result was well worth it.

Baretto has chosen to tell the story of Elizabeth and Lota, mostly set in the country grandeur of Samambaia and in the stylish locales of the upper echelon of Rio society in the 1950s, using the familiar tropes of the traditional Hollywood romantic drama and ignoring the general perceptions of Bishop's life and work—in the same way that filmmakers ignored the reality of Billie Holiday's life and turned it into a star turn for Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues.

This simplistic approach seems to have put off a majority of reviewers of the movie. Perhaps reducing the complexities of the relationship, the individual personalities of the women and their creative processes has irked these film critics, or maybe they just need something edgier—who knows? I think Baretto's movie, which is sensual and emotionally intense, benefits from this traditional approach and I don't think audiences who love to revel in this kind of movie will mind it, either. No matter: Even if you're not a fan of Baretto's traditional take, the movie offers tremendous parts for Otto ( from The Lord of the Rings trilogy ) and Pires ( a telenova star in Brazil ), who both turn in multilayered performances.

When the two first meet, the skittish and self-deprecating Elizabeth is distinctly at odds with the stylish, larger-than-life Lota, an avowed sensualist with a fiery personality. Elizabeth has come from Manhattan to visit her college chum Mary ( Tracy Middendorf ), whose dalliance with Lota wanes when Elizabeth, with her delicate beauty, comes on the scene. Once Lota catches a glimpse of the fragility behind the flinty mask, she falls completely for Elizabeth, dedicating her life—and her vast resources—to making her happy ( starting with the construction of a dream of a writing studio ). And so, the relationship blossoms.

But Elizabeth's heavy drinking, emotional distance and jaundiced view of life ( "The art of losing isn't hard to master" is a line from her most famous poem ) gradually erode the walls of the paradise Lota has worked so hard to construct. "You can't expect someone who was raised in a desert to swim like a fish," Elizabeth tries explaining to the frustrated Lota who retorts, "Oh, what a pretty turn of phrase!" Eventually these factors as well as Lota's distractions—a baby girl adopted with Mary; the political unrest in Brazil; and especially the huge amount of time spent overseeing her design for what would become Rio's massive bayside esplanade, Flamengo Park—take their toll on the lovers. When Elizabeth returns to New York for a teaching post a reversal sets in with Lota, the emotional titan, becoming the weaker of the pair, setting the stage for a bittersweet conclusion.

Reaching for the Moon, an award-winning staple on the LGBT film festival rounds last year ( including Reeling ) has arrived on DVD from Wolfe Releasing just in time to make this a perfect Valentine's Day gift for those with a bent for tragic romances.

Of related interest: It wouldn't be Valentine's Day without at least a few film-related events surrounding the lover's holiday. These include the time-travel romantic drama A Winter's Tale starring Colin Farrell ( in theaters this weekend but not screened in time for WCT deadlines ) and a return engagement of Casablanca at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., which is scheduled for a matinee screening on Sunday, Feb. 15 at 2 p.m., complete with romantic pre-show sing-a-long music from the Music Box organist.

For those snuggling at home, Austenland, the romantic comedy with Kerri Russell as an obsessed single gal who goes to an English country manor dedicated to all things Jane Austen in search of her own Mr. Darcy, is out on DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate. Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour and a raft of British actors ( including some hot beefcake ) add to the fun of this fizzy little comedy.

George Clooney is a great big movie star who has tried six times to direct great little movies. He always chooses very interesting subject matter and though well intentioned, well-acted and sometimes visually well-done ( Good Night and Good Luck comes to mind ), I haven't wanted to see a single one of these movies a second time. Clooney means well but he does not seem to trust an audience to get the message he wants to impart unless it is spelled out in CAPITAL LETTERS.

All of his movies—even the comedies—sag under the heavy weight of his good but heavy-handed intentions. Clooney's latest, The Monuments Men—which unlike his other pictures, is scaled on a large canvas—suffers from this same problem. In addition to overstating its message, it also veers wildly in tone, never finding its footing. It's a fidgety movie that because of its star wattage, great subject matter and shoehorned-in random jaunty moments sometimes entertains but never really satisfies.

The movie is based on the true story of a group of art experts who tracked down irreplaceable art treasures stolen by the Nazis at the end of World War II. Clooney plays the head of the group who assembles this crew of he-man misfits—they're the antithesis of the hypermasculine WWII GI—who share a common love of art and a passion for recovering it. The team heads toward Germany as the war is closing down—still fraught with dangers—to try and figure out where the Nazis have taken these precious artifacts. They are pretty much left to their own devices—sent into mortal danger without so much as a by-your-leave—a gaffe that never gets satisfactorily explained ( especially in light of a few of them meeting their demise along the way for no good reason ).

The group are portrayed by actors that movie audiences love—Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, The Artist's Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey. This will help keep audiences happy, but neither the script nor logic do these actors any favors and none are given much to do. Cate Blanchett is also on hand as a suspected Nazi sympathizer who worked at the Louvre during the war, knows a lot more than she is telling, and who most likely won't be able to resist telling all when dreamy Damon goes to work on her.

Clooney tries combining the tense WWII thrillers The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen, the peppy feel of The Great Escape, Stalag 17, TV's Hogan's Heroes ( echoed in Alexandre Desplat's score ), and parts of Waterloo Bridge and other ill-fated WWII romances in the Damon-Blanchett scenes. But none of these parts equals any real kind of whole, and seems beyond him as a director. In 1964 John Frankenheimer made The Train, a great movie on the same subject that has a very simple through line: Burt Lancaster is ordered to stop a Nazi train containing stolen art from reaching its destination. Period. Watching Lancaster do just that—and only that—remains a nail-biting classic of pure tension and ingenuity 50 years later. Clooney might want to take a look at The Train before helming his next movie.

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