Director Xavier Durringer's biographical drama "The Conquest" wowed Gallic audiences by being the first French film to satirize a sitting president -- as the opening disclaimer terms it, "a fictional film based on the lives of real people." The politicos lampooned in the film include head of state Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor Jacques Chirac, his rival, Dominique de Villepin and Sarkozy's first wife and key adviser, Cecilia. As a viewer vague about their policies, constituencies and foibles, I felt like Herman Cain facing questions about the leadership of Uzbeki-beki-beki-stanstan. The human story behind the electoral machinations is another matter, and a more accessible one.
"The Conquest" is less cynical than George Clooney's "The Ides of March," where the lifeblood of political campaigns flows from stabbed backs. The story follows Sarko, a tough-talking law-and-order candidate, on his relentless drive to a leading role on the world stage. The film portrays the center-right leader as a tireless striver who makes his way to the top by force of will, competence and a canny sense of the public mood. Denis Podalydès plays "the runt" as detractors call him, as a man of Napoleonic drive. His is a classic tale of career victories won at a great personal cost. He out-calculates his opponents, seduces the media by granting access to every stroll on the beach, and tirelessly woos voters. Along the way he alienates Cecilia (cool, formal Florence Pernel), who was his steadfast supporter but left him for another man just as he was heading into crucial elections.
The film is pitched as a satire, and a few vignettes, like the one in which Sarkozy bamboozles an angry factory foreman with virtuoso political double talk, have comedic snap. Too often, though, the jaunty, overeager background music seems to be underscoring jokes the action doesn't provide.
At this point in his career, Michael Caine has earned the right to do whatever he likes. So if he chooses a role trading quips with an ex-wrestler and riding the back of a giant bee, who can complain? "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" is surely the silliest outing for Caine since he swatted rampaging killer bees in the 1978 disaster flick "The Swarm." Here he plays the adventurer grandfather of Josh Hutcherson, a sulky teenage Jules Verne fanatic who is expiring of boredom in the Ohio home of his mother ("Sex and the City's" Kristin Davis) and too-protective stepfather (Dwayne Johnson). A radio message from the old man brings them to a South Seas isle populated by kitten-sized elephants and giant butterflies, with a goofball tour guide (overactor supreme Luis Guzman) and his nubile daughter (lightly clothed Vanessa Hudgens) tagging along. The story is an agreeable, scattershot affair combining notions from several of Verne's fantasy adventures with a "Swiss Family Robinson" formula of puppy love and family bonding. When Johnson whips out his ukulele for a campfire song or engages in a few bouts of verbal nose-twisting with the peppery Caine, you can only smile. The tone is lighter than meringue, the bizarre cast is engaging, and the pro-literacy message is appealing. Saturday matinees were made for this.