Woody Allen’s Rome; Lincoln Vamps; Powerful ‘War’: Film

Alessandro Tiberi, Roberto Della Casa and Penelope Cruz in "To Rome With Love." The film intertwines four stories involving at least 15 major characters. Photographer: Philippe Antonello/Sony Pictures Classics via Bloomberg

A lot of people wish that Woody Allen would return to the loopy, surreal comedy of his early years. Now he has, sort of, and at a level of accomplishment that befits a man who’s written and directed more than 40 movies.

“To Rome With Love” intertwines four stories involving at least 15 major characters, yet you never wonder who’s who or who’s where:

Story 1. An opera director (Allen) discovers a major talent (Fabio Armiliato) who can only sing in the shower.

Story 2. Young newlyweds (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi) are separated and seduced, she by a film star (Antonio Albanese), he by a whore (Penelope Cruz).

Story 3. A nonentity (Roberto Benigni) wakes up one morning to find himself famous, for no reason at all.

Story 4. An architect (Alec Baldwin) watches a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg) betray his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) with her best friend (Ellen Page).

At least half the movie is in Italian (there are subtitles), and it’s the better half, perhaps because the Italians are able to transform Allen’s shtick into something of their own.

Benigni is the biggest delight, as a clerk who’s bewildered to the point of outrage when suddenly all of Italy wants to know what kind of underwear he wears and what he has for breakfast. His story is so obviously a comment on the silliness of celebrity culture that it feels insulting when Allen insists on spelling out the message.

Worldly, Loony

Elsewhere the tone varies from worldly (the newlyweds’ story is like a contemporary “Cosi Fan Tutte”) to sour (the segment with Eisenberg standing in for Allen), to loony, in the tale about the tenor in the shower.

That joke expands to such insane dimensions of cultural parody that you can’t help smiling at the effort even if it doesn’t double you over. In fact, except for the scenes with Benigni and a formidably slutty Cruz, “To Rome With Love” isn’t really very funny.

No matter how much we wish it, Allen can’t go back to being the comic he was. His humor once defined modern and hip, but comedy has changed in the decades since “Bananas” and “Sleeper.” Now his jokes have the glow of nostalgia: You smile because you remember how funny he used to be.

“To Rome With Love,” from Sony Picture Classics, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *** (Seligman)

Abe Lincoln

The old rail splitter puts his ax to entirely different purposes in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” director Timur Bekmambetov’s better-than-it-should-be adaptation of the popular mash-up novel.

Benjamin Walker (Broadway’s “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”) plays the president with a secret life: He slaughters vampires. His hatred for the undead goes back to childhood, when he witnessed his mother being bitten by a bloodsucker.

Adapted by Seth Grahame-Smith from his 2010 bestseller, this Tim Burton coproduction in 3-D is more visually elaborate (and blessedly less campy) than Burton’s “Dark Shadows.”

The winks (“We’re gonna be late for the theater,” says Mrs. L) are few and far between. Some might even find this nutty film humorless, but Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) lets the absurd premise speak for itself.

His Lincoln dispatches truly scary vampires (no “Twilight” wimps here) with the ballets of violence popularized in the “Matrix” films.

Wooing Mary

Grahame-Smith’s plotting follows the traditional arc, with Lincoln evolving from Springfield lawyer to Great Emancipator, stopping along the way to debate Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), woo Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and fret over the soul of a nation.

But he’s also mentored by a renegade vampire (Dominic Cooper) who uses Lincoln to do his dirty work (vampires can’t kill their own). In this satirical telling, the South is a hotbed of undead action, with slavery providing endless supplies of blood.

The film isn’t particularly interested in pointed commentary, though, and it’s just as well. The appeal lies in its rich Southen Gothic look and spectacularly realized action set pieces. Lincoln fights one vampire atop a stampede of horses, and the graphically rendered battle of Gettysburg is a spooky showdown between good and evil.

Walker, in his major-screen debut, has a likeable deadpan goofiness that suits Honest Abe. Rufus Sewell, as the baddest vampire, makes a nasty villain, and Cooper is a scene-stealer as Lincoln’s louche protector.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” from 20th Century Fox, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

‘Invisible War’

Kori Cioca was raped and battered by her commanding officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, and since the 2010 attack has been able to eat nothing harder than Jell-O.

The senior officer who raped Ariana Klay when she was a Marine officer was court-martialed for adultery. The man who raped Jessica Hinves of the U.S. Air Force was named Airman of the Year.

The stories in Kirby Dick’s searing documentary “The Invisible War” expose what the filmmaker calls an epidemic of rape in the U.S. military. The film is unforgettable.

Statistics cited in the film -- all gleaned from government reports -- are mind-boggling. Officially, fewer than 3,200 sexual assaults were reported in 2011, but the Department of Defense estimates the actual number to be more than 19,000.

So: 20 percent of all active-duty female soldiers were sexually assaulted last year. The likelihood of being raped by a fellow soldier dwarfs the chances of being killed in combat.

As horrific as the assaults are -- the women (and a male Vietnam veteran) who share their stories offer heartbreaking, graphic testimony -- the typical response by military commanders is as infuriating. A scandalously few 191 victimizers were convicted at courts-martial in 2011.

Writer/director Dick (“This Film is Not Yet Rated”) balances the subject’s inherent emotionalism with a clear-headed persuasiveness. A coda informs us that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta screened “The Invisible War” in April, and ordered that all sexual assault investigations be taken from the purview of commanding officers and handled by higher-ranking colonels.

It’s a start.

“The Invisible War,” from Cinedigm and Docurama Films, is playing in New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Boston. Rating: **** (Evans)

What the Stars Mean:

**** Excellent
***  Good
**   Average
*    Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Lewis Lapham on books.

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