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Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst and famed British director Mike Newell paired into a drama piece, one would think, would create a fine monastery of cinema. Sadly this is not the case. Rather, a mundane, dry and frankly predictable melodrama that neither educates nor compels. Ms. Roberts usually has massive box office power, as does Ms. Dunst. Unfortunately Mona Lisa Smile, while not a failure, most certainly wasn’t the hit it could have been. Who’s to blame, read on to find out.

Film
Set in 1950s America and photographed much like Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, Mona Lisa Smile is essentially a female-orientated drama toned with both the beauty of the era and of course the problematic troubles women often dealt with. Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an art history teacher at Wellesley College. She becomes perturbed that her students take more interest in their worries of modern American culture than in their studies so naturally she sets about to change things.

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Imagery is lavish, costumes authentic and even the writing and directing isn’t all that bad either. However, Mona Lisa Smile suffers from neglecting of its own concept. It seems as though nothing other than fancy photography and costumes is all that it really is. It’s much like a pleasant painting that’s pretty on the eye but makes no actual sense when you look deeper.

Really, the blame of this movie’s critical failure cannot be specifically pinned one or even a group of people. It suffers in practically every area and in most aspects. Mike Newell is one for imagery and usually substance but his directorial efforts here seem moderately uncharacteristic and loose. The exact same can be said for the problematic, predictable but still not un-noteworthy screenplay. Yes, the script is heavily clichéd but surprisingly it never strays into the realm of cheesiness. Sadly that isn’t enough to pull this movie out of the swampy slosh that it is.

Depressingly there’s no daring and certainly no intellect (as the premise would have you believe). Roberts, Dunst and many of the other faces turn in decent performances, but in the end Mona won’t make you smile, won’t leave you happy and warm inside, but positively vexed and irritated.

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Video
This is exactly the kind of movie that would have looked sumptuous in ultra-widescreen. Sadly, Newell shot the film in 1.85:1 standard, and I personally think it suffers from it, if only slightly. The look of the film is amazing. Cinematography and production design is borderline Oscar-worthy and for the most part the transfer holds up this pompous décor.

Everything looks rich, highly detailed and with superior colour separation and clarity, things look good. The image is neither too soft nor too blurry, yet it achieves a look and feel of utter authenticity. If only it had been wider…

Audio
Dolby Digital 5.1 has never seen more subtle days. Let’s get one thing clear: Mona Lisa Smile isn’t heavy on audio, not for a second. Everything is gentle, subtle even quiet at times. Can Dolby’s track handle it? Of course it can. As it is only ever the centre channel that gets a workout, Dolby delivers solid, often soft sound that nonetheless is as rich as they come. Directional effects and LFE signals are virtually a no-show but everything sounds good all the same.

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Extras
The menu screen’s here are simply impeccable. They have a canvas, artistic look which couldn’t be more suited for the nature of the film. It really adds a nice touch, but soon becomes irrelevant upon seeing the film itself, unfortunately.

‘Art Forum’ is a six minute piece that acts as a very generic behind the scenes look. It’s nothing you haven’t already seen before and serves no real purpose only to dole out some impractical general knowledge.

‘College then and now’ is a brief on the film’s era. It takes you though the years as if a short history lesson, using figures and figures to show how time has changed. It mostly uses film footage and cast interviews, which offers even more generic trivia.

‘What Women Wanted: 1953’ is yet another interview/footage based featurette that run for some ten minutes. Again, it shows footage from both the film and of the era itself comparing the look of the film to the look of yesteryear.

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Elton John’s music video ‘The Heart of Every Girl’ is same-old-same-old. If you’ve heard Elton John before, you have more or less heard this song.

Filmographies is a text based menu screen detailing selected cast and crew. I don’t know why studios feel the need to cram this pointless information on DVD’s. Honestly, what purpose it serves and to why people would want to read through pages and pages of dry text I have no idea.

Finally there are a handful of trailers for some other Columbia movies, such as Big Fish, Gothika and of course for Mona Lisa Smile itself.

Overall
Mona Lisa Smile isn’t going to be everybody’s cup if tea. I can see who this film may appeal to but sadly there is no denying it has some serious issues. It is a great shame and a wasted opportunity; with some tweaking and some more creative thinking it could have been a great mood piece and a wealthy melodrama.

The disc has great image qualities and some superb uses of centre-channel audio, but the real let down is in the special features. There’s nothing of great interest and certainly nothing you’d find yourself watching twice. The only real reason to own this disc is one of two things: one, you like the movie; two, you have nothing to spend your money on and you wouldn’t mind checking out a great little image transfer. You’ve been warned.


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