Monday, June 28, 2010

Tilda Swinton IS "Love"; "Ondine" coasts on Irish charm


directed by Luca Guadagnino
starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parente, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Marisa Berenson, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono, others

If ever there were a person who could make a vanity project worth watching, it would be Tilda Swinton. Unfortunately, “I Am Love” never amounts to more than a gilded showcase for her strange, almost alien beauty and her dazzling acting chops. It’s watchable, yes. But I, for one, couldn’t find much “there” there, though I know the film has passionate advocates who would strongly disagree with me.

Swinton, whose collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino spanned several years, stars as Emma Recchi, the Russian-born wife of a wealthy Italian industrialist who falls into a torrid affair with her son’s friend, a brilliant chef and aspiring restaurateur. If this all sounds like a cliché, that’s because it is. Originality is not really the point of “I Am Love.” Nor, apparently, is subtlety. Scenes of lovemaking and sexual epiphany are flanked by shots of orgasmically luscious-looking food and verdant nature, including (I kid you not)a bee pollinating the garden, and the dramatic climax is punctuated by an overly insistent ostinato that reaffirms a point proven by the equally over-scored “The Hours”: that a critically acclaimed classical composer (in this case, John Adams rather than Philip Glass) isn’t always the best fit for a movie.

More problematically, for all these visual and aural signifiers of passion, the thing itself is curiously absent. Swinton gives an excellent performance as a pale porcelain shell of a woman who’s gradually animated by her illicit liaison (it’s surely no accident she shares a first name with Madame Bovary), yet her Emma is too thinly written, too elusive to elicit from the audience the same emotions that overmaster her, while Antonio remains even more opaque, if not totally inscrutable. The other major players in Emma’s life—her son, daughter, husband, in-laws—are no more fully realized, despite the best efforts of the actors. It doesn’t help that there’s an oddly detached, anthropological quality to Guadagnino’s filmmaking that doesn’t quite mesh with his lush, Sirkian palette. Romantic pretensions notwithstanding, “I Am Love” is all gorgeous surfaces—the food and gardens, the architectural dream that is the Recchi family mansion, the exquisite cut and material of Emma’s clothes—and not much else.



directed by Neil Jordan
starring Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Stephen Rea, Alison Barry

A slight, sweet tidbit of a film, Neil Jordan’s “Ondine” doesn’t aspire to be much more than a modest pleasure—nor is there any particular reason it should. There’s a place for this kind of movie, even if it’s just a small, quiet corner of the cinema world that not many will seek out. Colin Farrell stars as an Irish fisherman named Syracuse (“Circus” to his friends and neighbors), who pulls a beautiful, half-dead woman (Alicja Bachleda, Farrell’s real-life companion) out of the sea one day and manages to revive her, but has less success getting her to tell him anything about herself or how she ended up in his fishing nets. She tells him to call her by the suitably allegorical name of Ondine, tries to avoid interacting with the rest of the townsfolk, and soon brings him good fortune: as she sings in a strange tongue, legions of fish fill his nets. All this convinces young Annie, Syracuse’s angel-faced, severely ill daughter, that Ondine is a selkie (mythical creatures who can change from seals to women by taking off and hiding their sealskin); Ondine plays along with Annie to avoid giving straight answers, and though Syracuse, who’s taken his share of life’s hard knocks, including a bitter divorce and a hard-won struggle with alcoholism, knows better, he can’t help half-believing this gorgeous, kindly creature really is some kind of magical gift to him and to Annie.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle (best known for his work for Wong Kar-Wai), “Ondine” also benefits from having two very appealing figures at its center—I mean Syracuse and Annie, more than the titular Ondine, though the latter is effective enough as a projection of both their wistful fantasies. As I’ve said before, I’ve never been a fan of Colin Farrell, but he’s been growing on me in the last few years and exudes a wry, low-key charm here that makes it easy to understand why Ondine, whether selkie or merely woman on the run, might want to sojourn a while with him. Newcomer Alison Barry is equally fetching as young Annie, who’s at once innocent and precocious without being the least bit annoying. As for the plot, it takes a few turns that don’t really add much to the story, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the ending. I’d rather expected the film to remain open-ended, allowing viewers to decide for themselves Ondine’s true nature. Not so: Jordan answers the question clearly and unambiguously, and while this might be less of a cliché, it comes as a mild disappointment after the delicate balance he’s maintained up till that point between grim reality and whimsical fancy. Still, “Ondine” stays with you in its gentle, understated way, and may be just the tonic for those who’ve had their fill of louder, gaudier, or more convoluted Hollywood products.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Toy Story 3": All the World's a Toybox


directed by Lee Unkrich
voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, others

There was a period in my childhood when I shared my bed every night with six stuffed animals. And beyond those six were at least as many more that I played with regularly during the day, constructing elaborate narratives around their imaginary lives. Like most people, I eventually stopped playing with my stuffed animals—but I never gave them up completely. They took up residence in my bedroom closet, and stayed there even after I left home. My mother occasionally asks me if she can donate them somewhere, and I always say no.

Anyone who’s ever had a similar experience is sure to respond emotionally to “Toy Story 3,” which opens with Andy, beloved owner of our old friends Woody, Buzz Lightyear, et al., packing for college. As he prepares to turn his room over to his little sister, he's faced with deciding what to do with all his old stuff, including his old toys, which he hasn’t played with in years. His mother, as mothers do, gives him three choices: attic, trash, or donation.

Andy makes his choice, but things don’t go exactly as planned. After a series of unfortunate events, Woody and company find themselves at Sunnyside Daycare, where they receive an initially warm welcome from a new cast of toys, including a pink “Lots-o-Hugging” bear that smells like strawberries, a “Big Baby” doll, worse for much wear, and a Ken doll who’s immediately smitten with the newcomer Barbie. Alas, Sunnyside turns out to be a much darker place than its name suggests, and our scrappy band is soon plotting an escape as desperate as it is daring.

Moviegoers suffering from summer sequel fatigue can set to rest any doubts that Pixar's oldest franchise needed a third installment. “Toy Story 3” is fresh, funny, and wonderfully entertaining, but most amazingly, it feels necessary. Somehow the filmmakers turn what could have been a marker of the movie’s irrelevance—the 11-year gap since “Toy Story 2”—into a key reason for its resonance. For all its jollity, visual candy, and rollicking action, TS3 at its core is about something deeply serious. It’s about saying goodbye to childhood, a theme with particular poignancy for what I’m convinced is the film’s true target audience—namely, the kids who grew up with Andy, and with Harry Potter, and like them are only just now beginning to be adults. But its appeal obviously extends to anyone who’s ever made that transition.

“Toy Story 3” isn’t perfect, nor is it quite top-tier Pixar—admittedly a high bar to clear. The writers occasionally try too hard for laughs: I could have done without the extended joke of Buzz in Spanish-language mode, and with a little less ribbing of Ken and Barbie. The plot has its share of lapses in logic, and there’s no denying it stays pretty squarely within the classic Pixar mold: an unlikely alliance culminating in a madcap rescue/pursuit sequence, followed by a sweetly sentimental affirmation of the relationships developed over the course of the film.

Still, for every device or development that feels overly familiar, there’s a creative touch that’s purely exhilarating, like the zany, almost Surrealist sight gag of Mr. Potato-Head’s features fanned out on a tortilla (yes, a tortilla) and skittering away from a hungry bird, or unexpectedly chilling (if you’re like me and dolls give you the creeps, that Big Baby might give you nightmares.) And though the last scene teeters dangerously close to schmaltz, damned if I didn’t have a tear in my eye at the end, without the vague annoyance I usually feel when I’m being emotionally manipulated. Because there’s something about it, excessive "aww" factor aside, that really captures the bittersweetness of growing up and moving on to another stage of life. We take the memories with us, and leave the rest behind.


N.B: Don't bother seeing this movie in 3D. It's totally not worth the extra money, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a 3D skeptic.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Argentina's "Secret" is Out; Belated R.I.P., Dennis Hopper; A Word on the "Lost" Finale

(The Secret in Their Eyes)

directed by Juan José Campanella
starring Soledad Villamil, Ricardo Darin, Guillermo Francella, Javier Godino, Pablo Rago

Congratulations, Foreign Film Oscar voters: you didn’t embarrass yourself this year. In fact, your choice was actually pretty good.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s not meant to be. The Academy is, after all, notoriously reliable for bypassing the edgy, innovative, and avant-garde in favor of the tried, true, and tired, and in no category (not even Best Picture) is this tendency more evident than foreign film. The result, no doubt exacerbated by the Academy’s confusing and byzantine eligibility rules, has been a number of fairly egregious omissions in past nominations, as well as some dismally undeserved laurels for mediocre films. Not so this year. Argentina’s winning entry, the richly romantic “El secreto de sus ojos” (The Secret in Their Eyes), may not have been the best foreign picture of 2009, or even the best among the year’s nominees, but its pull is undeniable.

Part murder mystery, part love story, mixed with a dollop of Argentinian political history, the film works best at the level of character rather than plot. Ironic, then, that it’s framed as a story about one man’s attempt to craft a narrative—or more precisely, to take up an unfinished one and give it a satisfactory ending. The man’s name is Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), and as we learn at the outset, he’s an ex-prosecutor who’s spent the last two decades trying unsuccessfully not to brood over the One That Got Away. Make that the two that got away, even if he’s only willing to speak directly about the more sordid, less romantic one: the brutal rape and murder of a beautiful young girl, back in the ’70s, which he investigated and thought he’d solved—only to see his case gutted for reasons well above his pay grade. Esposito’s other, much more beguiling, OTGA is Irene (Soledad Villamil), a former colleague who was his supervisor on the case, and for whom he clearly still carries a torch. He tells Irene, now a judge, that he’s writing a book about the case, and proceeds to reopen ye olde can(s) of worms. As the film unfolds in a series of flashbacks interspersed with cuts to the present day, we slowly learn what went down twenty-five years ago and follow Esposito as he resumes his search for the truth.

Based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri and directed with panache by Juan José Campanella, “The Secret in Their Eyes” has the trappings and some of the stylistic flourishes of a crime thriller. The plotting, however, is ultimately a bit of a letdown, notwithstanding its incorporation of—and not-so-subtle commentary on—the political corruption of the era that undermined our protagonists’ quest for justice. Again, its strength lies more in its vividly drawn cast of characters, including the murdered girl’s grief-stricken husband (Pablo Rago), the menacing prime suspect (Javier Godino), and, most memorably, Esposito’s perpetually drunk but not dim-witted subordinate, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). The acerbic ripostes and odd-couple dynamic between Esposito and Sandoval are welcome comic relief from the film’s heavier themes; indeed, the movie loses some of its energy in Sandoval’s absence.

But “El secreto,” perhaps intentionally, is most effective and deeply engaging as a tale of unspoken love. While it’s perfectly obvious within about half a second that the attraction is mutual, it’s not hard to understand why Esposito and Irene choose to suppress it. That kind of protracted yearning can wear on the viewer’s patience (see, e.g., the exquisitely maddening The Remains of the Day), yet it doesn’t here. Circumstances are against them in ways that are believable and not overly contrived, though also not insurmountable; at the same time, the two are so likable—and there’s so much warmth and electricity, so subtly expressed, between them—that we root, root, root for them to prevail as a couple. Watching them, it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a movie that featured an emotionally mature love story about two emotionally mature adults. “The Secret in Their Eyes” will be manna from heaven for moviegoers jaded by Hollywood’s endless parade of paper-thin romances between boy-men and long-suffering women, sulky adolescents, sulky adolescents and vampires, and gun-wielding or gun-threatened couples on the lam. Here’s hoping Hollywood takes notice and learns something from it.



I hope this isn't going to be another summer full of celebrity deaths. First, Gary Coleman (and only a couple of months after that other '80s staple, Corey Haim); now, Dennis Hopper. All I can say about Coleman (and, for that matter, Haim) is that I hope his death erases some of the condescending pity that dogged the later part of his life and restores in full the affection that made him a household name. Death usually does that.

As for Hopper, I haven't seen as much of his work as perhaps I should. Never felt compelled to see "Easy Rider," and "Blue Velvet" is still on my Netflix queue. But there's no doubt he cut a uniquely memorable figure in Hollywood history. To quote one of my friends, and a legion of movie buffs, no one did crazy like Dennis Hopper. And his performance in "Speed" will always be one of my favorite villain turns by anyone, ever.

For a deeper appreciation of Hopper's oeuvre, read this splendidly nuanced obit by Salon's Andrew O'Hehir.

Updated 6/7/10:

And it seems that celebrity deaths really do come in three's: R.I.P. Rue McLanahan, also and forever known as Blanche. Sad to think there's only one Golden Girl left. Betty White, you take care of yourself, y'hear?


The arrival of the "Lost" series finale caused me to reflect on why I've never blogged about the show, when I've watched it for longer than "Mad Men," "Glee," "Friday Night Lights," or really any of its contemporaries, except perhaps "American Idol." Well, it's partly laziness - I'd have felt compelled to comment on and theorize about the oodles & oodles of mysteries, puzzles, and arcane references the show kept piling on, when really I had no interest in doing so. Partly, too, it was rooted in a certain ambivalence I've always had about the show: I'd get fed up with it time and again, only to find myself pulled back in without quite knowing how ("just when I thought I was out..."). As a result of this continual tug of war, I missed quite a few episodes, including nearly half of an entire season, and never bothered to catch up on what I missed. Ultimately, I just didn't think it made a difference in terms of figuring out what was going on at the macro-level...and I'd say the finale proved me right!

The reason I stayed with the show at the level I did, which is also fundamentally the reason I didn't hate (and on the whole rather liked) the series finale, is that my investment was emotional, not intellectual. It's not that the mysteries and puzzles had no allure for me - they piqued my interest for the time that they appeared on my screen, and I appreciated the cleverly opaque cultural references that were strewn here and there like Easter eggs. But what I cared about most was the characters - their back stories (as well as their front stories, side stories, etc.), their emotional and spiritual development, and their seemingly fated interconnectedness with one another. I wanted them to have learned something from their experience on "Craphole Island," and to have progressed upward as characters. I didn't want all the pain and death to be for nothing.

On that level, I got what I wanted in the finale. (Though I did feel a little cheated by the revelation about the "sideways universe" - to me, the alterna-world was far too developed, and too demonstrably superior to the characters' "real" experience, to be nothing more than a mere projection, or purgatory, or waiting-room, or whatever.)

On every other level, I think the finale was measured and found wanting. So it goes. I never spent that much energy trying to figure out what the island was All About or why certain things about the island were the way they were. But I can understand the frustration of those who did.

Alan Sepinwall pretty much sums up my feelings about the finale: emotionally satisfying, intellectually much less so.

There are worse ways to go.