Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sense and Sensuality

Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is nothing if not ambitious. In interviews, Guadagnino and his collaborator and leading lady Tilda Swinton have stated that they wanted to resurrect the old-school melodramas of Douglas Sirk, a genre that has fallen on hard times as critics have used the word “melodrama” as a club to beat down films that traffic in larger-than-life emotions over “realism.” And Guadagnino and Swinton have a solid starting point for their goal in their story of a privileged Russian-Italian woman (played by Swinton) who tumbles into an affair with her son’s best friend. Trouble is, Guadagnino can’t muster up the emotional highs required of his chosen genre. Swinton is fine- she’s completely convincing in two foreign languages and her alien presence makes it clear she doesn’t fit into the upper-class world into which she’s married. But in the end, the film lets her down, as Guadagnino allows external signifiers- weather changes to reflect tonal shifts, John Adams’ memorable but suffocating score- to signal what ought to spring organically from what’s happening in the characters’ lives. What’s more, Guadagnino aims to make I Am Love a feast for the senses, but aside from a key scene in which Swinton tucks into a prawn dish her lover-to-be has prepared for her, Guadagnino’s “sensual” images to little more than invite a reaction of “ooh, purty.” Which, I mean, yeah, but in more capable hands they could have been so much more. To imagine what a sensualist like Bernardo Bertolucci or even the Martin Scorsese who gave us the indelible image of a razor slicing through a clove of garlic is to weep a little at what I Am Love might have been. Rating: 5 out of 10.

If I Am Love invites audiences to taste its every dish and feel its every texture, then Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan have another sympathetic sensation in mind- pain. Much of the hype for 127 Hours has reckoned with its true-life premise, in which lone-wolf adventurer Aron Ralston got pinned between two rocks for more than five days and eventually freed himself by hacking off his trapped arm. On paper, the concept seems like it would lend itself to a spare, Gerry-style treatment in which the director maroons the audience with Ralston (played by James Franco), all the better to feel his isolation and appreciate what he does and doesn’t have to work with in the situation. Instead, Boyle amps up his filmmaking like a film student jacked up on Mountain Dew, employing jackhammer editing to cut between Ralston’s plight in the canyon and his memories and fantasies about the rest of his life. Sometimes, this tactic pays off, as when he ponders the little mistakes- not telling anyone where he was headed, leaving a bottle of Gatorade in his Jeep, forgetting his Swiss Army knife- that got him in his situation. But just as often, the cutaways are distractingly unsubtle, as Boyle and cowriter Simon Beaufoy hammer home the point that, yes, Even Aron Ralston Needs Other People. That said, James Franco is pretty brilliant here, and it’s easy to imagine a more minimalistic approach working in his capable, um, hands. And that “money scene”- ouch. (Especially the sound.) Rating: 6 out of 10.

Like The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s last film, Black Swan’s primary theme is the extent to which people will push themselves for their chosen art. In Black Swan, that art is ballet, and one of the most compelling aspects of the film is observing at close range how much of the grace of dance comes from forcing the body to bend in directions it simply wasn’t meant to go. But Black Swan also deals with the mental distresses that its heroine Nina (played by Natalie Portman), an up-and-coming dancer in the Metropolitan Ballet, faces when she takes on the bifurcated lead role on Swan Lake. As the troupe’s leader (Vincent Cassel) tells her, her impeccable porcelain style is ideal of the White Swan, but she has more trouble with the Black Swan’s heedless abandon, so he encourages her to let her darker side loose. One of the common threads in Aronofsky’s work is psychology manifesting itself physically, and true to form, Nina’s discovery of her own darker side leads to a bodily transformation into the Black Swan. Or does it? This does-she-or-doesn’t-she enigma is one of its least interesting aspects, not so much because of its ambiguous nature but because it feels like a lack of nerve on the film’s part. However, it must be said that this lack of nerve isn’t something shared by the film as a whole, as Aronofsky embraces the Grand Guignol style needed to really sell a story of this nature. And if much of Black Swan feels like pieces of other films- the dancer-swallowed-by-the-role storyline of The Red Shoes, the freakish imagery of Repulsion, the mother-daughter dynamic of The Piano Teacher- then at least Aronofsky chooses his influences wisely. Like the Met’s production of Swan Lake in the film, Black Swan takes classic influences and makes them fresh and exciting. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Of course, the credo of “everything old is new again” is one that’s shared by Tron: Legacy, an eye-popping sequel to the 1982 cult classic whose primary appeal seems to be to those who weren’t even alive when the original was released. This isn’t idle speculation either- I attended the screening with the Offspring, who’s almost ten years old, and as the credits rolled he proclaimed the movie one of his all-time favorites. I don’t agree with this assessment, mind you, since for one thing the movie’s exposition-heavy script doesn’t live up to the visuals. However, it’s easy to see why Tron: Legacy would hit a grade-school-aged boy’s sweet spot. For one thing, the action sequences are pretty killer- the Light-Cycle sequence honors the original film while upping the ante, as the cycles speed up and down ramps and even careen through the air, and they shatter when they collide. And that’s a mere warm-up for the climactic Light-Plane battle, which is pretty mind-blowing, all the more so because neophyte director Joseph Kosinski has a good feel for directing and cutting action sequences. But beyond the action (and of course the effects), Tron: Legacy is an instant grade-school classic for the way it incorporates enough “mythology” into its storyline to make the film feel weightier than the usual blockbuster fare, and for its female lead Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who’s beautiful but sexless, and who’s written as more of a best pal than a love interest. Alas, Tron: Legacy never hits the heights of a film like Speed Racer, which works so well because the Wachowskis were assured enough filmmakers to commit to the film’s flashy aesthetic, while Kosinski is still working his way to that point. What’s more, he doesn’t have the same flair for directing actors as he does with visuals, as the film’s performances are all over the map (Jeff Bridges’ aged Flynn is basically a Zen Dude, Garrett Hedlund’s Sam is a colorless rebel-hero, and Michael Sheen’s Bowie riff is fun but sort of stops the movie cold). Still, if Tron: Legacy doesn’t break new ground as narrative, it’s pretty exciting as pure spectacle, and if nothing else it uses IMAX 3D in a way that actually works instead of simply cashing in on the fad. Rating: 6 out of 10.

The courts of critical (46 on Metacritic) and public (#8 at the box office its opening weekend) opinion have already weighed in on James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know and found it largely wanting. However, I think I could be forgiven for wanting to say a few words in defense of this most welcome rarity, a big-budgeted romantic comedy with a genuinely unique voice. More specifically, instead of utilizing the narrative efficiency found in more films of the genre, Brooks focuses on the messiness of his characters lives and makes that the crux of his film. Naturally, the film’s premise- two people having their first date on the worst day of their lives- is straight out of high-concept hell. But Brooks takes his characters’ problems, and their resultant neuroses, seriously instead of making them cutesy or the subject of easy jokes (this in itself makes it a welcome corrective to Brooks’ misguided Spanglish, which contained two super-duper-perfect characters and one character-Tea Leoni’s- who was neurotic to the point of grotesquerie). Observe Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) as she struggles to find her way after being cut from the USA softball team, attempting to forge her own new identity instead of simply “settling down.” Or look at the way George (Paul Rudd), no doubt tired of his father’s (Jack Nicholson) manipulations, decides to let both his fate and that of his father hinge on the outcome of a meeting he’s scheduled with Lisa. Then there’s that wondrous scene in which a man we’ve never even met previously makes a spectacularly convoluted proposal to the woman he loves following the birth of their son (a front-runner for my favorite scene so far this year). By conventional standards, How Do You Know is an unholy mess, but to hell with conventional standards. It’s pretty magical- certainly Brooks’ best work since Broadcast News- and I suspect time will be extremely kind to it. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Finally, a couple of bite-sized assessments… Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture has won legions of admirers for its handmade feel and its portrayal of post-graduate malaise, but the subject matter isn’t nearly as interesting as Dunham seems to think it is, and she does nothing to elevate it aside from throwing in plenty of quirkiness. Inspired in bits (like the world’s worst hookup), but exhausting at feature length (4 out of 10)… Neil Jordan’s Ondine won’t win the director any new fans, but it’s an unassuming charmer. Some of the plot manipulations in the second hour are fairly creaky, but the photography is beautiful without feeling scenic, and Farrell continues to grow as an actor (6 out of 10).

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