Lita On Film

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I Am Love / Io Sono L’Amore (2009)

In Film Reviews on July 19, 2010 at 2:25 pm

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For those perpetually longing to return to the days of Visconti, Fellini, and Bergman, have I got a film for you.  I Am Love is glorious: everything about it is lush and larger than life, and even in moments when the plot drags and the pounding John Adams soundtrack pauses, the cinematography is breathtaking.  As a whole, the film is as intoxicating as any of its arthouse forbears, and yet the intensity and pace of its narrative makes it feel updated and almost modern.

Tilda Swinton, who also produced and helped conceive the film with director Luca Guadagnino, stars as Emma Recchi, a Russian ex-pat who has married into a prestigious Milanese family.  The story begins with a family dinner in which the patriarch, who is about to die, turns over the family textile business to Emma’s husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and son Edo (Flavio Parenti).  Emma begins to realize, with her youngest child Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) going off to college, that her duties as a mother have been fulfilled, and she feels at sea as to what to do with herself next.

This being an Italian art film, naturally the next thing she does is fall wildly, passionately, inappropriately in love.  Edo’s friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellini) is an ambitious young chef who shows up at the initial dinner party to drop off a cake he has made for the occasion.  Emma is taken with him from the start; he’s a working-class boy who isn’t indoctrinated in the ways of the very rich, and he has a genuine talent.  His character seems much more authentic than those of Emma’s two sons, or the rest of the men in the Recchi clan, all of whom seem overly focused on accumulating even more wealth than they already have.  Antonio is focused on pleasure and beauty and Emma quickly becomes infatuated, even as she tries to deny it to herself.

Once she has a meal in his restaurant, though, Emma is a goner.  As she savors her plate of beautifully prepared prawns, a warm golden light covers her and everything else in the restaurant goes dim.  Guadagnino’s skill at visualizing Emma’s intense pleasure in this scene, and in the already infamous al fresco sex scenes later in the film, stays just this side of absurdity.  Even though he takes every opportunity to make almost lurid comparisons between the writhing bodies and the bobbing flowers in Antonio’s field, somehow the film doesn’t feel self-indulgent or ridiculous.  Rather, it’s contemplative in a way that very few films are these days.  Occasionally we are treated to the opportunity to just stare at a piece of lovely Italian countryside or an ancient statue; the lens moves in and out of focus, dreamily, mirroring Emma’s ethereal rapture with this newfound secret life.

There’s a great tragedy at the end of the film, of course—Emma’s life is ruined, her affair comes out, and she is all but banished from the Recchi family.  The film starts to feel like a grand Greek tragedy or perhaps a lost Merchant/Ivory film, with everything suddenly seeming pre-ordained and inescapable.  However, instead of wilting in submission, Swinton’s Emma decides to leave the family on her own terms.  As the soundtrack comes to a throbbing crescendo, we realize what Emma is really about to do is escape—escape from everything that has defined her existence for decades, and finally, for the first time, make a life for herself.   And we can’t help but cheer her for it.

While some might not know what to make of I Am Love in this day and age, when it inhabits the same screen space as Sex and the City 2, I highly recommend it.  As always, Tilda Swinton is captivating in every corner of her performance; the supporting cast, particularly Rohrwacher, all give dedicated performances as well.  Even if you’ve never seen anything like it before—and you probably haven’t—giving yourself over to the film, as Emma does to her newfound zest for life, is simply thrilling.

I Am Love opened in the U.S. in limited release on June 18th.

Predators (2010)

In Film Reviews on July 18, 2010 at 4:29 pm

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Predators (2010) is supposed to be a 21st century update on a beloved scifi flick from the Reagan administration.  The 1987 original, of course, starred Arnold Schwarzenegger (now Governor of California, who can be seen in the ongoing thriller Budget Deficit) as a tough-as-nails mercenary type who lands in the jungle and must take on an alien killing machine with dreadlocks.  (And infrared vision, a built-in ray gun, the ability to become invisible…you get the idea.)  Arnie used brains and brawn to eventually outwit the monster, and it seemed like a franchise had been born.  Oddly, unlike the wildly successful and contemporaneous Alien films, Predator spawned only one sequel (1990) and then lay dormant until the brainwave that was Alien vs. Predator arrived in 2004.  But that film, ingenious as its premise was—take two monsters and put them in the same movie!—didn’t really feel like an honest-to-god sequel.  This left the proverbial door open for Predators, which lumbered onto screens nationwide last weekend.

On its own, it’s not a great film.  The characters are wooden, the dialogue is uneven, and no one ever really explains the film’s premise (a bunch of mercenary types plus a convict and a doctor get dropped onto an alien planet to act as game for sport-happy Predators).  It’s hard to really get invested in Predators because the characters aren’t sympathetic, and the editing is so rushed that it can be hard to tell what’s going on.  It feels more like a made-for-TV movie than an actual feature film.  This is especially disappointing given the film’s director, Nimod Antal, began his career in 2003 with the excellent Hungarian film Kontroll and then apparently sold out to Hollywood (his next film, Vacancy (2007), was almost shockingly bad).  That being said, the creature CGI in Predators is reasonably engaging—the Predators themselves are guys in suits, much along the line of the uruk-hai in the Lord of the Rings films.  There are various CGI beasties who periodically swoop in and attack the unlucky pack of humans, and those few truly suspenseful moments are pretty fun to watch.

The elephant in the room in this film is the fact that Arnie’s role as ultimate alpha male has been taken over by…Adrien Brody.  A bizarre casting choice to be sure, but Brody, an Oscar winner, gamely attempts to morph himself into an action hero.  The results are mixed—while he growls all of his lines with an appropriate devil-may-care affect, it’s just really difficult to take him seriously.  The film’s climactic moment involves Brody doing shirtless battle with one of the Predators, and while he’s certainly not the wisp he was back in The Pianist, there’s something about him that just doesn’t work in this context.  The film’s only woman, played by Alex Braga, often seems the most macho of all the characters.

It’s worth noting that America’s concept of masculinity has changed dramatically since 1987—when the Reagan administration had ordered real-life mercenaries into real-life jungles in Central America—but it seems the action film hasn’t evolved, even if the action hero has.  What Predators needs in Brody’s role is an absolute stereotype, and perhaps because Brody is known for intimate, idiosyncratic characters, he actually needs to work harder to portray a less complicated one.

Micmacs (2009)

In Film Reviews on July 11, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a reputation, at least in America, for making films that are visually striking and almost unbearably quaint.  His biggest hit in this country, Amelie (2001), presented everyday life in Montmartre as a picturesque whirlwind of sensory delight, where Edith Piaf wafted through every Metro station.  Jeunet’s focus on visual puns, gadgetry, and occasional slapstick serves him well with his new film Micmacs—but unlike Amelie, in this instance the gags and the gadgets seem to be doing a bit of covering up for a lack of narrative substance.

Micmacs follows Bazil (Dany Boon), whose father is killed by a landmine when he is a child, and who, as an adult, is accidentally shot in the head during a drive-by shooting.  He survives, but the bullet is left in his skull, and he warns others that it might “pop at any moment.”  Unable to keep his job, Bazil tries his luck as a street performer.  After a while, he is taken in by a band of similar misfits who live in a labyrinthine cave made of trash.  They include a human cannonball, a contortionist, a math genius, an ex-ethnographer, and Yolande Moreau (always great) as a grand maternal figure, perpetually ladling out food.

Bazil, ever enterprising, has decided to get back at the companies that manufactured the landmine that killed his father and the bulled that’s lodged in his head.  In Jeunet’s usual satirical fashion, the two gigantic buildings happen to be directly across from one another.  At this point the story turns away from the misfits’ inner world, and instead focuses on Bazil’s schemes to play the heads of the respective companies against each other.  Eventually, after many hijinks and some lovely visual Rube Goldberg moments, Bazil gets what he wants and the evil arms dealers are appropriately discredited.

I left the theatre somewhat unfulfilled.  Micmacs reminded me forcefully of Delicatessen (1991), not just because Dominique Pinon (the lead in Delicatessen) plays a prominent role here too, but because Micmacs tells the story of a group of comrades exiled from the rest of society.  However, it’s beginning to feel like Jeunet has tread similar ground many times before.  The characters’ banter and the mile-a-minute visual gags are a little too predictable for the intended effect to really take hold.  Bazil’s moments of inspiration and romance feel too contrived; there’s none of the breathless spontaneity of Amelie or the black comedy of Delicatessen to sustain the film in moments of calm.  Micmacs puts up a small attempt at political commentary, but it’s just another of Jeunet’s jack-in-the-box toys.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that a bad Jeunet film is better than most of what’s out there these days—and Micmacs certainly isn’t bad.  It’s just not all that you’d like it to be.

Micmacs premiered in the U.S. on March 13, 2010 at SXSW; now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

In Film Reviews on July 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm

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Winter’s Bone is a story of poverty, desperation, and the scrappy resourcefulness of women.  The film follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in her quest to save her family from homelessness.  She cares for her near-catatonic mother and two younger siblings alone, in a shabby house in rural Missouri, until the Law comes calling.  She is informed that her missing father, Jessup, has put up the family property as collateral on a bail bond.  If he doesn’t show up to court, the family will be turned out into the snow.

What follows is a story as simple and taut as an old-school Western.  Ree sets out to track down her father, but every step along the way turns into a do-or-die endeavor: just getting her hands on a vehicle and keeping her siblings fed is an enormous feat.  Her every interaction with other characters—even those trying to help her—crackles with tension.  Even extended family members turn on her without warning.  Knowing she can’t trust anyone, Ree has learned to rely only on herself, and so we are treated to long sequences of her walking endlessly through the gray Mid-western woodlands, skinny and alone.  There isn’t a lot of talking in Winter’s Bone, but the film is shot through with a deep, poignant resentment of authority and the status quo.  At one point, Ree admonishes her hungry siblings to “never ask for what ought to be offered.”

Lawrence carries off such lines, which could turn to cheese in the wrong hands, with an earnest passion.  What makes her a fully realized character rather than a spectacle or a stereotype is the fact that director Debra Granik allows the audience time to breathe, to soak in Ree’s reality and to contemplate her depressing surroundings.  We aren’t shown her pathetic house in voyeuristic flashes; there are no sappy montages of her worn-out furniture and clothes.  Instead, we are at her elbow as she cooks for her family, and next to her on a barn floor after she’s been beaten up.  Granik, like Ree, keeps things moving and stays focused on the task at hand.  The result is beautifully balanced, that rare film that’s both contemplative and thrilling.

Perhaps the most obvious progenitor of Winter’s Bone is Frozen River (2008), another excellent film that also received accolades at Sundance and the like.  As with Bone, River follows a female protagonist (Oscar nominee Melissa Leo) and boasts a female writer/director (Courtney Hunt).  It is a film of similar minimalism—and similar quality.  What elevates Winter’s Bone and Frozen River from the realms of so-called “poverty porn” is both films’ insistence on simply telling the women’s stories, neither sensationalizing nor apologizing for their subject matter, even though the characters’ poverty is sometimes shocking.  Hopefully, this new aesthetic of raw reality and female resilience is the tip of the proverbial iceberg; one Winter’s Bone is worth more than a thousand Twilights.