up in the middle of life: Swinton in I Am Love.
by Luca Guadagnino
makes ’em like this anymore.
The upper-class Italian drama I Am Love has a luscious
visual scheme and ambitious epic themes: family loyalty, wealth
and power, economic globalization, sexual and emotional liberation.
At times, moviegoers may feel like they’re watching a revival
instead of a brand-new film. While director Luca Guadagnino
may not quite pull off the political points he’s trying to
make, the emotional arc of a family coming apart rings true.
In the end, though, the film’s essential asset is its lead,
Set in contemporary Milan, I Am Love begins with a
spectacular dinner/birthday party for the patriarch (Gabriele
Ferzetti) of the Recchi clan. The house of his son, Tancredi
(Pippo Delbono), may be in the modernist style, but it exudes
the hushed grandeur of a 19th-century mansion. The impeccably
dressed servants rush about, all under the assured direction
of Tancredi’s wife, Russian-born Emma (Swinton). Family members
mill about, including the patriarch’s wife (Marisa Berenson,
totally, amusingly authoritative with the bearing and watchful
eye of a queen), and Tancredi and Emma’s children, Edoardo
(Flavio Parenti) and Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher).
The Recchis are an unflappable, traditional bunch. The party
is perfect. The talk of business is cool, optimistic, assured.
The slightest variation from the norm—as when a granddaughter
gives an unexpected gift—causes dismay. Because these are
the members of the ruling class, and extremely tasteful people,
dismay is registered quietly—but unmistakably.
Of course, nothing like this can last. And it doesn’t, because
Emma Recchi wakes up from her emotional slumber, and starts
to venture forth from this cocoon of wealth and polite emotions.
She falls in love with a chef, her son’s friend, vividly,
without holding back. His exquisite dishes seduce her, long
before they’re ever alone, let alone touch each other.
Swinton is perfect. The transformation from socially correct
eminence to human being is both passionate and precise. While
the director may indulge himself with overripe imagery in
the love scenes—one romp in the fields has enough close-ups
of birds and bees to make D.H. Lawrence swoon—Swinton never
goes over the top.
Meanwhile, the family business is being sold, factories turned
into finance. It’s astute, but thinly developed. The most
trenchant political point is made by an Asian Pacific-American
businessman, who keeps intoning, hilariously, that “capital
The film ends as it began, with an elaborate dinner party.
At the beginning, the servants wore red; at the end, they’re
dressed in black—as if for a funeral. And so there is a death,
but not, really, a tragedy. The members of the Recchi family
who want to live life to the fullest survive, which makes
I Am Love genuinely, surprisingly, hopeful.
Rivers: A Piece of Work
by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg
Referencing Charles Bukowski when talking about Joan Rivers
seems a bit crazy. But the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece
of Work, which follows the comedienne around during the
year of her 75th birthday, brought to mind one of his poems.
Pardon the violence to formatting, but the text is, “Take
a writer away from his typewriter and all you have left is
the sickness which started him writing in the beginning.”
Much as Bukowski became famous for his lifestyle as much as
for his work, Joan Rivers has become iconic for reasons not
really central to hers. We—most of us, anyway—know her as
a comedienne by professional classification more than by example,
these days. She’s the much-operated-upon, red-carpet commentator/celebrity
pitchwoman/reality-show participant. She’s more Gosselin than
Groucho, more Kardashian than Carlin.
One of the fascinating aspects of this documentary is how
well aware of this fact Rivers is: She is, she points out,
as much a mini-industry as she is an artist. She’s got bills
to pay; and she’s above nothing (“I’ll wear a diaper. I’ll
do anything.”) to make a buck and to maintain a lavish standard
But it’d be tough to call her a sellout. Rivers’s “sickness,”
to get back to Bukowski, makes the idea almost irrelevant.
As the footage of Rivers’ stand-up makes clear, she does not
aspire to universal appeal. Which is not to say that she’s
undisciplined: Rivers has boundaries, but they’re the boundaries
of craft. On the one hand, we see her discard a joke about
Michelle Obama’s glamour (“We had Jackie O., now we have Blackie
O.”); but we also see her take down a heckler who objects
to a bit about deaf children, which he finds insensitive.
Rivers defends her bit in language you wouldn’t expect from
a shill (or a grandma). And it kills. She keeps her audience
in mind, but she’s going for funny—all the time, seemingly
Though Rivers claims to think of herself as an actress, and
that she got into comedy as a quicker route to a paycheck,
the film suggests otherwise. Even when offstage, Rivers is
an engine turning vulnerability, anger, regret and insecurity
into jokes. Away from her typewriter, so to speak, on the
carpet or QVC, Rivers falls somewhere along a spectrum of
uninteresting to grating; but at her real job, Rivers is a
pro, in the fullest sense of the term, and it’s compelling
and, even a little inspiring, to watch her work.
dead, the other isn’t: Pattinson and Stewart in The
Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
Side of the Mooning
Twilight Saga: Eclipse
by David Slade
the third installment of the Twilight Saga, is even
more of a drag than the second, New Moon, in which
Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) went comatose over the departure
of her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).
Bella still seems comatose, even though Eclipse opens
with the two high-school sweethearts nuzzling and reading
poetry in a field of flowers, a Hallmark moment that causes
Edward’s complexion to sparkle like diamond dust in the sunshine
(likely due to a better makeup artist, about the only improvement
this adaptation has to offer). Yet Bella is stricken with
indecision even before her werewolf friend Jacob Black (Taylor
Lautner) declares his lustful love for her, and that’s because
this is part three, and Bella must finally admit to feeling
physical yearnings for her undead boyfriend. And because Myers’
books are pro-abstinence, Edward proposes, and insists on
marriage first, ravishment later. It isn’t until halfway in
that a conversation between them gets to the heartlessness
of the matter: That physical intimacy will result in Bella
losing her life and her immortal soul. Which is apparently
fine with Bella, who wants to be “turned” (translation: murdered
and reanimated) before she becomes any older than her teenage
Add vanity to apathy.
At the same time, a young man is attacked by an unseen predator,
holding promise that new director David Slade (30 Days
of Night) might inject some frights or suspense into the
background. But no, the new guy is just a pawn of the vengeful
Victoria (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) who uses him
to build a vampire army that resembles a team of high-speed
zombies rather than sinister bloodsuckers. Despite the Cullens’
intra-monster strategy of enlisting Jacob’s werewolf clan
to help save Bella, the pacing is narcoleptic; the film is
filled with lingering close-ups of the three stars, and the
driveling conflicts between their characters puff up the running
time. The battle of the “newborn” vamp army and the werewolves
(CGI wolves the size of ponies that look about as realistic
and dangerous as FAO Schwartz stuffed animals) is the silliest
smackdown this side of a Saturday morning cartoon, as the
mere impact of colliding bodies can shatter the vamps like
This is the least sensual of the three sagas, especially since
Bella’s lassitude can no longer be attributed to anguish.
The plot is merely an excuse for audience-pleasing sequences
(it’s noticeable that Slade started in music videos) rather
than narrative: At one point, atop a freezing mountain campsite
that was written in just to showcase Jacob’s high body temperature
(even a snowstorm can’t get him to put on a shirt!) one can’t
help wondering why Edward doesn’t just bite Jacob so all three
of them can squabble and flirt and make inane declarations
of passion into eternity. Better yet, the franchise could
replace screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg with someone who can
write a script instead of marketing gimmick.
Arms and the Old Man
by Daniel Barber
The setting of the revenge drama Harry Brown is a British
housing project. Grim in that special way only 1970s brutalist
architecture can be, this “estate” is a gray hive filled with
the poor and the old, and those who prey on them. Elderly
gent Harry Brown (Michael Caine) goes through his daily routine—toast
and tea, taking pills, visiting a dying spouse, playing chess
in the local pub—with the sick sounds of this unhappy habitat
as omnipresent soundtrack.
Caine is all tired reserve as Harry, an ex-military man turned
“sweet as gentle Jesus” who has lost, and will continue to
lose, everything he loves. It’s a restrained, assured performance,
strong enough to withstand the film’s dully clinical eye and
Soon enough, Harry’s elderly chess pal is brutally murdered
by the leaders of a local gang who hang out, day and night,
in a dark, narrow, graffiti-splattered pedestrian passage
under a four-lane highway.
If an underpass suggests hell to you, you’re catching on to
the intentions of director Daniel Barber and coproducer Matthew
Vaughn. They give us the usual urban underworld packed with
vile creatures, ineffectual police—as an inspector, Emily
Mortimer wanders from scene to scene looking lost—and doomed
The filmmakers take Harry Brown’s nightmarish tone
to phantasmagorically lurid levels when the hero finally resolves
to buy a gun. (This is a Big Deal in handgun-free England.)
Harry follows a drug dealer back to the “office” and meets
up with that slimy loser’s confederate, Stretch (Sean Harris,
so memorable as Ian Curtis in 24 Hour Party People).
A rail-thin, shirtless junky covered in crude prison tats,
Stretch is a human devil presiding over a warehouse-sized
hell of pot plants, drugged-out losers, bags of money, crates
of guns and a flat-screen TV showcasing homemade porn. Harry
tries to be a gentleman—he wants to just buy a gun and leave—but
is too repulsed by what he sees. The scene ends, utterly without
surprise, in a paroxysm of violence.
Is it effective? Yes. But it’s emblematic of the entire film:
You don’t get the idea that the filmmakers have much on their
minds. For a film that goes out of its way to lampoon the
police for eschewing nuanced thinking, Harry Brown utterly
lacks nuanced thinking. Yes, it’s careful to show the miserable
social setting, and, yes, the plot is grounded in organized
criminality rather than that old Hollywood bugaboo, ethnic-
or race-based social pathology, but Harry Brown is
His military instincts revived, Harry sets about the work
of putting things right. He surveys the neighborhood crew,
observes their various MOs, and sets in motion their undoing.
There’s some cinematic pleasure in watching Harry’s revenge
play out, but not much enlightenment.