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Waking up in the middle of life: Swinton in I Am Love.

The Redeemed

By Shawn Stone

I Am Love

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Nobody 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, Tilda Swinton.

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 is democracy.”

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.

Funny Lady

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Directed 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 of living.

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 nonstop.

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.

—John Rodat

 

One’s dead, the other isn’t: Pattinson and Stewart in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

Dark Side of the Mooning

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Directed by David Slade

Eclipse, 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 suitor.

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 ceramic figurines.

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.

—Ann Morrow

Arms and the Old Man

Harry Brown

Directed 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 glacial pace.

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 innocents.

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 still simpleminded.

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.

—Shawn Stone


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