watching me: Sagnier in Swimming Pool.
by François Ozon
When first we encounter British mystery novelist Sarah Morton
(Charlotte Rampling), she is faded, grim, as tightly wound
as the belt fastening her sensible raincoat. Her mouth is
a pale slash across a lined, tired face. But a fellow subway
traveler easily recognizes her as the author of her favorite
mystery series—the Inspector Durwell books—and gushes forth
her admiration. Fixing a stern look upon this unfortunate
fan, Morton insists that she is most decidedly not who she
appears to be. How apt and yet appropriately teasing a line
this is soon becomes apparent. After all, this is Swimming
Pool, a film by that lover of ambiguity, François Ozon.
As with 2001’s Under the Sand, writer-director Ozon
is adroit at layering seemingly minuscule details into early
stretches of the film, details that build to augment our understanding
of individual characters. Sarah is in the midst of a midlife
career and personal crisis. Her books are selling well, mostly
to older readers, but she’s tired of their formulaic success.
Still, her publisher and suspected sometime lover, John Bosload
(Charles Dance) squelches her ideas for trying something new,
instead offering her rest and relaxation at his villa in the
South of France. Between the time she leaves his office and
arrives in France, we observe that Sarah takes a drink to
get through a meeting, finishes off her aging dad’s whiskey,
subsists on buckets of yogurt and—when feeling virtuous—diet
Coke, doesn’t give much thought to Christianity, and is fastidious
in her work habits. All this is in only 10 fluid minutes of
Sarah’s resolve is sorely tested when John’s illegitimate
daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) drops by for an unexpected
stay at the villa. Julie is everything Sarah is not: French,
blonde, luscious, promiscuous, utterly natural and uninhibited.
The immediate clash bubbles, fermenting with tense scenes
that underscore not just the two women’s outward differences,
but issues of age, morality and sexuality. Sarah clearly resents
the fact that Julie is lithe and libidinous, a real head-turner,
while she is “of a certain age.” Nevertheless, her repulsion
is sprinkled with unmitigated interest. She spies on Julie
as she brings home an endless succession of losers and wannabe
lotharios for a drunken screw. She can’t help but stare with
envy and wonder at the way Julie nonchalantly walks around
naked. Soon, the author realizes that her housemate is perfect
fodder for a new novel, and she begins ransacking the younger
woman’s belongings, looking for clues to reveal who and what
she is. A detente is formed during which Sarah pumps Julie
for background. Still, Julie is a powder keg, combustible
when crossed, and this lends an intriguing, suspenseful element
to the story.
While Swimming Pool does eventually involve a murder
and its cover-up, Ozon is more interested in allowing his
two fine actresses to examine the nuances of their relationships
as well as the roles of women at different points in life.
Indeed, jSomebody’s watching me: Sagnier in Swimming Pool.ust
as our spines begin to tingle at the idea that Sarah, in the
service of her nascent book, is going to egg Julie on to do
more and more dangerous acts, Ozon backs away and focuses
instead on the jealousy between Sarah and Julie when they
become interested in the same man. Infuriatingly, he then
backtracks from this—a fascinating scene in which nubile Julie
dances with the man, who then clearly has a more entertaining
time dancing with the sweetly clumsy Sarah—into the part of
the story when the celebrated author of murder novels helps
cover up a murder. At this point, the movie takes on menacing
tones, and we come to wonder whether Sarah has set herself
up to become Julie’s next victim.
Ozon always has been an unconventional filmmaker, and his
choices in Swimming Pool are no exception. While we’re
led to believe this is some great mystery, he’s more concerned
with his main character’s criminal and sexual rite of passage.
As with his best work, the theme of competing realities pervades,
and provides a shocking, if too-neat, twist. However, Ozon’s
love of ambiguity shades to some extent a less-than-compelling
plot. The film does leave indelible memories of two outstanding
actresses giving brave performances. But while you may exit
the theater excitedly discussing its possible meanings, by
the next morning, much of what you’ve seen has drifted away,
like ripples in a swimming pool.
by Robert Duvall
Written and directed by Robert Duvall, Assassination Tango
is an interestingly eccentric star vehicle in which Duvall
plays a very strange hitman. Although the actor is over 70,
it isn’t his age that makes John J. Anderson, a contract killer
employed by the Brooklyn mob, such an odd duck: Duvall is
remarkably fit and trim (though concerns about John’s advancing
years are raised by his Mafiosi employer, played by Frank
Gio). Rather, it’s his interests: John once owned a string
of beauty parlors, dotes obsessively on his young stepdaughter,
and is a passionate fan of ballroom dancing. Sent to Argentina
for a politically sensitive whack job, John becomes enraptured
by a local variant of the tango. “It’s a different animal,”
says Manuela (Luciana Pedraza), a beautiful dancer who catches
After promising his “almost wife,” Maggie (Kathy Baker), that
he’ll be back in time for her daughter’s birthday, John is
stuck in Buenos Aires for three weeks waiting for the arrival
of his mark, a general with ties to the dictatorship. The
general, explains his dicey connection (Ruben Blades), is
a murderer who caused his countrymen great suffering. But
John doesn’t want to hear about it; to him, killing people
is just a job, and he takes pride in his impersonal efficiency.
Eschewing politics, he spends his downtime wooing the aloof
but not unreceptive Manuela. John has a psychotic temper straight
out of Scorsese, but around women, he is immensely tender,
and his respectful encounters with Manuela have a documentary-style
naturalism (which isn’t surprising, since Pedraza, who is
barely 30, is Duvall’s real-life live-in love). The tango
footage, especially John’s erotic fantasy of partnering Manuela
on the dance floor, is reverentially rendered, while his professional
activities within the city serve as a travelogue to Argentina’s
impoverished but vibrant cultural life.
But what does this have to with his job and the mobsters back
home? Superficially, not much, other than to show that John’s
duality of personality is an advantage in his profession.
Like the tango, his methodology requires practiced precision
and total immersion. The crime sequences are sharply realistic,
to the degree that it makes the viewer curious as to what
this character-driven crime drama might’ve been like if the
psychological making—and unmaking—of a killer had been fully
developed. Played by Duvall as being on the brink of madness,
John undoubtedly is a dangerous man, at times fascinatingly
dangerous. (“He was really out of it,” says one witness to
his lethal handiwork.)
But the tango takes up a lot of screen time, as does John’s
ambiguous romancing of Manuela, which occurs at the expense
of his phony (but more integral) relationship with Maggie.
Pedraza is a compelling screen presence, yet as might be expected
from someone who has done four films with Francis Ford Coppola,
Duvall is more adept at writing dialogue for tough guys than
he is for women. A less powerful effort than his writing-directing-acting
tour-de-force, The Apostle, Duvall’s Assassination
Tango is most involving as a field day for this mesmerizingly
interior actor, and as a glimpse into one man’s private obsessions.
Directed by Michael Bay
There are artists for whom there is no hope. Old-timers may
remember the song “Don Henley Must Die” by Mojo Nixon. Written
from a place of despair at the prospect of an Eagles reunion,
Nixon begged the gods: “Don’t let him get back together with
Glen Frey.” (The gods looked down and laughed.) One wishes
that someone would update this musical sentiment for the filmmaking
team of director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
Unfortunately, “die” and “Bruckheimer” do not rhyme.
When last we met this gruesome twosome at the multiplex, Bay
and Bruckheimer had trashed history and trivialized war in
Pearl Harbor. This collaboration was a logical progression
in their partnership, following such elephantine crap as The
Rock and Armageddon. Pearl Harbor was supposed
to bring them glory; instead they reaped only the usual bad
reviews and disappointing box-office returns.
Bruckheimer and Bay decided to go back to basics and make
a sequel to their first (and least obnoxious) film together,
Bad Boys. No more grandiose historical themes; this
time it would just be big laughs and bigger explosions.
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, who star as a pair of Miami
drug cops, make a terrific team. Lawrence is Marcus, the neurotic
nonviolent one, while Smith is Mike, the shoot first, second
and third (and then run over the corpse) cowboy. They do get
a chance to run some great comic routines—there’s an especially
funny bit when they try to unnerve a kid who is dating Marcus’
daughter—in between the film’s hundreds of senseless deaths.
Therein lies the problem: the endless bloodbath.
There’s a plot, unfortunately. A Cuban druglord (Jordi Mollà,
doing a bad Scarface caricature) is importing ecstasy
in enormous quantities. The DEA, lead by Marcus’ sister Syd
(Gabrielle Union) is after him. A Russian gangster (Peter
Stormare, in another hilarious scene-chewing turn) is after
him. And, of course, Marcus and Mike are on his trail, too.
With that many cops and crooks, you need a program to keep
track of who’s killin’ whom.
There are three spectacular car chases and four bloody shootouts.
These sequences are, as per usual for Bay, incomprehensible.
Tastelessness is the order of the day, from the big-breasted
corpse in a mortuary to the eye-candy use of the otherwise
estimable Union. (In one scene, Marcus taunts Syd that the
DEA is using her as booty-bait; without irony, Bay keeps Union
in a bikini for the rest of the picture.)
The best thing to be said about Bad Boys II? It could
have been worse.
Spy Is Falling
by Peter Howitt
What on the surface sounds like a mild remix of Austin
Powers is, in fact, Johnny English, a clever—but
not too clever—trifle that provides fans of Rowan Atkinson
enough comic nourishment to get us through to his next television
series. For those who are not familiar, Atkinson is the English
comedian who played the raffish scoundrel Blackadder in a
popular ’80s series, and then Bean, a decidedly nasty sort,
in the early ’90s. He’s got a rubbery face that at a moment’s
notice can go from looking slightly debonair to downright
deranged, and he’s as gifted at delivering verbal bon mots
as he is performing pratfalls and other slap-shtick. In Johnny
English, he gets the chance to demonstrate all of his
many talents, and to a large extent, it’s worth the effort.
Granted, this is no groundbreaking or wildly original tale.
Simply put, all of England’s best James Bondian secret agents
have been killed, leaving only Secret Service paper pusher
Johnny English to take on the task of defending the great
realm from the likes of Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), a
French pretender to the throne. Aided by his trusty assistant
Bough (Ben Miller), English proceeds to make a mockery of
every lesson in the spy rule book, often with very humorous
results. The trouble with this kind of movie is that in describing
some of those results, you give away a good deal of the fun.
Suffice it to say that nothing is quite as enjoyable as watching
Atkinson work his way through any number of embarrassingly
bad attempts at patriotism.
Atkinson is matched well in the comic department by Malkovich’s
audaciously weird Monsieur Sauvage. One has to wonder if this
film bears the OK from British Prime Minister Tony Blair,
who derided the French for not gamely going off to war with
us last spring. Miller, too, is very funny, in a quiet, understated
sidekick sort of way. What is too weird for words is the casting
of Natalie Imbruglia as Lorna, a fellow spy and would-be love
interest for our man Johnny. Sure, she’s lovely, but her acting
makes one pine for the days of the comparatively Shakespearian
Barbara Feldman on the old series Get Smart.