Swimming Pool (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a British author of a highly successful detective series, decided to take up her publisher’s (Charles Dance) offer visit his home in France for some peace and relaxation. Maybe she could even write a book if inspiration came knocking. Sarah expressed that she was unhappy about her work as of late and wanted to do something different. When Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), the publisher’s daughter, also visited the house, she just might be the inspiration Sarah needed to revitalize her passion for writing. Directed by François Ozon, “Swimming Pool” was widely criticized for having a slow burn of a start only to pick up its pace when the story reached its murder mystery. I couldn’t disagree more. What I loved about the film was its ability to make the mundane absolutely fascinating. When Sarah arrived in the isolated French house, the silence was deafening as she strolled around its humble magnificence. We could only hear her footsteps, the rustling of the sheets as she unpacked, and the furniture being dragged across the floor. It was as if the house was slowly being awakened from its deep slumber. With Sarah staring across the balcony, I could feel her thinking. I felt her worrying about her work and her strained relationship with her publisher. She was a confident woman but perhaps she was beginning to doubt herself. When she stepped outside of the house to go shopping or have some wine, there was joy in that as well because Rampling had such expressive eyes. She didn’t have to say a word yet I was able to extract so much emotion from her character. Like a very good book, the story unfolded effortlessly and I was curious what would happen next. On the other hand, Julie was the requisite spice to stir up Sarah’s ennui. Julie was sexy, had a proclivity for danger, and was very sexually active. Sarah was inspired by Julie, sometimes bordering on obsession, and perhaps there was a bit of jealousy there because our protagonist was aging. The beauty of the picture was not every emotion and every glance was explained so it was up to us to translate the images we were seeing. And like the best mystery novels, it assumed that we were intelligent, proactive, and mature audiences. It didn’t shy away from nudity and sexuality which were important components because it has been said that we are most physiologically alive when sex enters the picture. Sarah’s inspiration slowly came to life. The murder mystery was simply an icing on the cake. It provided an extra dimension because Sarah was able to make a career from writing murder mysteries. Ultimately, “Swimming Pool” was a story about an author and her muse. It had a beautiful cinematography, wonderful script, and subjects that were simply firecrackers.
Dark Habits (1983)
★ / ★★★★
“Entre tinieblas” or “Dark Habits” was about a singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who retreated in a convent because her boyfriend passed away after she provided him drugs. The singer believed that she was safe in the convent but little did she know that nuns (Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Lina Canalejas) harbored secrets such as drug addictions, obsessive-compulsions, a tiger in their garden, and that one of them fell in love with her. This was far from the strongest Pedro Almodóvar film because it was too colorful but it did not have an ounce of substance and the way the story unfolded was too all over the place. Potential scandalous storylines were present but I did not feel as though the director exploited the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead of challenging the characters by putting them in situations they were not used to, the characters were stuck in their own worlds and it felt like time went by so slowly because the comedy came few and far between. When the ironic scenes arrived, unlike Almodóvar’s sharper projects, I merely chuckled instead of laughed. I would have been into the story more if it had taken its time to focus on each nun and her relationship with their new guest. It was obvious that they saw her as a light of hope because prior to her decision to stay in the convent, the ennui of every day slowly killed their spirit. The only dynamic relationship in the movie was between Pascual and Lampreave’s characters. They were different from one another but shared a big commonality: They wanted to live a life that was free and they believed that the first step to achieving that goal was to leave the convent. The power in the scenes they shared was above their eccentricities and that’s when the picture felt alive and interesting. Almodóvar obviously wanted to expose some of the hypocrisies in terms of devout individuals, which I thought was fine because he respected his group subjects, but I wished he moved beyond the one-joke premise and defied our expectations half-way through the film. It desperately needed a change of tone in its half-way mark because it straddled the line between annoying and soporific. In the end, “Entre tinieblas” did not work for me because I saw its potential to become so much more enjoyable if it had more focus and acidic scene of humor. However, I think fans of Almodóvar should still watch the movie (there are familiar elements here that contributed to his later work) to see how masterful he has become as a filmmaker over the years.
Date Night (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Steve Carell and Tina Fey star as a married couple who decided to go to the city on their date night to get away from the ennui of their busy schedules which mostly revolved around work and their kids. To spice things up a bit, they decided to go to an exclusive fancy restaurant which required reservations months in advance. Since they didn’t make one, Carell and Fey decided to pretend to be another couple–a couple involved in theft and currently being pursued by corrupt cops (Common, Jimmi Simpson) who seemed to work for the mob of some sort. When I saw the trailers for this film, I knew I had to watch it because casting arguably the funniest people in Hollywood right now is genius. What I loved about this movie most was not because of the story–mistaken identities, a couple feeling like their marriage lacked spark; I’ve seen it all before–but because of the chemistry between Fey and Carell. They matched each other’s awkwardness and both had great comedic timing. The two actors managed to pull off genuinely tender moments between them where I couldn’t help but feel touched. They were a believable couple and that’s why I cared about their characters. Written by Josh Klausner and directed by Shawn Levy, the script and the filmmakers allowed the two leads to play on their strengths and let the awkwardness linger to the point of saturation. But “Date Night” was as funny as it was exciting. The scene when the two cars (one owned by constantly shirtless Mark Wahlberg, a conceit I was glad that the actor embraced) couldn’t uncouple from one another was a definite standout. It was so much fun to watch, I wished that I was in that car with them. However, I did wish that the side characters had more screen time. For instance, Leighton Meester as the babysitter, Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo as the couple about to get a divorce, Taraji P. Henson (who I love in those “Tyler Perry” movies) as the honest detective, and James Franco (doing his “sparkly eyes” thing that I’m always impressed with) and Mila Kunis as the weird but hilarious couple involved in blackmail. Nevertheless, the movie was so much fun and the adventures all over New York City reminded me of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Those who are in the mood for good-natured comedy with a spice of action will definitely enjoy this movie, while fans of Fey and Carell will undoubtedly be happy with it.
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Che” chronicles the events that transpired when Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) teamed up with other revolutionaries to throw the Batista dictatorship out of power (in Part One) and Che’s doomed mission in Bolivia (in Part Two). I have to admit that I do not know much about Che’s history even though I am familiar with his political beliefs. Having said that, I decided to base this review in terms of whether or not the movie worked as a film, not for its historical accuracies (or inaccuracies for that matter). I wanted to like “Che” because I am a big fan of movies that run for hours and hours. It’s different than movies that run for two hours or less because it doesn’t rush into anything. Most of the time, it provides the audiences extra details of an already rich material. Unfortunately, this film is far from rich. In fact, I felt like the four-hour running time was empty emotion-wise (as well as content-wise) because it failed to get me to care for its lead character. I wanted to know Che’s exact motivations (apart from what he verbally expressed), what shaped his political leanings, and his relationship with other rebels such as Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and Tamara Bunke (Franka Potente). Unfortunately, we only skimmed the surface of such issues and the focus shifted to the ennui of the battlefield. I grew tired of the way the director showed unnecessary scenes right after another such as people smoking, staring into the woods and telling jokes. One or two of those scenes would have been fine and would have gone unnoticed. Those scenes did add up (to possibly an hour and a half or more) and I felt like I was being cheated of my time. Still, I decided to keep watching because I desperately hoped that it would get better. So then I looked to the acting, especially by Del Toro because he played the title character. That element was a disappointment as well because I felt as though his performance was confused in what he wanted to portray instead of what he was actually portraying. I didn’t feel power eminating from him that would make him a great leader and have other people who were sick of feeling oppressed being magnetized toward him. Although I’m not familiar with Che’s history, I felt like this film gave his story a bit of an injustice. This was a very difficult film for me to sit through because its tone was monotonous, it failed to offer any sort of insight regarding the uprising, and it didn’t have any sense of urgency. If the filmmakers don’t deliver that spark or energy, then why should the audience care? I’m familiar with Soderbergh’s work, both commercial and independent projects (I’m still in love with his film “Bubble”), and I can honestly say that this movie is one of his weakest. Nothing came into focus and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Beau Travail (1999)
★ / ★★★★
This movie about French soldiers stationed in Djibouti left a big question mark in my head. At first I thought Claire Denis, the director, was trying to establish the characters via showing us the ennui of military life: from ironing clothes, making the perfect creases to the every day physical and mental training the soldiers had to endure. But half-way through the picture, nothing much changed and I felt myself becoming more and more frustrated with it. I wanted to know more about what made the characters tick. Instead, by the end of the picture, I couldn’t tell them apart (especially since they all have the same haircuts but that’s beside the point), I didn’t know anything about their motivations, and I didn’t know anything about their lives outside of the military. In a nutshell, it felt very one-dimensional. That feeling of detachment made me not care and watching the film was like pulling teeth. I’ve read some summaries from other reviews and they somehow found a story that the film tried to tell. Upon reading those reviews, I really felt like I watched a completely different movie because none of those descriptions matched what I saw (which was pretty much half-naked guys runnning around all over the desert). Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy movies that are stripped down with minimal dialogue but they have to have sort of emotional resonance. I didn’t find that in this picture despite my best efforts to look underneath the surface. The only scene that I genuinely enjoyed was the last when Denis Lavant broke into a dance. It felt like a huge sigh of relief because the rest of the movie felt so controlled, cold and tough. If they had more scenes like that, this train-wreck would’ve been saved. Unfortunately, it was too little too late.