Sunday 11 April 2010

Dinners and dynasties (ST 11/04/10)

(You've gotta love that poster, at least.)

I Am Love (15) 120 mins ***
Whip It (12A) 111 mins ***
The Infidel (15) 105 mins **
Clash of the Titans (12A) 97 mins **

All Italian dramas must eventually arrive at a family gathering. Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, which is upfront about most things for most of its duration, places its confab at the very start, the better to observe the fallout. The Recchi fashion house - headed by ailing patriarch Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) - has convened to discuss an imminent transfer of power. Favoured inheritor is Edoardo’s son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), a dour Fabio Capello lookalike whose bored Slavic spouse (Tilda Swinton) is pointedly named Emma à la Bovary, and whose children are themselves being urged towards marriages designed to consolidate the dynasty’s standing.

For some while, it seems we’ve been invited merely to observe the elaborate dining rituals of the Milanese well-to-do, though unexpected revelations soon put a halt to the servants’ crockery polishing and careful spooning out of aubergine. The business is split between Tancredi and his estranged son (“it will take two men to replace me”, Edoardo insists); Emma, meanwhile, unearths evidence of her daughter’s Sapphic fling. A family whose livelihood is dependent upon tradition realises how susceptible it is to change: after a moment of rhapsody over a prawn risotto, Emma starts stalking a hunky young chef around San Remo.

It is, as you might imagine, a film of passionate extremes, painted in bold, precise strokes. The skilled Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography contrasts cool, dark metropolitan interiors with the warmth and light of the family’s countryside retreats, while opera legend John Adams’ score swoops and soars. If there’s an obvious flaw, it’s that the Recchis, like their director, possess everything save a sense of humour; at no point does I Am Love acknowledge its many absurdities. The result is two parts high style to one part preposterousness: a potent cocktail, admittedly, but altogether peculiar to the taste.

Swinton, for her part, is typically striking, switching fluently between Russian and Italian. Yet Emma’s erotic obsession is presented in the manner of a Chatterley-inspired fragrance ad - cue shots of insects pollinating flowers - and even those willing to accept these at face value might not buy the film’s London bankers, observed making earnest speeches about “doing good deeds in the world”. Suffice to say, when Guadagnino declares I Am Love, he does so with tongue far from cheek and his heart on his well-tailored sleeve: the absence of irony is absolute, admirable, and - for this viewer at least - almost, almost beguiling.

The actress Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, unfolds within the world of roller derby, that dry-track form of speed skating in which pierced, tattooed Amazonian warriors with names like Eva Destruction shove each other into barriers for points: it’s Rollerball, essentially, only without the balls. Small-town girl Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is being schooled as a debutante; her nights, however, are spent in nearby Austin - countercultural heart of Texas - where she dons the identity Babe Ruthless for bottom-placed league outfit The Hurl Scouts. We’re building towards a coming-out scene of a sort: that moment where Bliss has to tell her uptight ma she’d rather move in circles with her sisters at the rink.

It’s disarmingly sweet and funny - would we expect anything less from un film de Drew? - if sometimes lacking in fluency: Barrymore can barely bring herself to shout cut on certain scenes, such is her generosity of spirit. Still, there remains much to like: Page even has us cheering Bliss’s incongruously vanilla fling with a drippy alt-rocker. I liked Daniel Stern’s affectionate reading of the heroine’s quietly proud father, but given the supporting cast also strives to accommodate Juliette Lewis’s world-beating sneer and Arrested Development alumna Alia Shawkat’s freckled insouciance, seasoned riot-grrrls may have cause to ask: who invited boys to this party?

Directed by Josh Appignanesi from a David Baddiel screenplay, The Infidel offers a role far more deserving of Omid Djalili than those bloody price-comparison ads, yet never develops beyond the level of functional TV pilot. Just before his son’s marriage to the daughter of a hardline cleric, blokeish Muslim cabbie Mahmud (Djalili) discovers - oy and, indeed, vey - he was born Solly Shimsillewitz, to a Jewish father. Submitting to Semitic schooling, our hero is beset with curiosity: soon, he’s juggling pro-Palestinian marches with his first bar mitzvah.

Mahmud’s vision of himself in full concentration camp garb is genuinely startling, yet elsewhere one senses Baddiel’s barbed view of faith has been rounded off for easier consumption, and nobody knows how to end it: we conclude with Djalili in drag, publicly mouthed platitudes, and one of those cast dancing sequences that have become the hallmark of Britcoms trying too hard for laughs. A fond snapshot of multicultural Britain, yes, but you’d have loved to have seen The Infidel before it passed through the cookie-cutter.

Deadlines prevented my mentioning Clash of the Titans last weekend, but connoisseurs of the deliriously silly should hasten to the multiplex forthwith. 3D here proves the flimsiest spectator bait; the real reasons to see it are Lindy Hemming’s costume designs, which are exactly those of a vengeful god. Avatar’s Sam Worthington squirms away under his short skirt as Perseus; Ralph Fiennes’ Hades inherits John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth stylings; while Liam Neeson’s Zeus rocks mirrorball armour that even Slade’s Dave Hill might have deemed too showy. Quite something: a film that resembles Hollywood’s biggest flop of 1960 and 2010 simultaneously.

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