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Review: “Julia” (2008)

Just as there are people who cannot tell lies, there are people who cannot tell the truth. Julia (Tilda Swinton) has no concept of honesty. Maybe she did once, when she was younger, but alcoholism has blacked out that memory. Now she lives in an elaborate world of mostly improvised, fool-nobody lies. They serve to protect her from the truth: that she’s not a bewitching charmer but a veering-off-the-cliff drunk who uses people, then discards them like empty beer bottles.

Playing someone like that takes a hearty lack of vanity because Julia is a cruel, if not downright despicable, person. She rewards a helpful neighbor (Kate del Castillo), who drags Julia into her apartment after finding her passed out on the pavement, with a curt “I’m not really down with the good neighbor shit.” (The lit cigarette dangling from her lips adds a nice touch.) She looks rode hard and put away wet — smeared make-up or none at all, dirty hair sticking in 15 directions, too-tight dress hiked above her waist. This is rough stuff, and not a part that many actresses would take. Then again, no one’s ever accused Tilda Swinton of being stuck-up. She goes full-throttle in every part; she relishes a good challenge, even one as tough as Julia, who’s not only a raging, unrepentant alcoholic but might be crazy, certifiably crazy, as well.

With Julia, Swinton more than surpasses our expectations. There’s none of this “time to grow a heart of gold” horse manueur — she doesn’t soften Julia’s edges or find the good girl within. No, she keeps right on being hateful and ruthless because the character is hateful and ruthless. It’s a testament to Swinton’s skill as an actress that we like Julia no better (my argument: she doesn’t grow at all) at the end than we did at the beginning. And in the beginning? Whoa, what a flaming train wreck this woman is. She’s boozed her way out of the job her friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek) got for her, blames a co-worker and spews profanity at her boss. She believes everything happens to her, not the other way around. She barely goes to AA. The one time she does, she meets Elena (the gut-wrenching del Castillo), a widow and recovering addict planning to kidnap her son Tom (Aidan Gould) from his rich grandfather. Elena waits until after she rescues Julia from her pavement blackout to ask for help. Julia, of course, isn’t interested … until Elena offers her $50,000. She is, it seems, a widow with financial means. Julia agrees because surely 50 grand will be her ticket out of this life. That a mother and son will be reunited matters little.

Plot-wise, that’s all that should be revealed, because “Julia” is a humdinger of a what-the-hell-just-happened? thriller. Too many unexpected turns crop up to keep them all sorted out. What begins as one kidnapping turns into two; double-crosses turn into triple-crosses; seemingly ordinary people turn out to be volatile criminals, even killers. There are point-blank murders and a desert car chase with helicopters and so many lies that not even Julia, who’s doing the telling, can begin to remember them all. Many of these twists are far-fetched, even impossible, but they work on two levels: They keep the tension consistently high (director Erick Zonca has an effective, almost documentary-like approach to filming violence) and they seem a natural fit for Julia’s life, a house of cards dependent on deceit to keep standing. The chaotic story seems to offer us a glimpse into Julia’s chaotic mind.

Swinton sells this material, or at least delivers such a knockout performance that we don’t think to question the more implausible elements. She’s at her best in her scenes with the young Gould, where we see her drug him, bind-and-gag him, toss him in car trunks without much thought. The more time they spend together, the more you’d expect her to warm toward Tom — not necessarily. Much like a psychopath incapable of emotion, she mimics socially appropriate responses. Even in the end, we can’t be sure if Julia’s changed or if circumstances have forced her hand. Tilda Swinton has the gumption to pull this off. Would that we could have more actresses like her.

Grade: A-

Review: “True Romance” (1993)

“True Romance” has been called a fantasy, a violent, sexy fantasy. But let’s ix-nay P.C. talk and call the film what it really is: a violent, sexy teen boy’s wet dream. (Was it one from Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection? Don’t put it past him.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that, specifically if said dream is as action-packed and overstuffed with talent as “True Romance” is. Plus, there’s a flippant, postmodern cleverness to the script, which requires a character to say, while whipping his purple Cadillac into reverse in traffic, “We now return to ‘Bullit’ already in progress.”

That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute — only four days in — with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.”

Since Clarence has been waiting his whole life for a twist like this, he seizes the opportunity to defend Alabama’s honor in a gleefully bloody fashion, a choice that leads to all manner of complications — including his accidental possession of a suitcase jammed with blow — that must be seen to be believed. Slater takes to the part with ease, glossing over Clarence’s good looks and getting right at his desire to be someone’s action hero. And that tango with Drexl provides him with plenty of opportunities. Into his quiet life come: a mafioso named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, witty perfection); a dealer missing his suitcase of coke (the always-intimidating James Gandolfini); Clarence’s estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper); Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a movie producer looking to buy the coke cheap and flip it; Lee’s squeamish assistant (Bronson Pinchot); and some cops (Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn) bent on busting up that deal. Mayhem abounds, and with more than a few scenes involving grisly violence (that Arquette, she can handle herself with a toilet seat).

What with all this bloodshed, energy and colorful types, “True Romance” has all the trappings of a zippy Tarantino trip. Script-wise, it is, but where the film falters is in its direction. Action man Tony Scott’s in control of this venture, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There seems to be a sizable disconnect between the world Tarantino has designed and the way Scott presents that world. The action, designed with panache and scripted for überdark comedy, is played straight, with none of the sequences showing particular flair. Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A ballsy story like this deserves an Evel Knievel calling the shots. Sigh. Even Tarantino was once a starving artist dependent on play-it-safe established types, I suppose.

Leave it to Tarantino, though, to write a movie that rises above unimaginative direction. The who’s-who in 1990s cast — Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt have cameos — also works like a dream, with Hopper accessing his subtle side (he has one?), Oldman devouring scenery and Walken stealing the show with a tête-à-tête (“I’m the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood,” he tells Hopper). And while feminist critics could have a field day with Alabama, somehow I don’t see her as a shrinking violet. She’s misguided, a little moony, but she’s tough and smart, an able Bonnie to Slater’s Clyde. And, besides, if you’re yearning for a megadose of reality, kindly refer back to Sentence No. 1.

Grade: B+

No. 17: “Unforgiven” (1992)

“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” ~~Bill Munny

Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) likes to think he’s a man whose occupations chose him and not the other way around. Marriage, followed by widowerhood, led him to a hard life as a father and hog farmer in Kansas. Whiskey, devilment and killing occupied his younger days, though not because of any real talent. “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks,” he remarks to a fellow gunman, and he means it. For better or worse, chance, he believes, has dictated the course of his life.

The way Eastwood plays him, Munny’s delusional and right. Splendidly lensed and acted, Eastwood’s expansive “Unforgiven” is a thorough study of fate versus human nature. Herein lies the dark magic of Eastwood’s Western: The actor/director takes typical Western themes — lawlessness and justice, wild men “tamed” by good women — and upends them. Greed and lust push lawmen to abuse power, while killers operate according to their own moral codes. He asks: Does chance make men what they are? Or does chance play understudy to human nature, be it twisted and cruel or merciful?

Don’t wait on easy answers; Eastwood isn’t about to provide them. “Unforgiven” is a hard film, and in it Eastwood travels into the furthest corners of man’s psyche. He does so by merging two stories: that of Munny and Little Bill Daggett, the violent sheriff of small-town Big Whiskey, Wyo. Munny believes marriage and sobriety cured him of wickedness, but temptation tests him: The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a boastful gunman, wants Munny to partner with him on a bounty hunting mission. They could collect $1,000 for killing two men involved in carving up a prostitute (Anna Levine) in Big Whiskey. Munny resists — “I ain’t like that anymore” — but soon realizes he needs the money. Farming he can’t master, but killing? That he knows deep down and in ways he doesn’t like to talk about.

Ned (Morgan Freeman), Munny’s old partner in crime, knows killing too, and he signs on for a piece of the reward. “I guess they got it comin’,” Ned figures, but in tracking the offenders he discovers he cannot pull the trigger. This offers a counterpoint for Munny’s transformation, who reclaims his will to kill at the same moment Ned loses his. This proves useful because Daggett, remarkably sadistic for such a principled lawman, does not welcome gunslingers. Nor does he suffer braggarts, and that includes English Bob (Richard Harris), who rides into town with his biographer (Saul Rubinek) and intends to collect that reward. Daggett has other ideas, especially since it’s the injured prostitute’s friends who’ve offered the prize. Those who undermine the sheriff’s authority, Bob learns, pay a brutally steep price. Hackman’s ability to move from quiet condescension to volcanic rage in these moments is disturbing.

One of the most impressive aspects of “Unforgiven” is the amazing depth David Webb Peoples’ script gives its characters. The line between “heroes” and “criminals” is blurred by the ways the act of killing affects the killers. Daggett holds a position of honor, but he is so ruthlessly self-serving that he’s hardly a beacon of morality. (Hackman, in fact, makes him a despicable villain for the ages.) Munny claims to have reformed but reverts to his old ways easily — only, he says, to avenge a friend’s death. Yet in his steely expressions and tone of voice, Eastwood suggests this change could be more permanent, that Munny might have opened a door he cannot shut. And somewhere in the middle are Ned (Freeman smartly plays him as relieved and disgusted with his inability to pull the trigger) and The Kid, who realizes too late that the fantasy of murder and its reality are vastly different.

On par with the acting is the film’s cinematography and set design, both nothing short of awe-inspiring. Big Whiskey seems every inch a quaint, congenial Western town, but it’s almost too quaint; there’s an undercurrent of unease. Meanwhile, panoramic shots of the dusty plains surrounding Munny’s farm, nearly empty for miles and framed by sunset, highlight his isolation. “We’ve all got it coming,” he tells The Kid, and he’d rather be alone with his demons when it comes for him.