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Harsh Times sanctions David Ayer to resume his self-appointed role as police watchdog, this time as director in addition to screenwriter (Training Day, Dark Blue). The man he has his eye on, a very disturbed veteran of the action in Afghanistan, is not already a policeman but soon hopes to be. When, however, he receives his letter of rejection from the LAPD, he shows his commitment to law and order by tossing at a neighboring motorist the beer bottle from which he had been guzzling while driving. His motivation, to be sure, had never been to enforce laws but only to gain greater license to violate them for personal profit. And although the LAPD screeners have red-flagged him, the Department of Homeland Security, impressed by his fluency in español, might yet wave him through. Christian Bale's español is indeed impressive; and the contradictions in the character, if often uncontrollably comical, are no barrier to belief. The extravagances of Bale's go-for-broke performance (Denzel Washington got an Oscar for Training Day, didn't he?) are another matter. Sky-high.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, also describing itself prefatorily as "a tribute to Diane," is at pains to deflect expectations of a straight, literal, pedestrian biography of the celebrated American photographer of front-and-center freaks (or non-freaks who, so forcibly fronted and centered, merely look like freaks). In spite of the freedom of form, the repressed-Fifties-housewife stuff feels awfully stale, and the protagonist's pursuit of her inner strangeness leads her into a conventional Beauty-and-Beast relationship, with hirsute makeup handed down from Cocteau. (Director Steven Shainberg, in his first film since the S&M romance, Secretary, thus continues the pursuit of his own inner strangeness.) Some of the intermediate steps -- the arrival of a mysterious masked neighbor in the apartment upstairs, the removal of a hairball clogging the bathroom pipe -- elicit a shiver or two, and Nicole Kidman in the title role is convincingly strange (even without any outside knowledge of, for example, her off-screen choice in mates). At the very least, the film has the benefit of introducing Arbus's work to a wider audience, or at any rate introducing her name to it -- her actual work is conspicuously absent -- as well as teaching that audience how to pronounce it. Dee-ann, evidently, not Dye-ann.

A Good Year ladles out self-betterment swill to do with a cutthroat London bond trader (Russell Crowe, disconcertingly fey) who inherits from his uncle a rundown wine-growing estate in Provence, the happy stamping ground of his boyhood holidays, and who, returning there to sell the place, falls again under its spell -- and under that of a hot-as-a-pistol brunette -- and recaptures the magic of youth. Ridley Scott (who directed Crowe in Gladiator, too) extols the enchantments of bucolic tranquillity in a hectic visual style, and with a busy soundtrack, amounting to self-sabotage. For me, the only bright spots, exactly two of them, were the unexpected appearances of Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (a top-line star on the continent) as the hero's French legal advisor, a role that affords her fractionally more screen time than her blink-of-an-eye appearance in Munich, plenty long enough to emit a blast of Mediterranean soulfulness.

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