Monday, July 16, 2012

Ah, Indie-Auteur Romance: To Rome with Love & Take This Waltz

Now that I think about it, I don't know how much actual romance you'll find in either To Rome with Love or Take This Waltz. A fair amount of attraction and infatuation, sure, but romance? Maybe not.

One thing I do find kind of interesting is how both films' writer/directors - Woody Allen and Sarah Polley - are also well-known as actors, and how that affects these particular movies. In the review for To Rome with Love, I describe the leads in all four threads of the movie as Allen-surrogates, which is perhaps not precisely fair: Allen actually plays one, and has talked about how he might have played Jesse Eisenberg's role when younger, but I don't know if the roles played by Alessandro Tiberi and Roberto Benigni are necessary Woody Allen roles, even if I could see him playing them, were the setting transported to New York.

Still, it's kind of interesting that so much of Woody seems to seep into the movie when he does a comedy. His dramas have more varied protagonists, but his comedies are still basically Woody Allen telling Woody Allen-style jokes, which is not a bad thing at all; he's been good at this for a long time.

It is a contrast with Polley's approach to Take This Waltz, though. This is Polley's second feature as a writer/director, after a number of shorts, and while there's no real template for actors moving behind the camera, it's not unusual to see their first film as director be something where they don't have to split their attention, although soon enough they're starring in their own movies. Polley's first movie, about an elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer's, would obviously keep her safely behind the camera, but this one almost seems like it could have started as a vehicle for Polley herself: The lead is, after all, a woman about Polley's own age.

It's not, though; instead, she has Michelle Williams play Margot. It's by no means a bad decision - if you can have Williams play the lead in your movie, it's usually a pretty good idea to do so. She arguably fits the part better physically - even though both are young and blonde and about the same body type, there's a softness to Williams's features compared to Polley's that seems to match the character better. I've got no doubt that Polley could have played Margot if she'd chosen to do so, but I'm impressed that she doesn't; it's a fairly self-aware decision for a young writer/director/star.

I'm thinking of that especially in comparison to the mumblecore crew. (Yes, I know that nobody whom it's applied to likes the term; they're welcome to build a time machine and go back to force Andrew Bujalski to speak up and make his dialogue more memorable.) Take This Waltz has a lot in common with that sort of film ("young people figuring adult relationships out" in the review), but it's better in many ways. One scene that really stands out is when Margot, Gerry, and a number of (mostly older) women are showering after the aquatic exercise portion. I don't think most of Polley's contemporaries and the likes of Lena Dunham get that scene right; they often have trouble with anything outside their own limited experience, while Polley seems to have a broader base of knowledge.

That's really impressive, I think - you don't hear Polley's name alongside the hyped young filmmakers her age, in part because she is still primarily an actress with a six-year gap between this and Away from Her, but she's been absorbing a lot of knowledge from a young age, and producing very polished work as a result.

To Rome with Love

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

I'm not saying Woody Allen is exactly running a scam in his golden years, but he has worked out a way to get international financiers to send him to a different beautiful city every year, and all he has to do is produce a movie with a cast of actors drawn by the reputation he has built over decades to work for a fraction of their usual price. And, hey, he's still got enough of the talent that built that reputation that the result isn't exactly a disaster.

To Rome with Love is a set of four or five stories mostly connected by being set in the Eternal City: In one thread, Tourist Hayley (Alison Pill) and native Roman lawyer Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) meet and fall in love, but the story is how her father Jerry (Allen), a retired A&R man, discovers how Michelangelo's father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) has an incredible singing voice and wants to share it with the world. Elsewhere, opinionated office worker Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is suddenly the most famous man in Rome, and the relationship between two American students (Greta Gerwig and Jesse Eisenberg) is threatened by the arrival of her friend Monica (Ellen Page), with a man who had once been in his situation (Alec Baldwin) serving as a chorus. And, finally, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive from the country to work for the family business, but when Milly gets lost, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) appears in his room and has to take Milly's place.

Why is there a call girl in Antonio's room? Never explained, and it's not the only place where Allen is fairly vague. Despite the film cross-cutting between stories and not being set apart by title cards or some similar device, To Rome with Love is at heart four smaller movies that have been stitched together, and it causes some problems. Though the various stories have a similar somewhat off-kilter tone, their omissions and quirks seem more exposed when each is effectively stretched to the length of a feature. The switching from one story to another also makes for an odd timeline - one story is apparently playing out over weeks, another over days, and yet another over hours. All seem to finish somewhat climactically, as well, and four finishes of that variety make for a very muted ending.

Full review at EFC.

Take This Waltz

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run, 35mm)

It took me some time before I decided what, exactly, the end of Take This Waltz meant to me, even though writer/director Sarah Polley probably couldn't be much more clear. It's a movie that has every chance to be very frustrating, but is executed so well that it becomes sadly beautiful.

The story centers on Margot (Michelle Williams), a copy writer who, while on a research trip, meets a charming guy and winds up sitting next to him on the flight home. It would just be a harmless flirtation that ends there, except that it turns out that Daniel (Luke Kirby) lives right across the street, and Margot is married. Her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) is as good a man as they come and his sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) is one of Margot's best friends, but Daniel is a temptation she may not be able to resist.

Much of the time, where Polley is going with this seems pretty clear. Margot speaks early on about being afraid of being caught "in-between", and a lot of her banter with Lou lapses into a sort of playful baby talk; the implication seems to be that she's still got a fair amount of growing up to do - a lot of growing up, if you take one of the more memorable scenes as being part of that metaphor. The natural course of events is that her eventually choosing Lou or Daniel will demonstrate some sort of new-found maturity, but what makes the movie interesting, especially in its last act, is that the characters don't quite fit together that way without some puzzle pieces being left over.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: