The Movie Club

Raining on the Tilda Swinton Love Parade
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 4 2010 3:17 PM

The Movie Club

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Hello Dana, Roger, Dan, and Wesley, and happy New Year's to you all!

"Avatar".
Avatar

I'm very excited to be here once again. So excited that I'm not going to waste a moment in jumping in and raining on the Tilda Swinton love parade. She's one of those actresses that I respect more than I actually like: I can always see how much thought and effort and preparation went into any given performance. Her dedication and her boldness in choosing risky projects are clear. But I can always see her working, and it's just my preference to want to see the character, not the work. I saw Julia in Berlin almost two years ago, and my hopes were high as I went in: I'd loved Erick Zonca's 1998 Dreamlife of Angels, and I was glad to see him back on the scene. But I found both the material and Zonca's approach insufferable, and Swinton's maybe, maybe-not redeemed drunk didn't win me over, either. As in Michael Clayton, Swinton's all about the sweat stains, even when you can't actually see them. I was conscious, through every second of that performance, that I was watching a classy, principled actress slumming by playing a selfish, blowzy broad. At the time, I wrote, "Swinton plays down to her character, which isn't nearly the same as playing it." And although I haven't seen the movie again since then—Please, I can't bear to! Life is too short—I stick by my initial impressions, unswayed by the fact that so many other critics and moviegoers love the performance. (They were all raving about it in Berlin, too.) As my pal the wonderful critic Scott Foundas said to me so diplomatically the other day, when I expressed my lack of enthusiasm for the performance, "Maybe she should get an award for the most acting." That says it all for me. (Before I get off the subject of Swinton completely, I do want to say that when she does show up at these godforsaken awards events, her fashion sense is amazing: I love the inky, asymmetrical Lanvin Grecian gowns, the no-makeup alien look. It kills me that the so-called fashion critics commenting on these things will fall all over, say, Anne Hathaway's great taste in fairytale-princess gowns—a look that, by the way, has invariably been put together by a stylist—and then accuse Swinton of looking "weird." I hope Swinton just keeps letting her freak flag fly.) As much as I disliked Julia, I will echo Roger's sentiment that it's great that people anywhere in the country actually have a chance to see it. As I recall, Julia came and went in a blink here in New York—I think plenty of critics, even, missed it. One of my personal favorites of 2009 was Lake Tahoe, by the young Mexican filmmaker Fernando Eimbcke (who made his debut in 2005 with the charmingly low-key Duck Season, about a bunch of unsupervised kids getting up to mischief during the course of a lazy afternoon). Lake Tahoe is a road movie, a very slow-moving one: It opens with its young hero (played by Diego Cataño) crashing his car somewhere on the outskirts of a Mexican town and then setting off on an odyssey to find the single auto part that will get it going again. Eimbcke tells this story with what's essentially a series of still shots; he moves the camera so minimally that it seems to be listening as well as watching. This is one of those quiet, modest pictures that doesn't win giant prizes—and it played in New York for only one week—but in a movie landscape filled with shaky-cam, I continue to treasure its minimalist beauty. And thank God it's available, to be watched at home, through Film Movement: As much as we all love and cherish the communal aspect of moviegoing (or at least the idea of it, as it existed in the days before texting, cell-phone addiction, and so forth), at least movie lovers now have greater access to movies than ever before. For now, though, you've still got to get yourself into a theater to see the sex scene in Avatar, which, Dana, I don't think is quite as bad as the one in Watchmen, but it comes close. I still can't quite rub out the vision of Jake and Neytiri bumping Ken-and-Barbie uglies beneath the Great Tree of Poontang. And why didn't they plug their ponytail-tentacles together? So it's OK to connect thus with your pterodactyl-beastie but not with your girlfriend? Apparently, the scene was trimmed to avoid an R rating—as reported, briefly, on New York's Vulture blog —but I'm wondering how racy it could have been in the first place. No sex, please, we're Na'Vi. I do have more to say on Precious, which neither offended me nor wowed me when I originally saw it. But like you, Dana, I'm thinking I'll find even less there if I return to it. Perhaps Roger or Wesley can persuade us to take a second look. My best to you all, Stephanie

Stephanie Zacharek is chief film critic at the Village Voice.

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