A poignant romantic drama about love and lust between an aging man and a younger woman, Spanish director Isabel Coixet´s Elegy is a leisurely paced but heartfelt exploration of its characters. While the film focuses on Ben Kingsley´s aged professor, Penélope Cruz steals the show as his beautiful young lover, more enchanting here than she´s been in any previous English-language feature. Admittedly, the film isn´t for all tastes; explicit (but tasteful) sex scenes between Kingsley and Cruz may be a turnoff for some.
Kingsley stars as college professor and cultural critic David Kepesh, who is careful not to get involved with any of his students – at least, before grades are given. After the class has ended, he hosts a traditional cocktail party and has a sexual dalliance with one of his young former students. This year, the student that has caught his eye is the beautiful Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz), whom he compares to Goya´s Naked Maja. The two soon establish a relationship, which runs much deeper than David´s usual flings; he´s terrified, however, of any kind of commitment – both as a man who left his wife and son long ago, deciding marriage was an institution he didn´t want to be a part of, and as an awakened jealous lover who knows the age gap between himself and Consuela is too great, and a younger man is likely to steal her from him.
The story takes place over a number of years, though it didn´t really convey the passage of time – and the heartbreaking loss of that potential love – to my full satisfaction. Despite the subject matter, the film feels remarkably lightweight up until a sobering conclusion, which packs the direct emotional punch much of the rest of the film lacked.
Supporting cast has considerably less screentime than the stars, but still makes an impression. A refreshingly subdued Dennis Hopper plays David´s best friend George, who guides him through his relationships; Deborah Harry appears in a key scene as George´s suffering wife. Peter Saarsgard has a few effective scenes as David´s son, still carrying angst against his father. And Patricia Clarkson threatens to wrestle the film from Cruz as David´s elegant, 20-year fling.
The movie has a lot in common with Roger Michell´s Peter O´Toole vehicle Venus, but comes off as a far more touching experience. Kingsley´s David is not a lecherous and lustful old man, but a fully fleshed-out character with fears and insecurities, all-too well-aware of his situation. Elegy is a specialty that may not appeal to everyone, but it´s a refreshingly elegant and thoughtful film populated by intelligent characters who are smart enough to realize that they don´t have all the answers.
Like most recent Hollywood horror films, Alexandre Aja´s Mirrors is based on a successful Asian chiller. In this case, its 2003´s Into the Mirror, from director Sung-ho Kim, a little-seen effort from South Korea. They´re digging deeper for the same old content; well, it´s (moderately) better than another Ring or Grudge sequel.
The problem I have with these films is that they´re all so distressingly similar: a vaguely Asian-looking ghost of a young girl, always with long dark hair covering her face, visits our unsuspecting protagonists through some device and kills until the mystery behind her demise is solved and her spirit is put to rest. Apparently, these ‘grudge´ stories have tradition and a legitimate genre of their own in Asian cultures, but once American-ized they all come off as carbon copies of one another; Gore Verbinski´s The Ring was a truly scary ride (and topped the Japanese original, in my opinion) but each successive J-horror remake has been stillborn, with nothing new to offer. Mirrors is the 4th such film I´ve seen in 2008 alone, following The Eye, Shutter, and One Missed Call. It´s easily the best, but that´s no praise. While director Aja manages to create a modestly creepy atmosphere in the film, it´s all for naught by the preposterous, fiery action-movie climax.
24´s Kiefer Sutherland stars as ex-cop Ben Carson, estranged from his wife (Paula Patton) and children and living with his sister (Amy Smart) after killing a man on the job, getting dismissed from the force and turning to alcohol. On the rebound, he gets a job as a night watchman at a decrepit, burned-down department store with giant, pristine mirrors, kept in good condition by the last night watchman (Jason Flemyng), who slits his own throat with shards of a mirror in a pre-credits sequence. Soon Ben is seeing things in the mirrors that shouldn´t be there, a door opening here or a dead body there, fire that doesn´t exist but still burns. The mirror beings are trying to tell him something of course, but they like to be cryptic enough to pad out the film to an overlong 110 minutes, and put some pressure on Ben to solve the mystery by killing those close to him. So soon it´s a (yawn) race against time to put the spirits at rest before they can kill his family.
Early scenes feature almost nothing but Sutherland walking around the deserted, burned-out department store, and for half an hour, the film manages to create a creepy, almost chilling vibe. After that the routine plot kicks in, and turns the movie into a boring, preposterous mess, with no apparent rules: the mirrors can, apparently, create an invisible double of yourself that attacks in the real world, or possess your real-world soul, or harm your mirror image, which in turn harms you, or . And it´s not just mirrors, but anything that reflects, like a pool of water or a shiny door knob, but, I guess, not human eyes. The preposterous logic of the film simply follows whatever might look ‘cool´ on the screen, with no regard for making any kind of sense within its own world.
Poor CGI also helps to sink the enterprise, particularly in the movie´s showstopper, a nasty jaw-ripping scene that ultimately comes off as cartoonish. Had it been any more realistic, though, it would have earned the film harsher ratings. This isn´t a PG-13-friendly flick like most other entries in the genre; some of the violence is as harsh as Aja´s ultra-gory Haute Tension.
Also: opening wide is acclaimed Czech director Jan Hřebejk’s Nestyda (showtimes | IMDb), a comedy starring Jiří Macháček and Pavel Liška. Screening in Czech; an English-subtitled print seems to be conspicuously absent but should surface soon.
Lastly: don’t miss the Bollywood Film Festival, which is taking place at cinemas Evald and Světozor until October 12th. Almost all films are screening with English subtitles.