Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Week of September 26 to October 2 -- Phil Mann

What's On At The Tropic
by Phil Mann

Take a great actor and give him a great story, not a bad formula. Sir Ben Kingsley finally comes into his own this week as the male lead in ELEGY, the movie adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2001 novella “The Dying Animal.” Kingsley is Professor David Kepesh, an aging New York cultural critic and university teacher. He is also a womanizer, incapable of commitment, who has made his peace with contemporary restrictions on teacher-student affairs by waiting until the semester is over.

This year the object of his desire is Consuela Castillo, a Cuban graduate student thirty-plus years younger, played by Penélope Cruz, who also reaches the peak of her form, perhaps because she’s freed of the burden of shedding her accent. When I say the peak of her “form” I’m speaking literally as well as theatrically. Thanks in part to the sensitivity of the female director Isabel Coixet, the photography of Ms. Cruz and her body, which is amply displayed, could not be more beautiful.

What starts out as another notch on Kepesh’s belt becomes instead his undoing as he finally finds a woman who overwhelms him as much as the reverse. You would think that Kepesh would be an object of scorn, that we would see the 70-year old, not particularly handsome, professor as deserving whatever ill befalls him as he lusts for the irresistible Consuela. But Kingsley makes him as much a victim as victimizer.

As the story takes a turn at the end, and Kepesh struggles with his own inadequacies in dealing with both Consuela and his estranged son, the power of the movie and our feelings for each of the complex characters builds. The screenwriter Nicholas Meyer also worked on Fatal Attraction. In the wrong hands, that might have been the theme of this movie, too, but Elegy instead is true to the meaning of its title, a poetic lament, and a stunning one.

Just as artful, but at the other end of the cinema spectrum, is Werner Herzog’s documentary ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD. Herzog has always been attracted to obsessed people doing impossible things in impossible places, Aguirre, the Wrath of God searching for El Dorado on the Amazon, Fitzcarraldo bringing opera to the same place, Grizzly Man living among the bears in Alaska. His new doc is in the same vein, about people who choose to go to the so very inhospitable last frontier – the Antarctic – and what they find there. The scenery, both above and below the surface is spectacular, and the people are too, in their own way.

The Monday night classic this week is another Ida Lupino film, the noir ROAD HOUSE. Last week we saw her in Moontide. Ms. Lupino was an English actress who carved a unique role for herself in Hollywood, starring in tough-girl roles opposite such as Bogart and, in Road House, Richard Widmark and Cornel Wilde. But she also became one of the first women directors and continued on to a television career with her husband Howard Duff. If you’re a bit older you may have seen their fifties series, Mr. Adams and Eve. Here’s your chance to see her as a sexy thirty-year old.

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