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Review: The Interpreter

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Matobo, the sub-Saharan African nation that figures prominently in Sydney Pollack’s U.N.-set thriller The Interpreter, does not exist, though it bears a pointed resemblance to Zimbabwe. Likewise, Matobo’s genocidal president, the target of an assassination plot, is clearly meant to suggest Robert Mugabe, albeit from a diplomatic remove. And then there’s Nicole Kidman’s haughty dignity as the titular interpreter, who overhears sinister whispers emanating late one night from the empty seats of the General Assembly, and Sean Penn’s prickly dolor as the Secret Service dude assigned to protect/investigate her: These are painstaking approximations of turbulent human emotions, patently fictional and yet, thanks to the strenuous efforts of two superb actors, at times very nearly credible.
    Our very first view of Penn’s Agent Tobin Keller sets the tone: Sitting alone in a smoky dive bar, he mournfully removes his wedding ring and drops it, kerplunk, into his shot glass. (More than an hour elapses before we finally get the throat-swollen monologue that accompanies this Screenwriting 101 gesture.) Will this grieving bundle of neuroses be drawn, contrary to professional dictum and personal loyalty, to Kidman’s willfully opaque Silvia Broome, prone to expressing her own inner torment via midnight flute solos? Lesser thesps would collapse beneath the weight of these clunky signifiers; Kidman and Penn, both struggling to underplay, manage to wrest a few moments of real conviction from their schematic pas de deux. One scene in particular, in which Keller reads Broome a letter on a park bench, achieves a degree of emotional authencity that’s arguably damaging — it makes the rest of the film, with its rote intrigue and noble speechifying, feel paltry by comparison.
    If The Interpreter is remembered in years to come, it’ll most likely be for the novelty value of its U.N. interiors (Kofi cooperated!) and for the cross-cutting brio of its central set piece, an expert homage to Hitchcock’s legendary bomb-on-the-bus sequence in Sabotage. The film’s righteous anger at the specter of former revolutionaries turned murderous despots, however laudable, doesn’t stand much of a chance against the generic allure of Hollywood glamour. — Mike D’Angelo

Date DVD #29: House of Flying Daggers
Quite possibly the best-looking martial-arts picture ever made, Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to Hero is that rare fight film that doubles as a seduction tool. It’s the rare martial-arts epic in which the action feeds the storyline — a tragic love triangle involving a beautiful, knife-throwing rebel. And while Yimou’s fights are as astonishing as anything in Kill Bill or Crouching Tiger or Shaw Brothers classics, the date-worthy accomplishment is in the romance. Yimou choreographs his lovers’ seductions — the slightest tilt of a lip, the subtlest caress — just as carefully as the clashes. There’s a dancer’s grace in the halting seductions that’s every bit as impressive as the high-wire act sword-sorcery.
    Of course, even the swords can be romantic, as Yimou plays with the dancing phallic sexiness of swordplay, particularly in his instant-classic “echo game” sequence: a scene that begins as a dance and then spirals into a sexy battle that cements the newfound celebrity of butt-kicking beauty icon-in-the-making Ziyi Zhang. Forget daisies and heart-shaped chocolate boxes: these lovers seduce with daggers, fighting staffs, and fists. Watch closely, and you’ll be primed for one hell of a post-screening pillowfight. — Logan Hill

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