Northern Exposure

Supporting Actress: Al Pacino and Hilary Swank in Insomnia.Photo: Rob McEwan

With his grave eyes and long face, Al Pacino doesn’t need to feign sleeplessness in Insomnia. He looks here pretty much the way he always does – hungover with turmoil. And yet, no matter how how familiar he may seem, Pacino always manages to wrest a few new variations on that sodden, blasted ferocity of his. He’s one of the few major stars from the seventies who still seems invigorated by acting, eager for new dares. He’s game.

The best thing about Insomnia is that despite director Christopher Nolan’s soft spot for moody-blues obfuscation, he has the good sense to keep his star in practically every shot. Pacino plays Will Dormer, an LAPD detective who, along with his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), is investigating the murder of a 17-year-old girl in a small Alaska town. It’s the land of the midnight sun, and Will can’t adjust to the constant daylight. He tapes shut the bedroom windows of his lodge, but the light, incriminating and merciless, seeps in anyway. Unlike most fancy visual metaphors in movies, this one actually resonates: The sunshine is a searchlight exposing Will’s rapidly blooming unease.

Although basically good cops, Will and his partner have each been implicated by Internal Affairs in some dirty business back in L.A. (They’re on temporary loan to Alaska in order to escape the heat.) When Hap reveals that he intends to cooperate with the investigation, Will turns on him. Hap’s subsequent fate in the Alaskan wilds leads Will into an ever-expanding moral twilight zone in which the prime suspect in the local murder, a reclusive pulp detective novelist named Walter Finch (Robin Williams), offers Will a way out of his quandary – for a price. He must decide what he’s willing to live with, how much taint he can stomach. It’s the standard film noir hero’s dilemma. (Insomnia is a noir with the lights turned on.)

I didn’t think Nolan’s last film, Memento, was all that great – puzzle movies aren’t really my thing – but at least it made you constantly reexamine what you were watching. (Even if what you were watching, told straightforwardly, was fairly conventional.) Insomnia, remade from an acclaimed 1997 Norwegian film of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgard, is more routine: a portentous police procedural in the great outdoors, complete with the rookie cop with a hunch (Hilary Swank), the sexy and seen-it-all woman who manages the lodge and feels Will’s pain (Maura Tierney), and, of course, the murderer who cozies up to Will and tells him conspiratorially “We need each other.” Aside from the pristine setting, there isn’t much that’s fresh about any of this, and after a while, once you realize Nolan isn’t going to be throwing many curves, the bleariness in Will’s eyes begins to match our own. Even the offbeat casting of Williams as an unregenerate bad guy isn’t such a big deal. “I’m not who you think I am,” he tells Will, when it’s clear all along that he is exactly who Will thinks he is. Williams is on a public crusade right now to expunge his inner Patch Adams, and I can only applaud him for that, but it will take more than a reasonably effective rendition of a bogeyman to scrape away the treacle. Pacino is the real reason to see this film: He may be playing a character who is slogged by sleep deprivation, but his talent, as always, is wide awake.

Late Marriage, an Israeli movie written and directed by Dover Kosashvili, has perhaps the most languidly realistic sex scene I’ve ever seen in a movie. Set in Tel Aviv, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a handsome 31-year-old bachelor, Zaza (Lior Ashkenazi), the son of old-world Georgian émigrés, and a slightly older Moroccan divorcée, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), who has a 6-year-old daughter who dotes on him. Zaza’s extended family is busy trying to match him up with prospective virginal young brides, but he’s more interested in sneaking off to Judith’s. (In Georgian family tradition, there are few things worse than a young bachelor marrying an older divorcée.) Judith and Zaza’s extended bedroom sequence – it lasts about a third of the movie – is so intimate and sensual and funny and psychologically self-revealing that it makes most of what passes for sex in the movies look like cheap hysterics. There is nothing hyperbolic in what we see, and yet the lives of Judith and Zaza seem to be fully expressed in their coupling. The sequence is so good that the inevitable downturn following their enforced breakup is tragic: Zaza in the end is bereft not only of his soul mate but of his soul.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is such a perfectly conjoined comic creation that it’s practically tamperproof. Still, there are better ways and worse ways of performing it. The best approach is to treat the high witticisms with the utmost seriousness; the worst is to broaden everything until, as is the case with the new film version directed by Oliver Parker, you have a rampaging yukfest. The first-rate cast includes Colin Firth as Jack, Rupert Everett as Algy, Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell, Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Chasuble, Reese Witherspoon as Cecily, Frances O’Connor as Gwendolen, and Anna Massey as Miss Prism, and for the most part their line readings can’t be faulted. But Parker interpolates chase scenes through the streets of London along with fantasy sequences and ditties. He “opens up” a play that was perfectly wonderful closed down. Wilde subtitled his masterpiece “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” This movie seems intent on being a trivial comedy for trivial people.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron combines traditional and computer animation to tell the story of a wild mustang whose adventures with the cavalry, with Native Americans, and with railroad builders are meant to guide us through the changing landscape of the Old West. I’m surprised Ken Burns never thought of this. The horses don’t speak on-camera, but Spirit’s narration comes to us courtesy of Matt Damon, who, having played a horse’s ass in some of his earlier movies, perhaps thought it wise to inhabit the entire nag this time around. In the past few years, feature animation has become such a marvelous playground for comedy that the dully accomplished Spirit, which is filled with anthems to fortitude designed for civic-minded preteens, seems like a full step backward. Its soggy inspirationalism is enough to make you whinny.

Directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank.
Late Marriage
Directed by Dover Kosashvili; starring Lior Ashkenazi and Ronit Elkabetz.

Northern Exposure