Talented Tilda Swinton on the edge again in 'Julia'

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

31 August 2009


Actors are always saying they want to take risks. This is usually just before they sign on for a Sandra Bullock romantic comedy.

But Brit actress Tilda Swinton means it. Try to name another actress who has worried less about how she looks or has sought out more roles that others were afraid to touch.

From her first starring performance in “Orlando” (1992 ) — playing a young Renaissance man who over centuries mutates into a woman — to the malevolent White Witch in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to her Oscar-winning turn as a conscienceless corporate lawyer in “Michael Clayton,” this alien-looking redhead has never been afraid to play evil, ugly or androgynous.

As the title character in Erick Zonca’s “Julia” (no relation to the Jane Fonda classic), Swinton plays a woman so debased it’s impossible to like her.

Her Julia Harris is an alcoholic who spends nights slamming back drinks, going all wobbly-kneed and waking up hung over with some snoring stranger on top of her. As the film begins, she has just lost another job and is scrambling for some way to cover her debts.

The answer comes in the form of a fellow alkie with a sad tale: Her little boy is being raised by his wealthy grandfather, who refuses to give the mom access. She proposes that Julia kidnap the kid for ransom and a mother-and-son reunion in Mexico.

Amazingly, Julia pulls off the harebrained scheme, running over the kid’s bodyguard in the process. Totally lacking maternal instincts and lying shamelessly to everyone she encounters, she locks little Tom (Aidan Gould) in the car trunk and sets out across the desert, avoiding cops and the powerful grandfather’s hired thugs.

A more conventional movie would find Julia’s hard heart softened by the tyke. This is not a conventional movie.

Yes, Julia does slowly become protective of the kid. But any maternal instincts she possesses are of the tough-love variety. And in a scene in which she cuddles with the boy in bed, you’ve got to wonder — is it because she now loves the kid or because she simply loves the way he makes her feel?

After all, with Julia it’s always me, me, me.

Along the way she loses Tom to a bunch of Tijuana lowlifes who want to hold him for ransom, and at that point things get very twisted and bloody.

As terrific as Swinton is here — amazingly, she manages to be both sexy and repellent — it’s hard to get totally behind Zonca’s film, which is both overlong and (despite a grittily realistic visual style), dramatically over the top.

The inclusion of several deleted scenes as extras suggests that Zonca envisioned “Julia” as an existential three-hour epic of life on the run.

Tell you what: It’s plenty existential the way it is.


“Terry Fator: Live From Vegas”

If you caught ventriloquist Terry Fator’s successful run at the million-dollar title of TV’s “America’s Got Talent,” you know he’s an astounding entertainer.

This DVD record of his popular Las Vegas show allows fans to catch his act without a trip to Sin City.

Fator’s specialty is singing. Not just singing, but singing without moving his lips. And not just that, but singing that perfectly imitates the voices of famous performers.

In this hour-plus show Fator (or, rather, his cast of dummy sidekicks) expertly mimics such acts as the BeeGees, Roy Orbison, Etta James, Aaron Neville and Styx.

Taped late last winter, the show also includes a bit in which the portly Fator dons a curly black wig and red leather outfit to imitate Michael Jackson. Uh-oh.

He mitigates that bit of bad timing by including in each DVD case a printed message: “I have nothing but the utmost respect for Michael’s talents ... as I do for all of the musical giants I include in my Las Vegas act. These are the show business legends I admire most, and mixing them with humor in my show is what makes it work.”

Fator’s PG show — there are some naughty double entendres, but basically it’s family-friendly — offers numerous satisfying laughs. But the real thrill here is the music ... and the illusion that these wooden dolls have a life of their own.


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