Strange New Worlds in ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ and ‘Spin Me Round’ | A&E

Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing.’

Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), the narratologist lead character of George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, has been imagining strange things lately. While walking through the airport with her luggage one afternoon, she’s accosted briefly by a little football-headed imp who eventually slinks a few feet away into what looks like a portal into another dimension. Later, while lecturing at a conference in Istanbul, a literally aglow elderly man in ancient regalia death-glares at her from the audience. After he seems to get closer and closer with every blink — eventually he crashes the stage and appears to swallow Alithea whole — she faints from shock, flashing a thumbs up to the taken-aback crowd after she’s revived and escorted away. She later admits to a colleague that her imagination has been overactive lately but that she doesn’t consider these hallucinations any cause for alarm. They’re signs from the universe, maybe, not to get too complacent in life — to stay on her toes.

But there’s no way to explain away the third, and longest by a lot, fanciful interruption. After buying a glass-blown blue-striped bottle from an antique shop near her hotel, Alithea tries scrubbing off in the bathroom sink the blotch of smoke stains on its side with her electric toothbrush. But before she can finish, out from its spout spews glittering, orange-purple plumes of smoke that clear out in her bedroom. When she goes to check out the potential damage, the first thing she sees is the back of what looks to be a giant — or, more precisely, a pointy-eared djinn (Idris Elba). He’s here to offer in exchange for his freedom what all djinns do: three wishes.

He warns Alithea not to even try gaming the system — don’t ask for more wishes, eternal life, the end of all human suffering, etc. — but comes to quickly understand that she’s not that kind of obvious death. This scholarly type, who says a little unconvincingly that she’s hard-pressed to come up with even one wish (she’s supposedly that content with her career and purposeful singlehood), has read enough cautionary tales involving duplicitous djinns to know that if she is going to wish something into being, she’s going to have to think about it a while.

Blessedly, neither character in this two-hander is written as broadly as I’d initially worried. Alithea isn’t rendered a dowdy, parched-for-life spinster type but rather a lifelong academic explorer lit up by the endless possibilities for intellectual discovery. And the jinn isn’t ethereally mischievous — Robin Williams in aladdin (1992) ready for another round of play — but almost more human-feeling than his mortal counterpoint, plainly haunted by the lifetimes’ worth of anguish he’s endured before erupting out of his confining bottle.

Alithea has another day in her hotel room — already a little magical since it’s where Agatha Christie came up with Murder on the Orient Express (1934) — and winds up spending most of it not trying to think up her heart’s desires but listening intently to the djinn’s many stories. He recounts his several experiences being unleashed on the world across thousands of years, sometimes complicated by love. Dazzlingly visualized dramas spanning the Queen of Sheba’s romantic betrayals to a woman’s misguided quest to win the heart of a prince fill up the screen with shimmering style. there’s a One Thousand and One Nights quality to the djinn’s tales, cheekily foreshadowed early on in the film by how Alithea flies to Istanbul aboard Scheherazade Air. (Three Thousand Years of Longing itself is based on the 1994 short story collection The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by AS Byatt.)

I felt myself settling in to them the way I might hearing a tale by candlelight. You feel a little swaddled by them — silk blankets of stories. They also renew the age-old case for how powerful a thing storytelling can be writ large, not just a force of escapism but also a channel through which we can become more empathetic to the worlds-away triumphs and troubles of people who’ve lived lives universes from ours. The sagas surrounding the jinn’s accursed life only draw Alithea closer to him.

The yarns themselves are captivating. And the interplay between Swinton and Elba, for most of the film, has an interesting charge. You sense a genuine enrapturement in each other’s stories and experiences; they have, as the critic David Sims put it recently, real intellectual chemistry. But even while the film, which could use a few more vignettes, is effectively immersive, its stories-within-its-story aren’t emotionally moving. The framing device with the djinn and his latest client isn’t either, especially after, once the former finishes his tales for the afternoon, their story gravitates into a wished-for romance that never matches the movie’s earlier, more exploratory excitements. You can’t quite believe it; the development is less an organic next step forward for the wide-ranging movie and more the most logical one as far as cinematic clichés go. In Three Thousand Years of Longingyou may be most of all drawn to the scene-setting and the verve with which its narratives are told.

Still, the movie overarchingly has enough enchantment that it doesn’t lose us completely even when it falters. And when you consider its place is the now-77-year-old Miller’s career — most defined by the Mad Max franchise, The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and Babe: Pig in the City (1998) — there’s an additional introspective, elegiac resonance that made me feel warmer toward the movie. Though Miller isn’t yet done filmmaking (he has the next Mad Max movie, a prequel about Fury Road breakout Furiosa, coming out in 2024), it’s probable he looks at this djinn somewhat like an avatar for an artist, like him, nearing the end of the line, reflecting on his generations-long role as a deliverer of magic and otherworldly stories while being alone in his knowledge of the psychological and emotional tolls it’s taken to bewitch others. Miller can be an unwieldy, sometimes even frustrating director. But the passion, more than 40 years after his debut, is still so evident in his filmmaking that when he offers you a hand to guide you through his latest fascinations, there’s a real thrill finding out where he takes you.

Alison Brie in 'Spin Me Round.'  Courtesy of IFC Films..jpg

Alison Brie in ‘Spin Me Round.’

IN SPIN ME ROUND, Jeff Baena’s latest collaboration with Alison Brie, the actress (who also co-wrote and co-produced) plays Amber, the manager of the Bakersfield, California, branch of an Olive Garden-style restaurant called Tuscan Grove. Shortly into the film, Amber is selected to attend a manager’s conference at the Tuscan Grove Institute in Italy, which essentially will be a series of cooking classes and guided tours around Florence. The trip, she hopes, will be the pick-me-up she needs. She just went through a bad breakup, and her job — which she’s had for nine years, save for a brief fizzled attempt to start her own restaurant — is mind-numbingly dull. But her dreams of a magical vacation are dashed pretty quickly. Nearly all the other attendees are varying genres of insufferable. And when she’s forced to hand over her passport to the conference’s chaperone, Craig (Ben Sinclair), who also informs everybody that no one is allowed to sight-see unless it’s guided, it’s a telling early sign that this trip is likely not going to be much better than work, beautiful European backdrop notwithstanding.

But after Amber meets and gets to better know Nick (Alessandro Nivola), the Tuscan Grove chain’s handsome owner, we prep ourselves for a movie maybe moving in the direction of Eat Pray Love (2006), that bestselling memoir about a woman who finds new purpose and even love through travel and food. (Amber keeps a copy on her nightstand.) Baena is acutely aware of that expectation, and part of the fun, at least for a while, is how Spin Me Round teases presumptions, with Nick’s acerbic, impulsive assistant (Aubrey Plaza) becoming a chaotic secondary love interest for Amber and increasing signs that something sinister with Nick and his conference are afoot. The comedy-sketch-style assortment of conference attendees keeps everything screwy, too.

But the only intermittently funny choose-your-own-adventure quality of Spin Me Round doesn’t finally add up to much. And the film’s overlit, bland look — it’s almost HGTV-clinical — has an indirect way of suggesting hasty on-the-flyness the more it seems the movie won’t reveal itself to be anything more than minor. That doesn’t help the increasing impression that its ensemble — almost entirely comprising people who are friends in real life — wanted more than anything to have some creative fun in Italy for a while. (Though Brie, and particularly the bizarrely dispatched-too-soon Plaza, are good enough to delude you into thinking for a while that Spin Me Round may go somewhere actually interesting.) You don’t begrudge Baena and his collaborators that much: the movie is diverting, sometimes better. But after it finishes spinning you around it goes up in a puff of smoke.

Movie Love is South Sound‘s weekly movie column. For more movie recommendations from Blake Peterson, subscribe to his newsletter.


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