Saturday, October 30, 2010

35 Days Until Black Swan

It's been six days since I've seen Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's latest, and I can honestly write that it's been burning in my mind ever since; the succinct boldness of the film feels unrivaled in recent cinema, just as its hard to categorize.  A strange genre tale of a young woman's unsettling sense of reality, or intense work-about story of the surrendering power one must push themselves to for the sake of art, or bold and twisty tale of horrors.  Whatever Black Swan ends up being described or pitched as, the fundamental factor that plays to it's artistic success is that it's very much it's own thing, a singular and dangerous film of abundant complexity and stunning bravado, it asserts what many have assumed for years-- that Aronofsky is one of the consummate artists of our times, whose films intensely consume the senses; just as with Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler (which serves as an odd, evil-step-cousin companion piece to Black Swan), the masterful auteur has created an experience, often unsettling, that's bold, audacious, strangely beautiful, that powerfully has the all consuming power to take hold and latch on to our minds, haunting and seductive.  Black Swan is perhaps the purest cinematic experience I've had in a movie theater in quite some time-- it lulled and soothed me, just as it terrified me, but the aching power hasn't let go.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a beautiful young woman, a ballet dancer with the utmost technical precision.  She's tightly wound, filled with insecurities, who lives a highly regimented life with her mother (Barbara Hershey) in Manhattan's Upper West Side, geographically, and cinematically very close to Rosemary's dwelling "The Dakota" in Rosemary's Baby.  Nina's continued ambition is the center of the film and the first half of the film shows the drive she's using for said ambition.  She's in the company of the Lincoln Center ballet, under the tutelage of Thomas (Vincent Cassel), whose tough-minded, seductive approach to dance seems to frighten, seduce and madden Nina.  The new show, an edgy and revisionist production of "Swan Lake" is all Nina wants; and the drive and flurry of perfection is starting to unleash all kinds of mental damage in Nina's distorted and central thinking mindset.

Thomas is hard with Nina, making it known that if all he was looking for was the "White Swan", all pure, she'd be perfect; but it's the "Black Swan", seductive and dangerous, that escapes Nina.  Aronofsky endlessly shows a barrage of rehearsals and dancers trainings, the repetition is important to enter Nina's mind, as well as gasp at the ingenuity of the directors talents.  Almost fetishizing in the same degree he did in The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke's training, we follow Nina, we see her bloody toes and watch every plie, beautifully staged by Aronofsky and his master director of photography, Matthew Libatique, whose hand-held, yet steady work effectively studies Nina's.  The look of the film feels incredibly naturalistic, with it's muted, unsaturated colors matching the flashy, but controlled shots; it looks real, but heightened to a degree to suggest something eerie.

Everything starts to change for Nina, as well as with the film, by the entrance of Lily (Mila Kunis), an upshot dancer just joining the company.  She challenges Nina for the lead in "Swan Lake," not by her dancerly precision and grace, but with her edge and Thomas-approved unabashed sensuality.  Lily tries hard to make with friend with Nina, who appears uninterested to the point of irritated.  That's where the fun of Black Swan starts to really take off, and drift into it's unsettling territory-- it's to the credit of Kunis' performance that we never really quite know whether Lily's actions are true or not; she walks the murky path just enough to where we believe Lily is a real viable threat, out to All About Eve her way to the lead role, or just a down to earth naughty girl.  Either the toll of Nina's already fractured psyche is palpable and just getting worse.  With Lily getting closer, Thomas' showing creepy advances, as well as the endless rehearsal time, we follow Nina down the rabbit hole headed to her balletic abyss.  Not to mention the creepiness of ex-leading company member Beth (vividly and chillingly played by Winona Ryder, in a glorified cameo), now a disembodied mess in intensive care, thanks to her "self-afflicted" accident.

It's really difficult to describe Black Swan in a tangible way because most of the film is a bit abstract, similar contextually to perhaps other fractured psyche films like Persona and Mulholland Drive, with much indebted structurally by The Red Shoes, the Michael Powell directed tour-de-force, also a fairy tale about ballet dancers.  But its also an incredible, deeply felt mood film.  The mirrors that Nina is constantly surrounded by help add a creepily, almost self aware quality for the film, we see, but also achingly feel the pressures of Nina's severeness.  And yet, what makes the film it's own, is its chief quality, which is the character study of Nina Sayers, in a role of unmatched, and honestly unforeseen bravura by Natalie Portman.

She dances the part, both literally and not, and under the tutelage of Aronofsky (perhaps like Nina with Thomas) gives her most potent, powerful, dangerous and sexy performance.  With her soft, child-like voice, which complements, in an utterly freaked out way her very child-like existence at home, Portman creates an unforgettable and utterly captivating portrait of young woman whose almost imprisoned by her mother (her relationship with Hershey is significantly eerie, and almost felt as a tease; a whole other film could be made here), severely lacking in basic social skills, sexually inexperienced, to a point of maladjustment; but whose light at the end of the tunnel is her art.  As Nina goes down the rabbit hole, Portman compellingly loses herself on screen, underplaying it all the way, while simultaneously going for broke.  It's the darkest, most intensely challenging performance she's ever given, and it's unease will provoke the cinematic universe, I would assume for quite some time.  In a strange, perhaps even perverse way, Black Swan feels like the toughest, most stinging character study since Daniel Day-Lewis' portrait in There Will Be Blood; I want to importantly note that I'm not comparing both films, just stating a comment about how a role is individually felt by myself.

Portman taking her hold over her audience.

The point of the film I suppose is the very power of art, on it's audience (of which I suspect many will likely not care for Black Swan, it's Aronofsky's headiest since The Fountain), to it's participants.  And how the pursuit of one's art is all consuming, the point of danger, or perhaps it should be if you're any good at it, or care for it.  And Aronofsky obviously does care, and ridiculously good at it.  Whatever happens with the cultural outcome of Black Swan, I honestly feel that every shot, every line of dialogue (written by first-timers Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz) was absolutely the way it's intended to be, and the thrilling horror and suspense already feels to me, six days after viewing, as a thing of classic beauty to be discussed and challenged for years and years to come.  It's all consuming, and as lulled by it's dreaminess of first sight as I was, I haven't shaken it since, and never really want to either.  A

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Australian Film Institute Award Nominations

AFI Members’ Choice Award

    * Animal Kingdom
Beneath Hill 60
Bran Nue Dae
Bright Star
The Boys Are Back
Tomorrow When The War Began

SAMSUNG Mobile AFI Award for Best Film

    * Animal Kingdom

    * Beneath Hill 60  
    * Bran Nue Dae
    * Bright Star
    * The Tree
    * Tomorrow When The War Began

AFI Award for Best Direction

    * Animal Kingdom. David Michôd.
    * Beneath Hill 60. Jeremy Hartley Sims.
    * Bright Star. Jane Campion.
    * The Tree. Julie Bertuccelli.

Macquarie AFI Award for Best Original Screenplay

    * Animal Kingdom. David Michôd.
    * Beneath Hill 60. David Roach.
    * Bright Star. Jane Campion.
    * Daybreakers. Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig.

Macquarie AFI Award for Best Adapted Screenplay

    * Bran Nue Dae. Reg Cribb, Rachel Perkins, Jimmy Chi.
    * The Boys Are Back. Allan Cubitt.
    * The Tree. Julie Bertuccelli.
    * Tomorrow When The War Began. Stuart Beattie.

AFI Award for Best Cinematography

    * Animal Kingdom. Adam Arkapaw.
    * Beneath Hill 60. Toby Oliver ACS.
    * Bright Star. Greig Fraser.
    * The Waiting City. Denson Baker ACS

AFI Award for Best Editing

    * Animal Kingdom. Luke Doolan.
    * Beneath Hill 60. Dany    Cooper ASE.
    * Bright Star. Alexandre de Franceschi ASE.
    * Tomorrow When The War Began. Marcus D’Arcy.

AFI Award for Best Sound

    * Animal Kingdom
    * Beneath Hill 60.
    * Bran Nue Dae
    * Tomorrow When The War Began

AFI Award for Best Original Music Score

    * Animal Kingdom.
    * Beneath Hill 60
    * Bran Nue Dae
    * Bright Star

AFI Award for Best Production Design

    * Animal Kingdom
    * Beneath Hill 60
    * Bright Star
    * Tomorrow When The War Began

AFI Award for Best Costume Design

    * Animal Kingdom. Cappi Ireland.
    * Beneath Hill 60. Ian Sparke, Wendy Cork.
    * Bran Nue Dae. Margot Wilson.
    * Bright Star. Janet Patterson

AFI Award for Best Lead Actor

    * Brendan Cowell. Beneath Hill 60.
    * James Frecheville. Animal Kingdom.
    * Ben Mendelsohn. Animal Kingdom.
    * Clive Owen. The Boys Are Back.


AFI Award for Best Lead Actress
    * Abbie Cornish. Bright Star.
    * Morgana Davies. The Tree.
    * Charlotte Gainsbourg. The Tree.
    * Jacki Weaver. Animal Kingdom.

AFI Award for Best Supporting Actor

    * Joel Edgerton. Animal Kingdom.
    * Guy Pearce. Animal Kingdom.
    * Kodi Smit-McPhee. Matching Jack.
    * Sullivan Stapleton. Animal Kingdom.

AFI Award for Best Supporting Actress
    * Julia Blake. The Boys Are Back.
    * Kerry Fox. Bright Star.
    * Deborah Mailman. Bran Nue Dae.
    * Laura Wheelwright. Animal Kingdom.


    * Simon Baker. The Mentalist, Season 2. Nine Network
    * Ryan Kwanten. True Blood, Season 3. Showcase
    * Kodi Smit-McPhee. The Road
    * Sam Worthington. Avatar


    * Toni Collette. United States of Tara, Season 2. ABC1
    * Bojana Novakovic. Edge of Darkness
    * Mia Wasikowska. Alice in Wonderland
    * Naomi Watts. Mother and Child

AFI Young Actor Award

    * Ashleigh Cummings. Tomorrow When The War Began
    * Morgana Davies. The Tree
    * James Frecheville. Animal Kingdom
    * Harrison Gilbertson. Beneath Hill 60

Weaver's chilling stare...
The wonderful Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom leads all films in with Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards with an astounding 18 nominations..  The film, a relative art house success story stateside (it's box office is nearly $1.0 million) is slowly but surely making a strong Oscars push for best supporting actress candidate Jacki Weaver.  It helps that the distributor of the film (Sony Pictures Classics) has jumped the campaign by releasing DVD screeners to Academy members before anyone else.  Weaver is awesomely good as den mother "Smurf," whose Lady MacBeth moment made for the one of the most chilling elements in any film so far this year.

Other contenders include two 2009 holdovers-- Bright Star and The Boys Are Back.

The Fighter

One of the great unknowns of Oscar season 2010 comes in the form of David O. Russell's The Fighter.  Here's the solid looking trailer starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo.  On the plus, in terms of commercial hit status, and potential awardage is what looks like an emotional, gripping boxing tale; Oscar has a fondness for the sport (Million Dollar Baby, Rocky.)

The main deterrent seems to come in the form of Mr. Russell, whose reputation as a hotheaded director might detract many members of the Academy (tis a popularity contest!) from voting for him.  Yet again, if the film works, it might demonstrate an unseen maturity from the talented, if dubious filmmaker.  The Fighter seems like the first film Russell has ever made that might have a stronger emotional core than anything else; I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings and Flirting with Disaster are strong, clever stories, but lack heart.

Aside from Russell derision, there might be truth in his madness-- he's shown adept at coaxing nice performances from actors (for instance, Wahlberg showed such strong soul and comedy in I Heart Huckabees, that it really should have gotten more notice.)  Christian Bale might have the best shot for a nomination.  You might notice he shed his "Batman" figure yet again to scary limits, and since supporting actress is looking fairly slight this year, if Adams and Leo deliver (or at least have a clip worthy scene) they might factor in as well.

Monday, October 25, 2010

39 Days Until Black Swan

Through a lovely piece of happenstance, I saw Black Swan today.  Sometimes persistence and luck pay off in a beautiful way.  I'm going to tease a bit before I really fully start writing about it.  I don't trust my immediate reaction; or maybe I just need time to recuperate-- gathering my thoughts; they're all aflutter.

Here's a fleeting, yet beautiful image to the sublime photography.

A website, finely and obsessively, entering ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) messed up head-space has emerged, I JUST WANT TO BE PERFECT.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole is based on the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning by David Lindsay-Abaire and comes prestige packed with stars Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, as well as a prim, awards bound mid-December release date.  The material, about the grief over a loss of a child, sounds grim and depressing, but there is a rooting factor that fascinates me here: director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Shortbus), whose proven a true and passionate (if polarizing) filmmaker whose already established a sure hand in transferring a play to screen.  Of course Rabbit Hole is far more conventional story, and certainly a big oppurtunity for Mitchell to potentially play to a larger more mainstream crowd.

I desperately hope that the treat here is Kidman, whose movie star trajectory seems to have fizzled recently, sadly.  Her gift is usually at its strongest working with strong, commanding auteurs, and purely on a selfish level, I'd love to marvel at a performance of hers again.  Her undeniable peak was 2001-2004, with the amazing, enriching roles in Moulin Rouge!, The Others, The Hours, Dogville and Birth.  The mistake, or misrepresentation of Kidman is that at her classic best has never been particularly commercial; she's a muse, not a movie star.  The second half of the last decade saw more of movie star Kidman, which always feels desperate and unfocused; Margot at the Wedding (2007) was a welcome, if often disparaging and little seen, glimpse of the mercurial actress I enjoy.

Anna in deep thought.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Made in Dagenham

The trailer of what could be a big Oscar contender starring Sally Hawkins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike and Bob Hoskins.  On a tangent, Hawkins deserves proper awardage for the spectacular snub she received for Happy-Go-Lucky.  My two cents.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Best Documentary Feature

One thing, I truly believe, that's come about in the past few years what with the American "system" falling apart every which way, is that documentaries have become a richer, angrier, and far more engrossing than ever before.  This may not in fact be true at all, and as I'm far more exposed to current documentaries than the ones of yore, I may not be a proficient judge of any of it.  In any which way, I gladly proclaim that 2010 has been, so far at least, a fairly dynamic year for docs, and that this years Oscar could be a well deserved brawl.

  • Casino Jack & the United States of Money- few watched this enriched, enormously entertaining film from one of the new leaders of genre: Alex Gibney.  Gibney, as evidenced by this work, as well as his 2005's corporate horror flick, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, is quite a fine filmmaker who on first account appears to have a bit of Michael Moore's showmanship, but underscores it with an unparalleled aptitude for surveying his subjects from the inside out, with a perfectionists, perhaps even fetishists verve.  Here the subject is Jack Abramoff (soon to be portrayed by Kevin Spacey in a narrative feature), the privileged, ultra-conservative lobbyist who bought and sold votes on Congress with his mighty access to cash.  While it might be quick to suggest Casino Jack serves along a same road as many similar anti-Republican docs in recent years, that would be a short sighted argument.  For instance, Gibney is smart enough to surround himself with more red state talking heads than anything else (including deliciously delusional accounts from former House majority leader Tom DeLay, with whom Abramoff was awfully familiar with), and grounds the film with sincere testimony from devout conservatives of Abramoff's past who believed in a grand noble idea for a new would be almost romantic, if it didn't turn out so repugnant.  Apart from that, Casino Jack is grandly entertaining, making difficult and convoluted new-government horrors accessible to the common joe, perhaps unfamiliar with PACs and the like.  Gibney blasts the soundtrack, and even has a nifty voice over reading of Abramoff's past e-mails courtesy to ultra-cool actors like Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd, he even opens the film with a dramatized murder scene (like he did in Enron.)  Disclaimer there must be that this film, no matter what political property one might buy, will make one angry, and outraged.  Thankfully, Abramoff has his jail cell to consul us.  Oscars chances might be slim, but if it gets seen by enough of the die-hard Academy liberals, it may stand a chance.  A-
      • Waiting for "Superman"- Davis Guggenheim (the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth) returns with a withering, quite scathing indictment of American public schools in this well-intentioned, thoughtful, if a bit flawed film.  I have little doubt this one will be shortlisted for Oscar consideration; the promotion for this film has been working overtime since it debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival; that the film comes courtesy of Paramount Pictures, a major motion picture studio won't hurt it's chances either-- the bigger the campaign, the more attention.  Guggenheim hits the right notes here, what with the films plethora of disturbing numbers to make the audience gasp, and the five children he spotlights that make us cry-- emotion mixed with terrifying numbers will always work.  The perplexing problems with the movie is it's over-simplified "answers" to the plaguing schools.  Guggenheim's assumptions are the teachers unions are evil, and charter schools are the key, but the problems bigger than that, both answers are somewhat undermined when facts arise...not all charter schools are great (not that the ones Guggenheim specifically spotlights aren't), and teachers unions, while retain ridiculous specifications, aren't quite the agreeable villain Guggenheim wants them to be.  All that said, it still is a fairly solid film, especially when it's asking the questions, as opposed to answering them: My favorite: "Does a bad neighborhood make a bad school, or does a bad school make a bad neighborhood," (discuss amongst yourselves.)  B+
      • Exit Through the Gift Shop- the funhouse, Banksy documentary that opened last spring that made quite a butt-load of cash, at least for a documentary feature.  Easily the most spirited non-fiction film of the year, meaning the Academy won't touch the thing with a ten-foot pole...they're not a fan of whimsy, especially in this category.  Yet I strongly believe that this clever oddity-- which tackles the exciting, criminal world of graffiti art and evolves into something a whole lot stranger-- has a lot to say about art, and the process of such.  One man's junk could be another man's art, but this film is pure magic.  B+
      • The Tillman Story- the angry doc that explores the mysterious and troubling death of former football player turned army man Pat Tillman opened to nice reviews and decent documentary box office.  That the film comes courtesy of The Weinstein Company may help with an Oscar campaign (if they decide to actually try with it.)  The film is definitely worthy of consideration, but perhaps lacks the artistry of the some of the others this year.  B+
      • Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work- another "fun" documentary; meaning it's a no-no for the Academy, but respect should be bestowed for the honest, warts-and-all account of one of this country's most influential comediennes.  B+
      • A Film Unfinished- a serious awards contender, I'd assume, only because it pertains to Holocaust-- the Academy is big on that subject.  This is a startling and at times heart-wrenching documentary about a propaganda film made in the Warsaw ghetto.  In the titular unfinished film, it showcased "actors" playing the parts of wealthy, healthy Jews, in startling counterpoint to the real-life suffering outside the shots.  I wished the framework and structure of the film had been stronger; if so I could strongly argue I would win this year; as it is I still believe it will be shortlisted.  B-
      • Countdown to Zero- perhaps similar in theme to Waiting for "Superman," in that the subject is totally noble and absolutely admirable, while the artistry is at a minimum, Lucy Walker's nuclear weapons documentary might make onto the Oscar shortlist, but probably would have done better in a weaker year.  B
      • Winnebago Man- a biographical documentary about "the angriest man in the world," one Jack Rebney, a pitchman for the vehicle company, whose profanity-blasted infomercial outtakes made him a cult online celebrity.  Far too "fun" and innocuous for Academy consideration, but an entertaining lark none the less, with an interesting human face commentary on the freaks of the you tube generation.  B

      Now for the documentaries I haven't viewed yet:

      • Inside Job- Charles Ferguson's documentary on the economic crisis, which has earned raves from Cannes, Toronto, Telluride and New York Film Festivals, and must be considered a top Oscar contender.  His past work: the incredible No End in Sight (2007; Oscar nominated) is a must see, and perhaps the best, most cohesive film I've ever seen about Iraq., and he is surely one of our finest documentarians.
      • Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer- about the "rise and fall" of NY governor Elliot Spitzer, which has been a film festival favorite all season.  Also directed by Alex Gibney (Casino Jack & the United States of Money, and won the Oscar for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side.)
      • Restrepo- released this spring, the film which chronicled a year with a platoon in Afghanistan won raves earlier in the year, and also won this years best documentary prize at Sundance.  Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.
      • Tabloid- Errol Morris (Oscar winner for 2003's The Fog of War) debuted his latest at the Telluride Film Festival to his usual raves, and should never be counted out.  The profundity of his work helped elevate the entire genre, with bold films like A Brief History of Time, Gates of Heaven, and The Thin Blue Line.  His latest deals with a former beauty queen, Joyce McKinney, who in the seventies, abducted a Mormon missionary. 

         Not a snowballs chance in hell:
        •  Catfish
        • I'm Still Here

        Tuesday, October 19, 2010

        42 Days Until Black Swan

        Current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 94% (18 reviews)

        Congrats to your Gotham Award nomination for Best Feature!  I'm obsessing, and I'm sure just setting myself up for disappointment, but I want this movie so badly.  Ms. Portman freaks me out in this still; I'm scared and titillated.  December 3rd.

        Gotham Award Nominations

        The Gotham Film Independent Awards are always the first critical body to announce a "best of" the year.  The awards, "selected by distinguished juries and presented in New York City, the home of independent film."  Suffice it to say, the choices are largely movies few have heard of, and fewer have actually seen.  The outre group can hardly be considered an Oscar bellwether, but are still fun.

        • Black Swan
        • Blue Valentine
        • The Kids Are All Right
        • Let Me In
        • Winter's Bone
        • 12th & Delaware
        • Inside Job
        • The Oath
        • Public Speaking
        • Sweetgrass
        • The Kids Are All Right-- Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowski
        • Life During Wartime-- Shirley Henderson, Ciran Hinds, Allison Janney, Micheal Lerner, Chris Marquette, Rich Pecci, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Dylan Riley Snyder, Renee Taylor, Michael Kenneth Williams
        • Please Give-- Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Ann Guilbert, Lois Smith, Sarah Steele, Thomas Ian Nicholas
        • Tiny Furniture-- Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Rachel Howe, Merrit Wever, Amy Seimetz, Alex Karpovsky, David Call, Jermina Kirke, Sarah Sophie Flicker, Garland Hunter, Isan Hunter
        • Winter's Bone-- Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin Breznahan
        • John Wells, The Company Men
        • Kevin Asch, Holy Rollers
        • Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, I Love You Phillip Morris
        • Tanya Hamilton, Night Catches Us
        • Lena Dunham, Tiny Furniture
        • Prince Adu, Prince of Broadway
        • Ronald Bronstein, Daddy Longlegs
        • Greta Gerwig, Greenberg
        • Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
        • John Ortiz, Jack Goes Boating
         The group did well this year I'd say, adding credence with the coolest guild ever, with The Kids Are All Right, Blue Valentine, Black Swan and Winter's Bone all best picture-y.  I'd toss Let Me In, but whatever.  Last year, the best feature category had a 2 in 5 ratio with Oscar, with honors to The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man.  This year, I'd suggest The Kids Are All Right has the best bet, and potentially Winter's Bone as well.  Blue Valentine (especially if it does indeed keep its NC-17 rating) and Black Swan might be too cool for Oscar.  Very slowly and indeed a bit agonizingly so, the season is coming on full hilt.  Enjoy the games.

        Friday, October 15, 2010

        46 Days Till Black Swan

        Since I'm not special enough to have seen the film yet, easily my most anticipated film to come out this year, all I have to drool at the beautiful, newly unveiled European poster work.  I salivate:

        Why are European poster work always superior to American art?  Our images are typically so bland, full of the freaky floating heads and the likes.

        Thursday, October 14, 2010

        Let Me In

        I must confess as a fan of the 2008 Swedish surprise, Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson, I along with many of the stock film nerd community had my pitchfork in ready position coming into Matt Reeves' Americanized remake, Let Me In.  The question first off, was why?  Why remake a film so good, nervy and unsettling; a film that in it's opening prompted myself and others to proclaim it one the best vampire stories in years, right up there in the pantheon of smart, stylish works that transcend the trashy sub-genre-- for my taste I'll take Let the Right One In and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV show, not movie) over all the Anne Rice malarkey and Twilight nonsense any day.  So I must declare this admission as objectively was very difficult in watching Let Me In, which is a proficient entertainment but lacking the surprise or ingenuity of the original.  In fact, it's a carbon copy, as most of the this overly-cautious film is so close to the original, presumably to appease the small, but devoted cult, that I was left with a well-shot, decently acted, but ultimately very cold and unspectacular film.

        I do, however, believe that Mr. Reeves is quite a talent, even if I've been left cold thus by his films.  He comes from the J.J. Abrams trust, and with it a clever filmmaking sensibility that so far hasn't exceeded much from that.  He also directed Cloverfield, which for it's hand-held jumbled-ness was more of a triumph of marketing than artistry, and along with Let Me In, is very good at establishing mood and tone; he just needs to find a more authentic place to channel his talents.  Remaking a marvelous film that virtually shot-for-shot, dialogue queue for queue doesn't quite work here.  Aside from a few peripheral character jettisons from the original and few characters names changed, Let Me In is the same film, just without the unique, unsettling freshness that was so revelatory in 2008.  It's akin to the Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot exercise with Psycho, in that it probably wouldn't be a bad film had one seen it first, but if that's not the case, why bother?

        We tread the same story here-- the action moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico; it's still set in the 1980s, but Reeves makes that a bit more upfront (images of Reagan speeches are blasted across all around)-- first we meet Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, from The Road), a bullied latch-key young boy who idles about snooping on neighbors and playing by his lonesome in his depressing, snowy courtyard.  Then we meet Abby, named Eli in the original, played by Chloe Moretz, a mysterious young girl who moves in late one night to Owen's apartment building, with her even more mysterious 'father,' played with the singular touch of the awesome Richard Jenkins, an actor capable of injecting light into the most horrific of films (the man single handily the mawkish Dear Job tolerable.)  As it turns out Abby is a vampire, as she subtly coos, "I'm twelve, but I've been twelve for a very long time," and a slow-building relationship develops between the two.  The delicacy of the story is so appealing in it's innocence and subtlety, that when the action and violence starts it feels all the more threatening, or at least that's how it felt watching the original.  The remake is sort of flow chart of that sensation.

        On the same token, I can't totally dismiss Let Me In, even though I want to so badly.  Even if it's a truly disingenuous copy of a terrific film, there are admirable elements.  This one is the better acted film in truth (as I lose a piece of my soul for uttering such blasphemy), and the chemistry between Smit-McPhee and Moretz builds in such a sweet, natural capacity that one just wishes the movie surrounding them was the cold, dull hovel it is.  Moretz, especially flourishes quite well, and for the first time gives a nice, understated performance that balances her fussier turns in Kick-Ass and (500) Days of Summer; of course it probably helps that her character here is leaps and bounds better.  The aforementioned Jenkins is terrific as well.  Michael Giacchino's score is also very spooky and often very pretty, but that I was engulfed in the music more so than the story, time and time again, may not necessarily be a positive.

        At this point in time the movie has already opened and tanked at the box office, so I suppose that's the best service to be done for a film that had no right to be made at all.  Still I hope the few newcomers who came along to Let Me In enjoyed it enough, or least more than I did to savor the profound and odd beauty of the original movie.  C+

        All Good Things

        All Good Things, the long-delayed (it was one of the top films I was looking forward to, last year) is the feature narrative debut of Andrew Jarecki, director the astounding Oscar-nominated 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans, and producer of the recent, less astounding Catfish.  The film based on a true story of a wealthy heir, suspected of murdering his wife in 1980s New York.  With an intriguing cast in Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, and Kristen Wiig, and a niftily artful poster (below), we all shall see.  Allegedly is set to hit art house moviehouses in December from new distributor Magnolia Pictures.

        Wednesday, October 13, 2010

        ASC Lifetime Achievement Award

        Masterful cinematography Roger Deakins will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from next years American Society of Cinematographers.  This great photographer\poet has been nominated 8 times for the best cinematography Oscar:

        • The Reader (2008)
        • The Assassination of Jesse James (2007)
        • No Country for Old Men (2007)
        • The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
        • O' Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
        • Kundun (1997)
        • Fargo (1996)
        • The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
        Ridiculously, he's never won, however the ASC guild did honor him, rightfully so, for the beautiful black and white photography he worked ever so majestically for The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), directed by Ethan and Joel Coen.  Most famous for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers (for which he's lensed each of their films since Barton Fink, 1990), Deakins also memorably is responsible for the impeccable photography in films as varied as Dead Man Walking, The Hurricane, A Beautiful Mind, House of Sand & Fog, Jarhead, Doubt and Revolutionary Road.  His next gig will be the Coen's True Grit.

        Tuesday, October 12, 2010

        The Simpsons

        Anyone who watched The Simpsons last Sunday caught the tagged couch gag by graffiti artist\icon Banksy, and witnessed what I personally believe was the most inspired and transgressive sequence the show has offered in years, hearkening back to the time when the show was at it's cultural and satiric peak.  Banksy's opening transported the viewer from the Simpson house to the an Asian sweatshop where the shows mechanics and various bric-a-brac is produced.  It was by turns funny and horrifying; a point made even more succinct since large aspects of the show are indeed outsourced to South Korea.

        Banksy was the recent subject of the acclaimed and juicy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which for it's ideas and provocation will likely not get an Academy Award nomination this year, despite being highly deserving-- the academy doesn't really do "fun" docs.

        Saturday, October 9, 2010

        Blue Valentine Slapped with a NC-17

        With a hearty boo to the puritanical folks at the MPAA, with great sadness it's been reported that one of this years most eagerly anticipated films, and potential awards contender has been slapped with the NC-17 rating of death.  Apparently a particularly blunt piece of sexuality between Blue Valentine's leads (Ryan Gosling & Michelle Williams) is the culprit; something of which I must admit sounds not at all offensive, but even more titillating (just saying both these actors are tremendously good looking, as well as talented.)  Sight unseen, I'm still annoyed by this call-- particularly as thoroughly and entertainingly researched in the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006, directed by Kirby Dick), that the MPAA typically signals these ratings on smaller films, often of sexual (but in fairness sometimes violent) nature-- my point I suppose is that aside from cinephiles and art house lovers, I sincerely doubt Blue Valentine in any way would appeal to kids in the first place.  It's a film that will likely art house theaters in major cities and not be the sort of breakout, must see sneak in film for children.

        The distributor-- the clever ones at the Weinstein Company-- have a few options: they can re-submit the film in hopes of getting a R-rating, make the necessary edits to appease the covert operators at the MPAA, or decide to throw it all away and take a gamble and release the film unrated.  The NC-17, and in some respects the unrated stigma, while perhaps the most noble nod in protecting the artistry of the film, will cost The Weinstein Company.  Many theater chains and many media outlets will not play or advertise films with an NC-17 rating; so my money is on a trimmed down, hopefully not too sanitized version of the film that's received raves since Sundance this year.  It's the ultimate catch-22 in that the film needs marketing and potential awards to make any money, and it needs money and marketing to win awards contention.

        The debate over the MPAA is a lengthy one, but since the watchdog group works in such similar fashion it's always been a reliable punching bag.  Even after a scathing documentary, ridiculous scads of nasty articles and speculation, the group hasn't learned much, nor particularly changed their way of rating movies.  Sexualized films always will get the harder rating, far more so than graphically violent films.  If the sexuality in any way is same sex related, again, the stricter rating will likely prevail.  The whole thing makes me scream.  In the case of Blue Valentine, if it keeps it's NC-17 rating, the Oscar campaign is virtually over-- only one NC-17 rated film has received an Oscar nomination since the category introduced in 1990.  That would be Philip Kaufman's Henry & June, which was nominated for best cinematography.  Before that the rating was famously known as "X," and again famously in 1969, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy became the one and only "X" rated film to win best picture; of course by today's standards, Midnight Cowboy likely would have been rated R-- strong R for sure.

        A look back at the NC-17 rating:

        Key movies that were theatrically released with the rating:

        • Henry & June (1990), directed by Philip Kaufman
        • Bad Lieutenant (1992), directed by Abel Ferrara
        • Showgirls (1994), directed by Paul Verhoeven
        • Crash (1996), directed by David Croenberg
        • Bent (1997), directed by Sean Mathias
        • Orgazmo (1998), directed by Trey Parker
        • Baise-Moi (2001), directed by Virginie Despentes & Coralie
        • The Dreamers (2004), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
        • 9 Songs (2004), directed by Michael Winterbottoom
        • Bad Education (2004), directed by Pedro Almodovar
        • A Dirty Shame (2004), directed by John Waters
        • Lust, Caution (2007), directed by Ang Lee
        The biggest box office winner of this group is Showgirls, with about $20.0 million in it's initial theatrical run; Henry & June is second with nearly $12 million.

        However, not to fear if Blue Valentine is edited for an R-rated, it will be in fine company, including a few Oscar favorites:

        • The Godfather: Part III (1990), directed by Francis Ford Coppola
          • nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture
        • Basic Instinct (1992), directed by Paul Verhoeven
          • nominated for 2 Oscars: Best Film Editing and Best Score
        • Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola
          • won 3 Oscars: Costume Design, Sound Editing and Make-up
        • Damage (1993); directed by Louis Malle
          • nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Miranda Richardson)
        • Pulp Fiction (1994), directed by Quentin Tarantino
          • nominated for 7 Oscar; won Best Original Screenplay
        • Casino (1995), directed by Martin Scorsese
          • nominated for Best Actress (Sharon Stone)
        • Boys Don't Cry (1999), directed by Kimberly Pierce
          • won Best Actress (Hilary Swank); nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Chloe Sevigny)
        • Monster's Ball (2001), directed by Marc Forster
          • won Best Actress (Halle Berry)
        • The Cooler (2003), directed by Wayne Kramer
          • nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Alec Baldwin) 
        Then again there is the ultra-cool club of films that gave the finger to the MPAA.  Most of which didn't really make money, but some are defiantly and beautifully there own things, that of which severe editing would take away from.  The films that surrendered there ratings in favor of an unrated release include:

        • Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1999), directed by Pedro Almodovar
        • Kids (1995), directed by Larry Clark
        • Happiness (1998), directed by Todd Solondz
        • Requiem For a Dream (2000), directed by Darren Aronofsky
          • nominated for Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn)
        • Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002), directed by Alfonso Cuaron
          • nominated for Best Original Screenplay
        • The Brown Bunny (2003), directed by Vincent Gallo
        • Mysterious Skin (2004), directed by Greg Araki
        • Shortbus (2006), directed by John Cameron Mitchell
        • This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), directed by Kirby Dick
          • Ironic, huh-- the avid indictment against their flawed and secretive system got snubbed with an NC-17 itself
        • Antichrist (2009), directed by Lars von Trier

        Blue Valentine

        Trailer day continues with a beaut-- Blue Valentine, the new film starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams-- which comes with a great deal of hype from rapturous phrase from Sundance, Cannes and Toronto.  Knowing not terribly much about the film itself, I can say that this is perhaps my favorite trailer in quite sometime, for the simple fact that I'm intrigued and teased just enough to quench my thirst, yet I continue to know not that much about the movie: why must every trailer give the whole thing away anyway?  Yet enough is sensed that the actors deliver what one expects from actors this good.

        The Way Back

        The trailer arrives for The Way Back, directed by the fantastically brilliant Peter Weir (Witness, Master & Commander, and my personal favorite, The Truman Show.)  After immense praise at this years Telluride Film Festival, the word has arrived, what many expected, that The Way Back will have an Oscar-qualifying run before opening wider in January.  The cast comes highly lauded with Ed Harris, Saorsie Ronan, Colin Farrell and Jim Sturges, and the intense looking survivalist tale might be a treat.

        Friday, October 8, 2010

        The Social Network

        The Social Network, the latest work of unsettling ambition by David Fincher, opens with an already much talked about scene set in a bar near Harvard University, where are hero\villain Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) rattles on and on before being dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara, soon to be media firestorm when she takes center stage as the American Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)  She seethes with the same wordy dialogue courtesy of Aaron Sorkin as Zuckerberg, and ends with: "you might think girls won't like you because you're a nerd, but you're wrong, it's because you're an asshole."  Cue to opening credits.  Not many films would open with such a seething indictment of their leading men, but The Social Network isn't like other films.  It's an exciting, verbose account of the foundation of Facebook, and in great American filmmaking fashion, hearkening back to the glory days of the '70s, which is where aesthetically, if not historically, where it lives; it also perhaps the first 21st century film, at least one funded by a big Hollywood studio, that culturally and impeccably examines our cyber age.  The age of which, for better and worse, was partially indebted to Zuckerberg, and the other nerds\assholes at center stage in Fincher's great suspenseful morality play.

        Fueled by alcohol and rage, with perhaps a hint of shame that he wouldn't dare let out, Zuckerberg lashes out after being dumped.  First with lashing insults on his blog, then with a vision, a revenge vision of creating a website where one can vote on the hotness of Harvard gals.  The site becomes a smash, big enough to crash the Harvard server, and bigger enough to attract the attention of the Winklevoss brothers, members of the Harvard elite, and twins, both played by Armie Hammer, with the help of some Benjamin Button digital craftsmanship.  They invite Zuckerberg to their inner circle of prestige, and perhaps a chance mingling of Harvard's exclusive clubs that Mark craves membership of; the talk mostly is of business, as the Winklevi want Zuckerberg's cyber-inclined brain power in starting up a Harvard-only social networking site.  The main function mostly, is simply put by one the twins: "Girl want to hook up with Harvard guys."  And thus a generational zeitgeist is formed.  Zuckerberg (allegedly as it is purported that the film may perhaps be bending the truth, the screenplay was based on the novel "The Accidental Billionaire, by Ben Mezrich) took the idea and ran with it, creating "The Facebook," with his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), but mostly his checkbook.

        The Social Network entertainingly and extremely pleasurably rat-a-tats back and forth between Zuckerberg, the Winklevi and Saverin over the foundation and eventual litigation process both parties took with Zuckerberg, but the excitement is electric because it's current enough that everybody remembers the birth of Facebook, which again for better or worse defines a large chunk of our modern time.  The fantasy\reality of Facebook is that you can create almost another world of perception, which the film examines.  As in such, the subjects of The Social Network are neither heroes nor villains; Fincher and Sorkin are far too multi-faceted artists for that, and the perception of Zuckerberg namely largely seats in the eye of the beholder.  That this nerd\asshole, one of limited friends (perhaps Saverin, at first, being his only true one) was able to tap into a generational divide of kids practically raised online is revolutionary, until you think about how truly sad, and kind of revolting it is.

        The last main character to be introduced is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), as the visionary, and criminal mind behind Napster, who seduces Zuckerberg from the refined Harvard elitism into the Silicon Valley elite.  Like Zuckerberg, Parker is a game changer, and like Parker, Zuckerberg later has to pay for the damage he's caused by "his" idea.  Through the chronicle of the story, we see the litigation hearings of the men who sued Zuckerberg, first the Winklevoss twins, and then Saverin, and while the idea of a courtroom drama may be old hat, Fincher and Sorkin stage them with such an immediacy, that in a perverse way, it's almost crowd-pleasing.  I suppose, at least on paper, that Fincher and Sorkin would be an odd fit together, what with Fincher's reputation of a visionary auteur, fond of ultra-controlled settings and low light mood, and Sorkin's dialogue tripping verbosity, but here they strike the right balance between complementing each other, and it works as the best of both worlds. 

        And perhaps both artisans have found their muse in Jesse Eisenberg, who is in short spectacular.  Understated, in a similar mopped-top goofball\nerd way that made him so in agreeable in films like Adventureland and The Squid & the Whale, but with a detached glare that's almost nihilistic, he devours the Sorkian language, making Zuckerberg a consummate intellectual bully, but with an "I'm bored, now" stillness.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that he makes one compassionate about Zuckerberg, who in real life is still the youngest billionaire ever, but humanizes him to a degree in that when he attacks with his words, we hate him more, perhaps because he might actually be right.  The acting surrounding Eisenberg is nearly across the board as rich, with Garfield, Timberlake and Hammer all nailing their characterizations, no matter how factually based, and all turning the drama on each other in such unsettling ways that it's hard to come up with a winner or loser in this morality play.

        It might feel like cinematic blasphemy, or hyperbolic absurdity, but since it's been mentioned before, I don't quite so stupid, but long stretches of The Social Network feel achingly and spine-tingly in sync with Citizen Kane.  I'm not exactly saying Fincher's film is as good, I wouldn't dare, but since both films are warts and all, take no prisoners accounts of media behemoths, and both are in their respective time periods, blazing assaults of language and scope, I feel the comparison is apt.  Yet the wonder of Fincher's magnum opus here, is that like the expert handling of Zodiac, he has the control and ideas of a filmmaker of early-'70s, the look and mingling of character study vs. bigger meaning is so expertly and unobtrusively handled (one never gets the sense of a bigger idea being forced fed into our mouths) feels achingly in tune with films like All the President's Men and Network.  But comparison means nothing, for The Social Network is a grand and meaningful entertainment all its own, and while parts play as though Zuckerberg is bullying us with his barrage of dialogue, I for one welcome a second visit.  A

        Thursday, October 7, 2010


        A man trapped in a box for 90-some odd minutes in the premise for Buried, Rodrigo Cortes' nervy and claustrophobic new yarn.  Classically revisiting the experimental thrill phase of Alfred Hitchcock (think Rope and especially Lifeboat), Buried is effective mostly by the clever use of space; spurning from a scarier-than-thou conceit.  It's also a one-man show for Ryan Reynolds, escaping his Hollywood pretty boy demeanor, thoroughly commanding the show as Paul Conroy, a contracted truck driver in Iraq, who after capture is confined to a coffin somewhere in the desert.  It's in a the visual clarity and no-nonsense approach from Reynolds that Buried succeeds as far as it does, as we're presented with an American man trapped with nothing but a cell phone (whose mobile carrier must be truly awesome) and a Zippo.  It's unfortunate to a degree that the film's script feels I suppose perhaps a lack of confidence that they felt the need to add up heavy-handied contrivances to such a grueling survivalist film; the script is credited to newcomer Chris Sparling.  Not only must Conroy be an American civilian in Iraq-- a compelling enough idea-- the filmmakers for some odd decision felt more sympathy than the obvious should be bestowed on Conroy by giving him a dementia-ridden mother and a for a burn on capitalist America, his bosses must be presented as callous as his captors demanding $5 million in ransom, but must he also be burdened with an anxiety disorder to boot.  Yet despite all my kvetching, I liked Buried and recommend it fairly highly.  The movie needn't all the heavy-handiness at all, since the sequences of a bloody and dirty Reynolds are far more compelling than any plot distractions that enter the fray. 

        The film spawned an outright bidding war upon it debut at this years Sundance Film Festival, which upon opening to unfairly middling box office in limited release, might again be a case where film festival audiences aren't attune to actual moviegoers.  That's a shame here, I think sense there's so much talent apparent.  Cortes proves a sly and willing antagonist of our human terrors, and Reynolds proves perhaps for the first time an acting life outside of middling comic franchise, mere eye candy roles, and Van Wilder.  And the the films credit, the last fifteen minutes or so are nearly perfect; Cortes knows what most filmmakers don't: even if the film isn't perfect, END WELL!  I feel this nervy, survivalist trifle might just be a appetizer for the Danny Boyle\James Franco self-mutilation 127 Hours.  B
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