Archive for 2010

Movie Review: Black Swan (12/3/10)

Movie Poster: Black Swan

Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers
Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy
Mila Kunis as Lily
Winona Ryder as Beth MacIntyre
Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers

Runtime: 103 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.

CLR Rating: 5/5 stars

Movie Still: Black Swan

Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman star in Black Swan
[Photo by Niko Tavernise]

Aronofsky’s latest foray into insanity is not for the light of heart. The movie is as brutal as it is beautiful.

The atmosphere at the Virginia Film Festival’s sold-out opening night film, Black Swan, was convivial—the audience was comprised largely of older people who chatted amongst themselves and clapped heartily at the mention of each festival sponsor. It seems about half the audience had absolutely no idea what they were in for. Darren Aronofsky’s films (which include Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler) roil with striking, horrific imagery and raw performances. They’re movies that even movie buffs can’t watch frequently because they burrow between your ribs and clutch your heart. Requiem for a Dream in particular will leave you feeling like the morning after chugging a bottle of whiskey and losing an ill-advised barfight. Black Swan, which stars the inimitably lovely Natalie Portman, effervescent TV star Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel, is the same: visceral, extraordinarily tense, and utterly devastating.

Nina Sayers (Portman) dances in a New York City ballet company run by Thomas Leroy (Cassel). When veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) retires, Nina wages a meek but determined battle for the lead role in Swan Lake, which encompasses both the vulnerable, virginal White Swan and the evil Black Swan. Nina lives in a tiny, pastel-colored apartment with her mother (Barbara Hershey), an emotionally unstable former dancer. Nina’s bedroom is painted in pink butterflies and adorned with fluffy stuffed animals; Mother tucks her in every night, removing Nina’s earrings and winding a music box. Nina’s restrained, uptight innocence is so jarring that when other characters curse or joke, their crass words clash dissonantly with Nina’s insular world. Leroy and fellow dancer Lily (Kunis) work to chip away Nina’s composure, to break her down until she can dance with the passion required for the Black Swan…and as Nina’s walls crumble, she descends into complete insanity.

As the movie progresses, bubbly, frank Lily takes on a menacing, erotically-charged presence in Nina’s mind. Kunis and Portman share an (allegedly tequila-facilitated) sexual encounter that’s as disturbing as it is sexy. Kunis is known best as bitchy-but-loveable Jackie in “That 70s Show,” and with Lily, the actress showcases her skill with comic timing and her contagious smile. In Aronofsky’s hands even Kunis’s graceful ease, so disparate from Nina’s rigidity, becomes ominous. Lily and Nina become interchangeable in Nina’s mind, and her sexual awakening becomes sinister, narcissistic, equally threatening and pleasurable. Cassel’s Leroy is a slimy egotist who abuses his power to sexually manipulate Nina.

Nina’s innocence mirrors that of the White Swan, certainly; what’s more interesting is comparing Nina’s arc from virtue to lunacy to Natalie Portman’s career. The child actress never quite managed to outgrow her sweet persona—even when she played a stripper in Closer there remained a thin veil between Portman and the character, something that didn’t quite mesh. In Black Swan, Portman shreds the veil and virtually becomes Nina, both vulnerable and insane, White Swan and Black Swan. For once the actress’s doll-like features and tiny stature work in her favor. It appears she lost weight for the role, and physically she looks absolutely fragile, as though she might shatter like the spinning porcelain dancer in her music box. Nina’s angelic face evokes a wounded animal; when she tries on a smile for size, it’s a completely unfamiliar experiment. Like Nina, Portman is perfect for the role of White Swan, but to watch her take on the darker side of Nina is astonishing. It’s her best performance to date.

Ballet is an art form that stretches the human body (and according to film history, the mind) to its utmost limits. Black Swan is brimming with violent imagery spurred by injury and anguish both real and imagined. Aronofsky emphasizes broken toenails, a displaced diaphragm, a bloody hangnail, and snapping ankles with crackling sound effects. Nina’s breathing underscores much of the film, keeping the viewer on edge like a panicked heartbeat in a horror movie. To break in new shoes, dancers score, bend, beat, and crack the soles. Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan, both narratively and cinematographically, is as brutal as this process: she goes from stiff and inexperienced to beaten, broken, and “perfect.” The innate artifice of professional dance requires from dancers constant vigilance, a pervasive focus on the body, a spotlight on physical beauty and grace. The film implies that dancers only amount to what’s reflected back to them: as Nina’s world begins to collapse, mirrors and doppelgangers take center stage. Leroy first appears monstrously distorted in a studio mirror, Nina’s own reflection—often in duplicate—terrorizes her, and she injures herself while staring into her reflection more than once. As she plumbs her inner depths, her physical manifestation haunts her.

Screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin crafted a script that trickles details. Exposition is a constant sprinkle rather than a downpour, allowing Aronofsky to build tension until the audience is at a breaking point. Some lines (particularly Cassel’s) are awkward or jarring, and it may surprise completely inappropriate laughter out of you—you have to scream or laugh or else you’ll start climbing the walls. Clint Mansell’s score isn’t as melodic or striking as some others he’s done, but it works well with the raw material. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who was also behind the camera on Requiem for a Dream) shot with Super 16 film, and the result is gritty, unrefined, and unflinching. The actors’ every pore and flaw is visible, and recurring Steadi-Cam gives the film a spontaneous, home-movie feel. Nobody does “crazy” quite like Aronofsky and his effects team (remember Ellen Burstyn and the fridge from Requiem for a Dream?), and Nina’s hallucinations merge flawlessly with the film’s reality—distinguishing between real and imagined in Black Swan is a fool’s errand.

Aronofsky and Portman have the clout to make Black Swan an Oscar contender—as well it should be. As the credits rolled at the Virginia Film Festival, the audience sat in silence. A short moment later, they burst into enthusiastic applause. To fully appreciate the level of psychosis in the film, to trace the threads that weave the world of ballet and insanity together, one needs multiple viewings. But as with other Aronofsky movies, you’ll first have to recover from the initial shock. After you’ve unclenched your internal organs, you’ll probably find you loved the entire brutal, vicious experience.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (11/19/10)

Movie Poster: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Directed by David Yates
Screenplay by Steve Kloves

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley
Emma Watson as Hermione Granger
Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange
David Bradley as Argus Filch,

Running time: 146 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
[Photo by Jaap Buitendijk]

Wizards at war: seventh Harry Potter film is not an uplifting holiday classic, but it certainly won’t disappoint avid fans.

An hour before the midnight premiere of the anxiously anticipated seventh installment of the Harry Potter films, a teenage girl makes an entrance: she’s wearing a gray sweater vest, a pair of thick, black-framed glasses, and a bike helmet with a stuffed lion strapped to the top (which avid readers will recognize as an adorable attempt at a Luna Lovegood costume). Others file in behind her clad in maroon-colored robes, plaid skirts, and Gryffindor scarves. The air is rife with the telltale sounds of unabashed fandom: “I brought Star Wars gummies!” cries one girl, while another squeaks, “Do you think they’ll show a Narnia trailer?” Midnight screenings of epic franchises have become a time-honored tradition for the young and fanatic (like this reviewer), and they always provide a great opportunity to let your geek flag fly. What better opportunity to express your love for an artfully rendered fantasy unlike anything we’ll ever experience in our mundane day-to-day lives? (Apparently none – Deathly Hallows broke the franchise record for a midnight opening with a whopping $24 million in box office earnings).

With the Potter books, J.K. Rowling fashioned one of the most intricately detailed fantasy lands in popular culture: a world adjacent to but concealed from normal British life, a universe in which witches and wizards matriculate at the vast castle that is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is based upon the last book in J.K. Rowling’s ubiquitous series (unless you’ve been living under a rock you’re surely aware of this). Due to the last book’s length (800-some pages) and the importance of the series finale, the movie is split into two halves, the next to be released in July, 2011. The first few films in the series feature young witches and wizards learning how to make objects float, how to avoid passing out from the mandrake’s scream, and how to fly on broomsticks; it was all quite adorable and fantastic. Not so in the last few movies: as the material got darker and more mature, so have the films. The Death Eaters are out for blood, and the benevolent wizard populace experiences great losses. Even the films’ coloration under the latest director, David Heyman, has grown gloomier. The wizarding world is at war, and the seventh movie’s material is no picnic.

Led by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the Death Eaters are out of hiding and inside the Ministry of Magic. Homicidal double agent Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), insane Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter in fine, crazy-haired form), and the Malfoy family (each of whom look the worse for wear) are among Voldemort’s beloved servants—but the Death Eater storyline doesn’t take up much space in Deathly Hallows. Instead, the film follows Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they take to the British forests to evade capture while searching for Horcruxes (pieces of Voldemort’s split soul). As the trio flits across the dismal, bitterly cold English countryside, Ron and Hermione, at odds throughout most of the films, fall for each other. The Horcruxes prove more difficult to destroy than anyone thought, and the characters snap and squabble under stress. Members of the Ministry produce Nazi-inspired propaganda about the evil of Muggles while they interrogate and torture Muggle-borns and half-blood wizards. Readers of the books will find little to quibble with in the seventh movie; almost every plotline from the book translates directly into the film. Unfortunately the previous three or four films dropped an integral arc involving house elves, and to pick it up in the seventh film cheapens the character (though many would argue that the movies’ squeaky version of Dobby was obnoxious from the start, and they would not be wrong).

Any two and a half hour movie might test audience attention spans, but screenwriter Steve Kloves, who’s stuck with the whole series, manages to keep the plot moving swiftly despite a few jerky moments. A pall seems to hover over characters’ heads, even though Kloves interspersed hostility and tension with a few comical scenes. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra makes the most of the gorgeous English cliffs and forests on which the protagonists take shelter, languishes on fantastic wizarding homes and villages, and uses fisheye lenses to make the Ministry even more foreboding. Visual effects by Motion Picture Company leave a little to be desired—Voldemort’s snake Nagini is undeniably spooky but doesn’t quite look authentic, and the two house elves might have looked better. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint have grown into their characters, and though the performances aren’t Oscar-worthy, they’re pleasantly good. Grint’s comic timing and simple grin provide comic relief while Watson and Radcliffe play earnest. The movie earns its PG-13 rating: multiple characters are badly wounded, and there’s an unexpectedly sexy kissing scene. Both films were meant to be in 3D (damn you, Avatar, for bringing this plague upon on us), but Warner Brothers announced a few short weeks ago that Deathly Hallows: Part 1 would be released in 2D. It certainly looks none the worse for it. The movie ends on a particularly disheartening cliffhanger, and no one will leave the theater feeling uplifted. But let’s face it: if you’re reading this review, you’re probably already invested in the series and know what you’re getting into.

The first Potter film, Sorcerer’s Stone, released nine years ago, three years after Rowling published the first book. Bite-sized Brits Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson were around eleven years old, had no acting experience, and basically carried the movie on cuteness alone (although the presence of veterans Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, and the late Richard Harris didn’t hurt). In the following five movies, the world watched them grow up—we heard Radcliffe’s and Grint’s voices deepen at puberty and saw their limbs extend through gawky teenager-hood; we watched Watson gracefully age into the unbelievably composed young woman she is today. The last films, though eagerly anticipated, are bittersweet for those of us who have been paying attention for the last ten years. Some people grew up alongside these kids, and almost anyone who’s seen the films or read the books has found himself suddenly invested, soldiering on for the next installment. As the end of the series draws near, we’re already mourning the loss of the world to which many are so devoted (and grieving over a number of major characters in advance).

Those unacquainted with the books or films won’t be rushing out to see Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Cast and crew made Deathly Hallows one of the most satisfying in the franchise, but at this point the Harry Potter films are comparable to nothing else but each other. Those who are invested will probably love it by default. It will not disappoint, but it will leave you longing for more. July can’t come soon enough.

Blog: In Defense of The Social Network: Movie demonizes sexism, doesn’t glamorize it. (10/13/10)

Note: this article was also posted on the official website for The Social Network

Fiction vs. reality: Eisenberg and Zuckerberg.

First things first: I’m in the business of paying close attention to roles of women in film and TV, both behind and in front of the camera. I also really enjoyed The Social Network, David Fincher’s biopic of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.

Critics in the blogosphere claim the movie is everything from racist and sexist to homophobic (Indiewire states that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is gay, and that isn’t represented in the film). TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy vocally protests Sorkin’s depiction of tech geeks, saying even though she’s worked in Silicon Valley for ten years, she’s never encountered this level of sexism. Jezebel.com’s Irin Carmon bemoans its lack of dynamic female characters, while others hate the way it glosses over gay characters and its fetishism of Asian women.

In The Social Network, there are only a few memorable roles for women—and this is what most of the feminist blogs take issue with. Certainly, Fincher is notorious for making what I refer to as “dude movies.” Se7en and Fight Club both feature women (Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Tracy, respectively) as prizes–something either bizarrely attractive or wholesomely pretty to come home to–while men are the dynamic characters. The Social Network certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, which requires 1) two female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. And yes, that’s certainly a problem. However, Sorkin maintains (and I understood from watching the movie) that he wrote the film in such a way to demonize misogyny–not to glamorize it.

Rooney Mara as Erica, one of the movie’s only strong women.

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Movie Review: The Social Network (10/2/10)

Movie Poster: The Social Network

The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher
Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg
Rooney Mara as Erica Albright
Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker
Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

 

Movie Still: The Social Network

Jesse Eisenberg stars in The Social Network
[Photo By: Merrick Morton]

Who would’ve thought a biopic about the creator of Facebook could be so much fun to watch? Fincher’s newest film features adept writing, nuanced performances, and breakneck pacing.

 

Anyone who’s ever read the fine print on Facebook’s privacy settings will recognize the site’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg, in this weekend’s opener The Social Network. The sneaky way he deftly dodges answering incriminating questions will be familiar to anyone who has felt violated by a sudden and unexpected change in privacy settings or sensed something sinister in the fallacious use of the phrase “Facebook lets you control.” The American public loves to watch its idols tumble from their pedestals, and biopics have long focused on fame, fortune, glory, and crime. The Social Network is about all those things, but Zuckerberg is more infamous than famous — definitely heavy on the fortune and light on the glory. While at Harvard, he and a select few friends and hangers-on created Facebook, which is arguably the most popular website on the internet today. The Social Network posits that Facebook wasn’t founded by a greedy little smart kid; it was created by a nerd with a ten-ton chip on his shoulder. What makes any of this interesting and why should you see it? The Social Network isn’t just a bunch of nerds overdosing on caffeine, writing code in dark Harvard dorm rooms. It’s a whole new kind of American success story.

The Social Network opens on Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) sitting across from his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) at The Thirsty Scholar in Boston, exchanging fast-paced dialogue that explains his character in the first five minutes. He brings up his 1600 SAT score, his obsession with Harvard’s final clubs, betrays his jealousy of the “world-class athletes” who row crew, and condescendingly tells Erica that she doesn’t have to study because she goes to BU. As Erica leaves, she predicts his success as “some kind of computer person,” then delivers the line that sets up the entire movie: “You’ll think everyone hates you because you’re a nerd, but it’ll be because you’re an asshole.” The Social Network would have us believe Zuckerberg created Facebook out of resentment toward women, toward athletes, toward elitist Harvard bluebloods. Fortunately, writer Aaron Sorkin balances on a delicate tightrope—one misstep and The Social Network’s version of Zuckerberg could’ve been a misunderstood, sympathetic genius, or a complete jackass. As written by Sorkin and played by Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is an ineffectual smart kid you’d love to hate if only you didn’t pity him just the tiniest bit.

The Social Network is framed around a series of legal hearings in which Zuckerberg defends his actions against friends and colleagues. Between terse, irate exchanges in boardrooms where a court stenographer types incessantly, flashbacks take us deep within the exclusive, ivy-swathed walls of early 2000s Harvard University, where Zuckerberg and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) gave birth to Facebook. After his breakup with Erica, Zuckerberg takes to LiveJournal to insult her, then creates a website where Harvard men can rate the attractiveness of Harvard women. Yes, that’s the kind of man who created Facebook. After his site draws 22,000 views in two hours, he has the attention of Harvard’s administration and all of campus. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (twins played by Ken doll lookalike Armie Hammer), who row crew and belong to the most elite Harvard clubs, and their business partner Divya Nurendra (Max Minghella), approach Zuckerberg to create a Harvard matchmaking site. Zuckerberg gives them (and Harvard) the metaphorical finger while he strings them along, all the while creating Facebook with Saverin.

Those of us who grew up right alongside the internet will recognize the LiveJournal login screen, get nostalgic at the mention of dinosaurs Friendster and MySpace, and be infinitely aware of the Napster illegal downloading lawsuits. So it’s unsurprising when Napster creator and world-class wild card Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) seeks out Zuckerberg, seizing the opportunity to jump aboard a lifeboat as Napster sank beneath him. Those of us who paid attention will also remember when Facebook was thefacebook.com (apparently Parker advised Zuckerberg to take off the “the”), and when it was unavailable to anyone outside the Ivies. Zuckerberg, whose resentment toward the clubs into which he’d never gain admission ran deeper than anyone could’ve known, wanted to create his own exclusive club, one he could preside over like a king. He succeeded, but at what price?

Jesse Eisenberg, whose filmography is nothing short of impressive, plays Zuckerberg as an egocentric, resentful genius who’s repulsive but somehow sympathetic. Little-known Brit actor Andrew Garfield, in a nuanced and smart performance, falls into step as the infinitely kind Saverin. Justin Timberlake, whose acting career outside of SNL has been hit-or-miss, plays Sean Parker as a paranoid smooth operator who only wants to have fun at everyone else’s expense. By all indications, The Social Network should have been a boring, made-for-TV biopic, but in the hands of Fincher and editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, the film moves at a breakneck pace. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth utilizes dynamic camerawork and tilt-shift photography to make the movie visually captivating. Trent Reznor’s throbbing score imbues the film with energy, though the music is sometimes distracting. Writer Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) may see an Oscar nod this year for his adroitly paced, witty dialogue. Hearing these characters speak is sometimes like listening to another language entirely, but you can’t stop paying attention. A biographical feature about computer nerds has no right to be so exciting, but in the adept hands of Fincher, Sorkin, Eisenberg, and Garfield, it’s one of the year’s smartest films.

Blog: Mad (wo)Men: The Complexity of Womanhood in “Mad Men” (9/17/10)

The cast of AMC’s “Mad Men:” Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, January Jones, and Christina Hendricks.

EDITED TO INCLUDE COMMENTARY at bottom of article on Season 4, Episode 9, “THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS,” air date 9/19/10.

AMC’s “Mad Men” is currently in its 4th (and probably best) season. It’s June, 1965, and “the times, they are a-changin’.” Both men and women on the show are experiencing massive upheavals along with the rest of the country, which was approaching a nearly unprecedented point of social unrest. The civil rights movement had begun in earnest; John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated; the Cassius Clay (whom the characters refuse to call his then-given name, Mohammad Ali)/Sonny Liston fight prompts horrible jokes about how “if I wanted to see two Negroes fight I’d drop a dollar bill out my door.” Second-wave feminism is about to knock everyone for a loop and the Vietnam War is going to alter lives forever. Male and female characters alike are choosing: dive in and go with the flow or fight against the rising tide? Note: here there be spoilers.

The ladies of “Mad Men:” Betty (Jones), Joan (Hendricks), and Peggy (Moss).

Despite the show’s title, the women of “Mad Men” are making the most leaps by far. Our three leading ladies are Betty (formerly Draper) Francis (January Jones), the picture of bourgeois suburbia; Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), the pioneering professional; and Joan (née Holloway) Harris (Christina Hendricks), who disguises her strength beneath demure dresses and Hermes scarves. The ladies of “Mad Men” are some of the most complex, fascinating, unpredictable, and infinitely watchable characters on TV. Creator Matthew Weiner offers a varied and sympathetic examination of the pressures under which women toiled in the tumultuous late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and the show draws frightening analogies between the quandaries of the characters in the ‘60s and ours today. It gracefully, subtly reveals just how much (or little) progress we’ve made. A friend told me that until recently, she couldn’t watch “Mad Men” because her inner feminist found it totally offensive. My (not-so) inner feminist is positively thrilled with the show’s offerings.

Betty Draper in her most frequent haunt: the kitchen.

First of the Mad Women is Betty Draper Francis, main character Don Draper’s ex-wife and the picture of ladylike frostiness. Betty is, perhaps, the show’s representation of the worst of the suburban 1950s: weak, white-gloved, and wealthy, Betty’s upper-class disdain radiates from her every (invisible) pore. She is a child, a selfish brat who smokes too much and never eats (over four seasons, I don’t think she’s eaten on camera more than once or twice). She’s a status-obsessed, wasp-waisted debutante with an ice queen demeanor. Betty’s the character who, in the first episode, caught her daughter Sally (the fantastic Kiernan Shipka) wearing a plastic dry-cleaning bag around her head and threatened to spank her if the dress was wrinkled. To be fair, Betty went through hell with her overbearing, duly status-obsessed family and in her farce of a marriage to Don. She has a breaking point: in the first season, in the midst of a mini-breakdown, she whipped out a shotgun and blasted the neighbor’s doves out of the sky; she also had restaurant bathroom sex with a stranger to get back at Don for his indiscretions. But this season has really made her the (little) bad wolf. Weiner has set her up for a fall, I think, because she’s far and away the most old-fashioned of the show’s women.

Ah, the heartwarming family dinner, complete with mother who smokes instead of eats and father who’s always running out the door.

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