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Black Swan (2010)
The Brilliance of Black Swan
Many films, like the Oscar-nominee "The King's Speech," portray its main character (in this case King George) as he goes about his daily routine, fly-on-the-wall-style. The director steps away and lets the story and the actors speak for themselves. But sometimes the best films are the ones where we are thrust inside the protagonist's mind by having the director use the art of cinema to depict the world in a new and different way.
One of the best examples of this type of film is "Black Swan," the magnum opus of director Darren Aronofsky. The film is a musing on art, perfection and beauty as told through the unstable eyes of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a young, talented ballet dancer. From the opening shot of a dreamlike Sayers dancing the lead in "Swan Lake," to the last few minutes, every shot is through Nina's perception. This isn't a portrait- it's a headfirst dive into her psyche. We all know someone like Sayers' charactertoo much of a perfectionist for her own good. She spends her days practicing, obsessing over her every move and eating next to nothing. After rehearsals, she returns home to her sparse and windowless apartment also inhabited by her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) who had to give up her own dreams of stardom when she became pregnant. She cares for her daughter deeply, but has coddled and stifled her so much that Nina is still emotionally a child, as evidenced by the huge stuffed animals crowding her all-pink-and-white room. Nina dances in a company run by egotistical and smarmy director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who is casting the lead for a reinvented version of "Swan Lake." Nina is the obvious choice for the Swan Queen: beautiful, fragile and utterly virginal. But the problem, he explains, is that the lead must also play the Black Swan, the Queen's evil twin. Seemingly perfect for that role is Lily (Mila Kunis), a San Francisco transplant who is seductive, sensual and dances with almost unrestrained fluidity. But the part ends up in Nina's hands and she struggles to shed her good-girl image in order to inhabit the sexy black swan. Thomas keeps telling her to "lose herself" in the role. And she does, but maybe a bit too much. First it's mysterious scratches, then disturbing visions, and soon Nina starts to descend into a very dark place. Adding to her stress is Lily, who appears to try to sabotage Nina in order to take her role. The more that's revealed here the less fun you'll have watching it, but the whole third act is a beautiful and nail-biting climax that is nothing short of pure theatrical brilliance. While Portman's fearless performance has been critically praised, and she is a shoe-in for the "Best Actress" Oscar, all the performances are uniformly top-notch. Kunis walks the fine line between sweet and naughty, radiating the screen every time she comes on. Hershey, whose snub by the Oscars is truly criminal, gives a wonderfully complex performance in a role that could have easily been one-note. The real star of the film is its direction by Darren Aronofsky. He pulls together the formalistic style of "Requiem for a Dream," the warped-reality of "Pi" and the stark realism of "The Wrestler" into one coherent and masterful film. He fills every moment with meaningful art direction and symbolism. Notice the mysterious and skin-crawling sound effects and the ever-present swan and mirror motif. A brief mention must also be given to Clint Mansell, whose largely orchestral score gives the film a lush, theatrical and unsettling atmosphere. Aronofsky's biggest achievement is using the camera to get inside Nina's head. The puzzle that this film becomes has no answers because the film is told by an unreliable narrator. It is truly a key component to this film and makes it dangerous and exhilarating. While a thriller about ballet doesn't even seem logical, Aronofsky has turned it into a stylish, psycho-sexual suspense film that is far and away one of the most ambitious and mesmerizing films of the year.
Water for Elephants (2011)
Not the greatest show on earth
The age-old question for all film critics is this: can you judge a movie based just on what's on the screen, or does any preconceived notion of the material creep into your opinion?
I read Sara Gruen's 2006 novel "Water For Elephants" over the last winter break. It is a beautiful story, lushly told with larger-then-life character and rich historical details. While it is through the eyes of a fan of the novel that I watched the film, which opened April 22, I will try not to let my admiration of the novel cloud my opinion on the film, which as a whole, stuck quite closely to the source material. "Water For Elephants" tells the depression-era story of Jacob Jankowski, a Columbia veterinarian student who, during a final exam, finds out that his parents died in a car accident. Alone and depressed, Jacob leaves school and ends up jumping an unknown train that turns out to be The Benzini Brothers Circus; a second-rate show ran by the brutal ringmaster August Rosenbluth. Once August hears that he is a vet, Jacob is hired to oversee the animals, especially a sick horse that is the circus' main attraction. While treating the horse, Jacob meets Marlena, August's wife and star of the show. He is instantly smitten by this beautiful, graceful woman who seems to be everything her husband is not: talented, gentle and kind. With the help of Camel, a crusty veteran roustabout (the working-class laborers) Jacob soon becomes immersed in circus life. When August buys an elephant named Rosie, which Jacob is to train for an act staring Marlena, it begins a series of events that will change Jacob's life and the history of the Benzini Brothers forever. Bookending the film is scenes of a 90-something-year-old Jacob who arrives to go to a local circus long after the show has ended. He ends up in the manager's office where he shares his life story over a couple drinks. "Water For Elephants" is a gorgeous film. Each shot is beautifully composed, like a painting, and give it an old-fashioned, reminiscent quality. Although, at times, the world of the film does seem a little too shiny, a little too clean for its own good. The Benzini Brothers in the novel is a rat-infested, hack show, run by unscrupulous people who think nothing of throwing people off the moving train because they didn't have the money to pay them. It is place populated by alcoholics, thieves, whores and other dregs of society. While the movie shows this, it is through the lens of a love story, shot in the glossy warmth of "The Notebook" or "Titanic." It edited the book's sex and violence into a PG-13, surely so all those Twihards can see it, but it makes the film a little sanitized, more fable then the novel's gritty reality. While there is nothing wrong with films like "The Notebook," it leaves this film which a certain unoriginality that was absent from the novel. Robert Pattinson, who makes tweens swoon as a hunky bloodsucker in a certain series of vampire films, is stiff and somewhat wooden in the role of Jacob (maybe he's stuck in undead mode?). His Jacob is good-hearted but has no real personality or recognizable traits. While this might work in "Twilight," allowing teen girls to impose their ideal of a perfect man over this blank slate, it doesn't really work here. In those films, his character is almost a prop, an archetype to be fawned over by its main character, but here he is the lead, propelling the story forward. That perpetual motion is not quite achieved because of his lackluster performance. Playing opposite him is Reese Witherspoon as Marlena. We all know Witherspoon's talent and versatility and her performance is brimming with heart and warmth. But while her performance is good, Witherspoon is miscast. Her character is supposed to be a few years older than Pattinson's, but the age difference in the two leads is distractingly big. Witherspoon is still a beautiful woman, but her romance with a boy 11 years her junior never quite feels comfortable. Although, some of that may be due more to Pattinson's acting than Witherspoon's age.
This would have indeed been a much better film with Emile Hirsch and Rachel McAdams, perhaps, or Andrew Garfield and Amanda Seyfried as the leads.
Despite those casting snafus, the rest of the actors deliver. Christoph Waltz, Oscar winner for "Inglorious Bastards," is captivating as August, the abusive and hotheaded ringmaster with just an unpredictable glint of charisma in his eye. Despite having only a few scenes, Hal Holbrook gives a touching performance as the old Jacob. The supporting cast also is strong, with such character actors as Jim Norton (as Camel), Mark Povinelli (as Kinko) and Paul Schneider (as the modern circus manager who takes a shine to the old Jacob).
"Water For Elephants" is a solid film. Especially in this day an age when most films include explosions or CGI effects, the film is unique in its simplicity and commitment to old- fashioned storytelling. You get the idea the same film could have been made in the '40s, which does give the film a timeless, classic quality to it. But, perhaps if it were made then, the story wouldn't have felt as predictable and stilted.
Whether you see it because you're a fan of the book or of the film's star, "Water For Elephants" will surely please. Although the lack of chemistry between the leads and the occasional-romance-novel feel make the film seem a bit like "Titanic" on a train and less of the gritty historical drama found in Gruen's novel, which prevents it from being what it could have been: The Greatest Show on Earth.
Mother and Child (2009)
Manipulative and Overwrought film-making at its best
"Mother and Child" is a new film that follows one of the biggest cinematic trends in the last decade. Starting with "Crash" in 2006 and continuing with "Babel" the next year, Hollywood has been smitten by films featuring stories of seemingly unrelated individuals, whose lives become entangled in mysterious and life-changing ways. After Paul Haggis' "Crash" won the Best Picture Oscar, a slew of other thematically similar films emerged, including "21 Grams," "The Burning Plain" and now "Mother and Child." The film been shown at both the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals and will have a limited release starting on May 7.
"Mother And Child" tells the overlapping stories of three women impacted by adoption. Annette Benning plays Karen, a bitter nursing home worker who gave her daughter up for adoption as a teenager. Naomi Watt's Elizabeth is a driven and commitment -phobic lawyer who was adopted at birth, never knowing who her biological parents were. Kerry Washington and David Ramsey portray a newlywed couple desperate to adopt, after learning of their inability to have a child. Through so-called plot twists, these miserable people's lives are intertwined through fate and adoption papers.
If any praise is to be given to the this film, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia and produced by "Babel" filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, it is to be handed to the actors. Benning digs into her role with an Oscar glint in her eye. She is both fragile and fiercely independent; creating a character that is neither likable nor pleasant, at least until the castle walls come down in act three. Naomi Watts, who is proving herself to be Generation Y's Meryl Streep, gives a strong and uncompromising performance as the guarded, man-eating Elizabeth. Kerry Washington's emotional, if not histrionic, take on the mother-to-be is another standout in this starry ensemble cast. Jimmy Smits, Cherry Jones, David Morse, and S. Epatha Merkersn give fine supporting performances as well. Although the biggest surprise came from Samuel L. Jackson, whose turn as a widowed lawyer almost makes you forget "Snakes on a Plane." All of these roles are ones that scream Oscar bait and, at times, their scenes come across like the compilation clip of Best Actor nominees. The only way to ensure a win would be the addition of a handicapped character oh wait, there's one of those too!
The area where the film falls flat is its script. Many complained that "Crash" was manipulative and forced, but I was able to overlook that, given the film's fable-like tone. Whatever inkling of forced coincidence was in "Crash" has been magnified a hundred fold in "Mother and Child." What should feel organic comes across as utterly manipulative. And soon, the protagonists' lives start to feel more like a big chess game being played by the screenwriter, with the characters becoming more pawns than three-dimensional people. The movie was almost universally predictable, step-by-step. Anyone with a few solid hours of melodrama under their belt can figure out many of the film's twists a good half hour before they happen.
The film falls into cliché-ridden traps far to many times, too. A pivotal line about family being made up of memories rather than bloodlines appears in the middle of the film. Quoted in a somber, self-reflective tone, you can almost see it on the film's posters as it's being said. As if the on-the-nose message wasn't obvious enough, it gets repeated, almost word- for-word by another character not more than 20 minutes later. It quickly becomes this film's "with great power comes great responsibility." Although, the moment the film fully jumped the shark was the introduction of a wise beyond her years teenager, who just happens to be blind. The sagely adolescent bit is tired enough, but the insightful blind person shtick has been overused since "The Odyssey." Shouldn't we move on to exploiting other disabilities?
"Mother and Child" sets out to be a moving weepy whose message is both inspiring and thought-provoking. It would not surprise me if many film-goers are sucked into its overblown vortex. But for every viewer who finds it authentic and riveting, there will be others who feel bored and utterly manipulated.
The Great Debaters (2007)
A well-made, yet clichéd sports flix
Picture 2000's "Remember the Titans". Now, move the story-line back 40 years and replace the football team with a debate team. In a nutshell, this is "The Great Debaters". Directed and starring the masterful Denzel Washington, "Debaters" tells the true story of the first debate team from an all-black college to have a match against a white university in 1935. Washington, who most recently starred in the Oscar-nominated "American Gangster", plays Melvin Tolson, a college professor at Wiley College in Texas. As head of the debate team, he motivates his students to overcome the Jim Crow stereotypes that surround them and make more of themselves. Although the film covers important themes, they are handled with cliché after cliché. In fact, there is hardly a moment that doesn't seem copied from another flick. Call it the black "Dead Poet's Society" or "Hoosiers" goes to Texas; whichever way you spin it, this film has a sense of déjà vu about it.
Despite its contrived execution, "Debaters" is saved by its winning actors. The reliable Washington as well as Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker give a much-needed shock of life to the movie. The debate team members are played wonderfully, too: Nate Parker as the fiery and troubled Henry; Jurnee Smollett as the beautiful and headstrong Samantha; and Denzel Whitaker as James Jr., a young man in the shadow of his successful, scholarly father. Through their vivid portrayal of these real-life characters, they make the film a success.
In addition to the compelling on-screen performances, the film production quality is equally strong. Even though this is only Denzel Washington's second time in the director's chair, he shows a firm and creative hand. Writer Robert Eisele and media queen producer Oprah Winfrey contribute to the picture's success. The viewer will be moved to see beyond the clichés by the passionate and inspirational speeches beautifully delivered during the final debate, which remains with you after the credits roll.
As dead as poor Mr. Reeves
In 1959, TV's superman George Reeves was found dead in his Hollywood home. To this day, the mystery remains unsolved: Was George the victim of a murder or was it a suicide? In 2006, director Allen Coulter, who has mostly worked on TV's shows like "The Sopranos" makes his big-screen directorial debut with "Hollywoodland", a period piece about one of Hollywood's most famous cold cases. The pictures jumps around between the story of Reeves (Ben Affleck) and his rise to fame, and the struggling detective (Adrian Brody) who tries to get to the bottom of the Reeve's murder. The look of the film, using mostly muted, pastel colors looks like a faded '50s postcard and perfectly sets the near film-noir tone. Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Adrian Brody & Robin Tunney all give strong enough performances, although Ben Affleck loses his charm and the audience with a stiff, self-aware and flat performance. The problem with this movie is the action feels a bit removed. Though the plot is interesting, it failed to keep my attention. Even at 127 minutes, this movie drags and at times seems as lifeless as poor Mr. Reeves.