BLACK SWAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

BLACK SWAN (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Last weekend the Carolina Theater in Durham as part of their “Retrofantasma” revival film series presented a double feature of what they dubbed “Prestigious Horror Movies”: Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and Ed Bianchi’s THE FAN (1981).

I predict that one day Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN will be included under that banner – it’s an extremely classy psycho sexual piece of prestigious horror if there ever was one.

In his follow-up to THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky focuses on the vastly different world of ballet. He recently told an interviewer: “Wrestling some consider the lowest art – if they would even call it art – and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”

As a dancer in the New York City Ballet Company, a stressed out Natalie Portman is told by her director (a sharply abrasive Vincent Cassell) that for his stripped down production of “Swan Lake” that she is perfect for the role of the White Swan – not so much for the part of the Black Swan.

Since it’s a dual role for one dancer, this is a bit of a dilemma for the beleaguered ballerina.

Cassell: “I knew the White Swan wouldn’t be a problem. The real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin.”

Portman sees a less skilled yet more passionate dancer, Mila Kunis, as competition, but Kunis appears aloof at the prospect and appears to be offering friendship and congratulations when Portman gets the duel lead.

Meanwhile Cassell’s former star (and former flame) Winona Ryder is on her way out of the company because of her age and clashes with Portman as she is being made her successor.

Back in their narrow NY apartment Portman’s mother – a well cast Barbara Hershey – also a former ballerina, pushes her daughter to work harder to perfect her craft.

Perfection is exactly what Portman craves, but little things like nightmarish hallucinations start getting in the way. Portman gets majorly freaked out by scratches and abrasions on her back which she can’t explain and keeps seeing herself in the face of Kunis.

There also seems to always be taunting laughter coming from the shadows or under the surface of the tormented terrain Portman is desperately trying to navigate through.

To her mother’s disapproval, Portman goes out for a night of drinks, drugs, and debauchery with Kunis. “Ah, ballerinas. No wonder you two look alike” says one of 2 guys at the club attempting to hit on them.

It’s an apt comment that Aronofsky runs with. Portman is constantly tortured by her own visage – obviously because she’s becoming her own evil twin just as “Swan Lake” dictates and Kunis is the unknowing recipient of Portman’s image.

Except for a number of behind the back of the protagonist’s head shots as she approaches a scene, BLACK SWAN bares little resemblance to THE WRESTLER especially as it embraces startling surreality. THE WRESTLER had gritty white trash grounding; “Black Swan” wants to soar in a higher class with a deliriously scary blend of art and life.

Although it has its share of horror or suspense movie clichés including mirror scares and fake-out dream sequences, BLACK SWAN is an incredibly immersive experience.

Aronofsky thoroughly gets inside of Portman’s emotional and professional obsession as the actress delivers a career best performance. Kunis puts in some of her finest work as well with a loose uninhibited demeanor that effectively balances with Portman’s plague.

It may disturb some audiences, but with its vigor and justified vanity BLACK SWAN is a towering achievement. It may not be the perfection that Portman desires, yet its ambition coupled with its sweeping visual style makes for one of the most intense and intriguing films of the year.

Expect to hear about it over and over during the upcoming awards season.

More later…


BIG FAN (Dir. Robert D. Siegel, 2009)

Paul, played by comedian Patton Oswalt, from Staten Island considers himself “the biggest New York Giants fan”. During his day job as a parking garage attendant he scribbles in a notebook a script of sorts of what he’s going to say on a sports call-in radio show that night. These rants are often interrupted by his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) who he still lives with. Paul regularly goes with his best friend (Kevin Corrigan) to Giant’s Stadium to sit on lawn chairs and watch the game on a old television balanced on the trunk of a car in the parking lot. From all of this you might surmise that Paul’s life is pretty pathetic.

Maybe so, but Paul doesn’t see it that way. He believes that he has a gift for opinionated gab and that his football fanaticism fulfills some purpose. This outlook gets put to the test when he and Corrigan spot Giants’ star linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) and his entourage at a gas station. They follow him for the evening and end up at a Manhattan strip club. Paul approaches Bishop but the meeting goes down horribly resulting in our protagonist being brutally beaten by his favorite player.

Paul is hospitalized and Bishop is suspended from playing. Paul’s brother – a sleazy personal injury attorney – wants to wager a multi-million dollar suit against Bishop and a trench-coated cop (Matt Servitto) wants him to press charges , but Paul doesn’t want his favorite player out of the game.

As Paul recovers from the incident we see him going through the sad motions of his mundane existence – walking the streets, staring into the Hudson, and crying into his pillow to the strains of John Cale’s Big White Cloud. He is soon back on the phone spouting out on the sports line, though this time it’s to defend Bishop against the taunts of his radio rival – “Philadelphia Phil” (Michael Rapaport).

Oswalt’s affecting performance is fearless. He fills nearly every frame with his puffy pathos alternating with the glow from his face when he’s most feels alive (i.e. pontificating over the airwaves). It’s a solid piece of acting that’s not without a certain comic sensibility, but stands foremost as fine dramatic work.

The same could be said of the film. As it comes from THE WRESTLER writer (and former editor of The Onion) Robert Siegel, you might expect social satire (and there is a bit here), but BIG FAN is more concerned with the inner crisis of character. When Paul paints his face the colors of the Eagles – the team he most hates – and travels to a local bar in Philadelphia to confront Rapaport, his leveling gaze and damned demeanor are a testament to misplaced passion.

Siegel and Oswalt’s film is both homage to Scorsese’s 70’s portraits of lost souls (most principally TAXI DRIVER) and its own modern anti-morality play. Whether you’re amused or disturbed at its display of delusion as life style choice, you most likely won’t look away.

Special Features: Though sadly lacking a commentary, there are some worthwhile extras on this disc. A Q & A of Oswalt and Siegel at Chicago’s Music Box Theater is lively and entertaining, “Kevin Corrigan Recalls His Own ‘Big Fan’ Experience With Robert De Niro” is hilarious, and the over 10 minutes of outtakes are rougher and scrappier than most outtakes on DVDs but that’s part of their authentic charm.

More later…

CHE: PART TWO: The Film Babble Blog Review

CHE: PART TWO (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008)

It would be easy, if too simplistic, to label CHE: PART ONE as “The Rise” and CHE: PART TWO as “The Fall” of the infamous Cuban Guerilla leader. The arc established between these two halves is, of course, much more layered and densely imposed to support such Ziggy Stardust-style titling. PART ONE concerned itself with Che – the man, in its Oliver Stone-ish news footage framing of his successful revolution in Havana. Not to say that it was merely set-up; it told a sound story satisfyingly ending on a resounding note of triumph. PART TWO (subtitled “The Guerrilla”) sets a decidedly different spookier tone from beginning with a SCARFACE-ean scroll telling us that Che (Benicio del Toro) has gone into hiding.

It is 1966 and Che is first shown in a remarkably unrecognizable get-up as a Uruguayan businessman with thick glasses, a shaved head, and a stiff suit – an image nobody would ever put on a T-shirt. This disguise gets him through customs into Boliva and he sets about meeting his men – fellow Guerillas in the mountains. Unfortunately there is trouble in Guerilla city (sorry) and the ragged fighters find they may be no match for the Bolivian Army. As Che assimilates into the groups of scrappy soliders, Soderbergh shoots del Toro mainly from behind reminding me of Aronofsky’s presentation of Rourke in THE WRESTLER but focusing more on Che being engulfed by his surroundings rather than that of a personal POV.

Another film that came to mind was Woody Allen’s BANANAS during the many jungle warfare scenes. In that 1971 classic comedy, New York loser schlub Allen becomes a revolutionary when on vacation in the fictional Central American country of San Marcos to impress his activist girlfriend (Louise Lasser). Since it was closer to the actual time period it had the grainy home movie look that Soderbergh was going for so maybe that’s not such a silly satirical reference point. Maybe it is though – I’ve been on a diet of Woody Allen movies since before I could walk so of course my mind would go there. This is not exactly to say, of course, that CHE: PART TWO is BANANAS without the laughs but I couldn’t resist the comparison.

That comical footnote aside, CHE: PART TWO is strongly involving and possibly superior to its other half. The deaths are more piercing and the pace is like a rapid heartbeat leading to one of Che’s asthma attacks. Even when shown sparringly, del Toro owns the screen again making my head shake at the failure of award recognition. A solid troop of actors fights fiercely alongside del Toro including Damián Bechir (again dead on as Castro), Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Joaquim De Almeida. For some unknown reason the theater I work at part time is showing CHE: PART TWO nightly at 7:00 with CHE: PART ONE following at 9:30. While that may not be the ideal order to see them, it won’t hurt because they have distinctly separate feels despite being one long movie split in two. Whatever the order I implore folks to see them both; they are major movies that deserve a much bigger audience – especially on the big screen.

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Oscar Postpartum 2009

I did considerably better this time with my Oscar picks than the several years. I got 18 out of 24. Instead of listing all the categories like last year (and of course because they are listed on my last post as well as everywhere else online), I decided to just look at the ones I got wrong:

BEST ACTOR: My pick: Mickey Rourke for THE WRESTLER. Who won: Sean Penn for MILK. I can’t say I was completely taken aback – I knew it was a tight race and I knew Penn had a slight edge. Still, I loved the underdog comeback story of both the movie and Rourke’s real life back story so I can’t say I’m not disappointed either. Penn did however acknowledge Rourke nicely in his acceptance speech: “Mickey Rourke rises again…and he is my brother.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: My pick: THE CONSCIENCE OF NHEM EN. What won: SMILE PINKE. I really was just shooting in the dark here – I haven’t seen any of the nominees so I was going by internet research. I feel like even if I had seen them I’d still be taking a wild guess.

SOUND MIXING: My pick: THE DARK KNIGHT. What won: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. I should have known not to vote for the same movie in both sound editing and mixing. Sigh.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: My pick: VALS IM BASHIR (English title: WALTZ FOR BASHIR. What won: OKURIBITO (English title: DEPARTURES). This was because I heard more buzz for BASHIR and neglected to really look into the others. Ill rectify that by checking them all out in the very near future.

As for the 81st Academy Awards broadcast itself I enjoyed host Hugh Jackman though I thought his song and dance numbers went on too long as did the show itself but that, of course, is a given. The “In Memorium” segment was poorly done (give everybody the big screen treatment next time!) and the one presenter presents multiple awards deal seemed to even throw Will Smith when he had to step up to the task: “Yes, they still have me up here… I think Hugh is napping.” My favorite bit of the show was presenter Ben Stiller in fake beard and sunglasses in an obvious parody of Joaquin Phoenix’s now infamous Letterman appearance of a few weeks back.

To his awkard antics (or non-antics) and his declaration: “I just want to retire from being the funny guy”, co-presenter Natalie Portman remarked: “You look like you work at a Hasidic meth lab.”

Ah, another Oscars over. Now back to the daily grind.

More later…

THE WRESTLER: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE WRESTLER (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

For weeks I’ve been dying to “Witness the resurrection of Mickey Rourke” as David Ansen’s (Newsweek) quote declares blaring from commercials, posters, and every possible promotional avenue. As I’ve been waiting for the film to come to my area Rourke picked up a Golden Globe Award and a Best Actor Oscar nomination as well as many rave reviews so it has been hard as Hell to heed Chuck D’s immortal advice: “Don’t believe the hype.” Well having finally seen it last night, I can say that the hype is very well founded with the accolades and the awards nods much deserved. This is a perfectly un-pretentious piece of vital film making – as ragged and sentimental as it is. Speaking of ragged, Rourke has aged into an odd leathery pumped up creature – almost completely unrecognizable from the scrappy unctuous wiseacre of his 80’s incarnation. His presence and approach here is dead on – there was no point in this movie did I not believe he was this character – the over the hill formerly famous professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

The story is simple and the premise is predictable but the urgency and gritty gravitas given to this “old broken down piece of meat”, as Rourke calls himself, is one of the most powerful portraits of a fighter I’ve ever witnessed, resurrection or not. The camera follows Rourke shot from behind as he enters every scene, facing every situation like he’s entering the ring again. Hoping for a new high-profile match, much like, one would imagine, Rourke himself over the dark periods of the last 20 years, The Ram works in a supermarket where he’s berated daily by his boss – played beautifully by comedian Todd Barry. He’s in love with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), pretty past her prime herself, but she’s reluctant to date a customer, or maybe just scared of the man. At her suggestion he tries to re-establish contact with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) but that too is as difficult as staging his comeback. After a particularly horrific match in which broken glass, staples, and barbed wire are used, our punchy protagonist has a heart attack and, of course, he has to face his mortality.
In a class with RAGING BULL and the first ROCKY (go ahead, scoff), THE WRESTLER has a big heart and more importantly, ginormous cahones. I believe Rourke should win the Oscar, not just because we all thought he no longer had anything like this in him, but because it truly is a major first class performance of a lower class louse in severe need of salvation. The movie has a lot of funny moments – I love the scenes with Rourke working the deli counter and his conversation with Tomei about 80’s being the best music ever: “Bet’chr ass man, Guns N’ Roses! Rules.” The screenplay, surprisingly by former Onion satirical scribe Robert D. Seigel, is full of nice natural exchanges like that and coupled with Aronofsky’s command of tone it never grows tedious even as it toils in all too familiar territory – I.E. the underdog redemption scenario. I don’t know if it was the shape of the print my theater got, but the film looked was so grainy and often I felt like I was watching a film that was 20 years old. That’s apt I think; it already looks like a classic and Rourke already seems like he’s never gone away. For some crazy reason right now, that all feels incredibly right.
Post note: I failed to mention Bruce Springsteen’s excellent title song that got horribly snubbed by the Academy yesterday. Hard to believe it got overlooked.
So will THE WRESTLER make The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Best Movies Of 2008 list? Stay tuned to find out.
More later…

Prestiege Period Piece Pontifications: DOUBT, VALKYRIE, and THE READER

Awards season is officially upon us so I’ve been trying to catch up with all the heavy hitters. Its difficult because a few films haven’t even come to my area yet (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, THE WRESTLER). Thats why a best of 2008 list will have to wait for those whove emailed me asking where it is. In the meantime though, here’s 3 much talked about movies that I have caught up with:

DOUBT (Dir. John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

“Where’s your compassion?” an exasperated Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) bellows at Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). “Nowhere you can get at it” she sternly and coldly responds. The unflinching Principal at St. Nicholas in the Bronx is dead certain that the Priest, new to the Parrish, is guilty of an inappropriate relationship with an alter boy (Joseph Foster) who is the school’s only African American. Hoffman’s Father Flynn is accessible, easy-going, and feels the church should be “friendlier” which is all in direct opposition to Streep’s ball busting Beauvier who states: “Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow.” Hoffman exhaustingly maintains that he is innocent and refuses to go into detail claiming it was a private matter he discussed with the boy in the rectory, but Streep, based on the snooping reports of Sister James (Amy Adams), will not back down.

Set in 1964, DOUBT is a fairly small scale film. It has a small cast and spare locations with most scenes featuring one-on-one confrontations. What’s big here is the performances. A showdown between great actors is center stage which is fitting because it is based on Shanley’s Tony Award winning off-Broadway play. Though it’s mostly Streep and Hoffman’s show, Viola Davis as the boy in question’s mother has a heartbreaking scene with Streep that undoubtedly should get her nominated for an Oscar. That she appears for only a few minutes should not disqualify – Beatrice Straight took home the award for an equally short amount of valuable screen-time in NETWORK (1976). The amicable Adams has third billing but she does not emotionally stir up the proceedings like Davis does.

There are no shocking revelations or twists in DOUBT and no formulaic liberties are taken. It is simply the no-frills straight telling of a disturbing dilemma with a spotlight on oppressive Mother Superiority. Hoffman, having made no sketchy career choices of late (following the superb BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD with the wondrous SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and then this), confirms he’s one of the top actors working today while Streep adds another notable notch to her distinguished filmography. Shanley’s screenplay serves them well although the brisk summing-up ending left me more than a little dry. Small quibble though, DOUBT delivers a sharp showcase of ace acting chops and while I doubt (sorry) it’ll take home much gold in the current competition it’ll still win over many fans of powerful performances.

VALKYRIE (Dir. Bryan Singer, 2008)

Recalling THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER in its opening translation transition, VALKRIE begins in German but the titles and Tom Cruise’s voice-over reciting of a letter he’s writing slowly but fluidly morph into English. In this mini-epic (that is compared to the scale of Singer’s X-MEN or SUPERMAN RETURNS) based on true events from 1945, Cruise portrays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who joins a group of Generals and Counselors in a plot to assassinate Hitler (played by British stage actor David Bramber) and restore Germany’s world standing. Among the plotters are such talented thespians as Kenneth Branaugh, Kevin McNally, Christian Berkel, David Schofield, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, and oddly enough quirky comedian Eddie Izzard. As a possible roadblock to their resistance is the always reliable Tom Wilkinson as Officer Fredrich Fromm.

The film takes its name from Operation Valkyrie, a plan that uses the Reserve Army to keep amongst the Germany country should Hitler’s communication be disrupted, or should Hitler be killed. Cruise as Stauffenberg, wears an eye patch and is missing his right hand from an Allied attack in Tunisia that opens the film, is fiercely focused and he exhibits none of his trademark glibness – at no point does he flash his blinding grin. I know those who despise the man for his couch jumping, Scientology spouting, and cringe-inducing cocky demeanor but only a stoic dedication to the role is on display here. He holds his own with the mostly male ensemble and shares a few nice moments with Carice von Hauten (who stared in another World War II drama – BLACK BOOK) as his wife.

It says a lot when a film can trigger tense suspense in a scene that involves getting the Fürer’s signature on a rewritten order and in several other key set-pieces just a step away from minutiae mundanity. It’s also noteworthy that the actors, instructed to talk in neutral accents by Singer, all work well together. The most precise performance I’ve witnessed yet from Nighy, while workhorse vets like Brannaugh and Wilkinson both make uneasiness an acting art form. Reportedly this is faithful to the historic record and that should come as a surprise to those who have a generalized overview of the era. While by no means a masterpiece, VALKYRIE is extremely engaging entertainment that highlights its humanity without using broad strokes. I only hope anti-Cruise folks will lose their bias and give it a chance. It would be a shame for such a solid story and production to be gratuitously overlooked.

THE READER (Dir. Stephen Daldry, 2008)

A few days ago Kate Winslet won Golden Globes for both this film and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The second time up to the podium she was shocked in a Sally Fieldian way as she blubbered through a unprepared acceptance speech. As a presenter afterwards, Ricky Gervais called out to her: “I told you – do a Holocaust movie, the awards come, didn’t I?” Referring to her self satirical appearance on his show Extras. Of course that’s just a joke and it’s too cynical for this movie’s material but it still stings because I didn’t feel for this film and its characters like I wanted too. Winslet, bereft of the bouncy charm she brought to her roles in films like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE HOLIDAY, plays Hanna Schmitz – a former guard at Auschwitz who has an affair (David Kross) with a boy half her age. The story is told from the point of view of the boy as he grows up into a weary troubled Ralph Fiennes.

The film proper begins in 1995, flashbacks to 1958 when the relationship began, then to 1966 with Kross finding Winslet on trial and onward to the late 80’s. Winslet, who had Kross read many classic books (“The Odyssey”, “Huckleberry Finn”, etc) in bed, bath but not beyond to her, is illiterate and conceals this even though it jeopardizes her freedom. This is an intriguing premise but unfortunately there is too little chemistry between Winslet and Kross and later Fiennes for the strong emotional pull the film severely needs. The narrative craft and chops are there but the urgency and sense of purpose seems, at best, muted. The context of the horrors of World War II do not need to be re-stated but here the trappings and effect on millions are absent leaving only the concerns of these 2 fairly dull people. And that, like the man once said in a far more worthy effort, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

More later…

THE WRESTLER Standee Gaffe – Plain Error Or Seasonal Sign?

Every holiday season at the theater where I work part-time a flurry of large standees fill the lobby. In the years past they’ve been elaborate structures with plastic panels and sometimes electric lights that brighten the promotional pictures and titles. This season however the standees we got were much less extravagant. They were just flat cardboard pieces that had the same image as the poster and a few reprinted in large a glowing review of the movie. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of the economy or what but it wasn’t the only cheap concession on display.

This standee (left) for Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER (which isn’t coming to my area for a few weeks yet to my chagrin) featured Peter Travers’ rave review from Rolling Stone. The review alone was annoying enough with its repetition – “Mickey Rourke gets everything right” and “Rourke doesn’t make a single false move” but it has an error which, while minor, I still can’t get past:

That’s right – they misspelled the title of the movie! Sure, it’s just a typo but a pretty noticeable embarrassing one. Once you see it you’ll never miss it. I surely don’t every time I walk past the damn thing. Maybe though, just maybe, it was a subtle Christmas message – no ‘L’, get it? Noelle? Oh, nevermind.

Anyway – Happy New Year from Film Babble Blog!

More later…