Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Few Quick Mini-Reviews

The Fighter

I was a little hesitant when I first heard about this one; I'm a big fan of David O. Russell, but this seemed like an obvious attempt to play nice for the studios and make a mainstream crowdpleaser to rehabilitate his image, following a box office flop and some very unflattering behind the scenes footage of his approach to directing actors. The Fighter was produced by Darren Aronofsky, and after the critical/commercial/awards success of his The Wrestler, I couldn't help but see this as a transparent attempt to repeat the formula. Is it? Maybe. Did Russell sand down some of his rough edges in the process? Sure. But as far as crowdpleasers go, this is a keeper. Russell may be playing nice, but one of the joys of The Fighter is how he still manages to build up a lot of manic energy in the performances and the story, which is sort of his trademark and I'm glad he didn't downplay it. The show-offy stuff goes to Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, and especially Christian Bale (the consummate overactor) in the supporting cast, but it's the good kind of show-off. Lead actor Mark Wahlberg, after his live-wire turn in Russell's I Heart Huckabees, gives one of his most restrained performances, going for an unshowy naturalism that helps ground the film.

Black Swan

Speaking of Aronofsky, he was never a filmmaker of subtlety or tact, but he never needed to be. Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain are all bold, blunt objects, but gloriously, excitingly so. Personally, I've never much valued taste or class in my films, so I was all set for an unhinged, overwrought ballet-themed melodrama from the modern king of cinematic audacity. Black Swan is good fun with a lot of good atmosphere, and I was happy to discover that it plays at least 30% like a horror movie, always a plus with me. Yet, possibly due to the level of hype this film generated, I was little disappointed by the final result. It's big, crazy, messy and fearlessly unsubtle (all good things), but I would have appreciated some degree of ambiguity or mystery. It's a story told from the POV of a character who is losing their mind, yet it never really plays with reality in any provocative ways: the audience is always basically aware of what is real and what isn't. When the end came, to my dismay I felt as though I understood everything about the film; it had no mysteries left for me to discover. It's a glistening, dazzling surface, but surface is all it is, and it was out of my head practically as soon as we left the theater.

I Love You Phillip Morris

Not really a prestige film, though as unlikely as it is, I honestly think Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor could garner some awards nominations if this film gets more attention. The directorial debut of the writers of Bad Santa, I Love You Phillip Morris is a reasonably entertaining true-crime con man story that suggests Catch Me If You Can rewritten as a dark, foul-mouthed comedy. It's treatment of homosexuality is a little juvenile in places (a few too many punchlines seem to consist of nothing more than two men being intimate, as if that's immediately funny), but what's admirable is how the love between Carrey and McGregor's characters is treated with sincerity, leading to a few unexpectedly heavy dramatic scenes between the two of them in the later stretches of the film. Not a strong recommendation, but worthwhile to those seeking a good comedy after a year that felt a little dry for the genre.

True Grit

I've never read the novel, but I have seen the John Wayne film, and was surprised at just how closely this remake sticks to it. And yet somehow still the Coens have come up with something special, a western that feels like both a throwback and a revision; it keeps the original film's flip humor and deliberate, bon mot-filled dialogue, while adding a harsh layer of tough violence (I have no idea how this film got a PG-13). The Coens' mix of playfulness and unsentimental brutality, told with their typical attention to detail and painstaking craft, is a potent combo. Their films in the past have often been challenging and purposefully unsatisfying; this is their most mainstream and conventional film (at least since their lackluster comedies of the early 00's), and yet it is a great, tremendously entertaining mainstream film that will likely have a spot on my list of the year's best.

Finally, just a quick shout-out to J.T. Petty's S&MAN (pronounced "sandman"), a documentary about perverse, violent underground horror movies that SPOILERS turns into something of a horror movie itself, when one of his documentary subjects starts dropping hints that maybe his films aren't exactly faked. Petty has made some good horror films himself, but this one really announces itself as something special. It's a mix of actual documentary footage with staged footage meant to look like a documentary; sort of a mix between tired horror fakumentary movies like Paranormal Activity and is it real or is it fake docs like this year's excellent Exit Through the Gift Shop. The staged footage wasn't quite convincing enough to trick me for long, but that's hardly the point. It's a thoughtful, occasionally tense film about the nature of cinematic violence, with questions about cinematic "realism" that kinda tie into some of the discussions we've had on this blog lately. A mix of genuinely interesting documentary and clever meta-commentary, it's not perfect, but I do think a must-see for fans of the genre.


Joseph said...

Dan -- having seen BLACK SWAN, what do you think of my theory that the film is at least in part an intentional parody of its protagonists' absurdly high-strung worldview? I mean, the thing isn't just unsubtle; its agressively anti-subtle. EVERYTHING is delivered with a sledgehammer. I don't think you can shoot something so silly so seriously and not have at least a hint of genuine satire in there.

Dan said...


Honestly, I think that might be giving Aronofsky too much credit for self-awareness. This is, after all, a director who made REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, which was pitched at the exact same level of overwrought hysteria as BLACK SWAN. Both are good films, but both get their points across with a sledgehammer... in fact, I think the sledgehammer is really the only tool he has, excepting maybe in THE WRESTLER, were he mainly used a spoon to feed us (and I say that as a fan f the film).

I'm not complaining. I think the man is a real artist, the most talented sledgehammer-er since Werner Herzog. But, personally, I never got the sense that his tongue was in his cheek during BLACK SWAN; in fact, I think it's his utter sincerity with the ludicrous material that makes it worthwhile (although I think it's been a tad over-rated). If I remember, you said that the audience you saw it with was laughing quite a bit during the film, which seems like a reasonable response. I saw it with a very placid audience, so I never got that sense of camp or parody.

I don't know. Portman's character is extremely unlikable, but I still got the sense that we were supposed to empathize with her. The movie goes to great pains to explain (in excruciatingly obvious detail) why she is the way she is, and I never felt like it was making fun. Then again, the movie does feel like sort of a companion piece to THE WRESTLER, a film which definitely had a few pokes at its lead character, so maybe you're right and I'm just not giving Aronofsky enough credit.

To jump to a different point: do you agree with me that the biggest disappointment with the film is its lack of mystery? I don't mean it's lack of subtlety; that's something I cherish. I just mean... it's always clear what's real and what isn't, and the few times it's not clear, the film goes out of its way to spell it out after the fact. These kind of mindfuck movies usually have staying power if you find yourself questioning everything by the end, where it seems like there are multiple interpretations. In BLACK SWAN, I'm pretty sure there's only one interpretation you can reach by the end, and it's all so tidy that I basically forgot about the film on the walk home.

Joseph said...

Dan -- (sorry it took so long to respond). I think the reason REQIUEM seems like a reasonable use of sledgehammer drama and SWAN seems like a ludicrous parody lies in the stakes. In REQUIEM, the high drama feels justified by the fact that the stakes are also pretty high, in that everyone is destroying their lives and bodies. in SWAN, the biggest fear is that... she won't get to be the lead ballerina to dance in a role which she doesn't even understand or like? Its such a small thing, and its only a big deal because her life is so pathetic and tiny.

The cool thing, for me, is that Portman and Aronofsky are quite sympathetic to poor Nina, but they also give you plenty of evidence that her problems are mostly of her own making and her tense, painful life is more a manifestation of her own fear of actually living life than a function of the cruel world. Yeah, its probably mom's fault, but Nina is basically a tweenie pretending to be a grown up and constantly terrified that someone's going to figure her out. She should have just struggled through some akward TWIGHTLIGHT years, but instead she's nearly 30 and still frantically trying to avoid learning about herself in any way. As such, I read the script's weepie melodrama not as something that a functional adult would dream up, but as a reflection of a desparate teenage's angst. I defy any adult to take seriously the idea that she hallicinates a rival, murders her, and then realizes -gasp- that she was the one keeping herself down all along and what's this --- she's actually killed herself. That's outright laughable. Except, it makes perfect sense as a fantasty for this poor girl who has nothing in her life except operatic fantasy and blind terror at having to actually live life. Taken from that perspective, I see the film's outrageously overwrought melodrama as more commentary on its protagonist's empty life than as something we're supposed to identify with. And its so ridiculously overdone that I do suspect there's some element of parody in there. Example: who could possibly not laugh at the scene where she wakes up and starts masturbating only to discover her mom sleeping there -- shot with exactly the same hysteria as a horror heroine discovering the mutilated bodies of her friends. I submit it's intended to draw us out of Nina's perspective a little and remind us how absurd this all is.

So, either the film's not quite as obvious as it seems, or I'm arguing that Aronofsky is basically as melodramatic as an ill-adjusted pre-pubescent schoolgirl.

I agree with you that the film is kind of dissapointingly straightforward as a horror film, especially considering it has such a silly ending (as I said in my Vern review, the whole script sounds suspiciously like it was adapted from Donald Kaufman's THE THREE). I think it's kind of hilarious to hear all these presumably literate cinemagoers and reviewers arguing that the film is "rich", "complex", "mysterious" or "deep." As a horror movie its lack of mystery is a pretty damning flaw; hell, its ending pretty much negates everything that came before about as neatly as "it was all a dream!"

But I still sort of see it working as a character piece about a character who happens to be afraid of everything. Its not so important that we find things scary as it is that we understand her fears. She's such a simple, childish character that its still pretty shallow but I can at least see arguing that it works on that level, particularly since Portman puts so much anguish into the role (for my money, this is her best performance since THE PROFESSIONAL. Honestly, after her apalling, embarassing work in the Prequels and other genre fare, I didn't think she had this kind of effort in her).

Dan said...

You're definitely convincing me that, whatever Aronofsky intended with this film, that your reaction to the film and your way of looking at it is a valid, maybe even enlightening framework. I enjoyed the film well enough, but you've made a great case that it's a film you can also laugh along with.

I had a similar experience with EYES WIDE SHUT, where the 2nd time I saw it it seemed less spellbinding and creepy, and more awesomely hilarious. Not in an ironic way, just that it was so rich, witty and lovingly exaggerated. Whether or not that was intended, I've come to realize, it doesn't really matter. The film just WORKS as a great bizarro comedy.

So if if and when I see BLACK SWAN again, I'm going to keep your words in mind.

Also, completely agree about Portman. Her performance is so raw and vulnerable that it was a little hard to watch at times. I think the film itself has been a little overrated, but she deserves of all the praise she's received.

Shenan said...

I might be way out of my league in joining in this discussion (and way late too....sorry I don't read all your blog comments consistently, Dan), but I might argue that

"in SWAN, the biggest fear is that... she won't get to be the lead ballerina to dance in a role which she doesn't even understand or like? Its such a small thing, and its only a big deal because her life is so pathetic and tiny."

is both accurate and inaccurate because of the "only" in there. Sure it's only a big deal because of the circumstances of the character's life, but aren't most things in most movies? Even if our lives aren't built around the same edifices as Nina's, and even if a lot of her problems are the result of her own character deficiencies, if we're sufficiently drawn into the character, they become valid. And I felt sufficiently drawn in.

"but instead she's nearly 30 and still frantically trying to avoid learning about herself in any way. As such, I read the script's weepie melodrama not as something that a functional adult would dream up, but as a reflection of a desparate teenage's angst. I defy any adult to take seriously the idea...etc"

Again, I don't think that because Nina is emotionally stunted, it means that we shouldn't take the movie itself seriously, or that we are meant to laugh at her emotions/actions/delusions, even if her emotions aren't exactly a reliable narrator. It is *just* a commentary on her emotional life, but I wouldn't say that that excludes being able to empathize or be drawn into it, even if we don't identify with it.

Shenan again said...

*sorry, that last line should read "wouldn't say that it's at the exclusion of..."

(i hate an unclear sentence and had to correct it)

Dan said...

Awwwwww snap, it's on now.

Shenan said...

Dan, since I was really late to the game with that and an actual conversation will probably not occur at this point because no one's gonna go back and check the comments on this post now, what's your take? Where do you fall on the issue?

Dan said...

Well, I already touched on it above, but I guess I'd split the difference. I'm more inclined to agree with you that, even if the film is critical of Nina, it also welcomes empathy.

On the other hand, I can understand Joseph's perspective. We could argue all day about what the filmmakers "intended," but I think Joseph makes a valid point about a way in which the film can be viewed, and I think he's provided evidence from the "text" to back his POV up.

Shenan said...

Well thanks, Henry Clay.

Joseph said...

So, clicked on this article by mistake, thinking I was talking about Kevin Smith only to find that the conversation continued about a week ago without me realizing it.

So, Shenan -- I suppose I wasn't entirely clear in my original post here (my full reaction is on Vern's website) but I completely agree that we're supposed to empathize with Portman's Nina. If nothing else, the performance itself is so vulnerable and painful that I wouldn't for a second argue that we're supposed to be laughing at her. My theory is more than Aronofsky play up the absurdity of her situation to emphasize the tragedy of her life.

I do think the story is a tragedy, just not for the reasons it seems to be on the surface. I think you nailed it in saying, "It is *just* a commentary on her emotional life, but I wouldn't say that that excludes being able to empathize or be drawn into it, even if we don't identify with it." The tragedy of the story, in my view, is how tiny and pathetic Nina's life is, not the specific and objectively minor events which comprise the story.

I feel like Aronofsky's coup in BLACK SWAN is that you can sympathize with her strongly, but at the same time be aware that her real problems are not the ones she thinks she has. The tragedy is not that she can't get her dance right, it's that her life is so small and joyless that these tiny problems completely ruin her mental health. You can understand exactly why they do, and even experience that tension with her, but by playing up the tragicomedy of her situation I maintain Aronofsky also gives the viewers a perspective on what the real problem is that the character herself can't quite grasp.

Does that make more sense?

Shenan said...

Sorry it took me so long to respond to this one in turn...yes, I now completely agree, now that you've phrased it as you did in your last comment. This is certainly no "Save the Last Dance." Though I do think a hybrid "Save the Last Black Swan" movie may be fun...

In conclusion, I'm glad my parents never forced me to take ballet.