REVIEW: Jackie

10 12 2016

jackieNew York Film Festival

Biopics are for the fans. No matter how revisionist the narrative or inventive the form, the genre exists to privilege the audience over the subject. Instead of learning facts from a biography or textbook (but more likely Wikipedia), the biopic lures us in with a promise of approximated intimacy. It strips away the mythology built around a figure to make them more human to us.

This approach makes sense for certain subjects in narrative film, particularly those who audiences can observe with relatively little pre-existing baggage. If we know but an accomplishment here and a footnote there, a film does not have to override our assumptions. Instead, it can provide a frame of reference for us, establishing the structure by which we judge a person. (If this sounds too abstract, picture recent successful examples like “The Social Network” or “American Splendor.”)

But what about those biopics who must confront the enduring legacy of figures who loom so large in our imaginations before the first frame appears? In recent years, filmmakers have resurrected presidents, actors, musicians, inventors and more who continue to occupy space in our heads. The dominant approach has been to ignore the patina of notoriety surrounding them, opting instead to focus on our shared humanity.

These films so often fail because they forget something that Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” does not. The mythology informs the humanity for these people. At a certain point, knowing that you lead a life that could one day be recounted in a biopic seeps into every fiber of your being. It’s not enough to go back to a time, either in childhood or pre-fame, that can connect us with them. By virtue of receiving this kind of treatment, they are different people. We all have some sense that we are performing for an audience in our daily lives, but these icons must wear their public face so much that it ultimately seeps into the consciousness of their private face.

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REVIEW: Noah

28 07 2014

After “Black Swan” topped my best of 2010 list, Darren Aronofsky could have made a film about virtually anything, and I would turn out to see it.  From the earliest announcement of Aronofsky’s “Noah” in 2011, I was deliriously excited to see his distinct spin on the well-known Biblical story.

I maintained faith in spite of nearly every media report drumming up controversy about the film.  It became impossible to escape stories that claimed Aronofsky was replacing the original narrative with an environmental message, or that he was purging God from the film entirely.  Going in, I had the impression that I was bound to be offended by something in “Noah,” no matter how artfully Aronofsky presented it.

As it turns out, nothing that generated headlines about the film offended me.  What did, however, was the simple and rudimentary script of “Noah.”  It felt like Aronofsky went into production with the first draft for something that shows potential for greatness but achieves little of it.

As a character, Noah feels remarkably incomplete and incoherent.  His motivations are unclear, and I’m not sure whether to interpret that as Aronofsky saying God is confused … or whether Aronofsky himself is confused.  Russell Crowe turns in a rather schizoid performance, grappling with the seeming non-sequiturs of his character as much as he is with anything relating to God.

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Know Your Nominees: “The Fighter”

1 02 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, the second movie on our countdown of the Academy’s best of 2010 is “The Fighter.”

You’ve probably heard “The Fighter” described as Mark Wahlberg’s passion project, and his fight for four years to get the movie made has finally hit the silver screen thanks to the personal identification the star has with the story.  Both Wahlberg and his character Ward grew up in large Massachusetts families with nine siblings.  Both had tenacious mothers who favored their older brothers – which, in Wahlberg’s case, happens to be the New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg.  As Micky became the “Pride of Lowell,” Mark Wahlberg idolized the prize fighter and is now starring and producing the ultimate tribute to him.  In an interview, Wahlberg said that the only difference between the two of them is that “Micky’s a fighter and I’m an entertainer.”

A nice little under-the-radar Oscar story of 2010 has been David O. Russell’s comeback directing “The Fighter,” which is in itself a comeback story.  But it wasn’t always going to be that way.  Remember seeing in the opening credits that Darren Aronofsky was an executive producer of the movie?  Originally, he was going to direct the movie but eventually abandoned the movie to make “Black Swan.”  That makes him connected to two Best Picture nominees this year.  Also worth noting about the director’s chair – Martin Scorsese turned the project down, claiming that “Raging Bull” was enough boxing for him.

Aronofsky’s exit wasn’t the only major change that “The Fighter” underwent before production began.  Matt Damon and Brad Pitt were both attached to play Dickie Eklund, the former fighter and older brother to Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward that is played in the movie by Christian Bale.

And what of the documentary HBO made about Eklund?  Called “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell,” the movie is real, not just a plot device in “The Fighter.”  Thanks to the beauty of the Internet, you don’t have to wait for it to hit the circuit on cable – you can watch it FOR FREE on SnagFilms.  (In case you didn’t catch it, I embedded the link in that bolded statement.)

Mark Wahlberg did plenty of physical preparation for “The Fighter.”  He claims that his last few movies have been carefully selected as training and preparing to play Micky Ward.  He built a boxing ring in his own home and spent four years training with boxing coaches, even bringing them with him to his other movie sets.  Wahlberg did all the fighting himself, refusing to use a fighting double.  By the time all was said and done for Wahlberg’s training, he spent more preparing than he made.

Wahlberg wasn’t the only cast member altering their body for “The Fighter.”  Christian Bale noticeably dropped 30 pounds to play Dickie, giving him the look of both an ex-fighter and a crack addict.  But more under the radar, Amy Adams also did her part to inhabit the character of Charlene.  To make her character look like she’d been in one too many bars, Adams gained about 10 pounds to get a bit of a beer gut.

How about that wild family in “The Fighter?”  Director David O. Russell said these wildly over-the-top characters were actually toned down from their real-life counterparts.  I find this hard to believe in the case of the seven sisters, which are played by a particularly interesting group of actresses.  One sister is played by Conan O’Brien’s sister, Kate.  Another actress, Jill Quigg, was recently arrested in Boston for robbery and is now in jail.  (How’s that for some authenticity?)

Did the cinematography of the fights look a little bit different than the rest of the movie?  That’s because David O. Russell brought in camera crews from HBO to shoot them in the same style they were televised in for the sake of authenticity.  I found it to be an interesting touch that definitely set the fights apart from the rest of the movie.  They also feel real because the real Micky Ward was heavily involved in their production.

Just how real is “The Fighter,” though?  According to the real life Micky Ward in an interview with Sports Illustrated, he said, “It was pretty much right on. Christian Bale did an excellent job.”  The movie’s historical accuracy was greatly aided by Wahlberg’s close relationship with the real Ward and Ecklund, who often stayed in his guest house for weeks at a time.  The veracity was also undoubtedly aided by Mickey O’Keefe, Ward’s real-life trainer who played himself in the movie.

And the big question: since Dickie Ecklund is still alive, how did he react to the movie?  Apparently he saw it for the first time without an audience and was not a fan.  Understandable for anyone to react unfavorably to a shrinking down of their life’s struggles and mistakes into two hours.  But then Wahlberg and Bale convinced him to see it a few more times with a crowd, and once he saw their reaction, Ecklund was proud of how his overcoming of crack addiction moved the audience.  How’s that for a feel-good story?

Check back on February 4 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “Inception.”





Know Your Nominees: “Black Swan”

29 01 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, the logical starting place is “Black Swan.”

For all the acclaim “Black Swan” is receiving now, it seems silly that anyone WOULDN’T want to pour money into making the movie.  Yet according to director Darren Aronfosky, the movie was a surprisingly hard sell to production companies even with Natalie Portman and the rest of the cast all lined up.  When financing finally lined up, Aronofsky was forced to make the movie on $15 million, which was $10 million less than what he had hoped to have.  This meant a streamlined shooting schedule; for example, each act of the “Swan Lake” ballet shown at the end of the movie was shot in one day.

Maybe you’ve heard the mutterings that “Black Swan” was once the same movie as “The Wrestler.”  They are true. Director Darren Aronofsky brought it up once, and ever since, he’s been carefully clarifying exactly what he meant by that.  The movies originated out of the same idea: two performers whose craft drives them to physical and emotional extremes.  The end results are entirely different, but the two work together nicely as companion pieces.

A lot has been made of Nina’s sanity in the movie.  Is she ever sane?  When does she lose her mind?  Darren Aronofsky, in an interview with Cinema Blend said that “the only time she’s normal is right at the beginning of the film when she’s dancing before the demon shows up. That very first shot, she’s clear.”

We’ve all heard about Natalie Portman’s year of training to get ready for the role of Nina Sayers.  You’ve probably heard that she worked five hours a day doing swimming and ballet for eleven months and then a shocking eight hours a day in the final month.  She lost over 20 pounds practically starving herself to slim down.  But ballerinas have a long, lanky physique that’s hard to simply tone into.  So how did Portman overcome this challenge?  She had people pull on her arms and legs every day to stretch her out!

There was more to Natalie Portman’s physical commitment to “Black Swan” than her training.  While filming the movie, Portman broke a rib during a lift.  The film’s tight budget meant no on-screen doctor to help her, and the tight filming schedule didn’t exactly allow for much recovery time.  So how did they work around it?  They simply readjusted the lift.

And there’s even more commitment on Natalie Portman’s part than just physically embodying a ballerina.  She has been attached to “Black Swan” since 2000 when she met Darren Aronofsky in Times Square and said she wanted in on the project.   She claims Aronofsky had most of the movie laid out then.  Many other members of the crew have been committed to the movie for multiple years as well.

Did you see Winona Ryder in “Black Swan” and go “Woah, haven’t seen her in a while!”  According to Darren Aronofsky, Ryder was cast in the role of Beth because it echoes her career.  The “metacasting,” as he calls it, was crucial because the audience would likely feel more impacted by Beth if someone largely at the same point in their artistic life was playing her.

The movie could have been impossible to make as the acting qualifications were just as vital to the movie as the ability to dance ballet were.  Luckily, Natalie Portman took ballet from age 4 to 13, ultimately stopping to pursue only her acting career.  Thus, when she was needed to tap back into her ballet skills to prepare for “Black Swan,” the groundwork was already laid.

What was the hardest part of the movie to get right?  According to the choreographer, it was Natalie Portman’s undulating arms at the end of the movie that gave them such a hard time.

In case you haven’t heard, Portman is pregnant and engaged to Benjamin Millepied.  He was the film’s choreographer, and the two met on set.  Millepied also had a role in the film as pretty much the only male other than Vincent Cassel to speak in the movie – the lead dancer that drops Portman on opening night.  Portman referenced an ironic line he’s asked in the movie – “Would you f*** that girl?”

Check back on February 1 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “The Fighter.”





Random Factoid #528

7 01 2011

Shaky cam blues?  Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman wrote an interesting piece on their blog today; here’s an excerpt:

“Shooting a dramatic feature film with jittery, handheld shaky cam — for that imitation-documentary, ‘this isn’t just a movie, it’s reality!’ feeling — isn’t new, and neither is the complaint that so often gets heard in response to it: ‘I couldn’t watch that movie — it made me sick!’ Personally, I have to say that I’ve never once had the experience of sitting through a film shot in the aggressively off-kilter, wavery-cam style only to have it make me sick to my stomach. When you see as many movies as I do, it may be an occupational hazard to become immune to that sort of quease-inducing kinesthetic-visceral fake-out. (If it makes the afflicted feel less jealous, I can’t go on twirly carnival rides.)

… in ‘Black Swan,’ when Aronofsky employs the same technique, with the camera weaving and bobbing up the steps of Lincoln Center as it trails Natalie Portman’s overwrought bunhead ballerina, there’s nothing especially novel or precious about it. It’s an idiosyncratic style nudged, via a high-gloss horror movie, into the mainstream.

In ‘The Fighter’ (on which Aronofsky was one of the producers), the handheld mode, potent and effective as it is, starts to become something even more standard: the cornerstone of a new Hollywood house style. For one thing, the technique has simply been around long enough that people have gotten used to it. A few of them may still feel sick, but now, at least, they’ll expectto feel sick. For another, reality TV has accustomed people to the rhythm and sight and spirit of cameras trailing people in authentic yet highly charged dramatic contexts, be those subjects real housewives or the party-hookup masters of ‘Jersey Shore.'”

I’ll admit that it is becoming such a standard part of movies that I hardly recognize it anymore except when it’s made especially nauseating.  I didn’t even realize how much it was used in “The Fighter,” and I think the only reason I recognized it in “Black Swan” was because Darren Aronofsky used it to bring about some nauseating sensations.  The scenes of Nina walking were especially difficult to watch as we bobbed up and down so quickly.

Ultimately, I think shaky-cam is going to be another filmmaking tool to use, much like 3D will eventually become.  Filmmakers can use it for a variety of purposes, and indeed they already have.  Aronofsky used it to make us a little nauseated; Russell made us feel real.  Who knows how else it can and will be used?

Like we needed any sort of excuse to keep eagerly watching the development of cinema…

On another note, DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE OPPORTUNITY TO WIN “THE SOCIAL NETWORK” BY PARTICIPATING ON THE DISCUSSION BOARDS ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE!





REVIEW: Black Swan

27 11 2010

At 18, I’m probably a little young to be using the phrase “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” but I can’t help but have it come to mind when talking about “Black Swan.”  Simply put, Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant directorial artistry has culminated in a stunning masterpiece that is unmatched in vision or ambition by anything that cinema has churned out in a long time.

It’s so bold and daring that to call it wowing simply doesn’t do the experience justice.  Aronofsky weaves together the beauty of ballet with the terror of psychological meltdown with such nimble grace that it leaves you reeling long after leaving the theater.

There’s really no one else but Aronofsky who could pull off a big, brassy movie like this.  He’s simply the best visual filmmaker out there.  As if his first two movies, “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” weren’t powerful enough, “Black Swan” is Aronofsky in full bloom, showing absolute command of all cinematic vocabulary.  There is no boundary too sacred or stiff for him to toy with, and he doesn’t so much push them as he does eradicate them.  Thus, “Black Swan” isn’t just a victory for Aronofsky and the rest of the crew; it’s a victory for the craft of filmmaking as we know it.

The film is chalked full of imagery, symbolism, and visual motifs that jump off the frame and into your lap.  It’s so clear that Aronofsky is intimately involved in sculpting every frame and every moment down to the colors of the room.  His presence is terrifyingly arresting, and it feels like he himself is reaching out to grab your heart and pump it at a million beats per minute.  The racing begins in the first scene and doesn’t let up even when the credits roll.

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Oscar Moment: “Black Swan”

20 09 2010

The Toronto Film Festival closed yesterday, and Oscars season 2010 has kicked off now as a result.  To commemorate this commencement, I am dedicating the next five days solely to theorizing about the five major contenders emerging from the festivals held in Venice, Toronto, and Telluride.

While I could have (and probably should have) begun with the big winners, “Somewhere” from Venice and “The King’s Speech” from Toronto, I’m going to start by talking about the movie that appeals to me the most, “Black Swan.”  I’m a huge fan of director Darren Aronofsky, and the cast and plot are both incredible.

The whole premise of a movie centered around the price of art is something that connects personally with me as I dedicate most of my free time currently to theater and music.  “Black Swan” stars Natalie Portman as an ambitious New York ballerina, compelled to keep going by the hopes that her director (Vincent Cassel) will feature her more.  But along comes a strong and beautiful rival (Mila Kunis) who wins him over with her talent and starts shifting the spotlight her way.  Eventually the envy and rage begins to consume Portman’s Lily, and her mental sanity begins to collapse.

The movie’s trailer is absolutely terrifying, but it drew me in with this incredible force.  Yes, it is scary, but it is also elegant and gorgeous.  The cinematography, the choreography, the score, the cast – it’s a mad rush of beauty emerging from the screen under the magnificent direction of Aronofsky.

Opinion on the movie emerging from the festival is incredibly polarized, with the prevailing side being those in favor.  Here’s Peter DeBruge of Variety weighing in:

“A wicked, sexy and ultimately devastating study of a young dancer’s all-consuming ambition, ‘Black Swan’ serves as a fascinating complement to Darren Arononfsky’s ‘The Wrestler,’ trading the grungy world of a broken-down fighter for the more upscale but no less brutal sphere of professional ballet.”

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter, while seeing it through a somewhat different light, still gives it praise:

“The movie is so damn out-there in every way that you can’t help admiring Aronofsky for daring to be so very, very absurd. ‘Swan’ is an instant guilty pleasure, a gorgeously shot, visually complex film whose badness is what’s so good about it.”

On the slightly less professional side, blogger Kris Tapley of In Contention had this to say about the movie and its chances:

“The film is the perfect marriage of Aronofsky’s past work, containing all of the paranoia of ‘Pi,’ the identity concerns of ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ the sense of inevitability apparent in ‘The Fountain,’ and the professional obsession of ‘The Wrestler.’ Portman gives her best performance to date and could well find her way to an Oscar nomination, while Matthew Libatique’s splendid photography also deserves recognition. It may play too dark to AMPAS types, but I imagine many members will at the very least grasp a powerful theme that relates very much to filmmakers as it does as to painters, musicians and, well, ballerinas.”

It’s not just a hit with the critic; audiences are fawning over this rabidly.  At the Venice festival premiere, it received a five-minute standing ovation, and it remained an incredibly buzzed piece the entire festival.  And according to a Los Angeles Times report on the screening in Toronto, “During the screening, moments of unexpected scares sent ripples of gasps and nervous laughter through the crowd. Festival screenings can feel a little cold, and thus less communal, than the commercial variety. That wasn’t a problem here.”

I think the movie has the goods to be a Best Picture candidate – the subject matter may just be a little too intense for them.  Mental psychodrama, as one person describe the movie, just isn’t up their alley.  But if the public gets behind it and critical response is still great, it could have a chance.

If and only if it lands a Best Picture nomination, Aronofsky could net his first Best Director nomination.  Back in 2008 when there were only five Best Picture nominees, his name was constantly thrown around as a replacement for Ron Howard in the directorial race.  He’s very respected and honoring him for “Black Swan” makes more sense that nominating him for “The Wrestler” as this is the kind of movie that he is most proficient at making.  Perhaps a screenplay nomination will also follow, but I’d say that’s probably the least likely of the bunch.

But the movie’s support will most likely be expressed in the acting categories, where it has four strong contenders in Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey.

Portman is the film’s shining star.  She’s in every scene and apparently has total command of the screen, challenging her emotional and physical limits constantly.  The Academy has noted her once before for her complex and rough role as Alice in “Closer” back in 2004, but her acting has matured much since then.  This is a very demanding performance for Portman in a very demanding movie.  Even those who oppose the movie will still have good things to say about her work.

At 30, her youth is an asset as she is now old enough to not be written off as “too young.”  In fact, since 1997, only two actresses older than 35 have won Best Actress, both of which came in the past four years.  So a win for Portman keeps the trend going.  She faces stiff competition this year; many are calling it the strongest leading actress field in years.  Her stiffest competition may come from Annette Bening, who at 52 won raves for “The Kids Are All Right” over the summer.  With three nominations to her name, Bening will be a force to reckon with.  Awards Daily proposed today that the race may be down to the two of them:

Portman’s performance is said to be her best yet – brilliant, harsh, challenging.  If only she was also playing a prostitute or a drug addict – she’d been the winner.  But, from what I gather, her character is not likable.  Likability, or at least great sympathy is key to a win.  Can she make it on sheer ability?  Of course.  Liking her character, really really liking her character helps a wee bit more.  I haven’t yet seen the film so I can’t say for sure.

Portman has a sex scene.  I don’t think this is necessarily a turn-off.  Best Actress winners often have on screen nudity or sex scenes — The Reader, Monster’s Ball, etc.  But usually it’s with a man.  Still, since when have men objected to sex between women?  Bening is probably way ahead in terms of likability.    She too has a sex scene to contend with.

This time last year, I boiled the race down to Carey Mulligan vs. Meryl Streep, the film festival breakout and up-and-comer pitted against the awards mainstay.  While Bening is know Meryl Streep and Portman is hardly unknown, the race is very similar.  Of course last year, Sandra Bullock came out of nowhere to take it all.  I think simplifying a race down to two people now is misguided, although I will say that they are the two strongest candidates at the moment.  A nomination of Portman is almost certain; a snub would mean that the Academy really needs to grow up and learn how to handle tough subject matter.

The other three actors are all wild cards.  Cassel could do well in awards season; his performance was voted second-best in the supporting category from INDIEwire’s informal critical polling.  He’s pretty unknown stateside, which could propel him higher or doom him.  Kunis also has potential, but I get the feeling that she will be seen more as an object of lust than an actress.  Her past movie choices won’t do her much good either.

Outside of Portman, the best shot “Black Swan” may have at another nomination would be through Barbara Hershey, who plays Lily’s aggressive mother, a former ballerina herself.  At 62, the movie could prove to be a great swan song for her (pun fully intended).  Hershey hasn’t been in much since her 1996 Best Supporting Actress nomination, practically nothing in the past decade.  But a welcome return to grace the screen with her presence could land her another nomination.

It’s important for “Black Swan” to keep the massive buzz and allure it gained over the past few weeks in check so that upon its release in December, the can of worms will be opened anew.  But until then we wait.  And hope the movie is as good as we anticipate.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Hershey), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Kunis), Best Film Editing