F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 7, 2016)

7 01 2016

Mesrine Killer InstinctIt’s common to attribute all the attributes of high-octane, adrenaline-pumping cinema to the “Hollywood” style, as if big studios are the only entities capable of producing great action thrillers. But great classical genre films can came from anywhere in the world. Case in point: the French crime saga “Mesrine,” broken up into “Killer Instinct” (part 1) and “Public Enemy #1” (part 2).

These films may not rise to the standard of high art that normally defines my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column, but I think it’s important to spotlight the many varieties of international cinema. Believe it or not, France has more to offer than austere Godard works or quirky Ozon films. They have people like Jean-François Richet, director of the “Mesrine” films, too! This is about as slick and thrilling as entertainment comes.

The movie makes a great showcase for Vincent Cassel, who stars as titular gangster Jacques Mesrine. After becoming disillusioned by France’s loss in the Algerian War, the ex-soldier enters the world of organized crime and quickly becomes a Pacino-like figure on the international circuit. Compared to some other recent mob movies (COUGH, “Black Mass“), Mesrine is always captivating to observe. He’s a man defined by his confidence, which earns him great success until it becomes the hubris that leads to his ruin.

When Cassel acts in English-language movies, he struggles to shed his thick French accent. That is not a knock against him, and it even served him well in “Black Swan.” But, often times, the cadences distract from the dialogue because it is so pronounced. In “Mesrine,” speaking in his native language, Cassel seems more comfortable and relaxed to act to his full capability. He sure does own the screen here.

REVIEW: Partisan

1 12 2015

PartisanThe experience of watching a film, at its core, comes down to sound and image. The best – or at least the most memorable – ones tend to find some way of making them work in harmony.

Pardon the extremely vague, theoretical introduction, but Ariel Kleinman’s mesmerizing “Partisan” has such a striking visual and aural power that it inspires reflection on the elemental levels of cinema. The way he orchestrates the camera of Germain McMicking and pairs it with the humming melodies of composer Daniel Lopatin produces a hypnotic trance that somehow does not distract from the intellectual issues he raises.

“Partisan” contains echoes of “The Master” as it quietly examines how one man can inculcate an insular community with his radical ideology. Vincent Cassel’s authoritative Gregori does not have his sights set on the heavenly, though – he teaches young children how to carry out terroristic deeds against those who presume their innocence. It’s never entirely clear what ultimate aim Gregori hopes to achieve, but it never really matters. Kleinman simply wants to show the mechanisms of his control and their horrifying results.

The film mostly assumes the perspective of Alexander, a prized assassin among the commune who begins to question and doubt the rectitude of his deeds. As he grows more skeptical, the camerawork changes from eerily stable and fluid in depicting the charge to violence toward a shakier, scarier schema. Plot and ideological grandstanding are minimal, which comes as a nice change of pace. The world needs to think about terrorism at this fundamental, simplistic level. Perhaps, without the baggage of nationality or religion, “Partisan” can inspire such thought. B+3stars

REVIEW: Trance

24 07 2013

TranceFor movies with labyrinthine plots, such as “Inception” or “Shutter Island,” rigorous structural complexities come with a necessary prerequisite: a desire to care and piece together a million-piece jigsaw moving at a mile per minute.  If we aren’t engaged in the story, the pieces will just sit on the coffee table forever.

That being said, the dots of Danny Boyle’s “Trance” will forever remain unconnected for me.  It’s a convoluted mess that seems to lack a lot of basic cohesiveness.  I was so unconvinced of its self-assuredness and basic integrity that I don’t want to take the effort to figure out if it’s even worth decrypting.

I’m surprised because I consider myself a big Danny Boyle fan, particularly “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” both of which moved me in profound ways.  He’s definitely still got it together stylistically, as “Trance” is an impressively edited trip of a film.  But a bunch of nice cuts don’t mean much if they don’t start creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

What’s ultimately assembled before our eyes is a brash bombardment of sound and fury, gaudy to the point of tastelessness.  As James McAvoy’s Simon undergoes hypnotherapy with Rosario Dawson’s Elizabeth, we’re flung down a rabbit hole of bent reality with no investment in the characters or the action.  Sound like a journey worth taking?

Boyle and screenwriter try to overcompensate with bombast, including a rather unnecessary and irrelevant flaunting of Dawson’s genitalia (and then they just throw in some James McAvoy nudity at the end just for fun).  The erotic skin show actually sums up so much of what’s wrong with “Trance” in the first place.  It’s an exclamation point to get your attention, which then reminds us that there was actually no sentence that preceded it.  While I’d like to trust Boyle, his film does not make a strong enough case for its audience to go in and clean up his mess themselves.  C2stars

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.”

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