Thursday, December 30, 2010

Black Swan

We all have our limitations. We try to deal with them and overcome them as best we can but sometimes our limits are just that. Overcoming limitations is the central theme is Darren Aronofsky’s dark fairy tale ‘Black Swan’ about a young ballerina named Nina (Natalie Portman) who finds herself cast in a part beyond her range in a new production of ‘Swan Lake.’

Nina is a truly fragile character. Emotionally she feels 12 years old. Her mother Erica (played by the fantastic Barbara Hershey) seems to have done a lot of work to make sure she stays that way. Nina’s bedroom feels like a prison cell and the dozens of oversized stuffed animals feel like the guards.

One of the nice details of the film is the way it refuses to glamorize the world of ballet. The dance routines look more painful than enchanting. The company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has dark designs on Nina. He casts her in the lead of his new production of ‘Swan Lake.’ The lead is a duel role, the virginal White Swan and her seductive evil twin, the Black Swan. Thomas points out that Nina is perfect for the White Swan but completely unsuited for the Black Swan, a role that requires a sensuality and spontaneity that Thomas hopes to draw out of Nina. The way he sets about doing that is rather unsavory. While Nina’s mother is certainly no angel, Thomas feels like the biggest threat to Nina. This is interesting because he is the only character who wants Nina to actually succeed in the part of the Black Swan. The other dancers whisper behind her back and her mother feels that the role is too much for her.

The mother might have a point. Rehearsals continue and Nina’s progress is slow. She’s breaking out in strange rashes. Most importantly She is unable to be spontaneous and ‘in the moment,’ one of the most important skills in acting. The situation is so bad in fact, if we hadn’t watched her practice her routines until her toes bled, we might wonder if her heart were really in it. The stress is getting to her. She grows envious of Lilly (Mila Kunis), a new dancer who recently joined the company. Duality is a theme in ‘Swan Lake’, and therefore, by necessity it is a theme here too. Lily is everything that Nina is not: free, warm, in the moment and sensual. This duality between Lily and Nina provide some of the films most bravado sequences. It’s a subplot that develops slowly but never fully. I would have liked to see their duality played up a little more.

The film is very well executed. The grainy cinematography by frequent Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique is wonderfully atmospheric and haunting. The acting is top notch. Natalie Portman’s decent into on screen insanity ranks as one of the best performances of the year and she absolutely deserves all the accolades she’s been getting. As does Barbara Hershey, who is wonderfully manipulative, aggressive yet very fragile in her own way.

The film isn’t perfect though. Not by a long shot. The Thomas character is over the top even for this melodrama and his character is not nearly inspiring enough for me to believe that he is the great director he’s supposed to be. The tension could have been ramped up. The special effects sometimes intrude on the actors. Also, quite frankly, Aronofsky is holding back. He has done much more intense and intimate work. After ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘The Wrestler’ I expected more from him. Perhaps that was unfair. I probably would have praised the film much more highly if I was unaware of his previous work.

Grade: B-

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Unstoppable doesn’t have memorable characters, it doesn’t have powerful performances, but it does have a rather interesting set-up and is, for the most part, a satisfactory popcorn experience.

The movie stars Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, a railroad engineer in West Virginia on the verge of retirement and Chris Pine (Star Trek) as Will Colson, Barnes’s juiced-in greenhorn replacement. They have differences but come to respect each other. If that sounds boring and unimaginative, you’re right. But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is what’s happening over in Pennsylvania. There, an incompetent conductor (Ethan Suplee) has to leave a slow moving train to throw a switch on the track. While he’s away from the train cab, the throttle lever slips, and the train speeds off with nobody at the controls- — oops! We then watch as Suplee contacts yardmaster Hopper (Rosario Dawson) who tries to co-ordinate efforts to stop the train. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, the train is also full of toxic chemicals and is speeding towards Colson’s hometown.

The multiple points of view reminded me a little of the superior ‘Die Hard’ movies which also derived much of their suspense from sequences of complex logistics against impossible odds.

Of course everything that Hopper and her evil corporate overlord (Kevin Dunn) do to stop the train is a laughable failure. It’s a good thing our heroes happen to be in the neighborhood.

‘Unstoppable’ is a by-the-book, paint-by-numbers movie. It’s a formula, it’s manipulative, but it works. Denzel play’s a lower key version of his persona. Chris Pine plays off his considerable charisma and the other actors play their stock-characters effectively.

The film is unique and admirable in several ways. Its large rail yards are the real thing, no fake matte paintings. The chase scenes, featuring massive, speeding locomotives also appear to be done for real. The film features incredible stunt scenes and seemingly little CGI. Not only do the images appear authentic, but the actions do too. The actions of Hooper and co to stop the train are, of course, bad ones, but they seem more like choices made by desperate people in a tough jam then the ridiculous action movie fodder that we’re used to getting. Scott and his screenwriter Mark Bomback don’t cheat. They certainly milk the premise, but they don’t stretch logic, reason or the laws of physics.

Where the film starts to have trouble is towards the end where it becomes clear that Tony Scott is the films biggest enemy. His reliance on quick cuts, shaky cameras and fast zooms become a bit overwhelming towards the end of the film. I had a migraine by the end of the film. Even at the end, after all the action scenes had where over, the camera was still zooming around like a little kid on a sugar binge.

In spite of these problems, the film is an enjoyable diversion. You probably wont remember any of the characters or lines of dialogue. The film is about big trains going real fast. If you want to see an action movie this weekend and ‘Tron: Legacy’ doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll probably be all right with this.

Grade: C+

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Social Network

So is it true? Is any of it true? Is none of it true? Did Mark Zuckerberg steal the idea for Facebook from a pair of Olympic rowers? Did he cheat his best friend out of his shares of Facebook? Is Mark Zuckerberg that much of an asshole?

The real life Zuckerberg says David Fincher’s new film ‘The Social Network’ is a piece of fiction. But Mark has a clear, vested interest in discrediting it. However there is further cause to doubt its source material. The film is based on a book by Ben Mezrich called ‘The Accidental Billionaires.’ Now some years ago Mezrich wrote another book based on a true story called ‘Bringing Down The House.’ The problem is that according to The Boston Globe, significant parts of that book were just plain made up. Truth fudging is accepted in film, but is kind of a no-no for books labeled ‘non-fiction.’

The story gets complicated here because ‘The Social Network’ isn’t exactly based on ‘The Accidental Billionaires.’ At the time the book was sold to Columbia Pictures it was just an outline. Screenwriter Arron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) used that outline as his starting point and did the majority of his own research independently. He found transcripts of Mark's former blog concerning the creation of Facemash (a website Zuckerberg wrote while in an inebriated fit over a girl) Facemash allowed users to compare the looks of female Harvard students. The initial idea was to compare the girls to farm animals, but he thought better of it. The blog transcript appears in the film almost verbatim. Looking at Sorkin’s work, I know that he is an idealistic man consumed with details, but as a storyteller his loyalty is always going to be to the story he’s trying to tell.

The Facemash incident not only gets Zuckerberg in trouble with the Harvard Admin board, it also earns him and his roommate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) the scorn of every girl on campus. But Mark also gains the notice of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) who want him to build them a social networking site. The site would mirror MySpace, but be exclusively for Harvard students. Around the same time Mark asks Eduardo to help him fund a new social networking site that uses exclusivity as its core idea. Before long Facebook is up, the Winklevoss twins are threatening legal action, and Eduardo is at the end of his wits just trying to eek out a profit for him and Mark before it all goes to Hell. To help, Mark hires Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) as a consultant. Eduardo sees Sean as a paranoid moocher and a bad influence on Mark. But Mark sees Parker as a rock-star beyond reproach, and begins to push Eduardo away, leading to more legal trouble.

The obvious comparison is to ‘Citizen Kane’ and it’s not completely undue. Both are well-crafted, controversial films told in flashbacks and based on the lives of media tycoons. But ‘Kane,’ loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst had the decency to change all the names (though it was obvious who it was about). Also while Charles Foster Kane was clearly based on Hearst, co-writer/director Orson Wells put just as much of himself into the character, resulting in a film that is a much more personal statement about greed, ego, etcetera. The two movies are also very different stylistically. ‘Kane’ is a grand, operatic film encompassing its subjects entire life. ‘Social Network’ is more down-to-earth and centers on Zuckerberg’s early days. The later is not a fault of the movie as Zuckerberg is only 26 and therefore has nothing but early days.

The best structural comparison would be to Akira Kurosawa’s film ‘Rashomon’ and it’s countless imitators. That film told the story of a crime from the point of view of four witnesses who all claim to be the culprit (go watch it, if you haven’t already). ‘The Social Network’ is told in flashback by Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and various hostile witnesses called in two law suits brought against him. Kurosawa used the point of view in ‘Rashomon’ to say that memory and emotional testimonies are inherently unreliable. ‘Social Network’ does so too, but in a subtler way. We don’t see events replayed from different points of view so much, as we are made aware that the witnesses have their own agendas.

I have no clue how ‘The Social Network’ will be viewed in 20 years. I doubt that it’ll be held in the same esteem as ‘Kane’ or ‘Roshomon.’ But that said, ‘Social Network’ is a fantastically well-made film. Its complexly structured script is brimming with multi-tiered conversations and exceedingly technical details would defeat many filmmakers. Yet Fincher finds a way to make it not only watchable, but also enthralling. He boils it down to a simple core and builds on it so no matter how complicated the film gets, we always see the basic human drama going on. At the end of the day ‘The Social Network’ isn’t about coding, or theft. It’s about an awkward guy who just wants to belong and sit at the cool kids table, even if he manages to alienate the few people who might actually want to be his friends.

The film is a technical marvel as well. This is to be expected from David Fincher who, like Zuckerberg, is a tireless perfectionist (he did 99 takes of the opening scene alone). The film has a chillingly effective score by ‘Nine Inch Nails’ front man Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It adds a sense of playful menace to a film that is really toying with its audience. Mischievousness in story telling is a trademark of Fincher’s films (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club), but he’s more sly about it here.

Going in, I wasn’t certain if Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook and I’m still not. The way the film depicts him, he is certainly brilliant enough to have come up with it on his own, but he’s also arrogant enough to have stolen it. I know that a lot of the little details are true, but the answers to the big questions are really only known to Mark Zuckerberg and possibly Eduardo Saverin. The filmmakers understand this and they don’t try and give us any definitive truth. They give us truth and myth. Truth plus. A lot of movies based on fact do this, they say "based on a true story" and expect you to assume that it's all true. But Sorkin and Fincher have done something different here, by creating a film where the truth of the story we're being told is always being questioned by it's characters, they invite discussion and skepticism of the film itself. In it's own quiet way, 'Social Network' may be Fincher's most subversive film yet. This is a film that demands your attention and in exchange it gives you something to think and talk about with your friends. So you tell me, is it true?

Grade: A+

Monday, September 13, 2010

The American

The first image of Anton Corbijn’s new film “The American” is of a snow-covered cabin in Sweden. For the first 30 seconds or so there is no sound. None. No wind rustling through the trees. No chirping birds. Perfect solitude. Then, so quietly you’re not even sure you can hear it at first, there is a piano. Inside the cabin George Clooney is held up with his girlfriend. They are perfectly contented in their isolation, like Adam and Eve. Too bad for them that this is a thriller, and that soon comes to a violent end.

Clooney plays a man named Jack, or maybe it’s Edward, or maybe none of those things. Jack/Edward has an unusual job, he claims to be a photographer but in reality he builds custom weapons for assassins. After the nastiness in Sweden, he’s fed up, frightened and justifiably paranoid. But his handler convinces him into one last job. Jack/Edward gets the specifications for the rifle he is to build-a collapsible sniper rife with the machine gun’s firing speed.

He hides out in a small Italian town in the mountains of Abruzzo. There are wonderful scenes of Jack /Edward building the rifle. The components laid out in rows on the table of his dingy hotel room. He is good with machines but he is distracted. He spends his days talking with an old priest; he spends his nights with a prostitute named Clara (the absolutely gorgeous Violante Placido). Otherwise he sits and waits.

The film very much rests on Clooney’s performance. At this point in the year I would not be surprised if he were nominated for an Oscar. The director knows how good Clooney is and builds the film on his skill. A lesser actor might have required a script with more exposition, more action to keep us interested or more intrusive music to help us notice what we need to see. But luckily for this film, George Clooney has gotten very, very good at playing lonely, detached and mysterious. He plays his character as a nervous man constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. All the drama, and suspense in the film is in his face.

As an assassin film, it does owe a lot to the heavyweight champs of the genre. The entire set-up is reminiscent of a section from “The Day of The Jackal” where the assassin goes to see an old man about a custom rifle. Both films have explosive bullets and scenes were an assassin tests the weapon in a secluded field. The mood of the film, the Zen mindset of the protagonist and camera work owe a lot to Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samurai” which is an excellent film you should go rent right now.

There are better films of this type out there but not in theaters. But there aren’t better Clooney performances out there. Also don’t believe the ads; this is NOT an action film.

Grade: B

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Strange cinema incoming!

All sorts of great movies are hitting theaters this fall; I just want to quickly mention two of the strangest, most ambitious projects that have caught my eye.

The first one is 'Black Swan,' the latest film by Darren Aronofsky who is one of the most unique voices working in film today.   His 2008 film 'The Wrestler' famously catapulted Mickey Rourke back into the public eye.  Aronofsky's films are emotionally vivid and honest.  They seem to come from that part of the human psyche that most of us prefer to ignore.  'Black Swan' is a psychological thriller about two young ballet dancers (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) competing for the lead in a new production of Swan Lake.  Aronofsky has been working on the project since 2000 and has compared the tone to 'Rosemary's Baby.'  It does look frightening.

Click here to view trailer in Quicktime HD

The second film I want to bring to your attention is Jasper Noé's 'Enter The Void.'  I have not seen any of Noé's other films but I'm told that they are expertly crafted though at times difficult to watch.  His latest work is a "psychedelic melodrama" about the ghost of a young drug addict who wonders the streets of Tokyo watching over his sister.   The first images I saw reminded me of 'Blade Runner.'  I, of course, cannot speak to the quality of the actual film but the trailer is frightening, beautiful and touching.

Click here to view trailer in Quicktime HD

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow!

1939.  A scientist takes a journey across the Atlantic knowing that when he arrives he will be killed.  Why does he go?  Because the secret he knows is so terrifying that it could destroy the very Earth itself!  So begins “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow” a film that has just about everything a ten year-old boy would love to see.  It’s chuck-full of airplanes, ray guns, rampaging robots, monsters, mystic lands, tiny elephants, and lots of radioactive villainy!  As the saying goes, this movie is so much fun there ought to be a law.

One of the great pleasures in cinema is seeing new technology used to tell an old story.  Released in 2004, ‘Sky Captain’ was one of the first movies to be shot entirely against blue screen.   Though using experimental techniques, first time director Kerry Conran always uses the effects in service to the story, and the result is a ghee-whiz, popcorn confection that could stand next to the first ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark.’  Like those films, ‘Sky Captain’ feels like an old friend right away.  Part of that effect must be due to the film lavish retro style.  The lighting is reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor films from the period.   The production design more than slightly resembles Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons.

I won’t tell Warner Brothers legal department if you don’t.

The story itself is, of course, absolutely ridiculous and yes, predictable.  I don’t think there’s really any suspense as to whether or not Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) will be able to thwart the dastardly scheme of the evil Dr. Totenkopf (Sir Lawrence Olivier in a tastefully done posthumous role).  After all, Sky Captain is the kind of guy who saves the world every other Wednesday.  Nor do I doubt whether or not he and his “girl Friday” Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) will settle their screwball bickering and get back together by the end.   The invention is not in the story; it’s in the gadgets and the absurdity.  It is very satisfying to find a movie that is this much fun, that can make me smile so wide and so often.

This movie is like a dream, a near perfect distillation of childhood fantasy.  It excites the imagination in a way few others do.   I find it strange that the general public didn’t seem to connect with ‘Sky Captain’ when it came out.   This is exactly the movie that the Star Wars prequels wanted to be.   However, I have confidence that in time this film will be rediscovered.

If you’re looking for a deep, insightful journey into the human mind, look elsewhere.  But if you’re looking for a top-shelf piece of escapist entertainment that lets you forget your troubles and grin for an hour and forty minutes, well that’s a job for Sky Captain.

Grade: A

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 This 1941 Superman Cartoon by Max Fleischer was undoubtedly a strong influence on 'Sky Captain' and is just as much fun as the movie.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

What follows is the first piece of film criticism I ever wrote. I polished it up a little, but it's basically the same piece I wrote when I was 15. Enjoy.

The first image in Sergio Leoné’s brilliant ‘The Good, The Bad And The Ugly’ is a desolate, rocky, yellow-brown landscape.  The screen is suddenly filled by a giant face.  The face is much like the landscape — dry, ragged and scared.  The face becomes the landscape and in observing it we learn no facts, but we glimpse his entire life.  Then there is another face; his hat casts a menacing shadow.  A third man arrives.  Abandoned buildings loom over them.  The men walk towards the center of town.  The silence is all encompassing except for their soft, rhythmic footsteps that sound like the ticking of a bomb.  They meet in front of a saloon doorway.  They say nothing to each other.  The first man rolls up his sleeve and nods at the others.  Then, as fast as lightning they reach for their guns and charge through the door.  Four gunshots ring.   A dirty bandit with a child like grin on his face jumps through the window and onto the street.  One of his hands grips a revolver and the other holds a half eaten chicken leg.  There is a whooping cry on the soundtrack as all movement freezes.  An invisible hand writes "THE UGLY" across the frozen movie screen in pure Loony Tunes fashion.  The scene is only four minutes long, but every moment is drawn out, played to its height.  The movie never feels rushed like so many others do; it takes its time, but never too much.  The movies actual plot deals with the three titular outlaws searching for buried gold during The Civil War, but it’s not really about that.  It's more about people, and the states of mind that lead to violence.

Almost everything about this movie is different than most other movies.  Ennio Morricone’s score is as riveting as it is downright weird.  The sound is different.  The cast, lacking a common language, spoke their lines in their native tongues.  The result being that when the film was dubbed much of the dialogue didn't match up.  But strangely enough this actually helps the movie.  The hiss of the microphones cutting in and out all the time seems to give all the dialogue this strange, acidic quality.  The gunshots don’t sound like normal gunshots.  Even the people are different.  Leoné didn't cast generic or pretty people in his movies.  Everyone in his international cast has an "interesting" face, they all look like they've lived in the desert all their lives. Leone’s photographs his actors so you can see every pore and crevasse in their leathery, wrinkled skin, and in their eyes you see the pain and sorrow of a lifetime.  That's how Leoné develops his characters, not by telling us their life story, but by letting us just look at them.  Where this pays off the most is in the films depiction of violence.

Filmmakers today know that their audiences are used to violence in movies, and it tends to have a passive, detached feel.  But the violence in this movie feels like a slap in the face.  The people getting shot don’t seem like faceless, soulless thugs. But strangely there is still this joyous glee about it; it's so different its just electric.

Leoné has said that he “Grew up in the cinema.” He was in love with westerns in particular, especially John Ford’s.  But he hated how “clean” they were.  He was always a little too much of a cynic for them. Maybe it had something to do with growing up in Italy just after WWII.  But he loved their look and feel; they spoke to him about this larger then life, almost mythological place called America.  So when he began to make his own westerns he wanted to pay homage to the old school, but still create something very different from the norm.  His concoction here is something dark, turbulent and grand.  The suspense in this movie is terrific, especially in the scenes were not much happens, you feel that at any moment, someone could die.  The people in this movie are immoral killers, and it doesn’t shy away from that.

It should be noted that movie isn't strictly about violence, as much as it's about people who use it.  It never stops being an exciting film but as it goes on you begin to realize how nasty these people’s lives are.  How empty, and pitiful and desperate.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Days Of Heaven (1978)

I love films that can foreshadow their entire selves in the opening image or sequence. You get a micro version of what is to come. Terence Malick’s ‘Day’s Of Heaven’ accomplishes this task extremely well. We meet Bill (Richard Gere). Bill works at a steel mill in turn of the 20th century Chicago; it’s a tough job, but an honest one. One day his foreman picks on him. Bill gets mad and attacks him. We are supposed to infer that the foreman was killed, though the attack isn’t overly vicious. Malick isn’t interested in moments of violence as much as the emotional reaction they create. Bill goes on the run with his little sister (Linda Manz) and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams). They end up in Texas harvesting wheat with a few hundred other people. The work is hard, and the pay is low, but Malick isn’t interested in showing us hardship either. In their down time the workers seem very happy. They don’t discriminate against each other because of race or gender; it’s all very idyllic and beautiful. Malick treats us to images of wide open fields, oceans of wheat billowing in the wind, gorgeous sunsets, horses running free in the dark, a horizon completely clear save for a single house. The house belongs to Sam Shepard, who the credits list simply as “The Farmer.” One day The Farmer learns that he is dying, as he looks out over his fields, and he spies Abby and falls in love. Abby and Bill discus the mater and decide to stay with him. They’ve been telling everyone that they were brother and sister. So as the harvest ends Bill, Abby and Linda move into the house and lead a life of idyllic leisure they have never known. The love triangle is cemented when The Farmer marries Abby. Bill doesn’t object, after all he knows the man is dying, and they have everything they could ever want.

It would be bad to say more about the story. I could talk about the emotions and the conflicts of the characters, but the movie isn’t really about that. The emotions in this film are private. The most vivid character is the little girl who occasionally provides colorful voice-over. It can be argued that the movie is really her story, because apart form her; the other characters seem more like archetypes than real people. This would explain why the adults seem so removed, because a child would have limited insight into their feelings. All this is emphasized by the photography, done by Néster Almendros and Haskell Wexler, the actors often appear in silhouette or near silhouette like characters in a storybook painting. The photography also evokes a sense of period, which the film does wonderfully. All this works thematically too, it’s very “dark side of the American dream,” it’s all very Bruce Springsteen. If the film does one thing well it’s evoking. Every Terence Malick image is worth 10,000 words. It’s probably one of the best looking films of its time. I just wish I felt a little more for the people in it. I found myself really searching for more meaning.

If this movie were about anything more than it’s images, it would be frustration. We are told that Bill always wanted to be something more than a working-class nobody, but as he confesses to The Farmer in one scene, he never was smart enough to come up with a “big score.” He has that feeling you get when you have too much time to yourself that no matter how good you have it that there’s still something wrong. The Farmer gets frustrated too when he begins to notice how affectionate she is with her ‘brother.’

I might be grasping at straws, but it is a thin film emotionally, though fantastic to look at. So I’m going to recommend it on those grounds. It does work thematically just not emotionally. So if you’re a photography nut like me or you like soulful, poetic images, or you just want the feeling that you’re on vacation than this is something to examine. Otherwise, it’s not essential viewing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hello there. Pardon my dust.

My name is Loren Greenblatt. I am an aspiring filmmaker. I've created this blog to showcase my photos, writing and artwork as well as some reviews of my favorite movies. So in the coming weeks expect to see some of that. I'll try to also provide commentary on my art.