Film criticism by Ian Kay.

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Black Swan (2010), dir. Darren Aronofsky

Natalie Portman gives the best performance of her career as Nina, a ballerina who pirouettes along the bounds of sanity in her effort to achieve dancing perfection. The film is a story of sexual awakening and unilateral thinking, of ambition so overwhelming that it borders on psychotic. It is a tale that is apparently not as different as you would think from the real lives of world-class ballerinas.

Miss Portman has always been able to cry, convincingly, without great effort. On this stage, in these settings, this ability is used as a weapon, sharp and poignant. In a movie steeped in brutal imagery, her crying evinces some touching, vitally real moments. Tears of sadness, tears of happiness, tears of confusion. Not the tears of a weepy child, but rather of a tormented individual whose every waking moment is a balancing act poised to please other people.

Nina, always a technically proficient but uninspiring ballerina, has been chosen to be the Swan Queen, the leading role in a new performance of Swan Lake. We learn early on that Nina’s mother, played darkly and wonderfully by Barbara Hershey, also used to be a ballerina. As so often happens, her dreams of greatness were lost when real life interfered; in her case, it was when Nina was conceived. So instead, she lives vicariously through Nina; when Nina is chosen as Swan Queen, her mother is as excited as she is, and she buys an enormous cake in celebration. It is here that we first witness an underlying dark thread in Nina’s life. Nina, calorie conscious as any dancer would be, refuses a large piece of cake. Her mother grows viciously petulant and threatens to throw away the entire cake. Nina’s refusal is a refusal of her mother’s vicarious dream: if she had been named Swan Queen, she would have wanted a large piece of cake.

Despite her appointment to the coveted role, all is not roses for Nina. The ballet’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is unsure of his choice. He is satisfied with Nina’s performance as the White Swan, but he has yet to see her demonstrate the sexuality needed to play the evil twin, the Black Swan. Nina’s life is cold and calculated. She lives for ballet and to please her mother, who dominates her at home. Nina does not know love, or sex, or any form of “letting loose”. And then appears Lily.

(Spoiler Alert: Readers who have not yet seen the movie may want to skip down to the paragraph that begins, “The ballet at the center of it all...”)

Lily, played competently and playfully by Mila Kunis, is everything that Nina is not. She is easy going, friendly, and natural in her dancing, albeit with less than perfect technique. Lily is two different people to Nina. She is the wild child newcomer to her ballet troupe, and then she is the impish temptress of Nina’s imagination. There is much uncertainty throughout the film as to which Lily we are seeing in any given scene. What we do figure out soon enough is that Lily is the black swan to Nina’s real-life white swan; the free and sexual partier to Nina’s life of solitude and study. Nina’s longing to please Lily, to be like her, to be intimate with her, are reflections of her unhealthy dreams of perfection. If she can master the Black Swan, her Swan Queen will be perfect.

There are many scenes of wince-inducing physical pain that fine-tune the edge of the sharp tension already cutting through the drama. Dancer’s feet, in general, are decimated by the constant strain of standing on the toes for long periods of time. We see Nina’s red and swollen toes, hear her joints crack, and watch as a masseuse unjams her ankles with a tug and a pop. As a further metaphor for the agonizing effort of her dancing, Nina also experiences a strange rash on her back, which bleeds unexpectedly. This ailment seems to spread to her fingers, which bleed and peel and are further battered by her domineering mother who insists on clipping her daughter’s nails herself, using scissors. The scene in which the mother grabs that small pair of scissors and snips harshly at Nina’s nails is more horrifying than most horror movies can induce in two hours. With every frustrated “snip”, our fingers curl in chilling nervous response.

Perhaps the most gossiped about event in the film involves the sex scene between Nina and Lily. Yet Nina’s sexuality is an issue that develops throughout the entire film, and besides her lesbian encounter, it includes her relationship to Thomas and her understanding of herself. Nina needs to define what sex is for her; is it a ticket, used to obtain (and keep) the lead role? Is it a necessary part of her training, the tool that allows her to perfect a dance? Is she attracted to men or women? Or both?

The ballet at the center of it all, Swan Lake, was composed by Peter Tchaikovsky, a gay man who lived in late 19th century Russia. Biographers see Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality as one of his life’s greatest challenges. For many years in his youth, Tchaikovsky tried to be straight. It was what was expected of him, and being gay was even less accepted than it is now. Later in life he “discovered” his homosexuality, and from all indications had gay lovers in his lifetime. Yet he never seemed to be completely at peace with it. I think it is certainly no mistake that the filmmakers chose this theme of sexual disorientation for Nina, the Swan Queen of Swan Lake.

Director Darren Aronofsky has made what is very likely the best film of his career, and certainly since Requiem for a Dream. He loves the use of abstract and hallucinogenic visuals punctuated by scenes of piercing music and machine-gun editing. His main characters are harrowed, isolated people at the ends of desperation, lending to his visual preferences. It is a style that has worked well (as in Requiem) and not as well (The Fountain). In Black Swan, he may have mastered it. At the least, he has a firm grip on it, and the intimate character study that results is one of the best movies of the year.

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“Hugo” (2011), dir. Martin Scorsese

Thank God for Martin Scorsese. Authentic movie magic is a rare event these days, but Scorsese conjures it several times in Hugo. This is the story of a boy who watches through small windows as other people live their lives. It is about the struggles of creative people, of artists, of failures and renewed victories. It is Martin Scorsese’s life, transferred and transformed into a version of Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Paris during the 1930’s. Hugo Cabret is the son of a clockmaker (played well but briefly by Jude Law) who dies in a fire. Hugo’s uncle, a drunk and a clockmaker himself, takes him in and teaches Hugo how to maintain the clock at a train station in Paris. When the uncle disappears without a word, Hugo continues to take care of the station’s clocks on his own, all the while living within the walls of the train station.

Scorsese and rock-star cinematographer Robert Richardson take 3D and create artful investigations of the train station, the gear infested walls and the streets of Paris, seen from atop the clock tower. Snowflakes fall into our laps as we watch Hugo walk, chilled to the bone, along the frozen sidewalk. We feel the depth of his home within the walls, as we sweep through narrow passages and up and down ladders. My favorite, though, is simply seeing Hugo watch the train inhabitants through the face of a clock. The clock itself is in the foreground, while Hugo’s watchful face is farther back in the depths of his world, the one nobody knows about. The effect of the 3D in this case is an addition to the storytelling, rather than a slick, though impressive, technique.

Two conflicts rule the first part of the film. As a necessary running antagonist, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a heartless Station Inspector who has a sharp eye out for thieving urchins (namely, Hugo) and an equally eager Doberman at his side. This is my least favorite part of the movie and I think its weakest. It’s not so much that, early on, Cohen’s antics resemble some of the worst moments of the worst Pink Panther films. Rather, it is that nothing else in the film matches that tone. I’m not sure that Scorsese knows how to handle PG physical comedy. Luckily, the cap is twisted closed on these gags soon enough to preserve the character’s dignity.

The second conflict revolves around an enigmatic shopkeeper who owns a small toy shop in the train station. Besides looking awfully similar to the historical character he plays, Ben Kingsley brings a touch of magic himself. Kingsley’s vibrant, shadowed eyes convey more mystery and depth than most actors’ entire bodies. And Scorsese doesn’t waste a minute of it.

Kingsley’s character, ‘Papa Georges’, catches Hugo attempting to steal a wind-up toy mouse. We discover that it is not the first thing Hugo has taken from the shop. Not even close. Hugo, it seems, is trying to finish a project that he had begun with his father before he died. His father had found an old automaton, essentially a wind-up robot, in a museum. The size of a very small child but all metal and gears, the automaton is supposed to be able to write with a pen when wound up. But it has been broken since Hugo’s father found it. The mechanical pieces Hugo needs to fix it can be found in some of the toys of the shop.

In addition to recovering the toy mouse from Hugo, Papa Georges also claims a notebook of the mechanical schematics for the automaton from Hugo’s pockets. We are left to wonder why Georges is so emotional, so cruel, when he discovers this notebook. The answer, of course, if one of the keys to the climax of the film (which I will not reveal in this review). But Hugo’s efforts to retrieve the notebook lead him to meet Isabelle, a girl a little older than himself, who is Georges’ goddaughter. Isabelle’s parents are both dead too.

The interaction between Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle is like Harry Potter and Hermione, though one step better. These two young actors have far greater range and maturity than the Potter actors. But the setup is similar: Hugo is unfamiliar with normal life, but is adventurous and has secret talents. Isabelle is book smart and loves telling Hugo things he does not know. The astounding element to their relationship (not found in Potter) is the puppy-love story. These two actors are more honest in their affection towards each other than very nearly any adult versions I have seen this year (the one in J. Edgar was impressive). I chalk this up to great casting, talented young actors and, of course, Scorsese’s guiding hand.

Together, Hugo and Isabelle discover amazing secrets about her Papa Georges. Most importantly, they realize that they must save him from himself and his inexplicable despair. I cannot go into too much detail without giving the rest away. Suffice it to say that the remainder of the film serves as Martin Scorsese’s love letter to old, silent films, and to artists; directors or magicians or whatever they may be. If you love magical children’s movies, old silent films or are a fan of amazing graphics and 3D effects, this movie is for you.

“J. Edgar” (2011), dir. Clint Eastwood

8b53f29336342ca83b1738a5f9db4c47ddbdafcdLeonardo DiCaprio, the preeminent actor of the under-40 generation, is stunning in Eastwood’s biopic about the most famous (and important) man in the history of the F.B.I.

DiCaprio, of course, plays the man himself, J. Edgar Hoover, who we follow from his earliest days at the Bureau until the day he dies. Hoover’s innovations, like bringing fingerprinting and guns to the Bureau, are astonishing from today’s perspective. Armie Hammer inhabits Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s lifelong colleague and lover. Their brutally constricted relationship is one of the more captivating movie love affairs of recent years.

Eastwood and DiCaprio have created a man who we can appreciate, even respect, all the while maintaining an appropriate level of disgust. Writer Dustin Lance Black and Eastwood want us to see that what he did for the F.B.I. was both amazing and terrible. They succeed. The way DiCaprio plays him, it makes me think vaguely of Gary Oldman as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. He is the wretched, driven man with genius and grave flaws, loved and hated with equal fervor. The kind of man who makes for a great story.

DiCaprio disappears underneath thick makeup, a gravely, subtle accent, and a moderate stoop that all but obliterates the pretty boy from Titanic. Leo is far beyond the other under-40 actors in Hollywood, largely because he has no fear, but even more so because he seems to be insatiably interested in interesting characters.

The historical figures and events that are shown are solidly done and provide the backdrop for the real story, which is Hoover’s struggles with himself, primarily received from a domineering mother and a paralyzing fear of his own homosexuality. What I find most impressive is that when Hoover dies, I do not pity him. But I do not feel that he was a bad man. There was no final judgment rendered in the script or by Eastwood.

The Good, The OK and the Horrible

THE GOOD:

Cedar Rapids (2011), dir. Miguel Arteta – That was Anne Heche?!? Was it just me, or did she look like a younger lookalike of herself? I guess it was the hair. Anyhow, this charming comedy is refreshing in its approach to the old “coming of age” story, bringing a nice shade of gray to all of the characters and staying true to them without pulling any punches. Ed Helms uses his boyishly goofy face to play up his innocence as the fish out of water, but (luckily) shows some bite when he becomes morally indignant – though not in the sour Bible thumper sort of way. Helms’ ‘Tim Lippe’ rides the wave of revelation and disappointment in an amusingly accurate portrayal of the “hotel conference” lifestyle.  John C. Reilly pushes the boundaries of Funny and Too Much, but mostly stays toward Funny as the overbearing but good-hearted Dean Ziegler. A light, funny comedy with a story. See it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. II (2011), dir. David Yates – Just as good as Part I. Now that it is all finished, we can look back at all eight films and be amazed at the consistent improvement, in all areas, throughout. Perhaps the best overall adventure series to come out of Hollywood.

Horrible Bosses (2011), dir. Seth Gordon – One of those everybody in the movie is crazy comedies, filled with absurdity, a few mild shocks, and quite a few laughs.  The premise of three guys hating their bosses but fearing unemployment would have bewildered audiences a little over ten years ago, who would’ve thought, “Just go get another job!” Of course, these days that’s not so easy, most especially when your boss has blackmail material against you (Jennifer Aniston’s nymphomaniacal dentist) or might show up at your house and kill you (Kevin Spacey’s truly evil Dave Harken, Jason Bateman’s boss).  Nothing much can be said against the film besides the fact that’s it’s fantastically ludicrous, but if you worry about that kind of thing, you just shouldn’t go see this movie at all. It’s funny, unpredictable and avoids trying to include “heart”, which would have been awful and out of place.

THE BAD:
The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), dir. Brad Furman – The film is utterly forgettable but just fine while watching it,  and while I cannot say that Matthew McConaughey is a bad dramatic actor, I hope the next time I see him it is in a romantic comedy. And yes, dubbing the movie “fine but forgettable” is my way of saying it is not a good movie. Some sort of legal trickery was involved and the dirty lawyer has a heart and all that good stuff but I didn’t care about and now can’t even remember much of the rest of it.

THE… YEAH, THAT  BAD:

The Dilemma (2011), dir. Ron Howard – Hideously unfunny, brain-foggingly uninteresting and packed with unlikeable characters.  Vince Vaughn, you should have hung it up after Wedding Crashers.

No Strings Attached (2011), dir. Ivan Reitman – Ashton Kutcher is a wash as an actor, in any role. Cliches and predictability are the order of the day here and, lo and behold, two people (who are both so good at heart) who sleep together over and over eventually develop feelings for each other. Voila. And don’t sneeze when the film is done. That disgusted look on your face might freeze like that.

Cotton Candy: “Super 8” (2011), dir. J.J. Abrams

How can I find fault in a fun, innocuous piece of nostalgic filmmaking like Super 8? Well, I’ll pad it by saying that I did have a good time watching most of it. But by so obviously paying homage to 80’s adventure flicks and contributing very little imagination of his own,  J.J. Abrams has given us a smile and a wishful pang for something more.  There exists a long list of Spielberg produced or directed films that offers up a lot of promise and just as much disappointment. These movies have one prominent feature in common: preposterous, sentimental endings that take unearned short-cuts to happy endings. Abrams stays true to the formula.

“But what do you expect from a monster movie starring a bunch of kids?” you might ask. Well, while not strictly “monster movies”, the Harry Potter series managed to establish some sort of believable logic for the plot, despite the magic and children involved. The difference is patience,  from both the director and the assumed audience. Would audiences have appreciated an extra twenty minutes of character development, exposition and an extended, more satisfying climax? I would have.

But we’ve seen it all before, and so while a nod to the past can be fun, it can get dull if every event can be foreseen, to the point where the audience could leave the theater halfway through and finish writing the script themselves:  Children, estranged from their parents, become friends and discover a strange creature in their small town. The (evil) military shows up, and it’s up to the children (the only ones who “understand” the monster) to save the day. Without much explanation, the parents realize they love their children, the monster only kills questionable authority figures, and the town (and creature) are saved.

The first third to half of the movie is a lot of fun. Just watching the kids plan and make their movies is classic stuff. And there is a moment when the white truck pulls onto the train tracks (I won’t say what happens next), when Abrams captures the essence of movie thrills: a completely unexpected, mysterious event that shatters the night, but from a distance that brings a creepy dread, rather than a visceral shock. That tone of mystery pervades the first part of the story. The innocence of the children is a sharp contrast to the huge events happening around them, and for a while it works, like some sections of The Goonies. But after that, it is evident that Abrams made an excellent copy of an 80’s adventure movie, and that’s about it.

There is quite a lot of potential in the child actors.  I won’t be at all surprised if I see the leads (Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) growing into stars over the next fifteen years.

Big Time Fun: “Midnight in Paris” (2011), dir. Woody Allen

Gil with Scott and Zelda.

When Woody Allen allows his imagination to run free, he makes the most enjoyable movies you’ll see.  For sheer creativity, his new film Midnight in Paris falls into the same bunch as Sweet and Lowdown, Mighty Aphrodite and Zelig. Yet Midnight has a lighthearted romanticism, even a positivity, that is rarely seen in his other films. This is Woody’s best movie since Match Point, and his most fun since Bullets Over Broadway.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a screenwriter disillusioned with Hollywood, who visits Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents.  Gil loves Paris and is in love with its romantic history of writers and artists, particularly the Lost Generation of the 1920’s. Inez, obviously a bad match for him, thinks Paris is “cheesy”, and prefers to live in Malibu. She likes money and the things it can do and has no interest in Gil’s desire to write a novel.

As their differences – and Inez’s parents – pull them apart, Gil finds himself wandering the streets of Paris alone each night. But he’s not wandering the Paris of 2010; instead, he paints the town red with the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali in the 1920’s. At the chime of midnight each night, a 20’s style automobile pulls up and takes Gil to house parties, clubs, and bars to hang out with the flappers, drinkers, and artists of the era. Woody never declares whether this time travel is supposed to be real or Gil’s imagination, but the charm of the movie calls for such ambiguity.

The theme of the movie is the romantic mindset. Throughout the film, Gil is mocked and belittled for his unrealistic, romantic views of Paris and the era of the 1920’s, which Gil insists was a better time than the present. Not surprisingly for an Allen picture, the antagonists are Paul, a “pedantic pseudo-intellectual”, and Inez’s parents, “right-wing conservative nut jobs”. Both are completely incapable of comprehending Gil’s imagination and romantic feelings. Paul declares that Gil’s longing for the 20’s is a self-defense mechanism “for those who cannot face the troubles of the present”. Inez’s father has Gil followed by a private investigator.

Allen has several self-referencing lines, which feel like they describe his mindset during the writing of the script. Gil, a screenwriter, declares that writing screenplays is easy, but he wants to write “real literature”. He also scolds himself for being too literal, declaring that he needs to be more imaginative. And of course, Woody loves Paris. And the French love him back. The most romantic thing in the film is Woody Allen’s romancing of Paris. Nobody with anything less than a large dose of romanticized affection could make this movie.

The representation of the famous personages of the 1920’s borders on caricature, but in a way that reflects Gil’s opinion of them. If this is Gil’s version of 1920’s Paris, then of course the artists will be the people Gil has pictured them to be, based on their artwork, their biographies, and his imagination. Hemingway is gruff and speaks in apocryphal, clipped sentences. Dali is bigger than life and cannot help grandly announcing his name over and over. “I am… Dali! Dali!”

But the most impressive element of the film is Owen Wilson. The whiny numbskull act that sometimes derails his characters is completely absent. His natural voice for comedic timing is dead-on, and the “sad eyes” that Dali observes are a reflection of the defeated tone that Wilson harbors through much of the film. Woody knew he had to cast a lovable… I almost said “loser” here, but that is exactly what he is not. Lovable romantic is more like it, one who marches to his own drummer.  And nobody does that better than Wilson.

As a long time Woody Allen fan, I am extremely and happily surprised at how fun it was to see Midnight in Paris. Whatever caustic thoughts were running through his head over the last few years seems to have taken a back seat while writing this one. And like Mark Twain said,”Write about what you know”. And nobody knows romanticized, wishful thinking more than Woody.

“Easy A” (2010), dir. Will Gluck

John  Hughes may have recognized his influence in this teeny-bopper film (not to mention that his own movies are referenced several times), but he never would have directed it.  The angst and adolescent euphoria that pervaded Hughes’ movies in the 80’s is nowhere to be found in Easy A.  But this film is a postmodern homage in an era of disillusionment, not an insightful tribute to youth, and it is very entertaining and smoothly performed by an impressive cast.

Emma Stone is quickly becoming a star, displaying incredible depth for a twenty-two year old. Here she plays Olive, a smart high school girl who, while not exactly a nerd, isn’t popular either. Although a girl of Stone’s looks and wit would certainly not be shunned by real high school boys, we are told that she is not only a virgin, but is never asked out on dates. Olive’s parents (played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, in the two best performances of the film) are of the “treat your kid like an adult” variety, laughing at her detention, prodding into Olive’s life only when something is obviously not going well.  Usually, teen-movie parents are either strict, out-of-touch task masters or easy going hippies who are “cool” except that they never actually pay attention to their kids. Screenwriter Bert Royal refreshingly has Dill and Rosemary (hippie names, to be sure) act like mature parents when they are called upon to do so. And yet they are still irreverent and funny.

Thomas Jefferson is credited for saying, “He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and a third time till at length it becomes habitual.” And Olive finds this to be only too true.  In an attempt to be cool, she lies and says that she slept with a college boy. Rumor, these days aided exponentially by text messaging, flies, and soon Olive gets a reputation.

The plot is launched when Olive’s gay friend, Brandon, bribes her into letting people think they have slept together. He sites her new reputation as the credibility he needs. This is one of the few times in the film when a touch of real high school issues rears its head. Brandon is so desperate to erase his reputation as a homosexual that he is in tears begging Olive to help him. From there, it snowballs. An overweight boy approaches Olive next, again bribing her to allow the rumor to spread (though this time it’s just grab-ass). And so on until, according to rumor, Olive has literally become the school whore.

In an act typical of frustrated adolescence, Olive runs with her new persona. She redesigns her clothing, and sews a large red “A” on her shirt. As Olive herself mentions (one of many self-references in the script), so often the book you are reading ends up being reflected in your real life (at least in the movies). And just by chance, her favorite teacher has assigned The Scarlett Letter, in which an early American puritanical town forces a woman to wear a red “A”, which stands for “Adulterer”.

The remainder of the film deals with three things: regaining her reputation, erasing the damage she has done to others, and winning the love of her childhood sweetheart. All of these are predictable and fairly irrelevant to the entertainment value of the film. The witty dialogue and fine, light performances of the chief players carry us through a happy ending that leaves us smiling and amused, even as we start to forget the plot as we walk away.