Monday, December 27, 2010

Black Swan

According to my wife, who has taken ballet lessons and danced en pointe at the Boston School of Ballet as well as at a school in San Francisco, Darren Aronofsy’s Black Swan establishes an authentic world of ballet and the obsessive drive for perfection that is part of that world. She identified with the obsessive-compulsive attention to the preparation of multiple pointe shoes, as depicted in the film: taking out the sole padding; sewing on the elastic band; burning the ends of the satin ribbons. She also notes the typical avoidance of food. In one scene, Nina (Natalie Portman) eats half a grapefruit and a poached egg for breakfast; in another scene she recoils from a huge cake her mother has bought to celebrate her getting the lead role in Swan Lake.

Within this world, three characters pose conflicts for Nina as she grapples with excruciating pain, deep-seated envy, tormenting doubt, and haunting paranoia while rehearsing the antithetical roles of the Swan Queen and the Black Swan. Nina has no trouble performing the movements of Odette, the Swan Queen, but she struggles with her interpretation of the evil Black Swan, responding sensitively to the criticisms of her exacting director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who wants her to let herself go and delve deep into her soul. In fact, he suggests that part of her problem is that she seems disinterested in sex. He forces her to kiss him; he suggests that she masturbate. Later, she tries to let herself go during a sensual nightclub escapade with a rival dancer.

But the challenge of performing both Odette and Odile, under a demanding, glowering director who stirs her feelings of inadequacy, is compounded by other conflicts. Nina fears the competition of her alternate dancer, the earthy Lily (Mila Kunis) who has no trouble letting herself go, and who seems to get more praise from Thomas. Nina also feels guilty that Thomas’s previous star, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) has been cast aside. This guilt intensifies when Beth ends up in the hospital after stepping suicidally into traffic. Nina also fears that she will end up just like Beth, cast aside after her prime dancing days are over. On top of all this conflict, Nina lives with her mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), a smothering, domineering woman obsessed with Nina’s success. Hershey gives a chilling performance as Erica lays on the guilt, controls her daughter, even sleeps in her daughter’s room at night.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

True Grit (2010) - The Coens' Production

As I write about the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel True Grit, it is hard to set aside my deep emotional attachment to the 1969 adaptation of the same novel, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne, though I will review the Coens' film without making comparisons. Back in 1969, True Grit played for months at the movie theater where I worked as an usher, and I probably saw it at least thirty times. Later, on VHS and DVD, I saw it at least twenty more times, introducing it to my wife, who loved the movie too and considered Mattie Ross to be one of her favorite characters in literature and film. On top of that, John Wayne had always been my favorite actor. I grew up watching his earlier movies on television, and I saw most of his later movies as they came out in theaters, starting with The Alamo in 1960, all the way to The Shootist in 1977. Having seen the 1969 adaptation as many times as I have, I can recite much of the dialogue by heart, and many of its eminently quotable lines became useful catchphrases that my wife and I would fit into day-to-day situations. “Look at him grin. He’ll cheat you.”

First of all, I am entirely grateful to filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen for making a Western, my favorite film genre, without nonsense or excessive pretense.

As does the 1969 version, the Coens’ True Grit faithfully sticks to the dialogue in Portis’s brief, dialogue-laden novel. For me, seeing the new movie was like seeing a new performance of a famous play. You might go to see Hamlet, for example, and it’s directed by another director, and it might be starring Laurence Olivier or Christopher Plummer or Jude Law, and although it might have a new look or tone, the lines are the same. You might not like the performers or the director’s interpretation as well as a previous production, but you still like the play because it’s the same story. Since so much of the dialogue in the Coens’ film is the same as in the 1969 version, I felt a warm feeling hearing those very familiar lines again, and I knew exactly what the next line would be, and like one of those staunch Tolkien enthusiasts whose passion for The Lord of the Rings encouraged Peter Jackson to adapt the novel into three epic-length films, I was disappointed when some of the great lines and scenes from the novel, kept in the 1969 film, were missing from the new adaptation.

In True Grit (2010), a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires a ruthless, one-eyed marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to ride into the Indian Territory on the trail of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer. As Mattie’s righteous determination pushes Rooster and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) onward, the hard-drinking old gunman and the morally upright, money-wise little girl develop a touching father-daughter relationship. In the end, Rooster Cogburn will do anything for Mattie Ross, and we see this clearly in the film’s most touching, most exciting sequence when Cogburn must get Mattie to a doctor. Both of them mounted on Little Blackie, Mattie’s beloved pony, they ride back the way they came, and we see their progress through Mattie’s feverish eyes. We see the dead bodies in the clearing; the winter-bare trees; and the brilliant stars overhead. After Little Blackie is ridden to death, Rooster Cogburn nearly dies carrying Mattie in his arms.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Old Grid, New Grid - Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010)

Until recently, my experience with the original Tron (1982) had been watching it once through on VHS and then showing my students the lightcycle chase and the tanks sequence multiple times as examples of early CGI. Then, in anticipation of the new Tron: Legacy, I dug out the old VHS tape and watched Tron again, having a good chuckle at Jeff Bridges’s hyper, hot dog portrayal of computer programmer Kevin Flynn, but escaping totally into the otherworld the film establishes. Though both films feature merely serviceable performances that generate little emotion, and the writing tends toward comic-bookish camp, they both succeed at creating fascinating worlds that take the viewer on unique adventures even though the vast difference in visual quality spans the entire history of CGI.

Despite the extreme contrast in CGI, I can still enjoy the world created in the original Tron, an effectively established otherworld where “user” Kevin Flynn (Bridges), Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), and Crom (Peter Jurasik) try to avoid de-rezzing as they cross a world of line and angles to the portal that can whisk Kevin back to the real world. Here we follow Kevin’s attempts to survive a disc-throwing battle and a lightcycle contest, and elude tanks and H-shaped shuttles. One of the most memorable moments in Tron comes when Kevin, Tron, and Crom refresh themselves at a pool of crystal-clear energy-water. Bridges’s thirst for the invigorating water evokes a vivid sense of wonder here. You want to reach out and try some of it yourself! As a credit to Tron, this scene is more effective than the episode in Legacy when Kevin, Sam (Kevin’s son, played by Garrett Hedlund), and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) sit down to a meal of … what? Cybernetic roast pig? What they eat is neither interesting nor vividly evoked. (Nevertheless, the dinner scene in Legacy is a beautiful tribute to Kubrick as the dinner table and the white floor crisscrossed with black lines call to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey mise-en-scène.) Also notable in the first Tron is the pursuit of the “Solar Sailer” and its nifty crossover to an alternate path on the Grid. The Grid adventures are the best part of Tron, and it’s a brash disappointment when Jeff returns to a low-budget 1980s real world with shaggy hairstyles and horridly huge glasses.

Twenty-eight years later, Tron: Legacy benefits from incredible advances in CGI, (while it gains little from 3D), and takes you into a world of breadth and plummeting depth, a dark, sunless realm of brooding structures where programs do the bidding of CLU (a pasty-faced, mealy-mouthed CGI version of a younger Jeff Bridges). Here, old Kevin Flynn (Bridges) has gone guru, and his Zen jargon fits right in with the comic book tone. “Radical!” No matter. Your eyes are too busy feasting on the visuals to be able to pay much attention to words. As in the first film, after the thankfully brief scenes in the real world, the Grid gradually absorbs you as Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son, moves through its various landscapes. As Sam Flynn, Garrett Hedlund is just as pasty-faced and toothy as the CGI version of Jeff Bridges. He’s utilitarian in his role, but the characters he meets are more interesting. Sam’s father has turned into an old-fashioned hippie, fighting against CLU’s attempt to form all programs into a vast robotic army, and Michael Sheen plays Castor/ Zuse (I never understood the significance of the revelation that he is Zuse), the sleazy proprietor of the End of the World Club.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jaws Memories (1975)

Here is my contribution to the Spielberg Blogathon sponsored by Adam Zanzie at Icebox Movies and Ryan Kelly at Medfly Quarantine. Enjoy the post and check out other contributions to the blogathon.

Back in 1975 I found myself in Philadelphia for a three-day orientation program before shipping off to three years in the Peace Corps in Morocco. I had grown up in California, and this was my first experience with an eastern city. I saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, with John Huston sitting on the steps, taking a break from filming a documentary. Seeking a last chance to see an American movie before traveling overseas, I happened upon a matinee of Jaws playing downtown. The director’s name was vaguely familiar. Oh, yeah, that’s right; I remember watching and loving the TV-movie Duel. Give it a try, I thought. The poster sure made it look like fun.

Inside the vast cinema, I slipped into a seat and watched the ending of The Eiger Sanction (that was back in the days of double features). Then Jaws began.

The music plays, and you’re taken right in. Very clever! I found the opening scene gruesome. You never see the shark, but with all of Chrissie’s desperate thrashing around, with all her horrid shrieks, your imagination vividly pictures what is happening under the surface of the water.

As serendipity would have it, I now live on Cape Cod and have spent a lot of time on Martha’s Vineyard. But back in 1975 the locations in Jaws were totally alien to me. Having grown up near the Pacific and the beaches at Half Moon Bay, I was totally surprised to find tranquil beaches where you could swim without having to surmount huge waves. How quaint! And how quaint were those narrow streets and shingled buildings in Edgartown, which stands in for the town of Amity.

Throughout the first half of the film, Spielberg continues the pattern of revealing the shark sparingly. He builds suspense without showing the shark, but the shark’s power and menace are clearly established. The beach sequence is a superb mixture of gimmicks: the fat woman walking into the water; the dog that goes missing; old Harry gliding through the water with his bathing cap; the sudden squeal as a guy raises his girlfriend on his shoulders – and all of this seen through Chief Brody’s eyes, his vision interrupted by passing vacationers. It’s all a tease, and Spielberg is a master of the visual tease. When the shark attack comes, it’s an abrupt geyser of blood. Brody, fixed to the beach by his paradoxical fear of the water, is transfixed. “We know about you, Chief.” “That’s some bad hat, Harry.” Spielberg employs Hitchcock’s Vertigo effect to draw the transfixed Brody toward the horror. Why not! The whole sequence is a feast of Hitchcockian devices. Oh, and Alex’s Kintner’s mother is superbly cast. She looks exactly like a former teaching colleague of mine who lives on Cape Cod.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

One Out of Three: Love and Other Drugs, The Tourist, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Love and Other Drugs, directed by Edward Zwick, bored me more than any movie I’ve seen this year. Its insincere, manipulative use of Parkinson’s Disease as a topical focus; its tedious jokes about Viagra and erections; and its forcedly crass sexual situations, most of them involving Josh Gad trying to be the resident Jonah Hill, emulating the crudeness of Superbad without the humor, do nothing for this story about a wastrel playboy/drug salesman, Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), who reaches a pivotal point in his aimless life when he falls in love with Maggie Murdoch (Anne Hathaway), a young woman suffering stage one Parkinson’s. While Gyllenhaal looks handsome in suits, Hathaway pushes her don’t-say-love flippancy and coyness to an irritating degree. The film’s climactic scene in which Jamie convinces Maggie “It’s you!” works like a parody of the worst of Nicholas Sparks. You don’t believe you’re hearing what you’re hearing, but you are.

The Tourist, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others) is about Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. That's about it. In the opening scene, Jolie struts haltingly along Paris streets in ridiculous high heels. She reaches a posh café where Interpol detectives have her under surveillance because she is sexy and because Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) could lead police to her lover, a man who absconded with two billion dollars.

Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo, a long-haired, mild-mannered math teacher from Wisconsin whom Elise picks up so everyone will believe he is her thieving lover. In Venice, Jolie continues to strut in high heels, dresses in sexy dresses, and cruises the canals in motor launches. Meanwhile, Depp, looking pasty-faced and not as sexy as Jolie, utters about a dozen lines throughout the whole film. In fact, he’s so terse he hardly seems to be in the movie.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Little Worlds: The Best in Art Direction: 2010

As I did last year, apropos of my blog’s title, I hereby offer a tribute to the best in art direction for films released in 2010. As I said in last year’s version of this post, I love the use of drawing, painting, models, constructed sets, and CGI to create an imaginative cinematic world that transports the viewer to another place. It might be a world that no one can ever visit in reality. Or it might be a real place that you can visit on your own, though the cinematic rendering of it reveals details and textures we might never perceive beyond its presentation on film.

Considering the 61 movies I've seen in theaters this year, I was a little disappointed with the art direction in comparison with previous years. No one built the Alamo or Troy or drew up an imaginary world as fantastic as Pandora.

Nevertheless, here are my favorite little worlds from 2010, presented in order in which I saw them, and I well might add Tron: Legacy, this year’s Yuletide CGI fest, to make this list an even ten.

High Noon Apocalypse from The Book of Eli

Making a post-apocalyptic film? Just film it in some place like Nevada and your work's done for you. But this movie wants to be a post-apocalyptic Western, so when Eli wanders into town off the desert, we find ourselves in a suitably dismal hamlet that nicely calls to mind the Westerns of Sergio Leone. Out in the middle of nowhere, a lone house is home to a kickass aged couple, and a CGI rendering of San Francisco features the Golden Gate Bridge missing its middle.

The Island in Your Mind from Shutter Island

The bleak wooden dock, that formidable gate, the institutional grounds, the damp corridors, the cliffs, the tower – all of it could be real, but all of it brilliantly evokes what’s going on in Teddy’s mind. Rats swarming over damp rocks, cliffs jutting into the gray sea, the look of this film is a major achievement.

Alice in Tim Burtonland from Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's vision of Wonderland is full of variety - from an overgrown garden that's a whimsically mad jungle to a wall embraced by thorns to a countryside that looks like it's been hit by an atomic bomb where you wouldn't be surprised to see a shabbily dressed father and his son pushing a squeaky shopping cart. Palaces and tea tables in the middle of the woods, the world of Lewis Carroll is a feast for Burton's imagination and a feast for our eyes.

Vikingland from How to Train Your Dragon

Those little huts on the hilly seacoast are toast when the dragons attack (love how the dragons carry off the bleating sheep), but the thick forest is full of wonder, the little canyon with the pond constitute a magical location in which a Viking boy can meet a dragon and learn how to train it. There’s texture and memorable depth to this colorful little world.

Ozark Boonies from Winter’s Bone

You feel the winter in your bones just looking at Ree’s shabby log cabin with the trampoline out front for the kids. During her quest to find her father, Ree visits places just as bleak or bleaker, and set decoration does a great job with interiors, making it clear these are the kind of people who think nothing of putting a gun on the lazy Susan next to the coffee mugs.