Posts Tagged ‘Natalie Portman’

The DVD Geek: The Black Swan

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Darren Aronofsky has made several obnoxious, tedious films about madness and metamorphosis, seeming not to understand that there has to be something approaching an appealing human being in the center of such a story for a viewer to care about what happens next.  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has also been considered obnoxious, for its overly sweet melodic structures and its iconic presentation of women as birds, as if that were the penultimate expression of dancing.  So, can one obnoxiousness cancel out the other?  That would seem to be the case with Aronofsky’s cross between The Red Shoes and Repulsion, Black Swan, released on Blu-ray by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.  About a ballerina, played by Natalie Portman, who is having a psychic meltdown while practicing for her big break in the leading dual role of Swan Lake, Aronofsky resorts at times to his annoying images of grotesque growths and wounds, but he always gets reeled in by the beauty of the music and the nobility of the dancing.  And as much as a plain, straightforward presentation of Swan Lake would make a potentially lovely Blu-ray, using the ballet as a backdrop (and an excuse to awash the audio at times with Tchaikovsky’s haunting themes) for a rich dramatic exploration of artistic pressure, vocational dedication and emotional sacrifice is a much richer intellectual experience.  Whether it would beat out Swan Lake as entertainment would depend upon the dancers and choreographers at hand.  Aronofsky tends to disguise the dancing a bit too much, avoiding Portman’s legs and feet whenever possible, but that is only noticeable if seeing Swan Lake live has trained you to never take your eyes away from that part of the dancers’ bodies.  Otherwise, it is a deft and believable sleight of hand.  Portman, who seemed positively busty in Attack of the Clones, is petite and gaunt, while never losing the requisite muscularity that her character would require to ply her trade.  Barbara Hershey plays her rather scary mother, although you don’t really know how much of Hershey’s character is imagined and how much is real.  That basically goes for everything in the movie, but to give Aronofsky credit, the beats of the finale are perfect, and rescue a drama that could just have easily gone off the deep end.  Viewers are to be warned, however, that along with his penchant for gore, Aronofsky is very frank when it comes to the sexuality of his characters.  This is not the dance movie you want to show your eight-year old who dreams of becoming a ballerina.  Or maybe it is.

The 2010 production runs 108 minutes.  The presentation is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  There is a natural grain in the cinematography that is preserved, for better or worse, in the image transfer.  In that the entire world of the heroine may be crumbling about her, the grain seems appropriate, and after the first few minutes, it is no longer a bother.  The DTS sound mix is excellent, and the directional effects are often chilling.  There is a French track in 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and English and Spanish subtitles.  A second platter is included with the set that contains a copy of the film that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices.  Along with a trailer, the BD contains 92 minutes of production featurettes and interviews, which reveal how some of the more clever moments were accomplished as well as conveying a decent sense of how the film was conceived and executed.


More than 11,500 DVD reviews by Douglas Pratt are available on the CD-ROM, DVDs by Douglas Pratt.  For more information, email

After Oscar

Sunday, February 27th, 2011
Award And the Oscar Goes to … Who I Said WOULD win Who I said SHOULD win Neve’s Picks And the Gurus Picks
Best Picture

The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech


The Social Network

The King’s Speech
Best Director

Tom Hooper

Tom Hooper

Darren Aronofsky

David Fincher

Davd Fincher
Best Actor

Colin Firth

Colin Firth

Javier Bardem

Jesse Eisenberg

Colin Firth
Supporting Actor

Christian Bale

Geoffrey Rush

John Hawkes

Christian Bale

Christian Bale
Best Actress

Natalie Portman

Annette Bening

Michelle Williams

Annette Bening

Natalie Portman
Supporting Actress

Melissa Leo

Helena Bonham-Carter

Hailee Steinfeld

Melissa Leo

Melissa Leo

Toy Story 3




Toy Story 3

Inside Job

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Inside Job

Exit Through the Gift Shop

In a Better World




In a Better World
Adapted Screenplay

Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

The Social Network

Winter’s Bone

Toy Story 3

Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Original Screenplay

David Seidler, The King’s Speech

The Kids Are All Right



The King’s Speech

So I Saw No String Attached…

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Ivan Reitman was once one of the three biggest directors on the planet.  Natalie Portman is on her way to her first Academy Award.  Ashton Kutcher…well, he entered the word “Punked” into the lexicon.  You team up the three of them for an R-rated romantic comedy about two people who enter into a “fuck buddy” agreement and it sounds like a recipe for success, right?

Okay, maybe it doesn’t at all, considering that Ivan Reitman hasn’t been “Ivan Reitman” since the 80s, Natalie Portman has often slummed in movies that aren’t worthy of her talents, and Ashton Kutcher is…well, Ashton Kutcher.  Still, for some reason, I decided that I would walk into the movie theater a month after its release and check out No Strings Attached.

This is actually a fascinating movie to dissect because it does so many things right while simultaneously doing just as many things wrong.  Every time it takes a step forward or does something interesting, it will take a step backwards into convention.  For example, the film gets off to an inauspicious start by blatantly aping When Harry Met Sally and showing our two main characters as they meet several times over the years before finally settling into a “friendship” that revolves mostly around sex.  However, the way in which they fall in bed together is kind of clever and out of the ordinary.

Another example: Kutcher’s friends in the film are stock characters that are given one note to play and they play that one note loudly.  Ludacris plays the “urban” friend and that’s his role from beginning to end, while Jake Johnson plays the token “loud” friend who is brash and “wacky” and has two gay dads, so that explains…absolutely nothing about his character.  However, on the flip side, we get the interesting perspectives of Portman’s friends who are all doctors like she is.  Her friends, played by Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling, seem more fully developed and interesting than the two leads of the film.  I desperately wanted the film to turn into a Grey’s Anatomy kind of show, but based around Gerwig and Kaling.  Alas.

One more example: Portman is given a typical asshole guy as her “other option.”  He has no depth whatsoever and says a couple of rude comments to Kutcher about how Kutcher is just a boytoy while he will be the one that Portman marries.  On the flip side, Kutcher is given Lake Bell as his “other option” and she is such a delight that I actually wanted him to wind up with her.  She is supportive and engaging and cares about him.  Which is more than can be said for Portman’s character…

Which leads me to my biggest problem with the film: I don’t want the two leads to end up together.  Despite the fact that the film desperately wants me to be engaged in their romance, I was consistently put off by the fact that Portman’s character is cold, moody, and anti-relationship for no good reason.  She’s stressed, she doesn’t have time, blah blah blah.  The conceit of her character is that she is against being in a relationship, forever and for always, but why the hell is this so?  We are never given a concrete reason why she wouldn’t want to be with a guy who she consistently calls wonderful in every aspect of his being.  What is holding her back from entering into this relationship besides the constraints of the premise?  The only reason this movie isn’t 30 minutes long is because the script demands that there should be obstacles in the way.  Except, the movie never comes up with a convincing obstacle outside of Portman’s reluctance to be in this relationship for no goddamned reason whatsoever.  I was sitting there, thinking, “Shit, I really hope Kutcher ends up with Lake Bell since she actually seems to care for him.”

The other massive problem with the film is that it has too many characters and too many subplots.  Jake Johnson is dating Greta Gerwig in the background and it doesn’t mean anything to us because we don’t know their relationship at all.  Also, Kevin Kline plays Kutcher’s lothario father who is sleeping with Kutcher’s ex.  Snooze.  We also have Cary Elwes inexplicably showing up once in a while as a doctor that Portman hits on and it goes…nowhere.  Or Olivia Thirlby as Portman’s little sister who is getting married and shows us that…marriage is possible?  Or how about Portman’s mother who is sleeping with a man named Bones…nowhere.  The wonderful Abby Elliott shows up as a waitress for a few scenes…wasted.

All of these characters, all of these subplots, what are they adding to this world that has been created?  What are we, the audience, gaining from their inclusion?  The answer is, now and for always, nothing.  It’s like the film doesn’t trust its central premise and the charisma of its two leads enough to actually run with them.  I mean, we have a premise that is potentially interesting and ripe for a good romantic comedy: friends who have sex.  But instead of focusing on how that works, what the slow emotional boil of that kind of relationship is really like, we are instead given a short montage of scenes of them having sex and a few big set-pieces and then a lot of bullshit that really doesn’t have anything to do with the premise.  Instead, the film fans out to multiple characters and different subplots (did I mention that Kutcher is an aspiring writer for a Gleeish TV show?) that paper over the initial conceit.  What that does is make me less invested in the relationship I should be invested in and more invested on when the hell the movie is going to be over.

What really kills me are that some of the supporting characters are funny and some of the inter-personal complexities of love in this modern era are spot-on and strike a chord.  But, it always reverts back to these conventional moments and you can really feel the McKeeish way the script was structured.  You can time your watch to it: “Oh, time for the inciting incident!”  “We’re about 65 minutes in, time for the big fight!”

Look, this is mediocre cinema anyway you slice it, so nobody comes out of the film covered in muck and nobody walks out smelling like a daisy either.  Portman gets to have a filthy mouth (and keep her bra on during sex, something that always pulls me out of every goddamned sex scene) and Kutcher gets to be starry-eyed and show his ass, but neither are really getting anything out of this movie except a paycheck.  Reitman, the man who brought us Stripes and Ghostbuster, has now directed his best film since Dave…which isn’t really saying much when you look at the film he’s directed since then (we’re talking Father’s Day, 6 Days 7 Nights, Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend) and has also clearly checked out as a filmmaker worth paying attention to.

This is the kind of picture that will horrify no one and will please very few.  It’s an airplane movie, and a shrug-inducing one at that.  Oddly, I’m really looking forward to Will Gluck’s Friends with Benefits, to see how Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis do with similar subject matter.

Thor’s Gallery

Friday, February 18th, 2011

DP/30: BlackSwanSploitation – Meet Benjamin Millepied

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Frenzy on the Wall: Black Swan

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Natalie Portman gives the performance of the year in Black Swan, and the film itself is a masterpiece.

I’m an enormous fan of Darren Aronofsky’s work, and I think he’s one of the true visionaries in cinema. His first three feature-length films — Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain — are all masterpieces. I was not a big fan of The Wrestler, which I found to be wildly over-praised. I thought it was a fine film, sure, but it wasn’t reaching for the same heights that Aronofsky’s previous films had and I thought that it suffered from a lack of dramatic momentum – in other words, I didn’t find myself propelled forward by the story.

Review: Black Swan

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

You wouldn’t know it from its Rotten Tomatoes rating, but Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan, was probably the most divisive film at Toronto. Perhaps it was because in the days leading up to the fest we kept hearing such different things about it: Some rumors said it was a callback to the visually compelling, non-linear structure of The Fountain, others said it evoked The Wrestler in the world of ballet.

MW on Movies: Black Swan and I Love You Phillip Morris

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Black Swan (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Darren Aronofsky

Who makes crazier art movies — about more agonized characters, trapped in more nightmarish fixes — than Darren Aronofsky? David Lynch, Bong Joon-ho and Roman Polanski, maybe — but precious few others. A specialist in tales of the brilliantly sick and the sickishly brilliant, Aronofsky has spun, with disorienting intensity, barmy movie stories of a crazed math genius going nuts on the stock market (in Pi), of a family of lower depths junkies and pill-poppers flipping out together (author Hubert Selby Jr‘s Requiem for a Dream), and of a battered, beaten-down over-the-hill old wrestler putting himself through hell for one last fight in a world falling apart around him (The Wrestler.)

In The Fountain, Aronofsky’s whole universe went bonkers, in segments. And in his latest movie, the justly hailed but occasionally (understandably) ridiculed dance melodrama Black Swan, this unbraked chronicler of mad lives charts the psychological disintegration of a young, ambitious New York ballerina named Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman with ferocious dedication), who’s been given the dream lead role of the swan princess of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at Lincoln Center and promptly — what else in a Darren Aronofsky film? — goes over the edge into some kind of madness, as well as, apparently, self-mutilation, paranoid fantasies and sexual hysteria.

As we watch, Nina whirls and leaps and goes delusional — and the camera seems to whirl and leap and go delusional along with her, executing wild leaps and dizzying spins, diving and pouncing and peeking over her shoulder, Polanski-like, wherever she goes. When the ballet company’s seductive bully of a master choreographer, Thomas Leroy (played by French star Vincent Cassell, as a kind of sexy, sadistic mindfucker and puppet-master) casts Nina as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, replacing his former prima ballerina, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder, who plays Beth like a mad, self-destructive witch) — he’s simultaneously anointing her, and hurling her into hell.

When he tells Nina she‘s ideal casting for half the part (the role of the pure white swan) but not the other half (the wicked black swan), he’s dropping her into an inferno of nightmares, hurling a dart at the splintering psyche we glimpse beneath Nina’s Persona-like, beautiful, introverted face. (And the guy thought he was just helping her figure out the part!)

Aronofsky bombards us with Nina’s fears and desires, in scenes of dreamily voluptuous terror. The ballet studio and stage become arenas of paranoia. (When she practices in the studio alone, she’s suddenly drenched in darkness.) So does her home, an art-cluttered Manhattan apartment she shares with her painter mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).

Stricken with fear, Nina tears and rips at her own flesh, on her shoulder blades, her hands, near her cuticles — and then the cuts are mysteriously healed. She‘s flung into predatory sexual escapades or fantasies, involving Thomas, and her main rival, Lilly (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas says is the perfect Black Swan, and who (seemingly) dives between Nina’s legs one night, after an uncharacteristic girls‘ night out — a fling which Lilly then denies. (“You fantasized about me? Was I good?” she asks delightedly.)

As the fantasies (?) rage, Nina becomes ill, is berated by Thomas, attacked by Beth, played for a fool (maybe) by her rival Lilly, bossed by her devoted yet domineering mother. She suffers agonies of self-doubt (thanks to Thomas), who tries to bring her out of herself (he says) by recommending masturbation as part of her regimen, then by jumping her bones, by kissing her and howling when she bites him (which is pretty much what he wanted). Lilly plays the part of seductress/rival/immoral friend, the earthy black swan against Nina’s ethereal white.

Amidst this accelerating chaos, the beauty and classicism and first night of Swan Lake (modernized by Thomas, of course) looms.

I acted a lot in college, and there’s a dream about the theater I had over and over. I‘ll bet lots of you have had it too, though maybe involving a looming school test instead. The show has started, I haven’t learned my lines, and suddenly I’m pushed on stage before a full house. (Playwright Christopher Durang exploits a similar fantasy in one of his plays.) But these nightmares in Black Swan, concocted by Aronofsky and his co-writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz (original story) and John McLaughlin, I must say, are worse, scarier — like being thrown on stage when you’re not yet ready and when you’re also clawing yourself to bloody shreds and being pursued by devils.

We all know dancers suffer, actors suffer, writers suffer, artists suffer. (Hell, everybody suffers a bit, except maybe the upper tax brackets guys, but artists maybe suffer more, because it’s part of their metier.) Yet Portman’s Nina — who sleeps (and, in one memorable scene, masturbates) in a doll-strewn and teddy bear-packed bedroom and who claims she’s not a virgin (we don’t believe her) — goes through such intense suffering that, though possibly self-inflicted, it seems punishment enough for orgies of sin, and not just with Mila Kunis.

But how much of this is really happening? Is there really a theater, really a company, even really a white and black swan? All of the main characters seem to have parallel lives in the ballet; the cast list seems to give them all, dancers or not, separate ballet character identities. We know some it is real, some of it a dream, some of it fears made flesh. But we can never be too sure which is which. That’s what makes the movie so interesting.

It hovers on camp, of course. More than hovers: it swoops and circles.

Ballet films sometimes seem to bring out the mad poet in some filmmakers. Ben Hecht’s Specter of the Rose, with Judith Anderson and the grandly hammy Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton) grafts murder mystery and psycho-thriller onto the world of classical ballet. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a phantasmagorical operetta-ballet out of Offenbach’s supernatural Tales of Hoffman. The most famous (and best) of them all, almost everyone’s favorite (mine too) was Powell and Pressburger’s great, rhapsodically loony and magically colorful The Red Shoes, in which Moira Shearer’s Vicky suffered too, though at the hand of a tyrannical Diaghilev-like impresario (Anton Walbrook) rather than a horny star choreographer and inner demons.

The Red Shoes, a touchstone film for young dancers-to-be, is the picture whose spellbinding Hans Christian Andersen Red Shoes ballet scene inspired Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris ballet, which inspired all the others. It‘s a much better film than Black Swan — a movie that sometimes suggests a psychotic version of The Red Shoes directed by Roman Polanski, with a hand from Bob Fosse and Dario Argento.

It’s not really a horror movie, but it’s more horrific than many that are. Black Swan immerses you in paranoia, but it doesn’t really convince you of anything, not even at times that Tchaikovsky really wrote Swan Lake. (Wasn’t it Ennis Morricone, plus Georges Deere?) But the movie hooks you, rakes the flesh of your imagination, even if it doesn’t put wings in the scars on your shoulder blades.

The production design (by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski) is dreamily swank. The camerawork is mobile and sometimes even frenzied. (Matthew Libatique is the cinematographer.) I can understand the knocks, but I was never less than entertained, and I was often more than edgy.

Some people hate The Red Shoes too. (My late ex-girlfriend, Marji, who looked a lot like Moira Shearer, despised Red Shoes as much as she loved Blade Runner and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — and maybe it was because people kept telling her she looked like Moira Shearer.)

And, like Red Shoes, Black Swan is a movie that seems to adore art and creativity. But it also seems terrified of both, scared silly of the worlds they open up. It puts us deep inside Nina’s psyche, and that’s not a nice place to be.

Just like the magical red ballet shoes that carry Vicky up and over the balustrade and to the train tracks below, Black Swan’s vision of dance and art is hard to take, madly over the top. But Natalie Portman (who was doubled in some dance scenes) is often madly impressive; Portman plays and dances with fierce, almost trance-like fervor, letting the nightmares pull her (and us) under.

Cassell, Kunis and Ryder are fine, often riveting — and so, I would argue is Hershey, who’s taken abuse from some quarters. I was glad to see her again. She’s a good visual mother-daughter match for Portman, and I even like the character, though Aronofsky may not. We see Erica somewhat as Nina sees her, but Nina is wrong. It’s Nina who maybe has the white and black swan, the angel and devil, in her, set to pounce and pirouette.

Anyway, in the end, it’s not art or artistry that drives you crazy, but the way the world treats the artists it doesn’t exploit. As for the artists themselves, even the mad, selfish ones … They can be angels, even when their hearts hide some darkness, like Nina‘s. As Black Swan rightly suggests, there’s something else to fear: the demons of ambition and jealousy and madness that may dwell within us, always, ready to dance.


I Love You Phillip Morris (Three Stars)

U.S.: Glenn Ficcara & John Requa, 2009

I Love You, Phillip Morris has apparently been on the shelf for a year, and it’s not hard to see why; among other things, Jim Carrey plays a psychopathic criminal named Steven Russell (a character apparently modeled on a real life psychopath). In the film‘s most show stopping scene, we see Steven nude, pumping away in the throes of sex — and then the camera takes in his partner below, male, bearded, while Steven keeps screaming that he’s gay. All I can say is, Jim Carrey may be a well-known old married man, but he sure has movie star cojones. (The bearded guy seemed to think so too.)

They shouldn’t have worried though. This is one of Carrey’s best performances, at least since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and maybe better than that one too. Russell, it seems, was a supposedly good, Christian, Southern “family values” family man who one day discovered he was adopted, found his real mother, was spurned by her, turned bad, became a con artist and phony, and wound up in a Texas jail, where he discovered the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).

From then on, we’re treated to one of the most amazing con-game stories ever put on film, wilder than anything in Nine Queens or The Sting — and (they tell us) true. No more synopsis. (Don’t ask; don’t tell.)

Writer-directors Glenn Ficcara and John Requa, who also wrote Bad Santa and Cats and Dogs, wrote an engrossing story here, and they got primo actors to play it. Watch it.

But is it really true? Really? Well partners, all I can say is that if the authorities are this damned dumb in Texas, maybe they should secede. (Just kidding fellas. Hell, I‘m an old Rio Bravo-Searchers— Duke Wayne fan from way back, and I love Texas. Just not the way Jim Carrey loves Phillip Morris.)

The Beauty of the Black Swan Posters

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Black Swan, actor Natalie Portman

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

SPOILER WARNING: We discuss the ultimate scenes in the film in this conversation.

Picturing Black Swan

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Oscars, Already?

Monday, October 11th, 2010

We have the new Gurus O’ Gold chart up, and in taking a look at the consensus votes du jour, I had a couple thoughts. I missed The King’s Speech at Toronto, so I’ll have to wait until screeners come in/Seattle screenings get set to weigh in on it. Could be the Oscar-bee’s knees like I heard from a lot of folks at Toronto, could be Colin Firth‘s year to win a statue. Or not. Time will tell.

Of the Best Pic-contending movies I have seen, I wouldn’t rank The Social Network as highly as it’s sitting right now. It’s very early for that film to be peaking, I think, and I still just don’t see its subject matter and cynicism as broadly appealing to the Academy voters. But we’ll see. Hereafter? Not so much. I wouldn’t even have that one on my Oscar radar at all except that it’s directed by Eastwood — but I personally found it to be maybe on par with Invictus, which wasn’t great, and maybe a tad below Million Dollar Baby (NOT my favorite movie) in terms of emotional manipulation.

Right now, I think my personal top Best Picture pics would be True Grit (haven’t seen that one yet either, but it’s the Coens and the trailer looks great), Black Swan, 127 Hours, Another Year, The King’s Speech (based on the buzz alone at this point) and Winter’s Bone OR The Kids Are All Right as strong outsiders.

I’m more interested at this point in the Adapted Screenplay race, where we have 127 Hours, True Grit and The Social Network as probably leaders of the pack. To this I would add Never Let Me Go, which I think, after reading the book, is a really solid adaptation — more on that one later. Unfortunately, I missed seeing Rabbit Hole (darn that weighty Toronto slate and its surprises), and I’ve heard so many things on that one (mostly positive) that I’m hoping to get to check it out soon.

Right now I’m also interested in the Best Actor and Actress races as well. For Best Actor, everyone (ah yes, the ever-mysterious, yet oddly influential “they”) came out of Toronto saying James Franco is a “lock” for a nomination, and Firth virtually a “lock” for a nom and probable win. I’ve seen Duvall in Get Low and it’s a good performance, no doubt, and one that may appeal to the Academy. Not my personal top o’ the actor heap, but I have no idea what the Academy’s temperature reading is on that film, and no one’s counting my votes anyhow.

Bridges in True Grit may (will probably be) Oscar worthy, but he’s coming off a win last year for Crazy Heart. Personally (and again, not having seen True Grit or King’s Speech yet) my sentimental favorite is Javier Bardem for Biutiful, which I think is the best performance in a career of great performances. But the artfulness of Biutiful may not be enough to lift it up above the rather bleak subject matter to put it up there in the hearts of voters.

As for Best Actress, maybe it’s just me but this feels like a slightly less competitive field this year. After barely missing out on a Best Actress nom for Happy-Go-Lucky a couple years ago, this may be Sally Hawkins year with Made in Dagenham, the kind of uplifting Brit-flick that may be appealing to the Academy. I would probably put Lesley Manville‘s really solid turn in Another Year right up there with Hawkins. and if it were me, Jennifer Lawrence would be right in the mix for Winter’s Bone. I heard really amazing things about Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole out of Toronto, too, and I am a fan of Black Swan and Portman’s performance in it. I wouldn’t count her out completely yet.

The Oscar race will start to take shape more as screeners get sent out and buzz starts to bubble up for this film and peter out for that one. This is a fall with a lot of exciting movies to look forward to and it should be an interesting awards season to watch as well. Much as we all get sick of reading and writing about Oscars, our collective obsession with it drives this business to one extent or another.

I don’t plan to write as much about Oscars as the “Oscar pundits,” more to focus narrowly on specific bits and pieces — screenplay adaptations, docs, maybe foreigns depending on what’s nominated there. After years of having my kids do their Oscar picks randomly using everything from Magic 8-Ball to Twister to Pin the Tail on the Donkey (usually with surprising accuracy) I’ve come to believe that it’s really a crap shoot anyhow.

Fun to talk about and argue about and make charts about, but at the end of the day, I don’t know that any one person’s guesses are actually more accurate or better than the randomness of the Magic 8-Ball. So it goes, let the speculating begin.

TIFF 2010: It’s a Wrap

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Another year of TIFF has officially wrapped, the awards have been announced, and everyone’s gone home. It was a really great fest this year with a solid slate, although I can’t say I disagree with those who feel the fest would benefit from cutting their slate a bit to be a little more discriminating. I saw some films that surprised me (The Illusionist, A Night for Dying Tigers), some that were disappointing (Hereafter, Miral) and some that took my breath away with their vision and execution (Black Swan, I Saw the Devil).


Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

I have trouble falling asleep.  I’m usually up until four or five in the morning.  I write, listen to music, read books, but mostly I lay in bed and watch movies in cable.  Despite an extensive DVD collection, it’s always more fun to scroll through the channel guide and see what happens to be on rather than getting up out of bed to sift through the DVDs.  The great thing about cable TV is that you find out which movies are the most re-watchable.  That doesn’t always make them the “best” (for instance, Schindler’s List is a masterpiece but I don’t want to watch it again) but they provide a certain kind of pleasure.

The best “cable” movies are ones that involve lots of characters, interesting interplay between those characters and witty dialogue.  For instance, a film like Rounders is in the pantheon of great re-watchable movies.  Dazed and Confused is another one.  These are films that are addictive, that if you happen to catch a part of one on cable, you’ll wind up sticking around for a few scenes – but most likely, you’ll watch the whole thing.

So last night, I couldn’t sleep as usual.  At around 3AM, I contemplated trying to force myself to sleep a bit, but then I saw that Beautiful Girls, the 1996 Ted Demme flick, was just starting.  I knew at that moment that I wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep until 5am at the earliest.

Beautiful Girls is a rich film that is like a modern-day Diner (in the Hall of Fame of Rewatchable Movies), about a young man who comes home to a snowy town in Massachusetts for his ten-year high school reunion and winds up bonding with his old friends.  Timothy Hutton plays the returning lad, a piano player who earns money playing boozy gigs in Manhattan, and his friends are mostly in a state of arrested development.  There’s Matt Dillon as the high school stud who is now stuck plowing snow and doing construction in the summer and sleeping with his married ex (much to his current girlfriend’s chagrin) and living with co-worker Michael Rappaport who has an obsession with supermodels and is trying desperately to win back his girlfriend who has taken up with “Victor the meat cutter.”  There’s Noah Emmerich as the one grown-up who is content with his life, Pruitt Tayor Vince as the owner of the local bar, and Max Perlich as the quiet guy.

Then there are the women: Lauren Holly, Uma Thurman, Rosie O’Donnell (in a role that was tailor-made for her and reminds us of how funny/filthy she can be), Martha Plimpton, Annabeth Gish, and young Natalie Portman.

There is no doubt that Portman’s presence in the film and the interplay between her and Hutton is the film’s highlight.  The film moves briskly and we are drawn into the problems and emotions of all the characters, but it is the relationship between Hutton’s 28 year-old piano player and Portman’s 13 year-old, precocious next-door neighbor that really makes the film come alive and sing.

Portman is Marty – not short for Martha! – and she and Hutton have a playful friendship that slowly begins to emerge as something else.  This being a mostly light-hearted film (with lots of poignancy, to be sure), there is no question of them having some kind of illicit affair.  But instead, different questions enter our minds – and indeed, the minds of the characters.  These two seem so well-suite for one another that we begin to root for some possible way that they can be together.  It’s illogical and impossible and Hutton expresses it best when he tells her that he’s “fully formed” and she has yet to go through all the changes that she will inevitably endure as she grows up.  That, despite Marty’s offer to wait five years until she’s legal, he has to grow up now and get on with his life.  So Hutton’s character, through his relationship with Marty, finally realizes that he can’t come up with another reason to stall moving forward with his life and his beautiful girlfriend.  It sounds more cliche that it actually is.

I would love if the film was a massive success and we could see what would happen if the two of them met now.  Would they still feel the same way?  It could be like a bizarre version of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg and director Ted Demme (RIP) really got to the heart of something tender and they evoke emotion and humor out of the most interesting situations.  The dialogue, while certainly contrived, feels real in the mouths of these characters and these actors.  There is a bond between them that feels accurate.

So, thanks to Beautiful Girls, I was up pretty late.  I kept flipping channels for a little bit and just when I was about to pass out, I saw that The People Vs Larry Flynt was just starting.

“Hmm,” I thought, “haven’t seen that one in a while…”

TIFF Preview, Part Two

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

Previously, I wrote about what you might consider the more “indie” sections of the Toronto International film fest: Contemporary World Cinema, Discovery, and docs, plus Canada First!, which is always interesting.

Now let’s take a peek at the Galas and Special Presentations, plus everyone’s favorite late night, wild ‘n’ crazy section, Midnight Madness.