Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dancing with myself: Black Swan

The other day I found myself watching Vertigo while surfing the web. I would momentarily look up and relish the profound intensity and sadness that seems to permeate Hitchcock films. No one is truly happy. The protagonists are always sullen or haunted, the antagonists hide
wickedness behind Cheshire cat grins.
And I was sad for a moment. Sad that they just don't make movies like these anymore.

Black Swan is the closest to new Hitchcock we'll ever get. I don't often leave a movie feeling fulfilled. Aronofsky took on the idea of ballet, and the idea of the ballerina, and used them to construct a staggeringly beautiful piece of film for women.
Natalie Portman is a ballerina, hard working and dedicated, who finally gets her chance at a starring role. But will the pressure be too much?

This film is about pressure. It's very much about women, our relationships with each other and our bodies. For a ballerina, and for most women, the ideal instilled in us creates an incredible amount of pressure.
We want our bodies to be perfect, we put pressure on them, it becomes impossible to have a healthy relationship with our bodies when we view them as a thing standing in the way of achieving perfection. We see perfection or flaws in other women, we put pressure on ourselves and others to compete for the ideal, it becomes impossible to have a healthy relationship with other women.
The ballet is a pure and beautiful form, it is not vulgar or sexual. Nina has rejected or repressed any vulgarity or sexuality in herself.

If our bodies are the enemy, if other women are merely competitors or has-beens, if we cannot even love ourselves- can we live an ordinary life without cracking?
If we cannot accept our limitations and imperfections, our humanity, can we be human?
Can we achieve the ideal, "have it all", the perfection, without completely destroying ourselves and everyone around us?
The Black Swan rises up, it flutters its massive wings, it hisses "No.", and swallows us whole.

Go. See. This. Movie.

"Get thee to a nunn'ry!"

-- Noel
Sent from my T-Mobile phone

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The movie gifts that keep on giving

There are only four shopping days left until Christmas. Five if you count Christmas Eve, but I don't count Christmas Eve. If you haven't bought a gift for someone by now, you obviously don't really like them all that much. You know who I'm talking about: Those people you can barely tolerate, but yet are forced to exchange gifts with because of the suffocating grip tradition and social niceties have on our collective lives.

Here are some gift ideas for those people on your list. You will be able to fulfill your obligation and express your distaste for it all at the same time. Or you'll almost certainly never be invited to the Yankee Swap again. Or you'll be considered the most hysterically ironic person in your group of hipster friends.

Titanic 2- This actually exists. But hey, it's not like they did something so tasteless as to resurrect the first ship only to have it sink again. No, this is the story of an entirely different boat by the same exact name that predictably meets the same end when "a tsunami hurls an ice berg[sic] into the new ship's path...", because these filmmakers have integrity.

He's Just Not That Into You- If there's someone on your list that you want to insult in an incredibly passive aggressive manner, I encourage you to buy them this movie on DVD and really emphasize the fact that "I thought you would just love this. It's so perfect for you." It's like Closer, but with a lobotomy.

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue- Do you have a child on our list, a child whose parent you greatly despise? Give that child this movie. Not only will you be killing the child's brain cells and thereby ensuring its academic disadvantage, the parent will be slowly shaken from their sanity by their child's repeated requests to watch this movie over, and over, and over, and over... If the child is male and conforms to the western social ideal of their gender role, you should substitute Tom and Jerry Meet Sherlock Holmes.

The Lost Boys: The Thirst- You've got to know someone who deserves an ill-advised third installment to a classically good-because-it-is-bad cult flick which stars Corey Feldman. It promises that "The Frog brothers are back for blood." Think of the look the Best Buy clerk will give the recipient when they try to return this for store credit. For extra fun you could insist on watching it with them so that they can only try to sell it used and you get to see them pretend to enjoy it.

Wrong Turn at Tahoe- I recommend this, not because I have the slightest idea what it's about or how it will bring unhappiness to the person you give it to, but because Christmas is a time for charity. And I think it's pretty clear that when Cuba Gooding Jr (who has an Oscar) and Harvey Keitel (who is just really awesome) are doing movies named after Bugs Bunny's punch lines, they need all the charity we can give. Show them the money!

Have a fantastic holiday. Thank you so very much for reading my blog, and I look forward to all of the movies I'll share with you in 2011.
If I see TRON before then, I'll be sure to let you know what I think.

If you also have some great ideas for terrible movies to give as gifts, or ones you have received, please share them in the comments. Extra points if you can buy it on VHS.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Indie in-demand: Whip It & Scott Pilgrom Vs. The World

I find it fascinating that "indie" has become a genre. The term "indie" used to refer to any independently made movie, regardless of subject matter and genre. Now, any quirky movie with young characters and certain "it" actors that gives the sarcastically sweet treatment to white, middle-class life (with a soundtrack full of "indie" bands) is deemed to be "indie" regardless of its budget size. I really wish there was another name for this new genre. I propose calling them "suburbies".

Whip It is the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. It is a thoroughly charming movie with a "girl-power" theme that's pretty refreshing compared to most of what's out there. It tells the story of a Texas teenager, Bliss, who finds a purpose and motivation for life in roller derby- but struggles to gain her beauty pageant loving mother's approval.

Don't know anything about roller derby? Don't worry- Whip It lays out all the rules for you so you're not left wondering what's going on. I was confused by the fact that the features of roller derby that, I feel, are most important to the film's theme are sort of glossed over. Bliss's mother has shoe-horned her into competing in beauty pageants, which force girls to compete over something which they cannot totally control- their body and their face. No matter how great your talent or speech-giving talents may be, if you aren't born with the right body and face, you can't win a pageant. The forces girls to become alienated from their bodies. Their bodies become the thing that holds them back, the thing they cannot change or control, and this manifests in eating disorders and other body image problems.

Roller derby is an athletic sport where different body types are not only welcomed, they are essential to the different positions on the team. Blockers need to be big and strong, jammers need to be quick and nimble. Bliss finds herself viewing her body as a tool, as something she can control and use to get closer to her goals. This creates a positive body relationship that can culminate in body acceptance.
Roller derby players also play up their sexuality, while still being tough athletes. This breaks down the beauty conventions that women are fragile and demure, or must be perceived as such in order to be attractive. Players choose aggressive stage names like professional wrestlers do, but their contact sport is not costume play. They get hit, they knock each other over. Bones are broken, eyes are blackened, and lips are busted. They also have rabidly loyal fan bases who admire the women not only for their physical appearance, but their skill and ability as athletes.
Whip It barely touches these points, and it sort of makes me wish that there were a documentary to go along with the fictionalization. What is great is that the roller derby players in the film have diverse lifestyles, one is a single mom, but they are all equally dedicated to the sport and talk openly about what it means to them to be able to compete.

Barrymore is a competent director. She excels at giving us intimate glimpses into the relationships of her characters. But, as I mentioned, I hope that she learns how to flesh out the parts of the story that aren't character-driven. She is also a gifted comedic presence, and created an ensemble cast that you can tell are genuinely friends off screen, so the chemistry on screen is fantastic. Kristen Wig, who plays one of the roller girls "Maggie Mayhem", is a treasure, and I always enjoy watching her. Juliette Lewis plays an antagonistic derby girl "Iron Maven", and she smolders in every scene she's in. Ellen Page plays Bliss, and it's nice to see her taking a turn as a teen who doesn't think she knows it all. Perhaps now that she's 23, she knows the whole "disturbingly mature teen" shtick could no longer hold any water. It's easy to seem wise beyond your years when you're already actually five years beyond those years.
If you like sports movies and feel like there aren't enough of them starring women (which is disappointingly true), see Whip It. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World ( is a movie is so inventive that I can't help but like it and insist that others see it. It's far from flawless and definitely has some pacing problems, but I don't think I've ever seen a translation of comic book-styling and video game-structure so eloquently portrayed on screen.
The titular Scott is an average Canadian guy in a garage band. Well, except for the fact that his band is actually good and that his ex-girlfriend is now a rock sensation a la Gwen Stefani. Everything seems like it's going to maintain a steady course until Scott meets Ramona Flowers, the literal girl of his dreams, who has a literal league of vengeful exes.

So, this film runs with the literal gag. All the cinematography evokes a comic book feel. The special effects evoke a video game feel. There are bangs, ker-pows, and coins appearing where bodies once were. However, the film does fall victim to a problem that plagues many comic book and video-game inspired films: all that fighting starts to get boring after a while. It's extremely difficult to balance action with plot development, and when filmmakers try to cram a lot of both into less than two hours the results are never that great.
What saves this movie, aside from the aesthetic genius, is a strong cast. Michael Cera is perfect as the average, yet awesome, Scott Pilgrim. Ellen Wong is hysterical as Knives Chau- Scott's teen aged girlfriend. Mary Elizabeth Winstead somehow managed to be a witty, mumbling, effortlessly cool Ramona Flowers without being an Ellen Page clone. She's also simply beautiful and the camera loves her. Kieran Culkin steals the show as Scott's gay roommate, Wallace. And all of the "evil exes" actors- Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Shota Saito, Keita Saito and Jason Schwatrzman- are perfect, growling video game villains. They are terrific comedic foils for the average likes of Scott and his crew.

This movie is tough to wrap your head around while watching. It's very self-aware and willing to make jokes at its own expense, but it has some poignant moments that try to ground it as best they can.
I think Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is best viewed with a group of friends. I think the action and the comedy will be greatly enhanced by the group experience. Plus it has action, comedy and some romance. It will appeal to geeks and hipsters of all shapes and sizes.