Monday, October 10, 2011

Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)


I'm back up for air. It's been a while, I know. I couldn't possibly hope to update you on all of the movies I've watched between then and now. Water under the bridge. Yet, I felt that continuity insists that I share my thoughts on TRON: Legacy. I wrote an open letter to Hollywood. Demands were issued. How could I not follow up on that?

Oh, TRON. Dear, sweet, phosphorescent TRON. This was the movie for any kid with even a remote interest in video games in the 80s (no pun intended. Power glove. Ha!) I cannot review this sequel without acknowledging a few things about the original. It was not Citizen Kane in a light suit. It was cheesy, it was predictable, and it was a little hokey for a science fiction film. But it was Disney, and it did look to please the kiddies. What made it was the action, the effects and the concept. Man vs. Machine. Could it be any more charming?

And that's how this new TRON succeeded for me. It got the tone right. It had a great concept, man was still up against the icy machine, and the effects are dazzling. It was charming as hell.
The ace in the hole is Jeff Bridges, his acting is light years (no pun intended) ahead of what it was in the first TRON. He is dynamic as both the calculating CLU and the older, wiser Flynn. There's a dash of The Dude visible here. I found it refreshing. It was a reminder that he was unarguably human living in a digital world. Every moment he's on the screen is incredibly gratifying. Garrett Hedlund as Sam Flynn is also pretty good. He reminds me a bit of Cillian Murphy (who is also in this movie for a millisecond) and Chris Pine (who was considered for the role), but I think he lacks in the presence department. He doesn't seem as big as Bridges, or even Michael Sheen, who is quite the hidden treat here channelling Ziggy Stardust. I do think Hedlund will get there. He's very likable as Sam. Olivia Wilde, I think it's hard to separate her from her look here. It's a lot of look. She pulls it off. I'm just not sure she can fill Milla Jovovich's bandage suit when it comes to portraying a female savant. But my favorite part was that Tron is in TRON. He's still the valiant program fighting for the user. He could have so easily been forgotten or written out, but he's the heart of the story.

That's where I have to say: Thank you, Hollywood. Thank you for remembering that what makes us love a movie, what makes a movie a cult classic out of the cheesiest of films, is a great story. A story that appeals to our higher values. TRON lived on past its expiration date because we all want to believe that man can create something better than himself, that technology will not be our undoing, it will be our gift to the world. TRON: Legacy kept that story alive.

My one gripe is that I think the pacing could have been better. The action sequences are good, but they don't transition well to the dramatic sequences. And while I do enjoy Daft Punk's soundtrack, I think it could have been better. Again, I feel a mix of orchestral and techno music was better accomplished in The Fifth Element.

Some faith in the Hollywood machine has been restored. However, I don't think Hollywood can take all the credit. I think they relied a great deal on fans of the original, and when the fans are involved, it's hard not to have a happy ending.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Movies for Travelling: Ratatouille, Airplane! & Tootsie (and don't go see Thor)

All right- No excuses, apologies or promises this time as it's clear they don't do me any good. I'm just going to blog. Let's do this thing!

Now, I've mentioned before that I have an iPad. I love my iPad. Real love. If it were to break, be stolen, or get lost, I would mourn it like a dear friend. Okay, maybe more like a beloved hamster. I'd be inconsolable for a few days, then probably get a new one.
But that's beside the point.

I've spent a lot of time streaming movies on my iPad, but only recently have run into the difficult situation of buying and downloading a movie onto my iPad. Dan was leaving for Chile and wanted to bring the iPad. I told him I'd buy a few movies so that he could watch them on his long plane ride, seeing as though streaming movies on public WiFi is never reliable.
Little did I know that deciding which movie to download onto the iPad was a far more complicated process than I imagined. It's something like this:
And that's all assuming the movie you want is even on iTunes and you can know exactly what you're looking for. The browsing process in iTunes is maddening. It basically assumes that all anyone cares about is what's new or popular. Anyone who knows anything about movies knows that you're going to have a pretty ho-hum selection if you stick to what's new and popular.

So here are the three movies I currently have on my iPad:

I really do love all three of these movies. I could watch them over and over. They were priced appropriately, and none of them causes a reaction so extreme as to bother anyone sitting around me.

Let me tell you why:

This is, perhaps, the best movie about food and cooking that I have ever seen. Pixar really hit it out of the park on this one. The animation is incredible, the textures and movements are so rich that you get easily sucked into this wonderful, virtual Paris.

Yes, the plot itself is incredibly far-fetched, but the wonderful characters, the wacky humor and the smart dialogue help you forget about that. But the real star of this film is the food. You can practically smell it right through the screen. The way the characters talk about food and handle food is romantic. This film always makes me hungry, and it makes me want to cook something. I have gotten up halfway through it to make ziti with alfredo sauce. I am a picky eater and a reluctant cook, and this movie makes trying something new seem fun and exciting. And you actually learn a lot about food and cooking during it.

Another reason I find it easy to watch is that it's fun, light and short. The perfect recipe for a travel movie.

Now, if you haven't seen this movie before, you probably shouldn't watch it on a plane. You'll laugh too much. It's one of the funniest movies ever made and many of its lines have become phrases everyone knows. The most famous of which is:
Striker: "Surely you can't be serious."
Dr. Rumack: "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley."

Of course, I'm not sure how you can live in the U.S. and can not manage to at least see part of this movie. It seems to always be on television. But trust me when I tell you that the best parts were edited out for time or lewdness.

The jokes come one right after another. Sight gags, puns, wisecracks, running gags- all these and more. Each just as funny as the next. It's the screwiest of all screwball comedies. For its time, it was one of the most daring spoofs. The comedic performances are flawless. Even actors that deliver only one or two lines are funnier than half the so-called comedians you see on t.v. or the big screen these days.

Is it a high budget film with perfect execution? No, but I find that's part of its charm. It's scrappy, it's playing it fast and loose. You can watch it over and over, it's appropriately priced, and you never have to think too hard about it.

I know this is kind of coming from left field. But again, screwy movies are the best kind of movies for travel. And Tootsie is actually impeccably written for having such a weird concept as the foundation of it's plot. This film was a pet project for Dustin Hoffman after he worked on Kramer vs. Kramer:
"Dustin Hoffman first got the idea to do this film while working on Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). He felt his character in that film had to be both a mother and a father, so he started thinking about how to play a man and a woman. Several scripts, several writers and a few directors later, this was the result."

Honestly, most leading men couldn't pass for women, but Hoffman's small frame, small features (except for that nose, but girls have big noses too!), and the mannerisms he adopts to appear feminine are so believable that it's not such a stretch to think he could pass as a woman.

The dialogue is fantastic and most of the performances are fantastic. I think Jessica Lange is a bit of a weak link, but it could be that her character is simply written to be so weak and vulnerable that I can't help but dislike her. But I can tolerate it with ease because she's never on screen without Hoffman, who is simply sublime.

This movie is also funny as hell. All of Bill Murray's lines were improvised, and they are hysterical. The great thing is that there are just as many laughs generated by the reaction shots as those garnered by the punchlines.

The ending is really not so great, so I give you permission to stop it right after the kooky hospital scene ends, which I sometimes do, but the beginning and the build to the climax are so incredibly worth it. Worth it to the point where I'll watch this movie many many times.


I did go see Thor the weekend it came out. It was utterly ridiculous and kind of irresistibly campy. The thing I kept thinking while watching it was:
"Anthony Hopkins couldn't have possibly read this script. He must have heard the words 'Kenneth Branagh' and 'Zeus' and signed on without thinking."
At least that what I tell myself to help it all make sense.
The worst part about all of it is that the Norse myths themselves are so awesome and easy to understand, and the explanation given in the film about Asgard and the old gods is so ingenious that there's really no excuse for how they patched it all together.

Thor, Loki, Zeus, Asgard- all of their back stories and origins are botched. I don't really know much about the Thor comic books (I know, I know, I call myself a geek and I don't know this) so perhaps they were following that cannon, but I grew up with the old stories. My dad and uncle loved vikings, and read us books and told my brother and me the old Norse legends that are so damn entertaining and awesome that I really can't respect anything else.

Odin didn't lose his eye in a battle with the Ice Giants. He sacrificed it in exchange for infinite wisdom. Loki is not Thor's brother. No explanation is given as to why or how Thor has a Japanese man in his group of warriors in this film. Granted, Tadanobu Asano is fucking awesome and was the star in Ichi the Killer, which is about 60 times better than this movie, but he's still out of place in this movie. In fact, instead of wasting any more of my or your time telling you about the truly forgettable Thor, I will simply tell you to take that $20 you were going to spend on a ticket to see Thor and spend it on a Netflix subscription and put Ichi the Killer on you queue.

So, there.
Til árs og frí ar!


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Underdogs: Get Him to The Greek and The Men Who Stare at Goats

I've always been a fan of cult films. The kind of movies that you can use as a litmus test for new friends. You drop a quote into the conversation at a party, and if the other person can finish the dialogue, you're instantly friends.
I watched two movies recently that are sure to build a small but devoted following for years to come.

The first, was The Men Who Stare at Goats. Ewan McGregor plays a reporter who follows his gut on a story, and finds himself in a top-secret military organization that must be real, because no one could make anything like this up. The plot is so ingenious and the dialogue is so clever that I was smitten by the 20 minute mark. Basically, the premise is that Jeff Bridges, a high-ranking military officer, is sent by the Pentagon into the love-child subculture of the 60s after he returned from Vietnam. His task is simple: Conceive of a method that utilizes natural human gentleness for military purposes. He succeeds, and the new-age warfare techniques he develops are simply far out.
The film opens with a disclaimer that more of the story is true than most would like to believe. But the really fantastic thing is the way that the movie keeps you guessing as to just how real all these psychic powers and new-age fighting techniques are, and how much of it is the shared delusion of the Jedi. When it turns on a dime and makes you start to think that maybe these love-happy warriors really are onto something- the film becomes transcendental. It lifts you up, and keeps you laughing the whole time.

George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey have such an innate sense of comedy that it's strange that we know them best for their dramatic work. It makes me wish that America still had a palate for rat-pack or Marx Brothers-style farces. Surely Clooney, Bridges and Spacey would star in many of them. Watching them in this movie is joyous. I laughed myself silly. A group of masters playing off of each other and taking it all to another level. If only every movie could have a cast like this.
It does feel very much like a Cohen Brothers rip off, but I mean that as a compliment. It reminded me so closely of Burn After Reading and Fargo that I was impressed. Punchy colors, wonderfully simple and realistic sets, and costuming that acts as part of character development. There's also a brave use of narration here that most contemporary movies don't dabble with. Perhaps not since Fight Club have I seen it done so well.
Not too much, (Perfect example of too much: Most episodes of "Sex and the City"- Really, Carrie? You're telling me you just arrived at home while I'm watching you, on screen, arrive home? That's maddeningly redundant. Either tell me what you're doing or show me what you're doing. Don't do both or you'll just annoy the crap out of me. This isn't a damn cooking show.) not too little (I don't have an exact example of too little, but pretty much anytime you're watching a movie and think to yourself "I shouldn't watch movies when I'm drunk because I have no idea what's going on" but then you remember you're not drunk, the movie's narrative is just confusing as hell and some voice-over would really help you out.).

See The Men Who Stare at Goats. It's wonderful.

Get Him to The Greek needs a preface:
I have an amazing friend named Lucie. She's just plain awesome. We became good friends while working at Sephora, especially after she heard me yell in frustration at a hand truck "It goes in the hallway or else it gets the hose again!" She laughed hysterically and I was thrilled to have found someone who can appreciate a well-timed Silence of the Lambs reference. We spent many an evening watching movies together. We have incredibly similar taste and she has an impressive selection of DVDs. Lucie, and her husband, Jon, between them have just about any movie worth watching on DVD. And they are kind enough to rent their collection out to their friends! See? I told you she was amazing. Plus, she's beautiful. That's just icing on the awesome cake.
So, I was at Lucie's, and we were all talking about movies, and I remarked how surprised I was that actually wanted to see the Arthur remake. Lucie agreed, and then we began discussing the strange genius that is Russell Brand. I admitted I had never seen Get Him to The Greek, and Lucie and Jon insisted Dan and I bring it home to watch. they promised we would love it.

OH MY GOD were they ever right.

This movie is riotously funny. What I like so much about Russell Brand is his gift for absurdity. Things are funnier if it seems like no sane person would ever speak or act in that way. And here, he's let loose to play.
Jonah Hill portrays Aaron Green, a normal, if a bit awkward, guy who works at a recording label. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs plays the head honcho of the label, Sergio. (More about this in a moment) Aaron comes up with an idea of having his favorite rock star, Aldous Snow, (who has fallen from popularity after a terrible album) restored to his former glory by playing an epic anniversary concert at The Greek. Hilarity ensues when Sergio sends the starstruck Aaron to bring the hard-to-handle rocker from London to L.A.

Get Him to The Greek is outrageous, but also tender. Aaron and Aldous embark on a journey of self-discovery- but that tired movie cliche is not to be found here. You will see things you never thought you'd see in a movie. Aldous is clearly modeled after Tommy Lee, and his roller coaster relationship with his Pamela is just as complicated, yet so romantic in a really dysfunctional way. Aaron learns that his hero is simply a lonely man, who only yearns for love because he didn't have any as a child. The heart of this movie truly touched me. It really tries to show that most of us don't really comprehend what it is to be a rock star- To leave all of yourself on the stage, for your fans. And the harsh reality of that is that, often times, there's not much left to hang onto off-stage. They drift along, not really living until the next time they get to perform. The drugs and the sex just fill the void in the meantime. It truly reminded me a lot of This Is Spinal Tap in how it balances mockery and empathy.

But it's also just funny as hell. Brand and Hill are a chemistry match made in comedic heaven. Every scene between the two of them is delightful. Brand really gets to show some range here, he's not just a big haired buffoon, he has a soul, and it's tortured. And he somehow manages to carry it off without it seeming tired and cheesy. Elizabeth Moss is effective as Aaron's girlfriend Daphne, but she sort of gets lost between Hill and Brand, literally one time.
But P. Diddy is a revelation. Who knew he was this funny? He's not in most of the movie, but his big scene, the "Jeffrey" scene, is some of the funniest material I have ever seem committed to film. It's Monty Python-worthy funny. It's Mel Brooks-level funny. I was laughing so hard I thought I was going to pee myself. Pure bliss. This is the scene that you will be quoting for the rest of your life and hoping that someone else knows what you're talking about. It's really that good.

So much of what happens is unexpected and bold. There's a lot of gross-out humor, but just like in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I enjoy it because, hey, that's real life. We puke, poop, have sex- why hide it? It's funny because it's true.

Watch it, you won't be sorry. Stroke the furry wall.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fighting the good fight: The Fighter

Oh my, how I have neglected my poor little blog!
I've been neck-deep in a job hunt since January, going on interviews, sending out resumes and praying to the career advancement gods. But I am happy to report that my prayers, networking, sparkling personality and skills landed me a great new gig. I miss a lot of the people from my old office, but it was time to move on. I started last week, and I've been busy finding my place and trying to remember all the new names and faces (the latter is not my strong suit), but I promised myself I would post. The handful of you who read my blog deserve it.
The Fighter knocks out (get it? Ha! Puns!) any other Boston film in recent memory. Actually, I think this story, pulled from the 90s, is the perfect portrait of America right now.
Micky Ward is a down on his luck boxer. The toxic, but well-intentioned hold his family has on his career is preventing him from fulfilling his potential. His brother, Dickie, was a once-famous contender who's losing the one fight he can't afford to lose: His addiction to crack. But a new love in Micky's corner just may be his inspiration to do what needs to be done.

Micky is a lot like Lowell and other small cities in America right now. He has a lot of potential and just needs the right team of people to help lead him to victory. Mismanagement, desperation and greed have done a number on Micky, but he's not giving up. In the wake of the recession, strong management, hard work, and tenacity are the only things that can help our country off the ropes.

The performances in this movie are inspiring. Melissa Leo, Christian Bale and Amy Adams are the most believable Joe Schmoe Massholes I've seen since Blake Lively blew me away in The Town. They fit so well into the neighborhoods of Lowell and the locals used as extras that you almost forget that they're Hollywood hoi polloi off screen. My favorite cast members have to be the ladies who play the Ward sisters. They're simply a lot of fun to watch, like a gum-smacking, cigarette smoking female version of the Goodfellas gang.

Using the real City of Lowell for much of the movie, and using a wardrobe that involves some of the worst crimes against fashion the 90s ever committed, gives this film genuine character. Did you ever think you'd see Christian Bale wearing MC Hammer pants, and not in an ironic way?
The best thing about The Fighter is that it doesn't condescend. There is no irony in it. It shows how junkies, has-beens, nobodys and never-weres have just as many stories to tell as the champions. The empathy you'll feel for these characters will catch you by surprise. This is a feel-good movie that doesn't sugarcoat reality.

I admit that I've pulled some punches here by not hitting you with a lot of puns, but I really I know that kind of thing could put me on the ropes and stop me from being a contender. It can be a rocky road out there that can leave you feeling boxed in or raise you up like a million dollar baby, so I just want you to know you're not fighting alone. I'm in your corner, like a raging bull.
There, I got it out of my system!

Now, I've seen a lot of movies since I last posted. Date Night, Running with Scissors, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Enter the Dragon, and a couple others. I promise to share my thoughts on all of them with you and soon!

Sent from my iPad


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Millenium trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire & The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest

We all love that feeling we get when we start reading a book, but then find ourselves unable to put it down. We read it voraciously, consuming the words, plot and characters like a black hole. We suck them in, and they become a part of us. The characters become old friends, and we
cherish their memory.
Rarely do movies afford us this same type of sensation. Only the epic greats like Jackson's Lord of the Rings can come close. And even these can fall victim to producers so eager to profit off of the fans that they end up disfiguring the franchise in such a way that true fans become disgusted, and turn away jaded. (See Star Wars, the Burton-started Batman, and poor Indiana Jones.)

But, just the other day, I found myself sitting on my couch watching three movies back-to-back. Four more than six hours, I watched intently, pausing only for bathroom breaks and small refreshments. At the end of the third movie, I felt a strange sadness. I was sad that there wasn't another movie to watch. I was sad that I would not be hearing more about these characters in the foreseeable future.

I had heard good things about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The book had been a best-seller, and the Swedish film adaptation was critically acclaimed. I was thrilled to discover, that Sunday morning, that the film was available instantly on Netflix. I was even more excited because I had a new iPad on which I could watch it. I have the cables that hook my laptop up to my HDTV, but I find the picture on the iPad to be superior.

So, I started the first movie and was so sucked in by it that I searched for the second, The Girl Who Played with Fire- available instantly! And then, if I'm in for a penny I might as well be in for a pound, I searched for the thrid movie, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest- also available instantly! I love living in the future!

The Millenium Trilogy follows two characters: The tireless investigative journalist, Michael Bloomkvist, and the hyper-intelligent, gothy hacker, Lisbeth Salander. They are first brought together when Salander is hired to find evidence against Bloomkvist, and Bloomkvist is hired to solve a cold case disappearance. Salander seeks out Bloomkvist because she suspects that he's been set up, Bloomkvist realizes Salander had the intelligence and skills to help him solve his disappearance case. Together, they stumble upon a web of intrigue that, by the end of the third film, goes deeper and more personal than they could have ever imagined.

Noomi Rapace plays Salander, and she is a revelation. She displays an icy exterior, but her eyes show the bubbling rage that lies within Salander. If only there were more roles like this. Salander is a character so well thought-out and rounded that only the most skilled of actresses could bring her to life.
Salander's story itself is distinctly feminist. It shows how easily women can be oppressed, how even the most steely woman has vulnerabilities that can be exploited. The intended title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. We see how sadism and misogyny are so often overlooked. If a woman is raped by a man, no one's really surprised, and they wonder what she did to provoke it. If a man is raped by a man, then everyone is shocked. If a prostitute or runaway is tortured, raped and killed, the police don't put in a lot of effort into the investigation. Even in the U.S., rape kits sit on a shelf, backlogged, waiting to be processed, while the rapists freely walk the streets.
Salander's antagonists easily use the patriarchal system to take away her rights. So, her vengence seems entirely justified and logical, because the patriarchal system doesn't give her any other options.

There's also some great villain-casting in these movies. All the baddies are so perfectly loathsome that they turn your stomach.

The films themselves are neo-noirs. Every bit as gritty and artistic as Chinatown and Seven. The light is harsh, the colors are cold, and the characters' environments closely mirror their emotions. It's incredible to see how gloomy and menacing the Netherlands can be, when shot in the right way.
Be warned, there is a graphic rape scene that is brought up in all three films. To say that it is difficult to watch is an understatement. Take comfort in the fact that it doesn't go unpunished, and is not glamourized or fetishized. These movies are not date night material.

What I like best about Swedish movies is the casting. Too often, movies are filled with men and women who look like models, or are certainly better looking than the average person. In these films, the people look like regular people. There are only one or two really good looking people, and that's because it's part of the character. It's not just window dressing.

Of course, the stories are what makes these films so great. Stieg Larsson's characters and plot are well developed and incredibly interesting. He's able to construct conspiracies that boggle the mind, but do not defy logic. Your disbelief is totally suspended while watching, and it feels more like a "ripped from the headlines" episode of "Law & Order" (if they had an all-star writing team) than an episode of "The X-files" (the terrible conspiracy episodes, not the awesome monster episodes).

In short, these are three of the best films I've seen in quite some time. They can hold their own up to The Maltese Falcon, The Lady From Shanghai, and any trilogy out there.
They are so successful that I don't quite understand the need for English versions apart from the fact that a lot of people are too lazy to read subtitles. Dub the damn things if you have to, just please don't dumb down these incredible works for mass consumption. Could you imagine if someone dared to do that to The Maltese Falcon?

-- Noel
Sent from my T-Mobile phone

Saturday, February 12, 2011

They don't make 'em like that anymore: True Grit & The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I grew up watching a lot of westerns. My dad had always been a fan of any western, and my mom enjoyed the Clint Eastwood and John Wayne classics.
Western is one of the most challenging genres. They are operettas. They share a great deal with Shakespearean tragedies, old world mythology, and Japanese shogun films. Central themes include honor, justice, and, most commonly, revenge. They explore the complexity of the moral spectrum- sometimes the good guys are pretty bad, sometimes you have to break the law to get justice.

True Grit is about revenge. The shockingly intelligent Mattie Ross is on a mission to avenge her father's death. Trouble is, she's a 14 year old girl. So, she seeks out the toughest, meanest U.S. Marshall she can find: Rooster Cogburn.

I don't know how, but the Coen brothers managed to make a true, classic Western. I didn't think this kind of movie was even possible anymore. Unforgiven was close, but Eastwood was trying to give us something a little more modern. The Coens clearly studied the old movies closely to create something that feels so authentic.
The way the camera moves and the way the characters interact with each other and their environment evokes the atmosphere of the classic westerns. Part of this success may be that they were so faithful to the original 1968 serial. The dialogue is the shining star. People don't talk like that anymore.

It's a shame that Jeff Bridges won the Oscar last year, because the work he does in this movie is incredible. He contorts himself into this rugged curmudgeon in such a way that he is almost unrecognizable. He chews on his words like tobacco and growls like an old lion. His familiar face is the only thing betraying his identity.
Hailee Steinfeld is amazing as Mattie Ross. Her intensity and tenacity are pitch perfect. It is impossible that anyone else could have played this role so believably and organically. The casting here is excellent. The woman who plays Mattie as an adult, Elizabeth Marvel, blends with Hailee seamlessly.
Matt Damon is good here because he is not playing a hero. Damon excels when he is vulnerable, but good-hearted, and he wears the character of LaBoef as well as the buckskin he sports.

The cinematography is breath taking. It draws inspiration from classic westerns like True Grit, The Searchers, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but it mixes in just enough modern technique to make it all seem fresh. The composition of every shot is lovely. It borrows from both the American western of the 50s an 60s, but it also works in the epic scale and sophistication of Leone's spaghetti western.
The story-boarding the Coens did really shows through. They do it for every film, but here you can practically see the panels. It feels like a graphic novel. Like a less-concept-driven 300 or Sin City. The special effects are used sparingly, and they make quite an impression without distracting from the rest of the film.

Apaloosa and 3:10 to Yuma were noble efforts to try and re-capture the romance and drama of the Western, and truly wonderful films, but True Grit hits its mark without feeling pretentious or boring.

The title itself refers to the quality Mattie is looking for in Rooster Cogburn. He is a lawman, he has morals, but he is not what most would call a "good man". Yet, when the moment calls for it, he is honorable. He has "true grit".
If you love Westerns, or just long for a fresh dose of American mythology, go see True Grit.

Now, for a very different kind of classic, the likes of which you will never see again, get your hands on 1968's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Revel in the glory that is Maggie Smith before we saw her as Professor McGonagall in the Potter movies, or Wendy in Hook. She's a grand dame cut from the same cloth as Judi Dench, Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Mirren, but she just doesn't get the same recognition, and that is a sin!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is adapted from a novel of the same name and tells the story of an eccentric school teacher at a private school for girls in Scotland. Her romantic and bohemian ideas about truth, beauty, art and love lead the students she mentors to places they never could have expected- and not always in a good way.

This movie is sort of disturbing because you think it's going to follow the path of Dead Poets Society, or To Sir, with Love, but it goes careening in another direction entirely. It's a dark tale about obsession, about living vicariously through others, and about how our own feeling of invincibility or superiority can damage those around us.

I'd put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the same category as Doubt or Notes on a Scandal. But the thing I liked the most about it was how it embodies everything I like best about movies made in the late 60s. The fashion, the colors, the hair!
There is some great foreshadowing here and there of the fates of the characters. I won't spoil it for you, but we all know that sometimes the games of children reflect their true desires or destinies.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A dissection of Black Swan *Spoilers Within*

I've been ruminating on my interpretation of Black Swan, and I can no longer wait to share it with you. Spoilers be found here, so if ye hath not seen Black Swan, venture no further.

A lot of people have been panning the movie because they feel it's trite, saying that artistic perfection can only be found in death, the ultimate sacrifice.
I don't think that the movie was saying that artistic perfection can only come through death.
Nina killed herself because the only two futures she saw for herself was that of Winona's has-been ballerina or her mother's miserable never-was ballerina.
The character of Lily was a happy ballet dancer, Nina projected her own issues onto Lily. Lily was serving as the foil. Showing that someone can simply be a ballerina and not a total nutcase.
Nina was not simply a perfectionist. She was psychotic. She was self-mutilating from an early age, and her mother's response was to simply cut her nails shorter. She'd been stewing in her own private obsession for years, and was totally isolated thanks to her mother. Even with the role of her dreams, Nina could not allow herself to relax and be happy.
We were never, not once, supposed to look at Nina as an every woman. We are not supposed to identify with her. She is an anti-hero.

The masseuse in the beginning tells her that she's holding all of her tension in her diaphragm, it's no coincidence that she stabs herself in the diaphragm at the climax. The motion the masseuse makes with her hand into Nina's diaphragm directly foreshadows the stabbing that occurs later on. Whens he stabs herself, Nina is attempting to exorcise her own demons through blood sacrifice because she is not willing to sacrifice her career in the interest of her own health. She isn't trying to heal herself. Her journey of self-destruction is complete, and only that is what satisfies her. Nina had always viewed sacrifice as perfection, in her mother, in Winona Ryder's character- that is why she could never allow herself any small happiness or indulgence. Whether it be a piece of cake or an orgasm.

People have read misogyny into this film. I do not think the director hates women at all. I think he recognizes them as human. I think he was showing how damaging all of the pressure put on women to "do it all" can be. Nina represents our unrealistic expectations of ourselves- you cannot make yourself perfect, you can only die trying.
Perfection is not what we should aspire to, we should aspire to be healthy and happy. Sacrifice and pain is not the path to achievement.

I have also read criticisms that the characters are too stereotypical. But I think there's a reason for that. I think this film is a bit of an ink blot. Interpretations will vary, and I always love movies like that.
If it was meant to be allegorical, then broadly painted "type" characters are appropriate. We know stage mothers, predatory bosses, bad girls, etc. We don't need that much character development to recognize them immediately. And if the performances or characters are complex, it narrows the room for interpretation.
Was her mother really so overbearing, or was she a projection of Nina's self-destructive emotions?
Did the ballet director really regularly seduce his leads, or was Nina (so afraid of her own sexuality but clearly very attracted to him) simply painting him that way so that she could stay chaste?
We know Lily wasn't nearly as wicked and sexual as Nina was perceiving her, so this makes me give the other characters the same benefit of the doubt.
If those characters were more developed and complex, I wouldn't be able to wonder that. That's the beauty of the allegory.

My interpretation was that Nina's perception of reality was so perverse that none of the characters were operating under the motives we thought they were. It was simply Nina's paranoia and projection that was turning the world against her. I think this is most interesting in the case of Nina's mother. We, as a society, love to blame parents for the faults of their children, but that can be a mistake. Granted, her mother probably should have sought therapy for her daughter when Nina was scratching herself, but her mother could have been simply naive. Assuming the scratches were accidental isn't a stretch, it's realistic. It was also unclear to me if the portraits Nina's mother was painting were of Nina or of herself. I wonder if it was intentionally left ambiguous, or if it didn't matter. If Nina's mother truly was a stage-mother, then she simply would have seen Nina as an extension of herself, so a portrait of Nina is really a portrait of herself, and vice versa. Or, if they were all self-portraits, perhaps her mother was too consumed by her own failed dreams and depression to even notice that something was wrong with Nina. She may have just been going through the motions, supporting her daughter, and not really concerning herself with whether or not Nina would succeed. She did not react critically or negatively when Nina first called her to say that she had not won the role of Swan Queen. Nina's mother seemed supportive in those moments. This leads me to believe that she was not so much an overbearing stage-mother, but depressed and fragile, being supportive but also content to play the martyr because she felt it would benefit Nina. Could Nina have lived on her own? I'm not sure how much a lead dancer in a ballet company gets paid, but it seems that Nina was very happy being in the nest. When she becomes defiant, it's like the defiance of a teenager- she's happy to take what her mother offers, but resents the rules and discipline that go along with it.
Of course the scene with the cake speaks volumes. Her mother is clearly unbalanced in one way or another. I just really enjoy how complex her character is once you truly think about it.

If you have different interpretations, please share them in the comments! All ideas are welcome.