Thursday, December 23, 2010

Movie Review: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is without a doubt the most demented Director in Hollywood. His films (Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, etc...) have all dealt with aspects of the dark side of humanity. The Wrestler is his most easily accessible movie and remains my favorite film that he's directed. His latest attempt to exorcise his demons through film is Black Swan, a drama/horror/thriller that focuses on a young ballet star and her experience in staring on the big stage in a performance of Swan Lake.

Let's get a few things straight. #1, I don't like ballet. #2, I've never seen Swan Lake. #3, I am not a huge fan of Aronofsky's movies. The reason I did want to see this movie, however, is the other positive reviews I've read and the appeal of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis who play the ballet stars in the film. The film is a total Oscar vehicle for Portman. As Nina, the dancer who just can't let herself go to play the Black Swan role in Swan Lake, Portman shines as a vunerable character who goes through just about every emotion possible throughout the story. The tension and drama that Aronofsky arrogantly forces on the viewer is almost believable due to her performance. You really appreciate the amount of work Portman put into her role including learning traditional ballet dancing and maintaining a borderline unhealthy weight through the entire film. Kunis is a solid supporting.

Both Portman and Kunis definitely add some eye candy to the movie as they really are two of Hollywood's most beautiful actresses working today. Aronofsky knows this too and comes off as being a little pervy by shooting at least 3 scenes with Portman touching herself. Entirely too many unnecessary sexual innuendos are worked into the script and while I'm not complaining to see Portman in sexy scenes, they just seemed very forced overall. There are a few WTF moments that didn't make sense and most of them included a VERY SCARY Barbara Hershey who has gone through so much plastic surgery that she can probably play The Joker in Chris Nolan's next Batman movie.

The ending of the film is really ambiguous and leaves room for interpretation. Portman's performance is the best thing about Black Swan but I found myself very disappointed with the effort put forth by Aronofsky. He just seems to be so pretentious in his films and makes it seem like he's above the audience and wants to do things his way whether it makes sense or not. This movie is not very entertaining and is not they type of movie you'd ever want to see more than once. Wait for video/DVD/Bluray on Black Swan which receives a very mediocre 2.5 out of 5 JRs. This will be nominated for Best Picture but the only true deserving nomination it should receive is for Natalie Portman, a former child actress who has grown into one of the best actresses working today.

Movie Review: The Fighter

David O. Russell's The Fighter is a true achievement in casting and sports documentation. This movie that really came out of nowhere and debuted to glowing reviews is yet another in a long string of quality boxing films (Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull). What sets this film apart from most boxing epics is the spectacular character development throughout. By the time we get to the final fight, the audience is so invested in the main characters of this film that the tension seems to reach new heights.

The Fighter tells the true story of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his brother Dickie (Christian Bale), a former fighter who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Micky is trying to make his own comeback to get a payday which would help financially support his daughter and his girlfriend (played by Amy Adams). Dickie helps out as Micky's trainer but is constantly battling the effects of being addicted to crack. We get to see the Ward family and their dysfunctional roster of characters including 7 typical townie (big hair) Ward sisters and their loving but hyper-controlling Mom Alice (played with vigor and brilliance by Melissa Leo).

I won't get into plot details as part of the enjoyment of this film is to experience the trials and tribulations of the Ward family along with the characters themselves. Needless to say this is really Christian Bale's movie. His portrayal of Dickie is spot-on (especially when you see the real-life Dickie during the end credits) and he totally convincingly conveys a serious drug addiction. You find yourself rooting for him in the end though as you get to experience a total character arc from disgrace to redemption. Leo is right behind Bale as the prototypical controlling Mom who wants the best for her family but doesn't realize that she's over-stepping her bounds. Adams and Wahlberg are excellent as well, in fact this is probably Marky Mark's best work since Boogie Nights. He perfectly fills the shoes of a Boston-bred boxer.

Russell shines once again in the Director's chair and nails the method of shooting his boxing ring scenes. They're shot via an HBO-style feed using digital video that makes it seem like you are watching the fights unfold on TV. There really isn't that much fighting in the film (despite the movie's title) but what we do see is produced perfectly. The drams that ensues between the fights are so vivid raw and real that you do feel like you are standing there witnessing the events first-hand. This is one of the grittiest, most authentic Boston movies to come around in a long time (with all due respect to Ben Affleck's The Town, this is REAL Boston).

When you add the cinematography, acting and overall entertainment value together you get the 3rd 5 JR movie of 2010. The Fighter is one of the best sports movies I've ever seen and has more heart and character than most of the Rocky films (I still have a soft spot for Rocky IV). The acting across the board is by far the best we've seen in 2010 and expect many nominations for this terrific ensemble cast. This is Marky Mark's crowning achievement and hopefully will bring home well-deserved Oscar gold for Christian Bale.

Movie Review: True Grit

I've had a love/hate relationship with Joel and Ethan Cohen over the years. For every great film they release (Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski), they balance their genius with annoying duds like No Country For Old Men and Oh Brother Where Art Thou. The most recent Cohen film I saw was Burn After Reading, a hilarious little film with some great performances from Brad Pitt and John Malcovich which gave me high hopes for this follow-up remake of a John Wayne classic.

True Grit managed to exceed all expectations I had going into the movie as the Cohens have once again produced a thrilling, engaging and at times very funny Western epic. Jeff Bridges assumes the Wayne roll of US Marshall Rooster Cogburn and delivers yet another outstanding performance hot off the heels of his Oscar winning turn in Crazy Heart last year. Bridges has definitely found his niche in the twilight of his movie career. He excels at playing drunk, colorful country heroes and his gruff portrayal of Cogburn and his pursuit of a fugitive is so very believable. Expect Bridges to be up for Oscar once again (but from what I hear, Colin Firth in The King's Speech is a shoe-in for that award - the next movie I need to see).

Sharing the acting spotlight in True Grit is 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld who completely owns the screen throughout this movie. She plays Mattie Ross, a young girl who is trying to avenge her father's death by hiring bounty hunters to track down his murderer. Steinfeld's Ross is wise way beyond her years and holds her own with Bridges and Matt Damon. A scene early on in the movie has her bargaining with a store owner and getting her way without much effort. I hope the Academy honors her performance in what is actually her very first big screen role. The future is definitely bright for this young star.

Damon himself was not as good as I thought he'd be in this film. He just doesn't seem like he belongs in a Western. You're used to the Bourne, Rounders or Oceans 11/12/13 roles he's played and he just doesn't fit in as a Texas Ranger. I can't believe the most critical aspect of this film for me was the casting of Matt Damon. The Cohen Bros. do a remarkable job of shooting the film with wide shots and a grainy look that cements that Western feel. Their writing is outstanding as well with so many interesting lines of dialogue and some patented Cohen wit thrown in. Overall this movie deserves to be near the top of the Best-of-2010 lists. Extremely engaging and entertaining throughout, do yourself a favor and go see one of the best Westerns I've ever seen. 4.5 out of 5 JRs for True Grit.

A Day at the Movies

A few weeks ago, I decided to take the day before Christmas Eve off from work to take a break before the kids came over to stay on Christmas Eve. A few days ago, I realized that with my busy upcoming holiday schedule that I might not have enough time to see all the movies I "need" to say over the holiday break. As my quest to see all 10 future Best Picture nominees continues, I planned to do the unthinkable today. Walk five minutes from my apartment (which I couldn't be happier with by the way) over to the AMC Hoffman Theater at 10:15 AM to see back-to-back-to-back movies.

A few times in my life I have double dipped and saw two big screen movies in one day. I have never gone beyond that though and I decided to attempt the feat today, seeing True Grit, The Fighter and Black Swan in one sitting. The plan of attack went PERFECTLY. I missed the first two previews during The Fighter as I needed to get a pizza and giant Coke Zero. I had a nice 15 minute break before Black Swan to hit the bathroom and order a follow-on snack of chicken tenders (and another "small" soda). The theaters were semi-crowded (mostly with AARP members) but overall it could not have gone any better. I actually felt like a legitimate film critic (one that doesn't get paid however.... hmmm.... do I know of anyone like that?).

In all of the movies I sat in the exact same row (that weird handicapped row where there are isolated groups of two seats with a lot of leg room). The most amazing aspect of the marathon was that I did not once start to doze off in any movie. I attribute my alertness to the giant sodas filled with caffeine I downed. I was shocked that I never felt tired. I started getting a bit sleepy in Tron Legacy amidst all the dark neon visual hypnotics on the screen. And yes, I WAS tempted to just buy one ticket and theater hop for the rest of the day but I felt compelled to contribute to the box office for these three films. Overall, a total of $24 for three films isn't all that bad.

Now the tough part. Writing three reviews tonight. I am going to churn these out right now in order of viewing. I feel that I will be very far along in the process once the Academy announces the Oscar Nominations next month. And all I can think of is attempting a 4-movie marathon next holiday season (I honestly would have been able to make ANOTHER movie at 5 PM today).