Dec 30, 2010

Black Swan

**** out of ****

Despite her Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in Mike Nichols' "Closer" (2004), Natalie Portman's acting has not done much for me... until now. Her portrayal of Nina Sayers, the new prima ballerina who goes increasingly insane to personify the white swan and black swan in an haute couture version of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," is nervous, fragile, and beautiful. (A Best Actress win at the Oscars should not be far out of reach.) Darren Aronofsky's — dare I say it — masterpiece film, "Black Swan," in which not a shot goes unwasted, toys creatively with visual and physical doubling, balancing on classic films such as "The Red Shoes" (1948), "All about Eve" (1950), and the œuvres of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski for inspiration. For those with low tolerance for thrillers and horror films (and/or nauseatingly high-speed, quaking handheld shots), you will find that "Black Swan" hits that capacity several times in multiple gut-wrenching shots and cuts — though it is always satisfying. This (Best Picture?) will certainly be remembered for years to come for its formal and narrative perfection. (Of note is the motif of close-ups of the fragmented body.) Barbara Hershey delivers her best performance in years as Nina's dominating mother. Winona Ryder — underused and underappreciated — makes the most of her approximately ten minutes (total) on camera as outgoing prima ballerina Beth (an aged version of the faded bitch Veronica from the Gen-X film "Heathers" that originally made her famous). Portman's co-star, Mila Kunis, has been somewhat overhyped as the vixen "black swan" paradigm, Lily, with whom Portman shares a notably erotic sex scene (one of the best in recent years — on par with Patrick Wilson's and Malin Åkerman's in "Watchmen"). Though perhaps her best performance to date, Kunis is (like her character in the film) much less precise and is (unlike her character in the film) much less dynamic than Portman. 2010, 108 mins.

Feb 18, 2010

Shutter Island

*** out of ****

Though not of the caliber of "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," nor "GoodFellas," Martin Scorsese's latest release, "Shutter Island," is an enthralling psychological thriller (à la "Cape Fear") with an impressive leading performance from the always impressive Leonardo DiCaprio. Paramount delayed the release of this film by several months (seemingly due to "economic downturn"), but the frequently invoked reason for a film's delayed release (poor quality) is not the case here. The elaborate narrative of U.S. Marshals called to an island mental institution to investigate the disappearance of a "patient" (as opposed to "prisoner"), "Shutter Island" will keep you guessing until its surprising conclusion. In fact, on reflection, the film pulls a "Sixth Sense" when viewers realize that they had all of the clues, but they did not realize it. More great work from Scorsese and his regular cast of collaborators, including Thelma Schoonmaker (editing), Robert Richardson (cinematography), and Robbie Robertson ("music supervision," compiling mostly classical - and mostly chilling - pieces). 2010, 138 mins.

Jul 1, 2009

Grand Hotel

** out of ****

In a studio system dependent on its stars to generate bucks at the box office, MGM assembled the cream of the crop for an ensemble cast-driven melodrama called "Grand Hotel." The 1932 Oscar-winner for Best Picture (with, curiously, no other nominations) was likely rewarded more for its scale than for any other reason. Although some of the stars do hold their own―namely Greta Garbo as the tired Russian ballerina who becomes reinvigorated by love (and who utters one of the most famous lines in film history, "I want to be alone"), Lionel Barrymore as the adorable, jovial Kringelein, who decides to live his last days with style because he is terminally ill, and a young Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen, the objectified stenographer with sass―most of the action is boring and the dialogue is excessively chatty. Lewis Stone's line, "Grand Hotel. People come, people go... Nothing ever happens," is supposed to be ironic since a supposedly complex series of interconnected stories transpires, but, boy, was he right! 1932, 112 mins.

Jun 24, 2009


** ½ out of ****

Following in the footsteps of Ridley Scott's "Alien" and James Cameron's "Aliens," David Fincher's "Alien³" shows promise with one of the most fascinating credit sequences I have ever seen and an astounding vision that belies Fincher's status as a "newbie" director. One particular scene―the cremation/alien birth scene―is beautifully constructed by crosscutting and visually engages the nihilistic tones that underlie the film. However, the film ends up falling apart near its run-of-the-mill conclusion, where the story returns to old formulas from the preceding films and even takes on point-of-view shots from the alien itself. (Huh!? First rule of horror films: The monster is scarier when you cannot see it, not when it is seeing you!) Even worse, the visual effects look so fake that even the effects from "Alien" thirteen years before look more perfect (No wonder this film's sole Oscar nomination for Visual Effects was trumped by "Death Becomes Her"). Unfortunately, I am also less impressed with Sigourney Weaver's performance as Ripley in "Alien³" than in the other films in the quadrilogy (blame it on the screenwriters?), though I am taken aback at how powerful and fascinating the character of Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) and his ethics are. 1992, 114 mins.

Jun 22, 2009


*** out of ****

The science-fiction/horror film that propelled director Ridley Scott to acclaim, "Alien" takes its cues from Kubrick and Lucas to the point of nearly copycatting at times. The film's deliberately slow pacing at the beginning and its atonal, Ligeti-like score mimic "2001" (though it lacks the innate grace), while its action and some of its shots, notably the low angle shots of the ship's immense hull, recall "Star Wars" (but more overdone). Even if the direction comes off a bit amateur, it is still potent, and this intense story of the commercial towing spaceship crew who (quite insipidly) reawakens an alien species is really a story all its own. Even if you want to hate how dumb the crew members are, you cannot deny the badass-ness of the toughest woman on film, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, her first leading role (and a solid one, at that). Obviously, you know how this film has to end since several sequels exist, but the film does throw in a few surprises along the way to make things more complex (for example, the character of Ash, played by Ian Holm). Also, let us not forget just how terrifying the alien itself is―the visual effects won an Oscar. 1979, 119 mins.

Jun 10, 2009

To Catch a Thief

*** out of ****

A sexy Hitchcock cat burglar caper (in VistaVision!) set on the handsome French Riviera. Cary Grant stars as John Robie, a former burglar known as "the Cat" and the ubiquitously Hitchcockian man mistaken for the crimes. Grace Kelly, in her last performance for Hitchcock, is the pretty, rich American girl secretly seeking a thrill as Robie's "assistant," though he is simply trying to figure out the identity of the real burglar. "To Catch a Thief" features another solid screenplay and electric dialogue from Hitchcock's '50s screenwriter, John Michael Hayes. The film is no masterpiece like "Vertigo," but it is immensely enjoyable, nonetheless. The innuendo-laden fireworks scene is unforgettable. The film won one Oscar for Robert Burks' cinematography. 1955, 106 mins.

Jun 8, 2009


** out of ****

Save for Madonna’s jewel of a performance as Argentinean idol, Eva Duarte de Perón (for which she received voice lessons and ultimately won a Golden Globe for “Best Actress – Musical/Comedy”), Alan Parker‘s grand scale film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s 1978 musical, “Evita,” is largely underwhelming. Do not get me wrong—I love musicals—but the film’s wall-to-wall songs subvert the power of the narrative. Take a cue from Fosse, please. Most of the songs are forgettable (that might be the songwriters’ faults), but a few are little gems: the delightfully amusing “Goodnight and Thank You,” the unforgettable “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” and the heartbreaking ballad, “You Must Love Me” (Oscar winner for “Best Original Song”). Of note, the exquisitely crafted costumes made the Guinness Book of World Records; Madonna, who was pregnant during filming, changed costumes a record eighty-five times. 1996, 136 mins.

May 27, 2009

A Place in the Sun

** out of ****

Moody George Eastman (talk, dark, handsome, and pre-alcoholic Montgomery Clift) is in love with neophyte socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), but he cannot be with her until he gets rid of his pregnant “baby mama,” working class Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters, in a splendid performance). A mostly dull film with many stagnant sequences, “A Place in the Sun” becomes exciting only at the boating scene. The tender shots of Clift and Taylor in each others’ arms are also memorable images. George Stevens’ direction deserved the nod for the Oscar, perhaps the only redeeming quality to the whole film, which is based on Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” 1951, 121 mins.

Sordid Lives

*** ½ out of ****

The LGBT cult classic “Sordid Lives” finds it biggest fanbase in the South because it is basically “the spittin’ image” of life there—from the clothes to the hair to the speech—all accurately depicted by writer/director Del Shores. Even the substandard camera work (in comparison to glossy Hollywood production, that is) offers a peculiar realism to this film, Shores’ “sordid” tale of a family coming to terms with its skeletons in the closet. As a gay boy from the South, I can say that I have met almost everyone in the film at some point in my life: Ty (Kirk Geiger), a homosexual actor who “passes” lest anyone find out his true sexuality, G.W. (Beau Bridges), a wooden-legged, red-blooded heterosexual who is unabashedly committing adultery, Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia), the high-strung, holier-than-thou Southern Baptist mother of Ty, and Sissy (Beth Grant), a gossipy, menopausal woman (amusingly) trying to quit smoking. The real star of the show, though, is petite Leslie Jordan as “Brother Boy,” a gay Tammy Wynette-impersonator, locked up in an asylum that is trying to “de-homosexualize” him. “Sordid Lives” bears the tagline, “A black comedy about white trash,” and, indeed, this film is pregnant with laugh-out-loud quotes, situations, and characters. With its tightly-woven, unique screenplay, “Sordid Lives” is one of the best independent LGBT-related pictures I have seen. 2001, 111 mins.

Big Fish

*** out of ****

An enchanting fairy tale filled with unique characters, “Big Fish,” though based on the novel of the same name, could only be from the mind of Tim Burton. Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) is tired of his father’s stories, which are so farfetched that he feels he actually knows nothing about him. However, he eventually learns that his father (Ewan McGregor as young Ed Bloom, Albert Finney as the senior version) may, indeed, be truly larger than life. Charming and enticing, “Big Fish” will capture your imagination (and your heartstrings) and never let go. Finney is perfect in his role, one that deserved at least an Oscar nomination. 2003, 125 mins.