Director/Country/Time: Darren Aronofsky/USA/103 min.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Headline: Requiem for an arabesque
Scott’s Take: Love him or hate him—and I mostly like him, in spite (and because) of his excesses—Aronofsky could never be accused of doing anything halfway. He commits to a concept and treats it with all the fevered intensity and technique he can conjure. Black Swan turns up the gas on the backstage, domestic, and psychological melodrama surrounding a New York ballet company’s new production of Swan Lake. Portman does career-best work in a role that lays bare the distancing, porcelain prissiness that plagues most of her performances: Given her dream shot as prima ballerina, Portman’s character excels at dancing as the White Swan, but lacks the spontaneity and passionate abandon needed to bring the Black Swan across. When a new dancer, played by Kunis, joins the company, she brings the opposite traits—sensuality, but no discipline—and represents a threat. Aronofsky and company add to the mix a domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), a lecherous artistic director (Cassel), and disturbing indicators that Portman’s psychic stress is manifesting itself physically. Black Swan sets up stark, occasionally silly parallels between the story of Swan Lake and the psychodrama unfolding off stage, with a special emphasis on ballet’s punishing toll on the body and Portman’s Piano Teacher-esque infantilization and repression at home. It goes way over the top and stays there, with little of The Wrestler’s leavening humor, but damned if Aronofsky’s operatic style didn’t do a number on me. His film coils tight and snaps hard.
Director/Country/Time: Janus Metz/Denmark/100 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: South of Restrepo
Scott’s Take: Embedded with a group of gung-ho young Danish soldiers in the Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, Metz captures the alpha-male camaraderie, anxious longueurs, and intense combat engagements of a unit serving six months in Taliban country. Much like the hoax-or-not theatrics of I’m Still Here wilted in comparison to those in Exit Through The Gift Shop, Armadillo looks worse than it might have in the same year the stunning Restrepo was released. Where Restrepo clearly and forcefully documented the Americans acting as sitting ducks in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley, Armadillo lacks the same focus and context, despite the you-are-there effectiveness of its on-the-ground sequences. What’s interesting is the contrast in attitudes between the Danish soldiers in Armadillo and their American counterparts in Restrepo: Based on their on-camera interviews, the American kids are so shaken by the things they’ve witnessed that you can see they’ll be haunted by the experience for the rest of their lives. For their part, the Danes are either having more of an adventure or covering up their trauma with chest-thumping braggadocio; almost to a man, they’re ready to come back for more. In any case, the age of high-quality, small-size video cameras and journalist embeds is yielding images of war that were never possible in the past.
Director/Country/Time: Will Gluck/USA/93 min.
Cast: Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The Scarlet Letter meets John Hughes
Noel’s Take: Here’s what’s wrong with Easy A: Writer Bert V. Royal and director Will Gluck rely too much on teen movie clichés for their high school spin on Nathaniel Hawthorne (with Emma Stone playing a whip-smart, unpopular kid who becomes both shunned and beloved when her whole school mistakenly believes she’s begun to put out) then try to excuse them by directly acknowledging the swipes. Also, Easy A could’ve stood to be a little gutsier when it comes to challenging a high school culture that prizes sexiness but not sex. Now here’s what’s right about Easy A: everything else. Stone is a charmer as a girl who tries to make the best of a bad circumstance by exposing the hypocrisy of her classmates; Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are hilarious as her permissive, happily sarcastic parents; and Royal’s dialogue has the wit and snap of a genre classic. And though it raises issues about teen sexuality that it’s too timid to fully address, Easy A is asking the right questions about what “a reputation” means, and whether high school kids have any power to control how they’re perceived.
Director/Country/Time: Jørgen Leth/Denmark/80 min.
Headline: Proof of heaven, pretty women…
Noel’s Take: Filmmaker/poet/aesthete-of-all-trades Jørgen Leth (perhaps best known in the states for collaborating with Lars von Trier on The Five Obstructions) here assembles over a decade of his intimate studies of women: some of whom were girlfriends, and some of whom were actresses he hired to re-enact one particular scene from an old love affair. His stated purpose is to “frame the erotic,” by showing all different kinds of women in circumstances both sexual and casual. The film is discomfortingly fetishistic at first, and throughout I found myself wishing that Leth had let the women be themselves more rather than orchestrating their interactions. (I also could’ve done without Leth’s poetic ruminations, which were never not drippy.) But Erotic Man is mesmerizing too, and becomes touchingly personal once Leth starts including more behind-the-scenes moments that reveal more of his purpose for this project. Plus, the mix of media (from blurry video to grainy home movies to crystal-clear film) demonstrates the sensuality of the images themselves, just as Leth’s occasional use of split-screens underscores how he’s paralyzed by choice when it comes to settling on one woman to ogle for the rest of his life. This is an odd but beautiful movie, reminiscent in some ways of R. Crumb’s Art & Beauty (and, sure, Russ Meyer’s Mondo Topless).
Director/Country/Time: Sylvain Chomet/UK/80 min.
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The Triplets Of Belleville director dusts off a previously produced Jacques Tati script
Noel’s Take: Jacques Tati was one of the most brilliant comic writers, directors and performers of the 20th century, though his sense of humor was so dry and subtle that his movies are often more brilliant than funny. The same could be said of Sylvain Chomet’s animated adaptation of Tati’s screenplay The Illusionist, which follows the travails of a M. Hulot-like magician in the UK in the early ‘60s as his style of entertaining falls out of favor. Magic tricks don’t really translate well to animation; nor does Tati’s minimalist whimsy, honestly. But then The Illusionist isn’t strictly a film by our about Tati, either. As the protagonist encounters a wide-eyed fan and works overtime to convince her (and himself) that he’s still got a little magic left, the movie pays direct and indirect homage to the likes of Jacques Demy, Federico Fellini, Max Ophüls, Powell & Pressburger… that whole generation, really, of filmmakers who used the medium to cast spells. And yet Chomet is skeptical of what that magic really means. The movie is filled with illusions both grand and petty: from a snowstorm that’s really a flurry of feathers to the false promises of billboards and window displays. The movie ends on a melancholy, ambiguous note, too, with disenchantment and new hope all jumbled together. This is one beautiful movie, full of its own life, not just Tati’s. Not everyone’s going to feel the same way I did I’m sure, but The Illusionist struck such a deep chord that hours after seeing it, I was still under its spell.
Scott’s Take: Noel already did a fine job unpacking all the primary (Tati) and secondary (Demy, Fellini, Ophuls, et al.) influences in Chomet’s new film, which showcases the unique sensibility behind The Triplets Of Belleville, which also had a laundry list of reference points, from retro-animation and French comic books to old Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. The Illusionist is another feast for the eyes, but a meal of a different kind: The warm, hand-drawn style is unmistakable and, if anything, rendered more beautifully this time around, capturing bustling cities and charming provincial villages with a gentle whimsy that pervades the entire movie. Yet I found myself missing the creative exuberance of Belleville, which here is replaced by an initially charming but increasingly arch homage to Tati. Chomet gets Tati’s antiquated Hulot character down in the early going, but the humor gives way to a forced melancholy in the second half that made the film’s 80 minutes seem longer than they should have. Still, only a handful of animators have a touch as pleasing as Chomet’s, and I look forward to seeing The Illusionist again, if only to spend more time in his filmic universe.
Grades: Noel: A-; Scott: B
It’s Kind Of A Funny Story
Director/Country/Time: Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden/USA/101 min.
Cast: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: It’s kind of a great big mess
Scott’s Take: After breaking through with Half Nelson and Sugar—two thoughtful, affecting, beautifully acted dramas in the John Sayles mode—Fleck and Boden try to shift into quirky comedy/drama of the Fox Searchlight school, but they lack the snap for it. To be fair, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story would be difficult to pull off under any circumstances: Mining a young man’s adventures in a hospital psych ward for both humor and pathos is a tricky proposition, because it’s hard to laugh at these quirky people without trivializing their very real problems. It doesn’t help that the hero, a suicidal Brooklyn teenager, gets committed on stresses most kids would be happy to have, or that Gilchrist plays him with so little charisma or comic timing. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story goes wrong in a lot of ways big and small—a musical fantasy set to David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” is a lowpoint—but it’s big-hearted and eventually finds the right perspective on Gilchrist’s problems and the therapeutic benefits of being institutionalized. As a much more troubled patient who befriends Gilchrist, Galifianakis embodies what the film might have been: Funny and soulful, damaged yet generous and wise in his dealings with others. For anyone ready to write off Galifianakis as a one-note slob, suck on this.
Never Let Me Go
Director/Country/Time: Mark Romanek/UK/103 min.
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Life and why to live it
Noel’s Take: A sci-fi romance steeped in mystery and despair, Never Let Me Go is best approached with little to no advance information or expectations, the same way the characters in the film experience their lives. We first meet the protagonists as pre-teen students in a well-appointed British boarding school in 1978, where they’re engaged in the usual business of clique-building and innocent boyfriend/girlfriend games. Then a new teacher arrives and tells them all a secret about who they are and why they’re there. Jump ahead to 1985, where three of the classmates—played by Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and the film’s narrator, Carey Mulligan—are living on a collective farm, and enduring the petty jealousies and spite of a garden-variety love triangle. Jump ahead again, to 1994, and the three old friends are still dealing with the ramifications of their shared past. Never Let Me Go was directed by Mark Romanek and adapted by screenwriter Alex Garland from a novel by Kazuo Ishigiro, and it’s a more than game effort to put across some emotionally tricky material. I ultimately had some trouble connecting to it, largely because Romanek maintains a measured, reserved tone that struck me as too rigid. (That is, until he needs to punch home the movie’s main points, which he does a little too hard.) But I predict that many, many people are going to be deeply moved by Never Let Me Go. It’s got such a powerful story, and it uses its fantastical premise to explore how people reflect on their lives, and grapple with the common confusion of their upbringing, seeking explanations for the lies and rumors that defined who they turned out to be.
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger
Director/Country/Time: Woody Allen/USA/98 min.
Cast: Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Oops, Woody Allen made another movie
Scott’s Take: The latest from the WoodBot 2000—the computer program that keeps spitting out scripts annually that vaguely resemble old Woody Allen movies—You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger opens with Shakespeare’s famous Macbeth quote about life being “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I think it’s meant to be a wry and self-deprecating commentary on the human foibles we’re about to witness, but really, it’s more an indicator of how little Allen has come to care about his work. Allen strands a strong ensemble cast in roles that we’ve seen in many iterations before: Brolin as a failed novelist whose eyes stray to the pretty woman across the courtyard; Watts as Brolin’s would-be art dealer wife, whose eyes stray to her handsome new boss (Antonio Banderas); Hopkins as a Watts’ father, who abruptly divorces her mother to take up with a dim call-girl half his age. And so on. Everyone in this romantic roundelay is finding new love outside their marriage, but nobody’s happy about it. The film plays like a no-stakes Husbands And Wives, where everybody cheats and the emotional fallout never registers. (Hopkins, in particular, is a pale reflection of Sydney Pollack’s work in the earlier film.) And by the looks of it, he must have decided against shooting the last 20 pages of the script. It’s all loose ends, signifying nothing.
Tomorrow: Will Ferrell meets Raymond Carver, Let The Right One In meets its English-language remake, and James Franco meets a heavy rock.