Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hugo (2011) ****

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret, Ben Kingsley as George Méliès, Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle, Sasha Baron Cohen as Station Inspector
The words “A Martin Scorsese Picture” elicit such joy in me that is unexplainable.  He has never made a bad film.  That’s saying something for someone who has been directing films for 44 years.  He has given us timeless masterpieces in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and GoodFellas, not to mention his great films that have not yet found their full appreciation like After Hours, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed.  I name those films because Hugo falls into the latter category.  I hope Hugo will become an accepted masterpiece because I think it may be one.
At first glance, Hugo is an odd choice for Scorsese to direct.  First of all, it’s a family film so it is hardly the fare for the man who showed us the mean streets of New York City and has been a primary chronicler of mob life on the street.  However, this film could not have been directed by anyone else.  The film is ultimately about a great love for film of the past, and no one making films today (including Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson) has such an intimate knowledge of older films as Scorsese.  He is the founder of the Film Foundation, an organization that is dedicated to preserving the films of the past.  To read or watch interviews with him is like taking a mini history of film.  He is quick to say that one shot was inspired by a move in this film, or that blocking was inspired by a sequence in that film.  To make a film that in its last 45 minutes (I think, I wasn’t watching the clock) is a love letter to silent film director George Méliès must have been somewhat of a dream come true for him.
The story is about Hugo Cabret, an orphan who lives in a train station in 1930’s Paris.  His father (wonderfully played by Jude Law) was a clock-maker who died in a fire of a museum.  He had rescued, sometime before, an automaton that could write.  Unfortunately, the automaton was not in working order.  He and Hugo set to work fixing him.  When he died, Hugo was taken in by his only living relative, his uncle (played by Ray Winstone) who wound the clocks in the train station and taught Hugo the work.  Claude, the uncle, goes missing and Hugo takes up the work but must stay hidden because Claude did not tell anyone he was there and Hugo does not want to be sent to the orphanage.  Hugo is still trying to fix the automaton and steals parts from the toy booth in the station, run by an angry old man (played by Ben Kingsley).  The man confiscates a notebook with sketches of the automaton made by Hugo’s father and is taken aback.  The man agrees to let Hugo work at the shop to get the notebook back, at the convincing of his Godchild Isabella who becomes Hugo’s only friend.
The plot from there is more of interrelationships between the characters.  Hugo shows Isabella the automaton and discovers that the key she wears around her neck, in the shape of a heart, is what will make his newly repaired automaton work.  How does she have the missing piece of his puzzle?  They get the thing to work and it draws a curious image of the man in the moon with a bullet in his eye signed by George Méliès.  Hugo remembers it as a scene described to him by his father from the first film he ever saw.  Isabella says that is the full name of her Papa George, the owner of the toy booth Hugo has been working in.  This leads them to a library with a history of film books.  They discover that Méliès was a silent film director that was highly respected.  They then encounter a film historian who revers Méliès and has even met him, during a film shoot years ago when the historian was a boy.  The trouble is that the historian insists that Méliès died in the war (WWI for those not paying attention to the timeframe).  Isabella says it isn’t true, that he is alive and they arrange for a screening of a film at the Méliès household.  They are met by Isabella’s Godmother who, after insisting they leave, relents to see the film.  After all, she acted in it.  At the conclusion of the film, George comes in and filled with sadness, recounts how he left filmmaking (the great passion and joy of his life) because his films were no longer in demand.
The fact that Méliès is still alive is quite the revelation to the historian and he tells Méliès how venerated he is within the film community.  He gets Méliès into the Paris Film Academy as a faculty member and hunts down many films thought to be lost.   The middle parts of the story are really a mystery that leads the children around the streets of Paris, so I will not divulge them here.  Suffice it to say that the intervening moments are wonderful and deserve to be experienced on their own.
This film is a celebration of the movies led by an unlikely hero and an unlikely plot that leads to it.  Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield turn in beautiful performances that I feel need to be recognized by the Academy.
I have left out countless points of interaction in the train station.  I find it hard to describe these instances because they are so charming and beautifully rendered, most notably by Sasha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector, and because they are sidelines to the actual plot.  They do not detract in any way, but serve to broaden the humanity of everyone in the film and show that, in the Station Inspector’s case, one person can perceive someone as a monster to be feared and another can see that same person as lovable.  The interactions of the regular populous of the train station is simply wonderful to behold.
I have also, as of yet, failed to mention the direction and cinematography and the editing.  This was not shot or edited as a “normal” Scorsese picture.  The film is more languid than he normally is, but the camera is just as restless.  Scorsese seldom lets his camera rest, it is always moving, even if it is imperceptibly.  This is true of nearly all his films.  However, the editing (by master editor Thelma Schoonmaker) is more subdued and less pulse-pounding that normal.  Much like she did for The Age of Innocence or King of Comedy (another Scorsese film that is not as appreciated as it should be), she takes time with the editing.  Scorsese still uses his trademark of speeding up or slowing down the film to highlight key points of drama or to emphasize the protagonist’s viewpoint, but he really lets the story unfold before us in a more straightforward way than is his nature.  This film is, perhaps, the most personal of Scorsese’s long career of personal films.  It is not semi-autobiographical like Who’s That Knocking at my Door (his first feature) or Mean Streets, but it is obviously a labor of love and that love shows in every frame of this film.
The cinematography is something very separate.  I saw Hugo in 3D.  For the record, I hate 3D.  I think it is a gimmick and will not last, just as it did not last long in the 50’s to combat television and it did not last long in the 70’s to draw people back into the theaters during the recession.  There are only two films I have ever seen that used 3D to any great effect:  Avatar and Hugo.   Scorsese got the 3D right.  He uses it not as a gimmick, but as a tool to make his astonishing story that much more immersive.  I always say that if a film is good, it does not need anything else to help it along.  Both Hugo and Avatar can absolutely stand on their own without 3D, but to see them with that additional step is rather remarkable.  When Hugo walks through corridors of steam, it feels like the steam is lapping at you, and moving around you as you pass close on Hugo’s heels.  Frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert Richardson uses the camera to take you with Hugo on this strange journey of discovery and uses the 3D to add visual dimension to the very detailed world that Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti (another frequent Scorsese collaborator) have created.  Richardson is able to combat the dulling of the color palate that is common with 3D by hyper-colorizing his shots and lighting them in a way that makes them stand out and beg to be seen.  This is an incredibly beautiful film to simply watch because it is shot so expertly.
A quick note.  There are films that you should see before seeing Hugo.  There is a site that has them streaming here.  To see them is to see the dawn of cinema in all of its glory.  There is a scene where the children are told (or say, I cannot remember which) that when the Lumière Brother’s film A Train Arrives at the Station played for the first time that the audience screamed in fear because they thought they would be run over.  I have read that this is a film history urban legend.  The audience knew what they were there for because Nickelodeons had been around for a few years at that point, and they knew that they would not be hit by the train.  It is a fun story anyway…
Hugo may very well be the best film of the year.  I have no real basis for comparison, however, because I have not seen many films from 2011.  It has won Scorsese the best director of the year from the National Board of Review and topped their list of the best films of the year, as well as some critic’s lists and other organizations.  I hope that Scorsese gets what he deserves for this wonderful film.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The King's Speech (2010) ****



Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon
Written by Davie Seidler

I’m sure everyone has said “They don’t make them like that anymore!”  after seeing or hearing or reading something great that was from an earlier era.  You’re wrong.  They just did.  I relish in films like this.  I love adult dramas that don’t use special effects, which instead use people, emotions and humans to tell their stories and make scenes with just two people in a room talking riveting.   

I loved this film, if you haven’t noticed.  Colin Firth should and, by all accounts will, win the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role for this film.  His characterization of the Duke of York (otherwise known as Prince Albert, not in a can) is amazing.  Geoffrey Rush plays  the man who becomes his speech therapist and only friend.  Rush has a great shot at picking up the Oscar for Supporting Actor as well, and although I’d like to see Bale win for The Fighter because Rush already has an Oscar, I don’t think I’ll be upset if he does win over Bale.  He plays his role wonderfully.  He makes what he does look effortless.  Helena Bonham Carter is no slouch either, as the Duchess of York and future Queen Mum.  She is utterly charming in this role, a quality she is not often able to display because of her normally dark, brooding and sometimes evil characters.  She was quietly powerful in every scene she was in. 

The direction deserves some recognition as well.  Tom Hooper has taken this story of a stammerer and made it enthralling.  He does not waste a scene, nor does he over-fill the film.  The picture is about two hours and in less deft hands could have been drawn out to two and a half, easily.  There is a bit more.  These types of films can be made boring by uninspired direction.  Static cameras that make the scene static no matter what is being said, poor lighting that makes the dialogue harder to focus on because nothing is happening, etc.  Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen work very hard to make every scene exciting.  They have used the camera in very interesting ways (one scene when Prince Albert is approaching a room of national dignitaries to read his acceptance of the crown is straight out of the Kubrick handbook) to make scenes of two people talking, as I stated above, riveting.  One shot, during a physical exercise early in the treatment, Hooper and editor Tariq Anwar (who also cut American Beauty) use a simple camera push in on a blank wall and a ratty old couch into a time jump.  One exercise is being done on the push in, and a different one on the pull out.  This is actually a cop from Alfred Hitchcock from when he was shooting Rope.  He wanted it to seem as though it was one long take with no interruptions, but the film cans only held eight minutes of film, so he would have the camera go behind a person or a chair or something to blank the screen to change the can and go on filming.  But, cop or not, it’s a magnificent use of the camera and editing to mark the passage of time. 

The film takes place between 1925 and 1939, bookended by two major speeches made by Albert.  The first takes place at the Commonwealth exhibition and the second over the airwaves when Albert, then King George VI, declares war on Germany.  The first speech is a disaster, because Albert stutters horribly.  This leads to his wife Elizabeth (the mother of the current Queen) to look for remedies.  The first ones try the old methods, like marbles in the mouth, and Albert gets very angry and will not continue.  Elizabeth finds Lionel Logue in a basement.  She is referred there by a respected physician, though his methods are unconventional.  Logue does not know who is client is at first, being Australian and Albert being the Duke of York and not in immediate line for the throne.  Logue learns of Albert’s true identity, but does not change any of his methods.  He insists on first names, which to Albert is just not done.  He does not think he’s better than other people, but he is Royalty and commoners do not speak to Royalty in the familiar.  But Logue understands that the speech impediment is more than physical and to get at the root, he needs to know Albert intimately.

While these elocution lessons are transpiring, we learn that the current King, George V, has always preferred Albert (Bertie to family and Logue, the latter despite Albert’s objections) to his older brother and heir to the throne, Edward.  Edward insists he is in love with a woman who is currently twice divorced and in process of getting a third. 

Edward becomes King when his father dies, but abdicates to marry his thrice divorced love (apparently, according to England’s constitution, a divorced person cannot be presented to court, which would make it difficult for her to be Queen) and suddenly Bertie is thrust onto the throne he never wanted.

Logue becomes even more important during the preparation for the coronation and other duties the new King George VI must do.  Bertie and Logue have become very close, to the point of Logue’s being seated in the family box for the coronation. 

This leads to the final speech, when the King declares war on Germany.  King George’s speeches to the British people during the war were a beacon of hope for all those in the empire and this was the first of them.  Logue has decorated a soundproof room for the King so he can be isolated from people, just him and Logue to get him through the speech.  Without Logue, these speeches may never have taken place.  Without the hope they instilled in the people of England during the bombing raids done by the Germans, Britain may have fallen.  We may never know, but it is true that due to this unlikely friendship, England did not loose hope, and neither did her King.

This film is important for many reasons.  It calls attention, and if I may, gives voice to those that seldom have one simply because they cannot get the words out.  Stuttering is a source of frustration and torture for those who suffer from it because they cannot speak as fast as they think and therefore appear to the cruel as stupid.  This causes ridicule and shame.  This film should give hope to those with speech problems.  It shows that you can live with it and do great things despite it.  The film is also important because it shows just what friendship is capable of doing.  Because of this lifelong friendship, as it became, a man was given the confidence to inspire a people.

I read Roger Ebert’s review of this film and wanted to call attention to something, but didn’t want to leave out what got me thinking about it.  Ebert states that this is a unique period piece because it does not focus on the majesty of the period, but focuses on smaller-scope scenes.  This did strike me during the film.  The period detail is great, but because so little of the film takes place outside of a series of rooms, we are not beaten over the head with the fact that the film is not contemporary.  Tom Hooper made wonderful use of very restrictive areas to keep the focus on Albert and Logue, not on the sensational abdication of Edward VIII or of the rising threat from Hitler and Germany.  It is the story of two men and what they work together to accomplish and does not strive to be more than that.  This is a great film.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Fighter (2010) ***1/2

Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson

I really enjoyed this film.  I know, I've mostly put up reviews of movies I liked, but I have Twilight: Eclipse on the DVR, so a bad review is coming soon, I swear.

To start over:  I really enjoyed this film.  There was a magnificent dynamic between the characters.  This was ultimately an actor's dream.  The supporting roles are rightfully nominated for Academy Awards, and Wahlberg's nomination is unfortunately absent from the film's multiple nods.  The direction and cinematography were fantastic.  Russell uses a pseudo-documentary style for parts, then somewhat polished film for others, and during the fights, you feel like you're watching an HBO fight, it looks identical.  That ties in with the cinematography.  Hoyte Van Hoytema (who shot the spectacular 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In) uses the color of the film to depict the shifting perspectives inherent in the film.  Part of the film is shown as the filming of a documentary for HBO about Dicky Eklund (Bale), a one time almost boxing champ who fought Sugar Ray Leonard and knocked him down, then fell into a life of drugs and ultimately crack addiction.  So, what Russell and Van Hoytema do is use a hand-held camera to show the "fly-on-the-wall" perspective of the documentary film crew.  When the fights begin, you feel like you are watching the actual HBO fight.  The camera work does a great deal to immerse you into the film.

The story centers around Micky Ward (Wahlberg), a small time boxer out of Lowell Massachusetts.  He is fighting his way through the welter-weight devision of professional boxing.  His manager is his mother, Alice Ward (Leo) and his trainer is his older half-brother Dickey Ecklund (Bale).  The dynamic of this family can only politely be called dysfunctional.  In addition to Mickey and Dickey, Alice has had seven daughters from two husbands.  I will say that one of my biggest problems with the film is the depiction of the sisters.  Though this is based on a true story and the people portrayed did participate in the filming (there's a short clip at the end with the real Micky and Dickey and the performances were spot on, even based on a 30 second clip), I feel that the sisters were portrayed a bit too cookie-cutter.  They aren't particularly major characters, in fact they really only factor heavily in three or four scenes, but  I wish they had seemed a bit more real and less just loud, pushy women.  In some ways, that's how I felt about Alice too, but I suppose they could just be loud, pushy people.  Alice is dominating and overbearing (this may be a trend in last year's good pictures, as Black Swan had a similar mother character, just portrayed very differently), but her character is more fleshed out.  Alice thinks she is doing everything she can for Micky, as Dickey is no longer fighting, yet her primary concern is (and as far as the film lets on) always has been about Dickey.  The story progresses and ends as you would expect it to, in terms of the boxing portion of the story and that is my biggest point of contention. Micky gets his shot and wins, but that's not the important part of the film, so I am not reticent in revealing it here.  More on the ending later.

The main focus of the film is Micky and his relationship with his family.  Alice wants to control everything and guilts Micky into keeping everything "in the family".  Using phrases like "You wouldn't be nowhere without Dickey"  and other similar ones, she uses the family as a hammer to keep Micky from venturing out and doing well for himself.  Alice seems to think that as long as she is his manager and Dickey is training him, Dickey can make a comeback.  But, as I mentioned, Dickey is a crack-head, and that doesn't go well with boxing.

Micky's turning point comes when he is pushed into a fight by Alice and Dickey with a man twenty pounds heavier than he is, because his original opponent is down with the flu.  Micky gets pummeled and begins to question if his family is best for him in business.  Enter Charlene (Adams).  She is the local attractive bartender that Micky started talking to at the behest of his father ( Jack McGee).  Charlene enters Micky's life and begins to plant the seeds that maybe his family isn't best for his career.  After an injury Micky receives to his hand while trying to help his brother, Charlene and George (McGee) get him in contact with a local businessman who becomes his new manager, with the head of the gym, Mickey O'Keefe (played remarkably by himself) as his new trainer (Dickey was sent to prison), Micky begins his rise to prominence.  This is when the story starts to veer into typical sports movie formula, but still manages to skirt it due to the focus still not being on the fights themselves.  But there is a fight montage followed by a training montage.

There is a lot that happens in this film, most of it does not need to be recounted here.  I've touched on many of the plot points, but for 115 minutes there is a lot of story packed into it.  Now, as I've said, the crux of the film is the family and how these actors play these roles.  Bale plays Dickey very over-the-top and loud, but in an exceptional way.  He vanishes into his character in a way only Bale can.  I'm rooting for him on Oscar night to finally be awarded with the statue he's earned many times over in the course of the last ten or more years.  Leo is similar in her take on Alice.  She is loud and pushy, forcing everyone into feeling that her opinion is right because she does not let anyone contradict her, in fact she does not even let them speak for the most part.  She is very good in the role considering she is playing Bale and Wahlberg's mother and she is only thirteen and eleven years older then them, respectively.  The make-up for her was fantastic. She does a wonderful job of appearing as though she belongs in  the town of Lowell.  She will quite possibly win the Oscar for Supporting Actress, but that category is always unpredictable.  This is Leo's second Academy Award nomination, her first was for 2008's Frozen River.  Also competing for Best Supporting Actress, and very rightfully so, is Amy Adams for Charlene.  I haven't said much about her making her role seem very small, but it isn't and it is pivotal to the entire story.  She plays a very strong character and like Bale and Leo is remarkable in her ability to disappear into the role.  I'm hoping for her to win the Oscar, because this is her third nomination in five years, after Junebug in 2005 (a really small but very charming film) and the wonderful Doubt from 2008.  She's a great actress and she continues to turn in remarkable work.  This brings me to Mark Wahlberg.  He has been consistently playing great roles for the last 14 years, since 1997's Boogie Nights.  I'm always amazed at his work, except in The Happening, which I wish hadn't.  With the two strong, over-the-top performances the film needed an anchor.  That anchor is Wahlberg.  His quiet and intense performance is what allows the loud characters around him to be who they are.  There is a scene early in the film that sets up his contrast to the rest of his family.  They are all in a bar, all seven sisters, Alice, George and Dickey.  They are all whooping it up and being generally loud and Micky moves off to a separate table, on the same bench as his sisters, just removed.  The fact that he was not nominated for Actor in a Lead Role was a travesty.  That is not to take away from the actors who were nominated, but as Christian Bale said "The quiet roles are never recognized" and indeed it seems as though this time is as usual.

I stated earlier that I had an issue with the end.  The end betrays most of the tone of the film.  There is a big reconciliation with the family, then Micky gets his title shot.  The script eschews the normal sports movie clichés by focusing on the family and it's various dysfunctions.  When the family problems disappear and the focus turns to the fight, the film looses some of it's punch (pun intended, and stolen from Leonard Maltin).  The fights are exciting, don't get me wrong.  Russell directs the fight scenes with gusto and Wahlberg does wonderfully in the ring.  Having said that, I think that directing the attention to the fight and dissolving the family tension makes the emotional climax of the film kind of rote and a little cheap.  I was drawn in by the fight and very happy at the end because he won, but the feeling was a bit empty.  The trouble is the turmoil of the entire film is dispelled with a couple of scenes and ta-da!  all ill will is gone and we can focus on the championship.

As it is fairly obvious by now, the good far outweighs the bad in this film.  I highly recommend you see it for all it's virtues, even if it does stumble in the last little bit.  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Mouse that Roared (1959) ****

Directed by Jack Arnold
Starring Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg
Written by Roger MacDougall and Stanley Mann based on the novel by Leonard Wibberley

Years ago, my father recommended this film to me on several different occasions.  I was finally able to see it thanks to Turner Classic Movies a couple of years ago and I fell for it.  So, on this occasion of the sixth anniversary of his death, I put forward my review of the film.  Six years ago, just after he died, I posted a review of his favorite film, The Magnificent Seven that can be seen here (along with some other reviews I made at the same time).

This film is absolutely hilarious.  Peter Sellers is on full display here, in his first multiple-part role as the Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy and Tully Bascombe.  The script is smart and the look is a bit ahead of it's time.  Though made in 1959, the color employed makes it look like it was made in the mid-'60s.

The plot centers around the smallest country in the world, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.  The film is set in 1959 but the country is interminably set in Elizabethan times, using bows and arrows, chain mail armor and the like, yet being fully aware of the times and issues of the world at the time.  Grand Fenwick is broke.  The Prime Minister (Sellers) decides the best way to get money is through war relief from the U.S., so the country declares war on the United States to surrender and collect the aid money.

The task of surrendering is put upon Tully Bascombe (Sellers again), a well meaning but more or less simple man.  He lands upon the shores of the United States and somehow manages to steal the Q-bomb, a bomb so powerful an  H-bomb is used to detonate it, and taking hostage the scientist who built it, his daughter, and a U.S. General thereby winning the war.  This is bad news for Grand Fenwick.

Eventually all the world's powers want to hold on to the bomb.  The U.S. shows up to bargain a surrender...the U.S.' surrender.  The Prime Minister tries to salvage his plan of losing the war by stealing off with the bomb, the girl and the general in an old car from the early '20s which is probably the most advanced bit of technology in the entire country.  This sets up a laugh-out-loud race with the car in the lead and Tully Bascombe trying to keep up.

The subplot is that Tully Bascombe has fallen in love with the scientist's daughter, Helen (Seberg).  As soon as he sees her, he is smitten.  She tries hard, but eventually realizes she's in love with him...just before the Prime Minister pulls her out the window and places her in the car with the bomb...leading to Tully Bascombe to chase the car.  "My girl, my bomb" he says.

I have heretofore not mentioned Sellers as the Grand Duchess of Grand Fenwick.  He as she is the funniest part of the film.  She is aloof and entirely unaware of much what is going on.  She knows they are going to war with the US and thinks it's a charming idea.  If none of this sounds funny to you, please watch for Sellers as the Grand Duchess.  That alone is worth the price of admission.

The film wraps up with Grand Fenwick keeping the bomb safe from the larger countries who may use it.  Part of the peace treaty was that the small countries keep an eye on it to prevent it from ever being used.  This is a grand statement, not only for 1959 but now as well.  The general idea of disarmament is sometimes thought of as a weakening of a country, but in reality it would be a strengthening of humanity.  Enough of that I suppose. See this film, you won't regret it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) **1/2

Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie
Starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner
Written by Terry Hayes and George Miller

I hadn't seen this film in years, so I recorded it on the DVR from Encore Action last week.  I was struck by the design and look of the film.  When I saw it the first time, I had not seen Mad Max or The Road Warrior, so I didn't really know what was going on (I was also about 6 and only watched it because Tina Turner was in it).  Now having seen the first two films in the series, I can look at this in a new light.  Bartertown, the opening set-piece is pretty spectacular.  We are still in the post-apocalyptic future where mutually assured destruction (MAD, get it?  Mad Max?)  has occurred probably about 15-20 years previously.  Max is car-less and driving a herd of camel to sell.  He's robbed and decides to try to get his car back in Bartertown.  He is quickly recruited by Auntie Entity (Turner) to do some dirty work.  She wants him to kill Blaster, the other half of the symbiotic Master Blaster who runs the power station (the town is powered by methane produced by lots and lots of pigs). She wishes to keep Master, a little person who is "the brains" and defeat Blaster, the brawn.  Without Blaster, Master has no power and must do Auntie's bidding.  This leads us to the titular Thunderdome.

Thunderdome is the cage where the people of Bartertown settle their disputes.  "Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves" is what is chanted all throughout the match between Max and Blaster.  There are weapons hidden in the upper rafters of the cage (where the townspeople are on the outside, perched on the sides, all the way up to the top) and the combatants are placed in harnesses that allow for springing around.  This makes it a bit more interesting than just a hand-to-hand fight.  What struck me most about Thunderdome is not how it is done in the film.  It was that, if a network executive should happen to dust off their VHS copy of the film and put it in, part way through the fight he would be on the phone saying "Yeah, Thunderdome!  Two men enter, one man leaves.  Can we get this done for Fall '11?"  I thought of this during the film, when Auntie says before the combat "Are you ready for another edition of Thunderdome?" as though it was only entertainment, not demanded by law that this occur when a fight ensues.  In fact, the reason for this Thunderdome Law is to prevent war.  Two people have a grievance and those two people solve it, instead of it escalating to war.  This law is of course broken later, but I'll get to that.

After Max fails to kill Blaster because he is a mentally disabled man and Max apparently still has some heart (which shocked me, having been made in '85...but it was made in Australia), he is banished from Bartertown in conjunction with another law, "Break a deal, spin the wheel".  The wheel is simply a roulette wheel with punishments on it.  Sort of a Wheel of Misfortune.  It lands on Gulag (it is '85 and the Russians were still scary) and Max is sent out into the desert.

He is found by some kind of scout and taken back to a colony of children, mostly between the ages of 9 and 18 (no, it's not a castle and it's not just girls).  They are believers in a pseudo-Messiah in the form of a jet pilot who said "he'd come back to fly them all away".  It's kind of eerie.  This is where the plot gives out and kind of runs on fumes for the rest of the film.  Unfortunately, we're only about 1/3-1/2 of the way through the film.  The eldest girl (aged between 16-19) relates the tale of their Messiah through cave paintings.  This is when we find out that after the "pockyplics" this pilot makes his pledge.  Thing is, they think Max is this pilot.  He pretty much tries to shatter their beliefs, but because these kids are so innocent their faith is not easily shaken.  Some believe him and decide to strike out and look for the pilot (who is likely long dead) and other stay behind.  Max has to go rescue them and they end up back in:

Bartertown.  Here, they work to get Max's car back (the reason he went to Bartertown in the first place) and free Master in the process (Blaster was killed in Thunderdome, just not by Max).  Confused yet?  Well I sort of was too.  But anyway...after they get Master, they get out of town, and then Auntie breaks her whole "no war" law (told you this would come up again).  She gathers a posse and goes after Max and the gang.  They find a man who flies an airplane (incidentally it's the same actor who played the guy who flew the gyro-copter in The Road Warrior, but not the same character...though nothing is actually stated to differentiate between the two).  He ends up helping and this leads to a very unsatisfactory ending.

This isn't really a bad movie, and for the opening third alone, I'd say check it out.  It's a bit confusing, because it seems the writers didn't really know what they wanted to do with this.  Still, the set design is pretty spectacular, giving the world a truly lived-in, desperate feeling.  There is some clever action and the end chase is very exciting...but like I said, the ending is very flat.  I understand George Miller is trying to make a fourth Mad Max film.  With the trouble Mel Gibson is having lately, and the fact that Miller cannot get any funding for it, I wouldn't hold my breath.  It could work, but Max would probably be so tired by now.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Black Swan (2010) ****

Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey.
Written by Mark Hayman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin.

I just saw this last night and it actually made me want to start this blog so I could write about it.  This is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time.  Don't get me wrong, I've seen some great films in the past six years (when I last had a movie blog) like There Will Be Blood, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Avatar, and several others, but they did not quite inspire me like this one.

The story is rather simple.  Nina (Portman) longs to be Prima Ballerina in the New York Ballet.  She is a technically perfect but cold dancer.  This becomes an issue when she is cast as the Swan Queen in the season opener of Swan Lake.  The director's (Vincent Cassel) new take on the story is that Nina will play both the white and black swans.  This leads her into her descent into madness as she attempts to inhabit the role and finds this very difficult.  There is, of course, much more to it, but to reveal more would be a crime.  Suffice it to say Aronofsky and Portman make you feel like you are going mad with Nina.

Every aspect of Black Swan was done to perfection.  First I'll talk about some of the technical aspects, starting with the sound design.  Normally, this is not a noticeable part of a film.  You hear what you hear booming out of 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound and don't notice much more than the fact you can hear the movie.  This, however, was nuanced.  If something was occurring behind Nina (Portman), it was heard from the rear speakers.  This drew my attention, because it was a wonderful element that drew you into the film and took you along Nina's decent into madness.

Second, direction and cinematography.  The film was shot on film, not digitally.  I saw the film projected digitally which beautifully enhanced the grain of the film.  I say this because this is not a film that would look right pristine and clear.  The grain in the film shows us right away that Nina is not seeing her life clearly.  Aronofsky uses a hand-held camera to show her hurry and her instability, instead of following her with a steady-cam.  When Nina is dancing, the camera whirls around her, she spins left, the camera goes right.  One shot even simulates what a dancer sees when spinning.  Aronofsky utilizes all the Indie tricks he learned when doing Pi and Requiem for a Dream (like the sound and the film to indicate mental status) and the sophisticated special effects he used in The Fountain (which I and about 4 other people loved).  The effects are amazing.  He shows flashes of people or objects as they appear in Nina's head while alternately showing what they really are, so the audience is never really sure if what Nina perceives is really happening or not.  The effects take you inside Nina's head, seeing what she sees (or thinks she sees).

Which brings me to the performances.  Natalie Portman will be nominated for an Oscar (again) for this role and she will likely win.  I hope, anyway.  Her quest for perfection in the role of the Swan Queen is what drives her mad.  Portman drives this film with a quiet intensity that slowly but surly destroys her.  She is very uptight, only knowing or caring about her dancing, which is really her mother's (Barbara Hershey) dream.  Nina still sleeps in the same room, with the same decor, as when she was twelve years old and that is how she is treated.  She does not understand that Nina is a grown woman now and has never truly lived as one.  The other driving force in Nina's life is the company's director, Thomas (Cassel).  He is all at once trying to make her a better dancer by pushing her to be less technical and feel the movements and at the same time trying to sleep with her (which he is notorious for).  Enter Lily (Kunis).  She is a good dancer that is new to the company.  She moves with the flow and grace Thomas is trying to draw out of Nina.  There becomes a rivalry between the two, sort of.  Lily wants to be friends, but Nina believes that Lily just wants to destroy her.  Nina is not popular in the company because of her stand-offish behavior.  Kunis plays Lily very casually which really benefits the role.  She is better than I ever thought she could be.  Barbara Hershey, best known for her work in Hanna and her Sisters, Hoosiers and as Mary Magdalene in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ,  plays Nina's mother like someone who fails to realize the passage of time, but only in terms of her daughter.  She knows full well that she was never the dancer she wanted to be because she got pregnant with Nina (as the film infers, by the company director).  She is living vicariously through her daughter and Nina suffers the consequences of it.

Over all, the film is absolutely mesmerizing.  The story itself is a riff on Swan Lake.  Everything about the film rings true.  Other films have depicted the descent into madness, very notably Anatol Litvak's The Snake Pit from 1948 with Olivia de Havilland and Robert Aldrich's 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but never quite like this.  This is a very insular film.  Everything that happens either happens to or as a result of Nina.  We are never without her.  As innovative as Aronosky is, he owes a great debt to Stanley Kubrick for this film.  Kubrick was the only person, I thought, that could make a film that was nearly exclusively about one person's reality vs. their perceived reality.  Until I saw Black Swan, that is.

This film is not going to elicit the same feelings from everyone.  Those without the patience to allow a film to unfold quietly in front of you to one shattering conclusion without a bunch of loud noises and lots of property damage are not going to like this.  The film builds from very little to quite a lot over the course of it's 120 minute run time.  Some will feel this time more than others.  If you have the patience for a snow-ball effect of a plot/performance/film, you should enjoy this immensely.