Thursday, January 27, 2011


Totally thrilling and about as visceral as moviemaking gets, 127 Hours is one of those films that makes you thankful for the fact that you’re likely never going to encounter the same obstacles as the main character does during the course of the film.  I’m speaking of course about Aron Ralston, brilliantly played in what amounts to a tour de force performance by James Franco, the lonely mountain climber who had to cut off his own arm in order to dislodge himself from a boulder that kept him pinned in a crevice for, well, 127 hours.  Director Danny Boyle brings his energetic, Tony Scott-esque shooting & editing style that he employed on Slumdog Millionaire, and in tandem with two gifted (not to mention gravity-defying) cinematographers (Tony Dod-Mantle and Enrique Chediak) and one sensational editor (Jon Harris), has created a harrowing yet oddly touching movie that somehow feels life-affirming even the face of pure agony and despair.  That’s not easy to do.  Franco’s subtle moments are just as good as his big ones, and without his magnetism as an actor, we’d just be staring at a dude stuck between some rocks for 90 minutes.  It’s an incredible piece of work all around.

I loved the calm and the quiet of The American, Anton Corbijn’s already underrated 70’s-style hit-man anti-thriller with George Clooney giving a career best performance.  I also loved the simple beauty of the film, and the way the narrative unfolded like an onion, at its own casual, unhurried pace.  I loved how it worked against your expectations when it comes to easy, genre-based thrills and how when you thought that something was going to happen it didn’t.  And then when you never expected something to happen, it did.  Then there’s the scenery (Italy and the Italian women…) on top of everything else, which makes The American feel distinct and unique.  Come to think of it – the only thing I don’t love about the film is its title; The American is just so bland.  They should have used the name of the book – A Very Private Gentlemen – that’s much more in line with the sensibilities of the film.  Rowan Joffee’s carefully parsed screenplay only gives you exactly what you need to know in the moment, and demands that you do some figuring out.  Clooney does so much with his eyes and so little with his voice in this film that it’s a shame there wasn’t a spot for him at the Oscars as this is definitely the best, most nuanced that he’s ever been as an actor.  I’ve watched the movie easily a dozen times now, and I think it’s about as perfect as cinema can be.

Bold, blustery, and totally over the top, Darren Aronofsky has never been one for subtlety, and with Black Swan, he indulges in his most melodramatic tendencies as a filmmaker and delivers a juicy piece of fuck-with-your-head-cinema that pivots on a nothing short of sensational performance from Oscar bound Nathalie Portman, who all but loses herself in the lead role of Nina Sayers, a mentally conflicted (and afflicted) ballerina who will stop at nothing to be the best she can possibly be.  The themes that run thru Black Swan are as old as time; it’s nothing more than the familiar story of an artist who begins to lose herself through her art until it could potentially kill her.  Much has been made of the high-kink factor of the film (yes, Portman and co-star Mila Kunis go at it a bit, and yes, there is more than one scene of self-gratification featuring Portman), but what Aronofsky is doing with these perverse bits is creating an inner anxiety for his characters, and in turn, his audience.  Because of how intense Portman is in her role, and because of how likable she is as a person, the audience latches on to her at the start, so when she begins to unravel, and it begins to become clear that she's a bit loony, the audience also feels like they are coming apart at the seams.  The film has a unique gritty-yet-glossy look due to cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s dual shooting styles.  In some scenes everything is hand-held (like their work on The Wrestler), with the camera placed directly behind Portman’s head, which gives off a tentative, natural feel.  It also heightens tension.  Then, during the dance scenes, the camera takes off in swirling motions, and the audience is wrapped up with the dancers in a constant state of motion.  And then, in one breathtaking sequence and using some of the canniest visual effects I’ve ever seen, you get to see an…ummm…transformation...that is positively transfixing to watch.  Black Swan is one of those movies that loves the fact that it’s a movie – it’s high-art and low-camp all at once, and as a result, feels like not much else that’s out there.
Emotions run raw and deep in Derek Cianfrance’s bruising relationship drama Blue Valentine, a film that some people might find too honest and real for their comfort levels.  Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are phenomenal and wholly believable as husband and wife and it’s downright shocking at times to see how intense the two of them got with each other.  Cianfrance’s script (which he co-wrote with two other people) goes to some deep, tough places that might hit close to home for people who have been in volatile relationships, and as such, might be uncomfortable for some.  The grittiness of just about everything in the film (the look, the sound, the textures) also helps make the entire thing feel like a slice of life; at times you feel like you’re watching home video footage of a crumbling marriage.  Blue Valentine shows you a marriage, one that will feel familiar for some people, with all the highs and all the lows, and how two people who think they know each other are really just scratching the surface with one another.  I dare not reveal any of the revelations or surprises that this film has in store as there are any number of moments while watching that I felt the floor moving under my feet.  When you have two incredible actors like Gosling and Williams tearing it up in every scene and imbuing every moment with emotional honesty and openness, it’s almost impossible to not become totally consumed and engrossed as a viewer.  And that’s what happens during Blue Valentine, or at least, that’s what happened to me.  I forgot that I was watching a movie and I felt like I was observing two real people with their very real problems.  And even though the film ends on a note of slight discontent, there is an oddly uplifting undercurrent that can be felt as the final frames appear and the amazing closing song starts to play; it’s a totally sublime ending to an already extremely confident piece of filmmaking.

Epic in scope yet intimate with its details, the terrorist biopic Carlos is exhilarating cinema.  Considering the elephantine length (5.5 hours in its full version; 2.5 hours in a shortened version) multiple viewings will be necessary in order to distill each and every plot point, fact, relationship, and motive.  Edgar Ramirez burns up the screen as international terrorist Carlos “The Jackal” in a Brando-esque performance of physical transformation and verbal command.  French filmmaker Olivier Assayas utilizes hand-held camera work, a propulsive musical score, nimble editing, and a variety of spoken languages which all helps to create a totally real and organic atmosphere and viewing experience.  Much of the film feels like a documentary, and the ability of Assayas and his crew to transport the audience into many of these frightening sequences makes the film feel incredibly vital.  Bombs blow, people are shot, cars are ignited, and it all feels scary and impactful.  Carlos sort of feels like distant cousins with Steven Spielberg’s Munich, another terrorism epic set in the 1970’s all across Europe.  The international hop-scotching and zigzagging of Carlos is extremely impressive especially when you consider how many speaking parts there are in the film.  Again – multiple viewings will help.  And multiple viewings will definitely occur as it was just announced that the Criterion Collection will be releasing the film later this year on Blu Ray.

Inception managed an almost impossible feat: a summer movie that blew away the mind AND the eyes.  Densely plotted, imaginatively conceived, and incredibly entertaining, this is the “thinking-man’s blockbuster” if there’s ever been one.  No plot rehash is necessary – unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve seen the film.  I’m just gonna note my favorite bits:  the ski-attack sequence on the fortress, all of Tom Hardy’s stuff, Joe Levitt walking on walls, Marion Cotilliard’s amazingly expressive eyes, Leo’s hard-charging intensity, the totally realistic and completely real-looking special effects, and the phenomenal editing job that consists of the last 30 or so minutes of the film.  Oh – then there’s the indelible soundtrack with that how-can-you-forget droning which is really a play on Edith Piaf’s song which is head all throughout the movie.  Inception is great because it reaffirms the fact that Christopher Nolan is interested in making art movies that are masquerading as popcorn films.

No film in 2010 felt as carefully made as Mark Romanek’s haunting and sobering cloning drama Never Let Me Go.  A heady and unlikely mix of period trappings and science fiction, the film is chilling to the core while also allowing for deep swaths of humanity to burst in through the sprocket holes.  The trio of Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield are all perfectly cast as three “donors” who are kept at arms length with society, raised and schooled in the British countryside at a massive estate, basically just waiting to make their “contributions” or “donations.”  They are the creations of rich people, and the film asks an incredibly deep and morally probing question:  if you had the money, would you clone yourself in an effort to live longer?  If you lose an arm, you’ve got a new one waiting just down the road.  Bad heart?  No problem – call your clone.  All of this is handled with a surgeons care by Romanek, who always seems to be picking away at the surface of every scene.  Alex Garland’s quietly creepy screenplay goes to some  very dark places and all of the actors are up the task; as you might expect, there are any number of emotional breakdowns experienced by the characters as they all come to accept their fate.  Never Let Me Go is the type of movie where you’ll think about life in a different way after seeing it.  It makes you think and that’s always a very good thing.

The funny thing about The Social Network is that while it’s a great piece of storytelling and it’s a piece of virtually flawless filmmaking, it’s not even the fourth best film from master director David Fincher (it goes like this: Seven, Zodiac, Fight Club, Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Game, Panic Room, Alien 3).  Crisply written, efficiently shot and edited, eerily scored, and shot thru with laser-like intensity by a variety of skilled young actors (Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer are all fantastic), The Social Network represents Fincher doing yet another Alan J. Pakula imitation, while also experimenting with seamless visual effects that help to create a dark worldview of the human condition.  There’s nothing fancy about the film; it’s the least showy of Fincher’s efforts and the one film that seems to respect the writing more than anything else.  Aaron Sorkin’s biting and rapid-fire dialogue is a perfect match for Fincher’s fleet and sophisticated visual style; the pacing of this film is extraordinary with the run time clocking in at a precise two hours.  While not the “American Landmark” that some critics made it out to be, The Social Network is an important piece of filmmaking from one of our premier filmmakers.

Nobody entertains an audience like Tony Scott and Unstoppable finds him at his audience-pleasing best.  The set-up is simple: two men need to think fast in order to stop a runaway train from decimating an entire town with a load of toxic chemicals.  Prime material for the director of Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, The Last Boy Scout, and Enemy of the State (just to name a few).  Denzel Washington and Chris Pine make a terrific team but the real star of Unstoppable is Scott, his editors, his cameramen, and the train itself.  This is loud, kinetic, and extremely entertaining action-movie cinema for people who like to see shit getting blown up real good.  The real-time stunt work is incredible, the notable absence of phony-baloney CGI is wonderfully refreshing, and the little character bits that are thrown in by writer Mark Bomback help keep the entire thing moving along as the script piles on explosive incident after explosive incident.  There is nothing trendsetting or genre-defining about Unstoppable – it’s just a solid movie made with lots of skill and style, but every once in a while, it’s nice to just go along for a wild ride at the movies and not have your intelligence insulted.  It’s glorious fun.

Meditative, head-splittingly violent, and narratively trippy, Valhalla Rising, from auteur in the making Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Pusher), is not your grandfather’s Viking adventure.  Nominally about a one-eyed mute warrior (stoically played by Refn’s go-to-guy Madds Mikkelsen) who has to fight in order to stay alive while under capture, Valhalla Rising is like some sort of bad-dream come to life; it looks like it was filmed literally at the edge of the fucking earth, the musical score is brooding and unsettling, the violence is shocking and at times very tough to watch (but hey – that’s how it probably was…), and the narrative takes any number of creative liberties and sojourns.  This isn’t an A to B to C type endeavor with a concrete finale that ties everything up; far from it.  This is challenging, some might say frustrating cinema; Refn isn’t out to coddle or make it easy for his audience.  He wants you to think and while he makes you think he’s gonna fuck with your head and then also smash it with a rock. Valhalla Rising feels like a Terrence Malick film crossed with a little bit of Werner Herzog and then a little bit of Jerry Bruckheimer thrown in with a dash of psychological horror and a pinch of existential journey.  It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and for that fact alone it should find its way into your viewing cycle soon.
Experimental.  Daring.  Seductive.  Engrossing.  These are all words that I’d use to describe Gaspar Noe’s pulsating masterpiece Enter the Void, a movie that for many will be too much, but for some, will be just right.  I am interested in seeing NEW stuff when I sit down to watch a movie, and to paraphrase something that Manhola Dargis said in her glowing New York Times review, Noe is a filmmaker interested in showing you something new and startling and taking you to a place that you’ve never been. Now…the places that Noe likes to go…those places won’t be everyone’s cup-o-tea.  This is as explicit of a movie that I’ve ever seen; nothing is left to the imagination: sex, drugs, death, hallucinations, conception, fatal car-crashes, abortion, birth – Noe doesn’t leave anything out.  Loosely inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and shot through the prism of a DMT trip (Google DMT to learn more), Enter the Void is an almost entirely first-person point-of-view cinematic experience (meaning the camera is literally the main character amd that the cinematographer should be winning EVERY award available) and as a result the viewer is all but forced head-first into Noe’s madness and depravity.  Brian De Palma eat your heart out.  This is extreme, outlaw cinema, better and more provocative that Noe’s earlier freak-out movie Irreversible. Nothing is traditional about Enter the Void so a traditional “review” is sort of pointless.  This is film as art, something that is obviously very personal and very unique.  It’s the best film I saw in all of 2010.

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