Reviews for 2010

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127 Hours

Starring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara.
Directed by Danny Boyle.
Rating: 7/10

The concern in watching 127 Hours is inherent in its premise -- this is the true story of the time when adventurer Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) got his right forearm pinned by a boulder while hiking in Blue John Canyon, Utah. The film, which is named for the amount of time he was trapped, focuses on that time and his predicament. The situation is not easily cinematic, and the concern, therefore, is that the movie will consist of a lot of filler surrounding Ralston's stationary plight.

This turns out to be true -- director Danny Boyle, who specializes in making films of kinetic energy, flips through a lot of cinematic gymnastics to keep things interesting, both before and during the incident. He utilizes split screens to convey some perspective, jazzes up the soundtrack, then uses flashbacks and fantasy sequences to guide us through Ralston's state of mind. The delight -- a word you wouldn't necessarily associate with a movie of this subject -- comes from seeing it work. It keeps the viewer's attention, controls the tension and pacing, and effectively maps out the story as a mental journey, where Ralston, once he realizes that there may be no way out, ruminates on his past, his relationships, and himself, assessing his life up to this point.

The movie becomes a critique of the youthful "invincibility" mindset, as much a product of carelessness as of pride, since much is made of Ralston's not telling anyone where he had gone, and of his taking this journey alone. But it's mainly the telling of a unique and unfortunate individual experience, one which many may already know the ending to (this incident made the news at the time). By the very suggestion of the film's title, it's hardly a spoiler to say that he makes it out (though at a great cost), and the escape is what allows 127 Hours to function as an "uplifting" experience -- a triumph of human perseverance, so to speak.

I think viewing the ordeal that way, though, is a bit narrow -- I'm happy Ralston made it out alive, but haven't there been many others in unfortunate situations, whether by natural accident or man-made oppression, who could not escape by their own means? The film might have functioned better to me as a picture of universal randomness, playing up its absurdity rather than cheering for a victory of man vs. nature. And so 127 Hours never really loses that feeling that it's mostly made up of dressing around a harrowing circumstance. But I will admit once you're comfortable with it being what it is, it's effective. By the time Ralston enacts his final, unforgettable move, you'll never be so happy to see a man do what he ends up doing to himself. (added 12/9/2010)

Alice in Wonderland

Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Mia Wasikowska.
Directed by Tim Burton.
Rating: 3/10

Tim Burton's approach to Alice in Wonderland is reflective of the approaches taken with the recent Chinese "Three Kingdoms" movies -- such as John Woo's Red Cliff -- in that the directors appear to be interested in telling a story that really has nothing to do with the material they are adapting. At least with Red Cliff, Woo did include some of the appealing aspects directly from the source material -- not necessarily tangible elements such as names and events, but thematic elements such as the planning of war strategies and the rivalry amongst great men. But Burton's Wonderland only plays lip service to Lewis Carroll's famous nonsensical children's books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

It is otherwise preoccupied with being a generic fantasy adventure, where someone from the normal world is dropped into a strange world, only to discover he or she has been prophesied to arrive and bring peace to a dark land by defeating an evil creature. Seriously, isn't this just a ripoff of The Chronicles of Narnia? 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska, destined for better things) finds herself surrounded by odd creatures and talking animals and learns she needs to contend with an evil queen. If there was such a thing as negative points for originality, this would take the lion's share.

And, of course, none of this has to do with Carroll's Alice books. The movie could be considered its own fantasy story with plenty of references to the books, from the characters it uses to its recall of certain events (it replays the scene of Alice's first arrival, with the tiny door and "Drink Me/Eat Me" puzzle). But in the very act of giving the characters of Wonderland (or, as they call it, "Underland" -- apparently Alice misnamed it as a kid) backgrounds and predictable movie-character personalities, the film misses the mark entirely. The Alice books have no plot and its characters are mostly tied to the particular story parts they belong to; they exist mainly to communicate the next confounding headstanding of common logic and conversational conventions. One of the ideas behind the books is that the rules with which we govern ourselves and our society are entirely arbitrary and completely open to interpretation. And at the very least, we are to find this amusing.

Understandably, Burton and screewriter Linda Woolverton were tasked with creating an accessible children's movie capable of making a lot of money while taking advantage of having a big star (Johnny Depp, whose Mad Hatter is ridiculously over-written). So naturally they would have to give their movie a plot and characters with actual motivations, neither of which exist in the books. But my primary and original complaint is this: if you decide to do this with Alice in Wonderland, what's the point? The Alice books gained fame for being totally unconventional, and you decide to make a totally conventional movie out of them? Why not just make your own story, with your own characters, which is essentially what you're doing in the first place? Making a movie out of Alice in Wonderland in this manner is like claiming a lot to build a Victorian house on, then actually building a regular house miles away.

To be fair, this will always be the dilemma when adapting Alice in Wonderland. We have been brought up to value story and to appreciate details in characters, events, and backgrounds (of even fictional realms). In a literary and cinematic world filled with fictional universes, Wonderland is one of the most famous, but it's also one of the least conforming because it doesn't lend itself to these traditional interpretations. It defies being made into a movie, yet filmmakers want to try again and again because the books are so famous and beloved and the characters are so intriguing (although, think about it -- they're intriguing because they don't act like normal characters at all). There are plenty of other worlds to explore and make crowdpleasing movies with fantastic visuals about. If you're going to make Alice, please try thinking way outside the box. Carroll might've appreciated that.

(Some last words: I actually do adore the original 1951 Disney animated Alice in Wonderland -- at least that movie was episodic and silly, which is as close in spirit to Carroll's books as any approachable musical animated movie could be. It had no plot and its characters annoyed Alice because they talked to themselves as much as they talked to her, which, on a surface level, pretty much encapsulates the books. Meanwhile, the best modern analogue of Alice is probably Spirited Away. As for the Burton movie, nitpicks: I hate the idea of consolidating the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts (the character is played by Helena Bonham Carter). They are not the same person, and, really, the movie only uses the traits of the Queen of Hearts, so why even bother calling her the "Red Queen"? Also, the monster is called the "Jabberwock," not the "Jabberwocky." There, I said it. I shall move on now -- or, if I'm lucky, wake up.) (added 6/7/2010)

Animal Kingdom

Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, James Frecheville, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton.
Directed by David Michôd.
Rating: 7/10

Chronicling an older teenager's time spent with his criminal family in Australia, Animal Kingdom isn't subtle with its title. Only the strong survive when the police are every bit as deadly and mercenary as the armed bank robbers they hunt. Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) finds himself in the midst of a dangerous world after his mother overdoses on heroin and he's taken into the home of his grandmother, Janine aka 'Smurf' (Jacki Weaver), and her three illegally active sons, the most wanted and unstable of which is Andrew aka "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn). Director David Michôd takes familiar material and approaches it with less emphasis on the sensational and more on the surreal atmosphere of accepted dread -- these people seem to have "settled" into their way of life, which is one of constant cat-and-mouse surveillance and everpresent paranoia. This atmosphere is emphasized with deliberate pacing and camera work, occasionally punctuated by sudden bursts of violence. J is somewhat of a cipher who just lives in the house and then slowly -- perhaps too slowly -- realizes it's a situation which requires eventual escape. Despite this different approach, Animal Kingdom, like its American peer The Town, still shares traits of tone, motifs, and events with similar films of its genre. It's confidently mounted, well-acted, and has a unique edge, but its central flavor left me wondering if this category of stories has anything left to say, even as I was glad to find it had a different way of speaking. (added 4/8/2011)

Another Year

Starring Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Oliver Maltman, David Bradley, Karina Fernandez, Martin Savage, Michele Austin, Phil Davis, Stuart McQuarrie, Imelda Staunton.
Directed by Mike Leigh.
Rating: 8/10

Appropriately, Another Year chronicles the span of a year in the lives of an older British couple and the friends and relatives who surround them. All the characters here are what you might call "ordinary folk"; the main distinction among them involves the couple, Tom and Gerri (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen; yes, their names are supposed to be amusing) being relatively happy and well-balanced, while most of those around them have one reason or another to be unhappy. The contrast appears to be the key here, as writer/director Mike Leigh seems to be observing the thin lines and acute angles which separate well-adjusted people on a continuing path of contentment from the less fortunate ones who live lives of regret and desperation. Leigh's work leads one to ponder such thoughts as: even if one of the less happy people caught some of the right breaks, would they actually be happy? Or are the psychologies of certain dissatisfied individuals rigid enough such that they would sabotage any chances at happiness?

Leigh never asks these questions outright in his narrative, but his character studying reveals much -- see how Tom and Gerri's son (Oliver Maltman) isn't on an ideal path to his own contentment, but see how well he adapts to it; meanwhile, friends such as Ken (Peter Wight) have been beaten by life just enough to start becoming hopeless, and acting hopeless as well. Most striking of all is Mary (Lesley Manville, fearless), who can be encouraged to take action to fix her deficiencies, but allows her neediness and irrationality to destroy all of her attempts at peaceful normalcy. It's all Tom and Gerri can do to show kindness and be as accommodating as one should respectfully be; but they are also aware enough to know that their happiness is achieved through the work they themselves have put in, and can only hope the others can do the same. The title of Leigh's film also suggests a mundanity to the (not trivial) events that occur within this story; that life ebbs and flows like this constantly, and some people know how to navigate the waters while others are perpetually lost at sea. More's the pity. (added 6/17/2011)

Biutiful

Starring Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernández.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Rating: 6/10

I give credit, as I always have, to Alejandro González Iñárritu for being a skilled filmmaker. He not only has an eye for lived-in landscapes and a knack for assembling tense, compelling scenarios, he's adept with actors, bringing A-list stars and lesser known players up to wondrous new heights. So it says something that I tend to look towards his features with a relative sense of dread. González Iñárritu's films often track the paths of human misery and misfortune, and his latest, Biutiful, might be leading me over my tipping point. Here, Javier Bardem, who is expectedly excellent, plays Uxbal, a man in Barcelona who finds out that he has terminal cancer. His life has been something of a challenging mess, so now he commits himself to putting his affairs in order before he goes. This includes his business dealings, which involves finding work and refuge for illegal immigrants, and figuring out a way to leave his two young children in safe hands, which may or may not involve the unreliable, bipolar wife (Maricel Álvarez) he's separated from. Frankly, his situation is presented as despairing and hopeless, and although he never stops trying to assert control over all the aspects of his expiring life, almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong -- in some of the most horrifying ways possible.

The word "downer" doesn't even begin to describe this movie, and it makes me wonder about González Iñárritu -- is there some kind of deep pain in his soul? (Actually, I good-naturedly believe he's a pretty cheery guy who just happens to like exploring dark stories.) Certainly his methods are effective in excavating humanity from places we're not comfortable going to, and his films often expose the depths of our potential to forgive, survive, and to survive through others. But as Biutiful pushes our limits more than his previous films have (no small statement), one must start wondering when watching such a film crosses the line from humanist empathy to just plain masochism. I may have to settle with saying that even though this movie piles it on, I can see its positive values and the potential it would have to reach the hearts of its audience. That said, I'd like to now introduce González Iñárritu to David Gordon Green in the hopes that whatever got Green to take a break, switch gears and make Pineapple Express rubs off a bit. (added 6/16/2011)

Black Swan

Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Rating: 9/10

The subject of Black Swan treads a shaky ground due to its potential for being corny or campy. It's a movie about ballet dancers, and anytime you have a story concerning dancers in general, it tends to focus on backstage drama and to include the oldest cliché, a star who has to look over her shoulder at her potential replacement. To be honest, Black Swan isn't above any of this -- in fact, what makes it all the more admirable is how director Darren Aronofsky handles his own story about a rising ballet star who develops a paranoia about a rival. He grabs it by the horns and runs with it, full force, through whatever path he felt it needed to travel on.

And what makes this film wonderful is that Aronofsky pulls it off. Black Swan emerges as a psychological thriller painted with bold colors on a dark canvas, a fantasia high on visual trickery, and a deliberately exaggerated story set in a world that specializes in telling exaggerated stories. At its center is Natalie Portman giving the best performance I've seen from her. The ride she embarks on isn't necessarily surprising, but it is involving, and it culminates in a climax as appropriate as it is drunk with its own calibrated expression.

Portman plays Nina, a dancer in a New York City ballet company producing a new take on Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Constantly practicing to perfect her technique, Nina's dream is to become the lead ballerina, and circumstances eventually lead her to this goal, although this puts her directly under the strict (and frankly lewd) tutelage of ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). As she receives pressure from him to open up the emotional side of her performance, Nina begins to become wary of Lily (Mila Kunis), a newly arrived dancer Leroy admires.

The thriller aspect then comes from Nina's increasing paranoia, as she sees doubles of herself and increasingly gains pressure not only from Leroy but also her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), an ex-ballerina. It becomes more and more apparent that, in her life, Nina had been "encouraged" to enter her artistic profession, and that her goal of achieving an artistic and career pinnacle may not have been entirely of her own desire. It can be assumed, however, that throughout her life she has accepted the position she's in and has tried to make the most of it, even gotten comfortable with it, accepted it as her calling, but with the load of a lead performance now on her shoulders, any doubts she may have had about being committed to this art is starting to create cracks. This is a unique yet not necessarily uncommon situation, and not often addressed -- our stories are full of people trying to achieve their dreams, but these tales are not usually about people trying to achieve dreams of compromise. One of the more easily relatable examples might be the kid who is pressured to win spelling bees.

Here, Nina's path to artistic perfection gets played for horror, paralleling the tragic story of Swan Lake, dispensing with subtlety to achieve a darker fairy tale tone. Arnofsky's approach appears more David Cronenberg than David Lynch, and he goes to lengths to portray ballet as an art interpreted through pain. What the dancers go through is bruising, and Aronofsky takes it a step further to show cuts and blood to emphasize the price of the art. This extends to Nina's hallucinations, several of which are briefly grotesque. Meanwhile, to emphasize the idea that true art is feelings over skill, the equating of sexual liberation to genuine emotional expression in art is also used in forefront, and perhaps here its obviousness gives off the biggest whiff of gratuitousness, although it wouldn't be fair to dismiss any truth related to it, either. If Black Swan is saying the chaste and clean cannot produce true art, it's not shy about saying that.

Perhaps the best trick Aronofsky pulls off here is in making Black Swan locally harrowing -- that is, we the audience may never really fear for the health or safety of Nina, but instead the suspense we feel comes from empathizing with her confusion, her initial inability to grasp what she can't yet understand, and her psychological helplessness. And Aronofsky would not have been able to convey this correctly without Portman's star turn. Unlike Nina, Portman shows no cracks in her portrayal as she embodies the withering crush of internal and external pressure, of having achieved so much yet still finding herself feeling her way through the dark. I've always liked Portman, but I've never felt she had fully convinced me in her previous performances -- she was close, but there was always something missing. This time, nothing is missing, and perhaps she's now reached the pinnacle of her own art. (added 12/3/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Blue Valentine

Starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman, Mike Vogel.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance.
Rating: 7/10

Blue Valentine is a bitter pill prescribed by anti-romantics for a landscape populated by fantasies. It's of a kin with other films that don't beat around the bush, making no mistake about how the real world is harsh and built to wear us down. These movies are a minority, so when a good one emerges it's welcome for its delivery of a reality check. That said, I wonder how many of us would willingly continue to seek out such stories, as humorless and downbeat as they are. After all, even if we accept a pessimistic outlook as the truth, optimism is still necessary to fuel a healthy spirit and a balanced perspective. The makers of Blue Valentine may not agree.

Director Derek Cianfrance chronicles the relationship between a young New York couple: Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling; both actors are excellent). Cianfrance covers two time periods -- when the couple first met and as their marriage is crumbling -- and flashes back and forth between them. The end of their time together serves to emphasize the childish foolishness of their beginning; their union, it is slowly revealed, was built on a fair amount of recklessness and lack of forethought, clouded by the heady euphoria of early attraction. Their relationship becomes a cautionary tale, as everything within the movie reveals evidence that love is short-lived. Dean starts as a mover, and his first job is to help move an elderly man to a rest home; he sees a old photograph of the elderly man's wife and gives him a kind of thumbs up, but the man barely reacts. Cindy's parents are miserable, having fallen out of love a long time ago, their dinners consisting of the father angrily complaining about his wife's cooking. The soundtrack includes Dean singing, during an ironic moment, "You Always Hurt the Ones You Love." One awkward scene plays, in the background, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," a song about, yes, the foolishness of having faith in your love.

To be fair, Blue Valentine isn't an angry movie; its stance against romance can't be called a bitter tirade. It's matter-of-fact, observant, and sad. Also, it sets up its scenario with a sense of fairness, masterfully revealing truths about how Cindy and Dean's relationship came together, mostly through circumstances that were far less than ideal. By the time the flashbacks to the past at the end of the movie are shown to us, we understand that this was a union doomed to fail. That the movie allows us to watch it disintegrate may feel like an exercise in cruelty, but it may be better to see it as a dose of sobriety. Falling in love makes us more drunk than any wine, more high than any drug, and its consequences can result in long-term devastation. From the movie's standpoint, this is a common tragedy that deserves acknowledgment and pity, and it pulls absolutely no punches in sharing its view. (added 5/12/2011)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2010

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