Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

2010 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

Black Swan: A talented, neurotic ballerina struggles for her big break and to achieve perfection on the stage, but may be losing her mind. Natalie Portman gives her best performance to date as Nina Sayers, a diligent but repressed member of a New York ballet company. Nina lives with her domineering mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who often treats her a girl, not a woman. Even Nina's bedroom is full of stuffed animals and juvenilia. The director of the company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is a prick towards his dancers and women in general, but he does have some talent. He's putting on a new production of Swan Lake - whose plotline director Darren Aronofsky draws on heavily for Black Swan. Nina's a good dancer, but she's very controlled, and not in touch with her sexuality. This poses a problem for her to play the dual role of the Swan Queen. As Thomas puts it, "The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you're beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It's a hard fucking job to dance both." She rebuffs most of Thomas' advances, but admires him just the same. The company's former prima ballerina and Thomas' lover, Beth (Winona Ryder), is bitter about being pushed to the side, and isn't shy about telling both Thomas and Nina all about it. Further misfortune befalls her, and Nina can't help but think if everything that happened to Beth will happen to her as well. The dynamics get more complicated when the company gets a new member, Lily (Mila Kunis), who isn't as precise a dancer as Nina, but suffers no problems being sensual, on the stage or off. She's made Nina's understudy, and is a rival – or is she also a friend? Nina's mother is occasionally supportive of Nina, but also jealous o her success, and rachets up her controlling tendencies. Meanwhile, Nina seems to be hallucinating, and her visions become both more frequent and more disturbing. Sometimes, the visions are brief, but at other points she's shocked to discover an entire vivid incident may not have been real. The audience is left unmoored, too. What's real, and what's fantasy? Black Swan owes a heavy debt to Polanski's Repulsion, but it is an original, bold and occasionally brilliant work. I'd rank it above Aronofsky's past best, The Wrestler. It becomes one of cinema's better looks at the high-wire act of daring artistic performance, and a certain brand of volatile and destructive creativity. The combination of a stellar performance by Portman, a fine job of keeping the audience off-balance, and a joy in the medium of cinema make Black Swan an admirable achievement and an engrossing view.

I'd say the best way to view the reality-fantasy issue is that everything we see represents Nina's emotional reality. In order to achieve the level of perfection she seeks, she has to be both willing to kill and willing to die. Closer to the end, she seems to become more fatalistic, and terrified of ending up like Beth. Given her deep love of the story of Swan Lake, and her particular stew of neuroses and aspirations, the ending makes sense. I'll be interested to see this one again, and pay attention to the reality-fantasy shifts. For a first viewing, though, it's best to just get swept up in it all.

(Here's Natalie Portman on Fresh Air and Darren Aronofsky on The Business. This video shows the creative visual effects work on the film, which nicely serve the story versus being mere spectacle.)

The Social Network: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies" was probably the best tag line of 2010. Honestly, the idea of a movie about the creation of Facebook sounded unappealing until I learned the team – meticulous, perfectionist director David Fincher, and brilliant scribe Aaron Sorkin. They don't disappoint, and this is a quick-paced, well crafted, occasionally thrilling flick. How accurate it is will continue to be a source of debate, but taken on its own terms, it's splendid. Young Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is an extremely smart Harvard student, but he doesn't have the right pedigree to get into the most prestigious clubs, which he envies for being a road to success, but even more so for the status. It doesn't help that Mark, when agitated, isn't shy about telling other people they're dumber than he is. He just doesn't deal that well with people, including his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. It's that simultaneous awkwardness and hunger that drives him to create the early progenitors of Facebook, and then Facebook itself. Jesse Eisenberg is sensational as Zuckerberg, and excels at Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue. Mark can be cruel, but sometimes his withering attacks seem justified, and a few times when he tries to reach out, he's rebuffed. When Zuckerberg's fighting back against the old money and entitled privilege of the Winklevoss twins and others, he's a bit more sympathetic, or at least understandable. His darker sides – ambition, jealously, envy, revenge – may not be so admirable, but they are recognizable. Fincher and Sorkin make a point of telling the story from a few different angles to make it clear there are conflicting accounts of what really happened, and because it makes the story all more interesting (Sorkin cited Rashomon in an interview). It also makes the film much more than a hatchet job of Zuckerberg, because the audience is asked to question some of the damning tales. As one character says, “Creation myths need a devil.”

The two fair criticisms I've heard of The Social Network is that it's rather cold, and that occasionally, Sorkin's extremely clever dialogue calls attention to itself. On the first point, some of this is a matter of taste. Typically, Hollywood demands "likable" characters for their leads, who can easily wind up being bland and flat. Personally, I want interesting characters, and the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network is that. (Likewise, Hugh Laurie as Gregory House isn't exactly "likable," but he is entertaining.) There may be a middle ground of "relatable but not likable," but there was enough humanity to Zuckerberg I thought he qualified there, too. As Sorkin remarked, Zuckerberg's “an anti-hero for the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie and a tragic hero for the last five.” On the second point, Sorkin may violate the "too clever" bar a few times ("I'm 6'5", 220 pounds, and there are two of me") but it's a minor sin given how fun even these transgressions are, and how fantastic the dialogue is overall. Plus, as William Goldman has pointed out, writing is more than dialogue – it's structure and story. It's also pacing, and writing appropriate dialogue for individual characters. The snappy patter works wonderfully for Zuckerberg. Meanwhile, I don't think there was a better written scene in all of 2010 than the opening bar scene in The Social Network. It's an entire film in itself.

The rest of the cast is strong. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as anarchic web entrepreneur Sean Parker, Rooney Mara feels real as Mark's ex, Erica, Armie Hammer juggles playing both of the Winklevoss twins with ease ("gentlemen of Hahrvard"), Douglas Urbanksi is funny as the arrogant and imperious Larry Summers, Rashida Jones is great in a small but pivotal role, and Andrew Garfield is probably the most affable of the bunch as Eduardo Saverin, who starts out as Mark Zuckerberg's best friend. I understand why some people don't love this film, because it ain't a warm feelings kind of movie, but its craftsmanship is occasionally breathtaking. It does have soul beneath the surface, and it lets it out in small, well-chosen bursts, even though that soul is sometimes twisted. As with Charlie Wilson's War, I want to dissect Sorkin's script – he really is one of the best working today.

(Here's The Business on The Social Network, and a great background piece from New York. One of my favorite lines:

“Aaron is used to thinking fast and making bold decisions,” says Fincher. “He comes from TV, where you don’t have time to pick gnat-shit out of pepper. But in the movies, my whole thing is, everything we put on the screen, even a prop, is going to be debated and scrutinized, so we need to make sure it’s not saying something we don’t want it to say.”

The King's Speech: At first glance, The King Speech may look like just another Masterpiece Theater, Oscar-bait film, one with a fairly predictable plot and conventional direction. However, its fine performances help elevate it above solid respectability into a genuinely affecting movie. It all hinges on Colin Firth's vulnerable performance as "Bertie," the Prince of York, second in line to the throne of England. In the very first scene, we see him obligated to give a speech at a stadium, the microphone looming huge in the frame, and we see his sheer terror. Right then, we're hooked. As everyday phobias go, an overwhelming majority of people rank public speaking as more frightening than death, and it's impossible not to feel for Bertie. Our sympathy grows as he starts to speak - he has a bad stutter, and as he struggles through his speech, some of crowd look away in embarrassment. It's an utterly humiliating experience – and more are on the way. Bertie's been raised in incredible privilege, and while he occasionally plays the upper class card, for the most part he seems like a decent fellow who just wants to live a quiet life. Unfortunately, he's a prince, required to make public appearances and speeches, and events develop that mean he might have to assume the crown. His faithful wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) tries to support and protect him, but his father the king (Michael Gambon) and older brother the heir apparent (Guy Pearce) are rather abusive.

Geoffrey Rush is Lionel Logue, an unconventional speech therapist with a love of Shakespeare and a puckish sense of play. Rush has great fun with the role, and we see some of his own triumphs and disappointments, but the core of the film hinges on Bertie and Lionel, and their shifting relationship. There's some added amusement in casting Derek Jacobi, who's played two stutterers himself, including a royal one, as Archbishop Cosmo Lang. The climax of the film is a big speech Bertie has to give. In one sense, it's a mundane action, but for Bertie, the challenge is steep and the stakes are tremendous. And we're with him every step of the way, living and dying with every halt, stammer, curse word and exhalation. The King Speech is one of the best films of 2010 because it makes us care deeply about its main character and the outcome. That may seem simple, but it can be hard to do well – much like giving a good speech. (Also, since my eternal pet peeves include crappy diction and poor inflection work from actors, I've got a soft spot for this movie.)

(Here's Tom Hooper on Fresh Air and The Business. Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece on the film's historical inaccuracies.)

The Fighter: Based on a true story, The Fighter is pretty conventional in its style and plot, and its Irish working class angst and family dysfunction can be a bit draining. It is, however, extremely realistic and the acting is exceptional, justifiably racking up many nominations and rewards. Mark Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a small-time boxer looking for a real shot. However, his biggest obstacle is his loving, smothering, controlling family. His manager is his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who has a black belt in guilt-tripping. The apple of her eye is Mickey's older brother, Dickey Eklund (Christian Bale), a once promising boxer ("the pride of Lowell") who's become an addict. Dickey and Alice book Mickey into some bad fights, including one above his weight class, and he gets badly torn up. All this complicates his wooing of barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who takes absolutely no crap from anyone, not Mickey, not Dickey, not Alice, and not Mickey's seven catty, possessive sisters. The plot may be pretty standard, but the dialogue is sharp and realistic, and these performances are engrossing – we really care about Mickey, Charlene and Dickey. Wahlberg gives a solid, un-flashy performance, all the more admirable because he could have played Dickey (Wahlberg wanted to do the fight scenes, though) and did a tremendous amount behind the scenes to get the film made. Alice is often unlikable, but Melissa Leo makes her real and nuanced, and sympathetic in her own way (or at least pitiable). Bale is fantastic as the flamboyant, reckless but occasionally reflective Dickey. He can be a complete idiot, but can also show surprising insight. Bale's particularly good in a scene in prison, as Dickey watches a documentary about himself, at the end of the film with Mickey, and in an extended scene with Charlene (more on that in a second).

It's nice to see the always excellent Amy Adams in a meatier role again, and the foul-mouthed, scrappy Charlene is a major break from her ingénue roles. The best scene in the movie may be a porch side one between Charlene and Dickey, who are often adversaries. As much as Charlene initially dislikes Dickey, he's got her number even more than she has his, and her nastiness toward him owes a great deal to self-recognition and fear. Dickey's struggles are really just an amplified version of the dynamics all the characters are facing: an addict, who once had promise and screwed up, is trying really hard to make something better, hoping for a break, and fighting not to get dragged down by all bad influences around. The Fighter definitely has its uplifting moments, but its intimacy with those struggles is what gives it its poignancy and soul.

(Here's David O. Russell on The Treatment and an interesting piece on The Fighter on The Business. Plus, there's Russell and Wahlberg, and Melissa Leo, on Fresh Air.)

The Ghost Writer: A ghost writer with a talent for penning tabloid best sellers (Ewan MacGregor) is hired to rewrite the memoirs of the recently retired British Prime Minister after the original writer dies in mysterious circumstances. The film's based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris, and PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is partially based on Tony Blair. MacGregor is always good when he's given good material and a good director, and he's engaging as the smart, somewhat cocky "Ghost." (He's actually never named in the film.) Brosnan nicely handles both the charisma of former golden boy Adam Lang, and his private rages, mostly stemming from being accused of war crimes, with possible legal charges impending. Olivia Williams is fantastic as Adam's wife Ruth, a very sharp, worldly woman playing a prescribed public role in the political theater of Adam Lang's career. The most refreshing part of The Ghost Writer may be Ruth and her many facets, because adult women who act like intelligent, adult women can sadly be a rarity in more mainstream fare. Kim Catrall, as key Lang assistant and handler Amelia Bly, comes off a bit fake to me, but I think it works for the role. She's selling Lang to the public, after all.

While Bly and the others in the Lang retinue are often occupied with damage control, the Ghost is left with several puzzles, including re-writing a massive book. It seems to include clues to a hidden story, and Adam Lang's own accounts of his life (he's a charming storyteller) don't always match up to the facts the Ghost pieces together. Did the original writer (a longtime Lang family friend) kill himself, or was he murdered? If so, who killed him, and why? What precise role did the United States and their "special relationship" with the U.K. play in Lang's actions as PM and his current predicament? And should the Ghost respond to the romantic advances of the neglected and enigmatic Ruth?

The Ghost is confident in his abilities as a writer and a sleuth, and with good reason – he follows an odd clue or two and progressively uncovers an intriguing and possibly nefarious plot. A visit to an American think tank "intellectual" on foreign policy is particularly interesting for the scene's polite menace. But the Ghost's a bit too sure of himself, and eventually exposes himself to danger as well. He started as an outsider, but he's getting sucked in. Competing parties tell him to trust them and not the other guy. Is he next on some sort of hit list? Who's really on his side, and is he confiding in the right people?

The ending stretch provides a few revelations and twists, and some viewers might guess at one or two of them. I did, but I found the ending and the film to be very satisfying overall. This is filmmaking for adults. The classic hallmark of a bad "twist" is that it trades a brief shock at the cost of the overall story, which it makes less interesting. In The Ghost Writer, the twists aren't departures or gimmicks – they're additional daggers.

(As for Polanski the person, he remains a conundrum. His best films are superb, and he's suffered through the Holocaust and his pregnant wife Sharon Tate being murdered by the Manson family. However, his sexual assault of a minor back in the 70s was despicable (I only read the victim's detailed account from the time last year). She's forgiven him, and perhaps there's been some grandstanding by prosecutors and judges, but that doesn't change the crime. Shouldn't the law take its course, regardless of Polanski's fame? Some people refuse to watch any Polanski film because of all this.)

(Here's Ewan MacGregor on Fresh Air.)

Inception: Christopher Nolan's latest is a heist film set in dreams. Structurally, it gets dizzyingly complex, and that's part of the point, to disorient us as viewers (one poster was reminiscent of a famous Escher picture). The surface plot is that Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team are hired by rich businessman Saito (Ken Watanable) to plant an idea in the sleeping mind of his more powerful rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). In return, Saito will help clear up Cobb's legal problems, since he's on the run (unjustly) for the supposed murder of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). But Mal keeps turning up in the dreams, too, and causing trouble. It's a good cast, with Ellen Page a particular standout as the most conscientious team member, Cotillard perfect as a troubled femme fatale, and Murphy affecting in a key scene near the end. My one criticism of Nolan is that, while he's meticulous, he's an awfully cerebral director, and in his construction of intricate latticework he can lose the emotional core of his story, which doesn't seem to interest him as much. I think Inception suffers from some of that. That said, it's still excellent, and well worth a look. It's an extremely ambitious film, and it pulls off much of what it's going for, so that excuses many failings.

The bulk of what I'll write on Inception is taken from my July 2010 post on it:

Inception isn't just the title of Christopher Nolan's new film; it's a description of what the film attempts to do to its audience. The film is extremely intricate and ambitious in its plot and structure, but also its meta-narrative games. It's commenting on and dissecting storytelling as it goes along, most of all in terms of audience members' reactions. Nolan throws so much at us that it can be confusing, dizzying. At times, the film may seem too complicated, trying to be too clever for its own good and thus losing the story. (I was debating that occasionally while I watched the film, even though I enjoyed it.) But for good or ill, that complexity isn't just artistic vanity or ambition – it's both very intentional and, I believe, integral.

For an audience that's not consciously trying to predict the ending, the complex rules of the dream world and the discombulation of the elaborate, multilayered heist set up the finale: an open ending created by the final shot in a final mindfuck move. (Whoa, dude.) However, with narrative-savvy audiences, Nolan's playing an even more diabolical game – and just like the cons to the marks in the film, he tells us exactly what he's going to do first, all to psyche us out. We think we know what's going on, but he lets us think that so he can screw with us on a deeper level and plant an idea in our heads. A movie is in some sense a shared dream of audience members in a theater. At least twice, Cobb (DiCaprio) says that once an idea is planted in someone's head, it can be very hard to shake and it keep growing. The film handles most of the exposition pretty elegantly. Within the first 10-20 minutes, Nolan gives us shots of limbo and one of the final scenes in the "future" (presumably this is the case, looking back at them), shows us the idea of pulling a heist in someone else's dream, and also gives us the concept of a dream within a dream. This all might seem unnecessarily complex – but Nolan's setting up the idea that we can't trust what we see, and specifically the idea of a dream within a dream. If you're a narrative-savvy audience member, at this point, and at several points throughout the movie, you'll be wondering how the film will end, and what any twist will be. At some point, you will likely consider whether the entire damn film is a dream – or whether at least the ending will be. (Inception bears some striking similarities with another movie released this year starring DiCaprio, Scorsese's Shutter Island, most of all the unreliable narrator/what-is-real aspect, and a crazy wife.) Some of the elements in Cobb's seeming "reality" are intentionally odd – he's chased as he is the dream world, he encounters an improbably small alley, he has flashes of memories and a dream world, we never see the children's faces or Mal's mother, etc. Saito starts as an enemy or mark and then becomes an ally and employer.

Nolan is performing an act of inception on narrative-savvy audiences. He's planting the idea, early on, that the whole film may be a dream, or that some scenes of "reality" may be, making us wonder, like the suicidal Mal (Marion Coitillard, a great femme fatale), what is reality. In one sense, the last shot, the open ending, the mindfuck, is fairly predictable. In another sense, Nolan's anticipated that we would anticipate that ending, and the mindfuck is more subtle or devious, because we're now doubting something that we shouldn't. Again, as with the mark in the heist, he's used our own defenses against us. (Intelligence jujitsu, as with hypnosis.)

Now, maybe Nolan just constructed a good ride with an open ending and some ambiguous elements to set up the finale. I think that's all true, apart from the "just." Nolan is a smart guy and says it took him 10 years to write the script. He's also very ambitious. Given that and the subject matter, the themes, I don't see how he could avoid the meta-narrative angle. Put another way, I think at the very least Inception is very deliberately crafted, and the ending isn't just a tag – it's the entire point.

On one level, the whole heist is a MacGuffin in the vein of Hitchcock, who's still probably the master of playing with audience expectations. On another level, it's pretty important. Although Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) is fooled in that vault, he does actually experience catharsis, and he's still rich as hell, so breaking up his father's empire may really have been worth it, in addition to being a benefit to Saito and the world. If we accept what we see in the film's seeming reality world as reality, then Cobb similarly experiences a catharsis and a fairly happy ending by the film's end. He's finally let go of Mal. Is this a real release, or does this release, as with Fischer, make him vulnerable to a bigger con, whether pulled by someone else or his own mind (which has fucked with him throughout the entire film)? Has Cobb finally found some peace, both internally/subconsciously and in the real world, or has his subconscious finally outwitted him? The grief/guilt was his compass for reality, and now it is gone. For some audience members, briefly buying the happy ending and then being left uncertain by the ending is the mindfuck. For other audience members, anticipating that mindfuck and rejecting the happy ending because of that is the real, bigger mindfuck. (Both types of audience members do feel some brief relief before the ending regardless, though, because of the change in energy and pacing after the heist finally concludes. Nolan wisely gives a moment to catch our breath.)

Narratively, Inception reminds me the most of Philip K .Dick's short story "I Hope I Will Arrive Soon." Complete spoiler here – a man is in suspended animation on a long spaceship voyage. There's a malfunction and he stays conscious, and will stay conscious for many years as the ship makes its voyage. This might drive him insane. Trying to help, the ship's computer puts him in a series of virtual realities so he can pass the time. But the man rejects each of them as unsatisfying. The computer asks him what he really wants, and he responds that it's to be done with the voyage, to be home. So the computer (unwisely) creates a virtual reality where the man has completed the voyage and is home. However, the computer leaves out some details, and the man, still skeptical, will, for instance, take off the back of the virtual TV set and see that it's empty, proving that he's not in reality. The computer adjusts and improves its virtual world, and keeps trying. The man stays skeptical, and if anything grows more paranoid. By the ending, the man does arrive home in the real world, but now questions reality, and does not accept it. He'll take off the back of the TV set, and say, see, it's empty, and not notice that it's not. He sees the painting he and his ex-wife bought together, and not accept that it's real because they sold it. In the real world, she re-bought it, but he views it a tell, a mistake the computer's made in designing its virtual reality He won't accept the affection and reconciliation of his ex-wife (I think they're divorced or estranged, I need to re-read it) because it's a trick. Happiness itself is a con, not to be trusted. He was always a bit paranoid, but in trying to outwit a (well-intentioned but misguided) deceiver, he's broken himself. Inception is quite similar in its layers upon layers of reality, unreality and mindfuckery. Spin us around like a top until we get dizzy, and we won't know which was is up anymore. (Mal says something very similar.)

There are some odd things about the last scene, such as the absence of Mal's mother, who we've heard before, and because we've seen the same setting and lighting before in dreams. However, the top teeters, as it did not in limbo (as I recall). Nolan cleverly ends when the top teeters but is still spinning fairly strong, leaving us guessing. (Rife with symbolism, Cobb lets the top go and doesn't check it himself.) We finally see the children's faces, which have been (in a brilliant move) denied to us throughout the film. This device sets up serious anticipation and dread in the late limbo scene with Mal and Ariadne (yeah, there's a mythologically-symbolically named character for ya) and in the final scene. If Cobb is in someone else's dream, whose is it? We're not really given many options there (possibly Ariadne). He could just be dreaming normally, if elaborately, with his dream his way of finally expunging his guilt and finding some happiness. He could be stuck in limbo. Maybe he never got out. Or he could (as with Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and its countless descendants) be dead or dying.

Nolan intentionally makes the finale open-ended and ambiguous, and I'll have to see it again. I think a few elements point toward it being reality (the teeter), and that the slickest mindfuck of the film is on terribly clever film viewers who reject the happy ending outright, who are convinced that's it's all a trick or illusion. There's not enough proof of that, either; it's not certain. The ending can simply be seen as a litmus test, more revealing about an individual viewer than anything else. Of course, since Nolan screws with really everyone in the audience, he's undermining a straightforward happy ending for everyone. Whether or not we anticipated the ending - we really want to see whether that top falls or not. We want confirmation. He's planted that idea, that questioning of reality, in everyone's heads, regardless of whether they anticipated it or not. And, of course, we can find that denial of certainty very satisfying as an audience. (Most audiences have, and I enjoyed the film a great deal.) Nolan has played with our expectations, frustrated them and satisfied them and around and around again, slyly grinning as he spins the top that is Inception and we watch, rapt.

(My earlier post also a look at the key music cue of the film. And is it a coincidence that the song is "Non, je ne regretted rien," by Edith Piaf, and Marion Cotillard won an Oscar playing her in a biopic? I think not!)

(Here's Christopher Nolan on The Treatment.)

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