Black Swan

December 8, 2010

Ballet is a peculiar art form in today’s society.  Now, I’m not just saying that because I don’t understand it, though that is certainly part of it.  I mean that it feels like such an anachronism and yet it surely one of the toughest and most competitive performance arts around.  For something that has become a cultural byword for “boring crap your girlfriend always wants to do”, the physical turmoil for the performers is disproportionately brutal.  Or so it seems to me, for I do not run in circles in which the ballet is a regularly attended event on the social calendar.  All of this is to say that it is something of a niche art form, and one gets the impression only the obsessively dedicated, passionate, and in some ways masochistic ever really make it.  There is a scene in Black Swan in which Nina (Natalie Portman) and her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) are in a bar talking to some guys they just met.  They know nothing of the ballet aside from having heard of Swan Lake, and Nina begins to excitedly tell them about it and offer them tickets.  Lily changes the subject, knowing full well that these guys and, well, most people don’t care.  Nina doesn’t understand that.  Her life has been the ballet, and the film is about an obsessive artist who knows nothing else and cannot come to terms with anything beyond it. Read the rest of this entry »

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I’m sure I’ve talked about the importance of tone in films before, and before I go back to that old standby when talking about Matthew Vaughn’s comic book fantasy Kick-Ass, I think it worth stressing how crucial it is (for the thousandth time). In most films, suspension of disbelief is paramount for engaging with the characters and story. This is not to say that everything need be believable or even logical, but if you want to be swept up in whatever experience the film can offer, the wrong moment can jar you right out of the picture. A consistent tone does well to maintain the suspension of disbelief in genre films such as Kick-Ass because, after all, nobody wants to find themselves aware of the real world when they’re meant to be escaping from it. As a digression, a good director making a certain film knows when to use a moment totally at odds with everything else around it to emphasize a point and, hopefully, get an emotional reaction (Richie’s attempted suicide in The Royal Tenenabaum, for instance). I’m not saying Matthew Vaughn is forever incapable of accomplishing this, but Kick-Ass is most certainly not that film. Read the rest of this entry »

Taken

March 18, 2009

Seven weeks into its US run, Taken is still holding strong in the box office top five. It has seen less than a 10% drop from week to week for most of that time, which you’ll know is very unusual if you keep up with box office trends (as I’m sure you all do). At close to $127 million in domestic grosses, it is the second-highest grossing film of the year so far (and it’s outpacing the highest grossing, Paul Blart: Mall Cop). Now it most definitely won’t stay that way, and it’s true that this time of year is generally thin on big releases, but it still says something about the cultural draw of the film. Made for around $40 million, this is a huge coup for a moderately budgeted film starring an unlikely action hero. I really shouldn’t play the armchair culture pundit, asking the questions about why this film seems to resonate so well in America and what that says about the country as a whole, but I can’t help myself. I’m probably over-thinking a mindless movie, but after watching it, questions were raised.

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The action film was always the B-movie. It has the A-budget now, and is the cash crop of the entire industry, but its thrills are cheap and visceral. Shallow, dumb, one-dimensional characters speed through a shoestring plot towards the inevitable climax that absolutely, positively must top everything that has come before it. The most inventive artisans with the largest teams come together and devote untold man-hours with the latest technology and the most cutting-edge photographic techniques to create the silliest and most disposable piece of trash they can. I do love action films. I also don’t expect much from them, which is completely unfair given how much work goes into each and every set piece, but still, I want it to be brisk and exciting. I want it to give me a reasonable degree of “WOW” and crank up the volume so I can’t hear the person rustling candy wrappers or crunching on popcorn behind me. Despite all the advances in the creative processes behind them, most are still made today for the same reason they always were. The basic thrills that a filmmaker wants to jolt into the viewer never change, and so it is no wonder modern action directors try so very hard to use new technologies to revisit and reinterpret the trends of the past.

Max Payne, directed by John Moore, seeks to meld classic detective noir via Sin City and The Matrix, which is even less original when you realize it has been based on a video game. Mark Wahlberg stars as the titular character, a depressed detective who still mourns the tragic loss of his wife and baby, who were killed in a still unsolved murder. In his off-hours, he contacts old informants and frequents underworld parties in an effort to piece together the truth behind the murders. He comes across Natasha Sax (Olga Kurylenko), who is soon savagely mutilated after taking a drug called Valkyr and leaving his apartment. His wallet is found on her, and now he’s the prime suspect. This should be where the film kicks it into gear. The wrongly accused cop must evade his former colleagues while seeking to find the truth that will resolve the murder and clear his name. Except, this doesn’t really happen. Not with any immediacy, anyway. Instead, Internal Affairs casually asks around and hopes to catch him, while he continues to speak with his old friends and contacts, slowly putting it all together. His wife worked for a pharmaceutical company, and if you haven’t made the connection by now, this might be a really shocking thriller for you. If you have, you have seen a moving picture before, and are probably wondering why the hell you’re still watching this one. Natasha’s sister, Mona Sax (Mila Kunis) enters the fray, as does Beau Bridges, and we’re now so bored we just want the guns to come out and blow things up real good. Well, it takes a bit longer, and when it does come, it isn’t that exciting.

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