Tag Archive: Natalie Portman


Once again taking a brief break from theatergoing, I’ve watched some interesting DVD/on-demand choices recently. Here are three interesting flicks to check out when you have a chance.

 

lawless-banner-posterLawless

250px-WettestcountyfrontcoverBased on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, this 2012 film focuses on the early 1930s bootlegging business of Matt’s grandfather, Jack Bondurant, and his brothers, Forrest and Howard. It is a gritty, violent, and fascinating look at a time in American history from the perspective of one family subsisting outside the law of the times but with a code all its own.

Jack (Shia LeBoeuf) fancies himself a mobster in the making, while patriarch Forrest (Tom Hardy) is invested in the legend that he and his brothers are indestructible, and Howard (Jason Clarke) loyally serves as enforcer and protector. When we meet “The Bondurant Boys,” their role in their rural community is viewed with a kind of under-the-rug respect, and they are left alone and at times even supported by local law enforcement. shia-labeouf-dane-dehaan-lawless-600x421But when a vicious and peculiar federal agent (Guy Pearce) shows up, the boys get more flack than they had bargained for.

The movie is a mini-history lesson, depicting in vivid detail the dangerous and clandestine work of bootleggers in the ’30s. It’s also filled with exaggerations for movie-watching excitement, with chases, shootouts, and closed-door atrocities that no one possibly could know the truth behind. But that’s moviemaking. Most of the facts are presented, however, as pieced together by the author of the book from reports, articles, and the bullet-would scars of his grandfather and granduncles.

120830_MOV_Lawless.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeRegardless of how faithfully represented the “true story” is, this film is well written, beautifully shot, and skillfully acted by the principals and supporting actors including Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, and Gary  Oldman. The film is directed by Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition – 2007, The Road – 2009).

For an epic familial double feature, pair this movie with Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Legends of the Fall (1994), or the TV miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (2012).

A

920-HESHERHesher

In this 2010 film by writer/director Spencer Susser, Hesher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once of my favorite contemporary actors) is a grungy high school reprobate who muscles in on the dissolving family of freshman T.J. (fiercely played by Devin Brochu). Two months earlier, T.J. lost his mom in a car accident, and he is desolate as his inconsolable father loses himself in depression and self-medication (the father is played by Rainn Wilson in the best performance I have ever seen him turn in).

As Hesher threateningly worms his way into a place at Grandma’s house, where T.J. and his dad are staying, he seems nothing more than a dangerous blight on T.J.’s existence. Grandma (Piper Laurie) seems to be the only one to see anything more in Hesher. An unexpected ray of sunshine in T.J.’s life is meeting cashier Nicole (Natalie Portman), hesher-movie-review-TH48O3P-x-largethough Hesher ruins that for him too, along with nearly getting him arrested and otherwise making his life hell. But all is not what it seems, and when the taciturn Hesher does speak, his crude, elaborate analogies offer the true lessons in this narrative.

This movie begins coarsely, attesting to how first impressions can set our minds. It’s tough to watch as the scruffy, chain-smoking, bizarrely tattooed bully Hesher intimidates T.J. and his family.  But just as we get to know people in real life, we soon see there is something more to the freaky young man. To the film’s credit, we never find out much of Hesher’s backstory or why he lives in his van (when not invading the homes of freshmen). Heck, we don’t even learn his full name.Hesher_13047235035841

In the end, Hesher is a life-affirming and sanguine film. It is brilliantly written and works well in great part because everyone in the cast is absolutely superb. I’m hoping to see more from Susser, the only American member of the Australian filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, who has thus far focused on short films.

A fine double-feature choice for this movie is the equally disquieting yet hopeful Sunshine Cleaning (2008).

A-

Seeking-a-FriendSeeking a Friend for the End of the World

Being a fan of Steve Carell and liking some of the past work of Keira Knightley, I had high hopes for this 2012 film. These were effectively shattered by this depressing, unfunny apocalyptic tale that wastes the talents of both actors, and everyone else in it.

Basically, the movie follows pathetic Dodge (Carell) as he awaits the end of the world. A meteor is hurtling toward Earth and the last hope for diverting it fails, so everyone knows it’s all over (don’t even get me started on the lack of science, but then the film is not meant to be realistic—I guess). Some people go on as if nothing has changed, while others try to fulfill their bucket lists, and still others simply go off the deep end. Dodge’s wife (who, we learn, was unhappy anyway) runs away—literally—and he is left to sullenly continue going to work (uh huh) and gathering with friends in the evenings. This role is yawningly dull for an actor of Carell’s comic chops.

Finally, Dodge meets downstairs neighbor Penny (Knightley), ameliorates her own existential meltdown, and then is party to cruelly abandoning her live-in boyfriend to rioting mobs so the two can advance their budding romance in the end-times. It’s just … not pretty.

SAF-Still2Dodge and Penny try to make each others’ fondest final wishes come true as the hours count down. Thrown in is a contrived meeting, after twenty years of estrangement, with Dodge’s father (Martin Sheen, more wasted talent), again run through in a hasty way to just get it overwith. In the end, the film tries to pull the heartstrings as Dodge and Penny make their final moments content, but it seems too little, too late.

Those who read my reviews know that I like quirky dark comedies, as well as films that don’t neatly fit into one genre, which is what this endeavor tried to be, I think. But like a number of other atypical projects, it misses the mark on many scores. When it tries to be funny, it’s often painfully awkward (like during the completely pointless appearance of otherwise hysterical Patton Oswalt; all he gets to do is say “Pussy” in a bunch of different ways), and when it tries to be serious, it comes off as cloying, stuffing preachy platitudes down our throats (as when Dodge and Penny find an improvised commune on the beach, happy to just spend their last hours with one another).seeking-a-friend-for-the-end-of-the-world-screenshot

Nevertheless, many people love this film, seeing something in that I do not. That rings true for me with films like About Schmidt (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); along with this movie, they are all films that you either get (they resonate for you) or not.  I guess I just don’t get it.

The movie is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who wrote the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and has only directed once besides, an episode of New Girl).

C-

Quick post here.  Just adding to the last report card, after which I went to the theater to see Thor (2011).

Those who know me have probably caught on to the fact that I’m a sucker for adaptations of heroic comics, and when I read comic books as a kid, Thor was my favorite. An arrogant hothead with daddy issues who pretty much did as he pleased, until he screwed things up, then brooded about it and got all sensitive.  And all while sporting his flowing blond locks and viking war garb, complete with horns and cape.  Come on, who could resist?

As you can imagine, I would have been heartily disappointed had my impressions been shattered by this late-model interpretation. But they weren’t.  Chris Hemsworth is well suited to the role.  Anthony Hopkins is terrific as Odin. Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is reliable as ever. And I loved Tom Hiddleston as the marvelously conflicted and malevolent Loki.  The scenery of Asgard is opulent, the effects suited to the Avenger-verse, and the storyline of the heroes coming together advanced.

I typically don’t read reviews of films I’m seeing (often I’ll check out what others say after I’ve reviewed a movie myself). But a friend sent me Roger Ebert’s review, and it made my blood boil a bit.  First, how inappropriate is it to snottily say “I was watching something much more highbrow, so I missed seeing this for a while”?  (Yes, that’s a paraphrase and not a direct quotation, so don’t sue me, Rog.)  Bad manners aside, what I disagree with the most are Ebert’s pokes at the location of Asgard (it was all explained in the film, had one been paying attention) and disdain for Loki as a villain.  I was quite impressed with Loki and the development of his character’s motivation, and I certainly was thinking about him much longer than six minutes after the movie ended.  I’m still thinking about him.

So, that’s the contented part (and the contentious part). Now, the dissatisfaction. Thor is a good summer flick, but it did not blow me away.  It’s no Iron Man. Most disappointing was the abysmal underdevelopment of the human characters. Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kat Dennings are completely wasted. With Kenneth Branagh at the helm, this was astonishing and perplexing.  He knows better.

Bottom line:  Thor is a worthy addition to the growing Avenger pantheon, and a solid B of a movie-going experience.

What can be said that hasn’t been dissected to death already about the haunting Black Swan from director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi, The Fountain, The Wrestler)?

Well, first off, it’s not a horror movie (and it’s true; I know my horror movies).

The strongest impression I came away with was that this incredibly evocative psychological thriller is a masterful reworking of the Swan Lake tale itself, within the story of a ballerina taking on the challenging roles of the White Swan and her alter ego the Black Swan, and in her real life living through the same heartaches and ultimate demise as the characters she plays.  How meta!

If you don’t know Swan Lake, here’s the deal:

Swan Lake is a ballet composed in the late nineteenth century by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, based on a Russian folktale. It tells the story of Odette, a princess cursed by the evil Rothbart to live out her days as a swan and only able to take human form at night — until the spell can be broken by true love. Others are under the same spell and have made her their queen, hence her title, the Swan Queen. One day, the dashing Prince Siegfried is hunting at the lake where Odette lives and sees her transform into her human form. They dance all night and fall in love. He invites her to a ball where he can announce she is to be his bride. But before Odette can become human on the night of the ball, Rothbart brings his own daughter, Odile — disguised as Odette only in black rather than white — and tricks the prince into professing his love to the imposter. Siegfried sees the real Odette at the last minute, and follows her back to the lake, where she aims to kill herself as the only way to truly break the spell. After she flings herself, in human form, into the lake and drowns, Siegfried follows her, and they ascend to heaven to be together forever.

No such happy ending in the movie.

This is a visually absorbing film that excels in a countless number of ways — superb acting (Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder are all at the top of their games), perfect sets, amazing special effects — and perhaps the greatest of these is simplicity of story. It is the story of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, and the evil, black-attired nemesis waiting to take her place is none other than her own dark side, born of long-unfulfilled desires (and perhaps more than a touch of mental illness).

Thanks to the writing talent of Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, and the directing dexterity of Aronofsky, this film is as riveting as it is disturbing. But movie-watchers looking for a good old scary flick will be disappointed. It is much more of an inner journey, and in that it lives up to its diva’s aspiration:

“I just want to be perfect.”

A

I’m now even more giddy that Aronofsky is directing The Wolverine, to be released next year!

%d bloggers like this: