Thursday, December 23, 2010

Beauty Driven to Madness

There will be varying interpretations of the film "Black Swan" but my feelings are that it's about where the road to perfection can take you.  And in this case, it took Nina Sayers (beautifully portrayed by Natalie Portman) to a breakdown of magnificent proportions.  "Black Swan" directed by Darren Aronofsy ("The Wrestler" "Pi" "Requiem for a Dream"), written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, and starring Natalie Portman ("The Professional" "V for Vendetta" "Garden State"), Mila Kunis ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall" "That 70's Show") and Vincent Cassel ("Elizabeth" "Ocean's Twelve") begins with a beautiful sequence of Nina dancing but it quite quickly becomes clear that she is dreaming and that dream also quite quickly becomes sinister.  From there we are introduced to her life with her mother, Erica, played with great subtlety by Barbara Hershey ("Hannah and Her Sisters" "Beaches.")  Nina is a prima ballerina who is hoping to be cast as the lead in a new production of Swan Lake.  Nina's mother, we find out later, was also a ballerina but gave up her career when she became pregnant.  There are layers of guilt and resentment coming from both women as Nina, who is clearly in her mid to late 20's, still lives with her mother in her childhood room and continues to let her mother put her to bed.  Nina also begins a friendship with another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), and Lily gives Nina a taste of a normal, balanced life but you're never quite sure if Lily's motives are pure.  There are many scenes that degrade into what seem to be Nina's fantasies or hallucinations.  The film is shot with a slightly hazy and sepia colored tone that adds to the disjointed sense that what you're seeing is not real.  The music, of course, is glorious and it builds as the film progresses and leaves you slightly breathless at the end.  Please go see this film for yourself - it is beautiful, haunting and unlike anything I've ever seen before. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Another Story of Courage and Fortitude.

I saw this film in an independent theatre in Palo Alto, which was packed with what looked like the entire baby boomer population of Northern California.  But next to me sat a young teenage girl with her parents who was one of the first people to start clapping when the film ended.  And I was right behind her.  Has there ever been a more likable and honest looking actor than Colin Firth?  Who better to play a monarch who has been placed in a position of power he never dreamed would befall him.  "The King's Speech" directed by Tom Hooper ("John Adams" "Red Dust" and a long list of very good British television shows and mini-series) and starring Colin Firth (magnificent last year in "A Single Man," "Bridget Jones Diary," and of course, the original Mr. Darcy in "Pride & Prejudice"), Geoffrey Rush ("Shine", "Quills" and was Barbossa in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise) and Helena Bonham Carter ("Sweeney Todd", "Howards End" and the deliciously evil Bellatrix in the Harry Potter films.)  This film is the story of King George VI, who came to the throne just as the Nazi threat was escalating in Europe, when his brother, King Edward VIII (wonderfully portrayed by Guy Pearce), abdicated in order to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best.)  King George, or Bertie as he was known to his family, had always been afflicted with stuttering.  As a prince, he was called upon to give public speeches and they always were always excruciating, but when he came to power as the King, his duty as a public speaker became paramount.  Bertie had been treated by all the best doctors and therapists in England but saw little improvement.  Thus Bertie's wife, Elizabeth, turned to Lionel Logue as a last resort.  The two men had a rough beginning but eventually developed a fast friendship and Lionel spent the rest of his life helping Bertie at every speech and public appearance.  The story of the two men and how they came to understand each other is very funny and touching at the same time.  The techniques that Lionel used (he was not a doctor nor was he trained in speech pathology - he had honed his skill while helping wounded soldiers who had severe shell shock and would speak to no one but him) slowly bring out the story of Bertie's childhood - his overbearing father, wicked nannies and doted-on older brother.  These factors all played a part in Bertie's affliction.  Colin Firth is magnificent as Bertie.  His stuttering never feels forced and the interplay between Bertie and Logue feels like you are truly watching two old friends.

This is a fascinating story of what it means to be a monarch.  The screenplay is smart, funny, caustic and engaging.  Many historical figures are seen throughout the film, such as Winston Churchill (an amazing Timothy Spall, who was last seen as Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), Neville Chamberlain (Roger Parrott) and the Princess Elizabeth (Freya Wilson) whom we all know grows up to be Elizabeth II.  This is a wonderful film for the whole family.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

"127 Hours" - If Only All Films Could Have Such Heart.

We all know this is an incredible story of fortitude and survival, but for it to be presented in such an inspiring, thoughtful and insightful way is truly a thing of beauty.  Danny Boyle, who brought us "Slumdog Millionaire," "28 Days Later" and "Trainspotting," takes on a completely different genre and does it the right way.  "127 Hours" is based on the true-life adventure gone wrong of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco, with the perfect combination of grace, heart and spontaneity - he is an actor of the highest caliber and will surely garner an Oscar nomination.)  Aron is a 28 year old hiker/mountaineer who goes for a day hike in Canyonlands, Utah, and becomes trapped in a ravine with his arm pinned by a boulder.  Aron is a free spirit who is reckless, looking for excitement in the outdoors and seems convinced that he is invincible.  He therefore ignores the warnings to always tell someone where he is going and ignores the questions from his family who are always wondering where he is.  On his way into the canyon, he encounters two women who are somewhat lost.  He helps them find their way (off the main path, of course) and then sends them on their way.  Not long after he leaves them, he falls into the ravine.  For the next 127 hours, Aron does everything he can to free himself, using the only sharp instrument he had - a free "survival tool" his mother had given him.  The beauty of this film is the depiction of his slow realization that he will surely die where he is.  His thirst becomes overwhelming and when the hallucinations start, we learn more about who Aron is and what his life had been like up to this point.  He is sure that his recklessness has led him to this spot and that he deserves it after the heartache he must have caused his family by his frequent disappearing and his inability to commit to those who love him most.  He realizes his selfishness as he records his thoughts and feelings on his video camera.  He has one last hallucination that sets in motion his determination to get out of that ravine at any cost.  The scenes of his self-mutilation are hard to watch but they are mercifully short and by the time they happen, you are so invested in seeing him live that you cannot turn away.  You will cheer and cry as he walks out of the ravine and stumbles upon a family who happen to be hiking nearby.  His shouts of "help" will ring in your ears long after it's over.  It's a story of the power of the human spirit and a story of familial love.  I dare you to see it and not be deeply and profoundly touched.