Tag Archives: Natalie Portman

CAPSULE: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley

PLOT: A successful, hedonistic screenwriter lost in the indulgences and vacuity of Hollywood searches for love and meaning.

Still from Knight of Cups (2015)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: While Malick’s approach to cinema remains characteristically unconventional, despite the philosophical narration and existential questions, the film still charts as a fairly standard dramatic narrative.

COMMENTS: “To be a philistine or not to be a philistine?” That is the question that troubles reviewers when approaching the films of Terrence Malick. When a film maker is consciously addressing questions such as the meaning of life –a question in which every person on this planet has a stake—if the reviewer’s response isn’t positive, they can find themselves asking the questions: did the film not speak to me because it was poorlyexecuted, or because the message was over my head? Is it a load of pretentious rubbish, or did I simply not get it?

All questions of framing, scripting and pacing aside, the answer––particularly when it comes to films that address existential concerns like those of Malick, or —is always subjective. The film either meant something to you, or it didn’t. (I am thinking of this site’s controversial review for Possession, a film I personally loved but which the reviewer hated). Where I saw a visceral film with an impassioned performance from and unsettling, demonic imagery depicting a relationship imploding, the reviewer saw a pretentious, vapid stream of hollow images. Technique aside—which thankfully isn’t so subjective and can be argued—the film either spoke to you, or didn’t.

Did Knight of Cups speak to me? To perfectly honest, no. Does this mean I simply didn’t “get it”? Possibly, but again, considering how subjective a film experience is, not to mention how subjective and open-ended Malick’s images are, does it matter? Every filmgoer brings their own meanings to a film based on their own experiences, very often bringing associations that are far removed from the filmmaker’s original intent, if they’re even prepared to talk about that (and we all know how Malick has addressed this question: radio silence). Is Cups a load of pretentious rubbish? Again, the question of meaning-making is entirely dependent on the viewer. I was able to find meanings and recurring messages in the film, even if I didn’t particularly respond to the actual film experience.

So what is Cups about? On the surface, this is a straightforward tale of a successful screenwriter Rick (who doesn’t do a lick of actual writing in the film, mind you), who experiences inertia and nihilism among various mansion parties and trappings of Hollywood. He has relationships with six women, including his ex-wife (Cate Continue reading CAPSULE: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)

CAPSULE: GARDEN STATE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Braff

FEATURING: Zach Braff, , Peter Sarsgaard,

PLOT: A small-time actor, doped up on heroic doses of antidepressants, returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral and finds love with a quirky lady while working through his family issues.

Still from Garden State (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It ‘s quirky, not weird (and, by the end, it’s barely even quirky anymore).

COMMENTS: Originality is hard. There’s a moment in Garden State where Sam, Natalie Portman’s epileptic paralegal, stands up and spazzes out while babbling randomly in an attempt to do something completely original. Andrew Largeman, our narcotized small-time actor protagonist, is skeptical, and asks “so no one’s ever done that?” Sam’s response is “no, not in this spot.” Garden State gives us a meet cute, a manic pixie dream girl, and the power of love as an instrument of personal growth; the unavoidable stuff of its genre we’ve seen many, many times before. To make up for being unoriginal, the movie also gives us Kenny Rodgers funeral covers, knights speaking Klingon, and Method Man as a peepshow-running bellhop. No one’s ever done any of that before—at least, not in that exact spot on the quirk spectrum. Garden State is really two different movies. Before it launches into the romantic comedy, the first third is a deadpan comedy of alienation a la The Graduate (it’s no accident that Simon and Garfunkel appear on the soundtrack). So deadened that he’s unable to enjoy playing spin the bottle with a beautiful, possibly underage girl during an ecstasy-fueled orgy, Braff conveys some idea of what it must be like to have your emotions submerged under an ocean of lithium. This part of the film is the most interesting. Dysfunction makes for better stories; the healthier Largeman gets, the less interesting the movie becomes. He goes from seeing the world as bizarre and threatening to bizarre and welcoming—a saner, but less dramatic stance. Still, it would have been difficult (and possibly pointless) to sustain the initial mood of aimlessness for an entire film (The Graduate also had to leave it behind). What follows is Largeman slowly waking up from his pharmaceutical coma, helped by Sam and a stoner pal played by Peter Sarsgaard, as he goes on a therapeutic journey searching for the root of his emotional dislocation (which is where the excellent but underutilized comes into the picture). It may not be completely original (except for superficial quirks), and it’s not weird, but it is a good movie. Braff and Portman are hygienic and lovable, bringing an infectious spirit of youth that captures what its like to be lost and hopeful in your twenties. Add a Grammy-winning folk-rock soundtrack, and it’s no surprise that Garden State has become minor cult film.

The Garden State DVD is a lavish affair, with over 30 minutes of deleted scenes, another half-hour “making of” featurette, and two separate commentaries (one with Braff and Portman, the other with Braff and the crew).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Stormy twentysomething emotions seethe under a deft quirkfest.”–Ed Park, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Billy” who even wrote it up as a reader recommendation. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

90. BLACK SWAN (2010)

“It’s a Polanski movie, and then it becomes a Dario Argento movie. And maybe a little bit of David Cronenberg too.”–Vincent Cassell

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, , Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

PLOT: Nina, a goody two-shoes ballerina, wants to dance the lead role in a production of “Swan Lake,” but although she’s perfect for the role of the White Swan, she lacks the seductiveness to portray the Black Swan. Lily, a sexy, irresponsible dancer newly arrived from a San Francisco troupe, becomes her primary competition for the part, but also helps her loosen up by talking her out on the town for a night of drinking and meeting guys. Nina starts physically break down and hallucinate as the stress of preparing for the role takes its toll; by opening night, she can’t distinguish reality from the story she dances of the princess trapped in the body of a swan who takes her own life.

Still from Black Swan (2010)

BACKGROUND:

  • Natalie Portman danced many of her own parts, and actually dislocated a rib while dancing during the shoot. More difficult moves were performed by professional ballerinas, and for two sequences Portman’s face was digitally superimposed on dancer Sarah Lane’s body. There was a minor controversy over how much of the dancing Portman actually did herself and how much was performed by doubles; Aronofsky estimated that the actress executed more than 80% of the dance moves that appear onscreen.
  • Portman won the 2010 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Nina. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Editing.
  • Aronofsky received “The Understudy,” the original script that became Black Swan, while he was making Requiem for a Dream (2000). He described the script as Dostoevsky’s “The Double” meets All About Eve. Aronofsky combined that script, which was set in an off-Broadway production, with an idea he had to shoot a movie in the New York ballet world to create Black Swan.
  • Aronofsky and Portman had discussed doing a ballet movie together 8 years prior to shooting.
  • Made on a relatively small budget of about $12 million, Black Swan has grossed more than $300 million worldwide as of this writing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nina’s “triumphant” onstage transformation into the Black Swan: as she pirouettes, feathers sprout from her arms, thickening with every swirl, until her limbs have been replaced by wings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Up until opening night, Black Swan is a backstage melodrama about backstabbing ballerinas, with an exaggerated, lurid psychopathology that’s thrust even further over-the-top by lesbian love scenes, hints of horror, and mirrors, mirrors, mirrors.  When the curtain rises on the big night, we experience the performance through the subjective perspective of an overworked, paranoid, demented dancer, whose psychology has been shattered by the film’s sledgehammer symbolism.  No avant-grade choreographer could stage as disorienting a “Swan Lake” as the one she hallucinates for us through her obsessed eyes.

Promotional Music Video for Black Swan

COMMENTS: Black Swan is the weirdest movie ever to win a major Academy Award (Natalie Continue reading 90. BLACK SWAN (2010)

LIST CANDIDATE: BLACK SWAN (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

PLOT: A shy up-and-coming ballet dancer lands the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.”

Still from Black Swan (2010)

Obsessed with perfection and paranoid that the dual role will be taken away from her, she struggles to become both the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan characters.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological horror-thriller, no doubt about it, and in many ways it sticks to the conventions of that kind of film . But at the same time, Black Swan is so eerie, so unsettling, and so strange in its hallucinatory freak-outs and loosening grip on reality—and so good overall—that it probably warrants inclusion on the List.

COMMENTS: It is very difficult to write any kind of in-depth review of this movie without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything, just take my word for it that Black Swan is a truly exceptional film and you should go see it.  Otherwise, I’ll try to avoid any big revelations, but will mention various plot points.

It seems the controversial Darren Aronofsky has found a way to combine the considerable and versatile talents he exhibited in his preceding films into one near-perfect thriller that’s both unsettling and emotionally gripping.  He infuses his new feature with all the depravity of Requiem for a Dream, the visceral surrealism of Pi, the visual splendor of The Fountain, and the grounded character of The Wrestler, while of course adding some beautiful dance sequences and a sapphic fantasy. His camera moves with the dancers as they bound across the stage, offering a volatile but accessible glimpse at a live art form and throwing in enough technical tricks to keep any camera geek guessing.

Nina is a quiet, innocent young woman—an obvious product of her coddling, controlling mother—and her quest for perfection in dance leads her to attempt a complete personality overhaul. To play the Black Swan role in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” she must release the dark, confident, seductive force within her that’s been fighting to break out. This duality within her character is frequently hinted at throughout the film through use of mirrors, sex, and hallucination woven so seamlessly with reality that the viewer is frequently unsure what is real—as is Nina herself. The constant mind games Aronofsky plays with his audience—along with Natalie Portman’s dedicated performance—make for a captivating, tense experience. I was so engaged and so anxious during this movie I felt myself physically relax about twenty minutes after it ended, though mentally I still felt shaken.

A testament to the great struggles inherent to any artistic expression, Black Swan is an intense and passionate film. Every sound is acutely felt, every strange vision strikes a cord. At times things get as visceral as Cronenberg‘s body horrors. The horror is derived from how little we really know about anything outside of Nina’s own experience, and how unsure we are about how much worse it’s going to get. Everyone around her presumably leads a fairly normal, expected life (well, everyone except Winona Ryder’s tragic, boozy ex-dancer Beth), but we are rarely able to see outside of Nina’s self-constructed dual prison of home and studio, which is inflated in her own head. Indeed, the few times we are reminded of the outside world offer welcome comedic breaks to somewhat ease the ever-building tension.

All of Aronofsky’s stylistic flourishes and subtly terrifying images are tempered by several truly impressive performances. Portman perfectly embodies the conflicted Nina, capturing her fear, desperation, and exhilaration. Mila Kunis is an excellent foil, physically mirroring the shy protagonist while exuding the sexuality and abandon Nina strives for. Vincent Cassell is a superb jackass, channeling George Balanchine in his romantic, tyrannical choreographer Thomas Leroy, and Barbara Hershey is appropriately sympathetic and creepy as Nina’s obsessive mother Erica.

From the very beginning Black Swan reaches out and grabs its audience, never letting its grip slip until well after the credits roll. At times it may be hard to watch, but you’ll never want to look away, and what you see will certainly stick with you. And the combination of backstage ballet drama, pulp-thriller gore, and hallucinatory allegory actually is pretty weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ is a full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

READER RECOMMENDATION: GARDEN STATE (2004)

The fourth submission in the June review writing contest: by “Billy.”

DIRECTED BY: Zack Braff

FEATURING: Starring Zack Braff and Natalie Portman with Peter Sarsgaard, Gideon Largeman and Method Man

PLOT: Andrew Largeman (Zack Braff) returns home to New Jersey to attend his mother’s

Still from Garden State (2004)

funeral.  While there, he realizes the funeral was only the beginning.

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST:   There is a family who repeatedly kills hamsters, grave robbing, argumentative spin the bottle, conversations in Klingon, marijuana, ecstacy and a man dressed up as a knight in shining armor.  Random moments through out the movie shine of weirdness and that alone will keep you glued to your seat.

COMMENTS: When you’ve finish watching this movie you may be puzzled.  I can see you now with that tilted head and unsure expression.  You will probably want to take a moment and allow the movie to ferment in your mind.  However, that doesn’t make a movie “weird” by itself.  But, considering the flashes of nearly 2 hours of surprise and complexity… I’m not sure if I have a better adjective to describe the movie.

Also, not to mention, the cinematography is amazing and the soundtrack is absolutely perfect.   It fits clip by clip and moment by moment with the movie and I recommend it to anyone. The movie, from beginning to end is strange and odd in the purest sense of the words.  All in all it is a really a great movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is not a perfect movie; it meanders and ambles and makes puzzling detours. But it’s smart and unconventional, with a good eye for the perfect detail, as when Andrew arrives at work in Los Angeles and notices that the spigot from a gas pump, ripped from its hose when he drove away from a gas station, is still stuck in his gas tank. Something like that tells you a lot about a person’s state of mind” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)