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Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.

Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.

Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.

Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.

One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.

Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.

I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Jackie (2016)

jackie-poster-1Jackie (Natalie Portman) is still reeling from the loss of her husband, President Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). In the weeks that followed the assassination in 1963, her life was a whirlwind of change. She was leaving the White House while another administration took control of her husband’s office and agenda. She was leaving a life of glamour and privilege and it all came to a halt. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is worried about the Kennedy policies getting lost as well as his own potential presidential prospects. Lyndon Johnson (John Carrol Lynch) is worried about asserting his own control. While trying to work through her grief, Jackie must protect her husband’s legacy among all the well-wishers, political vultures, and craven opportunists.

We’re left with an immersive, impressionistic look at America’s most famous first lady since it’s hard to distinguish the layers of performance from the woman herself. She was used to adopting the façade of what the public expected of her, how her husband’s friends looks at her with desire and dismissiveness, and the differences between her private life and her public persona. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the interior space of a famous woman that so many people think they know well because of her glamour and television appearances, but do they really? Her identity is in free fall. She gave up everything for this man and now he is gone and her cherished position is gone. It’s said each first lady leaves her stamp on the office, and now Ladybird Johnson is already itching to undo that stamp, erasing Jackie’s presence and supplanting it. Will these last few days define her and will they define her husband? While dealing with raw grief, Jackie also takes the position of being the first to protect her husband’s legacy. While planning the particulars of the funeral march and exact burial site, she’s really framing his place in the greater annuls of history, tragically cut short and questionably memorable. His life has been taken from her and now the only thing she can do is protect his place in history. The funeral details and conflicts they consign the new Johnson administration to are interesting, as is Jackie’s simmering disdain for the Johnsons, but it’s more than just placation; Jackie has an underrated knack for theatrical optics. The country is in mourning, just like its (former) first lady, and she offers a spectacle as an outlet. Some term it vanity and even Jackie admits that many aspects were for her, for her grief, for her rage at the world and her doubters, for her wounded soul searching for meaning. She wanted the American public to see her in mourning but she wanted just as much to see them in mourning too.

jackie-natalie-portman-today-161006-tease-02_e549f017f2a99114fefe91579e669542-today-inline-largeEschewing the standard cradle-to-grave biopic, as well the noveau approach of using one clarifying moment to better examine and sum up the person (see: Selma, Steve Jobs), Noah Oppenheim’s script is a triptych, a hypnotic exploration that zips along non-linear but thematically-tethered memories. It’s a more interesting approach because we’re not locked into a linear progression of plot events, though the immediate aftermath and her interview with the Newsweek reporter (Billy Crudup) serve as the directional compass. It also provides a clever conceit for meta-textual levels. We have scenes that lay as direct conflict with the public Jackie and the private Jackie, and we have scenes that lay into the different levels of performance, from her show model tour of the White House furnishings and fixings to putting on the brave face to speak to her children. Director Pablo Larraine (No, Neruda) shoots the movie in a style reminiscent of its 1960s time period, with a film stock that blends the difference between documentary and recreation, further adding another stylistic level to the proceedings. The various threads of connectivity are so much more interesting to dissect with this storytelling approach and it makes the movie a much deeper and more contemplative experience to unpack.

There’s a scene in the middle of Jackie that stood out to me. During a night of drinking, Jackie puts on the record for the Broadway production of Camelot and wanders the large empty spaces of the people’s house. For my younger readers, the Kennedy administration was dubbed by many as “Camelot,” first coined by Jackie, out of a sense of its idealism, youth, and inspirational promise to change the world into a nobler place. It’s practically a mythical time and the real people get lost amidst the romantic spectacle. Nowadays, our presidents can often be the same mythical figures as the kings of old, figureheads whose humanity and details we iron out and soften as we eulogize and entomb them. The music echoes through the different chambers but there’s no one to hear it, no one to enjoy it, the vast emptiness communicating much of Jackie’s anguish. “There will be great presidents again but there will never be another Camelot,” she says. That moment is left as a passing memory, a picture of nostalgia that will only have its realism dampen in time as it becomes enshrined in American myth making. Amidst all her privilege and esteem, there is an existential sense of loss for Jackie and the nation as a whole into the turbulent 60s.

The other rich aspect is that we are watching a woman process her grief in real-time and it can often put a lump in your throat. I challenge anyone not to feel an outpouring of empathy when Jackie has to explain to her two very young children why daddy isn’t coming back from Dallas, having to explain something horrendous to those so innocent. In some scenes it feels like Jackie is numb to the world around her, focused on the little things as an escape from her horrible reality and its trauma. We do get a recreation of that fateful day in Dallas twice. The first is the immediate aftermath with Jackie bloodied and protected by the Secret Service, keeping her at a distance from us too in the audience. The next is a closer view inside the car as we’re with Jackie when the awful event happens, and the sudden shock of gore is still a disturbing gut-punch no matter how much you anticipate the moment. We watch her crazed instincts trying to collect the pieces of her beautiful and broken husband, stressing she was trying to keep everything together, figuratively and literally. The scene plays out longer and it serves as an emotional climax to the film, a frank reminder that for everything people believe they know about this woman, at heart, for all her riches and fame and privilege, she is simply a human being trying to make sense of death. It’s this final moment in the car that reminds us.

jackie-the-movie-natalie-portman-the-trailer-tom-lorenzo-site-8This is an acting showcase and Portman (Black Swan) excels, delivering the best female performance I’ve seen this year at the movies. It’s an Oscar bait dream role and she nails it. She goes beyond mere imitation though Portman does an excellent job of that. Thanks to critic/blogger Jeffrey Wells for this great quote about the imitable real-life Jackie from author Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff: “She had a certain Southern smile, which she had perhaps picked up at Foxcroft School, in Virginia, and her quiet voice, which came through her teeth, as revealed by the smile. She barely moved her lower jaw when she talked. The words seemed to slip between her teeth like exceedingly small slippery pearls.” Portman stunned me early with her exquisite recreation of Jackie and then she stunned me moments later with the depth of emotion she was able to convey in the scene where she stares into the Air Force One mirror, dabbing her husband’s blood from her face as her eyes are swollen with tears. Lorraine favors plenty of exacting close-ups to watch the array of emotions play across her face. She has moments of strength, moments of pettiness, moments of heart-tugging lows and weakness, and Portman is always fascinating, holding your attention rapt as you study her study. It’s a mesmerizing performance and one that deserves to earn Portman her second gold statue.

Jackie is a movie that has stayed with me for days after I’ve seen it. The exceptional and empathetic work by Portman is the first thing I recall, and then the thematic and symbolic relevance of the storylines as they fold on top of one another, providing a hypnotic and immersive portrait of a very famous woman who sought and spurned the spotlight. As far as I’m concerned this is the definitive film presentation of Jackie and Portman’s searing performance is the dazzling standard that won’t be beat. You walk away having additional appreciation for this woman but also further curiosity. The movie doesn’t expressly state who she is as a human being, providing a range of personas, some that conflict with one another, and allows you to put it all together for your interpretation. It’s a bold gambit and a fitting gesture for a woman defined by others’ perceptions.

Nate’s Grade: A-

 

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

105636_galLoosely based off the Norse mythology, Marvel’s hammer-wielding hero isn’t exactly the easiest character to relate to even as a superhero. Thor is a god after all. Not to be outdone, the man is also royalty, next in line to be king, so he’s in a special class of privilege. And yet 2011’s Thor was a pleasant surprise, a superhero movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, had modest aims, and embraced its sci-fi fantasy mélange. It was a movie where the sillier it got the better it worked. Now Thor: The Dark World, a.k.a. Thor 2, is ready to dominate the fall box-office and prove that Joe and Jane Popcorn can cheer for a pagan god.

Following the events of The Avengers, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is taken back to his home world of Asgard and put in prison. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is trying to get back to Earth to reunite with his love, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is being groomed for the throne of Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, the nine worlds are nearing a convergence and dimensional gateways are opening, including one that infects Jane with an ancient biological weapon, the aether. The aether was used as a weapon by the dark elves, a race of creatures that was long ago defeated but its general, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), has been dormant and in hiding. Alterted, he assembles his surviving army to attack Asgard, kidnap Jane Foster, retrieve the aether, and destroy all life in the universe.

109997_galThor is still a second tier character when it comes to Marvel superheroes (the guy just isn’t that interesting) but his franchise has, in only two starring films, become the most interesting. The scope of the Thor movies seems infinite. Whereas the other Marvel heroes are Earthbound and straightforward, Thor transports an audience to all sorts of alien worlds/cultures/conflicts, all of which open up more tantalizing storytelling avenues. Nothing seems out of place in a setting such as this, and so the surprises are more satisfying. I thought the best parts of 2011’s Thor were the Asgard moments, less the strained fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor assimilating on Earth. Thankfully, almost all of Thor 2 takes place off Earth save for a rousing, creative, inter-dimensional hopscotch of a climax. The realm of Asgard is given suitable scope thanks to the screenwriters and first-time feature film director Alan Taylor, who worked in TV for years. Taylor’s notable work on HBO’s Game of Thrones is probably what got him this gig, and his vision with fantasy is given significant breadth here. The Thor universe is an interesting mix of fantasy and sci-fi, reminiscent of Star Wars, and Taylor provides the necessary sweeping visuals, exciting action, and glorious shirtless close-ups we come to expect from our fantasy vistas. I was consistently impressed with Taylor’s command of visuals and shot selection, particularly how the man was able to juggle the various tones and needs of the script while still keeping an exposition-heavy film fun and light.

With rainbow bridges, dark elves, and enchanted hammers, thank goodness that Thor 2 keeps a steady and welcome sense of humor, never getting too serious even with the end of existence on the line. This jovial tone is refreshing when properly executed and contributes to the overall fun of the picture. We’ve had such sturm und drang when it comes to our superhero movies, particularly last summer’s Man of Steel misfire. I appreciate a dark and gloomy superhero tale like Nolan’s Batman films, or a satirical swipe like the original Kick-Ass, but we need stories that fit with their tone. When it comes to Thor, he’s still saving the world, rescuing his damsel, but the attitude, while on its face regal and serious, is anything but. The Thor movies accept the absurdities of its setting and just shrugs, plowing along. And now with Jane on Asgard, the fish-out-of-water comedy gets a different perspective. She gets to meet Thor’s parents (awkward) and an Asgardian who has a thing for the hunky Norseman (double awkward… I’ll stop the 90s catch phrases now). Thor 2 also gives Jane Foster much more to do, placing her front and center as a person integral to the stability of the universe. During the snazzy climax, she gets to run around and contribute in a meaningful manner. The there’s the plucky Kat Dennings (TV’s 2 Broke Girls) who gets to rattle off one-liners like a pro, many of them grounding the elevated levels of silliness. Much of the humor comes from the cocksure characters and their quips, particularly Loki.

And that’s as good as any place to interject my notion that Thor isn’t truly the main character in this film, despite what the title preceding the colon may lead you to believe. That honor goes to Loki, the greatest villain in any modern Marvel movie by far. He’s got the clearest arc in the movie, going through arguably the most personal pain, coming to a crossroads, and his conclusion certainly sets up sizable ramifications down the road for the presumptive Thor 3. Played by Hiddleston (War Horse), the character draws you in, even when he’s throwing his self-aggrandized temper tantrums you want to spend more time with him. He’s far and away the most developed and interesting character onscreen, and Hiddleston has such a gleeful malevolence to him that makes the character all the more electric and unpredictable. Thor 2 is really the story of Loki coming to terms with his life’s choices, the choices his adopted parents made, his sense of self and birthright, and moving forward, becoming his own man again. This is why Thor 2 ascends another entertainment rung by tying Loki into the main story, forcing him and Thor to work together against a common enemy.

106046_galIn a film dominated by a charismatic Loki, it’s no wonder that Thor 2’s real bad guy falls woefully short. Malekith is a confusing and altogether lackluster antagonist in every conceivable way. He has no personality to him; he’s simple-minded with the goal of eradicating the universe. I don’t know about you, but my bad guys better have a pretty good reason for destroying the universe since they kinda live there too. This is one of the lazier villain plot devices because it has no nuance, no shading. Apparently before there was a universe there were dark elves. I don’t want to get caught in a chicken-egg paradox here, but was there a universe before the universe, cause I look at the universe like existence’s garage. The cars inside may change but the garage was standing before it all. Anyway, Malekith wants to destroy all life because he wants to, because certainly you’d think there would be enough space in space. He’s not even that threatening or given any particular advantage beyond some firepower. It’s no wonder that Loki runs circles around this chump in the villain department. Eccleston (Unfinished Song) is not at fault. The heavy makeup he’s under smothers the actor’s ability to polish this terrible character.

The rest of the acting fares better. At this point, we know what we’re getting with Hemsworth (Snow White and the Huntsman) as the title character. He’s a sturdy leading man with just enough appeal to satisfy, though part of it is that Thor is just dull as a hero. He was more entertaining when he was cocky and irresponsible. Portman (Black Swan) holds her own though the romance between her and Thor feels more forced. Hopkins (Red 2) strikes the right mix between regal and camp. While their roles aren’t exactly integral, it’s nice having a superhero movie stuffed with great actors like Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Clive Russell, and there’s even an amusing appearance by Chris O’Dowd, who effortlessly oozes charm (take note, Thor).

This a superhero movie that separates itself by its sheer sense of fun. Thor: The Dark World takes what worked in the previous movie and provides more of it. The campy, silly Asgard stuff is given even more time, the mischievous sense of humor is renewed, the fantasy worlds given more depth and better action/effects, and fan favorite Loki gets a big starring role this time with extra brotherly bickering. It’s not the best superhero movie, nor is it the best Marvel film of recent years, but Thor 2 knows what kind of movie it wishes to be and how to best achieve this. It’s a loopy, droll, and rather imaginative big-budget superhero film, while still finding ways to be somewhat generic with its overall plotting and character turns. While the action is suitably epic, it’s the character interactions that are the most enjoyable aspect. It seems excessively lazy to say that if you enjoyed the first Thor, you’ll probably enjoy the second one as well, but there it is. Perhaps next time the storyline won’t be as convoluted and we can get even more Loki. Barring that, I’ll accept additional Chris O’Dowd screen time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Thor (2011)

thor_ver5I had strong misgivings going into Thor. How was a powerful Norse god going to seem remotely relatable? How was the most improbable member of Marvel’s Avengers ensemble going to be explained in a way that didn’t feel like a ton of cheese richly slathered in hokum? I was expecting this movie to be a silly, trippy, LSD-enhanced flashback (rainbow bridges! Pass the bong!) that could barely strain any sense of believability. It’s one thing to have stories about super heroes who have gotten their powers via genetic defect, scientific accident, or act of God. But what about when your character happens to be a god? It just seemed too goofy for it all to be pulled off with any conviction. A Thor movie seemed destined for some Xanadu-level of camp. Get a load of the blonde with the big hammer, boys. Not every super hero flick has to be as brooding and dark as The Dark Knight. Marvel’s own Iron Man was a great example of a briskly entertaining movie. Now that I’ve prefaced my experience, let me publicly admit that Thor is indeed a somewhat silly but mostly fun entry in the mighty realm of summer blockbusters.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the god of thunder on Asgard, a distant planet populated by the Norse mythical figures (apparently, they visited Earth and the Scandinavian amongst us worshipped these… space aliens?). Thor waits to inherit the throne from his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), a wise king who has kept a tenuous truce with the fierce Frost Giants, inhabitants of another planet. But Thor is not ready to assume the responsibilities of leadership. He’s quick to action and temper, arrogant, and defies his own father’s orders by trying to start some intergalactic conflict with the Frost Giants on their home turf. Thor is robbed of his powers, his mighty hammer, and banished to Earth to walk amongst the smelly Earthlings. He crashes in the New Mexico desert and is retrieved by a team of scientists (Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard) led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). The group wants to learn where exactly this man from the sky came from. So does the government, led by the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency who takes possession of Thor’s hammer. Thor thinks if he can reunite with his beloved hammer, then he can go home. But for a thunder god, he’s got a lot of lessons to learn. While Thor is out of the picture, his younger brother, Loki (Tom Hiddelston), plots to take what he feels he is owed – the kingdom of Asgard.

hero_Thor-imageThe biggest surprise for me was that the Asgard sequences are the best part of the movie; thankfully the majority of the running time is spent in this fantastic realm. I credit Kenneth Branagh’s direction, which neither hides the silliness of the material nor fully acknowledges it. By the time Thor hurtles to Earth, I was completely engaged in the operatic tale of fathers and sons, gods, jealousy, hubris, intergalactic conspiracies, you know, the stuff of juicy drama. It jus so happened that these characters wear funnier costumes. The family dynamic between Thor and Loki, the infighting and the scheming, intrigued me. Some critics have thrown around the word “Shakespearean” to describe the movie’s outsized family conflict, but I think that’s just the critical community getting lazy. Would they even approach that term is Branagh was not the director? This opening section of Thor effectively explains the history of Asgard as well as its place with the other eight worlds, the shaky relationship with the Frost Giants, the family responsibilities at play as Odin must decide the future of his ABBA-infused nation, as well as the various mechanics of how this different world operates, like Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) stationed at the end of the rainbow as a gatekeeper to the other worlds. I liked discovering how all the pieces of this world fit together. If analyzed out of context, any part of the Asgard section just seems stupid. But taken in the film, Thor‘s crazier, more fantastic elements come together and spark genuine interest. I wanted to spend more time in this magical realm. The more ridiculous and fantastical that Thor got the more interesting it became.

But unfortunately Thor was sent tumbling to our ordinary planet. It is the Earth section that seriously deflates the movie’s vibe. It’s a relief that the fish-out-of-water comic relief is kept to a minimum, because the character of Thor isn’t an idiot, just an arrogant brat. But it’s the period on Earth where the God of Thunder learns his Really Important Lessons and finally understands what it means to be a good leader. It’s all very expected and the execution is less than inspired. The trio of scientists that Thor encounters (Portman, Skarsgaard, Dennings) could easily have been consolidated into one character. Their contributions to the story are weak. Skarsgard is mostly there for fatherly advice and the occasional expository ejaculation. As a gawky little sister scientist, I don’t even know why Dennings is in this film other than to make my eyes happy. I anticipated that Portman would assume the “love interest” spot in comic book movies that we now reserve for Oscar-winning actresses, and I assumed that role would be underwritten. But I never expected Portman’s part to be this underwritten. She’s practically nonexistent except for that winning smile of hers. Over the course of… two days, she falls in love with our banished brute. But to be fair, it’s not every day that a guy looking like Hemsworth falls out of the sky. New Mexico isn’t exactly looking like a great singles mingles hotspot. Anyway, their relationship is supposed to be the trigger that makes Thor realize he’s been a selfish and reckless fool. But their scenes lack any tension, any charm, anything of interest. They feel like two actors sitting in chairs telling stories. You don’t feel any romance between them. The drabby Earth sequences only serve as a losing contrast to the crazy Asgard territory. You can’t compete with rainbow bridges (imagine the tolls on those suckers).

thor-natalie-portman-chris-hemsworthBranagh has never directed anything of this magnitude in size before, and it shows at parts. While none of the action sequences are particularly bring, none of them are particularly thrilling. The beginning battle between Thor and his pals on the Frost Giant planet (Jotunheim) is so poorly lit that the darkness forces you to squint to focus on what’s happening. Why spend $150 million on a super hero flick and shoot a dankly lit action scene? What’s the point in that? The choppy editing can also be too hectic to follow with all the quick-cuts that fail to orient the action geography. Really, there are only three serious action sequences in Thor, but then again I remember Iron Man having a light load when it came to on screen action. That film was devoted to character and performance. This film, under Branagh’s watch, is devoted to just making the entire universe of Thor credible. It’s a lot to take in, and Branagh’s biggest accomplishment is producing a sense of grandeur to the film that saves it from falling into the sticky clutches of camp. The world of Asgard feels convincing in production design and infrastructure; the cities look like pipe organs. Branagh’s film expands the Marvel universe significantly, broadening the scope for future installments. Mercifully Thor does not hard sell the upcoming Avengers movie as appallingly as Iron Man 2.

The acting in Thor is as splashy as the Asgard scenery. Hemsworth gave a notable performance as the doomed father of James Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. He as only in the film for that ten-minute prologue, and yet the actor found a way to do much with what he was given. You got to see his character hurdle through a gauntlet of emotions: fear, duty, relief, desperation, and acceptance. His sacrifice still can make me tear up, and Hemsowrth deserves some of that credit. However, Thor is a different matter entirely. Obviously it’s going to be a more challenging role to play a buff cocky god with a magic hammer. Buff he does quite well. Cocky he does fairly well, but this is not a great starring vehicle for the actor. Hemsworth looks too self-satisfied, like he’s playing his character as an intergalactic hotel heiress. In sharp contrast, Hiddelston (Wallander) commands your attention. Those penetrating eyes, the cold yet calculated demeanor, this is an actor who feels like he walked off a Shakespeare production and just changed his headgear. You want to spend more time with Loki than watch Blondie futz around on Earth. Loki has much more depth to him than Thor; he feels betrayed by his family and an outcast to his society. I’m glad that we’ll be seeing more from this trickster in future Marvel movies (have I said too much?). Hopkins knows how to sell silliness like few other actors. And for those who have been wondering where Renee Russo has been for the last six years, well here she is, as Thor and Loki’s mother, a role that’s best suited to confirm that she is still alive.

thor-2011I was expecting far worse judging upon the scraps I had seen from the Thor advertising campaign. So I suppose that beating my low-flying expectations might not necessarily be something to champion. Thor is an inherently goofy, yet mildly satisfying and credible action film. It doesn’t have the style or panache of other heroes, but the fact that Branagh could make a two-hour Thor film that didn’t cause me to laugh derisively from start to finish is an accomplishment. Again, that sounds rather dismissive. I’m just very surprised that this movie works. Because if you take it apart, it doesn’t seem like it should. The acting ranges wildly in quality, with Hiddelston outshining everyone else. Thor is a solid if inconsistent start to the summer season of blockbusters. If you must turn your brain off for some movie, you’d do far worse than Thor. It has pretty colors.

Nate’s Grade: B

Black Swan (2010)

The prissy world of prima ballerinas and tutus doesn’t seem like a natural fit for sex, murder, lunacy, and mayhem. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) is used to exploring the punishments of the human body and the strain of the mind, so you know that Black Swan isn’t going to be your traditional dance movie.

Nina (Natalie Portman) has been a company ballerina in New York City for years. She spends her hours at home practicing the grueling routines in hopes to break out for a lead role. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a former ballerina herself who gave up her shot at the big time when she had Nina. Then the head of the dance company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has decided that Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will be the first show of the season. It’s a bit tired, he admits, but he has a plan to juice it up: the same dancer will portray both the swan queen (tragic protagonist) and the black swan (villainous temptress). All of the dancers are committed to doing what they can to earn that coveted lead role. Nina’s primary worry is Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who is imperfect in technique but honest and free in her movements, garnering the attention of Thomas. In the process, Nina is losing her grip on reality. She’s hearing weird things, seeing weird things, and something dark wants to take center stage.

Black Swan is a grade-A mind freak of the first order, a tonal fusion of sight and sound that echoes earlier masterworks of the eerie psychological horror like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. This is a movie that gets under your skin; I literally had a nightmare the night after watching it, though I don’t want to give people the wrong impression. Black Swan is not a horror film by the traditional standard we’re accustomed to today. The entire film has a downright Kubrickian vibe, from its devoted tracking shots, to the overdose on classical music underscoring the dramatic tension, and the unraveling of the human mind toward eventual psychosis. Aronofsky keeps the audience tethered to Nina, at times literally. The camerawork will rarely stray away from Portman, like we’re caught within her orbit and forced to see the world through her fractured perspective. She is our eyes to the world but, as becomes increasingly apparent, we cannot trust what we see. The unreliable POV leads to some fantastic freak-out moments that will consistently leave you scrambling. The diligent pacing marvelously matches the dissolution of Nina’s psyche. As her paranoia and delusion take control, Nina comes undone one thread at a time, with Aronofsky on the other end providing the tugs. The spiraling mental determination culminates with a glorious 20-minute finale that manages to be tense, beautiful, haunting, and powerfully moving. There are moments in this film that gave me goose bumps (a blood red-eyed Portman growling, “It’s my turn” is a chilling highpoint). I became determined to see Black Swan again even before the closing credits arrived.

Aronofsky makes use of every tool at his disposal to heighten the intense atmosphere. The attentive editing and camerawork create a shifty mood, communicating Nina’s desperate groping for direction. But beyond that, Aronofsky employs subtle sound effects to rattle you, keep you off guard. Routinely there will be the fluttery sound of wings flapping or hushed whispers. It’s enough to make you shudder time and again. It’s a small touch that elevates the mood and instantly snaps you to attention whenever you hear the eerie echoes. The disquieting sound effects are coupled with equally subtle visual effects. As Nina absorbs herself in her ballet role we occasionally will witness the pores of her skin raise, as if invisible hair, or fathers, are protruding. Sometimes these raised bumps will wash over her body in waves. As Nina becomes more consumed with her darker impulses, the special effects take a surreal role in conveying her madness.

The film is also rather sensual without becoming trashy, late-night Cinemax fodder. Portman’s descent is linked with loosening up her own sexuality. She can portray the innocent and delicate white swan, but she’s having significant problems portraying the ominous and seductive black swan. She’s told to let go, lose herself to her physical impulses, and explore the confines of her nubile body. Black Swan is probably the artiest high profile film to feature prominent female masturbation since 2001’s trippy Mulholland Drive (the two movies have plenty of similarities in ambition). Nina’s suspicions about her rival transform into confusing erotic fantasies that will delight the teenage males in the crowd. Black Swan treads the erotic terrain with a European sense of maturity and candidness. The sex and masturbation and bisexual smooches don’t feel like gross, gratuitous shots at cheap titillation.

Portman ably takes the frazzled lead and gives an enthralling performance that will be hard to beat come Oscar time. The role is a lot more than screaming and crying. Although to be fair, Portman cries a whole lot. You may lose count the amount of times Portman is seen crying on screen. Her character is fragile but not fighting for sympathy. She can be distant and a little cold, obsessed with reaching the unattainable state of perfection. This pushes her to the extreme, goaded by her somewhat loopy mother. Portman has always been an attractive presence on screen, but she is also fairly transparent when she’s bored with her material (watch those Star Wars prequels and argue differently, I dare you). With Black Swan, she throws herself into a role like I’ve never seen before from Portman. I did not think the kewpie-dolled actress was capable of such heights. The immersion is entrancing. She physically trained for over a year before production to be able to do most of those pirouettes and fouettés. I’m not being overly generous with the dancing accolades; Portman comes across as smooth as a professional. The fact that Portman is capable of expressing so much devastating emotion through dance is astounding. My eyes were glued to her every movement. This is the performance that officially lifts Portman to the acting big leagues. She dances circles around the acting competition for 2010.

While it’s certainly Portman’s show, the supporting cast all shine in their small roles. Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Book of Eli) is made to exemplify the edgy opposing force in Nina’s life. Kunis’s natural charm and alluring presence might make her the most likeable character in the film, even though her wild ways will keep you guessing about her true motives. Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters) seems like a doting and supportive mother at first glance, but the actress reveals shades of desperation and mania. Winona Ryder (Star Trek, Girl, Interrupted) makes a welcomed near-cameo as the ballerina pushed out of the spotlight. And then Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve, Eastern Promises) plays lecherous creep like few others.

The film manages to make ballet feel like a contact sport. These people punish their bodies, their artistic vessels. The rigorous routines require dancers to be in sleek form, which often leads to abuse via bulimia. The excruciating balance and coordination required places unusually high demands on the human body, particularly on the feet that must support the body in extreme positions. Broken toes and split nails are the least of the worries. Black Swan succeeds in showcasing the fierce brutality of dance; however, the movie also showcases the intrinsic beauty. I am a self-described novice when it comes to dance, especially ballet at that, but even I was spellbound by watching the dancing, notably the exhilarating Swan Lake opening night performance. The camera is positioned to be like another dancer, so we’re swooping and spinning around the stage with the featured performers. This gives the audience an intimate glimpse into the fluid movements and, just as importantly, the nuanced and sensual expressions of the performers. I would have scoffed at the idea of a ballet performance being anything more than frou-frou-ness, but Black Swan made me a believer. Witnessing the beauty and gracefulness of the dancing is proof that all that hard, punishing preparation is worth it.

Probing the stress of the body and fraying endurance of the mind, Black Swan richly explores the sacrifices we make for art and ambition. The world of ballet is highlighted as a hotbed for scandal and intrigue and female sensual desire. Not bad for all that hoofing around in frilly tights. Black Swan is anchored by Portman’s captivating descent into madness, a performance that will surely be awarded in the ensuing months to come. Aronofsky has fashioned a riveting psychological thriller with enough artfully crafted chills and spooks to make for one visceral experience at the art house. Beyond bringing the tingles of spine and bumps of goose, Black Swan digs into the psychological underpinnings of competition, devotion to art, and personal glory. There’s much more going on here than ballet. It’s a grade-A mind-freak but under Aronofsky’s skilled direction and Portman’s transfixing acting, Black Swan is also a grade-A piece of art and one of the most stunning works of cinema this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

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