1/28/11

Review: The Mechanic (2011)


The Mechanic, remade from Charles Bronson's The Mechanic (1972), which I can't remember if I've ever seen, is a desultory action movie, usually exactly the right sort of action movie to be rescued by an insanely charismatic action performance from the insanely charismatic Jason Statham. I've liked him a lot in everything I've seen him in, even just-passable movies. Alas, even Statham's charm cannot help, because the film itself is not workable even as a last-ditch canvas against which something interesting might stand out.

The film starts with a pretty soggy assassination effort against a drug lord in Baranquilla, Colombia, if I read the screen right. It suffers from some editing dislocation, as do most of the action sequences. You follow along in your head, and then suddenly Statham's ducking furtively through a doorway onto a darkened street or like that.

So then you're like, "Somebody must be following him." Then you're like, "Oh, this is a new scene or something." Then you're like, "Nope. I have no idea why that fifteen seconds was located there."

Even that wouldn't be so bad if there were compelling characters. But we just have Statham as Arthur Bishop, a super-wealthy assassin who takes corporate contracts and specializes in getting the details right, according to his own narration. We only get to see that validated once or twice, however, and not especially convincingly, either, because there are complications.

Bishop's mentor and boss is Harry McKenna, played by the great (-er than this, surely) Donald Sutherland. He meets Bishop at the fish camp in New Orleans (where it is reasonably priced to film) to pay him off and reminisce about the good old days. The New Orleans setting adds some atmosphere, in that nobody seems to have trouble breathing until they're supposed to in the story.

When an operation gone wrong leads them into conflict with one another, Harry ends up dead, and Bishop ends up recruiting Harry's son, the loose cannon Steve (Ben Foster, dedicated) into a similar sort of mentor/trainee relationship.

Mentor/trainee relationships can be a lot of fun in action movies. It all depends upon the chemistry between the two. Then there are a lot of boring twists. Mark Isham's score is pretty good. In another film, it might have added soul and rhythm, but here it had to start from zero. Tony Goldwyn is excellent, even in a part we've sort of seen him in before.

I give it two stars because some of the action sequences do manage to get the blood pumping a bit, and some Statham fans might find it an okay way to spend an hour and 40 minutes. Most others should avoid it.

There are so many great movies playing right now! Each one you see will count as a vote against dreck at the box office, and insufficiently fun and exciting Jason Statham movies.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

1/27/11

Review: Black Swan (2010)


Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, from a story by John J. McLaughlin, is a creepy, ravishing journey through the mind of one woman, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, brilliant), a top-flight ballerina in a top-flight ballet company in New York, as she tries to transform her career with the role of a lifetime, as the Swan Queen in the company's new production of "Swan Lake." (The balance of this review may contain spoilers. You make the call.)

The film begins with a ghostly laugh over black--by the end of the film we'll know the who and why of that, maybe--then plunges directly into Nina's dream world, as she dances the Swan Queen in a sea of impossible, theatrical black. Is just it a dream, or also a premonition? The costumes she and her dream dance partner wear are exactly the same as we see in the later production as it develops, to the feather.

But we first meet Nina as a struggling member of the company, obsessed with the discipline of training and dance, dedicated if unsure of her future in her current position. The company's lead dancer, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, formidable and fearless), is still featured on the billboard outside the theater, a towering reminder of who is the star there, who the chorus. But whispers among the rest of the team about Beth's age and temperament soon materialize into the news that, in fact, a new lead dancer is being sought for the company, and for the new "Swan Lake."

Whether fully conscious of it herself or not, whether prepared or not, Nina has been waiting for this moment for a long time. A thousand pressures--pressures she's placed on herself, pressures handed down daily by a demanding, possessive, passive-aggressive mother (Barbara Hershey, excellent) with whom she lives and who has her own ballet history and plans and dreams for Nina, professional pressures--begin to converge and build within Nina's mind.

And what an explosion when it comes. As soon as the role is hers, passersby begin to transform into eerie doppelgängers with changing faces. Mirrors become unfaithful. Another dancer in the company who expresses some interest and concern for Nina, Lily (Mila Kunis, wonderful), becomes a minor obsession for Nina, as competitor, confidante, saboteur, perhaps lover. Conflicts between Nina and her mother make us unsure whether Nina will even make it to the stage for opening night, much less whether she'll dance to the specifications of her director (Vincent Cassel, perfect), or reach the acting and artistic heights he continually taunts her to attempt.

As far as doppelgängers go, Black Swan could be a thesis on them. Whatever facial resemblances there are among Portman, Hershey as her mother, Kunis, Ryder and others as her rivals, are opened up to us in complex ways by Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Every mysterious dramatic meaning they could possess is finely exercised. Beyond the film itself, Portman's features are made to conjure her own other memorable film roles, as well as, certainly, at least, Audrey Hepburn.

The film can be understood, alternately or simultaneously, as an extended metaphor about mental illness, or for all the fears to which the human body is heir, or for method acting, youth, beauty, the creation of art itself. Whatever one's final conclusion about the meaning of the film, all of these metaphors work and work together or separately. There is no chink in the symbolic armor of this Black Swan. Finally, an artist stands alone and produces something, something separate from everything else in her life, yet impossible to extricate from every moment that has come before. In an important sense, the film is just as much about Portman, Ryder, Kunis, Cassel, McLaughlin, Aronofsky & c. as film artists as about Nina Sayers the ballerina.

How much of the film is supposed to be "real," within the narrative at least, is highly debatable. Everything is filtered through Nina's obsessive point of view. Is she cracking up? Where does she crack up irreversibly and leave us watching the shards of her overheated brain? Are her hallucinations schizophrenia, acting exercises or simply as contained as they might be presented on their face? Again, you make the call. I believe it's useful, entertaining and illuminating to consider all the possibilities. The moments of the film itself will not condemn any lively interpretation, nor waste time or interest on gimmicks, or physics. It's pure perfect Jungian high art and madness. The startling and still subtle visual effects are visually and dramatically seamless. Tchaikovsky, techno and original music by Clint Mansell make a dream suite.

I've seen the film several times by now (okay, four), and its secrets change. Some of the tricks--none cheap--which work one way upon first viewing, alter some of their particular effect with repeated viewings, but lose no power because of that, in fact, this added to my admiration for the whole business. Black Swan is an astonishing masterwork fully worthy of all praise, and certainly a Best Picture, Director or Actress Academy Award win. It enters my best of 2010 list after only Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is a haunting story of art, athletics and one memorable female person, for sure. Exiting, each time, I felt like I'd been dancing for days.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

Rep. Mike Pence (IN) won't run for president in 2012

From the Los Angeles Times:

Though he stopped short of a formal announcement, Pence strongly suggested that he will instead seek the governorship of Indiana next year.

"In the choice between seeking national office and serving Indiana in some capacity, we choose Indiana," Pence told supporters in an e-mail message sent Thursday afternoon. "We will not seek the Republican nomination for president in 2012."

Pence gave up his post in the House Republican leadership this year, a move seen as setting the stage for a potential run. He had already made waters-testing visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that lead off the presidential nominating process.


He coulda been a contender. I have now removed him from the GOP field page, and replaced his entry in this month's poll with "Other."

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

1/25/11

2011 Oscar nominations (with my favorites and predictions)

I have seen (but not yet reviewed) all of the nominated films on this list. This year's Oscar nominations (in the major categories I follow most):

Best Original Screenplay

Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right
Mike Leigh, Another Year
Christopher Nolan, Inception
David Seidler, The King's Speech
Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson; story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, The Fighter

My favorite: David Seidler, The King's Speech
My prediction: David Seidler, The King's Speech

Best Adapted Screenplay

Michael Arndt; story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3
Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours
Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, Winter's Bone
Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

My favorite: Michael Arndt; story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3
My prediction: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

Best Actress

Annette Bening, The Kinds Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

My favorite: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
My prediction: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Actor

Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

My favorite: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
My prediction: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

My favorite: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
My prediction: Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

My favorite: Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
My prediction: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter

My favorite: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
My prediction: Tom Hooper, The King's Speech

Best Animated Film

How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

My favorite: Toy Story 3
My prediction: Toy Story 3

Best Picture

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

My favorite: Black Swan
My prediction: The King's Speech

I'm pretty happy with these nominations, but would have loved Noomi Rapace for Best Actress for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mark Wahlberg for The Fighter.

The Oscars will air Sunday, Feb. 27 at 5 p.m. Pacific time on ABC.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

1/9/11

Review: Country Strong (2010)


Shana Feste's Country Strong is a pretty dismal, maudlin country music diva story with a few okay songs. I went in thinking I might like it. Then I went out. Now I don't think most people would like it.

Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma, Iron Man) plays Kelly Canter, a country star in rehab when we first meet her. She doesn't seem to be taking rehab too seriously, as she's hooked up with Beau Hutton (Garret Hedlund, TRON: Legacy), a country singer himself who happens not to be her husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw, The Blind Side). She's also released early, apparently cleared by staff who have little knowledge of what's really going on with her sobriety, resolve or psychological process.

But she needs a big event to resuscitate her career after a notorious incident in which she drunkenly careered off stage during a concert in Dallas. (We've Got to Make It to Dallas would be a good alternate title.) I won't spoil the specific details of that event, but I found them quite (seemingly unintentionally) hilarious. They wouldn't have been funny at all in real life, but as fictional plot points they promise more divine absurdity than is ultimately delivered.

I can't quibble with the acting, as veteran Paltrow and relative newcomers McGraw, Hedlund and Leighton Meester as beauty queen/country ingenue Chiles Stanton do rescue the film from moment-to-moment agony. They remain watchable, despite a script which works against them as actors, and against their characters as believable or relatable people. It's a bit like the recent The Tourist, endurable but rather substanceless. At least The Tourist nearly made that a feature.

The script is very derivative. One could call the film a country version of A Star Is Born, or Georgia. One could call it a female Crazy Heart, or a more-fictional Walk the Line. But it would be a minor affront to those superior efforts, so we must call it an unsuccessful version of any of these.

Kelly wants to take Beau on the road as her opening act. It's unclear whether her husband is aware of their affair. James wants Chiles Stanton. Kelly suspects him of an affair with her. They compromise and bring both. Beau is also supposed to help Kelly stay on the wagon. He's not very good at it. Chiles wants to know Kelly's Secrets of Country Stardom. She finds them out.

The baroque humor or over-the-top diva shenanigans one might hope for from the set-up don't materialize. Instead, we get some rather repetitive and uninteresting side trips as Kelly and the crew caravan from town to town on the way to Dallas. Everybody discusses their relationships ad nauseam. Tim McGraw and Garrett Hedlund have a purry sweet-nothing-whispering contest. I found the songwriting scenes close to physically painful.

But don't despair. If you're looking for a cinematic trip South, look for last year's Get Low, True Grit or Winter's Bone. If you want an artist struggling against profound demons, Black Swan. A moving and funny story of a family fight against substance abuse, Queen of the Lot or The Fighter. Great country music, get some Townes Van Zandt, instead of watching this film which references him only ridiculously as a throwaway laugh line. All this is available to the savvy media consumer, just not in Country Strong.

Country Strong is really just bad, too earnest to be fun camp soap opera, too silly to be taken as serious drama. If it aspires to anything worthwhile, it keeps its cards close to the vest about what that might be. A better movie might have been mounted using the bare bones of this plot and most of the songs, but instead we get this. And this is, sadly, a soggy, timid and forgettable mess.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

1/3/11

Pence leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for December

Rep. Mike Pence (IN) led December voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

December 2010

#1 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 28.3%
#2- Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 25.3%
#3 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 18.2%
#4 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 6.1%
#4 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 6.1%
#5 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 5.1%
#6 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 4%
#7 - Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) ... 2%
#7 - Other ... 2%
#8 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 1%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 1%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 1%
#9 - Sen. / Gov.-Elect Sam Brownback (KS) ... 0%
#9 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 0%
#9 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 0%

99 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

As mentioned last month, I got rid of Quayle for this month's poll and going forward (unless he should actually announce a candidacy at some point).

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Alex
Choose Our President 2012