Black Swan Tourist Exports (Weekly Links)

Portman on the dark side: Black Swan

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and more.

Black Swan. (Dead link; review below.)

By Robert Horton

“Black Swan” is ridiculous claptrap of a particularly lively kind, an overheated collection of half-baked ideas crowned by an intensely committed lead performance.

It is a ballet psycho-horror film, a subgenre we don’t see nearly enough. Like the best kind of horror, the supernatural has nothing to do with what’s happening here—it comes from within. From early in the story, we can see that Nina (played by Natalie Portman) is at the extreme edge of her sanity—in fact, director Darren Aronofsky won’t let you forget it. A ballerina who lands the coveted lead role(s) in a new production of “Swan Lake,” Nina is obsessed with perfection, like any good ballet practitioner.

Dominated by her mother (Barbara Hershey) and the ballet company director (Vincent Cassel, from the recent “Mesrine” films), Nina struggles with playing both the White Swan—which her impeccable technique is made for—and the Black Swan. As we are reminded umpteen-and-twenty times, playing the Black Swan will require Nina to go beyond her frosty talent and let loose a lusty, wicked, down-and-dirty dark side. But her mother has made her such a neurotic “good girl,” the effort to be wild might be too much.

The characters in this closed-off hothouse are pure stereotypes: of course the mother is a frustrated dancer who gave up her own career for her daughter, of course the director uses sex as a weapon, of course the former prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) has gone ’round the bend herself. And there’s a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who’s not only a threat to Nina, but also the embodiment of the sexy personality the virginal Nina needs to engage. Lily has a winged tattoo across her back, while Nina’s shoulders are erupting with a much stranger sort of phenomenon.

Aronofsky made “The Wrestler” last year, and he recognizes that the worlds of wrestling and ballet share a backstage grunge, a focus on bruised bodies and bloody toes. “Black Swan” looks awful (I assume by design), a hellish vision only slightly mitigated by the fact that things turn beautiful onstage. And speaking of beauty, I find it slightly irritating that the name of the composer of “Swan Lake” is buried in the secondary credits, when the credit for Clint Mansell’s original music is prominent. The fellow’s name is Tchaikovsky, and at least half of the effect of the final sequence of “Black Swan” is due to his 135-year-old efforts. Having tweaked the movie thus far, I will confess that that final sequence is a humdinger. Ham-handed as it is, “Black Swan” works up a certain force; it has some of the low-rent misery of an indie such as “Frownland,” mixed with credible locations (if the William Friedkin of “The French Connection” had directed a ballet movie in the 1970s, it might have turned out like this).

Natalie Portman’s trembling conviction deserves better than this pretentious setting, and her on-edge intensity is memorable. In a movie where all the female characters look alike and seem to melt into a single hysterical figure of terror, Portman keeps Nina as clean and pale as a bone.

The Tourist. (Dead link; review below.)

By Robert Horton

It should be easy to take Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, put them in an espionage thriller set in Venice, and get a good movie out of it.

“The Tourist” proves it may not be that easy. This film is an acceptable popcorn picture, with pretty people to match the pretty locations, but it misses the kind of flair that could ignite the fireworks.

How do we get to Venice? Jolie plays Elise Ward, an impossibly glamorous lady of mysterious background, who is being followed in Paris by British intelligence. For reasons that we will eventually learn, she needs to find a sucker on the Venice train, and lead her pursuers to think he is her contact. She selects a meek math teacher from Wisconsin, Frank Tupelo (that’s Depp), who can’t believe his blind good fortune. At least it sure seems like good fortune to be accosted by a mystery woman with designer clothes, footlong eyelashes, and the general demeanor of—well—Angelina Jolie. No wonder the first wary thing he says to her is, “I’m sorry.”

The innocent Frank finds himself thrust in harm’s way, but he doesn’t seem to mind all that much—not when the side benefits include lavish hotel rooms and parties. Thereby hangs an occasionally merry adventure in the watery city of Venice, including a manhunt across some rooftops and perhaps the slowest motorboat chase in the history of movies.

The film is directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose film “The Lives of Others” won the foreign-language Oscar a few years ago. That movie was crisp and taut, but the material here, which is based on a 2005 French film called “Anthony Zimmer,” seems to elude him. The tone is lightweight, with a few nice one-liners scattered throughout (the script is credited to von Donnersmarck and a couple of Oscar-winning pros, Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes). The movie dawdles when it ought to find a snappy rhythm, and Jolie is so busy looking elegant that she has virtually no room to give a performance. Not that you’d want anybody else playing this kind of role; after this movie, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and “Salt,” Jolie practically qualifies for her own double-0 license to kill.

A puffy-looking Depp seems game, but he and Jolie come across as fundamentally not suited to each other—they aren’t the kind of couple you’re dying to see get together by the end of the picture. Paul Bettany is on his game as their chief pursuer and Steven Berkoff provides the villainy. For its shortcomings, “The Tourist” never curdles, and its final act is reasonably enjoyable. The lesson being: you can’t go entirely wrong with eye candy.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Dead link; review  below)

By Robert Horton

C.S. Lewis was not thinking enough about movie sequels, it seems, when he wrote his “Chronicles of Narnia” books back in the 1950s. Instead of keeping all the main characters on a simple through-line, the way J.K. Rowling has in the “Harry Potter” books, Lewis ushered main characters out of the way, introduced new ones, took side trips in chronology.

Still, the moviemakers behind the recent “Narnia” series are gamely keeping up with the creator’s whims in these scriptures. So in number three of the series, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” we forget about the elder two of the Pevensie children, Susan and Peter, who make only cameo appearances here.

Their two younger siblings, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), are enlisted to return to the magical parallel kingdom of Narnia, however. This happens in perhaps the film’s best sequence, as an ordinary painted seascape suddenly begins pouring out water and the Pevensies, along with their obnoxious cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), are inundated. The three swim out of their regular-world room and into the ocean of Narnia, where a garishly-decorated ship called the Dawn Treader picks them out of the sea. There’s adventure afoot, and Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) needs the children to step up and locate seven special swords hidden somewhere-or-other.

Accompanied by a swashbuckling mouse called Reepicheep (gallantly voiced by Simon Pegg), this they do. The film has the kind of episodic structure that can be easier to take in a book than a movie, and unfortunately the momentum wanders along with the kids.

Director Michael Apted, a seasoned hand at big and small films, struggles to sew together the children’s journey with the computer-generated creatures and effects; the result is a somewhat hollow-looking experience. I saw it at a 3-D preview, and if anything the 3-D detracted from the attempted magic on the screen. At times the ship is shadowed by translucent mermaids, for instance; a nice effect, yet somehow less magical than, say, real dolphins leaping alongside a moving vessel. A lot of the movie plays with a certain flatness, despite the spirited dragons and a terrifying sea-serpent. Perhaps you’re required to fill in the gaps with what you’ve read in the books.

The exception is a late sequence involving a high wave of water that miraculously floats above the characters without crashing down on them, a wonderful sight that Apted rightly uses as a staging-ground for thoughts on mortality and the afterlife (Lewis’s Christian allegory comes poking through at various key moments).

For sheer spunk, new kid Will Poulter outshines his co-stars—his role will grow larger in future films (if future films there be), as the Pevensies recede from the saga. A cameo re-appearance by Tilda Swinton, as a witch, reminds us that real actors need only a few second to galvanize the screen.

At 115 minutes, “Dawn Treader” is a good half-hour shorter than either of the previous “Narnia” pictures, not that it makes much difference. If you’ve been into the books and the previous movies, this one won’t turn you off—but it won’t make believers of those of us who aren’t convinced.

White Material. (Dead link; review below.)

By Robert Horton

As the daughter of a civil servant with foreign duty, French director Claire Denis spent her childhood moving around the French-speaking colonies in Africa. Not surprisingly, some of her best films have been set on that continent: “Chocolat” (1988—not the cutesy film of that title with Juliette Binoche), and “Beau Travail” (1999). Since Denis seems to return to Africa every ten years or so, she’s obviously due. In her new film, “White Material,” she looks into an unnamed African nation in the throes of violence, and a madly determined woman caught in the midst of the unrest.

Here sits a coffee plantation, owned for a couple of generations, at least, by white Europeans. They’ve weathered the end of French colonial rule, but this new wave of violence offers guerrilla rebels, corrupt officials, and the horrible phenomenon of child soldiers. Maria Vial, played by Isabelle Huppert, knows all this, and is practiced at dealing with danger. But she is so focused on getting the coffee crop in—another week and it will be ruined—she’s willing to risk her life, and the lives of others, to do it. Her usual workers have fled the farm, but in a tense series of encounters, she hired new workers to come out. Maria clearly runs the roost; her ex-husband (“Highlander” star Christophe Lambert) and his father (Michel Subor), the longtime owners of the land, have largely checked out, and so has her grown son, a weird, lazy slob whose mental challenges will have dire consequences.

Denis is not the kind of filmmaker to tell her story straightforwardly, so the film jumps back and forth in time—yet a suspenseful mood prevails. Also in the mix is a wounded rebel leader (Isaach De Bankole, star of “Chocolat”), who comes to rest at the plantation. Filmed in Cameroon, “White Material” becomes a typical Denis film in the way it focuses on mysterious surfaces: she emphasizes the whiteness of Maria’s skin, the creamy red dirt of the soil, and—especially—the bright red and green coffee beans, which Maria so obsessively insists on harvesting and roasting. In another film her determination might be heroic; here, it seems like a delusion, a single-minded attempt to will this vestige of colonialism to continue. But that era is over, and as we sense from the early scenes, this is not going to end well.

If you know the films of Claire Denis, including last year’s excellent “35 Shots of Rum,” you might find “White Material” somewhat less sensual and more conventional than her usual style. This is true, but it still doesn’t feel like anybody else could have made the film.

Much of the film’s force emanates from the compact figure of Isabelle Huppert, who is now in her mid-fifties after a long run as one of Europe’s most forceful actresses. I wonder whether her performance might finally get her a much-deserved Oscar nomination—not common for a foreign-language performer, but in this case, after at least a dozen possible opportunities for such a thing, rather overdue.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

If a movie carries the subtitle “A Christmas Tale,” it carries a presumption of kid-friendliness, especially when Santa Claus figures in the action. But tread warily around “Rare Exports,” a Christmas tale from Finland. This crazed story returns us to certain pagan concepts of a bad, bad Santa.

The location is somewhere near the Arctic Circle, where an American corporation has set up a mysterious mining operation. The locals look on with a stoical humor, until the day hundreds of reindeer turn up dead near the boundaries of the off-limits project.

Has Sarah Palin gone hunting again? No, the answers lie in the actual target of the corporate project: to dig up the frozen corpse of the real Santa Claus, long buried in the Finnish permafrost. The operation succeeds. The bad news is, this is not the “Coca-Cola Santa Claus,” as one character puts it (a shrewd reference to the way soft-drink advertisements shaped the way we imagine Santa today). No, this is the old, weird Santa of folklore, a lump-of-coal creep who kidnaps children and tortures them.

Like another recent Nordic horror film, “Let the Right One In,” “Rare Exports” is told from the perspective of a child. This is Pietari (Onni Tommila), a kid who’s sorting out his troubled relationship with his father as he pieces together the mystery of his village’s disappearing children. If that weren’t disturbing enough, what about the nude, wizened old man caught in a hunting trap? When does a white beard become sinister, rather than jolly?

Director Jalmari Helander based his movie on some short films he made, and he’s really tapped into a strange vibe: the movie feels partly like an old fairy tale, of the kind where people bake children in pies, but it also borrows from the Hollywood action movie, as it brings these rag-tag Finns together to do battle with a yuletide menace.

In fact, “Rare Exports” plays like a parody of the kind of movie it wants to be, a Bruce Willis action flick from the mid-nineties. It doesn’t get all its notes right, but it’s a funny (and cool-looking, in every sense) attempt.

As for bringing kids to the show: unless you want to tarnish the tinsel and turn the chimney into a place of horror, this is probably not the movie for them—at least until “Bad Santa” seems safe, if it ever does.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

It may be that the new documentary profile of a splendid American band is primarily of interest to fans. Probably most such music movies are.

But “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields” can also function as an introduction to music of the Magnetic Fields. There’s just enough sampling of songs to hook the unsuspecting newcomer, and the portrait of how this sound gets created is intriguing.

At the center of the movie is Stephin Merritt, the songwriter and driving force of the band. Merritt is already famous within the music world for his insanely clever lyrics and his grumpy demeanor. He writes his songs while sitting in gay bars, and records them in his studio apartment, a cramped space cluttered with campy bric-a-brac and weird handmade musical devices (I’m not sure “instruments” is the right word for some of these things).

Merritt’s longtime friendship with his keyboardist and school friend, Claudia Gonson, threads through the movie. Gonson also manages the band, and she has the kind of pushy personality that probably goes well with Merritt’s diffidence. We see them arguing and tussling, but you imagine the Magnetic Fields wouldn’t be around without her organizing Merritt’s world.

The movie delves into the breakthrough of “69 Love Songs,” a three-disc triumph that lives up to its title, and into the patience of the two other regular members of the band, guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol. There’s also some time spent on a blogosphere fuss that kicked up when some very stupid online writers decided Merritt’s musical tastes were overly Caucasian, or something. Exhibit A was Merritt’s fondness for the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the Oscar-winning tune from the now-suppressed and racially problematic Disney film, “The Song of the South.”

The documentary is directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, who collected footage from the last couple of decades to assemble their cheerfully loose history of the band. Very brief appreciations are heard from Peter Gabriel and Sarah Silverman, and Merritt’s friend Daniel Handler (better known as the children’s-book author Lemony Snicket) weighs in from time to time.

The movie ends with Merritt, seemingly a New York fixture, moving to Los Angeles to pursue new ideas. It sounds like a formula for a fish-out-of-water comedy: sardonic gay singer goes Hollywood, accompanied by his Chihuahua, Irving (named for Irving Berlin). Do I see a sequel looming into view?

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Steve Scher about “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” the 1969 True Grit‘s Oscar win, and the Eighties website. Listen here; the movie bit kicks in at the 15:30 mark.

Today’s Eighties movie over at What a Feeling!: Distant Voices, Still Lives.