Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Creative fever dream Swans into Best Picture

Reviewers who write about movies for a living, who have to slog through every paint-by-numbers adaptation, seem to have difficulty with two things: spirituality in movies, and the creative process in movies. Mind you, there aren't that many movies about either of those two things because they are also ephemeral streaks of lightning to capture in the film bottle.

What I had read about "Black Swan" prior to seeing it fluctuated on the spectrum from horror flick to Grand Guignol theatre to thriller to scary movie. In short, I really didn't know what to expect. Perhaps it will be one or some of those things to you, too.

How I perceived "Black Swan" was more like a dream. The dream, the central focus for this ballerina, is to be perfect. And she studies and she plies and she does everything she thinks she's supposed to do.

But when the company leader decides to do "Swan Lake," he presents her with this challenge: "You'd be great as the White Swan." But, essentially, she doesn't have enough of a dark side to do the Black Swan justice. (This lead character in the ballet performs both sides of a complex persona.)

"Black Swan," then, is about this striving-for-perfection ballerina figuring out what it takes to reach her own "dark side." What she discovers is that passion and the thrill of life often lie in its imperfections. As we travel with her on her journey, we also discover what is at the heart of the creative process, how far someone can push themselves for their art.

It is a stunning bravura performance. Prior to seeing the film, I posited on my podcast that Natalie Portman was going to take every award in sight this Oscar season. I think so even moreso after seeing the film. Like Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique last year, every other Best Actress contender this year can just sit down. It's Natalie Portman's year. Her work in this movie is stunning. In fact, I can't remember the last time an actress was so stunning and superb and affecting. Brilliant work.

Her supporting cast is also affecting and may glean some supporting nominations: Vincent Cassel as the ballet company director, Barbara Hershey as her mom, Mila Kunis as a fellow dancer. Winona Ryder takes an especially inspired turn, making a droll commentary on her own life, that elicited laughs in our industry screening.

People have also made reference to an "All About Eve" subtext. That is only there in as much as fearing other people taking roles you covet is part of the creative process. It's really and truly not about that.

In fact, I think where reviewers get into trouble with this role, and even the screening I saw this at, the questioner had the same problem--is dissecting it too much. Think of it as a dream. Roll around with the images, go with the flights of fancy. True creativity isn't that far from the dream state, and true creativity borders on that part of the brain near psychosis too. But don't let that analysis hinder you.

As Nina had to learn, with sex, with dreaming, with life, sometimes you just have to let it flow over you and become part of you. So, too, with "Black Swan."


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Made in Dagenham: Let's hear it for the women!

(Note: The director, Nigel Cole, informed us that it's pronounced roughly equivalent to "diggin him.")

Sometimes, with all the demonizing hate-filled Republican propaganda that fills our airwaves, sometimes one wonders why it is again that unions are relevant. They have been portrayed as terrible things that are ruining our lives. (Just don't look at the big corporations that are pulling the strings to make those statements...)

How far have we gotten from the struggles for the 40-hour week? Or the hard-fought-for half hour lunches and ten-minute breaks, legal by law, yet in this new corporate world where everyone is doing five people's jobs, hardly still maintained. Does anyone even remember that it was the unions that fought for these things? For these rights for us working stiffs?

Or has this bad word "socialism" (since that other trumped-up bad word, "communism" doesn't really work anymore, appearing hopelessly dated) really colored everything for so many? So many who voted their corporate keepers back into power, though they decried the influence of the big bad banks? Just makes ya sick, sometimes.

Well, here's an antidote to the corporate-cash big money Tea Party election we just stomached. Here's a pleasant reminder of exactly what unions can do, and why we need them so, in these crazy times. "Made in Dagenham" takes place in England, in the mid-60s. It's a true story.

Sallie Hawkins, a sure Oscar contender, is one of the strike leaders. Miranda Richardson has a noble turn herself. (Both were in attendance at the AFI screening.) This film is easily one of my favorites of the year.

Women, working at a Ford plant as machinists, start out the movie wanting to be the same pay grade as men, to be classed as "skilled," rather than "unskilled." Simple enough. Fair enough.

They encounter many obstacles along the way, not the least of which is that they aren't taken seriously because they are "just women," after all. We won't even talk about the other shop violations which they don't even talk about in the movie: the water pouring down on the workplace, the fact that many women work in their bras because it's too hot in the shop (those rights are things American workers fought for, and are still enforced).

But the big battle for the women ultimately becomes: "Equal pay for equal work." That is what they fight for. Don't wanna spoil the movie. I'll just say that it had a positive ending in Britain, and many other countries because of the women of Dagenham.

It made me uncomfortably squeamish, though, to realize that here in America in 2010, women still make only 74% of what men make for the same job. Oh yeah. That's why we need those "socialist" unions. I remember now.


The King's Speech and Blue Valentine

The company I work for is responsible for promoting The King's Speech, The Company Men, Nowhere Boy and Blue Valentine, so although I'm sure they'll be Oscar contenders, I feel that reviewing them would be a conflict of interest. Sorry, guys.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Endurance Cinema: Conviction, The Way Back and 127 Hours

One of my pet theories is that leading Oscar contenders reflect a current mode of our times. Last year's "Up In the Air," for instance, hit hard on the layoffs that touched so many. This year's theme, it seems, is enduring, despite overwhelming odds against you.

In the wonderful "Conviction," Hillary Swank's character battles for years to free her innocent brother from prison. You see her battle setback after setback. And still she hangs on. Believing that she can do it.

In the beautiful "The Way Back," we have prisoners from a Soviet concentration camp, first exiled to Siberia. Then some of them decide they've had enough, and endeavor to escape (all of this being in the trailer, I'm spoiling nothing; also this happens in the beginning of the film). They do escape, and begin their trek. I suppose they are heading toward that nebulous "freedom." Their path seems to go from Siberia to Mongolia to Tibet to India. On foot.

Needless to say, of the ones who start on the journey, not all of them make it, for various reasons. But it's a battle. A struggle to survive. A struggle to make it to the other side. A struggle to be free.

It seems that many of us, with millions of Americans unemployed, are struggling just to survive, too. Hanging on. Trying to make that meager unemployment check last just a little bit longer. Piecing together rent with odd jobs, believing, against all odds that that next job is somewhere around the corner. I really believe that hanging on and believing you'll make it is the new American dream.

No more streets paved with gold, we'd be happy to get a paycheck regularly. And this "endurance cinema" reflects that. Hang on, hang on, hang on, just a little bit longer.

"The Way Back" isn't quite as bleak and despairing as last year's "The Road," but it's a tough go. The ending brought tears to my eyes, but boy! was it a long slog to get there. Mind you, I do love Peter Weir as a director. His "Dead Poet's Society" remains one of my favorite films. And visually (thank you, Russell Boyd), "The Way Back" is stunning to look at. Vast landscapes that include icy snow-covered peaks, as well as vast deserts.

In "Conviction," though, it was clear what the motive and struggle was. In "The Way Back," they put themselves though lots of dangerous situations, and it's kind of unclear why exactly. They talk at the beginning about how "there's a bounty on your heads," from neighboring villagers, but this threat is never bourne out, or even hinted at, once they escape.

It's enough of a stretch to believe that people one day just say, "Hey! Let's walk across Mongolia!" but that they do it without ANY help from villagers along the way strains credulity a bit.*

I watch "Survivor" pretty much every week since it started (a few missed seasons here and there). The parts I love the most are the way people interact with each other (there is much of that in this movie). The parts I REALLY dislike vehemently (OK, I admit, I'm a city girl, and I'd never survive in the wild) are the parts where chicken's heads are lopped off, or animals are otherwise killed for food. Sadly, there is also a lot of that in this movie.

Sure, I understand, they are starving, they need to eat. Do I really need to watch it, though?

Another endurance movie is looming on the horizon, one that I am distinctly NOT going to see: "127 Hours." People in our office this week spoke again of people fainting at screenings. Know this, anyone who plans to go see this one: the hiker goes by himself into the wild, and ends up CHOPPING OFF HIS OWN ARM. And they show it. GRAPHICALLY. Why are people surprised about this? Every screening has someone fainting.

I don't intend to faint. I don't intend to see it, Oscar-worthy or not. I've had enough of endurance films for this season.

ADDENDUM: * I know it's based on a true story. I know people actually did this. Still...