Black Swan


Director Darrern Aronofsky’s films all have a common theme; the quest for the unattainable. Whether it’s knowledge (Pi), escape (Requim for a Dream), immortality (The Fountain), or redemption (The Wrestler), his films showcase obsessive heroes and anti-heroes battling themselves and their environment to unlock secrets and discover new worlds. Often these quests end in tragic form, and the the secrets revealed destroy what the journey couldn’t. Black Swan, the latest from the award winning filmmaker, is no different. If anything, it may be the grand culmination of this theme before Aronofsky potentially departs from art house cinema for large blockbuster fare.

The film begins with a haunting prologue, a dream in which our protagonist, vetern ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), lives out a nightmarish version of one of ballet’s most celebrated works, Swan Lake. We follow Nina in a simplistic, stark manner, very much like the way Aronofsky followed Randy “The Ram” in The Wrestler. Nina lives a solitary life, sharing an apartment with her equally obsessive mother and dedicating herself solely to ballet. When the announcement is made that the company will be producing Swan Lake, Nina takes this as a sign and tries out for the lead role of the Swan Princess. It’s actually a duel role, with both a good and evil version, and predictably this is where things start to turn.

Nina has unhealthy compulsive control issues, like an apparent eating disorder, that she maintains and functions with.  But things quickly become very dark as her precious control is threatened both by her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel), and her apparent rival Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who possess all of the carefree passion in life that Nina can never know. Though she lands the lead after a questionable interview, Nina is not living up to the role. As she struggles things close in around her with menacing results. Soon, she herself is undergoing a Kafkaesque metamorphosis and seemingly destroying everything around her. All in the name of her own unattainable goal: perfection.

This film actually works in many ways. On one level is a psychological suspense story, on another it’s a straight up horror flick. Aronofsky seems to channel a host of other influential masters throughout the film, and some scenes almost play out as homages to Hitchcock, Lynch, or Cronenberg. Heck, I’d even throw Miyazaki on that list. As events become more confused and chaotic in the film, Aronofsky handles it deftly, keeping us guessing but not confused. The stark handheld cinematography compliments Nina’s world of mirrored walls, whispered threats, and a growing disassociation from reality, and everything remains believable if increasingly improbable. All of the performances are spot on, especially Portman and Kunis, who’ve earned all of the praise they’re receiving. They and the film itself command your attention every second of the movie, never letting up or backing off.

Black Swan is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, but my viewing list is a little light. It’s not Aronofsky’s best yet or his masterwork or anything too grand, but it’s an achievement that, if nothing else, made ballet a lot more interesting. And that’s not easy.

-Charlie

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Super Mario Brothers Turn 25.

Time to feel old, fellow nerds. It has been a quarter of a century since those little plumbers burst onto the Famicom (you know it as the Nintendo Entertainment System) in Japan. Mario, and to a lesser extent Luigi, are still the most recognizable figures in video games, and still a commanding presence so many years later. Can Sonic the Hedgehog say as much? I don’t think so.

More than the flagship, more than the face, Mario is the embodiment of Nintendo. And he gets better with every passing year. When Nintendo first hit, it was Super Mario Bros the kids played. I can remember playing the NES at my cousin’s house, he had the duel cartridge that played both Mario and Duckhunt.  And while the light gun is always a treat, we played Mario Bros for hours, hours, until we were forced away from it.

The sequels each have their own story.  The second game allowed you to play as Toad and Peach, and each character had a special ability. Super Mario Bros. 3 is still the highest selling NES game and the only one I can think of that got an entire feature length commercial complete with Fred Savage. It’s also the Mario that introduced us to the myriad costume changes that would become a mainstay of the character.

Super Mario World is still the most fun you can have on a Super NES system, a game so full of life that it spills off the screen, transmitting its joy to the world in a way few games do. For example: I once spent some afternoons in a nun’s chapel that my father was renovating. The nun’s all lived there and in their game room was an SNES and all the nun’s played Super Mario World. Swear to God.

When NES moved into a 3 dimensional world with the Nintendo 64, Mario was there running and climbing, flying around in his pixelated glory. Even when Mario Sunshine came off a little to eco-friendly and the series shifted back to a side scrolling maze of death, it was still the best kind of nostalgic return to form that every great character sees at some point.

But the best may be the latest. In the Mario Galaxy series on the Wii, the plumbers get to reach for the stars and traverse some of their greatest challenges yet. I haven’t played the latest, but the first Mario Galaxy was a blast and I can’t wait to get my mitts around Galaxy 2.

Yes it’s hard not to think of the Super Mario Bros. without that twinge of youthful joy pulling at your heart. But don’t take my word for it. Just watch this 25th Anniversary video and try not to smile. Long live the Mario Brothers!

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Scott Pilgrim vs the World

A blend of comic books, anime, action, humor, and hipster cred, Scott Pilgrim vs the World seemed like a no brainer for a summer blockbuster. So it has been a relative mystery as to why the film has failed to draw an audience, especially since it is so freaking good.

To begin, the source material is the highly acclaimed six part Scott Pilgrim comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. I have not read it myself but am told that it rocks. Big, fun and all together hilarious, the story of Scott Pilgrim plays out like the plot of an old Nintendo beat ’em up. To date Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams, Scott must battle her 7 evil ex’s and win her heart. In the meantime, he’s playing in slacker rock band Sex Bob-Omb,  dealing with his current girlfriend Knives Chao, and all together avoiding the adult responsibilities of work and bills.

The real reason this film is a success is in director Edgar Wright’s full embrace of Scott’s fictional world. When the first evil ex shows up, bursting through a brick wall and flying across the room like some sort of emo pirate ghost, Scott looks shocked, sure. But, he’s shocked to be the target of the assault, not in the assault itself. In fact, Scott flies up and duels without hesitation, and you realize that you’re in the comic book. And it’s awesome.

This is a fantasy played out for thrills and laughs equally. Never a parody, but always a reference point, Pilgrim is filled, literally bursting at the frames with throwbacks to The Legend of Zelda, Seinfeld, The Warriors, anything it can lay it’s hands on. Each and every one of the 7 battles is unique and each of the 7 evil ex’s is an intriguing and formidable foe for our hero. Now don’t worry about Michael Cera annoying you, he’s not so bad, and he is surrounded by one of the best ensemble casts I have seen in a long time. Every part is memorable and each character has something to contribute. And there are a lot of characters in this thing.

But, what’s best about this movie isn’t the individual pieces. It’s the whole picture, one massive feature-length celebration of every part of our (i.e. mine) childhood and imagination that we (i.e. me) still hold dear.  Scott Pilgrim actually brought back memories of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but filtered for the too cool generation. The movie’s saying we can be fashionable and hip and still be a cartoon, if that makes any sense.

Basically, this is one of the best films of the summer, and it has something for everyone. If you can, go see this on the big screen. Hopefully, this film will see a dedicated cult following, and it should. Be a part of that cult, go see Scott Pilgrim.

Or Else!

-Charlie

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Classic Film Review: Octopussy

Yes, it’s time we take our classic film eye and turn it to an entry in the Bond films, and not just any, this one is the Octopussiest of them all!

A little context is in order. Octopussy is the 13th Bond film, from 1983. It’s also Roger Moore’s 6th film as Bond, and Moore had previously tried to exit out of his contract and retire himself from the character. He was convinced by the studio to come back, as that same year Sean Connery returned as James Bond in the non-official remake of Thunderball, Never Say Never Again. Got that? So, Moore is brought in as the long running current Bond, and get this- Octopussy actually made more money than Connery’s remake, so the studios saw it as a win. Sadly, the film is anything but “win.”

Let’s start at the beginning. After a lackluster opening sequence (usually the calling card of the franchise) we find ourselves immersed in the opening credits. These too are very much a signature of the series, all with dazzling visuals and some sort of intensely dramatic song. But, this one is all wrong.

Feel free to stop it early. I did, before it put me to sleep. I mean, this is a James Bond film. You need to step it up a little here, opening credits. It sounds more like a romantic ballad, even the chorus, of “We’re an all time high” smacks of snuggling and smooching. You’d have to be high to think this song belongs anywhere near a James Bond flick. But really, this song perfectly encapsulates the film as a whole. In two words: Pretty and Lame.

And without wanting to relive all the details suffered through the ordeal of watching this film let’s just stick to generalities. The biggest problem with this movie is that it tries to change things up a little. And not in the “should we make Bond less of a perve and more of a badass?” type of changing it up. He’s still a perve, and with Moore over fifty years old when he made this film, it’s hard to see the debonair Valentino-esque quality of 007.

Though, it's hard to argue with that.

No, the changes here all are periphery, yet crucial miscues in the storytelling. You see, the “James Bond film” is a dance with very strict steps. And in the attempts to change the routine, Octopussy trips all over her 8 left feet. Consider that instead of playing poker, Bond and his nemesis, the sniveling little Kamal Khan (Khaaaaan!) partake in a high stakes game of … Backgammon? Consider that Bond never orders a martini in this movie, or that at one point he is rescued by tourists. You see, all of these little petty and stupid moments lead to a completely petty and stupid movie!

Consider that instead of a fancy roadster car chase we get a souped up Tuk Tuk ride through the streets of India’s…actually I don’t think they ever tell us where in India. But that doesn’t matter right? This same action sequence also shows Bond’s contact in India literally beating a guy with a tennis racket.

Consider that the role of the silent killer henchman, usually in the form of the hat throwing Odd Job or metal mouthed Jaws, is in this film simply a googly eyed guy with a musket. A musket? Why? There’s a fine line between original and stupid sometimes.

At this point, the film has turned into a robust comedy full of caricatures and gags. The plot is irrelevant. If you must know, it starts as  a jewel caper centered around a Faberge egg. And While Octopussy could make for a fine villainess  and her all-woman army could be great fodder for pervo Bond, that’s not how it plays out.

She is simply a pawn in the end, double crossed by Khan (Khaaan!) and eventually sat on the sidelines while the boys play roughhouse. After a while this jewel heist gets mixed up with some crazy renegade Russian General’s  atomic bomb heist and trust me it makes no real sense, but at least Bond has something of value to worry about.

The movie’s  problem again is it’s desire to show you something you’ve never seen in a Bond film.  This bomb, that the Russians have planted at an American Army base in Germany, this bomb that when exploded will kill thousands and surely result in the Soviet Union eventually taking over the world, this bomb is smuggled into the base via a circus.

That’s right, you’ve never seen Bond at a circus have you? So now our climactic scene has to play out in a tent. You know what else you’ve technically never seen? Bond dressed as a clown. Take it away movie.

But that’s not the worst of it. There’s a gorilla costume, twin knife throwing brothers (trust me they’re dumb), jungle vine swinging complete with Tarzan yell, basically all the rules of Bond just being thrown out the window at every turn. We’re made to laugh at this hero, one whom children find amusing and adults find harmless. It’s a trite and ultimately unpleasant film, and while it’s memorable in a lot of ways, none of them are complimentory.

Final thought: Roger Moore would only play Bond once more, but his time on the series was not all farce.  And while his Bond is often considered inferior to Sean Connery’s cool and collected assassin, Moore simply portrays an older, more relaxed version of James Bond, as he himself was much older.  His Bond was just unfortunately put in declining scenarios and faced with lesser villains. Like a seasoned veteran, his Bond is more of a  playboy at ease in the world, for whom the work of the British Secret Service is routine and done almost without thought. And while that portrayal is flawlessly performed and certainly unique of all the actors to take the role, if you put an affluent playboy spy in a fucking clownsuit, he’s just a fucking clown now isn’t he?

-Charlie

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Inception: The spoiler free review

Everything they say about Inception, the new film from writer/director Christopher Nolan, is true. All of it. Even the negative stuff.

Joseph Gordon-levitt as Arthur.

It’s a film that goes as far as it wants, and it keeps you riveted for a sprawling 150 or so minutes. It’s the work of a man who has experience dealing in mysteries, be it his breakout hit Memento or the magic of The Prestige, and Inception trumps them all in scope and sheer imagination.

Most impressively is just the fact that this movie will have people talking, really talking, not only about dreams but about the film, the portrayal of what is for us, our most personal realm. You won’t see Iron Man 2 or Knight and Day springing up real discussion. And thank goodness Nolan gave us an adult film this summer, we almost had to abide on cartoon toys for maturity.

Just take a look at this trailer. I have nothing more to add to that. Go see this one in the theaters. And yes, you are safe. Inception is NOT in 3D!

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Character Study: Five Easy Pieces

Released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces is a film of it’s time, with a protagonist as difficult to like as he is fascinating to watch. Of course, from the poster you can tell this protagonist is played by Jack Nicholson, and this is one of his earliest films, following a breakout role in the previous year’s Easy Rider.

In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, an oil rig gruff somewhere in the southwest. He lives with his waitress girlfriend Rayette and slums around with his buddy Elton. He’s a simple man, wants to be left alone for the most part and acts dismissively towards everyone, including Elton and Rayette. It’s obvious he doesn’t love her, but  it’s something the matter with him, not her. Bobby is a loner out on his own, trying to make a way for himself. He’s an isolationist and vehemently rejects his world and it’s expectations.

We learn that this oil rig man is actually a classically trained pianist with a wealthy background, but that he walked away from it all. After his buddy Elton has a run in with the law and his sister tells him of their ailing father, Bobby returns home to the northwest, dragging Rayette along out of some form of pity or self-loathing.

It’s odd that Bobby stays with Rayette at all and is one of the more difficult aspects of the film, he’s just kind of a dick to her. You wonder if he is trying to punish or hurt her in a way, like his way to control her is to leave her in this lowly suspended state. I feel for Rayette the most in this film (played wonderfully by Karen Black, who received an Oscar nomination btw).

Bobby just never lets anyone get close, he never lets down his tough guy exterior, almost as if underneath he more fragile than he dares admit to even himself. But at the same time, it’s impossible to totally sympathize with him because he is so cold. It’s a really provocative duality that at once attracts and repeals the audience in a way few films can, and roof that Jack Nicholson was always a genius for being able to pull it off so well.

While on the road, they take on a couple of riders who broke down. In these scenes we glimpse Bobby’s personal disdain for society, for rules and restrictions. His riders talk of the terribleness of mankind and the problems of the world, and Bobby stays quiet. It doesn’t bother him. But when he can’t get some simple toast at the diner, watch out. He goes on a tear not unlike something Holden Caulfield would spout.

After seeing this film a second time, I was struck by just how funny this movie really is. Nicholson rants some great speeches and slings some classic insults. Most of the supporting characters are  a little odd, especially at the family home, making for lighter moments around the dramatic stuff. It’s another balance the film keeps, not letting either get too much a hold of you, never letting you completely relax either. Five Easy Pieces commands attention at all times, even the seemingly mundane moments.

At the family home, Bobby ditches Rayette at a motel and goes up to the estate alone. There his sister Partita and brother  Carl live with their ailing and mute father, his male nurse Spicer (dude is classic), and Carl’s piano student Catherine. Bobby instantly pursues Catherine while constantly belittling Carl, who is obviously unaffected by his brother’ bullying, and also vaguely avoiding the real reason he is there.

It’s all so childish to a point, like Bobby has stepped into his old life. There is even a scene where he plays Catherine a piece on the piano by Chopin, one she finds moving but he does not. He only played it because it was the first piece he ever learned and the easiest to play (cough*title reference*cough). Scenes like this throughout the film just paint such a vivid picture of this man, showing us rather than having to explain. It’s superbly done cinema.

Only at the end of his stay, Bobby finally has that heart to heart with the old man. He tries to apologize for his actions without really acknowledging their affects. It’s a strange monologue, one where where we can literally see Bobby’s exterior crumbling ever so briefly before he regains his composure. It’s heartbreaking, not only because of it’s brutal honesty and emotion, but because it’s not really the resolution that either man needs.

At the end, little has changed. Bobby is still alone in his own head. The world  and everyone is still full of Shit. He leaves the family and eventually Rayette in one last heart-wrenching scene that has to be seen to be felt. I won’t go into it now, but it cements his character in your mind.

Now, back in 1970, when this film came out, there was a lot of anger and a lot of resentment in the air. The 60’s were over, things were getting depressing and people felt like this, all of this around us, was crap. Five Easy Pieces is the expression of all that contempt. It’s about rejecting your status, your daily grind, everything around you that you know is crap.

At the end of it all, Bobby will still be moving along, not because he’s searching for something, but because he’s “getting away from things that get bad if I stay.” Sometimes though, it feels like all he’s really rejecting is responsibility. And that is the conflict that the film brilliantly presents us.

If you’ve never seen this film, watch it. It’s slow at times, it talks a lot, but it’s genuine and real. You may not like Bobby Dupea when it’s all over, but you’ll never forget him.

-Charlie

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Harvey Pekar, 1939-2010

Underground comic writer and all around gloomy guy Harvey Pekar died this morning at his home in Cleveland. He was 70 years old.

Pekar was a regular everyman working as a file clerk and collecting Jazz records, until a fateful friendship with the artist Robert Crumb gave way to Pekar’s brilliantly off-beat cult favorite American Splendor comic books.

Realizing that comics could tell real stories, written for adults, and writing what he knew about best, himself, Pekar created the  autobiographical style that paved the way for today’s slew of memoir and non-fiction comic book writers and artists.

Pekar endured a brief celebrity status in the 1980’s, but always rejected the offers for bigger money, never wanting to become co-opted or to sacrifice his integrity for anyone else.

Pekar continued to work as a file clerk until his retirement. He always wrote about his own life, even chronicling his battle with lymphatic cancer in 1990’s Our Cancer Year.

In 2003, the film American Splendor introduced me and a whole generation of kids too young to watch Letterman in the 80’s to Pekar’s honest and scathing perspective on ordinary life. He was a one of a kind and I bet even Dave will miss the old guy.

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