M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender’ is a Cinematic Atrocity

the last airbender movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010. I also want to dedicate it to my good friend Ed Mahoney who was brave enough to endure this cinematic monstrosity with me.

I couldn’t help it. I had to see this movie for myself. Ever since it opened, “The Last Airbender” has received some of the most atrocious reviews of any movie ever made. Audiences all over have been calling for M. Night Shayamalamadingdong’s blood for the last decade, and they just may get their wish with this monstrosity posing as a summer blockbuster.

But nothing could keep me or a friend of mine from witnessing the cinematic carnage of what was an eagerly awaited motion picture. The reviews were getting increasingly abysmal, and public perception made it look like a car crash you drive by on the freeway which you can’t help but look at. We knew we only had ourselves to blame since we paid $10 bucks each for our tickets, but we were willing to make the sacrifice.

Well, I came out of “The Last Airbender” laughing hysterically. In fact, I couldn’t stop laughing for an hour after I walked out of the theater, and it was for reasons Shyamalan didn’t intend. Everything you have heard about it is true. It is a complete and utter disaster and fails on just about every level a movie can. It proved to be so boring to where I almost passed out even when the soundtracks and explosions increased in volume. Furthermore, the plot is almost completely incoherent, and the dialogue will make you howl in disbelief. Shyamalan’s career has officially hit rock bottom with this atrocious adaptation, and no one is going to ever let him off easy for all the things he got wrong here.

I could tell from the start the movie was going to be terrible as the opening scroll fails to make any back story seem the least bit comprehensible. Then words “Book One” appeared, and it quickly reminded me of what Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi were once told by Irvin Shapiro when they were selling him a certain horror movie:

“Fellas, if you call this movie ‘Book of the Dead’ they’re gonna think they have to read it! Call it ‘The Evil Dead!’”

Campbell and Raimi thought it was the worst title they ever heard, but what did they know?

So, what is “The Last Airbender” about exactly? Well, it’s about this kid named Aang who is brought up out of the water where he has either been hiding or accidentally entombed in, and he is revealed to be the new Avatar. In plain English, the Avatar is the only living being capable of controlling the four elements: water, fire, air and earth. But wait, he wasn’t actually trained on any of them, and yet people take him at his word. What happened? Doesn’t it make more sense for him to be resurrected and have him be fully trained? Or are we going to watch him perfect these so-called talents in future sequels? You know Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon are just begging for a franchise here.

Oh, I see! Aang found out 100 years ago he was the new Avatar and ended up running away because he didn’t want the responsibility. Also, this meant he could never have a family. Now that sucks! You haven’t even gotten laid yet, and then you find out you have all these powers and can defeat anything and anybody in your way. But you know sooner or later, this kid is going to hit puberty and really scare the crap out of everyone. The question is, will he hit puberty in this movie or the sequel?

Those who know me best know how sick and tired I am of movies which have characters forever reluctant to accept the fact they are “the one.” We end up having to spend almost three quarters of the movie’s running time watching Aang bitch and moan about his unfair predicament, and all the time I found myself getting infinitely impatient as we know he will eventually accept the role the universe has given him. Look, you’re “the one,” so get on with it already! Take pride in the fact you can defeat so many enemies without ever having to use a gun!

The two innocent looking kids who accidentally resurrect Aang are Katara, one of the last waterbenders of her tribe, and Sokka. These characters were originally Asian in the television series this film is based on, but Shyamalan chose to cast Caucasian actors instead. To say fans were angered is one of the ultimate understatements of the year. If Shyamalan was such an ardent admirer of the show, he would have honored the source material without question. His casting decision is even more bewildering when you take into account he is an Indian American filmmaker, an ethnicity sorely underrepresented in movies. Furthermore, the actors he cast are personality free and spend way too much time emoting when they should have been acting.

The main antagonist of “The Last Airbender” is the fire nation which appears to be comprised of men who have had all the joy sucked out of their lifeless faces. All of them seem to be on the same emotional wavelength, and none ever appears to enjoy being pyromaniacs for life. Would it be too much to show the bad guys enjoying what they do even as we want to see them fail?

Most of the cast here are unknowns which I thought might give Shyamalan the power to discover some incredible new talent as he did with Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” But from the start you see that these actors are not going to even compare to that kid who saw dead people.

Aang is played by Noah Ringer, and his job seems to be playing the emotion more than the character. We never fully buy into what Aang is doing because Ringer is not able to give us a character worth rooting for. Nicola Peltz plays Katara, and Shyamalan said he refused to make the movie without her, but she is not given much to do other than pine for Aang who is way too young for her. She keeps coming on to Aang like some stalking fan, and I kept waiting for Aang to drop his polite guard and yell at her, “COULD YOU GIVE ME A MOMENT TO MYSELF???!! PLEASE???!!!!”

The biggest name “The Last Airbender” has to offer is Dev Patel whom we all remember from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Patel plays Prince Zuko who spends an obscene amount of time moaning and groaning over how he was once heir to the throne but has since been exiled by his father. The only way back into his dad’s good graces is to capture Aang. After a while, I couldn’t figure out if Zuko was a good or a bad guy. Maybe that ambiguity was supposed to be there in the screenplay, but it gave me a headache just thinking about what role this character was supposed to play in the story.

As for the screenplay, it features dialogue which sounds like people listlessly reading facts from some outdated history book which should have been removed from circulation seven years ago. Much of it cannot be digested without cringing in utter horror. This is the same problem I had with the “Star Wars” prequels as they too contained characters made to sound like they are in some stuffy period piece when they should sound relatively normal. Compared to those three movies, however, George Lucas’ dialogue sounds amazingly fresh compared to what comes from Shyamalan’s pen.

I’m not sure what else to say about “The Last Airbender” other than it is a monumental failure, and the blame for its epic awfulness lays solely at Shyamalan’s feet. One has to wonder how the director of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs” could have stumbled so badly. He has gone from being a wunderkind of cinema to its abandoned stepchild, and I think success has spoiled him too much to where the creative freedom he has at his disposal needs to be reined in. This is the same guy who pulled off one of the most brilliant twists ever in a movie with “The Sixth Sense,” and now he has given us a summer blockbuster every bit as inept and infuriating as last year’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

Do I regret watching “The Last Airbender?” No, not really. It was worth it just to watch the finished result so I could analyze everything wrong with it. But with so many movies out there worth watching, I would encourage you to avoid this one at all costs. Watching paint dry will prove to be a far more invigorating experience. Better yet, watch the Nickelodeon animated television series it is based on instead. You do not need to convince me it is better than this cinematic atrocity.

Maybe Shyamalan should just direct for the time being. No more screenwriting. Lord knows how long it’s going to be before he gets over this creative disaster. Considering the talent involved, there’s no excuse for it to be this atrocious. None whatsoever.

ZERO out of * * * *

 

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‘I Saw the Devil’ Serves Up Revenge at its Coldest and Most Brutal

I Saw the Devil movie poster

Many people will be quick to criticize “I Saw the Devil” as being excessively and unnecessarily violent. Indeed, it is an unrelentingly grim cinematic experience as we watch a serial killer chop up beautiful young women into little pieces and the boyfriend of one of them getting his revenge on the evil bastard. I’m guessing there will be a number of critics as well who will say Americans would never come up with such graphic depictions, but we know otherwise (“Saw” or “Hostel” anyone?).

But unlike other horror movies, “I Saw the Devil” does not exist to simply gross us out or make us uncomfortable as humanly possible. There’s a real story here amidst all the carnage about the hollowness of wanting revenge and of what it does to those who seek and get it. But Jee-woon Kim, the same man who directed “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” has created a motion picture which finds brutally fresh new twists that keep us pinned to our seats for the entire two and a half hour running time. Yes, it is truly unrelenting.

The movie starts off with the beautiful Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) talking with her fiancé Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) on the phone while she is waiting in her car on a snowy road out in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, a man by the name of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) viciously attacks and knocks her out. Back at his grungy workshop, Joo-yeon begs for her life and tells Kyung-chul she is pregnant, but it does no good. Kyung-chul’s face is an enigma as you are not sure what he is feeling at the moment. You want to think he has some form of empathy in his rotten soul, but to him this is a luxury he cannot afford. Either way, it doesn’t stop him from chopping away at Joo-yeon with a rusty hatchet.

Upon finding her severed head in a nearby lake, Soo-Hyun, a special agent, vows to make her attacker feel the same exact pain he made his victims feel. From there, the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more vicious and violent. Unlike most American revenge thrillers where we can tell the hero apart from the bad guy, the line between them is hard at times to make out.

The first thing I want to say about “I Saw the Devil” is just how beautiful the cinematography by Lee Mo-gae is. It’s kind of a cross between the vivid colors of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and the immensely cold and snowy landscape of “Let the Right One In.” I’m guessing Kim Jee-woon and Lee Mo-gae were inspired by the filmmakers of both movies, and even he succeeds in finding a beauty amidst all the hideous carnage which goes on. The image of the snow proves to be a metaphor for how cold the soul of the two main characters are or have since become, and things grow colder for them all the way towards the movie’s messy climax.

In terms of acting, Choi Min-sik’s performance stands above everyone else’s here. Choi is best known for his amazing and unforgettable performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” Throughout the movie’s running time, he never tries to hide the fact his character of Kyung-chul is a pure psychopath and a manipulator of emotions he is unable to fully experience on his own. It’s a brave performance which doesn’t hold back anything, and it makes you wonder what depths the actor went to in playing such a twisted human being.

Lee Byung-hun also deserves points for bravery as the now fiancé-less Soo-Hyun. This is the character we most easily identify with here, but he soon becomes “I Saw the Devil’s” most tragic one as well. We can’t really blame him for wanting revenge and to torture this killer without a conscience, but as the movie goes on, we see how his quest for vengeance it is destroying whatever is left of his damaged soul. Lee makes us care about this man even as he becomes almost as depraved as Kyung-Chul. Even when he slices off a key part of Kyung’s body, we still follow him even if we are increasingly repelled by his actions. His conscience comes out in the form of Soo-Hyun’s family, but their sane take on the situation is not enough to pull him back from the abyss of hatred he is forever trapped in.

Make no mistake, “I Saw the Devil” is a seriously violent motion picture. It feels like forever since I’ve seen so much blood spurting out of the human body on the silver screen. I also can’t remember the last time a guillotine was used so predominantly in a movie either. All the same, like any great Argento movie, it’s rendered in the most beautiful cinematic fashion. This is not your average “Friday the 13th” sequel where things are thrown together in the cheapest way possible. The colors are vividly realized, making everything we see here all the more cinematically gruesome.

Once you get past the seemingly unending carnage, you will see how these two men pretty much deserve one another. “I Saw the Devil” is a strong character piece featuring people who, in any other movie, would be at opposite ends of the law-abiding spectrum, but who have more in common with one another than they initially realized. While a part of us wants to see this sick bastard suffer horribly, there’s another part slowly reminding us how we can suffer just as much in wanting an eye for an eye. It’s also full of twists and turns you cannot see coming, and none of them seems convoluted in the slightest. The movie is full of surprises, many of them incredibly grim. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark, this will redefine the term for you.

Now look, I am not saying it is bad to like revenge/retribution movies. Lord knows we need them every once in a while in order to exercise the parts of our psyche which are hopefully ruled over by common sense. But sometimes we need a cinematic reminder of how wrong it can be to get what you wish for. Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was one of the harshest examples of this, and “I Saw the Devil” is not far behind.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Predators’ Rescues This Franchise From its PG-13 Depths

Predators movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2010.

After those two god-awful “Alien vs. Predator” movies which brought each franchise down to an unforgivably cartoonish level, at least one franchise gets back on track with the Robert Rodriguez produced “Predators.” It puts, as Arnold Schwarzenegger described them, the ugly motherfuckers back into the action-packed R-rated territory where they belong, and we are provided with a cast of characters who are mostly complex and a bit cliched, but they are never bland like the standard bunch of fools which inhabit every other summer blockbuster movie in existence. It also completely disregards the groan-inducing existence of the aforementioned “AVP” movies and acts as a direct sequel to “Predator” and “Predator 2.” Still, it is clear from the get go how this one owes much of its inspiration to the 1987 original.

Schwarzenegger continues to evade each sequel made to “Predator,” so we instead have Adrien Brody starring as Royce, an ex-military soldier who has long since become a mercenary. In light of movies like “The A-Team” and “Green Zone” which were clearly anti-mercenary, now we have one we can root for without too much cynicism. “Predators” commences with Royce waking up as he is free falling in a way Tom Petty never sang about through the atmosphere to a planet’s surface where his parachute opens just in the nick of time. Once there, he comes into contact with others who have arrived in the same manner. They are all from different ethnic backgrounds but have one thing in common; they are the worst of the worst and are the best at what they do which is eliminating their respective enemies. Not all of them make it safely though as one slams to the ground when his parachute fails to open. This reminded me of Michael Rooker’s line from “Cliffhanger” when he said, “Gravity’s a bitch, isn’t it?”

They believe they are still on earth as the jungle looks all too familiar in their eyes, but it is soon revealed they are actually on some distant unnamed planet and have been dropped into a game preserve. Upon realizing they are in foreign territory, Royce correctly surmises they are the game. The predators are out there in their camouflage disguises, ready to dismember their prey in the most lethal way possible. I’m sure many you have seen the first two “Predator” movies and have gloried in their gloriously gory kills, and you can expect many good ones in this sequel.

The one thing I really liked about “Predators” is how it surrounds us with characters that are not the least bit watered over. Their lives have descended into the dark spaces we live to avoid, and their actions over time have branded them as criminals who are among the most wanted by their governments. Regardless, we still root for them to defeat the Predators on their turf which resembles an Amazonian rain forest. None of them are easily likable, but they are also not the same boring stereotypical schmucks which overpopulated the “AVP” movies. Like the characters from the original “Predator,” many whom have since become politicians, each one has their own set of quirks and crimes to run away from.

In addition to Adrien Brody, Alice Braga co-stars as Isabelle, a sniper from the Israel Defense Force and a CIA black operations assassin. Braga’s role continues the genre’s popular usage of strong female characters who can never ever be defeated easily, if at all. You also have Danny Trejo as the ruthless enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel named Cuchillo, Oleg Taktarov as a Russian commando Nikolai (a lot of Russian characters get named Nikolai in movies), Louis Ozawa Changchien as Yakuza enforcer Hanzo, Mahershala Ali as Sierra Leone RUF death squad soldier Mombasa, Topher Grace as a doctor named Edwin who seems misplaced among the group but has his own dark secrets, and Walton Goggins as San Quentin death row inmate Stans. They have their own specific weapons which act as an extension of what they are capable of doing, and despite their differences and varying levels of corruption, they need each other to survive. The writers did a good job of individualizing each character to where they stand out memorably, and each of them show how predators are equal opportunity decapitators. But therein lies the meaning behind the title of the movie; the humans are predators as well, and it’s kill or be killed.

By destroying the predators before they get murdered in a most vicious manner, the humans see this as their shot at redemption for all their bad deeds. Stans, on the other hand, who was on the verge of being executed, sees this as an opportunity to do the same things he got sent him to death row for. Its proof once again that crime makes you stupid.

While Rodriguez’s name has been plastered all over the promotional materials for “Predators,” the movie was directed by Nimród Antal who previously made “Vacancy” and “Armored.” Nimród gets a good dose of suspense and tension going, and he shows no interest in giving us a PG-13 movie we did not ask for. He does, however, let the pace drag towards the middle and gives us a little more exposition than we need. Things do pick up towards the end though, so he certainly did not forget the kind of movie fans expected to see.

The Predators themselves still look very threatening after all these years, and the filmmakers also bring us different versions of them throughout the carnage, just like at the end of “Predator 2.” We even get some Predator-like dogs which speed off after the protagonists like they are cougars coming out of nowhere. They look like the most vicious German shepherds you could ever come across. I know people think Doberman pinchers are the most dangerous dogs, but German shepherds freak me out more.

At first, it feels odd to see Brody cast as an action hero, but he pulls it off and makes Royce one of the more authentic antiheroes I have seen recently. Yes, he does have that moment where he takes his shirt off to show us how often he goes to the gym, but that is indeed an authentic six pack you see on him. Once again, Brody proves to be an actor who deserves a little more credit than he often gets.

I also really liked Braga as Isabelle as the actress sells you completely on her character of a female soldier who is tough as nails and not to be trifled or flirted with. She’s also the one who convinces the group how they are better off sticking together in the midst of odds which threaten to be as harsh as those of winning the California Lottery.

There’s also an inspired supporting performance by Laurence Fishburne as Roland Noland, a soldier who has managed to survive for “ten seasons” without having been slaughtered. The price for his survival though is the loss of his sanity as he has been on this planet for much longer than anyone should. Morpheus he ain’t, and Roland threatens to be every bit as lethal as the Predators. Granted, it’s kind of hard to make friends when many of them get sliced in half before you get to know their middle name, and it’s easy to develop invisible friends and talk to yourself as these aliens prove to be lacking in conversational skills. Fishburne is a kick, and it would have been cool to have seen more of him here.

But let’s not forget one of the most pivotal characters in this franchise which is the music of Alan Silvestri. The score for “Predators” was actually composed by John Debney, but Silvestri’s unforgettable themes are on full display here. All the heavy horn blasts, staccato string rhythms, and undulating timpani rolls are on display, and they continue to highlight all the action and tense proceedings throughout. While Debney does make the score his own, even he can’t ignore the themes Silvestri made famous.

Still, there is really no way to fully capture the menace these cinematic creatures had to the same level of the original. One of the great things about “Predator” was that, as with “Alien” or even “Jaws,” you didn’t get to see the full creature until the movie’s last act. As a result, they were scarier to where the thought of them alone left you deeply unnerved. These creatures have been around for so long now, and we have become all too familiar with how they look and attack which does take from this finished product.

But for what it’s worth, “Predators” does provide some slam bang entertainment which helps to make up for those horrifically bad “Alien vs. Predator” movies, and it brings this particular franchise back to its roots, something that was long overdue. My only other complaint is there is not enough of Danny Trejo to see here, but we’ll be catching up with that badass soon when “Machete” gets released, and I can’t wait for that one.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Iron Man 2’ is Overloaded but Still a lot of Fun

Iron Man 2 poster

It was too easy to expect “Iron Man 2” to be better than the original. Many comic book movie sequels in recent years have blown away their predecessors to where you struggle to remember what the previous films were about. “Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men 2,” “Blade II” and “The Dark Knight” made us believe it was mandatory for sequels to be more enthralling because all the origin stuff was finally out of the way to where things could become a whole lot more interesting.

I was worried “Iron Man 2” would end up being like “Spider-Man 3,” a film whose massive disappointment still irks me years after its release. That sequel had far too much going on in it to where I quickly lost interest, and it was such a comedown from the brilliant “Spider-Man 2.” You’d hope the filmmakers and studios would remember how these movies do best with just one villain for the superhero to deal with. Sometimes you can get away with two, but you may be asking for trouble if you go beyond that.

With that said, “Iron Man 2” is still a lot of fun. Regardless of the flaws and clichés this time around, it is still the kind of experience you hope to have with a summer movie like this. Director Jon Favreau is back as is the always entertaining Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, whose heroics prove to be every bit as big as his ego.

This sequel starts six months after Tony has come out to the world as Iron Man, feeling no need to disguise himself in some geeky disguise like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. He makes a grand entrance at the Stark Expo which has since been relocated to Flushing, New York, and he resists the urge to make his technology available to the U.S. military. Regardless of the demands of smarmy Senator Stern (Gary Shandling is great fun to watch here) to make Tony turn over the Iron Man suit over to him, Tony stands confident in telling everyone he has successfully privatized world peace.

As always, success breeds enemies, and you can only go so high before you get knocked off your pedestal. The vicious knock down comes from Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a deeply embittered and heavily tattooed Soviet physicist who is led by his father to believe Tony’s father, Howard Stark, had betrayed him by deporting him from America. Ivan eventually puts together his own arc reactor which allows him to use these electrified whips to inflict serious damage on objects and especially humans foolish enough to come within 20 feet of him. Clearly, Ivan has spent at least a decade in prison, and he has tattoos covering just about every section of his body. It made me think about what Robert Mitchum said about Max Cady in the “Cape Fear” remake:

“Jesus! I don’t know whether to look at him or read him!”

Rourke is a lot of fun to watch in this role which has him doing a pretty good Russian accent, and it’s a vast improvement over the crazy Irish brogue he tried to pull off in “A Prayer for The Dying.” Like the best actors, he focuses on the pain which drives his character, giving us something much greater and more fearsome than your typical one-dimensional villain. The only downside of his performance is that we don’t get to see enough of him. After one great fight scene on a race trick, we have to wait for Ivan’s electric whipping act to return in the film’s final act. Still, this is Rourke we’re talking about, and he gives it his all here like he did in “The Wrestler.” If there is one thing which hasn’t changed, it’s that Rourke still plays characters who never take the time to shampoo their hair.

Tony’s other chief nemesis is Justin Hammer, a business rival looking to create his own line of Iron Man suits since Tony is unwilling to share his. Plus, Hammer is looking to get into the Pentagon, a place Stark cannot see himself partying at. Hammer is played Sam Rockwell who provides a good dose of comic relief while still giving his character a nasty edge. You can feel the relentless resentment Hammer has for Stark and how it spills over into bringing Ivan on board not so much out of respect, but as a chance to tear down the empire Stark Industries has built up over the years. Rockwell continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today, and I loved how he tried to mimic Tony’s dance onto the stage at his own show to little avail.

The other big addition to “Iron Man 2” is Scarlett Johansson who plays Natalie Rushman, Tony’s new personal assistant. But eventually she is revealed to be a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. named Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow who is flexible in ways her enemies only wish they were. The coolest fight scenes in “Iron Man 2” belong to Johansson, and she dominates the screen every time she’s onscreen. Her cool confidence combines with an irresistible sexiness. Like Rourke, she is underused here, but she is fantastic to watch throughout.

And of course, we have returning characters such as Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and Pepper ends up inheriting more responsibilities such as becoming the new CEO of Stark Industries. Samuel L. Jackson is also back as Nick Fury, having appeared in the post credits sequence of “Iron Man.”

Also returning to Tony’s side is Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, only this time he’s played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle is a fantastic actor and it is fun to see Rhodey try on one of those Iron Man suits, but I miss Terence Howard in the role. Howard brought a gravity to Rhodes which balanced out perfectly with Stark’s uncontainably egocentric personality. It’s no fault of Cheadle’s that Rhodes is not as strong a character this time around.

Watching “Iron Man 2” quickly reminded me of how good the first one was. Yes, it was an origin movie, but it was also one of the better ones in how fresh it felt and of how invested it was in the characters as well as special effects, something other summer blockbusters could learn from. We were left wanting more, but we also didn’t leave the theater feeling partially or completely unfulfilled. “Iron Man” left us patiently waiting for the sequel instead of craving for it in record time. Considering how good the first one was, we wanted the filmmakers to make as good a follow up as humanly possible.

“Iron Man 2,” however, is somewhat undone by putting too much into one movie. There are too many characters and bad guys here to where some don’t get enough of a chance to develop into something more interesting than usual. But Favreau keeps everything moving at a swift pace, and the cast is perfectly chosen as each one gets their moment to shine and bring their own uniqueness to their character.

But the one guy who really holds this franchise together is Downey Jr., and not once does he try to compromise Tony Stark/Iron Man and make him easily likable. Whenever Tony ends up acting like a jerk, we know what fuels his character; a despair over knowing how that the thing which saved him may also kill him sooner than he would prefer. I’m also thrilled he didn’t turn Tony into another superhero who constantly whines about the responsibilities they are forced to deal with. Tony wants all those responsibilities, and you know that with Downey Jr. playing the role, he will never shy away from what is expected of him.

I’m glad to say “Iron Man 2” is no “Spider-Man 3” thank goodness, but it could have been had Favreau and company not kept things going at the right pace. In the future, let’s hope Marvel sticks with one villain instead of two or more as it will make for a more effective motion picture. Still, all we ask from a summer movie like this is for it to be a lot of fun, and this one gives audiences a very entertaining ride.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Salt’ Has Angelina Jolie Doing More Than Tomb Raiding

Salt movie poster

Looking back, the summer 2010 movie season was truly the summer of the preposterous action movie. We got the big screen version of “The A-Team” which had four guys trying to steer a parachuting tank with its turret by firing rounds out of it, then there was Tom Cruise who could do just about anything except take the time to go to the bathroom in “Knight and Day” (Jack Bauer had that problem too), and even the brilliant “Inception” employed a concept which is not at all possible (unless the military is trying to keep it a secret). And then there was “Salt” starring Angelina Jolie which runs very rapidly through a river of plot holes and leaps in logic, and it’s just as much fun as the films I just mentioned. Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger” and “Rabbit Proof Fence”) who keeps things moving at such a fast pace, there’s not much time to sit back and count all the inconsistencies. All we can do is hang on to the edge of our seats and revel in the slam bang action brought to us without an overuse of CGI effects.

Jolie plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt who is just about to head on home to her loving husband Mike (August Diehl) who loves to study spiders when she and her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) suddenly get the opportunity to interrogate a Russian defector. During this interrogation, the defector reveals that a highly trained Russian agent will assassinate the Russian President when he visits the United States. He the name of this agent is Evelyn Salt, and the chase is on from there. Immediately thrown under a veil of heavy suspicion, Evelyn desperately rushes out of the office to find her husband before he disappears from her life forever. Never mind abiding the law or taking the time to explain herself, she wants her husband now! When a woman gets pissed, it is in your best interest not to argue with her, especially if she is a CIA agent!

Evelyn Salt is a mixture of both Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, and this is especially the case in how she manages to evade capture or break free from highly trained agents and officers on more than one occasion. The movie really plays on Jolie’s strengths throughout, and of the kind of person the media has perceived her to be. I say this because over the years she has been treated like some seriously deranged human being who would have sex with her bother instead of a regular person which she is if anyone actually bothered to notice. Jolie plays on these perceptions throughout “Salt” as we watch her relentlessly pursue those who wish to capture and question her, and also when she changes her appearance to get closer to her objective.

I also liked how by the time she comes to meet the man who will soon become her husband, you can believe she has been fully trained to all she can do. A lot of movies would have you believe these characters were born with these skills and have perfected them since they were toddlers. With Jolie, you never doubt her even as the movie becomes more ridiculous by the minute.

There are so many twists and turns throughout “Salt” to where it shamelessly flaunts its illogic plot developments throughout to where we give up trying to figure it all out. Compared to many of Noyce’s other movies, this is easily the most kinetic action movie he has made to date even when compared to “Dead Calm” which introduced Nicole Kidman to the world. You could complain about how things don’t add up, but Noyce never lets the pace of the movie lag for a second, and we never find the time to sort through the plot and characters while we are watching. For other movies this would be a major hindrance, but for “Salt” it works to its advantage. You’re too thoroughly entertained to even care if this film is messing with our head one time too many.

In addition to the talents of Ms. Jolie, you also have Liev Schreiber as her partner and friend Ted Winter. Many consider Schreiber to be this stone-faced actor who wears the same expression in each and every movie he does, but this is probably because they have never seen him act onstage where he gives one brilliantly inspired performance after another. Schreiber holds his own opposite the formidable Jolie as he desperately works to protect his friend from those who would make her disappear, and you root for him as he gets closer and closer to getting a full idea of who she really is.

You also have Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peabody, an agent above Winter who pursues Salt relentlessly. He’s the character you want to shake around and slap in the face so he can see how wrong he is about her (or how wrong we think he is). Chiwetel has done great work over the years, most notably in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” and he makes Peabody more than your average one-dimensional government official who would foolishly believe a Russian defector over a loyal agent from the CIA.

We also have to give Noyce a lot of credit for not relying on a plethora of CGI effects in “Salt.” When you see Jolie clinging for dear life on her apartment building 12 stories up from the ground, that was really her (get ready for some serious vertigo). It all reminded me of how good “Live Free or Die Hard” was as it tried to make the effects as real as possible as the filmmakers came to realize the typical film going audience would no longer be easily fooled by CGI effects. Sometimes they are not even better than the real thing.

If there is one seriously massive complaint I have against “Salt,” it’s in regards to Andre Braugher’s role as the Secretary of Defense. Those of you who know me are fully aware of what a die-hard fan I am of the NBC cop show from the 1990’s, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Braugher’s work on the show was beyond brilliant, and not many other actors can manipulate people through such theatrically volcanic explosions of anger. Furthermore, let us not forget his work in movies like “Glory” where he made the first of many memorable impressions. But in “Salt,” he is relegated to a role where he barely has any lines and is given far too little to do. What gives?! You want to cast Braugher in a movie, then you give him a role which is in tune with his well-known talents. Stop giving him roles which could be played by anyone.

Maybe “Salt” is more fun than it deserves credit for. But along with a pulsating music score by James Newton Howard and some tight film editing by John Gilroy and the well-regarded Stuart Baird, the movie gives you a good dose of adrenalin pumping fun which we don’t always get on the silver screen. Nitpick all you want about the events in “Salt,” it’ll still keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Ghost Writer’ Shows Roman Polanski Has Not Lost His Touch as a Filmmaker

The Ghost Writer movie poster

The act of ghost writing a book for a celebrity, be it a memoir or perhaps a children’s book, seems like a cheat. Granted, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do in fact write their own books, sometimes with the help of another, and good for them. But you can’t convince me O.J. Simpson wrote that book which contained his supposed confession of the double murder he committed back in 1994 that claimed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. By now, we should know Simpson is going to be the last one to admit to any wrongdoing, and the idea behind it was pathetic to say the least. Still, there was a nice sum of money involved in this particular ghost-written book, and Simpson was struggling financially.

What really has me wondering about this whole process itself is who the ghost writer is, and of how they about seeing their work being credited to another who didn’t write it. On one hand, you avoid a lot of the hoopla and screaming fans who worship the work to an unhealthy extent, but the benefits you get out of it are depressingly minimal it seems. You are basically an anonymous person in a sea of people who get far more attention than they deserve, and this makes you easily expendable as a result.

Now I’m not mistaking “The Ghost Writer” as the definitive example of what a writer like this goes through, but the feeling of replacing someone or fearing you will be easily replaced cannot leave one in a state of supreme confidence. But what the movie version of Robert Harris’ book shows is how it can make for a really good mystery thriller.

“The Ghost Writer” is the film Roman Polanski made while he was “wanted and desired,” and it’s the same one he managed to finish post-production on while under house arrest. The writer of the movie’s title is played by Ewan McGregor, and to add to some vivid illustration to the title, we never learn his character’s real name throughout the entire running time.  Anyway, he gets a very lucrative job offer from a publishing firm CEO, played by James Belushi of all people, to ghost write the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that McGregor’s predecessor on this project died in an apparent suicide, and his body was found washed up on the beach.

Once hired, McGregor is taking to Lang’s oceanfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England. Of course, this was actually filmed in Germany as Polanski could not step on American soil without getting arrested. Upon looking over the manuscript from the deceased writer, and in his talks with Lang, McGregor comes to discover this ex-Prime Minister may have been involved in handing over suspected terrorists in Britain to the CIA for torture. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he will end up like his predecessor.

After all these years, Polanski still knows how to make an excellent thriller, and he manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and intensity over the movie’s two hour plus running time. Throughout “The Ghost Writer” he is extra careful not to reveal too much of what’s going on, and it leaves us guessing as to what the truth really is. Like McGregor, we are left to sift through the clues left behind and figure out how they all add up.

McGregor doesn’t play any writer here, but instead one eager to get at the truth which is just within their grasp, and that’s even if they know they will not like what they see. McGregor gives a really strong performance here as the ghost writer, and Polanski succeeds in putting us in his shoes to where we feel as lost as him as he gets deeper into uncovering long kept secrets. During a chase scene, we are in the actor’s mindset, and even we can’t figure where to go or who to trust.

Also great in “The Ghost Writer” is Brosnan who plays an ex-Prime Minister who bares a not so subtle resemblance to Tony Blair. This gives the former James Bond actor the continued opportunity to shed his 007 image as Adam Lang in a way he must have been eager to do. Behind this image, we see on the television screen a man stuck in a moral contradiction he will never be able to escape. Flanked by his wife, a team of advisors, and besieged by a plethora of angry protestors out for his blood, Brosnan gives us a character you almost have to admire in how he manages to keep many things to himself despite an unrelenting pressure to reveal stuff he’d rather not reveal.

Olivia Williams is also terrific as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and she herself is a complex study in emotions. In the face of her advisors, Ruth has a tough façade which screams out “don’t bullshit me” whenever possible. But when Ruth is alone with the ghost writer, she lets this mask down to reveal someone who feels hopelessly trapped in a situation she has no real control over. She was probably promised something much different in life, something more positive, but she now looks back on it all as one big lie. Taking her character through different levels of emotion is fascinating to watch, and Williams holds our attention completely whenever she is onscreen.

I also loved seeing Kim Cattrall here as well, and her British accent was absolutely flawless. As Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, she manages to keep the coolest face despite escalating controversies which threaten to define this ex-Prime Minister as a deceptive war criminal. Her strictness of directions can be seen through her sexy smile, and she holds her own against Lang’s wife with aplomb. There is an innate sexiness to Cattrall’s performance in how she goes about her days not losing a beat, and it is enthralling to see what she pulls off here.

There are also a number of familiar faces to be found in “The Ghost Writer.” You also have Timothy Hutton who plays Lang’s American lawyer Sidney Kroll, Tom Wilkinson who portrays Harvard law professor Paul Emmett, and even Eli Wallach shows up in a memorable cameo. In some cases, their appearances could have really taken us out of the movie, but none of them are able to hide the fact the real star of “The Ghost Writer” is Polanski.

Ironically, Polanski is in a good position with “The Ghost Writer” as the shadow of his most famous movies like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are not hanging over this one. Throughout the years, he was trapped by his earlier work which he received so much critical acclaim for, and it affected his later movies like “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” to name a few. But every so often he gives us a motion picture to remind us of how he has never lost his unique talent for filmmaking.

We see so many directors drop the ball in terms of maintaining suspense, but Polanski has not lost a beat, and this film sees him hitting his stride again. Many will say “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie which doesn’t get made anymore, but Polanski calls Hollywood’s bluff on that to where this is one which cannot be missed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Paranormal Activity 2’ Proves to be as Effective as the Original

Paranormal Activity 2 movie poster

We had every reason to expect the sequel to the surprise hit “Paranormal Activity” would be horrid. Movies like this come out of nowhere and make more money than anyone could have ever expected, so a sequel has to follow, right? God forbid the money train stops at just one movie! Even in the new millennium, greed is still king. Most people were expecting this to be as terrible as “The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows” which itself was a giant insult to its predecessor, hence giving more fuel to the “Blair Witch” haters who somehow felt tricked out of their money. Besides, how can you expect a story like this to remain fresh, let alone terrifying? We weren’t expecting what got hurled at us last time, literally and figuratively speaking, but now we feel more prepared than ever to scan every scene of this sequel in an effort to predict when the scares come.

Well, it is to my astonishment to say “Paranormal Activity 2” is no “Blair Witch 2.” Heck, it’s not even an “Open Water 2” or a “Jaws 2” or even an “Exorcist 2” for that matter. This sequel turns out to be as scary and unnerving as the original, and it respects Oren Peli’s film for what it was and does nothing to detract from it. In fact, this sequel adds additional layers to the original which enhances the experience of watching it all the more.

“Paranormal Activity 2” opens up in Carlsbad, California where we meet Dan and his second wife Kristin as they arrive home with their newborn son, Hunter. Once there, we also get to meet Ali, Dan’s daughter from another marriage, the family housekeeper and nanny Martine, and the loyal family dog Abby. A couple of days later after going out of town, they come back to find the house ransacked, but nothing has been stolen. As a result, Dan has security cameras installed to make his family feel safe, and maybe even catch whoever did this. After that, things get increasingly scary as the ominous hum which haunted Katie’s and Micah’s abode starts to show its presence in the family dwellings, and things begin to go bump in the night. Just like the original, the men never take the women or their fears seriously, and it makes the rest of us guys look like bad boyfriends and husbands.

Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat return from the first movie, but Katie is the one who is more prominently featured. It turns out Kristin is Katie’s sister, and they both shared a scary past as they were terrorized by an evil spirit. Both are hesitant to talk to explain what they went through as children because the thought of it coming back is too terrifying to consider.

The really clever thing about “Paranormal Activity 2” is it turns out to be a prequel as well as a sequel. It takes place several weeks before the events portrayed in the original, and the ending more or less coincides with what Katie and Micah went through. This, I thought, was an inspired decision because it gives more weight to not just this film, but the original as well. This is not just some dumb follow up with the same old story filled with unrelated characters making the same stupid mistakes. The fate of this family is very much interlocked with the fate of Katie and Micah, and their inevitable doom makes this sequel all the more haunting.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity” had just the one camera which Micah put in his and Katie’s bedroom for the most part, this second film has us looking through various security cameras which record the house from different angles, each revealing little things going on around the house. Then there are other scenes where characters are holding the camera and making us see everything as they search through the house late at night. The security cameras by themselves present images freaky enough to gives us goose pimples, but when we get the first-person perspective, things get even more intense than they already are.

You know what really gets to me about these movies? The silence around the house and the lack of a film score. For me, being alone in a room or a house without any noise gets my anxiety up and running as I suspect something bad is about to occur which I won’t be able to prevent from happening. Both “Paranormal Activity” movies understand this anxiety perfectly and play on it without ever relying on blood and gore. Plus, your home is where you and your family are supposed to feel the safest. What happens when the safety of your home is violated? Where can you feel safe after that?

The choice of director for “Paranormal Activity 2” is a surprise and not who I expected. Tod Williams is best known for directing “The Door in The Floor,” a criminally under seen drama with powerful performances by Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. How the producers thought of Williams for this film is beyond me, but he gives this sequel a strong suspenseful tone, and he keeps the tension at a high pitch throughout. Williams also gives us several excellent jump out of your seat moments which will make your hair stand on end, especially the one in the kitchen (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it).

The performances are nothing spectacular, but they are perfect for a film like this. I also have to give special props to Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat who still succeed in acting ever so naturally in front of the camera. After the first film, you’d think they would have a tougher time with this and be even more self-conscious than they were before. But they both act normal as if the first movie never happened which I found very impressive.

I’m not sure I can go on describing “Paranormal Activity 2” for fear of giving away too much. I was pleasantly surprised at how effective this sequel was because I expected it to be nothing more than a scam designed to produce a bigger profit than the original. The surprise of the first “Paranormal Activity” is gone, and there’s not much which is new brought to the material here. This sequel also has end credits which the original did not, although there is an elongated pause for those who want to escape the theater before they come up. But the premise is still very scary for those who were infinitely terrified by the first film. I left the theater with my nerves jangling, feeling very much like I did after I saw the original. A good deal of care was put into making this sequel work because everyone was prepared to tear it apart even before they saw it.

If you liked the first “Paranormal Activity,” I think you’ll like the sequel. For those of you who didn’t like it and can’t understand what the fuss was all about, don’t even bother.

I am also proud to say I didn’t make the same mistake of watching it before I went to bed like I did with the original. I saw it in the early afternoon when the sun was still out. It still freaked me out though. Getting to sleep that evening was not any easier.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Tron: Legacy’ Digs Deeper into the World of the Computer

Tron Legacy movie poster

“There is no better moment than this moment, when we’re anticipating the actual moment itself. All of the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments. Those are the moments that are filled with good times. Those are the moments in which you are able to think that it is going to be perfect, when the moment actually happens. But, the moment is reality, and reality always kinda sucks!”

-Lewis Black

I include this quote up above because it more or less symbolizes what I feel about the promotion Disney did for the long-awaited sequel to “Tron.” The company overhyped it to an alarming degree, making several different movie trailers and spent a good three years promoting it. With this kind of marketing, many may go into “Tron: Legacy” thinking it will be one of the greatest movies ever made.

As for myself, I weary of the hype and try to go into most movies with little to no expectations whatsoever. In fact, I think it’s better to watch most films with the lowest expectations possible. With the hype which has greeted movies like this or the “Star Wars” prequels or even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” it is way too easy to be incredibly disappointed by the finished product. Nothing ever does come out as well as it does in our imaginations.

Well, reality may suck, but “Tron: Legacy” did not. I walked in expecting a fun time, tickled to death Walt Disney Pictures even bothered to make a sequel to a movie which was not a huge box office success back in 1982. At the very least, this sequel, which has been in the making for over 25 years, is more of a continuation of what came before. What it may lack in a fully coherent storyline, it more than makes up for with amazing visual effects, a fantastic score by Daft Punk, and a pair of great performances from the always reliable, and no longer underappreciated, Jeff Bridges.

So, here’s the story behind “Tron: Legacy:” after saying goodnight to his son Sam, Kevin Flynn rides off to Encom to work on a new digital frontier which will revolutionize the world of technology. Instead, he disappears without a trace. Shift to more than 20 years later, and Sam has become a rebellious young kid with strong technology skills he gleefully uses to thwart the executives at Encom who intend to profit and exploit Flynn’s work, work which Flynn wanted to make available to everyone for free.

Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) comes to Sam’s domicile one night to inform him he got a page from his dad the other night, and that it came from a line at Flynn’s Arcade which has been shut down for 20 years. Sam goes to the arcade to see what’s what, and we all know what happens from there as he gets sucked into “the grid” the same way his father was, and he is forced to fight for his life by hurling discs and racing light cycles in games which are deadlier than ever.

The premise behind “Tron: Legacy” is actually quite interesting. Kevin Flynn ends up developing a more advanced version of his Clu program who, of course, looks exactly like him. Together, they work to create the perfect system meant to bring about a new kind of life form, but somewhere along the line Clu grew resentful and comes to see a world of perfection far more different than his creator does. Soon afterwards, Clu turns against Flynn, making himself the ruler of all programs, and Flynn is trapped inside “the grid” with no way out.

Throughout, we watch as Clu coldly eliminates those programs which do not meet his high standards. It’s an interesting Frankenstein motif in how a creation runs amuck despite the master’s best intentions, and we all know what this leads to). It also reminded me of a line from “Star Trek: First Contact” which the Borg Queen says, “You’re an imperfect being created by an imperfect being. Finding your weakness is only a matter of time.”

The visual effects are unsurprisingly amazing, and they clearly reflect how far technology has come since the 1980’s. This time, they are much more fluid to where not everything is shown going in a straight line, and this gives the action scenes far more friction than they had in the original. The use of dark and neon-like colors doesn’t feel dated, and the costumes have been given a much-needed upgrade. There’s no more of those bulky suits which Sark’s guards and the MCP had, and the digital world presented here is a dark one and very un-Disney like.

By having “Tron: Legacy” focus on Flynn’s son, it seemed like Disney was desperately trying to court the youth demographics and would have been happy to cast the hottest teen or young adult heartthrob the role. Garrett Hedlund, however, turns out to be quite good and holds his own with Bridges. It’s not a great performance, but he does solid work here and keeps his character from becoming some annoyingly whiny brat whose daddy issues get the best of him. He does, however, have the disadvantage of saying the movie’s cheesiest lines like “this isn’t happening” and “this can’t be good.”

Another actor I enjoyed was Olivia Wilde who plays the warrior program, Quorra. She is a strong and engaging presence here, and her role as a Data-like figure eager to learn about the real world leads to some of the movie’s more intimate, as well as some of its funniest, moments. And yes, she does kick serious ass in the action scenes, easily derezzing those evil programs without even breaking a sweat.

But one actor I truly got a kick out of was Michael Sheen who plays Castor, the owner of the End of The Line Club. Stealing every scene he is in, Sheen holds nothing back as he gleefully hams it up as the life of the party, completely unbound by the soulless machinery at his disposal. We never really did see a program like this in the original “Tron,” did we?

And then there is Bridges who remains one of my all-time favorite movie actors. His performance here reminded of just how good he was in the original as he never let the special effects overwhelm his work as Flynn. Even though he was acting against a green screen more than he wasn’t, he makes himself feel like part of the reality to where it seems like nothing is impossible for the Oscar-winning actor. Oh, and if you listen close enough, there is a line designed to remind you of his famous role as The Dude. Trust me, you will know it once you hear it.

Yes, “Tron: Legacy” does have plot holes and some wooden dialogue, but so did the original. Thankfully, none of the dialogue is as cringe-inducing as the kind George Lucas gave us in the “Star Wars” prequels. Also, the story does get slowed down by exposition which could have been shortened. All the same, I’m glad the writers didn’t get lazy and bring back the Master Control Program (MCP) as if it was never defeated back.

Joseph Kosinski made his directorial debut with this sequel. In the past, he has received acclaim for the “Mad World” commercial for the video game Gears of War, and he has since gone on to direct “Oblivion” and “Only the Brave.” For my money, he does a much better job of blending actors with special effects in a way Lucas never could, and he does well in keeping “Tron: Legacy” from becoming overly-cheesy or infinitely monotonous.

The soundtrack by Daft Punk is infinitely awesome, and the duo is a perfect fit for this kind of material which serves as their first official film score. Like the brilliant score Wendy Carlos did for the first film, their music is a strong mix of orchestral and electronic elements which, and brings a strong sense of humanity and emotion to a wholly technological world.

Could “Tron: Legacy” have been a better film? Sure, but why can’t we just be happy Disney took the big risk of making this sequel? For what it is, I enjoyed it and admired the fact it was made by people who respected its predecessor. More than two decades is a massively long period of time to wait for any sequel, but “Tron: Legacy” was worth the wait for me, and I would certainly be open to seeing it again.

Still, I have to wonder, can human beings really exist in a digital world even though they are users instead of programs? Can a program actually be brought into the real world? Oh, who cares! I had fun!

End of line.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Black Swan’ is a Tour de Force for Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman

Black Swan movie poster

JESUS CHRIST!!! This was my immediate reaction after witnessing Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” A combination of “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for A Dream” with a dose of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure, it is a brilliantly over the top psychosexual thriller which continually ratchets up suspense and tension all the way to its horrifying climax. And unlike Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Natalie Portman has a really nice haircut.

Just as it was with “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” serves as an expose sorts on the athletic arena it focuses on. The backstage world of ballet dancing is highly competitive, and the career of a dancer can easily be short-lived if an unexpected injury, either a big or small one, occurs. Many view ballet as being very boring and would rather tune into Monday Night Football. Try dragging kids to a production of “The Nutcracker” and watch how they run for the hills. This is the reaction I get from most people I know, although I’m sure there are exceptions.

But don’t let any preconceptions about ballet turn you off from seeing this film. It is anything but boring, and both Aronofsky and Portman brilliantly capture the physically and psychologically draining aspects of ballet to where you feel as wiped out and crazed as they do throughout. Like any other art form, ballet demands years of training in order to reach a level of perfection few can achieve. It is also shown to be an isolating career because, with so many people going after the same lead role, making friends is a struggle as you wonder what they are saying behind your back. With the bitterness level sky high, ballet threatens to be more damaging psychologically than physically.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a member of a prominent New York City ballet company. After years of hard work, Nina gets her lucky break when she snags the lead role in “Swan Lake,” a show is as overdone as many of Neil Simon’s plays. This show has one of the most coveted roles in any show as it is incredibly challenging. Nina has to play the White Swan who is a creature of innocence, and also the Black Swan who is one of a sensual and dark nature. Basically, it is the dancer’s “Hamlet.” While her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is perfect as the White Swan, he has doubts about her ability to play the Black Swan as she is so technically precise in her movements, and the latter role requires her to lose herself in the passionately dark nature of the character.

Once we see Nina walk down the streets of New York past a woman who looks exactly like her, we are caught up in her downward spiral which she is helpless to stop. We watch as she encounters people and situations which feel real, but later turn out to be nothing more than hallucinations. There are times where she even looks like she is turning into a swan. While this may sound ridiculous on paper, it is brilliantly conceived visually from the rash on Nina’s back to those blood red eyes she develops. There are even points where she is dancing in front of a mirror, and her reflection turns around to glare at her malevolently.

The line between what is real and what is not becomes completely blurred, and neither the audience or Nina are able to tell the difference between the two. Many may be maddened at not being able to understand all of what is happening, but that’s precisely the point. Aronofsky puts you directly into Nina’s mindset, which has already proven to be an emotionally fragile place, and we are instantly caught up in her psychological disintegration. This makes “Black Swan” all the more visceral to experience. We are not just watching Nina go mad, we feel like we are going mad with her.

Portman does truly give the performance of her career here. She trained in ballet for a year or so, and her preparation really paid off. Throughout, she captures the sweet nature of Nina as well as the paranoia and resentment which overwhelms her the closer she gets to the opening performance. Watching Portman practice her dancing to no end is emotionally exhausting as it is for her physically, and she makes us feel like we are right on the edge of disaster with her. Portman has always been an amazing actress, but her work in “Black Swan” represents the culmination of a great career which is more than ready to head into adulthood.

Mila Kunis, looking even sexier here than she did in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” co-stars as another dancer, Lily. Unlike Nina, she is free with her body and mind, and what she lacks in precision she makes up for in unbridled passion. She’s at times friendly, wanting to break the ice between her and Nina, and her power of seduction is one Nina desperately wants to capture for herself. Kunis has become an increasingly fascinating actress, and seeing her go from sweet to a cold back stabber of a human being is made very believable by her work.

Oh yeah, there is a sex scene between Portman and Kunis which will have people checking out “Black Swan” for all the wrong reasons. Then again, any reason to get people to see this film might not be so bad. Furthermore, to dismiss this as a simple lesbian sex scene will only show how short sighted you are.

Aronofsky again employs his frequent collaborators to excellent effect. His director of photography, Matthew Libatique, almost makes this film look like a remake of “Suspiria” as the colors become overpowering once they become blacker and infinitely vicious. “Black Swan” is as much a sensory experience as it is a psychological one, just like “Requiem for A Dream” was. Libatique makes the special effects appear seamless in scenes where CGI is clearly utilized. As the background dancers pass by her, Nina sees her face in all of them. It’s such an eerie moment to where it doesn’t even feel like a special effect.

Then there is the fantastic Clint Mansell whose work on Aronofsky’s movies has become a main character in each of them. Mansell takes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and breathes fresh life into it which is exhilarating to take in. His score becomes as intense as the images we see on screen, and I loved how visceral and thrillingly alive it all feels.

The movie also offers great performances from actresses we don’t see as much of on the silver screen: Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey. Ryder clearly understands the frustration her character of veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre is going through, and she captures this deeply hurt and excessively bitter character perfectly. At once an empathetic and at other times a pathetic person, we see just how much Beth has lived for ballet, and now that it has been cruelly taken away from her, she has little else to devote her life to. To be placed on a pedestal so high only to be yanked from it leaves her with nothing but desperation and deep self-loathing which is hard to dig oneself out of.

As for Hershey, she remains a phenomenal actress as she has been for many years. In movies like “A World Apart” and “Portrait of a Lady,” she has created indelible female characters who are never easily forgotten. Her role in “Black Swan” is no exception as she takes the clichéd role of a stage mother and makes her a loving person as well as an overbearing one. When we come to see how her character failed at a dancing career, it becomes frighteningly clear how much of her happiness is based on how successful her daughter is at hers.

“Black Swan” once again shows how brilliant a director Aronofsky is as he mixes up different genres to create one hell of a movie going experience. Portman’s magnificent performance really is one for the ages, and few other characters have been as physically demanding for an actor as Nina is. Even as things get more and more horrifying, Aronofsky keeps your eyes focused on the screen to where looking away from it would feel like a crime. Is it more intense than “Requiem for a Dream?” No, but it sure does come close!

One thing’s for sure, this will not be a good recruiting film for dancers. They’ll want to go into accounting or dentistry after watching this one!

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Inception’ May Be the End All of Mind-Bending Motion Pictures

Inception movie poster

“What the hell are dreams anyway?”

“Mysteries, incredible body hocus pocus; the truth is we still don’t know what they are or where they come from.”

                                        -from “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (the original)

 

“I can make you mine, taste your lips of wineAnytime night or day

Anytime night or day

Only trouble is, gee whiz

I’m dreamin’ my life away”

                                    -from “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers

 

“It’s too bad that all these things

Can only happen in my dreams”

                                                -from “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison

 

My reaction upon seeing “Inception” was pretty much the same one I had after I saw Christopher Nolan’s last movie “The Dark Knight:” BRILLIANT!!! In a summer movie season which has been largely bland and seriously lacking in excitement, Nolan once again stimulates the imagination by giving us a very well thought out story with complex characters. This is all in addition to the slam bang entertainment we expect from a summer blockbuster, and Nolan delivers on both fronts. Seriously, this movie feels like a godsend in a time where studio executives are way too risk adverse. Even if “Inception” borrows from movies like “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix,” Nolan still makes it all his own. I’ve already seen “Inception” twice in one week, and there is just as much to discover about it the second time around as much as the first.

Nolan has actually been working on this screenplay for over a decade, and it is an intricate puzzle of a flick which might seem difficult to follow, but not really. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dominic Cobb, a highly experienced dream infiltrator who works at extracting precious information from his targets. Basically, he steals ideas from his clients before they even realize it, and they are very valuable ideas which will put him and his crew on easy street for a time. Working with him is his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose job is to research the clients’ history and see if they have any mental defenses built up which could hinder their mission. As we first see them in “Inception,” they have seemingly failed a mission, but they soon find out it was actually an audition.

Their target, Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy businessman, offers a job which will have them doing the opposite of their job description. This brings us to the movie’s title which means planting an idea in the mind of their target’s subconscious. Although thought to be impossible, Cobb says it can be done because he has succeeded in doing it before. “Inception” then takes Cobb and his team on an adventure which will go into a dream, and then into another dream within that dream. Just when you think they couldn’t go any deeper, they do. It sounds confusing, but it was easier to follow than I thought. You want a tough movie to follow? Check out the first “Mission Impossible” movie which Brian DePalma directed. I still can’t figure out what it was about after all these years (the stunts were cool though).

The concept of entering a person’s dream is fascinating because it gives the story infinite possibilities to explore, and all sorts of directions to take it in. Dreams themselves still fascinate us as we still have no clear idea what generates them. They can be very unpredictable and go from one place to another before we know it. Dreams could be our subconscious minds trying unburden itself of all the baggage we bury down into its recesses in the hopes of forgetting the most painful things in life. Looking back at the dreams I have had which have stayed with me, be it good or bad, they continually astonish me with their vividness and how our brains and imaginations can conjure up such amazing images as we slumber away in beds which are hopefully kind to your back. You’d think after all these years we would be able to be consciously aware of when we are in a dream and control it to our advantage, but no such luck. When you’re deep into one, the difference between what is real and what is not becomes irrelevant.

That’s the other thing I loved about “Inception;” you are always questioning whether you’re in a dream or wide awake. Even if you already know how the movie ends, it couldn’t possibly spoil the experience for you when you witness it. As in “Total Recall,” reality is always in question and open to interpretation, and it’s unlikely everyone will come to the same conclusion. I was also reminded of David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” which ended on a note of sheer ambiguity as the line between what’s real and what is not becomes permanently blurred. “Inception” all but starts out this way, and the theories behind the action and what’s really going on continue to abound. How cool it is to have a movie of this size and scope which really gets you to think!

For a moment, I thought DiCaprio was going to portray the same character he played in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” Teddy Williams. Both characters have inescapable similarities; they are tortured by memories and actions they cannot repair, they are married to beautiful women whose current state of mind is in question, and they are both really moody guys who are not a barrel of laughs to be around. Oh yeah, both are also struggling with the reality of everything happening around them. I guess what Cobb has over Teddy is his grip on reality is much firmer, but even Cobb’s sanity comes into question throughout “Inception.”

DiCaprio continues to prove he is not only one of the very best actors working, but also one of the few stars who genuinely take risks. Not content with being forever imprisoned as a movie star, he nails the complexities of Cobb to where we see the various dimensions of his character. In essence, Cobb is a thief after the big score, and he shuts himself off to other people. But DiCaprio really gets at what is beneath his character’s guilt and shame, and he makes us want to join him in his dream exploits. For him, it is never about just making the character a likable one.

It’s also great to see Levitt here as well. Having been the indie darling for a few years, turning in one great performance after another, and he more than holds his own here. When everyone else is in a state of uncontrollable panic, Arthur always keeps his focus clear which allows him to stay on top of things. His method of preparing his team members for “the kick” in one dream is ingenious. Watching Levitt here almost makes me forget he was on “3rd Rock from The Sun” all those years ago.

Then you have the beautiful Marion Cotillard, plays Cobb’s late wife, Mal. While Mal may be short for Mallorie, in Latin it means “evil,” and she exists only within Cobb’s dreamscape as he has buried her deep in his memories. However, his control over her continues to erode as Mal continues to intrude in different dreams he has as she gets the upper hand and continually threatens to ruin anything and everything. Cotillard plays Mal with a cold detachment as well as a deeply wounded person who feels betrayed by her husband. As the movie goes on, you begin to wonder if she is truly dead or alive.

At first, having Ellen Page in this movie might seem weird as we all still identify her with her character from “Juno.” It’s been easy to forget what a wide range she can have as an actress, but this is not the case here as she acts as the guide for the audience in the world of dreams. Her character of Ariadne is the architect, the one who constructs the world of the dream which the team will enter into. She also acts as the conscience Cobb needs as he continues to be drawn by Mal into a state of limbo which he may never return from. As a result, Ariadne is the strongest, most objective and levelheaded in the group because she sees what consumes Cobb and how it can endanger everyone. She becomes the voice of reason Cobb must listen to if he hopes not to drown in his own guilt. It feels like it has been too long since I have seen Page in anything, and she once again proves to be another fantastic actress of her generation.

Tom Hardy, who plays the forger Eames, is fun to watch here as he approaches the role with a touch of irresistible sarcasm as he gleefully plays around with the other team members and their self-consuming seriousness. Eames gets an especially big kick in getting a rise out of Arthur who takes his work perhaps more seriously than most. Throughout the movie, Hardy’s presence proves to be one of the film’s most entertaining, and his star continues to rise.

Nolan also brings some of his “Dark Knight” cast members along for the dream ride including Sir Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy. Both are terrific in any role given to them, and the performances they both give in “Inception” are no exception. Another supporting actor worth noting here is Dileep Rao who plays Yusuf, the chemist who formulates the sedatives which put the group and the target under so they can complete their mission. I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with all the other actors whose names appear on the posters.

But the big surprise in “Inception” is the appearance of Tom Berenger, a well-known actor who has for far too long been relegated to the realm of straight to DVD movies. It’s so nice to see him here in something other than a “Sniper” sequel (how many have there been anyway?), and he hasn’t missed a step as an actor after all these years.

With movies like “Inception,” we have come to expect directors will spend more time on the visual element to where they inadvertently forget the other important ones like dialogue and acting. Having made several movies already, Nolan proves to be one of the best directors working today as he handles each part of a movie with the same amount of attention, something increasingly rare among filmmakers.

Nolan fills the movies with such inventive images as Arthur fights off armed men while the dream he is in is thrown out of balance as it spins him from the floor to the ceiling. Levitt really sells the scene by showing his character struggling to maintain control as he is forced to crawl over the place when gravity no longer works in his favor. Then there is the final scene, which I won’t dare to give away, but taking in the audience’s strong reaction showed just how successful Nolan was in holding us firmly within his grasp. I loved the inescapable ambiguity of the film’s conclusion and how it drove some audience members crazy.

Plus, Nolan once again employs Hans Zimmer to do the score, and what he brings us is not another rehash of the Caped Crusader’s music. Zimmer gives a strong score dominated by electronics, drums, and brass instruments which are primed to blow out the speakers at a theater near you. Capturing the scope of the visuals in Inception which are quite immense, Zimmer once again gives great power to Nolan’s amazing concepts which Warner Brothers was smart enough to let the director run wild with instead of just containing his imagination in fear of releasing something which might seem “uncommercial.”

In a sea of endless remakes, questionable reboots, and half-assed concepts which somehow got a green light from studio executives, “Inception” is a rare breed of film which is as thought provoking as it is entertaining. It also makes clear Nolan is a genius filmmaker who has set the bar high for summer tent pole movies just like he did with “The Dark Knight.”

* * * * out of * * * *