Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Nowhere Boy (2009) – directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on biography by Julia Baird

(I wasn't too interested in this movie, about the childhood of John Lennon, till my friend Sheila mentioned that the director was Sam Taylor-Wood. Sam Taylor-Wood is a British artist. I was curious to see what kind of movie she would have directed and happy that I would be able to see a complete work. She often works in multi-channel video installations and I have only ever seen stills.

Sheila and I discussed in great detail when and where we would watch Nowhere Boy. Finally, on a very specific and snowy night, I walked over to her house. Inside, it became clear that we had missed the “how” part - neither of us had Nowhere Boy on our persons or in our electronic devices.

So we played Tetris instead, and drank some tall glasses of water. We wondered if this was what it was going to be like when we were old. )

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Black Swan (2010) - conceived and directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Mark Heyman, starring Natalie Portman

(I saw this movie with my friend Ryan Kamstra. I wasn’t sure if I would like the movie, but I thought I might like it better if I saw it with Ryan. We have a pretty easy time laughing at things while also taking them very seriously. This is usually helpful with work that takes no breaks for jokes. We saw it at a big multiplex during the day.)

Swan Lake is an old story. Tchaikovsky brought it into form for the ballet in 1876. It tells the story of a princess who is under the spell of an evil sorcerer. By day, she is a swan, and at night, a woman. Other women are under the same spell but the princess is called the Swan Queen. They are confined all together in the prison of Swan Lake. The only thing that can break the spell is the promise of true love from a prince.

We have enjoyed this story for so long because the story both helps to clarify and to mythologize the medium that delivers it – ballet. During the day, the ballerinas are on their toes, defying gravity and human limitations to move in freakishly hypnotic and otherworldly unison. We sense there is something wrong but we also so enchanted. Afterwards, if we happen to be at the same party with the dancers, we watch them smoke cigarettes, drink vodka and occasionally glare in our direction. Mere mortals! But mortals are the only things we ever fall in love with.

In the movie Black Swan, the story of Swan Lake is updated for both the 21st century and the medium of film. This changes a few things. Here the story extends beyond the stage and into the lives of the people creating the staged performance of the Swan Lake ballet. This solves a perpetual problem with the old story: We never really knew why a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan - other than “because he was so evil” and that is never such a good answer.

Now, freed from the narrow perspective of the stage and the fairytale, we understand more easily that a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan because it is really something to watch a woman dance like that.

In the old story, a prince does come. He even comes close to breaking the spell for the Swan Queen, but his efforts are thwarted by the sorcerer’s trickery. The sorcerer presents his daughter to the prince as though she is the Swan Queen. The daughter, although dressed in black, is a look-alike of the Swan Queen. The prince is fooled and offers his everlasting love to this wrong woman - this black swan.

When learning of his mistake, he runs to the Swan Queen begging for her forgiveness. Being young and full of goodness, she easily forgives him, but that is not enough to end the spell. The ballet ends with a suicide or sometimes with a double suicide – since now this is the only remaining option.

But here, in the 21st century, we are not so interested in the prince. The prince, whose only purpose is to break the spell of being such a strange creature, is of no use to us. If the spell broke, the Swan Queen would lose her day job. So, in Black Swan, the prince is barely more than a prop. Though we see some elements of his character fused with that of the sorcerer (the company's artistic director) - the man in charge of the swans and picking the right woman for the role of the Swan Queen. What the Swan Queen wants more than anything is to be all swan. The Swan Queen here is Nina played by Natalie Portman.

Though the prince has lost sexual value, the sorcerer (the director) and the black swan (a new dancer at the company named Lily) have gained it considerably. The director is the boss that Nina wants to please and learn from. And Lily, with her playfully devious and sensual nature, inevitably interests Nina. Lily has so much to show her. These objects of attraction we can understand. They can only help improve her craft, bringing her closer to staying a Swan Queen forever.

Since the origins of the Swan Lake ballet, the Swan Queen and the black swan are often played by the same dancer. Nina's attempt to embody the black swan successfully (having mastered the Swan Queen already) forms the narrative of Black Swan. If she fails to embody the darker, more sensual depths of the black swan, Lily might be cast in her place.

In an earlier movie of Darren Aronofsky’s, Requiem for a Dream, his manner of exploring the murky and painful depths of drug addiction in Hubert Selby Jr.'s book of the same name, seemed a little generic or unfocused – as though the formula for serious art was obvious: the darker the art, the better the art.

But in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s intentions seem much more articulated and transparent. It seems as though he has set himself up in this underworld, roaming around in the clichés and sludge, because that is the place he loves the best. His pleasure and a very subtle humour accompany everything - though there are no jokes. It helps here that the characters are not victims of drugs, but of excellence. The goal for excellence frames the masochism involved, in this decent into the underworld, as a rare pleasure rather than a necessary cost of pleasure.

One of the best things about the movie is the complete naivety that surrounds Nina as she bravely and blindly attempts to descend to the depths. Because of her inexperience in these depths, she gives everything she finds there the same value: sex is equal to murder is equal to confidence. This makes her quite a villain.

Throughout the movie, Nina longs to earn the ballet director’s nickname “little princess” that he bestows on only the rarest and finest of Swan Queens. It is really something to see how bloody things get before this small woman finally earns her nickname.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Get Him to the Greek (2010) - written, produced, and directed by Nicholas Stoller, starring Russell Brand

(I watched this one night on my TV when I couldn’t sleep. When it was over, I watched the good parts again. Before I saw it, I mainly knew that the movie had something to do with drugs and with Russell Brand and Jason Segel - which all sounded like a pretty good idea. It also seems promising when a Judd-Apatow-produced movie involves at least one “handsome” man or at least one “unattractive” woman. It is not the male handsomeness or the female ugliness that I crave, but the lack of sexual desperation that slightly alters the typical equation for women in these movies. I am not suggesting that Jason Segel is the “unattractive” woman in this scenario - especially since he is not in the movie but had some small part in its creation.)

This movie has a really good drug climax. A good drug climax is funnier and more complicated than a car chase climax - though it is less mobile. It's the people’s brains that are speeding ahead while their bodies lag behind with all the wrong gestures. Sometimes the struggle is in becoming (or pretending to be) comfortable or sane. When comfort and sanity are wildly out of reach, the struggle to have them or to emulate them is an understandable goal, but it is always a disastrous one. We watch the characters grasping for the best (and least humiliating) understanding of what is actually happening in a specific situation. There is often much stating aloud of obvious facts or important questions - a crucial act of basic communication between friends during perceptual confusion and emotional vulnerability.

In Get Him to the Greek these communications come out like - “Why is Moby whipping us?!”, and - “Let’s go jogging.. Please! For our friendship”.

Though this great climax is brief and glorious, “Get Him to the Greek” is a three day journey. It begins with a music company employee Aaron Green (played by Jonah Hill) going to England to retrieve Aldous Snow, a rock star (played by Russell Brand) who is in a slump. Green is to bring Snow back to Los Angeles so he can perform at a concert. The concert will mark the 10 year anniversary of Snow’s most celebrated rock concert that took place during his career peak. The CEO of the company Green works for is Sergio Roma (played by Sean Combs whose role in the drug climax was a drug movie triumph).

Snow is the kind of artist who doesn’t sleep, is capable of a complicated intelligence, engages in kindly care-taking after drugs have been ingested, and, as much as he gets himself and his art right, also occasionally gets it wrong.

The art he gets most wrong is a song and accompanying music video called “African Child”. We are shown the music video right in the beginning of the movie. The video involves Snow as a pale Christ figure dancing in an African village. The real life fears of art-making are taken here to their pleasurable extremes. Not only does the music video fail to save Africa, it fails to even entertain the masses, and it is described again and again by the media throughout the movie as one of the worst things to ever have happened to the continent.

After this flop, discomfort ensues, the love of his life Jackie Q, who is also a rock star (played by Rose Byrne), splits, and Snow awakens a 7-year-sleeping-beast-of-a-drug problem. Green finds Snow in an apartment above the River Thames living with his mother and an assistant. Everyone is immediately irritated by Green, but things ease up a bit.

The movie’s narrative suggests Snow’s great abuse of Green on the journey. And though there are plenty of obvious sadistic aspects to Snow’s typically annoying rock star character, it is very difficult not to empathize with Russell Brand and his face. He seems to not have a line of self-pity in there. The less obvious sadistic traits of Snow’s character are surprisingly nuanced. They mostly come with Snow’s selective use of the word “selfish” – as in: “Don’t go to sleep now, it’d be selfish”, or the alternative “Let me go to sleep now, don’t be so selfish”.

The absurdity of the grand drug climax works best if we have also been in touch with reality. We see it most clearly somewhere in the middle of the movie, in a brief scene where Snow calls his ex girlfriend, Jackie Q, early in the morning. In the shot, we see Green (the man there to guide and guard Snow against himself) passed out on the couch - slayed from a night of debauchery and perceptual confusion. Snow, not sleeping, is without a conscious keeper. “Are you alone?” Jackie Q asks Snow. “No” he answers, “I’m with some affable nitwit”.

The scene is still quite silly, but it is also quiet and carries with it a slightly unpleasant consciousness and a deep longing for human connection. Here in this very small and undramatic moment, we all, all of us together, understand the very same stupid, painful, obvious, unavoidable thing.