Wednesday, December 15, 2010

127 Faster Swans in a Hornet's Nest

I wasn't as blown away by this as "professional critics", but I'm not going to write "127 Hours - Sure Felt Like It!", either. Actually I did just write that, but I didn't mean it (not entirely, anyway).

The recent Buried (reviewed here a while ago) was of a similar ilk in that it was also exclusively about one guy trapped in one place. In Buried, it was a coffin. In 127 Hours, it's a large fissure between a bunch of giant rocks in Utah.

Director Danny Boyle, who made Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, and the terrible Sunshine, definitely tries damn hard here to make James Franco's predicament cinematically interesting. He throws in flashbacks, flashforwards, hallucinations, and enough CGI enhancement to keep your brain in a state of high anxiety.

What we know about 127 Hours before going in is that it's a true story about a bloke (Franco) who gets his arm stuck beneath a rock for 127 Hours and is forced to cut it off in order to escape his confines (and save his skin). The movie's major suspense comes from us knowing that the cutting scene is coming. When it comes, it's Guinea Pig graphic. Yep, he saws right through that thing with a blunt knife after slicing a tendon and snapping an annoying bone.

It's pretty interesting for the most part and extremely well executed. It just didn't quite reach the heights for me. I walked away happy, but not a lot happier than when I came in.

What I'd just walked in from was Faster, a slick but cliched action pic starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as a mostly mute gorilla who's out to avenge his brother's death. Identified only as "Driver", he's driving around with a hitlist full of names he's keen to cross off. Just out of jail, he's as committed to rehabilitation as OJ was after icing his wife and dodging a judicial bullet (a criminal one if not a civil one, anyway).

Faster focuses on Johnson's killings, the pursuit of Johnson by "Cop" (Billy Bob Thornton), and the pursuit of Johnson by "Killer", a silly, competitive British hitman/computer zillionaire played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen.

Clearly, the writers of this enjoyed Walter Hill's The Driver very much. That film was about "The Driver" (Ryan O'Neal), who was pursued by "The Detective" (Bruce Dern). The obligatory vagina in that one was the lovely Isabelle Adjani, who played "The Player". In Faster, the vagina is "Lily" (a real name!), who is played by Maggie Grace.

I liked the first thirty minutes of this. There was some good stuntwork and some impactful violence. But the cliches eventually ruin the experience. What sort of cop is Billy Bob? A cop close to retirement, of course. Is he an alcoholic? Yes. Does he have a pissed-off ex-wife? Whaddd'ya think?

As the cliches bubbled up to the top like the froth on a warm beer, I said to myself: Couldn't someone have done a quick final pass on this script and reworked some of the cliches?

Nope.

Black Swan has been a highly praised effort from director Aaron Aronofsky. It's about a perfectionist ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) who starts to lose her mind when another dancer, the slutty, delicious Mila Kunis, competes with her for the role of the 'Black Swan' in an upcoming performance of Swan Lake. The always excellent Vincent Cassell plays the ringmaster of the ballet company whose manipulations of the dancers are par for his ego-driven course.

Aronofsky takes a Grand Guignol approach to the material and produces what feels like an Argento film (when they were good, that is!) mixed with something by Andrzej Zulawski, the brilliant Polish director of Possession, The Most Important Thing Is To Love, and The Devil. Rather than adhering to standard form, Aronofsky explores Portman's paranoia and perfectionism in surreal and fascinating ways. The dancer's obsession with her limbs, feet, and fingers is conveyed in gloriously grotesque sequences involving cutting, bleeding, and disfigurement. The extreme focus on the body is, in fact, quite Cronerbergian.

Portman is sensational. Actually, she always has been. Since her luminous turn in Luc Besson's The Professional (aka 'Leon'), she's demonstrated amazing range and a subtle, transgressive quality that elevates her to a level above most American actresses (note her stellar work in Closer, for example). Kunis is fucking great as her competitor, and also proves an adept pillow biter in one scorching sequence (with Portman) that is as sizzling for its restraint as its context. Also worthy of praise is Barbara Hershey, who plays Portman's bitter mother. Her flashes of utter madness are evidence that Piper Laurie's 'Margaret White' character from Carrie is alive and well in hell and being channeled brilliantly by Hershey .

This is a film that I mentally gave 8.5/10 as I walked out of the theater. Now, a week later, I'd give it 9/10 because it really tries something different and succeeds.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest wraps up the trilogy that began with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. This is a more talky entry because our heroine, 'Lisbeth Salander', is recovering in hospital from the abuse she received at the hands of Neiderman, her albino attacker. If I have any criticism, it's that Mikael Blomkvist's character seems to be stuck in some script sludge. He doesn't do much in this third outing, and when the heat is turned up, he still doesn't do a lot. Still, the story is wrapped up with a couple of neat surprises and Salander gets some justice.

10 comments:

  1. FASTER was actually a pleasant surprise for me - all the archetypal character/plot setups didn't really bother me because it seemed like the real focus of the film was the inner confusion that drives its three main characters into dangerous action. I also liked the fact that film actually had THREE main characters and worked as an ensemble piece instead of a one-hero story, not to mention some nice moral ambiguity here and there. It might be a Hollywood flick but at least it was looking towards the 1970's glory days of tough-guy flicks instead of pandering to the youth market.

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  2. I have not seen Black Swan yet but I expect it to be one of the few high points in a somewhat bland/disappointing year for film.

    Have you got I Saw the Devil and White Lightnin' on your radar? Both tops in my book.

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  3. d -- I'm dying to see I SAW THE DEVIL (coming out thru Magnet in U.S.), WHITE LIGHTNIN', KINATAY, COLD FISH, and CONFESSIONS.

    Have you seen any of these yet?

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  4. I've only seen the 2 I mentioned. I Saw... is my favorite of the year so far--very grim and brutal stuff. White Lightnin' isn't what I would consider "my thing" but I gave it a look anyway and was glad I did.

    Cold Fish is something I urgently need to see. I have thoroughly enjoyed Sono thus far. Strange Circus is one that's stuck with me.

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  5. jervaise brooke hamsterDecember 16, 2010 at 2:56 PM

    Danny Boyle is a worthless piece of garbage and so are all of his films.

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  6. You have seen a good Argento film??

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  7. Agree on Sunshine, not a very good film, and I'm a bit of a SF fan.

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  8. mandingo -- a good Argento film? Not for decades. That guy's had more opportunities to get it right than any director I know.

    ***

    El Vox -- yes, SUNSHINE was one of the most ridiculous "science" fiction films I've ever seen. I'm also an SF fan, but more of literature these days. After seeing something like AVATAR lifting chunks from Jack Vance's work, I surrendered.

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  9. Hi PoP - I am SO looking forward to Black Swan. Thanks for this honest review - loved it. :-D

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  10. jervaise brooke hamsterDecember 23, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    Girl-dingo and Phantom, i know you`re both going to fall about laughing when i say this but i genuinely think "Mother Of Tears" is easily Argentos best film, its 100 times better than all that ludicrously over-rated hogwash he made back in the 70`s like "Suspiria" for instance.

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