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Black Swan, The Fighter, How Do You Know, TRON:Legacy, Dawn Treader 

BLACK SWAN

****

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a messy masterpiece. Like Apocalypse Now, Eraserhead and Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream, it's one of those films that will force viewers to either reject it outright or allow it, however reluctantly, to burrow into the brain and remain there for days, weeks, months on end. It's a character study writ large, a juicy melodrama operating at a fever pitch. And at its center is Natalie Portman in an astonishing performance that surpasses even her work in such films as Closer and V for Vendetta.

Portman's cast as Nina Sayers, a ballerina whose methods involve clockwork precision but leave little room for true passion. Nevertheless, her director (Vincent Cassel) decides to take a chance by casting her in the lead role of his production of Swan Lake. But in true All About Eve fashion, just as she replaced an aging star (a knockout bit by Winona Ryder), she fears being usurped by a sexy troupe newcomer (Mila Kunis).

Meanwhile, the home situation is equally strained, given the fanatical devotion of her mother (an excellent Barbara Hershey, in a twist on Piper Laurie's mad mom from Carrie). Is Nina strong enough to withstand myriad challenges, or is she on the verge of cracking up? The answers are all there, but the film is complex enough to leave wiggle room for any theories.

Examining the process of suffering for one's art in a strikingly unique manner, this psychosexual thriller is by turns frightening, sensual, humorous and tragic. It's a galvanizing picture that's simultaneously elegant and coarse -- like its protagonist, it manages to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

THE FIGHTER

***

True to form for controversial director David O. Russell (Three Kings), The Fighter takes a real-life story and turns it into a scrappy, hard-edged motion picture. Its focus is the relationship between Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer with real potential, and his brother-trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a boxing has-been and crack addict holding his sibling back. Micky's manager-mom (Melissa Leo) isn't much better in looking out for her pugilist son's welfare, leaving it to his new girlfriend (Amy Adams) to properly guide him.

The Fighter is initially so raw in its approach that it's a shame when it becomes less Raging Bull and more Rocky IV just in time for a conventional fadeout. And while the oversized theatrics of Bale and Leo have already generated Oscar buzz, I actually prefer the more subtle earnestness of Wahlberg and especially Adams (shucking her usual sunshine beaming for an unexpected toughness).

Still, all four actors (plus Jack McGee as Micky's sympathetic father) work well in tandem, and Russell and his scripters make the shifting dynamics among the family members ring true. The Fighter doesn't quite go the distance, but it's good enough to last several rounds.

HOW DO YOU KNOW

**1/2

Often as likable as a frolicking puppy -- and always as messy -- How Do You Know is one of those pictures in which everyone is so gosh-darn charismatic that the battle -- at least for the filmmakers -- is already half over. When compared to writer-director James L. Brooks' early efforts in television and cinema (Broadcast News and Mary Tyler Moore are two of the all-time greats, and Terms of Endearment and Taxi aren't too shabby, either), this latest work is a mere trifle.

But it's a fairly clever one, with Reese Witherspoon cast as Lisa, a professional softball player forced to choose between two guys: a baseball star (Owen Wilson) who's so smitten with Lisa that he agrees to a monogamous relationship (albeit one with the occasional "anonymous sex") and a squeaky-clean executive (Paul Rudd) being bamboozled by his corrupt dad (Jack Nicholson) into taking the fall for the old man's illegal activities. Witherspoon and Rudd are both adorable, and Nicholson has one killer scene set inside a hospital room.

Yet given the occasional blandness of the former couple's romantic interludes and the haziness of the latter's business dealings, the movie works best when Wilson is front and center. The actor doesn't stray from his patented mellow schtick, but by subjugating his hangdog aura for a more aggressively horndog sensibility, he provides the film with its most knowing laughs.

TRON: LEGACY

**

If the Disney-manufactured hype is to be believed, 1982's TRON was the Gone With the Wind of its day, a Citizen Kane for the modern age, a blockbusting, award-winning blah blah blah. No.

TRON was a lightly entertaining movie (and notorious box office underachiever) whose sole claim to fame was its groundbreaking, computer-generated effects. So not surprisingly, the primary focus for the makers of TRON: Legacy was to create visuals that take us to the next level. But did they have to do so at the expense of virtually every other department?

Certainly, the effects in this sequel are sometimes astounding (although the 3-D immersion is less pronounced than in Avatar), and, for the first hour, the film offers no small measure of fun. As he searches for Kevin Flynn (TRON star Jeff Bridges), the father who disappeared two decades earlier, Sam Flynn (wooden Garrett Hedlund) finds himself whisked into a digital landscape fraught with danger.

The setup is sound and the early action sequences are stirring, but then the film settles into a sameness that allows viewers to focus too intently on the feeble plotting, the tired dialogue, the unfortunate performances (as the opportunistic Zuse, Michael Sheen camps it up like a villain from the old Batman TV show) and the awful use of the character of TRON himself (returning Bruce Boxleitner). By the time this overlong feature arrives at the anticlimactic standoff between Kevin and his digital alter ego CLU (a creepily de-aged Bridges), most viewers will be wanting their quarters back.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER

*1/2

On the sliding scale of Narnia adaptations, 2008's Prince Caspian was slightly better than 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but any hope for continued ascendancy in this franchise ends with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. A costly franchise that switched studios midstream, the Narnia series (based, of course, on C.S. Lewis' books) has always come across as timid fantasy fare, squeezing out all the danger and intrigue inherent in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film cycles.

Such an overly cautious approach especially nullifies the content of this torpid installment and renders it toothless -- just the opposite of what we should expect from a series featuring a lion as its most powerful character. The protagonists -- returning siblings Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes) and obnoxious newcomer Eustace (Will Poulter) -- are bruisingly boring (paging the Potter kids!), and their adventures aboard the title seafaring vessel are only slightly less moldy than their skirmishes on land. Forget the Titanic: The Dawn Treader is the real sinking ship.

 

 

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