Sunday, March 6, 2011

Blue Valentine

ABOVE: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in a scene from Blue Valentine.

Dir. by Derek Cianfrance
Starring Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling

Marriage is said to be a union between two people that is meant to last for better or for worse (and in fact, Ryan Gosling reminds us of this in a memorable scene from the film). But what happens when the worst parts of a marriage drive a couple so far over the edge that they are forced to wonder why they married in the first place? The result is Blue Valentine, a very realistic examination of what can happen when a marriage occurs for the wrong reasons.

The film opens with Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) sending their daughter to stay with Cindy's father, so that they may have an evening alone. Dean wants to go to a sex motel but Cindy isn't feeling up to it. In the end, Dean makes a reservation regardless of what she wants, and the two buy some liquor and prepare for an evening of intimacy. What happens next is told in a series of flashbacks between what lead to their romance beginning and what leads to its eventual demise.

The best thing about this film is the way in which it never flinches from reality. This is a film about two very realistic people, in a very realistic situation, with a very realistic outcome. The fact that it does feel so real is what often makes the viewer uncomfortable throughout the film. Shot almost as though it's a documentary, we feel almost like flies on the wall as we gaze into the collapse of Dean and Cindy's romance.

Cindy is a nurse, who had great dreams to be a doctor before the birth of her daughter. Dean does small jobs as a house painter, devoting most of his time to being a family man. The problem with the family, is that the relationship between Dean and Cindy is not working, and what is most uncomfortable (and demonstrated through flashbacks) is that it never did in the first place.

Dean is a fun-loving and humourous man who has left his father in Miami and moved to New York to have fun and live life. Cindy is a fragile and uptight girl who is studying very hard to become a doctor so that she can leave her life and her two miserable parents behind her. She is also very promiscuous, and this trait is perhaps what leads her to Dean in the first place. Flashing back to the present, Cindy is trying to explore why Dean chooses not to make anything of his life, and Dean is a bit reproachful toward Cindy because of her continuing success as a nurse.

There is nothing that Cianfrance will not show us throughout the film. As audience members, we have a front seat to not only Dean and Cindy's moments of passion and intimacy, but also their vicious arguments and emotional attacks on each other.

There is, however, a fundamental problem with this film. It is certainly acted beautifully (particularly by Gosling, who gives the most memorable performance as Dean) and the dialogue never fails to sound completely genuine. The underlying issue with the film is the character of Cindy. Michelle Williams plays her unflinchingly as a woman who feels trapped in a marriage she may (or may not) realize that she never should have entered into. What's wrong is the way that Dean and Cindy are developed as characters. Gosling plays Dean as a fun loving man, and sprinkles some much needed humour into the film to take the heat off of some of the more intense scenes. Dean is a such a well rounded character, that Cindy comes across as unbalanced. There is some back story given into the marriage of Cindy's parent, but it s only hinted on briefly and never mentioned again. I feel as though the screenwriter's intention was to have Cindy demonstrate an incapability to love, as a result of her parent's endless squabbles. However, Cindy comes across as cold and bitter throughout the entire film. Placing that Cindy next to Gosling's light-hearted Dean, most of the issues in the relationship end up being Cindy's. This is not really a bad thing but in a movie about a failed marriage, I would have liked to see more blame being put on Dean as well so that when he is driven to do a horrible thing toward the film's conclusion (which pushes Cindy over the edge), we can feel bad for Cindy rather than still feel most of the pity for Dean.

Overall, it is a film worth seeing for those who appreciate a gritty drama acted supremely by Gosling and Williams.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

Black Swan

ABOVE: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dances the role of Swan Lake's 'Swan Queen' in Black Swan.

Dir. by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel

There is a moment in Black Swan where Nina Sayers (played masterfully by Natalie Portman) laments "I just want to be perfect." Perhaps this was Aronofsky's catchphrase while making this film. Or perhaps he just wanted to make the best film he could. Either way, he succeeds with Black Swan.

Young ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) has long been a member of a ballet company presided over by the intimidating Tomas Leroy (Cassel). After he promises to feature her more in the upcoming season, Nina practices relentlessly in an attempt to win the coveted dual role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Tomas admires Nina's technique, which makes for a perfect White Swan. However, he feels that she does not have what it takes to dance the passionate and free spirited Black Swan. He decides to give her the role, but later comes to prefer newcomer Lily's (Kunis) Black Swan over hers. What follows is a descent into madness, as Nina brings out her dark side in an attempt to prove herself as the ultimate Swan Queen.

Aronofsky has proven with his previous films (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) that he is not only unafraid of taking chances, but also that he is capable of bringing out the best in his actors. He helped to resurrect the career of Mickey Rourke, and now he has found a muse in the form of Natalie Portman. Portman plays Nina perfectly, proving that not only can she portray both innocence and insanity (often within the same shot), but also makes it appear as though she has years of ballet training under her belt. It is an unforgettable performance.

What makes this film unforgettable is the fact that it is fearless. With the story arc that Portman and Aronofsky have worked together to meticulously create, it is clear that Nina can go down any road and the audience will follow her with intense desire, desperate to see what she does next.

Portman is also not the only actor to shine in this film. As Lily, Mila Kunis (of That 70s show fame) demonstrates some very impressive acting chops in scenes where she must match Portman in terms of intensity. The two actresses have an undeniable chemistry, and they are a pleasure to watch on screen. Also impressive is Barbara Hershey as Nina's overprotective mother, who will do anything to protect her 'sweet girl.' The film is not only a master class in acting, but in directing as well.

Aronofsky pulls out all the stops on this film. The film moves very swiftly as it follows Nina's descent into insanity. He chooses to alternate between wide shots, which brilliantly demonstrate the film's choreography and talent of its dancers, and sharp close-ups which often shake as though filmed on a hand-held camera. The locations used are also very fitting to the film, especially the dance studio where Aronofsky uses mirrors to his advantage in order to create some truly chilling scenes.

This is a perfect film, switching between horror and melodrama almost effortlessly. The music, both of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Clint Mansell's haunting original score, serves as a brilliant backdrop to a truly exceptional film. This is a film that deserves all of the praise it receives, and is worthy of multiple viewings.


NOTE: Natalie Portman was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Nina Sayers, with the film receiving 4 other nominations including Best Picture and Director.


Above: Lubna Azabal in a scene from Incendies.

Dir. by Denis Villeneuve

Incendies is a film that Canada can be very proud of. It is brilliantly acted and exquisitely shot, with a story that is ultimately quite original and somewhat devastating.

The film opens with two twins, Jeanne and Simon, who are having their mother Nawal's will read to them by it's executor (their mother's former boss). The will begins typically, with a request to have the twins divide her assets as they see fit. However, the reading soon takes an unexpected twist when the executor produces two letters. One is for Jeanne, to be delivered to their father (whom they believe to be dead). The other is addressed to Simon, and is to be delivered to their brother (whom they had no idea existed). After an argument with Simon, Jeanne takes both letters and embarks on a quest to the Middle East to seek out the truth of her mother's past. The rest of the film unfolds with scenes cutting between Jeanne's present day quest, and flashbacks depicting Nawal's past.

The film is a very ambitious project, and is filmed in a very intense style. It is made clear at the beginning of the film what direction the film is going to go in, and the film immediately blazes down a trail of family secrets, all pointing back to Jeanne as she tries to piece together the horrors of Nawal's past.

Villeneuve directs the project with passion, being sure to use just the right balance of close-up and wide shots to not only constantly depict his character's emotions but also to demonstrate the crushing fate of a war torn Lebanon. The screenplay is also very clever, combining just the right amount of mystery and heartbreak, making the film's inevitable conclusion very poignant (and extremely shocking).

The film's only real complication is its length. At 130 minutes, one gets the feeling that maybe not all of the scenes are necessary to give the film the same devastating impact it ends up having. However, at the same time there is no one scene that could be pointed directly to and called unnecessary. It is somewhat frustrating, but in the end the only thing that bothered me about the film. When was it going to end?

It should also be noted that the ending to this film is a complete shock, and causes the entire tone of the film to change. It is somewhat heartbreaking to see Jeanne and Simon come to the conclusion that they really knew nothing about their mother at all. As the audience follows Nawal in flashbacks, a shocking twist is added into the story that ends up having a devastating impact on the lives of Jeanne and Simon.

Overall, the film is a very enjoyable project and certainly an ambitious one that I am proud to say was produced by my native country of Canada. For those interested in films about mystery, war, and a mother's undying love for her children, this is a film not to be missed.


NOTE: Incendies is produced by the Canadian province of Quebec. As such, it is a French language film with English subtitles.