Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Film Round-Up, February 2011

Anyone up for quick-hit reviews of recently released Oscar noms? Yes? Yes! Blue Valentine got robbed. That's all I'll say.

These reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Biutiful (Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu). Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernández, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff. Set in the gritty Barcelona underworld, Bardem plays a street criminal diagnosed with terminal cancer who struggles to settle his personal and professional issues—reconciling with his manic depressive, estranged wife (Álvarez), trying to improve conditions for his immigrant employees—before time runs out. Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) lets the story leisurely progress, examining the nooks and crannies of the crook's crumbling life as well as his associates' struggles. Bardem's riveting, lived-in performance and Iñárritu's refusal to peddle sentiment or muse on the afterlife make you care. But the film's sprawl—specifically its length (147 minutes) and open-ended format—ultimately makes it hard to warm up to. Flawed, sure, but Iñárritu remains a director who finds a compelling way to tell a story. That's worth something, especially in a world where (as of press time) Little Fockers makes over $120 million at the box office. *** [R]

Blue Valentine (Dir: Derek Cianfrance). Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman, Mike Vogel. Heart-breaking, powerful, and utterly captivating story of a young working-class Pennsylvania couple (Gosling, Williams) whose marriage we see fall apart over the course of two days. In between the errands and last-gasp lovemaking, we see flashbacks as to how they became a couple and that they were pretty much doomed from the start. Cianfrance, who also co-wrote the script, gives us the pieces to complete the picture. He doesn't take sides; he doesn't pull punches or offer easy resolutions. The evocative camerawork and the terrific performances by the leads—Williams summons more empathy from her expressions than just about anyone alive; Gosling is so jittery and desperate that his fear is practically palpable—create an epic emotional tale out of regular life. There is a difference between finding the love of your life and the love of a certain time of your life. Blue Valentine examines the second unfortunate option in a way you cannot forget. **** [R]

The King's Speech (Dir: Tom Hooper). Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon. In 1925, the future King George VI (Firth) suffered perhaps his greatest embarrassment, epically butchering a nationally broadcast speech at Wembley stadium. The royal scion then stayed in the background for the better part of a decade until the death of his unforgiving father, King George V (Gambon), and the scandal-plagued abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII (Pearce), required him to step forward. By the new king's side was Australian Lionel Logue (Rush), a failed actor and makeshift speech therapist. In smoothing over his client's crippling stammer, Logue also uncovered the confidence befitting a king. Don't let the royal trappings and fancy-pants cast fool you: The King's Speech is Good Will Hunting sans complex math and Boston accents. But it hooks you, anyway. Straightforward and stirring, the feel-good movie is helped immeasurably by the sublime performances of Firth and Rush, whose characters find a lasting friendship beneath a reluctant partnership and obvious class differences. Based on a true story. Rush served as an executive producer. **** [R]

Black Swan (Dir: Darren Aronofsky). Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder. Ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) wants nothing more than to be perfect. Playing the White Swan and Black Swan in a Lincoln Center production of Swan Lake would appear to be validation, but the presence of an uninhibited, naturally gifted dancer (Kunis, perfectly cast) and the non-stop criticism of the dance company's lecherous artistic director (Cassel) cause Nina's psyche to rage in unimaginable ways. Aronofsky's much publicized drama is unrelenting in profiling the psychological unraveling of a sheltered talent, but his refusal to step back, coupled with his decision to stage Nina's breakdown as bizarro theater, leads to a film that's obscured by allegory, symbolism, and self-congratulatory cleverness. Black Swan isn't so much a film as the celebration of an idea. It's all a pretentious front, and not a surprise given Aronofsky's past work (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream). Probably 2010's most overrated film—and one that will unfairly grab a handful of Oscar nominations. ** [R]

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