Blue Valentine

Cindy: How do you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?
Gramma: I think the only way to find out is to have those feelings.

When they say, “For better of for worse,” in wedding vows, I believe they are referring to “Blue Valentine” in regards to the worse part. Novice feature filmmaker Derek Cianfrance’s latest is a very particular snapshot of a very specific place in a relationship that far too many people know far too well. And only few of those people live to tell the tale with their wits still about them. In reality, this space is an incredibly difficult test of the mind, the spirit and the heart and every effort is usually made to avoid getting there. It is one of the darkest stages a relationship can reach but Cianfrance is not the least bit afraid of the dark.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, an indie dream couple if I’ve ever heard one before, are Dean and Cindy, a young couple with a little girl, living their married life in rural Pennsylvania. They have been together for six years but those years have been far from kind. At the moment we meet them, Dean is feeding his daughter breakfast while Cindy is getting ready for work – an ordinary morning for many a couple, I’m sure. The difference here is that this kitchen is weighted down with a crushing tension that is evident in every look given and every word spoken. She seems appalled by his every action and influence over their daughter and he seems to know it. The room is rotten with the stench of hatred.

Dean and Cindy know they don’t have much time left and decide to get a room at a cheap motel in New York City for the night in hopes of working through their issues and rekindling their romance. Their intentions are sincere but the fight is so insurmountable at times, they each struggle with their resolve. Gosling, while somewhat overwrought in his character’s intensity, must be commended for the amount of evident effort he made to make Dean real and not just a bad husband. That said, Williams is heartbreaking every moment she is on screen. Even the manner in which she clasps her fists during one of the film’s many sexual moments is emotionally devastating. Together, they genuinely feel like two people who have been oscillating between love and hate for years, so much so that it can be too much to take at times.

Cianfrance is a brave man for going to as many places of despair in “Blue Valentine” as he does but he’s not stupid. He knows that an audience needs to breathe so he tells the entire story of their relationship in moments so that we can see that there once was a time when these two knew happiness, that there is another reason other than their daughter that they are fighting to stay together. The device is somewhat manipulative at times as its obvious point is to make us feel even worse that their relationship doesn’t seem to be salvageable. “Blue Valentine” did make me feel pretty bad. I had been in some variation of that relationship in my life and it was hard enough to deal with then so, as fantastic as the film is in its most candid moments, I’m not sure everyone is ready to go back there again.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

True Grit

Proverbs 28:1 – “The wicked flee when none pursueth.”

Opening with a Bible quote like that might seem pretentious, but knowing Ethan and Joel Coen, you can tell that they’re being facetious. Or are they? To be honest, I’m not quite sure… Little about this film seems to fit with what I usually expect from the brothers. Oh, it’s pretty much as skillfully crafted as anything they’ve ever made and, here and there, you can see some of their razor-sharp wit cut through, but not nearly as often as usual. This is an uncharacteristically stodgy picture for them, as if, for the first time, they started to believe their own hype and figured that, post-“No Country for Old Men”, they might as well try to make another Oscar-ready film…

It’s in the opening voice-over narration from the adult Mattie Ross, who looks back on the days a quarter century prior when, at age 14, she rode along with the notorious U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges); in the oddly sentimental Carter Burwell score; in the overly slow pace and solemn tone; and in the epilogue, which is clearly striving for significance and emotion the film hasn’t earned. Usually, the Coen only seem interested in following their whimsy, and the result is almost always either funny, thrilling, thought-provoking or all of the above. Not this time.

It’s a shame because I was totally ready to fall in love with this re-adaptation of the Charles Portis novel which, back in 1969, inspired the Henry Hathaway film for which John Wayne won his only Oscar. I’m a big fan of Westerns and, early into this new version of “True Grit”, I was taken by the look and feel of Fort Smith, Arkansas, by all the men wandering around with cowboy hats on their heads and all kinds of facial hair on their faces, by the glimpses of the vast surrounding landscapes… This was gonna be awesome!

But then, as little Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) went around town looking to hire a man to help her find and bring to justice her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), eventually settling on the aforementioned Rooster Cogburn but having a hard time convincing him to accept her offer, then having Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) involve himself in the matter, I started growing impatient. The Coen seem to be in love with the flowery, ornate language of this piece, but the endless, often pointless-seeming chatter eventually got on my nerves. Half an hour into the movie, the characters still hadn’t left Fort Smith to go after Chaney and, even once they embarked on their journey, they kept on arguing between each other, repeatedly stalling the progression of their mission and that of the movie itself.

In theory, I guess I could appreciate the idea of a Western where most of the gunfights are replaced by long sterile arguments, as if the characters were old ladies having tea instead of hardened men of the law chasing a murderer. Yet watching “True Grit”, I found this neither clever or amusing, just dull and frustrating. I have to point out that none of the characters made much of an impression on me, even though they’re all played by capable actors. I was particularly disappointed by Jeff Bridges’ turn as the one-eyed, gravelly-voiced Cogburn, an old drunken asshole who’s mumbling, rambling and, dare I say it, rather boring. As for Hailee Steinfeld, who’s been hailed as the revelation of the film by some, she did little for me. She’s good enough, but her character is a bit one-note; precocious, assertive, mature beyond her years, Mattie is admirably driven, but I would have liked to see more vulnerability in her, some sense that she realized she might be in way over her head.

Eventually, “True Grit” is enlivened by some intense bursts of violence and the climax is involving enough, but it’s ultimately too little, too late. Moment to moment, the film is just not that rewarding, and on the whole, it doesn’t add up to much. Roger Deakins‘s gorgeous cinematography notwithstanding, the Coen’s latest is pretty much a letdown all around.

Rabbit Hole

“You’re trying to rope me into having sex.”
“I am not, I wasn’t roping you into sex.”
“Al Green isn’t roping?”
“Al Green!”

The above exchange kinda embodies the peculiar, distinctive feel of “Rabbit Hole”, an adaptation of the David Lindsay-Abaire play about a grieving couple who, 8 months after their young son died in an accident, is still feeling the aftershocks. Amongst other things, the wife, Becca (Nicole Kidman), hasn’t been able to make love since, which of course has been a bit hard for her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart), even though he’s being patient and understanding… Still, he’s trying to reignite their relationship as well as he can, which isn’t easy considering how antsy Becca still is. Drama, tension, unexpected humor… Characters who you feel empathy for, but who can frustrate you at the same time… It’s messy, harsh, all too human stuff, and this is what makes “Rabbit Hole” such a compelling watch.

As directed by John Cameron Mitchell, in a style much less outrageous than in his previous “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus”, “Rabbit Hole” is full of sentiment without being sentimental, it’s not afraid to make its characters seem unsympathetic. A lesser film would make the mother-who-lost-a-child protagonist into a victim who’s constantly crying or a saint who bravely keeps her head up in spite of it all, but here, Becca is just pissed off. At God. At her husband. At her sister (Tammy Blanchard), at her mother (Dianne Wiest), at random people she runs into… At herself. But oddly enough, not at the teenager (Miles Teller) who was driving the car that hit her boy, a young man whom she feels she has to spend some time with, because… Just because.

Against the subtle storytelling, the generally hushed tone, the soft colors of the cinematography, the smooth flow of the editing and the delicate score, the sharp angles and rough edges of Nicole Kidman’s performance appear all the more vividly. Aaron Eckhart also delivers a powerful, slow-burn performance, and the rest of the cast (which also features the great Sandra Oh in a key supporting part) is very solid as well. “Rabbit Hole” is not the most dazzling, spectacular of pictures, but in a series of small moments and little touches, it gets to you, it really does.

How Do You Know

Psychiatrist: Figure out what you want and how to ask for it.

Lisa: Those are both really hard.

Silly me. I assumed that “How Do You Know”, the new film by Academy Award winning director James L. Brooks, was asking an age old question about how you know when you’re actually in love. I did not realize that what it could also be asking is: how do you know when you’re watching a bad movie? For me, I knew when I was about half way through this muddled mess of a romantic comedy and still had no idea what the story actually was. Everything looked so pretty that I hadn’t noticed that Brooks had yet to make any effort to answer the question himself.

Reese Witherspoon returns to the big screen for the first time in two years in what certainly must have looked like a good project on paper. Everyone wants to know how you know you’re in love, including her character, Lisa, an Olympic softball player whose career has just stalled and whose interest in finding love seems to have stalled long before that. She is going through the motions with her casual boyfriend, Matty (Owen Wilson) but the clueless twosome actually think they are breaking new relationship ground every time he makes some space for her in his sock drawer. Meanwhile, Paul Rudd’s George is going through a crisis of his own but he knows without a doubt that Lisa is the girl for him. Naturally, we know as well too so we just have to sit around and wait for Lisa to get on the same page as everyone else.

If George can figure the whole love thing out, it stands to reason that anyone can, but Lisa and Matty exist on this plain where apparently love is a convoluted concept, that is as hard to understand as Jack Nicholson’s decision to appear in this farce. Love needn’t be so complicated but at least one thing is clear in this film – Brooks doesn’t know how you know anymore than anyone else does.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Tron: Legacy

Kevin Flynn – “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man!”

You gotta love Jeff Bridges. Even in a cold, empty, artificial blockbuster like “Tron: Legacy”, the guy manages to bring a modicum of warmth, soul and spontaneity, coming off like a cross between The Dude and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Original Trilogy, old Kenobi, that is. I make this precision because most everything else about this flick feels closer to the “Star Wars” prequels, particularly the performance of Garrett Hedlund, who’s almost as uncharismatic as Hayden Christensen was in “Attack of the Clones”.

From what I understand, when it opened back in 1982, “Tron” seemed to be way ahead of its time, notably for its use of computer-generated imagery and the way its story embraced the then still nascent world of video games. 28 years later, practically every big Hollywood production relies heavily on CGI to dazzle and, both from an aesthetic and narrative standpoint, many blockbusters now seem to be big-screen versions of video games.

As such, a movie like “Tron: Legacy” doesn’t seem all that unique in 2010 and, even though the creators of this sequel clearly put a lot of time and money into updating the special effects, the result is hardly revolutionary. As for the use of 3D technology, it’s fine I guess, but I’m still waiting for a film that even approaches what “Avatar” accomplished in that regard…

That being said, “Tron: Legacy” could still have at least been an entertaining watch, but I can’t say it really is. The screenplay by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, for one, is a laborious affair, full of exposition scenes detailing the workings and the evolution of the virtual environment Kevin Flynn (Bridges) created in the original and where, we learn, he’s been trapped for 20 years because Clu (Bridges again, made to look younger through a not-so-convincing digital makeover), an avatar which he created back in the day, has turned against him and taken control of The Grid. It’s up to Flynn’s son Sam (Hedlund) to find his old man and return to the outside world with him, which ultimately appears to be a pretty easy feat to pull off.

Or more precisely, it never seems like the characters are in much danger, as the whole thing feels oddly static and lacks in urgency. Even the famed disc battles and Light Cycles races aren’t all that exciting. First-time director Joseph Kosinski is probably to blame for that. The impression I get is that he was so busy perfecting the clean, minimalist design of the virtual landscapes, vehicles, costumes and weapons that he forgot to try to make us care about the characters and what happens to them. As mentioned, Bridges is fun enough, and I also enjoyed Michael Sheen‘s goofball turn as an androgynous club owner, but Hedlund is thoroughly dull, as are Olivia Wild and the rest of the cast members.

Watching “Tron: Legacy”, it hit me that in bringing this franchise into the 21st century, the filmmakers wanted it to be “The Matrix”. Alas, it’s not even “The Matrix Reloaded”. At best, it’s the Wachowski’s “Speed Racer”, if that…

The one element of “Tron: Legacy” I loved unequivocally is the score by French electronic music duo Daft Punk, which is all kinds of awesome, more so than anything on screen. As far as I’m concerned, you might as well skip the movie and just buy the soundtrack.


There’s a bit of controversy surrounding the nature of this picture, which, if I’ve got this right, was originally conceived as a TV mini-series before someone decided to release it theatrically as a movie. Two movies, actually: one a condensed 3-hour version, and the other encompassing the full 5.5 hours of the mini-series (the latter is the one I saw).

Now, whatever the intention was at the beginning, it’s easy to see why one would want this to be considered as a film, because every frame of “Carlos” screams cinema. The epic scope, the relentless narrative drive, the complexity and the density of the storytelling, the way archival footage is weaved throughout, the rich tapestry of characters, the gorgeously stylish cinematography, the riveting set pieces, the use of songs by artists like The Feelies, New Order, A Certain Ratio, Wire, The Dead Boys and The Lightning Seeds… This is truly some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen all year.

Édgar Ramírez stars as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos, who from 1973 to 1994, was involved in numerous acts of international terrorism: assassination attempts, bombings, hostage takings (including the 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna)… A Venezuelan, he fought for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and for anti-imperialism in general, along with comrades from the Middle East, Japan, Germany and other places around the world. This doesn’t quite make sense, to a non-militant person like me anyway, but even though I didn’t fully understand the politics of the guy and certainly didn’t approve of his methods, there’s no denying that he makes for a truly compelling movie antihero, especially as portrayed by Ramírez, who manages to be alternately cool, sexy, badass, arrogant and loathsome.

As brilliantly directed by Olivier Assayas, “Carlos” calls to mind the great espionage thrillers and gangster films of the 1970s, as well as some more recent works such as “Munich” but in reverse (here the protagonist is pro-Palestine, anti-Israel) and “Che”, the protagonist of which is name-checked early on as an example of how revolutionaries tend to end up dead (which, as you can guess, didn’t stop Carlos from soldiering on anyway).

To be honest, the 330-minute running length of the uncut version is a bit much to sit through. Some of the third part, the stuff with Carlos’ wife for instance, is not all that interesting, and the ending is rather anticlimactic. Of course, there was no avoiding that considering how, even though he often repeated that it was destiny to die in a blaze of bullets, he ended up getting arrested while he was in the hospital because his testicles hurt, for chrissakes! Still, on the whole, Assayas’ film packs a whole lot of excitement and remains a must-see.

The Fighter

Early on, “The Fighter” star/producer Mark Wahlberg approached Martin Scorsese to direct the film. Then Darren Aronofsky was attached for a while, but ended up stepping down, though he’s still credited as an executive producer. I’m going through this little bit of development history because the final film, which ended up being directed by David O. Russell, has much less in common with the latter’s previous work (including “Three Kings” and “i ♥ huckabees”, which featured Wahlberg) than with, say, Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”.

Like “Raging Bull”, Russell’s film tells the real-life story of a a boxer from a working class background who, amongst other things, had to deal with a rocky relationship with his brother. That boxer is “Irish” Micky Ward (Wahlberg) who, at the time we catch up with him, seems to be wasting away his potential. Part of the blame has to go to his half-brother and trainer Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale), the onetime “Pride of Lowell” who, in 1978, actually knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. At the time when the movie begins though, he hasn’t boxed professionally in nearly a decade, having instead gotten addicted to crack and involved in various criminal activities. Not the most reliable guy to have in your corner, right? Likewise, Micky could do better for a manager than his brash, trashy mother (Melissa Leo)…

He could be a contender (like Brando’s character in “On the Waterfront” never got to be) instead of a bum but for that, he might have to get rid of these two who seem to be dragging him down. Which leads to the central theme of “The Fighter”: where does family loyalty end? It’s heartbreaking stuff, really, even if you understand why Micky would want to keep Dickie, his ma and all the others away. To that end, he gets moral support from his feisty new girlfriend (Amy Adams), but by the time he gets a title shot, he can’t help but bring his brother, the one who taught him everything, who used to be his hero, back in his corner. Maybe this time it’ll work out? That’s where the drama lies, as much as in whether or not he’ll win the fight.

Boxing as catharsis, boxing as a way to redemption… Nothing we haven’t seen before, but it works, damn it, and I grew really involved with Ward’s story and rooted hard for him to finally come out a winner. Furthermore, “The Fighter” does somewhat feel different than many other movies in the genre because of its very realistic, gritty, intimate approach. Which is where the comparison with “The Wrestler” comes in. Like that film, “The Fighter” is not so much a sports drama as a character study, and what great characters we’ve got here! Dicky in particular is absolutely fascinating, especially as played by Bale in one of his absolute best performances. Not just because he lost a whole bunch of weight (again), transforming himself physically to be eerily convincing as a crack addict, but because of the way he manages to be charming and funny even though he’s a fuck-up, making you understand why it’s so hard for Micky to break away from him. It’s on the level of Samuel L. Jackson’s performance in “Jungle Fever”, high praise indeed.

As directed by David O. Russell from a screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, “The Fighter” impresses by its no-nonsense approach, by the way it flirts with melodrama but remains low-key enough to avoid it, by its blend of pathos and good-spirited humor, and by its shaggy, harsh, messy quality, perfectly appropriate considering the milieu it’s depicting, i.e. one of the toughest neighborhoods of Lowell, Massachusetts. There’s an unstaged, unpredictable feel to many of the scenes, particularly those involving a large part of the supporting cast, which includes Jack McGee as Micky’s dad, Mickey O’Keefe in his own role of a cop/gym owner, and the actresses playing Dickey and Micky’s seven sisters.

Another thing I found interesting is the way Russell and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema switch between various film stocks, specifically for the parts that replicate the look of the documentary that was made about Dicky, some Super 8 home movies, and the big fight scenes that are shot on Betacam and made to look like we’re watching actual TV broadcasts of them. Props as well to composer Michael Brook for his ambient, Brian Eno-like score, which is complemented by an awesome soundtrack featuring tracks by Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Traffic, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Whitesnake, The Heavy and others, not to mention an oddly touching rendition of The Bee Gees’ I Started a Joke by Bale and Leo’s characters.

Chances are pretty good that “The Fighter” will be one of the frontrunners of the next Oscar race and that’d be okay by me. It’s hardly as visionary as something like “Black Swan”, “Inception” or whatnot, but it’s quality work all the way.

The Tourist

Frank Tupelo: You’re ravenous.
Elise Clifton-Ward: Do you mean ravishing?
Frank: Yes, I do.
Elise: You’re ravenous.

Some poor sap of a math teacher from Wisconsin is sitting on a train en route to Venice from Paris when it happens. A devastatingly beautiful woman enters his car and spots the empty seat in front of him. Her gaze throws him completely off balance and from the moment she sits down, he doesn’t stand a chance. Who is she? Why would she sit with him when she could sit with any man she wanted? You just know that by the time they get off the train, their lives will be desperately intertwined. This is how Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, two of today’s biggest stars, meet in German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s first American foray, “The Tourist”. It’s all so old Hollywood but sadly it’s also all so transparently so.

Sometimes star power can have a blinding effect. The wattage can burn so bright that you don’t necessarily see how distracting it is from the actual film. And with stars as big as Depp and Jolie in your picture, it isn’t surprising that von Donnersmark, the man behind Oscar winner “The Lives of Others”, didn’t notice that they were not necessarily the best choices for their roles. Depp, with his beautiful hair and instinctual charm, is anything but a believable sap. Still, that charm inevitably saves him from coming off farcical and his decidedly anti-Bourne jaunt across shackled rooftops is certainly amusing. Meanwhile, Jolie seems to have been directed to walk around like a fembot of sorts, cold and false, from her perfect walk to her supposedly British accent. They are stars for a reason though and before long, the impossibly pretty people in the pretty foreign place lull you into comfortable and classical state of intrigue.

The setup for “The Tourist” is straight out of a Hitchcock movie. All the elements of a tantalizing mystery are there but all the goods are given away upfront so there is nothing left to guess at. Of course, seeing as how we don’t live in classical Hollywood, modern necessities like twists and surprises must occur and they are neither twisted nor surprising but at least they aren’t insulting. And so like a real tourist on a mediocre vacation that promised to be so gorgeous in the brochure, the stay is acceptable, at times even enjoyable, but we are happy to know we are going home when the credits roll.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Black Swan

One of the central themes of “Black Swan” is the notion that perfection is not necessarily just about getting every step right. To become transcendent, you have to let go at some point and to accept to get lost, because that’s the only way to surprise both yourself and the audience. This is the challenge facing Natalie Portman‘s character Nina, a ballerina desperate to star in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as both the White Swan and the Black Swan, but also the one director Darren Aronofsky has set for himself in making the film.

It has long been my belief that, often times, it is indeed preferable to sacrifice some degree of precision and control in order to make a movie that feels edgier, more alive, less predictable. One can easily picture a more classical version of “Black Swan” that, somewhat like “The Wrestler”, would stick to being an intimate, vérité feeling character study. That film would probably be an easier sell with general audiences and the Academy but Aronofsky, working from a screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin, has let the instincts that served him so well in more out-there efforts like “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain” peek through “Black Swan”, often making it feel less like a naturalistic backstage drama than a trippy, visceral, genre-influenced exercise in style.

Beauty and horror coexist all through the story of Nina, as she struggles to perfect her art while slowly but surely losing her grasp on reality. Shot mostly with handheld cameras, edited in a way that masterfully blurs the line between what Portman’s character is experiencing and what she’s only imagining, and scored evocatively by Clint Mansell with a keen understanding of how to slide in and out of Tchaikovsky’s music, “Black Swan” uses all these elements of cinema and others (art direction, sound design, etc.) to alternately make us feel deeply involved with the protagonist and to create a disconnect with her. One moment we’re totally rooting for this sweet girl to get all the success and happiness she deserves, the next we only wish this clearly disturbed young woman would get some help…

Natalie Portman is jaw-dropping in the lead role, delivering a stunningly complex and layered performance and, as such, turning Nina into an utterly heartbreaking tragic figure. Everyone else in the stellar cast around her is great as well: Barbara Hershey as her emotionally manipulative mother, Mila Kunis as a sexy, threatening yet alluring rival dancer, Vincent Cassel as their brilliant but lecherous director, Winona Ryder as the bitter former prima ballerina of the company…

Flirting with the grace and discipline of ballet only to wilfully go off the rails and turn into a riveting mindfuck of a “lezzy wet dream”, “Black Swan” further establishes Darren Aronofsky as one of the true visionaries of contemporary American cinema. His latest film has been compared to the works of Polanski, Cronenberg, Lynch, De Palma, Argento and others, but it’s ultimately very much its own thing.

David O. Russell

Spanking the Monkey

Flirting with Disaster 73
[ review ]

Three Kings 90
[ review ]

i ♥ Huckabees 69
[ review ]

The Fighter 90
[ review ]


Silver Linings Playbook 85
[ I love these recent David O. Russell movies. They take a familiar genre and make it feel fresh and exciting. Here, you’re pretty much dealing with a romantic comedy, except it’s often frantic and full of nervous energy, both in the way the characters behave and in the way the film is put together, and you have to catch up to the storytelling, which rushes forward, dropping bits of backstory left and right… Plus, almost everyone on screen is a little bit crazy, with mental illness being handled as the mess that it is, but also with heart and some humor. Finally, Russell really knows how to get the best out of his actors these days and it’s a thrill to watch Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, who were all nominated at the Oscars for this. Excelsior! ]

American Hustle 87
[ review ]