Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Natalie Portman”

Jackie

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th January 2017

4.5 stars, Rated M, 99 mins

The first thing that strikes you when watching Natalie Portman on screen as Jackie Kennedy is that the actress must have done her homework. Portman, an Oscar winner for Black Swan who has forged a reputable career since she debuted at age 12 in Leon: The Professional, took a break from Hollywood to complete a psychology degree at Harvard because she considers being smart more important than being famous. And so, if the strangely accented, halting drawl comes across as a bit mannered in her evocation of JFK’s First Lady, rest assured that Portman will have worked tirelessly for this role, and what we’re seeing is the real deal.

jackie

Jackie is a strange sort of biopic in many ways. Principally, it doesn’t seek to tell the tale from the beginning – we learn nothing of how the socialite met her prince and established the house of Camelot. Instead, the film focuses on the days surrounding JFK’s assassination in Dallas, skipping between Jackie’s interview with a dispassionate reporter (a steely and terrific Billy Crudup) as she conjures up recollections of that dreadful day, and a depiction of the actual event and its immediate aftermath.

With a great cast and evident dedication to accurately relaying history, it’s an often devastating watch. Portman’s superb performance as distraught widow is underscored by the tension between her right to privately grieve and a lack of time in which to do it. The brutal haste with which JFK is succeeded is galling: Vice President and Lady Johnson (a perfect John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) make excellent villains as Jackie witnesses his swearing in as President on Air Force One mere hours after the shooting, while she stands dazed in the background.

The other thing that marks Jackie out is director Pablo Larrain’s very particular style of filmmaking. Shot on 16mm film, every frame looks like archive footage from the period (excepting the small quibble that Portman is too beautiful to truly convince as the albeit stylish Jackie O), and several scenes are recreated shot for shot from clips you can view for yourself on YouTube. The production design of the White House and, of course, Jackie’s signature suits are spot-on, while her staffers (Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, both terrific) and brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) perfectly embody the 1960s in their speech and attitudes.

But above all, this is Portman’s film. With tangible pain, she portrays a woman preoccupied by her husband’s legacy and reputation, while clearly drowning in grief. There is nothing as lonely as the sight of the former First Lady wandering vacantly around the White House in a pink suit stained with her husband’s blood. Harrowing and fascinating, Jackie is a beautiful, painful throwback to a terrible moment in history.

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Thor

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 1 May 2011

There are only two things you need to know about Thor.  First, be warned that the film starts off a bit weak: there are shades of Star Wars meets LOTR meets Twister, and the palpable CGI robs the opening battles of any real emotional punch.  But second, as soon as Norse god Thor Odinson is banished from his father’s kingdom and dumped unceremoniously on earth to be scooped up by Natalie Portman’s weak-kneed scientist, Thor rapidly ascends to become of the superior super-hero movies of recent years.

Shakespearean demigod Kenneth Branagh is back, here directing a multinational cast whose round vowels and strong enunciation lend genuine gravitas to an otherwise pretty traditional quest story.  Thor (Australian Chris Hemsworth) sports a physique that rivals Schwarzenegger, and his charm and wit provide the biggest laughs – with touches of Crocodile Dundee as he brings his archaic behaviour to a diner in the desert of New Mexico.

Film geeks will be thrilled by (too brief) cameos from hardman Jeremy Renner, and the even harder Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from TV’s The Wire).  Miraculously, the intermingling of Nordic sci-fi with human sci-reality works well, thanks to Portman and Hemsworth’s chemistry, and while a Thor 2 may be a bridge too far, this prototype is an enjoyable ride.

Black Swan

Be careful what you wish for

With the film world overrun with western remakes, sci-fi epics and teen dance movies, I don’t feel I’ve seen a proper psychological thriller for a while.  Whereas the 70s gave us Don’t Look Now, and the 80s burned images from Fatal Attraction and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle into our brains (notice how the term “bunny-boiler” is universally understood ever since?), film seemed to take a sharp turn away from the ‘realistically, frighteningly surreal’ (by which I draw a distinction with David Lynch’s own brand of ‘confusingly surreal’) towards either straightforward horror or crime drama.

Darren Aronofsky has, right from the beginning, forged a different path.  In the space of only five feature films (since his inaugural Pi in 1998) Aronofsky sees his latest creation nominated for five Academy Awards in this year’s contest, following his success two years ago with Mickey Rourke’s comeback The Wrestler.  With the exception of a major trip-up (The Fountain was completely lambasted), he has consistently shown flair in not just his film-making style, but his choice of story.

A ballet movie might seem, nonetheless, an unusual narrative for a director whose last film involved Mickey Rourke’s character picking shards of glass and industrial-strength staples from his overtanned and muscly back.  Or maybe not.  Black Swan follows a talented and emotionally fragile ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) on her quest to secure the lead role in “Swan Lake”.  Her ability to portray the white half of the swan is not at issue – but ballet master Tomas (the ever-sleazy, squirm-inducing Vincent Cassel) pushes Nina to prove she can inhabit the role of the seductive, powerful, intoxicating black swan.  What with the pressure Nina places upon herself, competition from her fellow dancers, in particular the free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis), and the suffocating love of her stage-mom (a well-cast Barbara Hershey), Nina rapidly spirals out of control amidst sinister hallucinations and paranoid anxiety.

This suffocating paranoia is brilliantly evoked in Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, the camera swirling madly around Nina’s pirouettes, and constantly following uncomfortably close to the back of her immaculately coiffed head.  Shot on grainy film, mostly dark with hints of ballet pink and white, the overall look of the film perfectly matches its ominous tone.  Clint Mansell (like Libatique, another Aronofsky regular) provides a score which keeps us on edge in between the glorious bursts of Tchaikovsky’s classic.

And of course there is Natalie Portman in the titular role.  Portman has been doing great work ever since her (very) young days on films such as Luc Besson’s iconic Leon (aka The Professional), and if we ignore blips like Queen Amidala in the latest Star Wars trilogy – surely a blot on all the actors’ professional landscapes – she is consistently good.  In this film she echoes the vulnerability seen in Brothers, with a twitch on her uptight face saying everything about the pain she’s smothering within.  While her trajectory from “frigid”, polished dancer to exciting, daring star is narratively straightforward, Portman certainly delivers on the nuance.  She is my bet (and hope) for Best Actress this year, even if it is to be seen as a reward for her body of work.

On that note, I hope this is Aronofsky’s year, too.  He is up for Best Director, and likely in all honesty to lose to David Fincher or maybe even David O. Russell.  But here he has crafted an exquisite film with all the elements of a Don’t Look Now-esque thriller, with fine performances and an intoxicating look-and-feel.  On a personal note, he has just lost his partner of a decade to (allegedly) the latest James Bond.  So, come on – give the man an Oscar.  He’s earned it.


A week of it

Now, where were we? A couple of French films, I think… And in the last week or so there have been more like that, plus a couple of blockbusters. Herewith:

Robin Hood

Oh Russell. Or rather, oh Ridley.  I thoroughly enjoyed Gladiator, thought it was a terrific film – so I’m not dissing the collaboration here, or even the style (the similarities abound).  And Cate Blanchett is a far superior “Maid” Marion than that dreadful Sienna Miller would’ve been.  But really – this retelling of the story (“retelling” – really? or just “concocting a new story that really has nothing to do with the Robin Hood legend”?) simply doesn’t offer anything new or exciting in cinematic or narrative terms. The battle scenes (“Battle scenes??” I hear you cry.  Yes – this is no feisty band of brothers – there are whole armies) are just like Lord of the Rings‘ and any number of contemporary epics over the last decade.  The story is all a bit Kingdom of Heaven.  And Russell, fine actor that he usually is, just faxes in his Gladiator performance with a few bits tippexed out, and doesn’t even nail a consistent accent.  Come on, Jeffrey Wigand!

It’s not awful. There are solid performances from Douglas Hodge, Oscar Isaac (who could have been so much more irritating, but luckily kept it together) and Mark Strong. Eileen Atkins’ brief moments were typically spot-on. Matthew Macfadyen’s got a bit fat, but he does a reasonable line in “sinister”. Cate does her best with a thin script and little character depth.  It’s just not that interesting, memorable or innovative. Frankly I expected more from filmmakers and talent of this calibre.

Iron Man 2

I saw Iron Man in Paris in 2008, by myself, laughing raucously (by myself) at bits the French audience didn’t seem to find funny.  Loved it.  But having heard mixed reviews about the sequel I went in with low expectations – and it paid off.  I always enjoy Robert Downey Jr, and am a loyal fan of Gwyneth Paltrow (her Pepper Potts doesn’t have much going on, but for some reason I find her hairstyles captivating).  Mickey Rourke does a very good avenging Russian, no doubt aided by his now unnaturally worked-over facial features.  Sam Rockwell looks a bit too Austin Powers but I’d marry him in a heartbeat, so all is forgiven.  Scarlett Johansson delivers the only bum note, unnecessarily bland and a 2-dimensional composite of far superior female action heroines – but, no matter.

On the whole the film is just one big, silly, fun night out.  It’s all about spectacle, and to be fair there were plenty of major laugh-out-loud moments in the script too. (About a weapon shaped like a pen: “If it were any smarter, it’d write a book. A book that would make ‘Ulysses’ look like it was written in crayon …”)  Ah well, I guess it just caught me at the right time.

Brothers

The original Danish film is claustrophobic and gritty, superbly acted, and potentially a hard act to follow (highly recommended – rent it).  It’s a tribute to the three excellent lead performances in the US remake that Brothers still had the emotional impact for me, despite my knowing what happens.  Tobey Maguire (where’s he been since Spider Man??) plays a soldier who is kidnapped in Afghanistan, leaving two daughters and a grieving “widow” who all understand him to be dead.  Jake Gyllenhaal re-enters the family’s life, fresh from a stint in prison, and develops an attachment to the children and his brother’s wife, played with quiet intensity by Natalie Portman.  I found her performance in particular to be deeply affecting, inducing my own tears in simple moments where the camera lingered on her face and we read her emotions conveyed in the subtlest way imaginable.   Gyllenhaal is typically engaging, though his ex-con is possibly not as damaged by his life’s experiences as would be realistic.  Maguire is excellent – a warm, engaged father before his deployment, and a shell of a man pushed rapidly to breaking point after his brutal incarceration.

There are elements of the story that aren’t explored as deeply as they perhaps should/could be, and parts when you find yourself shouting at the characters “just say it!”.  But on the whole this is a terrific movie – powerful and, in a bigger picture sense of the repercussions of war, devastating – highly recommended.

The Secret in their Eyes

This Argentine film won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2010, and despite beating The Prophet and The White Ribbon, it’s a worthy winner, almost (but not quite) up there with The Lives of Others.   Ricardo Darin from Nine Queens (what fun that was!) stars as ex-prosecutor Benjamin Esposito, deeply affected by a rape and murder case 20 years prior, who wants to write a book about the case.  In doing so, unresolved questions in his mind cause him to reinvestigate the case, and brings him back into contact with his old colleague/boss and unrequited love interest, played by the luminous Soledad Villamil.

The director’s training on US crime show Law & Order is evident, but his ability to construct a narrative that is as much about love, loss and revenge as a pure police procedural, is the film’s strength.   He gets believable, engaging performances from all his characters (especially Esposito’s tragi-comic colleague Pablo Sandoval) and manages to inject the film with a sinister undertone that isn’t completely exposed until the final reel.

The Hedgehog (Le herisson)

I’ll admit, I saw the trailer and thought “I’m not seeing that”.  Saccharine!  Implausible!  Narratively predictable!  But by some miracle I was otherwise persuaded, and my open-mindedness was rewarded with a charming, beautifully performed piece that left me very moved.

The three central characters are so different from one another and from our usual protaganists (as a collective, at any rate) and each performance is real and believable – which is no mean feat, considering the story.  11-year old Paloma is a very bright, suicidally depressed voyeur of sorts, who films the lives of those around her, narrating a voiceover of insight and sometimes cutting brilliance.  Mme Michel is the concierge in her apartment building, a dowdy, charmless 50-something widow of simple habits who is blindsided by the attentions of a new tenant.  Mr Kakuro Ozu is a distinguished Japanese gentleman who introduces her to his world of Japanese cooking and with whom she shares a love of Tolstoy and Japanese cinema.  The lives of the three are convincingly entangled and it’s a delight to watch their burgeoning relationships.  Highly recommended.

Reality really can bite

Closer

(Yes, spoilers of course – but as the whole film spoils one’s concept of love, who cares??)

I re-watched this piece of urban, middle class, romantic dystopia last night, for the first time since it was in the cinema back in – (quick check on IMDb) – 2004.  And no, I haven’t seen the play.  Though I think one hardly needs to, since Patrick Marber wrote both that and this screenplay, and several moments in the film are decidedly stagey (which is not intended as a criticism of the acting, but the script makes it hard for it not to appear quite theatrical at times).

I remember feeling utterly bummed out when I first saw it, so cruel and superficial were the characters, so selfish their actions, such a pessimistic view of men and women and their attitude to sex, love and fidelity.  So I watched through metaphorical fingers this second time, being recently single myself and decidedly heart-broken, and not really wanting to believe that all men are such bastards.  (As a woman who is not quite as fickle, though nor sadly as beautiful, as Julia Roberts’ Anna, I can reassure myself that the film doesn’t, at least, speak for all women.) 

Somehow, this time round I liked it more.  The characters are still largely loathsome – you start quite liking Clive Owen (if only because he’s not cheating on anybody when he hooks up with Roberts – though the trigger for their encounter doesn’t exactly present him as a paragon of gentlemanly intention), then the rug is pulled with the revelation of his own indiscretion with the “whore” in New York, and his subsequently misogynist and vile interaction with Alice (a superb Natalie Portman) in the strip club.  Similarly, Anna wins us in the beginning as she rebuffs Jude Law’s adulterous advances – but then ricochets back and forth between the two men in a completely unsympathetic and unflatteringly cold portrayal of a woman who doesn’t really know what she wants.  Jude Law’s Dan is a bit of a weak-chinned weasel throughout the film, and yet ends up rejected and alone.  Still, did I think of him kindly as I switched off the telly and went to bed?  No.  He had it coming!

But that’s the story.  And putting the plot aside, as a film I thought this was terrific.  The acting is consistently excellent, and the characters’ delivery of their lines (even those that suggested they were suddenly transported to a West End stage, rather than on a set in Clerkenwell) was punchy, realistic and totally riveting.  All four actors portrayed the darker side of their characters with neither sympathy nor judgement, which is no mean feat when playing people as odious as this.  In managing to keep it real, the audience is swept along with their romantic travails, and still cares about what happens (even if one doesn’t care about the individual him or herself). 

If it doesn’t enhance my view of modern love, and only increases my fear that humans are, at heart, potentially weak-willed and unfaithful, at least it restores my faith in the power of good writing and the well-told story of human frailty.

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