Tag: natalie portman

Vox Lux


Vox Lux (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those who take the film at face value would likely scratch their heads in confusion. Because, in a way, it is an exercise of extremes: the story opens with a terrifying school shooting in 1999, continues on as an intimate portrait of a fourteen-year-old who has no idea that she is about to become an international pop star, then it has the courage to jump seventeen years into the future and focus on a woman who is so broken, so commodified, we observe her concert performance and feel incredibly sad for her. We watch the main character first as a girl who could have gone on to become a respected—and respectable—artist, fully in control of her career and destiny, but instead she became a puppet in an industry that doesn’t really value her as a person or what she can offer. It values the money that she generates from her concerts, her album sales, her controversial image. In some ways, the picture is an unflinching look at modern celebrity. It made me thankful I am not under the scrutiny of the public eye. But “Vox Lux” is more than that.

Writer-director Brady Corbet creates a character study for the thoughtful viewer who appreciates irony. I enjoyed his approach of laying out pieces that may initially come across as too strange or awkward to be able to fit together (mass shootings, pop idols) and somehow, almost by sorcery, by the end of the tale these fragments make sense only when, or if, the audience manages to connect emotionally with each segment. Employing strong images, music—score and soundtrack—that demands attention, and pointed dialogue, it cannot be denied there is great confidence propelling the work. It is all the more impressive that it is only Corbet’s second feature; I very much look forward to what else he can offer. Even the presentation of the opening credits is inspired.

Natalie Portman plays the thirty-one-year-old Celeste. She is required to sing and dance, to be in control of ridiculous costumes, to wear heavy cosmetics and emote in every second of every frame. She must communicate that Celeste is a tragic figure and yet one who may not necessarily deserve our pity because, after all, she put herself in her current situation—drugs, booze, surrounding herself with toxic people but distancing herself from those who genuinely love and care for her—despite being a survivor of a school shooting. Without relying on obvious or tired tropes, I appreciated that the film is clear: One can be a victim of an event but the victim can choose not to feel victimized for the rest of her life.

At the same time, there is humor in the performance; Portman’s histrionics are best seen to be believed. As seasoned performers do, she milks every millisecond when the camera gets a glance of her face since each tiny opening is a chance to enrich the portrayal. I could tell she had put a lot of thought into the woman she is playing. Still, though, the melodrama fits the story being told and the character being explored. Celeste’s physical outer wounds may have healed, but in a way the real Celeste is suspended in time, in that particularly horrifying day. It is a wonderful performance, one Portman should be proud of, especially given the caliber or her already colorful filmography.

I admired the material’s willingness to take risks. First is in the casting of teen Celeste and Albertine, Celeste’s teenage daughter. Both are played by Raffey Cassidy which is genius because we get introduced to her version of Celeste first and then later as the protagonist’s daughter who is yearning for a true connection. By casting one actor for both roles, seeing the same face causes a ripple effect of implications, the sadness of the story all the more amplified. Second is the cinematography by Lol Crawley, particularly in how interiors of hotels, makeup stations, and backstages are captured so realistically. When it makes an uncommon pivot to images of landscapes, for example, it is like a slap in the face, a reminder of what’s important in truly being alive.

Annihilation


Annihilation (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” based upon the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, offers a handful of images so bizarre, so intriguing, so horrifying that they stun the viewers into silence with mouth agape. This is the picture at its most powerful because it dares the viewer to look at the images closely; to examine their layers, colors, and textures; to imagine how they work on cellular and molecular levels; and to be terrorized by them. It is rare when sci-fi and horror collide to form a near-perfect fit. However, it falls just short of its maximum potential.

Debris from outer space hits a lighthouse. A strange translucent veil forms around the beacon and proceeds to expand its borders. There is fear that soon it will envelop nearby towns and cities. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as The Shimmer and it is their goal to understand its cause and nature. Military personnel sent inside its growing borders to gather information have never returned… with the exception of Kane (Oscar Isaac), the partner of Johns Hopkins cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). Hoping to find answers regarding her partner’s disappearance for over a year, Lena, a former soldier, volunteers to go inside The Shimmer with a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and a physicist (Tessa Thompson). They are not prepared for what they are about to discover.

Garland has a way of commanding the story in such a way that we are immediately placed in the middle of it. It is admirable how he is confident enough as writer-director to allow the audience to orient themselves and ask many questions. For some reason, many filmmakers within as well as outside the sci-fi genre are afraid to make the viewers feel uncomfortable or frustrated early on and so exposition—a whole lot of it to the point where at times the story never gets a chance to take off—is often utilized as bridge between introduction and action. Here, however, it is assumed that the people watching are intelligent, patient, and curious. The film is efficient with its time.

I admired the material most when the journey through The Shimmer screeches to a halt in order for us to have a chance to take a closer look at an organism. An alligator is not just an alligator, nor a bear just a bear. We note of the plants and flowers, where they are growing, and how, what is strange about them. We even get to appreciate molds growing on surfaces nearby carcasses. Human body parts are also fair game. And abandoned cameras almost always contain a horrifying recording. You learn to prepare yourself eventually. You take a deep breath and look. But then just as quickly you realize one cannot be prepared for these kind of nightmarish images. I was tickled by how disturbed I felt.

Although the film is not about characters but about generating visceral reactions, I felt as though a camaraderie amongst the explorers is nearly nonexistent. The characters do not need to be friends, but the performers do need to share strong chemistry. Note how the actors come across somewhat detached from one another and so the dialogue shared among them, especially when they are supposed to be connecting when personal histories are broached, lack a special punch. However, an argument can be made that the volunteers are so terrified that perhaps the sense of detachment is purposeful, that it is required they focus on their own selves and their own survival.

But without excuse is a weak final five minutes. Especially problematic for me is the would-be daring final shot that is supposed to incite questions. I could not and did not buy into it because such an approach is generic, so common in pedestrian sci-fi films. While it is not required that we get precise answers, and I prefer that we don’t, it is essential that we walk out of the story not feeling cheated. I felt cheated because the final image, despite the wealth of images the material has presented up to this point, is entirely unoriginal.

Thor: The Dark World


Thor: The Dark World (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Every five thousand years, the nine realms, including that of Earth and Asgard, align which means that gravity, light, and matter are able to penetrate through worlds. When Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles upon a fluid-like weapon called Aether, a Dark Elf named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), defeated by the ancestors of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is awakened from his slumber. Driven by revenge for the deaths of his fellowmen, Malekith hopes to take advantage of the convergence by acquiring the Aether and bring about the eradication of the universe.

A total mood-killer for me when it comes to superhero movies is when a villain’s endgame fails to make sense in any way, shape, or form. “Thor: The Dark World,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, belongs in this category. If Malekith were to succeed in ending the universe, while he would indeed get his revenge, how would this benefit him and his dwindling species in the long run? Would more resources be available for them? Could they live “outside” the universe given that the universe would be no longer? And yet despite these questions, a lack of practicality—on the level of a superhero picture anyway—is the least of its problems.

One of the driving forces of the film is the romance between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane. Their relationship is most unbelievable and near impossible to sit through because they are so boring together. A few jokes are attempted—she from Earth and he from a different world altogether—but not any of them are funny, memorable, or clever enough to pass as even remotely cute or entertaining.

Portman is a very good actress and it saddens me that she is given absolutely nothing substantial to do or say. The role could have been played by anyone who can look wide-eyed when physics-defying phenomena are discovered, act cute when a good-looking man is around, and look peeved when she comes across someone she does not particularly like.

I found the character to be insulting especially because Jane is supposed to be a brilliant scientist. With the way the character is written, I was not convinced that she is smart—someone who is an astrophysicist with three degrees. I felt Portman almost having to dumb herself down to play Jane. Why didn’t the writers challenge themselves to create a convincing, strong, and genuinely clever woman? I would rather watch an intellectual falling in love with Thor who, according to Loki (Tom Hiddleston, clearly the best performer in the film), is a “witless oaf.” I agree somewhat.

What makes Thor a great superhero? The film does not answer this question. For me, all I saw was a hunk of muscle in armor hammering his way through structures and bad guys. Although the movie offers some beautiful computerized action sequences as well as special and visual effects, there is little to no substance. We do not grow to like Thor any more or less—he is just there to look good, talk in a deep voice, and save the universe because the plot requires it.

Directed by Alan Taylor, “Thor: The Dark World” is likely to please those who like action. But those who like action with a little bit of brain, substance, real drama, and complex emotions are highly likely to be gravely disappointed. It is clear that Marvel is capable of excellence—or at least come close to it. Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” and Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” are good examples. The ante has been increased. Thus, it is only appropriate that we expect more.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits


Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Emilia (Natalie Portman) had a massive crush on Jack (Scott Cohen), her married boss. Their relationship was kept secret until she became pregnant. The two got married and had a child, but the infant passed away after only three days. It was especially difficult for Emilia. For reasons initially unknown to us, she couldn’t seem to move on from grieving. Her relationship with Jack’s precocious eight-year-old son, William (Charlie Tahan), was rocky at best and Jack’s ex-wife (Lisa Kudrow) had no problem expressing her hatred toward Emilia. Based on a novel by Ayelet Waldman, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” had patches interesting perspectives about a mother’s grief toward losing her child but the way it unfolded left a burning question mark in my mind. In its desperate attempt for us to identity with Emilia, the filmmakers knowingly made her a scapegoat. I got the impression that the director, Don Ross, didn’t have the confidence to show Emilia as she was despite the fact that, yes, she was initially the other woman who broke up a family. People claimed she was very unlikable. But I disagree. I thought she had the right to be sad and get angry once in a while. The majority of the film’s tension was generated from Emilia and William’s interactions. For instance, early in the film, William suggested that Emilia should sell the baby’s stuff on eBay because there was no baby. He kept repeating the fact that there was no baby and it was crazy it keep things that were not being used. Naturally, Emilia got upset at the child. Later, there was a scene in which Jack, in an underhanded way, tried to get Emilia to apologize to her stepson for being upset. Much later in the film, Emilia was accused of being cold toward William. The director ignored the obvious: the kid was a brat. I’ve had prior experience working with children around William’s age and I can say that no matter how beyond their age they seem to be, they know when they’re being hurtful. Children, as early as infancy, are trained to respond to body languages and facial expressions. Ignoring William’s transgressions seemed like it was done for the sake of convenience–to make it seem like it was Emilia versus the world. We didn’t need to feel sorry for her to identify with her. What I enjoyed most about the film was Portman and Kudrow’s performances. Portman had a good handle in terms of changing from warm to detached, vice-versa and everything in between, which often occurred in one scene and Kudrow had fun portraying a Type A mom who seemed to lash out on everyone she encountered. Unfortunately known as “The Other Woman,” which unfairly judged our protagonist, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” engaged me and it made me think about the dynamics between the characters. However, it could have been something deeper in the hands of a more confident direction.

No Strings Attached


No Strings Attached (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Emma and Adam met in their teens. They lost contact over the years but they met again in their late twenties. Emma (Natalie Portman) was completing her residency and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) was an assistant for a “Glee”-like television show. The two were obviously attracted to each other but decided to keep their relationship strictly sexual. Adam found it difficult but Emma handled it with ease. Directed by Ivan Reitman, “No Strings Attached” was an amusing sex comedy that was better than it should have been due to the leading actors’ sheer charm and genuinely funny supporting characters. Portman and Kutcher shared undeniable chemistry. Their awkward sex scenes, especially the one when they were under a time limit, were believable enough to the point where we were comfortable to giggle or laugh when watching them. But it was Emma and Adam’s friends who almost stole the film. Emma lived in an apartment with fellow future doctors: Patrice (Greta Gerwig), Shira (Mindy Kaling), and Guy (Guy Branum). They oozed sarcasm, shared knowing looks, and menstrual cycle. There was a hilarious scene of the roommates sprawled on the couch because their period thrusted them into depressed moods. One of them claimed it was like a crime scene in her pants. Meanwhile, Adam’s friends, Wallace (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Eli (Jake M. Johnson), were there for moral support and, not atypical in men, bad advice. They were funny in an understated way. The picture often had a crude sense of humor but I enjoyed it. As far as romantic comedies, I found it refreshing that the characters were mature enough that they could talk about sex, penises, vaginas without bursting into laughter. However, the movie lost momentum during the second half. Instead of two people enjoying the joys (and pitfalls) of casual sex, it became about Emma wanting what others had–the idea of normalcy in a form of having a man. It was insulting because the product had mixed messages. It wanted to be both commercial and a statement piece about the freedom of sex regardless of gender. As a result, Emma’s change of heart didn’t feel loyal to her character. The problem was mostly the writing. Emma had to face her sister’s wedding (Olivia Thirlby) and her mother having a new man in her life. I found it obvious and unnecessary. There were other, more subtle ways for Emma to realize that Adam was the right person for her. She didn’t have to feel the threat of having to be alone for the rest of her life. I believe she was stronger than that. It should have been enough that Adam had a big heart, that he was funny, and actually not bad in the eyes. Sometimes the walls we have designed to protect ourselves from being hurt just come down on their own. Something just changes inside of us. It doesn’t require explanation because the feeling is beyond reason.

Thor


Thor (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Powerful ruler Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had two sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with two very different personalities. Thor couldn’t wait to be king of Asgard. Wielding absolute power, in a symbol of a throne, was at the top of his priorities. Loki, on the other hand, was the quiet one. His actions were preceded by thorough thinking. However, there was brewing jealousy from his end. When Thor and his friends (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander) had unwisely broken a truce and caused a new war against the Frost Giants, Odin banished Thor to Earth to learn about humility and what it meant to be a great leader. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Thor” was unexpectedly comedic. I actually enjoyed the comedy, especially when sarcastic Darcy (Kat Dennings) was on screen, more than the action scenes themselves. Watching the action sequences, although supported by grand special and visual effects, failed to get me to become emotionally invested. I believe it had something to do with the fact that Thor’s evolution from a bellicose warrior to a more controlled leader wasn’t fully convincing. What did being romantically involved have to do with becoming an effective king? From what I gathered, he simply grew weak in the knees whenever he was next to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a fellow researcher of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the three people Thor met when he landed on Earth. And given that love was the answer to everything, I failed to understand why she would be attracted to him other than the fact that he had a nice set of abs and biceps. She was supposedly smart but her intelligence was thrown out the window the moment he took off his shirt. It was insulting. The director didn’t take enough time, other than one or two short scenes, to explore the relationship between the two lovers. Jane was supposed to be our conduit so that we would ultimately care about about the title character. As for Thor’s friends in Asgard, I wondered how they could stand him. Surely being a prince wasn’t enough to earn their loyalties. After leading them to a suicide mission and narrowly escaping, none of them questioned Thor’s ability to make smart decisions. Didn’t they have minds of their own? Instead of weighing the complexities of the somewhat cheesy story, I found myself focusing more on spotting other Avengers characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and references to the Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man.” What “Thor” lacked was the crucial journey designed to win us over. When he was on Earth, he didn’t learn what it meant to be human. He just developed a crush. It’s a bad sign when we find ourselves feeling nothing when Thor faced incredible danger.

Black Swan


Black Swan (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) was a ballet dancer who was chosen to play the lead role, the White Swan and the Black Swan, by the director (Vincent Cassel) in the upcoming performance of “Swan Lake.” However, although Nina had mastery in terms of technique and grace which were perfect in fully embodying the White Swan, she didn’t know how to let go of control so that, as the Black Swan, she could successfully generate enough anger and edge to leave the audiences breathless. Lily (Mila Kunis) had what Nina did not. Nina began to suspect that she was going to be replaced by the director and slowly she began her descent into madness. Darren Aronofsky fascinates me as a director. I know many disagree with me but I think he has yet to create a masterpiece. But this a good thing because I’ve noticed that he continues to evolve. Aronofsky does a wonderful job establishing a certain look and feel as he did in this film because he had concocted the right amount of realism and fantastic imagery. Blend it with a person on the verge of a psychological breakdown and we’ve got a chilling examination of a character physically pushing herself to her absolute limit. Nina wanted perfection and she had to pay a price. Portman should be commended for her dedication. I knew she was an actress of many talents with a chameleon-like approach in enveloping herself in her roles but I’ve never seen her so sensual and dangerous. Even with the complex dance sequences with booming music and dancers making their way across the screen, I was drawn to her face because the subtlety in her expressions made me wonder what was going on inside Nina’s mind. Sure, pain was involved but I wondered if she enjoyed it, too. The film reached its peak when Nina eventually couldn’t discern what was real and what wasn’t. Since we saw the story through her eyes, we also couldn’t tell reality from fantasy. It was a scary experience especially when she began to see paintings taunting her about her confusion and when she thought she had committed murder and felt the need to hide the body. The last few minutes were a barrage to the senses, completely in a good way, and I was left staring at the screen as the final shot fade to white. I was mesmerized and it left me wanting more. “Black Swan” was an intense experience but I wish it spent more time tying up loose ends between Nina and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey). There was an undercurrent of sexual repression inside their apartment which reminded me of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” It begged the question what really drove Nina off the edge: the endless hours of practice or the endless nagging from her mother. Most would say it was both but I believe one factor was more influential than the other. If the director had spent more time highlighting trends between the two worlds, “Black Swan” would have been his best work.