Black Swan

Black Swan

“In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsessed, getting each and every move perfectly right—but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?”

If you think “terrifying” and “ballerina” don’t belong in the same sentence, you need to see Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) and starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, this is a psychological thriller as much as a drama, and it is anything but boring. The pressure and uncertainty that most artists face is amplified and captured in horrifying detail as the lead character Nina loses herself in her role as the Swan Queen. It’s a different kind of thriller: very character-centric and rich with symbolism. After watching it, you’ll never look at ballet the same again.

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Following

Following

“The following is my explanation. Well, more of an account of what happened. I’d been on my own for a while and getting kind of lonely… and bored… nothing to do all day. And that’s when I started shadowing.”

It’s fun looking at an artist’s early work and seeing the ideas and themes that will play out the rest of their careers. Legendary writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) got his start with the low-budget indie film Following, and you can see in it the beginnings of ideas that would play out in Memento and even Inception. Though not quite as impressive as his later films, the plot and writing are still a head above most other movies and carry that trademark complexity that Nolan is famous for, and it’s amazing what Nolan was able to do on such a limited budget (estimated at $6,000, most of which was spent on film). In addition to being historically important, the film is also interesting to watch for its mystery and neo-noir elements.

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Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine

“There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers.”

In modern society, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on winning, while failing is an uncomfortable subject we don’t talk much about. That’s something Little Miss Sunshine tries to remedy. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks and many music videos) and starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear, this is a movie that says a lot about failure by talking about success. The point it makes is not heavy-handed or forced—in fact, it’s understated and quite entertaining. At its core, it’s a comedy with some dramatic elements that lets us know it’s alright to fall down from time to time.

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Frances Ha

Frances Ha

“The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.”

Danish Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, writes out a debate between two viewpoints on life: the aesthetic, which focuses on beauty and integrity, and the ethical, which focuses on morality and responsibilities. In the end, the answer is that nothing we do in this life, whether aesthetic, ethical, or anything else, will give us the meaning and fulfillment we desire—we have to find purpose independent of our beliefs and actions in something larger than ourselves. In a way, indie movie Frances Ha, co-written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) and co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, has a similar message. It’s a movie about the idealism and values many modern young people cling to, and it paints a vivid picture of the dream of many young in their 20s.

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The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale

“Mom and me versus you and Dad.”

In general, movies put forth a caricature of real life rather than a snapshot of reality. Reality can be boring at times, yes; but reality can also be a lot more harsh than what we want to see in movies. Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that’s so emotionally real that it hurts. The Squid and the Whale is that kind of movie. Noah Baumbach wrote the script based on his own childhood and originally pitched it to Wes Anderson to direct. Anderson loved the script, but felt that Baumbach should direct it due to how personal it was to him. The writing and acting are brilliant. Emotionally raw and brutal, this movie captures the nuances of divorce unlike any other film I’ve seen.

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Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”

Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette) and starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, is a hard movie to describe. It’s a strange mix of comedy, romance, and soul-searching without fully being about any of those things. The movie is beautiful and evokes strong feelings that are hard to pin down in words. Overall, it’s a journey, not a destination, but it’s a journey I’m very glad got recorded.

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Juno

Juno

“I knew this girl who like had this crazy freak out because she took too many behavioral meds at once and she like ripped off her clothes, and dove into the fountain at Ridgedale Mall and was like, ‘Blah I am a Kraken from the sea!’ ”

Juno, directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Thank You for Smoking) and starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman, is an offbeat teen comedy with quirky dialogue and surprising depth. It was written by Diablo Cody, an unknown writer at the time, with the intent of being a small indie film. But when it made back almost 20 times its production budget and won an Oscar for best original screenplay, it was clear that they had stumbled onto something magical.

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Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead

“Just look at the face: it’s vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who’s lost a bet.”

We live in a world today where there are well-written zombie serial dramas, successful zombie action movie franchises, and even zombie romantic comedies. It’s easy to forget that, for a long time, zombies were only a cult hit—they were not exceedingly popular, even when they had a commercial success. But when Resident Evil brought traditional action to zombie movies in 2002 and 28 Days Later brought smart writing to zombie movies in 2003, the stage was set for zombies to move into the spotlight. In 2004, Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World) co-wrote and directed the first mainstream zombie comedy movie, Shaun of the Dead, starring Simon Pegg. Bear in mind, I’m watching this just after binge-watching six seasons of The Walking Dead. Does it hold up 12 years later? I think so.

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Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko

“And what if you could go back in time and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?”

The first thing to know about Donnie Darko is that the entire story is not contained in the movie. The movie references a book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, which is vital to understanding the story, but only hinted at in the film. The official website for the film contained the vital excerpts from the book. I’ll admit that I was a little lost after my first viewing of the movie; but things neatly fell into place when I reviewed the short book excerpts on the web.

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Primer

Primer

“I can imagine no way in which this thing could be considered anywhere remotely close to safe.”

Those words sum up Primer’s approach to time travel, which is different than any I’ve seen before. Written and directed by, and also starring Shane Carruth, this low-budget (around $7,000, most of which was spent on film) science-fiction film weaves a story more complicated than most that will probably take some explanation afterward. (I had to read two different explanations online before everything clicked with me.)

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