Category Archives: Film

Fern on Film – Black Swan

Reasons to watch Black Swan: 1) You really hate Natalie Portman and wish harm on her, 2) You really like Natalie Portman, 3) You really hate yourself and wish harm on yourself, 4) Over-the-top dark melodramas are your thing.

Note that none of these reasons involve enjoying ballet dancing. Ballet comes off both well and badly from Black Swan – it directs the actual dancing in an just as exciting and dynamic a way as the rest of the film, but it implies horrific pressure piled on the dancers. Those actually involved in ballet who get interviewed about Black Swan seem to mostly just be focused on defending it from the criticisms the film seems to level at it. But really Black Swan could have been about anything, because it’s more about the character’s breakdown than the specific reasons for it. The use of Swan Lake is the source of the duality at the core of the movie, but a similar theme in any artwork would have done just as well. At its core the film seems to be about the artist and performer striving for perfection. You can read it as a critique on itself, if you’re in the mood to.

The plot at its simplest is about Natalie Portman’s ballerina Nina (yeah I know…), who is attempting to be the lead in her New York troupe’s Swan Lake show. The role requires her to play the elegant, waif-like White Swan – which she is perfect for – and the sultry, out-of-control seductress Black Swan – which she isn’t. Her attempts to learn to be more impulsive and, um, bithcy, as well as the pressure put on her by her ridiculously creepy and predatory director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) result in a spiral downwards into depravity (as indicated by one of those Magic Film Drugs That Just Send You Mental and a bit of lesbianism) and insanity (as indicated by ABJECT HORROR).

Once the slide begins, with a few unsettling jumpy moments where it’s hard to tell what just happened, it persists for the whole film. There is no escape from the foreboding tone and the scares, which at one point later in the film take over completely and for ten minutes it becomes an unadulterated B-movie horror. There’s the feeling of being stuck inside Nina’s head, with the camera spending just about the whole movie not only from her viewpoint, but basically stuck to her shoulder. Even the outdoor scenes – and at night especially the outdoor scenes – feel enclosed and claustrophobic. Combined with the suggestive but unclear shots, which always cause a double-take from the audience and from Nina, I have never felt so much like I’m inside a character’s skull.

The inescapably oppressive atmosphere mirrors Nina’s life, particularly when her home becomes as much a place of fear as anywhere else due to her increasingly strange mother (Barbara Hershey). What are first very subtle incestuous undertones become, well, less subtle incestuous undertones as the film progresses – one sudden cut to reveal the mother caused a few laughs in the cinema it was so jarring, but on afterwards comes off as more disturbing than funny. You’ll know it when you see it.

So on and on the macabre circus goes, leading to its melodramatic and in hindsight inevitable – but still powerful – conclusion. Darren Aronofsky has gone way, way over the top in his style and themes, and that’s what makes the film so uniquely great. It seems to blend high culture and pop culture, just as the perfect B-movie about ballet should. Aronofsky ought to win best director for it, because the directing is what elevates the film from just melodrama, and it’s omnipresent and draws attention to itself like no other.

Oh and Natalie Portman’s a dead cert for best actress. It’s impressive enough that she basically actually became a ballerina for the part, but her acting would win out anyway. Nina struggles to play two conflicting characters, Portman succeeds in bringing them together into one person. She plays sweet, out-of-control, and even spiteful (note the look on her face in the mirror when she cuts her finger). And as I said before, the movie is focused directly on her throughout, so it is true to say she has to carry the film more than most leads do.

The directing won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and if you have a lot of mirrors in your home then maybe you should avoid Black Swan (seriously, I never want to look in a mirror again). But it is a supremely well made film which borrows from a lot of sources to make itself unique, and as an experience it is hugely affecting. To paraphrase Quentin Tartantino on Inglourious Basterds, once you’ve seen this film, you know you’ve seen a film.

You can follow Michael Fern on Twitter @popmikey

Fern on Film – Toy Story 3

If the Oscar was decided on which film coaxed out the most emotional reactions, Toy Story 3 would win. I cried first five minutes in, then again at least once every 20 minutes until the end. And it’s a comedy for god’s sake.

I refuse to think of it as a kids’ film. It’s much more than that, it’s a Pixar film. Pixar completely convinced me they were on par with any other more adult studio with Wall.e – a film for which they built their virtual camera around the rules and limitations of physical cameras to give it its unique rough-and-ready feel – and then after that they went and made Up, their best film as far as I’m concerned.

Most people will be heckling me by now because of course Toy Story is their best film. And that’s a tough legacy to follow. Amazingly they somehow managed it with Toy Story 2, and since then the studio has been so reliably incredibly that there didn’t seem to be any doubt that Toy Story 3 would be up to the same standard. There were just most concerns that it may lead to teen suicides. Seriously, did you see Finding Nemo? That poor bloody fish! If Greenpeace made Nemo their logo I would join.

So Pixar are ridiculously good at pulling on heart-strings. What else? Oh, they’re hilarious. The films wouldn’t work at all if the humour was anything short of spot on. It’s always easy to name the highlight’s, Up’s was the semi-talking dogs, and Toy Story 3 has Spanish mode Buzz Lightyear. The film uses it to plunder those same picaresque tropes as say Zorro or, on more of a similar level, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. It’s utterly hilarious, but it is also more evidence of the studio’s awareness of movie history and styles, and their ability to incoprorate them into their stories. It’s that kind of thing that pushes them into genius territory – their films are cinematic, and have a real feel for their place in the film history.

Are you raising your eyebrow yet? Don’t. Go watch Toy Story 3. Watch a bunch of Pixar films. They’re the best advert American culture has for itself right now, evidenced by the close mutual-respect relationship between Pixar and Japan’s almighty Studio Ghibli. Or Pixar head John Lasseter’s increasingly godlike status at Disney, whose new computer-animated film Tangled is the first he has directly overseen through to completion as producer, and is being described as a return to form for them.

There seems at times to be a Pixar formula. Sometimes you can tell right away who the bad guys are going to be, and what dramatic choices are going to have to be made. That is true of Toy Story 3, but it feels more like a comforting familiar hand, building on how the last two Toy Story films worked but growing the characters and upping the ante – especially emotionally. The characters have been realistically expanded and solidified for three movies now, and there really is a connection there that makes the more depressing parts of the film painful to watch. Really. Those toys. It took a lot of skill to do that.

Is this coming across as too earnest? Lacking any form of perspective? Rabid fanboyism? This is what these films do to people. I don’t care about any of the people in any of the other nominated films half as much as I care about the cowboy doll Woody, and I don’t think I’m alone. Alright so it won’t win the Oscar, but it still might be emotionally and technically the best film nominated. Weird, isn’t it?

You can follow Michael Fern on Twitter @popmikey

Fern on Film – The Social Network

Thesocialnetwork is a film predicated on very, very fast talking. You know those bits on, says 24 or CSI where jargon is shouted across hi-tech rooms while people run to answer incessant phones? That’s how all the exposition is taken care of in Thesocialnetwork. I seriously doubt that Aaron Sorkin’s script had any spaces in it.

Of course a better TV show to compare it to would be Thewestwing, which Sorkin also created. It was the programme that brought walking briskly down corridors to the masses, which made me squirm because I was always expecting the cameraman to bump into something and fall down. But for the less neurotic, it worked, and Thewestwing has a legacy of adoring fans. Basically, Aaron Sorkin is really, really good at writing that urgent-talking thing, and luckily the director of Thesocialnetwork was David Fincher.

Lucky because he knows how to direct the urgent-talking, and lucky because the script also relies on some disorienting timeline changes, jumping between two separate court cases about Facebook as well as, mainly, the time when it was created.

Much like The King’s Speech, Thesocialnetwork’s goal is to make a lot of people talking exciting. The King’s Speech films some of its scenes like action scenes to accomplish this, while this film turns most of its scenes into tennis matches. Between robots. On fast-forward. I spent the first scene bolt upright, terrified I might miss something important. But everyone working on this film knew what they were doing, and the plot is easier to follow than some of the cuts in the first half hour suggest.

Those cuts do make it interesting though, and as it turns out the structure is as much a game to keep the film dynamic as it is an attempt to fit all the major points of the book into two hours. I can give you the closest thing to a guarantee that this film will win best adapted screenplay.

Of course it’s favourite for Best Picture too, but I’m not giving out any guarantees on that. I already said a few days ago that The King’s Speech had the perfect formula for the Academy, and it won at the Golden Globes, so it will be a close run thing. In a lot of ways they are evenly matched. Alongside their success at making dialogue-heavy films exciting, they are acted almost equally well. I’m giving that round to The King’s Speech just on Colin Firth alone, but that takes nothing away from Jesse Eisenberg, who is playing his perfect role here, and more importantly the supporting roles are more fleshed out than in The King’s Speech. Andrew Garfield is the Next Big Thing (I can’t think of the movie without hearing him shouting “MAAAAAAAAAAAARK”), and Justin Timberlake is a wonderfully refreshing different angle when he turns up as the hard-partying, tricksy founder of Napster.

The movie is an incredibly well done biopic, and it captures and critiques the mood of the moment and makes some wider points about Facebook through this view of its founder. But whether it’s more than that, whether it is worth the Oscar for best picture, only time will tell. Whether it wins or not. But at least when Aaron Sorkin wins the award for his script, theacceptancespeechwon’toverrun.
You can follow Michael Fern on Twitter @popmikey

Fern on Film- Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone is scary. It isn’t Black Swan scary, it isn’t Rec scary, it isn’t even Saw scary, but a few weeks on it still gives me the chills. Mainly it’s a character story about Jennifer Lawrence’s 17 year old character’s strength of will, and how she will do anything to protect her family, but even more memorable than her (best actress nominated) performance is the whole oppressive tone the film has going on. There’s a guy called Teardrop, for god’s sake!

Oh, and Teardrop is one of the nice guys. Well, I say nice. Teardrop is one of the… sympathetic characters? He grew up in this ridiculously bleak countryside, it would be hard to blame him for being a bit rough around the edges. Basically everyone living in Winter’s Bone’s version of America’s deep south causes immediate wariness. They might be friendly or indifferent at first, but ask a few of the wrong questions and you’re getting a cup of tea in the face.

Unfortunately for Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), she has a habit of asking questions.

The basic plot is that Ree’s father has gone missing while on bail, and put the house up as collateral, so if he doesn’t turn up soon then she, her mother, and her younger brother and sister will lose the house. Her mother’s mind is gone beyond the point of being any help, so Ree looks after the younger kids on her own, with the occasional bit of help from the neighbours or Teardrop, her uncle.

So she sets out to find her dad. Which involves asking an awful lot of those uncomfortable questions. She’s asking the kind of people who might have killed them. People with names like Floyd, Sonny and Thump, yes Thump. The tension is relentless, it comes first from the overarching fear of losing the house, then more directly and threateningly from all the danger Ree is putting herself in to try to avoid that happening.

The film can have its cake and eat it with its 17 year old heroine. She can come off as a tough-as-nails never-back-down classic hero – early on she is seen outside chopping wood, and I doubt I can be the only person who automatically associates that with the likes of Rambo – but the reality that she is so frail compared to these threatening middle-aged southern men always sticks in the mind.

As for winning an Oscar, this movie has an advantage in the US. It can be looked at as a way of saying that small-town southern middle-America can be a complex and threatening place rather than just the home of “real American values” as politicians often enjoy saying, and that could play well with the hippie liberal coastal city elite that makes up the American Academy (in my head at least). It might not play so well in the UK, where we’re all terrified of middle-Americans anyway (in my head at least), but the film does avoid judging any group of people or falling into stereotypes. It is a complex film about often complex people, and is worth watching for its tone alone. Its countryside is about as grey as some kind of bleak irony-free Sleepy Hollow.

Yet somehow it manages not to come off as a world without hope. Ree’s whole story is built on her hope of finding a way to keep her home, and with perseverance like hers I reckon there’s always hope. So with that note I won’t say this film will definitely not win best picture, just that I wouldn’t recommend that Ree bet her house on it.

Fern on Film – Inception

Okay, here’s the thing. They need to be kicked out of each layer of the dream, and that works when they jump off the building then explode then get pushed down the elevator then hit the water, but then what’s waking them up from that level? Is it the stewardess tugging on their arms? Or do they just wait around for ages? But won’t the projections get them? Oh, is that okay because the guy who’s dreaming is on their side now? But wait, won’t he figure out…

If you are 1) totally intrigued by the above paragraph, or 2) rolling your eyes and scrolling rapidly down to correct me on what actually happened, then Inception is pretty much your perfect movie. I assumed people like that had all killed themselves after the final episode of Lost (SPOILER: it was shit), but Inception’s box office ratings proved me wrong. People loved this film.

Now, I’m no screenwriter. I’m certainly no Christopher Nolan. So you’ll have to forgive me for failing to properly build up suspense by not waiting until the end to tell you that (spoiler 2) Inception is not going to win the Best Picture Oscar. But let me also rush to say that I don’t mean that disparagingly. I would love to see it happen in the same way I would love Star Wars or Alien to have won Oscars, but that just isn’t the way of the world. Science fiction is a big term, and once a film has been placed in there it takes a lot to pull it out of the genre-movie ghetto. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey had a hard time.

Inception is a lot of things besides a sci-fi – a thriller and a heist movie in particular. But its main genre is that old classic, the Christopher Nolan mind-bender. He did it best with backwards memory-loss-thriller Memento, he broke up his Batman films by doing it again with flashback-heavy stage-magician-mystery The Prestige, and now he has Inception, a script that took longer to write and re-write than bears thinking about.

You probably know the drill – a convoluted plot that probably loses you a few times in the middle, and indeed the start, but tends to make enough sense towards the end for you to go “wooooah”. It sticks in your head and you might come up with a plot hole or two, but you aren’t sure if it’s a plot hole, because when you think too much about it your head starts to hurt and you need to go watch Die Hard twice to feel better. Yet the films are never hard or frustrating to watch, providing all the narrative points of a less richly packed action film. Inception is this formula executed to perfection. As Roger Ebert said, “Maybe there’s a hole in Inception, but I can’t find it”.

All of this is the silver lining to the fact that it won’t win best picture, because in truth there are categories it is more deserving in. Particularly best original screenplay. It actually stands a chance there, as the most technically impressive piece of writing in the category. But then, The King’s Speech will probably beat it anyway. Christopher Nolan should also be a strong contender for best director, seeing as how he not only reigns the beast in and keeps it making sense, but he also makes a genuinely dramatic, exciting thriller out of it. Oh, but he wasn’t even nominated. Yeah, you may have to squint to see that aforementioned silver lining.

But Inception fans shouldn’t really care. This film wasn’t made to win Oscars, it was made to mess with an audience’s mind, push the imaginative and technical limits of cinema, and have an awful lot of fun doing it.

Nolan says as much with the film’s ending – an ending which is unmatched in the malicious glee it takes from screwing with the viewer. It’s almost a joke at our expense, but it’s too good a joke not to play along. Looking back, it’s no surprise that Nolan once made a film like The Prestige. He directs like a classic magician, showing exactly as much as he must to make his trick work and always withholding just enough to keep his audience guessing.

The simplest proof of Inception’s worth is that it does in the end have a “prestige” – the final flourish that makes up the third act of a magic trick. It ties itself up in the end, and even despite its mischieveous ending it provides a real sense of closure. You know what didn’t do that? Lost.

You can follow Michael Fern on Twitter @popmikey

Fern on Film – The King’s Speech

The Oscars are coming. You can’t escape them. Your only solace is that whether you love, hate, or really, really don’t care about them, the media can back you up.

The apathetic normally get a rough time about now, but this year offers them a few crumbs. The best example so far is the Guardian’s online series where its writers talk about which film they think should win best picture, which was improved immeasurably by their chief sports writer Richard Williams, who made the case for Black Swan while emphasising how much he wasn’t particularly bothered by the film or the awards. Essentially his impassioned plea for the film was that “it should win because, why not, the Oscars aren’t very good.”

This blog is aimed at the more unintentionally apathetic, however. It’s for those who guiltily feel they ought to care, or who want to convince people that they know what exactly is going on but never quite got around to actually watching the films. It will also be of interest to people who enjoy disagreeing with someone else’s opinion.

Over the next ten days leading up to the awards ceremony on February 27th, I will be supplying summaries of each of the best picture nominated films, one a day, in no particular order, except that dictated by the fact that I have yet to see two of them. We’re running a professional outfit here.

So we start today, after a quick eenie-meenie-minie-mo around the nominations, with The King’s Speech. You may have heard that it won every Bafta going last week, but that’s not true at all. There was that “outstanding contribution to British cinema” thing they created especially for the Harry Potter films. It narrowly missed out on that. But anyway, just because the British Academy loved it doesn’t mean the American Academy will. So lets consider why both would choose it to win.

Average Baftas Judge: “It’s British, the Americans seem to like it, and it’s British.”
Average Oscars Judge: “English people are so backwards, hah! Oh and he’s a King! Kings are awesome. And mom enjoys that Colin Firth dude.”

This simple piece of 1980s stereotyping summarises more or less all you need to know about The King’s Speech. It is a relatively humble British film made for £10 million about a future king (Colin Firth) with a stammer who is helped by a rough-around-the-edges Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), leading to a climactic speech in which he tells the nation it is going to war.

The film spends the majority of its time in slightly cramped, fairly bleak rooms, which does wonders for its tone but doesn’t quite lend itself to blockbuster status. Yet blockbuster status it achieved. So what happened? Well, there are a few things going on. First, Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter have both the global appeal and the talent to broaden the film’s horizons – especially Firth, who equals his remarkable performance in A Single Man here, taking on all the mannerisms of a stammerer without coming close to parody or impressions.

Second, the script is structured perfectly for Hollywood. People have already talked about how the therapy scenes are filmed as action scenes, breaking the film up so it doesn’t come off as all dialogue, and around this is built the story of personal triumph which, while predictable, provides enough pitfalls and barriers in all the same places a properly done romantic comedy does. Basically, there are enough familiar signposts in the movie to point any filmgoer in the right direction. All leading of course to the climax, which is the third point in itself.

A film like this stands or falls on its climactic scene, and it was a delicate job to make sure it worked. We are, after all, supposed to be cheering on the bearer of some pretty bad news here. But it works absolutely perfectly, pushed on by a swelling orchestra and backed up by the past hour and a half of sympathy the movie worked to build up. Everyone remembers the first scene, a horribly embarrasing, awkward failed public speech, and everyone wants to see a triumph over it. Avoiding awkwardness is a great motivator – people are going to will on anything if the alternative makes them squirm as much as, say, that bit in About A Boy where Nicholas Hoult starts singing. You can’t watch something like that without desperately wanting it to be put right afterwards.

The fourth point is simply that the Academy loves a story on British class and British royalty. And almost all of the humour in what is a surprisingly funny film comes from the class system – it plays perfectly for an American crowd.

So that’s it. The King’s Speech is a good Oscar nomination because it has an excellent cast, a well constructed script, the best climax of the year, and a fun view of the ridiculousness of 1930s Britain’s class system. It was unexpected, but it really is a winning combination.

So: should it win? Sure. Can it win? Yes.

You can follow Michael Fern on Twitter @popmikey