3/5 Everyone has a breaking point… or so reads the tagline for Rod Lurie’s remake of the controversial 1971 film, Straw Dogs. For those who have seen the original, the new movie provides deeper character development and a modern approach to a familiar story; for those who haven’t seen it, Straw Dogs is an engrossing hybrid of drama and action.

David and Amy Sumner, a happy yuppie couple from L.A., relocate to Amy’s deep-South hometown of Blackwater—or “back-water,” as she jests—to move into her rustic childhood home, where he plans to write a screenplay and she plans to take a sabbatical. His first experience, a visit to the local watering hole, where all of the town’s characters seem to converge, turns into a jarring experience thanks to the resident drunk, “Coach” Tom Heddon. Escaping startled but unharmed, the two Californians finally reach the pastoral peace of Amy’s old house, they ease into a relaxed rural lifestyle, but it is quickly disrupted by Charlie and his boisterous posse’s construction project. The Sumners’ hopes for a tranquil country-retreat quickly deteriorate at the hands of Charlie and company, who seem intent on harassing the pair into ruin and running them out of town; the bullies push every possible button and cross every conceivable line, all while hiding behind Charlie’s easy smile and silver tongue. David meekly challenges each escalating violation with impotent response and cowardly under-reaction until Amy’s frustration, inevitably, exceeds her tolerance. In an intensely destructive denouement, the unbearable tension between tormentor and victim explodes in a blaze of violence.

Writer-director Rod Lurie, exercises his right to reinterpret liberally, and, in a wholesale rejection of the original’s chauvinistic overtone, transforms the story of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm—the novel on which it’s based—into an entertaining drama and contemporary thriller. The movie as a work completely independent of its predecessor, succeeds in several key areas—namely, the acting, writing, and action-cinematography—but fails in others—like sound-editing and dramatic-cinematography. Though the new film recycles a significant portion of the 1971 script and all of its themes, it aspires to be original by thoroughly remodeling several of its key characters and modernizing its context. The most extensive overhauls are the fresh interpretation of Amy, and the heightened complexity of Charlie Venner; the heroine and the villain, skillfully played by Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush, 21) and Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood, Generation Kill) respectively, take on pivotal roles, combined, overshadowing James Marsden’s for screen-time and importance. Frailty, irrationality, and an irritating womanish disposition in the first Amy are replaced, in Bosworth, by fortitude, shrewdness, and a decidedly bold personality—a fact repeatedly highlighted by the self-referential, “she didn’t have enough lines” comment. Skarsgård, as well, portrays a completely new Charlie who redeems the previously depth-less and, frankly, implausible antagonist; the real strength of his performance lies in the adept portrayal of Charlie’s tumultuous but subtle emotions and unspoken inner-thoughts. James Wood delivers a laudable supporting performance as the angry drunkard, “Coach” Tom Heddon, who plays a crucial role as the catalyst

For better or worse, Lurie’s modernization of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs  is palatable, even enjoyable; the reason for their stark contrast is a conglomeration of several factors: the conspicuous omission of graphic nudity, the considerable dilution of intense and explicit scenes, the modern audience’s propensity for gore and violence, and the privy viewer’s anticipation for more vicious images. Despite specific artistic failures, Straw Dogs is altogether an invigorating and worthwhile cinematic experience.


4/5 Chinese writer-director Wong Kar Wai helms this mellow drama full of romance and heartache. In the Mood for Love features the acting talents of Hong Kong stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung; these three have since worked together on 2046–no surprise, given the product of this first union is a moving cinematic experience of very human proportions.

Two stranger, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) fortuitously become neighbors when they both move into a crowded Hong Kong tenement on the same day. A tentative friendship forms between them in the absence of their spouses, and thanks, in no small part, to their close proximity. Both Chan and Chow independently begin to suspect their partners, who spend an inordinate amount of time at work, of infidelity. Their fears are confirmed when, over tea at the local bar, they discover a plethora of damning, albeit circumstancial, evidence on each other’s person. Out of spite, they vow never to emulate their cheating spouses, but as their fondness for each grows, their pledge proves a heartwrenching, perhaps impossible, struggle.

Wong Kar Wai implements an inventive, authentic complication to supplement to the worn and recycled forbidden-love story. Spite drives these two smitten married individuals to renounce the very romance they have been longing for since their adulterous companions deprived them. In the Mood for Love returns to the roots of the term ‘melodrama’, which sets a romantic story to a prominently featured musical score; without the wonderfully moody soundtrack, the film would be a vastly different experience. The director’s non-linear narrative style makes for interesting plot-development–several imagined scenarios play out on screen like wrinkles in time, branching out and rejoining effortlessly; any acute confusion caused by this kind of intermittent time-hopping is cleared up by the helpful musical cues.

The modern melodrama, Wong Kar Wai proves, has evolved from its Sirkian origins; gone are the laughable histrionics, the archetypal characters, the glaring symbolism, thematic archs, and antiquated romanticism which plagued weepies past. The new melodrama moves its audience with realism and subtlety, not maudlin sentimentality. Though its pace may deter the impatient viewer, those romantically inclined souls who seek an honest story well told, will find In the Mood for Love a genuine heartfelt affair.

2/5 British independent film Never Let Me Go, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, has  gone largely unnoticed by American audiences, undeservingly. The cinematic incarnation—directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), featuring Carey Mulligan (An Education), Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), and Keira Knightley (Atonement)—enjoys far less praise and recognition than its highly acclaimed narrative source which Times Magazine named “Best Novel of 2005.”

A young blond woman watches through the glass of an operating room as doctors prepare a man for surgery. A brief exposition of the alternate reality which hosts this somber romance explains: in the year 1952, advancements in medical science have allowed humans to live past 100. This remarkable longevity, however, is achieved through the immolation of ‘donors’ by sacrificing their vital organs to more fortuitous recipients. The story is told in three chapters relating to various life-stages. In childhood, as part of the incipient wave of donors, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow up together in Hailsham boarding school, an idyllic setting where the three form fond memories and close bonds. As they continue into adolescence, the looming shadow of their compulsory donations and the rigours of romantic rivalry divide the three until they reunite years later as adults.

Director Romanek captures beautifully both the air of nostalgia in Hailsham and the hopelessness of the world beyond thanks to a well-adapted screenplay, great acting, and tasteful camera filters. Though the story was not originally written for the screen, it plays out well as a film-narrative. The conservative and understated dialogue offsets the emotionally weighty theme, at least for the most part. At times the slightly-sepia-toned world feels drab, monochromatic, and dull but the film would lack the gloom of perpetual sympathy if it lost the overcast color-drainage.

Of all the good things Never Let Me Go has to offer, Carey Mulligan’s performance has to be one of the best; her portrayal of Kathy the unassuming, unaffected admirer comes off as absolutely effortless. Andrew Garfield as Tommy delivers a moving performance as the fragile, fought-for love-interest. Acting is easily the highest scoring category for the film; no holes can be found in the performance by the entire cast of child and adult actors. Short-lived guardian Ms. Lucy (Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky), in a touching emotional speech, enlightens her credulous students with a heavy heart of their short and pre-determined existence; the defining childhood experiences of the three friends are also portrayed skillfully by a well-cast and talented young trio.

A likely reason Never Let Me Go never achieved mainstream success or popularity is because its MPAA rating, R for Restricted, prevents it from reaching its true target audience, teenagers. The premise, the romance, the drama, the lesson, all seem a bit juvenille for adult viewership but perfectly tailored for an adolescent audience looking for a sensitive and emotional movie; that being said, Never Let Me Go is still a worthwhile watch for anyone in a sentimental or nostalgic mood, and the only adaptation of Ishiguro’s celebrated novel.

3/5 Biutiful has been nominated for two Oscars—”Best Foreign Language Film” and Javier Bardem for “Best Actor in a Leading Role”—and yet, you’ve never heard of it. Spanish director Alejandro González Iñárritu, responsible for Babel and 21 Grams previously, has teamed up with a new writing duo to produce and direct this melancholy, dramatic picture revolving around the dismal deneoument of one man’s life.

What happens when a ghost-whisperer is handed a death sentence? Meet Uxbal (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men)—father, brother, husband, illicit-businessman, psychic-medium—whose life expectancy has been hacked to nothing by a devastating diagnosis. Terminally ill, with only a month to put affairs in order, he must rush to secure an immediate future for his children while dealing with his unhinged ex-wife whose renewed insistence on motherhood aggravates him to no end. As the sand in his hourglass dwindles, life affords him no reprieve and further intensifies his anguish.

The story of Uxbal’s untimely demise opens with two disconnected and enigmatic conversations, but quickly shifts to a more linear plot. In signature style, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has built an emotionally draining narrative around a miserable protagonist, resulting in another downer-of-a-drama. Like his previous work, certain scenes, motifs, and plot-specifics reveal glimpses of Iñárritu’s potential, but the remaining runtime is lacking in both dramatic and aesthetic appeal: important emotional sequences are depicted heavy-handedly, the cinematography is more distracting than artistic, and several intriguing side-stories are completely neglected; all that considered, the film’s one irreparable flaw is the flat and forced finale.

Removed from the muck of mediocrity, however, is Javier Bardem who delivers an impressive performance as the story’s hero, Uxbal. He embodies every emotional manifestation of his character—indifferent, angry, shocked, forlorn, panicked, worried, relieved, etc.—with such prowess, it makes one wonder why his previous roles have been so one-dimensional—think Vicky Cristina Barcelona and No Country for Old Men. Surrounding Bardem is a supporting cast of Spanish and international unknowns who do an exceptional job, well, supporting; most notably Maricel Álvarez, who plays Marambra his wife in the movie, rides the fine line between sympathy and disgust, drawing both pity and chagrin from the viewing audience.

Iñárritu returns to familiar territory in his latest project, but spices it up with a touch of the surreal. The story itself feels more pointed and cogent than his previous material, thanks in no small part to his new writers, but the great triumph of this film is its strong performances and the central message of the story. To put it another way, he paints an interesting subject with exciting vision, but he ought to refine his brush-strokes. Biutiful is a movie with potential both promised and achieved—promised in Iñárritu and achieved in Bardem.

Alejandro González Iñárritu

4/5 “I just want to be perfect” whispers a haunting female voice over a music box playing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. By now you’ve heard or read something about Black Swan, the newest project from the mind of director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler). Buzz or criticism, everybody who’s seen it has an opinion; so is it highly overrated or greatly misunderstood? Is there a first Oscar waiting for Aronofsky or Portman or both?

Aspiring dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, The Professional, V For Vendetta) struggles to distinguish herself in the eyes of ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel, Ocean’s Thirteen, Eastern Promises) who is hesitant to cast her as lead ballerina in the company’s upcoming recital. Swan Lake, insists Thomas, demands a dancer able to embody both the black and the white swan, both the passionate and the precise; frustratingly, Nina’s impeccable technique proves her peerless for only half the role. At first, the arrival of free-spirited newcomer Lily (Kunis) further aggravates Nina in her situation, but in the fight to shed her inhibitions and explore her darker side, Nina realizes Lily is less the competition than the perfect companion. The transformation from the white to black swan comes painfully and at a great price, but Nina gradually overcomes her ambivalence in pursuit of perfection.

Like its central subject of ballet, Black Swan is a spectacle completely focused on the performance of its female lead—a role Natalie Portman plays beautifully. Of course, playing the part of Nina—both highly skilled ballet dancer and complex psychological character—could not, and did not, come easily. Portman began training a year ahead of filming to dance the part, and it shows—at least to an untrained eye. No plié or pirouette betrays her persona, which is a remarkable feat considering the difficulty of ballet and the fact that she performs almost all of the choreography herself. Aside from the dancing, Portman’s portrayal of Nina at all stages of her terrifying transfiguration leaves nothing left to desire. While it is still too early to say with certainty, this will have to be a year of incredible lead actresses if Natalie Portman is denied an Oscar nomination.

Imagine watching your house slowly collapse. You are not watching from a safe distance away. In fact, you are not outside at all. You are inside; all around you the walls crack, the ceiling crumbles, the paint peels, and the pipes burst. Your house, in this illustration, is Nina’s tortured psyche—an imploding structure, made threatening by the immersive experience delivered by deliberate writing, sound-editing and cinematography. Black Swan is not, by any measure, an easy movie to sit through; certain scenes, motifs, and sounds will make you squirm, wince, or cringe reflexively. The discomfort is a device designed to coerce the viewer into experiencing instead of sympathizing; its persistent application effectively forces the viewer into her ‘pointe’ ballet shoes, rendering most discussions concerning reality versus fantasy moot. In other words, pinpointing which events are real and which are imagined is utterly pointless, because the blurry line in between is the point.

Dark, disturbing and detailed, Darren Aronofsky’s latest macabre creation is a highly worked narrative brought to life by Natalie Portman showcasing a new height of acting prowess. Aronofsky’s auteur directing style will never be ‘for everyone’ but the rate at which he develops his craft virtually ensures his place as one of the influential directors in contemporary American cinema.