Tag Archive: Natalie Portman


Thor: The Dark World: Grade: B-

original

Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, & Stephen McFeely

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo

Until Thor: The Dark World was released, the only individual franchise in the Marvel Studio universe that had a sequel (and I am not counting The Incredible Hulk as being a sequel to The Hulk) was Iron ManThor: The Dark World is a bigger test for Marvel than Iron Man 2 was primarily because (1) audiences gravitated toward Robert Downey, Jr.’s defining performance so much that the actor alone ensured a huge box office in the first weekend alone; (2) a billionaire playboy who suits up in a electronically sophisticated flying robotic armor is more interesting than a mythological god whose only weapon is a fucking hammer and whose world looks like a poor man’s version of J.R.R. Tolkien; and (3) Tony Stark’s pop culture-infused sharp sarcasm is funnier than Thor’s old English dialogue. It is far less risky to have a wisecracking Robert Downey, Jr. in a real world setting than a Viking god from outer space, played by a relatively unknown actor.

With Thor: The Dark World, I am disturbingly finding myself walking out of the theater thinking once you have seen one Marvel film, you have seen them all.  These films are beginning to feel more like TV episodes (or I guess you can say issues of comic books). While I overall enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, I was disappointed to find that it was not much of an improvement over its predecessor.

In this sequel, Asgard is faced with a new threat in the form of the Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his minions, who are these ancient creatures called Dark Elves and who seek to return the universe back to eternal darkness. Malekith intends to accomplish his goal with the use of the Aether during the Convergence, an event that occurs once every like 10,000 years in which all of the nine realms of the universe align together. Thor: The Dark World takes place right after the events of The Avengers. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Asgard and the villainous brother is condemned to spend eternity inside a dungeon. Thor remains busy bringing peace to the various kingdoms. In the meantime, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), his heartbroken love, continues her research into finding barriers between worlds. During her research, she stumbles across the Aether and is possessed by it. Thor finds her and returns her to Asgard to separate the Aether from Jane. However, discovery of the Aether reawakens Malekith, who descends upon Asgard to possess the powerful object.

If you can’t tell from my summary, Thor: The Dark World steeps itself a lot more into the fantasy Asgardian elements of this property than the first film. As one of the main directors of the hit TV show, Game of Thrones, director Alan Taylor is better suited to handle the fantasy aspect of the story than Kenneth Branagh, the director of the first film. This time Asgard feels more grounded and gritty and you get a sense that there are actual inhabitants outside of Thor, Odin and Loki. Taylor also does a fine job bringing back the humor the first film had and giving Thor: The Dark World a touch of lightness that the Marvel movies all seem to have. Here, it is obvious Joss Whedon exercised a heavy hand in many of this film’s humor, with gags and a great cameo from another Marvel superhero. Taylor also manages to avoid the typically dreadful third act climax/showdown that Marvel movies are sometimes plagued with (see Iron Man 1 and 2) – the final set piece is an inventive action sequence that, although not exceptional, is fun to watch.

However, despite the film’s virtues, Thor: The Dark World is held back by a number of elements. For one, Malekith is a woefully under-developed character, which is a real disappointment given how the very talented, charismatic, and versatile Christopher Eccleston (Mads Mikkelsen was originally cast to play Malekith, but he dropped out because of Hannibal) was cast to play this character. Aside from some decent design work on Malekith and his elvish minions, he doesn’t do a whole lot. Most of Malekith’s interactions occur with his henchman Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). He has one forgettable exchange with Thor and that is pretty much about it.

It is obvious that the studio decided to give short shrift to Malekith’s development in favor of allowing for more screen time to Loki, probably the most popular and memorable character in the Marvel movie universe next to Iron Man. Tom Hiddleston again proves himself to be indispensable to the enjoyment of this movie. He deftly combines a little boy vulnerability with his malevolent trickster traits. By now, Chris Hemsworth and Hiddleston have starred together in their third movie and you can see the two actors really hit their stride with these characters. At the same time, we are getting the same Loki that we saw in the first Thor and in The Avengers. There is no real character development here with him. The outcome with his character in this film seems to be setting him up for a third Thor film.

I have to say that I did not dig this more mature, noble Thor. I miss the cocky, impulsive, arrogant Norse god that we saw on display in the first film and in The Avengers. Now, he’s just some dull superhero who takes everything too seriously and much of the comedy he provided in Thor is gone (except for what Loki provides).

As for the rest of the characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find an expanded role for Rene Russo, who plays Thor’s mother. One of the best scenes in the film occurs between her and Malekith as she tries to protect Jane Foster from the dark elf. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard also return to serve as more comic relief. For awhile I was expecting to see the story delve into an interesting love triangle between Jaimie Alexander’s Sif, Thor, and Jane Foster, but other than a few hints here and there, nothing comes of this sub-plot. Many have pointed out that Anthony Hopkins barely registers in this film as Thor’s father, Odin. I disagree and I found the performance to be far better and memorable than what Hopkins did in the first film.

I had the misfortune of seeing Thor: The Dark World in 3D. Reportedly, director Alan Taylor was not told that his film would be converted to 3D and it shows. The 3D make the whole image darker for one, and the technology was not utilized in the least bit. There is some very nice design work and landscapes in the Asgardian scenes and you totally miss it by watching it in 3D.

Ultimately, Thor: The Dark World is a fun, escapist romp that’s worth spending a nice Sunday afternoon in the theater to see (without the 3D). There is nothing original in terms of storyline, visual effects, or characters, but you weren’t really expecting that anyway, were you? Its unfortunate the talents of Christopher Eccleston are totally wasted, but at least we get a large dose of Loki instead, which is always welcome. Make sure you stick around for the end credits (like you should do with every Marvel film) for a nice teaser for Guardians of the Galaxy.

HESHER, last year’s comedy-drama starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, and Rainn Wilson, draws some parallels between it REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and PETER PAN. Bear with me here. Compared to REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, both films deal with young, troubled and/or disaffected youth who, due to their rejection by mainstream society, find refuge in one another’s company. Viewed in a different way, HESHER also compares to PETER PAN in that both films feature a child-like, mischievous character who eschews the normal adult world with all of its responsibilities in favor of one where he has no responsibilities to anyone. Basically, HESHER is a coming-of-age story, but certainly not in the nostalgic, warm sense that such movies as MY GIRL and STAND BY ME present. This film is more rough around its edges and although it may be full of first-timer director mistakes, HESHER has ended up being one of my favorite films of 2011.

HESHER is the directorial debut of Spencer Susser, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Michod (the director of the highly-acclaimed ANIMAL KINGDOM). Like so many directors, Susser began his career making music videos, commercials, and a short film that Susser plans to develop into a longer, feature-length film called I LOVE SARAH JANE (Sidenote: Susser also directed a series of “making-of” documentaries for STAR WARS EPISODE II, where he met and befriended Natalie Portman). HESHER was an idea that Susser developed over the years that evolved from a broad comedy (that was originally conceived by someone else) to the more dramatic comedy that it eventually turned into.

Before I sum up the story, a “hesher,” in case you’re wondering, is defined by “Urban Dictionary” as “Long haired, usually mulleted person who listens and rocks out to Metal or Thrash music. Generally seen wearing acid-washed jeans, leather motorcycle or denim jacket covered with band and skull patches.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “hesher” more or less conforms to this definition. Set in the 1980’s, HESHER is about a grieving middle school boy named T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his depressed father (Rainn Wilson), who are both struggling to deal with the death of their mother/wife after a fatal car accident. Barging into this dysfunctional family’s grief is Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), who somehow ends up living with the family and strikes up a close friendship with the boy’s grandmother (an unrecognizable Piper Laurie). Thrown into the story is a grocery check-out girl played by Natalie Portman, who plays a sort of love interest for the boy.

How you will respond to HESHER will sort of depend on how conventional or safe you like your characters and setups to be. I didn’t know what to expect going into this movie and its better that you don’t know because the less you know the more shockingly surprised you will be by the characters’ actions. This film walks a fine line between drama and comedy and it handles both very well. Ultimately, however, HESHER is about loss. The boy, T.J., is a confused and angry kid who lost his mom suddenly and way too soon. He doesn’t know how to cope with his mother’s loss and he has very little in terms of support. His father is on medication to deal with his depression and that leaves only his grandmother, who feels helpless in terms of how much support she can give at her old age. It’s a sad and desperate situation that, strangely enough, when Hesher enters the scene, his violent and dark demeanor is actually a relief.

I think many, including me, may find T.J. and his family’s seeming acceptance of a strange guy like Hesher moving into their house very strange. It took me a while to accept this weird turn of events, but once (or if) you do, the film builds a nice momentum that captivates you for its entirety. A lot of credit goes to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for creating such an interesting character who is at once funny, repulsive, and caring. Its pretty amazing to think the young kid from THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN has grown up to possess such a wide range of acting talent. Its hard to believe the guy in this movie is the same fresh-faced kid in (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Moreover, Gordon-Levitt clearly isn’t afraid to tackle challenging roles as evidenced by HESHER and last year’s 50/50. The Hesher character could have easily been played to exhibit the most surfaced stereotypes that would have made the character come off as being simply comedic. However, Gordon-Levitt was able to find the core of that character and create sympathy for a character who normally wouldn’t elicit sympathy from anyone. By the way, Hesher has one of the best (not to mention, hilarious) character introductions I have seen in a long time. The kid, T.J., ends up in a construction site and there is a house behind him that is still under construction. Angry that he has just been tossed off his bicycle, T.J. throws a rock through window, thinking there isn’t anyone inside the house. Suddenly, we see Hesher emerge from the house, walk towards T.J. and drags him inside the house to beat the shit out of him. However, before he gets a chance to do so, a security car drives by, spotting Hesher and T.J. In response, Hesher takes a firecrack bomb and throws it at the car to create a diversion so he can get away. That is our introduction to Hesher.

The rest of the cast does a pretty good job, but there isn’t anything particularly noteworthy from their performances. Devin Brochu doesn’t have much to say and he spends much of the film just screaming at Hesher, bullies, and generally, the world. Little is also required from Rainn Wilson, who is on various medications throughout the film and always appears depressed. There is one memorable scene between Brochu and Wilson at the dinner table where T.J. finally decides to confront his father about his dependency on drugs and how screwed up their family has become. It’s an explosive scene that momentarily turns the spotlight away from Hesher. As for Natalie Portman, she does a fine job playing the part of the underpaid, barely-making-it grocery girl. Her character is perfectly defined by the janky car she drives, her ratty look, the shitty L.A. apartment she lives in, and the dead end job she works at. And yet, she fights on and keeps her head above life’s waters. Finally, Piper Laurie is a nice treat in the movie. Again, I had no idea who she was until I saw her name in the credits. Laurie is wonderful as the caring grandmother who keeps her family together by a very thin thread. The warm moments between she and Hesher as they develop their friendship are among the best parts of the film.

Many will say that HESHER is not for everyone and I disagree. I actually saw this film with my father, who likes his independent films from time to time, but he generally prefers historical and action films. I was initially reluctant to show him this movie and I was very surprised that he not only sat through the entire film, but he actually enjoyed it as much as I did. At its center, HESHER deals with themes that everyone can relate to. The film is not simply about a destructive psychopath who engages in random acts of mischief and violence for 2 hours. Hesher undergoes a transformation that, by the end of the film, has turned him into someone who, although still a hesher, ultimately cares about people and wants to help those in need. Who can’t relate to that?

I think many who watch this film will be turned off by Hesher’s extremism and I can appreciate that. It’s one of the film’s flaws. Nothing appears to faze Hesher and nothing is off limits. The character has zero inhibitions and he operates off instinct. That may come off to some as being selfish, callous, and crude. At the same time, no one can say that Hesher is a boring character. He’s totally unpredictable and a pure joy to watch. I can safely say that the character absolutely, hands-down steals every scene.

A bigger issue I had with this film is the script’s episodic and, at times, aimless nature. Add to this the creation of quirky characters that are quirky for the sake of being quirky and less for developing the narrative in any way. In fact, if it wasn’t for Gordon-Levitt’s performance and the development of the Hesher character, this film would be a depressing and forgettable indie film. The supporting cast isn’t bad, but its as if they’re all there (as are all the situations) to serve Hesher. It reminds me of a comedy film that stars an SNL comedian like Adam Sandler. Those movies are pure vanity pieces that are completely centered around the comedian and his antics. Story is secondary and often it isn’t even that. The same goes for HESHER. I had a great time watching the film, but in the end, it was a showcase for Hesher and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and if you happen to enjoy that character and the performance, then you’ll love the film.

WARNING: ULTRA NERD DISCUSSION ABOUT TO COMMENCE: Thor has always appealed to me the same way that Iron Man has, which is to say that neither has ever held any appeal for me as a comic book reader/collector. The only time I have cared to read these characters is when they have been members of The Avengers superhero team. My problem isn’t with the characters themselves as they’re both coolly conceived creations. Their lack of appeal stems from the fact that they have never had great story runs or an interesting rogue’s gallery like Spider Man, Daredevil, Punisher, Fantastic Four, or the X-Men have had. Consequently, Thor and Iron Man have usually been considered second-string characters in the Marvel Universe except in those instances where they have fought as members of The Avengers or have been involved in some huge comic book crossover like Secret Wars or Civil War.

For this, I have great admiration for Marvel Studios for being able to take these characters and craft superb film adaptations that equal if not surpass the Spider Man and X-Men movies. THOR in particular was a project that worried me the most. Unlike IRON MAN, who is basically Marvel’s answer to Batman, who has the advantage of being played by the larger than life Robert Downey, Jr., and whose costume/powers look very impressive to kids who love Transformers, THOR is kinda cheesy and lame. For one, its about a hammer-wielding dude who speaks in Old English and who comes from a magical place called Asgard that has a Rainbow Bridge. Second, Thor is a god from Norse mythology, a mythology that no one is familiar with and that is nowhere near as cool as Greek or Roman mythology. Finally, Thor is a somewhat arrogant fellow who thinks highly of his god-like status and who lacks the humor and charm of Iron Man. Suffice it to say that Marvel Studios had its work cut out for it in making sure THOR did not become a massive embarrassment for Paramount and a huge setback for next year’s THE AVENGERS movie.

I have to admit that despite the surprisingly positive reviews THOR received, I went into this film with low expectations. The trailers for the movie never managed to grab my interest and it looked like just another dumb, summer popcorn movie that would be weak on story and characters and big on unimpressive-looking CG effects. Also, the fact that Kenneth Branagh, a director who is known mostly for adapting Shakespeare to the screen and for directing the horrible FRANKENSTEIN, would be helming THOR didn’t help to assuage any doubts I had about the movie. However, after allowing a few days to pass so that I can properly gauge my feelings about the movie, I can confidently say that THOR is one of the best Marvel comic film adaptations to date and even surpasses X-MEN (but not X-MEN 2) and SPIDER MAN (but not SPIDER MAN 2).

THOR (Chris Hemsworth) is a Norse god and the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Odin is the ruler of Asgard, the capital of the Norse gods and one of the Nine Worlds. Thor is groomed to become the next ruler of Asgard, but at his coronation, a breach of security has occurred in Asgard by a group of Frost Giants, a race of beings that have warred with Asgard in the past and have maintained an unsteady truce with the Norse gods since their defeat at the hands of Odin. Thor decides to teach the Frost Giants a lesson and disobeying his father’s orders, he and his trusty band of companions head to the realm of the Frost Giants and engage them in battle. Upon learning of his son’s defiance, Odin denies Thor the throne of Asgard and banishes him from Asgard entirely to live upon Earth. However, unbeknownst to Odin and Thor, Odin’s other son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has struck a deal with the Frost Giants. Loki, who is jealous of his brother and the favoritism that has always been bestowed upon him, manipulated events to result in Thor’s banishment so that Loki could take over the throne. Meanwhile, on Earth, Thor befriends Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist who discovers him in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Along with her father (Stellan Skarsgard) and assistant (Kat Dennings), Jane helps Thor to reclaim his hammer and get back to Asgard so he can defeat Loki.

Even if you don’t care much for Marvel’s film adaptations of its properties, the one thing that Marvel has consistently pulled off with great success is in casting its superheroes with the perfect actors (exception: Ben Affleck as DAREDEVIL….no). I had no clue who Chris Hemsworth was before THOR, but I give Marvel huge kudos for finding an actor who flawlessly embodies the Thor character (despite the fact that the actor is Australian and the character is, well, not). I think in the hands of bad management, Marvel could have easily messed up this franchise by casting a UFC or wrestling star instead of someone who not only possesses the physique of an immortal, but also has the acting skills to portray the character convincingly. Hemsworth gives Thor a nice blend of humor and drama while maintaining a strong screen presence befitting a god/superhero. Although Thor possesses a streak of arrogance, Hemsworth is able to play it down enough that he doesn’t put off the audience. Like Christopher Reeve, who forever defined our perception of Superman, Hemsworth does the same for Thor.

As with any superhero movie, the quality of the film depends just as much if not more on its villain. Here, we have Loki, the god of mischief and deceit. Loki is to Thor as what the Joker is to Batman, but the former have a more interesting relationship by virtue of the fact that they are brothers. Loki is going to be the villain in next year’s THE AVENGERS movie so proper casting and development of this character is especially important. Again, we have a great performance from Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki as a quiet and thoughtful villain whose jealousy of his brother consumes him to no end. I have read various portrayals of Loki in the comic books and some of have really played up the mischievous aspect of his character to the point of making him sound like The Joker. I like that Branagh decided to veer away from that portrayal and present Loki as a more serious and cunning villain with a mad streak. It makes for a more menacing antagonist and such a character strikes a stronger contrast with Thor’s braggart, outgoing personality. I also think Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean background really benefits in drawing out the complexities and nuances of the relationship between the two characters in a way that we might not otherwise have seen in the hands of a lesser director.

The remaining cast does a serviceable job in filling the rest of the roles. I was actually a little surprised that Natalie Portman decided to take the role of Jane Foster. I’m sure the opportunity to co-star in a high profile, franchise picture like THOR was Portman’s primary consideration because I can’t imagine how anyone would see this character as presenting an acting challenge. Jane Foster is just like any other superhero love interest. Foster is an intelligent and ambitious scientist who finds Thor in the middle of the desert one night. Like Lois Lane, Vicki Vale, and countless other superhero love interests, Foster falls for Thor and she’s eventually put in a situation where she must be saved by him. I think the challenge for Natalie Portman was in trying to find a way to take her pedestrian dialogue and spice it up any way she could and avoid creating a two-dimensional character. Another character worth noting is that of Heimdall (Idris Elba), who is the gatekeeper of Asgard’s Rainbow Bridge. Elba does a fantastic job portraying the character as a noble, fierce, and loyal warrior. The scenes with him are all high points in the movie and I hope to see much more of him in the sequel or maybe even in THE AVENGERS.

The best part of THOR (and many of the other Marvel films) is the scenes that connect the character to the rest of the Marvel Universe. After this summer’s release of CAPTAIN AMERICA, we will be ready for the culmination of Marvel’s efforts in next year’s THE AVENGERS. Each of these individual Marvel superhero films (IRON MAN 1 & 2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and now THOR) have given us clues to THE AVENGERS. We have been introduced to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. Each of the films have also interconnected with each other (i.e. IRON MAN 2 showed Captain America’s shield) and we see more of that in THOR. By the way, make sure you stick around for the end credits as another glimpse of what is to come next year will be shown. My favorite scene in THOR is where we get introduced to Hawkeye (for you comic fans, you no doubt know who Hawkeye is as he’s the leader of the West Coast Avengers). Hawkeye is played by Jeremy Renner, who is one of my favorite actors working today. The scene with Hawkeye is brief, but unbelievably cool.

Sadly, THOR isn’t perfect. There are a few problems that I already knew would be present just from seeing the trailers alone. For one, the depiction of Asgard looks like a giant blob of multicolored CG. The world lacks a consistent design and delineating any of the buildings or other features of the realm is confusing. I wouldn’t put Asgard on the same level as Oa, the world that is depicted in the upcoming GREEN LANTERN and that looks absolutely horrendous, but it nevertheless smacks of something you would see on the SyFy Channel.

Furthermore, I wish the action scenes had been staged by a director or DP with action experience. The scene where the giant robot attacks the small town in THOR completely lacks any suspense. Branagh clearly relies on CG effects to impress his audience rather than create a sequence that truly raises the stakes for our heroes. The problem recurs later in the film when Thor battles Loki. Although this battle was far more suspenseful and engaging than the end battles in IRON MAN 1 and 2, I was still hoping of something along the lines of the final battle sequence in SUPERMAN 2 when Metropolis gets completely destroyed.

Aside from these minor criticisms, THOR is an entertaining film and it marks a great start to the 2011 summer movie season. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but at the same time its dramatic enough to give both kids and adult comic nerds like me a satisfying experience.

Being forced to sit through David Gordon Green’s YOUR HIGHNESS reminded me of GHOSTBUSTERS and what a piece of fucking genius that film was in being able to combine the horror genre with an intelligent and funny sense of humor. The latter film wasn’t forced to resort to simple dick and fart jokes spoken by comedians who used the film’s storyline as a mere setup for their comedy routine. YOUR HIGHNESS promised to be the successor to such films as GHOSTBUSTERS and Mel Brooks’ comedy classics from the 70s. Instead, David Gordon Green has surprisingly delivered a lifeless, stinking corpse of a movie that bears zero resemblance to the screen gems he has ably crafted in the past (GEORGE WASHINGTON, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS). More disappointingly, YOUR HIGHNESS has also managed to make me rid myself of my infatuation with Danny McBride’s brand of comedy.

YOUR HIGHNESS is a standard sword and sorcery tale about two brothers, Thadeus (Danny McBride) and Fabious (James Franco), who are the sons of King Tallious (Charles Dance). Thadeus is a brave and noble warrior and the heir to the kingdom’s throne whereas Fabious is a lazy, fat, idiot who can never do anything right. Thadeus returns home from one of his many successful quests with a young woman (Zoey Deschanel) who is to be his bride. However, the wedding ceremony is interrupted by the evil sorcerer Leezar (Justin Theroux), who kidnaps the bride and imprisons her inside her dungeon. When the two moons converge, the wizard intends to fuck the bride, impregnating her with a dragon that will allow the wizard to take over the kingdom. Thadeus and Fabious set out to rescue the captive bride and along their journey they encounter a bunch of boring adventures and run into a female warrior (Natalie Portman), who is also intent on finding Leezar and killing him for massacring her family.

One has to wonder where YOUR HIGHNESS went wrong. Conceptually, the film is great. Although we have seen a few recent comedic takes on the superhero and horror genres, we haven’t seen very much for other promising genres such as fantasy and sci-fi. In fact, other than Mel Brooks’ ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, I can’t recall any modern fantasy comedies and Brooks’ film wasn’t very recent (1993). Furthermore, having a talented director like David Gordon Green added even more anticipation for what YOUR HIGHNESS could have become. Some may have had reservations about the director helming this sort of film given the serious dramas Green has done in the past. However, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and EASTBOUND & DOWN proved that the director has a keen eye for comedy and his pairing with the hilarious Danny McBride added more assurance that this film could and would work. Finally, add to this mix the money casting of James Franco and Natalie Portman, both fresh off of critically-acclaimed and award winning films, and all seemed guaranteed that YOUR HIGHNESS was poised to become this generation’s GHOSTBUSTERS or A PRINCESS BRIDE. It wasn’t and it wasn’t in a big fucked up way.

So what about Danny McBride? I could not get enough of the first season of EASTBOUND & DOWN when I first saw it. Finally, here was an actor who was rude and un-PC as all fuck without any hints of softness, compassion, or the ability to do clean humor. Danny McBride was what I always wished Jack Black would have remained before he completely sold out to big-budget family fare. I’ll be the first to admit that McBride has a very limited range of acting skill and although his comedy is hilarious as all hell at the moment, its not timeless and it will probably get old very soon. However, until that time comes, I regularly seek out my Danny McBride fill. Unfortunately, either McBride wasn’t right for this role or the development of his character was entirely absent during the film’s screenwriting phase. EASTBOUND & DOWN is the kind of show in which all the characters and situations act as set-ups for McBride’s talents. The show doesn’t require any character development as McBride just simply needs to play a dumb, racist, sexist redneck. That’s all fine and good for a show like EASTBOUND, but when you’re starring in a movie, good character development is an essential element for a successful movie. In YOUR HIGHNESS, McBride resorts to the same arrogant and vulgar schtick he’s successfully relied on in EASTBOUND, but instead of the overly-confident former baseball player he portrays on the show, he attempts to fit the same type of humor into a petulant and spoiled prince. It doesn’t work. The first few utterances of “fuck” are funny only because its not something you hear in a fantasy movie, but that gets old fast and McBride’s character quickly devolves into a unremarkable one-note bore.

As for the rest of the cast, the development of these characters is similarly misguided and fails to hit the mark by a long shot. James Franco’s Fabious character is a noble warrior prince who spouts off cheesy, clichéd lines. He’s neither funny nor interesting in any way and I wondered why someone like Franco was cast to play this role. Franco plays the straight role to McBride’s character, which given the comedy Franco has played in other films (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS), I was hoping for a comedy team-up like Cheech and Chong rather than the arrangement they ultimately had in the film. It would have been great to have seen both Franco and McBride play rude, spoiled princes who embark on their quest without taking it seriously.

Coming now to Natalie Portman, unlike the other characters, I wasn’t expecting her to be funny and she is one of the few casting choices that works. She’s the kick-ass warrior who sets out to kill Leezar for killing her family. She’s a tough chick who can handle her own. I ended up liking her character even more than Franco and McBride, which I was not expecting. I give Natalie Portman a lot of shit for being in so many movies lately, but I have to admit that in the few that I have seen her in over the past couple of years, she has grown as an actress and has attained a screen presence befitting a movie star.

The funniest and most interesting character in YOUR HIGHNESS is without a doubt the villain of the movie, the sorcerer Leezar. Justin Theroux ends up outshining everyone with bitchy and hilarious lines. I suppose its only fitting that a screenwriter would give himself the best lines of the movie (yes, Theroux is both a talented screenwriter and an actor).

The intentions behind YOUR HIGHNESS were clearly well-meaning and worked on paper. A fantasy comedy that pays tribute to the fantasy films of the 80s (WILLOW, KRULL) is a cool idea, but the movie fails to capitalize on the elements that characterized those films. In the end, YOUR HIGHNESS isn’t a tribute so much as its just another bad comedy that serves to showcase Danny McBride. Even in that role, the movie fails. Constantly using the word ‘fuck’ isn’t funny and it’s a bad substitute for wit. I wasn’t expecting sophisticated comedy, but I was expecting it to at least be funny during half of its running time.

Darren Aronofsky, the director of the just-released BLACK SWAN, has cornered the market on emotionally exhausting films that present gritty and dark psychological profiles of fucked up, lonely characters. His films are not meant to be enjoyed by the audience. In fact, they are uncomfortable experiences that will leave you spent. However, they never fail to leave an indelible impression and its quite common to find a congregation of audience members outside the movie theater excitedly discussing the merits of the film. BLACK SWAN is arguably Aronofsky’s best film to date and its certainly his most classically cinematic effort so far in his career. I felt underwhelmed by the trailers, which seemed to be attached to almost every film I saw this past fall season. I’m one of the few people on this planet who’s not fond of Natalie Portman’s talents and the subject matter reminded me too much of 1992’s SINGLE WHITE FEMALE. The only thing motivating me to see this film was Aronofsky’s involvement and the big buzz the film had generated on the festival circuit. Having now finally seen it, BLACK SWAN has soundly exceeded my expectations and it ranks as among this year’s best films.

BLACK SWAN is a psychological drama about an obsessive perfectionist ballerina (Natalie Portman), Nina, who belongs to a ballet company that is looking for a new star to play the role of the Swan Queen in its production of Swan Lake. Nina is absolutely determined to land this role, which was recently played by an aging ballerina (Winona Ryder) who was unceremoniously released from the role. Living with her over-protective mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina leads a very sheltered life that completely revolves around her ballet. Everything that Nina has worked for her whole life comes down to getting the lead role in Swan Lake. At first the company director (Vincent Cassel) is unimpressed with Nina. He feels that although she has perfected her technique and she is perfect as the White Swan, she is unable to convey the dark, sultriness of the Black Swan. What’s more, a new ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), has joined the company who immediately poses a threat to Nina because of Lily’s apparent ability to successfully pull off the Black Swan role. To her surprise, Nina lands the lead role, but the constant pressure from her director to be perfect, Lily’s competition, and her mother’s over-bearing protection all begin to emotionally unravel Nina.

BLACK SWAN is one of those films that is precisely written to showcase a particular actor that if successfully executed, garners a swarm of accolades from the film community. This film spotlights Ms. Portman’s talents and, like her Swan character, she seems to have tirelessly worked toward this role throughout her career. The entire cast of this movie excels beautifully in their performances, but Portman is center stage here and she pulls off a stupendous performance. I have seen the majority of Natalie Portman’s films and although I have never considered her to be a bad actress (her horrendous work in STAR WARS notwithstanding as I completely blame George Lucas for being unable to direct actors), she has never played anything that is challenging enough to make me take notice. Prior to this film, the performance that came closest to really showing off Portman’s abilities was Mike Nichol’s excellent CLOSER, where Portman played a strip dancer. Even then, her work was uneven. With BLACK SWAN, the actress finally accumulates her 16 years of experience and takes over a challenging role that requires her to literally and figuratively transform from one extreme to another. Its not an overstatement to say that I was utterly transfixed by Natalie Portman from the first to the very last frame of the film.

As fantastic as Natalie Portman is in BLACK SWAN, this movie’s streak of excellence continues with the remainder of the cast. For anyone who thinks of THAT 70’S SHOW when they think of Mila Kunis, you will be in for quite a surprise after you see her in this. Kunis is naughty girl from the very first moment we see her when she runs in late on her first day of work and we see a pair of black wings tattooed on her back. Kunis is everything that Portman is not. She’s a great dancer without trying, she knows how to play the Black Swan, she can seduce men, she drinks, does drugs, and has experienced much more of the world than Portman has. For that, Portman views her as a threat. Kunis has played the bad girl role in past films (most recently in last year’s EXTRACT). The difference here is that she imbues her character with a more devious and cunning persona. By the way, the lesbian sex scene between Portman and Kunis easily ranks as one of the best cinematic sex scenes in the last 10 years.

When I think of Barbara Hershey, I think back to the 1980s and all the comparisons critics made between her, Debra Winger, and Jessica Lange (which I never really understood). Hershey has had an interesting personal life and professional career, but she’s mostly dropped out of the picture for the past two decades. Her role as Nina’s over-protective mother is sure to become one of her defining career roles and worthy of awards attention. Some may be reminded of Piper Laurie’s religious nut of a mother character in CARRIE or of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST. Similarities do exist between these characters and Hershey’s character, but unlike those other characters, Hershey’s role is more complex and three-dimensional. She’s not altogether bad and her intentions for her daughter are motivated by her fear that Nina will get hurt by the harsh, outside world. Hershey sacrificed her career for Nina and all she has left in the world is her daughter. That’s not to say that Hershey is without some pretty psycho characteristics, but she’s also not so one-dimensional as to make the audience completely hate her or at least not sympathize with her actions.

Finally, we get to the great Vincent Cassel, whom I have always been a big fan of. Cassel has the face of an asshole and that has served the French actor well throughout his career. Here he plays the biggest prick you can imagine. As the director of the ballet company, he is uncompromising and direct. He doesn’t mince words when telling someone they suck or they no longer have a place in the company. What’s more, Cassel uses his position and influence in casting to sexually have his way with his main starlet. He expects Nina to submit to him sexually because, after all, he gave her the lead role. He couches his desire for her in the excuse that the star needs to intimately understand her director. Cassel is the perfect casting choice for this type of role and he doesn’t fail to live up to the character’s arrogant sliminess.

I don’t know shit about ballet and its not something that I’m willing to rush out and see anytime soon. Its an art that I appreciate for the discipline and dedication it requires, but its not one that I particularly find entertaining to watch. Whether or not you enjoy ballet will have no bearing on whether you will like BLACK SWAN. If anything, you will gain a little more appreciation for the hard work that ballerinas have to put into preparing for concerts and the physical pains they have to endure to achieve perfection. I actually found Aronofsky’s decision to base his story in the world of ballet to be very fitting. When we think of that world, we think of skinny competitive bitches vying for a spot in the play, domineering mothers who constantly push their daughters, and anorexic ballerinas who strive to maintain a body weight of 10 lbs. With such an environment, anyone is sure to go fucking insane. So what better world to work within than ballet to tell the story of a girl slowly going mad? Aronofsky does a masterful job in immersing the audience in his portrayal of this world, which is far from a sugar-coated world resembling The Nutcracker. Most of the film takes place in dark, urban, and gritty locales that are devoid of any colors but grey and black. The ballet company’s practice stage is all black and mirrors. The director’s apartment is completely in black and white and he is always seen wearing blacks, greys, and whites. Nina is usually seen to be headed to and from practice in claustrophobic, graffiti-scrawled subway tunnels. Even when Nina decides to live a little and spends a night with Lily, they go to a dark restaurant and dance club. Nina’s only sanctuary is her bedroom, which contains the only bright colors in the film (even the rest of her apartment contains very little color so as to indicate that even her mother’s protection serves as a form of threat to Nina’s existence). In the end, Aronofsky presents the world of ballet at its ugliest, most extreme permutation.

If you can’t already tell, BLACK SWAN isn’t exactly December holiday fare. It’s an unnerving, psychological character study that is at times a horror film and other times an almost darkly campy melodrama reminiscent of SHOWGIRLS. Aronofsky will constantly keep you guessing whether what Nina sees is actually real or a figment of her paranoia. Like I stated before, this is not a film that is meant to be enjoyed. Its uncomfortable to watch and you will remain tense throughout the movie. The director employs a number of techniques to create this effect, some of which are described above. An additional technique is the use of a handheld camera. Now I have railed pretty harshly in the past about how much this camera technique has overstayed its welcome. However, if there is one film where such a technique is appropriate (and well utilized) its BLACK SWAN. The director uses it effectively to keep his audience off balance and in the end, it contributes to the film’s success.

So there you have it. Is BLACK SWAN the best film of 2010? Its very difficult to say considering the strength of some past films released this year (namely, INCEPTION and THE SOCIAL NETWORK) and there are a few films coming out in December that are potentially vying for the top spot. However, I can say that the film ranks among the best of the year and one not to be missed. On a final note, I dig the hell out of the art deco style posters for the film, one of which I have provided in this post.