On Movies: Different strengths in "The Tourist, "Tiny Furniture," "Black Swan"
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2010 - "Stupid fun" was the shrewd assessment of my companion at a screening of "The Tourist," the new lightweight spy thriller starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. It was elegantly filmed in Paris and Venice, where Depp engages in an exercise as old as the genre - he is chased by villains across the city's rooftops, with loose tiles clattering underfoot. Didn't Hitchcock do that? More than once?
Depp and Jolie meet on a train headed south through Europe. She appears to be the mistress of a thief who stole a billion or two dollars from an international gangster, and who owes the British government hundreds of millions in back taxes. He insists that he is a schoolteacher from Wisconsin, but at least some of the gaggle of gangsters and government agents following Jolie think he is the billionaire thief.
And so begins the chase, marked with some particularly far-fetched escapes on the winding canals and car-less streets of Venice. Venice looks great, and so does the elegantly clad Jolie. "You look ravished," exclaims Depp, and she demurely corrects him. "You mean ravishing." It's only the truth.
Meanwhile, Depp, with his shaggy goatee and hair that is either too long or too short, looks sort of like a math teacher from Wisconsin, but he also looks like Johnny Depp, so we are not completely surprised when he turns into a hero. Much of the movie is even more unbelievable than the usual spy thriller. On the other hand, although guns are fired from time to time, "The Tourist" is refreshingly free of the barrages of heavy artillery and crashing vehicles that mark most action movies these days. Instead, Depp and Jolie are charming together, and when they kiss, you have to wonder if Depp's French wife and Jolie's Missouri partner had anything to worry about.
As the woman said, "stupid fun," like reading US magazine in the checkout line at the supermarket.
Opens Friday Dec. 10
Young filmmaker Lena Dunham, whose droll low-low-budget family comedy "Tiny Furniture" opens at the Tivoli Dec. 10, was the subject of a fascinating profile in the Nov. 15 New Yorker. In it, Dunham made a casual remark that strikingly defines her 20-something social-media generation and its attitude toward that apparently outmoded concept, "the invasion of privacy."
In discussing how much "Tiny Furniture" seems to reflect her real life, including some potentially embarrassing moments, Lena says that she once kept a personal journal, but stopped because, she says, "I was, like, what's the point if no one's reading it? ... I would leave it out on the counter, on purpose, for my parents."
It is thus not surprising that Lena Dunham, who grew up in a loft in lower Manhattan and is the daughter of two prominent New York artists, has made a revealing movie about a young woman who grew up in a loft in lower Manhattan and is the daughter of two prominent New York artists.
The main protagonist, Aura, played by Dunham herself, is a recent graduate of a college in Ohio (Dunham went to Oberlin). She is living in a loft with her mother. The mother specializes in photographs of doll houses and their interiors (i.e., tiny furniture). She is played by Dunham's own mother, Laurie Simmons, who photographs miniature objects.
Also living in the spacious, dazzlingly white loft is Aura's precocious younger sister, played by Lena Dunham's precocious younger sister. The film was shot in the Dunham family's loft, and most of the supporting parts of Aura's friends are played by Lena Dunham's friends. One of the remarkable things about this engaging little movie is that none of the eight or 10 main characters seems like he or she is acting.
Pudgy, insecure Aura is living with her mother while she tries to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. She's in no hurry. She takes a job as a hostess in a restaurant but keeps being late for work. She lets a pretentious video artist (or is he a standup comedian?) move in with her, but, frustratingly, nothing romantic or even sexual develops between them. Aura messes something up on an almost hourly basis, and generally blames someone else, usually her mother or her sister. And then she messes up again.
So why should you care about this young woman and this movie? At the most basic level, because "Tiny Furniture" is funny. And for a film that looks at times like a reality show set among the children of the downtown New York artsy set, the film is remarkably well constructed, building to emotional and comic peaks, subsiding, then building again. This may be a low-budget movie from a very young director, but it is far from a "mumble-core" movie.
But the real key to the appeal of "Tiny Furniture" is Lena Dunham's crafting of the main character, Aura. From the beginning, many of us might be inclined to dislike or at least dismiss this child of affluent bohemian privilege, with her pricy private school education and her general attitude of entitlement. But Dunham defuses that by specifically satirizing Aura's sense of entitlement and by making her such a schlub.
She walks around the loft in a T-shirt and underpants, considerably chubbier and rounder-faced than any Victoria's Secret model. There is a tiny touch of the cartoon character Cathy in Aura, although the main influence on "Tiny Furniture," I suspect, is Woody Allen.
Not that the movie overall has any of the razzle-dazzle flavor of Allen's earlier movies. It is much calmer than that, much less insistent. But, like Woody Allen, Lena Dunham defuses the potential for resentment of the whole super-smart, wisecracking, artsy New York persona by making the character she plays so hopeless you find yourself rooting for her, and laughing with her.
The movie is basically a series of loser stories - Aura messing up friendships, going after the wrong guy, wearing the wrong clothes, failing at an easy job. The real Lena Dunham may be, in some ways, very much like Aura. But the real Lena Dunham, still in her early 20s, has a deal for a potential comedy series with HBO and "Tiny Furniture" made the New Yorker. Aura, it is clear, is Lena, but only a part of Lena, the hapless, self-doubting, farcical part. The whole Lena Dunham is busy making movies.
Opens Friday Dec. 10
"Black Swan" is an intentionally over-wrought gothic melodrama set in the world of ballet. Although the story is muddled and overstuffed, at times lurching into cheesy horror-flick territory, the movie is well worth seeing for remarkable performance at the center of it.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a young dancer with an important New York ballet company who lands the lead in a production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." She is overwhelmed by the pressure of dancing the dual (and dueling) roles of White Swan and Black Swan.
Nina is tormented by the company's autocratic impresario (French actor Vincent Cassel), who keeps pushing the virginal young woman to unleash the dark and brutal passions he insists are within her and necessary to the role of the vixenish Black Swan. Right up until opening night, he keeps Nina in doubt as to whether she actually will be permitted to dance the lead in the most famous of all ballets.
Nina has two rivals for the attention of the ballet master - an aging lead dancer (Winona Ryder) whom she idolizes, and a new dancer she comes to fear as a rival (Mila Kunis). As the story unfold, with Nina desperately trying to hold on to the coveted role, she begins to encounter terrifying images of beasts and blood that may or may not be only in her mind. And she begins to catch glimpses of someone who looks very much like herself.
Director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler") paints a fearful, intimidatingly cold picture in muted hospital colors, light blues and greens and grays, occasionally broken by a passionate slash of red (blood, lipstick) or black (danger, evil). And Portman gives a masterful demonstration of the bone-weariness, pain and obsession of world-class ballet. The problem with the movie is not visual, nor in the performances, but in the story by three screenwriters that tries to cram too many characters and elements, some realistic, some surrealistic, some dramatic, some almost ludicrously melodramatic, into an hour and 48 minutes. But Portman's revelatory performance is magnificent.