Thursday, December 23, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 13 December 2010 to 20 December 2010

Christmas is coming! Time spent shopping is time not spent in movies:

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: The Tempest on 14 December 2010 at the Brattle Theatre, 7:30pm.

While running around Boston looking for gifts for my family, I found a chocolate bar that has bits of bacon in it. It is currently staring at me from the the other side of the kitchen, creating a mixture of desire and fear.

Anyway, not much time to write tonight; the early openings for movies this week means "Next Week in Tickets" is already late.

Black Swan

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2010 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

There's a moment in Black Swan where director Darren Aronofsky and his writers appear to tip their hands too much, and the audience may find themselves thinking that they've seen this sort of unreliable-narrator trick before, and doing it in so obvious a manner makes this example less than brilliant - and, of course, if it's a red herring, then the audience can rightfully complain about being jerked around a bit. Fortunately, the movie is not really about playing head games with its audience as much as its main character.

Natalie Portman is great in that part, fortunately. Some of that comes from being willing to succumb to the same sort of eating disorder as Christian Bale and then be made up unflatteringly after that, so that we can see that her Nina and the other ballerinas push themselves to absurd physical extremes in order to compete in a world that demands both tremendous athleticism and a dainty appearance that runs counter to it. Portman does a great job of presenting Nina as being right on the verge of cracking up and aware of it, trying to hold the inevitable breakdown back. It's a performance that doesn't quite work if the rest of the cast isn't just as good, but fortunately, they're covered there as well.

Black Swan is somewhat unusual in that as much as Portman and company get us to feel for Nina, and even root for her, it also has us hoping that she'll back down just as much as we hope she'll triumph.

Die Hard

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Alt-Xmas)

Nigh-perfect, and I suspect all but impossible to repeat - the sequels and knock-offs all feel the need to raise the stakes, but the stakes are all perfectly balanced here. The writers are throwing all their ingenuity into the action set-pieces and, by dint of getting there first, are able to put a comic zing into moments without it seeming over-cutesy. It's got Bruce Willis, young and hungry, not yet having settled into a niche and thus making John McClane into a bona fide character.

And, because of its own success, it feels like a transitional piece. The style occasionally feels primitive; there's only one layer of polish on it. Director John McTiernan and company are willing to be simple in some spots, but not stupid, and though certain 1980s clichés stand out, they don't seem hackneyed. McTiernan also feels no pressure to do anything but a slow build during the movie's first act - no need to show you he means business, no establishing what the characters are capable of until stuff is actually on the line. We spend the entire first act watching McClane get diminished and look out of place. When Alan Rickman shows up as one of the greatest screen villains ever, it's not a mismatch just on numbers; Hans Gruber is clearly more prepared, smarter, and calmer than McClane. He's a legitimate underdog.

Then we get the action, and it's great, 1980s "we're not worried about a PG-13" stuff that understands its improbability and actually looks dangerous. Huge explosions are devastating, bullet wounds really do slow people down... It's a perfect balance between the real danger of the 1970s and the action spectacle that would follow it.

Die Hard 2

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Alt-Xmas)

Die Hard 2, on the other hand, doesn't hold up nearly as well. I suspect, if I were to watch all four in a row, this would be the weakest of the series, in part because it's trying so hard to emulate the first, but Renny Harlin just doesn't seem to get the vibe right. Here, McClane's cocky; he quips, rather than nervously runs his mouth. There's not a villain to rival Hans Gruber here - heck, William Sadler's Colonel Stuart really isn't even cool enough to qualify for henchman duty in the first film. The writers rehash a lot of the surface elements from the first, but not the heart of it - in the first, there were bona fide interesting relationships between John and Hans, Holly, and Al; there's nothing like that here.

Still, it's enjoyable enough, because Harlin can direct action. He gets one moment that will be on his resumé forever (the grenades in the cockpit), and that's certainly what everybody will remember. Less noted is that for 1990, the hand-to-hand looks darn good. Sure, the likes of Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal were hanging around at the time, but this sort of martial arts wasn't common in big action movies like this; when the hero and villain got within grappling range, the one-punch ending was much more common.

As good as Harlin is at that, the stuff around it could use serious work; it's the sort of movie where scenes seem to be built around looking cool in the trailer.

The Hebrew Hammer

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Alt-Xmas)

Ah, Jewish jokes and Blaxpoitation spoofery. I won't deny that you're an amusing combo, but I have to say, you'd be a little funnier if the guys who wrote you took the next step, and populated their movie with characters who were a little funnier that stereotypes.

In other words, The Hebrew Hammer isn't nearly the hilarious movie that Black Dynamite is, despite working a lot of the same territory. It's a shame, because Judy Greer and Adam Goldberg are quite funny, and there are moments when having Goldberg's "Certified Circumsized Dick" walking around like a guy caught halfway between Orthodox Jew and The Mack is just brilliant. But there are a lot of jokes done at half effort that aren't funny, and I think making it this kind of Christmas movie was a mistake. The opening titles say that it's for all the Jews who had it up to here with the Gentiles, and it might have worked better if it ran with that rather than have the Hammer not just save Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but Christmas as well. Make it about just how friggin' annoying Gentiles are during December, and I imagine even those Gentiles might get a laugh.

Black SwanDie Hard & Die Hard 2The Hebrew Hammer

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