Bite size film reviews

Toy Story 3 (***1/2)

We check in with Woody and the gang ten years later and find much has changed – Andy is leaving for his Freshman Year of college and the toys sit in a toy chest dying to be played with. When he’s faced with the decision of what to do with his childhood friends, he chooses to lock them in the attic but they are taken to a daycare center instead. fiercely loyal to Andy they fight their way back before he takes off – and bring forth the saddest ending to a movie in years.

Toy Story 3 is another incredible film in the Pixar lineage and a worthy addition to the franchise. Universal themes of loyalty and imprisonment are explored as is the idea of what it means to be a friend and knowing when to let someone go. Michael Arndt keeps the script short and to the point but takes the film farther than I would’ve liked to see it go. Towards the climax, the toys face perils I found unnecessary and far too scary for small children. It could’ve been just as effective a tear jerker without those threats to their lives. Of course, like any great Pixar film it engages the audience and makes us think (and see) those commonalities in life from a different perspective.

Winter’s Bone (***1/2)

Critically praised for Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance, Bone is the story of a girl forced to grow up much too fast in a climate unsuitable for children. Ree, a 17 year old girl forced to care for her younger siblings and her incapacitated mother, is unflinching even as she is forced to search for her absentee meth cooker father. This is a character study in fearlessness and resiliency  and teaches us all to be grateful for what we have.

Jennifer Lawrence is indeed transcending and adds just enough toughness to pull off the role. She isn’t a seasoned Hollywood professional roughed up to pull off the part – you feel she’s lived these horrible circumstances since she started breathing. I found the story a bit barren – I thought she would have to go further in her search than she did (i.e. run away from home) and I kept waiting to meet the man who ruined everything but alas he turned up dead.

The real praise shouldn’t go to Jennifer but to the children who played her younger siblings – apparently they weren’t actors but the real-life inhabitants of the house Ree called home. Their performances were so subtle and made the film so real you would’ve thought they’d been acting their whole lives.

The Town (**1/2)

The gritty reality of bank robbers in Charlestown, Massachusetts is the subject of Hollywood’s latest film about beantown. Doug (Ben Affleck) and Jem (Jeremy Renner) are childhood friends who pull off elaborate schemes while evading the FBI. After a hugely successful bank robbery, Doug becomes romantically linked with Claire (Rebecca Hall) the bank’s manager whom the gang took hostage. Once Claire learns the truth about Doug, she works with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to bring him down.

With countless gritty films about Boston in the last decade – Town doesn’t cover any new ground. We have the same lifelong potty-mouthed friends and a cast of Hollywood actors (except for Affleck who was born in Boston) trying Boston accents on for size. There was nothing mind blowing nor revolutionary about the plot or the performances. You feel like you’ve seen it before because you have.

The one bright spot, though, is Rebecca Hall. With Town she cements herself as an actor to watch. After turning in great yet under the radar performances in Vicki, Christina Barcelona and Please Give she proves her worth as a Hollywood leading lady. Gentle yet tough she can play the romantic love interest while proving she is so much more than a pretty girlfriend. If she plays her cards right she could be huge in the years to come.

Black Swan (****)

Black Sawn is as close to perfect as any film this year. An epic tale about a ballerina torturing herself to play the sawn queen in Swan Lake, it grabs a hold of you and doesn’t let go. Natalie Portman is mesmerizing as Nina Sayers – the woman taking on the duel role. She’ll do whatever it takes to achieve perfection even if she destroys herself in the process.

Swan is the character study the film world has been waiting for. Portman is so fully committed to the role that she blurs the line between acting and metamorphoses. She becomes Nina so completely, with seemingly little effort, that you’re drawn into her. When she mutilates herself you feel the pain right along with her.

Not in recent memory has a performance become so much of a film that the plot barely matters. Portman more than makes up for the shortcomings in the storyline – screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and  John McLaughlin take the film too far out of the realistic and into the abstract. A sequence in which Nina takes her obsession with fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis, in a star making turn) into a wild sexual fantasy is a bit over the top and could’ve been done without. Yet the screenwriters brilliantly take the viewer on a journey through Nina’s psyche and show us a woman tortured into the depths of mental illness. We see the world as she views it – her reality is our own.

The Academy would be making a bold step by giving Portman the Oscar but what a richly deserved prize it would be. Her performance left me in a trance – I’ve never come away from a film loving the lead actor as much as I do here – words cannot describe my feelings towards Portman in this role. She may have been a great actress before, but with Swan, she proves she’s worthy of Hollywood icon status.

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