Five Easy Pieces is part of the Criterion boxed set America Lost & Found: The BBS Story that I recently received for Christmas. Bob Rafelson’s second film as a director (after Head) and, perhaps more notably, Jack Nicholson’s first major starring role, the film was huge in 1970, no doubt helped by the chicken salad sandwich scene that “went viral” before the term existed. When it was first released I was 16 years old and studying piano and found something oddly romantic about the notion of a talented piano player walking away from his talent and family, taking on whatever odd jobs he could find. The presence of Karen Black, Susan Anspach and Sally Struthers didn’t hurt either. Forty years later, I’m astonished at how well the film holds up. On a personal level, it really resonates with me.
I think I laughed at most once or twice while watching Dinner for Schmucks, a Jay Roach film that’s supposed to be a comedy. My laughs came mostly thanks to supporting players Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement (from Flight of the Conchords) and David Walliams (Little Britain). Aside from the lame script, I have this problem with Paul Rudd, whom I find competent but mostly unmemorable in every film I’ve seen him in, and this is no exception. Steve Carell is also a let down; I don’t think anyone had a good handle on what his character was supposed to be, aside from the obvious ticks and quirks, and we end up with something that might have worked better in a 5 minute TV sketch.
I don’t think that director Darren Aronofsky has lived up to his potential yet. Pi and Requiem for a Dream were pretty darned amazing. The Fountain was an embarrassment. The Wrestler was a commercial hit yet it struck me as filmmaking-by-the-numbers, taking on an established genre and not doing all that much new with it. With Black Swan, Aronofsky has the balls to go after The Red Shoes, the greatest ballet film ever made. Like Red Shoes, this is the tale of a dedicated young ballerina (Natalie Portman) striving for success, dealing with an imposing director (Vincent Cassel) and her rivals past and future (Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis). That’s where the resemblance ends, because this is the tale of a woman going insane, and the film moves from subtle to lurid in its shockers. Oddly, for a ballet film, the dance sequences are short – perhaps Aronofsky thought audiences wouldn’t have the patience for long ballet sequences? – and what glimpses we get of Cassel’s supposedly more lurid and visceral Swan Lake make it seem pedestrian. Portman’s amazing performance is sure to get her at least an Oscar nomination. In an exceptionally weak year for films, this rates as one of the best.
I tried to watch Reign of Assassins but turned it off in disgust after about 30 minutes. While it’s co-directed by one of my favorites, John Woo, I suppose the emphasis is on the “co-“. The other “co-”
is Su Chao-Bin, who also wrote this, so I’m going to assume that the blame lies with him. Incapable of telling its story directly, the action sequences are so poorly edited, in a modern rock video-ish style that obscures details rather than letting us revel in them. Anyway, I got to this bit about a woman warrior going for plastic surgery – a thousand years ago? The doctor explains he’s gonna put poisonous insects in her and they will eat her cheek bones and then he’ll slice her face open and remove the insects and sew her up with golden threads. No, they don’t show any of this on screen. But I think they spent more time coming up with that method of plastic surgery than any other facet of the dumb script.
We watched the extended edition of Avatar today on Blu-Ray. Not having seen the film in a year, I was newly impressed with the special effects and how packed with detail each frame was. But overall, I liked the film even less than when I saw it in the theater. Watching at home, I didn’t miss the 3D at all. (There is a 3D Blu-Ray version of this film available in the US but you can only get it when you buy a 3D Panasonic TV. I understand the disc is going for more than $300 on eBay these days. Feh.)