Posts Tagged ‘Natalie Portman’

Natalie Portman

“ANNIHILATION” My rating: B- (Opens wide on Feb. 23)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Given the runaway artistic and commercial success of his 2014 debut, “Ex Machina,” it’s hard not to see Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” as a case of sophomore slump.

“Ex Machina” was an almost flawless blend of performance, tension and social inquiry (Garland’s subject was artificial intelligence) that transcended the usual sci-fi parameters.

By comparison “Annihilation,” based on Jeff VanderMeer’s bestseller, feels less original and more conventional.

Plus, it has the built-in issue of being based on the first book of a trilogy — which no doubt is why at the end of nearly two hours the yarn seems unfinished.

And yet “Annihilation” has real strengths, including a mostly-woman cast dealing with a pressure cooker situation, a couple of fine action sequences and enough creeping tension to generate mucho spinal tingles.

Biologist  Lena (Natalie Portman) is in mourning. A year earlier her soldier husband Kane left for one of his black ops missions and hasn’t been heard from since. The authorities aren’t cooperative.

And then, miraculously, Kane appears in their home. He’s an emotional blank, with no memories of where he’s been.

Oscar Isaac

Before long the couple are snatched by commandos in black and taken to a top secret military base outside “the shimmer,” an area along the Carolina coast subject to bizarre anomalies.

As psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains, a few years earlier a meteor (or something) struck the area creating a “bubble” that is slowly expanding.  Numerous military teams, drones, even trained animals have been sent beyond the shimmer, but so far only Kane has returned.  And now he’s in a coma and on life support.

(How the authorities have kept the shimmer a secret for several years is one of those mysteries possible only in movieland.) (more…)


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Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

“JACKIE” My rating: B

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Gotta give Natalie Portman props for climbing out on a limb.

In “Jackie” the Oscar winning actress (for “Black Swan”) takes on the iconic role of Jackie Kennedy.

It’s one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t deals:  Try too hard to hit all the familiar notes and  you get an impersonation, not a performance.  But stray too far from the public image and audiences no longer relate.


Well, Portman has the Jackie audio-visuals down — the hair, the pink pillbox hat, those breathy/halting vocal patterns. And if she doesn’t give us a definitive study of who this woman was (do any of us really know the answer to that one?) she provides a compelling center for a often gripping film.

The screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (who earned his political bona fides as a producer for “Today” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews”) unfolds in the week after J.F.K.’s assassination as the new widow sits down to a series of interviews with a journalist (unnamed but clearly based on White House insider Theodore H. White) played by Billy Crudup.

Jackie’s motives are fuzzy.  She wants to get her side of the story out, but puts all sorts of off-the-record restrictions on which of her statements can be made public. Perhaps she’s simply looking for an impartial listener against whom she can bounce conflicting emotions  that range from profound grief to rage. (She asks her interviewer if he’d like her to describe the sound of a bullet tearing through her husband’s skull.)

Around that core setting this film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain offers a series of impressionistic moments from one of the most traumatic weeks in American history. For those too young to have experienced those dark days of November, 1963, the film captures the anguish, fear and outrage unleashed by the murder of a President.

There are also flashbacks to seminal moments in Jackie’s past, particularly the famous live TV tour of the White House. Only this time we’re allowed to eavesdrop on what went on during the commercial breaks…according to “Jackie,” the First Lady was terrified of the whole enterprise, with her fears coming through in a brittle, vaguely anesthetized vocal delivery.

The film’s depiction of the assassination is hair-raising. We’ve been there dozens of times in other movies, but never from the point of view of Jackie, cradling her husband’s smashed head in her lap as chaos erupts around her.

And the machinations that followed the killing as the nation prepared to lay their leader to rest tell a story many of us have never heard.  Fearing a broader conspiracy might still be in play, the Secret Service nixed the idea of a slow funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery.  But that’s precisely what Jackie demanded and got — a tribute to her dead husband that made potential targets of the new President, her own family and numerous world leaders.

That steely will is new to the public perception of Jackie, and suggests a stronger, more assertive personality than we expect.

There are things in “Jackie” that don’t work — particularly Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of Robert Kennedy. He doesn’t look or sound like the man he’s portraying, and those discrepancies take us out of the picture.

| Robert W. Butler

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Christian Bale, Natalie Portman

Christian Bale, Natalie Portman

“KNIGHT OF CUPS”  My rating: C-

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There lurks in “Knight of Cups” the makings of a pretty good travelogue.

But on most other counts the latest feature  from the increasingly irritating Terrence Malick shows him firmly stuck in the same prison of self parody that doomed his last outing, the unromantic romance “To the Wonder.”

Malick, of course, is the low-profile cinematic genius who back in the ’70s gave us “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” then moved on to offbeat period pieces (“The Thin Red Line,” “The New World”) before delivering his ultimate statement, 2011’s memorable (for all the right reasons) “The Tree of Life.”

“Knight of Cups” is ostensibly a Hollywood insider tale, a sort of “La Dolce Vida” look at feckless, amoral living among the beautiful people.

In fractured, impressionistic style it follows a screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale), as he engages in romantic wanderings, professional and family issues, and hedonistic pastimes.

That description makes the film sound coherent. It isn’t.

Malick eschews conventional narrative construction and character development in favor of sweeping, swooning handheld cinematography of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the desert by frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity,” “Birdman,” “The Revenant”). His characters almost never actually speak lines, except in the form of vacuous party chatter. Instead we hear their innermost thoughts, whispered in voiceover.

As for the story…what story?

Rick goes through a series of lovers, all of them willowy beauties whose personalities are best summed up by their pre-Raphaelite tresses. Presumably he has sex, although there’s nothing remotely romantic or erotic going on here (Malick has never done sexy).


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There’s absolutely no reason why any of us must see “Thor,” the latest Marvel Comics big-screen adaptation.

The good news is that if you do see it, there’s no harm done.

This is a surprisingly effective (I’m tempted to call it smart) addition to the superhero canon, a moderate success for a most unlikely filmmaker:  Kenneth Branagh.

The Irish-born Branagh, of course, is the theatrical wiz kid who burst upon the cinema scene with his terrific “Henry V” back in 1989 and who has periodically created and/or appeared in other Shakespearean films, among them “Othello,” “Hamlet” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”

His non-Bard movies, on the other hand, have been flops. While Branagh has proven himself a valuable supporting player in a variety of worthwhile films (“Rabbit Proof Fence,” the Harry Potter franchise), his credibility as a filmmaker for years has been on the skids. (more…)

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