Super Macho Friday! Films reviewed: Love and Other Drugs; Black Swan; Kings of Pastry

I was recently in The States for American Thanksgiving, and at an American chain bookstore, I noticed a whole section – not just a table, not just a shelf, but a whole section — devoted to “paranormal teenage romances”! I’ve seen that ultimate teenaged paranormal romantic vampire trilogy (the eclipse trilogy) – and I have to say, they were awful, I couldn’t find the appeal in any of them. But different people like different things…I guess it’s a matter of taste.

You might think you like things that blow up, crashing cars, scary monsters, blood and guts, and fistfights. Yeah, me too. That’s why I’m calling this week’s reviews Super Macho Friday, so I can talk about some uber-alpha-testosterone-laden action-packed movies. Yes!!! We’re going to see three rough and tough movies about cut-throat competition, nerves of steel, ironman endurance…! One’s a romantic comedy, one’s a film about ballet dancing, and one’s a documentary on… exquisite French sweeties?

OK I lied, they’re not stereotypically masculine as movies go, but, keep listening: some of them are well worth watching.

Love and Other Drugs
Dir: Edward Zwick

Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a retail salesman in the mid-1990s whose aim is to get laid – on the job – as often as possible. But he gets fired for hitting on his boss’s girlfriend. He’s young, handsome, ambitious, and out of work. Meanwhile, his slovenly, obnoxious, unattractive little brother Josh, who has made a fortune in the dot-com bubble, offers to set him up with a sales job at a global pharmaceutical giant. If his sales reach a certain target, he’ll get to move away from the backwater he’s placed in to the big-time: Chicago.

So he trains hard, works hard, and learns the trade, while also sticking to his hobby. Is he trying to pick up women in order to up his sales? Or is he working as a traveling salesman to sleep with the metaphorical farmer’s daughters? Who knows? Either way, he’s being trounced by a more successful, rival salesman: an ex-marine peddling prozac. But, after bribing a doctor to let him dress as an intern, he encounters a beautiful woman, Maggie (Anne Hathaway) a barrista and artist with early onset Parkinson’s. Sounds interesting so far? It is, sort of.

After that, unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just about them jumping in and out of bed, and whether their casual sex will develop into a loving relationship. Granted, there’s lots of gratuitous shots of the two movie stars running around scantily dressed… but the movie itself was pointless and boring. Will Maggie and Jake stay together? Will he get his transferred to Chicago? Will she continue to make coffee and snap photos and buy medications? Who cares? You get the impression even they don’t really care. And when the movie tries to be funny, it usually fails miserably, like the lame scene about Viagra-induced priapism and a three way with a model-like saleswoman in a hot tub (“She’s Thai, and I’m Thai-curious”).

It doesn’t even really deal with the real problems of big pharmaceuticals, aside from the industry’s high prices and competitiveness. Instead, it was more of a non-stop product placement for the drugs themselves. They even have a depressed homeless guy whose life is turned around after garbage-picking Prozac samples. Oliver Platt as his trainer and Hank Azaria as a GP are bth great, but other than that, unless you really love Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, (or have a thing for awful 90’s music, like The Macarena) this is a stupid, pointless romantic movie that goes nowhere.

Black Swan
Dir: Darren Aronofsky

I reviewed this during the Toronto Film festival, and it stayed with me – it’s a haunting, moving film.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on, both to her role in the ballet, and to her tenuous grip on reality.

The big question is: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder as the former prima donna and Barbara Hershey as the over-the-top stage mom. This movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with amazing production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating three styles: The super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups; the scenery-chewing catfights of melodramatic soap opera; and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balance worked.

Kings of Pastry
Dir: Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker

The title says it all: this is about the cut-throat competition to be accepted as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and allowed to wear the coveted collar. The movie follows the competitors from Europe and North America, as they go from stage to stage, constructing elaborate spun sugar sculptures, designing multi-layered chocolate truffles, obscure pastries, and impossibly complex cakes. It’s like a reality show or Iron Chef – except it’s not a TV show competition. It’s the real thing. They all compete, with an olympic-like ethos, to create these monuments of grotesquerie.

Part of the competition is to take these huge, delicate and breakable constructions, lift them up, using their own hands, and carry them all the way to the table where the judges do their judging. And even though this is an unscripted documentary, you just know it, one of the chefs is going to stumble…

When I was a kid, they did the learning numbers sequence on Sesame Street – some of you might remember this – and one film clip that still sticks in my mind is, in each sequence, there would be this guy at the top of a staircase in a white chef’s toque announcing something like “Seven Pumpkin Pies!” And then dropping them all.

Anyway, I don’t get it. I’m not a sweet tooth so I don’t see why you’d breaking your back creating hideous spun-sugar displays and petit fours arangements, but clearly some people live for this stuff. And the chefs, obviously, still value these old-school distinctions. I guess you could say they want to be archaic, and eat it, too. The film starts slowly, with the chefs in their home territories, practicing spinning flawless sugar ribbons; but once they’re at the big competition, it really heats up. Tthis is an excellent documentary, and the ultimate dessert film.

Just to review, today I talked about Love and Other Drugs, now playing, Black Swan opening today, check your local listings, and Kings of Pastry which is playing at The TIFF Lightbox – go to tiff.net for details. Also starting today is Sell Out!, a funny and unusual satirical musical-comedy about Rafflesia, a reality show host whose ambition comes to the rescue when she finds a new way to attract Malaysian audiences – using death as the ultimate draw.

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