Tag Archives: Mila Kunis

Friends With Benefits (3/5), MSN Movies

Featuring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as two young Manhattanites who meet through work, get to know each other out of proximity and decide on a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours arrangement for complication-free sexual satisfaction — which means we ain’t really talking backs, and we ain’t really talking scratching — “Friends With Benefits” has a lot of challenges. First, it’s director Will Gluck‘s follow-up to last year’s frank, funny and fresh “Easy A,” which had Emma Stone in a star-making turn as a high school student navigating the cloudy waters of desire and social tradition. Second, it’s following the year’s earlier effort “No Strings Attached,” which featured Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher as Angelinos with a similar arrangement. Third, it has to convince us that Timberlake can carry his first leading role and that Kunis can infuse her TV-trained comedian skill set with enough real feeling to sell it on the big screen. Finally, it has to try to find new things to say about the world’s oldest topic of conversation that, somehow, the movies nonetheless never really talk about.

Gluck, polishing Keith Merryman and David A. Newman’s script, tackles all four of those challenges, even if his solutions never quite come together, ha ha. In fact, the best thing in the script is how carefully it walks a superbly measured line in depicting sex — neither explicit nor coy, with physical intimacy and vigorous activity presented as ridiculous, but never humiliating. Yes, “Friends With Benefits” is rated R, as was “No Strings Attached,” but while neither got too prurient aside from the occasional flash of buttocks or side boob, this film pushes the limits in stronger directions, and to funnier comedic affect. The details of Kunis and Timberlake’s sex scene cannot be revealed here, in part because they’re too blunt and real, but also, and more importantly, because they’re too funny to spoil.

And while this film isn’t quite the comedic home run that “Easy A” was, there’s no denying that Kunis and Timberlake have no small amount of chemistry. Their scenes, clothed or not, fizz and pop, and they have a good sense of comedic timing as they jump on each other’s lines in between jumping on each other. Timberlake has to do more heavy lifting dramatically — while both characters have parent issues, Kunis’ relationship with her scattered sybarite mom (Patricia Clarkson) is a little easier-handed than Timberlake’s relationship with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Richard Jenkins). And both Jenkins and Clarkson are excellent, while Woody Harrelson‘s GQ sports editor — a loud, loutish macho gay man — is a joke that, while funny, is so jarring that each laugh pops you out of the movie.

The oddest thing about the film is how it savages the conventions of the romantic comedy — as seen in a film-within-the-film featuring two cameos, again, too good to ruin — before going back to them with obvious glee. Trying to have your cake and eat it too is one thing; claiming the cake is poison and throwing it in the trash before being found out back at the dumpster shoveling handfuls of it into your face is another. Of course Timberlake and Kunis’ arrangement will be complicated by real feelings; of course friendship will fracture. The films’ adherence to the expected undermines its desire to mess with expectation. For a movie featuring Kunis railing against “Hollywood bulls—” building unrealistic fantasies about romantic love, there are a suspicious number of musical numbers and last-minute races to apologize here. Gluck, though, is almost good enough to pull it off. Almost.

Every generation of filmmakers, like every generation of lovers, thinks it knows the secret to navigating the complex territories of sex and affection. There’s a brief shot here where the 1969 bed-hopping wife-swapping comedy “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” is on in the background, and those who think that the arrangement presented here is especially moderno scandalous should check out the three-partner pact in 1933’s “Design for Living,” where Gary Cooper and Fredric March share the affection of Miriam Hopkins. “Friends With Benefits” makes the occasional misstep outside of the bedroom, but it’s still more honest — and more funny — about the facts of life and lust than a lot of romantic comedies. It’s just sad that a movie suggesting an honest and zesty approach to sex and relationships builds to such a conventional ending; it’s like being promised the flexible fun of the Kama Sutra as foreplay and then getting the comedic equivalent of the missionary position as the finale.

From my review at MSN Movies

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Alternate Oscar Night: Substitutes and Switches

With last week’s piece of my picks for what will win the Oscar versus what should win the Oscar inspiring both lively discussions and psychotic ire, I got more than a few mails. How could I, they said, dare suggest how the Academy should vote? But a couple of people — in between others being mad — suggested I go even further. With that in mind, here’s a list of the same categories as last week where I gave my picks for who should win and who will win — but this time, with my argument-starting thoughts on which non-nominated actors and films should be among the nominees, paired with the crueler lifeboat-ethics question of who you’d remove to make room for them.

Supporting Actor
Add: Matt Damon, “True Grit
Remove: Jeremy Renner, “The Town

I like Renner, as an actor, a lot, but his work in “The Town” is fairly solid tough-guy stuff, and the nomination feels like a bone thrown to the film. Damon made everyone around him in “True Grit” bring their A-game with a full, funny and completely selfless performance — and stepped out of the film when it was time to go.

Supporting Actress
Add: Mila Kunis, “Black Swan
Remove: Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”

I don’t think Kunis should win, but Kunis is, as Damon is for “True Grit,” the epitome of a supporting actress in “Black Swan.” And Steinfeld, really, should be over in Best Actress. The fact she isn’t is a bit of a joke.

Add: Christopher Nolan, “Inception
Remove: Tom Hooper, “The King’s Speech

Say what you will about “Inception”‘s flaws — and it has them, idiosyncratic and personal — but it’s also a great achievement that speaks to the idea of film as a meeting of arts, a marriage of media. “The King’s Speech” is, in terms of its direction, a 60-foot-tall version of a really classy high school play shot with a fisheye lens.

Best Actress
Add: Julianne Moore, “The Kids Are All Right” or Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”
Remove: Nicole Kidman, “Rabbit Hole

This may be the one that hurts the most: All five of the Best Actress nominees are great. “Rabbit Hole,” though, is tied with “Blue Valentine” as the film with the least number of nominations in the bunch … so, in this cruel case, over the side it goes.

Best Actor
Add: Ryan Gosling, “Blue Valentine
Remove: Javier Bardem, “Biutiful

The absence of Gosling in the nominees list is, to me, one of the biggest what-the-what omissions of the year; as for Bardem, well, I’m no fan of “Biutiful”‘s subtitled soap opera, so dropping him doesn’t sting a bit.

Best Picture
Add: “Blue Valentine”
Remove: “127 Hours

“Blue Valentine” is a rarity — a grown-up film, a showcase for great acting, a superbly written work of art. And “127 Hours” — while a good movie — isn’t, uh, great. And isn’t that what the Oscars are supposed to be honoring?

From my article at The Rundown

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Black Swan cast dance to the edge

HOLLYWOOD—At the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, a deco temple to the arts first opened in 1930, the cast and crew of the new drama Black Swan — opening Friday — somehow seem at ease among the trappings of the stage. After working with some of the most talented ballet dancers in North America, it’s hardly a coincidence.

For star Natalie Portman, playing Nina — a New York dancer whose dream falls apart as playing the lead role in Swan Lake begins to take its toll on her body and psyche — director Darren Aronofsky’s idea for a psychological thriller mixed with a backstage melodrama let her get back in touch with childhood aspirations.

“I danced when I was younger, until I was about 12,” she said. “I guess I always sort of idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most beautiful art, this expression without words. I always wanted to do a film relating to dance, so when Darren had this incredible idea that was not just relating to the dance world but also had this really complicated character to go into, it was just an opportunity, and especially with Darren, who is a director who I would do anything for.”

Mila Kunis — who plays Lily, a new dancer who may be a friend to Portman, or rival, or both — said the rigorous training required to bring dreams of dance to life, “was far from effortless.”

“It was three months of training beforehand,” she said. “I was not a ballet dancer. I think most of the training, you can only fake so much of the physicality. You have to immerse yourself in this world, the way somebody walks and talks and handle themselves. It was three months of training, seven days a week, four to five hours a day before production started, and then during production it was pretty much exactly the same.”

Portman, however, bore the brunt of the dance training — and of the effort required to get in shape.

“It was a great challenge.” She admitted. “We were (training) probably eight hours a day and the physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of the monastic lifestyle of only working out that is a ballet dancer’s life. You don’t drink. You don’t go out with your friends. You don’t have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, and you get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.”

French actor Vincent Cassell, playing Thomas, the head of the dance company, was ready to lace up his dancing shoes — until he realized it wasn’t really required.

“They don’t need to dance anymore,” he said of Thomas. “They just show it by the energy. They’ve been there; they don’t train anymore. That scene we have together, with Natalie, where I move around her, that was supposed to be a little more dance-y, and then finally when we realized it’s about seduction more than anything else, the dance was just a secondhand thing, really.”

Much as Swan Lake depicts a woman torn between the pristine purity of the White Swan and the romantic desires of the Black Swan, Portman’s Nina gets caught between art and desire — a clash that comes to a head when Kunis’ Lily seduces her (Or is it the other way around?)

For Kunis, it was always a natural part of a brilliant script.

“Working with Darren, I trusted him,” Kunis said. “It’s one of those things where, whether you have the same-sex scene or a scene with the opposite sex, it’s a sex scene nonetheless. So it’s always the fear that you’re a little uncomfortable. Doing something like this with Darren was very safe and as comfortable as something like this could be.”

And while some are already suggesting Portman’s work has put her in the running for a Best Actress Oscar, Portman herself dances around the question of possible acting honours with grace and tact.

“The best thing you can hope for when you make a movie — and you put your soul into it like all of us did — is that people respond to it well, and the fact that audiences have come away moved and excited and entertained and stimulated by this film is extraordinarily flattering.”

More immediate than the lure of Oscar gold in March, though, was the simple fact that the end of filming on Black Swan meant that both Kunis and Portman could give up their training regimen’s restrictive eating and the tortuous footwear of professional ballet.

Kunis explained, laughing: “It took me five months to lose 20 pounds, and it took me hours to gain it back. It was magical how quickly it all happened. I think before production ended, the last time that I had to do any sort of dancing, I literally that night went home and had a massive bowl of mac and cheese. I was so excited.”

For Portman, though, it was giving up the pointe shoes — constructed to make it possible to stand in the ballet position on her toes — that told her filming was over:

“I like wearing flat shoes. The thing I was happy to stop wearing was pointe shoes. Pointe shoes are torture devices. Ballerinas get used to it, so it was definitely a case of it being a new experience for me, but they feel very … medieval.”

From my article for The Toronto Star

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Mila Kunis of Black Swan: ‘ … Like Diving in Head-First. …’

Playing Lily, the new friend and rival dancer to Natalie Portman’s prima ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” Mila Kunis is far removed from the light-comedy territory that started her career with TV’s “That ’70s Show.” That’s a good thing. “Black Swan” is undeniably one of the year’s best films: beautiful, bizarre, strange and sensuous, and as strikingly wonderful as it is darkly unique. Speaking with Kunis at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, she explains that entering the world of ballet was a sudden shock for her: “It was quite like swimming around in a new, exciting world. It was like diving in headfirst without having a life vest. I knew nothing about it — not one single thing — but I learned very quickly.”

But dancing duties aside, the film also involved other challenges for Kunis, including a hallucinatory, steamy scene of passion between her and Portman. Kunis had no qualms whatsoever about going into territories of sensuality another filmmaker would have made merely scandalous. “Oh, the whole thing was based on trust,” she says. “Not to speak for Natalie, but I don’t know if either one of us would have done a movie like this if Darren wasn’t directing. There are very few directors who you can completely relinquish everything to and trust them with crazy, bizarre concepts and ideas. There’s not very many directors who can pull it off. It’s a psychological thriller set in the ballet world. It’s crazy, and Darren made it absolutely brilliant.”

Trust is one thing; Kunis didn’t merely look without leaping, but instead trained for months. “I think the biggest challenge I found was way before I put the shoes on and filming every day,” she says. “It was when I started doing all the rehearsal for it, the training. I knew ballet was going to be hard. I didn’t realize how impossible it would be. I got the movie the next day, went into the ballet studio, then seven days a week, five hours a day worth of training. I couldn’t put the pointe shoe on until three months into it. Mind you, I probably should have waited a couple years before putting the pointe shoes on, let alone at the age of 26, but it was excruciatingly hard and incredibly gratifying at the end — at the time, I thought nearly impossible.”

Kunis’ training was exhausting, but the end of filming didn’t just mean going off an incredibly sparse diet. “It was less about eating the carbohydrates and more about actually being able to walk again,” she says. “I was happy to just be in one piece. I was so excited when I never had to do ballet ever again. I was so excited. That’s the truth. I wish I was bitten by the ballet bug, but I wasn’t. I was happy in my little world of ’20 pounds heavier and barely going to the gym.’ It was great.”

From my article at The Rundown

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Toronto Notebook: Natalie Portman Flick "F–king Great" (or So Says the Director)

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The Rundown Jan. 13, 2010

“The cast (of “Book of Eli”) had plenty to say about the very Western feel of “The Book of Eli.” You could argue that many postapocalyptic films echo with the themes and topics of Westerns — what is “The Road Warrior” if not “Shane” writ very, very large? — and “The Book of Eli” does work on that level.

In fact, it’s to such a degree that Gary Oldman can (and, when I prompted him, did) dig into the plot on a granular level and list Western plot point after Western plot point: “When I first read the script I thought that it was a postapocalyptic Western. We don’t have horses, but we have these armored trucks. But the story, the premise, is very like an old-fashioned Western. You have [my character], he’s sort of like a mayor, or a dark sheriff; there’s a town that he’s kind of got under his control, and the drifter comes through and he wants something and I want something he’s got and he’s not prepared to give it to me, and I lock him in the jail and he escapes and I get a posse together and go off. It’s classic Western stuff.”

Denzel Washington explained that the first screenplay he read was even more explicit in the parallels: “The original script was very much like a Western; [screenwriter Gary Whitta] even used words like ‘saloon’ … ‘barn’ … it definitely was much more Western-meets …” Here, Washington summed up five decades of the Western appropriation of Eastern action cinema with one phrase: “Grasshopper. [Eli’s] a guy with a samurai sword, he walks into the saloon … we took some of that away, because it already has that feel anyway.”

Mila Kunis, meanwhile, shrugged off any question of similarities of classic Westerns with a moment of self-effacement: “Look who you’re talking to … I watched [Westerns] because my dad made me. … [But] I love ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly‘; it’s my favorite film of all time.”

Meanwhile, co-star Kunis, who plays Oldman’s daughter and Washington’s ally, was less concerned with the presence of Western-film moments than with the absence of Western civilization. I asked her to name a few favorite postapocalyptic films, and Kunis, interestingly, came at the question with a true outsider’s perspective: “I’m not the biggest fan of postapocalyptic films; I can’t even begin to name a single one that I ever watched more than once … except for … what was that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger? What was that? ‘The Terminator.’ That’s the only one I can say I’ve seen more than once. ”

Washington, asked the same question, responded with a firm grasp on great movies and, perhaps, a slippery grip on the nature of the subgenre: “Was ‘Blade Runner‘ postapocalyptic? It had a lotta rain. I like that; I remember that. And I don’t know what ‘Brazil’ was … I just remember a lot of ducts. What was that? What was ‘Brazil’?”

I did ask Kunis if filming “The Book of Eli” made her stock up on bottled water in the basement or otherwise raise her own apocalypse awareness level: “A little bit … but I was that person anyway, for Y2K. I was that person, from 1999 to 2000, who was, ‘We gotta stockpile water in this house, Mom!’ And she was like, ‘Child, you crazy!'”

Really? I asked Kunis: Your mom talks like one of the waitresses from “Alice”? “‘Alice’! That’s your reference? I love ‘Alice’! I wish my mom spoke like that. In my head she does; really, she has a thick Russian accent.”

And, closing out the crazy-talk, I also asked Kunis if the ending of the film left a thread by which her character could be the basis of a second volume of “The Book of Eli.” Kunis batted sequel talk aside with a wave of her hand: “No, no, no. There is no second installment of this. Come on. You can’t make ‘The Book of Eli 2.’ It would be a very silly movie.”

“The Book of Eli” opens this weekend; all things considered, look for “The Book of Eli 2: Read Harder” in 2013.”

From “The Rundown,” MSN Movies

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