You knew from the first, watching her steal hearts and seduce the camera in "The Professional" (1994), that Natalie Portman was not just another child star. And not since Jodie Foster has an adolescent actress made such a smooth transition to adult roles, or impressed so mightily as she matured.
One should dismiss the Israeli-born, vaguely exotic-looking Portman's throwaway performances in the "Star Wars" films as merely a lucrative marking of time, albeit romantically, and focus instead on the genuinely outstanding work she has done: very believable in "Anywhere But Here" (1999) opposite Susan Sarandon, blowing everyone away in "Cold Mountain" (2003), appealingly quirky in writer-director-star Zach Braff's indy feature "Garden State" (2004), and turning caustic in Mike Nichols "Closer" (2004).
Scarlett Johansson can thank Portman for helping get her career on track. The latter turned down the major role in Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer" (1998) that made Johansson a star because, at 17, she could no longer relate to playing a 13-year-old. Wisely, Portman also turned down the title role in schlockmeister director Adrian Lyne's remake of "Lolita," in part due to her dad's counsel not to do things on screen she had not yet experienced in real life. If only every young actor was so prudent.
On stage, she was a natural to top the bill for the Broadway revival (actually a revision) of "The Diary of Anne Frank," in which Frank is portrayed as something more fully fleshed than a staunch, angelic martyr.
But the 25-year-old Portman's permanent home will be the big screen, where she has the power to captivate. With good material, that is.
Next up is Friday's opening of "V for Vendetta," a futuristic action-adventure from the creators of "The Matrix" trilogy, which generally means minimal character and maximum mayhem. Fans are hoping the film equals its source material: the Alan Moore/David Lloyd graphic novel of the same name.
Directed by first-timer James McTeigue, the movie is being released simultaneously in regular and IMAX theaters, though locals will have to wait a while for the Charleston IMAX debut.
Set in a totalitarian Britain, the movie features Portman as a mild-mannered young woman rescued from a perilous fix by a masked vigilante (Hugo Weaving) known only as "V." This shadowy fellow ignites a revolution when he fires his fellow citizens to rise up against their oppressors.
Sound (depressingly) familiar? Most cliches do.
The documentary "Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action," opens Saturday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York, after a strong run on the festival circuit. It it is available to you now on video.
Directed by Roberta Grossman, this latest exercise in advocacy filmmaking scrutinizes the environmental hazards threatening Native American reservations through the stories of four activists, shot against picturesque backdrops in Montana, Alaska, Maine and New Mexico.
"Homeland," which is also airing on PBS stations across the county, covers not only the possible environmental impact of oil and gas drilling, but that posed by toxic waste, strip mining and the spectre of nuclear contamination.
The documentary also features the Neil Young track "Mother Earth," part of the Grammy- winning compilation "Sacred Ground: A Tribute to Mother Earth."
To buy copies on DVD, go online at www.katahdin.org
Maria Bello, who wowed audiences in "The Cooler" (2003) and last year's "A History of Violence," returns in "Sisters." Set in a Manhattan college, three sisters (Bello, Erika Christensen and Elizabeth Banks) and a brother (Linus Roache) who yearn for the simpler life their family left behind in Charleston reveal "their family secrets and self-deceptions with wit and candor, culminating in a moment of physical and emotional violence."
Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman and slated for a limited release April 14, the movie's screenplay (by Richard Alfieri) is based loosely on Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters."
Between acting gigs, Bello continues to help direct Harlem's Dream Yard Drama Project, a nonprofit arts and education program for urban kids she co-founded.
Surfeit of suds
Those wishing to revisit the past year's most over-the-top soap opera will want go mark your calendars for the March 28 DVD release of "Memoirs of a Geisha," a sumptuously appointed romantic epic whose depiction of diabolical female machinations makes "The Women" look sweet and cuddly.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards (winning two), none of them having anything to do with acting, direction or screenwriting. The last of these squandered rich source material, the novel by Arthur Golden.
True, the film did impress voters in the categories of Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score and Costume, among others, yet despite the presence of such gifted performers as Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Wantanabe and Koji Yakusho (of "Shall We Dance?" fame), the movie was a decided letdown.
Bad enough that it utterly misrepresented the geisha ethos, which is all about subtlety. It compounded the mistake by cranking up the melodrama to a laughable pitch.
At least the filmmakers were able to give L.A. soundstages the look and feel of the Orient. Director Rob Marshall and his crew created most of the film's exotic realm on three soundstages, where they constructed an entire period geisha district, recreating ancient streets while also building a serpentine "river" on a ranch in Ventura County. Next, they resumed shooting in Sacramento Railroad Museum before finally going to Japan for a handful of authentic locations, chiefly in Kyoto.
Would that such attention to detail had informed the script.
Bits and pieces
One of the past year's best films, "The Squid and the Whale," comes to DVD in a "special edition" March 21. ... Ann Brashares, whose book "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" was a hit movie, returns this spring with "The Girl of Lost Things." ... Now available on DVD from Warner Home Video is "Sam Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns Collection," a six-disc set featuring "The Wild Bunch," "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," "Ride the High Country" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." ... The comedy "Venus" stars Peter O'Toole and Vanessa Redgrave as a pair of veteran English actors disrupted by the arrival of a grandniece from the provinces. ... Now playing in major markets in "Lucky Number Slevin," starring Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. ... Helen Mirren stars in Stephen ("Mrs. Henderson Presents") Frears' next outing, "The Queen," a drama about Queen Elizabeth II's inability to comprehend the depth of a shocked public's response to the death of Princess Diana. ... Ben Affleck will star in "Man About Town," playing a Hollywood agent whose life unravels.