Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the dismay of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood

Country Strong


Country Strong

This is...American Idol!

(2010) Musical Drama (Screen Gems) Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Gabe Sipos, Lisa Stewart Seals, Jackie Welch, Meagan Henderson, Katie Cook. Directed by Shana Feste

There is an itch in most of us to be famous, but in some it’s more like a rash. Those in that sad condition can’t ignore it, can’t cure it, can only go about pursuing their obsession in a single-minded manner. Fame, however, shines a spotlight on us that few can bear for very long and when we fall apart, the whole world watches.

That’s what happened to Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country superstar whose bouts with the bottle led to a drunken incident during a Dallas concert which led to a miscarriage. Now in rehab, her husband and manager James (McGraw) is pulling her out a full month early in order for her to embark on a tour to rehab her image. Beau (Hedlund), who is an orderly at her treatment facility and an aspiring singer/songwriter himself (and a good one), is aghast but at Kelly’s insistence he accompanies her on the tour as an opening act and to a certain extent, as a watchdog to make sure she doesn’t drink. He’s more successful at the former than the latter.

Also on the tour is Chiles Stanton (Meester), a former Miss Dallas who has gone from beauty pageants to honky tonks in a single minded pursuit of Nashville glory. Kelly suspects that James is sleeping with Chiles, which is a little bit hypocritical since she has been sleeping with Beau since rehab. And Chiles is sweet on Beau, despite Beau’s disinterest. Yes, everyone sleeps with everyone else except I suspect Beau and James. They probably don’t sleep together. And Chiles and Kelly? In your dreams, pervert.

Kelly, with pressure mounting on her for a comeback, is patently unready for the Texas tour that is going to take her back to Dallas at its conclusion. She worries that she has become too old for her stardom and certainly for her husband who is no longer interested in her romantically but remains her manager nonetheless, shamelessly manipulating his wife. The miscarriage sits between them like the Great Wall of China. She begins to drink again, with devastating consequences.

All of this leads to some pretty public meltdowns that all the spin in the world is going to fail to erase. Can Kelly get her act together and show the world what country strong is all about? Will Chiles get the stardom she so desperately seeks? And will Beau, with his distaste for money, find an audience of his own? Tune in.

Roger Ebert likened this to movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s and I can agree with him there – the elements of A Star is Born are too many to count. Feste doesn’t appear to be out to give us an insider’s view of the country music world; instead, this is a look at the downside of fame, the dark side of ambition and the redemptive power of a really good song.

The three singers all contribute their own vocals, lending more authenticity to the proceedings. Paltrow again delivers, not only vocally but as the fragile singer. Kelly is a woman who was strong once upon a time, but the constant pressure and rootless lifestyle have taken their toll. Now she’s a woman trapped in a marriage that’s unfulfilling, lost in a sea of booze and bad breaks. She latches onto Beau as a life preserver and he’s only too happy to fill that bill.

Hedlund, recently seen in TRON: Legacy, plays the aw-shucks cowboy with a heart on his sleeve nicely. His vocals have a nice timbre, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix assaying Johnny Cash (as a matter of fact, Trace Adkins covers one of Beau’s songs on the end credits). His chemistry with Meester is undeniable (there were rumors that the two had an off-screen romance as a result of the movie that have been denied by both camps) and he makes a good foil for McGraw.

Tim McGraw made his bones as a country singer but he has acting chops as well. He tends to do well with roles that give him more of a strong center to work from, and James Canter has that. He is manipulative yes, but he’s also dedicated and honestly believes that he’s doing the right thing for his wife. There’s a scene late in the movie that has Kelly doing a Make-a-Wish visit to a child’s schoolroom where the two begin to dance together in the classroom, then abruptly James pulls away. It’s one of the best single scenes of his career and shows that if he wanted to carry a movie on his own (which he’s never done), he certainly has the charisma and chops to do it.

The movie stumbles in the very last scene which is a shame because the shameless Hollywood ending counteracts the effectiveness of the movie’s twists and turns in the last reel. Without that one scene, or rather, the appearance of one person at its conclusion, this would have gotten a higher rating from me than it did. That’s how critical a single scene can be to the perception of an entire movie, something aspiring filmmakers would do well to remember.

Country Strong is surprising in that it’s a much better movie than I anticipated it would be, expecting more of a generic country-infused music biz soap opera. While there is some of that in here (particularly in the complex romantic relationships), it is more of a look at the effects of fame on a treasured artist, and the human toll that fame takes. That wasn’t the movie I expected, but I for one am glad it’s the movie I got.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few unforeseen twists in the movie that make it worth viewing. McGraw and Paltrow give fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters of Beau and Chiles a bit cliche. Very last scene blows off goodwill from the movie’s final direction.

FAMILY VALUES: Much of the plot involves the results of alcohol and drug abuse; there is also some fairly sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim McGraw, a real-life country star, is the only one of the four leads who doesn’t sing onscreen (he does contribute a duet with Paltrow over the closing credits).  

HOME OR THEATER: The concert sequences work best in a big theater with a big sound system.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Dilemma