Saturday, December 18, 2010


BLACK SWAN might just be Darren Aronofsky's best film. He's clearly one of the most talented directors working today and this intense and unnerving film is proof of that. His second feature, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, burst onto the scene a decade ago and won him a great deal of fanfare for its harsh depiction of drug addiction and the use of a tremendous amount of clever, highly visual editing. After this came THE FOUNTAIN, in which he failed to build on the momentum REQUIEM gave him despite it being a pretty good, albeit less-accessible film. Aronofsky returned to glory with THE WRESTLER a couple years back and it is this film that seems to have started the director on an even better path than REQUIEM did ten years ago. THE WRESTLER was a very personal film, simpler in appearance than his previous work, that produced emotion and feeling in a much more subtle way. BLACK SWAN follows this model. It's an intensely complicated film that is propelled forward by the experiences (some of them real, some of them not) of Portman's character, Nina Sayers. At a glance, BLACK SWAN isn't as flashy as REQUIEM or THE FOUNTAIN, but it's Aronofsky's most ambitious film to day and one of the year's best.

Despite my supreme confidence in the film's director, it wouldn't work without Natalie Portman in the lead. The plot relies on the growing emotional and mental instability of her character and she is able to deliver that in incremental doses. Even though I know very little about ballet, I know that it is a highly competitive, intensely demanding vocation. The pressure that the "Swan Lake" production exerts on Nina is entirely believable and so are her actions, even though they might seem a tad melodramatic. Portman is perpetually wide-eyed and ill at-ease throughout the film (almost irritatingly so) and that translates to the viewer. I can honestly say that there are few movies that had me as anxious as this one did and for nearly the entire run time. The moments of self-mutilation are relatively tame, but visceral as if Aronofsky specifically chose the most cringe-inducing of minor injuries for Nina to inflict on herself. Damage to fingers, including the longest hangnail you'll ever see, along with obsessive scratching of raw skin are just so awful to behold and fitting for a character struggling to hold herself together.

What I also liked about Nina's mental state in this film is that it doesn't begin with her casting as The Swan Queen, as if she's just crumbling under the pressure of a big part. She is damaged goods from the very beginning. Her relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey in an Oscar-worthy performance) is unnatural and another fascinating aspect to the film. It is this environment of coddling, over-protection and desperation that has helped created the unstable young woman we see fall apart as the film progresses.

Mila Kunis as Lily, Nina's perceived rival, is the perfect compliment to Portman. Where Nina is fragile and wide-eyed, Lily is steely-eyed and confident. Nina is reserved and prudish, while Lily is outgoing and sexy. They clash so beautifully in all their scenes together, culminating in a drug-fueled night out at a club meant to help Nina blow off some steam. The club scenes are red and pulsating and frenetic and are appropriately capped off by a rather brazen and much talked-about embrace between the two, the aftermath of which might just be the point at which we see where this film is headed.

Aronofsky captures the ballet performances beautifully, following the movement of the dancers in a way that is neither dizzying or disorienting. He likes to get inside the action (in all aspects of the film) more than most director's do. BLACK SWAN wasn't captured from beyond by a distant lens, but by a director inserting himself among the fray (also done effectively in THE WRESTLER).

BLACK SWAN is indeed a great film for what appears on screen, but I would be doing Clint Mansell a disservice by not mentioning his lofty contribution to the final product. His score, apparently taken from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" but played in reverse and with radical alterations, is eerie as befitting the film's tone, but also graceful to compliment the on stage performances. It's a score to a ballet and a film all in one.

One final note I'd like to make is on Vincent Cassel, who played the director, Thomas Leroy. Cassel is electric in everything he does, but never more so than he is here. Age has given him a presence and regality that was always there, but never at the forefront. His performance here is restrained but powerful; a realistic take on a serious ballet director without all the heartlessness and manipulation that might have rendered his character cliche. I don't see why he hasn't garnered more Best Supporting Actor attention this awards season.


Trailer Time

1. THE TREE OF LIFE - Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is one of the most revered figures currently working in film. He is Harvard educated, a Rhodes Scholar and a known perfectionist. It is this drive toward perfection that has brought us films like BADLANDS, DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE NEW WORLD. The latter film was released in 2005 and is his latest feature. Six years might seem like a lengthy hiatus for such a respected director, but it's relatively short considering he took twenty years off before THE THIN RED LINE. I'm just glad he's working more frequently these days; he even has an untitled project lined up for 2012, which would be the quickest turnaround of his career. THE TREE OF LIFE has been receiving a fair amount of pre-release buzz, which is not surprising considering how high Malick sets the bar. Its distributors pushed it back from a 2010 release to next year's Cannes, which seems an appropriate place for such a premiere. The trailer doesn't give away a ton about the film, but I'm liking the vibe I'm getting. Pitt and Penn seem to be in top form and the imagery was beautiful (no surprise there). The film's story doesn't seem to be very grandiose, it's a cross-generational tale about a man who grew up in the Midwest in the 50's, but all indications point to TREE OF LIFE being about something more than that. Malick has shown us so many times before how grand life can look and what an amazing thing it is, this time he appears to be taking that a little further. Bottom line: I'm very excited for this one.

2. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS - Francis Lawrence - 4/15/11

I haven't read the book on which this is based, but I've heard good things. No matter how you feel about Lawrence's recent films (CONSTANTINE, I AM LEGEND), they are proof that the director has a handle on a particular style; a style which I appreciate. It's dark and moody, but also detailed and glossy. I can see evidence of this in the trailer for WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. The circus setting seems almost a perfect fit for Lawrence's talents. I'm optimistic about what this film might yield.

Note: the music that opens the trailer is from Nick Cave's score of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Both a film and a soundtrack I couldn't more highly recommend.


I have never claimed to be a big fan of the PIRATES series. The first film was a lot of fun, but the sequels were bogged down in their own mythology and never matched the adventure of the original. This installment seems to be a fresh start for the profitable film series and a way to return to basics. There's a new director on board, who may or may not bring something new to the table. The Bloom and Knightley characters have been excised from the script, so the film can concentrate more fully on what viewers have always wanted: Captain Jack Sparrow. Penelope Cruz, who I don't normally care for, even seems to be fitting in well in this environment. Most exciting about this film though, is the inclusion of the historical/mythical figure known as Blackbeard, played by "Deadwood"s Ian McShane. I cursed PIRATES after AT WORLD'S END, thinking I would never be duped into paying for another film in the franchise ever again. Alas, it appears that they'll have a chance to get some coin out of me yet.

4. THOR - Kenneth Branagh - 5/6/11

THOR looks good. I was a bit worried there that it wouldn't. The trailer doesn't indicate the epic film I'm hoping for, but I don't feel that the preview played all the cards it could have. This is the first time we truly get to see Hemsworth in the titular role and I'm satisfied, he fills out the part nicely. I'm just interested to see how everyone else will perform in their parts and how the story will tie in to the greater Marvel universe and the forthcoming AVENGERS film.