BLACK SWAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

BLACK SWAN (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Last weekend the Carolina Theater in Durham as part of their “Retrofantasma” revival film series presented a double feature of what they dubbed “Prestigious Horror Movies”: Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and Ed Bianchi’s THE FAN (1981).

I predict that one day Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN will be included under that banner – it’s an extremely classy psycho sexual piece of prestigious horror if there ever was one.

In his follow-up to THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky focuses on the vastly different world of ballet. He recently told an interviewer: “Wrestling some consider the lowest art – if they would even call it art – and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”

As a dancer in the New York City Ballet Company, a stressed out Natalie Portman is told by her director (a sharply abrasive Vincent Cassell) that for his stripped down production of “Swan Lake” that she is perfect for the role of the White Swan – not so much for the part of the Black Swan.

Since it’s a dual role for one dancer, this is a bit of a dilemma for the beleaguered ballerina.

Cassell: “I knew the White Swan wouldn’t be a problem. The real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin.”

Portman sees a less skilled yet more passionate dancer, Mila Kunis, as competition, but Kunis appears aloof at the prospect and appears to be offering friendship and congratulations when Portman gets the duel lead.

Meanwhile Cassell’s former star (and former flame) Winona Ryder is on her way out of the company because of her age and clashes with Portman as she is being made her successor.

Back in their narrow NY apartment Portman’s mother – a well cast Barbara Hershey – also a former ballerina, pushes her daughter to work harder to perfect her craft.

Perfection is exactly what Portman craves, but little things like nightmarish hallucinations start getting in the way. Portman gets majorly freaked out by scratches and abrasions on her back which she can’t explain and keeps seeing herself in the face of Kunis.

There also seems to always be taunting laughter coming from the shadows or under the surface of the tormented terrain Portman is desperately trying to navigate through.

To her mother’s disapproval, Portman goes out for a night of drinks, drugs, and debauchery with Kunis. “Ah, ballerinas. No wonder you two look alike” says one of 2 guys at the club attempting to hit on them.

It’s an apt comment that Aronofsky runs with. Portman is constantly tortured by her own visage – obviously because she’s becoming her own evil twin just as “Swan Lake” dictates and Kunis is the unknowing recipient of Portman’s image.

Except for a number of behind the back of the protagonist’s head shots as she approaches a scene, BLACK SWAN bares little resemblance to THE WRESTLER especially as it embraces startling surreality. THE WRESTLER had gritty white trash grounding; “Black Swan” wants to soar in a higher class with a deliriously scary blend of art and life.

Although it has its share of horror or suspense movie clich├ęs including mirror scares and fake-out dream sequences, BLACK SWAN is an incredibly immersive experience.

Aronofsky thoroughly gets inside of Portman’s emotional and professional obsession as the actress delivers a career best performance. Kunis puts in some of her finest work as well with a loose uninhibited demeanor that effectively balances with Portman’s plague.

It may disturb some audiences, but with its vigor and justified vanity BLACK SWAN is a towering achievement. It may not be the perfection that Portman desires, yet its ambition coupled with its sweeping visual style makes for one of the most intense and intriguing films of the year.

Expect to hear about it over and over during the upcoming awards season.

More later…

DATE NIGHT: The Film Babble Blog Review

DATE NIGHT (Dir. Shawn Levy, 2010)

Steve Carrell and Tina Fey are 2 of the most likable and funny people currently on network television in their NBC sitcoms The Office and 30 Rock respectively. That reputation hasn’t changed in their transition to the big screen even if some of their previous choices of projects have faltered a bit. Pairing them up as a bored, and purposely boring, married couple from New Jersey who find themselves caught up in a wild and violent night from Hell in manic Manhattan isn’t the most inspired concept in the world, but on the strength of their comic charm alone it’s still very likable and funny.

After learning that a couple of their friends are splitting up (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig in an all too brief appearance), Carrell decides to try to re-ignite the spark of their marriage by abandoning their routine date night plans and heading into the city for a meal at a posh upscale restaurant that they don’t have reservations for. A dolled-up Fey is hesitant at first, but is soon game – same goes for when Carrell, not able to get a table, steals somebody else’s reservations which, of course, leads to a case of mistaken identity with gunshots and frantic chases galore.

The MacGuffin here is a flashdrive, or “computer sticky thingie” as Fey calls it, that 2 thugs (Jimmi Simpson and Common) insist Carrell and Fey possess. Our not quite heroic duo elude their pursuers, find out that the thugs are cops on the take, and call upon one of Fey’s real estate clients, a shirtless Mark Wahlberg, for help. It really doesn’t matter where the plot goes from here – it’s just an excuse for Carrell and Fey to run around and spout out one-liners, many of which are just funny enough to keep the enterprise rolling.

Cameos from James Franco and Mila Kunis as a trashy couple who amusingly share some of the same relationship issues as do our protagonists work better than they should, and Ray Liotta as an angry mobster (once again resurrecting Henry Hill from GOODFELLAS) also adds nicely to the mayhem, as contrived as it is. It’s as predictable as its fabricated THE OUT OF TOWNERS meets AFTER HOURS formula would suggest, but if you like Carrell and Fey (I can’t imagine somebody liking one and not liking the other) you’ll most likely like this.

More later…

THE BOOK OF ELI: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dirs. Albert and Allen Hughes, 2010)

Here we go again with another cinematic rendering of a post apocalyptic world – apparently for those who thought THE ROAD didn’t have enough action. A bearded grizzled Denzel Washington walks the ashy terrain listening to Al Green on an old beat-up iPod and avoiding Road Warrior-ish highjackers hiding in the rubble. When he is confronted by a crusty crew of them, we see that he is a machete-brandishing bad ass who leaves his attackers in a pile of their own limbs; SAMURAI ASSASSIN-style.

We only get a few hints as to what happened to the Earth. Washington mentions “the wars”, “the flash” and at one point says “the sky opened up, the sun came down” so obviously they want to keep it vague. I can go along with that fine, but after hearing that it’s been 30 winters since this all went down I couldn’t get over wondering how he recharges that iPod battery.

On his journey west (post apocalyptic folk are always traveling to the Californian coast) Washington comes upon the supposed king of the crud covered thugs – an oily Gary Oldman (one of the only lively elements present) who chews the sleazy scenery as he seeks “the Book”. The book is, of course, the Bible (The King James Version) and Washington has the last copy on his person and he ain’t sharing it. He’ll quote from it to Mila Kunis as one of Oldman’s slaves, but he will not give it up to anybody. Suffice to say this causes some friction.

Friction in the form of gun battles with heavy artillery and yep, big explosions. Washington is determined and seemingly indestructible in his efforts to protect “the Book”, but his real strengths as an actor are buried here. Though he’s one of the executive producers on this project, his role as the stoical Eli is stiff and passionless. He’s one of the finest actors working today, but here his charisma is literally missing in action.

Despite this the movie itself should’ve gone for more mindless spectacle instead of the religious pretension it tries to pull off. Its hokey thematics bring to mind another post apocalyptic anomaly – THE POSTMAN. In Kevin Costner’s notorious 1997 flop, a drifter finds a mailbag and sets about delivering the letters inside which in turn helps to rebuild society. The Bible in THE BOOK OF ELI fulfills the same purpose – it’s a glorified MacGuffin, but unlike most MacGuffins, it’s importance grows in the last third of the film.

Washington and the Hughes Brothers are reaching here to tell the story of a righteous prophet, and there are a few times where its sepia-tinted tones are appealing, but mostly the underwritten yet overdone enterprise loudly falls flat. As a beginning of the year B-movie THE BOOK OF ELI is sure to make major bank from movie-goers looking for diversion. But stone cold boredom is what they’re really going to get.

More later…