Director Darren Aronofsky (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE WRESTLER) is not a subtle filmmaker.  His films often feel like they're pounding, pounding, pounding their audience into submission, with deliciously all-too-human horror that confronts the viewer in such a way that forces them to either love the film or hate it.  There's really no in-between for an Aronofsky film.  His body of work could probably best be described as typically divisive.  His latest effort, the psychodrama BLACK SWAN, is no different.  The thriller, starring Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a ballerina up for the role of the Swan Queen in SWAN LAKE, a production under the control of hard-line artistic director Thomas (a brilliant Vincent Cassel), starts by recalling countless earlier ballet-centric films, notably THE RED SHOES - a film which can't help but be invoked by the mere mention of a powerful ballet director and a struggling dancer - and ends with notes of body horror, psychological melt-down and the destructive impulse that drives its obsessed central character toward perfection and destruction.

Nina strives for perfection as a dancer, and is selected for the role because the White Swan should be a technically perfected part, but Thomas still has his doubts about her turn as the Black Swan, who he envisions as a bit more loose and wild than Nina ever allows herself to be.  Enter the rivalry of another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), much more sensual than Nina's perfected technique would ever allow.  Nina may lose her part, Lily and Thomas may be conspiring against her, and she may or may not be transforming, quite literally, into some horrific thing.  Aronofsky has utilized the thematics of the ballet SWAN LAKE to create a real-world mirroring of its central conceit: two sides of the same coin, dooming one another, and only because they are one and the same, and it works perfectly as a horror film.

Something tells me, though, that this may end up becoming a major issue, as horror can most certainly be used as a derogatory term when it comes to the world of ballet.  It's a largely insular culture, with its aficionados holding strong aesthetic opinions of good and bad that comes with the territory (all artistic and critical communities are the same in this regard), and I don't think they'll be too pleased with the actual presentation of ballet in the film (indeed, James Wolcott's review makes this point for me).  It's a backdrop, and not the show, and even Natalie Portman's year of training for the role doesn't really make much sense considering Aronofsky's film (and the horror/thriller genre in general) is more concerned with intimacy and brooding intensity - a point the film's many close-ups of Portman's gaunt face and leaner, more bruised and calloused frame hammers home more efficiently than any medium shot of the dancing going on around them ever could.  In reality, the close-ups of her body never had to be the real Portman, but, just as it did with Mickey Rourke's scarred torso in THE WRESTLER, the fact that it is only serves to add to the visceral impact the shots have in conveying the physical impracticalities of such a demanding lifestyle on a biological level, let alone the strain it can have on the psyche.

Given the obsession the film has with Nina's strictly-governed and routine-driven existence becoming unraveled by her awakening to her own desires and her growing sensual self-awareness, there is naturally a strong sexual element to the relationships Nina forms with both Thomas and Lily, with each offering some new and thrilling experience that could end up dooming her chances at being a successful dancer.  This sexual awakening is accompanied with both horror and pitch black comedy.  Thomas, perhaps unprofessionally, but with a point nonetheless, in an attempt to drive the point home to Nina, who just can't stop being perfect, asks a male dancer point-blank, "would you fuck this girl?"  In another scene Nina wakes up and starts to masturbate, and just as she reaches arousal, with her back arched and her stomach down, she looks over and sees her mother sleeping in a chair next to her bed.  These scenes serve to shock us and make us laugh uncomfortably.  They are uncomfortable scenes in a film filled with discomforting thoughts and uncomfortable relationships that shed light on the whole absurdity of the assumptions various characters make about one another, specifically concerning sexual desires and inclinations.  Even the assumptions made about Lily are horrifying to hear coming out of Nina's mouth - especially when we find out the truth behind the night in question.  They may as well all be losing their minds.

In many ways, BLACK SWAN is a culmination of Aronofsky's body of work to date, one in which his primary concerns of psychological and physical trauma are perfectly married into a perfect vehicle.  THE WRESTLER with more darkness, or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with more sympathetic identification.  And, like his much-criticized but underrated work THE FOUNTAIN, he is again here obsessed with doubles, and features many a fantastic shot by frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique that features multiple mirror images of Nina.  The motif is blunt, much like the parallels between the story of the ballet SWAN LAKE and the film, but it hits and it sticks, and it has stayed with me since I first saw the credits roll all the way back in September.  This is Aronofsky's masterpiece.

I feel like I haven't successfully conveyed anything about the supporting actors or their roles, but I also don't feel that it's necessarily important that I do.  As fantastic as Barbara Hershey is as the domineering ex-ballerina mother (an important stock character in ballet films), or as much fun as Winona Ryder is as the aging ex-lead ballerina whom Nina is replacing, the film is really only concerned with Nina.  Even Lily and Thomas are extensions of the almost entirely subjective view we are provided by Aronofsky as a window into this story.  We feel for Nina because she is a classical tragic figure, marching toward an end as inevitable as any the rest of us can expect, albeit one with a much better soundtrack.


Blurbs: Special Edition

I've been gone a long time, I know.  But here I am, and I'm back.  Sorry for the all-too-long hiatus.  In any case, I figured I'd start back with something light, quick, and hopefully interesting, a new entry in my "Blurbs" series, where I give brief thoughts, reviews, etc, on a lot of things I've seen recently, but don't have time to devote to full-lenght pieces (though I may come back to some of them in the future).  Without further ado, here's a new, extra-long installment of Blurbs:

13 ASSASSINS (Takashi Miike, 2010)
I caught this one in Toronto, and I've been thinking a lot about it since then.  It's definitely as bombastic and over-the-top as any other Miike film, but in a more traditional mode of filmmaking.  Stylistically, it plays exactly like a classic samurai picture, mirroring in many aspects the films SEVEN SAMURAI and SANJURO, as well as any other post-60s film that features an individual or group of samurai nobly defending peasants against the evil advances of a violent and immoral enemy.  Still, there are touches of trademark Miike the provocateur in the film, including a sequence which sees the samurai defending the town by having a herd of bulls charge at the invaders with dynamite strapped on their backs.  And, yes, he still finds some way to include a naked torso-woman in the proceedings.  Things aren't nearly as strange as all that, though, and Miike has made what is probably his most mature film to date, a real, first-rate classic that finally marks his arrival above the cult following he has held for the past decade.  13 ASSASSINS is memorable, fun, thrilling and inspiring filmmaking of the very first order.

THE ILLUSIONIST (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Another Toronto selection, this is the follow-up to Chomet's feature debut THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE.  Based on an unproduced script by legendary filmmaker Jaques Tati, THE ILLUSIONIST follows a magician growing slowly irrelevant by a world less-inclined to believe in magic, and becoming more and more enamored with rock-n-roll, which slowly takes over as the main draw to many of the venues he has been playing for years.  Like TRIPLETS, THE ILLUSIONIST is a film of quiet charms, with minimal dialogue (and much of that is muffled and incomprehensible) that focuses all of its attention on the visual imagery and the dazzling art of the film.  There's a moment near the end of the film when the protagonist stumbles into a dark movie theater while chasing his clothing on a runaway rack, and for a brief moment, he shares the screen with Tati's projected image within the theater (a real film clip, not animated).  This single sublime demonstrates what is really the most important thing about Chomet's film: it's ability to touch its audience is admirable in an age when most directors, animators included, would rather shock thrill or titillate.  Truly this is one-of-a-kind filmmaking.

DUE DATE (Todd Phillips, 2010)
This film had a huge build-up because of Phillips' previous success with THE HANGOVER (which, at the time of my writing this, is the most-viewed on-demand movie ever).  Audiences were particularly excited in seeing that film's break-out star, Zack Galifianakis re-team with the director, though it seems the film they got wasn't as amazing as they were hoping (see also: reactions to Judd Apatow's FUNNY PEOPLE).  So goes the saying about expectations, etc., etc.  I, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised that Phillips had made a different type of road movie from THE HANGOVER, particularly since he was already lining up to shoot a sequel to that one anyway.  Robert Downey, Jr., plays the straight-man to Galifianakis' annoying idiot.  Neither character is particularly likable, though when pressed I'd have to say Galifianakis gets my vote for the one I'd be more likely to kill  myself.  In what is essentially a remake of John Hughes' PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, we watch as the ever-bitter Downey begins to take a liking to the schlub who keeps getting him in these awful situations to begin with, and it does feature some winning performances.  Downey is incredibly mean-spirited here, much more so than Steve Martin's character in PLANES, and that's saying a lot.  If there's one thing that keeps this film from being completely successful, it's that the character dynamics are so in-tune with previous ideas of how these personalities should clash (thanks to other, better films), that we just can't identify with either character, let alone both.

"G" MEN (William Keighley, 1935)
I'm an unabashed fan of pretty much everything that James Cagney ever did.  He's one of my favorite Classical Hollywood actors, and he's never as much fun as when he's playing a bad guy with a heart of gold.  I'd never seen "G" MEN, Warner's post-Code gangster picture, though I'd been meaning to for years.  Finally, I caught it on DVD about a month ago.  It's really quite fantastic.  In an effort to make a gangster picture, with one of their top stars, Warner Brothers decided they would cast Cagney in a trademark role, but with a twist so as to not upset the censors: Cagney would be a reformed gangster who helps bring down his former associates when he joins the newly-formed FBI.  A lot of the Warner contract actors are here, including Robert Armstrong and Margaret Lindsay, who played tough-as-nails and strictly by-the book Jeff McCord and his sister Kay, respectively.  Keighley's direction is superb (he also directed one of the best adaptations of Robin Hood with star Errol Flynn, and collaborated with Cagney again on the prison drama EACH DAWN I DIE), as is the crisp cinematography of the legendary Sol Polito (THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, 42ND STREET).  I loved this one.  Definitely check it out if you can.

THE WICKER MAN (Neil LaBute, 2006)
I honestly think this is one of the most misunderstood films of the past ten years.  While not terribly good, it's nowhere near awful, and is compelling not only for Nicolas Cage's leap off the deep end performance, but also because it's one of the weirdest films I've ever seen, from beginning to end.  Loosely taking its cues from the original British film and the novel it was based on, LaBute crafts what is essentially a broad genre farce, though played completely straight.  I think this is also the problem a lot of people ran into with LAKEVIEW TERRACE: we're not entirely sure what his game is.  It's such a departure from traditional filmmaking in its tone and execution that it seems like he's often just fucking with us.  Indeed, I think with THE WICKER MAN, he was just fucking with us.  Cage plays a detective from California summoned to a tiny island off the coast of Washington to search for a missing little girl, and uncovers a lot of weirdness when confronted by the modern-day, femme-centric bee-farming pagans that leads to a lot of questions about LaBute's long-accused misogyny (though I think this is mostly him joking about his perceived disgust with females).  In any case, by the end of the film, in which Cage dons a bear suit and goes around punching women in the face and kicking Leelee Sobieski into a wall, the only reading that makes sense any more is that this is a personal satire, as well as an affront to his critics.  He finally gave us "the essential Neil LaBute anti-feminist screed", and we hung him out to dry for it.  Kind of brilliant, actually, and it essentially freed him up to make whatever he wanted from there on out, even if the films weren't that great in the end.

MACGRUBER (Jorma Taccone, 2010)
A pretty smooth film for such an absurdist and sporadic comedy.  Based on the SNL sketch that mocks MACGUYVER about two decades too late, Will Forte leads the charge as the title character, a moronic special-forces type that is utterly clueless about his actual job, but nonetheless succeeds in the end.  The jokes range from the inspired to the merely silly, but there is hardly a minute that passes that doesn't contain at least one gag that had me chuckling.  It's odd that this one got such bad word of mouth (I know I didn't go see it theatrically because of it), because it's actually the funniest film SNL's been involved with since WAYNE'S WORLD 2 all the way back in 1992.  Oh well, now I know, and I'm glad I've seen it.  Immature, yes.  Funny, also yes.  Great cinematic art, well, no.

BABY FACE (Alfred E. Greene, 1933)
The inimitable Barbara Stanwyck stars in this pre-Code picture about an attractive woman who uses her feminine wiles to work her way all the way to the top.  After, quite literally, starting in the basement of a building as a bartender, she begins working at a bank, and goes floor-by-floor to the top, using her looks and sexuality all of the way, though she ultimately realizes this power and financial security will never bring her happiness.  This portrait of unabashed willpower wrapped up in sex and evocation still holds on to its power today, mostly due to Stanwyck's powerful performance as a woman who gains everything only to realize she is still vulnerable.  Thrilling, miraculous stuff.