Thursday, December 30, 2010

Black Swan

We all have our limitations. We try to deal with them and overcome them as best we can but sometimes our limits are just that. Overcoming limitations is the central theme is Darren Aronofsky’s dark fairy tale ‘Black Swan’ about a young ballerina named Nina (Natalie Portman) who finds herself cast in a part beyond her range in a new production of ‘Swan Lake.’

Nina is a truly fragile character. Emotionally she feels 12 years old. Her mother Erica (played by the fantastic Barbara Hershey) seems to have done a lot of work to make sure she stays that way. Nina’s bedroom feels like a prison cell and the dozens of oversized stuffed animals feel like the guards.

One of the nice details of the film is the way it refuses to glamorize the world of ballet. The dance routines look more painful than enchanting. The company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has dark designs on Nina. He casts her in the lead of his new production of ‘Swan Lake.’ The lead is a duel role, the virginal White Swan and her seductive evil twin, the Black Swan. Thomas points out that Nina is perfect for the White Swan but completely unsuited for the Black Swan, a role that requires a sensuality and spontaneity that Thomas hopes to draw out of Nina. The way he sets about doing that is rather unsavory. While Nina’s mother is certainly no angel, Thomas feels like the biggest threat to Nina. This is interesting because he is the only character who wants Nina to actually succeed in the part of the Black Swan. The other dancers whisper behind her back and her mother feels that the role is too much for her.

The mother might have a point. Rehearsals continue and Nina’s progress is slow. She’s breaking out in strange rashes. Most importantly She is unable to be spontaneous and ‘in the moment,’ one of the most important skills in acting. The situation is so bad in fact, if we hadn’t watched her practice her routines until her toes bled, we might wonder if her heart were really in it. The stress is getting to her. She grows envious of Lilly (Mila Kunis), a new dancer who recently joined the company. Duality is a theme in ‘Swan Lake’, and therefore, by necessity it is a theme here too. Lily is everything that Nina is not: free, warm, in the moment and sensual. This duality between Lily and Nina provide some of the films most bravado sequences. It’s a subplot that develops slowly but never fully. I would have liked to see their duality played up a little more.

The film is very well executed. The grainy cinematography by frequent Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique is wonderfully atmospheric and haunting. The acting is top notch. Natalie Portman’s decent into on screen insanity ranks as one of the best performances of the year and she absolutely deserves all the accolades she’s been getting. As does Barbara Hershey, who is wonderfully manipulative, aggressive yet very fragile in her own way.

The film isn’t perfect though. Not by a long shot. The Thomas character is over the top even for this melodrama and his character is not nearly inspiring enough for me to believe that he is the great director he’s supposed to be. The tension could have been ramped up. The special effects sometimes intrude on the actors. Also, quite frankly, Aronofsky is holding back. He has done much more intense and intimate work. After ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘The Wrestler’ I expected more from him. Perhaps that was unfair. I probably would have praised the film much more highly if I was unaware of his previous work.

Grade: B-

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Unstoppable doesn’t have memorable characters, it doesn’t have powerful performances, but it does have a rather interesting set-up and is, for the most part, a satisfactory popcorn experience.

The movie stars Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, a railroad engineer in West Virginia on the verge of retirement and Chris Pine (Star Trek) as Will Colson, Barnes’s juiced-in greenhorn replacement. They have differences but come to respect each other. If that sounds boring and unimaginative, you’re right. But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is what’s happening over in Pennsylvania. There, an incompetent conductor (Ethan Suplee) has to leave a slow moving train to throw a switch on the track. While he’s away from the train cab, the throttle lever slips, and the train speeds off with nobody at the controls- — oops! We then watch as Suplee contacts yardmaster Hopper (Rosario Dawson) who tries to co-ordinate efforts to stop the train. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, the train is also full of toxic chemicals and is speeding towards Colson’s hometown.

The multiple points of view reminded me a little of the superior ‘Die Hard’ movies which also derived much of their suspense from sequences of complex logistics against impossible odds.

Of course everything that Hopper and her evil corporate overlord (Kevin Dunn) do to stop the train is a laughable failure. It’s a good thing our heroes happen to be in the neighborhood.

‘Unstoppable’ is a by-the-book, paint-by-numbers movie. It’s a formula, it’s manipulative, but it works. Denzel play’s a lower key version of his persona. Chris Pine plays off his considerable charisma and the other actors play their stock-characters effectively.

The film is unique and admirable in several ways. Its large rail yards are the real thing, no fake matte paintings. The chase scenes, featuring massive, speeding locomotives also appear to be done for real. The film features incredible stunt scenes and seemingly little CGI. Not only do the images appear authentic, but the actions do too. The actions of Hooper and co to stop the train are, of course, bad ones, but they seem more like choices made by desperate people in a tough jam then the ridiculous action movie fodder that we’re used to getting. Scott and his screenwriter Mark Bomback don’t cheat. They certainly milk the premise, but they don’t stretch logic, reason or the laws of physics.

Where the film starts to have trouble is towards the end where it becomes clear that Tony Scott is the films biggest enemy. His reliance on quick cuts, shaky cameras and fast zooms become a bit overwhelming towards the end of the film. I had a migraine by the end of the film. Even at the end, after all the action scenes had where over, the camera was still zooming around like a little kid on a sugar binge.

In spite of these problems, the film is an enjoyable diversion. You probably wont remember any of the characters or lines of dialogue. The film is about big trains going real fast. If you want to see an action movie this weekend and ‘Tron: Legacy’ doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll probably be all right with this.

Grade: C+