True Grit12/25/2010

I shudder to think how many times the John Wayne film True Grit has played on T.V. since its debut in 1969.  The movie has been a staple of western marathons over the years and is probably one of the most seen movies by middle aged men over the years.  It also probably isn’t worthy of the attention it’s gotten, as it’s probably one of Wayne’s weaker efforts.  It’s not a terrible film by any means, but it doesn’t come close to matching some of the classic westerns that Wayne made with directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks and the Oscar he somehow won for the movie was clearly just to honor his career as a whole.  That the original film was not all that great is precisely what made it perfect material for remaking, had the film been a genuine classic it wouldn’t need to be made again, but because there’s room for improvement a second version was worth giving a try.  Stepping in to do just that are the Coen brothers, who are riding high on a wave of four films that have given them some of their best reviews and highest grosses to date.

Set in Western Arkansas circa 1875, the film largely follows a fourteen year old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) whose father was recently murdered while in a town called Dardanelle.  The assailant was a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who subsequently fled with a gang led by a criminal named “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) into the Oklahoma Indian Territories.  Local law enforcement is uninterested in chasing Chaney down, but Ross is determined to avenge her father’s death, so she decides to hire a U.S. Marshall to track down and capture or kill Chaney.  The man she decides to hire is a drunken old bastard named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who she chooses because of his violent reputation.  Ross is determined to accompany him on this excursion in order to see that the job is done, and along the way they run into a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who is also after Chaney because of a separate bounty on his head.

There’s really no doubt that it’s pretty hard to fill John Wayne’s boots, even if it’s in one of his lesser roles.  Jeff Bridge takes on the challenge by not even trying.  The character of Rooster Cogburn has been pretty heavily altered here and it isn’t really because he’s been re-written so much as the way that Bridges tackles the role.  Rooster is a grumpy, drunken, mess of a character but you wouldn’t really know it by looking at Wayne’s performance in the role, he remained so much of an American icon that it was kind of hard to see him as anything less than a strong and articulate figure.  That’s not the case here.  Cogburn as played by Jeff Bridges is a truly grumpy and seemingly unwashed character who speaks in one of the gruffest voices you’re likely to ever see a major actor starring in a Hollywood movie to dedicate themselves to.

The character of Mattie Ross has also been revised and expanded here.  Charles Portis’ original “True Grit” novel was narrated in first-person by Ross, and her character has been restored to her central role here.  The character is fourteen years old, but was played by a twenty two year old Kim Darby in the original film.  Here she’s played by an unknown but age-appropriate actress who’s clearly a great discovery.  The character is made to be a character that in spite of her age is greatly driven by a sense of honor and an uncompromising belief that she can get everything that’s owed to her.  Early on we see her negotiating with much older people and fighting for what she needs as strongly as an adult gunfighter would.  This litigious nature is extremely important as it drives her motivations throughout this adventure and if the kid they found to play her were any less talented it would have come off as ridiculous preciousness and it doesn’t.

There’s really a lot of good acting to go around in the movie, and I’m not necessarily talking about Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, or Barry Pepper, although they all do fine work themselves.  What I’m really talking about are the bit players, the small parts that have been filled perfectly by a fine assortment of character actors.  I don’t know how they do it, but the Coen brothers seem uniquely able to find interesting faces to populate their movies with and this is no exception.  In fact, there are a lot of great Coenisms throughout the movie, their style is hardly invisible and it adds a lot of flavor to the proceedings.  This is not, however, an insular and polarizing Coen brothers exercise like last year’s A Serious Man.  This is an example of the Coens using their style to make a very accessible movie that is classic Hollywood entertainment in the best sense of the term.  The Coens are, first and foremost, trying to tell a good story and their style improves the film rather than defining it.

This is also probably the closest that the Coens have come to making a straight-up action movie.  That’s not to say that this is an action movie in the same way that something like Die Hard is an action movie, but there are some really well done western shootouts here, especially their rendition of the horseback shootout in the valley from the original.  This is a fairly violent film, it should be noted.  Not as violent as No Country for Old Men or Fargo, but it’s definitely got some of that Coen brothers bloodletting and I’m not sure how it managed to get a PG-13 rating given some of the bloodier scenes, the Coens definitely didn’t hold back.  They also didn’t hold back on the production values, as they’ve gotten their full team of craftsmen back into action including cinematographer Roger Deakins and an excellent score by Carter Burwell.

What True Grit isn’t, is a wildly deep or sophisticated movie and it doesn’t have a particularly obvious message at its heart.  It does explore the issues of revenge and it does offer a pretty good if unconventional coming of age story for the Mattie Ross character, but this is mostly in the background.  At its heart this is an adventure story and a traditional western and that is not a complaint.  Not every great movie needs to be a post-modern statement about our times and not every movie needs some kind of underlying political message, at least not when they’re this well made.  John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Budd Boetticher were also able to make great escapism, but escapism that had legitimate storytelling meat on its bones.  This is the kind of real populist filmmaking that has been long absent from studio funded cinema for far too long.

**** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Robin Hood12/26/2010

            If nothing else, Ridley Scott deserves respect for his dedication to epic filmmaking in a world of unambitious fluff.  With movies like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven Scott was able to make historical epics which took themselves seriously and looked like they were constructed with meticulous detail.  It makes sense that, with this as his ambitious, that he’s heavily used Russell Crowe as his star.  As Chris rock once put it during his stint as an Oscar host: “if it’s set in the past, get Russell Crowe’s ass.”  The guy has exactly the gravitas for this kind of thing and he’s also accessible to modern sensibilities.  He’s not as effective in Scott films set in the present like A Good Year and Body of Lies, but he isn’t bad either.  Now this collaboration is being brought into a new decade with Robin Hood.

            This adaptation of the folk legend set in 1199 is seemingly more closely rooted in history than most adaptations of the story.  The title character begins as Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), a common archer returning from The Third Crusade with Richard the Lionheart’s (Danny Houston) men.  After Richard is killed in a routine skirmish his crown is stolen by a French double agent named Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), but is retrieved by Robin, who decides to deliver it home under the guise of Robert Loxley of Nottingham (Douglas Hodge) a noble knight killed in the crown skirmish.  After the delivery of the crown he goes to Nottingham, where Robert Loxley’s elderly father (Max Von Sydow) and his widow Lady Marianne (Cate Blanchett) decide to let Longstride continue the masquerade.  Meanwhile Sir Godfrey is manipulating Richard’s heir, King John (Oscar Issac), into overtaxing the populace in a scheme to divide English people prior to a French invasion.

            At the heart of this story seems to be some fairly nefarious 21st century politics.  For the film Robin Hood, a character who has traditionally robbed from the rich and given to the poor (socialism!), has been turned into an angry man posing as a member of the nobility fighting against taxes.  I’m sure this was in production long before the teabaggers began spreading their brand of “populism,” but the film sure seems to be the work of a couple of wealthy establishment filmmakers whining about their taxes.  Of course it’s kind of hard to end a plot like that with a big bombastic action scene, so the screenplay sweats bullets trying to make the true villains behind all of this into another target of conservative rage: the French.  I’m also not going to spend too much time trying to decipher the film’s historical accuracy.  I’m willing to bet that most of it is fiction, and I think that’s probably fine, Gladiator certainly isn’t one for the history books either but a good story is a good story.

            The film’s script certainly needs work, but overall I found Robin Hood to be a surprisingly strong piece of work.  The film got brutalized by critics when it came out early this summer where it was seen as part of a string of poor blockbuster releases.  I don’t think that’s fair.  Maybe it’s because I saw the Director’s Cut, maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for elaborately constructed historical epics, or maybe I just believe that Ridley Scott’s work has a respectability that elevates it from its peers in the summer movie rat race, but I quite enjoyed the film and feel like it was treated unfairly in its original release.  It’s no Gladiator, and for that matter it’s no Kingdom of Heaven, but it’s well made and has a healthy gravitas.  Perhaps the Abrams-ization of the summer blockbuster has made it hard to appreciate large scale filmmaking that doesn’t view its subject as a big joke that’s hurt Scott’s credibility, but I’m standing by the guy.

*** out of Four

The Fighter(12/20/2010)

            I don’t know what it is about the sport of boxing, but it seems to sire respectable movies in a way that no other sport even tries.  Clearly the luminaries of the genre are Rocky and Raging Bull, two wildly different movies with distinct tones and aims.  Of course it goes deeper than that; there’s also the Oscar winning drama Million Dollar Baby, the well like Cinderalla Man, biopics like Ali and The Hurricane, as well as classics like The Champ and Body and Soul.  Not all of these films are of equal value, but they’re all prestigious, which is more than can be said about ninety percent of movies about Football, Basketball, Hockey, Soccer, and even Baseball.  Maybe it’s because boxing isn’t a team sport that it works better, maybe it’s because the violence of the sport makes it more dramatic, or maybe it’s because boxing can seem incredibly shady and mafia influenced, either way the sport seems to be a cinematic golden goose.  The latest entrant in the annals of on-screen boxing is David O. Russell’s The Fighter, a film telling a story of contemporary boxing and of a family on the edge.

            The film tells the true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer living in the blue-collar town Lowell Massachusetts near Boston.  Ward is the protégé of his half-brother of Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), who once went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard but who’s now addicted to Crack.  Ward’s career is a family affair, he’s being trained by brother in spite of his erratic behavior and his mother (Mellisa Leo) is the one managing him and arranging his fights.  Under this arrangement Ward has only achieved stepping-stone status, meaning he’s the guy they put against better fighters in order to advance their careers.  Ward is getting offers from professional managers and there’s a good chance he can do better with them, but he’s also very loyal to his family and doesn’t want to walk away from them.

             The Fighter is director David O. Russell’s first film since the middling comedy I Heart Huckabee’s, which is perhaps less known for its own merits than for Russell’s onset rant in which he shouted obscenities at Lilly Tomlin, the video of which went viral on Youtube after it was leaked.  That wasn’t an isolated incident either, on the set of his excellent Gulf War satire Three Kings he and George Clooney almost came to blows.  This talk of Russell’s surly onset behavior should not overshadow his significant talent behind the camera.  Russell is a bit of a cinematic rebel, at least by Hollywood standards, he makes kinetic films with a lot of visual inventiveness.  He’s a bit more restrained here but you can see some of his touches here and there in the movie, like the way he films all the boxing scenes in a soft video-like color scheme to make it look like an early nineties HBO broadcast  even though the camera angles are decidedly cinematic rather than televisual throughout.

            In spite of Russell’s reputation for difficult shoots, Mark Whalberg has stood by him for his last three films.  He makes sense in his role here, he doesn’t really look much like the real Mickey Ward but he does look like he could be a welterweight boxer of some kind, but I’m not sure he was the right choice. Whalberg can be pretty good at playing badasses (The Departed, Shooter) and at playing people with youthful exuberance (Boogie Nights, I Heart Huckabees), but he’s been horrible when playing everyday people in movies like The Happening and The Lovely Bones.  Here he’s playing an everyday person who can be a badass in certain situations, so I guess he’s fifty percent qualified for the role.  I wouldn’t say he really hurts the movie but he gets close on a few occasions, you can see the whiney Whalberg shine through every once in a while, he’s just not someone who can disappear into a role very well and that is bad for something that’s trying to be “gritty.”

            Whalberg’s weaknesses are perhaps more perceivable because he’s surrounded by actors who are giving some really strong performances.  Many people will be talking about Christian Bale’s work in this movie and for good reasons.  Dicky Eklund is a crack addict, and kind of an idiot, and the brilliance of Bale’s approach (and the approach of the movie) is that he doesn’t shy away from the comical aspects of his behavior.  That’s not to say that the movie belittles the tragic side of drug abuse, but there’s a darkly comic aspect to his behavior that give his performance a lot of energy.  It’s reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s work in Jungle Fever another movie that juxtaposed comedy and tragedy while examining the depths of crack abuse.  It’s pretty different from the intense method acting that we’re used to seeing from him, the only other movie he’s made that really comes close is probably American Psycho, which was also darkly comic but in a much different way.  Mention should also be made to Amy Adams, who effectively discards her ingénue persona to play… well to play a trampstamped barmaid with a heart of gold.

            The acting in the movie is generally quite strong and the style is also pretty energetic, which is good because this movie is probably not worthy of either of them.  If you cleaned up some of the language, filmed the movie a little more conventionally, and maybe add a more schmaltzy score and you’d be left with an extremely conventional Hollywood “inspirational” sports movie, not unlike Remember the Titans, Coach Carter, or Whalberg’s own Invincible.  Actually you wouldn’t even have that because, frankly, Mickey Ward’s story isn’t nearly as amazing as a lot of the stories covered by those films.  Ward’s underdog-goes-the-distance narrative fits right in with that whole wave of Hoosiers rip-off sports movies and it hits most of the same beats that are required by that formula.

            I don’t mean to be completely dismissive when I compare The Fighter with those movies, after all, most of those films tend to work in spite of themselves and make for fairly enjoyable guilty pleasures.  The Fighter is also enjoyable for what it is and there’s certainly something to be said about making one of these movies properly rather than trying to find a way to out-Norman-Rockwell the genre’s last entrant.  The actors also do a lot to elevate the material as much as possible, but this is not a movie that belongs on any kind of major pedestal and it’s also beneath David O. Russell’s talents.  If anything, this feels like David O. Russell’s attempt to prove to Hollywood that he can be a good boy and make a “normal” movie.  I can’t blame him for this as I’m sure his image was really beginning to affect his career, but I’m also not particularly happy with the results, and I hope that he gets back to being a cinematic rebel soon.  As for the movie itself, it’s alright.  It’s decent escapism and probably worth seeing for some of the performances, just don’t take it for more than it is.

*** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Get Him to the Greek(12/3/2010)

            I feel like I’ve given the spiel about Judd Apatow a few too many times, the guy has made a lot of movies worth seeing and has made the comedy genre pretty enjoyable for the latter half of the decade.  One of his better though perhaps slightly less popular, efforts was Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a Nick Stoller directed film about a depressed Jason Segal trying to get over a breakup while wallowing through a Hawaiian resort.  One of the more talked about elements in the movie was the character of Aldous Snow, the literal rockstar that the titular ex-girlfriend had hooked up with on the rebound.  The character was played by Russell Brand, a peculiar British comedian who was mostly unknown to American audiences at the time.  I don’t like the guy.  His basic strategy is to go on and on in his irritating over the top persona until something funny finally comes out, and these funny things do eventually come out, but you’re still stuck with the annoying stuff in between.  Apparently a lot of people don’t agree with me, as his work was considered a high point of the film, and now that character has been spun off in the form of Get Him to the Greek

            The titular “Greek” is the Greek theater in Los Angeles.  That was the location of a famous concert turned live album by Aldous Snow before he went off the deep end and cut a horrible benefit album called “African Child.”  Since then he’s been wallowing in drugs and past glories, but he’s getting another shot.  A junior record executive named Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) has a vision of a ten year anniversary show at the Greek that would be broadcast live on HBO.  His boss, Sergio Roma (Sean “Diddy” Combs), agrees to this and tells Aaron Green to personally fly to England and make sure that Snow arrived at the theater and at a promotional stop in New York on time.  Complicating matters is that Green has been ordered not to dissuade Snow from his drug taking ways, at least not wholly, because audiences kind of get a kick out of that kind of “Behind the Music” drama.  Making matters even more complicated for Green is that he’s at a bit of an impasse with his girlfriend Daphne Binks (Elisabeth Moss), who has a chance to move to Seattle for her nursing career, and the partying that he’s going to have to engage in with Snow is not going to help with that relationship.

            I’ve already mentioned my general distaste for Russell Brand as a comedian, but I probably shouldn’t exaggerate this.  Brand can be funny, and this is probably a perfect role for him.  He’s a strange looking and sounding guy and being a rockstar is a good way to put him up on screen and still have him sort of resembling someone of this earth.  The cast member who really seems weak here is actually Jonah Hill, who I like to a certain extent in Superbad, but who hasn’t really broken out as someone with the same staying power as his metaphorical older brother Seth Rogen.  Strangely enough, the guy who sort of steals the show is Diddy, who is not merely a cameo performer but a full-fledged supporting character in the film.  He is playing a character and not himself, but the fact that we know Diddy to be a brash millionaire who lives an extravagant lifestyle definitely informs his role.

            The movie also has a bit of a darker side to a lot of the material, particularly when it comes to Snow’s drug use and his crazy relationship with his father and his baby-mamma.  Frankly, I didn’t find any of that funny because the filmmakers don’t’ give any of it the sharp edge it truly needs and they don’t film the movie like a proper dark comedy.  I think the problem here is that hard drug material here is treated like Marijuana humor.  Characters are seen taking hard drugs and behaving bizarrely, typical weed movie moves, but these drugs don’t seem like funny and relatively harmless substances, they’re a lot more damaging and the movie seems pretty odd because of it. 

            Overall, I think this is one of the weakest Apatow productions and if he doesn’t shape up fast this could turn out to be the place where he “jumps the shark” after being made vulnerable by the commercial failure of Funny People.  Of course “jump the shark” moments aren’t always awful in and of themselves, often they’re mildly enjoyable as they happen but they point to weakness down the road.  What’s more, we don’t know how much this failure has to do with Apatow’s brand, it might simply be the failure of Nick Stoller or of these performers, but it certainly isn’t a success for anyone any way you cut it. 

** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Expendables11/23/2010

            So, it’s come to this.  Hardcore fans of the action film have had to watch their beloved genre die a slow and painful death over the last decade or so.  Sure there are still very big movies being made today that could be called “action films,” but most of them seem like they could better be classified “effects movies” than “action films.”  Real action films are not that hard to define, they’re movies that show a lot of bad guys being shot or stabbed and do so in a way that’s exciting and fun for the audience, it’s a medium that was taken to its commercial highpoint by the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.  During the short period when these kind of action films were at the height of their fame we saw the creation of a new genre that may be almost as potent as the John Wayne western on the American conscience, but which can be just as problematic.  It’s also a genre which is almost as dead as the western, though not dead enough to have inspired some sort of revisionist revival.  Instead, we’re kind of at the place with this genre where we were with Westerns in the 70s, when John Wayne was still making movies like True Grit and The Shootist but was clearly not on the cultural cutting edge anymore.  That’s kind of where Stallone is right now, and movies like The Expendables show that there are still audiences willing to watch a genre in its death-throes.

            The film is all about a group of mercenaries called, funnily enough, The Expendables.  The leader of this group is Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), an aging soldier who’s burned out on the idea of fighting for his country but who’s still willing to fight for a living.  His two main men are a knife throwing ex-SAS guy named Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and a martial artist named Yin Yang (Jet Li).  Ross is approached by a man going by the codename Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) who offers him a job: to overthrow a rouge Latin American “dictator” named General Garza (David Zayas) and in the process take out a rouge CIA agent (Eric Roberts) and save the General’s defecting daughter (Gisele Itié).  Ross accepts the job, but it turns out to be one of the hardest jobs he’s had to go on in a while.

            The most discussed thing about this movie is obviously the cast, which seems like a who’s who of action stars.  But the truth is that the cast isn’t quite as impressive as it may seem.  Arnold Schwarzenegger may be very present in the trailer, but he’s really only on screen for all of sixty gimmicky seconds.  Bruce Willis isn’t there much longer, though at least his presence seems less perfunctory.  Mickey Rourke at least has two or three scenes, but he’s never in an action scene and is only a minor character.  Dolph Lundgren has a bigger role than the aforementioned cast members, he’s not part of the titular team for most of the running time and his climactic fight isn’t with Stallone, but with Jet Li.  So, once you discount those cast members what are you left with?  Stallone, Statham, Li, Randy Couture, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Terry Crews.  Aside from Stallone, that sounds like the cast of a very modern (and possibly direct to video) action movie rather than the eighties revival that many are expecting.  That’s not to say that some of these young guys don’t do a good job, Statham is especially good here, but the movie promised by the advertising is kind of different from the movie that’s delivered.

            The thing about action movies is that people who don’t get them tend not to realize that there are some very subtle things that separate great action movies from the bad ones.  There’s a world of difference between something like The Terminator and something like Invasion USA.  This difference largely come down to the efficiency of the script, the dedication of the cast, and especially the talent of the director.  The direction is probably the biggest problem here.  Sylvester Stallone seems like the kind of guy who really wants to do good work, but the simple fact is that he’s kind of lousy behind the camera.  This is defiantly an improvement over his wretched work on the last installment of the Rambo series from a few years ago, but the editing is almost as bad and the camera work is still not very confident.  I was also unimpressed to see a return of the CGI blood that harmed a lot of the action scenes in that Rambo movie.  All the action scenes lack a certain artistry that the best auteurs in this genre have, and the movie suffers because of it.

            The movie also suffers because the script is kind of a mess.  I know people are going to read that and say instantly say “dude, it’s The Expendables, it’s not supposed to be all artsy fartsy.”  NO.  That’s not what I’m trying to say it should be at all.  I did expected this to be a stupid action movie, by problem is that it isn’t half the stupid action movie it should have been.  The main problem is that movie needlessly switches locations far more than it needs to between the group’s American headquarters and the Latin American country the main action takes place in.  What the movie lacks is a certain simplicity that was needed in order to get it from explosion A to explosion B in a really efficient way.  The motives for it all are also completely muddled, and I also felt like the characters lacked some of the strong grounding and definition they needed.  This almost felt more like a sequel to a previous film than the first in a series.

            In spite of all these complaints, I really still kind of want to give this movie a pass.  Goddamn it, this movie has explosions… lots of them, and they didn’t look like CGI.  Seeing a decently budgeted R-rated action movie where a lot of people get shot just seems so rare today that it’s really easy to overrate a movie that conforms to that retro aesthetic.  I definitely think this sort of works as a rental, but if I’d seen it in theaters I would not have been so pleased.  Maybe the sequel will be better…

**1/2 out of Four

Black Swan12/10/2010

            If there’s one thing that that I’ve spent the better part of my life avoiding, it’s “professional” wrestling.   If there are two things I’ve spent the better part of my life avoiding, the second thing is ballet dancing.  In spite of my general disinterest in these activities, Darren Aronofsky has challenged my assumptions about both by making back to back films about one and then the other.  2008’s The Wrestler was one of the best films of the last decade, a brilliant portrait of a man addicted to the moderate fame that his physically taxing career provided him.  While I certainly haven’t become a wrestling fan since seeing the film, it did at least make a pretty good argument that there was a legitimate craft and skill to the activity.  Ballet is another form of performance art, one that’s on the opposite side of the respectability scale, but one that takes an oddly similar toll on those participating in it. 

The film centers on a rising star in the New York ballet world named Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) who’s on the brink of her big break.  It’s a break she needs, though only in her late twenties she is still said to be getting relatively old and if she doesn’t make it soon she’s probably not going to.  Fortunately, the company she works for is in search of a replacement for their old star Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) and Sayers is a pretty good fit for the lead in their upcoming “revisioned” production of Swan Lake.  The company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), explains that the role of the Swan Queen requires a dancer who can embody both innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan and that Sayer only seems to work in the former rather than the later.  In spite of this, she’s cast in the role, something that does little to restore her confidence.  Sayer feels like she will fail or that the jealous people around her like the company’s newest dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), will make her fail.

Central to the film’s tone is paranoia; this is the best Roman Polanski movie of the year not to be directed by Roman Polanski (with Shutter Island as the second best non-Polanski Polanski movie).  It’s a psychological portrait of someone’s decent into madness and at times it can be hard to decipher what’s real in the movie and what’s in the protagonist’s mind.  At the center of this paranoia is Lily, a rival ballerina reminiscent of the title character from All About Eve.  Lily is like the opposite of Sayer: she’s laid back, outgoing, sexually experienced, and willing to casually eat a hamburger.  She’s almost everything that Sayer wishes to be and perhaps needs to be, she’s such a clear opposite that for a moment I thought the movie was going to make her into a Tyler Durden-esque figment of Sayer’s imagination (she isn’t, at least not exactly).  At times these paranoid delusions can get fairly intense, the film almost feels like some kind of psychological horror movie when these begin to manifest, a little like Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder

It’s abundantly clear that Aronofsky sees a kinship between Black Swan and The Wrestler.  I’ve already mentioned the way that the activities at the center of the two films are like two sides of the performance art coin, but the similarities go deeper than that.  Both films are in many ways a platform to highlight great performances from their leads, both films depict performance related vices (it was steroids in The Wrestler and here it’s bulimic behaviors), and (spoiler warning) the two films have comparable last shots.  Another similarity between the two films is that they both use a similar grainy 16mm look.  This worked excellently for The Wrestler, which was an extremely down to earth film set in the seedy world of off-brand wrestling.  However, I’m not so sure it was the right choice for this movie, which was set in a decidedly more glamorous world and which has a number of potentially fantastical elements.  That the film was shot handheld is certainly to its benefit as that medium is used to its full potential in the dance sequences, but the grain might have been a bit much.

Natalie Postman doesn’t have the big comeback story that Mickey Rourke had, but she’s very strong here, maybe even better than Rourke was in The Wrestler.  Rourke certainly needed to create an evocative character for his film, but his character isn’t quite put through the ringer to the degree that Portman’s is.  Through the film Portman has to go from being stressed and repressed to being, freaked out and desperate, to being nervously mischievous, to finally being a confident swan of sorts.  Added to her list of accomplishment is the fact that Portman does most of her own dancing in the movie, and to these untrained eyes seemed to do it extremely well.  Her foil, Milla Kunis, is fine in her role but her success is more the result of excellent casting than anything; the role fits her to a T.  Vincent Cassel is also really well cast, he’s been long typecast as exactly the kind of slimy euro-trash that he plays here and he does it well.  There are also two prominent older actresses in the film; Winona Ryder as the former star dancer of the company and Barbara Hershey as Sayer’s strange and overprotective but loving mother. 

Black Swan is a thrilling movie in many ways and there are a handful of scenes in it (especially the finale) that are among the best you’ll see all year.  However, I don’t think the film necessarily lives up to The Wrestler, a film whose thematic undercurrent ultimately proved more coherent, fleshed out, and orderly than in Black Swan.  This proves a challenge when trying to assess the film, as I don’t feel it deserved to be placed on the same pedestal as Aronofsky’s last film, and yet I don’t want the punish the guy simply for having made a particularly great film two years ago.  I suppose I’m just going to have to leave the film with a strong endorsement, and it’s going to need it.  Trying to market an intense psychological thriller to a ballet-appreciating audience is almost as audacious as trying to sell an art-house character study to a wrestling-appreciating audience.  It was even more audacious to succeed as much as he did at both.

***1/2 out of Four