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There’s coming to take me away, ha ha: Portman in Black Swan.

Dance My Soul Away

By John Brodeur

Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The fifth feature from director Darren Aronofsky is a dazzler, a technically brilliant piece of work that takes the audience on a rollercoaster emotional ride—only to drop them back at the gate, nothing gained. In Aronofsky, modern cinema has a filmmaker who is absolutely uninterested in the concept of suspense; you know the endings before his movies begin. So why is it that Black Swan generates such a feeling of disappointment despite fundamentally sticking to the tried-and-true formula? Perhaps it’s because, for once, we want something more.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a young dancer in a New York City ballet company under the artistic direction of Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). She lives with her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who is bent on living out her failed fantasies through her daughter. When Thomas announces that he will be staging Swan Lake as the first performance of the new season, and that he will be replacing his star dancer, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), he casts Nina as the Swan Queen. But while she is graceful and technically proficient, a perfect fit for the innocence of the White Swan, she lacks the abandon to slip comfortably into the sensual Black Swan role. However, a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), is exactly the kind of dancer for the latter, and she and Nina strike up a strange friendship that leads to personal discovery, fierce competition, and ultimately Nina’s psychological unraveling.

For a movie about ballet and high-class society, Black Swan is pretty trashy. The base thrills are many: the icky, older Thomas coming onto the virginal Nina; the girls taking ecstasy in a pulsating nightclub; the smug pleasure one takes in seeing Nina physically assault her overbearing mother. While it’s all in the name of personal transformation, at every step we’re reminded that ambition isn’t necessarily a good thing. She realizes her inherent potential, but to what end?

All that aside it’s a terrifically shot and acted film. The graininess of the many nighttime shots create a voyeuristic quality, lending secondhand to the overall feeling of paranoia. Often Nina is followed by a camera stationed about a foot from the base of her neck, giving those scenes an anxious, manic energy. Aronofsky’s penchant for the preparation sequences (i.e., the rapid-cut shots of junkies cooking heroin in Requiem for a Dream) manifests itself in too-close shots of gaunt dancers cracking their toes or preparing their shoes (it’s a lot like woodworking). And the few special effects are jarring, even when purely fantastical.

Hershey and Cassel are frightening but layered; Kunis and Ryder are good in undemanding roles. But Portman is superb. It’s a performance that truly deserves all the attention it’s getting. For once she shows an emotional range that is not only palpable but realistic. Portman having lost a bunch of weight for the role, her normally rounded features are thin and drawn, allowing Nina’s turn to the dark side to really show in her face.

But ultimately, while Black Swan is what some might call a tour de force, it’s not all that likeable. Aronofsky’s film succeeds as a thriller but fails as a story. Where The Wrestler’s Randy the Ram experienced some amount of redemption before ultimately thrusting himself into oblivion, Nina Sayers finds no such peace in her quest. In this world, there’s no comeuppance for the antagonists, no redemption for Nina’s lost soul. Thus Black Swan is a film that makes us care too much but ultimately feel very little. And that is frustrating as hell.

 

All the World’s a Runway

The Tourist

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The Tourist stars Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, and costumer Colleen Atwood. Atwood isn’t in the film, of course, but her vintage-inspired clothing upstages the faux-thriller plot, the romance-novel settings, and, almost, the one-dimensional characters—but since the mysterious, ravishing Elise is played by Jolie, and her depressed dupe, Frank, is played by Depp, the stars prove to be as radiant as their wardrobes. This is important, because The Tourist unfolds like a Vanity Fair fashion spread, though it isn’t quite as intriguing as some of the more stylish fashion editorials, the ones that mimic a movie’s look with props and accessories, and that throw in an evocatively posed male celebrity to make the ready-to-wear more mouthwatering. (This explains Depp’s role better than the screenplay does.)

After receiving handwritten instructions from a past lover in a Paris cafe, Elise boards a train, perusing each male passenger until her emerald eyes alight on Frank, sitting alone with a spy novel. A math teacher from Wisconsin, Frank is duly poleaxed by Elise’s attentions, and readily accepts her invitation to share her opulent hotel room in Venice. If Frank is aware that she’s using him for a diversion, he doesn’t show it, nor does he suspect that he’s being used as a strategic, not romantic, diversion. Elise is being followed, and not just by Scotland Yard. Though Paul Bettany fusses and fumes photogenically as the British investigator on her tail, there is someone else even more elusive than Elise lurking in the background—and he’s wanted for tax evasion!

In contrast to Elise’s luxuriously choreographed sashays (Atwood’s inspiration ranges from Grace Kelly to Audrey Hepburn to Sophia Loren), the script is so shopworn and threadbare that a flock of moths should take flight at her every promenade. The rest of the cast is remarkably attractive, too: Timothy Dalton is the Scotland Yard honcho who realizes there is a Russian mobster involved. Apparently, however, the mobster’s thugs are around merely to add some thuggish local color, since they are too incompetent to land even a single shot at Frank when he’s stumbling across a serrated tile roof in his jammies, or to overtake Elise when she motorboats to the rescue at speeds a goldfish could outrace. But damn if she doesn’t look fetching standing at the prow in a Fair Isle sweater in the moonlit canal.

Exactly why Elise and Frank both speak and move like narcoleptics locked in a department store instead of like adversaries in a Hitchcock-lite romantic thriller is never explained, but far more bewildering than the mistaken identities that provide the not-so-surprising ending is how Academy Award-winning talents like director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others) and screenwriters Julian Fellowes and Christopher McQuarrie were hoodwinked into taking a backseat to Atwood’s star glazing.

—Ann Morrow

 

Legal beat down: Franco in Howl.

Too Literal

Howl

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

To point out that Howl raises the question, “Why aren’t there more movies like this?”—that is, movies focused so specifically on the production and impact of a single work of art—is a backhanded compliment. Because the movie answers the question, as well.

Which isn’t to say that the movie is a failure or that it isn’t worth watching. Neither thing is true. The intent is admirable; the performances good (one, excellent, but we’ll come back to that); the subject matter fascinating and enormously relevant. Nevertheless, I have a quibble. First, though, the good stuff.

James Franco, starring as poet Allen Ginsberg, is excellent. The prettification of historical figures is Hollywood routine, but the handsome Franco really earned the role. Clearly, he and the filmmakers know their subject. (In fact, many of the images in the film are recognizably re-creations of famous photos of Beat scenes and writers.) Franco is Ginsberg to a T. So, scenes of the young poet reading “Howl,” prepublication, for the first time at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955, are a delightful type of time travel. And later interviews with Ginsberg about the evolution of the poem are warm, personal and illuminating. They provide context and background that make clear how wrongheaded were the legal accusations of obscenity made against the book’s publisher.

The trial scenes, depicting the obscenity prosecution of that publisher, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, are serviceable—if not electric. Drawn largely from transcripts of the trial, these bits feel a bit Ken Burns-y, albeit with more expensive talent than usually turns up in PBS recreations: Jon Hamm and David Strathairn as defense and prosecution attorneys, respectively, and Bob Balaban, as judge, aren’t given a whole lot to do.

Worse, though—really the movie’s one true fault—is the decision to pair Franco’s reading of Howl with animation. Rather than allowing viewers to respond to Franco’s recitation of the poem, as listeners would have to Ginsberg’s, technically deft but overly literal cartoon representations are provided. It’s dreadful—remedial, even.

Forcing a single visual interpretation of the poem on the audience seems counter to the very point of the trial, which was that obscenity resides not solely in a work of art but in the mind of whoever interacts with the art. Meaning is interpretive. By doing that work for the viewer, the filmmakers limit the subject they mean to celebrate.

—John Rodat

 

Ripping Yawns

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Directed by Michael Apted

My oldest son gets bent out of shape if filmmakers take liberties with the original written word, so he had a lot of negative commentary about Part 1 of the last Harry Potter installment. This is why fading memory can be such a great thing—you’re less inclined to notice such discrepancies between page and celluloid in, say, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when it’s been about 12 years since you read it. And it helps that your 4-year-old companion has never even picked up the book. We were ready for adventure, to be transported out of a wet and dreary Albany day into the storybook enchantment that C.S. Lewis spins.

Well, Dawn Treader is certainly pretty to look at. It’s all dreamy surfaces and romantic hues, especially Aslan’s table, set for a buffet and lit by the indigo shadows of midnight and a bit of incandescence courtesy of a falling star. There’s a great hulking sea monster and shimmering treasures of gold, not to mention a glorious teary-eyed dragon, all of which make for some true visual splendor. But the story, involving the two youngest Pevensie children’s last adventure in Narnia, is largely devoid of bite and action. Lucy (Georgie Henly) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) have been left in war-torn London until such time when it’s safe to reunite with the rest of their family, now in America. Ed yearns to fight in battle, and Lucy longs for a boy to fancy her, but neither gets what they want. Making things worse are their living arrangements with a faceless aunt and uncle and their quite irritating cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter), who mocks the Pevensie infatuation with fairy tales, magic and anything Narnian. Eustace is indeed a charmless little bugger, but his incessant journal entries make for the movie’s only bite and, indeed, edgy humor.

A leaking portrait on the wall transports Lucy, Edmund and Eustace to an ocean, where they are rescued by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and the crew of the Dawn Treader. While Reepicheep (the voice of Simon Pegg) tries to muster Eustace into something approaching usefulness, the rest seek the seven magic swords of an equal number of missing Lords who have disappeared in a quest to rid the land of a terrible curse. While the idea of tracking down those swords and their errant owners is worthy of a good children’s adventure, director Michael Apted doesn’t get much from the pedestrian script written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni. Near the end, I asked my little boy if he thought there would be “one more battle,” and he said, very gravely, “but there hasn’t been one yet,” which brought me up short with the realization that, no, there hadn’t been anything approaching the grand battles of the first two installments.

Lewis’s novels plumb the emotional depths of a child’s vivid imagination, which makes Eustace’s early resistance to such wonderment both annoying and essential to a compelling ending. Poulter is truly frightful, but at the same time, I loved him in much the same way I loved Freddie Bartholomew, who played a similar spoiled brat in Captains Courageous. Edmund gets to aim his sword at the sea creature and Lucy gets to offer words of wisdom to a lost waif, but Eustace gets the true and transforming adventure; I was cheering him on for remembering what needed to be done. Lucy and Edmund’s final farewell to Aslan (voiced again by Liam Neeson) and Caspian does convey the melancholy of growing up and leaving childhood things behind, while underscoring Lewis’ theological themes. Too bad this emotional ending had such little narrative meat before it.

—Laura Leon


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