Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Black Swan

Black Swan
Grade: No rating
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Director: Darren Aronofsky

The Criterion version of the classic 1953 musical The Band Wagon includes a brilliant lost dance number by Cyd Charisse called Two-Faced Woman.

The lanky Texan with the French married name performs a delirious routine in a sleek black outfit. For all the Technicolor appeal, the outtakes reveal something you don’t expect. You get to see Charisse screw up. There are moments in the creation of all that magic when her body (and her five-inch heels) let her down.

Charisse could dance as the elegant priss, the prim damsel fantasy. But ask her to play a devilish seductress and she would cut loose, a beauty fully aware of her beauty and confident in her sexuality. Watching Charisse dance isn’t just watching someone execute steps. It’s to assume she is good in bed.

This duality is the torment of Nina, played by a resurgent Natalie Portman, in Darren Aronofsky’s erotic ballet psychodrama Black Swan. She has plenty of the steps but none of the seduction. She’s the sort of young woman still asked if she is a virgin. Even at 28, she lives in a pink room, locked inside her overbearing mother’s creepy cryogenic chamber of adolescence. Her window sill has fluffy stuffed animals serving as prison guards to prevent her escape.

As her ballet troupe casts Swan Lake, the gifted, fragile dancer is seen as a natural for the lead role of the angelic White Swan. But to get the role, she also must dance the seductive Black Swan. Can she also dance the Black Swan? The head of the dance troupe (a sharp Vincent Cassel) isn’t so sure. What he needs is for her to seduce the audience like the naturally flirtatious new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis). He needs Nina to lose herself in the performance. But losing yourself sometimes means just that – losing your self.

From the category of fortunate accidents – I recently viewed Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. For all the clear references to The Red Shoes and All About Eve, Repulsion and Black Swan seem like companion pieces that share several elements – a frail female sinking into paranoid fantasy, a libidinous sister figure, and even a freaky-gory scene with fingernails and oozing blood (eek!). Both films have the same basic purpose – to re-cast a woman’s paranoid inner life and frosty sexuality as a horror story.

This brand of film always leads me to ask (suspiciously): are these insights recognizable (not necessarily realistic, but recognizable) to women? Or is this the received wisdom of men about women, derived from movie formula rather than insight? It’s possible that I lost the authority to answer this question nine months before my birth, when I lost the grand zygote lottery in the birth canal.

Perhaps I need to watch the film less literally and more emotionally. Dance and dance films are often about the transformative power of emotion. The power of the musical is the feeling that our emotions can transform the real world into the emotional realms of imagination.

Dancers become the physical embodiment of the emotion of the audience. They become the physical embodiment of emotional ideals. Their bodies are sacrificial, objects of beauty whose frailty is the impediment to the unachievable. A dancer strives for perfection at the expense of physical (and mental) breakdown.

Black Swan labors on the stress with ample attention to physical exertion and deterioration. It showers attention on broken nails, dislocated joints, mystery rashes, and bulging arm veins. A wound adorned in feathers resembles a bleeding vagina. Nina’s physical and mental ordeal in the pursuit of the ideal suggests – like Mickey Rourke in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler – a sense of martyrdom.

In the end, Black Swan doesn’t take its own creative advice. It never gets lost in the performance. For all the talk of a crazy descent-into-madness finale, it feels more controlled and studied (even cliché) than unstable. The movie screams for the dark anti-Fred-and-Cyd dance number to send all dance numbers to hell. It even tries. But it never shakes loose enough to get there.


Grade: A
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson
Director: Tony Scott

I loved Unstoppable.

I loved every improbable, electric minute of Tony Scott’s runaway train movie. I loved its ludicrous start. I loved its “Why didn’t they do that in the first place? Because then we wouldn’t have a movie” ending. Most of all, I love the fact that it’s red meat for the Great Tony Scott debate – is he a cinematic genius or a cinematic vandal?

First and foremost, Unstoppable returns Scott to his best action instincts with appealing simplicity. A runaway train loaded with toxic chemicals cruises through rural Pennsylvania toward a certain derailment among thousands of people. Denzel Washington, all relaxed and authoritative, and Chris Pine are the veteran-rookie conductor team who chase down the “missile the size of the Chrysler building.” The chase includes relentless pace, a dead-man’s curve, and a spectacular attempt to drop a Marine onto the bullet train from a helicopter.

Yet Unstoppable isn’t really a movie about a runaway train. It’s a movie about a runaway society. Like Domino, it portrays a rapidly changing America struggling with disintegrating institutions and identities. It’s set in fossilizing towns of blue-collar Pennsylvania, focusing on a rusting railway industry that once signified American industrial power. Now it seems like a leftover of the past.

Within its high-speed antics, Mark Bombeck’s script quietly ties in almost every social anxiety ailing our country in recent years – failing elites, corporate malfeasance, cronyism, unionized incompetence, downsizing, the devaluation of age and experience, cost-benefit anti-morality, creaky crisis management systems exposed by the test of reality, and that lingering suspicion that we’re going to turn on the television any day and watch thousands die. I’m sorry, friends of The Social Network. That was the decade I just lived.

With the institutional rot and breakdown, it naturally falls to a pair of workaday palookas to save the day. The problem is that they don’t trust each other. Frank Barnes the engineer is a veteran being forced into retirement. Young conductors like Will Colson are snatching their jobs through connections and favoritism. Needless to say, it’s not a happy cabin, and Pine chose the wrong day for a first day of work. Like the passengers of United Flight 93, they are ordinary people deputized by fate to stop a disaster.

Their chase takes place underneath the pestilent eye of modern communication – the railway sensors, the two-way radios, the news choppers attracted to the possibility of death. Everyone knows a little. The audience knows some. Corporate busybodies know something else. The control room (headed by a strong Rosario Dawson) knows a little more. Evaporating the space among them is Scott’s filtered, fast-edit, multi-camera ping-pong style, a frequent target of criticism. However, the style simulates a world of multiple isolated viewpoints, built from pieces, lingering in fracture and distortion.

For all the larger social forces acting upon the train chase, Scott evinces a remarkable belief in the individual. As the corporate figures falsely present their evil calculations as certainties, Scott places an enormous amount of faith in hunches and experience. When Washington and Pine finally catch the train they even use ancient railworkers’ hand signals. They’re like ancient mariners communicating in a dead code. It is part of a story that shows faith in the regenerative powers of all things human.


Grade: B
Cast: Mandy Moore (voice), Zachary Levi (voice)
Director: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard

Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair ….

Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen ….

As a friend of mine noted, we are entering an age of collective amnesia. We no longer have to remember anything anymore. There are no long debates over beers about factual details. If there’s a disagreement, the conversation ends and someone pulls up Wikipedia.

For example as I get older, I no longer remember the storylines of fairy tales, and I want to know, can I trust Wikipedia? If Wiki is wrong, is it possible to tell the wrong story, impart the wrong meaning, and mis-teach a child?

Getting it right might be especially important with Rapunzel. As fairy-tale sexual metaphors go, the story of a certain hairy girl rides to the top of a very phallic tower. A witch traps a young woman with extremely long, rich hair in said phallic tower. A young prince climbs the tower using Rapunzel’s long hair, planning to marry the young woman. When the witch discovers the ruse, in some versions due to a growing belly, she confronts and blinds the prince. If children don’t get the story straight, then how will we prepare young boys for overbearing mother-in-laws? They need all the time they can get.

Disney's animated Tangled is a modern update that follows the Grimm story in many ways and departs in many others. Rapunzel goes from the daughter of paupers to a lost princess with magic hair that can replenish youth. Her selfish stage mother refuses to share her secret with the outside world. The prince is transformed into a sly rogue thief, who stumbles on the startled tower dweller, meeting the flat side of her frying pan. Rapunzel forces the thief into a date outside the tower, traveling to watch distant flying lanterns that are released each year on the lost princess’ birthday. Good morning Starshine ….

By and large, Rapunzel’s hairy adventure is not a letdown. The visually striking Tangled is vivid in both its colors and its details. The 3-D is more than a gimmick and adds depth of field.

So yes, give me a head with hair.

Morning Glory

Morning Glory
Grade: C
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum
Director: Roger Michell

What’s wrong with being happy?

Contrary to the evidence presented in adult-focused movies, you might never know there are happy people out there. It’s true. I’ve ignored them at parties. But I never see them onscreen.

In Morning Glory, Rachel McAdams plays a lemons-to-lemonade go-getter named Becky Fuller, with all the spritely dewiness that such a wide-eyed name conjures. Addicted to work and hapless in love, she lands her dream job as a producer on a last place network morning show. Her overenthusiastic job interview leads her boss (Jeff Goldblum) to ask, “Are you going to sing?” She seems less like a news producer and more like an auditioner for Glee.

McAdams’ unicorn attitude meets her non-match in Mike Pomeroy, IBS’ former nightly news anchor and resident black cloud. Having grumbled his way out of the network’s anchor job, he acquiesces to Fuller’s request to join the morning show. Cooking demonstrations and light banter with Diane Keaton really aren’t his thing, at least not on camera. A spiritual battle of wills ensues between McAdams’ girly bangs and Ford’s gravel-bed voice for the integrity of the show.

The infinitely up-with-life McAdams will draw comparisons to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl). However Hunter’s energetic producer was trying to preserve the integrity of the newsroom. She would have regarded McAdams’ sweetie-pie infotainment whippersnapper as the face of evil. McAdams doesn’t win her battles because she’s right. She wins because she’s so darn likable. Lowering your standards isn’t just a survival strategy; it’s good for you! Good Night, and Good Luck, this is not.

Morning Glory seems like it should be better, like the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The script, by The Devil Wears Prada scribe Aline Brosh McKenna, feels smart – or perhaps just educated – but predictable. When Ford cooks up a frittata in front of McAdams at his apartment, everyone knows it’s destined to show up at an important moment later in the film. (Everyone except the producer, strangely, who’s on the lookout for any soft news contribution that he might make to the program.) The occasional comedy breakthroughs point out how much fun you’re not having the rest of the time.

McAdams is a perky natural at the one speed that the script and director Roger Michell has to offer her, but sometimes she leaves footprints of “acting.” Ford is a real treat, dispensing one-line wisdom from his cold, dead tongue. That said, I never quite settled into their relationship, as it has less to do with reality than script manipulation.

Like its irrepressible lead, Morning Glory is trying too hard to please. I like what it is trying to do more than what it has done.