erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2010 posts

Monday January 31, 2011

Movie Review: “The Town” (2010)

WAHNING: SPOILAHS

You can tell Dougie McRay (Ben Affleck), the handsome bank robber, will wind up with Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the pretty manager of the first bank we see him robbing, because, while the other robbers in scary skull masks yell at her to open the safe, and quickly, causing her to keep flubbing the combination, Dougie, ever sensitive to the situation, gently puts his hands on her hands and tells her to “breathe.” We should all have such bank robbers.

Where did it come from—this sensitivity? Dougie’s background belies it. When he was six, his mother ran away from home and he never saw her again. His father, Stephen (Chris Cooper), is currently serving five life sentences in federal prison for killing a guard during a robbery. His sometime-girl, Krista (Blake Lively), has a four-year-old girl of her own (his?), as well as a drug habit. Oh, and Dougie was a good enough hockey player (“hawkey playa”) to make the NHL but had such a temper he fought with his own teammates and was cut loose. Claire sees a photo of him, the local star, at a youth hockey arena where she volunteers, and he just shakes his head. “I look at that picture and see a 20-year-old kid who thinks he’s got it all figured out,” he says, “right before he’s about to throw it all away.”

Not a bad line. Not a bad director, either. Affleck has written and directed two movies now worth seeing, and while “The Town” isn’t as good as “Gone Baby Gone,” it’s not bad. Word of advice, though, for the writer-director: Get a better leading actor next time.

Affleck, as actor, can be awful (“Pearl Harbor,” “Surviving Christmas”), but he can also be very good. Check out “Dazed and Confused,” “Good Will Hunting,” and, in particular, “Hollywoodland,” in which he plays George Reeves, the 1950s Superman, who winds up caught and trapped by his role. He’s good playing petty men or regretful men. But as leading man?

Admittedly it’s a tough role. Doug McRay is supposed to have the quiet calm of a leader, and we see the quiet calm but we don’t really see the leader. He’s supposed to be capable of sudden violence—beating hoods with bats; killing gangsters—but we don’t feel violence within him. His threats, when he makes them, sound hollow. Compare him, for example, with Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), the gangland boss inside the florist’s shop, who keeps Doug in the game and in the town. He may be old, his arms may be shriveled, he may be in the act of trimming roses, but you still feel that this is a man capable of sudden and remorseless violence. He’s scary. Dougie isn't. He has arms like oaks, and tats all over his body, but there’s no threat in him, no killer inside him. The opposite. He’s the guy who can put his hands on the hands of a flustered girl and tell her to “breathe.”

His main partner, on the other hand, Jimmy (Jeremy Renner), is a dude you cross the street to avoid. Anyone else think of Cagney here? The short, volatile, Irish gangster? His ending, machine gun blazing as he’s rattled with bullets, has a particular “Top of the world, ma!” quality to it.

The story: Charlestown is the bank-robbingest neighborhood in the world, and these guys, our four guys, are good at it. So good they get a slightly immoral FBI agent, Frawley (Jon Hamm, also without the killer instinct necessary for the role), on their tail.

The trailer tells you most of the first half of the movie. Robbers use Claire as hostage; Dougie subsequently romances Claire, who doesn’t know what he does, or that he used her as a hostage. Jimmy, meanwhile, wants her scared. “Scared,” in Jimmy’s worldview, may equal “dead.”

At this point we have three questions:

  1. Will these guys get caught?
  2. Will Claire forgive Doug when she finds out?
  3. Will Doug choose Jimmy or Claire?

The second half doesn’t do poorly with these questions. Jimmy finds out about Claire, and he and Doug brawl about it, but it doesn’t get any worse. Claire finds out about Doug, through Frawley, and has no forgiveness. Her reaction seems real. She refuses to listen to his explanations and throws him out.

Finally, yes, they get caught, stealing money from Fenway Park after a four-game Red Sox-Yankees series. (The fun Affleck must have had writing that.) Well, three of them get caught—“caught” as in “dead”—but Doug, the smart one, escapes. Then he wraps things up neatly. He kills Fergie and his bodyguard (too easily, to be honest), then calls Claire one last time. He can see her from his uncle’s apartment across the street, surrounded by FBI agents, urging him to come over. She’s ready to betray him. That’s sad. But at the last instant she gives a verbal cue, one the agents won’t suspect, to warn him away. She cares. That’s good. He smiles. Me, I smiled at FBI agents so stupid they’d stand around in full view in a curtainless apartment while laying a trap. Your tax dollars at work.

All the compliments I have for “The Town” are in the negative. It’s not bad, not poor, the second half is not cheesy. Has anyone compared “The Town” to “Good Will Hunting”? Two friends: one a tall, tracksuit-wearing goombah (Affleck in both), the other a volatile shrimpkin (Damon, Renner). Plus a girl. Here, Affleck takes Will’s genius I.Q., halves it, and gives it to his character, along with the lead and the girl. Both movies are basically love letters to working-class Boston about getting the hell out of working-class Boston. Care is given to character, and story, but the ultimate goal for the lead is as inchoate and adolescent as an early Springsteen song. Just get out. Somewhere, maybe, there’s a girl waiting.

Posted at 04:40 AM on Jan 31, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Monday January 17, 2011

Review: “True Grit” (2010)

WARNING: FILL YOUR HAND WITH SPOILERS, YOU SON OF A BITCH!

There’s an irony to how well “True Grit” is doing at the box office—$126 million after four weeks, by far the Coens highest-grosser—because, and with deep apologies to cinematographer Roger Deakins, this is a movie that needs to be seen on DVD, and with the subtitles most definitely on. It’s not just that some of Jeff Bridges’ better lines are swallowed in a drunken rumble; there’s such richness to the language here that you don't want to miss anything. It’s so specific to time and place. Examples:

  • You cannot have your way in every particular.
  • I do not entertain hypotheticals; the world, as it is, is vexing enough.
  • You have got very little sugar with your pronouncements.

People speak without contractions. They are precise. Their language is the language of those raised on the poetry of the King James Bible and little else:

  • I felt like Ezequiel walking in the valley of dry bones.
  • The author of all things walks with me and I have a fine horse.
  • I will meet him later walking in streets of glory.

Most of this comes from the source material, Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, but the Coens knew enough not to mess with it, as Hollywood levelers and temperature-takers generally do. You could say this is true of all of the Coens' movies. Each has its own language specific to time and place. Darn tootin’.

In the Coens’ previous western, “No Country for Old Men,” they upended the genre’s tropes—the hero is killed off screen, the sheriff, plagued by nightmares, retires, while the villain keeps on keeping on—and, at first glance, “True Grit” feels like a corrective. It feels like a more traditional western. It is, but those boys are still upending the genre’s tropes.

For one, the story isn’t set in the “west.” It’s set in Arkansas, and the Choctaw Nation, which eventually became Oklahoma.

More, most westerns are about lawless places getting law. The line is clear: there’s chaos and then, generally after the hero arrives, there’s order. “True Grit” has a mix more familiar to modern sensibilities. Yes, people are killed, and outlaws light out for the territory; but the law still reigns.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl intent on avenging her father’s death, uses her lawyer as both cudgel and bargaining tool with everyone she meets. Won’t give her what she wants? She’ll sic her lawyer on you. Won’t tell her what she wants? Her lawyer can help you if you talk.

The first time she sees Rooster J. Cogburn (Bridges), drunkard and U.S. Marshall, he’s in a courtroom, the prosecution’s witness, and a defense lawyer, an almost strutting popinjay, who in anyone else’s movie would be flicked aside by the hero without much trouble, gets the better of him. Cogburn gets off some good lines, some unintentional, and you can see him playing to the crowd; but in the end the defense lawyer confuses him, makes him backtrack and ruins his case. Cogburn is the man with true grit, who has, Mattie says later, “great poise”; but this is a West where words matter as much as guns. Maybe more.

Let’s count the instances.

It’s Mattie’s words, along with the threat of her lawyer, which finagle $320 out of Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) in a hilarious epic of bargaining; and it’s Mattie’s words, along with $100, which finally prompt Cogburn into pursuing Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer; and it’s Mattie’s words, along with her own true grit, and the true grit of her horse, Little Blackie, fording the cold waters of the Mississippi into Choctaw territory, that allow her to accompany both Cogburn and a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has been, in Mattie’s words, “ineffectually pursuing Chaney” for years for the murder (an assassination we would say now) of a Texas state senator.

Each of the main characters has his own vocabulary. Mattie’s words are always straightforward and come with a purpose: these words to get this done. Cogburn’s words are as rambling and shambling as he is. While they ride he goes on about his many wives, and in the midst of pursuit he makes promises to a dying man he doesn’t keep. It’s his very carelessness with words that allows the defense lawyer to run him in circles. LaBoeuf, meanwhile, makes grand, airy pronouncements like he’s his own PR rep. He’s forever in the midst of creating his own legend. “Never doubt a Texas Ranger,” he says at the end, when he finally makes good. “Ever stalwart.” He’s Hollywood a half century before Hollywood.

A word almost causes Cogburn and LaBoeuf to come to blows. “Sounds to me like you are being hoo-rahed by a little girl,” LaBoeuf says, and Cogburn can’t abide it. They accuse each other of being “bushwackers” and “brushpoppers,” and then they get on each other about the Civil War, only 11 years gone at this point, and the role of Capt. Quantrill, whom Cogburn served under, and who staged guerilla raids into neighboring territories—including an infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in which 190 men and boys were executed. It’s a passing reference that suggests the vast history beneath the small story we’re watching. The Coens don’t bother tidying it up. You either know or you don’t, and if you don’t you can look it up. (I looked it up.)

Do I need to say Bridges is monumental here? Cogburn’s vanity is on display in the courtroom and Bridges’ lack of vanity is on display everywhere else. He hangs out in his filthy longjohns, hair askew, bloated stomach threatening to burst past his buttons. His one visible eye looks confused at Mattie, annoyed at LeBoeuf, determined and deadly in a gunfight, and mean when he’s on a drunk. His comic timing is impeccable: “Well,” he says, dead bodies lying all around, “that didn’t pan out.”

No vanity for old men.

Steinfeld is a find, wonderfully forthright and proper and heroic; Damon suggests the hollow man LaBoeuf is, while Brolin is all low brow and grunts. He looks villainous and frightening but takes a while to get there.

When, after all that tracking and pursuit, Chaney is suddenly there in the creek in which Mattie has gone to get water, his reaction isn’t frightening at all; it’s dimwittedly friendly. “I know you,” he says, pleased. He can’t imagine why Mattie would be this far out in Choctaw territory. He sees it as a wonderful coincidence.

In the gang with which he hooked up, led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), again, he’s not frightening. He’s the younger, stupider brother, forever ignored, disrespected and left behind. “Take me with you,” he whines, to no avail. One member of the gang is a short pug of a man who can only make animal sounds, but even he gets the respect denied Chaney. Mattie needles him for this and almost succumbs to the same fate as her father. Because this is when Chaney becomes frightening and villainous. He’s a man who takes out the disrespect he feels from more powerful people, such as Lucky Ned, on less powerful people, such as Mattie.

Each character surprises. Each has his own code. Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, robbed banks in his youth, then dismisses it with a shrug and an excuse about never robbing a citizen. Lucky Ned, wearing the nastiest set of teeth in movies, and trading spittle-filled invective with Cogburn while pushing a boot into Mattie’s face, later acts the man of honor with her. Bargains are made—you do this and I’ll do this—but both Cogburn and Chaney go back on their word. Only Ned Pepper keeps his.

This is a rough and absurd world, an Old Testament world, where a laugh is followed by the horror of fingers being chopped off; where an anticipated showdown with a killer becomes the absurdist image of a bear toddling through the woods on a horse. (Should the Coens adapt John Irving? Or is he too New Testament for them?)

“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another,” the adult Mattie narrates at the beginning of the film. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Indeed. Mattie gets her revenge—she’s the one who shoots and kills Chaney—but in that exact moment, when she (and we) should be enjoying her revenge, she begins to pay. The kick of the gun propels her into a deep pit she’s been twice warned about, and once she stops falling she looks up as if from the bottom of grave. (One can’t help but think of her sleeping accommodations at the undertaker’s place in Fort Smith.) Then she’s snake-bit, and Cogburn takes her to the nearest doctor, riding Little Blackie through the day and into the night, and into death. That’s the first way she pays. The second way is with her arm. She wanted to travel with these men and so becomes like them. LaBoeuf, the man full of hollow talk, loses part of his tongue; Cogburn, who likes to pull a cork, has a missing eye. She and her arm. No one gets through this life whole.

You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another.

Posted at 10:51 AM on Jan 17, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Wednesday January 05, 2011

Movie Review: “The King's Speech” (2010)

WARNING: SP-SP-SPOILERS

When I first saw a trailer for “The King Speech” (American trailer, not international), I was almost moved to tears. I thought, “Colin Firth seems amazing. Geoffrey Rush looks like he’s having a ball.” Then I thought, “Except it feels like I’ve seen the entire movie now but for the last 10 minutes. And I can guess those.” (Psst: The speech goes well.)

And?

And Colin Firth is amazing, Geoffrey Rush seems like he’s having a ball, and the entirety of the movie is in the trailer except for the last 10 minutes. And you can guess those.

Once upon a time, trailers merely hinted at what a movie might be. It gave away a sense of the film, its genre, certainly, as well as first-act particulars. By the 1990s, it felt like the trailers were giving away second-act particulars as well. Now we get the whole bloody thing: first, second and third act, all tied up in a neat, two-minute package. For a sequel-mad culture, which only wants to see what it’s already seen, this makes sense. In this way, trailers become a kind of first movie while the actual movie becomes a kind of sequel. Audiences are never forced to deal with the unfamiliar; they go away comforted. As for those of us who still want to be surprised by story? We’re fucked.

(Aside: Among the differences between the international and American trailers, the one I find most amusing is the moment where Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter), explains to unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) why her husband can’t change jobs. International version: “And what if my husband were the Duke of York?” American version: “And what if my husband were [cut] the King?” Yep. We smart.)

The movie opens in 1925 as the Duke of York (Firth), son of King George V (Michael Gambon), and second-in-line to the throne after the Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce), attempts to give a speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. It goes poorly. Poor man can barely get a word out. Some in the audience look annoyed, some amused (these are the bad people), while his wife looks on with a pity (she’s good). Yet isn’t pity as awful a reaction as the others? Who wants pity?

Traditional speech therapists do nothing for him, and, as a last resort, under a pseudonym, his wife seeks out Logue. His office is in a dingy basement, he’s not much for formalities (he has no secretary), and he greets the Duchess of York with a handshake after flushing the toilet.

Informality is key to his therapy. He insists on calling the Duke “Bertie” (as the royal family does) and being addressed as “Lionel.” These early scenes—the clash between an uptight, stammering royal and an iconoclastic, unlettered therapist—are the best in the film. We get one good line after another from screenwriter David Seidler: My favorite exchange:

Bertie starts to light a cigarette from a silver case.

Lionel: Please don’t do that.
Bertie: I’m sorry?
Lionel: I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you.
Bertie: My physicians say it relaxes the throat.
Lionel: They’re idiots.
Bertie: They’ve all been knighted.
Lionel: Makes it official then.

What Bertie needs, of course, is not just speech therapy but therapy. As a child he was mistreated by a nanny, who favored his older brother. He was made to wear braces on his legs and forced to correct a natural left-handedness. Supposedly this last is a common cause (was a common cause?) for stutterers.

Firth does an amazing job making us care about this man born to privilege. We get a sense of how trapped he is by circumstances. He is, in fact, doubly trapped: by his role, which he can never escape, and by his speech impediment, which won’t let him carry out that role.

He’s not wholly a victim, thank God. He lashes out, often, but even in that lashing out we maintain sympathy. We see the correlation. What we don’t see, and what would’ve been interesting to see, is more of his life outside his attempt to correct the stammer. Yes, his father was impatient and demanding; yes, his older brother was dashing, slightly mad (for Wallis Simpson) and cruel to Bertie when he needed to be. Yes, his wife was supportive, and, yes, his children, Elizabeth and Margaret, were adorable, as was he when he stammered through a children’s story for them. But I still don’t have a sense of what it feels like to be a royal. The dailiness of it. You wake up and ... what? Who is there for you? What is the schedule like? How much of your time is your own? Any of it? All of it? Do you get to go to the bathroom by yourself?

Instead we get a relationship movie, along with the starts and stops typical of relationship movies. At one point, Lionel, the commoner, oversteps his bounds and they break up; at another, Bertie, the royal, discovers Lionel isn’t properly credentialed and they nearly break up. Etc.

Ultimately it’s Lionel’s job to not only correct Bertie’s stammer but his squashed ego: his belief that he doesn’t deserve his position. In this he is the same as any pitching coach from Little League to the Majors. He has to make his charge believe he belongs where he is.

This very personal story is set against a backdrop of love and war. The “love” (and the movie would definitely put the quote marks there) is Edward’s for Wallis Simpson’s, which leads to his abdication, and the coronation, in 1936, of a reluctant Bertie as King of England. The war, meanwhile, is Hitler’s, and then all of ours. In September 1939 it’s up to Bertie, suddenly, to rally the country. But there’s the stammer. “The nation believes that when I speak I speak for them,” he says. “But I can’t speak.” That’s the 10 minutes the trailer didn’t reveal: how the titular speech goes.

And?

And he blows it. His stammer reflects on a nation nervous about war, which plunges the Brits into depression and makes them easy pickings for the Nazis, who roll over the country and the world, ending the idea of democracy and freedom forever. Heil Hitler.

Kidding.

“The King’s Speech” is a smart movie that’s fun to watch. I expect Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Firth, Rush and Seidler. I was moved by the montage of the British people listening to the speech, all ears turned, all with a shared purpose. Other than that, there’s not much to say. It’s all in the trailer.

Posted at 06:33 AM on Jan 05, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Thursday December 30, 2010

Review: “Rabbit Hole” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS

How do you deal with an unbearable tragedy, the death of a son, a four-year-old son, who chased his dog into the street and got hit by a car? If you’re his parents, how do you go on?

In “Rabbit Hole,” Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) come up with opposite answers. She excludes, he includes. She removes, he embraces. In Biblical terms, she commits sins of omission, he commits sins of commission. But “sin” is too strong a word for what they’re doing. They’re just trying to find comfort. They’re both just trying to keep living.

As the movie opens she’s putting fresh soil into her garden. It’s the soil to which we all return, and to which her four-year-old son, Davey, returned, too early, eight months previous, but here, for a moment, it feels like a positive. It’s soil to grow, not bury. Then her neighbor shows up and invites Becca and Howie to dinner that evening. Becca politely declines. Plans, she says. But they have no plans. She just can’t be with people. She’s still in the act of burying.

She’s slowly divesting herself of everything that reminds her of the pain of her son. She starts with the dog that the boy chased into the street (now cooped up at her mother’s apartment), then the drawings on the refrigerator (put into boxes in the basement), then the clothes in the bedroom (given to Goodwill). Eventually she’ll suggest selling the house itself.

Her husband’s the opposite. He watches the same video of his son, over and over again, on his iPhone. He takes comfort in what’s still here. Until one day the video isn’t. After she uses his phone. Oops.

At group therapy, she can’t abide the way other couples assume an order to the universe. How the death of their child was part of God’s plan. How God needed another angel in Heaven. “Then why didn’t He just make one!” Becca finally erupts. “He’s God!” Everyone stares, aghast. So much for group.

She keeps doing this. She holds in, then erupts. A child in a grocery cart pesters his mother for fruit rollups and Becca confronts the mother, tells her to give in, says it won’t hurt him. The mother reacts as mothers do. She says mind your own business. She says, “Do you have any children? I didn’t think so.” Now it’s Becca’s turn to be aghast and she slaps the woman in the face. Basically she commits a criminal act. When she runs off, horrified by what she’s done, by what she’s become, her sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), tries to explain to the mother about how Becca lost a child, etc., but the mother isn’t having it. “I don’t care!” she says.

Neither do we, by this point. That’s the problem. The film juxtaposes two ways of dealing with grief but one of them—Becca’s—is solipsistic and unsympathetic. Howie tries to take comfort in intimacy, in his wife, but she refuses to let herself feel good and makes accusations. “You want to rope me into having sex?” she says, horrified. Later when he brings up having another child, this becomes the accusation. “Were you trying to get me pregnant?” she says, horrified. Howie, on the other hand, never loses our sympathy. For a time, left out in the cold with Becca, he contemplates an affair with another, warmer woman (Sandra Oh), but he doesn’t go through with it. “I love my wife,” he finally says. He’s just waiting for her to return.

Instead of getting close to her husband, though, Becca begins an odd relationship with the high school boy, Jason (Miles Teller), who drove the car that killed her son. She follows his school bus. She follows him to the library. They begin to talk on park benches. Is this a sex thing, one wonders, Kidman’s “Birth” revisited, or a maternal thing? Teller’s got a great face, sad and dumpy, with a puffiness around his eyes as if he’d just woken up or never been to sleep. He’s obviously devastated by what’s happened. He’s also been working on a comic book, “Rabbit Hole,” about parallel universes, about all of the other lives we might be living instead of this one. She reads the book he read for research. She reads his comic book. And in the end it’s this notion—that somewhere, in the many somewheres out there, her son is still living—that finally gives her comfort. She’s saved, not by God and religion, but by scientific theory.

“Rabbit Hole” was directed by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) from a screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his own Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, and there are moments that feel a bit theatrical. The best speech in the movie, in fact, delivered by Becca’s mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), feels theatrical to me. I get a glimmer of the artificiality of the stage from it. But I wouldn’t change a word.

Throughout the movie, the main source of tension between Nat and Becca is that Nat, in an attempt to console her daughter, keeps bringing up the fact that she, too, lost a son. Becca’s not having it. Her brother died at 30, not 4, and his death was self-inflicted (a drug overdose), he didn’t get hit by a car. But there’s still pain there. Late in the movie, heading into the basement with her mother, Becca comes across Davey’s things, his refrigerator drawings that she’d hidden earlier in the film, and it’s like a punch in the gut. “Does it go away?” she suddenly asks. “What?” Nat asks. “The feeling,” Becca says. “No,” Nat says. There’s a pause. “It changes, though.” When asked how she says this:

The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under. And carry around—like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh right. That.” Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it’s kinda... Not that you like it exactly. But it’s what you have instead of your son.

For all the issues I have with the movie, I know I’ll carry these words around with me—and not like a brick—the rest of my life.

Posted at 08:26 AM on Dec 30, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Tuesday December 21, 2010

Review: “Black Swan” (2010)

WARNING: WHITE SPOILERS, BLACK SPOILERS

At the least, particularly for those of us unfamiliar with ballet, we have a new metaphor with which to talk about ourselves. After the movie, the group of us, six in all, grabbed a bite and talked about whether we thought we were more white swan or black swan. Vinny claimed black swan for himself but no one agreed. (The man can demonstrate how to fold a fitted sheet, for God’s sake.) Theresa is obviously black swan, while Laura, who danced ballet until she was in her late teens, is decidedly mixed. Patricia, my Patricia, loves hanging with the black swans—like Ward—to bring out the black swan in herself. Because she’s mostly white swan.

Me? I am so white swan it hurts. I began this blog, in fact, with the same hope that ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has for his new star, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), as she prepares for “Swan Lake”: to give up some part of the careful, controlled half (the white swan part) and let go into wildness and creativity (the black swan part). She had better luck than me but at a steeper price. The white swan is a bitch of a muse.

Has any recent movie gotten us into the head of its main character as well as this one? I kept having to take deep breaths after it was over. I’d been holding my breath for the last half hour along with Nina.

It helps to think of the white-swan part of Nina’s personality as less about innocence than control. Sure, Nina is sexually innocent, but one suspects it’s a direct result of her control and discipline. I mean, she doesn’t think about touching herself until Leroy suggests it? Until it might help get the part she covets? I’ll masturbate, but only to be good in the role. One way to make students do their homework.

No, Nina is hardly innocent. She’s covetous. Early in the film, after Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) trashes her own dressing room when she learns she’s been summarily dismissed as prima ballerina of their New York ballet company, Nina sneaks in and sits at the vanity mirror and looks at herself and tries out Beth’s lipstick; then she pockets Beth’s lipstick. It seems a minor thing. Until later in the film when Beth is in the hospital and Nina brings out all the things, including diamond earrings, that Nina has stolen from her over the years. She keeps dipping into her pockets and coming out with more stuff. She’s been coveting the role of prima ballerina for years, and now it’s hers, but she can only see little versions of herself ready to take what’s hers. She assumes the world is like her—we all do—and that’s why she’s paranoid. She knows how awful the desire to take.

The rival she’s most fearful of is Lily (Mila Kunis), late of a San Francisco company, whom she first sees riding the subway and getting off a stop too early and thus arriving late for rehearsal. Lily’s all black swan. Does she need to warm up? “I’m good,” she says. She has a beautiful tattoo of black wings on her back. Nina’s back is full of scars and a rash from where she scratches herself at night. Lily talks boldly, walks with a swagger, while Nina tiptoes and speaks in a squeak of a voice. She’s all apologies. “I’m sorry,” she tells Leroy. “No! Stop saying that!” he responds.

Leroy plays the girls off each other like a movie director. He exacerbates the tensions. He leaves everyone dangling. “Would you fuck that girl?” Leroy asks others about Nina, within earshot of Nina, implying no. He kisses her in private, forcing her mouth open until she responds, then breaks it off. “That was me seducing you when I need it to be the other way around,” he says.

But Leroy is messing with forces that have been built up over a lifetime. Nina still lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), in a cramped New York apartment, and her bedroom is all fluffy whites and pinks, with stuffed animals and ballerina music boxes playing tinkly music. She’s isolated, at home and at the company, and lives too much in her head. “The only person standing in your way is you,” Leroy tells her. Leroy wants Nina to unleash something, but what she unleashes is darker and more self-destructive than he imagines. She sees doppelgangers everywhere. IMDb.com lists both Portman and Kunis as 5’ 3”, Ryder a half-inch taller, and each is dark-haired and pretty. So who’s that coming towards her? Is that Beth, whom she replaced, or Lily, who wants to replace her as surely as she wanted to replace Beth? Or is it some darker version of herself—the black swan demanding freedom from the tight grip of the white swan? Or is it her mother? There’s creepy women stuff throughout the film. “You girls are nuts,” I told Patricia afterwards.

Three things propel the story along: 1) We want to know if Nina dances the part; 2) we want to know if she dances it well (if her black swan is released); 3) and we want to know, finally know, what’s real. We assume, for example, when Lily returns to Nina’s place after a night of carousing, and the mother doesn’t comment upon her presence, that, yes, Lily’s not really there, that she’s just in Nina’s head. So much of the movie is a guessing game. OK, this probably isn’t really happening. She really isn’t pulling the skin off her finger, her toes really aren’t stuck together, the old man in the subway really isn’t rubbing his crotch. Is Lily really in her dressing room? Did she really kill her? Is there someone else bleeding to death in the shower stall? Getting into the heads of characters is the novel’s business but no one does it better with film than director Darren Aronofsky.

The ballet numbers are beautifully filmed, the black swan dance a highlight. But did I need that ending? It parallels the ballet, certainly, as well as Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” but without the poignancy. Randy the Ram reaches a dead end, he feels useless, that’s why he does what he does. But Nina is at the top of her game so her on-stage suicide merely feels self-destructive. And does it muddy the metaphor or sharpen it? It’s the white swan who demands perfection ... and so she stabs herself to release her black swan ... in order to be perfect? Am I missing something? I need to think on it some more.

At the least, Nina is the latest character to personify St. Therese’s maxim. Her prayers are answered and the tears flow.

Posted at 06:10 AM on Dec 21, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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