Archive for December, 2010

Black Swan

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010—Film

Black Swan (USA 2010, Drama/Thriller), Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin; Director: Darren Aronofsky

It looks like I’m going to have eat my words a bit as far as Black Swan is concerned. Or at least chew them a little longer before spitting them out.

If you read my teaser about Black Swan and 127 Hours, you’ll see that I’m a fan of director Darren Aronofsky’s and that I was looking forward to his treatment of psychological and physical deterioration in the world of the New York City ballet. In that regard, Black Swan didn’t disappoint. It’s an extremely visual film, and Aronofsky achieves many beautiful, even poetic moments. But its script is fairly unsubstantial, and the end result for me was an underdeveloped storyline with two-dimensional characters.

It doesn’t take much of a leap to see why the rigid, punishing life of a ballet dancer could easily lead to self-destruction. But too much of what Nina (Natalie Portman) puts herself through is left unanswered or unexplained. As she spirals further out of control in her quest for perfection—desperate to master both the innocent white swan and the dangerous black swan that are required of her performance—the movie starts to feel increasingly contrived.

Aronofsky has explored similar subject matter in previous films with far greater success. The Wrestler worked because its treatment of Mickey Rourke’s wrestler was clearer and less abstract than Portman’s Nina. Requiem for a Dream took its characters to some dark, confusing places, but it made sense given that they were heroin addicts. Because Nina’s turmoil isn’t fully examined or justified, Black Swan comes across as melodramatic and gratuitous.

Throughout Black Swan, I was reminded of David Lynch’s brilliant film Mulholland Drive. Both movies combine dream, fantasy and reality to explore the main character’s psyche and portray her contradictions and inner conflicts. But with Mulholland Drive, confusing though it can be, everything makes sense. If you study the film, or even read its breakdown online, everything ties up neatly. There’s a satisfaction in that. By contrast, Black Swan feels messy and unfulfilling.

Aronosfky’s direction is great, so if you want to see stunning shots and sequences accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s music, there’s something to be gained from watching Black Swan. Portman is also a highlight, giving a very controlled performance that somehow manages to portray extreme intensity with an incredibly delicate touch. But all in all, I’m underwhelmed by Black Swan.

127 Hours

Saturday, December 4th, 2010—Film

127 Hours (USA/UK 2010, Adventure/Biography/Drama), Writers: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy; Director: Danny Boyle

I was really stoked to see 127 Hours and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. This movie is fantastic. As I mentioned not long ago in a teaser about the film, it’s based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Aron Ralston’s real life account of the five days he spent trapped in a Utah canyon and the choice he had to make to survive: cutting off his right arm, which was pinned under a boulder.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that writer/director Danny Boyle and lead actor James Franco make 127 Hours a masterpiece. I’m wondering whether some of my love for the film comes from where I’m at right now, just as Into the Wild had a stronger impact on me because of the personal context at the time I saw it. But objectively, I think 127 Hours really is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

Boyle outdoes himself technically. His film is expertly structured, and visually and aurally stunning. He captures the glorious splendor of the land Aron tries to explore and conquer. Then, with seemingly equal ease, Boyle creates a tight, claustrophobic world where Aron is forced to look within himself and explore an entirely different realm than the vast canyons and mountains that had been his focus for so long. Not only does Boyle make Aron’s time in the crevice feel utterly genuine and believable, but Boyle also manages to bring thrills and excitement to those scenes. He does wonders with Aron’s hallucinations, dreams and flashbacks, not to mention his direction of Franco.

As Aron, Franco delivers what is easily one of his best performances. His portrayal is incredibly raw and completely without artifice. Franco lets us see Aron change before our eyes as he hangs from his (one)handmade sling, trying to stay alive and, in the process, finding a reason behind it all. When he breaks down in sobs, it isn’t just because he’s trapped at the bottom of a canyon. It’s because he’s finally realized just how isolated he’d made himself, and it took being physically prevented from returning to the rest of the world for him to see what a handicap that was. Every moment in his life—every unreturned phone call, every wall he put up between himself and those around him—led him to that canyon, beneath that boulder, with none of his loved ones having the first clue where to find him or even that he was missing. As he says, “I chose this.”

If 127 Hours wasn’t based on a true story, this premise could seem like a very convenient, if artful, metaphor. But it truly was lived by Ralston. He was in such a hurry to seek out what he thought would, or did, make him happy, that he buried and dismissed the cost of avoiding any real connection with the people in his life. (“These things that are pleasin’ you can hurt you somehow.”)

Aron’s story, as well as a number of other events that I’ve heard of or experienced in the past while, have had me wondering: How much of life’s events are laid out in advance as if to form a film or a novel? Whether you believe that things happen for a reason, or that you can draw lessons and create your own reason from what has happened, there’s a certain symmetry in life that I find hard to discount and impossible not to marvel at.

I won’t follow that thought much further so as not to give away more details about the movie. Many of the film’s other moments that struck a chord for me come in Aron’s reactions when he’s finally free of the rock and when he’s able to seek help, and although you know in advance that these things will happen, I don’t want to ruin the delivery. I will say that Boyle has tackled a challenging story and succeeded in creating an impressive, powerful and exciting film that inspires hope without ever being sentimental.

See this movie. Even if you can’t stomach gore. You can close your eyes when Aron parts ways with his limb (I did). But 127 Hours is a film not to be missed; it’s an important and amazing story told by incredible filmmakers working at their best.

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This post is for CDC and MDC. I always love their reason. Merci.