Thursday, January 13, 2011

Darren Aronofsky's 'The Black Swan' Review

First of all, I'm not a fan of ballet to begin with. I can see the staggering amount of effort the art form requires of it's practitioners, and I can watch about thirty seconds of actual ballet and see that it is indeed graceful and beautiful and all that. It's just not my thing and I knew that going in to the theater.



Also, I don't much care for the films of Darren Aronofsky. Friends of mine can attest to hours long debates on 'The Fountain'. (Why the hell, in a very western film, when the ancient past and present is set in the American Southwest, and the movie is clearly themed with ancient Central American imagery and storytelling, is the future represented as an Eastern Buddhist temple in a magic bubble in space? Also, why is Wolverine constantly crying?!) The man is certainly able to pick visually impressive stories out of a pile and he clearly has an eye for cinema, but his work seems overly pretentious and is generally not 'a fun time at the movies' kind of story, which is what I like to go see (go buy Scott Pilgrim if you haven't yet). A lot of people like him a lot, and, like ballet, Aronofsky is something for New York film critics and something I will never care for. He is clearly a talented man with a clear eye for cinema and a powerful storyteller.

I don't really like Natalie Portman either. Although she clearly isn't THE reason why the new Star Wars trilogy blows, it's also true that I still like Ewen McGregor after viewing. In interviews she seems to be a bleeding-heart liberal and into little causes which drives me crazy as a big picture guy. I much prefer let's raise money for cancer, rather than let's raise money for this one old building in my hometown which might get torn down. While I haven't actually seen the movie, 'Garden State' came out while I was in high school and made it very difficult to continue to be counter culture. Most of my CD's became worthless overnight when Zach Braff made a million dollar mixtape and, apparently, gave one to everybody (however, much like Ewen, I still like Zach, even as that sell-out dog in those commercials). She's clearly a talented actress and lots of people love her, I'm just pretty sure one of us would wind up dead if we were trapped in an elevator together.

I do, however, love Mila Kunis.

Anyway, despite having these, the three greatest of my pet peeves (discounting the use of the word "Cocoa" over chocolate), I still saw this movie. Like I expected I didn't really like it. Like the three reactions above, parts were really good, and I could appreciate all of the art and effort behind the creation of it. It just wasn't the kind of thing I like. It was kind of gross and depressing and didn't scare me the way I like to be scared. Call me old fashioned, but I like seeing an Alien(s) jump out from behind a bulkhead over seeing someone's mom catching them masturbating. I'm sure many people love it and they are not wrong to do so.

What is exceptionally odd is I can't stop talking about it.

Never before have I had so many conversations about a single movie. I spent the entire last year taking it to the streets for 'Scott Pilgrim' and people would just tell me they thought it looked gay and walk away. Alternatively, I saw and detested 'Diary of the Dead' and actually wanted to talk about why I didn't like it, but even zombie fans didn't care to comment. Everywhere I go someone is talking about this ballerina movie and somehow engages me to break it down again and again. When most of the conversations I've had about 'The Social Network' don't go beyond, "That Facebook wiener's a dick", this film somehow launches deep intellectual debates that stick with me for weeks. Congratulations Darren, Natalie, and dancing, you win.

I haven't written any reviews for a while, not even for recent films I really loved this year. I might do one for 'Scott Pilgrim' if I ever get over it enough to criticize it(not likely). I was in a posting debate about theories behind 'Black Swan' on Slashfilm that got me thinking about it again. The debate was over the mother daughter relationship. Unable to stop debating this movie, I posted the following on that site:
If anyone can get a hold of the original screenplay by Mark Heyman I think it's a better story than the final film. It's interesting how much more of a character Beth, played by Winona Rider in the film, is and how little we see of Erica, the "mother".

I was left with the subtext that Nina was indeed delusional before the events of the film from the way she interacted with Erica. The big differences in the plot are that Erica is never acknowledged to be her mother, she's just an older woman who lives with her, and that Erica disappears after Nina tells her off on drugs. Instead of not waking Nina up in the morning because she's mad at her, Erica doesn't wake her up because she apparently moved out during the night. This gave me the feeling that Erica was always a fictional character living in Nina's mind that was usurped by the new personality of Lilly which Nina created to cope with being molested by the company director, Korolyevna (not sure if that's his name in the final film).

It seems pretty clear that both Lilly and Erica are mostly figments of her imagination, although Erica could be based on her late or non-present mother, and Lilly on an actual new girl in the company. Because of this interpretation I had in the reading I kept searching for how Aronofsky would hint at those relationships in the film and, in searching for clues that never existed,
I missed the new sub-text of possible molestation by the mother explained above.

I don't necessarily agree with David's reading, and I definitely prefer the writers twist on 'the fight club ending' in the original script. Overall, I didn't think it was that great of a film; being over stylized and pandering to art house critics. Even with the thriller elements and lesbian sex scene it's still 'Step it Up' meets 'All About Eve' and is just about as good as that description sounds.
After realizing that almost a year ago I already wrote a review of this movie, I thought I would share it with you here. This is an exercise I did to use as an example of in depth coverage in my portfolio and was not involved in any way with the production of the film.

My original coverage of the screenplay 'Black Swan' follows:


BLACK SWAN COVERAGE
Title: Black Swan Author: Darren Aronofski & Mark Heyman
Genre: Psychological Thriller Circa: Present
Location: New York, New York Pages: 130
Reader: James Gingold Date: 06/14/10

LOGLINE
When Nina's dream of performing the lead in the ballet Swan Lake comes true, she begins a dark slide down into the depths of her own psyche as she becomes increasingly more and more paranoid under the pressure.

COMMENT SUMMARY
This is an extremely well crafted narrative. It's honest, brutal, at times even gut wrenching tale of a young ballet star's struggle to become the character she's playing at the cost of her own life. The ballet is about dual identities, one light and one dark. She's a young and naïve girl who's perfect for the former, but struggles as she finally embodies the latter.

The story is really good, but it's going to have a hard time landing a large audience. On the one hand it's an extremely dark thriller featuring murder, rape, suicide, a complex identity plot, and a steamy lesbian sex scene by characters on ecstasy. On the other hand it's a movie about ballerina's. It is very moving and will undoubtedly render a great film that will get some great attention, but it's for a niche audience. My one major complaint is that despite it's beauty, the plot is a little cliché. It features all the great highlights we've already seen in Fight Club, only this one's less fun. It's possible that enough time has passed since the last film on schizophrenia for this one to emerge as the new standard.

The characters are extremely well developed. The two principals, Nina and Lily, are two distinct sides of a coin. Throughout the story they seem to switch places and there's even a possible third, completely imaginary, version of the Lily that all seem like very original voices that makes complete sense for the plot. All their dialogue is well crafted to reflect their different styles of getting what they want as they compete with each other. Along with that, there are a number of beautiful, poignant lines that stick with you, and great call backs to earlier dialogue as the roles reverse between the girls.

The script is masterfully structured to hint at so much of what's to come in later moments. The entire plot, while mirroring Swan Lake much like the girls mirror each other, in execution dances together, allowing the older work to fill gaps and aid the audience in taking little leaps into the story. There's a great pace overall that pirouettes across the page. There's also a definite throwback to the classic All About Eve in the relationship between Nina and former star Beth that dots the story with extra flavor.

The setting is great for a tight budget. Outside of the old theater and a few different apartments this script is incredibly self-contained. There aren't many exciting settings, but there is one big one in the old classic theater that becomes a character itself. It's brooding wings and ancient hallways clearly setting the beautiful, yet creepy vibe for the piece.

One worry would be whether or not Darren Aronofsky is affordable as the director. It is his movie through and through, but big names have big price tags. While obviously worth the effort to grab him, this script could be really well done with someone else as well. It's very strong visually and would be difficult to get too off track from in production. All the bases are covered and while not over-direct, the action is clear and the vision extends beyond the piece. Great scripts can render great movies for other great people.

RECCOMENDATION
Buy it. This movie won't beat Twilight at the box office, but it certainly will on the Oscar ballet.



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SYNOPSIS
Nina Sayers is certainly attractive, but plain. She's slender, quiet, mousy; a follower to a fault. She doesn't have very many friends, and the ones she does have are not close ones. The only thing at all remarkable about Nina is her dancing. Unfortunately, her ability isn't nearly exciting enough to be anything more than a pair of feet in the prestigious ballet company she works for. For four years she's been striving to succeed there, eventually becoming regarded as a doormat amongst the ensemble. She wishes to emulate her aging hero at the theater, Beth, in order to overcome the jeers of the icy competition, embodied in the cruel and determined Veronica.

On her way to the theater before her first day back from break, Nina catches sight of a girl waiting on a subway platform as the train pulls away. It's only a split second, but the girl is clearly a dancer and bears a significant resemblance to herself. She can't help but feel slightly startled as she warms up at the theater later. The company director, Korolyevna, arrives to welcome them back and to announce this seasons first ballet, Swan Lake. To Beth's disappointment, the title role is open, despite her involvement with Korolyevna. Insulted, she storms off, leaving Nina and the others to compete. Nina is taken aside with three others to compete in a more private round. She is clearly the early favorite for the lead, Odette. The character has the same vulnerability and naivety Nina embodies, which Korolyevna appreciates. However, the character also has a dark side, Odile, which Nina cannot inhabit. She uncomfortably performs Odile's Coda, stumbling at the end. Veronica performs it exceptionally.

On her trip home, defeated, she accidentally boards the wrong train and ends up at Rockefeller Center. She disembarks and exits the station, unnerved by the creepy street performers and homeless on her way out. She spots Central Park and heads to familiar territory. Her walk takes her to a dark tunnel at the parks center, and inside she hears footsteps approaching. As the person draws closer, Nina recognizes them to be female and is relieved. Feeling slightly safer, they cross paths, and Nina catches a glimpse of the strangers face, it's her own. That night at home she puts on her shoes and begins to practice. Faster and harder she dances before she winces. She removes her shoes to reveal a large crack down her big toenail, oozing blood. She puts the shoe back on and works through the pain, completing Odile's Coda.

The next morning she makes her self up in the mirror before leaving, something she's never done before work. Thick eyeliner and ruby lipstick. She goes to Korolyevna's office and passes a sobbing Beth who had been fighting with her lover inside. Beth sees the make-up, she knows what's going on. Nina enters the office and tells him she's managed the dance, but it's too late, Veronica has the part. She turns to leave, but something makes her try a different tactic. She sympathizes about his relationship troubles with Beth. Her words sound like someone else, technically sympathetic but subtly slanders toward the older competition. Korolyevna stands and moves in for a kiss, Nina allows him for a second, but pulls away with a slap. She immediately apologizes and runs off, but Korolyevna sees passion. Later that day the parts are officially posted, the Swan Queen is hers.

Nina begins rehearsing with the other dancers, the power has shifted in response to the new queen. At rehearsal she is performing with the prince when she catches sight of what could be her double watching from the doorway. She stops and turns back but the girl has changed, it is now someone who could be her sister, but clearly not her. A little disturbed she asks Korolyevna who the girl is. Her name is Lily, she's a new dancer with the company. After rehearsal she meets Lily for the first time. She's young and carefree, fun and adventurous. Lily takes an immediate liking to Nina and asks her to go out for drinks, but Nina declines in favor of rehearsing.

The next day Beth's name has been crossed off of all the schedules. Worried, Korolyevna informs her it's not her fault, Beth just decided to retire. That night they are rehearsing late on the coda again, but she just can't master it. Korolyevna decides to quit and takes her back to the dressing rooms. He reveals a beautiful dress he has bought her. He needs her to attend a gala event with the investors to introduce his new star. He asks her to model it for him, which worries her. She's been having an odd rash on her shoulder blades that's been spreading, certainly something he would be upset to see on his star performer. Thankfully he doesn't notice once she's changed and they stand in front of the mirror together. He tells her she needs to let go and embrace her inner black swan. He begins to kiss her neck and grab her breasts; she allows it. He unzips his pants and hikes up her skirt, leaning over the vanity she lowers her panties, allowing him to go on. As he begins she watches her self in the mirror, ashamed. She closes her eyes to avoid her reflection. Her reflection stares back from the mirror.

Afterward she is mortified with herself. At a later rehearsal, Korolyevna announces Beth is in the hospital and cancels rehearsal for the day. Nina visits and discovers she Beth tried to kill herself and is now comatose.

Nina begins to become closer with Lily, eventually opening up when they dance together. Lily encourages her to dance out her emotions, evoking a wild and natural black swan from somewhere deep inside. Lily recommends Nina show it to Korolyevna, but she declines from embarrassment. The next day at rehearsal she breaks it off with Korolyevna and things are decidedly tense. After hours of rehearsing he finally flips-out, revealing he heard from Lily that Nina has a new interpretation of the dance and he is upset she hadn't mentioned it. Nina accosts Lily and tells her off for going behind her back.

When Nina returns home, she finds Lily there having a drink with Nina's mother. Although upset initially, Nina softens when she discovers Lily is only there to apologize. Eventually, Lily convinces Nina to go out for that drink. They head down-town and go to a local bar. After a few drinks Lily offers ecstasy to Nina. She declines and Lily is a little put off but takes hers anyway. Nina goes to the bathroom and returns to find Lily talking to two men at the bar. She orders another drink and Nina observes her dropping another pill into it. Lily calls her over, and aware Nina saw, offers her the drink. Once again tempted, this time Nina succumbs and takes it. The drugs start to kick in and Nina becomes a little disoriented. The next thing she realizes she's at a dance club, making out on the floor with one of the guys from before. Time skips again and now she's dancing with Lily, loving the attention from the men watching. Later, their together in the bathroom, making out with each other now. Later she's back on the floor grinding on someone when she starts to come down. The man is a total stranger and neither Lily or the guys from before is in sight. She runs outside, confused, and Lily catches up to her. They hail a cab and on the ride home Lily coyly runs her fingers up Nina's leg.

At her apartment, Nina's mother is up waiting. She argues with Nina that this reckless behavior will get her in trouble with the company, and that she can't waste the opportunity. Nina tells her off, telling her to stay out of her business. She grabs Lily's hand and runs off to her bedroom, locking the door behind them. Inside they pounce each other aggressively. Lily rips off Nina's shirt, and then her own, revealing a tattoo on her back of large black wings. They make love, Lily's appearance changing between her own and Nina's. They lay side by side, appearing like one girl in front of a mirror. For a split second, Nina is alone masturbating, then there are two girls again. The next morning, Nina is alone, and late.

She runs to the theater and arrives to find Lily standing in for her as the black swan. When they finish Nina accuses Lily of getting her messed up on purpose in order to steal the part. She complains of leading her on and spending the night but disappearing without waking her up so she'd be late. Lily has no idea what she's talking about and tells her so. As far as she knows they were at the club and then Nina ran off alone. Nina is outraged and confused. She runs to Korolyevna and demands Lily be fired for attempting to sabotage her performance. Korolyevna claims it's ridiculous and no one wants her to fail.

Nina visits Beth at the hospital and finds her awake, but furious for being lied to. She accuses Nina of sleeping with Korolyevna, something Nina promised she'd never do, and then screams for the nurses help, claiming Nina is trying to kill her. Nina runs from the hospital.

At dress rehearsal, Nina's lost weight and can't fit into her costume. Her rash is worse. On stage she wears a T-shirt and practice leotard while everyone else is dressed as majestic swans around her. She is dancing with the prince, leaping into his grasp. He holds her in the air for a second, but his grip slips and Nina falls hard on her knee. No one rushes to her immediately. She can't dance on it at first and is sent to physical therapy to ice it. When she gets out, paranoid, she spies on Lily flirting with the prince. She conceives a plot to push her out.

That night after rehearsal, Nina follows her double home she chases her up the stairs of her run down apartment but looses her at the top. Suddenly, the double jumps out of hiding and a fight breaks out. The wrestle back down the stairs, Nina nearly falling, until she reaches the street level and runs out of the building. She runs desperately, turning around every so often to see her double in hot pursuit. She reaches a cab and is finally safe for the moment.

She returns home and enters the dark apartment. A figure stands in front of her. She calls out to her mother but there's no answer, fumbling for the light she reveals the figure to be her on cold reflection on the hall mirror. She heads to her mothers room, realizing the strange quiet. She's alone and her mother's things are gone. Shaken, she begins to hear strange voices, and notices the pictures her mother had taped up on the walls are whispering. Newspaper clippings of Nina's career seem to move subtly. Terrified, she rips them off the walls. In her own room she notices the rash now covers her entire body. She runs her fingers to her back and feels strange movement under her skin. In the bathroom she tears at her back with a scissors, blood dripping down her leg. Pointed black barbs stick out of her skin. She smashes the mirror and passes out on the floor.

In the morning she's awakened by the doorbell, it's Beth to apologize for their falling out over the part. She chooses her words carefully to say she understands why Nina's been so upset, and why she would stab Beth in the back the way she did. Nina doesn't miss a beat, she's not sorry and slams the door in her face.

At the big opening night, Nina is a nervous wreck. Everyone stares daggers at her as she arrives. A few fans wait outside for autographs like they had for Beth the previous season. She heads to her dressing room and puts on her swan costume, freaked out. Ready in the wings for her entrance, she's falling apart. It shows when she finally emerges, making a few mistakes and eliciting a lackluster applause. Korolyevna asks her what's going on, but she blows past him to her dressing room. She finds her double there waiting for her. A fight erupts. They wrestle violently, blurring who is who. Nina finally grabs her head and smashes it into the mirror, breaking it into tiny shards. She picks one up at stabs it into the doubles stomach and then breaking off the tip. Her double looks down at the wound, realizing what's happened, and collapses, dead. Nina quickly lifts the body and drags it to the dresser, stuffing it inside. She changes into the black swan costume and heads back to the stage.

Her rash is flared into something terrible and the barbs are pricking out of her costume, but she doesn't care. She dances wildly and with reckless abandon, and it's beautiful. The barbs grow out into feathers until she is a black swan on the stage. The audience watches in awe at something they've never seen before. At the end she is called out for multiple bows before heading backstage. On her way to her dressing room, Korolyevna is clearly impressed. Nina runs over and kisses him with fiery passion, he can't help but be entranced by her, but she pulls away and continues on. As she approaches her dressing room she remembers what waits inside and deflates a little. She realizes what she's done. She steps in and sees the broken mirror. Her white costume lies crumpled on the floor and blood drips out of the dresser. She tosses a towel over the spot to cover it up and changes. As she switches her make-up for the final number as the white swan she receives a knock at the door. She looks through the peephole, it's Lily! Lily wishes her a great finale and apologizes for their argument earlier. Nina runs to the dresser and throws it open; no body. She slowly realizes what's going on and a small red circle begins to form on her abdomen. She lifts her shirt and, sure enough, a large gash. She reaches into it removing the shard of glass, causing the blood to flow more freely. Woozy and pale she opens the door, where the stage manager grabs her and pulls her out for her cue.

She emerges onto the stage and performs the last dance in which the white swan commits suicide. It's tragically beautiful as she goes through the motions, loosing blood. For the audience, it's such a raw and impassioned performance that no one realizes what's really happening. She dances up the steps to her last mark, where she leaps and performs a swan dive to a mat below. She holds it, poised at the edge, then jumps. The roar of the crowd is intense as she lays there. The other dancers run over and applaud her as well, including Lily. Korolyevna runs to congratulate her, but senses something's wrong. He kneels beside her, discovering the blood stain growing on her stomach. Lily looks on with concern and fear. The life drains out of her as they all watch. Lily and Nina lock eyes, Lily is worried, Nina just smiles, triumphant.

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I hope that was an interesting read for anyone who saw the movie. I know I can be overly negative sometimes and I want to clarify I didn't hate it at all, it just wasn't the kind of film I like to go see. I'm sure most of you don't agree with the kind of movies I like, and I would love to hear your responses if you care to comment.

James

Okay, one more:

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