Black Swan (2010)

2017 #128
Darren Aronofsky | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Black Swan

Oscar statue2011 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress (Natalie Portman).
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing.



Described by director Darren Aronofsky as “a psychological thriller horror film”, Black Swan straddles the divide between classy Cinema and genre Movies as artfully as, say, a Hitchcock thriller. It’s the story of ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s desperate to be the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She’s suited to the White Swan but struggles as its black counterpart, a role newly-arrived rival Lily (Mila Kunis) seems perfect for. As Nina pursues perfection with a monomaniacal focus, she’s pressured by the lascivious director (Vincent Cassel) and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), to the point where her sanity is beginning to crack…

Shot handheld on a mix of 16mm and video-capable HD DSLRs, Black Swan has a documentary look, often emphasised by its editing — at times it could almost pass for a fly-on-the-wall look behind the scenes of a ballet company. That’s not to say the visuals lack artistry, however. In particular, the constant presence and use of mirrors is fantastic — both thematically relevant and visually rich. Nonetheless, the documentary-ish look serves to make the film’s unsettling parts all the more effective, especially as they take a while to emerge and continue to sidle up on you as the film goes on. The final act is where everything really kicks off — the point of the rest is to build up to that; to establish and put in place and explain everything we need for a shocking, thrilling, somewhat unguessable climax. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not, because the movie leading up to that point certainly has worth.

Reflections

I’m not particularly familiar with Swan Lake, but it would seem Black Swan’s story echoes it — to the point, even, that all the cast are credited with both their character in the film and their equivalent in the ballet (and I don’t just mean the dancers who also play that role in the ballet-within-the-film — Hershey, for example, is billed as Erica Sayers / The Queen”). This extends outwards in other ways, like how the music of Tchaikovsky is repurposed by the film to its own magnificent effect. That’s as well as featuring a typically striking score from Clint Mansell.

Natalie Portman is brilliant as the conflicted Nina. She’s introverted and sheltered but has chosen (or been railroaded into) a career that requires she perform publicly; she’s fragile and under-confident but in a profession that invites criticism from all sides; she’s been left repressed, uptight, and virginal, which clashes with her perfectionism when trying to embody a role that is none of those things. It’s a complex role with many subtle facets that Portman negotiates skilfully. It feels like a departure from who she is — proper acting, if you like — which makes the performance all the more striking. Conversely, Mila Kunis feels more in her comfort zone as Lily, the free-spirited, lively but imperfect, almost a bit of a bitch, company dancer that Nina is inexplicably drawn to. She holds her own against Portman when required, but it’s not exactly a role of equatable complexity.

Titular terror

Depending how you want to see it, Aronofsky’s film is an arty movie about ballet and the psychological effects of perfectionism, or a slow-burn horror-thriller with almost as many jump scares as instances of introspection. Best of all, it can be both those things.

5 out of 5

Black Swan was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Darren Aronofsky’s latest dark mind-bender, mother!, is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.

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Stoker (2013)

2015 #162
Park Chan-wook | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Director Chan-wook “Oldboy” Park makes his English-language debut with this modern-Gothic thriller from the pen of Wentworth “yes, the guy from Prison Break” Miller.

When well-to-do architect Richard Stoker dies on his daughter’s 18th birthday, he leaves said insular daughter India (Mia “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Wasikowska) stuck in their Tennessee mansion with her unbeloved mother (Nicole “the face behind the nose” Kidman). At the wake, both are surprised by the arrival of Charlie (Matthew “Ozymandias” Goode), Richard’s brother who Evelyn has never met and India has never even heard of. Nonetheless, he’s all charm and good manners, though when he moves into their home he begins to build up a slightly creepy relationship with Evelyn, and essentially stalks India. The Stokers’ housekeeper clearly knowns something about him, but then she disappears; and Richard and Charles’ Aunt Gwendolyn turns up wanting a word with Evelyn. Just what is going on with Uncle Charlie that everyone apart from India seems to know about?

And I’ve already said too much, maybe. Stoker isn’t all about its mystery and its twists — it’s at least as much about its carefully constructed Gothic mood; but part of that is the mystery, so, y’know. Indeed, it’s so moody and atmospheric that it seems to turn some viewers off. It’s certainly not thrill-a-minute, and it has a very particular pace and tone. I’m going to keep coming back to the word Gothic, because that really is the best word for it; whether that should be “modern Gothic” or “neo-Gothic” or “Southern Gothic” or what, I don’t know, but it’s definitely Gothic — with little more than cosmetic changes, I’m sure the story could be shunted back to a crumbling pile in 19th Century England. So precise is the mood of this secluded household, it’s kind of weird when, a little while in, we get to see India’s place of education: a typical US high school. In another film I might call this sudden change of locale a misstep, a breaker of tone, but in the world Park has created it just feels like a point of contrast.

Visually, Stoker is peerless. It doesn’t scream “beauty” at you, but the shot composition, Chung-hoon Chung’s photography, and Nicolas De Toth’s editing are all exceptional. The sound design is incredible too, with judicious use of ultra-heightened effects to imitate India’s skill for hearing small things others maybe miss. Finally, the music is perfection. A piano duet composed by Philip Glass is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, but Clint Mansell offers a doom-laden score, of a piece with his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (both of which I think I’ve written of my admiration for sometime previously), and there are some choice songs too: I’d never heard Summer Wine by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood before, but it fits the film like a glove, as well as being fantastic in its own right; and Emily Wells’ Becomes the Color slugs in with a kind of perfect dissonance to the musical style to that point. A comment on iCheckMovies used the word “sumptuous” for all of this, and that seems apt.

I have a feeling “not for everyone” may be one of the most overused phrases on this blog, but, if so, I think that’s for good reason: some of the best movies are “not for everyone”. We may not agree on what those movies are, but that’s kind of the point: they fit our own individual tastes, not “everyone’s”. Stoker undoubtedly doesn’t have easy mass appeal — it’s got a 6.9 on IMDb — and even some people open to its charms deem it to only be style over substance. I don’t think it’s wholly lacking in the latter, though if you’re looking for some Significance then I don’t know if you’ll find it — it’s an artistically-made Gothic thriller, not a soul-bearing artistic portrait of humanity. And as for the style… well, I’ve already talked about that. Whether you can have “style” for style’s sake, or whether it needs to be in aid of something, is a debate for another day. Here, it is in aid of something: amping up the Gothicism of the inherently Gothic story, which in other hands could have just became any-old present-day-set family thriller.

Describing something as “an acquired taste” might well be another phase I’ve used often, especially as it’s essentially a synonym for “not for everyone”. Nonetheless, that’s what I’ll go for here. Stoker will most decidedly not appeal to all palates, but for the right viewer, it’s a dark, moody, sensuous, Gothic delight.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Stoker is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 30th, at 9pm.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

2014 #136
Darren Aronofsky | 97 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / NC-17*

Requiem for a DreamOn Coney Island, the faded and decrepit one-time pleasure place of New York City, four people — Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and his mother Sara (Oscar-nominated Ellen Burstyn) — find themselves accidentally drawn into a whirlwind of drug addiction. Not to put too fine a point on it.

A lot of people say that Requiem for a Dream is the bleakest or most depressing movie ever made, and you kind of think, “yeah well, we’ll see — how bad can it be?” For most of the film, that notion is indeed misleading. Not that it’s a happy-clappy affair, but it’s a very watchable drama, not a gruelling slog through misery. However, I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes later. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.

The rest of the film may not be its equal in terms of condensed impact, but it’s of course vital in leading you to that point. These characters lead relatively normal lives — not exceptionally bad, certainly not exceptionally good, but pretty humdrum and bog standard. They all try to better themselves in some way — Sara through diet pills, Harry and Tyrone by getting rich through selling drugs — and it all goes horrible awry.

It may be a descent into misery, then, but director Darren Aronofsky keeps it watchable through pure cinematic skill. The editing, camerawork, lighting, sound design, and special effects are all incredible throughout. There’s a surfeit of ideas and innovations from everyone involved. And yet they are never show-off-y for the sake of it — this isn’t a Guy Ritchie movie. None of the tricks or striking ideas are put there to render the film Cool, even in the way they are in some equally brilliant films (Fight Club, for example). No, everything that is deployed is done so in aid of emulating a real-life feeling or experience, or conveying a concept or a connection. At times it’s breathtaking.

I must also make special mention of the score by Clint Mansell. The primary theme is arguably most famous for being used in The Two Towers trailer a couple of years later (that’s certainly where I discovered it). Something that works fantastically on the trailer for an epic fantasy war movie might not sound like it sits well in a junkie drama, but it really works.

Requiem for a Dream may have a bit of a reputation at this point; one that might put you off viewing it, or possibly only deigning to attempt it in a certain frame of mind. While there is an element of truth to that, it is a brilliant film — not “enjoyable” in the easily-digested blockbuster sense, but as a mind-boggling and awe-inspiring feat of filmmaking, yes. Incredible.

5 out of 5

Requiem for a Dream placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* After the film was given an NC-17, it was decided to release it Unrated — so, technically, it’s not NC-17, it’s Unrated. Ah, the quirks of the US classification system. (There’s also an R-rated version, which is the same except for some shot removals and replacements during the ending.) ^