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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Jupiter Ascending (2015)

2015 #169
The Wachowskis | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Ah, the Wachowskis. They made Bound, and no one much cared. Then they made The Matrix, and they were the biggest thing in blockbusterdom since George Lucas took us to a galaxy far, far away. Then they made the Matrix sequels, and no one cared again. Following a period when I don’t think I was alone in wondering if they were ever going to make anything else, they managed to return to the realm of mega-budgeted sci-fi action (I guess the Matrix sequels cleaned up at the box office and that’s all that matters). First there was Speed Racer (which I called “a candy-coloured masterpiece”), then Cloud Atlas (which I haven’t got round to still), and most recently Sense8 (which I certainly haven’t got time for — there’s way too much promising telly to spend time on a show I haven’t heard anyone talk about since its release day).

And earlier this year there was Jupiter Ascending, best known (as far as I’m aware) for provoking speculation it would cost Eddie Redmayne the Oscar for Theory of Everything because it came out during voting season and he was so gosh darn bad in it. And it’s also known for being just generally dreadful and universally disdained.

But, hey, look — Channing Tatum! 2015 is (as mentioned) the year of Channing Tatum for me. And this is a big sci-fi blockbuster, so chances are it would cross my visual cortex eventually regardless (though there are so many sci-fi blockbusters these days that they don’t feel nearly as precious as they did even ten years ago). And the universal disdain wasn’t actually universal — I have actually seen some people praise this film. I know, right?

Sadly, I still thought Jupiter Ascending was awful.

The plot… oh, do I have to explain the plot? It’s some rubbish about a cleaner (Mila Kunis) getting attacked by aliens and some alien crossbreed in magic flying shoes (Channing Tatum) coming to her rescue, and taking her to a half-bee man (Sean Bean — there has to be a “Sean Bee-n” joke here…), and then into space, because she’s… nope, not the Chosen One (makes a change, at least) but a reincarnation of someone important, and her surviving family members (Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Eddie Redmayne) have a vested interest in her — which may or not be that they want her dead (again).

You might thank me for clarifying that, because it’s mindbogglingly messy in the telling. A sheen of originality, partially aided by world-building so dense it’s conveyed in massive infodumps that blur into incomprehensibility, tries to mask the fact that Jupiter Ascending is immensely derivative, including of the Wachowskis’ own work. One of the best bits, a gently satirical sequence of red tape and bureaucracy, is all but lifted wholesale from Hitchhikers or the films of Terry Gilliam — who turns up in a cameo as if to underline the point. Elsewhere you might recall David Lynch’s Dune or The Fifth Element — the latter in particular, although there the campiness was deliberate.

Some praise the visuals, claiming the film at least looks fabulous. Parts of the film carry a level of extravagance and detail thus far found exclusively in a certain genre of sci-fi novel cover art, presumably because CGI has finally reached a point where it can replicate all that on screen in motion. I guess it works for some people, but while it’s not bad, it also didn’t do much for me. And every time something almost works, something else undermines it, like Tatum’s make-up, or his flying boots, or Redmayne’s bizarre, affected performance. Though, to be honest, I think he’s so bad he’s good, a phrase you often hear bandied around but rarely see actually happen.

All things considered, the worst part of Jupiter Ascending is its first half-hour or so. Once it gets past that dreadfully messy first act, it settles down into something that works as passable entertainment. Sure, you might spend the rest of the time (and it does feel like a long time) playing “spot the influence”, or wondering just how exactly Redmayne’s performance came about, or, if you’re versed in British TV, going, “oh, it’s them, from… um… that other thing!” (Eventually there’s a whole spaceship full of “people off British TV”.)

But hey, at least it’s not dull.

2 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending debuts on Sky Movies Premiere tonight at 4pm and 8pm.

The Book of Eli (2010)

2012 #11
The Hughes Brothers | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

After last week’s reviews of Priest and Legion, here’s another disappointingly religious action blockbuster…

The Book of EliThe directors of From Hell (what did they do for nine years? Struggle to find work perhaps) helm the tale of Denzel Washington being a sunglasses-wearing loner mofo in a post-apocalyptic America. I really enjoyed it… for maybe 50 minutes, before it gradually slid away, ultimately degenerating to a Christianity circle jerk ending.

I warn you now, this review contains spoilers, because I don’t care if I ruin the crap bits for you. Indeed, I’d say less “ruin” and more “prepare”.

Much like the film, let’s start with the good stuff. It has a slow, almost elegiac pace early on, punctuated by bursts of violence and action. This section is very good. Then it begins to slip into more typical action blockbuster territory. A fake-single-take shoot-out might’ve seemed virtuoso filmmaking in the right film, but here it seems like director willy-waggling in preference to serving the mood and tone thus far created. Same goes for other independently cool things that follow, like the explosive destruction of a truck.

Ironically, one of the earlier good action sequences (a bar brawl… to sell it short!) is included in a beautifully-choreographed single-take form in the deleted & alternate scenes. That should’ve been left in the film. The final version isn’t bad — the Hughes brothers use a variety of static and wide shots to lens all the film’s fights in a way that reminds you that all handheld close-up shaky-jumpy super-fast-cut modern action sequences are inferior to an old-style well-staged, well-shot sequence — but if they’d had the restraint not to intercut some sequence-extending close-ups they would have had a massively more memorable sequence.

Robin HoodThe music is by Atticus Ross, which was interesting because I’d thought it was reminiscent of The Social Network. So that’s nice.

There are nice, subtle CG effects (I presume) for much of the film, making the world brown-grey and bleak with green-tinged clouds… but all that is ditched for the digitally stitched together ‘single take’ gunfight and, even more so, a vision of a desolate San Francisco during the closing minutes. It’s decent enough in itself — I’ve seen worse — but like, say, the ‘vampires’ in I Am Legend, it’s jarring and awkward because it doesn’t fit with the tone and style established elsewhere.

A bit like Mila Kunis, who is kinda fine but also an acting weak link. Washington and Gary Oldman (especially) are as great as ever. After years of Harry Potter, Batman and recently Tinker Tailor, it’s quite nice to see Oldman back as a villain! He knows how to pitch it perfectly, and while the lack of out-and-out crazy means this one isn’t as memorable as Leon’s Stansfield (well, who is?), it fits the film like a glove. It can’t withstand the blockbusterised let’s-go-get-’em second half, but then not much can. Certainly not the directors’ skills. The oft-underrated Ray Stevenson even offers a cut-above-average lead henchman figure. But there’s something about Kunis… something too present-day and preppy for someone who’s supposed to have been born and raised in a deeply post-apocalyptic back-of-beyond world. She’s nowhere near rough enough.

Old-villainLate on the film pulls out surprise appearances from Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. Their roles aren’t even close to needing thesps of such calibre though — they appear fleetingly, the actors underused. Particularly Gambon, who really has nothing to do except fire a gun. I know it’s usually a joke to comment that a usually-better cast member must have needed the money, but that’s the only reason I can imagine he’s here.

Worst of all is a pat ending, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in various ways. They really destroyed every Bible? He really memorised all of it? He wasn’t blind all along, surely? Because you assume he is and then no one says so you think maybe you’ve read it wrong but then it’s meant to be a twist that he’s blind — what?! Why is that facility on Alcatraz? Why have they just been collecting for 30 years? For 30 years?! I could go on.

As well as being religiousified to extremes, these attempts at giving surprising twists just don’t wash. To quote Kim Newman in Empire,

Given that the leather-bound tome Eli treasures is embossed with a crucifix, it’s not much of a surprise when we find out what it is…

Eli’s literary devotion is more giggly than inspirational. Frankly, it would be more affecting if humanity’s last hope rested in almost any other book than the one chosen here – Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, the Empire Movie Almanac.

So, so true. This must be why American reviewers seem to have loved the film, but our more secular nature sees it as Just Daft. Thank God for that.

Let us pray. (Please don't.)Newman concludes that “you can’t help feel you were invited to a party with fizzy pop and cream cake and got suckered into a sermon instead.” I couldn’t have put it better. Eli starts off with the potential for an arty 5; slips slightly to a solid 4 when the standard post-apocalyptic trope of a gang fighting for local power comes in to play; unsteadies that 4 with an increasingly atonal second half; and quite frankly borders a 1 with its sickening ending.

I land on a generous 3, because anything less would be unfair to the good stuff it achieves early on. What a shame it couldn’t continue in that vein.

3 out of 5

The Book of Eli featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2012, which can be read in full here.

Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story (2005)

2011 #47
Pete Michels | 85 mins | DVD | 15

Following Family Guy’s cancellation after three seasons, it somehow found a new lease of life on DVD, posting surprising sales in what was, I suppose, the early years of the format’s mass take-off. This led to a rethink by Fox and a belated (as in, several years later) renewal for the animated sitcom. This story was originally intended to form a three-part opener to the first season back, but Fox wanted a direct-to-DVD movie too — presumably to capitalise financially on that previous success — and so those three episodes were retooled into a feature.

We know how this can turn out.

And it does feel like three Family Guy episodes stitched together. Much like that other stitched-together-from-three-animated-TV-episodes movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the events of part one (or the first twenty-odd minutes) seem entirely separated from the two-parter that makes up the back hour. Fortunately the Family Guy team seem to have more common sense than their Lucasfilm counterparts, choosing to link back round to the start for their film’s climax, tying it all together after all. Nice work.

The plot is more or less suitably movieised — despite that first-part almost-disjoint, it’s a more-epic-than-usual tale of Stewie’s origins (sort of) — though it seems slightly held back by its genesis as three TV episodesStewie's real history... maybe and the need for it ultimately to be split back up (it was broadcast, censored, as a three-parter at the end of the comeback season). With subplots that begin and end within each half-hour(-ish) segment, it plays about as well as watching a three-parter back to back… which is more than can be said for that Star Wars film. Consequently, it also feels just like regular Family Guy — the same level of humour, basically — though it seemed to me like there were more scatological jokes than normal, some of them going on too long as well. If you’re not a regular viewer of the series, references to running jokes will pass you by; equally, the nature of its humour, often based in cultural references, means that some bits that are obviously jokes will elicit no more than bafflement from a non-versed viewer. Still, there’s plenty of more universal humour too. It relies on the usual style of numerous non sequitur flashbacks and asides. Which, again, is fine — that’s their style; it would be wrong to be anything else.

The need to turn three TV-aimed episodes into a movie — and, somewhat ironically, back again afterwards — does have a few effects on proceedings. Various bits had to be cut for the broadcast version, most for the silly technicalities of US TV rules — the fact the DVD is rated 15 over here, Dinosaurthe same as the series normally is, shows how arbitrary US regulations are. It feels like there are a few more jokes that are slightly dirtier than normal and there are a few extra swear words, but they consciously didn’t go OTT with them and, thankfully, it shows. But actually, most of the stuff that’s cut (as detailed on the commentary or in full here) is for those daft US rules; so, stuff that just steps over a certain line; stuff that, to be honest, most Americans wouldn’t even notice.

Also, contractually the film had to make a certain length, so there’s some conscious padding in there — though, as they note on the commentary, they did their best to make the padding funny too. Take the intermission, for instance, which features just voices over a black “Intermission” screen: dirt cheap to animate (what with there being no animation) but it both adds a bit to the running time and smoothes the jump between parts two and three.

I don’t know how much I’ve reviewed the film and how much shared some behind-the-scenes tidbits here, but if you like Family Guy… well, you’ve probably already seen this (it’s been out, what, six years? I’m behind here), and if you don’t like it there’s nothing to change your mind. Brian, Stewie, sofaAnd if you’ve always been curious but never given it a go, don’t start here — I don’t think it would be incomprehensible to first-time viewers, but I don’t think it’s the best introduction to the series either, and it probably makes more sense if you know the characters a bit.

This score reflects that lack of universal appeal; for regular viewers, I’d say it’s good quality and probably four stars.

3 out of 5