Weekend Roundup: ‘Black Swan’ review

Summer is certainly a busy month and this past weekend was another one jam-packed w/ activities. Last weekend I mentioned about the Fill Their Plate Run 5K/10K, well this Saturday morning my friends and I volunteered at a meal-packing event for Kids Against Hunger, a humanitarian food-aid organization which mission is to significantly reduce the number of hungry children throughout the world. There were about 60 something people in our shift and we packed about 12,000 meals to be sent to Haiti.

We didn’t have time to make it to the cinema but managed to watch Black Swan which I put in our Netflix queue quite a while ago. But before I get to my review, I’d like to remind everyone of an upcoming blog-a-thon called Morality Bites, spearheaded by my pals Ronan of Filmplicity and Julian of DirtyWithClass blogs. It’s a blog-a-thon that ask the burning question:

Does a filmmaker have a moral responsibility?
The rules are simple: Publish a post on your blog in response to this question or simply post your response on the page wall and email us a link to your post.

Click on the graphic to go to the Facebook page for more information or sign up on the FB wall. Hope you all will participate this Wednesday.

Now, on to the review…

BLACK SWAN

Obsession is a dangerous thing… even more lethal when you are obsessed with perfection. Nina Sayers is a beautiful ballet dancer who nabs the much-coveted lead role of a new production of Swan Lake. She’s perfect as the delicate White Swan, her teacher repeatedly tells her, but struggles to pull off the darker, more provocative part of the Black Swan. The stage performance tells of a tragic story where the Black Swan seduces the White Swan’s Prince which leads to the heartbroken White Swan killing herself.

This is the role of a lifetime — and like everyone in the grueling profession, Nina’s life is completely consumed with ballet and the dream of being cast in such a prestigious production. To make matters worse, she lives with a controlling mother, Erica, who was a former ballerina herself. Nina’s practically suffocated by her mother’s constant barrage of questions and demands, but at the same time, she is all she has because Nina’s got zero social life outside of her rigorous training. The ultimate tragic figure, director Darren Aronofsky takes us on a psychological ‘thrill of terror’ ride as Nina descends into madness the more she embodies the sinister side of the Black Swan.

Nina’s life is chock-full of complicated relationships — with her mother, her instructor, her main rival Lily, and ultimately with herself. As Leroy astutely whispers to her just before she goes on stage, “The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself.” Her relationship with the free-spirited Lily is particularly intriguing. Nina is jealous of Lily because she easily personifies the sensual nature of the Black Swan, whilst at the same time being fascinated as well as threaten by her.

I’ve been warned by several people that this is a movie that messes with your mind… the line is blurred between reality and dreams/nightmares, one can’t tell when the illusions ends and reality begins. It’s a fair warning as the movie is not only spooky but can be frustrating at times as we’re always guessing what’s in Nina’s head and what actually happens.

This film was nominated for a slew of awards including Best Picture Oscar. After seeing this, I do think the accolades are well deserved. I was quite astounded that the movie had a measly $13 million budget as the production quality made it look more expensive than that. Aronofsky depicts the enigmatic world of ballet with a keen eye and the whole camera movement, choreography, the music by Clint Mansell and even use of color scheme captures the eerie and spooky mood throughout.

The casting is spot on all around as well. Parisian thespian Vincent Cassel is perfectly creepy but brilliant teacher, Barbara Hershey as the control freak mother, and even Winona Ryder as the cast-aside Swan Lake star Beth is unforgettable in her small role. Props for the casting agent for finding actresses who look believable as ballerinas. Mila Kunis is spot on as the sexy Lily who’s quite the comic relief in the movie. Her role the antithesis of the high-strung Nina though I don’t know if it’s really much of a stretch for Kunis as I feel she’s played this type of roles before.

As for Portman, she impressively carries this movie as the tortured soul protagonist. The amount of physical and emotional effort she puts into the role is nothing short of astounding. Her melancholic face suits the role well, as it seems that throughout the film she’s confined into looking either nervous or frightened. But there is one scene during her stage performance where she has this sinister look on her face as she becomes ‘possessed’ by the Black Swan. I’ve never seen that side of Portman before, and that last fifteen minutes of the movie really floored me [as I was already at the edge of my seat the whole time!]

So, did I enjoy the movie? Well, now that is an another question entirely. This is one of those movies I truly appreciate and am glad I’ve seen it because it was really well-crafted. At the same time, because there are lots of scenes that are extremely uncomfortable to watch, I don’t think I want to see this again. I find the world of ballet quite fascinating – I took a couple of lessons as a wee kid [fortunately I never dreamed of becoming a ballerina!] and have enjoyed a few ballet performances in my life. Yet because of the high suspense and state of mind when watching the film, I couldn’t quite enjoy the beauty of those performances… it’s as if Nina’s persistent state of twitchy restlessness rubs off on me as I keep anticipating something bad is about to happen.

Still, I think Black Swan lives up to the hype and for that I’m giving it a high grade. It’s one of those movies that lingers long after the end credits, oh and even the end credits segment itself is beautiful and if I had seen this at the cinema, it would be worth staying around for.

4 out of 5 reels

So what did you see this weekend? I feel like I’m the last person to see this movie, so most likely you’ve seen ‘Black Swan’ already.  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Guest Post: The Red Shoes (1948) Review

Special thanks to my buddy Vince Caro for his excellent contribution!


With the anticipated release of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the somewhat unmarketable genre (at least in recent years) of the ‘ballet movie’ has been reinvigorated with high expectations. The last such movie I’d seen was The Turning Point (1977), an uneven melodrama which stayed within the subject’s borders: love triangles, competition between diva dancers, leaving the profession and the art’s physical toll on the dancer’s body. Seeing an aging Anne Bancroft as a nearly washed up ballerina sorta gave me the heebie jeebies (in a Betty Davis kinda way). That same year, Dario Argento literally conveyed that creepiness in full with Suspiria with some classic 70s gore.

Moira Shearer as the ballerina Vicky Page

But there is one ballet movie that transcends all others in terms of beauty, tragedy and intelligence but still reminding us of the dancer’s Faustian dedication to their art. The Red Shoes is derived from a Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, where a demon shoemaker gives a young girl a pair of magical red dancing shoes which forces her to dance against her will, and ultimately to her death.

In the film, aspiring dancer Vicky Page (the riveting Moira Shearer) is discovered by ruthless theater producer Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who casts her in a ballet rendition of the Red Shoes. She falls in love with the ballet’s composer Julian (Marius Goring). Lermontov, fueled by his jealousy of the two lovers, forces Vicky to choose between her love for Julian and her love for dance – with tragic results.

The film is shot beautifully in lush color and directed by famous collaborators Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, with magnificent and dreamlike dance sequences. [According to Wiki, to create a realistic feeling of a ballet company at work, and to be able to include a fifteen minute ballet as the high point of the film, they created their own ballet company using many dancers from Britain’s The Royal Ballet.] The film carefully carries us into a magical fairy tale, but never repressing the darkness of human cruelty and obsession. At their first meeting, Lermontov asks Vicky: “Why do you want to dance?” She replies, “Why do you want to live?” This is the core of the film’s heart: when your life depends on your art – what then?

***

RTM’s note: Wow, I’m really curious about this now. I just might try to catch this one over the weekend as it’s on Netflix’s Watch Instantly. I love ballet in movies but Black Swan might be too bizarre for my taste. Those who’ve seen this movie, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.