Friday, December 3, 2010

Portman Soars and Aronofsky Lands Another Oscar Worthy Effort

Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
107 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures
**** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Black Swan (2010) on Blogcritics.

When you’ve powered your way through nine new movies within a week it takes a lot to go back and sit through one of them again. While there have now been three, the others being “127 Hours” and “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” it took the batshit insanity of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” to force me back to see if it was as good a second time around and I wound up loving the film even more upon revisiting.

Aronofsky has made a name for himself after his breakthrough at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival with “Pi” but it was thanks to his all too realistic drug use depictions in “Requiem for a Dream” that really put him on the map. And while his third feature outing (“The Fountain”) was considered a huge misstep, he brought back his A-game with a film of great intimacy and a few Oscar nods for its stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei with “The Wrestler.” While they have now been A-listed again, after seeing him back in deranged form with “Black Swan,” hopefully we see him nominated this year along with his superstar Natalie Portman.

Nina Sayers (Portman) has big dreams of becoming the new star for Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” While many find Thomas’ choice to kick off his new season, he expects to “strip it down, make it visceral and real.” At first Thomas doesn’t think Nina has the power to become the Black Swan by the end of the story, he is too well aware that she most definitely conveys the White Swan at least. When future rival Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives fresh off the plane from San Francisco that’s when Nina has to do some soul searching to figure out whether she has the guts to pull off the perfect performance and prove herself successor of the retiring Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder).

Natalie Portman sure has come a long long way from the days of “The Professional” or her cutesy turns in “Anywhere But Here” and “Where the Heart Is.” She’s thankfully broadening her horizons from playing the epileptic girl next door (“Garden State”), a stripper (“Closer”), a foul-mouthed rapper in a “Saturday Night Live” digital short, the bruised ex-girlfriend (“Hotel Chevalier”) or shaving her head and kicking ass in “V for Vendetta,” she’s finally becoming the standout actress critics and fans alike have spotted since 1994.

Now whether she’s next seen in her upcoming romantic/comedy “No Strings Attached,” a raunchy period comedy, “Your Highness,” or in next summer’s blockbuster “Thor,” it’s nice to see she’s keeping things varied and not taking any time off. We can all use more Portman in our cinematic diet. And it’s of particular note with “Black Swan” that she’s bound to become one of Mr. Skin’s most searched names after the bedroom scene she shares, first with herself, and then with Kunis after a drunken, drug-addled night out.

Aronofsky fantastically blurs the lines between the film’s reality and Nina’s increasingly perversed fantasy which is all part of the fun as events begin piling upon one another. Whether it’s a did they/didn’t they hook up between Nina and Lily or all the events of the denouement, everything is thrown into Aronosky’s pressure cooker leaving the audience squirming to find out what’s really going on.

While “Black Swan’s” ending may be quite similar to “The Wrestler’s,” that film ended a little too ambiguously and left me with a bad after taste and a shrug of the shoulders. Here, screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin have given a fitful ending where everything finally adds up to the sum of its parts and it’s finally realized that what Thomas says about his version of “Swan Lake” is what everyone involved has decided to do with the film and that is worthy of a standing ovation all in itself.

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