Monday, June 20, 2011

The Dark Road to Perfection

If Black Swan, the latest troubled nocturne from that cinematic pied-piper Daron Aronofski proves anything, it’s that he hasn’t lost his seemingly effortless ability to lead an audience by the nose, directly into the nightmare his characters have built for themselves. As gripping as it is unsettling and as triumphant as it is terrifying, Black Swan is one of the years best films.

The plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the Powell-Pressburger classic, The Red Shoes. Both films are about ballet companies whose story parallels that of the ballet they are performing, and both are about the obsessive pursuit of artistic perfection. The influence of The Red Shoes on Black Swan is clear, particularly in the stunning, surrealistic dance sequences, which Matthew Libatique’s handheld camerawork takes to new psychological depths. The film opens with one of these sequences, which are probably best described by one of the film’s characters, “fast and visceral”.

Aronofski has a way of trapping an audience, of keeping them hooked on what he is showing them, no matter how horrifying it might be. This is an incredibly claustrophobic film (and I plan to spend a good deal of time examining it’s camerawork. The film is an essay on effective use of the close up) which by the end of it made me feel trapped in the main character’s head, fully immersed in her madness. But it never lost me, and never made me want to look away. Just when the tension neared the breaking point, something was thrown in, a clever quip or a hilariously creepy subway rider, to provide a welcome release. For a while anyway, because as soon as you thought you were settled in, Aaronofski pulls out another of his little tricks to keep you on edge (did that picture move? And whose face was that?).

And of course nobody could write about this film without mentioning the towering performance by Natalie Portman, by far the best of her career. She puts to shame nearly every actor who’s ever tried to go mad onscreen, losing her mind in a way that is never unconvincing and what’s more, actually kind of understandable. This isn’t one of those movies that asks you to just accept that its main character is losing their mind. In each scene, Portman’s performance is perfectly calibrated to it’s place the overall arc of her character, and you watch as the pressures, her troubled mother, vindictive rivals, and the constant overbearing need for perfection weigh on her increasingly fragile mind.

The various conflicts within Nina and the story of Swan Lake itself eventually come together in a way that, though you will probably see it coming, still manages to be incredibly satisfying. And I think there’s enough surprises in the way its all executed to stay interesting. The climax comes as Nina undergoes her inevitable transformation and the choice she must make to do it. The movie ends as the ballet ends, and in this reviewer’s opinion, it is, if I may, Perfect.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Counter Terrorism gets a replay button

Hollywood, pay attention, because Source Code could save you. In an era where studio’s pour millions of dollars into big budget franchise films based on board games or fucking Magic 8 balls, but quiver with fear at prospect of doing anything original, Source Code is the kind of film that Hollywood would do well to try to make more of. On the one hand, it’s incredibly cheap. It has a modest budget of 32 million dollars, and even with a completely terrible trailer (no offense to whoever made it, it’s not like they had an easy task) it’s already well on its way to making a profit. But on the other hand, it’s a completely original film that both bends the mind and pleases the crowd.

And I’ll have to admit, I was perhaps pre-disposed to be more pleased than most. Aside from having a nice healthy admiration for Duncan Jones last (also highly original and cool) sci-fi film, Moon, I also happen to be a proud lifelong Illinois resident and the story takes place almost entirely in locations I’m quite familiar with. The film opens with a montage of Chicago and the surrounding country that effectively shows off the beauty of my home state, and there’s something powerful about that familiarity. Maybe people in L.A. or New York have become jaded about it by now, I don’t know. But for me, I was a little shocked at how much pleasure I got from the fact that I was so familiar with the film’s locations. Even just the recognition of the little things, like the bathroom or the upholstery on the train excited me in a way few films do.

But Duncan Jones didn’t make this movie just for us here in the Land of Lincoln, and everyone else is going to need something more than an accurate depiction Chicago Metra trains. I expect that they’ll be pleased, although fans of Moon should be warned that this is a different sort of sci-fi. Moon was a Sci-fi film in the mold of Kubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the kinds of sci-fi films that use the genre as a means to explore big ideas about humanity, rather than as an opportunity for spectacle or fantasy.Source Code has some of the former in it (as to how much, I’ll need a second viewing), but it seems clear that it was intended to be the latter. This is a commercial, popcorn Sci-fi, the kind of movie that asks you to accept its premise and be lenient on the details.

The film opens with Captain Colter Stevens finding himself on a train with no idea how he got there. He looks into a mirror and sees another man’s face looking back at him. He is utterly confused but it doesn’t matter because the train explodes and he wakes up in a strange metal pod, talking to a woman who is telling him he has to go into the “source code” which will allow him to relive the last 8 minutes of a man’s life in order to find out who is responsible for the bomb, so that they can prevent a second attack.

There will be those people whose brains will get all twisted up over the fact that none of the technology makes sense, but it doesn’t need to. In fact, what makes the narrative so effective is the film’s less-is-more approach to exposition. You start out knowing nothing, and the film pulls you along from there by effectively doling out new revelations at a slow and steady pace. The film quickly establishes a narrative structure that alternates between Stevens in the source code (the Train) and Stevens in the pod. The story unfolds like a puzzle coming together, with each new repetition offering a new piece that ups the stakes or alters your perspective.

Jake Gyllenhaal is very entertaining. He plays him as a somewhat impulsive and foolish guy, who nonetheless has a big heart and a likeable personality. The two female leads, Vera Farmiga and Michelle Monaghan do a good job with characters who are underdeveloped and not given a lot to do. Michelle Monaghan has an especially difficult job, since half her lines are repeated from earlier scenes. She comes across as sincere and likeable, and while more nuance would be better, it worked well enough for me.

The reaction to this film thus far has been highly positive, if a 90% on RottonTomatoes is any indication, but I’ve also seen a bit of a backlash on the internetzes and from some of the podcast critics (Filmspotting and Slashfilmcast, to be specific) about the end of the film. There is one final twist in at the end of the film, and there are some who are of the mind that if the film ended before this was revealed, it would be a better film. That might be true. But I think it works either way. I didn’t expect much more than an entertaining mind-bender done with some intelligence, and that’s what I got. I don’t think a small, original film by a director with art-house credentials has to be dripping in deeper themes any more than a straightforward popcorn movie needs to be a 200 million dollar production based on a popular franchise. Source Code occupies a far too vacant middle ground, and it’s high time Hollywood gave it some company.