Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review: "Black Swan"


Desperately desiring to be profound but often profoundly silly, "Black Swan" takes high-minded American cinema down a notch or three. This unrelentingly serious drama about a ballerina's psychotic breakdown while preparing for the lead in "Swan Lake" is swamped by a hip-deep layer of theatricality and artifice.

Director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler") and a trio of screenwriters present us with a trio of main characters, and one or two tertiary ones, who we do not for a second believe could exist in the real world. As Nina Sayers, the ingenue tapped to be the ballet company's new leading light, Natalie Portman draws a character so repressed and fearful, it's like she stopped growing at the age of 8.

Perpetually tremulous and paranoid, Nina makes for one pitiable protagonist.

After the aging star -- played by Winona Ryder, and doesn't that make us all feel old -- is given the boot, egomaniacal director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) taps Nina to play the Swan Queen, even though he has doubts about her ability to tackle the darker twin role of the Black Swan.

Thomas is every cliché of the domineering patriarchal artist rolled into one, right down to his insistence on bedding his leading ladies.

Lastly, and least credibly, is Mila Kunis as Lily, the new dancer who becomes Nina's understudy/doppelganger. With her imprecise but vibrant dancing style, Lily was born to play the temptress Black Swan, just as Nina was meant to be the pure, virginal Queen.

Kunis has the face of an angel and the voice of a Valley Girl (a perfect fit for her day job, voicing a TV cartoon character). Lily is carefree and flirtatious, and keeps seeking out the clearly unreceptive Nina for friendship, even after their encounters become progressively confrontational.

Barbara Hershey plays Nina's fantastically over-protective mother, who makes Mommie Dearest resemble June Cleaver. A former dancer herself, mother crushes her daughter with infantilizing TLC as if to prevent her from ever growing into something other than a "frightened little girl."

As if mother's projection of her failed aspirations onto her daughter wasn't obvious enough, Aronofsky and company hammer it home in one groan-inducing scene where she drops a mention to her own career: "The one I gave up to have you."

As opening night draws closer, Nina grows more and more anxious about her ability to perform -- and her mental state becomes more and more unhinged. After Lily is named her understudy, she becomes convinced the interloper is out to sabotage her career and take Nina's place at center stage.

The result is a lot of computer-generated imagery of Lily's face morphing into Nina's and back again. She even starts to develop a rash on her shoulder that matches the winged tattoo Lily just happens to have on her back.

And Portman and Kunis share a supposedly scorching bedroom scene in which the actresses elevate coyness into comedy.

Is Lily really just Nina's repressed sexuality bursting to get free? Are they disparate souls blending into one? Splintered fragments of Aronofsky's high-speed blender puree of Tchaikovsky's ballet?

Who knows? And, in the end, really cares?

This mush-brained psychological thriller is basically Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" as interpreted via "Fight Club," pressed through the sieve of a high school drama class festering with personality conflicts.

2 stars out of four

40 comments:

  1. Bravo to you for seeing through this pretentious piece of claptrap. Even the teenagers I saw it with thought the special effects were out of place, the most dramatic scenes laughable, and Kunis either miscast or badly directed.
    It was a fascinating premise that should have been handled subtly. Instead it was a were-swan slasher flick.

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  2. You sir, are an idiot. I can't even believe how pretentious you sound. You should really just quit being a critic and try something else, because obviously you aren't very good at this...

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  3. haha yeah susan, you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.

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  4. I'm going to have to agree with the two other posters here and say Chris and Susan definitely are off the mark. The film has received nominations for best film at several festivals and film critics awards event not to mention that Natalie Portman will likely receive a nomination for best actress at the Academy Awards.

    Sure, nothing is perfect, but I get the feeling that Chris either didn't understand the movie or that he is just trying to put it down to stick out from those who are giving it well deserved praise.

    Sorry Chris, but you really do come off pretentious and your review really doesn't bring any interesting analysis. Of course that's unless you meant it for people who hadn't seen it yet in which case you gave too much away for no reason. I don't really know what you're trying to achieve with your review, but like you said,

    "Who knows? And, in the end, really cares?"

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  5. haha yeah, dude the review was kinda pointless, summarizing the movie isn't really a review especially if the reader hasn't seen it yet. I mean, shouldn't you just give a little synopsis and then at least try to analyze the music, cinematography, or the acting? I guess you did bring up kunis' voice acting work with Family Guy, but it doesn't really matter here and it just comes of like a juvenile attack at a pretty successful actress.

    Anyway I think you should try giving less of the plot away while giving better analysis so your readers can still get an idea of the quality of the film without ruining the movie. Unlike the commenter above me, I think your readers would appreciate it.

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  6. Like Susan said it is so pretentious and ... fake. Right after this swan fake I saw "The king's speech" and what a surprise! It was like having some fresh air in my lungs.

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  7. For the first time in many years I was tempted to walk out of this thing well before the end and ask for a refund. Be warned that this is a very painful and disturbing viewing experience. The scenes lapse in and out of reality and fantasy with no clue as to which you happen to be in at the moment. Many scenes were shot with a shaky handheld camera, which was very distracting. (Need a SteadyCam??) The point of view at times is that of an obsessive psychotic, with bizarre close ups. This is a pointless film that is poorly edited, tedious and is pure torture to sit through. Just awful. Go only if you are masochistic."

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  8. This is a very bad review, as far as reviews go. I dont even care that you didn't like the film but at least have some valid reasons.

    Mobius is right that this is a very painful and disturbing viewing experience but it is intentional. It's not the product of poor editing or cheaping out on equipment. This film is very unrelenting which can be draining on the audience. Some will like that, some will not.

    In regards to the effects I thought that they pushed the line of being too much and then backed off quite well.

    anyway, Who knows? And, in the end, really cares? should be one sentence, not two.

    thankyougoodbye

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  9. I thought this movie was perfect...not pretentious whatsoever... I don't understand the people who are ripping it apart, I feel like we saw two totally different movies. I left the theater and was thinking about this movie for days after, just waiting to see it again! And then the comment about it needing to be more subtle? Seriously? It was very subtle, that's part of what makes it so amazing. The little shaky glimpses into Nina's psyche, her gradual descent into madness, I don't know how much more subtle they could have made things while still conveying what they were trying to get across. I will be shocked if Natalie Portman doesn't get an Oscar nom for this. It's been a long time since I've gone to the movies and been so engrossed by what I was watching that I felt like I was actually in the movie like a fly on the wall. It was very absorbing and well done.

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  10. This reviewer just summarizes the film and takes a few snarky swipes at it without explaining why he thought it didn't work.

    How does Mila Kunis lack credibility in her role? Is it because she used to act on a sitcom, or is there something specific to her performance in this movie that causes her to lose credibility?

    And how is the sex scene between her and Portman comedic? When I saw the film, there were two idiotic teenage girls sitting next to me giggling throughout the scene, but I attributed that to immaturity. They also giggled during the masterbation scene.

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  11. I came looking for a movie review that might intellectually dismantle aspects of this film.

    I left when it was obvious that this critic enjoys swinging a dull club to satiate a small ego.

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  12. I wanted to bolt from the theater after ten minutes. Relentless closeups with a shaky hand-held camera. Laughable and pointless special effects. Two-dimensional characters that you don't care about. And the plastic surgery disaster, Barbara Hershey. And since I'm carping, the cinematographer needs to find a way to tone down those overwhitened teeth of Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and scary lady Barbara Hershey. I know 9/10 of the population has overwhitened, cheap, fake-looking teeth, but I'd rather not see it so obvious on the screen unless it adds something to the character. I commend the reviewer for a job well done. For those who complain that the reviewer didn't justify his position, all I can say is that after stepping barefoot in a steaming pile of it, that feels, looks, and smells like it, you must need a taste just to be sure.

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  13. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Looking at Rotten Tomatoes and the awards and nominations rolling out for "Black Swan," it appears I'm in a very small minority of opinion. But a critic has to be true to her or her own view, whether they're in the mainstream or outside it.

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  14. I LOVED the movie and thought the acting was fabulous, but I did laugh through a lot of it. It was so gruesome and over-the-top that I found it to be campy rather than serious. Do yourself a favor and go with someone who has a weak stomach. You'll never laugh harder!

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  15. Thank you for having the guts to publish an honest review. Those who commented in contradiction to the very salient points you made lacked the critical judgement one ought to have as an intelligent movie reviewer. Yes, I agree it was like a high school production, but moreso I believe it failed on what it itself purported to be: a story about honing one's skill as an artist or whatever else this schizoid celebrity vehicle was.

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  16. Oh and Vincent Cassels is the best thing in this movie and what made it tolerable and entertaining in bits.

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  17. "...a critic has to be true to her or her own view, whether they're in the mainstream or outside it." it really sounds like you're trying to be contrarian simply to prove a point. i agree that there were less than stellar parts of the movie however you show no intellect in its dissection.

    protip: thoughtful prose will work better than being antithetical for the purpose of drawing page views.

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  18. ok first of all you need to understand darron aronofsky and his type of directing. if you've seen his past movies you would probably understand such as requiem for a dream, pi, the fountain and of course the wrestler. every emotion that i had during this film was the same emotion i had in all his past films and i'm pretty sure that's what he was going for. Many people don't like this kind of movie and that's ok just stick to your chick flicks, but for those who do appreciate movies, such as the black swan, can see the true genius in it. for those of us who can get past the petty observations and actually dig deep into the meaning instead of staying of the surface, can regard black swan as a masterpiece and well deserving of awards.

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  19. ps this wasn't about "honing one's skill as an artist" it was about the impossibility of being perfect

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  20. I thought the performances in the movie were great, but I thought the movie itself was gross. I really wanted to like this film, but I could barely stand to watch it. I was frankly annoyed with the did it happen or not happen bs. That has been played out for me since American Psycho and Fight Club. Even Inception had the trick ending. Why not put it in 3d so it can be totally cliche.

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  21. This film is like a female 'Jacob's Ladder' in ways, as I believe it is in NYC (as I tihnk JL is), and most importantly it has all of these ambiguous characters and situations and nothing is blatant.

    This film is supposed to have some inconceivable parts to it. This film is what David Lynch would do if he evolved his work (which he hasn't done really in years). This film is not a thriller or a psychological piece necessarily. It is a canvas of thought and it is very well constructed and it is beyond rudimentary. It tackles the painful, the stressful, the fearful, the angry, the sad, the goofy, and other things. Goofy is important as dreams and the human mind can be and are wonky.

    The point of having the gross and stress inducing scenes was to make you feel stressed and intense while watching those parts. All of the feelings in the film are relatable to real life-- we may just not live in a dream world, but a) surreal moments can happen sometimes in life, b) there are psychotic people in the world, c) this is what many authors and film makers and creators do, which is amplify the human condition and actions/reactions to create something that is strong, compelling and an experience, but also makes you feel about life somehow or makes you emote, or even changes you.

    If you do a double take of the movie and think about it, more things will make more sense.

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  22. "the review was kinda pointless, summarizing the movie isn't really a review especially if the reader hasn't seen it yet. I mean, shouldn't you just give a little synopsis and then at least try to analyze the music, cinematography, or the acting? I guess you did bring up kunis' voice acting work with Family Guy, but it doesn't really matter here and it just comes of like a juvenile attack at a pretty successful actress." This. Exactly.
    Do you even realize what your profession is? you call yourself a movie critic yet you act like a 15 year old boy talking about some movie he just saw with his buddies. Making personal attacks on the actresses and revealing spoilers in the taglines of your rottentomatoes reviews. Are you just completely oblivious to how terrible of a job you are doing? Regardless of whether you enjoyed the movie or not, I would recommend learning how to do your job correctly.

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  23. ps. mobius' comment is easily one of the the most idiotic things I've read in a good while. Do you honestly think these things you are writing? You are pretty out of the loop buddy

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  24. I basically agree with the review, though I still thought the movie was fairly entertaining. I certainly wasn't bored.

    It takes itself so seriously though, yet some of the scenes are cringe-worthy, and I'm not talking about the self-mutilating bits. Subtle it is not.

    Also, I hope any teenagers who saw this were of the late-teen variety because "Swan" is a pretty sleazy flick.

    Lastly, maybe it's just me, but I didn't take the comment about Kunis' voice work to be an attack. Sounded more like an observation.

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  25. lmao @ mobius..."Many scenes were shot with a shaky handheld camera, which was very distracting. (Need a SteadyCam??) The point of view at times is that of an obsessive psychotic, with bizarre close ups." ...yeah the 13 million dollar budget only left enough for a sony consumer camera...aronofsky is a genius enough said

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  26. Chris's review is spot-on and this movie is way over-rated. Nina was in such a downward spiral and it wasn't compelling enough to be interesting.

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  27. Anonymous right above me, I found it very compelling. That it didn't compel you doesn't make it overrated.

    I think that's the problem a lot of people have with this review. The critic has his own opinion, and that's cool; Nina's problems aren't going to be everyone's, her story won't speak to everyone. But that this critic seems to think his not getting the story means it's not only worthless but "takes high-minded American cinema down" is so arrogant it's worthy of Cassel's character.

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  28. I agree with the review. This movie is as overrated as overrated gets. The movie could have been a silent film and not missed a beat. I thought the movie was entertaining because I spent the entire movie waiting for something in it to make sense. However, that never happened.

    I mean are we supposed to believe that she stabbed herself with a piece of mirror. Did she really perform two sets with this stab wound and not a single drop of blood was noticeable from anyone in her whites??

    Can you call this movie art? Of course, because like all abstract art, it did not make any sense and everyone can interpret the way they want. Does that make it a better film? Ehhh, no.

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  29. "Did she really perform two sets with this stab wound and not a single drop of blood was noticeable from anyone in her whites??"

    :::Spoiler:::

    Forget the blood. How did she even DO two performances with an intermission in between while being mortally wounded?

    They tried to mix pretentiously serious with fantastically unrealistic and most viewers don't seem to care.

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  30. If you actually read this review you can see pretty clearly that it's basically just an attempt to sound like an actual opinion, rather than actually being an opinion. Its as if this person went in deciding to give a negative review before hand and really only watched through to the end to make up more specific clever-minded high-and-mighty nonsense than they could think up from watching the trailer alone.
    That or possibly they just read other reviewers positive reviews and then watched the trailer and made up opinions based off this, adding in a couple boring variations of the general "blah blah pretentious this pretentious that".
    If you don't like the film fine. But since when did realistic characters become a cinematic necessity for creating a good film? Are you kidding? This is the same as the reviewers who said Darth Vadar was a crappy protagonist of a low budget forgettable sci film because he was unrealistic. Sure, nobody can use the "dark side of the force" to gain complete control of the galaxy, but this doesn't mean its not a great idea for a movie character.
    Comparisons aside, the characters are generally believable if you take in to context the set of the film, much of which is meant to portray a hallucinatory view through an unreliable narrator.
    Criticism of the way characters are written is by definition an opinion too subjective to be a serious token of a good movie review. Sometimes a there is a universal opinion about the writing in a film, when pretty much everyone agrees how well done something is one way or another.
    Sometimes its almost common knowledge when a film has some baddy writing, and that's okay.
    But don't throw your half-assed assessment of the way certain characters are written in a film where you know pretty much everyone thinks the writing is great, just to try and stand out.
    But seriously? What's wrong with the archetypal artist?
    If in fact this film is pretentious and crappy and blah blah then wouldn't you say it is the director and the writers who are the pretentious artists?
    I suppose in this case, this reviewers is.
    And then summing up the film by making reference to Bergman and a silly film based off of what was a great book and then rolling that into a "high school drama worthy" quip in an attempt at a great snobbish bullshit closing line to ride off into the wishing-they-were-"Gonzo"-film-reviewers arena of shitty reviews that were only written in spite of the film, is both detestable and sad.
    May I recommend a few documentaries that might have realistic "characters"?

    Seriously, laugh this one off.

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  31. great review-honestly, this covers most everything i thought. thanks!

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  32. Note to Anonymous: It's hard to care about what is going on if at least SOME of the characters are not believable AND likeable within the world created by the movie...

    Believable is easy, likeable is a lot harder, and multitudes of movies fail specifically because they fail to provide even one likeable character...

    It seems this film failed even at the easy part...

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  33. I think the reviewer hit everything spot on; honest and blunt. The folks that are railing against his review are just sour grapes.

    My wife hated it even more than I did; especially the bloated close ups, and the schlock-80's slasher film "horror" effects.

    I didn't care about the one-dimensional characters on any level, the fantasy/reality transitions and the perpetual crisis' became so all pervasive that I really stopped caring; it was like being hit with bags of quarters, after a while, you just want it to stop.

    Why did Thomas bring Lily from SF? Why did Lily come? Why did Mommy dearest cry while painting? How did she and Nina get to this point? Why did Thomas chose Nina, now, especially over other dancers he obviously admired? Why was the Little Princess (Ryder) even in this film? It was a completely throw away part.

    Nothing forthcoming, just random insanity, gore and cold, frigid, unsympathetic and bland insipidness...just like Nina; only the black swan never showed up to save the movie.

    The only part of this movie I like was the choreography, and as a person who is indifferent to ballet, that's just sad.

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  34. Anonymous - Dec 26; "Criticism of the way characters are written is by definition an opinion too subjective to be a serious token of a good movie review"

    Are you kidding me? That has to be the most fantastically bullsh*t statement made so far. How the Characters are written and how they fit into how the screenplay is written are the primary reasons for a movie to exist.

    Get a grip

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  35. This movie should have been called "Much ado about nothing"

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  36. The studio has many paid bloggers out attacking people who *dare* say anything bad about this crap movie and its vapid, self important director because it is awards season and they are hoping to drag in some extra suckers.

    IMO all of Aronofsky's movies are unintentionally cheesy and heavy-handed...the fact that this tripe is up for any awards shows that Hollywood is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

    And to the studio interns who posted here, better get to bitching me out for not liking the film either...isn't that what they are paying you for?! LOL

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  37. At the end I was saying, die already you psycho bitch. Never once cared for any of the characters. If you want a good movie about ballet, The Red Shoes 1948, at least it is an honest movie full of real emotions.

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  38. Yeah where did the lesbian scene come from? This movie is about some guy's fantasy that all quiet, timid, intoverted girls are really raving sex addicts who just need to get a big stiff one. That's their motivation, and every woman's motivation, right?? So campy and typical male delima that doesn't exist except in their one-dementional minds. I know when I first tried drugs I became a lesbian. Yeah makes a lot of sense! Pleasseee.

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  39. I'm 15 (just past the age threshold) and I saw this with my friends.

    I think it's clever how Nina's story, in the end, follows that of the ballet 'Swan Lake' and there were some quite intruiging, although somewhat disturbing, scenes.

    I agree that, in some scenes, there is a definite need for a SteadyCam, as the shaky movements is very distracting.

    To and extent, I agree that it tries too hard to be a profound piece of film, and would make a decent horror were it not for the complex storyline.

    Basically, I think they did the best with what they had, and I don't think it's bad at all, just perhaps not as good compared with some of the other films released recently.

    But, then again, I'm a teenager so probably none of you would take my opinion into account.

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  40. This film is what David Lynch would do if he evolved his work (which he hasn't done really in years)

    Don't compare actual profound art(Lynch) with a Hollywood flick dressed up as art house. Bad aesthetics - notwithstanding Portman - and lesbian sex scenes don't make something high brow.

    Black Swan is an above average film. It's better than crap like Avatar. But it is not even in the same ballpark as Lynch, Bergman et al.

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