Black Swan (2010)

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is part melodrama, part horror movie, a dark, gothic tale of obsession, madness, and fragility as personified by Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a young ballerina with a New York ballet company. Nina's years of dedication, of pain and practice, and singleminded pursuit of perfection come to fruition when she is offered the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. In this reimagined take on Tchaikovsky's classic, Nina will play dual roles: the tragic white swan, and her evil twin black swan. The ballet company's artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) likes to seduce his prima ballerinas -- Nina's fragile ego and timid demeanor leave her ill-prepared for his mind games. Further complicating her ascendancy are a free-spirited (i.e. slutty) new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who has black wings tattooed on her back, and Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the bitter ballerina forced into retirement and cruelly cast aside by Thomas. Nina's mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) messes with her head too -- she's a former ballerina who now lives through Nina's career, and she is by turns smothering and supportive, controlling and caring.

Aronofsky, working from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, transcends the backstage drama cliches: the professional and sexual rivals, the imperious director, the controlling stage mother, the dressing room treachery. He also embraces those cliches, and the ballet-specific ones too, focusing on the pain and physical suffering endured by Nina -- the ugly wounds that seem a requisite part of producing beauty in ballet (starvation, broken toes). There's more than the usual pain for Nina: strange grotesque wounds, mysterious scratches that appear on her back, fingers that bleed and peel. She hears voices. She sees doppelgangers, mirror images, twins, and encounters new parts of herself. She is consumed by her role as the Swan Queen -- the transformation is destroying her physically and mentally.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique shot the movie with a handheld camera using grainy filmstock and video, giving the images both intimacy and a sense of being off-balance, a little dizzy and disturbed. The camera frequently follows Nina closely from behind, seeing what she sees, as she sees it, and experiencing dance through her. The technique adds emphasis to what is really going on in Black Swan -- as the spinning, pirouetting dancer spins out of control, she loses her grip on what's real and what's not (leading up to a trippy triple-twist of an ending). Once the movie slips inside Nina's mind, it takes flight. Pain, sex, fear, repression, ecstasy, blood, violence -- there's a dark malevolence to Black Swan, a vision of art as more than suffering. This is art as simultaneous self-creation and self-destruction. As a dancer, Portman is good enough to pass, and she's terrific as the timorous, tremulous, repressed Nina. Nina is a difficult character, one who is largely passive, absorbing praise, criticism, love, hatred. She dances  perfectly but, as Thomas tells her, without passion. She pours her passion into *being* a perfect dancer, but there's nothing left for the stage, or for her life off-stage. 

Black Swan inevitably calls to mind Powell & Pressburger's exquisite The Red Shoes (1948), another ballet movie in which life imitates art. It also calls to mind Aronofsky's last film, The Wrestler, and his first, Pi. Aronofsky specializes in obsession, self-inflicted pain, madness, and characters driven to extremes in pursuit of big dreams. What Black Swan is not is a rarefied or reverent look at the world of ballet. It depicts ballet, or at least this ballet company, as crushing, cutthroat, mutilating, and emotionally and physically brutal -- no place for a good girl who still sleeps in a pink bedroom full of toys. Black Swan is sometimes shocking, sometimes sexy, funny, and moving. As he often does, Aronofsky successfully mixes highbrow and low art in Black Swan, to make a psycho-horror-drama that doubles as ravishing arthouse artist's tragedy. 


The Tourist (2010)

It is no easier to make a dull movie than an exciting one, generally speaking. But it can't have been easy to make a movie as lacklustre and wan as The Tourist with megawatt stars like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, both eminently watchable actors. And yet, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others), working from a script he co-authored with Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) has done just that. That's a whole lot of filmmaking talent gone meh.

But wait, there's more: Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, and Rufus Sewell are also in The Tourist, and none of them manage to liven up the joint either, which is really quite remarkable. Venice, however, looks swell. I'm sure it's a lovely place to make a movie, which is, I suppose, reason enough to do it, even if the movie is The Tourist.

Venice is the setting for most of the action in The Tourist, a mystery-thriller about an ordinary guy getting mixed up in international intrigue and a case of mistaken identity, instead of having a nice, quiet little vacation abroad. It's the kind of film Hitchcock might have made (and did make), only Hitch would have made it a lot more fun and entertaining than this. Jolie, decked out in an assortment of formfitting retro dresses and elbow-length gloves certainly dresses the part of the old school femme fatale as Elise Clifton-Ward, a mysterious woman being followed by Interpol. She poses, she postures, she vamps, she's in love with a criminal. So she boards a train from Paris to Venice, and following instructions she receives in a letter from her lover, Alexander Pierce, she finds a fall guy in Frank Tupelo (Depp), a sad, timid math teacher from Wisconsin. 

Elise takes Frank to a luxurious hotel. Things get more complicated from there -- Venice is crawling with bad guys who think Frank is Pierce. Pierce stole money from said bad guys -- a lot of money -- and they want it back. So they want Frank. Meanwhile Scotland Yard wants Pierce because he owes back taxes on the stolen money.

The plot is fairly preposterous, but it ends up being fairly predictable too, which is far worse. A preposterous plot I can get behind, as long as it entertains and surprises. The Tourist goes through the motions of an exciting thriller -- dinner on a train, boat chases through the canals of Venice, rooftop pursuit, jumping onto a canvas awning efficiently combined with crashing into a fruit stand -- all the old chestnuts are there, but there is never a moment in the movie when it's possible to believe that either Elise or Frank is in genuine peril. 

The real problem with The Tourist, though, is that no one involved (except maybe Jolie) seems to know that this is not a movie to be taken seriously. The Tourist could have been livened up considerably with some zingy dialogue, a little witty patter, some comic romantic tension. Frank is awfully morose for a man being pursued by mobsters, Interpol, and Scotland Yard, while mixed up with a gorgeous dame who gets in all kinds of trouble -- he seems enervated rather than energized by the whole experience. He's the straight man to Jolie's vamp. Depp's no slouch in the vamping department himself (e.g. Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter), but someone forgot to tell him that this much glamorous, cliche-riddled nonsense needs a leading man who knows that the straight man can't be played with a straight face.


Fair Game (2010)

There are two stories in Fair Game, one big picture, one little. They're both about ambition, trust, devotion to truth, reality. Both are stories familiar in their generalities, and in their specifics. And both are stories about what happened to Valerie Plame Wilson.

Valerie (Naomi Watts), you may recall, was the CIA operative outed by the Bush Administration after her husband Joe (Sean Penn) accused the White House of dissembling about weapons of mass destruction during the march to war against Iraq. Joe Wilson, a former US ambassador, had gone to Africa at the behest of the CIA, investigated the alleged sale of the infamous "yellowcake" uranium, and found no evidence that Iraq ever bought any nuclear material. The conclusion of Valerie and her team of analysts at the CIA was that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. When the president, in his State of the Union address, claimed otherwise, Joe went on the warpath, ultimately accusing the administration of lying in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. Then, the story goes, Valerie's identity as a CIA spook was revealed -- her career at the CIA destroyed -- in order to discredit her husband.

Fair Game recounts all of that, but then shifts focus to create an intimate portrait of a couple facing a life-altering attack. As Valerie's career disintegrates, her marriage begins to collapse under the strain. What's interesting about Valerie and Joe is not that they are exceptional, but rather that they are, in a lot of ways, a fairly ordinary couple. Joe's older, already retired from his first career, now a stay-at-home dad starting up a consulting business. He gets the bulk of the childcare duty -- they have young twins -- while his younger, globetrotting wife, her career still in its ascendancy, works late in the night at a high-stress, demanding job. Temperamentally, they're quite different -- he's an idealist and a hothead for whom being right is more important than anything. He never leaves a dinner party without getting into at least one argument, while his cooler, more reserved wife bites her tongue and is good at keeping secrets. Joe spends his days in a righteous fury, tilting at windmills with all his might. His best weapon -- the truth -- is no match for White House operatives who decide what's true, and bend reality to suit their political purposes. Valerie, levelheaded, calm, and persuasive, is accustomed to analyzing data and interpreting reality. As ambitious as she is, and as devoted to the truth as she is, she's a team player, and understands that hers is not the final word. As the story is told in Fair Game, she gets caught in the crossfire between Joe and the White House.

Fair Game, written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (based on memoirs by Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson), and directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith), requires quite a bit of set-up, which the movie moves through briskly, with both Joe and Valerie hopping from one global hot spot to another. It helps, watching the movie, if you're already familiar with the basics of what happened in the Plame affair, and the political import of it all. The world is, of course, still dealing with the fallout of the Bush years, but Fair Game chooses to focus primarily on the personal consequences for the Wilsons. They are, in the big picture, small potatoes, just more collateral damage in the Bush Wars. But, as Fair Game reveals, no target was too small to be in the crosshairs of the venal, mendacious Bush operatives Scooter Libby (David Andrews, hatefully smooth-talking and self-satisfied) and Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre).

The movie mixes video clips from the Bush presidency (carefully selected to inflame old sentiments anew), with Liman's juddering handheld camera footage to create an unsettling, immediate sense of the floor falling out from under the Wilsons, and the end of the world as we knew it. Fair Game is a gripping, infuriating cloak-and-dagger political thriller about how all politics is personal, and how the petty, vindictive personal stuff and the neo-con world order stuff collided in the attack on the Wilsons.