Movie Review > Black Swan

I have been ruminating on the movie Black Swan since seeing it last Sunday, with my friend Emma who had already seen it the previous week. Aside from all the hype surrounding this Natalie Portman film on Twitter and Facebook, the fact that Emma was willing to go again just a week later to see it in theaters convinced me to sit through a movie entirely about the New York City ballet company, not exactly my forté.

But my low expectations for entertainment were truly blown away by Black Swan, as I found myself completely drawn into Portman’s stellar turn as Nina Sayers, a talented but timid member of the esteemed New York ballet company whose devotion is rewarded in the opening scenes by landing the coveted role of Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Vincent Cassel plays the brilliant but chauvinistic company director Thomas Leroy, who only rewards Nina with the part after he gets to steal a kiss and test her sexual boundaries in the privacy of his all black and white (absolutely no color) office.

Once the main ballerina storyline has been established, the movie’s true identity as a psychosexual thriller becomes apparent as we realize the line between Nina’s frightening dream sequences and real life is ambiguous at best. She lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer who has channelled her failed shot at ballet stardom into a creepy obsession with her daughter’s career that borders on imprisonment.

Anyone who has seen Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain knows that Aronofsky is not one for intimation in his visual approach. In Black Swan he stays true to form, repeatedly zooming into the nitty gritty details of ballerina life:  busted toes, filthy silk shoes, and astounding skinniness brought on by intense training regimens and a little bulimia too. The scenes where Nina’s mother is furiously clipping her daughter’s fingernails recalled for me the rapid-fire drug use scenes from Requiem.

The ballet storyline follows a very typical arc, centered on company rehearsals and gradually building to the climax of opening night. Along the way we witness the unraveling of Nina’s sanity as the evil black swan begins to take over, manifest in her curious connection with the wild west coast ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) and frighteningly so in the black feathers that start to peak through her shoulder blades as the story progresses. Portman portrays her sheltered and sexually numbed ballerina so entirely well that even at the most extreme and briefly gruesome moments, you never catch her acting.

Once the film reaches the final breathtaking scene of Swan Lake’s opening night, Nina has been transformed from the spineless second ran into the main attraction, the lustrous black swan. It’s hard to adequately capture the excitement and beauty of this climax, all I can say is that you should run, not walk, to the nearest theater this holiday season and check out the performance of Portman’s career.

-MJC

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Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Runtime: 108 minutes.

Movie Review > MacGruber

I should start this post by saying that I do not regularly watch Saturday Night Live these days, and am well aware of the show’s hit or miss nature in terms of its hosts and writer’s ability a to craft a funny sketch.  By my estimates, there are probably only two or three episodes worth watching over a whole season, and it seems to have been that way my entire life.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I agreed to see the latest feature film to be spun off from an SNL sketch, MacGruber. The setup on the show is simple enough: a comedic take on the ABC action-adventure television series MacGyver, in which a plaid shirted and khaki vested Will Forte is consistently thwarted in his attempts to disarm a bomb by his own ineptitude and tendency to be distracted by his harried cohorts. Each brief sketch ends with the bomb detonating and everyone in said scene falling victim to MacGruber’s stupidity.  I had only seen this sketch a couple times during the recent Betty White episode, leaving me unsure how such a conceit would pan out in a feature length cinema format.

Reader, I have not laughed this hard in a movie for a long while.  It is important to go into MacGruber knowing that it is a pure spoof of the Mission:Impossible/James Bond super sleuth, for it allows you to overlook any of the lapses in continuity or storytelling (which add to the comedic appeal anyways) and just enjoy the hilarious ride. Kristen Wiig, the current workhorse of SNL and soon-to-be breakout movie star, shines in her role as the nervous female sidekick to offset MacGruber’s sheer bravado. Wiig already has a cadre of classic SNL characters that exhibit her gut-busting vocalization and delivery skills, my favorites being Judy Grimes (the perpetually “just kidding” Weekend Update travel correspondent) and of course Virgania Horsen (purveyor of scenic hot air balloon rides). Her role in MacGruber as Vicki St. Elmo, a tragically inept singer and love interest for the titular hero, seems just another rung on her ascension into the pantheon of women comedians.

Ryan Phillippe and Val Kilmer are also around as a by-the-book military sidekick and evildoer antagonist, respectively. Plot details are unimportant as the story moves along swiftly, carried by the comedic talents of the cast, particularly Forte, who is clearly having the time of his life in bringing such a silly character to the big screen. Some of the best scenes include MacGruber’s fabled wedding day tragedy (think exploding bride) and his inevitable coitus with Vicki St. Elmo, which cuts abruptly from a sensuous, softly-lit love scene to a raunchy exposé of the protagonist’s animalistic bedroom noises.

It was disheartening for me to read many of the mainstream reviews for this movie, particularly A.O. Scott’s. After seeing the movie and then reading his critical take on the 99 minutes of deadpan hilarity, it becomes apparent that this man has not had any fun in a few decades. Hopefully with strong word of mouth, a comedic gem like MacGruber can withstand those withering reviews and stay in a theater near you for the rest of the summer.

-MJC

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MacGruber, starring Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Val Kilmer, Maya Rudolph. Directed by Jorma Taccone. Runtime: 99 minutes. Released May 21, 2010.