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Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Ballet, horror, and psychological drama form a sensational Danse Macabre in Black Swan. Like any dance, the story is something to be interpreted rather than taken literally.


Natalie Portman is the Black Swan
Natalie Portman is the Black Swan

Black Swan centers around a bold new Lincoln Center production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that seeks to scale back the gloss and get back to the core of the oft-told tragedy in which a seductive, evil Black Swan steals away the sweet White Swan’s boyfriend. Disillusioned, the White Swan kills herself and finds freedom in death.

This new interpretation is a big opportunity for Nina (Natalie Portman, V for Vendetta). The former Swan Queen, a beautiful ballet diva named Beth (Winona Ryder, Star Trek), is retiring at the end of the current season. This is Nina’s chance to finally take her ballet career to a whole new level.

The trouble is Nina’s a relative innocent. She’s focused on her dancing career, lives a clean-cut, straight-laced life, and she lives with her doting, but emotionally fragile mother (Barbara Hershey, The Natural). The director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, Eastern Promises), presses Nina to lose herself in the role, in the ballet. She obsesses over being perfect and stresses over conscientiously making all the right moves instead of simply letting them flow from within.

When it comes to the White Swan, she’s got things down pat. But when it comes to the much more aggressive, impulsive Black Swan, Nina still needs to stretch her talent.

I Hope I Get It

A Chorus Line this is not.

This is a deep, psychological analysis of what it takes to perform and transform on stage.

Is Natalie Portman up to the task? Absolutely. This is yet another breakout role for the actress who seems to be repeatedly underestimated, most likely because of her involvement in Episodes I-III. However, she consistently proves she can deliver when working with an actor’s director. She was terrific in her first breakout role, as an assassin-in-training in The Professional (at the tender age of 12). And she proved it again in movies like Closer, Cold Mountain, and V for Vendetta.

Nina’s a challenging role. There’s a lot of depth to be mined and Portman perfectly takes the character from innocent to awakened wild child to potential killer. With awards season revving up, Portman stands as a serious contender.

Winona Ryder, for her part, takes another big step on her long, long comeback trail. She looks drop-dead gorgeous, at least before her world crumbles under the weight of premature retirement forced upon her by Thomas. In Beth, Nina can find a deeply daring ballerina who lost her way, and a woman who very well might foreshadow Nina’s own fate.

Completing the twisted dance ménage a trois, there’s also an upstart ballerina from San Francisco who invades Nina’s turf. Lilly (Mila Kunis, The Book of Eli) is a figurative Black Swan in the mix, seducing Nina and providing the catalyst for her to dig deep into her dark side and awaken previously suppressed desires.

Given Black Swan’s taste for the theatrical, it’s only fitting that all the details matter, right down to the wardrobe. There’s Nina, constantly wearing agreeable, inoffensive white. Beth and Lilly, though, sport blacks to further push their aggressive nature.

Killer Divas

With The Wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky made an easily accessible, easily understood little drama that helped resurrect Mickey Rourke’s career. Black Swan provides him with the multi-layered material he’s accustomed to in previous work like Pi and The Fountain. It’ll be interesting to see how he approaches far more populist material as director of the upcoming Wolverine sequel.

As Nina’s career achieves liftoff, her growing paranoia threatens to bring it right back down.

That paranoia is the key that unlocks some horrific scenes as Nina, constantly the perfectionist, picks at her own skin. A little misplaced cuticle is picked at until a whole patch of flesh is peeled away from her finger. That’s one example of a scene that would seem more at home in a Cronenberg or Carpenter flick, but as Nina’s life unravels – or rather, transforms – it makes perfect sense.

A blend of the literal and the theatrical, in Black Swan it’s fascinating to watch Nina’s life begin to mirror the story of Swan Lake while she becomes increasingly more intimate with the production.

Undertones of Mommie Dearest and Psycho keep Nina’s world on edge. The question is, as Nina becomes more and more unstable, what is real and what is part of her mental transformation into the very character she plays on stage? The mix of tone, music, drama, and, yes, ballet makes for a terrifically entertaining and thrilling piece of cinema. Never before has nail clipping been so dramatic.