Black Swan

When I first heard about Darren Aronofsky’s new film, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Some sites were billing it as a Science Fiction film, which it really isn’t. I mean, if I were to say there’s a new Science Fiction film starring Natalie Portman where she plays a ballerina, you start thinking “Oh no, it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey all over again!” (Which was essentially a ballet in space.) In all actuality, Black Swan is a thriller, just so you are prepared.

To sum up the story, Natalie Portman plays a studying ballet dancer, Nina, who embodies the devoted artist – constantly in pursuit of perfection. The ballet company she performs with is slated to mount the classic show Swan Lake. It has always been her dream to play the Swan Queen, a role which requires the dancer to embody both the innocent, pure white swan and the evil, seductive black swan. Nina is a natural for the part of the white swan, but her innocence and drive for perfection undermine her ability to portray its free-spirited and manipulative alter ego.

"My dressing room on 'That 70s Show' was SO much bigger than this."

In attempting to tap into her darker side, with some “guidance” by the director, Nina becomes drawn to Lily, a new dancer in the company played by Mila Kunis. Lily represents everything Nina is not – she is imperfect, impulsive, and without inhibitions. Their interaction is the catalyst which starts Nina on a path of self discovery and evolution.

This film is difficult to review in the spirit of preserving its intentional uncertainty. The use of sound, camera shots and plot loops was very disorienting but lent to the storyline, leaving the audience just as confused by what was happening to Nina as she was herself. It isn’t really until the end of the movie that you have a fairly clear idea of what exactly was going on.

The story heavily mirrors (pun intended?) the story of Swan Lake as a metaphor for Nina’s life and transformation as a dancer. This imagery is practically beaten over the audience’s head with the use of color coordinated costuming, loads of reflective surfaces, mirrored action between characters, and Nina literally seeing other people turn into evil doppelgangers of herself.

This pretty much mirrors the look my friend Steve had on his face throughout the whole 2nd half of the movie.

Black Swan is most definitely rated R for disturbing imagery, language, and sexual content. This is a film that will be harder for less-mature audiences to handle, as they will easily be lost in giggling and grossing out over the previously mentioned content. (As was the high school-aged group in the theatre we were in.)

Thankfully, this content is not needlessly gratuitous. I must admit, I had my reservations when some of the loudest buzz over this movie centered around a love scene between Portman and Kunis, but it’s adequately woven into the overall plot flow, and still uses clever photography to avoid any full-on nudity. The disturbing imagery is a little more jarring, so be aware, there will be some moments you cringe, but they effectively lend themselves to the storytelling.

It's certainly easier on the eyes than that Keifer Sutherland movie.

I have to say, the film is artistically well done. I’m very interested to find out what technique(s) they used to create the independent mirror-image effects, as there are some fairly intricate moments where the camera would literally have to be looking at itself in the mirror, but it’s never seen. The storyline is solid, and the discomfort caused throughout the film is intentional and adds to the overall dark ambiance.

I’d recommend this to the over-17 film loving crowd, although I think you’d be fine to wait for it on DVD. The theatrical presentation doesn’t really add to the spectacle. Overall, it’s a solid film, with some excellent performances, specifically Portman’s, and a well-put-together cinematic vision on the part of the director. This will definitely be one to watch for in the upcoming awards season.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula

BSD posterIn one of the most important chapters in Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” Lucy Westenre tells the story of how she received three marriage proposals in one day. We gain a chuckle by reading it, but we also learn how good Lucy’s heart is and how kind and humble she is, as well as see the character of her suitors.

But there is a fourth man in Lucy’s life, a certain Count we all know. He visits her at night, and she begins to be found in the morning at the brink of death, almost totally drained of blood. Her three suitors rally around her and, with the help of Dr. Van Helsing’s transfusion equipment, literally pour their life into her. So it goes for many pages; the Count steals her life away by night; the men who love her exhaust themselves by day in a desperate battle to save her life. Van Helsing trims her room with garlic. The Texan suitor, Quincy Morris, patrols the grounds around her home all night. But the Count’s craft is too great and Lucy finally succumbs. By this point the characters are sufficiently developed that the reader feels their loss almost as acutely as they do.

But of course, Lucy becomes a vampire. She preys on local children for awhile until once again confronted by her suitors and Van Helsing. Dr. Seward, narrating this part of the story, describes “the thing in the coffin” as a “mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity.” They put a stake through her heart, and watch her turn back to the woman they once knew.  There follows a beautiful paragraph about redemption, eternal life and contrasting inner beauty with the perverse eternal youth of a vampiress.

Would that I had sufficient space to fully describe the literary riches in Stoker’s masterpiece, but that will have to do. Imagine then, my disappointment at Francis Ford Coppula’s attempt to film “Dracula.” To do justice to the book would have required a long movie; probably around three hours. Coppula seems determined to cut it off at two, so that the movie, even in its best moments, is nothing more than a watered-down version of the book. To make matters worse, Coppula crams in a sub plot in which Mina Murray dates Dracula while her fiancé struggles across Europe. Taking a page from “The Mummy” Coppula seems to imply that Mina is a sort of reincarnation of a bride of the historical Dracula. The movie never explains this, however. In fact, the editing of this film is downright schizophrenic. The story I told above takes all of 10 minutes to fly by in the film, and begins with a shot of Lucy lying on a park bench, apparently being raped by a werewolf (I can only assume this is Dracula in some other form, but this too is never explained). Far from being Stoker’s figure of “sweet purity,” Coppula’s Lucy is essentially a 19th century valley girl. Seward and Quincy are barely given any screen time, and with no back-story, Arthur’s lines about how he would give the last drop of his blood to save Lucy are as flat and unbelievable as anything in Hollywood. Even her two death scenes seem insignificant.

drac, mina

Gary Oldman sucks in "Dracula."

To be sure, a proper film version of “Dracula” would get slow at times, bogged down in dialogue and character development, but it was precisely these things that made the book great. It takes the reader through the loss, the grief, the struggle and the eventual triumph of the seven main characters. If we didn’t feel their bravery, their love for each other, and their iron faith, reading the accompanying horror story would have been a waste of time. Perversely, the only genuine affection in Coppula’s film seems to be between Mina and Dracula.

In typical Hollywood fashion, Coppula tries to compensate for this lack of substance with spectacle. Disembodied shadows creep across walls, water flows uphill and blood flows out of inanimate objects for no reason. This entertains for a few minutes, but it’s a poor substitute for a story. It might even be scary, if any of it looked real, or if there was any reason to care.

Coppula’s film is to Stoker’s novel what a vampire is to the person he or she was in life: the same thing, except stripped of its soul, its passion, its humanity, and marked by lurid signs of cruelty and bloodlust.

The book

The movie

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