Oscar Hopefuls Part I

Now that the fall semester and holidays are over, I can catch up on a few Oscar contenders that I’ve been too busy to see immediately.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s intense and dark fantasy follows Nina (Natalie Portman), an "aging" ballerina (mid-to-late twenties, but old enough to feel she needs bigger roles now) for whom the pressure of starring in Swan Lake initiates a chain of paranoia, sexuality, physical torture and overdue freedom. Portman is brilliant as both a girl who has taken too long to grow up and, in Nina's hallucinations, a carnal savage that wants to escape. She is surrounded (and her character oppressed) by a very good supporting cast, which includes a candid Mila Kunis as a rival dancer, an eerie Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother and an imposing Vincent Cassel as the ballet's director. His character is what Boris Lermontov (the impresario Anton Wolbrook played in the 1948 classic The Red Shoes) would be like if he had a libido.

Unlike The Red Shoes, which romanticizes ballet, Black Swan is fully devoted to making ballet look as ugly as it can with some of the flashiest filmmaking possible. Almost the entire film is shot with a handheld camera to keep everything in motion, especially the scenes that follow Nina and other characters dancing. One may get used to it and appreciate its effect as the film continues, but it heavily disrupts the first twenty minutes. The makeup and visual effects for Nina's physical horrors, which range from breaking toes to avian deformities, are more consistently effective in creating unsettling images. Not all of Nina's trials are as expertly staged, though. Some of the scenes that open up or taunt Nina's sexual side are almost farcical, like in one scene where she is harassed on the subway. These hammy moments are relatively few, making Black Swan as a whole a striking exercise in spooky theatricality.

The Fighter

This is a standard sports movie that features two very good performances in the midst of underwhelming material. Its protagonist, rising boxer Micky Ward, has practically no character despite Mark Wahlberg’s game attempts to make something significant out of the role. Ward mumbles, has other characters speak for him and has nothing interesting to say except a comparison between boxing and chess. The real attractions are his addict brother, Dicky (Christian Bale, looking mercilessly pale and gaunt), and his bossy mother and manager, Alice (a nuanced Melissa Leo). Their conflicts are much more engaging than the simple matter of what career moves Micky will make. If the screenplay (by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson) had built Micky’s character into someone worthwhile, the three roles could have created an invigorating three-way power struggle instead of just two lions and a pipsqueak.

Director David O. Russell’s input help give this unfulfilled story a little panache. When he directed Three Kings, he made a nontraditional war movie by adding touches like a visualizing a gunshot’s effect on a man’s organs. He does the same sort of thing here with details like switching to digital photography for the televised boxing scenes. Another detail I liked was showing the fight titles over the end of the preceding scene instead of over the next scene. This tells you what you need to know about the fight in advance so you can concentrate on the scene as soon as it starts. These unusual additions help the performances make The Fighter more interesting than it could have been.


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