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"Black Swan" Review

The reviews for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan have been all over the map; topping some year-end best-of-2010 lists and making some worst-of lists as well. Going in I figured it would be a love it or hate it situation - instead I managed to land in the middle as I don't think it really works out.

Natalie Portman is painfully intense as Nina, a ballerina who is tapped to play the lead in Swan Lake. Her years of tortuous practice - the physical toll taken on ballerinas is graphically illustrated - goaded on by her stage mother from Hell (Barbara Hershey) and driven her to seek perfection and probably mad in the process. It doesn't help that the smarmy director of the ballet keeps complaining that while she is technically perfect, she lacks the soul that a newcomer, Lily (Mila Kunis), possesses which would make for a better performance as the Black Swan portion of the ballet. Lily lacks Nina's technique, but has a free spirit (read: she's sex on wheels) that the tightly-wound and crazy repressed Nina seems to lack. As the pressure and paranoia mounts, Nina's grip on reality seems to slip away.

Where Aronofsky errs in my mind is to use the flat, ugly, documentary cinematic style of his previous film The Wrestler here. Why he went gritty instead of artistic for a fantasy film like this is odd since he's done that with his prior films The Fountain (which I think is an overlooked gem with an Oscar-nom worthy performance from Hugh Jackman; check it out) and Requiem For A Dream.

The second problem is Portman's performance. Mind you, she's excellent and likely to score an Oscar out of it and wipe away all the bad memories of her stiff Star Wars prequel performances, but she gave me a headache almost every moment she's on screen. Other than a girls night out sequence with Lily - leading to the widely-reported canoodling - it's almost unremitting misery. Yes, that was the idea; it's just hard on the nerves.

Kunis, Hershey, and Winona Ryder as the former prima ballerina being pushed aside due to age are all good, but they're all trapped in Aronofsky's hermetically sealed chamber of horrors. There are small glimpses of interaction with the other dancers, but there's no sense of life outside of the dance studio. Even the most dedicated pros take a breather, which again is the point about Nina, but without context, it all seems contrived. Perhaps if Aronofsky had backed away from the trees a little to see the forest.

Score: 5/10. Rent the DVD

In counter-point, my girlfriend really liked it - she would've given it an 8 or 9 score - and compared it to Carrie, which I've never seen, so I can't relate.


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