Thursday, January 27, 2011

OSCAR CATCH-UP, PART 1. Black Swan. The Exorcist in tights. Instead of the struggle of God and the Devil, we have the struggle of the White and Black Swans driving our poor little girl unto her indignities. (The Swan fable is even spoken aloud for us at the beginning by the hilariously elevated ballet master with a vestigial sweater around his neck.) The film puts our ballerina Nina through much grisly (though hallucinated) physical trauma that compares nicely with Linda Blair's spinning head and crucificial hate-fuck. And since it's just about artsy people rather than a major religion, the dark forces get to win.

Darren Aronofsky, who likes to show the ugly-real's losing struggle with the seductive-unreal (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), goes heavy on the fantasy here. The showmanship is dazzling, but I think he lost his grounding. Fantasies are powerful when they heighten a real-life feeling shared by lots of people. But Nina's need to be perfect is neurotic rather than transcendent; while performers may project enough of their own experiences onto Black Swan to buy it (and that may be why it's so acclaimed), ordinary people will wonder why she didn't go to a doctor when she saw feathers growing out of her skin. I don't think they'd question, say, Lust for Life the same way, because corny as it is, there they can see and feel where the drive comes from.

The acting's fine. Natalie Portman's persistently childlike affect is perfect for Nina; Barbara Hershey's game for Monster Mommy; Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel are appropriately ludicrous as the life-force and the cock-of-the-walk, respectively. And thanks so much, Winona Ryder, for the unexpected laughs.

The Fighter. The last half-hour threw me (mild spoiler), as I didn't see the turn-around coming. I mean, what suddenly made family love real to all these people, who had previously expressed it only with insults and jealous rages, and motivated them to come together? Christian Bale's so good that I almost believed his pitch to his brother's girlfriend Charlene to come back and make things right, but with everyone else it was like, "Wuh-okay, guess here's what we're doing now." It's really just something you have to buy to get to the feel-good ending.

Maybe David O. Russell thought this hey-ho-let's-go approach had worked so well in the beginning that it should work at the end. And in the rest of the film, it does work. We get thrown into the story so fast that momentum carries us. The brothers' relationship we at first have to take for granted and on faith, but over time we get little glimpses of how growing up together might have been for them: Dicky the crazy cut-up, Micky the quiet, industrious plodder -- and Mom the breeder/empire-builder who decided long ago that Dicky was going to be the ticket out for them all. We get enough information that by the time the relationships break, it doesn't have to be explosive -- it's just right, and thereby dramatic.

In this context the more conventionally-developed romance between Micky and Charlene takes on added weight: You get the feeling that family was just something that happened to Micky, while Charlene is part of his underdeveloped adult life of choices and forward movement. No wonder his family hates her -- and that Micky clings to her like a life-raft.

All the acting is terrific (though at one point I wanted to yell STOP IT, YOU'RE MAKING ME GRIND MY TEETH at Bale), but I give special props to Marky Mark, who also produced the picture. I saw an interview recently in the Hollywood Reporter with filmdom's biggest producers, and Wahlberg was in there. He was very, very focused on the job of making the picture the best and most successful it can be, no matter what. His performance in The Fighter is unshowy, even slightly withdrawn. Wahlberg's a pretty good actor, and he knows what a star needs to get over in a big picture; I get the feeling he took one for the team here. For some reason that really impresses me.

UPDATE. In comments, Jay B. demurs: "I thought Bale was overrated, actually. The clip of Dick and Mickey at the end shows what kind of juice the real guy had -- he was more charming in thirty seconds than Bale can ever be, and funnier too. Bale can act, but, for me, he can't connect. His eyes are empty." Hmm. I thought Bale was going full crackhead, which would make anyone a little opaque, but come to think of it I've never seen him do a lot of relating onscreen -- whenever I see him, all I can think is, "You like Huey Lewis and the News? Their early work was a little too new wave for my taste..." Anyone else?

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