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Review: Black Swan

Posted by Thurston McQ on Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The St. Louis International Film Festival (referred to by St.Louisans as SLIFF, because St. Louisans never met an acronym they didn't like) blew through town last week, and all Mal Shot First, atrejub, and I have to show for it are torn ticket stubs for Black Swan.  I won't speak for them, but I, personally, didn't care much for the movie.  I'm going to spend the rest of the review telling you why, so if you're looking for a review to tell you how Aronofsky continues to bat a thousand (my stats put him closer to, but not quite at, two-hundred), go to Rotten Tomatoes, sort by "Fresh," and knock yourself out.  If you're looking for a review to assure you that Natalie Portman has finally turned in a decent post-Leon performance, go to Rotten Tomatoes, sort by "Fresh," and knock yourself out.

I have this theory that a director's talent can be measured by how good a performance he manages to get out of Mark Wahlberg.  I recognize it to be a poor theory, but it's a decent enough bit to drag out at a party.  (Note: I don't go to parties.)  Mark Wahlberg clearly has talent, but bringing it to the fore takes its own kind of talent.  A Natalie Portman performance, on the other hand, is a useless indicator of a director's ability.  Milos Forman and Mike Nichols weren't any more successful with her than George Lucas was (he hates directing, and it shows!), and I've always felt those two managed to get great performances out of people you wouldn't think had great performances in them. 

I don't know that I expected Portman to blow me away in Black Swan, and I don't know why the thought that she could would even cross my mind.  It seems like every time she's in a new movie, I'm faced with a new set of reviews, the tenor of which is usually something along the lines of, "Believe it or not, Natalie Portman isn't so bad in this."  Like a fool, I'm drawn in, and, with the possible exceptions of her performance in a Sesame Street sketch and an appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, I've come away from each experience feeling a temporary numbness in whatever region is supposed to motivate me to go on existing. 

I remember feeling increasingly despondent the more she turned up in Goya's Ghosts (in two roles, no less!), and I remember thinking her finest acting moment from it was in the final seconds of the movie, during which she was shot from behind.  (Could have been a stand-in, I guess.)  She does a long stretch of over-the-top, full-body-heave crying in that movie, which she repeats in V for Vendetta.  (I should point out that I disliked both of these movies.  I don't know that I would have liked them if someone else had been in her roles, but I'm almost certain her being in her roles didn't help.)  She must have impressed Aronofsky with her full-body-heave cry, because he has her doing it, too.  For all I know, she may be the go-to full-body-heave crier of our times.

All right.  The above strikes me as pretty mean-spirited.  Mulligan?  Thanks.  Let me do us both a favor and start talking about my viewing of Black Swan.  Here goes: 

In an effort to try to convince themselves and the audience that she was an actor with range and an ironic sense of self, The SLIFF folks ran a bootleg copy of Portman's by-now-passé SNL Digital Short before the movie.  It was unnecessary, and its attention on her suggested unfairly that Black Swan was the Natalie Portman show.  It is not.  It looks and feels like Aronofsky (with what I'm guessing is some conscious Cronenberg thrown in), and much of the acting going on around Portman picks up her slack.  Cassel is a slimy and watchable Svengali, Mila Kunis plays a serviceable and believable threat to Portman's character, Barbara Hershey plays the role Ellen Burstyn probably would have played if Aronofsky had filmed Black Swan in back in 2000 (in Requiem for a Dream's place), and Winona Ryder shows up just often enough to remind you she's in the movie.  (I wanted to say here that Winona "steals the show" [even though she doesn't], but atrejub tells me I'm above making near-decade-late shoplifting jokes at Ryder's expense.)

Aronofsky does what he can with the Natalie Portman he's given by having her alternate between the modes she does best: fragile, weepy, and frigid.  "Frigid," in fact, is a criticism Cassel's Thomas Leroy hurls in her general direction enough times for it to become taxing to hear.  The movie is unsubtle in its desire that you get that Portman's Nina has all the technique, yet little of the heart (and that, conversely, what Kunis's character lacks in technique she has in heart), to perform as both white and black swans in a "stripped down" and "visceral" version of Swan Lake.  (To be honest, the Swan Lake the movie arrives at just looks like plain ol' Swan Lake.)  She's perfect for the white swan, we're told over and over, but needs to "let herself go" if she is ever going to tap into what it takes to be the black swan. 

Aronofsky & Co. make the wise choice of not giving Portman many lines.  The majority of her performance is accomplished with reaction shots and full-body-heave crying, with some moments of "But-I've-worked-so-hard!" naïveté thrown in to try to make us sympathize with her character. The movie follows her around (literally; there's at least ten minutes' worth of footage of her walking from behind.  I think this is Aronofsky's attempt to prove to us that he has kept his indie sensibilities.  Independent movie makers love following people around as they walk places.  Or maybe he just watched Goya's Ghosts and picked up on what I picked up on) as she lets herself go in increments, and we are treated to that same boring is-she-or-isn't-she-crazy shtick we've suffered through hundreds of times.  We also get to see flashes of her wilder side in oh-so-many mirror shots.  (Oh so many mirror shots!)  You've seen it all before, and if you see Black Swan, you'll see it all again. 

If you like Aronofsky and Natalie Portman separately, chances are you will dig their pairing.  You may, in fact, feel it's your duty to climb up to the roof and shout Black Swan's virtues (a disturbing study in paranoia, and/or a searing look at the id in direct conflict with the superego,and all that) until blood is flooding down into your stomach from your vocal folds.  If, like me, you go into it with axes to grind, it may well prove to be the whetstone of your dreams.  I almost wish I hadn't gone into it with axes to grind.  My dislike of it could have been more pure.

One Last Thing:

Reviewers are going to be comparing this left and right to The Red Shoes (1948).  Good.  The Red Shoes is more imaginative,  is more quotable, is less reliant on special effects gimmickry, isn't as widely known among North American audiences, and is an all-around more haunting experience.  If it gets some free publicity as a result of its being compared to Black Swan, then maybe Black Swan ain't so bad, after all.

Review Score: 49 / 100

The Swollen Goi...
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Posts: 14343
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

You're a jerk, Thurston McQ.

On the bright side, at least Portman was given no reason to drag out her English accent for Black Swan.

Jakester
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Posts: 5753
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

I don't understand a word you wrote, except for Sesame Street.

I get the vague impression, however, that you didn't think it was all that good.

I'll probably see it, because even if everyone who has ever seen the movie tells me otherwise, I will hope that the print I see will be the one print that has hot Kunis/Portman lesbian nudity in it.

Richard Gozinya, Harold Snatch and Wilbur Jizz. Together we are the law firm Gozinya, Snatch and Jizz.
Quasar
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Posts: 7588
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

I like how you keep referring to other movies you didn't like. Wouldn't it be easier to have a general statement at the beginning of the review stating how you don't like 92% of movies?

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
Thurston McQ
Location: Germany
Posts: 142
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Jakester wrote:

I will hope that the print I see will be the one print that has hot Kunis/Portman lesbian nudity in it.

Everybody was naked in every shot--even Barbara Hershey! The festival organizers told us our print was the only one of its kind, though. We held a bonfire afterward and burned every real to a gooey crisp.

Thurston McQ
Location: Germany
Posts: 142
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Quasar wrote:

I like how you keep referring to other movies you didn't like. Wouldn't it be easier to have a general statement at the beginning of the review stating how you don't like 92% of movies?

I'd say my response to 75% of the movies I watch is either positive or indifferent. Of course, I like disliking movies, so there's a certain degree of positivity even among the ones I like the least.

Quasar
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Posts: 7588
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

75% + 92% do not equal 100%. You need to check your math.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
The Swollen Goi...
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Posts: 14343
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

I read it as "You need to check your meth" at first.

Jack S. Pharaoh
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Posts: 2231
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

I want Thursty barred from reviewing films.

The Swollen Goi...
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Posts: 14343
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

The more often Thursty writes reviews, the more chances you will have to mock him.

Jakester
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Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

You are wise, The Swollen Goi..., completely unlike that Thurston McQ twat.

Richard Gozinya, Harold Snatch and Wilbur Jizz. Together we are the law firm Gozinya, Snatch and Jizz.
Quasar
Location:
Posts: 7588
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

It's funnier to think of Thursty as going to see shitty movies because he wants to, instead of as a representative of a movie site.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
atrejub
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Posts: 739
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Jack S. Pharaoh wrote:

I want Thursty barred from reviewing films.

You guys might want to be a bit more careful with your normal bantering here, on the front page articles (vs. in the inner forums), since Thursty's trying to draw more traffic to the site, and such comments might be perceived wrong by first-time visitors. Wouldn't want new visitors to feel uncomfortable commenting on the review or on the movie.

Jack S. Pharaoh
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Posts: 2231
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

atrejub wrote:

You guys might want to be a bit more careful with your normal bantering here, on the front page articles (vs. in the inner forums), since Thursty's trying to draw more traffic to the site, and such comments might be perceived wrong by first-time visitors.

You sound just like Thursty in his 'Box Office Column' thread! If there was any traffic for these articles, the comments section would already be filling with hate-filled comments (really, you don't think Thursty's gonna get the internet treatment?); I'm just trying to get the ball rolling, while simultaneously preparing Thursty for what's ahead.

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

You're a real mensch, Jack!

Jack S. Pharaoh
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Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Fine! I've gone ahead and posted a link to this review on another forum! Now you guys can't complain about me stopping traffic! I've done my part!

Jack S. Pharaoh
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Posts: 2231
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Somebody in the thread that I posted the link in commented that he read your review. He didn't like it. He didn't mention the comments section as affecting his opinion.

ETA: if it means anything, Thursty, I enjoyed your review, even though I expressed the opinion that you ought be banned from making reviews.  Parts of your review made me laugh.

Quasar
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Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

You said he should be barred, not banned.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
The Swollen Goi...
Location:
Posts: 14343
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Jack S. Pharaoh wrote:

Parts of your review made me laugh.

His whole purpose in life... is to make... people... laugh! (Yes, his life is pretty purposeless.)

Quasar wrote:

You said he should be barred, not banned.

Better to be barred than disbarred, I always say.  I usually say it to my ex-stepsister, the lawyer. (Also: my lawyer, the ex-stepsister.)

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Thurston McQ is a God among men!

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Quasar
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Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Review: Thurston McQ's Review of Black Swan, posted by Quasar

Thurston McQ obviously has an axe to grind with Natalie Portman. Just hope she never teams up with Zach Snyder, or you will be reading the most scathing review ever to have cyber pen put to cyber paper. As for the rest of the review, I didn't read it.

Review Score: 12 / 100

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
The Swollen Goi...
Location:
Posts: 14343
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

Review: Quasar's Review of Thurston's Review of Black Swan, posted by The Swollen Goi...

Thurston acknowledges having an axe to grind.  Quasar would know this if he'd read the rest of the review.

Review Score: 11 / 100

(Mine went to 11.)

Quasar
Location:
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Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

11's the best score ever! Thanks The Swollen Goi...!

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
Quasar
Location:
Posts: 7588
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

I posted a link to the initial review of Thursty's at ExcelsiorNews.com. We should be getting all of their traffic pretty soon.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
Jack S. Pharaoh
Location:
Posts: 2231
Posted: 8 years 13 weeks ago

I think that one guy who used to post here is going to plug it on his radio show, too.