Movie Monday: ‘Black Swan’ in limited release

Darren Aronofsky’s ballet movie ‘Black Swan’ luxuriates in weirdness.

Based on my vast inside information about the behind-the-scenes world of professional ballet — which I have culled exclusively from watching The Turning Point, The Company, parts of Fame and now this film, Black Swan — not much about dance has changed over 35 years, at least in New York City. Dancers still live in cramped walk-ups and take the 3 train from Lincoln Center to TriBeCa (or worse, the NRW to Queens) and exit only at ill-lit and ominous stations. They still wear leg-warmers and wrap their gnarled feet in worn slippers. The corps is always led by a shriveled Russian crone, her silver hair pulled tight into a ponytail, her wattle buried behind chunky jewelry. There’s also always a priggish, demanding European choreographer-artiste, possibly the only straight man in all of dance who belittles then sexually exploits every new ballerina.But there’s also always one tortured aspirant, whose drive and talent are her salvation and her undoing.

Yes, in the first half hour of Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky and writers Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin, don’t miss a single cliché either visually (uppity versions of Flashdance) or plot-wise. And then something remarkable happens: The film becomes Hitchcockian — or rather, early Polanski, who stole from Hitch better than anyone, and delves into areas of insanity and fantasy you don’t expect. It doesn’t erase all that came before it, but it leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s difficult to shake.

Four stars. For the complete review, click here.

DEETS: Black Swan. Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel. Rated R. 105 mins. Now playing at the Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center–Plano

—  Rich Lopez

There will be blood

Darren Aronofsky’s ballet movie ‘Black Swan’ luxuriates in weirdness. Wow

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

MIRROR, MIRROR | Nina (Natalie Portman) sees a lot of strange things looking back at her in mirrors, but none stranger than the movie itself.

4 out of 5 stars
BLACK SWAN

Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis,
Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel.
Rated R. 105 mins.
Now playing at the Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center–Plano

…………………………..

Based on my vast inside information about the behind-the-scenes world of professional ballet — which I have culled exclusively from watching The Turning Point, The Company, parts of Fame and now this film, Black Swan — not much about dance has changed over 35 years, at least in New York City. Dancers still live in cramped walk-ups and take the 3 train from Lincoln Center to TriBeCa (or worse, the NRW to Queens) and exit only at ill-lit and ominous stations. They still wear leg-warmers and wrap their gnarled feet in worn slippers. The corps is always led by a shriveled Russian crone, her silver hair pulled tight into a ponytail, her wattle buried behind chunky jewelry. There’s also always a priggish, demanding European choreographer-artiste, possibly the only straight man in all of dance who belittles then sexually exploits every new ballerina.But there’s also always one tortured aspirant, whose drive and talent are her salvation and her undoing.

Yes, in the first half hour of Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky and writers Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin, don’t miss a single cliché either visually (uppity versions of Flashdance) or plot-wise. And then something remarkable happens: The film becomes Hitchcockian — or rather, early Polanski, who stole from Hitch better than anyone, and delves into areas of insanity and fantasy you don’t expect. It doesn’t erase all that came before it, but it leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s difficult to shake.

Natalie Portman has rarely impressed me onscreen. The Star Wars films didn’t challenge her (and she didn’t disappoint, never rising above the ho-hum scripts and stodgy dialogue), and her stripper in Closer struck me as entirely false.

But here, as Nina — the tic-filled prima donna desperate for success but too repressed to explore the part of her that will allow her to triumph — Portman seems to fit like a foot in a ballet shoe.

Nina craves center stage, and she’s got talent, but she’s also troubled. Her mother (Barbara Hershey), once a dance hopeful, smothers her with expectations; Tomas (Vincent Cassel), the company’s leader, intimidates her; competition from the other girls is fierce, and Nina wants for confidence.

IT ISN’T ROMANTIC | Vincent Cassel’s predictable performance doesn’t clip this ‘Swan.’

But there’s something deeper holding her back, too: She’s paranoid (or is it just overly sensitive?), sensing every overheard titter is cruel mockery aimed at her; she’s obsessed with her body and a rash (or is she self-mutilating?); she sees dangers around every corner, including the fading diva (Winona Ryder), whom she’s in line to replace. And what of Lily (Mila Kunis), the newcomer who acts like her friend and possible lover, but could be pulling an Eve Harrington on her?

It’s difficult to tell what to believe in the world Aronofsky creates; maybe that’s why he echoes so many dance-movie clichés, to get us relaxed in the familiar before he turns out the lights. (Surprisingly, there are some standout special effects.) Like Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant — and more recently, Jacob’s Ladder — what we know is filtered through Nina’s mind. It’s never clear what we should trust. Does her mother even exist? Minor things become ominous: He turns the acts of hand-washing and fingernail-clipping into moments of intense terror, with too many bloody digits for my taste.

But to what end? Black Swan is difficult to parse. It’s creepy — a true thriller — that stays self-contained in the world of ballet.

Cassel delivers the film’s most predictable performance (he’s completely uninteresting), but Kunis reveals strength as an actress with a layered turn, and it’s nice seeing Hershey given a juicy role. (If Carrie ever tried to dance, her mom might look like Hershey’s, who elevates passive-aggression to high art.)

But, aside from Aronofsky, the film belongs to Portman. She’s brilliantly unbalanced, portraying a descent into insanity that is horrifying and unnerving but also rooted in humanity and frailty.

The disconnect between the predictability of the dance-driven aspects and the horror of what follows may cause Black Swan to struggle to find an audience. It’s not really a chick flick, but its esoteric discussion of ballet won’t exactly pull teen males into the multiplex. All the more reason to check it out during the crowded holidays — the gays can have the auditorium to ourselves.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 3, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Stephen Frears uses sexual politics as a metaphor for oppression

By Arnold Wayne Jones

Stephen Frears was sexy before sexy was cool.

Well, maybe not exactly. But over the British director’s long career in film, he’s often been at the forefront of frank sexual portrayals onscreen, often of the radical kind.

“You make me feel like a pervert!” Frears exclaims during a recent visit to Dallas.

That’s not the point, of course, but it’s also not something he denies. Frears first gained notice in the U.S. with My Beautiful Laundrette, a disarming story about an immigrant family living in London that expectedly injects a queer twist when the audience discovers the scion of the Pakistani clan is gay. His next film, Prick Up Your Ears, was a darker tale of gay life, chronicling the murder of playwright Joe Orton by his lover. (That was followed by Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, whose title alone got it banned from many multiplexes; in The Grifters, he kept Annette Bening naked most of the time.)

But Frears, who is straight, says that gay storylines have interested him because outsider stories of all kinds spark his artistic curiosity.

“I couldn’t give you a moment when I was asked to do a racy film or a family film,” he says. “There was only one film I didn’t do, where I said, ‘No — I’ve got kids.’ But I think in my own head, it has all to do with being in opposition, as a way of attacking Mrs. Thatcher. [I see] women and gays and immigrants as a metaphor for being oppressed.”

His newest, Tamara Drewe — now playing at the Angelika Film Center — has limited gay content but is nonetheless casual with its sexual free-spiritedness.  A small English village is a haven for artistic types, including a famous novelist and his patient wife. When a former local, Tamara, moves back to town (complete with a nose job and makeover), she sets off a series of escapades that are dramatic, comic, even tragic. The film, though, feels softer than some of his earlier films.

“You make me ashamed that I have gotten tamer,” he says. “But we don’t live in very radical times.”

Frears’ left-leaning politics have often emerged in his films, including The Queen, which netted his a second Oscar nomination. ” [Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair] was a very, very complicated figure. This absurd business of leading countries into war really changed the Labour Party. I’m not a monarchist, but in the end I think you could call me a ‘queenist’ — she reminds me of my mother.”

A queenist? He’s a man after my own heart.

Tamara Drewe is now playing at the Angelika Film Center — Mockingbird Station.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Movie Monday: ‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’

‘Hornet’s Nest,’ the final film in the Millennium Trilogy, is a talky, gloomy affair

If you haven’t read one of Stieg Larsson’s books in the Millennium Trilogy, centered on a bisexual, semi-autistic, tattooed Swedish computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), you’ve missed the literary event of the decade. Since they emerged, Larsson’s books have sold better worldwide than John Grisham and Stephen King.

If you haven’t seen one of the film versions, however, you’re not so bad off. So far, the three films — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and the latest, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — have been, at best, moderately entertaining disappointments. All are Swedish-made (American versions start coming out next year), and while the stories don’t require a Hollywood gloss to be interesting, they could use some punching up as movies.

Director Daniel Alfredson has created a style that’s gloomy but without a sense of moodiness. From the photography to the pacing of the courtroom scenes to the unsatisfying final moments, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest more closely resembles an installment in a rambling made-for-TV miniseries than a punchy feature film. Where’s the crescendo, the heart-racing action, the “big reveal?” Even a thinking man’s thriller can try to get the blood boiling. (Rapace, who had a steamy lesbian sex scene in Played with Fire, doesn’t have any sex this time — a definite hole in the structure.)

Hornet’s Nest really doesn’t stand alone, at least not as well as the other two. It’s a direct sequel to the second film, with Lisbeth recovering from injuries after she fought off her father, a Russian gangster who survived her attack. If any of that confuses you, it’s not much clearer watching it onscreen.

For more about the film, click here.

DEETS: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest with Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist. Rated R. 145 minutes. Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

—  Rich Lopez

Face to Facebook

‘Catfish,’ a documentary about online relationships, is a gripping true mystery

STEVEN LINDSEY  | Contributing Writer stevencraiglindsey@me.com

4.5 out of 5 Stars
CATFISH
Rated PG-13.  90 mins. Now
playing at the Angelika Film
Center Mockingbird Station and AMC NorthPark Center.

……………………………..

If you’ve heard any spoilers for Catfish already, shame on the person who told you. This is a rare opportunity to be surprised in a movie theater in a time when studios are opting for marketing tactics that gets people into the theater without concern for truly entertaining them once they get there. To be sure, Piranha 3-D wasn’t a great movie, but did they have to show the final shocking scene in the trailer?

The last time an onscreen secret deserved to be kept by audiences and critics alike was probably The Crying Game. The mystery at the center of this film, thankfully, isn’t the entire thrill. Really, it’s the way filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost structure their documentary.

Capitalizing on the do-it-yourselfability of modern filmmaking — where anyone with access to digital HD cameras and editing software can be an auteur — they weave animated sequences from Google Earth, instant messages from Facebook and videos from YouTube with the same frantic browsing experience of anyone who’s ever attempted to multi-task online.

The method of storytelling, which would’ve been thoroughly confusing to just about anyone even as recently as three years ago, intuitively plays to the way our brains now function.

The story starts out innocently enough. Schulman’s adorably cute (and distractingly hairy) brother Nev has begun an online friendship with Abby, an eight-year-old girl who sent him a painting of one of his photos. Soon, he’s developed a friendship with the girl’s mom, and eventually, a crush on her 19-year-old half-sister, Megan. The family begins sending him frequent care packages filled with more and more paintings and intimate glimpses into their family life.

After exchanging hundreds of text messages and chatting endlessly online and over the phone, Nev begins to slowly uncover inconsistencies in Megan’s story. Blinded by the possibility of love and curiosity, he and the filmmakers head to rural Michigan to surprise her in person. At this point, the mystery begins — utterly compelling and nothing my sick imagination had predicted. The result is a story that’s at once heartwarming, frightening, unsettling and vivid.

The fact that the filmmakers stumbled onto this bigger narrative completely by accident has caused many critics to accuse them of faking the whole thing. But I tend to believe them.

Catfish ends up as one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in quite awhile. Just make sure to stay for the closing frames where even more shocking truths are revealed in simple white text on a black screen. Then head home and decide whether or not you should keep your Facebook account.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Todd, camp

Kids say the most appalling things (adults too) in Solondz’s wicked ‘Wartime’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com


4.5 out of 5 stars

LIFE DURING WARTIME
Allison Janney, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Ciaran Hinds. Rated R. 100 mins. Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

………………………..

The creepy wonderfulness that is Todd Solondz’s aesthetic is how ordinary things are made weird and disturbing things normal. So, when a little boy answers a phone with “Hello, who is this?” sounding more suspicious than curious, you have to weigh it against a prickly spinster cooing to her boyfriend … who happens to be an admitted sex pervert.

So opens Life During Wartime, Solondz’s peculiar sequel to his masterpiece Happiness, undeniably the best film of 1998. No one finds the horror and comedy of middle class dislocation with more sting than he does. Not even David Lynch. There, I said it.

Wartime — which, along with Winter’s Bone, is one of the two best American films released this year — follows the same characters, all played by different actors, as Happiness. At the center are three sisters: wispy Joy (Shirley Henderson); artsy Helen (Ally Sheedy) and Trish (Allison Janney), whose pedophile husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds) has just been released from prison.

THE PURSUIT OF ‘HAPPINESS’ | Allison Janney, top, and Paul Reubens, right, appear with a crackerjack ensemble in this disturbing sequel.

Solondz, armed with a crackerjack ensemble, is brilliant at portraying cruelty with appalling ease. A woman asks a man at a bar, “You’re not a faggot, are you?” without a hint of discomfort. (A small boy also tells his mom he hopes he doesn’t grow up to be a faggot; she promises him he won’t.)
This is not feel-good entertainment.

But it is great entertainment, and funny as hell — though wickedly so.

There’s a bare minimum of plot: While an unseen war rages, the characters are lost in their own problems. Trish meets a new man; Joy struggles to find a man she can love while haunted by the memory of a past lover (Paul Reubens, who’s just terrific in a few scenes).

As with Solondz’s breakout cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse, Life During Wartime (which originally had the more appropriate title Forgiveness) is equally deft at awkward silences and overstuffed dialogue about matters both inconsequential and horrific. There’s a confrontation between Bill and the son he abused, immediately following another son wondering how deep forgiveness goes. Then Joy will leave a forgiving voicemail for a man who just killed himself because of her disapproval.

The visual style mirrors the aural: A hodgepodge of stark, static images, languorous tracking shots and disorienting jump-cuts.

It veers dangerously close to camp, but never goes, full-throated, for gimmickry. Irony has never been cleverer, or more unsettling.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Pas de don’t

Movie about TBT director Sir Ben Stevenson mixes ballet with cliche

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer thinhead@mindspring.com

Mao’s Last Dancer
EN POINTE | Bruce Greenwood, left, plays Ben Stevenson, now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater, who turns a poor Chinese dancer into a sensation in the schmaltzy ‘Mao’s Last Dancer.’

2.5 out of 5 stars
MAO’S LAST DANCER
Bruce Greenwood, Chi Cao, Kyle MacLachlan. Rated PG. 115 mins.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

A great story and some amazing dancing are, unfortunately, sacrificed on the altar of cheesy melodrama in Mao’s Last Dancer. It’s hard to believe the great Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) could have watched this, let alone directed it. And no one who even typed the scripts for Shine and The Notebook could have been responsible for this screenplay, let alone the person who wrote or adapted them (Jan Sardi).

This is the true-ish story of Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), who was invited to spend the summer of 1981 with the Houston Ballet and decided to stay in America. In a throwback to movies of several decades ago, Bruce Greenwood plays the ballet’s artistic director, Ben Stevenson — now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater — as an obviously gay man who lives alone and has absolutely no life outside of his work.

Li, by contrast, is obviously straight, because even as a boy, every time he partners a female on stage there is another female in the audience looking jealous.

Nine years prior Li, one of seven sons of a peasant couple, was plucked from his humble village to be trained at the Beijing Arts Academy, along with 39 other Chinese children. They’re given a standard indoctrination in Communism, including being taught that China has “the highest standard of living in the world,” and capitalist nations the lowest.

When he arrives in oil-rich Texas at the height of the boom, Li is overwhelmed, having never seen such luxury, even in Beijing; he can hardly believe Ben has such a house to himself. But the Chinese consul has counseled him not to trust anyone, “especially women — they’ll lead you astray.”

The early part of the film toggles between Houston and Li’s early years in China, where he is unhappy until an old-school teacher, later prosecuted for his teachings, makes him appreciate dance and his own skills.

When the Houston delegation visits Beijing in 1980, they’re disappointed to see the students, except for Li, are more like athletes than dancers. In Houston Li gets a break but has only three hours to learn the pas de deux from Don Quixote.

Li meets aspiring dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull), who, in this screenplay, is more a device than a person. Afraid of what will happen to his family in China if he defects, Li learns he can stay in the U.S. if he marries a citizen. (Ben pitches a hissy fit.)

Unable to contact his parents, Li worries about them constantly. Years later, Ben arranges for them to surprise him by showing up in the audience for a performance. It must have taken months to arrange and could have taken a lot of stress off Li if he’d known it was in the works, but the surprise makes for a more upbeat (and corny) climax.

That may be the stupidest thing in the movie but there are countless smaller things, like people working in a Washington office in what must be the middle of the night. Even original twists are presented in such a way as to look clichéd.

The ballet sequences, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, are the saving grace of Mao’s Last Dancer — if only we got a two-hour recital instead of the story. Not to be shortchanged is the principal dancer, Chi Cao, who is also a decent actor as far as the script allows. He’d be a natural for a new film biography of Bruce Lee — I’d pay to see Chi replicate Lee’s fight choreography.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

Sex & Swinton

Queer fave Tilda Swinton plays mom to a gay kid (again) in ‘I Am Love’

LAWRENCE FERBER | Contributing Writer lawrencewferber@hotmail.com

Tilda Swinton

TILDA END OF TIME | Swinton spent 11 years getting ‘I Am Love’ to the screen; it opens at the Angelika today.

Playing an uber-shady corporate exec in Michael Clayton, Tilda Swinton snagged an Oscar for best supporting actress, but she grabbed the gay community’s devotion long before claiming Hollywood’s.

In I Am Love, Swinton portrays Emma, a matriarch who has an affair with a sexy young chef at the same time she learns of her daughter’s homosexuality. It’s an otherworldly film rich with references to a diverse roster of cinematic masters.

En route to a location, Swinton discussed Love, gay children, and how a man called Oscar affected her life.

Opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.
……………………………..

Dallas Voice: I Am Love is not easy to describe. It’s like a film from the other side. Swinton: I hope you’re going to write that verbatim! A film from the other side, I love that. We were trying to distill the work of all those great masters to some sort of lowest common denominator, boil down the soup to its basic ingredients. The thing those filmmakers all have in common is they’re kind of sensational, meaning sense-sational. They’re all about whether you’re on the edge of your seat with Hitchcock, or having your heart broken by Douglas Sirk or having your eyes burned by the beauty of Visconti. Whatever it is, you’re really awake in a sensual and sensory way. You have to experience it.

What does the role of Emma represent to you as far as your body of work to date? She has a relationship to Margaret in The Deep End and a relationship in a way to Orlando because she transforms. I love looking at stories of people who have transformations, when they actually morph into some other state. One of the things I love about Emma is, she’s genuinely quiet in a way I feel I haven’t had an opportunity to show before, which is maybe something my family and friends would recognize more in me.

You’ve played a mother to young gays a couple of times now. Somebody’s got to do it. I would rather it was me. I love the coming out scene in this film. It’s the dream coming out scene.

How should a mother react to their child coming out? I have a personal difficulty understanding why it would be a problem for a mother. So that for me is a bit of an adventure to imagine what those challenges might be because naturally I don’t get it. Apart from anything else, the whole question of one’s child being honest enough with one that they would share that development, one should be grateful.

You’re a mother of twins. And if one or both came out? I have either a little bit of my brain missing or extra — I don’t get why it would be a problem.

Did winning the Oscar change your life and career? The only real change the Oscar brought to me is that people ask me what change it has brought me about three times a week. I struggle to find any other thing except that, because every [project] I’ve done since then I was going to do anyway. But if more people see I Am Love than would’ve before I got the Oscar, or if we found out we got the money for our new film because it was bumped along by the Oscar, then I will take that and be grateful and have no complaints.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 25, 2010.

—  Dallasvoice

An inconvenient woman

Rivers leaves no turn unstoned in frank, funny but standard-issue doc

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

JOAN DARK | Rivers does wrestle with demons; she just turns them into jokes in her act.

3 out of 5 Stars
JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK
Joan Rivers. Rated R. 90 mins. Opens today at the
Magnolia Theater and the
Angelika Film Center Plano.

Joan Rivers is both an enigma and exactly what she seems: A foul-mouthed comedian who has made a career pushing buttons and causing controversy without consideration for decorum. But then again, what drives her to “be that guy”? Is there something deeper, other than the quest for immortality and applause and approval?

We never quite learn the answer to that in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a documentary culled from following Rivers around for a year or so around the time she won Celebrity Apprentice. Sure, we learn of the pain of her rift with Johnny Carson and the suicide of her husband and her fragile ego and her feelings about never being a critics’ darling.

But how did she make the leap to her brand of truth-telling? Does she have limits? Like getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop, we may never know.

What we do know from the documentary, though, can be fabulously entertaining. Rivers is upfront about her addiction to plastic surgery (although she avoids talking about her now-catlike appearance); she walks us through her joke file (and shares crass ones about Michelle Obama and Nazis); she tells us what current comedians she considers “brilliant” (Maher, Shandling, Tomlin); explains why she loves anal; and how she gives Kathy competition as champion of the gays. (“What’s the gay community like here?” she asks a cabbie in rural Wisconsin. “I don’t know,” responds her driver suspiciously. “Ask your wife’s brother,” she snaps back.)

There’s also the curiosity of seeing classic video of Rivers doing standup 40 years ago … and realizing that what was considered racy then seems Disney Channel tame by today’s standards.

Yet Joan remains endlessly fascinating. She’s a money, fame and attention whore who shouts down hecklers and takes no prisoners. “Can we talk?” she used to ask rhetorically.

I don’t know about “we.” But can she ever.

This article appeared in the National Pride edition in the Dallas Voice print edition June 18, 2010

—  Dallasvoice

'Undocumented' screens at USA Film Festival

undocumented

After our recent coverage of the Mega March in Dallas, the USA Film Festival wanted to let us know that they will be screening a film tonight entitled, “Undocumented.”

“We are trying to reveal to the public that our system is broken. We show all sides of the issues and what people around the country are really saying,” associate producer Andrew Boks wrote to Dallas Voice. “The movie is both entertaining and disturbing.”

The film will screen at the Angelika Film Center at Mockingbird Station tonight at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m., and tickets are $10 each. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 214-821-6300.

—  David Taffet