Review: Black Swan

Black Swan (2010, directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Every year at the Toronto film fest, there's one film I see at an industry screening that I come out of thinking I need to immediately see again, and with a real audience.

Black Swan - Aronofsky's beautiful, horrific, brilliant, devastating masterpiece - is that film this year.

On Twitter I pithily came up with a 'movie formula' description of it as Polanski's Repulsion + Powell Red Shoes, but while it stands shoulder to shoulder with those classics that description does not do Black Swan any sort of justice. It contains elements of them, as it does Argento's Suspiria as well, but Aronofsky's vision of a young ballerina's dreams becoming a nightmare is a thing of singular majesty. One of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker is his complete command of every one of an audience's sense that he can reach with the tools available to him. Black Swam looks gorgeous, and its visuals have a visceral, terrible impact that no puny slasher movie can possibly match, but the sound design is every bit a work of subtle, fearsome genius as well. It seems like I say this every time he makes a new movie, but this is Aronofsky's most accomplished work from a purely technical standpoint.

All that genius would have gone for naught if he didn't have a lead to match though, and Natalie Portman's Nina is just... I'm not sure I have the words. Jesus.

I have to admit, while I thought she was good, I've never thought of Portman as a truly elite actor. I didn't have that Star Wars-based pure geek love for her, and hadn't really seen her in anything that made me think she had untapped potential.

And now I know I was wrong.

Portman is insanely good, and I mean that in every conceivable positive way. At the beginning of the movie she's wound up so tight she vibrates, and as Black Swan progresses those vibrations become seismic. When the girl who's always in control of herself lets go of that control, she's got no experience in tempering what gets unleashed; the doors to her emotions are either locked shut, or flung wide open. The levels of nuance Portman brings to this role are incredible. Her face reflects every tic and tremor and thought in her increasingly fractured psyche, and given how much of the film is shot claustrophobically tight on that face, her vulnerability ends up being the best special effect Black Swan has going for it. Portman more than rises to the challenge Aronofsky gave her, and it echoes her character's own transformation and adds another layer to the metaphor. Just as Nina gets pushed beyond her limits, self-imposed and otherwise, to become worthy of the role of the Swan Queen, so too does Portman push past the limits of what she's accomplished before. I'm done with the Oscars, so I don't much care whether they bother to recognize her brilliance or not. What I do know is that this role will redefine how people see her as an actress, and will cement her spot next to the Kates (Winslet and Blanchett) as someone who I would now trust with any material, and who I would see in absolutely anything.

Portman and Aronofsky aren't the whole show, of course. Barbara Hershey is brittlely, brutally perfect as Portman's domineering mother, desperate for her daughter to have exactly the life she couldn't even as she resents that Nina gets the chances she didn't. Vincent Cassel is his usual effortlessly awesome self as the driven, slightly lecherous impressario. Mila Kunis gets a somewhat easier role as the wild girl in the company who helps open up those floodgates inside of Nina, but she knocks it out of the park and provides an absolutely necessary grounding of reality when the story calls for it. Even Winona Ryder flashes her old skills in a smaller role as the prima ballerina being shoved aside for the new blood.

But the thing most people will take away from Black Swan, aside from awe at the skill in which Aronofsky makes Nina's neuroses become flesh, is Portman's performance. She shatters herself into pieces for him and for us, then pulls herself back together and is reborn as someone new, someone stronger and scarier and more vital than ever before. And we are shattered and reborn right along with her, and the feeling is terrifying and glorious.

Terrifying, and glorious, and perfect.

Review: Score - A Hockey Musical

Score - A Hockey Musical (2010, directed by Michael McGowan)

We are a rare, lonely breed. Kitted for battle and weaving across frozen terrain, survival instincts cranked to 11, we might have a goal in mind but it's living in the moment and enjoying the dance that really matter as we dodge every skullcrushing danger hurtling our way.

No, I'm not talking about hockey players. I'm talking about connoisseurs of bad movies, a group of which I am proudly (?) a member. I still have fond memories of that golden period at the beginning of the decade when Britney's Crossroads, Mandy's A Walk To Remember (which wasn't actually that bad, disappointingly enough) and Lance Bass' jaw-dropping train wreck On The Line were all in theaters within months of each other, and nothing may ever top the almost Lovecraftian, sanity-blasting horror of trying to wrap my head around the "comedy" masterpiece that is the Love Guru. (But... but... he's wearing a cast iron chastity belt, and they even foley in a giant clang when Verne Troyer squares him, and yet Myers goes down as though he's taken a ball shot... how... why.... GAAAAAAAH)

As brain-meltingly horrible movies about hockey teams go, Score is no Love Guru, but it's at least competing in the same league. The characters are cardboard even by the standards of musicals - the clean-cut lead who looks like he just stepped out of a Brigham Young biopic; the brunette, oddly cute, spunky, quintessentially Canadian girlfriend; the hippie parents; the bitter crusty coach; the sensitive goon teammate; etc etc etc. The dialogue, both sung and unsung, is clumsy and awkward, and the tunes themselves are generic Canadian indie rock, which makes sense given the cameos by the likes of Hawksley Workman and the Rheostatics' Dave Bidini (non-Canadian readers are now free to exclaim, "Who?"), not to mention Nellie Furtado's recurring cameo in a bad wig as a rink rat, which was apparently the price the producers had to pay to get her to phone in a bland cover of a fairly obscure Rush song (Time Stands Still, if you're wondering) over the end credits.

Two things take it from merely bad to hilariously bad though. The first is the fact that the lead, Noah Reid, is actually damn good. In another movie, his naivete and dawning self-awareness would have played very well. In a film that otherwise tragically lacks any shred of self-awareness, though, he just seems to be bopping to a different beat than anyone else.

Which brings up the main thing that makes Score so awesomely awful. How, in the name of all that is holy, do you make a film like this completely in earnest and completely without irony? You've got a main character who doesn't know who Sidney Crosby is, but then recognizes Wayne Gretzky's dad Walter on sight. You've got a group of players who turn on the lead because he won't fight and thus isn't manly enough to be one of them, and express their displeasure in song and dance. Who in their right mind would think playing that kind of thing straight would be a good idea? It's mind-boggling.

From the opening credit montage of the history of hockey (with a wonky arrangement of the friggin' Canadian nation anthem, no less) through to the Slumdog Millionaire On Ice! ending, Score does its best to confuse everyone's exaggerated comedy stereotype of what it means to be Canadian with the real thing. And in doing so, they've made a film for my kind of people.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's been too long since I subjected a hapless victim to the deranged glory that is Dana Carvey's Master of Disguise...

Review: I'm Still Here

I'm Still Here (2010, directed by Casey Affleck)

Once upon a time, Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix were smoking a bowl together late at night, and bitching about all the asshole fans and journalists and hangers-on who thought they knew them:

"Man, they don't know shit. They think the guy they see on the red carpet or in that press conference is the real me, but, like, they don't know."

"Dude, like, totally. That's so... true, man."

"You know what would be awesome? We should make a movie where you pretend to be the guy they think you are!"

"Yeah. Yeah! It could be this, like, out there Andy Kaufman kind of thing."

"Yes! Oh man, that would be epic."

Now normally, when you bullshit about stuff at four in the morning while high, you wake up the next morning and either have forgotten all about it, or you have vague memories of what you were bullshitting and realize, in the cold light of day, how stupid it really was. But not Phoenix and Affleck, no sir. They actually went ahead and made the movie they thought was a good idea when they were high. And thus, I'm Still Here was born.

To answer the irrelevant question on everyone's lips, there's no doubt in my mind that the film is "fake", in the sense that this is a performance by Phoenix and not a meltdown. They named the production company They Are Going To **** You, for pity's sake. And there are too many situations and shots that would have required too much prep, too many blatantly staged moments, for it to be a true guerrilla-style doc.

But frankly, I don't really care whether it's "real" or not. I care whether it's entertaining. And on that front, I'm Still Here is a massive failure. I can forgive self-indulgence. I can't forgive boring self-indulgence, and that's what Phoenix's performance quickly becomes. It's the mockumentary equivalent of one of the those two minute SNL skits that gets stretched out to feature length without adding anything to the original idea. And one of the main criticisms I have of Phoenix's supposed self-destructive behavior here echoes one of my main problems with Phoenix's performance as Johnny Cash. It's too cliche, too by the book. He dresses weird, he does drugs, he goes on random tirades against his friends. Yawn. Phoenix was a fairly stereotypically tortured artist in Walk The Line, and he's a fairly stereotypically out-of-control rich brat here.

Beyond the flaws in the filmmaking and in the acting though, my biggest issue with the movie is how pointless it was. Instead of making a film spoofing other people's perceptions of him, Phoenix made a film spoofing his perception of other people's perceptions of him, and that house of cards collapses pretty quickly. Really, Phoenix's celebrity status was too bland heading into this role to work at either end of the satire spectrum. He wasn't Britney-level TMZ fodder (although the movie tries hard to sell him as such). No one paid much attention to who he dated or what his pet causes were. He was just another brooding actor staying mostly off the merry-go-round, so there really wasn't any public persona to target. On the flip side if he were, say, Kato Kaelin-level obscure, a mock doc about his career change and disintegration might have been a tragic commentary on the pursuit of celebrity.

Instead, he was stuck in the middle - that is, until he and Casey started this film. His Letterman appearance and other assorted public antics gave him cache he never had before. More people now care about Phoenix's next move than ever did before, when he was just another lower A-list serious actor who collects the occasional Oscar nom. The talk now is that he's destroyed his career, but that's absurd. If the likes of Tom Cruise can recover from their very real crackups, Phoenix will easily survive his fake one. As long as investors or studios make a bit of money from his projects he'll have a career, and there's no sign yet that he's box office poison.

The bottom line is that as a mockumentary, it flat doesn't work. It almost plays like Borat, if Borat were a drama.

As the culmination of a prolonged burst of self-promotion though, it's borderline genius.

A Shocking Change of Plans

So the first stage of my plan went swimmingly (as in, Score and I'm Still Here were both dreadful in their own ways), but I'll have to skip the Edge for now and try to catch it later in the fest.

On the other hand, I may end up partying with Darryl Sittler and Dion Phaneuf later tonight, which would be, umm, interesting.

Thursday's TIFF Pseudo-Schedule

This year, I'm trying a bit of an experiment. As it happens, both Score: A Hockey Musical and I'm Still Here are on the schedule, snugly one hour apart, as press screenings on the first day of the fest. So I'm going to see if watching the two worst movies I possibly can, right off the top, will guarantee that the rest of the festival is nothing but awesomeness. (Mind you, I'm a guy who voluntarily pays money to watch things like Lance Bass' epic attempt to come off as straight, On the Line, and Mike Myers' tragic deconstruction of self-help mythology, the Love Guru, in theaters so I could well end up laughing my ass off for three hours. But I suspect my heightened ability to turn train wrecks into ironic entertainment will be sorely tested.)

The great thing is, I'll get to put the theory to the test right away since the next film I'll be seeing is The Edge, one of my wild card picks. Could be a weird little gem, could be a total mess.

If that all goes to shit, I'm still ending things off with Legend of the Fist at the Elgin. Call it an ass-kicking safety net.

...As The Gates To Hell Swing Open Before Me...

Just RSVP'ed for my first film fest party - Casino Jack at the Brant House, which is at least a better venue than the last time I was at a party with Kevin Spacey.

Ah, so arrogant, so jaded. The real Anton Sirius is coming to the surface. If you were enough of a Whedonite to actually watch Dollhouse you've got an idea what it's like.

Shame! Shame!

Last night I tried to sing Stand By Me (the Ben E. King version) and... flubbed it. I mean completely, savagely destroyed it. I couldn't find the right key to save my life - I was stuck somewhere between the King version and Lennon's version, and actually had to bail on it and try the Lennon version instead, which I made it through OK despite being way more familiar with the lyrics and rhythm of King's.

It's been a long, long time since that's happened to me behind a mic. Bah. Fuck humility. Fuck it in its stupid ass.