Friday, December 24, 2010

Pussy Control

by James Hansen

Mirroring its own central conceit in several unfortunate ways, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan functions as a double-edged sword on which it repeatedly impales itself. At once an artistic “prestige picture” and a Tex Avery-esque Looney Tunes riff on Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet Swan Lake, Black Swan tempestuously navigates these concepts alongside the similarly fractured mental journey of doomed protagonist Nina Sayers/The Swan Queen (Natalie Portman).

Nina’s personality splits when she is chosen to perform both Swan roles in the highly anticipated ballet. She must be The White Swan of purity and precision and also The Black Swan of fear, desire, and improvisation. With mounting pressure from director Thomas Leroy/The Gentleman (Vincent Cassel) and a unique relationship with new girl Lily/The Black Swan (Mila Kunis), Nina tries to loosen up from her White Swan tendencies to achieve artistic perfection by embodying both states of mind. This mixture of reality and fantasy, good and evil, failure and success pushes Nina beyond anything she has experienced before. She is in a new, strange world which she must either journey through or become lost within.

Black Swan’s journey quickly reveals itself as having little to do with art or artists, but rather dicks, pussies, and earth-shaking orgasms. Thomas chooses Nina for The Swan Queen after a timid request for a second audition results in a seductive, unwanted kiss in which Nina bites his lip. Thomas questions Nina’s sex life and suggests she have sex. After multiple masturbation attempts with no “success,” Nina goes out with Lily and explores her Black Swan side. With barely a hint at lesberation, Nina is rolling on E and howling in her bed via Lily’s magical cunnilingus. Nina’s orgasm is more than a sign of sexual pleasure, but one of the perfection she seeks in life, work, and art. Still, this false moment of perfection leaves Nina lost in time, late for work, and threatens her success in the ballet. Her climactic scenes late in the film with Lily and Thomas indicate a further presumption of sexual pleasure as cataclysmic, threatening, overly demanding, and strangely confining. The residual effects of sexuality understood in this manner come through in Nina’s final swan song, which make her choices harder to stomach. Threatened by a perfect pleasure outside of her art, she destroys it.

Yet – no matter the bizarre, enormously entertaining, trash genre hijinx – Black Swan remains a thuddingly literal extension of Swan Lake and purely surface level. Nina’s existential crisis, fear of failure, and ambiguous sexuality plays out as a cartoonish fodder. Instead of exploring the ideas of psycho-bisexuality, artistic creativity, or pressures on femininity which seem inherent in the mtaerial, screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin loads the script with softballs (“lose yourself”) which they pay off by literalizing the terse statements. This strangely unthoughtful approach creates a checklist for Nina’s tragically battered psyche and quickly knocks off each aspect as Black Swan plods forward becoming simultaneously more entertaining (as The Black Swan of hilarious trash spectacle) and disappointing (as The White Swan of an artistically considered film) as it goes along. (For more on this, see Martha Polk’s terrific critique).

That it devolves into sexual games is a further indication that Aronofsky’s direction of underlying dualisms is far from complex. Constantly maintaining an obvious grip on the Swan Lake story told several time throughout the film, Black Swan shows neither controlled mania or tight composition of cinema made by true artists. In a journey of a fracture mind, everything is perfectly clear and logical. Unfortunately, this also means that Black Swan works only off statements, rather than instilling thought or ideas. By bringing everything pointedly to the surface, Black Swan chooses to stay shallow.

Entertaining enough for a B, but thoughtfulness earns it a C+

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Friday, December 17, 2010

The Revenge of the Bitch with Mutant Lungs

by Chuck Williamson

A garish mash-up of backstage musical and divalicious pop spectacle, Steven Antin’s Burlesque works best as a hyperkinetic, hootchy kootchy parade of plasticized bodies where a coterie of chorus girls writhe and wriggle as the pseudo-vaudevillian “living curtain” backing up their bitch-goddess Xtina who soulfully caterwauls at center-stage. The film’s narrative, a creaky collection of showbiz melodrama clich├ęs complete with the inevitable “a star is born” catharsis, erupts in brief staccato bursts that intermittingly punctuate the razzle-dazzle of the deliriously trashy production numbers with what traditional screenwriters might misconstrue as “motivation.” Cher and Christina sashay through one gauzy burlesque performance to the next, high-stepping, posing, and dishing out the high octaves while periodically loping into frame to discuss whatever low-stakes dilemma will be resolved either through an inexplicable third-act deus-ex-machina or the combined powers of divadom. Does it matter? Because, like, who cares? Burlesque is all about kinetic momentum, open-palmed sass, and the forbidden thrill of bad taste, doubling as a sequined love-letter to the pre-code backstage musical that oscillates somewhere between reverence and camp (but mostly camp).

Equal parts earnest and ridiculous, Burlesque indulges in the trashiest sub-quadrants of pop-culture ephemera, reveling in the most empty-headed and spectacle obsessed sort of bad taste; the film wallows in the garish, the grotesque, and the gleefully artificial. Even its glittery production numbers, once the interstitial passages in Hollywood musicals designed for authentic, spontaneous, or—heaven forbid!—introspective expression, function more as a tacky, carnivalesque displays that turn showbiz kitsch into a delirious bodily performance. Each production number is forceful and frenetic, chopped up into a near-indecipherable tangle of limbs and filled with glitter, garish neon lighting, and Aguilera’s hyper-charged vocal solos; they do no express the characters’ psychological interiority because—wouldn’t you know it?—the characters are all surface and no soul. For Ali (Christina Aguilera), the mid-western farm-girl turned overnight burlesque sensation, “keepin’ it real” entails gaining fame, fortune, and her deliciously muscled songwriting lothario all while re-imagining herself as a one-dimensional pin-up, an eroticized icon whose corseted frame and ghoulish stage make-up suggests a performative masquerade at odds with her oft-exposited desire to rise to the top without “losing herself.”

Perhaps no character pays better lip service to the film’s credo of shameless superficiality than Tess (Cher), who occasionally slinks out from the film’s periphery to delivery sage advice like, “When you are putting on your make-up, it’s like you’re an artist. But instead of painting on a canvas, you’re painting your face.” And as the so-called “bitch with mutant lungs” shimmies down the stage and delivers a full-throated rendition of Etta James’ “Tough Lover” while decked out in S.S. fetish gear—transforming herself from small-town zero to cooch-dancing superstar—she follows the Tao of Cher and splatter-paints her face into a near-parodic extreme of femininity. Extreme close-ups of Aguilera’s dolled-up face and kinetic bodily movements (recalling similar imaging techniques from The Red Shoes) make the performer look phantasmagoric and unreal, a plasticized shell that can paradoxically belt out high-octave renditions of blue standards.

But rather than grate on the nerves, this willful embrace of the frivolous, fake, and borderline idiotic makes Burlesque strangely charming and compelling; it is a paean to kitsch, camp, and bad taste that delights from beginning to end. And why shouldn’t it? What else could we expect from a film where the temptation of materialist excess is literalized as a gaudy pair of Louboutin pumps? Why should we expect interiority or introspection from a film that has its soulful songwriting love interest pay homage to Aguilera, his creative muse, by penning a deeply personal but innanely trashy showtune called “Show Me How You Burlesque?” How could we not be sucker-punched by a film that compresses its narrative into multiple musical montages, that pauses everything so Cher can get diva on, that uses “eating cookies” as erotic innuendo, that’s so replete with cat-fights, hissy-fits, tacky costumes, and eye-rolling one-liners?

My mind says B, but my heart says B+

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

One Style Does Not Fit All

by James Hansen

The only really positive thing about Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is that the audience gets what it expects. The story of Aron Ralston – the extreme adventurer who amputated his lower right arm to free himself from a boulder which pinned him in Blue John Canyon for 127 hours – was a media circus when the event took place in 2003 and has become a well-known inspirational story. Boyle, long before the success of his supremely overrated Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire (2008), defined himself as an “auteur” to the film community by crafting a highly kinetic visual style and spinning it through a variety of genres, most successfully in the druggie epic Trainspotting (1996) and the contemporary zombie spin 28 Days Later (2002).

If Boyle’s best work indicates the ability of his style to cross heterogeneous genres, his worst films loudly illustrate exactly that one style does not not fit all. In these cases, Boyle undermines his own films by confronting his narrative logic, his actors, and his actual story with cut-and-paste stylistic “obsessions” which grate against those former elements. Boyle’s direction (and his entire movie) ends up having nothing to do with the material at hand, but, rather, stands as a useless continuation of expected, inappropriate directorial choices. Case and point: 127 Hours – a story of individual strength amidst extreme isolation and deathly circumstances as directed by a zombie with the Rage virus.

Problems start with the first frames of the film – a tryptych, split-screen of large groups of people, vehicles, and nature displaying Boyle’s “kinetic vibrancy.” The pop soundtrack propels us onto Aron Ralston (James Franco) setting off on his adventure. He screens his mom’s phone call, forgets his Swiss Army knife, and soon enough races through the canyon on his mountain bike. This split-screen method may intend to counterpose Ralston with that contemporary world, but Boyle’s use of it throughout the film destroys its credibility in that regard. That aside, Ralston appears enmeshed in a similar form of movement, a mere extension of the crowded city energy pushed out into nature.

If all this, as well as Ralston’s amusing trail-guide excursion with a couple lost girls, showcases a thematic shift once the boulder traps him, Boyle and company seem either unaware or unwilling to let the challenge of their story – supreme desolation – become a demanding element for the limited audience who wants to see this as a cinematic narrative in the first place. Aside from one nice, if expected, shot of Ralstion crying for help as the camera tracks out and above the vast, confined canyon, Ralston never feels very alone. By repeatedly intercutting scenes of Ralston in alternate locations with masses of people, friends, and family, Boyle removes 127 Hours from the precarious situation at hand and uses it as a pedestal to launch into overwrought flashbacks and sequences which more aptly fit his stylistic choices. In allowing other characters to become a part of the movie during the crucial time span, Boyle lets the audience (and himself) off easy. Ralston appears here, there, and everywhere allowing his position to embody a dramatic one-liner instead of a draining and stirring emotional and temporal experience. Things become so confused in Boyle’s stylistic rampage that a fantastical dream sequence appears as plausible as Ralston’s seemingly unbelievable story.

Franco’s strong performance, slowly replacing his bemused loner attitude with anger, fear, and desperation, signals the emotional swings of his interpersonal journey through the traumatic experience. The dramaturgy, perhaps understandably, occasionally slips into histrionics, but Boyle’s push towards sentimentality thwarts the complex reasoning behind Ralston’s state, and hence his entire story. Much as Franco tries, Boyle’s moves undercut him at every direction.

In the film’s much-anticipated climax, Boyle finally demands that the audience face Ralston’s dire position head on. The amputation sequence has been a lot for the squeamish, and rightfully so. Saw really has nothing on this. But, in waiting for the final moments of this challenging story to make any kind of challenge, it becomes clear that Boyle is wholly unsure about and uncomfortable with the material, its questions, and its lessons. Rather than confront the difficult questions inherent in the actual story, Boyle pushes his own directorial machine buttons instead of anything else. In this way, Ralston becomes just an oddity with which Boyle could make another one of his “inspirational” movies. 127 Hours got what it expected from Boyle – kinetic style, tears, Dido, a children’s choir – but it needed something completely different.

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