BLACK SWAN, directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz and John McLaughlin, 108 minutes, rated R.
It’s just like director Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Pi”) to follow a movie about a down-on-his-luck wrestler with a thriller about the tumultuous world of prima ballerinas.
Who’s tougher? After watching this movie, I’m Team Ballerina. Randy “The Ram” Robinson has nothing on this gaggle of twirling tutus.
Given the weight of Aronofsky’s talent, it’s also just like the director to be generating Oscar buzz for this movie, which is so hyped up with melodrama and freakish occurrences, you’d swear somebody here popped one mother of a hallucinogenic mushroom before filming began.
And maybe they did, because when Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Swan Lake,” is set to be performed at New York City’s Lincoln Center, the lead dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman), starts to have one thunderous break-down that leads to all sorts of weirdness, such as a scene in which she pulls a feather from her skin. Or others that involve her image — and how it reflects its own personality — in mirrors.
But such is the world in which Nina moves. Fraught with stress, she lives at home with a demanding mother who will remind plenty of Carrie’s mother in Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Barbara Hershey plays her with a beautifully cutting, loving edge — what she mines in Erica is something controlled and scary, a former ballerina herself who now is living vicariously through her daughter, who she lifts up and puts down with a devil’s ease.
Also here to cause trouble is the sloppy, drunken former ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder, boozed to the gills and ready to take swings at whatever moves). Beth was up for the part Nina won, but when the show’s artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), “retires” his little princess from dance, well, let’s just say it gets messy. The same proves true for the relationship Nina forms with Lily (Mila Kunis), who was flown in from San Francisco to join the company — and who will do anything to land Nina’s part, including crippling her with a night of dance and drugs the day before a critical practice.
For Nina, the trouble is that she has been sheltered her whole life — even in her mid-twenties, her pink bedroom with the cute curtains and stuffed toys might as well belong to a virginal young girl.
Because of all of this, she only is able to tap into the purity of the White Swan. The Black Swan is too dark for her to go near. She wrestles with it. Thomas wrestles with it. And while Lily waits on the sidelines for her chance to steal the role from Nina, odd things start to happen. Nina begins to hallucinate and fall apart. Darkness begins to creep in and with it comes the Black Swan, who takes root in Nina’s soul and allows her to spread her wings fully at center stage. But at what cost?
“Black Swan” is engrossing and exciting — it might seem otherwise, but only a trace of the plot has been explored here. Portman, a former ballerina herself, worked 10 months behind the scenes to prepare herself for the grueling role, which turns out to be the best she has delivered. An Academy Award nomination is certain to ensue — it has to.
But beyond Portman, everyone here is strong, and Aronofsky’s vision once again finds something new within the old. You’ve never seen a movie quite like “Black Swan” before. It’s brazen, it’s ridiculous, it’s magnificent, it’s human, it’s unique, it’s the world at its worst, it’s the worst at its best — and this is why it’s so weirdly compelling. Often, you watch “Black Swan” with repulsion and admiration at the same time. Think that’s easy? It isn’t. But Aronofsky achieves it and this is one of the reasons his movie will be nominated for an Academy Award. Grade: A-
On DVD and Blu-ray disc
INCEPTION, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, 148 minutes, rated PG-13.
Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is a trick, but it isn’t a gimmick.
The film offers moviegoers something unusual — intelligence targeted at adults. The movie is complex, it’s ambitious, it’s daring in how it isolates viewers by piling on the layers, and it’s cunning in how it draws them back in when those layers suddenly come together.
This is a movie that turns in on itself — and then in on itself again — until what you’re left with is a kind of compelling confusion of ideas that oddly make sense as the movie expands into its nearly 2.5 hour running time. If you think “Lost” was complicated, let’s just say it’s kitten chow when compared to this.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a crook who possesses a rare ability. He can steal into a person’s dreams, lift information they otherwise wouldn’t have shared while awake, and then sell that information to the person in need of it most.
But when Saito (Ken Watanabe) decides he needs something from Fischer (Cillian Murphy), a wealthy man with daddy issues, a new challenge is offered to Cobb — can he plant an idea into someone’s subconscious? Is he able to incept a notion that could, say, bring down one man’s corporation? Cobb can, but he’s uneasy about it. The only other time he incepted led to a person’s death.
For Cobb, who for years has been unable to return to the United States, the catch is that Saito will see to his return if he agrees to his wishes and incepts a dream. Since Cobb’s children are in the States, he agrees, and inward the movie folds, with so many complications edging into the plot, the best tip I can offer is to pay attention. Nolan likes to play mind games with those who come to his movies, and “Inception” is no exception.
To help Cobb make Saito’s wishes a reality, his father (Michael Caine) introduces him to Ariadne (Ellen Page), a “dream architect” who has a knack for constructing intricacies that become pseudo-realities. You know, like folding Paris into a neat little box. That sort of thing. Also onboard are the smoldering Eames (Tom Hardy); a chemist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao); and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), none of whom is quite prepared for the game changer that is the act of inception. Marion Cotillard is very good as Cobb’s dead wife, who infiltrates his subconscious in ways that could ruin everything for the team if he allows her to push too hard.
“Inception” is a curious movie that satisfies more with its intellect than with any emotion it elicits. With the exception of Eames and Arthur, you don’t necessarily care much for the characters, so it’s difficult to find someone to get behind. That person should be Cobb, but he is such a cold, emotional wreck — and a thief at that — siding with him is tricky. For your own pleasure, you want the inception to go off, but because you’re not emotionally invested in the people trying to make it happen, the movie pushes you to the sidelines, where you mostly sit back and appreciate the difficult work that went into stitching together Nolan’s impossible narrative.
And there is where the movie wins. Nolan is first and foremost a craftsman, and while what he does in “Inception” might not have the personal heat of “The Dark Knight” or “Memento,” he nevertheless uses the medium here in ways that are fresh and compelling. Some will wish there were less exposition, but others will appreciate the sheer amount of thought that went into dissecting the mystery of dreams, how they work to inform “Inception,” and how they ultimately give themselves over to the overall success of the film’s conception. Grade: B+
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Fridays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.