My print-only review of Tina Kaufman's monograph on Wake In Fright (1971) appears in the March 2011 issue of Australian Book Review.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, February 17, 2010.
Gnomeo and Juliet, I'm afraid, is just what it sounds like: a cartoon version of Romeo and Juliet with garden gnomes (and a happier ending). A film based on a pun, which no less than nine credited writers, Shakespeare aside, have laboured to turn into a workable, feature-length narrative.
Two of these writers are Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil, who co-wrote the later seasons of Black Books, and might be responsible for the occasional touches of wit. When Gnomeo (James McAvoy) first encounters Juliet (Emily Blunt) she's literally up on a pedestal, while their “two houses alike in dignity” are a pair of terraces in the English suburbs.
Sadly, little is done with the feud between the human owners of these properties (the initial hope is that one story could enclose and parallel another, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Fraggle Rock). Still, there some pleasingly zany digressions, including a commercial for a state-of-the-art lawnmower (“It's unnecessarily powerful!”) and a last-minute cameo by a statue of the Bard himself, voiced by Patrick Stewart at his fruitiest.
McAvoy and Blunt can't do much to spark interest in their dull characters, but a few talented comics stand out from the all-star, all-British voice cast. Matt Lucas is as well-suited to voice a gnome as he was to undertake the dual role of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Alice in Wonderland, while Ashley Jensen uses her Scottish accent for all it's worth as the replacement for Juliet's nurse, a plaster frog who gushes both words and water.
But at 84 minutes Gnomeo and Juliet seems to drag on forever: the songs by producer Elton John don't help much, nor does the use of 3D. Ultimately, there's not much to be gained by turning one of the world's great love stories into something inherently kitschy and grotesque.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, February 10, 2011.
Can a man and a woman have regular sex, stay friends, and avoid falling in love? The obvious answer is “yes” – but that wouldn't make for much of a romantic comedy, and from the outset there's little question where No Strings Attached is headed.
The setting is Los Angeles, where the twentysomething Adam (Ashton Kutcher) works as a TV production assistant; like most characters played by Kutcher, he's a confident, easygoing type. Still, even he has trouble keeping his cool when his ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovegood) starts dating his dad (Kevin Kline), a preening former sitcom star.
On the advice of his buddies, he sets out to distract himself by hopping into bed with someone else. Emma (Natalie Portman) seems to be the perfect candidate, a hardworking doctor who hasn't the time or inclination to embark on a full-blown relationship. For a while the arrangement seems satisfactory on both sides – but when Adam proposes that this casual affair might develop into something more serious, Emma responds to the prospect of emotional intimacy with a virtual panic attack.
The veteran director Ivan Reitman is far from a feminist, but he clearly enjoys the spectacle of smart women letting their emotions off the leash – from Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters (1984) to Uma Thurman in My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), a film that looks better every time it turns up on TV. Here, he gives us a classic pairing of opposites. A frequently underrated actor, Kutcher has made a career from appearing supremely comfortable in his own skin, while Portman naturally falls into a brittle, defensive mode.
Though Emma is the more interesting personality, Adam's bemused reactions to her generate most of the laughs. Psychological realism is scarcely possible under the circumstances, but Portman rarely resorts to clowning, even when Emma flies into a rage and charges at Adam like a possessed sprite.
While the sex scenes are discreetly framed, No Strings Attached aims to be raunchy and titillating in a fairly relaxed, straightforward way. Nearly all the youthful, good-looking characters are ready to talk frankly about their needs and desires – particularly Emma and her friends in the medical profession. Working from a snappy script by Elizabeth Meriweather, Reitman steers his actors to a point where most of the anatomical banter sounds spontaneous rather than coy or forced, a feat which not even Judd Apatow usually manages to pull off.
Many of the best moments go to the supporting players, especially Greta Gerwig as Emma's roommate and Lake Bell as an ultra-neurotic producer on Adam's TV show. Other minor figures are merely functional; Kline, typically, seems to be straining too hard in the wrong direction.
No Strings Attached doesn't pretend to depth, and Reitman and Meriweather never do more than hint at the source of Emma's fear of commitment. In the end, of course, love conquers all – but to view this as a conservative moral would be to give a fun, busy diversion entirely too much weight.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, February 10, 2011.
How many nuclear weapons exist in the world? How many countries possess them? How many nuclear accidents occur each year? If you can answer these questions correctly, you're some way ahead of the ordinary folk in Lucy Walker's anti-nuke documentary who pop up occasionally to demonstrate their poor grasp of the subject matter.
Walker is best-known for documentaries about young people, such as Devil's Playground (2002) and Blindsight (2006). But she's strictly a hired hand here: the film is jointly backed by a thinktank ominously known as the World Security Institute and by Participant Media, a socially-conscious production company which has had a hand in everything from the much-maligned environmental comedy Furry Vengeance to Al Gore's global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Playing to the political centre, Walker and her team avoid dwelling on the folly of the 20th-century arms race; instead, they stress the present-day risk that weapons could be launched in error, or fall into the hands of terrorists or madmen.
As propaganda Countdown to Zero does its job, especially when experts paint a vivid word picture of the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Still, the title of the film is less ominous than it sounds: Walker isn't forecasting an inevitable doomsday, simply urging that the global stockpile of nuclear weapons be reduced to zero.
Aside from giving us a number to text for more information after the screening, she doesn't do much to suggest how this could be achieved as a practical goal. Nor does she complicate matters by bringing on a pro-nuke spokesperson to serve as devil's advocate. Instead, various former statesmen turn up as interviewees to lend weight to the film's message, including such noted peaceniks as Robert McNamara and Tony Blair. If you can stand being lectured by these worthies, Countdown to Zero may be an educational experience, but I'd hesitate to recommend it to anyone seeking a fun night out.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, February 10, 2011.
IMAX regulars, if there are any, will know what to expect from Egypt 3D: Secrets Of The Mummies, also known as Mummies: Secrets of the Pharoahs – a brief documentary from 2007, now back on the biggest screen of all as a teaser for the upcoming Tutankhaman exhibition at Melbourne Museum.
The subject is fascinating but the promised “secrets” don't amount to much. Aimed at schoolchildren, the film is an elementary history lesson, albeit one delivered in the sonorous, sinister tones of Christopher Lee. As chief narrator, Lee introduces us to an American expert named Bob Brier, engaged in deciphering hieroglyphs that may hold the secrets of the mummification process. In turn, Brier's speculations about the personalities of the Pharoahs lead into the story of the 19th-century Egyptologist Charles Wilbour (William Hope) who helped uncover the tombs of Ramses the Great and his descendants; the Chinese-box construction aligns with the forward motion of the camera to induce the sensation of travelling gradually deeper into the past.
Even with the aid of computer graphics and re-enactments, mummies are hard to bring to life on screen – but the director Keith Melton occasionally manages to convey a sense of the sublime. When Wilbour is visualised as a tiny, dapper figure wandering among the ruins, we're invited to contemplate two layers of history at once. Likewise, the fanciful recreations of ancient Egyptian rituals gain force through sheer scale, suggesting that Cecil B. de Mille would have embraced the IMAX format if he lived today.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, February 5, 2011.
The humanist ambitions of Danny Boyle's follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire are visible from the opening credits, where images of crowds across the planet are set alongside the morning routine of 28-year-old engineer Aron Ralston (James Franco), as he prepares to go canyoneering in the Utah desert. Against all this we hear the techno-Bollywood throb of the score by Boyle's Slumdog collaborator A.R. Rahman, with lyrics that speculate about some aspect of brain chemistry that “makes us all the same”.
Boyle established his reputation with Trainspotting (1994), a nihilistic study of Scottish heroin addicts: how has he risen, or sunk, to this brand of we-are-the-world uplift? The truth might be that he's an exploitation director at heart, willing to capitalise on any kind of intense emotion. The majority of his films could be summed up as tabloid headlines: ZOMBIES TAKE OVER BRITAIN, or MISFIT TEEN WINS BIG ON QUIZ SHOW, or, in this case, MAN TRAPPED IN CANYON CUTS OWN ARM OFF TO SURVIVE.
Already, this gives away most of the plot of the movie – but the true story which inspired 127 Hours has already had enough publicity it's unlikely many viewers will be surprised by the denouement. Still, Boyle has a few tricks for holding our interest, most notably the unusual personality of his star. Rather than relying on Method flailing to hint at a complex inner life, Franco has the ability to seem thoughtful yet serene, while treating his squinting good looks as a playful disguise.
Franco's glamour is the focal point of the energetic early scenes, shot like an extreme sports documentary. En route to the canyon he plans to explore, Aron befriends a couple of girls who have lost their way (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) and offers to lead them to their destination. During the most dangerous part of the journey he admits (to their horror) that he isn't a professional guide, just a regular dude willing to take on any role that suits the moment.
Finally, he bounds off towards the horizon, leaving his companions to marvel at an exuberance that appears self-sufficient and therefore baffling: “I don't think we figured in his day at all.” But after he falls into a crevasse and gets his hand stuck under a boulder, this same self-sufficiency starts to look like a curse: as he bitterly notes in one instalment of a video diary, he's such a “big hard hero” he hasn't bothered to tell anybody back home where he might be headed.
In its best and most straightforward moments, 127 Hours is a tense tale of survival against the odds, along the lines of a Werner Herzog film such as Rescue Dawn (2006). As in any version of Robinson Crusoe, the hero has to think hard in order to transcend his situation – making the best use he can of the few resources at his disposal, which in this case include a water bottle, a pair of headphones, and a blunted pocket knife.
Less happily, Boyle and his screenwriter Simon Beaufoy are likewise concerned to maximise the film's dramatic potential, loading strained significance onto each element of the narrative. The sun suggests transcendence and escape, Aron's contact lenses remind us of his physical limitations, and even his cap symbolises his need to hide his real self.
As if fearful his audience might get bored, Boyle underlines these obvious ideas by every method at his disposal, bombarding us with flashbacks, hallucinations and cartoonish close-ups. An especially bizarre interlude sees Aron acting the roles of both host and guest on an imaginary talk show, complete with canned laughter and applause. It's a tour-de-force for Franco, but a deeply unrealistic one: how would a man halfway to death find the energy to riff like a stand-up comic?
But for Boyle and Beaufoy it clearly makes sense that a loner like Aron should express his desire to re-enter society by imagining himself as a media figure – just as a TV appearance proved to be the salvation of the hero of Slumdog. Indeed, the film itself resembles a reality TV show, in which “ordinary” contestants are pushed to the limit as part of a journey towards symbolic rebirth.
Much of what Boyle is trying to do here echoes Sean Penn's remarkable Into the Wild (2007), another “true story” about a young American adventurer (Emile Hirsch) who ultimately realises that he can't survive alone. But Penn takes pains to prevent us from making easy judgements, respecting the mystery of his hero's personality to the last. Despite Franco's best efforts, the final half hour of 127 Hours is close to unwatchable – not because of the blood and guts, but because Boyle's hyperbolic style erases all traces of ambiguity and spontaneity, turning the film into a feature-length advertisement for itself.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, February 3, 2011.
This eccentric B-grade action movie is nestled deep inside the conventions of genre, where the director George Tillman Jr can be as arty as he wants without too many people noticing. The cinematographer Michael Grady gives the images a non-specific retro patina, and shows a special fondness for light filtering through venetian blinds; background vistas shift in and out of focus, while the colour scheme modulates between dusty sepia and steely blue-grey.
As in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), explicitly referenced here, we follow three nameless anti-heroes on their solitary paths. After his release from prison, the Driver (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) sets out to wreak methodical revenge, while the Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and the Killer (British newcomer Oliver Jackson-Cohen) both strive to bring him down.
While all these characters are types, none of them are easy to fathom. The laconic Driver is defined by his acts of violence, but close-ups regularly reveal the sensitivity in his eyes. The scruffy, divorced Cop is played by Thornton with a subdued wit that qualifies as the film's nearest approach to realism. In between hits, the ice-cold Killer is chatty and ridiculous in the manner of Russell Brand, telling his sympathetic girlfriend (Maggie Grace) that he plans to move on from yoga to “something more ultimate”.
Closer to the weightless allure of a music video than to the loudly advertised gamesmanship of a Tarantino film, Faster slides between tones like a blues guitarist between frets – mingling Biblical allegory with blatant parody, yet never letting one cancel the other out.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, February 3, 2011.
Despite the involvement of 3D guru James Cameron as a producer, this adventure story about a mostly Australian team of cave divers trapped far below the surface of Papua New Guinea is a visual disappointment.
In fairness, director Alistair Grierson has generally risen to the technical demands of the shoot, which took place both in the studio and on location. There are some strikingly designed shots, particularly when rushing water falls like a veil between the characters and the viewer.
The major problem is simply that 3D glasses rob light from the image – and so a 3D film set largely underground is bound to look dim and uninviting. Another handicap is an awful script laden with Bazza McKenzieisms, most of them courtesy of comic-relief sidekick George (Dan Wylie), who warns that the cave will soon be “flooded like a blocked dunny”.
The climax has the quality of a weird, rather Freudian nightmare, with the father-son duo of Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and Josh (Rhys Wakefield) struggling through dank tunnels and resolving their emotional issues along the way. Under such circumstances, the actors can't wholly be blamed for awkward line readings – but Roxburgh's gruff, tough mutterings are as ludicrous as Wakefield's nasal efforts to sound deep and meaningful.
And who had the bright idea of hiring Andrew Hansen to reel off expository dialogue with the same mock-gravity he used to introduce fake news stories on The Chaser? His cameo almost sinks the film before it even gets started.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, January 22, 2011.
This account of twelve months in the life of a middle-class British couple testifies once again to Mike Leigh's uncommon ability to find comedy and drama in the rituals of the everyday. Skipping across the seasons, the film portrays a series of homely social occasions hosted by husband and wife Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), both pushing sixty: the pedantically good-natured Tom (Jim Broadbent) is a geological engineer, while the soft-spoken Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a counsellor who brings some of her trained modesty and tact into her private affairs.
In the hands of Broadbent and Sheen, Tom and Gerri become fascinating without ceasing to be slightly dull – which could also be said of their stolid son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and Tom's morose mate Ken (Peter Wight). By contrast, the most colourful member of their circle is Mary (Lesley Manville), a blowsy drunk who clings to her departed youth, treats Joe with more than aunt-like affection, and turns up on Tom and Gerry's doorstep perhaps more often than they might hope.
Mary bears a family resemblance to other women in the Leigh portrait gallery: a perpetual motion machine of self-caressing body language and saucy chatter, constantly reasserting her claims to interest and value. Her friends deal patiently with her need for validation, but Tom is capable of blunt irritation when pushed too far – and Gerri, the more emotionally sophisticated of the two, grasps that her own well-being depends on knowing where sympathy must be withdrawn.
The most common line from Leigh's detractors is that he condescends to his characters, an idea I have never quite understood. The suggestion that he is merely a caricaturist makes me feel what George Santayana felt about Dickens – that people who say he exaggerates “can have no eyes and no ears”. In fact a central theme in Leigh's films is the way that all of us caricature ourselves, falling back on habitual, often pointless gestures and remarks: the dialogue of Another Year seems consciously a catalogue of clichés old and new, from “Same old, same old” to “Too much information”.
In effect, Leigh gives us a stereoscopic image of each character, sympathetic and critical at the same time. Joe's girlfriend Katie (Katrina Fernandez) is surely a lovely person, even if her efforts to be bright and bubbly seem a bit irritating and a bit forced. Tom and Gerri are also “nice” by any standards – but what does their niceness entail, and how much is it really worth? Another Year is partly an attempt to answer this question, partly an investigation into what makes a happy marriage. It's also a film about ageing, loneliness, and the fact that every choice has its consequences – in short, about life and the human condition, to put it more grandly than Leigh ever would.
Leigh's recent Happy Go Lucky (2008) had its brilliant passages, but his efforts to create a wholly positive heroine (Sally Hawkins) were more grimly determined than persuasive. Thankfully, he doesn't idealise Tom and Gerri in quite the same way: mostly we're allowed to draw our own conclusions, though I could have done without the heavy-handed scene of Mary glancing flirtatiously at a stranger then reacting to the arrival of his relatively young, glamorous date.
Leigh's famous use of improvisation to develop his scripts is a means of ensuring each character has an independent existence: no-one is simply a prop or a dramatic foil. As a rule, the upshot is awkward comedy, born from clashes between personalities tuned to such different wavelengths they hardly seem to belong to the same fictional universe. On the other hand, everyone is a potential version of someone else, an idea Leigh underlines at the outset by showing us a professional encounter between Gerri and an unhappily married woman (Imelda Staunton) who displays all the symptoms of depression.
Though this character is neither seen nor heard from after the opening scenes, she remains in our minds, a reference point helping us measure the success or failure of Tom, Gerri, Mary and the rest. Should her misery be put down to poor judgement, bad luck, or something less easy to define? While Leigh doesn't give us the answer, there's little in Another Year to encourage anyone to feel smug.
A version of this article appeared in The Age, January 20, 2011.
For Melbourne cinephiles of a certain age, the phrase “cult film” is bound to spark memories of the legendary Valhalla Cinema, based originally in Victoria St, Richmond, then in High St, Northcote. Back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, scores of devoted fans would gather each week at the Val for late-night sessions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or The Blues Brothers (1980), sporting glam wigs or Ray-Ban sunglasses and armed with props and wisecracks to hurl at the screen.
Since then, things have moved on. The Northcote incarnation of the Valhalla is now the Westgarth, an arthouse multiplex owned by the Palace chain; today’s cultists are likely to learn about their favorite films on the Internet, and watch them on DVD. Yet the idea of a cinematic cult still implies a kind of community – movie-going as a shared adventure, where audience response matters as much as the film itself. A cult phenomenon in this sense needs the support of an adventurous exhibitor, with a personal vision of what cinema could and should be.
Thanks to a few of these brave souls, late-night cult movies have recently been making a comeback around town. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image led the way with their “Freaky Fridays” program which has run since 2005, though screenings begin at the relatively unadventurous time of 9.30 pm. Aided by specially allocated funding from Melbourne City Council, last year's Melbourne International Film Festival incorporated an unusual number of lateshows in its schedule, including a one-off presentation of Joe Dante's epic The Movie Orgy (1968), ending after four in the morning.
But commercial venues have also been getting into the act. At the end of January, Cinema Nova in Carlton is celebrating a year of regular lateshows of The Room (2003) – a deranged erotic melodrama written and directed by its eccentric star Tommy Wiseau, who looks like Willem Dafoe with a Gene Simmons haircut. Though less obviously “transgressive” than Rocky Horror, The Room boasts its share of sexual oddities and likewise centres on a flamboyant, doomed anti-hero betrayed by his closest friends.
And as with Rocky Horror in its heyday, audiences are encouraged to respond as vocally as possible to the bizarre proceedings. Ritual insults are shouted at the hapless actors, and plastic spoons are thrown in the air in tribute to the photos of cutlery that play an inexplicable role in the film’s production design. For Nova manager Kristian Connelly, the secret of The Room’s success lies precisely in its badness. “People love to criticise it,” he says, “in the same way that it's fun to have a party at home and take the piss out of stuff on TV.”
The Nova have tried out various other films in their late-night “Cult Cravings” program – including the “body horror” shocker Human Centipede, which Connelly says was “overstepping the mark even for me”. The newest attraction is the self-explanatory Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus, which began its season on Boxing Day. Again, there’s an opportunity for audience participation: viewers are supplied with coloured flags they can wave to support whichever monster they prefer. Connelly says in the future he'd also like to run some older films, such as Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) which he describes as “Rocky Horror twenty years on”.
Back at the Westgarth, manager Zak Hepburn is pursuing a similar dream with his “Cult Vault” screenings on Fridays at midnight. Each month has a different focus, tapping into cults old and new. December was all about horror and science fiction, with titles such as the Generation X favorite Army of Darkness (1992) and the evergreen schlock masterpiece Robot Monster (1953). The theme for January is “Mods, Music and Madness,” with an all-British line-up including Quadrophenia (1978), Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) and the Michael Caine gangster classic Get Carter (1971). Vintage trailers play before each feature, along with shorts such as the disturbing bike education film One Got Fat (1963).
Hepburn chooses all the films himself and makes a point of projecting 35-millimetre prints rather than video. “I think it's really important to do it on film,” he says. “If you're going to get people to come out of their homes, you need to give them something that they can't see anywhere else.”
Along with fans keen to experience their favourites on the big screen, “Cult Vault” is also attracting regulars who show up loyally every week. As Hepburn points out, the timeslot has its own allure, regardless of what’s playing. “I think screening it at midnight alerts people to the fact that you're probably going to see something you wouldn't see at five o'clock in the afternoon, at a normal cinema.”
“Certainly a late night does add something,” agrees Connelly, who sums up the formula as “that lovely mix of exhaustion, alcohol, and just being really relaxed.”
A version of this review appeared in The Age, January 20, 2011.
It's been a long time between drinks for David O. Russell, which is too bad for those of us who ranked his philosophical comedy I Heart Huckabees (2004) as one of the highlights of the decade. Since that triumph, he's had a rough trot; his last film Nailed remains stranded in post-production hell, while in the meantime he's become most famous for blowing his top in behind-the-scenes footage on YouTube.
Now, finally, he's back, though The Fighter is as unexpected as any of his previous shifts of gear – a dramatised version of the true story of the boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a native of Lowell, Massuchusetts who turned his career around at the advanced age of thirty-one, eventually competing for the world welterweight championship.
Like Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), The Fighter counterpoints battles in the ring with its hero's equally fraught homelife. But if Scorsese's classic verges on tragedy, The Fighter, like every Russell film, is basically a comedy: the traditional kind, where a group of quarrelsome no-hopers band together to achieve a common goal.
Part of the joke is that aside from his profession Micky is a man of peace: Wahlberg, who nursed the project for years, portrays him effectively as a stoic, straightforward type. The real hothead is his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a crack-addicted know-it-all, briefly a champion boxer in his own right, who now serves as Micky's erratic trainer.
As played by Bale, Dicky is a startling apparition: skinny as a popsicle stick, with huge hollow eyes and a manic skeleton grin, continuously bobbing round and speaking in husky half-sentences. It's the sort of character acting which Bale used to do before he took to playing superheroes – and which would seem far over-the-top if it wasn't executed with such total conviction.
Dicky is a show in himself, and so is Alice (Melissa Leo), the matriarch of the Ward brood, a permed warrior who marches into the training gym dolled up in a leopard-print jacket, scrapbooks tucked under her arm in readiness for a TV crew supposedly shooting a documentary about Dicky's comeback. “You get me comin' in all right? You want me to do it again?”
Usually, she's flanked by her daughters, a Greek chorus of gorgons who owe a collective debt to Adam Sandler's sisters in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). No wonder Micky's girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) has to fight like a tigress to win her man away from his crazy family and convince him to restart his career under new management.
Ultimately, The Fighter delivers on a conventional formula. But one major satisfaction of this extremely satisfying film is the way that Russell integrates that formula with his own gift for choreographing chaos and multiplying the dimensions of an event. The presence of the TV crew is one means to this end (the broadcast of Dicky's documentary proves to be a turning point for everyone concerned). Beyond this, there's always another angle for Russell to cut to, something else going on at the fringes of a scene: in the midst of a furious argument, he'll show us Dicky's little son punching at a locker in imitation of his father, or a bemused dog staring from across the street.
While the title of The Fighter refers to Micky, it could apply to any of the characters: even Adams, usually cast as a sweetie-pie, is a foul-mouthed Amazon here. But there's no doubting Russell's affection for the rough streets of Lowell, or his will to prove that conflict, particularly between loved ones, is the very stuff of life.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, January 20, 2011.
Two of cinema's slyer pop operators come together in this unsatisfying but consistently peculiar 3D superhero spoof, directed by Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind) and co-written by its star Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express). Gondry, who usually keeps his distance from Hollywood, makes odes to lost innocence tricked out with whimsical visual gimmicks. Rogen, with his writing partner Evan Goldberg, specialises in vaguely homoerotic buddy movies marked by weird tonal shifts.
Nominally a retooling of a 1960s TV series, the film casts Rogen as the wealthy slacker Britt Reid, who adopts a new identity and sets out to clean up the streets of Los Angeles. His crime-fighting associate is the ultra-competent Kato, a tech whiz and gifted martial artist played with terrific comic timing by the sleek Taiwanese singer Jay Chou. As scripted, this is mildly ironised kids' stuff: Britt remains a fanboy at heart, who can't quite believe he now gets to dress up and kick butt for real.
This refusal of gravity gels, to some extent, with Gondry's characteristic treatment of the film world as a heap of discarded objects to be broken down and transformed: one of the strongest scenes is a lengthy fight that reduces several rooms of expensive consumer goods to rubble. The indications are that Gondry took on The Green Hornet partly from a yen for adventure and partly as conceptual art, but Rogen's domineering presence rarely gives him enough leeway to assert his own, more detached point of view.
A version of this review appeared in The Age, January 15, 2011.
A zone set apart from everyday life, where physical and mental capacities are tested to the limit: certainly, there's nothing airy-fairy about the vision of ballet in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to his highly-praised The Wrestler (2008). Aronofsky is a specialist in geeky machismo, whose films all deal with consuming obsessions: mathematics in Pi (1998), drug addiction in Requiem For A Dream (2000), a quest for eternal youth in his incomprehensible The Fountain (2006).
The obsessive heroine of Black Swan is Nina (Natalie Portman), a twenty-something dancer with a New York ballet company, who shies away from strangers and acts a decade younger than her age. From the outset, her exaggerated innocence is viewed as its own form of madness: at home, she practices until her feet bleed, under the eye of her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her own ballet aspirations after falling pregnant. But while Nina strives to achieve perfection, Tomas (Vincent Cassel), the demanding director of the company, is dissatisfied with her approach. To transcend mere technique, he counsels, you must give up control, lose yourself – and he's more than willing to provide hands-on assistance to this end.
When Thomas announces that a new season will open with a production of that old warhorse Swan Lake, Nina sets her sights on the dual star role of the White Swan, a tragic innocent, and the Black Swan, her seductive rival. But Nina has her own potential rival in Lily (Mila Kunis), a tattooed newcomer to the troupe whose easy sexuality and no-sweat attitude are a mirror image of Nina's hoity-toity repression. Outwardly, Lily couldn't be friendlier, eyes widening in practiced sympathy with Nina's fraught state. But is she the laid-back free spirit she seems, or a treacherous schemer? Or is she, just possibly, a figment of Nina's tortured imagination?
If The Wrestler is clearly Aronofsky's best film, it's largely thanks to Mickey Rourke, whose performance as an anguished has-been was buoyed by enormous, calm charisma. Black Swan is a star vehicle of a different kind: for all the physical commitment Portman puts into playing a dancer, her strongest moments occur in quieter scenes where Lily's self-control is overtaken by flickering signs of curiosity or panic. The power struggle between Nina and Lily is paralleled by a contest between two acting styles: Kunis comes close to stealing the film as the "bad girl," a variant on her winningly trashy vixen from That '70s Show.
Basically a Gothic thriller, Black Swan could be summed up as The Red Shoes (1948) meets Carrie (1976), albeit less entertaining than that description sounds. As a study of roiling madness beneath the surface of a “classical” artform, the film also invites comparison to Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001), with Isabelle Huppert as a frigid virtuoso; whatever one thinks of Haneke, his “cool” style is a more obvious match for the subject than Aronofsky's frenzy. Black Swan starts off shrill and builds relentlessly toward hysteria: the camera spins with Nina as she pirouettes, or hovers anxiously by her gaunt face as if seeking symptoms of disease.
Credited to three writers including Aronofsky's former assistant Mark Heyman, the dialogue is repetitive and often sheerly bad (“Did you have some sort of lezzie wet dream about me?” Lily gloats, a line destined for a place in the folklore of camp). Themes are underlined over and over, with Thomas constantly fretting over whether Nina has the sex appeal for the Black Swan role. As reality comes unglued, the narrative morphs into a prolonged and not too thrilling game of “Did that really happen?”
Typically for Aronofsky, Black Swan is both demented and over-controlled; most scenes are staged in shadowy interiors, with every detail tweaked to fit the overall scheme. The Swan Lake score supplies Nina's mobile ringtone and is heard again on a musical box by her bed. Nina's signature outfit features a fleecy white scarf and a baby-pink coat; Lily, unsurprisingly, prefers casual black. In keeping with the “double” motif, mirrors are prominent throughout, while digital fantasy sequences add to the delirium.
Black Swan may trade on cliches about the “dark side” of the artistic process, but it's hard to feel Aronofksy has successfully embraced his own unconscious. Still, the overwrought climax leads to a satisfyingly ambiguous punchline: Nina has the last word, suggesting the terrors which hold her back as an artist may also supply the fuel for her final triumph.