Know Your Nominees: “Black Swan”

29 01 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, the logical starting place is “Black Swan.”

For all the acclaim “Black Swan” is receiving now, it seems silly that anyone WOULDN’T want to pour money into making the movie.  Yet according to director Darren Aronfosky, the movie was a surprisingly hard sell to production companies even with Natalie Portman and the rest of the cast all lined up.  When financing finally lined up, Aronofsky was forced to make the movie on $15 million, which was $10 million less than what he had hoped to have.  This meant a streamlined shooting schedule; for example, each act of the “Swan Lake” ballet shown at the end of the movie was shot in one day.

Maybe you’ve heard the mutterings that “Black Swan” was once the same movie as “The Wrestler.”  They are true. Director Darren Aronofsky brought it up once, and ever since, he’s been carefully clarifying exactly what he meant by that.  The movies originated out of the same idea: two performers whose craft drives them to physical and emotional extremes.  The end results are entirely different, but the two work together nicely as companion pieces.

A lot has been made of Nina’s sanity in the movie.  Is she ever sane?  When does she lose her mind?  Darren Aronofsky, in an interview with Cinema Blend said that “the only time she’s normal is right at the beginning of the film when she’s dancing before the demon shows up. That very first shot, she’s clear.”

We’ve all heard about Natalie Portman’s year of training to get ready for the role of Nina Sayers.  You’ve probably heard that she worked five hours a day doing swimming and ballet for eleven months and then a shocking eight hours a day in the final month.  She lost over 20 pounds practically starving herself to slim down.  But ballerinas have a long, lanky physique that’s hard to simply tone into.  So how did Portman overcome this challenge?  She had people pull on her arms and legs every day to stretch her out!

There was more to Natalie Portman’s physical commitment to “Black Swan” than her training.  While filming the movie, Portman broke a rib during a lift.  The film’s tight budget meant no on-screen doctor to help her, and the tight filming schedule didn’t exactly allow for much recovery time.  So how did they work around it?  They simply readjusted the lift.

And there’s even more commitment on Natalie Portman’s part than just physically embodying a ballerina.  She has been attached to “Black Swan” since 2000 when she met Darren Aronofsky in Times Square and said she wanted in on the project.   She claims Aronofsky had most of the movie laid out then.  Many other members of the crew have been committed to the movie for multiple years as well.

Did you see Winona Ryder in “Black Swan” and go “Woah, haven’t seen her in a while!”  According to Darren Aronofsky, Ryder was cast in the role of Beth because it echoes her career.  The “metacasting,” as he calls it, was crucial because the audience would likely feel more impacted by Beth if someone largely at the same point in their artistic life was playing her.

The movie could have been impossible to make as the acting qualifications were just as vital to the movie as the ability to dance ballet were.  Luckily, Natalie Portman took ballet from age 4 to 13, ultimately stopping to pursue only her acting career.  Thus, when she was needed to tap back into her ballet skills to prepare for “Black Swan,” the groundwork was already laid.

What was the hardest part of the movie to get right?  According to the choreographer, it was Natalie Portman’s undulating arms at the end of the movie that gave them such a hard time.

In case you haven’t heard, Portman is pregnant and engaged to Benjamin Millepied.  He was the film’s choreographer, and the two met on set.  Millepied also had a role in the film as pretty much the only male other than Vincent Cassel to speak in the movie – the lead dancer that drops Portman on opening night.  Portman referenced an ironic line he’s asked in the movie – “Would you f*** that girl?”

Check back on February 1 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “The Fighter.”

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10 for ’10: Performances

30 12 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

It’s impossible to celebrate a year in film without mentioning the performances that riveted us.  Without further ado or fanfare, here are the 10 actors who reminded me of the power of their craft with their work in 2010.

Women

Amy Adams as Charlene Fleming in “The Fighter

My original review:
Adams, usually the delightfully effervescent charmer, plays gritty and unapologetic in “The Fighter” and pulls it off to Oscar-worthy standards.  She’s able to pull off just about any sort of character she takes, and the tenacious Charlene is different than anything we’ve ever seen her do before.  It’s exciting to see an actress nowadays who isn’t content with finding one adjective to act and then carve themselves a niche, and Adams is quickly proving herself one of the most versatile actresses of our day.

Reflection:
Amy Adams has wowed me in a variety of different roles, from her unassuming nun in “Doubt” to the ditzy princess in “Enchanted.”  Yet as Charlene, I think she may have hit the most beautiful note in her career so far with her heartfelt conversation with Bale’s Dickie on her front porch.  As she reflects on her life and her good intentions, it’s such a wonderful moment filled with every ounce of sincerity that she has to give.

Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers in Black Swan

My original review:
The best of the supporting bunch [in “Black Swan”] is by far and away Hershey as the pushy and demanding stage mom.  Such roles often become stock characters; however, Hershey takes the role in frightening and invigorating new directions.

Reflection:
There wasn’t a more frightening performance this year than Hershey as Natalie Portman’s mother.  There’s a whole lot of subtext that Hershey has to act, perhaps a whole hidden backstory as director Darren Aronofsky alluded to, and that’s usually a daunting task for actors to pull off.  Hershey shows no dust from her long hiatus from acting, keeping us scared and entranced at the same time.

Julianne Moore as Jules in “The Kids Are All Right

My original review:
It’s Julianne Moore who absolutely brings down the house [in “The Kids Are All Right”].  As the more flighty, free-spirited Jules, she wins our hearts from the get-go, even if her antics only illicit groans from her other half.  The character is very complex as she begins reeling from Paul’s introduction, exploring sides of herself she didn’t know even existed.  It’s glorious to watch Moore dig deeper and deeper into her character as the movie goes on.  She’s responsible for some of the movie’s funniest moments but also for its most effective emotional scene.  Academy, take note.

Reflection:
Throughout the awards season, many pundits have thrown out that Annette Bening’s role in “The Kids Are All Right” is the character the audience is meant to sympathize with and thus makes her the better candidate for Best Actress.  Without dragging politics into it, I found Julianne Moore’s Jules the more sympathetic character and, by the end, the only one I actually cared about.  Moore has delivered so many fantastic performances, but what makes this one stand head and shoulders over the rest is her total emotional engagement in the role.  We feel her torment, her frustration, and her confusion so profoundly because of how engrossed she is in the character.  And what she puts in, we get out of the performance.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in “Black Swan

My original review:
The star of the show is Portman, and “Black Swan” is made all the more fascinating by how Nina’s development mirrors her performance.  Much like Nina must lose herself in the role of the Swan Princess, Portman absolutely disappears into her character.  It’s a shocking and startling transformation due to Portman’s dedication to learning the craft of ballet and her impeccable acting.  The movie stands as a testament to the fact that she is one of the best emerging actresses of her generation, and her flawless showing here deserves to be minted in history alongside the greatest of all time.  Portman gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and to miss it would be to deny yourself the chance to see as close to perfection as is cinematically possible.

Reflection:
Perfect.  It was perfect.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in “True Grit”

Reflection:
I have yet to review “True Grit,” but when I do, expect the highest of praise for newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.  There are very few actors that can spit out period dialogue at lightning speed with confidence, and there are probably even fewer that can do the same with the dialogue of the Coen Brothers.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do both so well, a feat that would impress me from an Academy Award-winning actress but floors me when I consider that this is a debut performer.  At such a young age, she has a complete and total mastery of her character’s deepest desires and feelings, and such a strong presence out in front of “True Grit” makes it a movie and a performance I won’t soon forget.

Men

Christian Bale as Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter

My original review:
The knockout punch of “The Fighter” is the performance of Christian Bale, a totally authentic portrayal of a drug addict, former boxer, jealous trainer – and all simultaneously.  He doesn’t act or perform as the real life Dickie Ecklund so much as he becomes him and inhabits him.  Every twitch, every word is meticulously planned by Bale, who slimmed down from his Batman physique to play the gaunt Dickie.

Reflection:
“The Fighter” is Micky Ward’s story, but it’s Dickie Ecklund’s movie.  Bale, completely lost in the character, brings together all of his strengths to deliver what could be the quintessential performance of his career.  It shows his physical commitment, his uncompromising authenticity, and a strangely pervasive sense of heart that’s often a little rough around the edges.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

My original review:
Eisenberg nails all the eccentricities of the fast-talking technological wiz, and the nuances in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg will captivate for endless viewings.

Reflection:
Who is Mark Zuckerberg?  After “The Social Network” was released, millions of people were left trying to answer the question.  Is he the savior of the Internet and the symbol of a new era, or is he the force that will inadvertently bring it down and destroy all the comforts of our former lives?  What makes this screen version of Zuckerberg so captivating is that Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t attempt to answer this question.  Eisenberg gets to the core of what he thinks is motivating Zuckerberg, going so deep that no bias or opinion can color his interpretation.  Then, he lays it all out on the screen and leaves it up to the viewer to decide who Mark Zuckerberg is.  With the magazine TIME naming the entrepreneur their person of the year, Eisenberg may have made Mark Zuckerberg the folk hero of the digital age.

Colin Firth as King George VI in “The King’s Speech

My original review:
It’s Firth’s show in the flashy role of King George, a character that must be inhabited, not just performed.  Firth nails it, getting inside every thought and stammer of the king.  He doesn’t just brush the surface as many actors playing historical figures do; he makes George vulnerable and sentimental.  Firth’s poignant performance reminds us that what we should be looking for in movies like this is heart.

Reflections:
The royal family of England always feels so distant on film, living a life filmmakers believe is so different that ours that they have to put them in an ivory tower.  Yet Colin Firth, armed with a fantastically written human being by the name of King George VI, tears their mythological status down brick by brick until his royal figure is so down to earth that he feels like an old friend.  The movie wouldn’t have been half as inspiring had Firth not brought such an enormously relatable pathos to the role.

James Franco as Aron Ralston in “127 Hours

My original review:
There’s never a dull or wasted moment to be found in the movie thanks to Franco’s sublime and enlightened performance.  While shooting on location, Boyle consistently had him act in character for 20 minutes straight and then relied on the editor to find 30 seconds to make it into the final cut.  This total immersion into Ralston’s desperation makes Franco all the more raw and moving.

Reflection:
The blasting score, fancy editing, and flashy cinematography of “127 Hours” can only go so far to make a static movie work.  It requires a dynamic actor, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, that we can stick with until the bitter end.  James Franco does just that and more as he makes pain and hope so tangible and so authentic that the movie never feels anything less than real.  If anyone ever had a doubt that we need actors more than ever, Franco’s flawless work is all that’s needed to silence any critic.

Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network

My original review:
Andrew Garfield as the upright Saverin is a force to be reckoned with, a true presence throughout the movie with his very likable charm.  For just that reason, he makes it wrenching to watch the inevitable turn when Saverin gets cheated.

Reflection:
While Zuckerberg’s prickly exterior prevents us from ever liking him too much, Andrew Garfield endows Eduardo Saverin with a sharp mind, firm beliefs, and a strong moral compass, making us fall head over heels for his character.  He’s an irresistible force on the screen, the good angel resting on Zuckerberg’s right shoulder whispering in his ear to follow common wisdom.  The movie’s emotional climax wouldn’t work if we weren’t rooting for Saverin the entire time, and when he explodes with anger, you’ll want to jump in the frame and punch the jerks who wronged him.





REVIEW: Black Swan

27 11 2010

At 18, I’m probably a little young to be using the phrase “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” but I can’t help but have it come to mind when talking about “Black Swan.”  Simply put, Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant directorial artistry has culminated in a stunning masterpiece that is unmatched in vision or ambition by anything that cinema has churned out in a long time.

It’s so bold and daring that to call it wowing simply doesn’t do the experience justice.  Aronofsky weaves together the beauty of ballet with the terror of psychological meltdown with such nimble grace that it leaves you reeling long after leaving the theater.

There’s really no one else but Aronofsky who could pull off a big, brassy movie like this.  He’s simply the best visual filmmaker out there.  As if his first two movies, “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” weren’t powerful enough, “Black Swan” is Aronofsky in full bloom, showing absolute command of all cinematic vocabulary.  There is no boundary too sacred or stiff for him to toy with, and he doesn’t so much push them as he does eradicate them.  Thus, “Black Swan” isn’t just a victory for Aronofsky and the rest of the crew; it’s a victory for the craft of filmmaking as we know it.

The film is chalked full of imagery, symbolism, and visual motifs that jump off the frame and into your lap.  It’s so clear that Aronofsky is intimately involved in sculpting every frame and every moment down to the colors of the room.  His presence is terrifyingly arresting, and it feels like he himself is reaching out to grab your heart and pump it at a million beats per minute.  The racing begins in the first scene and doesn’t let up even when the credits roll.

Read the rest of this entry »





Oscar Moment: “Black Swan”

20 09 2010

The Toronto Film Festival closed yesterday, and Oscars season 2010 has kicked off now as a result.  To commemorate this commencement, I am dedicating the next five days solely to theorizing about the five major contenders emerging from the festivals held in Venice, Toronto, and Telluride.

While I could have (and probably should have) begun with the big winners, “Somewhere” from Venice and “The King’s Speech” from Toronto, I’m going to start by talking about the movie that appeals to me the most, “Black Swan.”  I’m a huge fan of director Darren Aronofsky, and the cast and plot are both incredible.

The whole premise of a movie centered around the price of art is something that connects personally with me as I dedicate most of my free time currently to theater and music.  “Black Swan” stars Natalie Portman as an ambitious New York ballerina, compelled to keep going by the hopes that her director (Vincent Cassel) will feature her more.  But along comes a strong and beautiful rival (Mila Kunis) who wins him over with her talent and starts shifting the spotlight her way.  Eventually the envy and rage begins to consume Portman’s Lily, and her mental sanity begins to collapse.

The movie’s trailer is absolutely terrifying, but it drew me in with this incredible force.  Yes, it is scary, but it is also elegant and gorgeous.  The cinematography, the choreography, the score, the cast – it’s a mad rush of beauty emerging from the screen under the magnificent direction of Aronofsky.

Opinion on the movie emerging from the festival is incredibly polarized, with the prevailing side being those in favor.  Here’s Peter DeBruge of Variety weighing in:

“A wicked, sexy and ultimately devastating study of a young dancer’s all-consuming ambition, ‘Black Swan’ serves as a fascinating complement to Darren Arononfsky’s ‘The Wrestler,’ trading the grungy world of a broken-down fighter for the more upscale but no less brutal sphere of professional ballet.”

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter, while seeing it through a somewhat different light, still gives it praise:

“The movie is so damn out-there in every way that you can’t help admiring Aronofsky for daring to be so very, very absurd. ‘Swan’ is an instant guilty pleasure, a gorgeously shot, visually complex film whose badness is what’s so good about it.”

On the slightly less professional side, blogger Kris Tapley of In Contention had this to say about the movie and its chances:

“The film is the perfect marriage of Aronofsky’s past work, containing all of the paranoia of ‘Pi,’ the identity concerns of ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ the sense of inevitability apparent in ‘The Fountain,’ and the professional obsession of ‘The Wrestler.’ Portman gives her best performance to date and could well find her way to an Oscar nomination, while Matthew Libatique’s splendid photography also deserves recognition. It may play too dark to AMPAS types, but I imagine many members will at the very least grasp a powerful theme that relates very much to filmmakers as it does as to painters, musicians and, well, ballerinas.”

It’s not just a hit with the critic; audiences are fawning over this rabidly.  At the Venice festival premiere, it received a five-minute standing ovation, and it remained an incredibly buzzed piece the entire festival.  And according to a Los Angeles Times report on the screening in Toronto, “During the screening, moments of unexpected scares sent ripples of gasps and nervous laughter through the crowd. Festival screenings can feel a little cold, and thus less communal, than the commercial variety. That wasn’t a problem here.”

I think the movie has the goods to be a Best Picture candidate – the subject matter may just be a little too intense for them.  Mental psychodrama, as one person describe the movie, just isn’t up their alley.  But if the public gets behind it and critical response is still great, it could have a chance.

If and only if it lands a Best Picture nomination, Aronofsky could net his first Best Director nomination.  Back in 2008 when there were only five Best Picture nominees, his name was constantly thrown around as a replacement for Ron Howard in the directorial race.  He’s very respected and honoring him for “Black Swan” makes more sense that nominating him for “The Wrestler” as this is the kind of movie that he is most proficient at making.  Perhaps a screenplay nomination will also follow, but I’d say that’s probably the least likely of the bunch.

But the movie’s support will most likely be expressed in the acting categories, where it has four strong contenders in Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey.

Portman is the film’s shining star.  She’s in every scene and apparently has total command of the screen, challenging her emotional and physical limits constantly.  The Academy has noted her once before for her complex and rough role as Alice in “Closer” back in 2004, but her acting has matured much since then.  This is a very demanding performance for Portman in a very demanding movie.  Even those who oppose the movie will still have good things to say about her work.

At 30, her youth is an asset as she is now old enough to not be written off as “too young.”  In fact, since 1997, only two actresses older than 35 have won Best Actress, both of which came in the past four years.  So a win for Portman keeps the trend going.  She faces stiff competition this year; many are calling it the strongest leading actress field in years.  Her stiffest competition may come from Annette Bening, who at 52 won raves for “The Kids Are All Right” over the summer.  With three nominations to her name, Bening will be a force to reckon with.  Awards Daily proposed today that the race may be down to the two of them:

Portman’s performance is said to be her best yet – brilliant, harsh, challenging.  If only she was also playing a prostitute or a drug addict – she’d been the winner.  But, from what I gather, her character is not likable.  Likability, or at least great sympathy is key to a win.  Can she make it on sheer ability?  Of course.  Liking her character, really really liking her character helps a wee bit more.  I haven’t yet seen the film so I can’t say for sure.

Portman has a sex scene.  I don’t think this is necessarily a turn-off.  Best Actress winners often have on screen nudity or sex scenes — The Reader, Monster’s Ball, etc.  But usually it’s with a man.  Still, since when have men objected to sex between women?  Bening is probably way ahead in terms of likability.    She too has a sex scene to contend with.

This time last year, I boiled the race down to Carey Mulligan vs. Meryl Streep, the film festival breakout and up-and-comer pitted against the awards mainstay.  While Bening is know Meryl Streep and Portman is hardly unknown, the race is very similar.  Of course last year, Sandra Bullock came out of nowhere to take it all.  I think simplifying a race down to two people now is misguided, although I will say that they are the two strongest candidates at the moment.  A nomination of Portman is almost certain; a snub would mean that the Academy really needs to grow up and learn how to handle tough subject matter.

The other three actors are all wild cards.  Cassel could do well in awards season; his performance was voted second-best in the supporting category from INDIEwire’s informal critical polling.  He’s pretty unknown stateside, which could propel him higher or doom him.  Kunis also has potential, but I get the feeling that she will be seen more as an object of lust than an actress.  Her past movie choices won’t do her much good either.

Outside of Portman, the best shot “Black Swan” may have at another nomination would be through Barbara Hershey, who plays Lily’s aggressive mother, a former ballerina herself.  At 62, the movie could prove to be a great swan song for her (pun fully intended).  Hershey hasn’t been in much since her 1996 Best Supporting Actress nomination, practically nothing in the past decade.  But a welcome return to grace the screen with her presence could land her another nomination.

It’s important for “Black Swan” to keep the massive buzz and allure it gained over the past few weeks in check so that upon its release in December, the can of worms will be opened anew.  But until then we wait.  And hope the movie is as good as we anticipate.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Hershey), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Kunis), Best Film Editing