True Grit and Black Swan:Two film reviews
Natalie Portman in "BLACK SWAN"
TRUE GRIT (**** 4 stars out of 5)
It's hard to step into the sizeable shoes of the legendary John Wayne, so give Jeff Bridges credit for being unafraid to walk in the shadow of Hollywood's greatest action hero. When the new version of True Grit hit the screens, few people were comparing Bridges' performance as Rooster Cogburn to the character from the original Charles Portis novel. They were comparing it to Wayne's Oscar winning performance In the 1969 version of True Grit. (Wayne reprised the role of Cogburn in the 1975 sequel Rooster Cogburn.)
While Jeff Bridges doesn't have Wayne's iconic status and sheer star-power, he is a more talented and versatile actor than Wayne was. Whereas Wayne embodied the role through the magnitude of his reputation as the screen's leading cowboy, Bridges artfully brings the literary version of Cogburn to life, creating a more weary character, and thus avoiding the macho excesses of Wayne's version. This is one of Bridges' best performances in years and it makes up for his 'I'm-in-this-for-the-paycheck' appearance in the recent Tron remake.
This new version of True Grit is written and directed by the Cohen Brothers and it is a huge departure from their usual fare. The talented Cohens generally make more unique and unusual films (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowsky, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Raising Arizona, etc.) and shun traditional storytelling. True Grit is their most normal, linear movie to date. It's definitely not the sort of thing you'd expect from the guys who like to experiment with new ways of telling a story. You won't see their usual hallmarks but that doesn't mean they don't do an excellent job bringing the story to life. Their version of the old west may lack the majesty of a John Ford epic but they do create a realistic and visually interesting terrain for the story to unfold in.
The familiar story revolves around a stubborn and formidable 14 year old named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who wants to ensure that the man who murdered her father is caught and punished. The killer, Tom chaney (Josh Brolin) was a former employee of her father and he is now at large in Indian territory. Mattie asks around to find out who the toughest and quickest-on-the-trigger Marshall in the region is. She is steered toward Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn because he has "true grit". She hires the cash-strapped Marshall to go hunting Chaney for her and even talks him into letting her come along, although he doesn't like the idea of her coming at all. She is repulsed by his heavy drinking because it violates her Christinan upbringing but she needs him.
A Texas ranger named LaBoeuf--pronounced "La-Beef"--(Played by Matt Damon) inserts himself into the arrangement and tags along but his intentions toward young Mattie are less straightforward and above-board than Cogburn's are. He pops in-and-out of the film sporadically. The LaBoeuf character was played in the original film by country music star Glen Cambell who did an adequate job but doesn't have the acting chops of Damon.
Steinfeld is excellent as the headstrong Mattie. The scene where Mattie out-bargains a crooked businessman over the price of some horses is a highlight. Kim Darby played Mattie in the original film (she was 20 at the time) and gave a memorable performance, but Steinfeld is even more impressive considering her age, which is more accurate to the literary Mattie of the novel. She may have a good career ahead of her.
The cast overall is excellent and the Cohen Brothers do a fine job of steering the cinematic ship using a divergent style to what they are accustomed to. It's really Bridges and Steinfeld who carry the day, with two of 2010's best performances. An old pro and a young novice make a good pairing here. This is definitely worth seeing, even if you don't like westerns.
BLACK SWAN (2 and a Half Stars out of Five)
There has been a lot of hype and praise laid at the feet of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, and some of it is deserved but in certain ways, the hype is unjustified. This visually arresting portrait of a young woman's decent into madness is often engrossing but at times it's too confusing, too crude and even a little dull.
Aronofsky's last film was the marvelous The Wrestler, a brilliant character study of a burnt-out performer who is losing his ability to do the only thing he had ever done well. This follow-up takes place in the very different world of the Ballet and features an up-and-comer instead of a down-and-outer.
The story follows lovely young ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) whose second-rate dance company is performing the done-to-death old standard "Swan Lake". Nina is a second generation ballet dancer and her tightly strung mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) is a bitter stage mother who never danced a lead role in her career. She is putting a lot of pressure on Nina so she can live vicariously through her daughter. Nina desperately wants the duel role of the Swan Princess and her evil twin because Nina feels constrained by her bitter mother and sees success as a ballerina as her way of cutting the umbilical cord and finding her place in the world as an adult woman.
Nina manages to get the part, even though her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) can only see the virginal White swan in Nina, not the seductive black swan who she must also portray in dance. Nina begins to stress-out about her inability to embody the sensuous black swan, especially after newcomer Lily (Well played by Mila Kunis) is chosen as her understudy. Lila has a wild side and she is a perfect fit for the black swan. Nina is worried she'll be replaced. The pressure of starring in her first show at the illustrious Lincoln Center; competing with Lily and dealing with her demanding mother pushes Lily over the edge and she starts to quickly unravel, becoming rapidly more insane as the big night comes closer.
The best thing about Aronosky's The Wrestler was that we really got to know the main character and therefore became very sympathetic with his plight. Here, we never get to know Lily before she goes mad. She starts off as a quiet, determined girl who is very disciplined regarding her art. We don't get to see the real Nina at the beginning, so it's hard to appreciate why the pressure she feels makes her snap.
Nina is what is known in cinematic and literary nomenclature as an unreliable narrator. The whole film is seen from her point of view. As her world falls apart, It becomes difficult to decipher, as the film progresses, which events are actually real. Is any of the film's second half real or is it all a delirious nightmare from her distorted mind?
One of the worst things about Black Swan is that Aronosky adds unnecessary scenes into the movie which are only there to appease male viewers. His inclusion of several scenes of masturbation and lesbian sex are most likely included to arouse male viewers who don't fit into the demographic of an art-house ballet film. Also, as Nina becomes ever more insane, the film starts to move into horror film territory, getting needlessly graphic at times.
The film is very reminiscent of the superior Japanese film Perfect Blue , which allowed us to know the leading lady, making her break-down all the more effective. Here, Aronofsky lays on the symbolism very heavily, with the constant use of mirrors to show that Lily's mirror image (her black swan) is coming to life. Lily's plight is meant to parallel the swan queen's doomed journey.
The good part is that the cast does an excellent job. Winona Ryder is wasted in the minor role of the fading diva Beth, who is considered washed up at 40. Kunis is a scene-stealer as Lily. Barbara Hershey gives a quietly powerful performance as Nina's unhappy mother.
Natalie Portman is a very inconsistent actress, who occasionally hits a home run (Such as in Closer) but generally comes across as bland, with only her beauty as her saving grace. She gives one of her better performances here. She really doesn't deserve the Best Actress hype but nevertheless, she does rise to the occasion.