Film reviews

Gregg Shapiro

‘Black Swan’

As if ballerinas didn’t already get enough of a bad rap, “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky does for the ballet what he did for professional wrestling and junkies in “The Wrestler” and “Requiem For A Dream,” respectively. He exposes the flat and muscled underbelly of that exclusive world.

Obsessive/compulsive dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) lives at home with her single mother and former dancer Erica (Barbara Hershey). Nina awakes from “the craziest dream” in which she danced the part of the white swan in “Swan Lake.” The most dedicated dancer in the company and a regular joint cracker, Nina is determined to give an audition that will impress choreographer Thomas (Vincent Cassel) and land her the coveted role of the Swan Queen in his stripped down, visceral and real production of the ballet. But is she capable of embodying both the white and black swans?

It’s a role that has led aging dancer Beth (Winona Ryder) to have a dressing-room-trashing meltdown and become an alcoholic. The pursuit of perfection provides Nina with cracked and bleeding toenails, fingernails and cuticles. It also causes her to scratch at her skin, especially her shoulder blades, until they are raw and bloody. And she begins to lose her mind.

According to Thomas, Nina never loses herself in a part. But in spite of that, as well as her refusal of his sexual advances, he casts her as the Swan Queen. And so begins unstable Nina’s psychotic breakdown. Babied and fussed over by her crazy mother Erica and pursued sexually by Thomas, Nina sets out to prove everyone wrong and show them what she’s made of.

However, Nina didn’t anticipate the bad influence of Lily (Mila Kunis), a San Francisco transplant and free spirit new to the dance company. The sexually inexperienced Nina is confused by the signals she gets from the overtly sexual Lily at a gala, first following a particularly brutal dance rehearsal and then during a girls’ night out involving alcohol and ecstasy. But Lily’s sexual advances toward Nina in a cab and later in Nina’s bed leave little doubt in Nina’s unraveling mind about the nature of their relationship.

Of course, when Lily later denies it all, the already wobbly Nina becomes even more unhinged. Grim reality and frightening fantasy intertwine in a kind of intricate choreography. Nina is convinced that Lily wants her role in “Swan Lake,” especially after Thomas makes Lily Nina’s alternate. Soon Nina’s psychotic episodes, including those in which she sprouts feathers and begins transforming into a bird, become all consuming.

But somehow Nina makes it to opening night. Whether she will survive it and soar or meet a tragic end seems to be less and less within her power. As Nina, Portman gives the rawest performance of her career, keeping the audience on its toes until the final curtain.

‘The Fighter’

Mark Wahlberg goes head-to-head with Christian Bale in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” based on the true story of boxing brothers Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and Dicky Ecklund (Bale). In 1993, on the premise of HBO making a documentary about his comeback, strung-out and stick-thin Dicky agrees to let a film crew follow him around Lowell, Mass., where, when he’s not holed up in a crack house, he’s supposed to be training Micky for his next bout.

Driven by both his selfish desire to reclaim his (brief) identity as a boxing champ (Dicky knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring in 1978) and the relentless demands of his repulsive, selfish and obsessed white trash mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who fancies herself a boxing promoter, Dicky begins to crack under the pressure. Meanwhile, emotionally neglected Micky, who only wants to make his mother, brother, father and seven sisters happy, can’t catch a break.

Finally Micky finds the courage to talk to bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) about his plight. Disgusted by what she sees as Micky’s mistreatment, she does everything she can to show him his worth and keep him from his controlling family. When Micky is seriously injured during a violent altercation with the police resulting in Dicky’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment, he finally sees that Charlene is right and begins to rebuild his professional career.

But Micky’s family has other plans. Eventually Micky must make a choice if he is ever going to amount to anything and have the successful boxing career he’s capable of obtaining.

Bale snorts scenery like it’s cocaine, but that only makes you want to pay closer attention to the understated work of Wahlberg, Adams and Leo. As boxing movies go, the fight scenes aren’t too gory, so those with weaker constitutions might be able to take it.

Any way you look at it, “The Fighter” is a knockout.