Monday, December 27, 2010

Black Swan and The Fighter

Like two of director Darren Aronofsky’s other critical darlings, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, Black Swan is about people – in this case, a driven diva struggling to master the part of the swan queen in a top-notch New York ballet company – who push their bodies to the limit in a search for transcendence. It’s also a horror-tinged melodrama, whose aural and visual head fakes and sometimes jittery handheld camera elicit visceral responses at regular intervals.

The Fighter is also about a man who uses his body as a path to transcendence. Until he broke free of the mother and brother who were mismanaging his career, Micky Ward was “a stepping stone,” someone other fighters walked over on their way to success, and he took some terrible beatings in the process. Aronofsky was preparing to direct The Fighter when he dropped out to make Black Swan, and you can bet this movie would have looked and felt very different if it had passed through his trippy lens. David O. Russell, who took over as The Fighter’s director, can do heart-pumping visuals with the best of them – I’d put Three Kings’ bullet’s-eye views of American soldiers getting shot in Iraq up against Requiem’s shooting-up montage any day. But Russell took his cue this time from his unshowily straight-arrow subject, mining The Fighter’s considerable drama primarily from the spectacle of Micky’s very large, very loud family, for whom fighting is the default mode (though the fight scenes can be brutal too).

Aronofsky’s movies feel as if they were made by an adolescent boy, with their naïve glorification of drug addicts and other outsiders, their simplified characters (especially the women) and plots, and their penchant for adrenaline-charged drama. In Black Swan, the company’s imperious impresario, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) seems to be speaking for Aronofsky when he announces that Swan Lake has been “done to death, I know, but not like this. We’ll strip it down, make it visceral and real!” While Natalie Portman’s Nina prepares for the role of her lifetime, rehearsing the moves and exploring her dark side like the good girl she is (one of Thomas’s homework assignments is to go home and masturbate), Aronofsky shows us more and more creepy or hallucinatory scenes that turn out to be inventions of Nina’s rapidly deteriorating mind. Apparently she is living out the story she is dancing: how very fashionably meta.

Aronofsky uses the ballet setting more voyeuristically (all those beautiful women in leotards or less) than artistically. He compensates for not having cast a professional dancer in his lead role by shooting almost all the dance from the waist up, with some close-ups of feet and legs thrown in (Nina’s more complicated moves are danced by two professionals). As a result, almost all the emotional power in the dance scenes come from Portman’s tormented facial expressions and fluttering arms, not from how the dancers’ bodies move through space or interact with one another.

But I could have done without great dancing – after all, this is a psychological horror movie set in the dance world, not really a dance movie – if the psychological part were not so tone-deaf. With its hamfisted attempts at profundity (“The only person standing in your way is you,” Thomas tells Nina) and voyeuristic attitude toward the main character, who the movie patronizes and typecasts as surely as her mother and her choreographer do, Black Swan is Showgirls in a tutu.

The women in The Fighter are also underdeveloped. Melissa Leo has gotten a lot of praise as Micky’s ferocious mother, but most people mention her heavily shellacked hairdo or omnipresent cigarette as part of their praise, and no wonder: Russell seems more interested in her wardrobe (one shot lingers on her high heels as she walks into her house) than her internal life. As a result, the film reduces her to a paper tiger, when I suspect she didn’t fold so easily in life. Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene, gets a little more back story to go with her backbone, but even with Amy Adams to bring her to solidly fleshy life, she comes out pretty one-dimensional too. And Micky’s six sisters are played strictly for giggles, a comic Greek chorus whose members never emerge as individuals.

It can feel a little patronizing, as if Hollywood is giving the working-class Massachusetts neighborhood where Micky grew up the exotic treatment. But The Fighter finds its feet when it stays with its main story: the true tale of how Micky (Mark Wahlberg) became a world champion, first by firing his trainer and half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), and then by letting him back in after Dicky had kicked the crack habit that was making him a walking disaster zone.

This is Dicky’s story as much as it is Micky’s, and the fast-talking, pop-eyed Bale nearly steals the film from Wahlberg, just as Dicky always stole the spotlight from his brother. A former boxer himself, Dicky is “the pride of Lowell,” as we often hear. The repetition doesn’t grate here as it does in Black Swan, though, since it’s done not to make sure we get a point but to tell us something important about the main characters. Dicky’s reputation is so big it permeates the neighborhood and the family, very nearly keeping Micky from making his own mark.

The actors are very good – when you see the real brothers at the end of the film, you appreciate the fact that Bale wasn’t overacting and see how well Wahlberg captured Micky’s quiet, self-effacing strength – and the story is moving, but I suspect some rough edges got sanded off to create what feels like a pretty predictable arc.

The Fighter didn’t quite knock me out, but it definitely got to me, its emotional acuity landing where Black Swan’s adolescent antics fell flat.

Written for TimeOFF

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