★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Rated R/109 min.
Ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has always wanted to be the star of Swan Lake, which is to ballet what Hamlet is to theater. Nina suffers incredible physical pain as she struggles to be the finest member of her company and land the coveted part, but it’s nothing compared to the torturous relationship she has with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who was once a dancer herself.
This is the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, who previously made The Wrestler, which also captures the intense physical and emotional toll of being an entertainer. It’s worth mentioning that Aronofsky’s best film is Requiem for a Dream, a harrowing portrayal of addiction that, like Black Swan, is a relentlessly intense experience, full of beauty and horror. By the film’s end, I was giddy, stunned and awestruck.
Portman’s extraordinary commitment to performing most of her own ballet sequences is getting all the press, but her character’s painful journey from obsessed victim to sexually empowered diva is riveting—and so is Portman. Vincent Cassel, playing her director, has never had a role this good in an American film, while Mila Kunis is bewitching as Portman’s rival and possible doppelganger and Winona Ryder makes a striking impression as a burnt-out former star. Best of all may be Hershey, who plays a controlling, smiling rattlesnake of a woman.
The use of CGI is initially sparse, offering tantalizing glimpses of Portman’s troubled mind, but it builds (to the point of near-overuse) as the story careens toward its climax. You find yourself wondering how far Aronofsky will go—and, to his credit, he goes all the way.
If you’re a bit confused, that’s as it should be. This film is scary, wildly over the top and rich with imagery both thrilling and horrifying. It’s also one of the year’s best films, a rich, intoxicating and brave work that will be discussed and dissected for years. True art is often disturbing—and not for everyone—but we should always be thankful when it’s created.
The King’s Speech
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Rated R/118 min.
Great movie pairings offer a unique pleasure, providing a combo as effortlessly delicious as Spam and rice. The best ones are legendary: Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. A new duo to add to the batch: Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, terrific actors who are electrifying together in The King’s Speech, a wonderful new film about the reign of King George V.
Firth stars as George and our first impression isn’t good—we initially see the Duke as an arrogant, introverted, cowering man whose fear of public speaking is amplified by his painful stuttering. His father the King (Michael Gambon) belittles him, while his devil-may-care brother (Guy Pierce) mocks him openly. George’s long-suffering wife (Helena Bonham Carter) hires an unorthodox speech therapist (Rush) to cure him of his impediment, but soon George faces bigger problems: his father dies, forcing him to take the crown as his country battles Adolf Hitler.
You always know where this real-life drama is going, but watching the two leads work together is a treat. Firth follows his surprising and triumphant performance in A Single Man with another layered, unexpected and moving performance. Firth is so convincing as the dour, reluctant royal, you may forget you’re looking at an international sex symbol. Rush transforms himself in an engaging, theatrical turn every bit as impressive as Firth’s carefully articulated work. The vocal training exercise scenes are gripping; we hang on George’s every syllable, and feel his fear and frustration at being unable to fully express himself.
The supporting work by Carter, a near-unrecognizable Pierce and an especially fierce Gambon is solid. The music score is beautiful and the climactic scene—where George has to address his people and denounce Hitler—is a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat set piece.
Rather than a dry history lesson, this is a story about the deep bond between two very different men. In fact, it may be a first: a nuanced, riveting, historical “buddy comedy.”
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