Thursday, December 23, 2010

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky does things his own way. In this day and age, while every other filmmaker has made the switch to digital cameras, the young auteur is stepping back in time and working with Super 16mm. Black Swan (2010) is a gritty film, and a film only a young and passionate filmmaker can helm.

Black Swan is cut from the same cloth as the rest of Darren Aronofsky’s films. Darren Aronofsky is no longer writing his films, but a continuous trend in thematics that prevails in the work of auteurs seems to be occurring in his films. the characters in his films seem to be overtaken by an obsession; patterns (Pi), addiction (Requiem for a Dream), eternal love (The Fountain), and perfection (The Wrestler and Black Swan). Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and The Fountain (2006) are dissimilar in their style, but are all concerned with the endless search for hope. This presents us with an unofficial trilogy in terms of this specific thematic.

There was a switch in technique after The Fountain for Darren Aronofsky, who stopped writing his films and focused solely on directing with The Wrestler (2008). The Wrestler was on the other end of the spectrum in comparison to The Fountain, as Darren Aronofsky went from visually beautiful to a film that was as rough as its main character. The Wrestler and Black Swan, however, are companion pieces as they both deal with characters who use their bodies to express themselves. The characters in both films deal with very physical performances (wrestling and dancing), and are also concerned with obsession and the transition into insanity in search for perfection. In both films, Darren Aronofsky steps into unfamiliar territories in terms of the look of his film, as the handheld and tracking camera allows us to become observers, much like the documentary filmmaking of cinéma vérité films.

Black Swan centers on the life of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a young ballerina who fights her way to the top through perseverance and determination. In this psychological thriller, the elements of horror come into play as we explore the inner thoughts of our main character. In a surprise turn of events, we discover that Nina is offered the role of Swan Queen in Swan Lake. The role requires Nina to play two parts; White Swan and Black Swan. This requires her to switch from the naïve and innocent girl that she is to a much more sensual and daring femme fatale. The only person standing in Nina’s way is Lily (Mila Kunis), who slowly becomes threatening in her personal and professional life. In the same way that Raging Bull (1980) was not a film about boxing, Black Swan is not a film about ballet. Black Swan is a film about a ballerina, and her deterioration over the course of the film. I find it quite amazing that I identified with a ballerina of all people this year.

Black Swan is a clever thriller and provides us with a haunting atmosphere, as we move into a world full obsession and hallucination. In the beginning of the film, we begin understanding Nina’s ambitions and goals, and her search for perfection. Black Swan raises the question of whether perfection is a realistic and attainable goal, and when we pass the line and lose ourselves to insanity. Darren Aronofsky manages to skillfully blur the line between reality and fantasy. The style of the film and its constant use of handheld tracking shots in the film effectively place us in the mind of the main character, as we have a hard time distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

Matthew Libatique picks up where Maryse Alberti left off with The Wrestler. In fact, the final shot of both films mimic each other. The characters take a final leap; Randy jumps from the bars of the ring as Nina jumps off the stairs. This further presents us with the idea of both films acting as companion pieces. In The Wrestler, the handheld camera and frequent tracking shots placed us in the world of wrestling, as we felt like we were in the ring with the characters. In Black Swan, the cinematography is much more sophisticated, as we spend most of our time looking at the back of our main character’s head, following her in her house, at rehearsals, and everywhere in between. There are numerous abrupt cuts, as well as match cuts, which are stylistically beautiful and thematically effective.

The elements of paranoia are also represented through the use of mirrors, which serve as unreliable determinants of whether what is taking place is actual real. The mirror in Nina’s house resembles a broken mirror, full of reflective angles, projecting a sense of her schizophrenic personality. The use of these mirrors, in her home and workplace, also hints at the possibility of a doppelganger (Lily). In fact, the first time Nina and Lily meet are in a bathroom, as we view their conversation through a mirror. In the course of their conversation, the two characters blend together through their reflection in the mirror. This emphasizes the possibility that Lily is in Nina’s mind, and that their personalities will eventually combine in the film. The cinematography of the film also allows us to experience her paranoia, because our own minds continue to race as we attempt to distinguish reality from fantasy.

Clint Mansell, who has been Darren Aronofsky's leading composer since Pi, presents us with a haunting rendition and adaptation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The final act of the film is frightening, as the music and cinematography work together harmoniously. Darren Aronofsky turns the film from a physiological thriller into his very own operatic ballet, as we witness the metaphorical and physical transformation of our main character into the Black Swan. In the same way that Darren Aronofsky adopted macro photography to create the visual world of The Fountain, the young filmmaker cleverly and efficiently uses CGI to create this stunning and horrific transformation.

Black Swan is a haunting experience, and will terrify those who strive for perfection. Darren Aronofsky questions the desire for perfection, and the price that we ultimately pay for striving to reach perfection. The final moments of the film are harrowing, as the young and beautiful ballerina speaks her final line as she lays in a pool of blood, after her search for perfection. The final line of the film is "I was perfect" and emphasizes that she paid the ultimate price to reach her goal. In fact, at this point of the film, her story became mine, and I was feeling my own search for perfection come to life. I felt like she was speaking for me, as I put myself into the film and heard my own thoughts on the big screen.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Fighter

I stood outside the theatre before the screening, reading a promotional poster for The Fighter (2010). There was some good word from the studio, attempting to hype up the film by comparing it to Rocky (1976) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Their approach was that these two films were works of fiction and could naturally hype up the material, while the story in The Fighter is true and based on the life of Micky Ward. I smirked, wondering why they didn't mention Raging Bull (1980), and it's probably because Rocky and Million Dollar Baby both won the Oscar for Best Picture, and they were attempting to compare this film solely to other films which were Oscar worthy.

The Fighter tells a story that we have all heard before, whether that story is told through the character of a boxer or a family melodrama. Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an amateur boxer, trying to make a name for himself, in the shadows of Dicky (Christian Bale), his older half brother, who is a legend in their small town. Micky cleans streets for a living and ends up meeting Charlene (Amy Adams), a local bartender, right before a big match. Micky loses, comes back half depressed, and sulks in his failure. Micky rises to success after his brother, now a criminal and a junkie, is sent to prison. This all serves as inspiration for Micky who, with his girlfriend by his side, tries to rise up the ladder and become a champion.

The story is painfully predictable. I don't know Micky's story, but I know where he's ending up. That's not the problem with this film. I've seen everything this film throws at me before, in previous boxing films and other films in general. That's not the problem with this film. The problem with this film, plain and simple, is David O. Russell's direction. The film is very heavy-handed and doesn't find a stable ground to allow us to immerse ourselves into the story. The switch from film to video during the boxing fights doesn't do much, probably because it's not even used effectively. It's all much too aware of itself, rather than being subtle in its use. In addition, Russell's use of pop tunes is distracting, reminding us of some of the worst films I've seen. The film, from beginning to end, is filled with music that is meant to reflect the time period of the story. I don't feel like this works and instead becomes annoying as the film progresses.

The film, however, isn't all bad and it's saved with several strong performances. Christian Bale delivers his best performance, as he literally transforms into a crackhead. It's shocking, surprising, humorous, and heartbreaking. The film begins with Christian Bale and the film ends with Christian Bale. The film is nothing without Christian Bale. The mannerisms of his character, such as his off-the-cuff remarks, including a spontaneous comment to a passerby, in which he says, "What kind of dog is that? Is that a cocker spaniel?" adds to the depth of his character. I believe Christian Bale will finally win an Academy Award with this performance. In addition, the story with Micky and Dicky is obviously powerful and emotional. The ending is quite touching and their growth throughout the film works, but it only touches our hearts because of the bond these two have established. I can't say the direction of the film ever made me grow closer with these characters. If anything, the direction of the film distracting me from sympathizing with the characters.

Amy Adams is the other star of this film, as she plays against type as a rather sleazy bartender. If Christian Bale is the one who provides us with the in-your-face type of performance, it's Amy Adams who gives us the much more subtle and emotionally warm performance. There are moments of great authenticity in cinema, which allows the audience to emotionally connect with the characters, and Amy Adams delivers more than once in this film. There is a scene when Micky has hit rock bottom after the police break his hand, and as he sits in his house, Charlene appears at his door. There is no dialogue in the scene, and it plays out quite wonderfully. This is terrific storytelling and acting, allowing us to become emotionally involved with the characters. There is another very effective scene between Dicky and Charlene, which allows the characters to breathe and perform. This is what I hoped for from David O. Russell in this film, and he only delivered sparingly.

I found myself entertained, but distanced for much of the film. It's impossible for me not to compare this film with Raging Bull, a much better story on the same subject matter; two brothers who grow up in the boxing ring. Raging Bull is much more effective in every form; writing, direction, cinematography. The use of the camera in The Fighter doesn't work. The film is often all over the place and distracts us from what is most important; its characters. I think, in the end, the problem I have is with the direction of the film. I can't help but wonder what this film would be in the hands of a much more competent and emotional filmmaker, such as Darren Aronofsky, who was originally going to direct. In the end, I don't think it matters. I've seen and heard this story before, and besides some really powerful performances and several touching moments, this film is rather forgettable.

The Fighter is scheduled for release on December 17, 2010.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Creating Poetic Cinema

I remember when Mary and I came to the University of Southern California to drop off my application. I had never been to the school before, and I felt like a child while walking around the massive campus. I couldn't believe such a school existed, and when I finally came across the building I was looking for, the Johnny Carson Sound Stage, I was mesmerized. I dropped off my application, walked out of the building, and began walking back to my car. In the meantime, we passed by the recently added buildings for the School of Cinematic Arts, in their new location. I couldn't believe my eyes. These buildings were all dedicated to the study of cinema? I knew I had to see what was inside of them and walk in their hallways. Mary finally asked me if I wanted to go in. I shook my head and said, "I'll go inside when I'm accepted to this school." I felt like that day would come, and when it eventually did, that's when Mary and I finally walked through the gates of the School of Cinematic Arts.

I didn't go back to USC until after I was officially accepted. Mary and I went to a screening of Grace, as I tried to accept the fact that I would start school there in a matter of months. I sat inside Norris Cinema watching Grace, trying to imagine having a class in such a theatre. These dreams became reality within a few months and I never for once took advantage of the journey. I still walk from the parking lot at school to these buildings, never forgetting all my hard work and dedication. I'm still mesmerized by these buildings and the numerous film posters that fill our hallways. I'm still fascinated and wide-eyed at all the films I see in my classes, and I still experience a rush when I'm required to make my own films. I was a kid with a dream and I worked as hard as I could to have those dreams realized.

I decided to enroll in a production course, open to both undergraduates and graduates, known as Creating Poetic Cinema, offered by Pablo Frasconi. In this class, we would try to understand what poetic cinema is, and try to apply it in our own films. I had the opportunity to work with some very talented students and see some terrific films in the class. I also had the opportunity to create four of my own films, including a short film that was shot entirely on 16mm. I was both excited and anxious to finally work with film, and the experience was a highlight in my life. On December 9, 2010, our professor chose several films from our class and presented them on campus. I had two of my films selected, including Carnaval, which was shot on 16mm and The Armenian and the Armenian.

I had several members of my family in attendance, as we watched the films at the Ray Stark Theatre in the George Lucas Building. I went from a young child who was fascinated by telling stories to attending USC School of Cinematic Arts and having my films play on the big screen. I love creating films and sharing them with people I know and love as well as people I have never met or seen. I enjoyed every minute of the evening and received some very positive remarks in regards to my films. I feel inspired to create more films, to share them with more people, and to continue living my dreams.

It's funny how life works, because everything and anything is possible in this world. I sat in the Ray Stark Theatre watching two of my films with my family, and this was everything I had hoped for in life. I finally made it inside USC School of Cinematic Arts, and now, I'm working hard to get back outside, in the real world.