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Column Fri Dec 03 2010

Black Swan, Carlos, Idiots and Angels & Kings of Pastry

Black Swan

When is a movie about a ballerina obsessed with perfection not just that? Probably about as often as a horror film takes the conventions of the genre and turns them inside out, while still remaining true to the practices of building tension, piercing the mind of the unstable central character, and making her fragile yet imaginative psyche as much of a character as the timid woman whose mind can't quite keep it locked up.

In the finest work of her career, Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer in the New York City whose all-consuming search for the flawless performance is surpassed only by her overbearing mother's (Barbara Hershey) desire to see all of her dreams realized through her daughter's life. I've always been fascinated by the world of ballet and dance, not so much to see the resulting performance but more to see the toe-crushing work that goes into each routine. Director Darren Aronofsky seems to have a similar curiosity about the grueling steps it takes to shape a ballet, which clearly goes far beyond simply knowing the choreography. Nina's career has a chance to soar when the company's artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel, who splits his time between being seducer and dictator) decides to put on a production of "Swan Lake" with an emphasis on the darker aspects of the ballet 's lead role of the White Swan/Black Swan.

While tightly-wound Nina is clearly the choice for the duel role of the White Swan (she knows the routine before the audition is even announced), Thomas has doubts she's capable of letting go enough to inhabit the Black Swan. He attempts some rather unorthodox methods to coax the performance out of Nina--everything from kissing her, telling her to go home and touch herself, and bringing in Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer who seems to embody the less technically perfect but free-spirited abilities Thomas is attempting to get from Nina. Nina's anxiety levels are so pronounced that the signs begin to manifest themselves outwardly as painful-looking scratch marks begins to appear on her shoulder blades (apparently she had scratching issues as a girl, as well). In a small but critical role in Black Swan, Winona Ryder plays Beth, the recently retired ballerina and star of the company whose paranoia and rage are matched only by Nina's admiration for her as a fellow perfectionist. And for years, Nina has been stealing small objects from Beth's dressing room in order to capture something of what Beth possesses.

Aronofsky's genius (and it's something he's toyed with before, especially in Requiem for a Dream) is the idea that a great deal of what Nina sees happening to or around her is all in her head. Is Lily trying to steal her part? It sure looks that way when Thomas casts Lily as Nina's understudy, or when the two women spend a night partying and Lily's slips drugs into Nina's drink. But then there are other moments, like the already legendary lesbian sex scene between Portman and Kunis, that are slightly less certain as to the reality of those situations. Aronofsky is most comfortable in those moments when reality and delusional fantasy co-exist. A backstage brawl between the two ballerinas during the premiere "Swan Lake" performance is especially death defying.

But amongst the psychological chaos, Aronofsky also wants to capture what it's like to spend countless hours in rehearsal and performance. There's an especially remarkable sequence where the director literally plants a camera just behind Portman's shoulders as she comes from her dressing room up the stage, positions herself just off stage, waits for her cue, and then emerges to meet her male counterpart in the middle of the stage. The point of view is similar to what Aronofsky frequently did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and this putting-us-in-their-shoes style is simply breathtaking. There are a couple of other instances of this POV in Black Swan, and often in those instances the director is using the method for scarier sequences.

I've read a number of reviews that say Black Swan is Aronofsky's attempt at Cronenberg or Argento, and I can certainly see the latter, especially since Dario Argento set some of this best horror works in the arts world. But those comparisons seems lazy without at least diving a bit more into what sets Aronofsky's work apart. He is intent on having this world surround us. I was as fascinated watching Portman re-stitch her ballet shoes as I was watching her metamorphosis into the kind of creature she needed to become to perform this ballet. And in a complex and bizarre way, we are rooting for Nina to complete her transformation, even if it means her losing her mind or life. We want it because she wants it (again, parallels between Black Swan and The Wrestler are easily made on this level).

It's fantastic seeing Hershey back in top form. Her face may look slightly older, but her performance knifes its way under your skin to reveal every overbearing thing your mother ever did. She is the personification of passive-aggressive behavior--there's a scene with a birthday cake that will make you want to murder somebody--and her soul-sucking relationship with her daughter is destructive, bordering on dangerous, and Hershey absolutely crushes the performance. Vincent Cassel (recently seen the title role in the two-part Mesrine) has long been one of my favorite actors, but I really liked the way he injects a huckster quality to Thomas. He's selling a lifestyle to Nina, the same way he has with all the women who have come before her, because he knows breaking her in with such a challenging performance will make her his for as long as he wants. He is as evil as he is charming and handsome, and Cassel is one of the few actors with the strut to pull it off.

Black Swan is a devastating work of power, style, and horror. It's about the psychological price of personal accomplishment. It's about having your soul crushed and having it set free. And most importantly, it's about the differences between breaking free and being broken. Make no mistake, the almost-constant look on Natalie Portman's face is fear. The challenge I put to you is figuring out what she is most afraid of. And after you've compiled your list of possible answers, the correct choice is "All of the Above." Black Swan will rattle you something fierce.

To read my exclusive interview with Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, go to Ain't It Cool News.


I'll admit to knowing very little about the renowned terrorist known as Carlos, whose high-profile exploits were well documented by the world press. At one point, Carlos was as famous as any internationally known rock star or actor, and all he had to do was kill a few people. The incredible three-part film Carlos from director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep; Demonlover; Boarding Gate; Summer Hours) is making its way across the country in two distinct variations, only one of which I can fully endorse. There's a "Theatrical Version" that I haven't seen, which I hear clocks in at about two-and-a-half hours. But then there's the truly awe-inspiring "Special Roadhouse Edition," totaling about five-and-a-half hours and broken up into three distinct sections with intermissions. I can't even imagine seeing anything but the longer version, which in most places (including Chicago beginning today) is only playing on the weekends.

For as epic in scale and length as Carlos is, the movie actually feels fairly intimate, focusing a great deal on his personal relationships as well as the plotting of his various terrorist missions for the 20-some years the film covers. Edgar Ramirez (Che, Vantage Point, The Bourne Ultimatum) does a remarkable job playing Carlos at various levels of both importance in the world arena and waist sizes. The film makes it clear that since large portions of Carlos' life remain a mystery, much of the story (scripted by Assayas and Dan Franck) is fictional. But even if all of the plot were fictional, it would still be one of the best representations about how a terrorist rises through the ranks and forms cells all over the world (Carlos' geographical areas of expertise were Europe and the Middle East).

I'll admit that there are times while watching Carlos that a Masters' Degree in political science or the history of international relations might have have helped me clarify a lot of what I was seeing unfold, but the truth is, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the bombing of a Jewish-owned drugstore or the kidnapping of the ministers of OPEC. Carlos did it all, and he knew in most cases how to get away with dozens of crimes ranging from assassinations to plane hijackings. What Ramirez does with extraordinary gusto is capture Carlos' personality. He not only believed in his pro-Palestine, pro-Marxism (and later pro-Muslim) causes, but he also believed in dominating every situation, including those in the bedroom with a parade of women (and at least one wife).

The film also reveals just how deeply flawed and untested many of his terrorist schemes were over the years. Team members were routinely killed or injured, plans fell apart just as they were revving up, and improvisation was never encouraged but often resorted to. Despite the occasional explosion or shooting, much of Carlos is fairly low key, with much of the fireworks never getting above a lot of yelling. Still, an entire hour of the second film is devoted to the OPEC hostage-kidnapping incident, and it is the highlight of the entire film. The staging of this ordeal is incredible, and the range of emotions it evokes is wide, to say the least.

With films like Carlos, Mesrine, and The Baader Meinhoff Complex showing up in theaters in recent years, it seems to mark a curious trend of Europeans taking ownership of crime and criminals who originated or operated on their soil. Carlos was born in Venezuela and schooled in the Soviet Union, but he specialized in taking advantage of lax policies concerning terrorism in countries like France, who routinely negotiated with terrorists to save lives in the short term. Assayas has crafted a riveting spectacle of a film that doubles as a fascinating character study of a man fully committed to his causes but clearly unable to take orders from his superiors or give his soul over to a lover. Does Carlos glorify the man or his actions? It kind of does, but that doesn't make the viewing any less compelling.

Carlos opens today at the Music Box Theatre. The three-part Special Roadshow Edition plays only December 3-5, while the shorter Theatrical Version plays December 6-9.

Idiots and Angels

I've been watching the short films of director Bill Plympton for decades at animation and other festivals, and I've grown to love and appreciate his abstract sense of style and humor. His run at features began in the early 1990s with The Tune and continued with such great works as I Married A Strange Person, Mutant Aliens, and the recently released on DVD Hair High. His works often resemble moving sketches and feature little or no dialogue, which is not to say they are soundless affairs. His stories span pure humor to the grotesque to the heartbreaking condition that men and women find themselves in on a daily basis. And now Plympton presents us with his latest feature, Idiots and Angels, and it's kind of great about a terrible man who has the opportunity to find a little salvation.

The movie focuses on a man stuck in a routine that seems to involve wearing a suit and spending a lot of time in a dimly lit, sparsely populated bar. Those who do count as regulars include a shifty bartender, his sexy young wife who cleans the bar, and a supremely obese woman who likes to drink, laugh, and flirt. The man makes a nasty pass at the wife when the bartender leaves the room, and that event tells us about all we need to know about this lowlife. After a caterpillar takes up residence in the man's hair and turns into a butterfly, he wakes up one morning to find two odd protrusions coming out of his shoulder blades. After the man cuts them off with a razor, they grow back and eventually grow into clearly formed wings, which the man attempts to strap down so he can go about his business.

Turns out his business is selling guns out of a suitcase, but once the wings grow in, something unusual happens--the wings force him to stop committing bad deeds. Moreover, they actually make his do good things for those around him. And they give him the power of flight. At first, the man resists leading the life a do-gooder, but as he grows to appreciate his new responsibility, he embraces what the wings are doing to him. Unfortunately, the wings are also inspiring those around him to see dollar signs. A greedy doctor whom the man sees about his condition envisions being lauded as discovering this freak of nature, while the bartender sees himself removing the wings, implanting them on himself, and committing crime in the name of cash. It's a tragic tale in which much blood is spilled, and good and evil battle for the soul of this formerly selfish man.

Idiots and Angels is peppered with some of the great dark humor that Plympton has been injecting into his works for as long as I've been watching him. But there's a morality tale at play here that will be less familiar to his long-time fans. Even when the story drags out a bit, it was easy for me to get lost in the director's artistic accomplishments. Idiots and Angels is still a rather slight work (it clocks in at less than 80 minutes), but there's a more uniformly developed story than I'm used to from Plympton, which I loved. Fans of today's photo-realistic, computer-generated, 3D animation events should seek out this film as a gentle reminder that not all artistry is created with a keyboard. Seek this one out as it creeps across the country this winter.

The film opens this Friday at the Music Box Theatre, and the feature will be screened with Plympton's latest short The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger, which was just shortlisted for Best Animated Short Oscar consideration (Idiots and Angels was shortlisted for Best Animated Feature, as well). The title pretty much tells the very funny story of a calf that spends its whole life strength training to build muscle to become worthy of being a juicy burger, until he realizes that he must perish to make that happen. Although the film is still filled with Plympton's patented dark humor, the animation style is quite different than Idiots and Angels, with more vibrant colors and a less sketchy look. The other cool thing about the short is that the only sound in it is music. This brand new short will play along with the feature during its entire run at the Music Box.

Kings of Pastry

Oh how I loved this movie. I'm not a huge fan of cooking shows or the Food Network, but I do enjoy a tasty dessert from time to time. And Kings of Pastry, from master documentarians Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back; The War Room) is a delectable celebration of spun sugar and dark chocolate statues and cakes with a dozen small layers. Held every four years, the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsman in France) competition is such a big deal that the prizes are awarded by the president of that nation. And the resulting creations are unlike anything you have ever seen at Bakers Square. The filmmakers track the road to the MOFs through Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago. We watch as Pfeiffer and his legion plot and test different designs and recipes he will attempt to perfect in time for the competition.

Once Pfeiffer and his family arrive in France, the real work begins as he and 15 other competitors spend three days piecing together their final presentations on virtually no sleep. The resulting work (especially the enormous sugar sculptures) are so stunning and fragile that even the slightly jostle or impact can send the entire structures crashing to the ground. You haven't seen emotion on the big screen until you have seen a world-renowned master pasty chef lose his shit after his sugar sculpture disintegrates in his hands with almost no time left before the final competition deadline. Hell, I almost cried.

You almost can't help but watch the last 30 minutes of Kings of Pastry with your mouth open and your salivary glands on overdrive. But more than the resulting hunger, I was deeply moved by the stress these men endure in this contest. The level of detail and perfection is almost unfathomable. Some come out of this experience unable to contemplate ever returning, while others who don't win are committed to being back in four years. And the winners, well, they get to become judges the next time around.

I feel like I want to personally thank Hegedus and Pennebaker for giving us this glimpse into this exclusive world where desserts are the main course, and how good one tastes is just as important as how tasty it looks. I know that Kings of Pastry is making its way across the country now, and you should do everything in your power to bring as many of your food-loving friends to a screening right away. The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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