Sunday, January 9, 2011

Style and Substance: Aronofsky and Russell

The following column is reprinted from the January issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

This relatively short space won’t quite allow me to do justice to two late season releases, both already appearing on a majority of film nitcrit’s top ten lists and also garnering various nominations by the great spate of end-of-the year awarding bodies. Both films, Black Swan and The Fighter, while quite different in tone and execution, share one common element: They are helmed by on-the-rise directors with considerable talents, who both boast relatively small but sharp and intriguing bodies of work.

Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan, made his initial splash with the much praised Pi in 1998, followed up by the vivid Requiem for a Dream (’00), the admirably grand failure that was The Fountain (’06) and then his popular comeback effort The Wrestler (’08). He has become an assured stylist, and Black Swan is swaggering with style, and yet another of Aronofsky’s patented tales of despair and self-destruction, despite the fact that it is set in the seeming delicate world of ballet.

David O Russell initially made a name for himself with the idiosyncratic Spanking the Monkey in 1994, with his follow-up the low-key and equally quirky Flirting with Disaster (’96), then the superb Three Kings (’99) and the overtly droll and sadly unseen I Heart Huckabees (’04). While The Fighter is ostensibly a boxing film, it actually can rest quite assuredly on the shelf with Russell’s prior self-puncturing character studies, and it is indeed crafted with a potent mix of directorial dexterity and razor sharp acting.

The acting in Black Swan is commendable too, particularly the full goose-looney central performance of Natalie Portman (easily her best screen work so far, which is truly saying something), the type of acting turn that brings on both Oscar nominations and also a fury of hipster hating. Accused by some cinephile’s of pandering with the success of The Wrestler, Aronofsky is back in more rarified territory here, and the film is peppered with references to the greatest ballet film of all, The Red Shoes, but also to another memorable movie made by the same director Michael Powell, Black Narcissus, and it also unabashedly alludes to both the high brow psychological frisson of Roman Polanski and the pulpy machinations of Brian DePalma. A weird and potent mix. Barbara Hershey registers strongly as a very smothering stage mother, while Mila Kunis is something of a revelation as a fellow ballerina who is hard to distinguish as friend or foe.

Aronofsky, working with his regular cinematographer Matthew Libatque, follows Portman around with a highly affecting stalking camera, a camera that also dances and pirouettes with a distinctive fluidity. Black Swan starts out as a classic glimpse into a particular arena of the arts, a movie ostensibly about commitment and artistic passion, but it slowly evolves into a nightmarish tour de force, cheekily transforming from a god’s eye view of a dancer’s intensity and grace to a Grand Guignol probe into the psychology of repression. It’s a visceral ride and a hallucinatory one, accented by dozens of subliminal directorial touches and a strange, just this side of supernatural, suggestion of doubling and doppelgangers: an art film that is streaked with blood, passion, and an ever mounting touch of delirium.

On the other hand The Fighter, marketed and understandably categorized as a another entry in the age old boxing film sweepstakes (it would be pure redundancy to go through the list of stellar Hollywood boxing movies capped by the acknowledged masterpiece, Raging Bull), is one of those genre excursions that is made better by most of what takes place outside the ring. It can be linked directly to another first class 2010 movie, Ben Affleck’s The Town, as another study of a certain type of peculiarly Massachusetts provincialism. The movie depicts that true tales of boxing half brothers Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), their steel-eyed (and willed) Irish-American mother/manager (Melissa Leo), and Mickey’s townie-with-some-smarts girl pal (Amy Adams), and, perhaps the most important character--the suffocatingly gray, arid, and potentially toxic air of their own personal playground/prison, Lowell, MA.

The Fighter may not quite scale the boxing film tower of greatness, but it is a rousing melodrama with galvanizing performances by all of the abovementioned. Best of all, the movie neatly balances itself between the all-the-way, astoundingly showy depiction of the herky-jerky ball-of-misspent-fire that is crack-addicted Dicky by Bale, and the admirably restrained, astonishingly vanity-less, and largely reactive (but heartfelt) choices of Wahlberg as Micky.

The Fighter works as uproarious glance at the type of familial love that is linked directly to familial dysfunction, it also works as a spritely boxing tale, and it may work best as an exploration of the socio-economic and psychological restraints, burdens and inherent contradictions brought on when one is part of a blue collar, stay-at-home, urban culture. (Really.) The Fighter is wonderfully ambivalent about it all, a movie both crackling and kinetic, yet brushed with deserved pathos. It’s obvious, that David O. Russell, like Darren Aronofsky, is currently working on all cylinders, thus the devout and ever hopeful faithful filmgoer should be already brimming with anticipation over their respective next movie moves.

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