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Portman has wings in Aronofsky's nightmare ballet

Darren Aronofsky is a director who specialises in looking at the unshiny side of shiny things, which makes his films interesting and hard to classify. Black Swan, drama, melodrama, thriller and even horror film at times, continues his interest in the descent into madness and what power we really have over our minds.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a saintly soloist in a New York ballet company. When the current principal (Winona Ryder) is fired, the louche yet charismatic boss Thomas (Vincent Cassel) picks Nina as lead in his new production of Swan Lake with the proviso that she will have to work hard to find her inner "black swan". Then new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) -- who embodies the sensuous divilment that Nina strives for -- arrives. A complex friendship/rivalry develops, too much goes on for Nina's fragile psyche and Swan Lake itself unfolds.

Aronofsky's success lies very often in how multi- layered his characters are, and in Black Swan the actors complement his work beautifully. Portman certainly deserved her Golden Globe. She worked remarkably hard at portraying a ballerina alone, but her work as the character often more confused than the audience is also excellent.

Barbara Hershey is perfect as the mother who at once infantilises and tortures her daughter, letting malice seep through love. Kunis keeps us guessing as to her true intent and the always watchable Vincent Cassel oozes pervy presence.

Visually, the film is gorgeous and cleverly shot to highlight detail. There are Cronenberg flourishes like the toes as objects of horror. The final ballet scene is exquisite, the soundtrack throughout is courtesy of Tchaikovsky. Freud would keel over in glee with the psychosexual content and the audience need to pay attention to work out what is real. With so many strands running through it the film keeps up a feeling of tension throughout. It won't be to everyone's taste, but it's a film that lingers with the viewer, not least because pieces will be sliding into place some time after you leave the cinema.


Now showing


Cert: 18

Don't be born in working class Glasgow in the Seventies. That's the moral to be taken from this gritty schoolyard and council-estate drama from The Magdalene Sisters director Peter Mullan. The picture painted of the city outskirts in Neds ("non-educated delinquents") is that of a treacherous jungle of youth violence and gang warfare, where prospects are few even for a diamond in the rough.

Newcomer Conor McCarron plays John McGill in his teenage years, an apple-cheeked schoolgoer whose aptitude suggests he is bound for greater things. Mullan goes to great lengths to show up the architects of his demise into gang culture and violence. John's brother is a feared tearaway, offering his younger sibling a degree of protection and respect among the knife-wielding thugs. Between his alcoholic father (a fearsome turn by the director), patronising teachers and abundant physical threats in the locality, John becomes seduced by the acceptance his brother's gang status affords him and quickly spirals into something resembling psychopathy.

McCarron took home the Best Actor gong at the San Sebastian Film Festival last September, and it's not hard to see why. As with kindred spirit Ken Loach, Mullan often utilises raw acting talent, and in McCarron he elicits a lean performance that is uncluttered by actorly devices.

Mullan's storytelling approach is typically unflinching, and the film provides a thought-provoking commentary on today's "Blade Britain" problem. What saves Neds from being a suffocatingly bleak couple of hours in the cinema are the dollops of humour punctuating the classroom scenes along with a memorable, metaphor-heavy finale.


Now showing

How Do You Know

Cert 12A

Director James L Brooks and Jack Nicholson have a history together that includes Terms of Endearment and As Good as it Gets, classics of the slightly shameless kind. They reunite for How Do You Know with some of the biggest stars of a new generation.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) has been ousted from the US national softball team and finds her life without meaning. On the rebound she moves in with Matty (Owen Wilson), her very casual fling football star who is baffled to find himself smitten. But she has unwittingly also enchanted George (Paul Rudd) whose nice life is collapsing because his father (Nicholson), with whom he is in business, is low on scruples.

The men don't do battle for her love, it's more a case of slow realisations, while Lisa and George also have to make new lives as the ones they knew have disappeared.

What results is an unusual twist on the romcom. The moral messiness inherent in it, mostly in Nicholson's character, is either inspired or careless. considering what he has done, charming fecklessness is a bit of a reach. Nicholson and Rudd work well together.

There are some good lines and the actors turn in steady work, Wilson really immerses himself in what is perhaps the best written role of the film.

At two hours, the film is too long, and the pregnant-secretary subplot is gratuitous, particularly given the underdevelopment of some other links. As Good As it Gets this is not, but neither is it Brooks' last film, the turkey Spanglish. It's light, easy, often funny February fare.


Opens on Friday

The Ward

Cert 16

SO much for the first cut being the deepest. When you're in the company of widely revered Halloween director and bona fide sultan of splatter, John Carpenter, it's true to say the accuracy of that adage can't be taken as read. Hard-core gore fans will be glad to hear that in his latest offering, The Ward, that aforementioned first cut is but a trickle-inducing teaser for a more extensive opening of the blood... sorry floodgates further down the line.

Set in the Sixties, an imposing South Bend psychiatric institution provides the backdrop for Carpenter's return to the big screen after a nine-year horror hiatus. The easy-on-the-eye Amber Heard takes the central role as a troubled young woman who finds herself involuntarily committed after cops interrupt her unexplained attempt at igniting an abandoned rural dwelling.

As you might expect, all is not as it seems. Her fellow ward mates are in a constant state of terror while resident psychiatrist Dr Stringer (Jared Harris), together with the severe Nurse Lundtz (Susanna Burney), she of the shot-putter physique, don't exactly inspire confidence.

And then there's the regular apparitions from a ghoulish former patient who has scores to settle and doesn't stand on ceremony when it comes to ritual slaughter. Cue another view-to-a-cull scenario as brains get fried, eye-balls get punctured and the concept of what constitutes going for the jugular is given a literal interpretation. Hands over the eyes yet?

Don't worry, they soon will be. At least intermittently. Convincing scene-setting and accomplished production values succeed in establishing strong initial levels of suspense while Heard and Carpenter constitute a capable scream team. These levels are not maintained for the duration, however, as a concluding twist instantaneously propels proceedings into the realm of the risible. Excitable types are unlikely to be disappointed but fright fans will be aware that this is, dare I say it, close to er... hack work, and far from vintage Carpenter.


Now showing


Cert C

Tangled is, and was to have been called, Rapunzel, but in a bid to lure in the elusive boy audience they changed the name and pitched the smart-assy prince instead of princess and songs in trailers. But Rapunzel it remains and boys will probably still resist.

Gothel (Donna Murphy) discovers the secret of eternal youth and when that secret morphs from plant to princess she steals the infant royal and locks her away in a luxurious tower, raising her as her daughter, rearing her with passive aggression and instilling a fear of the world outside.

But Rapunzel is a sweet and ingenious girl who plays with her secret friend the chameleon and thinks up many uses for her flowing tresses. Indeed it addresses some of the questions I had as a child. Flynn (Zachary Levi) is a thief on the run who ends up taking refuge in the tower and with him Rapunzel escapes to the outside world.

Disney Pixar writers and directors are nearly all men, but maybe someone got on to them because, bar the love interest, this is a movie about a mother and daughter. Emotionally not as rich as some of Pixar's other films it is nonetheless very sweet but not saccharine, with fairly straightforward storytelling without the pop reference that will so date. This, their 50th animated feature, is pitching to be a classic. And it isn't a bad pitch. Screenwriter Dan Fogelman wrote Bolt and Cars and the pace and lines are good although one of the most captivating characters is a silent one, Maximus the horse.

Gone are the days when Peggy lee and Louis Armstrong sang Disney soundtracks, now there are those skilled anonymati singing generic songs that could belong to any one of a selection of Disney films. But then most of them are written by the same guy, Alan Menken.

The 3D is not overwhelming, there's a lovely lantern scene and all round it's a sweet, funny, not mushy, film that everyone can enjoy. Even boys.


Opens on Friday

The Dilemma

Cert 12A

Forrest Gump may have wanted us to believe that life was like a box of chocolates, but with the blizzard of sporting metaphors that assail lightweight "dramedy" The Dilemma, you could be forgiven for thinking that life was like a game of baseball. Well, definitely American football.

let's just say that two Chicago-based business partners and best-buddies, Ronnie (Vince Vaughn) and Nick, (Kevin James) find themselves close to touchdown territory when a massive car industry multinational wants to develop their innovative motor engine design. Inches from the "end-zone" they may well be but the threat of a "foul on the play" comes with Ronnie's discovery that Nick's wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) is cheating on him. So what's a guy to do?

Inform his buddy and business partner that his wife is playing around and he runs the risk of precipitating an emotional meltdown that will scupper the deal. hence the dilemma that gives this film its title. Ronnie's bizarre behaviour as he agonises over what to do, has his partner, authentic dreamboat Jennifer Connelly, believing he's lost the plot.

there's a Dr Phil: The Movie feel to the narrative that sees this coterie of characters grapple with relationship issues that revolve around deception and whether closets are the best place to keep skeletons. Connelly and Ryder's considerable acting smarts are seen to good effect and it won't come as a surprise to hear this spectacle works better as a drama than as a comedy. Veteran director Ron Howard successfully maintains an A-list sensibility to proceedings for the duration but, to finish on a sporting allusion, the overriding sense as the credit rolls is of a capable cast reduced to running down the clock.


Now showing

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