For the second time in a few years director Darren Aronofsky has a movie in serious awards contention, marking a critical and commercial heft which one couldn't possibly have imagined after his quirky arthouse debut Pi and its grim follow-up Requiem for a Dream.
On the surface there wouldn't be much to link The Wrestler and Black Swan but look a little deeper and comparisons become clear.
Set in the world of ballet Black Swan would appear to be a universe away from the grimy and somewhat seedy arena of professional wrestling. Then there's also the rather contrasting visual appearances of the films' stars: Mickey Rourke ravaged and broken as the declining Randy 'the Ram' Robinson, while Natalie Portman looks stunning as ambitious ballerina Nina Sayers. However, the level of punishment each of the characters inflict on their bodies in pursuit of perfection in their chosen vocations is equally brutal.
In Black Swan the damage suffered by the central character isn't just physical. Aronofsky serves up a psychological thriller which explores several themes, including obsession, paranoia, ambition and the descent into madness. At times hysterical if not actually bonkers, the film isn't afraid to delve into areas which most directors would consider downright daft and, for a film which has become an unlikely box office hit, that's certainly to be commended in these 'safety first' times.
The aforementioned Nina is the aspiring principal dancer at a New York ballet company, under the watchful and wolfish eye of director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). The previous favourite Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) has been ousted, burnt out and more than a little paranoid as the pressures of keeping newcomers at bay finally take their toll. While Nina is the one most likely to take Beth's place there's an added complication with the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), who also appears to have caught Thomas's eye.
The crux of the film lies in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, where the principal has to play two roles, the pure and innocent White Swan and the sensuous, cunning Black Swan and it's Thomas's urging of Nina to surrender herself to the demands of the latter character which leads to a gradual meltdown.
Nina begins to unravel, seeing other dancers -- including Beth and Lily -- as herself, hallucinating in front of mirrors and generally cracking up with the demands of her new role. There are many elements of Black Swan which we've seen before. The influence of Roman Polanski's early work (particularly Repulsion), Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg are clearly evident, there's a spiritual nod to All About Eve in the way female performers constantly worry about being usurped by younger women and even a touch of Carrie in the domestic arrangement between the naive Nina and her mother (Barbara Hershey), herself once an ambitious ballerina until she had Nina and was forced to abandon her career.
As a demented rollercoaster ride Black Swan has a lot to recommend it, not least in the way Aronofsky takes us in tight during the dance sequences and Natalie Portman's portrayal of a woman's mental disintegration. Just don't go expecting The Red Shoes.
NEDS * * *
Drama. Starring Conor McCarron, Louise Goodall, Guy Forrest, Gary Milligan, Peter Mullan. Directed by Peter Mullan. Cert 16)
ACTOR Peter Mullan's third film in the director's chair, after the blackly comic Orphans and the award-winning The Magdalene Sisters, takes us back to Glasgow in the early ’70s for a coming-of-age story which veers into unexpectedly dark territory. In the first part of the movie we follow young John McGill, a bright lad from a working-class home as he succeeds in a school. It’s so well recreated that anyone who attended the Christian Brothers during the period will experience a shiver of recognition.
Young John seems likely to break away from his surroundings, not least a home dominated by a drunken, abusive father (Mullan himself), but barely two years later we find him (now played by the excellent newcomer Conor McCarron) a sullen, disaffected adolescent who's still extremely intelligent but given to running with the gang once led by his older brother.
The undercurrent of violence runs constantly through Neds, although Mullan does temper the threat with a deliciously droll humour -- particularly in the first half of the film -- and, while the director doesn't quite see out the story totally convincingly, he does at least leave us with one of the most memorable closing scenes you'll probably see this year.
Morning Glory * *
Comedy/Drama. Starring Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum. Directed by Roger Michell. Cert 12A
SET IN the bizarre world of US breakfast television and with a script from the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory tells the story of idealistic young producer Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) who gets a shot at handling the morning show on an ailing New York network.
Like some bizarre, unfunny cross between Broadcast News and Working Girl, the movie misfires on a number of levels — not least the notion that we're supposed to find Becky perky and upbeat when, in fact, two minutes in her presence would have you scoping out the nearest available exit — but does at least give Harrison Ford the opportunity to play grumpy as a veteran serious newsman contractually obliged to partake in the frivolous dog and pony show that is breakfast TV.
Predictable at every turn, cursed with at least four endings too many and completely wasting the talents of Diane Keaton, as the programme's long-standing female host, and Jeff Goldblum as a cynical station boss, Morning Glory is a thoroughly limp affair not worth getting out of bed for.
John Carpenter's The Ward * * *
Horror. Starring Amber Heard, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker. Directed by John Carpenter. Cert 12A
THE MAN who shaped horror in the late ’70s and early ’80s with classics such as Halloween and The Thing returns to directing duties with a serviceable shocker.
Set in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, Amber Heard plays Kristen, a troubled young woman who has burned down a farmhouse and finds herself sharing an experimental ward with four other girls. However, something is amiss as a malevolent ghost is apparently stalking the corridors and patients have a habit of thinking they're being released only to disappear completely.
Carpenter is a master at building tension and he's back on form here, getting a good performance from Amber Heard as the plucky Kristen, even if the script isn't the best and the ending shouldn't surprise anyone who's been paying even the slightest bit of attention.
The Dilemma *
Drama/Comedy. Starring Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum. Directed by Ron Howard. Cert 12A)
SHOULD you find yourself at your local cineplex this weekend faced with a dilemma as to hich film to watch, then simply avoid this muddled, ill-judged, badly-written, talkiefeelie mess. Dilemma solved.