Tag Archives: darren aronofsky

Happy Pi Day!

That’s right: for all you numerologists and baked good enthusiasts out there, today was 3/14, known in nerd circles as Pi Day. (Tomorrow, by the same token, is the Ides of March, or the 2,055th anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination.) To celebrate, it’s best to either eat a pie of your choice—I, for example, adore the French silk variety—or sit down to a random viewing of Darren Aronofsky’s film debut, Pi (1998). It’s a hyper-paranoid, high-contrast, apartment-bound thriller. In short, it’s Black Swan with numbers.

I’m not kidding. Aronofsky’s body of work is impressively consistent. Pi’s nebbishy hero Max (Sean Gullette) works just as hard to be perfect, and pays just as much for it, as Black Swan’s Nina. Max may not have an invasive mother or an imagined archrival like Lily, but he does have one faction after another bugging him on street corners, begging (and more) for his numerical secrets. All these poor Darren Aronofsky characters! You just want to give them a big hug.

A final note while I’m discussing Aronofsky: it’s interesting to see how prominently Jewish identity looms in his work. It’s rarely foregrounded, like it is in the works of the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen; so far as I can tell, the Hasidic rabbis in Pi are the only obvious example. But look at Sara Goldfarb and her friends in Requiem for a Dream or, curiously enough, the fact that all four female leads in Black Swan have Jewish backgrounds. What can we glean from this (admittedly strained) connection? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, let’s break out some rhubarb pie (mmm!), some forks, and have at it.

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Oscar Grouching ’10: Inception and Black Swan

The Oscars are almost almost here, and I’ve promised Ashley that I’ll shut up about them soon. But there’s so much I haven’t been able to talk about! So I’m going to make a last-ditch effort to address some of my lingering nominee-related thoughts.

First of all: Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which I discussed in an initial, wildly enthusiastic review and in my year-end wrap-up. My opinion of it has fluctuated over the past 6-7 months, and I recently revisited it to write a “Mix Tape” article for The Film Experience about the film’s use of Édith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” A few points stood out to me: first and most frustratingly, the film totally wastes a fantastic ensemble. Ellen Page and JG-L act as Cobb’s glorified assistants (and bounce exposition off of each other), while Cillian Murphy is a quirky, talented actor trapped in a bland nothing role.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting, meanwhile, leaves a lot to be desired since he’s supposed to be the film’s lead and emotional linchpin. He has two modes here—pedagogic and brooding—and neither is especially enthralling. Only Cotillard, Watanabe, and Hardy do anything much of interest, and even they are hampered by the film’s structure and dialogue. It’s emphatically not an actor’s movie. However, it is an art design and special effects wet dream, and redeemed by its moments of sheer visual spectacle. It also builds a creative, streamlined world out of old clichés and pieces of cultural detritus. Given this last attribute, I could imagine Inception 2 going in some cool directions.

For now, though, all we’ve got is Inception 1, which is occasionally awesome and fun, but nonetheless has plot holes big enough to drive a train through in the middle of its raison d’etre, the über-complicated shared dreaming technology. But I’m still excited for The Dark Knight Rises and whatever else Nolan wants to make; maybe we’ll get another Ledger-as-Joker-caliber performance out of his movies again. In the meantime, Inception certainly deserves a technical award or two. We’ll find out tonight!

It’s hard to separate the good and bad of Black Swan (see my initial review), and I think that’s just how Darren Aronofsky likes it. Is it gorgeous, intense, and sensual, unlike almost every other Best Picture nominee? Hell yes. Is it adolescent, prurient, trashy, and obsessed with Natalie Portman’s oh-so-romantic masochism for her art? Also hell yes. It’s an icky, atmospheric horror movie that would make a great double feature with Perfect Blue; it’s also comparatively simple-minded about sex and female performance, steeped as it is in hoary melodramatic tropes. (After all, it is an unofficial remake of everything from 42nd Street to Showgirls.)

To be frank, though, I love all the women in this. Portman (this year’s almost-certain Best Actress) is the film’s center which cannot hold, the diva around whom Ryder, Kunis, and Hershey orbit, and each one of them still gets a few juicy moments in the limelight. In the end, though, it’s all about Nina’s manic, transformative dance to the death. In that final scene, you either applaud Aronofsky’s gall, you ask “What the fuck is going on?!”, or both. To conclude, I’ve got a few fascinating and informative Black Swan-related links:

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Hell is Other Ballerinas

I finally saw Black Swan, and so did Ashley, right before the big holiday weekend. She had a lot to say about it, including the fact that Mila Kunis was really sexy. I thought that Winona Ryder didn’t get enough screen time. (It’s bullshit: she’s still a fantastic actress, but now every online story about her has to include the word “shoplift” somewhere [that was nine years ago, people], and she has to play a jealous ballet has-been with a mangled leg.) Both Kunis and Ryder, however, have to play second fiddle to the all-enveloping psychoses of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), the perfectionist who’s going to play the Swan Queen in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake – that is, if her hallucinations don’t kill her first.

It’s certainly something new. It starts out with the same painful realism as Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler (2008), following its heroine back and forth from practices with sleazy ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to the apartment she shares with her beloved smother mother (Barbara Hershey), a woman who cares just a little too much about her “sweet girl.” But as she keeps itching that rash on her back, and as she keeps suspecting that Lily (Kunis) is trying to steal her spotlight, Nina snaps and starts losing it. Black Swan turns into a record of her persecution fantasies, her “lezzy wet dream,” her imagined murders and suicides, and every other psychological dysfunction Aronofsky can cram into two hours.

Portman is incredible as she plays multiple sides of the same self-destructive diva, and Black Swan beautifully mixes observational details about her life and relationships with free-flowing visual sensuality; Aronofsky is clearly enamored with the look of blood against flesh, feathers, and tutus. However, as the film retreats into Nina’s head, it does wrong by its supporting cast, who become mere accessories to her madness – especially Cassel, who – although he excels at it – has little to do but stand around being lecherous and unethical. At least Kunis gets several scenes to steal, as does Hershey, who creepily channels Piper Laurie in Carrie.

But like Polanski’s Repulsion, from which it steals a few cues, this is a one-woman psychodrama about one hell of a crack-up. It’s never clear whether Black Swan‘s surreal visions – which also delve deeply into Cronenberg’s The Fly – will end up amounting to much, or if the lesson is just that art is madness, obsession leads to death, etc., etc., but it’s a gorgeous, brutal trip while it lasts, with some juicy insights about the fruits of sexual repression. You could say it’s All About Eve (or, more appropriately, Showgirls) in the ballet world – but with Nina as both Eve and Margo, a duality that culminates in a disturbing, amazingly weird reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky. With, as always, several pillows worth of feathers and buckets of blood.


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