Thursday, January 27, 2011


It goes like this: little Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer who is up for the role of the Swan in a production of Swan Lake, and her Svengali-ish choreographer/impresario tells her that her dancing is technically perfect but emotionally frigid. This sends Nina very predictably over the edge, and anyone who has ever attended the movies at any time in the last 50 years should be able to see what comes next. Aronofsky & Co. try to shoehorn in some stuff about Nina being a perfectionist and there are vague hints about anorexia and self-mutilation, but Nina's real problem is quite simply that she's batshit fucking crazy. The movie tips its hand very early as to where it is headed, when Nina, while washing her hands, finds that flesh is peeling off her fingers, only to then realize that it was All In Her Mind.  The whole godforsaken movie falls into place after that, and I had to sit there and listen to the gasps of folks who were actually surprised at the little plot twists that any sentient third grader should have seen coming (GASP! THERE'S NO DEAD BODY IN THE BATHROOM!!!!!!). 

The movie aims for a high seriousness (and borrowed High Art Cred with the World O'Ballet setting) that it misses by miles, finally devolving into a flashy but cheap little horror flick for Lincoln Center donors who don't get out to the movies much, with lots of Flashy Editing and Special Effects for the easily impressed. At least we're spared the overt moralizing of Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND, with its Dachau flashbacks and prattling about morality, but Aronofsky's film collapses under its own solemnity just as completely as Scorsese's does. It comes off, ultimately, like Aronofsky found an abandoned Tracey Ullman sketch, didn't realize it was a comedy, and brought it to the screen as high tragedy.

Don't be fooled. BLACK SWAN is bogus crap from start to finish. But at least it is made with some energy, as opposed to--

There's not a lot to say about the Coen Brothers' latest opus, because I just found it a bore. Very prettily shot by Roger Deakins, lots of things that they couldn't apparently do in the 1960s like graphic gunshot violence and some silly computer-generated rattlesnakes, and all that. I was bored senseless. No tension, not even the barest basic interest. An utter waste of time, resources and actors. Even the usually reliable Carter Burwell phones it in this time: his score consists of the hymn "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" played and played and played and fucking played again. And of course it has gotten the usual raves and award nominations, the Coens having evidently inherited Clint Eastwood's cache of Blackmailable Material on American Film Critics & Oscar Voters.

Now we're talking. Claude Lanzmann's 1985 film SHOAH, all 9 1/2 hours of it, shown in a brand new 35mm print, and I did the whole thing in one day and was just blown away. A film about the Holocaust, which contains no historic footage or recreations, depending entirely on Lanzmann's interviews with survivors and others involved with the camps and the workings of the Holocaust itself. Astonishing, and heart-rending. I can't blame anyone for being scared off by the extreme length, and I'll cop to finding some of the interviews rather, shall we say, prolonged, but the film has a cumulative impact that is like nothing you'll ever see.

The film is more than just a batch of tear-jerking accounts of the daily horror. The film includes illuminating interviews with an American historian who gleans remarkable and revealing information from a simple train schedule, for example. One other sequence is among the most chilling moments in any film, play, or work of narrative art I've yet experienced: over footage of a truck driving through industrial areas, Lanzmann plays a simple voiceover reading a letter from a local German officer detailing the success of the local extermination programs, and giving some specifications needed for modifications for certain specific equipment and transport vehicles. The blandness of the language doesn't disguise the fact that he's talking about how large moving vans used to gas Jews need to be modified because the resulting corpses tend to congregate near the rear exit of the van, thus throwing the van off balance and making driving difficult. As the letter ends, the onscreen truck is shown to be manufactured by the very company that manufactured the killing vans in the letter, and is finally shown driving past the still thriving factory.

A brand new restored print of Visconti's early 60s epic of family and history in a changing 19th Century Italy. This is at least the third version of this film that has been released in the last 20-odd years, and I'd always missed it, mostly because I have a severe allergy to Burt Lancaster's acting. What a fool I was. This new print is a marvel, as is the film itself. A big juicy delicious inter-generational saga, with politics, civil war, religion, hypocrisy, intrigue, love, lust, betrayal, the whole passion-desire-bloodshed-and-death kitchen sink, and miraculously it manages to keep its head, never getting too serious or too silly. Burt Lancaster, in his finest performance, plays the patriarch of a more than usually distinguished Italian aristocratic family, who is doing what he can to ensure his family's future endurance in changing times, while dealing with his own hot-blooded desires. Alain Delon plays Lancaster's charming nephew, and Claudia Cardinale lights up the screen as the lusty daughter of a local politician who you just know is going to be causing trouble as the film progresses. The film's main astonishment is a 45 minute ball sequence where the entire film comes together, everything is dealt with and summed up and I dare you not to be moved and impressed. If all great films were this entertaining...