Double Feature

It was double feature Christmas Eve yesterday after The Wife got off work early (I had the day off). The selection at the theaters was Tron Legacy in 3-D and Black Swan.

There is no point in seeing Tron in 2-D, as far as I am concerned. The “real world” sequences are in 2-D, while the “in the Grid” sequences are in 3-D, which is supposed to make you ask yourself which of the two worlds is more “real.”

The point of the movie is the computer-game action sequences; they are supposed to be faster, more dangerous-looking, more fluid, and generally updated and cool from the original movie. They are everything you would want them to be — except plentiful. At the end of the film, I was left with the impression that there were only four action set-pieces in the whole movie, and of them, two were updates (albeit really cool ones) from the 1982 original movie. The light-bike sequence, predictably but gratifyingly, was the best. The CGI “youthening” of Jeff Bridges was impressive and believable; I was confused as to why the producers did not choose to do the same thing for another one of the characters too. When they did the action and fighting I enjoyed myself immensely and was tense and scared for the light-bike fight.

The rest of the movie did disappoint, though. I could tell that the younger stars (the linsome Olivia Wilde and the athletic Garrett Hedlund) were trying hard to breathe life into shallow characters; Jeff Bridges seemed less interested in anything other than the paycheck. But the real disappointment was the story. A movie rises and falls with its script and this one was at once too complex and confusing, and yet at the same time too contrived. In order to explain everything and render the bad guy a real bad guy, and the good guys really good guys, there was far, far too much exposition — without it, the story would have been even more confusing, but with it, the movie far too slow.

The soundtrack by Daft Punk was perfect. A cameo by Cillian Murphy sets his character up as a likely bad guy should there be another sequel (which I would title Tron: End of Line). Michael Sheen was over-the-top and therefore not particularly credible in his role; he seemed to by trying at once to mock the colorless and superfluous character of The Merovingian in the Matrix sequels, while also trying to marry John Hurt as Caligula from I, Claudius and David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. At the end of the day it did not work and I was not sorry that the role was so small despite the waste of such a fine actor in it.

I don’t regret having spent the money to see the movie at all; it was a great audio and visual spectacle, entertaining and thrilling in places. But I won’t see it again; the murky, talky story isn’t worth wading through twice. A good thrill ride, which need not be repeated.

Black Swan was The Wife’s selection for our double feature and walking out of the theater, I felt like I had I enjoyed it about as much as I had the first movie; the numerous realistic hallucinatory scenes left me confused about what had been real and what had been imagined by the heroine throughout the entire film. But the more I think about that movie, the more I find I enjoyed it and it keeps on sitting nicely in my mind; that confusion was of course intended all along.

As one would hope for in a thriller like this, the acting is really good. Natalie Portman plays an intense, not particularly likeable, but technically talented and full of potential ballerina. Barbara Hershey is really outstanding as Portman’s overbearing mother. Each of these characters is a fascinating psychological study. Mila Kunis (a real-life social friend of Natalie Portman) is less interesting as a character than as a symbol of a less dedicated and ambitious, but freer and more enjoyable, way of life than the one Portman’s character finds herself tracked for. European star Vincent Cassel ought to earn greater notice in the States for his turn as the demanding, manipulative, and ambiguous director of the ballet.

Winona Ryder struck me with the pathos she was able to put in to a relatively small role. The role itself must have been a bit of a challenge for her on an emotional level; she plays the older ballerina displaced by the younger, now-prettier up-and-comer represented by Natalie Portman. Maybe I felt special sympathy for this character because Winona Ryder is close to my own age and Hollywood is notoriously age-discriminatory, particularly for its leading women — as she approaches her 40’s, Ryder is still very attractive but it seems that many of the better opportunities go to women about ten years younger than that. Playing a character who represents that phase of the business for someone who actually is in that phase of the business must have seemed particularly poignant.

And at the end of the day, Black Swan is about not just the ballet but show business entirely. The question it asks to others who would pursue a career in any of the performing arts is, how far are you willing to go to deliver a good performance and earn the accolades of the audience? It’s clear by about halfway through the movie that Natalie Portman’s character is sacrificing (whether willingly or not) her mental stability in order to achieve that goal.

Portman does a fine job portraying the material and emotional sacrifices that a life at the elite level of the performing arts demands; but it’s clear that she can only do so because she has never seen that there are any real alternatives. Portman is on screen, or her character is within the staging, for almost every moment of the film. She is frequently silent, in part because her character is exhausted and out of breath from the athletically demanding activities of a ballet dancer. The makeup artists did a great job of making it look like she was not wearing makeup, sweaty, and looking decidedly unattractive.

Kunis’ character shows her that it is possible to still be in the game but, at the cost of maybe not having the personal discipline to reach the very top, can still enjoy life. Kunis plays a ballerina from free-spirited San Francisco who eats cheeseburgers, takes Ecstasy before a night of club-prowling leading up to casual sex, and sasses off waiters hitting on her before she’s ready for male companionship. Portman’s obvious jealousy at Kunis’ liberated lifestyle reveals the tension and ambiguities in her character which ultimately prove the decisive issues within her character.

Portman also has two scenes of frank sexuality, one of which is an encounter with Mila Kunis that generated a lot of buzz. At the end of the day I’m not entirely sure if that scene couldn’t have been done effectively with a man instead of a woman, although I suppose on balance having it between these two attractive women actually did contribute to the narration as well as generate titillating buzz that will attract men as well as women to a story about ballet dancers.

You wouldn’t think that a movie about ballerinas would rely much more heavily on costumes than special effects. But the effects were a critical part of the film. The motif of mirrors and Portman’s periodic hallucinations — some of which were so gruesome that they left me squirming in my seat — are probably the most important part of the whole film. They provide the visual clues to the viewer about what is being seen and whether it relates to objective reality or something different.

But the ambiguity I remain dissatisfied with at the end of the day is that I cannot decide whether Portman’s character chose the path she did or whether circumstances forced her to do as she did. This parallels the story of the ballet, Swan Lake, which provides the thematic track upon which the movie proceeds.

You should see the movie for yourself and draw your own conclusion about whether what you’re seeing is a tragedy (a story about a character’s destruction resulting from an internal character flaw or a conscious choice), or a pathedy (in which large forces well out of the control of any character conspire to utterly crush a helpless heroine). The final line of the movie suggests to me the former, but your mileage may vary and I can’t be certain about that either. The fact that I’m still ruminating about it the next day is the best signal I can imagine that there was a pretty solid story here, which makes this movie worthy of a second viewing.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.