20 December 2010

Black Swan

It's been a little while since I've seen a film by Darren Aronofsky, as I've only really seen Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Black Swan (2010) certainly follows in their footsteps in its attempt to chronicle a descent into madness, but it does so with more grace, maturity, and artistry. Perhaps I should go back and watch The Wrestler (2008), to which this film is a companion piece, as it will likely show a similar maturation of Aronofsky's style.

Internal rivalry
Synopses of the film often describe a focus on a rivalry between the ballerinas Nina (Natalie Portman) and Lily (Mila Kunis), but I don't think this is really the point of the film at all. It is quite obvious that the film's main focus is Nina herself. This is evident first and foremost by the film's subjective nature. We are always present with Nina, and often the camera literally follows her, peering over her shoulder to see what she sees. I will point out, though, that we do not get actual point-of-view shots. Never do we explicitly enter her head and see exactly what she sees or hear what she is thinking. While we are limited to her, and privy to glimpses of her psyche, we are always removed from her—able to contemplate Nina in ways that she is unable. (This is an important dynamic in the relationship between cinema and its spectators, and one that is excellently handled in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, but I will return to Polanski later.)

At any rate, the "rivalry" seems to exist more in Nina's mind than in reality, and serves more as a part of a greater focus, which is Nina's conflict against herself in her attempt to reach "perfection" as a ballet dancer. This connection occurs time and again as Nina has visions of a doppelgänger, a hallucination which will often incorporate Lily as well. Nina is technically superior but lacks the passion, the ability to "lose herself in the music" like Lily can. As the film unfolds, Lily's role takes on a symbolic position of the darker side of Nina, one that Nina must find and incorporate into herself to reach true perfection.

The Swan Queen as both the White Swan and the Black Swan
You do not have to go into this movie being completely familiar with the ballet Swan Lake, as the film explains the main conceptual elements of the story that are important to the film, but having some understanding certainly wouldn't hurt. In fact, the film could be described as a filmic take on the ballet, as there are numerous parallels. The film is most interesting in how it takes the story to different levels. On one hand, the competition between Nina and Lily for the role of Swan Queen (and thus trying to win the love for the director), could be compared to the original plot, but this reading lacks much added interest. However, if we apply the contest between the White and Black Swan to Nina's own mental struggle for perfection, the original story really does take on new life.

Polanski-esque surrealism
Not surprising for Aronofsky, there is a fair amount of unsettling imagery in this film, and a tendency to play with the boundary between reality and insanity. However, unlike Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan handles this with more subtly and maturity. The dark surrealism has been compared to Roman Polanski's earlier films, and in particular, his "Apartment" triology. It's a comparison I whole-heartedly agree with. Like the trilogy, this film focuses on in the inner psyche of one character and their descent into the darkest depths of their own mind. They all break reality in such a way that, even at the end, we are sometimes unable to sort everything out into neat categories of "reality" and "delusion." Yes, some things are obviously one or the other, but the line that divides them is blurry at best.

As another note, the film is very well shot, and makes excellent use of the handheld camera that has, for better or worse, become a norm (due in part, I'm sure, to reality TV). Often, such jittery camera work feels unnecessary, a mere repetition of a current style without any actual substance, and at first, I feared this might be the case. However, as the film progresses, I saw how the camera seemed to dance with its primary partner, Nina, carrying the ballet theme into the cinematography itself and adding credence to the idea that the film is, in itself, another take on Swan Lake.

Ultimately, the film is well-done. The acting is superb, especially from Portman, who never wanes in quality despite being consistently framed by the camera's lens. The supporting roles are quite good as well, especially Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey) and the director (Vincent Cassel). Mila Kunis did a decent job as well, though perhaps not as well as the other two. Black Swan is certainly a compelling, visceral film. It could also be an excellent change of pace if you want to go to the theatres but don't want the usual Christmas blockbuster fair.

08 December 2010

Samurai Assassin

It's no secret that I love samurai flicks (or chanbara). In some ways, it's my go-to action genre. Don't get me wrong, there are some great standard action movies out there that can be really entertaining. However, I think samurai flicks often add a certain Shakespearean drama to the mix that makes me love it that much more. Samurai films tend to be tragedies. The mood tends to be darker, with endings that are often, at best, bittersweet. Samurai Assassin (Samurai, 1965) by Kihachi Okamoto is a perfect example of this.

Historical influences
Although Samurai Assassin certainly has it's share of action, much of the film revolves around secretive conversations. The film is inspired by an actual historical event known as the Sakuradamon incident in which the daimyo Ii Naosuke was assassinated by a group of ronin outside the Sakurada Gate on March 24, 1860. As such, most of the film focuses on the efforts to plan and organize the assassination, finally culminating with the incident itself for the grand, bloody, tragic climax.

However, the film deviates from history quite a bit, though in typical chanbara fashion, it makes excuses, namely the fact that files could have been easily altered or erased. History is written by the victors, they say, and this has become a favourite route for inserting dramatic narratives into historical contexts with regards to samurai films.

As such, the primary protagonist is Niiro Tsurichiyo, played by the beloved actor Toshiro Mifune. His mother, now dead, was a prostitute and his paternity remains unknown to all but one man, a friend of the family who has vowed to keep it a secret until the proper time. All that he will say is that his father was of a high rank, and as such, samurai blood flows in Niiro's veins.

Thus, Niiro's ultimate goal is to prove himself as a samurai and become famous. Thus, when the conspirators against the daimyo request his help after seeing his skill, he jumps on the opportunity. Here is a chance to do something that will change the course of history, winning himself fame and a place in the history books, and as an orphan and poor ronin, he has little to lose.

Narrative elements
Much of the story is told through conversation, with various characters relating events. The film will then cut away to the scene, with the character acting as the narrator. This breaks up the time line of the film, as we experience some of the events out of natural order and have to piece things together from there. This gives the film some added complexity and interest.

The film has numerous twists, though most of them were fairly easy to spot. However, this never becomes a bad thing, as the film is steeped in literary irony. We as the audience ultimately know more about the truth than every individual character, Niiro included. The final tragedy stems from this irony, as we understand all that the assassination will ultimately entail while the characters are only partially aware of the consequences of their actions. I don't want to give away too much, as guessing and learning for yourself is a large part of the fun. Still, this film is a classic example of literary irony done right, and it culminates in a fantastic finale.

The film is fairly well shot, and I love the scenes with the snow and umbrellas that provide a nice stylistic touch. The assassination is frantic but beautifully done.

However, the contrast seemed rather low, with the film never reaching the bright whites and deep blacks that really make black and white films shine. Maybe it was the DVD, which was a cheaper release than the Criterion Collection treatment so often applied to great chanbara. It could've also been the fact that I watched the DVD on Emily's computer, which I haven't calibrated the contrast on for watching black and white films. (And yes, I do calibrate my contrast. I am that big of a nerd.)

Still, the film was quite entertaining and beautifully tragic. Perhaps one of the darkest chanbara I've seen, in a very good way.

07 December 2010


Desperate (1947) is one of the earlier films noir from Anthony Mann, back during his B movie days. If you don't know who Mann is, just know that he's a popular name with regards to the film noir genre. If you do know who Mann is, well... you probably watch a lot of films noir, so good for you!

I saw this film at Cinematheque, a group on UW–Madison's campus that shows classic films on the weekends. It was my first time there, but certainly won't be my last.

The group often specializes in film series, with this one appearing in a series devoted to Mann's films noir. I missed the first two films in the series—The Great Flamarion (1945) and Strange Impersonation (1946)—but that's okay. Mann has been quoted saying that he considers Desperate his first real film, as it was the first where he was actually afforded considerable control by the studio, rather than more or less working under another's vision.

The desperate seldom make good decisions
The film follows an ex-soldier named Steve Randall who now works in the trucking business. He takes a well-paying job without realize that he is, in fact, being hired as the getaway driver for a criminal heist. When things go wrong, Steve ends up on the wrong side of the law and the criminals who hired him. His wife's well-being threatened, he determines to get her to safety before confronting the police and the mobsters, which ultimately digs him in deeper.

The film ends up a rather enticing thriller, even if you are a little frustrated at Steve's incredible knack for finding newer and more effective ways to make matters worse for him and his darling wife, Anne. However, the film really excels in its visual presentation.

Beautifully orchestrated
The film looks amazing, and not just because we watched it on film reels instead of digital formats. In fact, Cinematheque only managed to get a 16 mm copy instead of the preferred 35 mm, much to their dismay. And while 35 mm would've surely afforded a better range of contrast, there was something about the grainy feel of 16 mm that felt right for film noir. After all, it was a B movie, and a dark, gritty one at that.

Anyway, there are numerous iconic scenes throughout the film. Perhaps my favourite occurs early on, when the mobsters set about roughing up Steve a little. Although we see the beginning of the scuffle, most if it takes place off screen. In fact, the beginning primarily aids in allowing us to see Steve thrown against a hanging light, causing it to swing wildly back and forth. The rest of the fight centers around the boss's stoic face, cast rhythmically into light and darkness by the movement of the lamp, creating a truly sinister atmosphere.

Likewise, a much later scene seems to provide a template for spaghetti Westerns decades later, as we sit in suspense, waiting for a gunshot. The scene oscillates between progressively closer shots of the character's eyes and a ticking clock. It stretches, building tension as we wait for something to happen. Will the man with the gun finally pull the trigger? Or will the would-be victim finally break the tension in an act that, instead, gives him the upper hand? Or, perhaps, something else? I won't give it away, but it's a great scene.

Where's the femme fatale?
After the film, I heard another audience member remarking that, though it was a good film, it didn't feel that "noir-y" to them. Namely, it didn't have that all important femme fatale. Well, it's true. There is no sultry seductress there to make Steve's life hell.

However, it's important to note that Desperate came out at a time when film noir was still a fairly new genre. Earlier films noir were still in the process of establishing archetypes that would be so often used in the '50s and then deconstructed, analyzed, and recontextualized in later decades. One of this big archetypes is, no doubt, the femme fatale, and while it appears as early as The Maltese Falcon (1941), it did not become as frequent in the genre until the genre began to take on darker and grittier aspects.

Desperate is definitely a film noir, but an early one. The primary focus of early films noir was the male character, who was, as is the case here, an ex-soldier. See, after WWII, a lot of American soldiers returned home feeling alienated and disillusioned. The war was one of the worst ever, and the world they returned to no longer felt like the perfect ideal they had left behind. Yes, on the surface, it seemed idyllic, but underneath there was something unsettling. Something sinister. Film noir tapped into this psychological feeling of disillusionment and unease with films about good men lead astray. Ex-soldiers, fresh from the war and tossed back into harms way once again.

Really, this fits Desperate to a t. This is where noir started, and to discredit it for not fitting the exact mold is silly, especially considering that the phrase film noir was not even known during the classic era (1941-1959) and that the directors at the time had no concept that these were genre films in the same way that a director would intentionally make a western. Genres, like art movements, are usually defined after their prime, when we have the sufficient perspective of time that we can sit back and consider what has happened.

01 December 2010

Njom Njom Kitchen: Coconut lentils and steamed couscous

Today, I updated over on Njom Njom Kitchen instead. Go check it out here.