Sunday, 20 November 2011

Film Review | Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan achieves a rare feat in cinema, in that by the film's climax I was genuinely unsure as to how much of what I was watching was real and how much was in the head of a character. By the time the credits rolled director Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman in the lead role had led me so expertly to this point, exactly where they wanted me to be, that I could do nothing but allow the emotional, psychological, beautifully dramatic spectacle I had just witnessed to continue washing over me.

The film tells the story of Nina (Portman), a professional ballerina who lands her first lead role in her company's latest production, Swan Lake. As Nina struggles to meet the demands of her dual character as both the Swan Queen and the Black Swan, her relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey), her director (Vincent Cassel) and fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) all become increasingly complex whilst her mental state becomes less and less stable.

Whilst praise has already been heaped upon Portman and Aronofsky, it's important not to overlook the importance of the supporting cast in making the film the success that it is. Cassel brings both intensity and intrigue to his role; Hershey too is strong as the strict yet devoted mother to Nina, and deserves high praise in particular for her scenes with Portman when Nina falls further into mental instability. The character of Lily is potentially the most demanding after Nina herself, but Kunis handles the role incredibly well, striking a balance between the different elements to her character, at times cerebral, at others much more physical.

The triumph here, however, must be a shared achievement of Portman and Aronofsky. Portman's performance is blissfully enigmatic, allowing the audience to develop an uneasy relationship of sympathy and distance with Nina in a very short space of time which lasts until the very last shot. It's a turn more than worthy of her Best Actress Oscar.

Portman's performance fits seamlessly with Aronofsky's direction, a heady fusion of extreme realism and the disturbingly surreal blurring the lines between the real world and Nina's warped perspective. This intentional ambiguity creates superb psychological melodrama with occasional hints of horror, and makes Black Swan Aronofsky's most finely crafted film to date. In fact, if there is one criticism of the film it's that it is at a few points almost too uncomfortable to watch. Black Swan, fundamentally, is a film I find it very difficult to fault. Whilst it may at times be a difficult viewing experience, this is undoubtedly an incredible piece of cinema.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

Film Review | Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates is clearly influenced in its style by a great many other sci-fi films, from big names such as The Matrix and the Terminator franchise to cult titles such as Gattaca. The problem is, it's never quite as good as any of the films it has been inspired by.

Set in a near future where the world's population lives through hi-tech robotic counterparts - the 'surrogates' of the title, and as they are referred to throughout the film - we follow the story of FBI Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) who, with his partner Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell), investigates a series of unprecedented murders committed through destroying a person's surrogate. Willis is reliably watchable, but never feels as though he is stretching himself too far from either his troubled loner or irrational action-man archetypal fallback roles. Other than Ving Rhames as The Prophet, the shadowy leader of a resistance movement against the surrogates, and James Cromwell as the inventor of 'surrogacy' (both of whom receive far too little screen time), the cast is largely pedestrian and forgettable.

The story is entertaining enough, providing enough satisfying sci-fi quirks and action sequences to keep things interesting. Things get a little muddled towards the end, and the final act doesn't provide the satisfying payoff that you would hope for. A subplot involving the death of Greer's son and the effect of this on his relationship with his wife (Rosamund Pike) never really manages to go anywhere meaningful. However, the film's swift running time of under ninety minutes does mean it never has the chance to become tedious.

Ultimately, Surrogates feels like a wasted opportunity. There's a huge amount that could have been explored in terms of human morality (there doesn't seem to be any repercussions for destroying a surrogate, despite more than one indication that they aren't exactly cheap pieces of kit), and the current popularity of online chat and smartphones could have been very easily commented upon, but instead is only slightly hinted at. Like I said before, Surrogates draws on a great many entries into the sci-fi canon but unfortunately this usually only serves to remind you of how many better films there are of a similar style that you could be watching. It is enjoyable and worth a look, but in many ways had the potential to be so much more than it is.