Monday, December 6, 2010


"Faster" is a pure thriller, all blood, no frills, in which a lot of people get shot, mostly in the head. Rotate the plot, change the period, spruce up the dialogue, and this could have been a hard-boiled 1940s noir. But it doesn't pause for fine touches and efficiently delivers action for an audience that likes one-course meals.
Dwayne Johnson stars in the kind of role he's possibly been avoiding up until now. Once known as The Rock, he has developed a kinder, gentler screen persona that more closely fits him in real life. It's a melancholy fact of Hollywood today that “Faster” could be a good career move, sending him on the trail blazed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Johnson has very broad shoulders and wicked tattoos, and a gun seems to grow from his hand.
As the film opens, he's being released from prison after a 10-year term. He walks out the gate into a desert wilderness and begins to run — run — to a nearby city, where a circa 1970 Chevelle is waiting for him in a junkyard. This is because modern cars all look boring, and most action heroes drive classics. He whips off the tarp and peels outta there. A private eye gives him a list of names, and he sets out to murder everyone on the list.

His character is named Driver. A clue to this, and the title, is that he invariably drives at the top possible speed, and obviously never took driver's ed in high school, because he doesn't know how to turn around and drive in the other direction except by slamming on the brakes, twisting the wheel and whipping through 180 degrees.

Driver is soon wanted for one, then two, then three murders. The cops know who he is. His photo is on the TV news. This all takes place in Bakersfield, Calif. What are the odds a tattooed killer with a shaved head could elude the Bakersfield police for long while piloting a classic Chevelle at 80 mph and laying rubber all over town? In “Faster,” excellent.

The cop on the case is Cicero (Carla Gugino). She finds herself saddled with a partner known as Cop (Billy Bob Thornton). He's two weeks from retirement. As we all know, anyone two weeks from retirement, be he cop, fireman, stunt man, prison guard or kindly old dad, will never make it. Cop is also mainlining heroin, for no better reason than to show him doing it. One fix lasts him for the rest of the film.

Cicero and Cop try to track down Driver, who seeks vengeance on those who squealed about a bank heist and killed his brother. These people have moved into other lines of work, most notably, Preacher (Buzz Belmondo), who runs revival tent meetings. We find out more about them. And we meet the fatuous Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a British addict of extreme sports, who is a professional hit man for fun. This is some guy. He informs his girlfriend Lily (Maggie Grace) that he has “beaten” yoga, having mastered the most difficult three positions, and is ready to move on.

As Driver tracks his victims, Killer tracks Driver and Cop and Cicero track them all, director George Tillman Jr. does a lean, efficient job of creating stark action scenes. Driver shows vestiges of a personality, reluctantly. Billy Bob creates a Cop who looks like it's been all downhill for him since “Bad Santa.” Gugino, a good actress, gamely pretends to be in a more nuanced movie. And the hits keep coming.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's “Black Swan” is a full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd. It centers on a performance by Natalie Portman that is nothing short of heroic, and mirrors the conflict of good and evil in Tchaikovsky's ballet “Swan Lake.” It is one thing to lose yourself in your art. Portman's ballerina loses her mind.
Everything about classical ballet lends itself to excess. The art form is one of grand gesture, of the illusion of triumph over reality and even the force of gravity. Yet it demands from its performers years of rigorous perfectionism, the kind of physical and mental training that takes ascendancy over normal life. This conflict between the ideal and the reality is consuming Nina Sayers, Portman's character.

Her life has been devoted to ballet. Was that entirely her choice? Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), was a dancer once, and now dedicates her life to her daughter's career. They share a small apartment that feels sometimes like a refuge, sometimes like a cell. They hug and chatter like sisters. Something feels wrong.

Nina dances in a company at New York's Lincoln Center, ruled by the autocratic Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). The reach of his ego is suggested by his current season, which will “reimage” the classics.

Having cast off his former prima ballerina and lover, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), he is now auditioning for a new lead. “Swan Lake” requires the lead to play opposite roles. Nina is clearly the best dancer for the White Swan. But Thomas finds her too “perfect” for the Black Swan. She dances with technique, not feeling.

The film seems to be unfolding along lines that can be anticipated: There's tension between Nina and Thomas, and then Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer, arrives from the West Coast. She is all Nina is not: bold, loose, confident. She fascinates Nina, not only as a rival but even as a role model. Lily is, among other things, a clearly sexual being, and we suspect Nina may never have been on a date, let alone slept with a man. For her, Lily presents a professional challenge and a personal rebuke.

Thomas, the beast, is well known for having affairs with his dancers. Played with intimidating arrogance by Cassel, he clearly has plans for the virginal Nina. This creates a crisis in her mind: How can she free herself from the technical perfection and sexual repression enforced by her mother, while remaining loyal to their incestuous psychological relationship?

No backstage ballet story can be seen without "The Red Shoes" (1948) coming into mind. If you've never seen it of course eventually you will. In the character of Thomas, Aronofsky and Cassel evoke Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the impresario in that film, whose autocratic manner masks a deep possessiveness. And in Nina, there is a version of Deborah Kerr's ingenue, so driven to please.

“Black Swan” will remind some viewers of Aronofsky's previous film, "The Wrestler." Both show singleminded professionalism in the pursuit of a career, leading to the destruction of personal lives. I was reminded also of Aronofsky's brilliant debut with "Pi" (1998), about a man driven mad by his quest for the universal mathematical language. For that matter, his "The Fountain" (2007) was about a man who seems to conquer time and space. Aronofsky's characters make no little plans.

The main story supports of “Black Swan” are traditional: backstage rivalry, artistic jealousy, a great work of art mirrored in the lives of those performing it. Aronofsky drifts eerily from those reliable guidelines into the mind of Nina. She begins to confuse boundaries. The film opens with a dream, and it becomes clear that her dream life is contiguous with her waking one. Aronofsky and Portman follow this fearlessly where it takes them.

Portman's performance is a revelation from this actress who was a 13-year-old charmer in "Beautiful Girls" (1996). She has never played a character this obsessed before, and never faced a greater physical challenge (she prepared by training for 10 months). Somehow she goes over the top and yet stays in character: Even at the extremes, you don't catch her acting. The other actors are like dance partners holding her aloft. Barbara Hershey provides a perfectly calibrated performance as a mother whose love is real, whose shortcomings are not signaled, whose own perfectionism has all been focused on the creation of her daughter.

The tragedy of Nina, and of many young performers and athletes, is that perfection in one area of life has led to sacrifices in many of the others. At a young age, everything becomes focused on pleasing someone (a parent, a coach, a partner), and somehow it gets wired in that the person can never be pleased. One becomes perfect in every area except for life itself.

It's traditional in many ballet-based dramas for a summing-up to take place in a bravura third act. “Black Swan” has a beauty. All of the themes of the music and life, all of the parallels of story and ballet, all of the confusion of reality and dream come together in a grand exhilaration of towering passion. There is really only one place this can take us, and it does. If I were you, I wouldn't spend too much time trying to figure out exactly what happens in practical terms. Lots of people had doubts about the end of "The Red Shoes," too. They were wrong, but they did.