Reflections on Black Swan (2010)


Image courtesy of FilmGrab.

As with any great work that appears to be wholly original, Black Swan actually hides its influences plain sight. This film owes a lot to Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (Darren Aronofsky had even lifted a scene from that film shot for shot to remake in Requiem for a Dream, with Kon’s permission), and the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus).

The first time I saw this movie I drowned. I was lost in it, seeing too much of myself in it, caught up in the breathlessness of the colors, all soft pink and white and blue, mixed with the stark lighting of the stage, muted through the camera lens. Caught up in the expressions on Natalie Portman’s face as she gets the role and she falls apart. Caught up in Tchaikovsky.

The camera stays so close to the back of Nina’s head, following her as she walks down streets, into the company, and around the stage. The audio mix focuses on the dancers’ breathing, and the footsteps are kept audible until the very last scene, when they are drowned out in Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music, but Nina’s breath is still audible.

The film is not subtle. It is melodrama and Hitchcock and fairytale and horror and maybe a little ridiculous. But that adds to the experience. What is the point of art if it cannot push and make things bigger, more beautiful and more frightening than they really are?

The second time I saw this, I got chills through almost the entire last act. The bodies in the movie are so visceral even as they are fantasy, the sounds and visuals so planted in the real world (the thud of a pointe shoe on a hardwood floor) that the otherworldly (the stretch of skin as it goosepimples and metamorphosizes) becomes real as well. The audience’s mind is tricked and consumes everything as part of their world, too, and the music of Swan Lake becomes the soundtrack to Black Swan as well. Tchaikovsky’s compositions underplay a scene and add new meaning to it that the composer might have hinted at but never directly intended.

Reflections on Black Swan (2010)

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) – Making a Movie So Good it Kills

(Note: Video contains graphic content.)

Indie auteur Sion Sono’s sprawling career and equally sprawling films receive critical acclaim but can be polarizing. 2013’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (released in the US in 2014) has the most critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes of all his movies, suggesting that perhaps this is, as of January 2017, his most widely released picture on the English-language film circuit. So what is it? Judging by the title and Sono’s reputation, is it a controversially gory, emotionally harrowing epic of an indie flick?

Well, not the second part, anyway.


Photo courtesy of The Japan Times.

This particular feature is stuffed with so many characters and boasts such an unbelievable plotline (the head of a yakuza gang, as a gift to his wife who will soon be released from jail, wants to make a movie starring their daughter) that at the surface it seems impossible for this to be charming, funny, and fun – which it is.

This is due in large part to a nearly note-perfect cast, including Tomochika as the mother (who is exceptionally, subtly funny as the tough wife whose one wish is seeing her daughter on the big – or small – screen), Jun Kunimura as her husband and instigator of the movie (bringing a degree of gravitas with a wink), Hiroki Hasegawa as the enthusiastic movie producer (whose impish smile and maniacal laugh are only matched by an amount of charisma that makes it completely believable when he rallies a room full of yakuza to pose for a shot), and of course a cameo from a comedian or two (I yelled at the sight of Itsuji Itao).


Photo courtesy of

I preemptively feared this film would be style over substance, but I was quickly proven wrong. The enthusiasm of the characters, matched with the obvious enthusiasm of a director for a script he had written 15 years prior, infected me.

Perhaps most beautifully executed is the scene where Muto, the yakuza boss, describes how he’d like the film’s one and only scene – a real-life fight – to play out, but this is not conveyed through voice over. Instead, it is presented in an exquisitely choreographed sequence that shows, dreamlike, what would happen if the rooms of a castle came apart to reveal a film crew on all sides, surging through the final battle like a swarm of hornets.

Sometimes the film feels too loose. Shots run a little longer than necessary and the dialogue can get repetitive. But this lingering look at the characters places the audience so completely within the world that the length of scenes can immediately be forgiven. The viewers spend so much time with the characters’ relentless zeal that it begins to become something to be cherished, and Sono’s delight in absurdities is infectious (Muto asks a guy plucked off the street what millimeter to shoot on. He answers “about this big” and holds up a thumb and forefinger, which is dutifully mimicked by Muto to show other members of the crew).


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The violence in the last act is bloodier than the bloodiest imaginable, but after all the setup that leads up to this moment, it feels inevitable. Even if the visuals are gratuitous, the concept isn’t; it makes sense for the story. And if the flying body parts are gratuitous, it is ridiculous in a way that exactly matches the overall tone.

The final shot, extended long past when the credits might be expected to roll, seemed overblown until I realized: Oh, this is about movies. It’s about making the most ridiculous, over-the-top film you could possibly conceive, and loving the idea so much that you would die for it.

It’s impossible not to get caught up in that level of enthusiasm.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) – Making a Movie So Good it Kills

Arrival (2016): Emotional Intimacy Within Sci-Fi


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I have been trying to write about Arrival but I keep failing.

It’s an intense slow burn. At first, I didn’t quite like it. I didn’t feel like I got it. I categorized it in the genre of cold, distant science fiction that has been popularized lately (all of which I have enjoyed: Midnight Special, Interstellar, even The Martian) and left it at that, chalking the critical acclaim up to the steely touch of a logical narrative, a new approach to mature storytelling.

But then the humans met the aliens, and I realized I was wrong.

This is not a distant film, holding humanity away from the viewer. It is one of the most human I have seen.


Image from Esquire.

When Amy Adams’ character removes her protective suit to stand, blinded by inorganic light, in front of the aliens, an actor has never appeared more human.

In addition, although the film looks epic, this global scale does not come at the cost of intimacy.

Comparisons to 2001 and Close Encounters are relevant and apt. But instead of a broad portrayal of the universe, the film opens and closes with the most personal of moments. The audience is gifted not with an image of an entire Earth, but with a single character, her experience, and her life as it stands outside of the event covered in the two hours of Arrival.

What makes us human?

Is it our planet, our language?

This film would posit that the answer is something simpler.

What makes us human is our pain, and our desire to live despite it.

Arrival (2016): Emotional Intimacy Within Sci-Fi

Review: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

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The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a 1944 screwball comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, of The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels fame. It was nominated for best original screenplay, and it is one of the worst movies I have ever watched.

The plot of the movie is this: a single father living with his two teenage daughters fears that his older child, Trudy, will marry one of the soldiers going off to war. This “marriage boom” has been all over the newspapers, and he forbids Trudy from going to an army dance. She tricks a childhood friend into driving her there anyway, and promptly hits her head dancing. However, during her blackout state, she marries one of the soldiers. The next day she finds out she is pregnant and can’t remember her supposed husband’s name.

This is a movie that, when not attempting to rely on broad slapstick comedy and playing the male protagonist’s stutter as if it’s funny, offers for laughs a scene in which Trudy proposes a double suicide to her childhood friend. The scene is supposed to elicit chuckles from the audience, but only succeeds in being extremely uncomfortable.

In addition, the blatant sexism from some of the characters isn’t charmingly 1944, it’s offensive and disturbing. Some choice dialogue includes the response from Trudy’s doctor after she tells him she can’t remember her name of her husband:

“The responsibility for recording a marriage has always been up to woman. If it wasn’t for her, marriage would have disappeared long since. No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he’s forced to. It’s up to the woman to knock him down, hogtie him, and drag him in front of two witnesses immediately if not sooner.”

Wow, that’s really progressive. That’s really funny. That’s worthy of an Oscar nomination, right there.

In case you thought that misogyny was satire, according to Turner Classic Movies, Preston Sturges said in his autobiography that in making this film he wanted to “show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents’ advice and who confuse patriotism with promiscuity.” And don’t get me started on the ridiculous finale (although I did laugh at the bewildering cameos of people portraying political enemies of the time).

It’s a shame that the ultra-talented Betty Hutton was given the thankless task of this role (without even the charm of her trademark song-and-dance numbers). Another highlight is the smartly snarky Diana Lynn as Trudy’s younger sister. However, you can see them in other movies.

In many ways, this is a “you have to see it to believe it” film. Very of its time, the finale reaches for such unbelievable heights and strange gags that I simply laughed with incredulity. I’m glad that I saw it, so that I can know never to watch it again.

Review: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood (2008) – The Spirit, the Water, and the Blood

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Paul Thomas Anderson holds the story wrapped in his hands, uncovering the pain and confusion of a family and showing it to us like a reflective opal. “Make of it what you will,” he says. The scenes are presented slowly, unfolding with little music: no emotive commentary on how we should feel, or what we should know about the characters. It’s all just happening. What can you, the viewer, do but take it all in?

The film culminates in a balance between drama and humor that is reminiscent of certain scenes in The Shining. Perhaps the comparison to Stanley Kubrick is apt: every symmetrical shot feels expertly lit and lovingly crafted, a small attempt at perfection.

Of course Daniel Day-Lewis holds the movie down with confident voice and charismatic presence without ever revealing the character’s real intentions, beyond what he shows in a few troubled, lingering shots of his face, all unflinching eye contact and a hateful, stubborn smile.

Paul Dano balances between soft-spoken assuredness and shrieking, animalistic chaos, while holding a gravity of emotion and truth that makes his character mesmerizing to watch and of such importance it is difficult to explain.

Perhaps that is what the whole film is, or any Paul Thomas Anderson movie might be: a presentation of people, as they are, simply stated but extraordinarily difficult to pin down or succinctly describe. There is pain and sarcasm and beautiful imagery, deceit and lies and power, oil and family and God. Make of it what you will.

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood (2008) – The Spirit, the Water, and the Blood