Oscar Movie Review – Black Swan

by brandt

Malcolm Gladwell, the awesome author of such books as Tipping Point, Blink, regular columnist for The New Yorker, and author of the bestseller “Outliers: The Story of Success,” theorized that many of the “elite” people have a combination of a few things: Work ethic, luck, a strong support base, heck, even being born in the right year. But he draws on the research of Anders Ericsson, and postulates that many of the elites have put in 10,000 hours into honing their craft. According to Gladwell:

What’s really interesting about this 10,000-hour rule is that it applies virtually everywhere… You can’t become a chess grand master unless you spend 10,000 hours on practice.

The tennis prodigy who starts playing at six is playing in Wimbledon at 16 or 17 [like] Boris Becker. The classical musician who starts playing the violin at four is debuting at Carnegie Hall at 15 or so.

The obsessive approach is particularly evident in sporting icons. Jonny Wilkinson, the rugby player, Tiger Woods, the golfer, and the Williams sisters in tennis have all trained relentlessly since they were children.


(I’ll get to the movie review, just let me finish setting things up).

While I don’t have the 10,000 hour rule mastered, I do have some sort of idea what he’s talking about. When I was in high school, I found my “niche.” I found the thing that not only defined me, but that I excelled at. After my first year of competitive swimming (which included early morning practices every morning from 5:30 – 7:00 AM, and afternoon practices from 2:30-5:30 at night), I was painfully average. I had an opportunity to continue training that summer based on a few strings of luck (landing a job at the high school pool, taking drivers training at the same high school, and swimming during the in-between times), a decent work ethic (I was in the pool that entire summer), a great support base (my father would take me to practice every morning so I could be there by 6AM), and good genes (I’ve always been very tall, and having gangly long arms was a huge benefit in swimming). Based on my schedule that summer, I was around a pool and coaches for almost the entire day, and I was training about 6 hours per day. I would say I logged about 450 hours swimming in practices and clinics that summer. Then, in the fall, I volunteered as a “manager” for the girls swimming team, so I could continue training and basically swim in their practices. I didn’t swim in the morning practices, but I did swim in the afternoons, which put me at another 225 hours of swimming logged. By the time I showed up for my sophomore season, and swam in my first meet, I was almost immediately within the top contenders of the state for my individual events.

To me, swimming as much as I was didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. To quote Cameron from the ABC show “Modern Family,”

If I wasn’t in school or fishing, I was clowning swimming

When I was dating Ashley and trying to “sell” myself as “different” from all the other guys out there, I brought up my former life as a swimmer. I was surprised as she viewed the amount of time I spent swimming competitively as almost unhealthy. To her, athletics was a lower priority than other things (most notably, schoolwork and doing well in school). Perspectives can be the most interesting thing, can’t they?

I heard a quote once that said “There is a fine line between passion and obsession.” If you ever chance to watch “Black Swan,” keep that quote in mind.

The premise is quite simple – Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) dances ballet for one of the biggest ballet groups in New York City, and the director has decided to put on a production of “Swan Lake.” The catch is that the main focal point in the ballet must be able to portray both the White Swan, in her innocence, naivety, and grace and the Black Swan, in her seductiveness, guile, and uninhibited actions.

I can hear you now. “Brandt, you’re telling me that you, the epitome of manliness and testosterone, sat through a 108 minute movie about ballet and dancing?”

Yes, I did. Because remember what I said previously about perceptions? They’re quite interesting….

And that’s what we begin to see with Nina. Her passion to play the White Swan, the biggest role of her life and her one goal in life, very quickly descends into a whirlwind of obsession and delusion. Her mother, a former washed-up ballerina, focuses all her time and effort on Nina, vicariously living her previous ballet life through Nina, and to say the relationship is “unhealthy” is an understatement.

Enter Mila Kunis…yes, THAT Mila Kunis who was the ditzy girl on “That 70’s Show,” as Lily, Nina’s main rival. Lily embodies everything that Nina is not – seductive in her dancing and her actions, uninhibited in her disregard for rules and social protocol, and embodies everything that Nina is not. Bold, loose and confident, Lily begins to curry favor with the director, Thomas Leroy, especially through the way she is able to encapsulate everything that he wants from Nina in the role of the Black Swan.

As far as a movie synopsis, that’s all I can tell you. Roger Ebert described the rest of the movie best when he said ” It is one thing to lose yourself in your art. Portman’s ballerina loses her mind.” But that’s where perspective becomes an interesting thing. Is Nina being overtaken by some strange otherworldy force? Is she slowly descending into madness? Is Lily real, or a perceived threat by Nina? All these questions rush through your mind as Darren Aronofsky takes you on a whirlwind tour de force from normalcy into insanity, where you think you have the movie figured out by the four minute mark and realize by the 108 minute mark you have no clue what’s going on.

But here’s the thing to remember about Aronofky, who’s other movies (“The Wrestler,” a personal all-time favorite of mine, “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “The Fountain”) have followed a similar pattern. To enjoy Aronofksy, remember these three items:

First, don’t expect resolution. Don’t expect to come out of his movies with your brain fully comprehending everything that happened. He doesn’t give you a beginning to the current story, and he doesn’t give you an end. He throws you in the middle of it, and expects that you keep up with him, and then pulls you out, just when the questions start to rattle in your ears.

Second, he’s a master with themes and cinematography. When you watch “Black Swan,” appreciate the colors, the white-on-black, the use of mirrors (which reflection is reality?), and the angles at which he shoots the movie (take into consideration how much the small apartment feels like a labyrinth). Pay attention to the music (which is wonderfully edited to the movie), pay attention to the “acts” of the movie, and pay attention to the themes.

Third, expect to be frustrated. Who knows what happens at the end. The point isn’t the ending, but the journey of the movie. Revel in Natalie Portman’s great portrayal as someone coming of age, someone embracing their dark side, and someone who tip-toes along the thin line of passion and obsession. Don’t expect to feel comfortable, because it’s an uncomfortable movie. For all the grace that is ballet, there is a dark underbelly. At what point would you personally go to achieve your dream? And is someone right (or inherently wrong) for going a step further than you would? Again, perception is an interesting thing, isn’t it?

For me, the mark of a great movie is a mixture of things. Partly, it’s the feeling I get after a movie. I like movies where I can turn my brain off, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve noticed the best movies that I’ve seen (and it is probably in the 1,000’s) leave me chewing on it later. I don’t write movie reviews until the day after because I want to sleep on it, to see if my perception changed at all or if I still have the same feeling on the movie. “Black Swan” doesn’t make you happy at the end of it, it doesn’t clear up the lose ends, and it doesn’t give you that warm happy feeling like after seeing a Pixar movie. But it will make you think, it will make you discuss, and it will force you to see it again, if anything to pick up on clues to hopefully figure the movie out.

Rated: R, for strong sexual content (there’s a decent amount), disturbing violent images (very cringe-worthy), language (pretty strong) and some drug use. I do not recommend this movie for anyone under the age of 18 years old. The MPAA got it right with this one.

Critics Ratings:
IMDB – 8.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes – 88%/100
Metacritics – 79/100
Brandt’s Score – 90/100

Academy Awards Nominations
Best Actress – Natalie Portman
Best Cinematography – Matthew Libatique
Best Director – Darren Aronofsky
Best Film Editing – Andrew Weisblum
Best Picture – Black Swan

Images via IMDB, Filmjunk.com, and Gladwell.com

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4 Comments to “Oscar Movie Review – Black Swan”

  1. I dont often go to the movies. Hear me out! I LOVE going to the movies, but the hubs and i blew mucho cash monies on binge movie watching back in the day and totally regretted half of said movies. No bueno. So now, unless we both are super duper driven to see something, we dont go to the movies (just wait patiently for nextflix and a few bootleg websites like surf the channel!)

    I saw black swan. The week it came out. In the theater.

    No regrets =)

    Now get your tush in gear for WIAW #2. peer pressure is the best =)

  2. I think if I were to ever start any type of blog style expressive writing, It would be about cities and the experiences I had finding the beauty within exploring it. Clearly, amazingly directed movies are one of your passions and something I think most would enjoy reading your point of view about. It is evident that you are talented at conveying your thought process and observations (which were actually pretty similar to mine).
    Unfortunately, most aren’t able to convey how they felt about it (the next day even), but you captured it quite well and helped me remember what I like so much about Aronofky films.

    Thanks! You’re talented- is this just a fun outlet for you? Something you have been doing for awhile?

    • Wow Bonnie, that was so nice! Thank you!

      Aronofsky films are something that you either like or don’t like. It’s like what Bill Murray says in “What About Bob,” “There are two types of people in the world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.” Aronofsky doesn’t leave a lot of middle room for enjoying his films. I loved Black Swan. Ashley didn’t.

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