Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscars: Inside Job (2010): Impeccable!

"Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong,"
- Charles Ferguson, Director, Inside Job

In 2007-2008, the fall in the housing market perpetrated an unprecedented Crisis that brought the world on the verge of complete and total meltdown. Trillions of dollars were lost and with it, millions of people unemployed. Countries like Iceland were bankrupted and U.S. debt doubled. Some countries witnessed serious political changes, upheavals even, while others saw economic and social crises. The Crisis left no one unaffected, except, as Inside Job argues, the people who perpetrated it; namely, corporate executives at investment banking firms like Goldman Sachs, Bear Sterns, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Chase and more.

Narrated by the politically active and sincere Matt Damon, Inside Job begins with the story of Iceland and its journey from a geologically rich, progressive and idyllic country having an “end of history” moment to a bankrupt nation with debts 10 times the size of its Gross Domestic Product. The film then shifts focus to New York and Washington where all the action ensued and tells a tale of uninhibited greed, lust, sex, drugs and corruption that makes Oliver Stone’s Wall Street films look like Disney movies. It is a chilling account of how the financial services industry has committed frauds with alarming regularity on an increasing scale. These include not only frauds on the market and investors but also violation of international norms by laundering money and providing funding to dubious projects. Each time, it has paid fines and promised to make amends before regressing into the same routine on an even larger scale precipitating into the 2008 Crisis. The film provides an insightful look into the unchecked corporate greed that formed its foundation and gives a sharp critique of the bonus culture in the financial industry and its consequences.

The strength of the film lies in its research. It is based on facts, documents, academic and journalistic writings, and the testimony of some of the brightest minds in law, politics, business and economics today. Further, it also provides testimonies from some of the people who were squarely in the middle of the action like Eliott Spitzer, Jerome Fons, Frederic Mishkin and others. These interviews, media clippings and various bits of evidence are carefully pieced together by director Charles Fergusson and the result is a powerful, engaging and sweeping narrative that, in just less than 110 minutes, provides a detailed and clear understanding of how and why the Crisis happened. As a person who has researched in this area in some detail, I was quite satisfied by the arguments forwarded and the opinions expressed by Fergusson. For a layman, this is a particularly enlightening film with the right mix of shock, humour and indignation.

It is easy to dismiss Inside Job as one sided. However, it is hard to deny that this is an intelligent, sharp and incisive look into the 2008 Crisis; its causes and consequences. This is a work of angry humanism that criticizes both, Republicans and Democrats for pandering to Wall Street raiders at a tremendous human cost. For a layman, this film is a brilliant place to start understanding what exactly happened and why and at the end of the day, it is hard to deny that these executives were irresponsible, and very possibly even complicit to consciously defrauding the public of trillions of dollars.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscars: True Grit (2010)

Welcome to Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of the wild West. There is no John Wayne here; nor is there a Clint Eastwood. Thankfully, no Will Smith or Kevin Kline either. There are no grand entrances or larger than life characters or smart lines. No, this is a reimagining offered by the Coens: grim and gritty; harsh and unflinching; a West where white men rule; blacks and Indians are mistreated as a matter of fact and determined little girls are given a good beating for being that way. However, despite its grimness, this is the most conventionally entertaining film by the Coen Brothers that we are likely to get.

True Grit is a story set in Arkansas about a young 14 year old girl Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) who recruits the foul, boozy but competent Federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to catch and bring to justice the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who killed her father and has fled into the Indian Territory. Also in pursuit of Tom Chaney is the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who intends to bring him to justice for the murder of a Senator in Texas. Together, they must work through the treacherous terrain to catch the merciless Chaney.

In terms of story, True Grit lacks novelty. Also, the pacing may be too languorous for many people. But the patient viewer will be rewarded. The strength of the film lies in the steady direction of the Coen Brothers and the performances of all the actors. The Coens  recreate the West with great emphasis on atmosphere and detail. The film is exquisitely shot and produced with a careful eye. The costumes and production design are fabulous in their authenticity and details. The script is remarkably somber, intense and maintains an air of tension and peril throughout. The Coen Brothers direct the film with a sure hand and provide an intelligent and powerful experience.

The film also benefits tremendously from some splendid performances. Jeff Bridges is brilliant as Rooster Cogburn. He is foul, arrogant and disgusting and yet, not for a minute, detestable. Matt Damon is competent as always. Some of the finest moments in the film are when Bridges and Damon’s characters engage in a battle of egos. However, the one standout performance in the enterprise comes from Hailee Steinfeld who is absolutely riveting as Mattie. She plays her part with remarkable ease, stealing the thunder from Bridges and Damon in several sequences. She is an absolute delight to watch as a girl who is an interesting mix of uncharacteristic intelligence, sense of duty, determination and sheer naïveté who must make her way in a man’s world that dismisses her outright on account of her age and gender.

Ultimately, although I am not a big fan of Westerns, True Grit is a good example of fine film making. It is arguably the most accessible of the Coen Brothers films and though unlike their previous works, benefits from their attention to atmosphere and detail. Anchored by some fantastic acting, particularly the performance of newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, the film proves to be an engaging, at times, intriguing tale of retribution and a mighty fine Western.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, February 19, 2011

7 Khoon Maaf (2011): A Surreal Masterpiece

Russian roulette is not the same without a gun,
And baby when its love, if it ain’t rough, it isn’t fun.
- Poker Face, Lady Gaga

7 Khoon Maaf is a love story, or rather, seven attempts at one. The seventh attempt could be regarded as a success depending on how you choose to see it. Critics have been decidedly divided on the film with several middling reviews. However, in my humble opinion, this is a deranged masterpiece; one of the boldest, most inventive and yet, inexplicably poignant film to come out in recent years in Hindi cinema; and a testament to the fact that Indian critics know little, if anything, about cinema. It is a powerful exploration of the masculine and the feminine; of attraction, love, romance and betrayal. It is dark, macabre, vivid and comical in a very unique way. Certainly not for the conservative or the faint hearted, this is genre bending, boundary pushing Bollywood at its finest. Quite honestly, it is a film experience that will not be forgotten easily.  

The story is of Susanne Anna Marie Johannes (Priyanka Chopra) and is told by Arun (Vivaan Shah) a boy who grew up with her; watching, idolizing, coveting, and ultimately, unconditionally loving her. It is about Susanne’s quest for love  and her appetite for murder as she marries 6 times: first with Edmond Rodrigues, the army man (Neil Nitin Mukesh), Jimmy, the rock star (John Abraham), Mohammed, the poet (Irrfan Khan), Nikolai, the Russian (Aleksandr Dyachenko), Keematlal, the cop (Anu Kapoor) and finally Madhusudhan Da, the doctor (Naseerudin Shah). Along the way, she is assisted by a butler, a housemaid (Usha Uthup) and a one eyed jockey. However, this is a story of Susanne’s seven husbands, right? For that, you have to see the film.

As a storyteller, Vishal Bhardwaj takes huge risks in his sixth outing. This is an ambitious film, even by his self-imposed standards and he delivers spectacularly at every step. He somehow manages to maintain a strength and consistency in the narrative despite the disparate elements and characters. The various parts come together remarkably as a whole. Vishal also successfully walks a very fine line between exercising restraint and going crazy. In terms of writing, the dialogues are alternately, hilarious and haunting in places. The characters are clearly defined irrespectively of the screen time they get. The use of expletives is natural , a first for Hindi cinema, and intimacy is depicted carefully, with due deference to aesthetics and emotions. Literary references are peppered throughout the script and range from Leo Tolstoy to Anatole France; from Ruskin Bond to Shakespeare. 

Vishal's exploration of the relationship between Arun and Susanne is arguably, the finest segment of the enterprise. He captures the conflicting maternal instinct and sexual tension with the required maturity, humour and complexity. Basically, this is strong storytelling at its finest and is Vishal’s best work since Maqbool. There are a few flaws in the film, particularly in the penultimate reels. There are some problems of pacing as well. However, these are minor flaws in an otherwise exquisite and flawless work of art. 
 
Technically, the film is superlative. The art work and costumes are excellent with a remarkable sense of time and place. The photography, particularly in the portions set in Kashmir, is breathtaking. The makeup is good and age transitions look natural. The music and background score fit perfectly with the content. Particularly worth mentioning is the sound recording and mixing which add extensively to the impact of several moments,  both, gorgeous and grotesque.

Priyanka Chopra shows an absolutely riveting return to form after several less than mediocre projects. She is wickedly tantalizing, an unstable vixen and yet, an object of sympathy and pity. She submits to the methods of Vishal and is transformed into a formidable actress. The other actor who deserves credit is Anu Kapoor who finally gets a role that allows him to showcase his talents. He is an absolute delight to watch and like Richard Jenkins in The Visitor and Ronit Roy in Udaan, may finally get the recognition due to him after years of hosting Antakshari on Zee TV. John Abraham is gives an uninhibited and fearless performance as Jimmy and Vivaan Shah makes a confident and memorable debut as Arun, apart from looking, in the words of Asma, "so, so cute". Usha Uthup is endearing in a small role. 

Ultimately, 7 Khoon Maaf plays like a Freudian dream; a fascinating exploration of Oeidpus and Electra. It is an exercise in surrealism, not meant to be seen from a cold, clinical viewpoint. Those looking for plausibility and a clear logic behind the murders, miss the point entirely. It is not a thriller but rather a deft blend of black comedy and grand tragedy. It is an eccentric masterpiece; a delightful little mindfuck; as bizarre and irrational as it is stirring and intelligent. It's not for everyone, but it definitely was for me. It’s early, but I think I may have just seen, what I think will be the best Hindi film of 2011.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oscars: The King's Speech (2010): Fantastic!

There is a scene early on in The King’s Speech, where Prince Albert (Colin Firth) meets another one of many speech therapists for his stammer, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) at his rather peculiar workplace. Seated on a sofa against the wall, as Lionel tries hard to strike a conversation with the clearly uncomfortable Prince Albert, the camera focuses on the Prince placed firmly on the bottom left part of the frame and pans out such that a large part of the frame is devoted to the wall behind him, beautifully amplifying the sense of sadness, the helplessness and being trapped that Prince Albert is feeling. Despite his rather broad frame and royal stature, he looks dwarfed and defeated by a mix of circumstance, legacy and personal impediments.

Despite an already remarkable career, Colin Firth gives the performance of a lifetime as Bertie or, as the world knows him, King George VI. He plays a man who is not simply unsure or insecure; but broken. He has accumulated, without expressing, so many emotions over the years and carried them like deadweight that they now are holding him back from realising his greatness. He lost his voice to the loneliness of royal life and a friendless existence. Several failed attempts to find it again have added to this a deep seated cynicism tied in with an iron-cast ego specially bred into him through his royal upbringing. He is a promising king, a loving father and husband and a painfully difficult student. Colin Firth skilfully manoeuvres through these various layers and immerses himself into the role achieving what few actors can: transcendence. Watch closely, for you probably will be seeing the best performance of this year.

The King’s Speech is a predictable drama. But I’ll be damned if I have seen a more rousing and powerful one in recent years. The difference lies is in its direction and performances. Geoffrey Rush is perfectly cast as Lionel Logue and it is an absolute delight to watch two stalwart actors engage with each other in a battle of wits; first, as king and commoner and later, as friends. At every step of the way, he walks the line and dances the dance with Colin Firth. Helena Bonham Carter is wonderfully restrained and in parts, quirky, as the devoted and loving wife of Prince Albert.

The director, Tom Hopper, masterfully explores the duality of a royal existence, and how each part affects the other. On one hand, Prince Albert has his royal duties which he must perform and live the stuffy life of royalty. He doesn’t resent it. In fact, he regards it with reverence and an affection his brother David (Guy Pearce) would never understand. However, he is also mortified by the public appearances, the speeches and a king’s need to ingratiate himself to his peoples. On the other hand is his personal life. As a loving parent and spouse, he has the unflinching support of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). He also has to suffer the absolute agony of not being able to convey his love to his own children. His speech impediment dramatically impacts how he sees himself in the monarchy. The exploration of English monarchy here is more intimate, personal and human than in Stephen Frears’ The Queen. He also uses the camera beautifully in several places to amplify emotions; the overpowering burden of history, legacy and the duty of living up to the hopes and expectations of a government and a people placed on Bertie’s shoulders.

As a script, the reliance on wit, situation and sarcasm for humour is a fine reminder of how much the Americans could learn from the British. Not once is Bertie’s speech impediment used for humorous relief. The writers and the director treat with the seriousness and dignity that it deserves. The writers also do well in placing the film firmly in its historical context without creating stereotypical villains or antagonists for the sake of drama. The only villain, if any, is Hitler sitting in Germany thousands of miles away. The writing has an earnestness that is all but lost in cinema. The climactic speech is glorious in its sincerity and simplicity.

Ultimately, The King’s Speech is a splendid example of fine film making. It is certainly the best acted film of the year (with the caveat that I still have to see True Grit and The Fighter) and one of the best directed. But as far as the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay goes, my vote is still firmly with The Social Network and Inception, both of which were more difficult, ambitious and interesting stories to write and direct on screen. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic period drama, one which will inspire and overwhelm you.

Rating: 4/5

Burlesque (2010): Bad Camp

Burlesque is a PG-13 movie about a burlesque club. That probably should have the first warning sign. It was designed as a debut vehicle for the diva that is Christina Aguilera. That brought back memories of Mariah Carey's Glitter which should’ve been the other warning sign. Nevertheless, the cast (which includes Stanley Tucci, Cher, Eric Dane, Alan Cumming and Kristin Bell) and the colourful and slick production work did give some hope. Alas, it was for little, if not nothing. Burlesque is light years away from being as good as a Cabaret or Chicago and just a few miles short from being regarded as so-bad-its-good. It sits uncomfortably somewhere in between.

Burlesque is the story of Iowan cowgirl Alice a.k.a. Ali (Christina Aguillera) who leaves the small town gig for the dazzling tinsel town setting of Los Angeles. With starry eyed hopes of being a singer, she looks in vain for gigs around town till she stumbles upon a club named “Burlesque” run by the vivacious and passionate Tess (Cher). As she grows from a waitress to a performer, there is the usual dose of jealousy, sabotage, romance with even a we’re-losing-the-club subplot thrown in with several attagirl Ali moments throughout.

There are two important rules of any cabaret musical and Burlesque breaks both of them. First, the music must be foot-tapping and memorable. Despite the fact that Aguilera’s mutant lungs are put to good use, the tunes are largely mediocre and instantly forgettable. Apart from the title track and “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me”, the remaining songs are mostly indistinguishable from each other. Secondly, a burlesque/cabaret act (even in a PG-13 movie) must be tantalising, bold and an absolute tease. Think of the Cell Block Tango in Chicago and you will know what I mean. However, the acts in Burlesque are mundane, boring even where the only attempt to push the PG-13 rating is in the costumes, which are as minimalist as they come. Although the staging of the individual numbers is pretty impressive, they are again similar to each other and lost their appeal fairly quickly. There is little sizzle and even lesser life in the acts themselves. Worse still, the script is banal, devoid of wit and riddled with cringe-inducing dialogues which don't help things at all.

The only saving grace of the film is the camaraderie between Tess and Ali on the one hand and Tess and Sean on the other. In their respective roles, both Cher and Christina Aguilera are better than expected and share a great rapport and comfort level. Stanley Tucci, as usual, is so effortlessly endearing that his moments with Cher soar. Kristin Bell’s bitch act is routine and Cam Gigandet’s bartender sum aspiring musician role is just painful to watch. Eric Dane's ruthless builder act, though charming, is overtly familiar and hence, exceedingly dull.

Burlesque has the heart of a campy, silly B-grade chick flick but the look and ambitions of an A-list Hollywood film. Ultimately, it fails rather spectacularly at both and is certainly not worth the money or the time.

Rating: 1.5/5

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Patiala House (2011): Good Old-Fashioned Entertainment

How much ever new age and path-breaking Bollywood gets, one cannot deny that the family drama has a special place there. Before the ghisa pita garbage we now endure on television, there was cinema with its interesting exploration of the ideas of family, responsibility and relationships. Since the 50s, there have been several film makers who have explored families, their problems and depicted them on the screen with varying degrees of success. From Shakti Samanta to Yash Chopra, from Sooraj Barjatiya to Vikramaditya Motwane; each storyteller has brought his own style to the genre. Further, despite the advent of technology and Western influences, there are several Indians who even today, relate strongly to the idea of family and the values associated with it. Celebrating these values, with the backdrop of migration, patriotism and cricket is Patiala House



Patiala House is the story of Gattu (Akshay Kumar) who is prohibited from playing cricket for the English cricket team by his father, Gurtej (Rishi Kapoor), who has nothing but hatred for the white folk after bitter experiences with combating racism in the UK. Together with their large family, they live in Patiala House in Southall, London, where the people lead claustrophobic lives under the restrictive regime of Gurtej and resent Gattu for engendering this kind of control. However, an opening in the English cricket team and the entry of a free-spirited and encouraging girl, Simran (Anushka Sharma), revives dormant hopes, aspirations and gives courage to Gattu and the rest of Patiala House to assert themselves and live their dreams.

Patiala House explores several themes like culture and patriotism in a modern world and cricket. However, its central theme remains the conflict between collective family values and individual aspirations, quite well encapsulated in the struggle of Gattu. The film remains steadfastly faithful to the theme throughout and never strays away from it for too long. The writing is fresh, for the most part; the characters are endearing and the humour is situational. Nikhil Advani shows remarkable improvement, both as a writer and as a storyteller, over the painful Salaam-e-Ishq and the downright disastrous Chandni Chowk to China.

What is most striking about the film, however, is its ability to adapt these age old themes in a modern setting. Its take on patriotism and what it means to be Indian is quite refreshing and is a marked departure from the earlier depictions of patriotism in Hindi cinema. It shows remarkable restraint and intelligence in this area and consciously refrains from any jingoistic sentiment. In doing so, it is almost revolutionary of sorts. Even its take on family values is old-fashioned but with a strong progressive sentiment that is likely to strike a chord with many audience members. The music is fresh with a very earthy Punjabi feel and the production work is remarkable in its authenticity; whether it is in depicting middle class/upper middle class London or cricket, which also benefits from the appearance of a number of real life cricketers like Nasir Hussain, Symonds, David Gower and several others.

However, there are flaws in the film. There are parts where the writing is weak, particularly in the second half and dilutes the impact of the film. There are moments that lack in impact and others which are guilty of overkill. The film doesn't soar to dizzying heights or has you jumping on your feet like a Bend It Like Beckham or a Chak De India. Nikhil Advani still faces problems of pacing and the film exceeds its ideal runtime by at least 15-20 minutes. Also, the placement of Laung Da Lashkara could have been done much better. 

In terms of performances, Patiala House belongs to two people. Akshay Kumar gives one of the best performances of his career as Gattu. He underplays the character to perfection, internalizing his anguish and showing his pain only through silent tears. It's early in the year, but this is certainly likely to be counted as one of the finest performances of 2011 and a remarkable return to form for the failing actor. The other person who makes this enterprise worth every cent is Rishi Kapoor who strikes the perfect note as the difficult and often obnoxious father. He is fiery without going over the top and brings dignity and poise to the role. Anushka Sharma lights up the screen effortlessly and Dimple Kapadia, even with a few words, is grace personified. In the supporting acts, Hard Kaur in a de-glamourized avatar and Jeneva Talwar as Gattu's expecting sister-in-law are a treat to watch.

I personally really liked Patiala House. It made me laugh, cry and firmly root for Gattu. But I know I was, and am likely to remain, in a minority in this regard, especially among the youth. It's no Kal Ho Na Ho, although it could have been. But I enjoyed it for what I was, rather than lament what it wasn't. It is a fresh and progressive; earnest and optimistic look at old-fashioned family values with a strong emotional core and valiant performances from Akshay Kumar and Rishi Kapoor. For that, it definitely deserves a viewing with the entire family. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sanctum (2011): Fierce Nature, Feeble Humans

I am not a big fan of 3D. I think it rarely adds any value to a movie going experience and in most cases, takes away from it as the colours get dim and the movies look less than spectacular. Further, it is easy to label a small film starring little known actors as a Steven Spielberg or James Cameron “Production” to fetch a respectable opening. However, no such film to my knowledge has ever managed to provide the same kind of quality entertainment that is usually associated with these names. Therefore, I had more than a few reservations about Sanctum walking into the cinema hall. Thankfully, however, the film manages to be surprisingly entertaining, in 3D even, if one can get past the human stick figures and their mundane, even laughable, communication.

Sanctum is about a bunch of divers who are exploring an underwater cave system in Papua New Guinea, one of the last (and largest) remaining unexplored in the world. We meet the tough lead diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh), his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), the smarmy financier and adventurer Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), his mountaineering fiancé Victoria (Alice Parkinson) and their band of merry men. An unexpectedly early storm starts flooding the cave thereby cutting off their exit route, forcing them to do deeper and deeper into the cave to find an alternate exit.

The first thing that strikes you about the film is the photography. To put it simply, it is breathtaking. The production quality is high and the underwater sequences are exquisitely shot. The quality of the 3D is surprisingly good, though not perfect, given the dark and grim colour palette of the film. There are a few times when one is clueless as to what is going on as the actors are too busy trying to burst out of the screen than be clear about their movements. However, thankfully, these moments are outnumbered by several others where one is awestruck by the visual beauty of the film. Another factor that deserves special mention is the original score by David Hirschfelder (a popular Australian composer with several major films to his credit) which is tense, exotic, adventurous and melancholic in equal measure.

The story and screenplay, by themselves, are fairly weak. The friction between Frank and Josh is routine. Carl is smug and charming, but once again, nothing that we’ve not seen in several films before. The stock characters are on a strictly need to use basis. The dialogues are laughably bad at places, so much so, that you are left wondering whether the screenwriters confused “men in cave” with “cavemen” and chose to accordingly write their dialogues in Troll instead. In terms of performance, the actors don’t even try to act particularly well although Rhys Wakefield (The Black Balloon) shows some promise and would be interesting to see in the hands of a tougher director.

However, what it lacks in human drama, Sanctum largely makes up for in action pieces and thrills. Director Alister Grierson captures the grimness and claustrophobia of the caves perfectly and almost consistently delivers white-knuckle, intense moments that keep the viewer involved throughout.Moreover, he does so without resorting to cheap thrills like throwing in mean fish, excessive gore, nudity or other plot devices for tension. One can see the influence of Cameron and references to his own films in a few sequences. However, this is certainly more out of reverence than imitation. He seems most comfortable when he is busy showcasing the beautiful and terrible sides of nature’s fury and weakest when he is asking us to invest in the human characters.

Overall, Santum is not recommended to people with severe claustrophobia or aquaphobia; people who get off on intellectual gobbledygook alone or those that are put off by intense/action films. For the rest of you out there, Sanctum is an entertaining, thrilling, though largely generic, entry into the man versus nature genre. If you can look past the feeble humans and just enjoy the fierceness of nature, this is well worth the price of admission.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, February 4, 2011

Oscars: Black Swan (2010)

Few directors in Hollywood can rightfully claim to be ambitious (Kubrick, Nolan, Fincher, Tarantino and Spielberg to name some). Even fewer can boast of a more diverse and varied filmography as Darren Aronofsky. In five films, he has experimented wildly with themes and techniques. He is one of the few directors who employs visuals rather than dialogue to convey his ideas and themes. Thematically, he explored loneliness and emptiness in the context of drug addiction (Requiem for a Dream), birth, death and existentialism (The Fountain) and ageing, poverty and the desperate comfort of company (The Wrestler). Technically, he provided us with some of the most memorable and varied visuals of the last decade in two of the above films while in his last effort, he stripped it down to its bare essentials focussing instead, on the actors and their performances instead. His films always a feast for the eyes and the mind; though ultimately flawed. His latest work, Black Swan, however, is near perfect exquisite work of art. It is his finest, most provocative and intense work till date and may just be his masterpiece.

Lose Yourself. Get in touch with your wild side. These ideas get a frightful form in Black Swan. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina for a ballet company run by Thomas (Vincent Cassel). She is hardworking, sweet and innocent and lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershley), a former ballerina who gave up her career to raise Nina. The Company is preparing for its production of “Swan Lake”, a ballet about an innocent virginal Odette, the Swan Queen who can only become human on discovering true love. But when she does find her prince, he is seduced by her evil twin Odile, the Black Swan and only in death does Odette find freedom. Nina lands the lead role of Odette/Odile replacing the former star (Winona Ryder). But while she is perfect as Odette, she is under a lot of pressure to bring out her dark, lusting side as Odile on stage. The quest for perfection, the pressure from her mother and the director and the arrival of competition (Mila Kunis) triggers dormant, dark emotions inside Nina that test her sanity and threaten to destroy her.

In terms of technique, the film is a very interesting mix of Requiem… and The Wrestler. Aronofsky provides a visceral film about a tragic central character while employing dazzling, dizzying and unforgettable visuals. The depiction of Nina, as she gradually loses control, is simultaneously intimate, awe-inspiring and terrifying. Thankfully, Aronofsky exercises remarkable restraint throughout and protects the film from being hammy or over the top, which it could so easily have been. The contrasts, between Odette and Odile, the restrained and the wild, the ugly and the beautiful, are beautifully symbolised in the costumes and the production design throughout the film. The editing is stunning and the abrupt scene transitions serve the narrative perfectly. The blurring of lines between the real, the hallucination and the dream is deftly achieved without disrupting the smooth narrative. Every scene, including the conclusion, is open to interpretation and intellectual heavy lifting has rarely been a more rewarding experience. The music of Clint Mansell adds to the atmosphere extremely well. Basically, the meaning and brilliance of this film is in its details.

Coming to the performances, Natalie Portman is a frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar this year, and for good reason. She plays Aronofsky’s game of toeing the line between flamboyance and restraint effortlessly capturing Nina’s conflicted emotions with remarkable finesse. Her portrayal of Nina, as she, like the proverbial Swan Queen, desperately battles her darker self, is a formidable mix of innocence, beauty, self-loathing and dementia. Her performance is as nuanced as it is bold and uninhibited, in a way few mainstream actors would ever dare. This is the performance of a lifetime and must be seen to be believed.

Mila Kunis is great as Nina’s nemesis who sets the screen aflame with her reckless, boundless sensuality which Nina so sorely lacks. Vincent Cassel is marvelous as the charming, seductive and manipulative director. But in the supporting acts, its Barbara Hershley you remember the most who is creepy and terrifying as the overbearing, difficult mother who wants nothing more than seeing her child on top, no matter what the consequences.

Ultimately, for all its theatricality and mesmerising visuals, the true horror of Black Swan lies in its themes, which are immediately identifiable and relatable; several people deal with overbearing controlling parents, the burning desire to win, to be on top, to be perfect, to lose control and be a little irresponsible. Nina is simply a larger than life embodiment of these ideas and emotions. And what a terrible beauty she is!

Rating: 4/5.