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"Swan" glides to the dark side

Published December 22. 2010 05:00PM

Fans of ballet might be disappointed with "Black Swan," which uses a New York City production of "Swan Lake" as backdrop for a twisted, lurid and controversial psychological thriller.

Instead of the "it was only a dream" plot device, director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler," "Requiem for a Dream," "Pi"), working from a screenplay by Mark Heyman ("The Wrestler"), John J. McLaughlin ("Man of the House," 2005) and first-time feature screenwriter Andres Heinz, based on his story, "The Understudy," concentrates on the "what is or is not reality" for Nina (Natalie Portman), the protagonist in "Black Swan."

Nina is competing with Lily (Mila Kunis) for the lead White Swan-Black Swan role in the classic ballet, Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." The conflict between the two dancers leads to an entanglement or does it?

This is second-rate Brian De Palma ("Obsession," "Carrie") in other words, third-rate Alfred Hitchcock. Contemporary film-makers never quite get it with Hitch. They suppose that you have to reveal the suspense, the thrill quite the opposite approach taken by Hitchcock.

At times, the violence, physical confrontations and dysfunctional characters make "Black Swan" seem like "The Wrestler II."

There's lots of mumbo-jumbo about "perfection" and "control" and "letting go." The dialogue is laughably ludicrous.

The contrast of Nina's claustrophobic pink-wallpaper bedroom and cavernous gray cinder block wall and black-floor rehearsal hall (a larger jail cell, really) symbolizes her descent into madness.

Considering that "Black Swan" is melodrama and doesn't much rise above it, the performances are finessed, quite good and praise-worthy.

As ballet director-choreographer, Thomas, Vincent Cassel is a haughty manipulator a puppet master with young charges at his command.

Winona Ryder plays Beth, a soon-to-retire ballerina, with tragic rage.

Portman captures the shattered psyche of a talented dancer lacking in self-esteem. Portman is believable as a vulnerable, empty vessel.

Kunis takes delight in playing the evil rival. If this were "Fatal Attraction" (1987), hers is the Glenn Close role.

It's "The Red Shoes" (1948) meets "Showgirls" (1995). Call it "Fatal Swan."

As with many contemporary thrillers, pop psychology runs more rampant in "Black Swan" than a deranged killer.

We have a mother (Barbara Hershey, apparently on a diet of scenery-chewing), who micro-manages her daughter, Nina.

There's the device of punishing a character for transgressions of the flesh.

Also, all too obvious and stereotypical and way over the top are views of the world of ballet, portrayed as a backstage competition more vicious than that depicted in the theater world of "All About Eve" (1950).

For the viewer, the horror, real or imagined, in "Black Swan" isn't imaginary. Aronofsky seems compelled to show it whether it's the dancers' battered toenails, or strange scratches on Nina's back.

That Aronofsky is a skilled film-maker there is no doubt. When was the last time you jumped in your seat at the sight of a hangnail on the big screen?

Then, again, when was the last time you wanted to see that?

"Black Swan" is not unlike a 1970's exploitation movie, here with pretentions to loftier pretentions.

A waiter, taking Lilly's and Nina's order in a trendy restaurant, says of an entree, "It's very cheesy."

"Like you," Lilly sneers.

"Black Swan" is even cheesier.

"Black Swan," MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian) for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use; Genre: Drama, Thriller; Run time: 1 hr., 48 min. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: Sergio Torrado, of the Pennsylvania Ballet, who danced the Cavalier in the Dec. 18 and 19 Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley "Nutcracker" at Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, is seen in several scenes opposite Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." Sarah Lane, who danced the Sugar Plum Fairy in the 2009 BGLV "Nutcracker," is Portman's ballet double in the film.

Box Office, Dec. 17: "Tron: Legacy" roared back from the past into the future, opening at No. 1, with $43.6 million. "Yogi Bear" opened a distant No. 2, with $16.7 million.

3. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," $12.4 million, $42.7 million, two weeks; 4. "The Fighter," $12.2 million, opening; 5. "The Tourist," $8.7 million, $30.7 million, two weeks; 6. "Tangled," $8.6 million, $127.8 million, four weeks; 7. "Black Swan," $8.3 million, $15.7 million, three weeks; 8. "How Do You Know, " $7.6 million, opening; 9. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," $4.8 million, $265.5 million, five weeks; 10. "Unstoppable," $1.8 million, $77.3 million, six weeks

Unreel, Dec. 22:

"Little Fockers," Rated PG-13: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Owen Wilson, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo, Jessica Alba, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand. Who else could you ask for? A baby. That's the plot.

"True Grit," Rated PG-13: Directors Ethan and Joel Coen remake the 1969 western classic with Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role. Hailee Steinfeld plays a young girl who wants a U.S. Marshall to find the man who killed her father. The film also stars Matt Damon and Josh Brolan.

"Gulliver's Travels," Rated PG (opens Dec. 25): Jack Black stars as the big guy who discovers it's a small world, after all. Also starring are Emily Blunt, Jason Segel and Amanda Peet.

Read previous movie reviews at Email Paul Willistein at: and on Facebook.

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes

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