Can You Trust Beautiful People?

The astonishing Black Swan, and the deeply disappointing Tourist

Daren Aronofsky does not shy away from difficult films. From Pi to Requiem for a Dream to The Fountain, he explores preternatural subject matter with aplomb. While not always easy to watch (even the aftermath of The Wrestler’s barbed-wire scene made me look away), the grotesque is abundant. And I don’t mean grotesque as in disgusting (which sometimes they are). Rather, his films are like that frightening and blissful moment when you awake from a nightmare and begin to realize it was just a dream.

In his latest, Black Swan, he has chosen the world of ballet to set his story. Within this world of artists and athletes — filled with broken toenails, sprained ankles, bulimia, and obsession with perfection — we follow a modern day retelling of Swan Lake.

[SIGNUP]Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina in the New York City ballet company who lives with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey). When the director (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace the current prima ballerina (a frenetic performance by Winona Ryder) for the opening production of Swan Lake, he casts Nina. As she practices the dual roles of White Swan and Black Swan, she begins to lose herself. And when a reckless new dancer (Mina Kunis) starts to be noticed by the director, Nina begins to slip.

The movie is inundated with creepy visuals: feathers sprouting from a scratch, a reflection in the rehearsal mirrors moving independent of its caster, and a scene that rivals the transformation in An American Werewolf in London. It is also difficult to know what is real and what is imagined. We are not provided with guideposts or clues. It is up to us to put together the cinematic pieces. And we must question if anyone can actually be trusted.

Truly, it is Natalie Portman who is the main event. She is simply astonishing. Despite her gaunt appearance, the unflattering lighting, the chaotic emotional arc, she is beautiful. And her performance is so striking and powerful, you already feel sorry for Annette Bening, come Oscar time.

Black Swan will not be an easy movie for everyone. In fact, I guarantee many may actually hate it. But if you go in with an open mind, you will find a wicked, near-brilliant film with a remarkable performance from Natalie Portman.

Oscar Watch: Natalie Portman is a lock for one of the Best Actress slots. Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Vincent Cassel could vie in the supporting categories. Daren Aronofsky and the film have a good shot at Best Director and Best Picture nominations, respectively. (In theaters.)

My Grade: A

“He looks old,” whispered my movie-going companion, Vicki. Moments later she put her hand over her heart. “But I still swoon every time I see him.” The “he” in question is Johnny Depp. The movie, The Tourist, costarring the equally swoonable Angelina Jolie.

He does look a bit older — a little crinklier around the eyes and mouth. But what surprised me the most was how normal he looks. After years of pirate prancing, weirdly colored contact lenses, and affected lisps, Johnny has returned to the land of the mortals. It’s a bit startling to see him look like himself, free of makeup and wigs. Sculpted goatee. Wavy, chin-length hair. Slight slouch to his stance.

A perfect contrast to this immortal Angelina Jolie. Sure, in Salt we saw her in evening gowns and muffs. But here we get Glam Ang. The makeup is perfectly applied. Her hair defies gravity. And the gorgeous clothing drapes off her body (“Probably a size zero. And it still hangs on her,” Vicki said).

Why, might you ask, am I spending so much time discussing their looks? Well, frankly, that’s really all that there is. Sure there’s a storyline in there. She pretends he is her ex-flame: a man being sought by 14 countries for theft of billions of dollars. They go to Venice. She helps him escape a gangster. He falls for her. They share a dance at a ball. People shoot at them.

But it’s a trite story. There is no bite to the cat-and-mouse. No care for the mistaken identity. Instead of trying to figure out how they’ll escape each situation (like The Thomas Crown Affair), we get an overly long boat chase scene — where the boats move so slowly they might as well be in a no-wake zone. Instead of seeing how this plain man will prove his innocence (like North by Northwest), we get shot after shot of Ang walking through a room/office/pier while every pair of male eyes follows her.

It’s an action film without action.

Additionally, while crowded with phenomenal actors (including Paul Bettany, Timothy Hutton, and the criminally underused Rufus Sewell), I never got lost in performances. Instead I fixated on every cog, every wheel, and every calculation of the performances. Neither of the main stars are naturalistic actors. Instead you focus on Ang sitting at a table and how she methodically leans her perfectly, perched head onto a gloved hand. You watch as Johnny distractedly twirls his glass. Few actions feel organic or spontaneous; the movie feels leaden and, worse, is topped off by a dumbed-down, over-explanatory ending.

Lighthearted, star-powered capers can be fun and energetic (e.g., Oceans 11). Unfortunately, The Tourist is not. With only fleeting moments of levity, we focus more on Ang’s and Johnny’s celebrity wattage, rather than an actual story. After two hours, you’ll wonder whether this vanity piece was made simply so they could spend a summer in Venice. (In theaters.)

My Grade: C-