New on DVD and Blu-ray: ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Topsy Turvy’

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is one of several directors that has really hit his stride in the past five years. While he displayed a distinct personality with Pi and Requiem for a Dream, the films feel like a work in progress. With The Fountain, he had the misfortune of having a considerable artistic choice and risk be completely misread and unappreciated. But despite the film’s underrated nature, it still feels like part of his development as a filmmaker rather than a true achievement; the final step before his artistic breakthrough. In his first three films he can be noted for creating a frenetic energy in his films that never quite loses control. His films are about chaos, but they depict it in a way that is carefully calculated and never feels uncontrolled. Then there was The Wrestler. At first glance it appeared that he had taken a wholly new direction, starting with a clean slate. And it is correct to note the film’s thematic differences to his early work, but it is of equal importance to recognize how similar The Wrestler is in terms of psychological analysis and depicting a downfall. Although it may be cliche to say it at this point, I believe that Black Swan is the perfect Aronofsky storm.

Black Swan tells the story of a dancer, Nina Sayers who is a perfectionist. But her understanding of perfection is based purely on logistics. She has no idea how to disappear into art. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is clearly living vicariously through her, probably having forced her into dancing as a child. A new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis, who did NOT deserve an Oscar nomination) joins potentially as a replacement for the old star (Winona Ryder) who has to leave on account of her age. Nina gets cast as the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and begins to lose her grip on reality. Then shit goes down.

While many have criticized Natalie Portman’s performance as being a one note droll of panicking, screaming, and crying, I find it to be a disturbing portrayal of someone who lacks initiative and eventually finds it in its most negative form. I found it to be the most empathetic performance of the past year. The way I see it, Nina’s mother and the Beth(Winona Ryder) both exemplify the negative side of passion. It emptied their lives of everything but dancing, so when they lost that they lost everything. In Nina’s mother’s case, she found a way to extend it through Nina, raising her in a potentially abusive manner to construct a dancer obsessed with perfection. Beth never found such solace and Nina’s mother loses her ability to live vicariously when Nina begins to show signs of independence. Passion in an all-consuming form is nothing short of destructive. While neither her mother or Beth necessarily lose everything, the idea behind their loss is the same as the idea behind Nina’s eventual fall from grace.

This has certainly not been a typical review, so I apologize if that is what you were expecting. But this is how I interpret the film and the values it puts forth, which matters more than whatever petty complaints a person may have about the expositional dialogue in the film. It held my belief suspended throughout the entire runtime and I found the screenplay to be one of the most impressive of the year. The DVD sucks (because there were several great posters both officially and unofficially made and they picked the worst one for the cover; also the special features department is basically empty), but buy it anyway. For me this really is a fusion between The Wrestler and the mind-bending trilogy that started off Aronofsky’s career. To me, it is a quintessential Aronofsky film.

Topsy Turvy

Mike Leigh is a director whose work I find discomforting to watch. It is so heavily character and dialogue based that plot progression is put to the side. I fully respect this notion, but much of his work gets me uncomfortably close to characters that I do not necessarily like. He is, as a result, a filmmaker that I find very impressive, auteuristic, and even great, but not always enjoyable. Topsy-Turvy is a film that I cherish despite the typical Leigh-isms. I suppose this exception is due to the fact that I have genuine interest in the artistic creative process and this film is one of the best visual representations of it I have ever seen.

Jim Broadbent is one of my favorite actors and one whom I find particularly notable just because he is so incredibly distant from being a “movie star.” Like Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, Broadbent is an actor who is almost awkward in both appearance and persona, yet through sheer talent has managed to find his niche in the damn near impossible film industry. In the film he stars alongside Alan Corduner as the legendary Opera composers Gilbert and Sullivan. Corduner and the rest of the cast really cannot keep up with Broadbent in terms of character depth and development, but they do not bring down the film at all. Admittedly, Gilbert is the character with the most room for such because the film focuses on the predicament of artistic repetition. Sullivan feels trapped by the unoriginality of his work and forces Gilbert to understand and help create something new. This gives Broadbent room to explore the creative motivation behind the inspiration for one of the most bizarre operas ever written, The Mikado.

I realize that one reading this having not seen the film may still be questioning what exactly happens in the film. Unfortunately I refuse to indulge into actual events because such descriptions of Mike Leigh films are both unimportant and very difficult. He has a unique filmmaking style that involves rewriting his screenplay after having the already cast actors run through it. He does this to cater the characters to the specific actors interpretation and natural personality. The end result is a film that is focused purely on the characters and the actors. This is the blessing and the curse of Mike Leigh.

Topsy-Turvy came out in 1999 and was released by the always brilliant Criterion collection this week. I have not had the chance to analyze all of what is available through this release, but it appears to be a lot, which is typical fashion for Criterion. The film is excellent and there is no better way to watch than through the lense of the Criterion collection, so I highly recommend it if you can stomach the dry plot and considerable runtime. The characters will not leave you unfulfilled. Nor will the awesome Criterion cover art.

Other Ventures

The incredibly indulgent equal pay film, Made in Dagenham hit the shelves this week. It has a few good laughs and Bob Hoskins is great, but the film had me irritated at many points. Along with the Topsy-Turvy release, Criterion has released The Mikado as well. That would be a very intellectual double feature. All Good Things, Dogtooth, and one of Alex’s favorites, Fair Game are available as well. The Scream trilogy is on Blu-ray to pave the way for Scream 4, which I am actually pretty excited about thanks to the return of writer Kevin Williamson.

FilmMisery Recommends:

Check out Black Swan and the Criterion release of Mike Leigh’s mini-masterpiece, Topsy-Turvy. There are a few more of last year’s Oscar contenders for those of you who are still catching up. Once again, a strong week for DVDs.

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  • Jose

    A new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis, who did NOT deserve an Oscar nomination)

    Glad I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, although it would’ve been nice to see some awards attention for Barbara Hershey, who did not receive any!

    Aside from Black Swan I feel like checking out Topsy Turvey, I think I should see more Mike Leigh films.

  • I thought it was much more than expositional dialogue that was weak in the ‘Black Swan’ script. I believe the lines were written by a new Script-O-Matic software rather than actual human beings. All of the brilliance in the film came almost solely from Aronofsky (with some help from Portman).

    I have not seen ‘Topsy Turvy’, but I adore Gilbert and Sullivan and Jim Broadbent is one of my favorite actors, too. Can’t wait to check it out.

  • Kaleem Hawa

    Absolutely loved Fair Game. Naomi Watts was fantastic!

  • Calvin

    I seem to be in the minority here, but I personally felt that Black Swan was a masterpiece; Portman’s acting can be understood on the level of pure panic or on that of a significant level of subtlety. Although I did feel like Mila Kunis’ acting was overrated, I thought Winona Ryder (despite the fact that watching her SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERTA stab the sweet girl (no pun intended) from Heathers in the face) and Barbara Hershey delivered stunning performances.

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