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Review: Black Swan


Whatever I was expecting when I settled into my seat to watch Black Swan, it wasn’t that. I watched it on the plane trip home from Ireland, a 7-hr-plus affair that I wanted to take my mind off of. And of course, the solution was movies.

As I mentioned in my review of Silver Linings Playbook, it’s fun and interesting to watch a movie without really knowing what it’s about. I vaguely knew – or thought I did – the story of Black Swan: a driven ballerina who pushes herself too far. And it is about that.

What I didn’t know is how dark the movie really is, or how beautifully shot, or how intense it gets. I didn’t know the viewer would be dragged into uncertainty and insanity along with Nina (played by Natalie Portman).

Summary: Natalie Portman plays the main character, a young woman whose delicate mental state is made clear early on. Nina’s drive for perfectionism in her ballet practice is egged on by her mother and the competition-based ballet school she attends. An important role, that of the Black Swan, will be awarded to a student soon when Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives to the school as a transfer student. As Nina’s obsession with the role grows, she defies her mother and becomes friends with Lily. When she starts hallucinating, having pushed herself to the end of her limits, the line between inner and outer realities is blurred.

Black Swan is beautifully shot. I’ll probably watch it again sometime, so I get the chance to see it on a screen larger than one built into the back of an airplane seat. It features dancers and includes gorgeous dance sequences, and it plays with light and sound the entire 108 minutes. It is also dark and dangerous and startling. I actually jumped and squealed at one point, unable to keep it in even though I was on an airplane surrounded by people. And I squirmed in my seat during the unexpectedly graphic sexual content, all too aware of my surroundings. But I watched, enraptured, through the entire thing.

It reminded me of A Beautiful Mind, because as the protagonist moves into insanity, the audience is dragged unknowingly along for the ride. It’s not until later that you realize perhaps not all is as it seems.

Maybe that’s the best description of Black Swan. It’s a dance movie, sure. But it’s just a dance movie. Not all is as it seems.


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Review: Eat, Pray, Love (the book)

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert has been on my list of books to read for ages – probably since I saw the movie a couple years ago and learned it was based on a book.

When I picked it up from the library, though, I was surprised at how small it is. How could a movie that inspired many people and even a major motion picture be only 18,805 words? (For some reason the word count is on the back cover.)

But Gilbert is an experienced and skilled writer, and she didn’t need a long book to tell her story.

She tells it in four parts: she gives the background of being in her early thirties and suddenly realizing she was unhappy in the life she was living, which naturally caused some grief and chaos for herself and her husband. She divides the rest of the book into her year of travelling after her divorce: four months in Italy indulging in pleasure, four in India pursuing devotion, and the final four in Indonesia searching for balance.

The book is interesting of its own accord: I enjoy reading about other people’s journeys. Gilbert knows how to give just enough detail for the imagination to do the rest. But she also talks about some huge and heavy topics, including love and depression. She talks about depression and loneliness as people who follow her home.

I identified with her description of depression:

“When you’re lost in those woods, you sometimes don’t realize at first that you are lost. For the longest time, you can tell yourself that you will find the path again any moment now. Then night comes again and again, and you have to accept that you are so far off the path that you don’t even know where the sun is anymore.”

Along with the heavier topics, she also talks about lighter things: language, food, and friends. She eats amazing pizza in Naples – “I love my pizza so much that I have started to believe my pizza might actually love me back.” She meets a friend who nicknames her Groceries because she eats so much. She finds a beautiful place to stay in Bali with a simple, habitual lifestyle. She helps another friend find a home.

Full of little insights, Eat, Pray, Love likely has something for almost every reader. Not every part of the book spoke to me, nor did I agree with all of Gilbert’s conclusions about life. But story meanders along in a way that invites you in, and draws you to the end, without being pushy or in-your-face.

One idea I really enjoyed was the idea of identifying your city’s word.

“He explained that the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn its word. That there is one word for every city, and for most of the people who live there. And if your word doesn’t match the word of the city, you don’t really belong there.”

Perhaps identifying your city’s word is easier if your city is ancient like Rome (the city in question here). But I love the idea of learning the identity of a city. Does anyone have a word for their city?

And now, I’m off to rewatch the movie.

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Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Magical. It’s the only way to describe the feeling of watching the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast. The modern, live-action adaption was fun, and lively, and magical.

The film features Emma Watson as Belle, a young woman who doesn’t quite fit into the small French town where everything always remains the same. It plays very closely to the original film, but reimagines the world a little and plays with the realness of it. Instead of giving the backstory before the film starts, for example, it starts out with a showy dance number at the Prince’s ball – the fateful one where he is cursed to become a beast.

The animation of the film was stellar, as was the music. Several new musical numbers were incorporated into the telling of the film, which added depth to the story and characters. The story was also more self-aware than its 1991 counterpart; it has fun (LaFou’s character is a great example of this), and small adjustments were made to fix plot holes. One example of this is when Belle transports the injured and much-larger-than-her Beast back to the castle after their encounter with the wolves – “You have to help me,” she tells him. “You have to stand.” There were still a few plot holes (as with most fairy tales), but they did well with this recreation.

The entire film was very well-cast. Emma Watson is a fantastic Belle; Dan Stevens did a great job as the Beast; the entire ensemble cast of townspeople and castle staff were all wonderful. BUT. Josh Gad as LeFou, and especially Luke Evans as Gaston, were absolutely perfect. When they first appeared on screen and Evans began to sing, it was just him. He was Gaston.

Beauty and the Beast tosses out a number of stereotypical storytelling techniques that many fairy tales rely on. First, Belle doesn’t wind up being “saved” by the Beast/Prince. She does fall in love, but I would argue that she saves him. Then there’s the whole handsome-guy-as-villain. As my brother said, in any other Disney movie, Gaston would be the hero. He’s handsome, skilled, and charming, if a little full of himself. But in this film, more so than the original cartoon version, he is not just a non-hero, he’s certainly the villain. He goes far beyond vain and disrespectful of Belle; he also attempts to murder her father and get him tossed into mental institution. It was also good to see a wider variety of ethnicities and an expansion of gender roles in this film (women also attacked the castle, for example) than in the first one. I know there’s still a long way to go in these areas, but progress!

Before watching the movie, I read an article that argued for the use of voice doubles – trained singers to take the place of actors in musicals, which seem to be growing in popularity again. Although I had it on my mind, I tried not to be biased while watching. But – even though I love Emma Watson – I do think the film could have used some dubbing from a singer with a bit more range and experience. Perhaps it’s not something anyone would notice if they weren’t looking ahead of time – someone who saw the movie can let me know, maybe? – but maybe it’s something to be considered in future films. I feel like I’m nitpicking because it wasn’t a huge deal, but I have to be fair.

So yes, I’d say watch this movie. Watch it with your kids, watch it with your friends, watch it by yourself. One article I read said fans of the original movie are most likely to be critical of a remake, but I didn’t find this to be the case. I simply enjoyed the chance to experience the magic all over again.