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Black Swan (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

April 6, 2011 by  



“Black Swan” is one of those films that people will have different opinions about.  Some will love it.  Some will hate it.  And there are some who will like various parts of the execution of the film, may it be the acting, the direction, cinematography, set or costume design.  For me, “Black Swan” was a wonderful Blu-ray release and yes, I will say it, definitely worth having in your cinema collection.  Recommended!

Images courtesy of ©2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Black Swan

FILM RELEASE DATE: 2010

DURATION: 108 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, Widescreen (2:40:1), English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, AVC @ 28.5 MBPS

COMPANY: 20th Century Fox Entertainment

RATED: R (Strong Sexual Content, Disturbing Violent Images, Language and Some Drug Use)

RELEASE DATE: March 29, 2011

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin

Story by Andres Heinz

Produced by Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver

Co-Producer: Joseph P. Reidy, Jerry Fruchtman

Executive Producer: Jon Avnet, Brad Fischer, Jennifer Roth, Rick Schwartz, Tyler Thompson, David Thwaites, Peter Fruchtman, Ari Handel

Associate Producer: Rose Garnett

Music by Clint Mansell

Cinematography by Matthew Libatique

Edited by Andrew Weisblum

Casting by Mary Vernieu

Production Design by Therese DePrez

Art Direction by David Stein

Set Decoration by Tora Peterson

Costume Design by Amy Westcott

Starring:

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers

Mila Kunis as Lily

Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy

Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers

Winona Ryder as Beth Macintyre

Benjamin Millepied as David

Ksenia Solo as Veronica

Kristina Anapau as Galina

Janet Montgomery as Madeline

Sebastian Stan as Andrew

Toby Hemingway as Tom

Sergio Torrado as Sergio

BLACK SWAN follows the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina in the New York City Ballet trying to make it to the top. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), also impresses Leroy and becomes Nina’s competition. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly with her innocence and grace, but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan with her fiery personality. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.


In the fall of 2010, director Darren Aronofsky (“Pi”, “Requiem for a Dream”, The Fountain”, “The Wrestler”) would release a psychological thriller that centers around the production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”.

Continuing Aronofsky’s style of films of a character facing their own-self destruction, “Black Swan” received critical acclaim upon its release and actress Natalie Portman would go on to win an Academy Award for “Best Actress” for the film.

An independent film shot with a low budget ($13 million), “Black Swan” would bring in over $292 million dollars in the box office and now the film has been released on Blu-ray and DVD (note: The Blu-ray version comes with a digital copy of the film and has more special features) courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

The film revolves around a ballet dancer named Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) who lives with her controlling mother Erica (played by Barbara Hershey), a failed dancer who lives off the success of her daughter and tries to control her life.

For Nina, she starts to see someone that looks like her around the subway system which catches her attention but continues on to the ballet company which is preparing for the production of “Swan Lake”.

The director Thomas Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel) is looking for a new dancer who will be the “Swan Queen” but must be able to portray the innocent and fragile White Swan but also her dark, evil twin, the Black Swan.

Fortunately, for Nina, she gets the opportunity to compete for the role but as Nina embodies the characteristics of the White Swan on stage, Thomas doesn’t feel she can play the Black Swan.

Dejected that she was cut off from her performance and was rudely interrupted by the newcomer Lily (played by Mila Kunis) who came in late, Nina takes it hard but feels that she can talk to Thomas and hoping she can get another chance.  So, she visits him in his office and Thomas tells her straight out that she lacks the passion to dance the Black Swan.  She tries to say that she can do it and when he forces himself by kissing her, she bites him.  And because of that, Thomas sees that she has the potential and gives her the role.

Unfortunately, other dancers at the company have other thoughts that perhaps she has slept with the director to get the role.  Especially Beth Macintyre (played by Winona Ryder), the former lead dancer who worked with Thomas who is upset that she is being cast off and is retiring.  She is very upset that someone as timid as Nina has gotten the part and wonders also if Nina has slept with him.

Meanwhile, the new dancer Lily tries to get closer to Nina but Nina tries to resist.  As Nina observes Lily, she notices that she embodies the characteristics of the black swan.  She doesn’t pretend to be a “bad girl”, she is one.  Always willing to have fun, with no care in the world.

But while practicing and practicing, Nina is unable to capture the essence of the Black Swan and so, the director tries to give her advice.  One is for her to pleasure herself  and explore herself.

And Nina tries to do just that but her mother is always around.  To make things worse, Nina is developing rashes on her back which bleed and rashes on her fingers which also begin bleeding and her mother tries to control her daughter by cutting her fingernails and thinks it is the stress that is making things worse for her.

Meanwhile, all the practicing and paranoia of losing the role is starting to eat at Nina and she starts to have psychotic delusions and visual hallucinations.  She starts to think that Lily is trying to take her position, she starts to have visuals of herself (ala doppelganger) trying to cause trouble and not knowing why she keeps bleeding.

But one evening, as the stress is mounting for Nina, Lily appears at her door and for the first time, Nina is able to experience this darker side of life that Lily lives in and from that moment on, things will never be the same for Nina Sayers.

VIDEO:

“Black Swan” is presented in 1080p High Definition (widescreen 2:40:1) and my overall feeling of the picture quality for the film on Blu-ray was “beautiful”.  First, let give credit to filmmaker Matthew Libatique.

The cinematographer has worked with Aronofsky since his “Pi” (1998) and has continued to work with Aronofsky since.  But we have seen his cinematography flourish over the years and continually get better and better.    From “The Fountain”, to working with Spike Jones for “Miracle at St. anna” and “Kobe Doin’ Work” to then working on both “Iron Man” films, I have seen his work get better and better.

But “Black Swan”  is a much different film in that he had to create a film that would capture the motion of ballet, the darkness and transformation of Nina Sayers and with a strict shooting schedule and shooting on a low budget, he made choices that were bold.  Libatique used a 16mm Arriflex camera, two Canon 1080p DSLR’s: the 5D Mark II and 7D.

So, what you get is a look that although may not carry as much detail as 35mm and you do get a more grainier image because of the 16mm, the film gives a look that is raw and realistic.  Granted, you do get a little bit of low-level noise but in the case of “Black Swan”, Aronofsky knows what he wants, Libatique knows how to work with him and get that viewpoint but also bring an artistic and creative side to the cinematography.  Capturing ballet but using effective far shots, mid shots, close-ups of the characters, the costumes, the feet, the hands and it’s not all beautiful, there is a darker element that pervades and it is fitting for “Black Swan”.

On a technical level, “Black Swan” looked absolutely magnificent and on Blu-ray, the film looks beautiful!

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Black Swan” may get a lot of attention for its visual presentation but when I watched this film for a second time, I was tuned into the audio and just realized how much audio played a part in this film.

Presented in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, the lossless soundtrack not only captures the beautiful music of the film but you also notice the ambiance that is presented throughout the film.  But it’s where you sense the turmoil through Portman’s breathing, the cracking of the bones and an eeriness that is created through the surround channels.  Also, because of how the film is shot, you get a sense of movement.  When Nina dances close and away from the piano, you sense that movement and you hear the distance.

And as Libatique has done for Aronofsky for many years, Clint Mansell has also done a fantastic job since working with Aronofsky back in 1998 for “Pi” and many of his films since then.   When it comes to the music especially the presentation of Tchaikovsky and how much music plays a part of this film is well-done.

And as the front and center channels presents crisp dialogue and music on the front and center-channels, ambiance on the surround, you also get a bit of LFE during the club scene.

The lossless soundtrack for this film is absolutely wonderful and fans of the film would no doubt enjoy how the soundtrack plays a big part in this film.

As for subtitles, they are in English, French and Spanish.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Black Swan” comes with the following special features:

  • Metamorphosis – (48:56) A three part series featuring a behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process from Darren Aronofsky’s visionary directing to the physical-demanding acting to the stunning special effects.
  • Theatrical Trailer – (2:00) The original theatrical trailer for “Black Swan”.
  • Ballet – (2:33) A short featurette behind-the-scenes of the dancing sequences.
  • Production Design – (4:00) Aronofsky and Therese Deprez talk about the abstract, modern stage and its minimalistic look for the set design.
  • Costume Design – (3:56) Aronofsky and Amy Westcott and Rodarte on the costume design for the film.
  • Profile: Natalie Portman – (3:18) Natalie Portman talks about how she was approached of making the film by Aronofsky eight years ago and working on the film.
  • Profile: Darren Aronofsky – (2:48) Aronofsky talks about what inspired the film, using handheld cameras and the concept of the film.
  • Conversation: Preparing for the Role – (3:52) Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky discuss their creative journey and Portman’s dancing background and if it helped her in the film.
  • Conversation: Dancing with the Camera – (1:35) Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky discuss the importance of the camera operators who were filming the dancing sequences.
  • Cast Profiles – Roles of a Lifetime – Presented by Fox Movie Channel (in standard definition), the stars reflect on their characters.  Natalie Portman (5:56), Winona Ryder (2:17), Barbara Hershey (3:37), Vincent Cassell (4:43) and director Darren Aronofsky (6:23).

EXTRAS:

“Black Swan” comes with a slip over cover case and also comes with a digital copy that works on iTunes.  It also comes with a Wi-Fi Digital Copy transfer utilizing pocket BLU.


A colleague once told me in regards to the “Black Swan” that “Darren Aronofsky has created a masterpiece”.   He proceeded to tell me that “Many people may not realize it just yet but many years from now, I have no doubt as people look back on this film, what it achieves in performance, cinematography and presentation.”

And I thought that many films that are considered masterpiece and cinema excellence may not have been regarded as excellent but over the years, they would go on to become classic hits or a filmmaker’s masterpiece.  And after I watched this film, I pondered over this film and wondered to myself, did this film make an impact on me?

Technically, I felt that Aronofsky’s picture was very stylized, its presentation was absolutely wonderful and his collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique and the fact that the film had to incorporate some guerrilla filmaking with its tight schedule and low budget, both managed to do remarkably well for the time that they had to work on the film and what they had at their disposal.  For Libatique to go 16mm was bold but the choice in my opinion, was rather magnificent.  So, technically, “Black Swan” was wonderful.

As for performance?  There is no doubt in my mind that Natalie Portman was deserving of the Oscar (for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role).  Her performance as Nina Sayers was believable and her transformation to that character achieved an efficacy not seen in any of her prior films.

And whether or not they were truly creepy or how Nina perceived them to be that way, Barbara Hershey as the mother Erica Sayers definitely brought some creepiness to the film as did Winona Ryder as the former “Little Princess” Beth Macintyre and Mila Kunis (who can definitely play the “bad girl”) as Lily.

But we go back to the question of the film and is it a masterpiece?  Director Darren Aronofsky has said that his inspiration for the film came from watching the same character playing the white swan and the black swan as well as the film’s Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “The Tenant”.  But there is no doubt that cineaste will notice subtle similarities from Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film “The Red Shoes”, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film “The Double Life of Veronique” and Satoshi Kon’s anime film “Perfect Blue”.

In some ways, I suppose you can see bits and pieces of these films incorporated into “Black Swan” but the execution of Black Swan to become a unique film on its own is to focus on a young woman who is driven and consumed by her role, a perfectionist who has found a challenge in her life that she feels she is unable to adapt.  She is a white swan, who doesn’t know the darkness of the black swan.

Her demanding director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) keeps telling her to not be herself, to show some of that bite and you realized that perhaps there is this paranoia, this darkness that resides within Nina.  Raised by a mother who lives through her daughter vicariously, constantly practicing ballet in order to achieve perfection and now she has the most coveted role as the swan queen but she doesn’t know how to bring that darkness out.   And director Aronofsky slowly brings out the darkness of this woman that will eventually lead to a path of destruction.

And many will point out, isn’t that Aronofsky’s style?  Psychological thrillers with characters that are on the path of destruction.  From his 1998 film “Pi”, his 2000 film “Requiem for a Dream” and the 2008 film “The Wrestler”.  Aronofsky to me, has always been a filmmaker that enjoys working on films about the human struggle and their self-destruction.  And it’s not a bad thing as his films including “Black Swan” are not a basis of self-alienation ala a Michelangelo Antonioni-esque.  These characters want to be better, achieve something better but yet they go through destructive means to achieve it.

In “Black Swan”, the protagonist wants to know what it takes to be bad.  She wants to be the “bad girl” like Lily, she wants to leave that “good girl” identity which her director wants her to leave and discover this dangerous side and we see the that transformation.  For me, the film was about a lonely woman’s life of descent, while “The Red Shoes”, which is a very different film that has to do with ballet and utilizes its ensemble cast, while “Black Swan” utilizes characters which we do not know if their actions are real or what is in Nina’s mind.

We are in Nina’s head, we are on that downward ride and as a viewer, we witness that descent to self-destruction.

And in the end, this is one film that some may feel is a bag of contrite cliches from other films rolled up into a ball as one.  I, on the other hand felt it was an Aronofsky film that captured self-destruction in a different way than he has done before but using the context of “swan lake” and it’s character slowly losing it.  In some way, it has an element of Antonioni’s “Red Desert”, an element of “The Red Shoes” and “Repulsion” but it’s connection is quite small.

As a psychological thriller, what I enjoyed about the film is its execution.  An independent film that didn’t have a strong budget and in the hands of an incapable director, this film could have flopped.  You have wonderful execution in cinematography, created by bold selections of camera employed in the film, the use of handheld cameras to capture the dance movements, the reliance of close-ups and medium shots were well-done, a wonderful color pallet that brings out the vibrancy of the film, a wonderful performance by Natalie Portman and in the end, I enjoyed this film a  lot.  Is it one of the greatest films ever made?  Probably not.  But it was a very good film.

Which leads to the question of what didn’t I like about the film?  There were a few things that I felt were probably unnecessary.   One was the old man in the subway having fun with himself.  In the context of the film, it was probably unnecessary and could have been cut out as it served no real purpose.  And I’m not a ballet erudite but would a young woman like Lily, known for being late a lot and also having this big tattoo on her back be welcomed by a ballet company or hired for a major ballet even if they have talent?  And I often wondered if Lily, being brought to the ballet company and is constantly trying to get close to Nina was a ploy by the director Thomas Leroy in order for Nina to explore a dangerous side?

As for the Blu-ray release, you do get wonderful insight on the making of this film and for future filmmakers, these are special features that really give you an idea of how things can be accomplished with a short budget and a tight schedule.  I found the “Metamorphosis of the Black Swan” to be a wonderful three-part featurette.

Overall, this is one of those films that people will have different opinions about.  Some will love it.  Some will hate it.  And there are some who will like various parts of the execution of the film, may it be the acting, the direction, cinematography, set or costume design.  For me, “Black Swan” was a wonderful Blu-ray release and yes, I will say it, definitely worth having in your cinema collection.  Recommended!

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