Black Swan and True Grit

After a break for the holidays, your votes at sent me to see a couple of Oscar contending films.  One is the Coen Brothers remake of the classic western “True Grit” while the other is a study of a troubled ballerina in “Black Swan.”  Each film is filled with great performances but one struck a chord while the other struck a nerve.

Black Swan

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a talented ballerina who has just been given the lead role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, replacing the aging lead dancer Beth (Winona Ryder) who doesn’t take the demotion well.  Nina has worked very hard to reach this point in her dancing career but it has come at a heavy price.  Nina is bulimic, has enormous issues of self doubt, seeks praise from everyone including her domineering former-dancer mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) and the director of the dance company Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is obsessed with having perfect dance form and scratches herself to the point of drawing blood.  A free-spirited new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), joins the troupe and Nina sees her as a rival for both the lead and for the affections of Thomas.  Thomas wants Nina to be less stiff and more free and sexual in her dancing, especially as the Swan Queen’s evil twin, the Black Swan.  The pressure Nina feels is manifesting itself with an increase in her existing neuroses plus the addition of hallucinations, some of them taking on erotic and frightening forms.

Natalie Portman is spectacular as a young woman who is totally devoted to the world of dance, yet is unable to cope with its demands.  Her fragile, sensitive, unbalanced performance is Oscar material and she may very well claim one when the awards are handed out.  Kunis is also very good as Lily.  Her character’s openness and relative normalcy is a stunning contrast to Nina’s uptight and rigid way of life.  Kunis is turning into an actress who may soon no longer be thought of as the annoying girl from “That 70’s Show” and be considered a true player in very good movies.  All the actors in “Black Swan” are very good.  My main problem with the film is that most everyone in the story is mostly unlikable.  Beth, the aging dancer, is a selfish and self-destructive Prima Donna.  Nina’s mother never misses an opportunity to build herself up by tearing down her daughter.  Thomas sees himself as a great artiste who has the right to force himself sexually on his dancers.  Lily, the most normal of the bunch, feels like she has to “fix” Nina, even if that means she has to slip a drug in her drink at a bar.  And Nina, who could be seen as a victim of the high-pressure world of ballet, is still the person in control of her own life.  She could have gotten out of the pressure cooker at any time, but lacks the backbone to stand up to her mother and those around her who want to form and control her life.  

“The Black Swan” is rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.  There is a much talked about lesbian sex scene that is, for an R-rated movie, rather graphic.  There are other sex scenes in the film as well and all the nudity is suggested, not shown.  The violence is similar to what you’d see in a psychological horror film and is rather graphic as well.  There is one scene involving drug use in the form of capsules.  The foul language is scattered but often rough and of a sexual nature.

While the “Black Swan” is seen by many as a great work of cinematic art, it is a difficult movie to watch as this young woman spins further and further down a whirlpool of madness and I have no desire to see this movie again.  While I can recognize it as a very well done, well acted film, I didn’t much care for it other than the performances from Portman and Kunis.  The film left me tired and troubled.

“Black Swan” gets three guitars out of five.

True Grit

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a plain-spoken 14-year old on a mission to capture Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father in cold blood.  She hires a drunken, violent US marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who has a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later, to track the fugitive into Indian country where he is hiding out with a gang of outlaws led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).  Also on Chaney’s trail is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who plans on taking Chaney back to the Lone Star State to face a charge of murdering a state senator over a dog.  Neither man likes the other, nor do they want Mattie tagging along on the journey, but the young woman is an overwhelming force of nature who doesn’t take “no” for an answer.  This unlikely trio begins a trip that will test them physically and mentally and may end up getting them all killed by desperate outlaws.

“True Grit” is the Coen Brothers remake of the classic John Wayne western from 1969 and, at the same time, is a wholly unique creation of its own.  The first thing you’ll notice about the movie is the poetry of the language.  The script is beautiful to listen to, even in its rougher and cruder sections.  It’s the kind of dialog that would be perfect for the actors to sit on a stage and read it to an audience.  Of course, seeing it on the screen is the preferred method for truly enjoying the excellent work of everyone involved.  Hailee Steinfeld is a true discovery as the hard-headed Mattie Ross.  She doesn’t seem like a child, but a full-grown woman in a slightly smaller body.  Her performance reminded me of a young Katherine Hepburn.  Bridges transforms himself into the hard-drinking, one-eyed Cogburn so convincingly you’d be hard pressed to believe it’s the same actor who also stars in “Tron:  Legacy.”   Damon almost acts as comic relief as the self-important LaBoeuf who clashes with both Mattie and Cogburn for most of their journey.  His belief that the Texas Rangers are the best trained, best prepared law enforcement organization in the world is comical in its certainty.  There are numerous actors who appear on screen for only a few minutes, and even less, who make a strong impression.  There’s a doctor who approaches Cogburn wearing a bearskin and speaks in an overly formal way.  There are two Indian children at a remote trading post poking a tied up mule with sticks with whom Coburn is less than gentle.  There are a couple of outlaws captured by the marshal who know more than they are telling.  There is a member of Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang who communicates only with animal noises.  Even the corpses are interesting in the stories their bodies tell.  The whole movie is populated with characters, big and small, that I would like to know more about, many of whom could be the subject of their own movie.  The Coen’s, who wrote the screenplay, stuck more closely to the Charles Portis novel than Wayne’s version.  Both films are excellent in their own way; but, if I had to make a choice about which is better, I’d have to choose the Coen’s vision.  It manages to be not only more violent and more gritty (pardon the pun) than the original, but still more sentimental.  The relationships that develop between the three main characters blossoms in the face of danger and they turn into something of a fractured, imperfect but loving family.  It’s a brilliant film that deserves your hard earned entertainment dollar.  After the movie, you’ll be glad you made the investment.

“True Grit” is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.  There are some very violent sections with graphic stabbings and shootings.  We see two corpses that are in various stages of decay, one of which drops from a great height and hits the ground with a sickening thud.  There is some scattered foul language.

The original “True Grit” holds a special place in my movie history as I saw it in its original release as a child in a theatre in Maryville, TN.  The memory of that film is tied to memories of my father and going with him to work on some occasions.  Perhaps that makes me too emotionally attached to this film to give it a fair review.  Some might argue that I was predisposed to liking the movie.  I argue it actually makes me more likely to criticize the film if it didn’t live up to my childhood memories, but it did that in spades.  This version of the John Wayne classic has “True Grit.”

“True Grit” gets five very enthusiastic thumbs up.  See it as soon as you can.

We are now in what is considered the doldrums of the movie year.  January is usually the month where films that aren’t considered very good, even by their actors and studios, are dumped.  That’s not always the case, but it more often than not proves to be true.  Vote for the next movie I see and review.

Country Strong—Gwyneth Paltrow is a fallen country star who embarks on a career resurrection tour with a rising young singer/songwriter.

Season of the Witch—Nicolas Cage stars as a medieval knight who is the last hope for the world against an ancient and dark force.

Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any movie of his choice currently in theatres.

Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.

Questions?  Send them to and follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.