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Ten Word or Less Review: The movie to spread holiday cheer like no other.

Darren Aronofsky has a singular take on character transformation.  His creations reach catharsis and achieve change like all storytellers set out to do, but Aronofsky always takes things one step further.  His characters physically manifest their changes in shocking ways or worse, become completely removed from their former selves.  Rachel Weisz became a tree.  Hugh Jackman exploded into a shrub.  Ellen Burstyn became a hollow shell.  The poor guy from Pi went from genius to mental zombie.  Black Swan takes this unique take on growth and/or regression of his to increasingly creepy places.  Swan places us squarely over the shoulder of a New York Ballerina as her dark side fights to be set free, morphing her into paranoid, avian influenced monster.   Black feathers, red eyes, bent knees and all.

Natalie Portman is Nina, the sheltered and inexperienced ballerina who lives at home with an obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey), herself an emotional cripple who habitually draws pictures of her precious daughter.  Because of her singular dedication to craft, Nina’s talent is beyond reproach, but because of her lack of life experience she has no passion.  Her director (Vincent Cassell) wants to cast her in the lead of Swan Lake but fears her frigidity will stop kill the show.  Despite this inability to inject lust or spontaneity into her performance, Nina lands the lead, a difficult dual role which requires both the pure, virginal, perfection of craft which Nina excels at, as well as a dark, unfurled lust of which Nina wants so desperately to know.  So begins her feverish decent into a personal Hell.  On the surface it’s a story that seems ripe for the theme of personal liberation from an oppressive life, but never once would anyone suspect an uplifting outcome on the horizon for this doomed performer.  Nina slowly slips into paranoia and the lines between reality and her obsessions breaks down.

Black Swan is Darren Aranofsky’s creation but it’s Portman for whom he has created this vehicle.  She’s the centerpiece of this spectacle and the entire story is told from her increasingly unreliable point of view.  Portman’s transformation from repressed wallflower to mad ballerina is jarring and frightful.  While the theme of liberation is often used as an expression of uplift, here the casting off of her shackles is engrossing in entirely different ways.  Her steps of personal growth are awkward and failing.  As her grasp on reality slips away her morbid fantasies infringe on her life to the point she can no longer tell what’s happening and what she imagines.  The whole thing culminates in a finale where Nina dances the black swan, sprouting sleek black feathers which cover her body.  Portman embodies all these changes with a performance so fearless it leaves most of her past roles as footnotes.  Anyone who calls her Queen Amidala after this deserves a punch in the nuts.

Barbara Hershey returns to the big screen with a razor sharp performance as Portman’s mother.  It easily could’ve been tilted too far and turned into a ridiculous tribute to Joan Crawford’s Mommy Dearest camp fest, but her work here embodies both the intimidating and the pathetic.  A former ballerina herself, she lords over Nina, desperate for her to achieve a greatness she only came close to in her mind.  Mila Kunis’s Lily is less of a stretch for the cutesy actress but admirable because much of her performance is made up in Nina’s head.  Whether she’s an emerging friend or a backstabbing show stealer is a lot of what slowly drives Nina mad.

Gradually building into a crazed delirium, Black Swan frantically pirouettes right along side the recent 127 Hours as one of the year’s most dizzying and stressful cinematic events.  Not fearing to display a few gruesome bits of shock horror and making no gestures to appeal to peoples better instincts, Black Swan ratchets up a lot of uneasy tension in viewers.  Darren Aronofsky’s creepy show of a ballerina walking up to the cusp of insanity in the name of artistic perfection is one of 2010’s memorable movie experiences.

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