Natalie Portman in Black SwanBLACK SWAN

In director Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, the first words we hear are uttered by professional ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who tells her mother, "I had the craziest dream last night." And for the next 105 minutes, the movie unfurls like a crazy dream itself - a crazy, fascinating, terrifying, exhilarating dream that you have no desire to wake from. You can label the film a psychological drama, or a hallucinogenic thriller, or an art-house horror flick, and each would be appropriate. But none of those tags really hints at how much delectable fun Black Swan is. As with a dream that you want to return to the moment you wake up, you want to experience the intoxicating, rapturous weirdness of Aronofsky's vision all over again the minute the end credits start to roll.

For all of the movie's outré strangeness, though, its premise is remarkably simple. A technical virtuoso lacking inner fire, Portman's Nina is awarded the coveted lead of the Swan Queen in her company's production of Swan Lake. Yet as her director (a confident, complex Vincent Cassel) urges his star to lose her inhibitions, and company upstart Lily (Mila Kunis) insinuates herself in Nina's periphery, the dancer's struggle for perfection leads to her slowly losing her mind - hearing imaginary (are are they?) conversations, peeling away at imaginary (or are they?) wounds, and seeing vaguely threatening doppelgängers of herself everywhere she looks.

Given its leading character's grueling, what-I-did-for-art self-flagellation and the grim bloodiness of the physical torment - the superior sound design ensures that you feel every crack and crunch of Nina's bones and toenails - Black Swan could easily have been unendurable. But making audiences suffer is not on Aronosfky's agenda here; the movie is playfully nihilistic. Though the mood is anything but light, there's a wonderful friskiness in the melodramatic excess of Clint Mansell's score, and Matthew Libatique's swirling and swooping cinematography, and Barbara Hershey's feral turn as Nina's tightly wound stage mother. And though she doesn't offer comic relief, exactly, Kunis' every appearance is a relief nonetheless, her leer and husky murmur hinting at worlds of forbidden, unimaginable delights ... or equally unimaginable malevolence. (Cassel's director praises Lily's dancing as "effortless," and that also effectively describes Kunis' sharp, vibrant portrayal.)

With Portman - or, sometimes, dual Portmans - visible in nearly every frame, though, Black Swan is hers to carry, and it's a task she pulls off with depth, fierce passion, and, in no small accomplishment, a series of rather astonishing ballet moves. To be sure, she's given assistance by the finely tuned precision of the editing and Aronofsky's spectacularly imaginative, oftentimes breathtakingly creepy staging. (He's especially fine whenever Nina's mirrored reflection moves just a li-i-ittle slower than Nina herself.) But Portman's performance is a masterful actor's achievement, and you don't have to look hard to see the joy emanating from her harrowing portrayal; in a true role of a (young) lifetime, Portman appears alive on-screen in a way she never has before. I winced on numerous occasions and audibly gasped twice, but at no point during Black Swan did I want to be anywhere but in that auditorium; the movie is a deliriously wicked good time.


Mark Wahlberg in The FighterTHE FIGHTER

The Fighter casts Mark Wahlberg as junior-welterweight champ Micky Ward, and it's the oddest thing about Wahlberg in the role: You tend to forget you're watching him while you're watching him. This isn't meant as a knock on the actor, who gives a lovely, if really low-key, performance, one filled with barely expressed longing, sadness, and hurt. It's just that everyone surrounding him in this aggressively, sometimes even cartoonishly, broad family drama so completely overwhelms its nominal lead that Wahlberg himself seems almost an afterthought; even when his co-stars are off-screen, you sense him still cowering from their determined overplaying.

Despite its title, director David O. Russell's movie doesn't seem much concerned with Ward, who comes across as passive to the point of superfluousness. And it doesn't even seem much concerned with boxing; we're given only brief, random in-the-ring snippets before the film's title-bout finale, and precious little understanding about Ward's training or technique. Shapeless, unfocused film that is is, though, it's hard to bitch about The Fighter, because Christian Bale (as Micky's crack-addict brother, former boxing champ Dicky Eklund) and Melissa Leo (as the boys' shrill, chain-smoking harridan of a mother) chew the scenery with outrageous, hammy relish, and Amy Adams is thrillingly acerbic - and somehow still adorable - in her welcome, change-of-pace role as Micky's tough-talking girlfriend Charlene. The movie's a mess, yet I wouldn't have missed the unbridled theatrics of this trio for anything in the world: a hopped-up, hollowed-out Bale evading Dicky's mother by leaping from the second story of a crack house; Leo, assessing Charlene with venom-dripping contempt; Adams hurling obscenities, and fists, against Micky's Greek chorus of seven wailing sisters. Barring Wahlberg's internalized anguish and Adams' ferocity, I didn't necessarily buy much of The Fighter. Then again, given those whom Micky was in anguish about, I had almost too much fun to care.

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