Megan Fox vs. Natalie Portman in the Battle of the Bird Girl Movies – Toronto Day 2

By Karina Longworth in FestivalsSaturday, September 11, 2010, at 1:21 pm
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Friday was a six film day* for me at TIFF, and it opened and closed with large crowds and women in wings. A 9:30 am press screening of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan brought out the hordes who had heard the Natalie Portman-starring ballet drama had been the toast of Venice and Telluride, while Passion Play’s 9pm public premiere sparked a public frenzy thanks to its sidewalk red carpet, where the ever-elusive Bill Murray’s appearance seemed like the bigger draw than that of mini-dressed starlet Megan Fox.

A weirder throughline than the wings: both Swan and Passion are laughable to the point that future camp appreciation seems inevitable. In only one case does this seem to be intentional.

Both self-conscious homage to epic backstage soaps and visceral body-dysmorphia horror, Black Swan stars Portman as Nina, a 20-something ballerina torn between fear (instilled by enfantilizing mother Barbara Hershey) and ambition (a lure represented by Vincent Cassel’s dance company director, who teases the promise of a affair but refuses to follow through until she breaks out of her “frigid little girl shell.”) Nina bests both the ballet’s aging star (Winona Ryder) and its new sexpot diva (Mila Kunis) to land the lead in her company’s new re-imagining of Swan Lake, but the casting is contingent on Nina learning to embrace her own “evil twin.” Vivid hallucinations―or are they?!?–ensue, involving bicuriosity, hysteric violence, and self-harm meets self-preservation when Nina’s nervous back scratching gives way to sprouted wings.

That Swan Lake has been “done to death” is a running joke in Black Swan, and a self-reflexive acknowledgement that there’s nothing new here beyond the trappings. Pointedly never beautiful–Aronofsky remains in love with the cold lighting of “serious” Eurocinema and the back-of-the-head cam that he borrowed from the Dardennes―Black Swan is Suspiria with less style, The Red Shoes for anti-romantics, All About Eve but all about orgasm panic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with Winger and Ryder splitting the Bette Davis role–the former managing the repression that becomes imprisonment, the latter hurling drunken accusations like, “Did you su-uhk his ca-aaack?” It’s total balletspoitation, a work of art only in that it’s pitch-perfect trash.

Aronofsky seems to be setting up a pattern of using each new film to answer the complaints of the last. You thought The Fountain was bloated fantasy clap-trap? Behold the “realism” of The Wrestler! You bristled at The Wrestler’s mawkish bad daddy bullshit? Here’s a movie that doesn’t care about its characters, and actually actively encourages you to laugh at them rather than feel for them. It’s a blast to watch, but its aftertaste is acid. If this had been directed by a first timer―or anyone without a track record for securing their actors Oscar nominations―it would have been programmed into Midnight Madness, and no one would be taking it this seriously.

Fast forward twelve hours and a 180 degree spin around the Quality-o-Meter: it’s hard to imagine that anyone will take Passion Play nearly as seriously as it takes itself. Mickey Rourke is Nate, a down-on-his-luck jazz trumpeter on the run from goons sent by mob king Bill Murray. Driven out to the desert and held at gunpoint, Rourke is saved at the last minute by a gang of indians who quickly vanish. Trying to make his way home, he stumbles on a carnival, where the main attraction is Lily Lustre, (Megan Fox) a knockout with an inexplicable set of wings. The two abscond together, Nate with dollar signs in his eyes and Lily looking for rescue love. Torrid birdlady-on-top sex (wing fondling, a feather floating in slow-mo to the floor) resets Nate’s priorities.

Passion Play’s only discernable point of self-awareness is in its treatment of Rourke’s storied downfall and redemption. Nate seems to have gone shopping in a pile of castoffs from Rourke’s 2008 trip around the awards circuit―think three-piece suits with pocket watch but no shirt, the look completed with inexplicable glossy white manicure. It’s in the dialogue, too–“You were famous,” moons Lily. “What happened?” Cue audience guffaws. This is essentially The Mickey Rourke Story, done in the style of the direct to video trash he killed time with during his career’s downswing.

Though Black Swan was seemingly as well-received here as it had been at its previous festival stops, it’s drawing more comparisons to Showgirls. It’s not exactly an inappropriate point of reference; the difference is that Black Swan is intentional camp, whereas Showgirls was sincere―and sincere in a way that, today, seems very of its moment, the transitional point where 80s bombast would give way to 90s disaffection. Passion Play was written around the same time as Showgirls―writer director Mitch Glazer spent twenty years trying to get it filmed–and it seems to be keyed into Showgirls’ sincerity. The film’s worldview is distinctly pre-Ironic Revolution, up until a last shot “gotcha” reveal, which offers offers a kind of bottom-of-the-9th apology for all that came before. It’s the final misstep in a film that, up to that point, could at least have been given credit for its unapologetic WTF-ness. I say this assuming that Glazer and friends plan to “finish” the film’s terrible special effects (cheap-looking CGI, sloppy chromakeying) before it hits the consumer marketplace. If they actually mean for the movie to look this way, then scratch most of the above, because that kind of slumming could only be intentional.

Highlights on today’s upcoming schedule: Jose Luis Guerin’s Guest and Mike Mills’ Beginners.

*I also saw Late Autumn, a Korean dramedy set in Seattle; Everything Must Go, a slight adaptation of a Raymond Carver story with Will Ferrell range-exploring as a down-on-his-luck drunk; It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s swing at the indie mainstream; and +/- thirty minutes of the Danish Afghan war doc Armadillo. None of these impressed me enough to warrant writing about at length under the current time constraints, although Armadillo might have had I not a) been nod-off tired, and b) had to leave before the halfway point to make another screening.

Tags: bicurious, black swan, megan fox, mickey rourke, natalie portman, passion play, sex