Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Black Swan: Good film, average Blu-ray presentation

Black Swan (drama, mystery, thriller)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder 

20th Century Fox | 2010 | 108 min | Rated R | 

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French: Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1

English SDH, Spanish 

Single 50GB Blu-ray disc

The Film 4.5/5

With five Oscar nominations (cinematography, best picture, best director, editing and best leading actress), Black Swan took home the best actress statue for Natalie Portman. The $13 million budget meant that certain sacrifices had to be made, but the result is still a film of high quality.

Aronofsky's films are always challenging and frequently show the ugly truth behind an apparently glamorous existence. The Wrestler is the most glaring example. He's also no stranger to obsession as The Fountain clearly demonstrated.

It's almost impossible to write a meaningful review without revealing some of the plot elements, so stop reading now if you want to see the film without knowing anything.

Black Swan is a psychological drama along the lines of Psycho, rather than a film about dance. Nina (Portman) is a ballet dancer who wants the leading role in a new adaptation of Swan Lake. The role consists of two elements; the white swan and the black swan. She's apparently the best candidate for the role and performs the white swan better than anyone, but is encouraged to abandon her self-control in order to access the emotions needed to dance the black swan. In order to do so, she toughens up mentally, becomes more assertive and confrontational and explores her sexuality.

Like Mulholland Dr. and Fight Club, the line between what is real and what is imagined is not obvious on first viewing. Nina is a disturbed young woman who has trouble staying grounded in reality. She imagines terrible things and obsesses about winning the role. Her duality is gradually revealed throughout the film and will frighten some people who allow themselves to become fully involved with the story.

I won't spoil things further, but Black Swan is an interesting tale of Nina's search for perfection in her art.

The technical aspects of the film are superb. The camera is frequently used to follow the dancers on stage and puts the viewer among the action. It's quite breathtaking in places. The editing and digital manipulation both convince the audience that Portman is performing all of the moves a ballet dancer might make.

Portman trained for 10 months to learn how to move like a dancer. She also dieted so that her body looked the part. She fully deserved her Oscar win for this performance. The supporting cast is strong in all areas, with her mother (Hershey), and her closest rival for the part of the swan queen, Lily (Kunis), both doing good work.

Video Quality 4/5
Shot partially in 16mm and also digitally, Black Swan lacks the level of detail normally associated with a Blu-ray presentation. Many of the scenes are dark, while others are stylistic and intentionally soft. Heavy grain is present, but the look is very similar to the theatrical presentation. This is not a poor transfer; it's an accurate reproduction of the film's original look. Many of the softer shots were probably intended to convey the dream-like quality of certain scenes. Don't expect to be blown away.

Audio Quality 4.5/5
Sound is an important part of Black Swan. Clint Mansell's score enhances the experience considerably and the ambient sounds add to the mood. The sound of rustling feathers is particularly effective and disturbing. I'm left with the impression that Aronofsky lovingly crafted every component of the film.

Special Features 4/5
The special features are not exhaustive, but what's included is excellent. There are interviews with Aronofsky, Portman, Hershey, Cassel and Ryder. There's also a 49-minute featurette on how the film was made, including the music, cinematography and special effects. Well worth a look if you're a fan.

Similar films
It's hard to talk about Black Swan without thinking about The Red Shoes (1948). Both films feature ballet dancers who are striving to perfect their art. I'm also reminded of films dealing with blurred reality and mental illness such as Psycho, Persona and Repulsion.

Black Swan draws you into its world. If you let it happen, you will be affected emotionally. It was one of the best five films of 2010.

Overall score 4.5/5 

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