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“Black Swan,” Reviewed

“Black Swan,” Reviewed (photo)

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Does a genius need to be a little bit crazy to be great? Darren Aronofsky seems to think so. He returns to that idea in film after film, from “Pi” to “The Fountain” to “The Wrestler” to his latest, “Black Swan.” All of Aronofsky’s movies are about obsession, about people who take the things they love to unreasonable and frequently self-destructive extremes. His latest mad genius is Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer struggling to cope with the pressure of being cast as the lead of a new production of the ballet “Swan Lake.” Just as her career reaches its pinnacle, her mind reaches its breaking point. A girl turning into a swan; that’s just supposed to be her role in the ballet. But when no one’s around, NIna feels funny. She sees things. Her back itches. Her toes stick together. She’s so committed she could be committed.

You hear artists talk about their work taking over their life, but that’s literally true for Nina; her life becomes a psychosis-induced production of “Swan Lake.” Her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is her handsome prince. Her rival in the company and for Thomas’ admiration, Lily (Mila Kunis), is her dark double. Nina is a technically gifted dancer but for her dual role in “Swan Lake” she will need to be more than that. “Perfection is not just about control,” Thomas tells her. “It’s also about letting go.” In everything he makes, Aronofsky wrestles with that same dilemma. His movies move like music. They begin under rigid formal control then build to feverish crescendos of emotion. “Black Swan” is no exception. Aronofsky has made it in such a way that it validates the theory of art set forth by its characters. Great art isn’t just technical brilliance. It’s messy. It takes chances.

Boy, does “Black Swan” take chances. The whole movie is told from Nina’s perspective and as she loses her mind, the film sort of loses its too. She starts to hallucinate, and the movie hallucinates right along with her. The ending, set amidst the frenzy of the company’s production of “Swan Lake,” is big and melodramatic in a way that might be too much for a cynical modern audience to bear.

That will be their loss. “Black Swan” is a powerful and terrifying movie — “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby” rolled into one with more than a little “Red Shoes” thrown in for good measure — and Nina, played by Portman in a mesmerizing performance, is one of the most fascinating characters in any film this year. At age 28, her career is already almost over. At this stage of her life, her connection to ballet is like a junkie’s to his drugs. These rituals — stretching, breaking in her toe shoes, nursing her bruises — once gave her pleasure. Now she can’t live without them, but she doesn’t particularly enjoy them either. Ballet used to be heroin, now it’s methadone.

Nina lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey) in a state of arrested emotional development in a room that belongs to a little girl. “He picked me, Mommy,” she says to Hershey when gets gets the part in “Swan Lake,” revealing all her issues in a single line of dialogue. Nina never grew up because her controlling stage mother and the rules of a young ballet dancer’s life didn’t allow it; her understanding of love and even her own sexuality is shockingly immature. She’s given her entire life to dance, but it’s not enough. Now dance wants her sanity as well.

From the perspective of the orchestra seats at the Koch Theater, ballet is human perfection: bodies telling stories through graceful movement, performing athletic feats that should be impossible. Using the same style of camerawork as “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky brings us close enough to see us the imperfections. Mirrors, at once so important and so cruel to a dancer, dominate the production design, fracturing and splitting characters into doubles of themselves. The use of color is particularly bold, contrasting the ordered world of Lincoln Center, with its blacks, whites and grays, with the blood reds of Nina’s increasingly frazzled mind.

The moving close-ups during the ballet numbers may have served a practical purpose — keeping us so close to Portman as she dances forces us to focus on her face and not on her feet — but it also represents a refreshing change of visual pace for dance movies. The camera moves with Portman and the rest of the dancers like another member of the company. We’re onstage with them, delighting in their talents and sharing in their miseries. Aronofsky lets us thrill in the in the act of creation without ever letting us forget the terrible sacrifices many artists make to entertain us.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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