We arrive now at that point in the program where I clear out my Netflix queue and trash movies that have been lauded by all the major critics. This will contain some spoilers, so if you’re the sort of person who has not seen either Black Swan or Biutiful, you might want to stop now. Ditto if you’ve seen either movie and really liked it.
First up: Black Swan. I hated it. Two thumbs down and a hobnailed boot up the kiester. The story of an overwrought dancer who appears to be sprouting feathers around the shoulder blades, Black Swan is an art-house mess that veers occasionally into Brian DePalma-style melodrama. It’s the kind of movie where almost everything that happens turns out later not to have happened — including the salacious scene involving Mila Kunis that I considered the film’s only redeeming moment. In Black Swan, the only thing you can be sure of is that ballet is really hard on the toes.
The film ends with Natalie Portman’s character turning in the best dance performance of her career while suffering from a serious stab wound to the abdomen. The girl is nuts, but she has some moxie. Or maybe the wound is imaginary too — it’s hard to say. I don’t like movies where the ambiguity is so pervasive and pointless. Especially if they’re about mentally ill ballet stars. Dave Bob says rent Chained Heat instead.
Biutiful is a better film, but it unfolds as a tiresome trek through half -a-dozen weighty themes: fatherhood, love, spirituality, crime, guilt and mortality. Also the exploitation of foreign workers. That’s about five themes too many, and not just because you’re looking at your watch well before the two-and-a-half-hour running time is elapsed.
The movie is set in modern-day Barcelona. Javier Bardem’s character is a lesser criminal who arranges slave-like employment for illegal immigrants. His wife is a manic-depressive alcoholic. He has advanced prostate cancer. Things go downhill from there.
While Bardem does have the perfect face for expressing all sorts of suffering, suffering alone wears thin as a dramatic device. In Biutiful, the very worst thing that can happen in any situation is what does happen, and just when you think Bardem’s face couldn’t get any longer, it does. By the end of the movie, you’re putting aside the popcorn and reaching for the Zoloft.
I don’t require sappy endings, but I do appreciate a bit of nuance and restraint when it comes to portraying the essential bleakness of the human condition. I also look for a running time quite a bit shorter than 2:27.
As always, I recognize that there may be other points of view on these two films. Feel free to weigh in below.