Dancing, fighting and romancing: a trio of new movies for Christmas

by Mark Burger

Black Swan, the latest effort from director Darren Aronofsky, is florid, overheated and sometimes ghoulishly campy.

Arguably one of the year’s most overrated films, Black Swan is hardly unentertaining. It’s sometimes alarming, often self-indulgent and has no hesitation in going off the deep end (and staying there for an inordinate length of time), but it’s never boring.

Natalie Portman headlines, in every sense of the word, as Nina, an ambitious ballet dancer bent on securing the lead role in an upcoming and much-anticipated New York production of Swan Lake.

It’s the role of a lifetime (aha!), and Nina has undergone years of physical and emotional rigor to reach this point, fueled further — if somewhat unhealthily — by the expectations and attentions of her mother (a strangely haggard Barbara Hershey), who was forced to relinquish her own ballet ambitions when she became pregnant.

As her grip on reality begins to slip, Nina is nevertheless obsessed with the idea of playing both the White Swan and the Black Swan in the production. It’s everything Nina has ever worked for, and it threatens to consume her.

Her story parallels that of the actual story in Swan Lake (aha!), a device that isn’t quite as profound as Aronofsky and the screenwriters (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J.

McLaughlin) seem to think it is — and the story’s ironic touches are rendered in sledgehammer terms and steeped in self-importance.

It’s hard to miss symbolism when it’s this overt.

Portman gives it everything she’s got, playing a character both luminous and loony — yet she’s always sympathetic. Mila Kunis, as a younger rival who both infuriates and fascinates Nina, also registers strongly. Vincent Cassel oozes smarmy charisma as the production’s manipulative, sexually aggressive maestro, while Winona Ryder turns up as a fallen diva. It’s not much of a comeback role, but Ryder provides a few memorable moments of her own.

Occasionally breathtaking and frequently on the verge of hysteria, Black Swan is tinged with both foreboding and beauty. It’s extremely well made and good-looking, even in its most deranged and grotesque moments — and there are a few of them.

The film often entertains as much in spite of itself and its eccentricities as because of them. It’s one weird bird, in every sense of the word.

Based on a true story, The Fighter tells the story of Boston-based boxers and half-brothers “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale).

Dicky has had his shot at the big time, including a bout with Sugar Ray Leonard (which he boasts about incessantly), and still thinks he can make a comeback — despite a nagging addiction to crack cocaine and a propensity for living more in the past than in the present, much less looking toward the future.

Micky, faithful to Dicky and their entire family to a fault, is striving to get his chance. He works hard, trains hard and repeatedly for gives his brother (and ostensible mentor) his transgressions. Yet it’s now having a detrimental effect on his own ambitions.

A ferocious Melissa Leo plays the boys’ mother, Alice Ward, a domineering woman who calls the shots for her children, both personally and professionally. Surrounded by a loyal coterie of blonde daughters, she runs the show — and that’s the problem. Her loyalty is ferocious but blind. She overlooks Dicky’s addiction to the point of being an enabler, and disapproves strongly of Mickey’s budding romance with local barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams). Anything or anyone that gets in Alice’s way is to be eradicated.

David O. Russell, who took up the directorial reins when Darren Aronofsky went off to do Black Swan, doesn’t stray far from the trappings of the genre — but doesn’t take them for granted, either.

The formula is properly and effectively conveyed: The blood, the sweat, the sacrifice, the crusty wisdom of a veteran trainer (Mickey O’Keefe, playing himself), the reconcilia tion with family and, of course, the climactic Big Fight. Somewhere along the way, Dicky is also able to kick his drug habit — rather quickly and with little apparent fuss.

What elevates the film and intensifies the drama is the acting, which is uniformly good all around. Although Bale and Leo have the showiest roles, Wahlberg (also a producer) is a quiet tower of strength as the younger son who must cast off familial guilt to create his own future, and Adams imbues what could have been a stock role with a down-to-earth sexiness. The Fighter’s got the right moves, because the acting gives it heart.

How Do You Know is writer/director James L. Brooks’ first film in six years, although whether it’s worth the wait is highly debatable.

Reese Witherspoon plays a professional athlete recently cut from her team, romantically torn between a cheerfully shallow Washington Nationals relief pitcher (Owen Wilson) and a charming but neurotic executive (Paul Rudd), whose career has recently come undone — much to the chagrin of his father and boss, a corporate titan played with a relaxed brio by Jack Nicholson.

How this three-way romantic entanglement works itself out forms the foundation of this colorful and polished, yet lightweight comedy.

Since his Oscar-winning big-screen debut with Terms of Endearment 27 years ago, Brooks has been anything but prolific, having directed only five movies since. Broadcast News (1987) and As Good as It Gets (1997) are the clear winners, while I’ll Do Anything (1994) and Spanglish (2004) the clear losers.

How Do You Know falls somewhere in the middle, with gravity pulling downward. The performers are attractive and attentive, and some of the dialogue is snappy (a Brooks trademark), but the overall story holds few surprises.

It’s a slight, really quite predictable romantic comedy that seems more keen a disappointment, coming as it does from Brooks.

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