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Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit



True Grit is awesome, one of the best Westerns gracing movie screens in many a moon. From a dialogue standpoint, True Grit may even be the best Western ever made. The can-do-no-wrong brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have written three unforgettably loquacious primary characters, played by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld, who jabber on endlessly and intriguingly. Even better, they each continually get sore at each other because they think they each talk too much. When her father is killed by a desperado (played by Josh Brolin as a dimwit rather unlike any character Brolin has played before - and Brolin played George W. Bush in W.) young Hailee Steinfeld recruits Bridges, a boozy, gristled U.S. Marshall, to bring Brolin to justice - as long as she can come along for the satisfaction of apprehending her daddy's killer. (One of my favorite things in movies is when a character says the title of the movie - Steinfeld hired Bridges, despite his shoot first-drink second-no questions reputation, because he has "true grit.") Meanwhile, Damon, a proud and gallant Texas Ranger, is also looking to bring Brolin in to face Texas justice. The three set out in an uneasy alliance across the dangerous 19th century Arkansas territories to find their man, arguing, falling out, and reuniting repeatedly throughout. Especially arguing. There's never been a 14 year old girl in the Old West as headstrong and intelligent as Steinfeld. She's not full of foolish talk and she's crazy brave. None of the cowpokes and townfolk who come across Steinfield know quite how to handle such a creature. It's a wondrous performance by Steinfeld. Damon is in top form as LaBeouf (which everyone pronounces "La Beef" - wonder how many people will start calling Shia that?). As Rooster Cogburn (one of the great movie names), Bridges is magnificent - a one-eyed varmint with his own code of honor who's a crack shot (after a few tries) even when drunk. I've been assured the court room scene involving Bridges on trial for the number of men he has shot under questionable circumstances may be the most realistic ever in a movie, with flawless and proper use of actual Latin and legalese. I reckon True Grit's only flaws, but they're big ones, are the bookend voice over narration by Steinfeld's character 25 years later, followed by a useless coda showing us events that would have been perfectly satisfactory to have been revealed as an end titles crawl. Even then, True Grit is the real deal; violent, engrossing, with surprising and touching moments. Watching True Grit is as much fun as playing Red Dead Redemption, and vice versa.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tron Legacy in IMAX 3D



"Tron, look what's become of you!" utters Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) late in Tron Legacy. Become what? Entertaining? Inclusive? Visually awe-inspiring? Fun? Those must be what The Dude means. Freely borrowing - and I mean a lot - from Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings, among other nerdy affectations, Tron Legacy reassembles those disparate parts into a feature length Disney thrill ride, leaving audiences basking in the bright, shiny colors and warm, glowing, warming glow of The Grid.

The original Tron was something I've never gotten into, or even been able to sit through. Tron Legacy requires no previous knowledge of Tron, instead adopting the only aspects of the original that are remembered fondly - the aesthetic, weapons, vehicles, and the basic idea of creating and living in a computer-generated virtual world - and then plugging it all into a familiar action adventure about a son searching for his missing father. They become freedom fighters in an astoundingly-realized, visually sumptuous virtual world of The Grid.  There's nothing regarding Tron Legacy's story we haven't seen before, but it's a sound, easily digested story. While it's executed simply in Tron Legacy, it's also executed well. The actors also worked their magic to enliven and overcome the deficiencies in Legacy's screenplay.

The real world at the start of Tron Legacy, where Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) executes corporate espionage on his own company and gives away a billion-dollar computer code on the Internet before parachuting off a skyscraper, getting arrested, and then is free to walk the streets again that very night, felt considerably more implausible then everything that happens in The Grid.  Once his father's old friend Bruce Boxleitner gives Sam a kick in the ass to drop by the old Flynn's Arcade to discover Kevin Flynn's secret workshop (the Journey and Eurythmics songs were amusing 1980s touches) and Sam gets reconstructed into the virtual world of The Grid, Tron Legacy actually starts making a lot more sense.

Once in The Grid that he'd heard all about since he was a boy, Hedlund discovers his father's computer-generated doppelganger Clu (also Jeff Bridges, CGI making him look much younger and robust - the king of the Uncanny Valley) rules over The Grid with an iron fist. Clu has designs to take his Clone Army - sorry, his army of Programs - into the real world to conquer all of us Users.  After surviving video game-like light disc and lightcycle battles, Hedlund is whisked away to meet his father by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), Kevin Flynn's sleek and cheerful "apprentice."  Father and son reunited, Hedlund, Bridges, and Wilde set off to stop Clu's nefarious scheme and return Hedlund to the real world.

Bridges seems to be having a ball in his multiple roles as old Kevin Flynn, young Kevin Flynn in flashback, and Clu. The computer generated imagery that transformed Bridges into a virtual version of himself 25 years younger is off-putting at first but suits the creepy, villainous Clu. As old Kevin Flynn, Bridges zones in and out from wise zen master to chilled-out California hippie. Sometimes, he's just being The Dude, man.  He's gotta listen to the sky, don't harsh his zen. Kevin Flynn abides. Kevin Flynn loves his son dearly, even when Sam screws up his mojo and pisses him off, like when Sam steals his vintage original light cycle and gives it to a random Program on the street.  When Clu finally meets his maker at the conclusion, Bridges suddenly widens his eyes and turns into Gandalf.  Bridges is great when he quips with himself; Clu and Flynn have the funniest exchange in the movie:

Clu: "Flynn! The cycles have not been kind."
Flynn: "Oh, you don't look so bad."

That's harsh, man.  

As Quorra, Wilde is destined to be the cyber pin-up girl of a million nerds' office cubicles for a generation.  Quorra is as if Trinity from The Matrix wasn't so stern and actually had a sense of humor. Clad in her sleek, skin-tight, glowing catsuit, Wilde is radiant and formidable in a light disc fight, but innocent. She's well-read in classic books but thinks Sam knows Jules Verne personally. Mainly, Wilde is about as awesome a virtual girlfriend who follows Sam back into the real world as a guy could ask for.  It seemed to me like Kevin Flynn, expecting his grown son to come to The Grid one day, was saving Quorra for Sam. What a great dad he is, man.

Quorra has a big secret that's not really so groundbreaking - she is the last of the self-sentient Programs that came into being when Flynn created the Grid before her kind were wiped out by the Purge when Clu took power.  Like Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and even Aaron Ralston in 127 Hours, Quorra gets her arm cut off, but she grows hers back lickety-split thanks to Kevin Flynn's fancy coding through her life disc, or whatever, man.

Though every person Sam Flynn meets in The Grid can't wait to tell him whatever their backstory is and drone on about whatever exposition needed to be explained to get to the next action sequence, there were still a lot of unanswered questions about life in The Grid.  For one, where do the Users living in The Grid get their food?  The cyber city Clu controls and the harsh mountainous terrain Kevin Flynn built his classy hippie commune in didn't really illuminate where crops and meat grow. Where did that enormous suckling pig on the Flynns' dinner table come from, and why weren't they eating it? (Maybe it was a virtual pig.)

Pleasant surprises among the cast are Cillian Murphy, who pops up in one scene at the beginning as a smug programmer, and Michael Sheen, as Zuse, the most flamboyant Program in The Grid, prancing around his nightclub in his white glowy robe and slicked back white hair.  Sheen is a lofty actor in serious roles (Frost/Nixon and The Queen, for instance), but cast him in a sci-fi or fantasy picture like Tron and he goes balls-out, scenery-chewing, batshit ballistic.

Tron Legacy's knockout one-two punches are its eye and ear candy.  Light discs fights, light cycle chases, and light jet dogfights all thrill as they should.  Who wouldn't want to just leap into the air and have a glowing colored light vehicle instantly materialize around them?  Eye candy galore also takes place with the sexy ladies who slink around The Grid, such as Beau Garrett as Gem, a techno-dreamgirl who fills out a skin-tight white jumpsuit even better than Padme Amidala. Smallville fans could blink and miss Zatanna herself, Serinda Swann, as "Siren #2".  Meanwhile, the pulse-pounding techno score by Daft Punk is one of the best of the year, occasionally invoking the regal symphonies of Vangelis' Blade Runner, and rivaling the amazing score of The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch.

There is also a Tron in Tron Legacy. Tron was, apparently, a character in the original Tron, and was one of the three architects of Tron Legacy's Grid, along with the two Jeff Bridges. Tron gets corrupted by Clu when he conquered The Grid, which turned him into a helmeted automaton with no dialogue.  But Tron does have Legacy's most hilarious moment, a trademark Mr. Burns "unpredictable change of heart", at the end when he decides to save the Flynns and Quorra for no reason.  Oh, that Tron. I'm sure everyone in The Grid will always remember his name.

I particularly enjoyed the final scene of Legacy. Heldlund has returned from The Grid and informs Bruce Boxleitner that he's taking back his father's company. Then he jumps on his motorcycle with a very real Wilde straddled behind him and they ride off together. They ride through the cities, into the forests and mountains so Wilde can see her first sunrise, which she'd always dreamed of in The Grid. It's a pleasing moment which argues persuasively for the beauty of our real world over The Grid or anything computer-generated. Take that, Avatar freaks who want to live on Pandora!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Fighter



In The Fighter, which is based on a true story, Mark Wahlberg could very well contend for an Oscar by putting on a clinic on how to suffer in silence. Wahlberg provides a solid, intriguing center in The Fighter as Micky Ward, a blue collar boxer who has spent his whole life domineered by his madhouse of a family and toiling in the shadow of his beloved older brother, Christian Bale. Bale, like the character he plays, Dicky Eklund, "the Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts", is the flashier showman and perpetually the center of attention. Dicky once fought and knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight seen on HBO (Eklund lost and Leonard may have tripped, two details that get lost as Dicky's local legend is repeated ad nauseam). Now, Dicky is a pathetic crackhead and a criminal who "trains" his brother in between bouts of getting high. Dicky is so detached from reality and enabled all his life by his harpy of a mother (Melissa Leo, Oscar worthy herself) that he believes an HBO documentary camera crew following him around is doing so to chart his nonexistent comeback to boxing instead of what they're really there for, an expose on crack addiction. Bale, scrawny, sweaty, and feral, tends to dominate The Fighter the way his character perpetually steals attention from Wahlberg. It's a blistering performance by Bale, gunning for an Oscar nod. But it's the understated Wahlberg, stoic but needy, torn between his deep love for his brother and his desire to get out from the toxic pit of his family, who truly impresses. The Fighter is steeped in the local colah of Lowell, Mass. Wahlberg and Bale have different fathers and are related to a grotesque gaggle of sisters who all look in-bred, with their matching Walmart outfits and crunchy mall-hairstyles. Their sisters despise Wahlberg's fiery girlfriend, Amy Adams. They claim she thinks she's "so superior because she went to college", never mind that Adams dropped out and works as a bartender. Adams also has bigger aspirations than being a Lowell townie; in Wahlberg, she finds a kindred spirit and the pick of a rotten litter.  The electric, fascinating family drama of The Fighter's first half gives way to a more conventional feel-good conclusion as Bale gets clean in prison and the family more or less settles their differences to support Wahlberg. The boxing The Fighter presents is rather straightforward; a simple "head-body-head-body" fighting style Bale teaches Wahlberg takes Wahlberg to his in-ring victories. A lot of strategizing happens for Wahlberg's early opponents but none is made for his opponent in the big championship fight at the end. It's also curious how these blue collar Lowell townies are all able to watch Wahlberg's fights on HBO despite the lack of cable boxes on their beat up television sets. (I get it - they all steal cable.) When Walhberg wins his championship at the end, he and his entire family start kissing each other in the ring - it's almost like that Saturday Night Live sketch about the family that makes out with each other. At its core, The Fighter is a fairly formulaic story; the strong performances by the actors lead by Wahlberg, Bale, and Adams, and the direction by David O. Russell elevate The Fighter above the basic material into a wicked crowd pleaser. But do me a favor, Mark - don't say hi to your mother for me.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Smallville 10x11 - "Icarus"


Special DC Universe Guest Stars:
Special DC Universe Guest Stars Referenced on a Most Wanted Poster:
Special Smallville Guest Star in a Flashback:

Smallville's 10th and final mid-season finale set up a wedding and ended with a funeral. In between was a lot of boring slog, then a patented Smallville nerdgasm DC Superhero fight that doesn't last very long but still, whoever thought you'd see it at all?

In the midst of superheroes having their status upgraded to "terrorists" by the Vigilante Registration Act following the explosion of the government gulag on the oil rig that "killed" General Slade Wilson in "Patriot", Metropolis is on curfew and lockdown. Defying the will of the people (the people with Omega symbols tattooed on their skulls), Clark has amorous intentions for one Lois Lane, the woman he loves. Clark planned a romantic dinner at Metropolis' finest restaurant, but Lois is typically obstinate and more than a little dense. Finally, Clark resorts to his old Blur trick of calling her in a phone booth (Metropolis is the only city in America that still has those) and makes it rain white rose petals from the sky. Clark Kent, you make the rain fall. Clark gets down on one knee and more than a few fully grown men squeal like little girls from their couches as he (Super)man's up and proposes:

"Lois Lane, will you marry me?"

Word gets out fast. Chloe somehow has a note and present sent to Lois at the Daily Planet the very next morning, which triggers a flashback that I don't remember ever happened in a past episode, but may have: At the Talon, Lois asks Chloe why Lana didn't stay with Clark. Chloe answers in her typical prescient mythic speak that Lana wasn't the one Clark was fated to be with (and if you know Chloe's lifelong affection for Clark, it stings her a bit that Chloe wasn't either.) Great to see Chloe again. At this point in the series, any appearance by a beloved Smallville Original tugs at the nostalgia heartstrings.

Tess informs Lois and Clark separately that they're due at Watchtower for retina scans to update the new security protocols. And they both fell for that one. The real protocol is an engagement party for the happy couple! In attendance are Tess, Oliver, Dr. Emil Hamilton, Hawkman and Stargirl! Now, who was in charge of invitations? It's glaring who's missing. Uh, Kara, Clark's cousin? Martha Kent? Anyone try to contact her? You think she'd want to be there? What about that Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz? He's local; fighting crime with the Metropolis Police. Oliver didn't invite Speedy? Where is Speedy? And the rest of The Team? Impulse, Cyborg, Black Canary, Aquaman? Uh... MERA? Where the hell is Mera?! No one invited Mera? Was the Currys' invitation lost at sea? HOW CAN YOU NOT INVITE MERA BACK?! I WANT MERA! (Sorry, sorry, but you understand why I'm upset. Mera better be a bridesmaid at the wedding...)

Everyone puts on a celebratory face, unless you're Oliver and Hawkman, who traditionally hate each other, but now mope and wax ominously in the corner. Clark asks Oliver, the man who's beside him on his best days and worst, to be his best man. (Pete Ross is probably somewhere stretching part of his body into a noose to hang himself. And that part of his body is his enormous cock. Have you seen his sex tape with that Playboy Playmate? Good Lord. Anyway, back to Smallville...)

Meanwhile, as our heroes celebrate the pending nuptials of what Lois thinks are the "Kent-Lanes", the forces of the very much alive and one-eyed General Slade Wilson raid the many sets of Smallville: the Luthorcorp Offices, the Daily Planet, the Kent House. I'm surprised they spared the Luthor Mansion, the Kent Barn, and the Indian Caves. Slade's men steal vital bits of info about The Team, enough to warrant taking Tess, Emil, and Lois Lane into custody. They also bring in Cat Grant, who unfortunately is in this episode, but was helping the mean old soldiers in black.

Later, Public Enemy #1 Oliver Queen ("Queen without a Country", heh) is nonchalantly strolling down the streets of the Metropolis backlot set, casually glancing at all of the wanted posters of his handsome face, when he stumbles upon a mugging. Going after the mugger, it ends up looking like Oliver Queen is attacking a random citizen on the street. The gullible people of Metropolis attempt a citizen's arrest; Oliver fights them off and is overwhelmed. Luckily, Hawkman and Stargirl arrive on the scene and whisk Oliver away via Stargirl's magically appearing staff. What was missing from this scene was a bloody, broken-hearted Oliver asking, "Whatever happened to the American Dream?!" And Hawkman responds, "It came true! You're looking at it!" Then he maces some dude in the skull. (Actually, the Hawkman part would be even funnier if Stargirl did it.)

Lois and Clark get home to the Kent House, don't notice it's been broken into, and find out Oliver was attacked on the street via the news. Lois knows what to do: She hands Clark his red Blur leather jacket and says "Go get 'em, tiger." (She doesn't say that.) The very next scene, Clark appears at Watchtower and he's not wearing the red jacket. Huh? Our heroes, including Black Canary on the monitor (but she couldn't come to the engagement party?) realize their secrets have been compromised so The Team agrees to go underground (I could swear "going underground" was a call they all made at least once prior). Clark shuts down Watchtower; this is achieved by him walking to the wall and pulling one non-descript switch.

In Lois' hand in one scene is the most bizarre Most Wanted poster yet, listing The Blur, Green Arrow, Impulse, Supergirl, Stargirl, Black Canary, Aquaman, Hawkman, and Zatanna. Wait -- Supergirl? How can she be called Supergirl before Clark is Superman? She was painfully called the Maiden of Might and even Ultrawoman (before Ultraman actually showed up last week.) SUPERGIRL before SUPERMAN? And how did they get mug shots of Impulse, Stargirl and Hawkman, but only have a drawing of Black Canary and Oliver Queen? And again, where in the deep blue sea is Mera? She's not on the most wanted? She's my most wanted!

The boring parts of the episode are up next as the lady in the charge of interrogating Tess, Emil, and Lois, does so boringly. Lois is weirdly left alone in Tess' office and discovers Tess has a Super Fun Happy Slide built into the walls and escapes. Then Lois quickly runs into Cat in the basement (that's a long fucking slide!) where she finally talks the current Worst Character in Smallville that the heroes are people she would want her son to look up to, not the a-hole soldiers following General Slade (this is NOT in any way meant to say our brave troops aren't the REAL heroes). Cat protects Lois when the soldiers come looking. Aw, Cat's not such a bad cat after all, just a bad character.

While their friends are being held captive and being given a good talking to, Clark, Oliver and Hawkman are for some reason hanging out in the office of General Slade Wilson. (Clark is not wearing the red jacket, he's in all black. They all are. Because they're "underground".) They discover that Slade was using Oliver to get to the rest of The Team under a operation dubbed "Icarus".

Clark Superspeeds to the Daily Planet to find Lois and frees Tess and Emil, who also, I presume head "underground". Lois goes back to, I presume Tess' office, for some reason, and runs into General Slade Wilson, who's mad as hell. He's not falling for Lois' tricks anymore, smacks her up good, and means to stroke her to death (I'm sorry. Best I could come up with.) But who saves Lois by bursting through the wall but her hero... HAWKMAN! (Complete with CGI retractable wings.) Slade unleashes his magically appearing battlestaff as Hawman tries to bash his skull in with his mace. Hawkman vs. Deathstroke the Terminator! The geekout doesn't last long, and ends with Hawkman being run through with Slade's weapon. Then the office explodes, Lois is blown out of the window, and Hawkman dives out of the window to save her, a winged man on fire. WHAAAT?! HAWKMAN IS ICARUS? (Layin' it on thick, Smallville.)

On the ground, Slade is nonchalantly walking away from the Daily Planet when he runs into Clark. (So Clark was Superspeeding around the Planet but failed to find Lois or see the big Deathstroke v. Hawkman smackdown?) Slade knows Clark is the Blur, and tells him (little chuckle) that he's "beyond Death's Stroke" now. Hee hee. You get it? Clark doesn't care, and he uses his S shield thingamabob to teleport Slade... somewhere... An ice cell in the Fortress? The Phantom Zone? We'll find out eventually.

Clark then finds the smoldering corpse of Hawkman a few steps away, but enveloped in his broken wings is Lois Lane, safe and sound. Yes, Hawkman saved her, because he's a hero. In his dying words, Hawkman tells Clark, "This is what we do" (what, die?) and wishes he could be there when they fight the Darkness. Then the light in Hawkman's chest logo goes out and Carter Hall is no more.

Cut to Egypt. In the vein of how last season showed us the musical montage of what a Kryptonian funeral looks like, the Team is assembled to give Hawkman a solemn superhero Egyptian funeral. With Clark (now finally wearing the red jacket), Oliver, Lois, Stargirl, and... well, look who made it - Black Canary! - as pall bearers, Hawkman is laid to rest beside his eternal love Hawkwoman. Their helmets are ceremoniously laid on top of their tombs so they are easy to find when the Hawks show back up here all reincarnated. Our heroes, this league of justice, pay their final respects to the Icarus of our tale, and then some diamond-shaped thing emits a white light, and suddenly all of our heroes are knocked unconscious on the floor of the tomb. See you in 2011.

Monday, December 6, 2010

You've Got to "Prey" Just To Make It Today

A big rumor going around about David Goyer basing the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises on "Prey" from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight lead me to dig up my issues from my longboxes in storage.

"Prey", written by Doug Moench and drawn by Paul Gulacy and Terry Austin, was published back in 1991 so it's been 19 years since I read it. I vaguely remembered the story besides remembering I liked it back then and thought it was good. My memory was either a little faulty or my standards have risen since I was 15. (Both.) Either way, I wasn't too impressed with "Prey" overall.

Several elements of "Prey" lend themselves nicely to pick up where The Dark Knight left off: the alliance between Batman and Jim Gordon that now has to be kept secret from everyone, Batman being hunted by the police as a vigilante, Batman needing a new Batmobile, and Dr. Hugo Strange becoming the city's expert analrapist on Batman while secretly wishing to be him and replace him.

"Prey" is also more blatantly sexual than I remember, especially for the time. I mean, 1991 was one of the breakthrough years of in-your-face sex in comics, especially at Marvel, where Jim Lee was regularly drawing the X-Men and especially Rogue and Psylocke naked every issue. In "Prey", they go all out with the sex and nudity: Lots of big boobied naked chicks in every issue, Strange has a heavily implied sexual relationship with a Real Doll. Strange then kidnaps the Mayor's daughter and holds her handcuffed in bed in her lingerie. They didn't show Strange raping her but you can presume he did. Then there's Catwoman, who's in the story for no real reason other than as a plot device and to occasionally get naked. That sordid sort of sexy stuff hasn't been in Christopher Nolan's past repertoire and probably won't make it into Rises.

Ultimately, "Prey" isn't anywhere near as good as I remembered it; it's overly melodramatic, the story falls apart in the second half (it's never clear why Batman didn't immediately suspect Strange and why he didn't monitor Strange's penthouse until the end), and the sub-villain, "the Night-Scourge", who is the cop in command of the Batman Task Force Strange hypnotizes, really sucks. Really, really sucks. He's just a grunt in a ski mask carrying samurai swords.

In the way elements of the stories involving The Joker, Boss Thorne, and Silver St. Cloud in Batman: Strange Apparitions* (which also starred Hugo Strange) informed The Joker, Boss Carl Grissom, and Vicki Vale in Batman (1989), there's stuff in "Prey" that could definitely - if the rumors are true - be lifted and vastly improved upon by Christopher Nolan. 

Then again, all these rumors about "Prey" being a source material for The Dark Knight Rises could be a lot of Bat-hooey and this whole thing is moot.

*Strange Apparitions is a collection of 1970s Batman stories I do recommend. They're dated, yes, but really high quality stories for the era, and you can see that the wide streets and tall (but not gothic) buildings of the 1970s Gotham City informed Chris Nolan's Chicago-Gotham City. In fact, there are a ton of similarities to Batman in the 1970s and Chris Nolan's Batman movies, including Batman living in Wayne Tower with a Batcave under the city like he had in The Dark Knight.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Black Swan



"I just want to be perfect."

Black Swan is amazing - a virtuoso, alarmingly sexy, shockingly crowd pleasing art-film-meets-psychological-thriller about the world of professional ballet. Black Swan showcases director Darren Aronofsky at the apex of his powers as a filmmaker. Aronofsky directs Natalie Portman to a magnificent career-best performance that should reward her with a completely-deserved Best Actress Academy Award.  No longer will Portman be haunted by snide remarks that the best performances she ever gave in films happened before she was old enough to drive: her turn as a 12 year old assassin in Leon: The Professional and her heart-stealing role in Beautiful Girls when she was 14. There was also Closer a decade later but Black Swan blows that out of the water.

Appearing in nearly every scene, her already petite body emaciated into the frame of a ballerina, Portman shocks and awes with her heart-wrenching emotional fragility. She spends most of the film barely holding back a complete psychological breakdown, ultimately in futility. Closed off from any semblance of a normal life, Portman sleeps in a bedroom decorated like a little girl's doll's house. Indeed, she is basically a living doll, treated as such by her frightful, domineering failed artist of a mother, Barbara Hershey. The reaction of Mila Kunis, Portman's cheerfully effervescent only friend and imagined rival, upon meeting her mother was spot-on hilarious. A slimy Vincent Cassel casts Portman, against his better judgment, as the Swan Queen in his production of "Swan Lake", after Portman tearfully pleads for the role ("I just want to be perfect!") and then bites his lip when he takes advantage of her. ("That fucking hurt!" is the biggest laugh in the film.)

As Portman toils and battles against herself to perform as both the delicate White Swan and the dreadful Black Swan, the film dizzyingly explores Portman's deteriorating psyche, invoking horrific supernatural elements as she literally transforms into the Black Swan while releasing her lifelong pent-up fears and sexual frustrations. Sex and desire is matter of fact in Black Swan, embodied by Kunis as the sexually free spirit Portman envies and lusts for as much if not moreso than she does Cassel. Aronofsky and Portman drop jaws with a stunning, in-your-face masturbation scene from Portman, which is topped by a sex scene between Portman and Kunis that's in-your-face in a totally different manner. A ghastly recurring theme is Portman's constantly bleeding fingernails, which Hershey forcibly clips off in one scene, garnering squeals and grimaces from the audience.

As in The Wrestler and the world of professional wrestling, Aronofsky is meticulous in detailing the rituals, physical preparation, and the ordeal ballerinas go through on a daily basis (broken, bleeding toes are just the start of it). Aranofsky also has a bit of fun when introducing two guys Portman and Kunis meet at a club who, appropriately, know nothing about ballet and scoff at the idea they should come to the ballet to see them perform. Nor does Black Swan shy away from the catty backstage jealousies between the ballerinas. Through it all, Natalie Portman heroically carries Black Swan on her tiny, milky shoulders, never compromising her powerful verisimilitude even in the the film's most fantastical moments in her doomed pursuit of her own perfection. Deliriously astounding and unforgettably bravura, Black Swan speaks thrillingly to caution anyone obsessively pursuing a creative endeavor to the point of their own destruction.

I propose the Black Swan drinking game - Take a drink whenever a character touches another's crotch. Two when Natalie touches her own. Three when Mila... you'll know it when you see it.

Smallville 10x10 - "Luthor"

Special Guest Stars:

Earth-2! Earth-effin'-2! Smallville finally tackles the parallel Mirror Universe idea in its tenth and final season with another series-best episode. "Luthor" was as tremendous an episode of Smallville as there ever was, not just for it's dizzying comic book concepts, but for the depth of emotional drama from our beloved heroes, with Tom Welling, Erica Durance, Cassidy Freeman, and John Glover (he's back!) raising their performances to the next level.

Yet another evil version of Clark appears on Smallville (it's happened so often, Lois automatically guesses it's "a red-K" attack) but this one might be the best evil Clark of all. This is Clark Luthor, who, on the color-drained world of Earth-2, was rocketed to Earth from the doomed world of Krypton and found not by a couple of loving farmers, but by Lionel Luthor, who expected "the traveler's" arrival as part of Veritas.

Lionel raised Clark (and still named him Clark? A name Martha Kent picked? Hmm.) as his own son, alongside his real son Lex and his daughter from another mother Lu(Tess)a. And raise Clark Lionel did, into a homicidal (but sharply dressed) manic who sleeps with random floozies and torments the denizens of Metropolis as Ultraman. (Hey, Clark Luthor is pretty cool! But Earth-2 Oliver Queen is right on: the name "Ultraman" sucks.) No one knows Clark Luthor is Ultraman; he terrorizes Metropolis as a murderous blur and kills anyone who sees his face. Ultraman killed Earth-2's Lex (and the Swans) and carries on a sexual affair with Lionel's red-headed stepchild Tess. (We get a taste of the sexual chemistry between Tom Welling and Cassidy Freeman, and it's pretty super.) Maybe the most awesome concept is that there's an Earth-2 Fortress of Solitude that Lionel controls, after years of work it took he and Clark to silence Clark's "progenitor" Jor-El.

On Earth-1, Tess inherits a Kryptonian artifact willed to the "heir of Lionel Luthor", which is now Tess. (It's still better than being the heir of Slytherin.) The artifact is a shiny crystal called a Mirrorbox, capable of transporting Kryptonians (and possibly anyone though only the Clarks switched places) to the parallel Earth. Clark summons Tess to Cadmus about a break in that he and Oliver tracked, and once there, Tess' jig - the jig being "I've known about the clones of Lex Luthor and I've been hiding the surviving one, Alexander, and playing mommy to him - because I'm also a Lionel Luthor's daughter" - is up! Clark was especially unnerved by Alexander's bedroom and his wall of scratched in S symbols. That little bastard and his copyright infringements! (Actually, we don't know how old Alexander is now with his rapid-aging problem.) Clark totally loses it, and Tess is about to have an emotional breakdown because she's wanted Clark to trust her for so long and now she thinks she's blown it, until Clark opens the Mirrorbox and Things Get Worse.

Clark ends up in on Earth-2, where every thing is in black and white and everyone but Lionel and Tess are terrified of him. Clark explores his Earth-2 options, trying to find out who has the Mirrorbox so he can go back home, where there's color and no one automatically soils their pants in his presence. Lois is engaged to Oliver and they both hate him/Clark Luthor. Lionel leads Clark on to suspect Oliver has the Mirrorbox, so Clark does the only thing he can do: he kidnaps Lois and holds her ransom in exchange for the Mirrorbox. But Clark's real ulterior motive is to talk to Lois, to tell her about who he really is and of this wonderful, colorful other world where he and Lois are in love and they fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way together. Lois isn't buying Clark's story until he says the following in the most impassioned speech Tom Welling has ever delivered on Smallville:

"Where I'm from, Lois Lane, you and I, we're allies. You always have my back. How else would I know you're brave and loyal? And a force of nature. Look, you misspell words, simple words, at an alarmingly frequent basis! And you never admit when I'm right, even when I call you on it. And you can always tell when I'm lying. You can see right through me, straight to my soul, to my heart. My name is Clark Kent and I promise, Lois, I will never let this world happen to us. I can't live in a world where you don't love me."

Wow. A couple of Superman: The Movie references in that speech, especially the one major character point of Lois invented by Dick Donner and Tom Mankiewicz that will be part of the character forever: Lois Lane can't spell. Clark also has snappy banter to Lois when it's all over:

"Nothing says 'Sorry my doppelganger from a parallel Earth tried to kill you' like flowers." There's also a great winking joke by Lois about how many times in the series she's had to sign medical release forms.

Meanwhile, Clark Luthor ends up on Earth-1 and goes right looking for his sister-lover. (Buster Bluth has never been so jealous. And is it me or is Earth-2 Tess looking hotter?) Tess manages to swallow down Ultraman's tongue in surprise when he kisses her, and then swallow down her abject terror at Ultraman's potential to kill her and everyone in Metropolis long enough to bluff him. Tess calls Lois, who ignores her, so Tess uses Watchtower to cut off Lois' credit, track her via security cameras and call the cell phone of the hapless dude standing behind her in the coffee line to summon Lois to Watchtower. (Maybe everyone on The Team just needs signal watches.) Once at Watchtower, there's hardly time to explain what's going on before Ultraman explodes into Watchtower and starts beating up Smallville chicks.

On Earth-2, Clark goes to Watchtower to get the Mirrorbox from Oliver but falls right into Oliver's mousetrap, a Kryptonite beam. Oliver has one in every major city, and his business is buying up farmland in Smallville, evicting the farmers, and mining for meteor rocks. Lionel saves Clark from a Queen bullet, but only because he wants to kill Clark himself. Lionel, who in a bizarre lapse of his perceptive genius, still doesn't realize this Clark isn't the one he raised, took off his belt and gave his "son" a whoopin' because he's long feared Clark betraying him. ("What were you planning, to take the Mirrorbox and go to another world with your whore sister?") Oliver de-activates the K-beam so Clark can punch Lionel across the room, rather brutally too. I guess he was mad about the whippings. Assuring Oliver that in his world they save the world together, Clark opens the Mirrorbox and finds himself back in color, staring at the barrel of Tess' gun, and Oliver and Lois' K-arrows on Earth-1. Everything, and everyone, is back to where they were.

Or are they? Clark visits Tess at the mansion, apologizes to her for his "Luthor blood is poison line", and holds her hand in a touching scene of trust and reconciliation. Tess confesses the worst part of being Lionel's daughter is that she's actually hurt that "he threw me away". (Good thing she never heard Earth-2 Lionel tell her doppelganger that she isn't "special enough"). Clark and Tess both know Alexander Luthor is out there. But what they don't know is that so is Lionel Luthor! Now, in color! Lionel Luthor buying coffee and walking the streets of Earth-1 Metropolis! Is this the Earth-2 Lionel? Did he use the Mirrorbox? Is Clark Luthor dead?

All I know is the return of John Glover at maximum diabolical evil as Lionel Luthor was a shot in the arm for Smallville. Even without the presence of Michael Rosenbaum, having an evil Luthor as the Enemy just feels right, and Earth-2 Lionel was even more dangerous and ruthless than the Lionel we knew, and he was plenty dangerous and ruthless. Plus Darkseid is still out there. And next week: The return of Slade Wilson, Deathstroke the Terminator, and a Justice League/Justice Society team up! If all that doesn't spell a Crisis on Smallville, I don't know what does.