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Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review: Traitors

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Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review: <em>Traitors</em>
Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review: <em>Traitors</em>

The Arab Spring has many faces. Malika (a charismatic Chaimae Ben Acha), the lead singer of the eponymous all-girl punk rock band at the center of writer-director Sean Gullette’s debut feature, Traitors, is a representative of the restless generation in the Moroccan port city of Tangiers. Inspired by the Clash hit, the Traitors practice a song with the refrain, “I’m so bored with Morocco, but what can I do?” To Malika’s father, his daughter is a misfit because she’s 25 years old and unmarried. She also doesn’t seem very interested in holding on to her job at an international call center. Her only interest, it seems, is to perform with her band, and her only goal is to raise enough money so the group can rent a recording studio to cut a demo.

The Boston-born Gullette, best known for co-writing and starring in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, is currently based in Tangiers, his wife’s hometown, and he clearly has empathy for his adopted city. In the first half of the film he reveals a skillful eye (and ear) for the quotidian in a portrait of middle-class life in urban Morocco and how an energetic young generation is effected by their familial relations. Take Malika, whose mother makes sure her two daughters get their breakfast before she heads out to clean apartments. Her father owns a garage, but seems to spend most of his time in coffee shops. So when the girl learns that her father’s business is failing, and that he’s neglected his family’s finances as well, she feels she must help keep the roof above her family’s heads in addition to trying to raise cash for her band.

The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part II: Black Swan

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The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part II: Black Swan
The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part II: Black Swan

Ed Howard: Jason, you ended the first half of our conversation about Darren Aronofsky by wondering both where the director would go next after his first four films and which Aronofsky would be represented in Black Swan, his fifth feature. Throughout that exchange, we mostly divided Aronofsky’s career in half, considering Pi and Requiem for a Dream as blunt, bleak rehearsals for the more fully realized explorations of thematically similar territory in The Fountain and The Wrestler. So I suppose it’s appropriate that for the first half of Black Swan, I found myself thinking I was watching another Requiem for a Dream, while the second half ventured into the richer, deeper territory of Aronofsky’s more recent career. It’s appropriate, too, that the film itself is so concerned with halving and doubling, with mirrors and doppelgangers, built as it is around a production of the ballet Swan Lake in which the dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) is asked to play the dual role of the Swan Queen and her dark rival, the titular Black Swan.

It’s a fascinating film, and especially so in the context of Aronofsky’s career, because it feels like such a consolidation of everything he’s been exploring and dealing with in his other work. I haven’t read any reviews of Black Swan yet, but I feel pretty confident predicting that at least a few of them will call it “The Wrestler in ballet slippers,” or something similar, and they will be more or less accurate. As in The Wrestler and his other films, Aronofsky is exploring his protagonist’s singleminded pursuit of her obsession, in this case Nina’s pursuit of dancing perfection. As in The Wrestler, Aronofsky is recycling familiar cinematic clichés, drawing on the backstage movie’s tropes of domineering mothers, neurotic stars, ambitious rivals, aging hasbeens, and predatory/sexual relationships between male directors and female performers. In working with these clichés, however, Aronofsky reinvests them with vitality and freshness through the raw intensity of his filmmaking.

Nina wants, desperately and obsessively, to be “perfect,” though the film itself eschews this purity for grime, chaos and fragmentation, mocking Nina’s desire to be perfect by running her through an increasingly harrowing gauntlet of real and imagined trials and terrors. Black Swan begins in methodical, observational realism and slowly morphs, like a woman becoming a swan, into a psychological horror film, a dizzying fever dream that haunts the audience and the central character alike. I’m still wrestling with this dense film, and I’m sure we’ll delve more into its substance and its connections to Aronofsky’s oeuvre throughout this conversation. But one thing I’m already sure of is that I can’t forget this film; it’s provocative and viscerally exciting and visually compelling. I haven’t totally resolved my feelings about this film or its effect on me, but I’m already sure that it has affected me.

The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part I

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The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part I
The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part I

Jason Bellamy: I first learned of Darren Aronofsky in 1998 when I stumbled upon an episode of the CBS show 48 Hours, back before the series was obsessed with mysteries. The episode in question was called “Making It,” and it chronicled the lives of various people who were, or seemed to be, on the cusp of losing their anonymity. Among those featured were author Nicholas Sparks, actor Vin Diesel and Aronofsky. Sparks, at that point, had already transitioned from modest pharmaceutical salesman to bestselling author with The Notebook, and Diesel, by the time of the show’s airing, had already landed a role in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which would become the most talked about film of that summer. Those men had, to one degree or another, “made it.” But Darren Aronofsky’s ascension seemed a little less certain. “Making It” documented Aronofsky’s efforts to sell his debut feature film Pi, the creation of which had been financed through the donations of family and friends, at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. And, sure enough, by the end of Sundance, and by the end of 48 Hours, Pi had a buyer. Aronofsky’s film was a success. But, at least in my mind, Aronofsky hadn’t quite made it. It’s one thing to find a studio willing to write a check to distribute a film that’s already in the can. It’s another thing to get that check ahead of time, to become a contracted filmmaker.

I begin with that story because today, 12 years later, Aronofsky has certainly “made it,” and yet he remains somewhat anonymous and/or indistinct. Perhaps his upcoming film, Black Swan, which we’ll cover in the second part of this conversation, will change that. But at the moment I wonder if Aronofsky’s name means anything to the average moviegoer, the kind of person who makes it to the theater about four times a year, perhaps to see a pair of blockbusters and a pair of Best Picture nominees. Between Pi and Black Swan, Aronofsky has directed just three films—Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006) and The Wrestler (2008)—so perhaps it’s Aronofsky’s modest output that keeps him somewhat overlooked. Or maybe Aronofsky’s films, though far from inaccessible or alienating, aren’t mainstream enough to make him a household name. (X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2 might change that.) But I suspect that the main reason Aronofsky isn’t better known among average moviegoers is due to his lack of a specific reputation or legend among film buffs. Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler are each, to some degree or another, controversial films, but Aronofsky himself isn’t a polarizing figure. His name doesn’t spark an immediate opinion among cinephiles in the fashion of Christopher Nolan, M. Night Shyamalan or Alfonso Cuarón, to name some filmmakers who have been releasing movies for roughly the same amount of time.

An Outline of a Heartbreaker: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain

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An Outline of a Heartbreaker: Darren Aronofsky’s <em>The Fountain</em>
An Outline of a Heartbreaker: Darren Aronofsky’s <em>The Fountain</em>

Part sci-fi head trip, part swoony romance and part pop-philosophical manifesto, The Fountain is a gusher of poetic imagery, extravagant yet controlled. Hugh Jackman plays three incarnations of a hero: a conquistador trying to find the Fountain of Youth, a present-day cancer researcher who’s in denial over his wife’s impending death, and a 26th century astronaut piloting a translucent starship into a disintegrating nebula believed to be the gateway to the afterlife. But because the tales are not merely intercut, but densely interwoven—with images from one section being quoted, alluded to or expanded upon in another—The Fountain feels less like an anthology of thematically similar short stories than variations of the same narrative developed on parallel planes. When the movie cuts away from one period, you feel as though the story is still moving forward even though you’re not there to see it. Every scene—indeed, every shot—has been composed, designed, blocked and lit for maximum aesthetic oomph. You can envision the storyboards pinned on a production office wall, each drawing accompanied by a typewritten sheet explaining why every creative touch, however seemingly small, is integral to the film’s vision.