Clever, chilling and above all compelling, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan marks the perfect start to this year’s Venice.
Last time Aronofsky was on the Lido, The Wrestler walked away with the Golden Lion. This time, he has the honour of opening the festival.
Yet Black Swan couldn’t be further away from the tear-stained heartbreak of The Wrestler. If anything, it’s the closest thing he’s made to his sophomore film, Requiem For a Dream.
A psychological thriller set in the world of the ballet, if Robert Altman’s The Company had been re-made by David Cronenberg that might come close to describing Black Swan.
In the lead is Natalie Portman, in arguably her most mature role to date. She plays Nina, a New York ballerina who lands the plum role of the Swan Queen in her company’s new production of Swan Lake.
A fragile innocent who still lives at home, her bedroom overflowing with fluffy toys, Nina may be perfect casting as the White Swan.
But, as her manipulative artistic director (Vincent Cassel) puts it, “the real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin”.
Aronofsky gradually essays this transformation, at times brilliantly, as Nina increasingly allows the role to get under her skin.
It doesn’t help that in Lily (Mila Kunis), a rebellious newcomer to the company, Nina has her “evil twin” right there, ready to lead her astray into the Manhattan night.
As the pressure begins to tell, Nina starts hallucinating – whether its paintings moving, tattoos shimmering or her own skin peeling off before her very eyes.
Portman is marvelous in meltdown mode, a perfect mixture of the prim and the paranoid, as she lives up to her mother’s suggestion that “this role is destroying you”.
But there are other great turns too. Cassel is wonderful slimy and, in little more than a cameo, Winona Ryder is deeply unsettling as Nina’s embittered predecessor.
The result is a triumphant piece from Aronofsky – part horror, part coming-of-age drama – that more than merits its opening night berth.
If the pen is mightier than the sword, clearly nobody told Robert Rodriguez. Machete kicks serious ass from start to finish.
It won’t hold too many surprises for those who saw the fake trailer that featured in Grindhouse, the Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino B-movie double-bill.
Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo finally takes centre stage (and about time, I’d say) as the machete-boasting Mexican who fights the good fight.
There’s even room for Cheech Marin, who featured in the original trailer as the shotgun-heavy Padre with the killer line, “God has mercy. I don’t.”
But a single trailer does not a film make, and Rodriguez has expanded this one-note idea into a hilarious ‘Mexploitation’ movie that feels like the perfect partner to his Grindhouse entry Planet Terror.
The hilarious prologue sets the tone, as Machete busts in to rescue a girl (naked, of course), by hacking any head, arm or leg that gets in his way with his lethal weapon.
It doesn’t stop there as blood splatters across the screen with alarming regularity – the stand-out grisly moment arguably coming when Machete uses one luckless assailant’s intestine as a rope swing.
Yet Machete isn’t all cartoon sex-and-violence – with its plot seeing a Texas senator (Robert De Niro) determined to build an electrified fence along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants.
Featuring Jessica Alba as an immigration officer who teams up with Machete, much of the cast is deliciously retro – everyone from Steven Seagal as a Mexican druglord to Don Johnson as a gun-happy sheriff and Jeff Fahey as a ruthless businessman.
While it feels like The Expendables rather stole Rodriguez’s thunder there, he does get to offer redemption for off-screen bad-girls Michelle Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan, who gets a particularly memorable moment involving a nun’s habit and a .44 Magnum.
But the true star is Trejo. He may be more crinkled than a bag of prunes, but he’s spot-on as this new kind of superhero.
As the finale says, ‘Machete Will Return’. After this effervescent effort, let’s hope Rodriguez isn’t joking.
Greetings from the Lido! As Total Film gears up to bring you our coverage of the 67th Venice Film Festival, the signs are good.
For starters, it seems like jury head Quentin Tarantino has stuck his oar in. His old mate Robert Rodriguez provides one of three opening films, in the shape of Grindhouse-trailer-turned-feature Machete.
Meanwhile, Tarantino’s old favourite John Woo is receiving a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, which means public screenings of Woo classics The Killer and A Better Tomorrow (woo-hoo!).
What else to look out for? Well, the official opening film, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a psychological thriller set in the world of the New York ballet, is a must-see.
Ben Affleck’s second directorial effort, and his second Boston-set crime drama, The Town looks intriguing, as does Sofia Coppola’s potentially indulgent Somewhere, starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning.
I also can’t wait to see Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, a new film from the maestro behind such ’70s classics as Two Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter.
Most intriguing film will surely be I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s documentary about Joaquin Phoenix’s transition from actor to rapper.
And with Vincent Gallo back with his new film Promises Written In Water (as well as an appearance in Essential Killing), controversy won’t be far away.
It all adds up to a tasty-looking selection. Stay tuned for daily reports.