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The Wire – Season 2

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Review:

The Wire – Season 2

**** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

I finally finished The Wire – season 2. WOW, I LOVED it. I think I may have even enjoyed this season more than season one. I loved the whole docks element, which I thought was a really interesting element to the whole Baltimore crime world. You do not often see the life of a dockworker fleshed out on television or in the movies, but thankfully HBO enjoys presenting original and engaging content. We are introduced to a whole new world within The Wire and meet a pack of new and interesting characters.

I thought Frank Sobotka was a very intriguing (and tragic) character and I always liked Chris Bauer (especially since his performance as Machine in 8mm!) And the character of Sobotka’s son Ziggy: what a sad, lost sole he was – a totally relatable character. I think we all know someone like that or have at one point or another. James Ransone totally nailed that part. You feel bad for him simultaneously while being utterly frustrated by him. He is one of those guys who just can’t get out of his own way.

Nick Sobotka is a great character too – he’s the guy who is caught in the middle with the pressure of truly tough choices weighing on his shoulders…he’s the one who has to watch out for not only Ziggy but for his family. He tries to do the right thing but when temptation to do the wrong thing is too great, he reaches a dire crossroads. I could relate to him quite a bit, for he is the guy who most represented the everyman and like his uncle Frank, did what he felt was the best thing, for the right reasons – even if it was the wrong choice in the end. This is truly great stuff – in the realm of Greek tragedy really and apropos.

The docks and its relation to the human trafficking story-line were very interesting, as was the Greek crime syndicate and its Russian crossover. I liked that we saw criminals from all ethnicities in this season. When was the last time you saw a villain portrayed as a Greek smuggler? In fact, “The Greek” himself, played by Bill Raymond was completely believable and unique. I will confess, that at first I felt The Greek should have been a bit more menacing, but in retrospect now that I have seen the entire season, I think the casting was just right. Raymond’s performance exhibited a less-is-more, less stereotypical and almost un-assuming quality, which is what the role requires.

As always, the procedural element of The Wire is very interesting and I can see why this show has such prestige to it, for it is so exacting and intricate in its details. And I love the politics within the police department and the ensuing in-fighting. Rawles and Valchek will go down in history as two of the biggest hard-ass pricks to ever grace the screen, although at times Rawles (John Dolman) allows for some likability to shine through every once in a while. I love Lt. Daniels (Lance Reddick), Lester (Clark Peters) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce) of course and Dominic West’s McNulty is such a classic example of the worn-out, tortured great cop, which Dominic West plays TO A TEE. I also loved the addition this season of Amy Ryan as Beatrice (or Beattie). Ryan is always great and here she adds a touch of real character, playing someone you feel like you’d run into in your daily life. Ryan is a wise addition to the team, as her character is an eager go-getter who craves the action and suppresses a subtext of quiet desperation, which is very interesting.

And lastly, Omar – has there ever been a better loose cannon? He’s just awesome. Michael K. Williams is truly a revelation in this role! The criminals that populate this show are so engaging, as you judge and root for them at the same time: from Omar to the troubled Bubbles (Andre Royo) to Idris Elba’s Stringer Bell (whom I respect for his dedication to the job and love how he is in business school, wanting to be the best business man he can be), we’re captivated by these flawed people and we’re hanging on their every move, hoping they’ll come out on top. It is an interesting dichotomy to say the least – especially since all these characters are at odds with each other one minute then aligned the next. This show is just so dynamic and rich! We get a true sense for what it is like to be in this world and we certainly don’t want to be a part of it, except for maybe looking in through double-sided glass. Bring on season 3!

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Black Swan

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Review:

BLACK SWAN

Rated: R

**** stars (out of 4)

Black Swan is an intensely absorbing psychological decent into madness with Natalie Portman as Nina, a ballet dancer who is beginning to crack under the building pressure which comes with taking the arduous lead in a new production of Swan Lake. The pressure to be perfect is commonplace in the ballet; especially in New York City where after many seasons in the background, Portman’s Nina is finally given the chance to shine in two challenging lead parts, as the White and Black Swan roles respectively.

Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), an ex-ballet dancer herself-turned painter, is overjoyed by her daughter’s ascension to the top of the ballet food chain but adds a layer of unneeded pressure onto her daughter’s already heavy shoulders. This coupled with the stern bluntness of the production’s seasoned director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); an intimidating genius who is not shy about flaunting his sexuality to his dancers, makes for an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere for Nina. Additionally, Leroy urges Nina to be less rigid and uninhibited in the sexual arena to further immerse her in her roles. The film wades in sexual awakening and expression through most of the middle act, slowly building to a crescendo as Nina herself explores her primal hunger which has been dormant and very necessary for her to embody the essence of the Black Swan.

It is here that the film really immerses us in Nina’s mental spiral and we witness with her, the constant anguish of striving for perfection: the mental, emotional and physical discipline and constant fear of failure. The thrill and excitement of carrying the production on her shoulders eventually gives way as the pressure builds to growing anxiety and paranoia at the thought of being replaced by an understudy named Lily (Mila Kunis), who drops into the production out of nowhere both as friend and foe. Their relationship develops as adversaries, morphs into friendship and then jerks into darkness in ways I will not spoil but ones that will leave your eyes glued to the screen and in your thoughts well after you have left the theater.

All this weighs on Nina day and night as she pushes herself to be better with the looming production’s opening night just weeks and eventually days away. She dances, sleeps, bleeds and cries – that is her routine as she takes the spotlight. Nina knew it would be hard taking the lead after many seasons under the shadow of Leroy’s original prodigy and now retiring Beth (Winona Ryder), but as Nina slips deeper and deeper into mania, her grips on reality begin to crumble beneath her.

Black Swan features easily the best performance of the year by Portman and should ensure her the Oscar in a couple months. She trained for over a year for this film and it shows – physically and emotionally. She brings a heartbreaking realism to the role of Nina, a tortured girl whose desire to be perfect consumes her. Portman has come a long way since that little girl in The Professional (1994) and proves she is more than just a pretty young face. Like her performances in Closer (2004) and in last year’s Brothers, she shows us her vulnerability and her inner fire. I admire her dedication to the part and the discipline of training to be a ballerina. It is probably the hardest and most strenuous of the performance arts, as the physical toll your body takes alone is grueling, not to mention the constant mental and emotional turmoil that undoubtedly comes with it.

The supporting performances are all great as expected. The always cunning and menacing Vincent Cassel gives us another memorable character as Thomas; the sexier than ever Mila Kunis shows us another side of her we have not seen yet and Winona Ryder is powerful as Beth (it is good to see her back in films after several years out of the spotlight). And Barbara Hershey also delivers a terrific performance as Erica, an artist and mother struggling with lost dreams in light of her daughter’s realization of her own and as she lives vicariously through her daughter, she also sinks into the realm of madness in her own way.

This is another wonderful film by director Darren Aronosky who gave us the outstanding Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler a couple years ago (my favorite of Aronosky’s films) . He is one of the most absorbing directors working today; always different and inventive. He favors handheld camera work (The Wrestler was entirely handheld), vibrant imagery and stories about people rather than intricate plots (although his characters inner monologues can be very rich and complex). Here, he orchestrates the physical and mental world of a ballerina in turmoil perfectly and like in The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream and π, Aronofsky gives us a likable protagonist with demons who descends into darkness.  He is obsessed with the mind and with human behavior and chooses to examine us as a species in diverse walks of life and afflictions. I read that initially a few years ago, Aronofsky wanted to make a film about a wrestler that falls in love with a ballerina. I am sure that would have been an interesting film, but I am happy things turned out the way they did.