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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Jan. 26 

BLACK SWAN Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a messy masterpiece. Like Apocalypse Now, Eraserhead and Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream, it's one of those films that will force viewers to either reject it outright or allow it to burrow into the brain and remain there for days, weeks, months on end. It's a character study writ large, a juicy melodrama operating at a fever pitch. At its center is Natalie Portman in an astonishing performance as Nina Sayers, a ballerina whose director (Vincent Cassel) casts her in the lead role of his production of Swan Lake. But in true All About Eve fashion, just as she replaced an aging star (a knockout bit by Winona Ryder), she fears being usurped by a sexy newcomer (Mila Kunis). Meanwhile, the home situation is equally strained, given the fanatical devotion of her mother (an excellent Barbara Hershey). Is Nina strong enough to withstand myriad challenges, or is she on the verge of cracking up? The answers are there, but the film is complex enough to leave wiggle room for any theories. Examining the process of suffering for one's art in a strikingly unique manner, this psychosexual thriller is by turns frightening, sensual, humorous and tragic. It's a galvanizing picture that's simultaneously elegant and coarse — like its protagonist, it manages to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. ****

BLUE VALENTINE Ingmar Bergman's superb 1974 release Scenes from a Marriage went beyond allowing the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall: It made the viewer feel like a fly pinned to the wall, privy to everything going on in the room but unable to flee from the scene when things got nasty. A similar sense of uneasy omniscience informs Blue Valentine, a raw look at the ugly disintegration of that hallowed union between a man and a woman. Moving his story around in nonlinear fashion, director-cowriter Derek Cianfrance starts out by showing Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) toward the end of their unhappy time together. Thereafter, he flashes back to the days when they were eager young kids in loopy love — Dean was the more spontaneous and romantic of the pair, Cindy the more sensible and intelligent. Jumping back and forth, Cianfrance nails with absolute clarity the opening and closing acts of this doomed romance, but he doesn't always satisfactorily connect the narrative from A to Z, leaving important questions unanswered. Nevertheless, this punishing drama is worth a look thanks to the excellent work by the leads as well as Cianfrance's ability to employ the appropriate mood to help capture his own prickly scenes from a marriage. ***

BURLESQUE Sorry, camp-classic aficionados: Burlesque is no Showgirls or Staying Alive. Certainly, the film contains some risible moments, but nothing wretched enough to plunge it into the bowels of bad cinema. Ultimately, it's too competently made to be a genuine stinker yet too indebted to hoary show biz clichés to come close to succeeding. Cher, her face as immobile as a kabuki mask (and far less expressive), receives top billing but actually plays second fiddle to Christina Aguilera; the latter is just OK as Ali, who leaves her podunk Iowa town in the hopes of making it in LA. It's not long before she stumbles across an intriguing nightclub called Burlesque. From there, everything proceeds according to formulaic plan: She snags a job at the joint waiting tables, wins the grudging respect of club owner Tess (Cher) and Tess' gay BFF (film MVP Stanley Tucci), lands a hottie boyfriend (Cam Gigandet), clashes with the venue's bitchy star (a miscast Kristen Bell, whose vamp is about as toothless as a newborn baby), and — you go, girl! — gets that big break that turns her into an overnight sensation. About the only thing missing is someone barking, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" ... although I can't guarantee that wasn't in an earlier draft of the script. **

CASINO JACK 2010 saw the release of an informative and entertaining movie about Jack Abramoff, the powerful right-wing lobbyist who ended up behind bars for bribing public officials and swindling Native American tribes. Unfortunately for the makers of the feature film Casino Jack, that would be Alex Gibney's documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Abramoff is a hideous human being, but with this Casino Jack, star Kevin Spacey, writer Norman Snider and the late director George Hickenlooper make the mistake of attempting to humanize this Washington weasel by adding self-righteous monologues, unconvincing moments of introspection and an it's-all-the-system's-fault! approach. Yet the film's biggest fault is that it tackles the whole sordid affair like a comedy. A surreal satire that accentuates the absurd might have worked (think Robert Altman or Blake Edwards), but Hickenlooper adopts a loud, jokey approach that often relies on buffoonish performances, a slapstick pace, and too much attention paid to Abramoff's fondness for mimicry. Yet given the real-life tragedies instigated by Abramoff and his Republican buddies like Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed and George W. Bush (who claimed not to even know Abramoff after the scandals broke), I doubt many people will be laughing. **

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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