Black Swan (2010)

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The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

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Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

Beetlejuice (1988)

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Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are the young couple living in rackety splendour in rural Connecticut but their death in a car crash on a covered bridge stymies their plans for kids. Their return to the house springs a surprise when they realise they’re dead and Sylvia Sidney materialises as their ghostly caseworker. When a nauseating yuppie family – Jeffrey Jones, second wife Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder as gloomy goth girl Lydia – moves in, their attempts at haunting them fail miserably. So they summon up self-promoting troublemaker Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) from the other side to try and get rid of them permanently – with surprising results when Lydia tunes into their wavelength and would prefer to have them as her parents. Tim Burton does a sensational job with a screenplay originally written by Michael McDowell and rewritten by producer Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren. Bizarre, funny, good-natured and fizzing with effects and wonderful performances, especially Keaton’s, this is probably the best ghost story from the perspective of the ghosts themselves that you’ll ever see! Say it three times to see what happens – Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice.  Bee….!!!!

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

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You’ve gotta feel for cool girl Winona Ryder. She finds the perfect vehicle for her own considerable winsome and diffident charms in this adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of teenage years in a mental hospital and loony tunes herself Angelina Jolie goes full tilt boogie as psycho Lisa and only goes and wins the Academy Award. That’s what you call a twist ending. There were several hands at the screenwriting tiller – director James Mangold, Lisa Loomer, Anna Hamilton Phelan and David E. Tolchinsky while Ryder shepherded the project for a considerable time. It’s carefully made, given the troublesome subject matter, and Ryder is great in a tale of Mean Girls on Meds. She wants to be a writer so naturally she’s crazy:  Kaysen’s dad was a renowned economist and member of JFK’s inner circle, so, you know, it must have been embarrassing having a delusional child in the family! In the 90s, if you wanted a serious head-the-ball, you got Jolie before she remade herself as Mother Teresa minus the dishcloth. Good call Winona! Look out for a young Elizabeth Moss under a lot of prosthetics as a burns victim. And there is a very cool cat who must be still in recovery amongst all these nuts. With Whoopi Goldberg on standby as your neighbourhood mentor, no wonder everyone’s loopy.

Autumn in New York (2000)

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A millennial take on Love Story, maybe, in this tale of womanizing restaurateur Will (Richard Gere) who falls for terminally ill hat designer Charlotte (Winona Ryder) who’s young enough to be his daughter – and then his actual illegitimate daughter (Vera Farmiga) shows up pregnant. He fathered Vera while cheating  on Winona’s late mom so Winona’s grandma Dolly (Elaine Stritch, love her, obviously!) does not approve. Oh what a tangled intergenerational web we weave when we screw around … The cynical might say that it’s odds on Winona dies before Vera gives birth, but I couldn’t say. JK Simmons shows up to perform life-saving surgery so what do you think? Richard can do no wrong, Winona was our It Girl and still is despite that career-halting shopping trip and NYC looks beautiful.

The Iceman (2012)

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One critic called this Zodiac meets Goodfellas. And therein lieth the problem. It’s the true story of a mob hitman, Richard Kuklinski, who supposedly murdered around 100 people between 1965 and 1986. Michael Shannon marries Winona Ryder who thinks he dubs Disney cartoons. Actually he puts together pornos for the Mafia. When his boss (Ray Liotta) shuts down the place he tests him by giving him his gun to shoot a homeless man. He has form so it’s not a problem. And he keeps on killing. And doublecrosses his boss with another contract killer (Chris Evans) who operates a Mr Whippy van. And the killings just go on and on. Until he’s caught. And we don’t care. Shannon’s is an unsympathetic character and the (co-)writing by director Ariel Vromen just doesn’t move us a whit, even with the backstory of the rough upbringing and the brother inside for raping and murdering a 12 year old girl. Hear this? It’s the sound of the smallest violin in the world.

How to Make an American Quilt (1995)

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For a lot of us, Winona Ryder was the 90s version of the It Girl. Here she’s Finn Dodd, a Berkeley student who can’t decide what to do for her Master’s thesis and on the verge of marriage to Sam (Dermot Mulroney) so she ups sticks and moves in with her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and great aunt (Anne Bancroft) for the summer in Grass Valley, northern California. They run a quilting bee – or rather their former maid Anna (Maya Angelou) does – and she uses their experience for her latest thesis idea. The novel by Whitney Otto is an elegant exploration of the threads and patterns that make up a woman’s life and how the quilting experience gathers together the pain and joy of family, adolescence, marriage, babies, infidelity and ageing and constructs a narrative that weaves the past and the present into stitches in time. Jane Anderson does a fine job of bringing all these elements together into an expressive whole, giving life to an ensemble of some of the best actresses of their time in a cast that also includes Jean Simmons, Lois Smith, Alfre Woodard, Kate Capshaw and Kate Nelligan. Finn’s choices are paralleled with all the choices that this group of disparate characters have made over their own lifetimes. “To know my story … is to understand my superimposition on the world, to see that I am in the world as shadow, as film laid upon the more vibrant picture.” Jocelyn Moorhouse does a fine job visualising the fusing of these distinct rhymes and it’s shot in a beautiful light by Janusz Kaminski. Now isn’t it time Ryder made a proper comeback?