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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of March 23

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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, Oscar-winning 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. ****

CEDAR RAPIDS Cedar Rapids is a low-rent version of the sort of raunchy comedy that's all the rage these days, but it wears its modesty rather well. In fact, its reliance on vulgar gags is so sparse that it's somewhat startling when this ends on an outtake of co-star John C. Reilly mixing flatulence and flick-a-BIC. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The plot of this amiable comedy centers around Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a dorky insurance agent who's never ventured outside his hometown. So it's a big deal when his company sends him to the annual convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with the task of returning home with the event's top sales prize. But Tim's attempt to snag said honor frequently takes a back seat to hanging out with his new pals, including the obnoxious Dean Ziegler (Reilly), the reserved Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the flirtatious Joan (Anne Heche). It's the same outline often employed in these types of films (e.g. The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, also featuring Helms), but because the writing is a bit sharper and the characters more fleshed out than expected, there's actual interest in seeing how the story pans out and what happens to these people. Empathic feelings aren't usually engaged with this sort of fare, but Cedar Rapids manages to sell the idea, if just barely. **1/2

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER On the sliding scale of Narnia adaptations, 2008's Prince Caspian was slightly better than 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but any hope for continued ascendancy in this franchise ends with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. A costly tentpole that switched studios midstream, the Narnia series (based, of course, on C.S. Lewis' books) has always come across as timid fantasy fare, squeezing out all the danger and intrigue inherent in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film cycles. Such an overly cautious approach especially nullifies the content of this torpid installment and renders it toothless — just the opposite of what we should expect from a series featuring a lion as its most powerful character. The protagonists — returning siblings Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes) and obnoxious newcomer Eustace (Will Poulter) -- are bruisingly boring (paging the Potter kids!), and their adventures aboard the title seafaring vessel are only slightly less moldy than their skirmishes on land. Forget the Titanic: The Dawn Treader is the real sinking ship. *1/2

THE COMPANY MEN The topic tackled in The Company Men — the alarming rate of downsizing in corporate America -- was already handled perfectly in 2009's best film, Up in the Air. This lackluster drama, on the other hand, is a superficial look at this contemporary crisis, following a group of polished suits — shallow Bobby (Ben Affleck), panicky Phil (Chris Cooper) and introspective Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) — who find themselves shown the door at the conglomerate for which they've long toiled. Humbled and humiliated, the men are forced to make sacrifices like giving up their country-club golf memberships and trading in their Porsches — and, in the movie's most cringe-worthy moment, Bobby's son discards his Xbox for no discernible reason other than to bloodily claw at viewers' heartstrings. Luckily, Bobby's brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner), a salt-of-the-earth construction worker, is on hand to remind everyone that it's better to dance with wolves than finagle with stockholders, or something like that. With its unconvincing stabs at real-world misery and a contrived ending that's one degree removed from a deus ex machina, The Company Men can easily be ignored for more pressing business. **

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