Monday, December 20, 2010

"The Fighter" v. "The King's Speech": TKO

At first glance, “The King’s Speech” and “The Fighter” seem to have little in common other than their rising Oscar buzz. One is about a British king who must overcome a bad stammer, and the crippling fear of public speaking it’s produced, to rally his country as it enters WWII; the other centers on a hardscrabble boxer from Lowell, MA, who needs to assert independence from his controlling, destructively dysfunctional family to have a chance at reviving his sputtering career. Milieu, tone, and subject matter couldn’t be more different.

Yet there are some basic similarities between the two films that, not surprisingly, are also closely linked to their Oscar prospects. Both are based on true stories with triumphant, upbeat endings. Neither takes any narrative or stylistic liberties or subverts any expectations; what you see is pretty much what you get. And for both, the chief strength is the outstanding acting, with one performance in particular generating the most heat in each film, even though each at its heart is about a relationship between two men.

So why, then, does one movie succeed where the other fails? Or put another way, since this is essentially a subjective inquiry, why did “The Fighter” genuinely move me while “The King’s Speech” left me cold?

That’s something I’m still figuring out. I think it’s got something to do with the direction and/or pacing—“The Fighter” is so fluid and kinetic, it sucks you right in, even though you know exactly where it’s going, whereas TKS more or less plods from one scene to the next, such that every scene feels like a set piece. I might also be responding differently to the dynamic among the actors – again, a question of fluidity: “The Fighter” cast feels more like a true ensemble, whereas TKS is really Colin Firth’s star turn, set off by carefully-measured interactions with supporting players. Nothing wrong with that, exactly; “The Fighter” just feels more organic. And whether it’s the writing or the acting or both, I found the relationships in “The Fighter” more compellingly drawn than in TKS. Maybe, at bottom, I just can’t be brought to care that much about the House of Windsor.

I will ponder this further; in the meantime, here are my initial grades:


directed by Tom Hooper
starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon

GRADE: B (Colin Firth: A; Guy Pearce: A-; rest of cast: B+)


directed by David O. Russell
starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams


Full reviews coming soon-ish.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Golden Globes, WTF?

Seriously, WTF?

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is known for two things: 1. Its members aren't really members of the press. 2. They throw a hell of a party masquerading as an awards show, a/k/a the Golden Globes, every year.

The HFPA-ers have, however, a third signature trait, well known to movie nerds and awards junkies, though perhaps less so to the general public:

They are total starfuckers. Exhibit A: this year's Golden Globe nominations.

What else would inspire them to nominate a turkey like THE TOURIST for Best Comedy or Musical, when it's neither a comedy (at least, not intentionally so) nor a musical? Or Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for Best Actor/Actress in a Comedy? Or what about giving Johnny Depp a second nod for the equally putrid ALICE IN WONDERLAND, which was also neither a comedy nor a musical? And for that matter, what is RED (you know, that Helen Mirren/Morgan Freeman/Bruce Willis flick about un-retiring retired assassins) doing here?

Two words: Red carpet. These guys will bend over backwards to get A-listers like Depp, Jolie, et al. to come to their party. Even if it involves honoring worthless performances in even more worthless movies that don't even fit in the category they've been assigned.

Maybe I'm not giving them enough credit. Maybe they're really demonstrating a slyly meta humor about both the category and the movies they've chosen to fill it. I mean, there is a kind of comedy about it. But...nah. This isn't the first time they've shown an unhealthy infatuation with movie-star glamour. It's just the most egregious - in recent memory, anyway.

Oh well, this just verifies that no one should take the Golden Globes seriously. Contrary to popular belief, they're not all that reliable as Oscars predictors, though they're admittedly something of a bellwether: if nothing else, they reflect what movies and performances are hot at the moment.

They're not the only awards shop in town, of course. It's that time of year again, when all the film critics' associations in the country can enjoy (or imagine) a brief period of relevance, as they hand out their best-of-year prizes. Most of the major ones announced this past week, including the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. And just for good measure, because it is my hometown, I'll throw in the Boston Society of Film Critics.

Ironically, observable trends in the critics' awards are fairly consistent with the Golden Globes. There's been a LOT of love for "The Social Network," while Colin Firth ("The King's Speech"), Natalie Portman ("Black Swan"), and Christian Bale ("The Fighter") continue to move closer to Oscar frontrunner status, and Annette Bening ("The Kids Are All Right") and Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network") also look like strong contenders. Meanwhile, "127 Hours"/James Franco seems to be fading. Still, it's too early to tell which movies' buzz will "peak" at the right time. And something could still sneak in under the radar between now and February.

But I guarantee you this: it won't be "The Tourist." Or "Alice in Wonderland."

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Mirror Has Two Faces (maybe more) in "Black Swan"


directed by Darren Aronofsky
starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

“Black Swan” isn’t a horror movie, but it comes close. Artfully close. Indie darling Darren Aronofsky doesn’t tread that line so much as hopscotch it, deploying cheap thrills and shock tactics ostensibly in the service of a more high-minded theme: the destructive effects of an artist’s obsession with perfection. Is the latter just an excuse for him to engage in pulpy excess? Perhaps. But he carries it off with such gleeful panache that it’s a pleasure to watch.

Natalie Portman takes on her Oscar-baitiest role yet as Nina Sayers, a dancer in an unnamed ballet company — clearly meant to evoke the New York City Ballet — that’s getting ready to put on a production of Swan Lake. The company’s director, a slinky Svengali type named Thomas (Vincent Cassel), has his eye on Nina for the lead; he also has doubts she can pull it off. Nina may be a perfect fit for the innocent, virginal White Swan, but can she play the seductively evil Black Swan? Especially with the arrival of a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis, very good), who has all the easy sensuality that Nina lacks? That’s the test our heroine faces for the rest of the movie, and in the process of rising to the challenge and unlocking her dark side, she quickly loses her grasp — never very firm — on reality.

I haven’t seen the two films “Black Swan” appears to have borrowed most heavily from, the tormented ballerina flick par excellence, “The Red Shoes,” and Polanski’s “Repulsion.” But it doesn’t take a cinephile to recognize the tropes and images used to convey Nina’s mental dissolution. They aren’t original, and they aren’t subtle; this movie has no interest in being subtle, and as a result occasionally verges on the ludicrous. Still, there’s something admirable, if a bit calculated, about the sheer conviction with which it, like Nina, literally dances towards and (arguably) leaps off the edge. Aronofsky doesn’t merely plant suggestions that much of what we see is the product of Nina’s imagination; he flags it and embellishes her hallucinations so extravagantly that only one of two responses is possible: laugh and detach, or submit and revel in the fantasy. He doubles down on doubling, as virtually very female character in the film is in one way or another a double of Nina: Lily, of course, who functions as both her rival and not-so-obscure object of desire; Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former ballerina, whom Nina still lives with and who both cossets and psychologically smothers her; Beth (Winona Ryder, whom I’d like to have seen more of), the company’s former star and Thomas’ ex-lover, who gets kicked to the curb in favor of younger, fresher meat; and a phantom doppelganger, of whom we see fleeting glimpses in Nina’s reflections and, er, projections. Nina confronts them all in turn, and their encounters inevitably culminate in some intensely graphic scenes that are by turns violent, erotic, creepy, and just plain grotesque.

The whole film plays like a fever dream, an impression enhanced by Aronofsky’s unrelenting use of hand-held digital camera and extreme close-ups of Nina’s face. The latter device may also owe something to the fact that for all her grueling training and preparation for the role, Portman isn’t quite up to snuff technically to be truly convincing as a first-class dancer. Perhaps as a consequence, the choreography seems oddly uninspired, particularly for a ballet as iconic as “Swan Lake.” In many ways, the ballet is the least interesting part of the movie, which is less of a problem than one might think.

Some have charged that “Black Swan” is shallow and exploitative; that the characters border on caricature — not excepting Nina, who comes across as more of a symbol or a construct than a fully dimensional human being. All true; and what of it? The broader truth is that Nina doesn’t have to be a fully believable or even sympathetic human being for the movie to be effective. She just has to live, breathe, and bleed, and she does, with a vengeance. It helps, of course, that Portman does a bang-up job evoking Nina’s mental Molokhov cocktail of ambition, artistic drive, stunted development, and sexual repression. “Black Swan” may not be a great film, but it’s undeniably brilliant in its ability to shock, unnerve, get under your skin, and stay there. Like a horror movie. A really good one.