Monday, February 14, 2011

Dramatic pause

I'm an unusual movie buff. Some people just love movies. They'll watch all kinds with enthusiasm, even though they have their favorite genres, actors, directors, and time periods. I'm only enthusiastic about good movies, which is an awfully arrogant way of saying I'm a really picky movie buff. I find it very difficult to countenance the idea of wasting two hours of my life on the next Too Fast Too Furious (even though I thought Vin Diesel's (godawful Hollywood name) performance in Pitch Black was decent), even if I have absolutely nothing better to do (I may be dead; check if I ever say I'm going to do this.)

I have my favorites, of course: early Ridley Scott and John Carpenter, anything by Akira Kurosawa, the Coen brothers, or Stanley Kubrick, every other Kevin Smith film (1, 3, 5, etc.); I could watch Salma Hayek stand in a phone booth for two hours... But most people will look at a movie listing, think to themselves "That sounds OK." and agree to see it if friends or family are going or if they're just sitting in front of the TV. I can't do that. If my thought is "It sounds OK.", I'll probably want to turn it off/walk out halfway through it because I'll start rolling my eyes at the performances or blowing holes in the script or whatever.

Obviously, in life and relationships, you sometimes have to go along to get along. On this, I just can't. It's just alien to me and not in the good Ridley Scott way. A former girlfriend once remarked on it as the most obvious example of how I'm expecting to be around someone(s) who are in tune with (or at least tolerant of) the way my mind wanders, 24-7, and how it will never happen... which is probably one of the sadder statements of my life but, there it is.

So, every year around Oscar time, I spend more time than usual at the nearest theater to see just what is in the running for the little statue and why. Here's where other movie snobs lift their noses and decry the Oscars as "biased", "out-of-touch", and a "popularity contest." All of that is true, but they also tend to spotlight many genuinely good films and are evidence that the American film industry hasn't completely imploded in the way that the music industry basically has. (You couldn't pay me to watch or listen to the Grammy awards. It's all crap.)

This year I ended up seeing True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter, and The King's Speech all in the space of a few weeks.

True Grit had the advantage of being a Coen brothers production to begin with. I've seen everything they've ever made and show no signs of stopping. Critics kept harping on how they told the story "straight" without their "trademark quirkiness", but those critics must have forgotten the brilliant No Country for Old Men, which was pretty straight, not to mention films like Miller's Crossing and Blood Simple. Most of them are fixated on classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski (with some justification) and forget that the Coens know how to tell a story as well as any other mainstream dramatist(s), even if no one in it even approaches saying "Yah!" to some hotdish.

Speaking of Lebowski, I thought Bridges was excellent in this role; almost as good as he was in Crazy Heart last year. In the latter, his performance earned him the trophy because he lost himself in it. He basically became Otis Blake and showed me the first time I could look at him and not assume that he was about to spout a line like: "Well, that's just like... your opinion, man." Seriously, when he was on stage, staring at the statuette in his hand, saying: "This is really great.", I completely expected him to follow with: "This is totally gonna tie the room together, man!" Once again, in True Grit, Bridges managed to lose himself, turning the typical drunk cowboy routine into a fascinating character to watch. Matt Damon's performance was good enough to make me fail to recognize him for the first couple minutes he was on-screen and people have been raving about Hailee Stanfield for good reason. She took command of every scene that she was in (aka all of them; how do you get "supporting actress" from someone who's in every shot?) and was the foremost reminder of the excellent conceit that the Coens used concerning the dialogue, in which every occupant of backwoods Texas and Arkansas spoke the Queen's English as if they'd just stepped out of Windsor. It worked well for many of the roles in Deadwood and works perfectly here.

The Coens hewed more closely to the source novel than John Wayne's original did, as well. I'd never seen the original (I'm not a Duke fan, except as a rapper), so I had nothing with which to compare it in that respect. My preference for Westerns aligns pretty closely with the presence of a Man With No Name (who actually did have a name in all three films...; someday soon I'll do a post about Westerns) and movies like those. But I think I agree with my friend, Rodger, who summed up this version of True Grit by saying: "It was just a great film- story, characters, direction -beginning to end."

Black Swan fell short of my expectations. That's not to say that it had any particular failing, but I suppose I went in with a mixture of seriously high expectations for a film with Natalie Portman (a favorite) and Darren Aronofsky (director of the The Wrestler) but little knowledge of or affection for the dance world. As it turns out, I suppose I was expecting something that carried more personal impact with me. I enjoyed it, but once it was over, it was gone. The Wrestler was so poignant and well-done that it stuck with me for weeks afterward, as scenes like Randy's tantrum behind the deli counter would come back to me. Black Swan didn't do that at all.

Part of my lack of enthusiasm had to do with the way in which the "thriller" was delivered. In most movies that carry that label, a certain set of ground rules are established as "normal". Then, the abnormal begins to intrude and, in many of them, begins to mesh with the normal until the audience has difficulty distinguishing one from the other. One film that did this really well was Jacob's Ladder. It set the ground rules of normal in more than one place and then started displaying fantasy in glimpses and then in full scenes, until the viewer is totally lost and wandering as it all fell into place. Black Swan, on the other hand, never established normal. From the first scene, there were elements that seemed real but were then revealed to be fantasy, so we never knew what the rules of the game were.

That being said, I still enjoyed it. Portman, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey were all excellent and Vincent Cassel did a decent job in the first role I remember him doing since the sadly often-overlooked Eastern Promises. Again, holding almost no knowledge of the dance world, I was a bit out of my element, but that didn't stop me from appreciating the commitment neé obsession of many of its inhabitants. I've been in communities where the bonding activity was lived and breathed and I can understand that kind of motivation and I think Aronofsky did, as well; perhaps even moreso than the wrestling world.

I knew the story of Mickey Ward, as I'd kept an eye on his trio of fights with Arturo Gatti back in the early years of the previous decade, so the film was fairly predictable (and probably would have been for many people even if they hadn't followed the real life events.) But it still had a couple elements that really made it sing.

One of these was Christian Bale. I'm a fan of Bale's work. As much as I enjoy the Batman films for their departure from Tim Burton campiness, I'm even more of a fan of things like American Psycho, The Machinist, and 3:10 to Yuma (the latter film even quieting my normal Russell Crowe aversion.) Those were all very affecting or intriguing roles. I think Bale at least matched them all here. In fact, there's room to argue why this was supposedly a film about Mickey Ward, when Dicky Eklund (Bale's role) was far more interesting and went through much more of a traditional transformation than Mickey did. Bale is an actor who maintains his character off-camera and you could really see that in this role, as he really climbed inside Eklund's skin and made it part of himself. The director commented that "Dicky has a music to him" and Bale hit the tune.

The other element was the septet of women playing Mickey's sisters, who played the role of a Greek chorus on PCP; always announcing to the audience when tragedy was about to strike and usually creating or participating in it themselves. You've never seen such detestable and somehow vaguely endearing characters as the Seven Irish Harridans. The movie maintains a pretty serious tone, but they end up somehow delivering most of the comic relief.

Not to be left out are Amy Adams, in a serious departure from her very milquetoast roles in the past, and Melissa Leo, as Mickey's manipulative and passive-aggressive mother (Jack McGee gets a mention in a solid performance as Mickey's harried father, too.) In fact, most of the performances were so strong that they carried the film, turning what was a typical "hard-luck kid makes good" story into an interesting character study. I almost think it would work better as a play. The one letdown in this respect is really Mark Wahlberg, as Mickey. His performance isn't bad. It's just burdened with his trademark woodenness (the only movie in which I've seen him escape this tendency is The Departed) and a role that didn't really give him much to work with, in my opinion, especially when standing next to roles like Bale's and Leo's. It was still a very worthwhile film.

The King's Speech was flat-out brilliant. I admit some hesitation, even after hearing gushing reviews from opinions that I trust. I mean, how interesting can someone learning not to stutter (or stammer, as the English call it) really be? But it was excellent. The script was fantastic, the performances were great, and the very slowly-paced movie kept me totally engrossed from beginning to end.

I'm not familiar with most of Colin Firth's oeuvre. When I first heard his name, the only thing that came to mind was Shakespeare in Love and I completely missed A Single Man, so it was kind of surprising to hear him being lauded so much for this role, but he deserves every bit of it. He pulled off the rather difficult feat of playing the formal British royal while also expressing the deep frustration of his condition without having to chew the scenery like a latter-day Pacino or Nicholson probably would have. You felt the genuine sympathy of some of the bit players in the film, almost gesticulating in trying to draw the words out of him as he struggled to voice them. Geoffrey Rush was his usual adept self. For all that he's lauded for things like Shine, I think these slightly off-kilter roles (yes, that was a Shine joke...) such as Lionel Logue and Casanova Frankenstein (in the subtly hilarious Mystery Men) are the ones that really let him do his best work.

My two very tiny criticisms are that, first, Helena Bonham-Carter was totally wasted in her role. Her range is so great and expressiveness so prominent that having her play the staid, royal British matron is a waste of her talents. The fact that she could pull it off is a testament to her ability and might have been part of the attraction of the role for her. It just struck me as an incredibly confining situation. The second is that I think director Tom Hooper lingered just a bit too long on some of the interactions between Logue and Bertie. That was, indeed, the focus of the film; that their connection enabled the future king to get over his impediment, but it began to get a bit trying near the end, where one more deep exchange of meaning was traded in their lengthy stares (I'm reminded of the incessant crying that took place in the otherwise excellent Lord of the Rings films that had me fearing that all of Middle-Earth might drown by the time we reached the middle of Return of the King.) But those are really minor. It was a genuinely great movie.

So, awards. I'm placing my bets on:
Melissa Leo for Best Supporting Actress (The Fighter)
Geoffrey Rush for Best Supporting Actor (The King's Speech; even though I really think Bale should win.)
Colin Firth for Best Actor (The King's Speech)
Nicole Kidman for Best Actress (Rabbit Hole)
The King's Speech for Best Screenplay
The Social Network for Best Adapted Screenplay
Tom Hooper for Best Director (The King's Speech; I'd favor the Coens)
And the King's Speech for Best Picture.

Back to the real world next time.


  1. Great reviews. I have yet to see most of these. Are you just anticipating Kidman's oscar based on rumor/hype or were you actually impressed by Rabbit Hole? I haven't seen it yet, but I'm sure I will. I'm kind of a glutton for tragedy.

  2. Thanks. Yes, the Kidman mention was the typical Oscar gamble, as I haven't seen it, either; based on the raves about her performance and some of the institutional biases of the Academy I've observed over the years. They're kind of gluttons for tragedy, too. I haven't seen it, either (hasn't made it to Netflix.)