Friday, January 28, 2011

THE KING'S SPEECH: Why can't more movies be like this?

By now, most movie-goers have at least heard of director Tom Hooper's brilliant film The King's Speech, based on a literate and witty script by David Seidler. Believe every positive rave you have heard and double it. Among an unusually strong field of fine films up for Oscars this year, this one scores on every front. It has suspense without car chases or special effects (Inception), fiery face-offs without guns or fists (True Grit, The Fighter), dysfunctional families (Winter's Bone, The Fighter), without bizarre extremes and much more. No, it doesn't feature animated toys, a nutcase ballerina, or Mark Ruffalo as a sperm donor.

Instead The King's Speech tells the true story of a man with a debilitating stutter, a man who never dreamed nor hoped he would become king of England. Colin Firth's thoroughly human and vulnerable performance as George VI is one of the finest pieces of acting I have seen in a long time. And he is matched by Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, a man of talent and caring who uses humor, song and dance and other unorthodox methods to free the future king from his fear not only of his stutter but of his family and responsibilities. Their sessions are at first contentious but eventually they become friends, the king and the Australian commoner. This is the core of the film. Surrounding it are excellent character work by Helena Bonham and a score of English heavyweights. All of the major action takes place in the famous period when Edward VII renounces the throne for Mrs. Wallace Simpson, leading to George's coronation and his speech to the British people as they face Hitler and World War II. All these factors are headily emotional, and the director balances them with feeling and discretion, making them even more charged with feeling.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The boxing movie is a tried and true but often tired genre. Over the years Hollywood has produced its fair share of good to great boxing dramas. In 1947, the explosive John Garfield, one of the first great method actors came out punching in Body and Soul, a slum to glory saga where Garfield fights his way to the crown while leaving his girl and family behind and embracing temptation and beautiful blondes. Only when he blinds an opponent, does he begin to realize the price of his success. It sounds like the usual hooey, but the director Robert Rossen (All the King's Men) knew how to make powerful melodramas, and this was one of his best.

Flash forward to 1975, and the genre gets a colorful reboot with Rocky, one of the most popular sports movies ever and also one of the worst Oscar Best Films beating the superior drama Network. Sylvester Stallone made Rocky a national hero, the underdog from the streets who goes all the first with style...but then 4 sequels almost made him a joke. But in 1980 Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro made the best boxing movie ever, the brutally realistic Raging Bull. Filmed in newsreel real black and white, the story of Jake DeMotto, charts the rise and fall of a sadistic, animalistic man who is vicious to his opponents, his friends and even his family. We first see De Niro in the title role telling jokes in a cheap club. He is bloated and slurs his words, a pathetic creature. Scorcese intercuts violent fight scenes with domestic violence, and both are difficult to watch. The strength of this film lies in its honest approach towards an unsavory real person. Like DeMotto's blows, this movie never holds back.

Naturally, there are many other boxing and sports movies worthy of mentioning, but now The Fighter walks into the ring. This is a boxing movie that has some of the tried and true cliches, but it also has an incredibly strong family dynamic to support it. Mark Wahlberg plays Irish-American welter-weight Micky Ward while Christian Bale (in his best role since he played the young lead in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun) is his older half brother. They are both trapped in one of the most dysfunctional families ever put on film. They have seven sisters who seem always to be at home and acting like some kind of perverted Greek chorus of harpies. Ruling the herd is the mother from hell, portrayed with terrifying and perverse strength by Melissa Leo, who made a strong impact in last year's Frozen River. And there is the usually sweet Amy Adams as Micky's feisty girl friend who must fight his family to save him. Yes, there are the requisite fight scenes, but they are secondary to the horrid family circus that Micky must escape. All of the performances are powerful and genuine, with Bale and Leo being the obvious "showboats." Directed by David O. Russell, whose Three Kings with Wahlberg and George Clooney was the only film that really spoke to the ill-fated Gulf War, The Fighter is the surprise entry in the year's best films.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


In 1956 John Wayne gave the finest performance of his career in John Ford's classic western The Searchers, a film that turned the typical Wayne oater on its head. Wayne played Ethan Edwards, a bitter, grizzled loner who returns to his brother's homestead after the Civil War. Within days he has buried his brother, nephew, and his sister-in-law after a savage Indian raid. Ethan and his nephew Martin begin a relentless search for the two daughters taken captive. As the search drags on and Ethan sees the remains of the older girl, his prejudice grows. Now he must find little Debbie, the youngest child. He is afraid that she has been taken as an Indian bride and swears that she would be better off dead. Wayne gives his character a brooding, almost unstable personality, ready to lash out at Martin or anyone who stands in his way. I won't spoil the outcome of the finest western in American film, but it is one of the most harrowing and moving you will ever see.

By 1969 Wayne's career was on its last legs and so was the western genre. Wayne signed on to play Rooster Cogburn, an aging, drunken lawmen with an eye-patch and a big gut, in the first film version of the novel True Grit by Charles Portis. The film was more a comic western than a true western, and Wayne played Cogburn broadly all the way to an Oscar for Best Actor. All of this Wayne history is obviously leading up to a review of the Coen Brothers' new version of True Grit, which follows the novel more closely, especially in the stilted, almost formal dialogue of the characters. The question of which film superior is an easy one to answer. The Coen Brothers have fashioned a tightly controlled, often humorous, and occasionally violent film that seems to have little connection to their earlier work. It lacks the zaniness of Raising Arizona or the black humor of Fargo or the grim hopelessness of their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men.

The original True Grit was entertaining but hardly that memorable. This film features wonderfully textured performances from the entire cast and especially from Jeff Bridges as Rooster and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the steely fourteen year old who is determined to avenge her father's murder. Steinfeld dominates the first half of the movie as she battles the legal system and sleazy businessmen in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She knows the law, finance, and how to cut a deal. And she leaves her opponents, including Rooster, shaking their heads. When she first encounters Rooster he is in an outhouse and wishes not to be disturbed. This doesn't stop Mattie, and neither does the gang Tom Chaney is running with in Indian territory. The second half of the film is devoted to the chase and a series of thrilling but not overly exaggerated action set pieces. Bridges looks much worse than Wayne did, always slurring his words, gulping more booze, but shooting straight most of the time. Together they make an endearing team, and the Coens have made their most irony-free, amusing film.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Now that I am allowed to leave the house (for short periods and under strict supervision since I can't drive yet), I have finally gotten out for two movies in two days plus a church service. Naturally, I chose two light-hearted films guaranteed to lift my spirits. The first was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, the first half of the last of the fabulously successful series based on the novels. Given its 2:35 length, Hallows stuffs itself with numerous chases across the English countryside, either in the dark or in the rain, face-offs with numerous agents of his arch enemy Voldemort, and jealous spats between buddies Ron and Harry over Hermoine. Not evenly paced, Hallows still conjures some cinematic magic under the direction of David Yates. One inventive addition is an animated sequence told by an old crone. The images are similar to Indonesian shadow puppets and tell the fable of three brother knights who attempt to cheat death but lose their lives in the process. Another surprising moment comes when Ron accuses Harry of stealing Hermoine's affections. This is the best acting that Rupert Grint has done. As he looks at Harry and Hermoine, he imagines them first in each others arms, and then nude in a hot embrace. The entire sequence is surreal and strong enough to violent action from Ron. Like the pessimistic close of The Empire Strikes Back, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows ends with Voldemort ascendant in his power and the young trio looking helpless. See you in May, guys and gals.

If you are planning to see Darren Aronofsky's new psycho-thriller Black Swan, here are several warnings.

1. Lots of blood letting from various sources: feet, back, fingers, abdomen, etc, and all from the luminous but not too healthy Natalie Portman.

2. A mad mother from Hell, played deliciously by Barbara Hershey, who makes Snow White's stepmother look like Mother Hubbard and echoes all those Freudian/Greek references I thought were so cool in college.

3. If you love sadism, masochism, and self-torture plus frenzied camera work and every bone breaking in full volume, this is the movie for you.


It is, but it's not the sweet kind seen in 1979's beautiful soap The Turning Point. There's no Baryshnikov and in a Romeo and Juliet pas de deux that dissolves into a torrid love scene all in blue lighting. It's closer to The Red Shoes, the frenzied, overly colorized tale of a ballerina who dies because she can't choose between art and love. Black Swan bases its plot on the classic ballet about a girl who is turned into a white swan, falls for a prince, loses him to a black swan, and kills herself. Natalie Portman plays the ill-fated ballerina with amazing vulnerability and ferocity alike. As her ambition, her mother, her wakening sex drive, and the pressure of being the lead ballerina crush her, she begins to see and hear things. Thing is we as an audience have little idea what is real and what isn't, and it leaves us in an emotional dither. Now back to the list of caveats. Actually, if you can take them, they make this movie work. Not since Psycho,
has a movie affected me as viscerally as this one. As the concluding scenes detailing opening night cascade upon us, we cannot escape nor do we want to. This movie has been accused of being over the top. And it certainly is. But it is often pure cinema, the kind that Hitchcock would have applauded.