Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The King's Speech (dir. Tom Hooper)

I want it to be known up front that I really did expect to like this. I have nothing against feel-good Oscar bait movies. I have nothing against any "type" of movie. But I cannot abide bad filmmaking, and if you're going to abandon the concept of making directorial choices, you'd better have something else up your sleeve.

And to be fair, The King's Speech has quite a bit up its sleeve, most notably two rather fine leading performances in Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Both have received considerable attention as Oscar contenders, which is deserved in a sort of "well, they don't NOT deserve it" kinds of way, and these things being so predictable, it's difficult to imagine either of them being left out at this stage of the game. Firth plays King George VI, who, upon a sudden ascendence to the throne, redoubles his effort to rid himself of a lifelong struggle with his stammer, an affliction that manifests less like Porky Pig and more like a panic attack. Rush plays his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. And again, they're both good in their roles without ever quite teetering into greatness.

Firth's technical mastery of the stammer is commendable, and he has one scene to get at the soul of King George (or "Bertie," as he's know to those closest to him) in which he completely delivers, but this is far from his magnificent turn in last year's A Single Man. Rush is given the fun work as the unorthodox, learned-it-on-the-streets speech therapist who gets to break down all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Bertie, and bring him down to merely a man. This type - the man on the streets who shatters the illusion of class superiority - is always a crowd favorite, and Rush plays it with relish. But aside from being a delight in most of these scenes, Rush isn't given much to work with, so any talk of the Oscar will inevitably feel overblown even though he is quite good given the circumstances.

The screenplay, by David Seidler, more or less navigates tricky grounds well. The dialogue is satisfactory and Seidler makes some strong choices in setting up his characters (contrasting Bertie's inability to deliver a speech with his able willingness to tell his children a bedtime story is a particularly canny move). The film covers a fifteen-year span, and like most films saddled with this task, nobody has any idea how to treat the passage of time. Bertie never changes a bit, and the weight of time is never felt - the whole affair could have lasted a few weeks with some changed title cards and anyone who doesn't know their history would be none the wiser.

Granted, nobody in this set-up is well served by director Tom Hooper, who last year delivered fairly solid, if a little excitable, work in The Damned United, but here is completely lost. Aside from obviously being quite good with actors (nobody else has been able to unleash Michael Sheen as well as Hooper did in the aforementioned film), Hooper displays none of the talents one would hope to find in a director. His camerawork and lens choices are big and obvious and glaring. In a film suited to subtlety (Bertie's entire struggle hinges on projecting an image suitable to a king), Hooper uses fish-eye lenses to either increase the size of his rooms or show Bertie in a fishbowl - none are particularly informative or evocative. He rarely employs a two-shot in a film about the relationship between two men, has no method to motivate his blocking in shot/reverse-shot conversation pieces, cuts away from actors during key moments of expression, and, as previously mentioned, is completely incapable of expressing the passage of time. All without purpose.

Again...I really, really expected to like it, and I kept cutting it breaks on my way out of the theater. It's been three days since I saw it, and I've run out of excuses for it. It's not a terrible film; it's bolstered by two fine lead performances and a slew of engaging supporting ones (Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon, most notably). But it doesn't bring anything new to the table, and too often detracts from its best elements.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

In modern American drama, "ensemble" has come to mean any film featuring a large-ish cast. But true ensemble work is tougher to come by. It's not simply a matter of one main character who interacts with a lot of well-written characters played by famous people (Shutter Island is a good example of this). An ensemble will be given opportunity to interact amongst each other, and we as an audience will have the opportunity to show how these relationships intersect and ripple out to affect all of the others.

If for that, and nothing else, The Fighter is a remarkable film. The trouble comes with how they must have arrived at this method. The film tells the based-on-a-true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer from the working-class neighborhood of Lowell, MA (is there any other kind of neighborhood in cinematic Boston?) who struggles between the demands of his family and what's best for his career. The film benefits tremendously from giving just as much screen time to Micky's brother Dicky (Christian Bale), mom Alice (Melissa Leo), and girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), with plenty of support from other key players. One of the reasons cinephiles and old people tend to say "they don't make 'em like they used to" is that it used to be quite common to have a fully-formed supporting cast stocked with great actors delivering solid work in very small parts. Now, too often, those parts are shrugged off by everyone involved, but not here.

Much has been written, and a few awards already given out, to praise Bale's performance, which is more than earned. After making his name with a sort of eccentric intensity in films like American Psycho, The Machinist, Harsh Times, and The Prestige, Bale has been floundering in the wake of his star-making role in Batman Begins, delivering surprisingly bland performances in The Dark Knight, 3:10 to Yuma, and Public Enemies. Many of us wondered if Bale, like Johnny Depp, had simply abandoned all pretense and started acting simply to work. His performance here doesn't just suggest otherwise - it demands it, and is among his finest.

The rest of the cast follows Bale's lead far more than Wahlberg's, and is better for it. Everyone is a little heightened here (Melissa Leo is especially having the scenery for lunch), sometimes to the point of all-out comedy, and one of Russell's greatest strengths as a director lies in this. Whereas comedy in most dramas often comes off as insincere attempts at levity, Russell has shown a clear understanding of how the two interact in our daily lives. And he doesn't do it (merely) through clever one-liners and insults, but rather through reveling in the occasional absurdity of existence, which never undercuts the dramatic impact but in some ways heightens it.

Wahlberg, unfortunately, fares worst of all, and in most films in the underdog sports story, this would sink the film. If not for Russell and company's decision to turn this into an ensemble piece, it absolutely would have. He's always been an uneven actor, much better in supporting roles than leading ones (Boogie Nights aside), but has typically benefitted when working with great directors. And Russell is one of the guys who really tapped into his potential in the past, with Three Kings and I Heart Huckabess, but neither of them could make it work here. Micky's role in the story is largely a passive one. He's the boxer in question, so you can't really write him out, but he's not a terribly active participant in his own life. There's nothing wrong with a passive protagonist, but you need an actor capable of subtlety, and Wahlberg just doesn't have that in him. His Micky is very one-note; mopey without plumbing depression or stagnation. He's not actively bad - the film never gives him the chance to be - but he's simply not present.

But again, this would only sink a lesser film, and it's a fairly stunning achievement when you can make a film this great without a good lead performance. Russell's direction is as exciting as ever, and his opening credit sequence that introduces us to the main players and their Lowell setting is one of the best of the year. It cannot be overstated how exceptional the cast is. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams are playing completely outside of what we've come to expect from them, and when that's done this well, it makes for an exciting watch. Everyone else is completely in tune to the rhythm of each scene, the way each moment has to resonate, and their character's place in this world. Russell plays these people like instruments in a way few directors really can.

It's also genuinely exciting, "inspirational," one might say. Wahlberg said that they tried to go the extra mile in making the boxing realistic, and I don't know much about that, but you can feel those punches from the cheap seats. If Wahlberg doesn't sell Micky's victory in the streets, he completely sells it in the ring. My girlfriend, who saw it the day after I did, confirmed that I wasn't the only one who wanted to literally burst into applause at the end.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Don't Get Caught Out in the Brain

Meant to tell you all about this a few weeks ago - y'know, when I actually saw the damn thing - but like many other things, it sort of fell out of my head. But every now and again you have to go out of your way just to give a simple, unpolished movie recommendation. Because sometimes, yes Virginia, great films escape us.

I'm talking of course (what else could it be?) about William Conrad's outstanding 1965 film Brainstorm. Conrad was not a prolific man, having directed only two other films (both of which came out in 1965, so I guess he was prolific for a second there) and various television shows, none of which I've seen. But I know the work of a master when I see it, and Brainstorm has the goods. The acting can be a bit of a wash (although Dana Andrews is pretty great playing against type), but the cinema? He's pulling moves here that Resnais made his name on a few years earlier in Last Year at Marienbad, somehow without ever feeling derivative. His shots evoke everything he'd need to tell his story and still pack a punch. His transitions in the second act are playfully elegant in a way you usually only see in movies that have a bit of a dreamlike edge to them, which in turn makes this film seem a little unreal (but black and white movies always seem that way, at least a little bit, don't they?).

I heard about this film via the always wonderful Criterion Cast, where guest Jett Loe of the equally delightful podcast The Film Talk put it in with such greats as The Night of the Hunter, which is no small praise to me. But what do you know, the film is nearly that great. Not exactly the visionary, singular work that film is, but Conrad possesses the same engrained understanding of what the medium is capable of. In the everlasting, "which is more important, form or content?" debate, the content side tends to say that formally impressive films that lack in the story department tend to feel a bit hollow. Brainstorm is the perfect argument to the contrary, in that it tells the same story as the script, only better.

Brainstorm is available via the Warner Archive Collection, which makes it a bit tough for a mere rent (here in Portland we benefit ceaselessly from Movie Madness), but if you have the money to buy it blind, you could do a lot worse.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Next Three Days (dir. Paul Haggis)

It would seem movie fans in the house are so terrified of being fooled twice that they remain unwilling to give Paul Haggis another chance. Crash was one of those movies that we've tried to wipe from our memories, for any number of reasons (not the least of which is that it is the blackest spot on the Academy's record in a decade in which they also awarded Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind the title of Best Picture of the Year), that we've completely buried our own feelings towards the film itself. It's become a thing beyond itself, which is not uncommon when a film is discussed far beyond the proportion of what it brings to the table. But there are some things Haggis does right with Crash, most notably in his use of tension. Now, sometimes it would be thoughtless misdirection, as in his introduction of blank rounds in a gun, but there's that scene in which Matt Dillon has to rescue Thandie Newton from a burning car that is really, truly gripping.

The Next Three Days is that sequence over the course of a motion picture, and it would seem that when Haggis needs to just buckle down a tell a damn story, he's more than capable of doing so. He just doesn't trust himself all the way (but we'll get to that later). Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, a literature professor whose wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), is sent to jail, convicted of murder. Having exhausted all legal channels of getting her free, he decides to break her out. The problem is, he's not a criminal. Doesn't know how to be a criminal. The best sequences of the early part of this film show just how unfit he is to be a criminal. After narrowly avoiding the consequences of a relatively smaller crime, he immediately vomits. Early on, he seeks the help of an escape expert (Liam Neeson), who outlines the kind of man he'll have to become and the stakes he'll be up against, and we can tell already that John is most certainly not that man. The film's great weakness is not holding him to the standard Neeson's character sets, but it manages to have enough fun on the way that it's not totally damaging.

Most of the film follows John making his way through the criminal underworld to acquire the skills and resources he'll need as the big day rapidly approaches, and Haggis pulls some moves here that puts this square in the classic no-holds-barred, one man against the world kind of film. But the real show-stopper is the actual escape, where Haggis pulls out all the stops. With one line - "Do I look like I'm going home?" - Haggis and Crowe perfectly establish the real stakes of this mission and John's determination to see it through. A series of near-misses, to-the-second timing, and lucky breaks are what the man-on-the-run movie is all about, and while Haggis is no Phillip Noyce in this regard (action nerds should've paid more mind to Salt earlier this year), he's also set up more sympathetic characters, which goes a long way when that damn elevator just won't close.

And then as quickly as he's gained our support, Haggis is just as capable of throwing it away. If you don't want to know where it all ends up, just know that, much like in Crash, though Haggis introduces the idea of a complex morality, he'll let you rest easy by the end. Consider this the ever-popular spoiler warning for the rest of the post. Up until the last five or ten minutes, we've had little reason to believe that John's doing the right thing. He is literally the only person, including his attorney, who believes with any certainty that Lara is innocent. The evidence, indeed, is quite stunning. Lara herself even says outright that John is wrong to assume her innocence, though the conversation is heated enough that there's just the right level of doubt. So for the most part, we're watching John break the law setting a murderer free, and honestly, this is the level on which the film is the most compelling - either John is in complete denial of the evidence at hand, or he just doesn't care and wants to be with his wife at whatever the cost. And this, alone, is interesting stuff.

But then this damn scene comes up that completely proves to us, the audience, that Lara is innocent. None of the other characters ever find out - it just comes down to a shot that tells us, the coddled audience, "Don't worry, nobody is doing anything morally wrong. Everything John does is, in the end, righteous!" While I'm not categorically against this kind of simple morality (I'm a big fan of Superman, for crying out loud), that isn't this movie. This is a movie in which everything should be called into question, every step of the way. We have to be allowed to process these sorts of situations ourselves, not told there's an out. If Lara's innocence is important to the film, then it should be established immediately instead of given the twist-ending treatment. Otherwise, it's something only being used as a gimmick, and bears no thematic resonance. It's a dispiriting end to an otherwise very engaging thriller.

127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle)

I suppose it would have been too much to expect Danny Boyle (director of Trainspotting, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire), of all people, to allow the camera to just simply observe Aron Ralston's near-death experience trapped under a boulder for five days that culminated with him severing his own arm to survive. But in an effort to satiate an imagined audience member who couldn't bear the thought of an entire film taking place in one location, Boyle has gone way too far with his approach. There's nothing wrong with portraying Ralston's circumstance from his point of view, examining the memories, thoughts, sounds, and fears as they play out in his head, but there comes a point a which Boyle goes beyond the line here and starts to deny us the reality of Aron's situation. The result is a surprisingly likeable, but very problematic film.

What purpose, for example, do the shots showing the workings of Aron's camcorder serve? What of three angles on a faucet splayed across the screen in panels, like a comic book? What does the freight train of music, especially towards the end, tell us? At the climactic moment, in which Aron has to cut off his own arm to escape (spoiler alert, in case you didn't know why the movie exists), why so much with the action-movie score? Danny Boyle's entire approach to filmmaking has often been a propulsive one, often denying the audience a chance to come to their own conclusion about his characters' actions, but here he sacrifices the very meaning of his film, using montages and music to convey what he should, with the many, many tools at his disposal, be able to use the cinema for. Temperatures in the desert can vary wildly, from scorching summertime at noon to a bitter winter at night - in order to convey this, Boyle puts a thermostat onscreen and watches the numbers count down. When Boyle (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Beaufoy) needs Aron to come to a conclusion about himself or his circumstances, he has him say it out loud.

No doubt, when trapped in one place for any extended period of time (increasingly for my generation, about an hour will do), one's mind will tend to wander, and for the most part Boyle's free-associative editing style proves an effective way to convey the film's take-home message: That Aron would be a better person if he'd just be willing to let someone in. It's the kind of reductive approach to an extreme encounter with nature that nearly crippled Sean Penn's excellent Into the Wild in 2007, though 127 Hours fares a little worse. On a basic level, yes, Aron probably wouldn't have been left to die if he'd just told somebody where he was ahead of time, but I'm not sure the film is as successful at convincing us that Aron would be a happier person if he was in a relationship of any sort (it's telling that the film tries to link this epiphany to Aron meeting the woman who would become his wife...three years later).

And yet it is a compulsively watchable film, which is higher praise than it sounds. There's an old adage, coined by Robert Warshow, that goes "A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man." Warshow was reconciling his love of Humphrey Bogart movies with the knowledge that they aren't exactly high art (most of the time), and here I call attention to it to say that, yes, I liked 127 Hours as far as it went. It seems strange to call it a piece of entertainment, but that is basically the level it worked on (though not nearly as assured or as brave as Rodrigo Cort├ęs' Buried, also about a man trapped in a confined space). It is a movie made to be watched, though not digested. It features a very fine performance from James Franco, well deserving of the Oscar nomination that will hopefully come his way. The cinematography is lush and gorgeous (as one would expect when Anthony Dod Mantle's name is attached to that department), giving you the best view of the Utah landscape next to seeing it for yourself, and the editing razor-sharp. But in thinking about it over the last week and change, it just doesn't hold up. Its reach is beyond its grasp - its themes do not land conclusively, and as a study of survival (mental, physical, or spiritual), it's cursory at best.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Knight and Blu-Ray

They're as surprised as you are to see a new post. Between an insane and ever-shifting work schedule, a broken car, and Christmas activities, this week was out of control. Halfway through a 127 Hours piece among, hopefully, others. Do stay tuned.

But for now, my review of the new Knight and Day Blu-Ray is up at Shadowlocked.