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A Note on The King’s Speech

January 20th, 2011 No comments

There’s not a traditional villain or antagonist in The King’s Speech.  This makes it very difficult for a director to provide a visual to for the audience to identify the “villain,” in this case a speech impediment leading to a fear of public speaking.  During the opening credits Hooper gives us the visual we need as he singles out microphones as the antagonist.  Through wide lenses we see the microphone from every angle and we see one seasoned speaker ready to take command of this device while juxtaposed is Bertie (Colin Firth), a man who shrinks in its presence. Or, it at least appears that he has shrunk thanks to Hooper’s flawless direction and Cohen’s beautiful photography.  Before the large, imposing microphone Bertie stammers through the opening of a speech before we cut away and there we have it; the first bout between underdog and reigning champ and the champ has flexed his muscle, defeating the timid would-be stammering king.

Immediately after the heartbreaking speech we join Bertie in a speech therapy session with a joke of a doctor who encourages Bertie to smoke to relax his throat and hold marbles in his mouth while speaking, an archaic method that hasn’t proved successful since ancient Greece.  The transition in tone from scene to scene, from dramatic to comedic, is handled with an imperceptible fluidity.  It’s incredibly difficult to juggle these tonal shifts in a film, to be both as funny and tragic as life really is, but Hooper accomplishes this with the skill of a master craftsman.

It’s established in two scenes that The King’s Speech is something rare; it’s one of those films you wait all year for, it’s the sort of film that can achieve the artistic, the intellectual and the entertaining and the emotional. It’s something I think Truffaut would have loved; something entertaining while historical, socially relevant and ultimately optimistic. Although I’ve read some articles that question the veracity of the script, they’re misguided and clearly missed the point of the film.  The historical accuracy of this adapted story has little affect on the success of it being told in cinema.

In order to overcome his debilitating stammer Bertie ends up relying on the help of the unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who becomes an unlikely friend and confidant. Their friendship drives the story as Bertie begins to show progress, and like any true friendship, they have tumultuous times that end up bonding them.  A friendship forged by fire.  Firth and Rush are sublime, playing off each other like two actors who love their craft, able to blend humor and pathos so seamlessly that you forget when you stopped just watching a movie and started to really care.

But I don’t want to just go on about the merits of this film (Helena Bonham Carter, the script, etc.) and it would be pointless to discuss it’s very few flaws (second least favorite appearance of Guy Pearce who I usually adore, and a few awkward camera moves).  I’d rather write about why my eyes were tearing up during the King’s final speech, that’s right, I can admit it.  Yes, there is this wonderful moment between these two friends, locked together in a cozy room seeing all their hard work bear fruit and yes, the score is the perfect emotional accompaniment but there is something much more.  I believe I was tearing up because of envy.

Envy what? Envy that England had their reluctant hero.  They had a man who didn’t lust after the spotlight or fight to get his voice in a sound bite on a 24 hour news channel, but one who had the position thrust upon him by birth, by the untimely death of his father and the shocking abdication of the throne by his brother (for Mrs. Simpson? Seriously? You’re a freakin’ prince! You can do better).  Bertie seems to be a man that understood the burden of leadership enough to know it scared him, and that’s what you need in a leader; a leader should know his responsibility is so enormous that it terrifies him.  That’s why we’ve heard so much about this film, it was released at a time when it can resonate in more than just the US.  I don’t believe I’m alone in hoping for that reluctant hero to be forced to become a great leader.  I want to see someone who is more concerned about what the people need to hear and not what they want hear.  I want to see a leader more concerned with working hard in his office and in the service of the public and not concerned with getting an emotionally abusive mother of eight to go on a camping trip for a reality show.  I want a leader who wants to be a leader and not a celebrity.

Was King George VI this leader? Maybe. Maybe not. Historically speaking it doesn’t matter, because the King presented to us in this film was.  The King’s Speech was entertaining, it was emotionally stirring and was so socially and politically significant that I was getting jealous to the point of tears over a King that Britain had over 60 years ago. Or he’s just the King in David Seidler’s impeccable script.  Either way, it all equals one fantastic film.

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A note on Tom Hardy and the film ‘Bronson’

December 24th, 2010 No comments

Back when The Wrestler was released two years ago I read this quote describing Mickey Rourke in the film; “A harmonic convergence of player and part that happens only once in a blue moon.” That’s from David Ansen of NewsWeek. Once in a blue moon?  Ansen must’ve missed Tom Hardy in Bronson, released in the same year.  If Rourke’s performance is a blue moon then Hardy’s is Halley’s Comet.

It’s a one man show! Starring Britain’s most violent prisoner and most expensive mental patient. He stands before a captive audience, breaking the forth-wall as he addresses us directly and announces, “I’ve always wanted to be famous.” But he can’t sing, ball or act so his options are limited. Yes,  he has a violent streak, he’s had it since childhood, so it’s a life of crime for Michael Peterson (who later adopts the moniker Charles Bronson).

When Peterson is first arrested it’s for a relatively small crime; he steals 18 quid from a post office and then is sentenced to 7 years.  The sentencing is comedic, in fact a lot of this film is comedic. It’s a tragicomedy that just happens rank among the most violent films.  In fact, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn shows tremendous skill in implementing an almost Kubrickian sensibility in both his visual style, his surreal approach to violence and  his ability to extract raw performances from his actors.

But how does a man go from sticking up a post office for 18 quid to being the most violent criminal in Her Majesty’s Prison Service? I think it looks like simple boredom. But he is presented to us as a man who loves prison. He loves his “hotel room,” as he calls it, and he loves to strip down naked smear himself in butter and go bare-knuckle to riot-gear against a slew of prison guards. And Hardy presents this to us with such bravery and uncompromising dedication that you believe every second.

There’s an amazing moment where we cut back to the stage, as is done regularly throughout the film, where Bronson is split like Two-Face. One side is himself. The other side is made up to be a nurse from the mental hospital at which he attempted to kill another patient. He whips back and forth, recreating a conversation – “when’s my trial!?” Bronson screams. “There isn’t going to be a trial.” The Nurse responds. “But I want my hotel room back.” – It’s a marvelous and inventive way to move the story along quickly, mixing again this surreal style with a bitter comedy and inspired theatrical performance.

Bronson ends up being a surprisingly innovative biopic that some critics have dismissed as just being “a pointless exercise in morbidity.” But such an over-simplification of this film is board-line criminal.  Refn’s bold profile of a violent man doesn’t shy away from the brutality of his life, but he does undercut the violence with his brilliant use of music, mixing rock, opera, classical and The Pet Shop Boys.

This is just another instance, in a long list of examples, that proves most awards are jokes.  Sean Penn won the Oscar this year for his role in Milk. It’s a very good performance, but doesn’t belong in the same category as Hardy’s performance. It’s the equivalent of ignoring Charlotte Gainsbourg at the Oscars last year. But to hell with award shows simply recognizing studios trying their damnedest to promote their films to increase their box-office after spending a mint on an awards campaign.  Awards can be a kiss of death to some.  What has Gooding, Jr or Berry or Bullock or Paltrow done since their awards?  Sometimes the award can be a mark of the end, not the beginning. Hardy’s performance here marks the beginning of a very exciting career and it will exist now as one of those fringe performances that wasn’t promoted relentlessly to the public.  It is one you need to discover years later on Netflix on the recommendation of a rambling, lowly, fringe writer….

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Rambling about The Fighter from the comfort of my home…

December 24th, 2010 No comments

Another benefit to being on the fringe,  Academy screeners! They send out DVDs packaged by hundreds of assistants all over Hollywood so voting members (which unfortunately I am not) can decide on the top award while dealing with all the home distractions. So, with the hype swirling and anticipation peaking, I put in The Fighter.  I’ll start by admitting I had no idea who Micky Ward was before this film.  Maybe it’s because I was only 16 when Micky was starting his comeback and, him not being a fully developed female high school sophomore, I didn’t care to know who he was. And maybe because when I watch SportsCenter I listen to baseball, basketball and football (soccer every four years like a good American) and ignore all else. I could name all the boxers I know quite quickly – Ali, Foreman, Dempsey, Leonard, Liston, LaMotta (thanks Scorsese), Tyson, Holyfield, de la Hoya, Douglas and…. and I think I’m out.  Not being a huge fan of boxing didn’t detract from my enjoyment of Raging Bull, Rocky, or Million Dollar Baby, and didn’t for The Fighter either.  But still, other distractions did play a role in this viewing.

It was about dinner time, the wife and I just put Bean down for a nap, the food is on the table and we get ready to see what people are calling the best movie of the year. They are raving about this. I’m sure you’ve heard the hype, it is December after all and with the award season upon us you’re going to see a lot films bragging about their dubious nominations for SAG and Golden Globes (Alice In Wonderland Best Picture? Seriously?).  The Fighter has four SAG Award nomination, six Golden Globe nods (that’s right, people keep giving Melissa Leo nominations, damn it.)

We come into Micky’s life after he’s already made a name for himself as a boxer and is slumping.  He just lost four fights in a row and he’s being considered a “stepping stone,” which in boxing terms means he’s the guy you want your boxer fighting so your guy can move up the ranks.  His brother, Dicky Ecklund, has already seen his glory days; he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (the Leonard from my list above).  But now all Dicky has going for him is Micky, an HBO documentary crew, a crack addiction and a Cambodian crack whore that he always seems to be tangled up with when Micky needs him most.  I should digress briefly

real Dick Ecklund / Bale as Ecklund

to just echo what everyone is saying; Bale deserves, actually deserves, an award here. He and David O. Russell both deserve the nods they’re getting, but Bale’s award is going to be for his entire body of work.  He’s a tremendous actor and has been snubbed enough. And, like in this film, he always seems to be at his best when he’s emaciated (see The Machinist and Rescue Dawn).

The Mungin fight ends, Ah! I have time to grab more wine, shouldn’t take long, so I get up, go to the kitchen and grab the bottle.  I pour the glass, but before I sit, real quick, to the bathroom and I’m back.  It’s at the this point we find Micky getting an offer to train full time in Vegas.  He needs to sort of “break up” with his mother and brother who are his manager and trainer respectively.  For extra support he brings his new girlfriend Charlene, played by Amy Adams.  I loved Amy Adams in this role. She’s gone from the very innocent girl in Catch Me If You Can and Junebug to this tough talking bartender who can match attitude and grit with the apparent harem of hookers living in Micky’s house.

Needless to say, the “break up” with the family doesn’t pan out and Dicky swears he can get enough money keep Micky in Lowell and train year-round.  But, remember, Dicky is on crack. So his idea to pimp out his Cambodian girlfriend and rob the johns in order to raise money is ill-conceived at best and fails, resulting in a small falling out with the family and Micky contemplating retirement.  This is just about the low-point for the family.  Micky has a broken hand, isn’t fighting or talking to his mother, Dicky is in jail and just found out the documentary they did on him wasn’t about boxing but about his crack addiction. Oh, and it looks like Charlene doesn’t want to be around sad-sack Micky any longer.

PAUSE! The kid woke up.  Okay, rough wake-up, so we calm her down, get her fed and then try to entertain her with toys while we resume the movie.  To avoid spoiling more I’ll sum up.  The Fighter ends up being an uplifting film with tremendous heart.  It teaches us that even at rock bottom you need to remain tenacious and that you need to continue to support your family even if your mom is the easiest, most fertile white trash in Massachusetts and your brother is a crack head.  There is a tremendous value in loving and being loved unconditionally and with that sort of support behind you, you can always pull yourself up.  It’s a good message. And I always like David O. Russell’s work, I don’t think he’s made a movie I didn’t like.  His dedication to accuracy during the fights was brilliant and I applaud he choice to use old Beta to tape the fights. I read that he choreographed each bout by recreating the tapes of Micky’s actually fights and recorded them with the help of directors and cameramen from HBO Sports.  They’re best boxing scenes since Raging Bull and the best aspect of the entire picture.

I didn’t love this movie, though. Could it be the hype? No. Maybe it was because of Melissa Leo. I just don’t care for Leo and she posted negative marks with me when watching this film. Which is fine, some actors just rub audience members the wrong way, I’m sure there are actors you just don’t care for. But, you know how they say when you are in a role with great actors supporting you, you raise your game?  Like when playing with better athletes.  Not here. It’s like putting a 19″ Toshiba TV next to an IMAX screen… your Toshiba doesn’t all the sudden perform better, in fact it’s worse now that you have a comparison.  Leo is the Toshiba. And it made Bale look like an IMAX.

But no, there are movies out there that I love and they have actors I don’t like in the cast.  This isn’t Leo’s fault. I think I didn’t enjoy this movie fully because of home distractions. I never got 100% invested, and that raises the question: how many Academy voters are just watching these movies at home, or at the office or on their laptop on a plane? I think when people vote based on home screenings, tragedies like this can result

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Notes on ‘Black Swan’

November 22nd, 2010 No comments

I had plans this Saturday, plans to be productive.  I made a list, because Tony Robbins says if you’re going to be successful you should make lists.  But that list was quickly thrown out when a friend called with an extra ticket to an advanced screening of Darren Aronofsky’s new film Black Swan.

At these industry screenings there are no trailers, no quizzes and advertisements on the screen; it’s just the crowd and the curtain until showtime.  The curtain pulls back and the trumpeting announcement of Fox blares.  Without all the pre-show noise this moment ends up achieving exactly what it should; it sends a quick chill down your back. You feel like this isn’t just another piece of media projected on a screen, this is a show under a Proscenium with all the players ready to give you a unique performance.

We open on a dark stage, a single spotlight bathing our ballerina in a white circle. This is the first moment we hear Clint Mansell’s emotional and powerful score.  If you’re not familiar with Mansell, then you’re not familiar with Aronofsky either. Mansell composed the haunting score for Requiem for a Dream as well as each of Aronofsky’s other films.  The success of those films rested heavily on Mansell’s orchestra and that is certainly the case for Black Swan.

The music lifts our dancer (the enchanting Natalie Portman); she glides around the stage, being tempted by a dark figure dancing around her. He circles her like a predatory bird, morphing into a grotesque black-feathered beast that pulls her violently around the stage.  It’s a dance of madness, a nightmare Lynchian in scope serving as an overture that instills a sense of foreboding of what we can expect as this white swan struggles with the pressure of receiving the prince’s favor.

Obsession is a very common theme for Aronofsky. Whether the obsession is with numbers (Pi), drugs (Requiem for a Dream), immortality and love (The Fountain), or celebrity and glory (The Wrestler), his films chronicle the detrimental, destructive effects of allowing yourself to be consumed entirely by one desire. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Black Swan continues the exploration of self-destructive obsession.  Nina (Portman) is a ballerina in an acclaimed dance company led by the Machiavellian creative director Thomas – pronounced toh-mah with adequate pretension. Nina’s desire to please Thomas is incidental, simply resulting from her endless pursuit for perfection.  Nina practices all day, then returns at night to her over-bearing mother (Barbara Hershey) as they settle into their nightly routine.  No, not routine. This is something more. This is ritualistic. She prepares her swollen, bruised and bleeding feet, she prepares her shoes and the ribbons, she prepares her body with methodical stretching. The dedication to ritual is again something Aronofsky loves to explore. Think of the process of liquefying the heroine, or the pre-match ritual of the Ram.

As Nina pursues perfection she quickly falls into the lead in Swan Lake.  With the former lead, Beth (Winona Ryder), retiring the heavy crown is passed on.  Thomas (brilliantly played by Vincent Cassell) struggles to get Nina to dance with passion. He tells her that she plays the White Swan beautifully, but in order to dance the Black Swan she needs to get out of her head and dance unfettered by her thoughts, letting the dance simply ‘take her over.’  He entices her to find the side of herself that can be the Black Swan, even encouraging her to masturbate and just give in to temptations.

This begins her spiral into a nightmare reminiscent of Polanski’s Repulsion.There is a slow build as Nina embarks on a sexual exploration that has been delayed by years of sexual repression.  She starts to deviate from her ritual in order to find this side of herself that Thomas wants to see. And as she continues this journey she, and the audience, starts to question reality. She can feel, even see, the Black Swan bursting forth from under her skin.

The narrator, or more accurately the POV, becomes unreliable.  Nina’s point of view becomes so unreliable I still don’t know what happened exactly. Some of the events could have just been figments of her imagination, not unlike some of the events in Repulsion, but in the end I wish I knew what to believe regarding some of the characters, especially Lily. In fact, Nina’s delusions even distort how she sees her own reflection as Aronofsky delves heavily into a mirror motif.

Everything builds to a true metamorphosis of character which is handled with tremendous skill by Portman.  This is the performance that will define her career. Vincent Cassell is perfect as the creative director, and I would say it’s his best since La Haine if it weren’t for his brilliant work in Mesrine just last year. In the end, the performances were great all around. The atmosphere for the screening was perfect. It was a smart, thrilling picture.  So why didn’t I love it like it feels I should?

First, I was too aware of the camera.  Like in The Wrestler we have long hand-held following shots, but this is a different story. The Wrestler felt like we needed that rough filming, that observational feel, but Black Swan is a new story and I felt called for a new style.  I know Aronofsky abhors the steadi-cam but using a more fluid motion for the long tracking shots would have complimented the perfection and grace of the ballerina, at least until her life became chaotic.

Second, it felt like Aronofsky was too intellectual with this film. That’s why there is so much to write about. You could write essays on his use of mirrors, on the ritual, on the sexual repression, self-mutilation or the transformation you undergo as you strive for perfection, but that’s not why most people go see movies. Yes, he’s a very smart guy. Yes, he knows how to direct a good film.  But I can’t help feeling that he is lost in his own ritual as he directs, creating films that are almost entirely cerebral and not visceral. His best film is still Requiem and it’s because there he had true passion. He was experimenting and attacked his first big release with a rookie’s recklessness.  It’s like Thomas tells Nina, you have to get out of your head. You need to let the emotion take over and only then can you reach perfection because then you will find the ability to surprise yourself and the audience.  I was hoping for something surprising with Black Swan. It’s still a very good film; it’s still worth seeing in the theater because that’s the only way to experience what should be an Oscar winning score, but if the reins would have been loosened this film could have been so much more.

Below are several of the movie posters, which I thought were fantastic.

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Notes on The Color of Paradise

November 7th, 2010 No comments

A lazy Saturday – I finished watching  True Grit, went to Costco with the wife and daughter then returned to watch The Color of Paradise, a beautiful Iranian film from filmmaker Majid Majidi.  The DVD came from Netflix months ago, renting on the recommendation of my friend Adnan. But with a new baby I rarely have time to sit down and give foreign films their due attention. Luckily Boston was kind enough to take an afternoon nap long enough for me to enjoy this poetic and deeply affecting film.

The film quickly introduces us to Mohammad, our amiable child protagonist.  We first see him at school where he excels at his learning, he has an open and friendly relationship with his teacher and gets along with his fellow students.  He appears to be a healthy, normal student except we find him at a special school for the blind.  Here he fits in with the other blind students and is rather comfortable. But this is the final day of school and everyone waits for their families to pick them up to go home for the 3 month summer break.  The other students are picked up, they are met by happy, hurried parents. Mohammad waits. The final classmate fades from the scene, and Mohammad still waits.

The film focuses on the people and creatures in the world in need of compassion and assistance.  While waiting for his neglectful father, Mohammad can hear the desperate chirp from a bird in distress.  He feels his way through the woods, searching for the struggling animal. He even scares off a hungry calico in order to rescue the bird.  This blind child’s benevolence is not easily discouraged.  He struggles to climb a tree, feeling each individual branch in search of the nest. It’s a show of pure determination and compassion. It’s the sort of compassion his father is completely incapable of showing.

From the moment we meet Mohammad’s father he is looking for a way to relinquish his responsibilities as a father to everyone else. To quote my wife, “his dad’s a dick.”  Well said wife. Hossein Mahjoub plays Father’s emotional dilemma with a solemn intensity that makes you despise the character. He isn’t a man for whom you feel sympathy. You might pity him, as his mother in the film does.  And, if you are the rare audience member that can feel sympathetic toward his situation, that feeling will quickly escape you during the scene between Mohammad and the blind carpenter.

As the Blind Carpenter is teaching Mohammad how to identify certain types of wood by their density he feels Mohammad’s tears.  The young actor launches into a brief monologue about having no love in his life. He expresses he understands that people are always trying to run from him, nobody wants to care for him and its all because he is blind.  Maybe if he could see, he tells his mentor, he could earn the love of his family, but being blind is not his fault. He continues to say that he walks through the world with his hands stretched out hoping he can touch God one day, and asking him why life is as it is.  It’s a beautiful scene and the monologue is captured in one medium close-up meaning all the emotion came from this young actor (Mohsen Ramezani), not from the camera, not from the editing and not from any sort of swelling orchestral score.

As we see Mohammad flopping around in life, looking for a loving hand to reach out to him, we are also shown another animal in distress. Mohammad’s grandma set out to bring Mohammad back home when she comes across a fish flopping in shallow water. In a frail state she strains herself to bend over, picking up the fish and gently placing him in deeper water.  She’s the only character that accepts her role in Mohammad’s life and the only other character that helps an animal in distress. She’s connected to Mohammad through a shared compassion for the world around them.

As Father and Mohammad walk through the woods we are shown a quick shot of a turtle struggling between two rocks.  It’s a silent struggle, so Mohammad cannot hear the turtle although you can be assured that he would have helped. Father didn’t see the turtle and that is just as important as if he saw it and passed it by.  He is too self-involved, consumed with self-pity to be aware of others that may need a helping hand.  And this leads into the final climatic scene.  I will spare you the details as to not spoil it, but Father is faced with the decision whether he wants to save Mohammad’s life or if he’d be better off with Mohammad dying. It’s a powerful climax and ends with one single frame that inspires hope.  This final frame is the sort of optimism we were hoping we’d see through out this depressing story.

This ending is something I find common in films from this region, and I’m in love with the use of one final image that changes our entire mood.  I can tell this film has inspired my friend Adnan as you get the some final sense of hope in his short films, Maggie’s Heart and Heal.  It also reminds me of the final moment in A Moment of Innocence, by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. If you haven’t seen A Moment of Innocence, put it in your Netflix queue now! In fact, add The Color of Paradise and add Turtles Can Fly, a film by a Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi.

These are filmmakers from what has been called the Iranian New Wave. They’re from a  country that the US Government at one time put in “The Axis of Evil.”  Yes, Iran did at one time ban A Moment of Innocence, but if their films are any indication of the spirit of the people then ‘evil’ is a horrible, all-encapsulating term to use.  Their films exemplify the beauty found in a child-like innocence and blind optimism.

(sorry this note is about 10 years late)

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