Thursday, December 30, 2010

The King's Speech

The King's Speech has many delightful moments but not a sufficient number to justify this eye-rolling poster that suggests it's a comedy. It most certainly is not. At the heart of this story of England's King George VI (the father of the current monarch) is his struggle not only with his speech impediment (a stammer)... but more importantly with the trauma that created it. This element gives the film such resonance and emotional gravitas that I didn't mind its predictable structure. The speech of the title (if you read it as "oration" and not "elocution") is a crowning achievement of movie storytelling and is enormously satisfying. Colin Firth as the king, Geoffrey Rush as his speech tutor and Helena Bonham Carter as George VI's Queen Elizabeth are individually and collectively wonderful.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

127 Hours

Danny Boyle's 127 Hours devotes so little time establishing the main character of this riveting and, yes, briefly repulsive film that it got me wondering: Was Boyle using the harrowing experience of climber / cayoneer Aron Ralston as a device to put us all on notice that, to misquote the bumper sticker, "Life is too short to be a dick."

Of course, other readings are just as plausible, including that it is simply a cinematic rendering of Ralston's tale of his misadventure, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." But Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) is such an intelligent and insightful filmmaker that I can't resist thinking more is going on here. No matter. It's a splendid movie whatever the case.

The supremely egoless James Franco carries this picture in a tour de force performance as Ralston, who was pinned by a bolder against the wall of a narrow canyon in Utah. Franco's Ralston is a rambling and self-centered man-child but not stupid or careless -- just unlucky. Through flashbacks and hallucinations we get a sense of who Ralston is, but it is never clear if these dreams are reliable memories, wishes or premonitions or a mix of all three.

Despite his quirkiness, Ralston's resourcefulness (and spiritedness) saved his life as he eventually snipped and sawed and hacked his way through the tissue, veins and nerves of his right arm to free himself from the rock. The amputation scene, which lasts about 3 minutes, is craftily staged by Boyle but it is, unquestionably, not for weak stomachs. Even so, it must be seen to get the full effect of this terrific film.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Tourist

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Tourist is as beautiful and anemic as its star Angelina Jolie. The film, which also stars Johnny Depp, does not provide enough fiber in terms of story or red meat in terms of action to be a full cinematic meal. (Stop that metaphor!)

This tale of mistaken identity fails to put the wrong guy (Depp) in real peril, and unlike her earlier performance in the star vehicle Salt, Jolie does not work up a sweat here. I actually got the feeling she's was indifferent to the outcome of all of the cat-and-mousing as I was.

Von Donnersmarck stages two uninvolving chases and an interminable last act that would have been much more satisfying -- oddly enough -- if either Jolie or Depp (or both) had not survived the last reel. Tedioso!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

True Grit

The Coen Brothers' decision to remake (remodel) the 1969 classic western True Grit seemed curious to me, but the smartness of the film's screenplay, the seamlessness of the cinematography and key performances testify to the Coens' gifts and vision as filmmakers. I loved it.

The story of the odd pairing of a young girl ...and a gristly lawman on the trail of the scoundrel who shot down the girl's father is intact but the language has been refashioned into something bordering on Shakespearean, like David Milch's HBO series Deadwood, without the unrelenting profanity. The script sparkles with intelligence -- as most Coen scripts do.

Hailee Steinfeld's performance as the aggrieved 14-year-old Mattie Ross has been highly praised and deservedly so. She's tremendous. A horse-trading scene between Steinfeld and veteran character actor Dakin Matthews near the beginning of the film is splendid and is an early indication of the quality of this young lady's performance. That Steinfeld's work and that of Coen fave Jeff Bridges (the Dude) as the aging and drunken marshal Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn and Matt Damon as the officious Texas Ranger LaBeouf (pronounced LaBeef) were ignored by the Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globes) is curious indeed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is the movie from hell ... which is a good thing. It's the story of the sexually repressed ballerina from hell (Natalie Portman) who is tormented by the stage mother from hell (Barbara Hershey), stalked by the understudy from hell (Mila Kunis) and fondled by the company director from hell ...(Vincent Cassel). All of this hellacious drama is played out to the strains of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

Comparisons have made to Polanski's Repulsion in which Catherine Deneuve goes quietly mad over a long weekend in her Paris apartment. While Deneuve's repressed manicurist's frightening walk into madness felt gradual, Portman's prima ballerina Nina's downward spiral into hell is rapid and precipitous. Aronofsky's introduces Nina as needy, unstable and borderline masochistic.

It would be easy enough to lay Nina's estrangement from sanity at the door of her controlling and whacked out Mom who doesn't know the meaning of personal boundaries or the controlling and whacked artistic director whose idea of creative tension involve forcing his tongue down Nina's throat and other appendages elsewhere.

Don't mistake, both of these characters are truly repugnant, but I think Aronofsky might be going for something else here in this film. Portman's Nina is wound so tightly by her own monomaniacal quest for transcendent perfection that she's driven herself crazy. No, the demon mother and predatory dance master don't help, but I think Aronofsky is saying that in the end we're all our own creations.

The Fighter

David O. Russell's The Fighter is a superb boxing movie that doesn't have a whole lot of boxing in it -- at least not the type that goes on in a roped ring. Most of the sparring in the film is between a quartet of exciting heavy hitters -- Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo -- which isn't to say their battles are any less bloody than those staged in Atlantic City, Vegas and London. In fact, if you listen carefully, you can actually hear the crunching of bone and tearing of sinew as these champion performers hurl their anger, bitterness and frustration at each other and the world they can't seem to affect quickly enough.

Wahlberg and Bale play boxing brothers in a large Lowell, Massachusetts, family that has investing its hopes and dreams in the two sons. Bale's Dicky became a town legend when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard during a bout, although the circumstances of the champ's tumble has been disputed. Dicky is now a washed up and washed out crack addict whose only obsession other than scoring rocks is training his younger brother Micky (Wahlberg) to a boxing title, two pursuits which appear to work in opposition to each other. He's walking disaster for himself and his family. Wahlberg, who appears to be a favorite of Russell's having appeared in the director's Three Kings and I (heart) Huckabees, delivers one of the most focused performances as the conflicted but devoted younger brother. He is the heart of the picture.

Melissa Leo (a personal favorite of mine since her days on Homicide) plays Alice Ward, mother to both Dicky and Micky, and a creature of singular domineering neediness -- an inspired character and performance.

And the redoubtable Amy Adams plays Micky's love interest and muse whose flintiness ignites her boyfriend's desire to free himself from the control of his enmeshed and carnivorous family and try to chart a course of his own design -- and take her along with him.

Yes, Russell does stage three exciting boxing matches, and they are filmed smartly and economically, and all in service to this true story of love and liberation. It is a terrific movie.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Man from Earth (2007)

Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth (2007) ponders the nature of life and probes questions of mortality, history and knowledge, more precisely, how is it we know what we know. It's how these undeniably heavy themes are introduced that makes the film such a surprise.

A respected and highly favored history professor has announced to his colleagues that he's leaving after 10 years on the faculty. His friends -- among them, a biologist, anthropologist, archeologist and psychiatrist -- gather at his home to say goodbye and ask him why he's leaving his tenured position so suddenly. It's then that he reveals he's actually 14,000 years old. From that incredible premise, Bixby, a celebrated sci-fi writer who died the year after this film was released, crafts a decidedly theatrical but satisfying treatment of the meaning of life that contains not a single cliche and has a fascinating reveal in its last quarter. Highly entertaining and not just for eggheads.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Love and Other Drugs

Brokeback Mountain co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway are reunited in Edward Zwick's Love and Other Drugs to do a whole different kind of two-step as a couple of supremely insecure but glib people engaged in all manner of painful, and painfully funny, battles with themselves, each other and the world.

Gyllenhaal plays the emotionally stunted pharmaceutical salesman Jamie who despite all of his natural proclivities falls in love with his f-buddy Maggie (Hathaway), who has erected walls around her heart 12 feet high and 4 feet thick because she's going through the early stages of Parkinson's disease and fears abandonment. Both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are stellar, as are Oliver Platt as Jamie's antacid-popping partner and Josh Gad as Jamie's rich and doughy younger brother, who gets some of the best lines in the film.

If you enjoy watching beautiful people cavort acrobatically, sans apparel, while espousing at length about what little use they have for human connections, you'll love this movie. You might recall that Zwick was one of the creators of thirtysomething and that program's knowing sensibility about human frailities is all over this movie.


  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...