Friday, January 7, 2011

December 2010

A man being treated by a speech therapist for stuttering hardly seems like the plot of a great film. Then again, it doesn’t hurt that the patient is the future king of England.

Tom Hooper, director of last year’s underrated “The Damned United” and the acclaimed cable series “John Adams,” has made a near-perfect character study of a pivotal figure of the 20th Century as he faces both his frustrating disability and the dark clouds of war.

Colin Firth portrays Prince Albert, know to his family as Bertie, second son of the gruff, cold George V and brother of Edward (Guy Pearce), the dashing and well-spoken heir to the throne. Albert prefers to be in the background, limited by his inability to speak fluently and his reserved personality.

Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), in her continual pursuit of a cure for her husband’s speech problem, visits unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who agrees to take on the royal patient, but only under his terms.

The give and take between Firth’s taciturn Bertie and Rush’s gregarious, plain-speaking Lionel is superbly written (by David Seidler) and realized, painting a difficult relationship that goes from royal and commoner to brothers. The performances are career bests for both of these excellent actors.

Raising the dramatic stakes is the biggest crisis faced by the Royal family since Richard III started killing off heirs to the throne: Edward refusal to give up American divorcee Wallis Simpson even after becoming King. The possibility of having to take his brother’s place on the throne doubles Bertie’s insecurities, especially with the newly popular medium of radio requiring the country’s leader to speak directly to the nation.

The film captures the intensity of the times---Hitler is about to launch his assault on Europe---while never losing its focus on the therapy process and the growing bond between these two, very different, men.

Firth, who earned a 2009 Oscar nomination for his subtle portrayal of a gay man mourning the death of his partner in “A Single Man,” finds the right balance of royal macho and frail human in Bertie, as this accidental monarch slowly becomes a warmer, more likeable person. These two performances elevate the 50-year-old Firth to the top ranks of film actors. Yet Rush, who won an Oscar for his first major role in “Shine” (1996), is equally impressive as a nervy eccentric who treats the King as just another patient and also deserve a spot in the best actor category.

Bonham Carter captures Elizabeth’s earthy, no-nonsense persona and unflagging confidence in her husband, foreshadowing her role in leading the country through the harsh times of World War II and her beloved status as “Queen Mother” until her death in 2002.

The film is filled with impeccably acted supporting roles, including Pearce, displaying both the bravado of the young King and the anguish behind one of the most celebrated romances of the era; Timothy Spall as Churchill; Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop; Claire Bloom as the Queen; and Michael Gambon as George V.

While “The King’s Speech” has the trappings of a “Masterpiece Theatre” production, the movie also possesses an unhinged, unpredictable undercurrent that makes the political issues come alive and the characters seem very contemporary.

There’s a poignant, insightful moment when Bertie’s children----future Queen Elizabeth, then 10, and Margaret----greet him with curtsies rather than hugs now that he’s also their King. The difficult balance between personal and public, country and family, turns this story of a very private, privileged man and his informal, working man friend into a fascinating study of class and individual priorities in an unpredictable, changing world.

TRUE GRIT (2010)
More than 40 years ago, this comic Western was viewed as a remnant of old Hollywood, a relic in the midst of a revolution. It earned just a single Oscar nomination (for John Wayne) and was out grossed at the box office by the hipper “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” And the Western movie critics were raving about that year was “The Wild Bunch.”

The Coen brothers’ remake, which offers only cosmetic changes from the original, has benefitted from the rarity of Westerns today and the filmmakers’ cutting-edge reputation to earn critical raves. But what’s on the screen is too often a by-the-numbers horse opera that doesn’t match the energy of such recent Westerns as “3:10 to Yuma” (2007) or “Open Range” (2004).

What saves the picture is its perfect casting: Jeff Bridges is a more disheveled, inebriated Rooster Cogburn than Wayne; Hailee Steinfeld, a 14-year-old newcomer, nails the precocious Mattie; and Matt Damon brings to life the egotistical LaBoeuf, a character than had been left on the page in the original by amateur actor Glen Campbell.

Both films, based on the acclaimed novel by Charles Portis, follows Mattie’s determined pursuit of the low-life drifter who killed her father, a successful rancher, for no good reason. After much hemming and hawing, she hires Cogburn, a federal marshal, to help her bring the killer, who has escaped into Indian Territory, to justice. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, after the same man for another crime, joins the hunting party.

Even with the spunky, self-reliant Mattie as the focus, the film never picks up much speed until the mismatched trio hits the trail, and even then the Coens add little spin to the tale.

The only interesting addition to the new version is the brief, oddball appearance of a medicine man/trader wearing a bear skin (including the head). A few more “wild” animals could have done wonders for this movie.

Bridges, like Wayne, was born to play Rooster and he does have some fun with the role, but not as much as you’d expect. He plays it pretty straight just like everyone else in the picture.

Steinfeld, discovered during auditions for the role after having very limited acting experience, shows the character’s steely resolve and verbal maturity while displaying real cinematic charisma. Not once is she out acted by Bridges, Damon or Josh Brolin (who has a small role as the killer) and should not be stuck in the supporting actress category just because she’s a juvenile. She is the film’s lead actress.

Unquestionable, this version is better directed and acted than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie, and, from all reports, sticks closer to the novel. Yet, overall, it’s the same picture; an occasionally amusing, run-of-the-mill Western.

While it’s hard to take seriously a director who made eight “Pink Panther” films---each progressively less funny and more embarrassing---Blake Edwards, who died a few weeks ago at age 88, is hard to dismiss. The grandson of a silent filmmaker, Edwards started in Hollywood as an actor (he played a soldier in “The Best Years in Our Lives”) and then a screenwriter before making his directing debut with “Bring Your Smile Along,” a 1955 B-level musical comedy starring pop singer Frankie Lane. Four years later, he scored his first hit with the military comedy “Operation Petticoat,” starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.

For television, Edwards created the short-lived 1959-60 series “Mr. Lucky” about a profession gambler and the better remembered “Peter Gunn,” with Craig Stevens as a cool private eye, which ran for three seasons starting in 1958.

He was just hitting his stride. For his next film, he turned Truman Capote’s novel about a New York City party girl named Holly Golightly--- with the help of Andy Hepburn’s iconic performance---into a classic, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). The next year he directed one of the era’s most memorable dramas, “Days of Wine and Roses,” featuring searing performances by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as an alcoholic couple.

Then he created the anchor, for better or worse, of his career: “The Pink Panther” and “A Shot in the Dark,” both starring with Peter Sellers as the thick-headed, clumsy French detective, Inspector Clouseau. Essentially, a Hollywoodization of the absurdly goofiness of the English comedies of the ‘50s combined with the silent pratfalls of the Keystone Cops, the 1964 comedies made Sellers a star in America. But it was another ten years before the pair returned to the series.

A string of box-office failures and high-profile battles with studio chiefs marked Edwards’ last ‘60s career, culminating with his move to England after his married to Julie Andrews in 1969. One of his misfires was the oddly titled 1966 World War II satire, “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” The film starts out promisingly, when a ragtag platoon ordered to take an Italian town finds the enemy troops more than willing to surrender. All the Italians want is to celebrate their festival that evening and then, in the morning, they’ll become prisoners.

James Coburn and Aldo Ray, as leaders of this troop of partiers, have no problem with the arrangement and, with the right measure of alcohol and the affections of the local beauty, neither does the uptight lieutenant from headquarters, played by Dick Shawn.

The next morning, the plan goes awry and so does the William Peter Blatty (“The Exorcist”) script, turning into a series of flipped-out officers and mistaken identities. Once the Nazis show up, the film loses any sense of intelligence it started with, wasting the first-rate comic skills of Coburn and Shawn.

During this dry period, Edwards occasionally made interesting pictures, including “The Party,” a satire of hipsters of the ‘60s starring Sellers; “Wild Rovers” (1971), an entertaining Western with William Holden; and “The Carey Treatment” (1972), a murder-mystery starring Coburn.

Then came Edwards’ impressive return to box-office glory with the daring sex comedy “10” (1979), followed by the hilarious, uncensored assault on Hollywood in “S.O.B.” (1981) and the gender-bending comedy “Victor/Victoria” (1982), his best film since “Tiffany’s.” All three movies featured Andrews.

Between the never-ending “Panther” retreads, Edwards explored the theme of “10”---the anxieties of middle-aged men especially in regards to sex---for the rest of his career. “Micki & Maude” (1984), with “10” star Dudley Moore; “That’s Life!” (1986), a high-profile acting platform for Jack Lemmon; and “Skin Deep” (1989), with John Ritter in the Dudley Moore role, were Edwards’ late-career best. His final picture was, appropriately, “The Son of the Pink Panther” (1993), this time starring the nutty Italian actor Roberto Benigni.

Though Edwards only helmed one great film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and produced at least four too many “Panthers,” this writer-director had his finger on the pulse of what made audience laugh for more than four decades, a rare skill considering the ever-changing tastes of moviegoers. And in between the sophomoric sight gags and pratfalls, his movies always possessed a dark, sarcastic undercurrent that kept him relevant longer than most of his generation of filmmakers.

Great acting cannot turn a predictable, simplistic screenplay into a good movie, but it certainly makes it a more entertaining two hours.

This true story of a pair of prizefighting half-brothers, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale) from a small town north of Boston follows the template that’s been used in boxing films since the 1930s. Dickey had his shot at glory (he never tires of boasting that he knocked down the great Sugar Ray Leonard) but now is the wild-eyed, irresponsible, cocaine-addicted trainer of Micky, a welterweight struggling to get a shot at a decent fight. Offering little help is his trashy, ambitious mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo) who dotes on the washed-up Dicky and only sees Micky as a way to keep the money flowing for her and her seven big-haired, loud-mouth daughters.

Under the influence of a feisty bartender (Amy Adams), the soft-spoken Micky break with the family and starts getting better fights. About the same time, Dicky’s robbery scheme lands him in prison, where he attempts to right his life.

If you’ve seen many boxing films, or nearly any sports movies, the story arc and characters are as familiar as an old sock. Yet the ferocious, authentic performances by Bale and Leo are worth the price of admission.

Bale, the reigning “Batman,” who showed what an extraordinary actor he can be in “Rescue Dawn” (2006), turns this sad, drug-addled goofball into an unforgettable character; outrageous, funny and frustratingly human.

Leo’s brassy, overbearing dame runs the family as if she’s a Vegas monster, giving her troubled son and dependent daughters free rides. The actress’ best performances---she was Oscar nominated for “Frozen River” (2008) and deserved to be for “21 Grams” (2003)---have been portrayals of uneducated, determined women and she finds just the right balance again with her Alice, making her both cartoonishly funny and horror-movie scary.

The film is the pet project of Wahlberg, a longtime fan of Ward, having grown up in the area, and he gives a solid performance, especially in the very authentic looking fight scenes. But he should have demanded a better script.

Director David O. Russell (“The Three Kings”) keeps the movie lively and makes great use of real locations in Lowell, Mass., but he’s stuck with the “true story” and sometimes that’s not the best source of convincing drama.

I’m never surprised when I see a bad film---I feel lucky if 20% of the new movies I watch are any good. What amazes me is the number of bad or mediocre pictures every year that receive the big-budget studio push for prestigious awards. Of course, some of these bad films end up winning awards, which might never have happened if they had slipped into theaters in March.

Example number 186 is “Black Swan.” This overwrought melodrama about an immature, mentally unstable ballet dancer is a glossy version of a low-budget exploitation film. I half expected characters to sprout fangs or wings or, like in a 1970s Roger Corman picture, transform into some kind of beast.

Natalie Portman matches the skin-and-bones look of a prima ballerina and, at age 28, is still believable as a child-like adult. Her Nina lives under the domineering thumb of her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer whose controlling behavior has never allowed Nina to develop relationships or emerge from childhood.

That Nina holds on to a spot in a prestigious New York City dance company is hard to buy; as the movie keeps hammering home, it takes more than physical perfection to be an artistic dancer. Nina has zero personality, lacking any interests beyond her tights and slippers.

The plot involves Nina’s struggle to portray the Black Swan in a production of “Swan Lake” staged by the dance company’s demanding director (French actor Vincent Cassel). What little confidence she possesses is crushed by the arrival of a younger, sexier dancer (Mila Kunis), sending Nina into schizophrenic, disturbing visions.

The performances are alarming poor, led by Portman’s one-note portrayal of this fragile young woman. Her look of pained fear never changes (she’s on the verge of tears for the entire two hours) until she somehow becomes completely possessed in the grand finalé.

Hershey might as well be carrying around a wire coat hanger---it would have provided a more subtle insight into her character than she ever approaches. Gallo hits all the clichés of an overbearing choreographer while Kunis’ character is made to fit whatever the disturbed mind of Nina’s requires.

Darren Aronofsky, whose best known films examined the agony of drug abuse (“Requiem for a Dream”) and the pain of an aging pro wrestler (“The Wrestler”) is clearly fascinated by the physical abuse people are willing endure for their obsessions, but this latest version never rises above TV-movie disease-of-moment dreck.

Yet “Black Swan” has already picked up four Golden Globe nominations and looks to be a shoo-in for a best picture Oscar nomination. Timing is everything.

This British docudrama, about a landmark strike by female workers at an English Ford Motors plant in 1968, plays like a TV movie, except for the vibrant, cinematic performance at its center.

Sally Hawkins, who received numerous accolades for her high spirited performance in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” (2008), portrays Rita O’Grady, one of the seamstresses producing seat covers at the plant, who steps into a leadership role when the women strike for a pay raise that had been promised by the company. This working wife and mother, who never pictured herself as an activist or leader, finds it comes naturally as she confronts arrogant company executives, sexist union leaders and suspicious male co-workers who lose their paychecks when the company locks out all the workers.

Hawkins’ spunky, unaffected performance turns these 40-year-old events into relevant issues in a way that William Ivory’s script, Nigel Cole’s direction and the stock characters who surround her can’t do.

Bob Hoskins gives his usual feisty, bemused performance as the union rep on the women’s side, but Miranda Richardson overplays her role as the Labor Secretary who takes an interest in the dispute. All the officials---government, company, union---are portrayed as narrow-minded fools, which makes the accomplishments of O’Grady and the strikers seem less impressive. In fact, this group of small-town women changed the way one of the world’s largest corporations paid workers, eventually leading to equal pay laws across Europe and North America.

One can’t help but admire “Made in Dagenham” for bringing this little-noted but far-reaching bit of history to the screen, even if it makes for predictable, by-the-numbers cinema.

Legendary French director Alain Resnais’ latest film falls well short of his 2006 effort, “Private Fears in Public Places,” though both share a neon-light look that makes you wonder if it isn’t all a dream. If it had been, “Wild Grass” might be more convincing.

When a retired, somewhat unstable man (veteran actor André Dussollier) discovers a wallet in a parking garage, he becomes obsessed with the owner, in large part because the wallet contains her pilot license. Though he turns the lost wallet into the police (in an extraordinarily laborious scene), he calls and then writes the woman in a desperate attempt to meet her.

Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), who is a dentist and flies planes for pleasure, can’t decide if she wants Georges out of her life or, in some bizarre way, enjoys his attention. When he slashes her car’s tires, she finally goes to the police, but still ends up tracking him down for a meeting.

As with most of Resnais’s films---the best known being “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959), “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) and “Providence” (1977)---“Wild Grass” unfolds at a leisurely pace and the motivations of the characters change on a dime. Most irritating in this movie is the incessive narration of the character’s thoughts that offers bland details rather than real insight. The script, by Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet, from a novel by Christian Gailly, seems to be attempting to comment on the difficultly in making connections in a modern society and that fate sends us down unexpected paths, but it never made much impact on me. Seriously, the dramatic conclusion hinges on a broken zipper.

But what do I know: critics polled by Film Comment magazine selected “Wild Grass” as one of the ten best films of the year.

That vote probably speaks more to the director’s status in world cinema than the quality of his latest film. Following the deaths in 2010 of Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, 88-year-old Resnais is the only major figure of the French New Wave still making commercial films. (I’m not sure what you call the recent work of Jean-Luc Godard. His films have become so polemic and indecipherable that you need to be one of his acolytes to appreciate them.) Amazingly, Resnais is shooting another film scheduled to be released in 2012, when he turns 90.

BAD MATH: In last month’s review of “Howards End,” I casually threw out the “fact” that 80% of movies are adapted from books. One of “Thoughts on Film’s” more careful readers pointed out that I was way off the mark and he was correct. In a survey of a two recent years, 78% of movies were original screenplays and just 22% started as books. Of those “original” screenplays, 18% are remakes, sequels or based on real events.