Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Critic's Oscar Best Picture Pick: The King's Speech

Image courtesy of the Weinstein Company

The King's Speech, based on the best-selling novel by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, follows the extraordinary true story of King George VI and how his speech therapist Lionel Logue - using unconventional methods - literally gives the monarch the voice he needs to lead the people.

Could there be a better man to play the unsure king that the British actor Colin Firth? He is nothing short of stunning in this role, with a speech impediment that not only shifts and changes with the character's moods, but never breaks for one moment. It must have been an incredible challenge to hone and develop such an ability without seeming insincere or inconsistent, but somehow, Firth rises to the challenge. And Geoffrey Rush as Lionel is the perfect foil for the stuffy proper king, letting not the man's royal birth or stature get in the way of him doing his job as a therapist.

As overtones of war began to creep up on England, George (Bertie, to his friends) is found drawn into the struggle when his older brother Edward (played magnificently by the urbane, if now slightly aging Guy Pierce) abdicates from the throne for the love of a divorced woman, whom the Church of England will never allow him to take as his queen. With radio quickly becoming the newest social medium of communication, Bertie, now king, finds himself met with what seems to be an unsurmountable challenge -communicating directly with his subjects during a time of war.

But through a series of odd excercises and practice after frustrating practice, "Bertie" succeeds in giving his first speech that announces England will become engaged with the rest of the world in defeating Adolf Hitler and his Nazi army. Tantor Media, the company that has produced the audiobook of The King's Speech, has made the actual famous broadcast available for people to listen to for FREE right here.

It must be said that Helena Bonham Carter is sublime. It is so refreshing to see her in something other than a Tim Burton film; being given a "serious" role for once. She plays the "Queen Mum" Elizabeth's mother, with great aplomb and sensitivity. It is the kind of role the reminds me to never dismiss the acting chops of this actress when I have so often wavered on writing her off as only being worthy of playing the weird, gothic roles that the father of her children, director Tim Burton, so amply dishes out to her. Had it not been for little Hailee Steinfeld rocking my socks so much as the vengeance-thirsty Mattie Ross in True Grit, I would be all for Ms. Carter getting the Oscar as best supporting actress. But the truth remains that as a character, she is a true treasure in this film.

The cinematography and details are perfection - right down to the Queen Mum's corgis. In one great moment of well-placed levity, Bertie almost trips over one of the little dogs on his way to making THE speech, illiciting a response of something on the order of "damn dogs." The camera work is oddly different, sometimes putting Bertie in the corner of the screen rather than the center, indicating in a literal way how much Bertie does not want to have the focus on him, and yet cannot altogether avoid it. Lionel's nervous, and yet determined handling of the situation (his insistence on calling the King "Bertie" despite the monarch's constant protestations is one small example)despite the vast social gap between them and their social status is perfection, and it is a direct result of his smooth easy nature ultimately closes that gap between them.

And face it - speech impediment or no, who doesn't know what it feels like to have that cold sweat, that moment of dread, that feeling of the crowd drawing itself on forever like an endless ocean, right before we have to do any kind of public speaking? British director Tom Hooper taps into that common dread each of us have and so when, by the end, the speech is given successfully, I found myself rooting for Bertie as if it was a personal triumph within myself, as well.

I hope this film wins best picture because it has it all - a true story, history, extraordinary performances, evocative storytelling, and an uplifting ending that all of us can relate to. Truly a film that will last into the ages.

The Insatiable Critic's Unabashed Oscar predictions

As the 83rd Annual Academy Awards ceremony draws ever nearer, here's my candid opinion on who's going to make the cut tonight and why.

Best Picture: Toss-up between The Social Network and The King's Speech

Why The King's Speech: The Academy is a sucker for true stories that shows someone with a disability overcoming the odds. Just look at A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Forrest Gump (1994). Throw in a little bit of true history and a stunning performance by Colin Firth and you've got a strong contender.

Why The Social Network:
The Academy also leans strongly toward films that touch on current social events and situations (just look at last year's Hurt Locker). It also happens to discuss something that has become very much a fabric of the daily existence for many Americans.

Best Actor: Colin Firth in The King's Speech

Why: Firth is the clear winner in this category. His consistent and believable stutter that never breaks for a moment throughout the film just blows everyone else out of the water. Plus, Jeff Bridges already got an Oscar last year, and entertaining as he was in True Grit, I think speech impediment trumps being wasted on a horse.

Best Actress: Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Why: The real question here should be, why not? Black Swan has no hope of being Best Picture given it's fellow contenders, but it is clearly deserving of recognition. And seeing how Portman mentally and physically gave herself up to the role of the tortured ballerina Nina, reshaping her body to that of a dancer and doing most of the complicated ballet sequences herself makes her a clear standout.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

Why: I read in an interview in Entertainment Weekly (my Bible) that the Coen Brothers auditioned 15,000 girls for the lead role in True Grit. They said when Steinfeld came into the studio, they knew she was the one even before she said her lines - it was her presence that made them stop dead in their tracks. For a 14-year-old, Steinfeld brings a depth to the role that is far beyond her years and though she is hardly a "supporting" actress, if she had been put into the category of Best Actress Portman would have blown her out of the water. In this category, she has a much better chance of getting the recognition she so richly deserves.

However, had it not been for True Grit, I would totally root for Helena Bonham Carter as the long-suffering and always supportive wife of King George (Bertie) in The King's Speech.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:Toss-up between Christian Bale in The Fighter and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right

Why: Christian Bale was born to play the rough-hewn role he portrays, and also he has been cast over once before by the Academy for his highly acclaimed role as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2001). Mark Ruffalo's turn as the fun-loving guy who haplessly turns a happy same-sex marriage's household upside down is not only the perfect role for him, but also gives The Kids Are All Right a place in the Oscar spotlight.

And the other awards:

Best Costume Design:
Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Why: This film had precious little else going for it, but at least everyone looked awesome.

Best Cinematography: Black Swan

Why: The jarring camera angles, the artful use of filters, and the endless magical use of mirrors successfully sucks us into Nina's downspiral into madness.

Best Directing: I always find this to be synonymous with Best Picture, so my answer and why is the same as that.

That's all for now folks! We'll see how well our hosts, the sublime Anne Hathaway and James Franco do as hosts this year (how does that man host the Oscars, star in 127 Hours, and still manage to study for midterms at Yale?)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oscar frontrunner: Black Swan

Image courtesy of Cross Creek Pictures.

If you're as crazy about films as I am, you are probably getting as juiced as I am about the Oscars tonight. In honor, I will be doing a double-header review of the two films that, in my opinion, are going to sweep the awards tonight.

Black Swan is a strange, dark dream. Having done ballet when I was younger, the dedication of dancers to their craft - mentally and bodily - was always a bit disturbing as well as admirable. It is a world made more beautiful by obsession to detail - the quest for perfection.

I also grew up watching a rather obscure film called The Red Shoes (1948) starring an actual ballerina, Moira Shearer, that focuses on the very obsession to the art - and the disastrous consequences when it is taken too far.

Black Swan is like the evil twin of that film. It deals with the same themes in the same world, but it is far more cerebral; far more intense, because we are placed INSIDE the head of Nina, a talented dancer just on the verge of breaking into "prima" ballerina territory. It is directed by Darren Aronofsky, of whom I became endeared to after watching The Wrestler (2008) starring all-too appropriately, Mickey Rourke. But there was another film on my shelf by Mr. Aronofsky that I picked up on sale and had yet to watch - The Fountain (2006). It was a film that took a long time to make and in the end, was a bit of a dud. And it is understandable why. It shows one man's journey to learn how to cope with death, but everything is dreamlike, and even when scenes are set in the "real" world, the characters attitudes and dialogue are still not of this world. Or at least the one I live in anyway. And yet, it had a poignant message that rang through. The Wrestler, on the other hand, was gritty, reality to the extreme, nothing airbrushed or dreamlike about this film, no way.

Black Swan is a marriage of elements between these two films. The Wrestler was almost too gritty and raw, while The Fountain was too unreal in its tone and feel. Black Swan strikes the right chord by showing all the sometimes very painful physical rigors required of ballerinas, while also showing the surreal reality that Nina's world is comprised of. It's no wonder she's having delusions when she is wandering around with people dressed as black, feathery owl magicians day in and day out.

Black Swan is also, strangely, very funny at times. Mila Kunis plays a large part in being the delightful reality check for us, but sadly poor Nina is just too far gone for even Mila to be able to pull her back to true reality. Also, it should be mentioned that Vincent Cassel really should've been included in Best Supporting Actor as the urbane and manipulative ballet manager who simultaneously aids in expanding Nina's darker, more sensual side, which unwittingly on his part leads to her downfall. Aronofsky, through trial and error, knows just how far to take the audience - indeed, at times, he brings us right to the edge - before pulling us back into safer emotional territory. Natalie Portman, as Nina, is nothing short of extraordinary. It is clear she has given over her body as well as her soul to the role, and much of the dancing we see is actually HER. There is no question in my mind that she will obtain at least an Oscar for Best Actress, and if she does not The Academy really should get their heads examined.

About the only thing about Black Swan that keeps it from entering the realm of Best Picture in my book is it is not accessible to everyone. I believe much of my enjoyment came from knowing Aronofsky and what his films are like, but had I not had that background I would have been much more confused as to what the heck he was trying to do. There are several truly bizarre elements to it that will not gel with all audiences, and no tidy social commentary that the Academy loves so well. And, as darkly lovely as it is, it will never quite replace The Red Shoes for me in my heart.

Lastly, a bit of advice - do not see this film alone. It is not the most terrifying film, but it has some very frightening cerebral moments that made me happy I had my beloved with me to clutch at times.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day DVD Spotlight: High Fidelity makes beautiful music

Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.

Once in awhile, a rare film comes along that cleverly disguises itself as a guy comedy, but in the case of High Fidelity (2000), it gives a realistic look at true romance from a man's point of view. It's one of those films that pretty much has it all - great acting, great music, great plot and great cinematography in the great city of Chicago. This film and buffalo wings for a week straight helped me get through a breakup once. Wouldn't recommend eating wings for that long, but the rewatchability factor of this movie is very high.

The plot is pretty straightforward. John Cusack, playing an evolved version of his memorable turn as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything (1989) - the misfit with the heart of gold - is Rob Gordon, a 30-something guy who just got dumped by his girlfriend Laura. He can't deal with it. He runs a dead-end record store on the edge of town that attracts every social reject within a 10-mile radius, and two of them work there (one of which is Barry, played by Black Jack, back when he was still fat and funny.) Based off the novel by Nick Hornby, which I should really get down to brass tacks and read, it chronicles Rob's evolution from boy to man, and how to commit without losing sight of yourself and everything you hold dear.

It's not your typical romance, and in many ways the film is downright painful. It shows the hard knocks you take when one puts their heart on the line, and how all of us at some point or another have to commit to SOMETHING - be it a life goal, a person, or hell, just ourselves - in order to stay sane. It's also a smart, funny take on life lived on the frayed edges of society, and answers the question of what exactly does happen to those offbeat guys with hearts of gold that we ignored in high school? Turns out they're just like the rest of us - they screw up and take the heat for it, but the best of us pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try, try again.

I'm a big fan of Iben Hjejle, who plays Laura. She's not pretty in a traditional sort of way, but she is attractive in a very REAL way. She makes mistakes too and is not held up as some unattainable, flawless being. Everyone in this film makes mistakes and it comes as close to true romance as a film can get without cutting too close to the quick. It is the humor that acts as our novocaine.

And humor there is plenty of. Jack Black is in top form, long before the Hollywood machine slicked and slimmed him down to barely a shadow of the hard rocker funnyman he used to be. And the hapless Dick, played wonderfully by Todd Louiso, is the perfect foil. Cusack doesn't attempt to control the show even though this is his story. He knows on some level just like life itself, things are going to unfold the way they want to, and he resigns himself to sigh and grab another cigarette as Barry and Dick argue over their "Top Five" musical artists.

There's a kind of elitism that I can relate to - a know-it-allness about trivial matters that these characters cling to that I can't help but relate to as well. (Heck, just look at this blog.) These people are not likeable. They are rude and gauche and probably haven't showered in a couple of days. But by God, they know what good music is and what it is supposed to sound like. And if the rest of you don't agree, piss off with ya.

I was interested to see that in 2006 there was a musical made from this film that flopped hard. I decided on a whim to download the music from it and see what it had to say for itself. The music, for the most part, is great. What is not so great is that it's really silly. The balance that the film so lovingly creates between the sublime and the ridiculous is somehow lost in the happy-go-lucky musical numbers. Barring what I just said, you really should click here and give a listen to the opening number "The Last Real Record Store on Earth." It was a good try and some of the tracks are pretty decent, but a couple of good songs a musical does not make. And let's face it - John Cusack will always be Rob Gordon to me.

Die-hard Cusack fans will get a kick out of a few cast choices - Joan Cusack, John's real-life sister, plays his sister Liz in the film, and Lili Taylor, who played Lloyd Dobler's best friend in Say Anything comes back as one of Rob's ex girlfriends. The DVD extras aren't much to shout about, but for a comedy that hits the heart maybe a bit too hard but manages to keep the warm fuzzies around, pop this one in today for a great movie both sexes will enjoy.

If you happen to like this film, you may want to check out Hot Tub Machine, which also features John Cusack and directed by Steve Pink, who was co-producer of High Fidelity. (But maybe not as a Valentine's Day option.) It has the same brand of biting humor, if perhaps lacking some of the brains. You can read my review of it here.