OSCAR, OSCAR, WHO’S GOT THE OSCARS: Reviews of The King’s Speech, The Rabbit Hole, 127 Hours, True Grit, The Fighter, Black Swan, Biutiful, Blue Valen

The King’s Speech is one of those old fashioned dramas about the English royal family—so old fashioned, it never goes out of style (The Private Lives of Henry VIII to The Queen and Young Victoria). The U.S. may have thrown off the yoke of George III back in 1776, but we can’t get enough of those who have replaced him. It’s like penis envy. The King’s Speech is very enjoyable; it’s a lot of fun; it’s a great time waster. It’s not a lot more than that, which may be because the movie (directed by Tom Hooper, written by David Seidler) which was based on an unproduced play, often comes across as a series of pas de deux acting scenes, exercises almost, that seem to betray their stylistic origin (the scene between Geoffrey Rush, playing the speech therapist, and Colin Firth, playing the King, when Firth discovers that Rush isn’t a real doctor, is especially a bit obvious and stale). In addition, the final climactic scene of the king’s speech (hence one of the references of the non-sexual double entendre title) after England enters WWII is hampered by a certain inherent humor (the scene can’t really be written any other way), that prevents it from fully becoming the heart stopping moment one would like. But oh, that acting. The British can be genius (from James Bond, to Harry Potter, to Lawrence of Arabia) at filling every part, no matter how brief, with outstanding performers, from Michael Gambon to Claire Bloom to Guy Pierce (in England there are no small parts, only big actors in small parts). The leads are beautifully played by Rush and Firth, often as if they are engaged in a tennis match. Helena Bonham-Carter is the Queen Mother—she’s fine, but for me a bit bland; just one of those things. Whenever I see her, I can only think how brilliant she was in Alice In Wonderland.

I went to Rabbit Hole (I know, it sounds like a bar, but it’s not, it’s a film about parents trying to come to terms with the death of their little boy in a traffic accident) with my friend Jim and after it was over, we both had the same feeling: it was an excellent okay film. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s well done with expert and moving performances by Nicole Kidman and Dianne Wiest (especially heartbreaking), with able support from Aaron Eckhart. But beyond that, like The King’s Speech, it doesn’t quite rise above what it is: one of those Broadway or off-Broadway plays that is very, very serious about its subject matter, serious enough to get an audience, but not too serious or edgy to alienate them (the director, John Cameron Mitchell, and the writer, David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his own play, are stage veterans extraordinaire). The whole thing feels just a tad safe and familiar, especially the through line with Eckhart’s character thinking about having an affair (but the movie just can’t seem to go there). There is one plot development that threatens to raise the film above what it is and that is the confrontation and growing relationship between Kidman and the teenage boy who accidentally hit the child with his car. The teenager has created a graphic novel that seems to be growing out of his life and experience, a detailed and imaginative look at parallel worlds and how they are all connected. How I so wanted the movie to focus more on that.

How one responds to 127 Hours probably depends on how one responds to James Franco. For moi, Franco is someone who has never worked for me. It’s just one of those things and I’m being quite sincere when I say it’s not him, it’s me, because I simply know too many people who like him very much. I do, however, admire his determination to increase his range as an actor and chose edgier and more independent films to do. However, again, I have to say, 127 Hours just didn’t do much for me. Danny Boyle does everything he can to keep the story interesting (including a rain storm that’s beautifully shot), but the movie didn’t really connect with me until Franco does you know what to his arm and has to find his way back for help. The combined awfulness of the scene and the uplifting, spiritual music almost brought a tear to my eye. I also felt that the script (by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy), in striving to find meaning to the incident, played it a little safe, and maybe even a tad shallow, by saying that problem for Franco’s character was that he was a loner. I could just as easily come up with a scenario in which his going on this trip with someone actually could cause his death; but I wouldn’t then come to the conclusion that one should always go out alone.

I saw the original True Grit when it came out. The most that could be said for it was that John Wayne was hysterical fun in a part that seemed to almost parody himself and Robert Duvall was around as a villain. Beyond that, no one I know really remembers much else about it. The Coen Brothers’ True Grit is an exhilarating piece of movie making that leaves the original in the trail of dust from an old timey stagecoach. There is almost nothing wrong with this movie. The writing, using the tongue tying period speech of the time; the acting by Jeff Bridges (who does just fine in John Wayne’s boots, thank you very much), Matt Damon (who, the more he disguises himself to look like someone else, the better a performance he gives, and those mutton chops definitely disguise him), newcomer Hallie Steinfield (an astonishingly assured performance by a twelve year old) and baddies Barry Pepper and Josh Brolan (who plays a convincingly dimwitted murderer); the beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins; the costumes and set designs; the music that is influenced by Protestant hymns, are all excellent. Even the habit of the Coens throwing away the climax (here where Josh Brolan is killed) works to their advantage, as the drama becomes about whether the Steinfield character will survive a snake bite. A wonderful remake of a less than okay film.

The Fighter, the true life story of boxer Micky Ward, is a lot of fun with an excellent feeling of time and place, especially when it comes to the working class clothes, hair style and sets. The directing by David O. Russell is solid. And it’s hard to fault some of the best acting of the year in Christian Bale (a tad over the top until you see the real person he’s portraying at the end and you realize he got it spot on), Melissa Leo and Amy Adams, and a bunch of new comers playing Ward’s gaggle of sisters. Mark Wahlberg, always a presence when he’s around in a movie, underplays in contrast, which apparently is true to the real person he portrays as well. The movie is stirring and moving and works until a climactic scene between Bale (playing Ward’s brother) and Adams (playing his girlfriend) near the end, when the whole thing comes to a screeching halt for a reconciliation scene that seems forced and not remotely convincing. I felt sorry for the writers (all four of them); the scene had to be written (it happened in real life in some manner), but how to write it and make it believable is beyond me. Adams and Bale do their best, but it almost robs the movie of all the good will that came before.

Black Swan is a love it or hate it movie, though I was a bit more indifferent. It has a great, grainy look with a fun supporting royal for Milas Kuna as a possible Eve Harrington on the prowl. Natalie Portman is also effective. But it’s a bit unclear whether the director Darren Aronosky wants to be Repulsion or All About Eve and it never came together for me. And when Portman starts turning into a swan at the end, complete with extending neck and sprouting feathers, that was it for me. However, I think the real problem lies in the way the characters of Portman and Vincent Cassel are written. Cassel plays the director of the production of Swan Lake. He picks Portman to play the lead because he thinks he sees a hidden depth to her. But once the rehearsals begin, Cassel does almost nothing to help her create the character (he gives her one acting note and then mysteriously leaves her to her own devices—no wonder she goes crazy). If the story had been about Portman’s attempts to find this character, instead of the somewhat vague series of scenes it is now, the story might have worked for me. As it was, it left me a big cold.

Biutiful (sounds like the misspelled name was inspired by the movie The Pursuit of Happyness) has a great, gritty look (direction by Amores Perres and 21 Grams director Alejandro Gonzelez Inarritu—someone who wallows in grittiness) and the background of various people living on the edge of illegal immigrants, sweat shops and black marketeering in Spain does have inherent interest. Javier Bardem also gives a strong, solid performance. But I’m afraid to say, this sort of went over my head. By the time it was over, I wasn’t quite sure what it was about or what the authors (Inarritu, Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacabone) were trying to say. It’s about a man who finds out he’s dying and then proceeds to find redemption; the problem is that he does something so horrible (and something that is telegraphed a mile away) so late in the film, that there’s not enough time for him to be redeemed. So in the end, the movie came across to me as a rather nihilistic; there’s no point in looking for meaning in life, because there isn’t any. Even that idea, a valid one, seems to be dramatized a bit awkwardly. Because of this, I’m afraid I found much of the movie a bit tedious as it struggled to find a focus and strong through line. The idea of a man who can contact the dead to help them find piece before moving on to the next world (and that man not being the most moralistic banana in the bunch) is a good one, but I’m not convinced that the movie made that central enough for it to work. A movie with some interesting ideas, but in the end, one that just didn’t work for me.

Whether Blue Valentine works for one probably depends on how you see the central characters and their decaying relationship. My friend Jim liked it and found the story to be about a relationship that started out strong, but then went sour like so many relationships do; and often for reasons no one understands. I, on the other hand, saw the story as a woman who married a man to get out of a situation, who never loved him (though she might have convinced herself she did), and now years later has to face the consequences of that decision. Even that wasn’t the problem for me. The problem for me is that the woman won’t admit that that is what is going on. Instead of taking any blame on herself, she manipulates things to place all the blame on her husband, who has no idea why the wife is acting the way she is. There is a tough, grittiness to the whole thing. The costumes and sets are wonderfully working class, the sort of design that never gets the recognition it deserves. And Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are great. But I have trouble getting into a movie in which two people argue and disagree, but it’s never clear what they are disagreeing about.

The Illusionist is a sweet animated film from France based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati. I had a good time and the charm went a long way. I do think that since there was essentially no dialog, the authors had a difficult time telling the story and there were times I did get a tad lost. But it was nice. That’s about all I have to say.

Another Year is the latest entry from British director/writer Mike Leigh. It has all his trademark strengths: incredible characters with remarkable dialog, and cast to an inch of its life. No one gives a bad performance, with Lesley Manville as a clinically depressed woman who drinks too much. The story is about Tom and Gerri, a very, very, very happy couple—very—you know the kinds, people so at peace with themselves they drive all their friends to the bottle. They are nurturers in metaphor (they spend weekends at a community garden), but not quite literally (they are surrounded by people in need of emotional help, but neither of them can do anything but listen patiently and make that English cure all of all cure alls, tea—with an occasional whiskey and bottle of wine thrown in for good measure). I loved the film and don’t want to fault it. Mike Leigh, the director and writer, is one of Britain’s finest filmmakers. At the same time, there were some aspects that did disturb me. Tom and Gerri never stop and ask themselves why they only seem to attract people who have serious emotional problems and whether letting them hang around is good for these people. And there is one scene where Lesley Manville is confronted by their son’s new girlfriend, a shock since she is secretly (well, not so secretly, everyone knows it, it’s just not admitted) in love with the son. It is so incredibly obvious that she is in deep pain by this revelation, yet everyone seems to do little but rub it in her face, and then blame her for not being the life of the party. Still, another success from Leigh, one of the best films of 2011.

TALKING TURKEY: Predictions for Academy Award Nominations and Awards

For most people, the Thanksgiving weekend is the beginning of Christmas shopping. For people who have no life, this is the beginning of the knock down, drag out, no hitting below the belt (unless it can help you win) period known as the countdown for Oscar nominations.

As of now, I believe six of the top eight awards are spoken for (Picture, Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay), with two (Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay) still unknown.

Best Picture as of now seems to be going to The King’s Speech. It’s one of those fun period pieces the British put out every once in awhile, mainly because they can and they do have the history for it after all (the best we can come up with are biopics or TV series about drudges like John Adams). Even though the U.S. threw the yoke of British tyranny off its backs in 1776, we’ve never gotten over the penis envy of their having a monarchy and we’re just fascinated by it. Though I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could ever claim that the King’s Speech is great art, it is a lot of fun and it more than gets the job down; for what it is, it’s actually much better than that. It also fits in step, rather oddly in a way, with the theme of the movies that have won Best Picture lately: for the last six years, the leads have been working or middle class (or lower) people struggling to get by (Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker; one could even go to seven if one thinks of the leads in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as the English working class who like nothing better than to have a drink at the pub; smoke a pipe; and be left alone). Though the story of The King’s Speech is about King George VI’s overcoming a stutter, the story is equally about Lionel Logue, the therapist, who is, like the characters in the previous Best Pictures, struggling just to make ends meet (and no matter what the Academy does, the role of Logue is a co-lead, not a supporting part). And last, but by no means least, this is a Weinstein production (can anyone say Shakespeare in Love).

The other nine nominees as of now are: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Store 3, True Grit and Winter’s Bone. True Grit is the most uncertain entry here: there is good buzz about it, but no one’s really seen it and it could be one of those that crashes and burns upon entry (remember Amelia?); but I seriously doubt it. Black Swan is The King’s Speech’s main rival, but people seem to love it or hate it from what I’m getting now, so it’s a bit uncertain (and maybe just a bit too arty, the sort of film the Academy nominates to prove that they know it when they see it, but that doesn’t mean they want to hang it on their wall). People are also talking about 127 Hours (but I think it’s one of those in which the nomination is award enough type thing). The Kids Are All Right had it in the bag until the award season really began in earnest and all these other movies, like The King’s Speech and Black Swan, started opening. The Social Network has its supporters, but it may be just a bit too smart (though All About Eve also won way back when). Winter’s Bone is going to be the small picture that everyone is going to nominate to prove that there’s a plate at the Academy Awards table for even the poor relations. Inception will be nominated to apologize for past oversights to Christopher Nolan and because it’s so brilliantly directed; but the script is a bit too much of a letdown for it to win. Toy Store 3 is great, but let’s face it, it’s animated and it’s going to win in that category. The Fighter is still a bit unknown, but the buzz is better for it than for True Grit, and Wahlberg has apparently agreed to make still another movie with the director David O. Russell, so maybe his reputation is making a comeback.

As for director, now five nominees have to be whittled down from the top ten here. It used to be with five nominations there would be one or two directing picks that didn’t match up to picture. But with ten, it’s hard to believe that will ever be the case (though as soon as someone says something won’t happen with the Academy, it usually does—see Driving Miss Daisy getting Best Picture without getting a directing nod). As usual, Best Director will probably go to the director of the Best Picture, meaning that Tom Hooper (previously known mainly for TV work) will win. It’s rare that the Academy will split the awards and their often has to be a good reason for it (like wanting to award a gay movie Best Picture while not awarding a gay movie Best Picture the year Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain and Crash won best picture). The question really then becomes who will the other four be.

Christopher Nolan (Inception), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and David Fincher (the Social Network) seem to be sure things. All bets are off if any of them are arrested for child molestation, but all things being equal, it seems pretty certain. That leaves the fifth position. At one time, it was going to automatically be Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right; and then 127 Hours opened and Danny Boyle’s name started being bandied about. At this point, the fifth space will depend on whether 127 Hours peaks too soon (quite possible) and whether The Kids Are All Right will have a strong enough campaign mounted for it. I’m going for Lisa Cholodenko (I think the first blush of 127 Hours may wear off a bit soon).

I know that some of these movies have yet to open and I haven’t seen all of them. I have a friend who said that she couldn’t predict a winner or nominee until she’s actually seen the film. I most respectfully disagree. In theory, one would never have to see a movie in one’s life and still be able to predict all the movies that will be recognized. When it comes to something winning an Academy Award, or even being nominated, being the best is often not remotely a consideration and the worst thing one can do in making guesses is to be led by one’s heart.

Next, some thoughts on the acting categories.