- The Kids Are All Right (2010) - It's easy to imagine how this gentle, well-made but unexciting film somehow managed to make its way to such universal, but mostly overblown, acclaim. There are the modest beginnings as an indie flick (with, admittedly, a top-drawer cast) that might incline reviewers to over-emphasize their praise. There is the heartening subject matter, the marriage of Jules (Annette Bening) and Nic (Julianne Moore), which is rocked when their children make contact with Paul, the sperm donor who fathered them (Mark Ruffalo), and invite him into their lives. There is the film's depiction of gay marriage and gay families as entirely normal, in the sense that the one the film revolves around is happy, loving, but still screwed up (in part by the pressure to be more happy and more loving than families with opposite-sex parents), and the way that the assumption made by Paul, that as a straight man, as the kids' biological father, and as, for a brief period, Nic's lover, he can appropriate this family for himself, is shut down by all the other characters and the film's ending, which reaffirms the family's power to endure. These are all good qualities, but they don't quite make up for the fact that Kids is a little floppy, that as a comedy it is neither laugh-out-loud funny nor wry, and that its ending, in its rush to restore Jules and Nic's marriage, papers over rather than addresses or fixes the cracks that were present in it before Paul came into it, and thus feels a little unearned. As a best picture Oscar nominee, and with Bening positioned as one of the stronger contenders for this year's best actress award (which is almost more baffling than the film's nomination; she's good, but not remarkable), those flaws are a lot harder to ignore. At this point, Kids's quality has been blown so completely out of proportion to what the film actually achieves that even the things I liked about it--most notably Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, who give winning performances as titular kids, making them believably immature without being bratty--seem a little duller in the bright glare of all that unearned praise.
- The King's Speech (2010) - This film's ecstatic reception, meanwhile, leaves me utterly baffled (all the more so because, while Kids is clearly an also-ran in all of its Oscar categories except possibly best actress, King is a shoe-in for best picture). Again, this is a well-made film that is utterly unobjectionable in itself. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are very good as, respectively, George VI and Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who helped him overcome his stammer in time to take the throne from the abdicating Edward VIII and galvanize his people in the face of WWII (though Firth's performance is not a patch on his magnificent turn as another George, the grief-stricken title character in last year's A Single Man). But the film itself is so small, so predictable, so proper. There is almost no beat to either plot or characters that feels fresh or original (as others have noted, the plot is essentially that of a sports movie). But for its historical aspect, The King's Speech does nothing to set itself apart from the many films that have told its story before, nor does it seem to be trying to tell a particularly excellent version of that story--apart from the performances, the film is not much more than adequate. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the film is using history as a crutch, borrowing significance from the real George VI's symbolic role in the conflict that defined his nation's identity and role in the 20th century (while, apparently, distorting history, and George's political affiliations, quite significantly). That that borrowing has been rewarded with praise and awards is incredibly aggravating.
Even more aggravating is the film's positioning of itself as a fable of class-crossing friendship, with Logue, a commoner (whose ancestry and success at his practice have been severely downgraded in order to emphasize this point, as have the honors that George bestowed upon him before the war and the titular speech) helping George to become the ruler that Britain deserves, even as it pulls every classist, misogynist trick in the book in its handling of Wallis Simpson. According to The King's Speech, Wallis's crimes are: that she wouldn't become Edward's kept woman, that she expected to be treated as an equal partner in their relationship, and that she was not sufficiently deferential to royalty. All of which would have put me entirely on her side even if there were not scenes in The King's Speech such as the one in which Helena Bonham Carter's Queen Elizabeth remarks to Winston Churchill that Wallis's "hold" on Edward must be the result of dirty sex tricks she learned in a Shanghai brothel. (To the obvious retort, that the film is trying to be accurate to how the royal family must have seen Wallis, one can only reply by pointing out that The King's Speech is only too happy to entirely reverse Churchill's position on the abdication crisis--he supported Edward to the bitter end--and as the Queen Mother is no less integral a part of post-war British myth one can only assume that the filmmakers thought that slut-shaming wouldn't alienate her from the audience.) This is a problem for the film, which uses Wallis (and, to a lesser extent, Edward) as the closest thing it has to a villain, but it's a bigger problem for me, because it means I've been forced into sympathizing with someone who, in real life, was practically a Nazi, which you'd think a film that makes so much hay out of George's role in opposing the Nazis would find more objectionable than promiscuity. Once you notice how much class and sex prejudice is involved in the film's handling of Wallis, the thinness of its egalitarianism becomes easier to spot, and The King's Speech emerges as a disturbingly conservative film, politically as well as artistically.
- Black Swan (2010) - I'm not sure what I was expecting from this film, but it certainly wasn't to be swept away as thoroughly as I was. To be fair, a lot of this is Tchaikovsky's doing, not Darren Aronofsky's--the last twenty minutes of the film are essentially a compressed performance of Swan Lake, and the score features the ballet's signature music quite heavily--but one of the things that Black Swan does well is to take a story so familiar that it's become an insipid, bloodless cliché and turn it on its head, making it scary, sexy, and horrifying (in the same way, composer Clint Mansell weaves Tchaikovsky's music in and out of his own, Swan Lake-inspired, score, and uses it to evoke fear and tension as well as sweeping emotion). This isn't a profound or complicated film. Its ideas are straightforward and everything it does is right there on the surface. But what's on that surface--Natalie Portman's riveting, exhausting performance as Nina, a technically accomplished but emotionally stunted ballerina who spends the film alternately seeking out and fighting off her dark side in order to embody the black as well as white swan; Aronofsky's claustrophobic direction and his evocation of Nina's deteriorating grasp on reality--is so well done, and so overpowering, that the film's thematic thinness hardly has a chance to register (an exception might be the film's final shot, which makes no sense--as if Aronofsky knew what ending his paralleling of Swan Lake and The Red Shoes demanded, but couldn't figure out how to get to it).
Another thing I wasn't expecting, and which the film's otherwise enthusiastic reception has been surprisingly silent about, is the fact that Black Swan can very easily be read as a feminist story, and more precisely, as a feminist horror story, in which a supposedly romantic framework is revealed as a lethal trap. What destroys Nina, after all, is the virgin/whore dichotomy--her inability to reconcile the "good" (which is to say, timid, defenseless, virginal) girl she's been raised to be with the "bad" (sexual, powerful, demanding) character she's been asked to play. As the film's events recall and distort Swan Lake--Nina fears that, like the white swan Odette, she is being replaced by another dancer, and the company's director is paralleled with both the prince and the evil magician--they also cast a light on the system that drives the ballet company, in which women compete with and undermine one another in order to win the favor of a man, who sexually harasses and assaults his "favorites," then discards them when they're no longer young and beautiful--a system that has also produced (and discarded) Nina's mother, who has trained her daughter to be its perfect, and perfectly docile, participant. When Mila Kunis's rival ballerina Lily, who doesn't play by these rules, who owns her sexuality rather than suppressing or performing it, tries to reach out to Nina, Nina's worldview has no terms in which to comprehend her. She recoils from, and perceives as an enemy, her only chance of salvation.
- True Grit (2010) - It's easy enough to take this film as a straight-up, comedic Western adventure, the Coen brothers doing their typical shtick of confounding expectations by not confounding them and simply telling the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (a fantastic Hailee Steinfeld) who hires a marshall to track down the man who killed her father, and goes with him on his quest. As such, the film works very well--Jeff Bridges has taken to sprinkling each of his performances with a little bit of The Dude to give them a popular flavor, but that doesn't make his Rooster Cogburn any less successful; Matt Damon is also good as a Texas Ranger who starts out a buffoon and turns out to have a bit more substance to him (though the slight romantic undercurrent between his character and Mattie is a little disturbing given that Damon is 41 and Steinfeld is 14); most importantly, the plot moves well, the chases, gunfights, and standoffs are all appropriately thrilling, and the landscape is used beautifully. But I have a niggling suspicion that the film is more sarcastic, and that its comedy is darker, than a first glance would suggest. I can't help but wonder what we're meant to be laughing at--the buddy comedy antics between Mattie, Rooster, and Damon's LeBoeuf? The whole notion of the Western adventure? Or Mattie herself? And if it's the latter, is that laughter benevolent or cruel? Are we meant to see Mattie, who is vengeful, bloodthirsty, and, perhaps most importantly, obsessed with the power of money and the law to get her the things she wants, as verging on monstrous, and the high price she pays for avenging her father as a comeuppance? Or is the film, as Stanley Fish suggests, reiterating No Country for Old Men's message of the universe's amorality, and holding up Mattie's determination to pay for the things she wants and make sure others pay for what they've taken, and to live as if the world were guided by a stark division between right and wrong even in the face of fate's capriciousness, as admirable? I can't decide whether True Grit wants us to like Mattie, or fear her, or pity her, and I'm not sure the film does either.
- How to Train Your Dragon (2010) - Like The Kids Are All Right, this feels like a film that I would have enjoyed a lot more had I watched it closer to its release date, and before the hype surrounding it got completely out of hand. Dragon, which is loosely based on a series of children's novels by Cressida Cowell and tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, clearly trying to work the same magic Mike Myers did with Shrek but not quite managing it), a young viking who tries to prove himself to his father by downing one of the dragons who plague their village but ends up befriending and learning to ride the creature, whom he names Toothless, does defy the conventional wisdom that non-Pixar animated films are thinly plotted and use pop-culture humor as a crutch, and is a sweet, enjoyable film. But it is by no means the rousing success that some reviewers (and the voters for the best animated picture Oscar) have called it. The plot is overstuffed, and rather than tying together, the film's many themes--Hiccup's inability to take a life, in defiance of the viking ethos; the tense relationship between a father and son who love each other but have nothing in common; the triumph of brain over brawn, as Hiccup uses the lessons he learns from training Toothless to gentle other dragons despite his unimposing physique; the necessity of trying to understand your enemies in the hopes of making peace with them (somewhat undermined when it's revealed that the dragons have only been attacking the viking village because they've been forced to by a bigger, meaner dragon, to whom no such attempts at understanding are extended)--get in each other's way. For both of these reasons, the characters are obscured, never developing beyond their types. Like most children's stories, Dragon is manipulative, trapping us with moments of tenderness and high emotion, but whereas Pixar earns the right to be manipulative by crafting unique, carefully detailed stories and characters, Dragon's manipulation is predictable and by the numbers, and the only unexpected note in the film--the high price Hiccup pays for saving his village--arrives too late and is handled too glibly to truly resonate. Dragon is by no means a bad film, and certainly a step above the various Shrek sequels and uninspired Shrek-imitators that Dreamworks in particular has been producing in the last decade, but it's a far cry from worthwhile in its own right.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Recent Movie Roundup 12
My movie-watching slowed way down in the second half of 2010--the posts tagged 'film' from that period cover nearly all of the films I watched--but with winter the interchangeable action films and rage-inducing romantic comedies give way to more interesting stuff, and I've found myself at the movie theater again.