Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Dude is Back, the King is Talking and the Swan is Sinking

With the lack of film festivals and inter-semester hiatus of the PFA, I had some time in December to see more general release films.

Tron: Legacy starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and Bruce Boxleitner; 3D; (2010) - Official Website
Black Swan starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey; directed by Darren Aronofsky; (2010) - Official Website
The King's Speech starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce; directed by Tom Hooper; (2010) - Official Website


I wasn't a big fan of Tron (1982) so there wasn't a lot of reason for me to see the sequel 28 years later. I had to do a little bit of internet research to recall how Tron ended.

So it was with a sense of resignation that I went to the Castro Theater on a rainy Sunday afternoon to see Tron: Legacy. The timing of the screening fit my schedule and the close proximity the Muni Metro station was within the tolerance band I had set for getting wet (I had left home without an umbrella). I think the main attraction was to see this new fangled 3D technology. I don't recall ever having seen a 3D film in the movie theaters before. I recall watching The Ivory Ape or something like that on television in 3D in the early 80's. We went down to a 7-Eleven or somwhere to get the glasses. So much has been written about the new 3D process that I decided I wanted to see it for myself.

With that rousing preface, you can imagine my reaction to Tron: Legacy. There were a lot of holes in the plot but I guess that could be overlooked given that kick ass CGI is what the film is about. The CGI was impressive but I didn't see much benefit to the film being in 3D.

I think the film can be summed up with two anecdotes. The best 3D effect was not during the film but prior to the film when the 3D animator had a promo clip. Second, the most memorable scene was not in cyberspace or whatever that is called but rather when Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) discover's his video arcade. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) had a video stocked with the best games and apparently someone has been paying the property taxes and electricity bills while Kevin is marooned in the ether. Sam enters the arcade, throws the master switch and Journey's Separate Ways starts booming out over the sound system. It was the perfect combination of music and old-school video games to evoke the spirit of the early 80s; the lyrics were semi-appropriate to the separation between father and son.

What was wrong with the film? Well, there were times when Bridges seemed to be channeling The Dude from The Big Lebowski and I could never quite stop snickering at the sight of him as some cyber-Zen Master. Hedlund and Olivia Wilde as the warrior programmed to protect him as well as to be Kevin Flynn's apprentice (concubine?) were flat in their roles. There was only one performance that stood out. Beau Garrett (a female despite the name) plays a "Siren" who prepares other programs for their gladiatorial contests. She tricks Sam into luring his father out of the and conniving - not exactly a revolutionary portrayal but effective. The film would have benefitted if it had more Beau Garrett...and power ballads from the 1980s.


I met a friend at the Metreon after work one day to see Black Swan. This film has been well received and reviewed. It's director Darren Aronofsky's follow up to The Wrestler. The first time I encountered Aronofsky was with Pi (1996) which, for my money, is still the best Kabbalah based mathematical thriller of all-time. I believe Pi was first film I saw at the Embarcadero Cinemas.

Since Pi, Aronofsky directed Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, which I haven't seen. Then he made The Wrestler which I semi-enjoyed. Given the positive reviews of the film, I was eagerly anticipating the film. As long as I'm reminiscing, the first time I saw Natalie Portman was in Beautiful Girls, a 1996 ensemble piece with Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Mira Sorvino, Annabeth Gish, Lauren Holly, Martha Plimpton, Michael Rapaport and Rosie O'Donnell. Portman played a precocious teenager who serves as Timothy Hutton's sounding board and platonic soul mate.

Black Swan is a psychological thriller about Nina, a ballerina who is cast in the lead role of Swan Lake. Emotionally stunted due to a domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) whom she still lives with, Nina doesn't seem to have what it takes to be a prima ballerina. She is too fragile to survive the glare of the spotlight. The ballet company's choreographer and the other ballerinas sense her weakness and exploit it. Then again, Nina is more than just lacking in self-confidence. She has had a history of pschological problems. It's not paranoia if they are really out to get you.

Against the backdrop of a ballet company, we watch Nina struggle to capture the essence of the Black Swan which is the evil half of the lead role. She is constanly criticized by the choreographer (Vincent Cassel) whom she secretly desires. She is threatened and drawn to free-spirited Lily, a new ballerina in the company. Of course, she returns to the apratment she shares with her mother every night for a toxic stew of guilt and manipulation.

As the rehearsals progress, the suspense builds as the audience wonders if Nina will be able to find the passion to dance the Black Swan as well as keep her sanity until opening night. Nina begins to hallucinate that paintings are talking to her, that she is killing people and most memorably that she has sex with Lily who morphs to herself. It is in these scenes where Aronofsky's flourishes have been criticized as excessive. There is some truth to these criticisms but Black Swan is not about subtlety; it's about vulgarity and like ballet, it has to have flamboyant movements to communicate its intentions.

Like Portman's disturbing visage on the movie posters, Black Swan is film that uses bold imagery to convey Nina's descent into madness.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Black Swan is more to my tastes than a film uses less distinctive storytelling techniques. As such, I enjoyed the film tremendously. Of particular interest (and not without prurient overtones) is the relationship between Nina and Lily for which both actresses have been nominated for Golden Globe Awards. The two women look like sisters but couldn't be more different. The relationship has undertones of sexual desire (or perhaps sexual repression), obsession, self-loathing and envy. Aronofsky, Portman and Kunis develop the multifacted relationship throughout the film. I'm still not sure where Nina's delusions end and Lily's duplicity begins.

Also of note is Vincent Cassel's performance as the company director. I did not recognize Cassel initially having seen him a few months ago in Mesrine. Cassel's character is committed to only one thing - his artistic vision and there is nothing he won't do to achieve it. That mainly involves manipulating Nina's emotions to achieve the frisson needed to play the Black Swan.


Finally, on the last day of 2010, they dismissed the office early so I was able to catch the 3:45 screening of The King's Speech at the Landmark Embarcadero. There was a surprisingly large audience in the theater for the screening.

The King's Speech tells of the speech impediment of George VI on England (Colin Firth). George VI (father of the current British monarch) had a stammer which seemed most pronounced during public oration. Being part of the royal family, George VI (or the Duke of York when the film starts) was called upon to make many speeches which could be an ordeal for him and his audience.

After seeing many speech therapists, the Dutchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter) happened upon Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) whose quaint office and informal manner appealed to her. She convinced her husband (known as Bertie to his family) to take therapy with Logue. They had a frosty relationship resulting from Lionel's familiarity towards Bertie as well as the Duke's frustrations, fears and ill temper.

After Bertie's father (the King) dies, his older brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) inherited the throne. Edward VIII was the king who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson. Bertie was next in line so he became king and this added pressure to make his speeches more regal.

The climactic scene in the film is George VI's radio address to the nation and colonies announcing war with Germany. With the stakes so high, George was called upon to make the most important speech in his life. As the movie depicts the scene, George and Lionel are alone in a makeshift radio studio during the speech. George struggling through the words while Lionel uses hand movements to encourage him like a orchestra conductor.

The King's Speech has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Picture - Drama category. I wasn't quite as impressed as that. I thought the film predictable although the performances were quite good all around. Helena Bonham Carter shows the pluck and vinegar that I recall reading about Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother or Queen Mum). In one memorable scene, Winston Churchill (nice vocal imitation by Timothy Spall) asks Elizabeth what hold Mrs. Simpson has over Edward VIII. Elizabeth deadpans that Mrs. Simpson learned certain skills in Shanghai.

The film can be summarized as an uptight guy trying to live up the expectations of his family and country being helped by a failed actor who eventually becomes his friend. The scenes between Rush & Firth form the backbone of the film and its amazing how Firth can impart a sense of humor on the grumpy Bertie. The scenes with Rush & Firth are largely comedic in nature and serve to heighten the drama in the scenes involving George VI and members of his government and church (particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury).

For Anglophiles, English monarchists and fans of outstanding actors such as Firth, Bonham Carter, Rush, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, et al., The King's Speech is thoroughly enjoyable.

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