THE KING’S SPEECH: Stop! Stammer Time!

31 01 2011

Let’s get something straight, vultures: Steven Spielblog is my blog, I am Steven Spielblog by the powers vested in me by GoDaddy and WordPress.com, and anyone representing that he or she is Steven Spielblog is either me (in which case hello,) or an impostor. And if there are two things I can’t stand, it’s impostors, and people claiming to be impostors.

However! My good friend “Ludwig Van Beethoven” wrote me today with an opinion on Oscar-swallowing juggernaut THE KING’S SPEECH – and I feel compelled to post it here on the Spielblog, not only because it raises a good point about the film’s climax, but because it’s a point I haven’t read anywhere else. I, for one, always relish an opportunity to explore the unexplored. Also, I owe Ludwig thirty-five hundred dollars.

"And what's the deal with airplane peanuts? Am I right, subjects?"

I myself saw the SPEECH this weekend. It’s a well-scripted, thoughtfully-performed, and smartly-paced film, which, as our guest blogger rightly points out, contains approximately no surprises – though it does have wit and charm out the hoo-hoo. English folk might use words such as “splendid” or “resplendent” or “splendiferous” to describe THE KING’S SPEECH, but I’m American, so I’ll just say “it’s rull good. *burp*” Is this film groundbreaking in any way? Certainly not. Does that make it an Oscar lock? Bet your children on it. I mean, we couldn’t give America’s highest cinematic honor to a computer-animated film, could we?

*burp*

With that, I’ll let Lil’ Luddy take the spiel. Drive safe, and beware spoilers:

First, I want to thank Steven Spielblog for allowing me to use his (bully?) pulpit for these remarks. Because I do not wish to impinge on Steven Spielblog’s expertise (never piss off the SS!!), I will keep my remarks limited to the single issue I want to raise. Before THE KING’S SPEECH wins the Academy Award™, Nobel Prize, and MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, I want to put it on record that, although it is in many ways a very good film, it is a film that, ultimately, does not believe in its subject matter.

Geoffrey Rush, People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive 2010

Let me first explain what the subject matter of the film is. THE KING’S SPEECH is about Bertie Windsor (a.k.a., Saxe-Coburg-Gotha), a charming Prince of York with a massive stutter who, upon the death of his father, George V, and the abdication of his brother, Edward “The Nazi” VIII, becomes King of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Commonwealth Countries, and Bridget Jones’s panties. Fortunately, a commoner from Australia (Australia, my God, do people live there?!?) portrayed by David Helfgott, teaches Bertie filthy tongue twisters, convinces him to talk about his feelings, and, thus, saves the British Empire. (Since no one but the King could give a good speech — except maybe that What’s-his-name Churchill dude, but Timothy Spall just doesn’t have the same élan as Mr. Darby, and after director Tom Hooper’s 370-hour epic work with Paul Giamatti as John Adams, I can see the attraction of sticking with Firth.) The war starts, the King has to give a speech and …. [here’s the spoiler] … he gives the speech. This is all well and good and charming and British and Helena-Bonham-Carter’s-still-got-it, etc. (Though isn’t Eve Best just wasted as Wallis Simpson? And poor Jennifer Ehle! Can’t we find better roles for these great actresses?) And the film’s thematic interest in finding one’s voice (literally and figuratively) is most laudable. However, and here’s the catch, THE KING’S SPEECH does not actually believe in the power of speeches.

And here's Helen Mirren, who for some reason is not in THE KING'S SPEECH.

Why would I make such an accusation? The final scene, during which the King makes The Speech, is underscored by the Allegretto to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. (You know the movement: dah dah-dah dah dah, dah dah-dah dah dah. Go download it, Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic on DG, great recording). Now, this is a fantastic piece of music; tremendous, powerful, aching, yearning, deep. But the entire film has built up to the moment when Bertie will stop stuttering and just say it. And, having arrived at the moment for him to just say it, director Hooper apparently got deeply bored, decided that an address from a national leader to his nation at the inauguration of six years of total warfare was inherently undramatic, and reached out for the guaranteed-to-pull-your-heartstrings Beethoven to save us from having to listen to the King’s speech. This is not only lazy, fearful filmmaking, it’s also just silly.

Ultimately, Hooper seems to think the speech is important only as an event — the King spoke, and didn’t stutter! — rather than as a performance of self, a moment of expression in which the King’s words and the sound of his voice gave hope to a people. Now, we could go on to worry over the historical accuracy of the depiction of George VI or the merits and demerits of nationalism, but my point is that the underscoring converts a scene that would be a fitting climax to the film’s personal drama into a merely historical spectacle (or audicle?). Hooper had no faith or interest in the power of Firth repeating George VI’s words and this made me, as an audience member, wonder: if he director doesn’t believe in his film, why should I even care?

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BLACK SWAN: Hey everyone, let’s overrate something!

16 01 2011

It’s no secret why people are enjoying BLACK SWAN. It’s a mind-twister all right, if you ignore the writing on the wall. And people like having their minds twisted, no? I mean, we’ve earned it, dammit! BLACK SWAN is a diversion, and a solid one. But for a film drawing such extreme critical praise, there’s a sizeable gap here between reality and reception; because lurid and appealing as BLACK SWAN is, it’s also finally an empty exercise. Though it’s easy to enjoy, I’m perplexed as to how anyone could connect with this material – or take anything of lasting value away from it.

For those who haven’t seen BLACK SWAN, the plot centers around Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, never better,) a young dancer who, it’s clear early on, shows signs of schizophrenia, and masochistic tendencies. (That’s Dr. Spielblog’s diagnosis, at least. Now take two of these, and call me, Natalie. Please…) Given the role of a lifetime to play the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake,’ Nina is instructed by lecherous company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to get in touch with her verboten sexual side – for Nina is a good little girl, and the Swan Queen is a two-fold part: the virginal white swan, and the freaky deaky black swan. Yes, this does mean that Thomas gives Nina the homework assignment of masturbating – and yes, Nina does masturbate, and yes, in mid-ecstasy, she realizes her officious mother (Barbara Hershey) has been in the room the entire time. And yes, it is funny.

Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in BLACK SWAN

That’s really the best way to view SWAN, as comedy. But is it intended as one? Coming from Darren Aronofsky, maker of open-a-vein depressing dramas (PI, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE FOUNTAIN,) it’s hard to imagine that he’s approaching this psychosexual thriller with an eye to comically subvert it – but almost every reveal, every twist, every moment that’s meant to manufacture discomfort, just elicits laughter. That gives SWAN camp value. But if the intention is really to shock and unsettle, well, I was more shocked in 2009 by TOY STORY 3, a comedy that turned unexpectedly dark – as opposed to this thriller that’s unexpectedly lightweight.

Lest you think I’m dismissing BLACK SWAN because I’m a condescending snob, well, you’re half-right. But remember, dear readers, (hi Mom,) just a couple weeks ago I Spiel’d out my love for THE FIGHTER, a film just as entertaining as SWAN – but with so much more to recommend it than just superficial pleasure. THE FIGHTER, like BLACK SWAN, is built around sensational performances, which clearly took a real physical toll on their lead actors (Mark Wahlberg and Portman respectively,) and in their opposite ways, both films address their protagonists’ commitment to succeed in the face of stacked odds. But THE FIGHTER is a humane work, filled with recognizable characters and sympathetic dilemmas, rendered unsentimentally. SWAN, by comparison, doesn’t contain a single authentic character or situation. It’s fabulous, in both senses of the word. But will it stay in my system for long? Allow me to shrug. If it stays in your system, if you actually see Nina reflected in yourself in any way, please, consult a psychiatrist. And escort Barbara Hershey off the premises at once!

Marge and Jacques in EPISODE 7G11

The final sequence of SWAN (OK, spoilers here,) is terrific – as are all the feature’s dance sequences. The photography’s killer, the music’s Tchaikovsky-tastic, and the conclusion is basically the same as in Darren Aronofsky’s last film, THE WRESTLER. Our protagonist self-destructs on-stage by leaping from a high point, reaching transcendence by giving the audience just what it wants. Of course, in THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky was wise to cut to black before Randy “The Ram” hit the mat; here, he finishes with the sound of uproarious applause to carry us into the credits. A sense of underhanded self-congratulation is unavoidable, and unwelcome. It is interesting that both of Aronofsky’s last films have ended on the same note – the artist mortally connecting with their audience – when his weakness as a director is precisely that he makes films that fail to emotionally connect with audiences. Randy and Nina do what Darren can’t…

No? Too much mindfuckery? Sorry, I guess this thing just put me in the mood for it.

As BLACK SWAN is ultimately pulp masquerading as high art, I’m looking forward to seeing what its director does on his next movie, a sequel – excuse me, a stand-alone follow-up (*cough cough* *pretentious* *cough*) to the WOLVERINE series. (Proof that in the post-Nolan universe, an indie talent can make a superhero film without losing credibility.) Aronofsky’s got style – but where’s the perspective? What’s BLACK SWAN about, when you boil out the bombast and lesbionics? The lengths to which schizophrenic ballerinas will go to achieve perfection? Mm, so true

I don’t mind schlock. Schlock’s my maiden name. But if you’re gonna peddle schlock, peddle schlock. Who knows, maybe a superhero film is just the thing to make closet schlockmeister Darren Aronofsky honest.





SERIOUS GRIT.

10 01 2011

TRUE GRIT was the #1 film in the country this past weekend – and the Coens’ first ever to pass $100 million at the box office, mazel mazel fellas – so likely, you’ve already seen it. But, if you haven’t, stop reading.

Joel & Ethan Coen’s last film, A SERIOUS MAN, opened with a religious epigram: “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you.” A suburban re-telling of Job, SERIOUS was a black comedy about the futility of seeking to know divine will, and the perils of attempting to; its preamble cryptic, and not a little sarcastic, considering the twisted parable that followed. And though the Coens’ follow-up, an adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel TRUE GRIT, also opens with an epigram, this time from Proverbs, its opening narration invokes an idea that’s fairly opposite the stance the boys took in their last outing. “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another,” announces our narrator, 14 year-old Mattie Ross. “There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” To hear this put as natural fact is jarring, coming from the Coens. Apparently, after an entire career reassuring viewers of the underlying chaos of the universe, they’ve finally embraced the inescapable order of things. (Apparently, there is one.) ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.’ This from the guys who let off friendo of the devil Anton Chigurh with just a broken arm.

Mind if I do a J?

Mattie, played by newcomer/keeper Hailee Steinfeld, goes after her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, (a strangely unrecognizable Josh Brolin.) To track him, she hires the most lethal Marshal she can find, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges.) What follows is all entertaining, humorous, gorgeously performed and photographed, but for the purposes of this lil’ blog entry, let’s skip right to the ending, shall we? (See: above spoiler warning.) In GRIT’s climax, Mattie gets her man with a shotgun. The blast propels her down a cave. In keeping with the film’s opening statement, it’s Mattie’s own squeeze of the trigger that sends her tumbling back. Once in the cave, she drags a nearby corpse toward her to access its blade – but in doing so, she unleashes a nest of vipers slumbering in the dead man’s chest. It all has the feel of a parable, as last time, but the Old Testament causality of A SERIOUS MAN was impossibly mysterious, and the brothers’ follow-up is too faithful to its Western genre roots to pose such open-ended questions. It’s a given, in GRIT, that violence begets violence: an unambiguous relationship.

Barry Pepper (right) co-stars as "Ned Pepper," apparently by sheer coincidence.

Though Cogburn saves Mattie from the pit of serpents, she’s already been bit – and ultimately loses an arm. Each of the characters of the film is marked by and according to their sins; equal and opposite reaction physicalized. Mattie the revenger draws death closer, and loses her limb. Grandiloquent Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon, terrific,) bites through his tongue – the price he pays for letting pride send him from his companions. Cogburn himself has one eye; the killer is a natural dead shot.

Unlike the Coens’ usual variety of killer, though, Cogburn actually reaches redemption through violence. (See: genre fidelity.) But lest you worry “redemption” translates to “softening,” the Coens of course know better, and Cogburn doesn’t get any nicer as TRUE GRIT goes, he stays satisfyingly gritty. Yes, Cogburn saves Mattie in the end, arriving in the nick of time – but when the girl is first taken by Ned Pepper’s gang, and Cogburn leaves her, he stays gone. LaBeouf explains later that the sole reason this plan came together was that he found Cogburn coming down the ridge, and only then did they decide to return together. In other words, Cogburn wasn’t about to turn around, he was leaving the girl for dead. Mattie’s rescue has as much to do with luck as with heroism.

Any visible change in Cogburn is held off practically until his last on-screen moment. The penultimate scene has Cogburn carrying Mattie on her horse, ‘Little Blackie,’ as he rides through the night to get help for her snakebite. Green-screen effects are very clearly used – artificiality that reminded me, for some reason, of the end of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, the escape downriver on an obvious soundstage. Both sequences are quiet, sharing a serene, fairy tale quality that highlights their characters’ connection with the natural world. When Little Blackie bucks, Cogburn stabs it in the haunches to spur it. And when it finally collapses, exhausted, he puts a bullet in its head – a choice that’s unnecessary, not to mention cruel. By modern limousine liberal standards at least.

Fear not, Matt Damon will return in 'True Grit 2: Too Grit.'

Having killed his ride, Cogburn picks up Mattie and carries her. Roger Deakins – don’t leave home without him – places Cogburn’s feet in the same shot as he did the horse’s feet. I mean hooves: we track, above and behind. Cogburn finally drops, too, and says, “I’ve grown old.” Equated with the horse, Cogburn’s taken the place of the thing he kills – not reducing the number of living in the world. A child’s life is saved, natural balance is restored, Cogburn is redeemed, and so concludes the most purely emotional portion of any Coen film – by about a four miles, I’d say. We’re a long way from the shock and awe of NO COUNTRY, or the noir amorality of MILLER’S CROSSING… or THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE… or THE BIG LEBOWSKI… or BLOOD SIMPLE…

It’s worth mentioning here, TRUE GRIT is the first Coen film on which this blog’s namesake appears. Yes Spielly himself is a credited executive producer here – and it’s fitting that of all the brothers’ films, this is the only one that even comes close to resembling a Spielberg product: the protagonist a kid in jeopardy, the antihero made whole, and justice served. Make no mistake, this is new territory for the Coens, who keep managing to do what they haven’t done before. At this point, the only kind of movie they have yet to make is a bad one.

TRUE GRIT

Criterion Cinemas, New Haven, Connecticut

Saturday, December 25, 7:30pm showing