Oscar Catch-Up Round One
The King’s Speech
This was very typical Oscar bait, which is not to say that there was anything wrong with it—on the contrary, it was gracefully done, particularly well-acted, and altogether enjoyable—and yet there’s nothing really new about it, nothing really to set it apart from similar Oscar bait-type movies that get released every year, a costumed history of this or that monarch or historical figure and his or her private struggles.
In that very expansive field, though, The King’s Speech distinguished itself with some really well-observed moments. I was hooked from the very first scene, where the young duke is forced to address his countrymen via a radio broadcast. Because it is his first broadcast (and radio is, in fact, incredibly new), this is a huge event and the microphones and everything have been set up in Wembley Stadium (which is still there, albeit with a new body). This turns out to be especially disadvantageous for our stuttering duke because every syllable, every breath he takes into the microphone is amplified and, in that huge, largely empty space, it echoes. It sounds like a stutter before he even begins to stutter, and his courage is irretrievably lost.
The movie also does a great job of suggesting that the king’s inability to make dynamic speeches is more than a social disorder, but in fact a threat to national security. The idea is nicely underlined when the duke (who has by that time ascended to king) sits down to watch footage of Hitler—a famously dynamic speaker—shout and rant and mobilize his Nazi hordes. You can see Firth display a range of contradictory emotions there—fear and disgust, but also admiration, for a dictator’s ability to do so well what the king can’t.
Is it a Best Picture, though? It’s a great picture. It’s not stunning from any kind of filmmaking perspective (there I think it’s bested by Black Swan, 127 Hours and Inception, at least) nor does it illustrate any particularly revolutionary viewpoint (there you’ve got Winter’s Bone). For pure, old-fashioned Hollywood marketability it’s on the same level as True Grit and Toy Story 3: you’ll go see it and you’ll really like it. You may sit down to it every time it plays on TV on a Saturday afternoon. It’s just not going to change how you look at movies. And that sense of ease and comfort is not a bad thing, not at all—it’s a large part of why movies are such a huge component of our culture—and yet I feel a bit cranky about it because of this woman who sat across the aisle from me in the theater. The credits were rolling, the lights were coming up, and she sighs to her companion, “See? No sex, no violence. Just nice.” Oh my GOD is that opinion tiresome. So I’ve just got to go a bit far in the other direction.
Expected Oscar recognition: Well, you know where I stand on Best Picture. This movie was favored for awhile, though now I think the oddsmakers are bending towards The Social Network again. I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t express my own view on that yet.
Best Actor is Colin Firth’s to lose; anyone else winning would be a stunning upset. He’s just getting all the attention. Luckily, it’s worth it. Firth really has done something special here. Playing something as showy as a stutter can be tricky—it’s superficially impressive, but there’s sometimes not much else to the performance. Like the actor gets so bogged down in that one tic that he can’t really show anything else. Not the case with Firth here. The stutter is forever present, and not just in situations that stress him out—the movie establishes that right away, when the then-duke tells a story to his daughters, Margaret and the future queen Elizabeth—but it is not so pronounced that it overwhelms everything he does. He trips over particular words, particular sounds, as we see in various moments of speech therapy, and they’re consistent throughout.
But he builds the character through more than his words; what he does physically is amazing. I like the scene where the duke first walks into the speech therapist’s home office: as soon as Firth stepped through the bare wood frame of the door, I noticed his stature, his regal bearing. He stares imperiously at Rush in this way that tells you—without anything having to be said—that this guy, the Duke of York, has never been in a room with someone who was his social better, ever. (Not counting his father, of course, and technically his brother.) And then he sits as requested, but he doesn’t speak. He continues to look imperious and, despite what is probably severe discomfort at the circumstances, he is totally unconcerned with opening or prolonging any conversation. After a few moments, Rush says that he has learned that he’s supposed to wait for a member of the royal family to speak and the duke deadpans that he’ll wait a long time. He is just so incredibly used to being deferred to that he feels no social obligation at all. It speaks particularly well to the weird position this character is in. He’s a royal, so he’s IMPORTANT. But he’s relatively removed from the crown (who knew his brother was going to step down?) and also he’s got this disability that the entire family has been making fun of his entire life. So he’s somewhat humbled. And he’s spent his entire life balancing those two parts of himself—and that’s one thing he’s able to do quite deftly, until he becomes king and then he needs to recalibrate. And then Firth reels with grief and indecision. Just really, really impressive.
Rush and especially Bonham Carter were both wonderful but are destined to be also-rans. HBC’s best scene is when she tells her husband about how she waffled when he first proposed: she didn’t want the notoriety and lack of privacy that comes from being part of the royal family, but then she figured, “that stutter will keep us out of the limelight!” And it didn’t. And everything about her manner after that point is just so great—she shrugs off her disappointment and plows ahead like, “well, then, that’s that.” And she coaches her husband that he needs to do the same. If she can do it, so can he. Whatever people thought of the real Queen Mum, as a character here she’s a bit awesome.
Ahead: Black Swan and Winter’s Bone
Everyone wants to talk about Black Swan in terms of camp, or irony, what the movie is consciously doing versus what it’s unconsciously doing, and the like. All reviewers are stretching themselves into vagueness and theory trying to make heads or tails of what’s really happening here, and for me, I’m not even going to try. (I’m not in school for the time being; I can coast!)
The movie is, I think, a mess, but an undoubtedly interesting one, and that’s enough. It’s the polar opposite of The King’s Speech, in fact, which, as I said above, is stately and polished and predictable at every turn. I knew I wanted to see Black Swan as soon as it came out, just because it looked so unusual. It’s about ballet, but it’s a horror film; also it’s a psychosexual thriller with a character who is a woman, who is also sort of a child, who sees a dark double, who dances a show on stage that is playing out in her life… There’s just so much the movie is trying to do, and it’s like it keeps throwing more and more balls into the air and then lets them all clatter dramatically to the floor, where they explode into a hail of sparks. The scene where Nina finally dances the Black Swan is spellbinding.
I can’t remember who wrote it, but some reviewer said, very smartly I think, that there was a point where you had to stop caring about whether what you were seeing was happening in the character Nina’s head or not. Viewers do have a tendency to want to KNOW—this is reality, that scene was a nightmare, etc. I won’t spoil anything, but the way the final reel of the movie unfolds, it’s really just kind of impossible to keep up. Things “happen,” but then they are erased in the next moment, but the emotional and physical consequences for Nina are still there and she’s just screwed anyway. It doesn’t really matter what’s true, just how it all contributes to putting Nina where she is at the end of the film, and that’s an important thread of the story being told. (People have been arguing about Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which does the same kind of thing, since 1899. So it’s an effective technique if you want to get talked about for a hundred years.)
Bottom line is this: if you want to be taken for a fascinating, wrenching, dramatic ride, this is the movie for you. If you want to be able to put it into its neat box at the end, you’ll just come away supremely frustrated. (What’s funny is that Black Swan is like Inception that way—DID THE TOP WOBBLE OR NOT? Was all anybody was talking about on the Internet for months after that movie came out. I trust that Inception had more of a consistent arc than Black Swan did, but still.)
Expected Oscar recognition: Mila Kunis—who I have never thought much of—gave a very impressive performance. One that was overlooked at nomination time. So, sucks for her. Natalie Portman, like Colin Firth, is so heavily favored that none of the other chicks have more than a snowball’s chance in hell. For my part, I’d be happy to give it to her. Despite her presence in an alarming number of Hollywood tripe fests this year (No Strings Attached AND Thor? And whatever this is? Really?), Portman is a thoughtful, respectable actress who has been elbowing her way into this industry since she was about eleven years old. She’s got kind of a weird vague quality that sometimes puts me off, but it works one hundred percent in her favor in this movie, at least when she’s playing “White Swan” Nina; but then she also sells “Black Swan” Nina when she needs to. Something tells me this role cut really close to the bone for her. (Also—and the Academy can go a little too far in praising this kind of thing—but did you see how skinny she got for this? It’s hard not to be impressed by that kind of commitment.)
An indie movie that improbably hit the big time. People who aren’t accustomed to that style of filmmaking are going to find it extremely quiet and slow-moving. But it’s also textured and thoughtful and even somewhat suspenseful as the plot unfolds. Some people have even identified it as sort of a classical quest narrative: the main character needs something (to find her father) and to accomplish it she needs to take a journey and complete a series of tasks and withstand a series of hardships. There’s definitely a lot of journeying—walking through chilly-looking woods and dales—and even when she reaches a destination, she almost always has to wait in one place and then be led into another. I didn’t know meth houses in the Ozarks were so heavy with gatekeepers. But I guess that’s just good sense.
Behind the basic crime-and-investigation plot, there’s a larger story here about a young woman learning to navigate through the cold, unfriendly waters of the adult world. Like, if it had been a married woman seeking her absent husband, it would not have been the same movie. There’s a subplot about how Ree, the young woman, is planning on joining the armed forces—how she’s worked out the most manageable possible future for herself and her siblings, for whom she is the default caretaker—but the movie knows better than to represent that as a successful escape. Things are going to be sacrificed, things are going to be lost.
It was filmed on location in southern Missouri, and almost all of the secondary cast are locals. They look and feel authentic. Put rather bluntly, there are some wide, wide asses in this movie, the likes of which you’re not going to see in anything produced in Hollywood. They also, presumably, did not have to be taught how to chop wood or drive pick-ups, and maybe not how to throw a punch. The film starts gray and turns black. It ends on a note of finality and inevitability. Winter’s Bone is not going to be a fun romp for anybody, but it’s a story both worthwhile and beautifully told.
Expected Oscar recognition: This is such a small movie, the nomination is its award. Just being able to compete with marquee films like The Social Network and Inception is something a movie like this rarely gets to do, and its DVD shelf life is going to multiply by about five-fold because of this nomination. And everyone associated with the film seems to know that, and are saying as much, just looking forward to dressing up and heading to the party. So congrats, creative minds behind Winter’s Bone.
Jennifer Lawrence was wonderful in the lead role, damaged but flinty, vulnerable but dogged. I don’t know where she’s from or what she’s been doing her whole life, but I could credibly imagine that she’s been holed up in a trailer in the Ozarks. But, of course, she’s competing with Natalie, and it’s just Natalie’s year. Winter’s Bone’s best bet is John Hawkes, and actually; having seen all five of those performances (Best Supporting Actor) by this point, his is the one that most impressed me. Christian Bale’s the obvious favorite here, but the Academy likes to use the Supporting categories to shake things up. Hawkes has freaked me out since that episode of The X-Files where he was the writer who was maybe also a serial killer. In this movie, he’s all meth and menace, but he’s got a certain philosophy to his actions, too. He’s loyal to his family in his own violent, amoral way. His inscrutability is a major part of the whole narrative of the film. I’d quite like to see him make the upset on Oscar night. Still, it’s a long shot.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck
The Little Friend, Donna Tartt
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Alias, Season 5
Bosch, Season 2
Catastrophe, Season 2
Downton Abbey, Season 5
Silicon Valley, Season 3
The Last Man on Earth, Season 2
Recently Seen / Re-Seen
Shut Up and Sing (2006)
Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Jurassic Park (1993)
The Runaways (2010)
Love and Mercy (2014)