127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle)
I certainly enjoyed this film more than Boyle's previous effort, Slumdog Millionaire, which I liked with significant reservation. As awful as this is going to sound, Boyle's use of pop music, split-screen and exuberant visuals is completely apropos to Aron Ralston's story and serves to enrich it thematically, whereas the same devices in Slumdog Millionaire, while also visually exciting, hinted at a certain white male myopia and fundamental misunderstanding of "the other." Am I saying that Danny Boyle should only make films about white males? Hardly. Both films have their virtues and neither one is perfect. But the message here (and both are clear "message" movies) seems less diluted, more to the point and more earnest than Slumdog Millionaire. That is due, in large part to James Franco's lived-in and naturalistic performance, which is at the center of what is essentially a one-man show, give or take Amber Tamblyn. It is Franco's charisma and understanding of the character that sustains a narrative that takes place largely in a chasm where Ralston was forced to amputate his own arm. The film has receded slightly in my memory since its initial viewing, as I accurately expected it would, but it's a solid piece of work that I hope moviewatchers won't shy away from. Being called a pussy by James Franco and his grandmother may persuade some people.
Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
I initially pegged my initial effusive reaction to this film on the two central performances, fully prepared to talk about how Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are doing some industrial strength heavy lifting to elevate the film. But a second viewing gave me more insight into Derek Cianfrance's sure and steady hand, both as a writer and director. Even with splendid performances (and they are splendid), the same material and structural conceit of examining the birth and death of a marriage through interwoven flashbacks could have easily reeked of well-intentioned, unremarkable Mumblecore fare--the kind you see on tucked far away in the Netflix watch-instantly section. Flashback structure is tricky and requires a certain control over storytelling that few filmmakers can boast. In films that value plot and situation over character, it involves making sure the audience finds out things at exactly the right time, so the flashbacks don't become redundant and the present-day narrative doesn't feel like a rehashing. In character studies such as this one, it involves controlling emotional reaction, getting the most potency out of each moment. Hats off to writer-director Derek Cianfrance and editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane (this is one of the best edited films of the year) on all counts. Watching Cianfrance in interviews, it's clear to see why the film manages to be so distinguishable. With his speech pattern, mannerisms, his appearance right down to the receding hairline, one can't help but wonder if Cianfrance is Dean (Gosling). Is there a Cindy (Williams)? Almost certainly. The film is filled with so many moments of specific, honest and unexpected characterization. A scene from the earlier part of Dean and Cindy's courtship, where he offers his unique perspective on couple's having their own song feels cut and paste from real-life, it rings so true. Having Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams live together during the course of the film rewarded in spades. There is a sense of deep familiarity in the scenes that take place in the latter part of their relationship, proving that those who know us best can hurt us the most because they know where to cut. Ryan Gosling gives what might be his best performance to date. It's a difficult task as Dean doesn't change so much from when he first meets Cindy to when he's married to her for five years. What has changed is external (beyond his balding head and his growing paunch). He wants what he has always wanted--to be with Cindy. A present reality may not support that and Gosling is heartbreaking in his ability to portray a man whose world and his wife seem to be passing him by a little more each day. Williams's role is more prickly and she has the hard task of being the defacto villain in the death of their marriage. Her behavior throughout the film seems consistently selfish, due in large part to the way Cianfrance frames her in the story. But Williams's impresses largely, also eking out one her most impressive, deeply felt turns. Cindy says things which ought to be true, but which she doesn't believe, which is almost the flipside of Dean who says what he thinks and believes it, true or not. The implosion of the relationship is inevitable. Watch how Williams's Cindy tells Dean that he's not living up to his potential. It's another brutally honest moment that features some of William's best and quietest acting in the film. For she says it with a twinge of both guilt and realization. Guilt at expressing the sentiment and realization that if you are with someone who isn't living up to his potential, then you can't possibly be living up to yours. Blue Valentine succeeds so valiantly because nothing in the crafting, its lensing, its acting, even its use of music, feels arbitrary or generic. Seek it out, if you must. It's worth a long drive to a small theater, should it come to that.
The King's Speech (dir. Tom Hooper)
I go back and forth on this one. Is The King's Speech a bad film? Hardly. But it forces me to ask what's worse--a terrible film or a competently made one that's so bland, one can hardly recommend it? Director Tom Hooper recedes admirably into the background, allowing the actors to do the heavy lifting and never getting showy. That's a plus. There are few moments in this cinematic account of King George V(Colin Firth, your likely winner of the Best Actor Oscar come February) and his attempts to become an orator, despite his crippling stammer that makes one go "What? What were the filmmakers thinking?" And yet, in a story that's supposed to be all about personal triumph and overcoming adversity, I felt nothing. And I actually did go into this with expectations of something more than meets the eye, given the acclaim it was receiving. I'll explain further. In 2007, I was hesitant to watch Michael Clayton, not being wowed whatsoever by what I was seeing in the trailer. It looked like an easy miss and I was annoyed by the awards attention it was racking up even before I finally saw it (the combination of Clooney, Pollack, Wilkinson and the goddess herself, Tilda Swinton couldn't keep me away too long). I sat down on a quiet afternoon in a small Atlanta theater in December of '07 and was blown away by how the film seemingly recognized the limitations and expectations of its genre and compellingly subverted and sidestepped said expectations, almost at every turn. So, I figured maybe The King's Speech would surprise in a similar fashion, rising above and beyond the required seven "pieces of flair" necessary to make competent period awards bait. But alas, I was greeted with a film that I can only describe as well-made and certainly high-minded, but (it bears repeating) bland. The performances here are fine. Colin Firth's turn is technically accomplished enough to convincingly sell a stammer, though he hardly layers the personal history in ways that aren't painfully obvious. A fine performance, but not an excellent one. Geoffrey Rush is considerably more tolerable here than usual and his performance is what grounds the narrative, providing some desperately needed softness and humanity to sand the film's sharp, obvious edges. While I will concede that it's nice to see Helena Bonham Carter unencumbered by dark wigs, elaborate Gaga-esque frocks and pounds of cakey Gothic makeup, to call this performance great and awards worthy is more than a little generous. If this is a great Helena Bonham Carter performance, then what the hell was she doing in Fight Club, A Room with a View and Howards End? I made sure to include the last two films because I'm constantly hearing that Carter is being rewarded for finally doing something within the Academy's comfort zone (The Wings of the Dove, her sole nomination to date pending Tuesday's nomination announcement, notwithstanding). But A Room with a View and Howards End are utterly within the Academy's sweet spot and, despite loving both of those movies...nothing for Carter. Peculiar. And while we're on the topic of James Ivory, it's movies like The King's Speech that make me wish that Ivory was still working at the top of his form. When he did costume and period, it felt (mostly) purposeful, resonant and deeply engrossing, rather than (I'm sorry to say) besides the point. With all this being said, I fully buy into the narrative that The King's Speech could very well give The Social Network a run for its money in the best picture race. I saw the film at Arclight Hollywood on a Thursday morning while having my car serviced. The audience, besides myself, was composed of about two and a half dozen sexagenarians and one gay couple in their fifties (a pretty accurate Academy cross-section). They ate The King's Speech up with a spoon. So, there you have it. There's one of these every year, it would seem. A movie that's being called "great" that makes me wonder what it is I'm not seeing.
Grade: B- (I don't even feel passionately enough about it to grade it any lower)