Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tongue-Tied, Bird-Brained (The King's Speech and Black Swan)

The King's Speech, the Weinstein Bros. take leave of Miramax (sort of) with perhaps the quintessential example of their product: Oscar-Bait-by-algorithm. It's British, it's historical, it co-stars Geoffrey Rush. It tickles the funnybone, squeezes the tear ducts, and touches the heart. Cartman's AWESOM-O 4000 couldn't have come up with a more winning template for audiences and awards-givers alike, though "Colin Firth falls in love with a coconut" might have been more interesting.

Instead, the reliable Firth stars as the eventual King George VI, when we first meet him Prince Albert, code-named "Bertie" to his family and friends. In 1925, Bertie's uncontrollable stammer prompts him to recede from the limelight, already occupied by overbearing father George V (Michael Gambon) and feckless older brother/immediate-heir-to-the-throne Edward (Guy Pearce). At the prodding of his sensible wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Bertie enlists lower-class speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush), whose - brace yourself - unconventional methods and informal manner at first ruffle royal feathers but soon come in handy following his father's death and his brother's surprise abdication. (The Mrs. Simpson scandal is given a gloss.) By the late-1930s, his country on the verge of war with Nazi Germany, Bertie/Albert/George VI is called to speak to the English people via radio: Can he give the speech without stammering? Does the Fuhrer have a funny mustache?

There's an intriguing idea at the core of The King's Speech about the rise of oratory in the modern world. (When one of Bertie's daughters asks what Hitler is saying on a film reel, the king responds uneasily, "I don't know, but he appears to be saying it very well.") Yet aside from a passing caricature of Churchill (played by Timothy Spall), the film ignores the topic altogether, plodding dutifully through its paces, from early hostility to breakthroughs to trumped-up misunderstandings. Predictability wouldn't matter as much were the movie directed with any verve. Yet Tom Hooper (behind the camera for several episodes of the fine John Adams miniseries) continues John Madden and Stephen Daldry's visually drab style for otherwise well-heeled Miramax productions.

Perhaps directorial incompetence is by design, so not to overshadow the performances. Oscar pay heed: Firth is fine, Rush is overbearing, Bonham Carter makes a welcome return to humanity. The king gives his big speech, everyone applauds. The audience applauded too. Nothing's more inspiring than efficient mediocrity.

An unlikely Natalie Portman prestige picture transformed out of a highfalutin horror-show, Black Swan would seem far removed from any semblance of artificial intelligence. Yet Darren Aronofsky, whose first picture was the cult hit Pi, renders it every bit as calculating. Aronofsky's method is the opposite of intuitive: Black Swan is an overly mapped-out nightmare charting a ballerina's quest for perfection and courtship of destruction, with dreamlike touches (generally involving cuticles) undermined by slasher-film tropes. (Look out behind you!)

This time, though, in essence, the heroine is stalking herself: ballerina Nina (Portman) is a pseudo-virginal goody-two-shoes auditioning for the dual-lead in a "stripped-down" Swan Lake, perfect (we are told endlessly) for the role of the "White Swan" yet ill-suited (ditto) for the doppelganging "Black Swan." Egged on by the domineering and domileering ballet director?/choreographer?/it's-never-quite-clear Thomas (Vincent Cassel), Nina breaks out of the hermetically sealed, pink-walled, stuffed-animal lifestyle of her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey). She starts hanging out with her conniving alternate Lily (Mila Kunis), who smokes cigarettes, drinks booze, sleeps around and stays out late -- either the movie's idea of cutting-edge behavior or Nina's, it's often hard to tell.

I would gladly embrace this nutso scenario as a welcome alternative to staid moviemaking were the film made with more panache. A puzzling trend in contemporary psychological thrillers is the lack of trajectory. Like DiCaprio's character in Shutter Island, Portman's mental instability is telegraphed from the start. Similarly, Aronofsky and his hand-held cameras make everything - visually and tonally - ugly. We need a sense of Nina's love of ballet (as well as the filmmaker's) to understand why she's willing to sacrifice herself for her art - not to mention why she'd put up with a considerable amount of bullshit from everyone around her. While I'm not the biggest fan of Brian De Palma, I think he'd have been the ideal director for this material. Black Swan resembles De Palma's Carrie in that it's really about a girl's fear of her own sexuality. It's the kind of camp that needs a sensualist's touch.

None of this is stopping Black Swan from being taken very seriously. Audiences are laughing at it, only to come away unduly impressed. (Teenage girls seem particularly obsessed with the movie, in a Sylvia Plath/Bell Jar kind of way.) Portman will win her Oscar and has earned tons of accolades already, despite being too old for the part. (Her previous experience with Jedi Knights and the Dark Side of the Force, however, makes her well-prepped for Cassel's tireless insistence that she needs to "let go.") Lily may be Nina's alternate in Swan Lake but onscreen Kunis upstages Portman at every turn -- a spontaneous Oksana Baiul to a mechanical Nancy Kerrigan. Hershey struggles to make sense of an opaque, thankless role that may have been more effective with Piper Laurie-like hysterics. Winona Ryder returns to the screen following a long, humiliating public ordeal, only to stab herself in the face with a nail file. As Pauline Kael might have said, Aronofsky has feathers in his head.


Jason Bellamy said...

Entertaining reviews. Loved the Black Swan images! Hilarious!

As for Black Swan itself ... yes, it's camp that I take seriously. That is, the effect for me is real. It's my top film of the year -- in part because it's wild and sloppy and over the top.

As for The King's Speech ... yes, it's Oscar bait alright. But damn if it doesn't hit the notes. I think its major mistake is that Hitler scene -- because it's great, but it doesn't belong to that movie. The King's Speech works well as a personal tale -- a story that is about a king but that could be about anyone. It could have been something else, something grander, something that really digs its teeth into those things it gives the flyby (like about how radio has changed the responsibilities of the crown), but it isn't. And so that Hitler moment reminds of what the movie might have been. Without more scenes like that one, it shouldn't be there.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great stuff, Craig. I'm with Jason, too, on thinking Black Swan is one of the best films of the year (maybe the best...I still find myself thinking about it daily). I like what Jason says in that it's over the top and sloppy. I mentioned that I love how Aronofsky just rushed headlong through the film without a care for how silly the whole thing might seem. That kind of energy is sorely lacking in movies these days. I liken it to a messy version of something Paul Thomas Anderson would do. There are all sorts of nits to pick about the Daniel Plainview character, but I didn't care because the energy of that film got me through the overwrought, operatic (something PTA does extremely well, mind you, and in a more formalized and aesthetically pleasing way than Aronofsky) moments of that film.

In fact, Black Swan reminded me of my theater experience seeing Magnolia in that the audience laughed a lot because they didn't know what to think about what was unfolding in front of them.

Steven Santos said...


I'm with Jason on "Black Swan" and I also believe it was intended to be funny. As for as telegraphing the main character's insanity, I thought the intention was Aronofsky fully clued you in that we were watching a mental breakdown. It's a movie where every given moment is clearly unreliable in terms of whether it happened or not, even by the end.

On the other hand, "Shutter Island" is incredibly unimaginative in giving us a definitive answer and psychoanalysis of its main character, while simultaneously revealing a twist ending that was beyond ludicrous. I actually found "Black Swan" fascinating in how throws so many absurd, but not necessarily unrealistic hang-ups about sex up on the screen and leaves it for us to figure out on our own.

As far as showing the love of the dance, I have to admit that I am of two minds about this. Yes, there is beauty in ballet, but, at the same time, it is quite a pompous art that some of us can't quite take seriously, the high brow companion to the wrestling in Aronofsky's previous film. Also, did Nina necessarily love dance or was forced into it by her mother? People do strive for perfection in work they don't love because they accept their lot in life.

As far as "The King's Speech", at this point, I'm not sure I could ever see it without thinking about Michael Palin's Roman governor with the speech impediment in "Life of Brian".

Craig said...

Yes, it appears I'm in a minority here. That's okay. Good to hear from you guys.


I think its major mistake is that Hitler scene -- because it's great, but it doesn't belong to that movie.

An interesting point I hadn't considered -- that a great scene can expose the weaknesses of the rest of the film. I didn't think much of the movie up to that moment, so for me it was a highlight.


In fact, Black Swan reminded me of my theater experience seeing Magnolia in that the audience laughed a lot because they didn't know what to think about what was unfolding in front of them.

I find PTA movies a fascinating experience with audiences, because he has a knack for pissing them off. In other words, the laughter is hostile. I didn't really detect that with Black Swan; it's so risible it practically gooses the audience into a response.


As far as showing the love of the dance, I have to admit that I am of two minds about this. Yes, there is beauty in ballet, but, at the same time, it is quite a pompous art that some of us can't quite take seriously,

Absolutely. I wonder, though, how things would have played had Aronofsky embraced (or pretended to embrace) that pomposity at the start, only to let it gradually unravel. I wonder if the horror would have had more impact, had less the feel of a parlor game being played on the audience (one I found pretty trite in its retrograde attitudes and shock tactics).

Adam Zanzie said...

While I do share Jason/Kevin/Steven's Black Swan appreciation I gotta say that your criticisms of it here were priceless. I do agree with you that the movie might have been a full-fledged masterpiece in the hands of somebody like De Palma, but at the same time I'm not sure De Palma would have been comfortable directing a screenplay this... clean. I know, I know: how is a movie with lesbian sex/cutting/intense gore clean? But as much as I loved this movie, I didn't think it was very radical material--although I was mostly impressed with Aronofsky's visual style. Your bit here in reference to Portman's Attack of the Clones days made me laugh out loud.

I don't know if I want to see The King's Speech or not. For one thing, I don't even know who Tom Hooper is!

Craig said...

Thanks, Adam. I should be clear that I didn't hate the movie; it's too laughable for that. On its own primal terms, I guess Black Swan works; though I thought it was too absurd to work as tragedy and used Portman too much as a punching bag to be a comedy.

Based on The King's Speech, Tom Hooper appears to have recently learned how to remove the camera lens cap. Next lesson: canted angles.

jeremythecritic said...

I liked "Black Swan" a good deal more than you did but not quite as much as everyone else. A second viewing would further sort things out for me but I definitely see where you're coming from on all fronts. The whole thing is kind of ridiculous, whether that was the intention or not, or whether Aronofsky's intentions even matter or not... who knows.

I like that you brought up Portman being too old for the part (she is) but I do think this was the first role since "The Professional" that she actually seemed right for, which probably isn't a compliment. Physical training aside, it was totally in her comfort zone emotionally (to me she's always come across as so cold and detached as an actress). Technically an Oscar worthy performance, but I still don't think she's a great actress if that makes any sense at all.

Craig said...

Thanks, Jeremy. I know what you mean about Portman. She's a limited performer playing a limited performer in a role that will win her the kind of awards oft bestowed on mediocrity. And the circle of life continues. Still, I can't help but feel that a more accomplished actress may have offered some compelling nuances. The whole thing would have been dead without Mila Kunis onscreen.