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.