Category Archives: Big Screen Brain

SHOWDOWN: The Dark Knight Rises vs. Skyfall

Inspired by my own feelings on what are arguably the biggest movies of the past year and related debates I have now had with a variety of people, I bring you an admittedly ambitious Big Screen Brain twist on the Showdown category. I considered making this a three-way contest including The Avengers, but decided I was inviting more than enough nerd-rage as is. Besides, I saw The Avengers three times. It wouldn’t be fair to compare with movies I’ve seen only once each. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) PS – I figured out that you can add polls to blog posts, looky!

THE SHOWDOWN: TRILOGY-CONCLUDING BLOCKBUSTERS DESIGNED TO COMPLETELY BLOW YOUR MIND (AND ALSO POSSIBLY WIN SOME OSCARS)

MOVIES: Christopher Nolan‘s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and Sam MendesSKYFALL

POINTS OF COMPARISON: THE EXHAUSTED AGING PROTAGONIST, THE VILLAIN, EFFECTIVENESS AS A TRILOGY-ENDER

The Exhausted Aging Protagonist:

Both these trilogies are, essentially, new looks at the origins of long-established franchise characters. When they started their respective journeys as Batman and James Bond, both Christian Bale and Daniel Craig had considerably fewer wrinkles and scars than they did by the time part-three rolled around. The trick for these films is a balance between admitting that change and maintaining action-movie awesome.

The Dark Knight Rises: When the film begins, Batman (Christian Bale) is letting Gotham move on without him. He is not only tired and showing age, but broken. The suit back comes back on only in the face of absolute desperation – for himself and for his beloved city – , and the results aren’t pretty. Bruce Wayne in his weakened state is clearly no match for the berserker-force of Bane (Tom Hardy), and even Catwoman manages to run a few circles around him. Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard) ran the biggest circle of all, landing him out of commission in a far-away prison for an awfully long portion of the movie. Of course Batman has his victory and saves the day, that’s never a question. But the manner of the victory reveals the true struggle: saving Gotham is only part of the plan, sharing equal footing with saving the soul of Bruce Wayne. The story ends with retirement, halfway across the world with a really hot girlfriend and not a superhero-appropriate care in the world. We are left with only the vaguest hint that there just might be somebody to take up the cape sometime down the line.

Skyfall: The story begins in franchise-typical fashion, with an epic chase sequence that ends with James Bond (Daniel Craig) being shot. And not just grazed. Shot in the chest, over a waterfall, missing-presumed-dead. He embraces his opportunity as a dead man to become a layabout on a Mediterranean beach who gets his kicks by playing what is unquestionably the Worst Drinking Game Ever. Until MI6 gets blown to bits and he returns to protect his country, his boss, and his job. And he does so, injured, tired, and gadgetless. The final showdown is just James Bond, a head start, some guns, and the will to survive. Which he does, of course, in spectacularly primal fashion. There is no hint that this is the end of Bond – as an audience we know that this is Daniel Craig’s goodbye and that the next time we see James Bond his face will be new. But the final note on Bond, both character and franchise, is absolute certainty that he will live on in a new age, that though his methods and thinking are old school, he can adapt and the world will not outpace him. (For more on James Bond in Skyfall, I suggest Paul Constant’s review-sum-character-analysis.)

Winner: I’m giving this one to Skyfall. If you look at the overall goals and mental states of the two characters over the course of these films, the difference is clear. Bruce Wayne intends to die, either a false death in victory or a true death in victory or defeat. James Bond intends to win, death be damned. And he does.

The Villain:

The Dark Knight Rises: The obvious disadvantage to this film is that no matter who the villain was, they were going to be following in the footsteps of Heath Ledger‘s Joker and, well, you know. That said, the combination of Bane and Talia al Ghul is a formidable one. Especially since you don’t even know they’re in cahoots until the eleventh hour. That is, their relationship isn’t revealed until then, but easily half of the film is spent hinting violently. As a result, the “big reveal” isn’t so much that as an “oh god, FINALLY we can move on and get back to the story.” Part of the immense power of the Joker was his total anonymity beyond the twisted persona.Bane has that power for most of The Dark Knight Rises, but once his back story is filled in, the secret to defeating him becomes equally clear, and all that remains is a rather less-than-suspenseful wait. By contrast, Talia al Ghul starts the film as a completely different and apparently innocuous character. Then her insanity grows exponentially over the final hour and transforms her into an unpredictable and dangerously desperate adversary. Both these villains, together and separately, present Batman with opposition powerful enough to put his final victory until at least some temporary doubt. What they do lack, however, is the sort of unnerving personal connection to Bruce Wayne that made the Joker and Raz al Ghul both great foils and formidable opponents.

Skyfall: Let me begin by getting the obvious out of the way: Javier Bardem KILLED IT. As in, if-I-hadn’t-known-it-was-him-I-would-never-have-known-it-was-him levels of killed it. Silva is, for all intents and purposes, the only villain in the film. He is enough of a threat on his own that there is no need for a second, direct combative adversary – the henchmen are just there to add volume. All other antagonists (M-to-be Ralph Fiennes and cabinet member Helen McCrory) are non-villainous, and couldn’t hold a candle to Silva even if they wanted to. Once he is introduced, even extra-sexy French-Asian Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe becomes completely uninteresting. His persona is made of a powerful duality: an unspecified but supposedly complicated backstory and a brutally simple but specific mission. Silva’s power as a villain comes from his similarity to Bond, and even more from the lingering question of whether he or Bond is the dark side. His face says everything. For all that the chic, queeny, bleach-blond exterior fits, there is no question that the sinking, blackened, cyanide face is the true one. Ultimately he loses, because he is the villain, but he does fundamental damage and that is what really counts.

Winner: Silva. No question. If he were pitted up against the Joker I don’t know who would win, but in this case it’s no contest.

Effectiveness as a Trilogy Ender

The Dark Knight Rises: There is no question that this film is the conclusion of an arc. Batman Begins followed very closely the heroes-journey process that led to the realization of Batman. The Dark Knight provided climax that can only be described as truly epic. And now in The Dark Knight Rises themes and storylines are wrapped up more-or-less neatly in a conclusion both loud and quiet. There are hints that the story of Gotham and Batman continues on. But the sense of finality is absolute, and the result is widely satisfying. (It was not my favorite ending, and I could definitely have done without that cafe scene at the end, but then again I only like endings where everybody dies and nobody is happy, so.)

Skyfall: The tricky thing is that this film does not truly belong to a trilogy, but to an extensive franchise. It feels like a trilogy because there are three films, and they fundamentally changed the way that many people look at James Bond. (Well, Casino Royale and Skyfall did. Quantum of Solace mostly just confused everyone.) Daniel Craig is his own Bond, a separate character from all the previous generations, and as a result of Casino Royale‘s mission to revivify the franchise, he has an individualized storyline underlying all the action. Skyfall completes his personal arc, and it completes Judi Dench’s longer arc as M. But, the primary function of the film is not to conclude, but to complete a new beginning. Very literally, Skyfall acknowledges that James Bond as he has been is out-of-date and thus reinvents the franchise. Q and Moneypenny, missing elements from the two previous Daniel Craig Bond films, have been reborn and Skyfall ends not with a sense of finality, but an enthusiasm for continuing on.

Winner: The Dark Knight Rises has this one in the bag. Christopher Nolan has created a third, powerful film that completes his story and his vision, and good as it is, Skyfall just can’t touch that.

Final Tally: Skyfall – 2, The Dark Knight Rises – 1

I knew as soon as I stepped out of the theatre after The Dark Knight Rises that it wasn’t going to be my favorite film of the year, nevermind one of my favorite films ever like The Dark Knight was. Skyfall was a total surprise to me. Of course it was going to be a fantastic action film, of course Daniel Craig was going to go out with a bang. But the artistry of the film-making and the unexpected elegance of the story made it truly excellent. It has its faults, but it might be my favorite film of the year. And yes, that includes two Joss Whedon movies. Whoda thunk.

Big Screen Brain: X-Men First Class

I have now seen X-Men: First Class twice. So, those of you who haven’t seen it at all yet, Get On That. I’m not going to lie and tell you it’s any more than average as a whole. But it is unarguably entertaining.

X-Men: First Class is a prequel/sequel to the other X-Men movies of the past decade AND it is a Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, Stardust) film BUT, it tries so hard to be both simultaneously that it succeeds and fails in equal measure.

How It Succeeds As A Matthew Vaughn Film:

1) Casting
The actors are the usual mix of well-knowns and sadly-not-well-knowns. The cast includes The Guy From Atonement (James McAvoy as Charles Xavier), The Girl From Winter’s Bone (Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique), The Guy From Everything Ever (Kevin Bacon as The Bad Guy), and a shark* (Michael Fassbender as Magneto). January Jones‘ cleavage is also featured prominently (to be fair, there really isn’t any other way to feature it).

2) Assholes
The ultimate rule of Matthew Vaughn films is, the more asshole-y a character is, the more AWESOME they are. And also the better the performance is. Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon really live this out to the fullest, Kevin Bacon and his nine languages and his sideburns in particular. Fassbender makes an excellent jerk, but he’s hindered somewhat by his Tragic Past and ever-present angst. Bacon is at his melodramatic supervillainy best. How do you tell he succeeds better? He can wear the helmet without inspiring mockery. Fassbender just looks like a douche (although maybe that’s because Magneto went a little crazy with the spray paint and added a hood ornament).

3) Environment
One of my favorite parts of Matthew Vaughn’s style is, well, the style, the mastery of every visual element. First Class is fully infused with the flavor of the sixties. The villains in particular are steeped in it, from the interior spaces of the submarine and the Vegas nightclub to the costumes. Especially the costumes, in my opinion. Basically every man in the film knows how to really wear a suit (or a pair of shorts, if called for). And (when she wears clothes,) January Jones has some truly phenomenal Mod outfits.

How It Fails As A Matthew Vaughn Film:

1) PG-13 Rating
Let’s just all agree: Matthew Vaughn is not a PG-13 kind of guy. Imagine Kick-Ass with a PG-13 rating. Exactly. You can’t. Just like he can’t make his usual beyond-off-color raunchy jokes or put the vocabulary of a sailor in the mouth of a ten-year-old girl while stuck within the X-Men franchise. You can feel his discomfort in the softer scenes, especially compared to the ease of strip/nightclub scenes and the Wolverine cameo.

2) Narrative
The storyline of this film is not well-structured. It is not cohesive. It isn’t really a single story you can sink your teeth into. Vaughn’s trademark is totally comprehensive narratives about characters who be have in totally incomprehensible and unpredictable ways. This film just had way too many elements to tie all together. The writing team and all did their best, no question, but that only goes so far sometimes.

How It Succeeds As An X-Men Film

1) Superhero-y-ness
There are enough cheesy catch-phrases, grandiose proclamations, and intense stare-downs in this film to satisfy any eight fans of the genre. “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders; no more”, “Well, I adapt to survive. So I guess that means I’m going with you.” “MUTANT AND PROUD.” Need I say more?

2) Special Effects
There are some seriously cool moments in this movie, FX-wise. Emma Frost’s diamond form (particularly the moment when it cracks). Any time Sebastian Shaw uses his powers. Darwin’s transformations. And of course, the flying submarine. Perhaps the coolest moment of all is when Hank McCoy’s feet are briefly made human then transformed from that surprisingly-still-hairy state to full Beast mode. It is a digital moment both impressive and grotesque, and it is awesome.

3) Conclusion
First Class remains true to franchise form and delivers an ending that is technically a victory for the good guys but somehow feels ambiguous in spite of that. This narrative choice is probably the most ingenious element of the X-Men movies because that less-than-happy, semi-cliffhanger type ending is really the secret to assuring there will be an audience for a sequel. No matter how we feel about what has transpired in the current film, we want to see what happens in the next one.

How It Fails As An X-Men Film

1) Wolverine
Yes, I know it would be canonically incorrect to have Wolverine all over this movie. But can we just agree: a twenty-second cameo is not enough, no matter how hilarious.

2) Sentiment
Often the emotional storylines of this franchise are overdone to the point of being intolerably saccharine. But First Class faulted toward the opposite pole. Even where I wanted to connect emotionally – the death of Magneto’s mother, when Professor X gets shot, – I couldn’t quite. Rather than melodramatic, the characters seemed almost underemotive. I will give credit where credit is due, though; Jennifer Lawrence kicked the touchy-feely crap out of that scene where Beast insists she is not beautiful just as she is and the related scenes that followed.

I absolutely did enjoy this movie…clearly, given I’ve seen it twice already. It has a very talented cast, features some typically excellent work by one of my favorite directors, and the aesthetic elements are fantastic. Even where it loses me, it doesn’t really, because what’s done poorly (or at least, done in poor taste) is great fodder for mockery and unintended hilarity. It’s FUN, and that’s the important part.

* I am not the originator of the Michael-Fassbender-Is-A-Shark idea, but I am riding shotgun on the bandwagon. I think originally the comparison was drawn because of the teeth – seriously, he has SO MANY FREAKING TEETH – and the excessive grimacing that shows off said teeth. It is probably fortunate I hadn’t heard the shark thing the first time I saw the movie because it was pretty much all I could think about the second time around. My overactive brain even extended the parallel to apply to his profile, the amount of time he spends in water, and even the nature of his character. It is quite an apt comparison when you get down to it. (But, honestly, it’s mostly just The Teeth.)

Big Screen Brain: Thor

I realize I’m a good month behind the times with this review, but I only just saw it and seriously: this is a movie that badly needs to be blogged about.

The problem with Thor isn’t that it is all style and no substance, exactly. Both elements are there in about equal measure. But there is nothing that feels genuine, so beyond a few relatively cheap laughs involving drunk physicists and/or overly hammy culture clashes, any true enjoyment there is to be had is so deeply buried under thick layers of fluff and mishandling that one needs to work way too hard and think way too much (to wit, be me) to find it. And after all that effort, what there is to be found is hardly worth it.

One major conclusion I’ve come to in thinking about Thor is that I’m over the CGI craze. The artist-technicians created an amazing fantasy environment in Asgard. It was larger than life, beautiful, filled with almost mind-boggling exquisiteness, and yet I remained totally disenchanted. Why? Because absolutely none of it was real. I couldn’t really appreciate the beauty (or even the work it took to create it) because all I was thinking about was the fact that almost the entire movie must have been shot in front of a green screen. And having that image in your head pretty much contaminates the whole experience.

Magnificent shiny castles are considerably less impressive when you’re plagued by the idea that They Don’t Exist At All. My mind immediately jumps to Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the production work done by WETA Workshop. The fantasy environments (Rivendell, Lothlorien, Moria, Mordor, to name a few) were scaled models that were superimposed to create backgrounds in the correct scale. So yes, those scenes were also mostly green-screened. But they were layered with a few real-size constructed environments and there was a physical structure, albeit a miniature one. No matter how good CGI technology gets, there will always be a difference between what is real and what is, for lack of a better term, illustrated. I like to think I’ll always be able to tell.

The other production elements of Thor are of sufficient quality at best. Costumes were well enough but nothing spectacular. The music did it’s job, but no more. The coolest thing was probably the SFX makeup for the Frost Giants. That was admittedly Pretty Sweet.

Of course all that is just dressing. My long-winded disappointment with the amount of CGI is a peripheral complaint, a distraction from what truly disappointed me about this movie. Namely, the story and the telling thereof.

The superhero narrative, the modern model of the Classical hero story, is not complicated or difficult. It is the most basic of arcs, and all a storyteller has to do to succeed is hit all of the essential elements. And yet somehow, Thor fails.

Thor reads like someone bit a big chunk of it out of the middle. We see arrogant, boorish, warmongery, pre-transformation Thor at the beginning of the movie. And at the end of the movie we see noble, dignified, self-sacrificing, post-transformation Thor. Which is all well and good and fitting with the hero journey storyline…except that the transformation never takes place. At the very least, it is far too subtle.

The tender moments with Natalie Portman (I honestly don’t remember her character’s name because, really, she’s basically just Natalie Portman) and Thor’s inability to pull his hammer out of a rock are, I can only assume, intended as moments of character growth. Unfortunately, they seem more like opportunities to reveal to the audience deeper, more sensitive layers that Thor already possessed. Yes, there is a distinction.

I feel that part of the problem was an underestimation (or perhaps a misunderstanding) of Chris Hemsworth. Visually, he fits the “hunky and dumb” bill to a T. But his emotive abilities as an actor are truly outstanding. Recall, this is George Kirk of JJ AbramsStar Trek, the guy who appeared in only the first five minutes of the movie and somehow still managed to steal the show – y’know, the guy whose performance still makes me cry every time even though I’ve seen the movie an embarrassing number of times at this point. Even from behind a beard and flowing locks that seem to mysteriously grow when he dons an overly shoulder-padded cape, Chris Hemsworth brings full emotional life to his character – perhaps more than he ought. It is clear that sensitivity is his natural element, Viking brashness an act. Instead of wondering how he got to his mature end-of-movie character state, we wonder instead why he wasn’t shown that way from the beginning. I do, anyway.

Perhaps a contributing factor to this lack of sequence and clarity in the hero’s personal journey is what I found to be an over-emphasis on the personal journey of the antagonist. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed every moment of Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) descent into villainy, particularly when his Frost Giant face is first revealed. But his story also seems somewhat out of sequence because his reasons for evil are revealed over halfway through the movie. And those revelations are presented the way Thor’s ought to have been: as happening in the moment, rather than as an unveiling of things already present and in motion. It seems there was some confusion about which was truly the main, important character (you’d think the title might have tipped someone off). As a result, hero and villain stories were switched in terms of emphasis and the overall plot of the movie felt awkward at best (weak at worst).

There is little else about Thor worth noting – no, not even Anthony Hopkins. Stellan Skarsgard, maybe. The Asian Viking is weird, I will grant you, but we live in a world that badly wants for political correctness and multiculturality (even when it makes no sense) and so that must go uncommented as well. Also because talking about the Asian Viking would force me to point out that the rest of Thor’s BFFs – Broadsword Barbie, Gimli, and the Scandinavian Musketeer – are equally ridiculous. And I don’t want to do that – that would just be mean.

When all is said and done, Thor is definitely a letdown and definitely the failed child in the pre-Avengers movie family. The only part of it I genuinely enjoyed was the post-credits clip featuring Nick Fury and a reminder that The Avengers Movie Will Be Here Soon And It Will Be Awesome. So I’ll concentrate on looking forward to that…and just pretend that Thor 2 isn’t going to happen.

Oscar Nominations (Are Dumb)

The nominations were released at 5am this morning…Pacific Time? I don’t remember. ANYWAY. Here they are, in all their expectable-but-occasionally-infuriating glory.

Best Actor:
Javier Bardem for “Biutiful”
Jeff Bridges for “True Grit”
Jesse Eisenberg for “The Social Network”
Colin Firth for “The King’s Speech”
James Franco for “127 Hours”

Javier Bardem and Jeff Bridges, I love you. But Colin Firth had better fucking win this.

Supporting Actor:
Christian Bale for “The Fighter”
John Hawkes for “Winter’s Bone”
Jeremy Renner for “The Town”
Mark Ruffalo for “The Kids Are All Right”
Geoffrey Rush for “The King’s Speech”

What the HELL ASS do you mean, Matt Damon wasn’t even nominated?! (Admittedly, there is a lot of heavy competition in this category.)

Best Actress:
Annette Bening for “The Kids Are All Right”
Nicole Kidman for “Rabbit Hole”
Jennifer Lawrence for “Winter’s Bone”
Natalie Portman for “Black Swan”
Michelle Williams for “Blue Valentine”

Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams for “The Fighter”
Helena Bonham Carter for “The King’s Speech”
Melissa Leo for “The Fighter”
Hailee Steinfeld for “True Grit”
Jacki Weaver for “Animal Kingdom”

Animated Feature Film:
How to Train Your Dragon
Toy Story 3
The Illusionist

Toy Story 3 is going to win. One wonders why they even bother with other nominations.

Art Direction:
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter
Inception
The King’s Speech
True Grit

Ohhhh The King’s Speech had better not win this.

Cinematography:
Black Swan
Inception
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
True Grit

I will be embarrassed for the world if The King’s Speech wins this.

Directing:
Darren Aronofsky for “Black Swan”
David O. Russell for “The Fighter”
Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech”
David Fincher for “The Social Network”
Coen Brothers for “True Grit”

LACK OF CHRISTOPHER NOLAN NOM IS CRAPCRAPCRAP.

Original Score:
John Powell for “How to Train Your Dragon”
Hans Zimmer for “Inception”
Alexandre Desplat for “The King’s Speech”
A.R. Rahman for “127 Hours”
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for “The Social Network”

No nomination for Daft Punk?! Lame. But not surprising. (The King’s Speech had also better not win this.)

Best Picture:
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

Visual Effects:
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter
Hereafter
Inception
Iron Man II

If Inception doesn’t win this category, I will have no respect for the Oscars anymore.

Adapted Screenplay:
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

Team True Grit! (The Social Network will probably win.)

Original Screenplay:
Another Year
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech

Team Inception! (The King’s Speech will probably win.)

Big Screen Brain: True Grit

True Grit is a movie by the Coen brothers that takes place in a wild west, mid-nineteenth century setting. But somehow, it is not A Period Piece or A Western or even A Coen Brothers Movie. It is one damn fine piece of filmmaking. Of all the movies that fall into the My Purpose As A Film Is To Win Awards category* that I have seen, this is unquestionably my favorite.

The success of True Grit as a film comes from the filmmakers’ ability to avoid overdoing anything. Joel and Ethan Coen have learnt the art of moderation. Comedy, emotion, action, and gore are all present in True Grit, but they are balanced and regulated (without seeming restricted). There is just enough, but no more.

I make that claim by way of comparison between True Grit and the Coens’ other films, recent and less recent. They are some of the best filmmakers working right now, but their style has previously been both consistent and easily recognizeable. Basically, they love to make funny but disgusting movies about really stupid people…but in an oddly smart way. In these films, every one gets their due, generally in a way that involves bloody violent death or obscenity or laugh out loud hilarity or all three. True Grit has those typically Coen elements, but they do not dominate. I can think of only two scenes in the film where it is so clear you are watching one of their movies that you momentarily forget what is actually going on. The courtroom introduction of Jeff Bridges’ character, and The Tongue Thing. therwise, other than the mere presence of Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, and the occasional bit of Really Weird Shit, True Grit is nothing more or less than an incredibly well-made movie.

I think making a film based on a story not of their own imagining provided a great opportunity for the Coen brothers and that the quality of their work is only going to go up from here. The story is, admittedly, one that lends itself well to their particular style. But what makes this stand out from their previous films is the story. It is clear, more or less linear, and simple enough on its own that it can both dictate a path to follow and also leave room for stylization in the telling. End result: the script for True Grit is masterful.

And, luckily, the cast has more than enough talent to bring that script to life. Jeff Bridges is his usual excellent self; the fact that he manages to fully inhabit the role of Rooster Cogburn in this film is no surprise, especially when you remember who the filmmakers are. Josh Brolin is good enough, but I feel like his presence and importance to the film was highly exaggerated by the credits and advertising because, when you get right down to it, he is only on screen for about five minutes (and he is not the one you should be paying attention to). As for Matt Damon, he seems poised to become a new recurring face in movies by the Coen brothers. He is absolutely hilarious and absolutely perfect in a role that is like nothing else he has ever done. Between this film and last year’s The Informant!, he has proved himself to be versatile enough to stretch not only beyond action movies, but beyond drama and all the way into clever comedy. Supporting Actor nominations for him? Yes please.**

The central role, a fourteen-year-old girl, was undoubtedly the greatest casting challenge for this film, and the Coens struck gold with Hailee Steinfeld. That she holds her own among the heavyweight talents who are her costars is an understatement. She is not only credible, but fascinating to watch. The character Mattie is definitely the heart of the movie, and Steinfeld had many more emotional hurdles to cross than the rest of the cast. She did so with grace and without going over the top. There is nothing overwrought or ingenuine in her performance. Imdb isn’t telling me anything about her future plans, but I definitely hope to see her do more.

The final element that knits True Grit together as a film is the sheer aestheticism of it. This is the same sense of aestheticism that has helped all films by the Coen brothers step beyond the sphere of mere oddball black comedy. Location shoots in Texas and New Mexico gave a sweeping sense of environment; the feel of an open and unexplored American West that is a far cry from the barren desert of typical Western fare. And of course all the shots and all the production elements are all fitted perfectly to both the style of the film and the time period in which the film is set, creating a seamless world in which to tell a story that is not quite realistic, but not quite fantastical either.

True Grit is definitely a My Purpose As A Film Is To Win Awards kind of a film. But it also definitely deserves recognition. It is beautifully made and there are no elements lacking. In a year studded with mediocre moviemaking, the excellence of True Grit is a relief as much as it is a revelation.

See. This. Movie. Now.

(Closing thought: Snakes. Why do there always have to be snakes.)

* I am not counting Inception in this category on grounds that, despite its excellence and the admitted likelihood it will win some awards, I believe its proper category is the My Purpose As A Film Is To Be Awesome one.

** Fun fact about the cast of this film: JK Simmons is the voice of Mattie’s lawyer. And yes, I did figure that out ALL ON MY OWN.

Other fun fact: In the credits, Ethan Coen’s son is credited as “Matt Damon’s Abs Double.” I also noticed that ALL ON MY OWN. And it was funny. (And then I found five dollars…)

Big Screen Brain: The King’s Speech

I wish that this was a play.

The fact of the matter is, it just isn’t spectacular enough on enough levels to be a big deal as a movie. There are elements where it is lacking. There are elements where it is overcompensating. The ultimate result is a film that leaves you feeling good for about five minutes. But then you start thinking about it, and you realize that the experience was actually largely unsatisfying.

The great failing of The King’s Speech is that the cinematography and the sound editing – basically, the two elements that make it a film rather than a stage play (wide availability aside) – were executed in a spectacularly poor fashion. It’s as if the film was put together piecemeal by multiple people with various styles, none of whom were communicating with each other at all. Half of the film is shot in awkward close-enough-to-count-nosehairs close-ups. The other half is comprised of exaggerated diagonal shots whose sole purpose seems to be to make the film look more impressively rendered than it is. There is a similar dichotomy present in the soundtrack.

My favorite (and by that I mean least favorite) shot in the entire film comes at the beginning, when the Duke of York (Colin Firth) and his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) meet for the first time. They are seated across from each other, Rush in a chair and Firth at the far end of a couch, and the camera is positioned in exactly the right place to make Firth appear to be about half the size of his costar. My mind immediately went to the hours of Lord of the Rings extras I watched; particularly, one segment about all the tricks the makers of those films used to make the human-sized actors playing hobbit-sized-characters and the human-sized actors playing human-sized characters appear to be different sizes. One trick involved placing two actors in the same shot, but at different distances from the camera, and cheating the environment. That is exactly what that first meeting in The King’s Speech looks like.

Now, the presence of other shots in the film where Firth is made to overwhelmed by the largeness of his environment implies that this was intentional rather than the result of shoddy work. Thank goodness for small favors, I suppose. Congratulations on attempting to make the film’s visual and emotional elements co-reflect, I suppose. The concept is a good one. The result, however, is disappointing and amateurish.

As I said, the other notable shortfalling of The King’s Speech is its soundtrack. For the majority of the film, either there is no music or what music there is is so subtle that it might as well not be there at all. There are a few scenes where the lack of music is actually quite an effective choice – pleasantly effective, I mean. There are also scenes where the very very prominent music is effective in a very horrible way.

The first such scene comes at the touchy-feely apology scene where Firth’s and Rush’s characters put aside their differences and admit they are in fact Really Good Friends After All. This is one segment of the movie that features some excellent writing and it is a genuinely touching scene. However. Apparently someone decided that there was absolutely no way an audience could figure out the happy emotional theme on their own, and so decided to blast what can only be called mood music to the point where it begins to distract from the scene itself. In simple terms: it is really annoying.

Even worse is the finale scene – the one the title of the movie indicates. The moment is all about Colin Firth, all about the culmination of his character’s struggles, and all about the speech (which is the actual speech that was delivered by George VI at the start of Britain’s participation in WWII). Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, the audience is not given a chance to appreciate the absolutely fantastic delivery of what is still easily recognizeable as one damn epic speech. Why? Because the This Is Important Moment! music is SO LOUD that Colin Firth is barely audible. The choice is a bad one and the result is quite unfortunate.

ALL THAT ASIDE. I can recommend The King’s Speech for at least one reason, and that is the acting. At least half of the great British actors you have ever heard of are in this film, as is one exceptional Australian. And they are all so good.

The Australian is Guy Pearce (Memento) who would easily have stolen the show if he had been given any more screen time. He brought his usual chameleon-freak-like abilities to the set of The King’s Speech as well as a mid-century upper-class English accent so flawless that, according to Colin Firth in an interview with NPR, it put the actually English actors rather to shame.

Helena Bonham Carter fully embraced this opportunity to remind the world that she can do something besides feature in her crazy husband’s crazy movies – her start in the business was with English period dramas, and it is easy to see why. Michael Gambon (most lately of Harry Potter) and Jennifer Ehle (most notably of A&E’s Pride and Prejudice mini-series) play minor roles, but they are both excellent and memorable. Ehle’s (and Firth’s) P&P costar David Bamber is one of a group of renowned British actors who appear in the film in almost cameo-like capacities (others include Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom, and Timothy Spall).

Naturally, the two most notable performances come from the two key characters. Geoffrey Rush bears absolutely no resemblance to the creepy, oddball characters that have made up a good portion of his career in recent years. With his native Aussie accent at hand, he delivers Lionel Logue as an incredibly human character who has just enough of the oddball in him to make the insane methods he uses seem like believable choices.

And Colin Firth. What can I not say about Colin Firth’s performance in this movie. He is truly, truly great. If there were nothing else to recommend this movie (and, really, it is not nearly as lacking as I may have made it sound), his performance would be reason enough to see this film. I can give no higher compliment than that.

The King’s Speech is not a terrible movie. Nor is it a great one by any stretch of the imagination. There is potential for, with a few alterations to the script, a really excellent stage drama. (If only we could keep the same cast!) The story is such a great one; I just wish all the elements of the film had come together to tell the story in a way that does it any amount of justice.

Big Screen Brain: Black Swan

For the New Year, in an effort to encourage more Melted Brain productivity, I’m branching out to film. There will probably not be anywhere near as much film-related content as television-related content, because I don’t have that much to say about movies. But there will be a few fun new things. Like this.

After seeing this film, I found myself trying to define exactly what makes a “good” movie. I honestly cannot decide if Black Swan qualifies or not. It certainly is not destined to become a classic (I doubt it’ll last much beyond DVD release). But, the film achieves exactly what it aims to achieve, and it does that to perfection.

The entire point of Black Swan is to disturb the viewer on a fundamental level. It is not about the duality of beauty/brutality in ballet. It’s not about any kind of duality, although director Darren Aronofsky tries really hard to trick you into thinking that it is. Black Swan exists for the sole purpose of freaking people out. And it does that exceedingly well. This film is a veritable masterpiece of mindfuckery.

The achievement is in the visual and auditory effects. Clint Mansell‘s original score and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” are combined with musical hints of terror straight out of a teenage slasher film to create a soundtrack of elegance and horror. If I were the type to have deep, analytical thoughts about things, I might say something along the lines of “The soundtrack is mixed and moderated to be perfectly in tune with the visual elements and the emotional material; it adds a certain dimension of participation to the film, giving the audience a sense of becoming lost in the music much the way the disturbed ballerina protagonist is encouraged to do.” If I were the type to say that sort of thing.

Black Swan‘s visual side is also excellent. The color choice in the film – mostly combined blacks and whites, as you might imagine – is distinctive and fitted to the mood of each scene. Costuming for the plainclothes portions of the film was given just as much attention and importance as the extraordinary ballet costumes, and the ballet makeup is phenomenal to the point where it draws attention to itself. My favorite visual element of the entire film is Nina’s (Natalie Portman) bedroom. It is childlike, and appears to be girlish and pink and almost freakishly innocent at the beginning. But as the film progresses and becomes increasingly more disturbing, the room changes. Except it doesn’t. The same elements are there the entire time, but the brown and pink floral comforter seems to veer closer and closer to black and white. The large stuffed animals begin to loom. As the viewer’s understanding of the warped surreality increases, the perception of the room changes from “Aww, what a sweet little girl bedroom!” to “Oh My God it’s a pedophile prison.” That is a sort of visual excellence that stands on its own enough that I could watch this movie in another language and not understand a thing, but I’d still get a sense of the mood and enjoy watching.

I wish I could say there was no weak link in the visual elements, but I can’t. Because there was one visual element that embodies the weakest link of the entire film.

Dear filmmaking industry,
Just because the technology is available does not mean you have to use CGI in everything.
Love,
Melted Brain

Seriously, the CGI almost ruined it for me. Black Swan incorporates a whole fleet of amazing cutting and editing tricks involving mirrors and multiple Natalie Portmans and changing faces and all sorts of fun things like that. But for some reason someone decided that wasn’t enough. And so we are treated to the mysterious floating macro-goosebumps of craziness (or possibly arousal), to Nina sprouting and growing feathers in the middle of a ballet, to Mila Kunis‘ clearly cliche back tattoo (which a ballerina wouldn’t actually be able to have and work with anyway) which mutates mysteriously during sex, to the most incongruous part of the entire film: the creepy photo room that screams and cries and actually looks more like the pseudo-cartoonish opening sequence of Sweeney Todd more than anything else – actually, now that I think about it, there is also a certain resemblance to the moving-eye portraits in Scooby Doo… . Anyway. All of it is slightly ridiculous, only moderately well-done, and completely unnecessary. BUT. It does exactly what it is supposed to do: it confounds and confuses and profoundly creeps-out. So my dilemma continues.

One part of this film that I will absolutely qualify as good is the acting. The cast is phenomenal, although I believe the true highlights are the performances that garnered less pre-release attention. Certainly, Natalie Portman delivers. Her performance is absolutely stunning. Not only does she make a semi-credible ballerina (at least in the eyes of non-ballerinas), but she also masters both the frighteningly childish and the frighteningly sinful. I can think of only one line in the entire movie where I was aware of Natalie Portman rather than of her character and, well, that wasn’t her fault. It’s just that someone really wanted to foreshadow the lesbian sex with a female genitalia joke and no matter how much she tries, clearly Natalie Portman is too aware of it to completely convince an audience that virginal, innocent Nina is not.

My major actor props go to the supporting cast, though. And not to Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder either. Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel are brilliant in this film. Mila Kunis’ Lily is about the only thing that keeps Black Swan from being totally awful. She is scripted to bring in just enough humor to break up the dark madness; Mila Kunis took that and completely embodied to the role to make it larger than its initial purpose. Everytime she left the screen, I was sad to see her go. But she isn’t my favorite performance of the film. Vincent Cassel is completely amazing. Com-plete-ly a-maze-ing. He managed to hit just the perfect note. The character of Thomas Leroy could easily have been a one-note of creeper or a one-note of self-obsessed-director. But Vincent Cassel manages to embody both of those, and then other dimensions as well. At the beginning of the film, he makes a perfect creep. By the end of the film, he has shown just enough other sides to make you wonder if he was even all that creepy in the first place. Plus he’s French, which never hurts.

Black Swan is undoubtedly an artistic film. It is beautiful to watch, beautiful to hear, and appropriately disturbing. But is it good?

Even after getting some analysis written, I still can’t decide. The story is weak at best (and just short of moronic at worst). The Beth (Winona Ryder) character seems completely unnecessary. The film fails to find an appropriate balance between explaining too much and explaining too little, leaving the audience with the clear understanding that Nina is completely batshit, but also with a whole boatload of questions about why or how or what. Potential storylines or subtleties involving Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) or her anorexia are completely skimmed over to the point where one wonders why they were included in the first place. Thinking back on the film through a critical lens, the whole thing appears absurd and poorly managed and, well, bad.

Except that it isn’t. Because even though there are parts of it that make absolutely no sense, the film does not fail in anyway, least of all it’s primary goal. The desired effect is achieved. It disturbs the audience, plants questions in their minds, and inspires consideration and reflection that is, at least in my case, longwinded and ongoing. And what makes a film “good” (which we will define for the moment as “a successful piece of art”) if not success in provoking thought?

Your mom is a rhetorical question.

(Fun fact for Human Target fans: Janet Montgomery – Ames – is also in this film. She’s one of the ballerinas. Apparently they only cast brunettes with good bone structure.)