Friday, December 17, 2010


Three opening here in the Valley this weekend:

Colin Firth is a master—at the moment, he’s the master—of raw emotion behind a dour, reserved exterior. As a gay college professor in the early ‘60s in last year’s A Single Man, he had a scene on the telephone, learning of his lover’s death but unable to express his full grief, that may be the greatest piece of sustained acting confined to one shot I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The King’s Speech offers him another superb chance to be miserable behind a stuffy façade. In this lavish historical drama, he plays Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York, known to his family as Bertie & to history, very reluctantly, as King George VI of the U.K. High on the list of what made Bertie the Man Who Would Rather Not Be King was his severe stammer, which made public speaking—a frequent duty even as a junior prince—a terror for him. I’ve heard that many people rate the fear of giving a speech higher than the fear of death, & Firth makes Bertie look like he’d prefer death hands down.

But as royalty buffs & Anglophiles know, the abdication of Edward VIII, Bertie’s older brother, flipped the crown onto his head in 1936. Not long after, Hitler’s troops marched into Poland, & the new King found that his job description included the delivery not just of the occasional few words at a factory or public ceremony, but of eloquent, inspiring wartime oratory over the radio.

Through all of this, or so we’re told by this movie, the poor fellow was coached by a pioneering speech therapist named Lionel Logue, a self-taught Australian working & living with his wife & sons in shabby quarters on Harley Street. Logue, played here by Geoffrey Rush, had a familiar manner—it was part of his therapeutic method—& seemed stubbornly (though never discourteously) unimpressed by his patient’s rank, & this initially met cranky indignation from the Prince. But Logue’s methods got results, & eventually his kindness did too, & he & the shy, short-tempered royal gradually became friends.

Directed by Tom Hooper from a script by David Seidler (the ultimate source is a book by Logue’s grandson), The King’s Speech is a smooth, well-turned piece of high-end Masterpiece Theatre. The film offers a fair amount of pomp & pageantry, & a gallery of entertaining supporting performances, by, among others, Helena Bonham-Carter as the young Queen Mum, Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Guy Pearce as Edward, Eve Best as Wallis Simpson &, especially good, Michael Gambon as the cantankerous George V. The cinematography by Danny Cohen is rich, & there’s an almost distractingly beautiful score by Alexander Desplat.

Whether the ability of a monarch, by then an almost completely ceremonial figurehead, to deliver a speech well had any real importance in the grand scheme of 20th-Century history is debatable at best. The drama in The King’s Speech is more personal than political—for all its spectacle, it’s finally the story of a man struggling with an abusive childhood, & the wary bond he forms with the man who helps him. I would have liked the film to get a bit more specific on the pathology of stuttering, & of the nuts & bolts of Logue’s methods for curing it, but even without the details, the connection between the two leads makes the movie touching.

Rush, an actor not known for his underplaying, underplays Logue to great effect. He gives us a portrait of a pedant & frustrated Shakespearean who, though decent down to his bones, is also overconfident, slightly smug & by no means unambitious—dismissive as he is of titles, he isn’t above dropping hints about knighthood when his patient’s in a grateful mood. He doesn’t milk his sympathy for Bertie; when the King discloses some unhappy memory, you see it register in Logue’s eyes, but he knows very well that obvious pity will get him nowhere. It’s one of Rush’s best performances.

That said, The King’s Speech is finally Firth’s movie. There’s no whisper of the technical acting exercise to the performance—the rage & sadness & bewilderment that blaze in the King’s eyes & bubble up into his buzzing, gargling voice are so palpable that at times it feels almost improper to watch. Yet he has tender moments, too, as when he impersonates a penguin for his daughters. Firth makes his wounded George VI both a convincing psychological study & a fairy-tale king, under a terrible enchantment.

The true story of Micky Ward & his older half-brother Dicky Eklund forms the basis for The Fighter, an engrossing boxing melodrama. Dicky (Christian Bale), once the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts for going the distance in 1978 with Sugar Ray Leonard in one of the very few fights in which Leonard even briefly hit the floor, is now a pathetic crackhead.

Quiet, sweet-natured Micky (Mark Wahlberg) nonetheless keeps Dicky as his trainer, & their dominating mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who favors Dicky, as his manager, even though it means screwy, uneven match-ups in which Micky must allow himself to be pummeled so that his family can get a payday. The parallel storylines detail Dicky’s struggles with drugs & Micky’s struggle to break away from his family’s crazy influence & start a stable life with his tough-but-loving new girlfriend (Amy Adams).

Without any obvious use of old-movie tropes, The Fighter, however true, has an old-Hollywood feel, in a good way. The director, David O. Russell (of Three Kings) works with a loose, effortless style—his footwork is fast & fancy but not flashy. I loved, for instance, how the subtitle announcing a bout appeared on screen a second or so before he cut to the fight—just a detail, but it’s one of several strategies Russell uses to give the movie a splendid forward momentum. At least some effort is made to present the boxing with technical authenticity, & Russell has a fine touch with the actors, too, letting us enjoy the company of these people even when they’re behaving despicably.

Bale & Leo—& maybe Amy Adams, who seems delighted at the chance to swear & brawl—are all highly entertaining, & their flamboyance may overshadow Mark Wahlberg’s quiet excellence. His Micky ironically belies the movie’s title—he may be a boxer, but he’s a lover, not a fighter. He just wants the people he loves to get along. When Micky at last begins to assert himself, both in & out of the ring, it’s immensely satisfying.

One other note [minor “spoiler alert” here]: At the beginning of The Fighter, we see a TV documentary crew following Dicky around. We’re led to believe that the film they’re making is about his dreams of a comeback, but eventually we learn it’s about his crack addiction. When it airs, Dicky & his family are suddenly confronted with the squalor & wretchedness of his life, & the contempt in which their neighbors hold him, & they’re horrified & humiliated.

This is the mid-‘90s, & it occurred to me that these scenes show the difference that nearly two decades of “Reality TV” as a dominant form of American entertainment has made—nowadays, I’m not sure this film would embarrass its subjects. They’d just be glad it got them on TV.

In 1982, a generation of nerds got their minds blown by Disney’s Tron. This film made the fantasy of disappearing into the world inside your computer seductive, & said nerds have spent the last three decades doing their best to make it a reality.

I saw it back then, but while I was a certainly a nerd, I wasn’t a computer nerd, & very little of it stayed with me. This, combined with my already minimal grasp of computer-ese, may be why I felt a little lost at times during Tron: Legacy, the long-belated sequel.

In the new film, we learn that software designer hero Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared for real years earlier, leaving behind his young son Sam (as an adult, Garrett Hedlund). Disney’s standard psychological template firmly in place—mother gone & barely mentioned, father absent & yearned for—the story takes Sam into “The Grid,” a Dante-esque virtual world of anthropomorphic “Programs” perpetually engaged in gladiatorial fights & races. The Grid is now tyrannically ruled by Clu, a doppelganger of the young Bridges (some impressive computer trickery here).

Sam is rescued from this peril by a cyber-cutie, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who takes him into the wilderness Off the Grid. There he's reunited with his Dad, now middle-aged & living pretty comfortably with Quorra as his protégée. The three of them must then brave Clu & his forces to get back to the real world.

That’s about as coherently as I can summarize the plot. I didn’t really “get” Tron: Legacy, but I can’t deny that the neon-on-black palette of the Grid scenes gives it a spooky visual beauty, & that the elder incarnation of Bridges, now robed & bearded like Obi-wan Kenobi, gives a fine, relaxed performance, despite the banal dialogue he’s stuck with. He brings the only heart to Tron: Legacy—otherwise, it’s like watching the world’s longest Super Bowl commercial. It’s made with craft & artistry & even visionary imagination, but the movie’s emotional core feels as simulated as the setting.

Director Blake Edwards, whose career spanned from Breakfast at Tiffany’s & The Great Race to the Pink Panther movies to Victor/Victoria & the underrated Hollywood satire S.O.B., has passed on at 88. RIP.

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