Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Two Recent Movies: The King's Speech, 127 Hours

The King's Speech is the kind of bland, innocuous dram that's easy to like while watching it and easy to forget in two days.  In the story of King George VI who must overcome his severe stammer in order to give a speech to rally Britain for World War II, everything just happens exactly the way you'd expect it to.  It hits all the story beats movies like this always hit--the teacher and student who initially don't get along but learn to become friends, the odd training techniques, the point where the student almost gives up, the point where the teacher is revealed to be not exactly who the student thought him to be and accusations fly, the final triumph in the end which is not just successful on a public level but also personally, etc.--only this time, instead of being a movie about, say, an elementary school spelling bee it's about the fate of the free world.  The film doesn't really focus on the fate of the free world that much, though, and the political machinations in the run-up to war are skated over pretty quickly (unlike in The Queen, which gained much of its value from the inside-look at politics under Tony Blair).  I would imagine that the actual political infighting between the king and his ministers would be a good deal more exciting than this, and I'm sure the abdication crisis was a much bigger deal even than presented here, with a great deal more family strife, but this isn't apparent in a movie focusing on taming a stammer.  Actually, this is probably a good thing, for the supporting cast that plays Churchill, Chamberlain, and the Archbishop is pretty dreadful.  Guy Pearce as Edward the Abdicator is pretty good, but he isn't given much to do.  Fortunately, the three central characters of George VI, the Queen, and elocution teacher Lionel Logue are all played remarkably well by Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush respectively.  Actually, Carter doesn't have all that much to do either, but she does it perfectly, so no complaints.  The film rests, then, entirely on the relationship of the two men, the soon-to-be king and his tutor, and this works pretty well, it must be said.  Rush is wonderful as the witty, eccentric Logue who still nurses dreams of acting Shakespeare on the stage, and Firth is emotional and empathetic as a man whose disability leaves him feeling inferior and frustrated and embarrassed nearly constantly.  Their eventual friendship is warm and believable, and it would take a true cynic not to feel for both men.  There is also a rich vein of humor which flows through the film which helps to keep things from getting too sappy, and certainly not boring.

Director Tom Hooper deserves credit for getting these performances and managing the tone pretty successfully, but he also has the annoying tic of framing everything in the most awkwardly artsy manners possible.  He keeps shooting people straight on using wide lenses against strangely colored walls, suggesting a blander Wes Anderson, or shoving people way over into the corner of frames, while filling up the rest of the frames with, again, strangely colored walls.  I guess he was trying to avoid the British cinema-of-quality look, but it just comes off sort of awkward and forced, not adding anything.

Rating: 7/10 stars. (I almost gave it a 6, but what the heck, I'm feeling generous.)

127 Hours
I have not seen all of Danny Boyle's output to this point--in particular I am missing his acclaimed 28 Days Later.  But from what I have seen, he is an always-interesting, always-exciting director who has yet to make a truly great film, and perhaps never will.  His movies are shot with relentless stylistic excess--a constantly moving camera, wild angles, fast cutting, and lots of pop music.  They feel like music videos, but they lack the ambience and feeling of someone like Wong Kar-Wai, whose films also feel like music videos, but with brilliance in every frame.  Instead, Boyle's movies are relentlessly kinetic and always watchable, but thematically murky and no more thoughtful than the average Hollywood drama.  This inescapable style of his means he probably wasn't the best choice to helm the tense, claustrophobic story of a man stuck in a crevasse in the desert for five days.

From the beginning, Boyle fills the screen with flashy, quick moving images.  He splits the screen, uses time lapse photography, aerial zoom-in shots, etc.  This is fine as far as it goes, but it feels like this is a movie about the Tour de France rather than a tight, life-or-death struggle.  This style will not let up for more than a few seconds for the rest of the film, and it takes away a lot of the tension and all of the claustrophobia of the ensuing events. Fortunately, the ensuing events are so horrifying and fascinating that the audience remains rapt. James Franco plays Aron Ralston, an adventurous rock-climber type who dislodges a boulder while clambering through a ravine and suddenly finds himself stuck, with little food and water and no rescue coming.  Eventually, he has to cut his arm off to free himself.  Franco is excellent here, giving essentially a one-man performance for much of the film that never comes close to feeling boring or repetitive.  Of course, this is partly because Boyle's camera can't sit still and there are so many dream/memory/hallucination sequences that take us out of the hole, but Franco still deserves credit.  And despite the fact that Boyle denies us ever sharing the feeling of being stuck along with Franco, and shows pretty much all his escape attempts in fast forward so we don't become bored (not that we were going to), he still does at least three scenes right that save the movie.

First, when Ralston first dislodges the boulder and traps himself, the music falls away and we are suddenly forced to share his shock and growing fear as he realizes his arm is wedged immovably.  The oddness of the moment is allowed to speak for itself, as Ralston is standing on the ground, the rest of his body fine, with only his arm caught by the rock.  He should be able to just walk away, but he can't, and we his growing terror is horrifying.  Second, Boyle gives us a scene in the center of the film that shows Ralston talking into his camcorder and recording what are likely to be his last thoughts on earth (something the real Ralston also did).  Franco interrogates himself about his own stupidity, mocking his own faults and failures, while a sitcom laugh-track plays, before finally breaking down and telling his family how much he loves them and will miss them.  The scene is powerful and emotional, and Boyle's split-screen effects and shifting back and forth between camera stocks for once work perfectly to serve the story.  And finally, Boyle gets the amputation scene right.  It is without doubt one of the most painful things to watch onscreen that I have ever seen, and it is a much more difficult process than I ever imagined.  But it is also cathartic, and when it is finally finished, and Ralston stands suddenly, incongruously free of the boulder where he has been stuck all this time, it is a beautiful moment.  Of course, then he has to walk several miles to find help, but that is handled well, too, and the whole climactic sequence left me feeling hopeful and alive.

Rating: 7/10 stars