It's close to a religious thrall, the way I used to be, and the way many of us still are, beholden to the Oscars. To this day, a nomination still tends to bear the weight of benediction, doing wonders for, say, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone in that it's lured people who wouldn't normally bother with bleak, doomy backwoods indies about poor people who hunt squirrels and cook meth with no movie stars in them to at least think of giving it a whirl the way they would the trendy new Pixar. That wears off after awards night, of course. Unless it wins, which it won't, and not because it isn't any good.

My own private ardor had sunk to what I rather charitably coined as "nonchalant curiosity" by the time I covered the awards in a piece back in 2009. It's since deteriorated to indifference. I wish I could say I willfully evaded last year's ceremonies like I had some cause to flag-wave, but I just plumb forgot about it. I came around to watching and liking and in some cases loving The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds and Up and A Serious Man, sure, but that's more from my love for their resident auteurs. And to this day, I still haven't seen Avatar. Or Up In The Air. Or The Blind Side. Or Precious Based On The Novel "Push" by Sapphire - - - and how about that title, eh? I don't sense any gap in my cinema IQ from not having seen them. And I don't feel any serious hurry to do so. I suspect I will, at some point - - -well maybe not The Blind Side. But that's if my procrastination doesn't wilt my resolve. Or if other films don't distract me.

Despite remaining immune to the wholesale clairvoyance and frothing in the mouth and wetting of panties this time of year tends to fan to a flame, I did get around to seeing nearly all of the 2011 nominees and not for research. It helps that people I actually like - - -Aronofsky, Fincher, the Coens - - -figured in the running with work I would've come to regardless if they were up for trophies or not, probably more so if they weren't. Except for The Social Network and, to a lesser degree, the derivative and overrated but rather wily and fun Inception, which are missing because I've spoken about them at length here and here, respectively, and have run out of anything worthwhile to add about either of them, the other nominees that are not here are merely ones I could not seek out in time, but if I muster the stamina, will do so and will probably, probably, dash off a second piece.

Black Swan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin

Aronofsky does take a lascivious glee in the spectacular disintegration of a beautiful woman here, but it's not so much Repulsion in a tutu as it is a Dario Argento giallo in the way a conspiratorial malice slithers in its deep-focus shadows and the way the soap is blown up past operatic thresholds to the brink of hysteria and often spilling over into the ridiculous, as if going haywire on a meth of its own making. Natalie Portman is splendidly over-the-top as a one-woman vortex of paranoid niggle and whiny damage, her coming undone aided and abetted by her flippant rival ballerina (Mila Kunis) and her fucked-up self-immolating idol (Winona Ryder) and her demented stage mother (Barbara Hershey) and her demonically horny director (Vincent Cassell). She's also besieged by hallucinations, that, if anything, point to the phantasmagoric cocktease in Aronofsky. When the otherness intrudes, and it intrudes often but only once as exquisitely as I'd like, they don't so much pierce as merely sheath things in a gauze of displacement that lack the seeping disquiet of consequence, like overripe dream sequences, which is how the whole thing tends to sort of feel the further in you get, toeing the line of perversity that Polanski, or indeed Argento, would have gleefully, dangerously criss-crossed several times over, and making Aronofsky that sort of a cocktease,too - - -except perhaps for the sequence where Natalie pleasures herself which does end up getting rudely interrupted but also ends up creepier and funnier than if he'd merely let her finish. Which is not to say that the punches he pulls betray his aesthetic, he's always been a bit of a cocktease, Darren, and his cinema of obsession was always hornier for the milieus all that obsessive turmoil heightens and infects, and if it finds a kindred garishness in Ken Russell, Black Swan is still very much of a piece with everything else he's done. All that corrosive, corroded opulence? You could say it's positively Aronofskyesque. * * *

The King's Speech
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by David Seidler

The reluctant king-in-waiting with a profound stammer may not be a cliche in and of itself, but the misfit speech therapist who not only helps him overcome his handicap but discover himself in the process is, and their tag-teaming turns our conflicted royalty into just another noble soul with a social impediment and the bonding that transpires between them into a lockstep of guru-grasshopper cliche and rehash. Little here goes against the grain and everything is wrung through a historical confection in which everyone is smoothened into such impossibly likable shapes that even Hitler comes off as just some cranky old nut. But it's so dogged in its enthusiasm to please it's practically altruistic, making it a task to dismiss, or at least dismiss with too much snark. The moderately snide Karate Kid comparisons someone somewhere made are as far as I'll go myself, even if they're a bit inaccurate given how Karate Kid is the slightly better film, if only out of how we never saw Miyagi's reveal coming the way we could sort of see Lionel Logue's, not that he has much of a reveal up his sleeve anyway. What does somewhat relieve its lack of capacity to surprise and will to misbehave is Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce and the way the vibrant gusto of their faith in the material enlivens if not emboldens it. Amiable and harmless,then, and by that measure, poised to win the main trophy of the night by a landslide. * *

True Grit
Directed and Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Based on the Novel by Charles Portis

Not that Henry Hathaway had anything as subversive in mind as a genre inversion but in zeroing in as he did on John Wayne setting his icon on fire as the cantankerous Rooster Cogburn, his True Grit unwittingly tapped into a minor vein of meta, tweaking its quaint hokiness into the mildly compulsive sensation of watching John Wayne play John Wayne not playing John Wayne, something like that. If True Grit were John Wayne's last film, it would have been as if he was sending off his myth, and in many ways that's what it was, the first increment of a drawn-out last bow. Bereft as it is of Coen mannerisms, nothing quite as cannily self-reflexive prevails in their remake, which installs Jeff Bridges into Rooster Cogburn's britches and draws as much from the psychological charge of Anthony Mann as it does the otherworldly minimalism of Monte Hellman. But the way they stick close to the contours of the Charles Portis novel is deceptively reverential, given how its universe centers around the Halie Stainfield character, possessed of a tenacity beyond her teenage years borne neither from a sense of duty nor a squandered bravado nor even from paternal love and righteous indignation and the desire to see a murdered parent avenged but rather from an almost matriarchal and ostensibly female determinism, making it an inversion off the bat. The cowboy picture, after all, is the perpetual chick flick antithesis, it's a man's man's man's man's world, and the male presences here, be it Bridges' imploded crank or Matt Damon's robust professional, are quite galvanic. But for all its sinew and crag and gravity and macho bluster and ominous bursts of carnage, and for all the imposing and rigorous maleness of its title, True Grit is mostly languor and grace, shot through as it is with the spiritual fervor and melancholic temperament of its lone female. She does catch up with her father's killer, we know that. And frontier justice, in the doling out, is all anticlimax and muffled catharsis, because from a young girl's POV, there is no code to live up to here, no machismo to reinforce, just a woman's work done. But at a steeper price, it turns out, than anyone bargained for. Where the first True Grit was a cock-eyed ballad to heroism and redemption, this one is, ultimately, an autumnal hymn to regret, one whose poisons sharpen when we get to the eerie, sombre epilogue. No country for old men, all that. Over that heartbreaking final image, stoic and resolute and embodying the title as to almost be its eponym, she intones the even more heartbreaking final line: "Time just gets away from us." That it does. More than it ever did and moreso for some than for others.* * * *


Richard said...

I understand where you're coming from regarding King's Speech, but I think it's a very good film, not to mention predictable, nevertheless, something which most recent movies lack: that knack for easy stride, laced with the usual hero's path of obstacle-overcoming mushiness. I'd have it over Black Swan any day.

dodo dayao said...

It's hard not to like. And I liked it, after a fashion. ( Colin Firth's breakdown scene was touching and made me tear up some but then again so did Hollywood Week on American Idol. ) I do get easy stride as an appeal but I sort of get that from most (Asian) pop movies. This one lost me in the third act,though.

rico said...

Do, you must really like Aronofsky to mention him in the same breath as Ken Russell! Russell was a genuine madman and a bona fide virtuoso with visuals. Check out THE DEVILS today and you'll see shot composition and design way, way ahead of its time, man. Granted, Aronofsky has the hotter ex-wife, he, he. Good that you're sticking to your resolution of writing more often! :)

dodo dayao said...

Aronofsky was channeling a bit of Russell's often wondrous, wild tendency for over-the-top mischief (tempered only in Altered States and Lair of the White Worm). But he's channeling Argento more (or maybe Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, but then Kon was channeling Argento,too). The worst thing you can do with Black Swan,I think, is come to it with a straight face,which is what many people did. That's also the worst thing you can do with a Ken Russell film, if you think about it, or indeed an Argento film. Style is substance and all that.

And yeah, let's hope this burst of writing energy keeps. For the sake of my three ardent readers: you,Chard and Noel. :D

dodo dayao said...

Oh. And for the record, not that big a fan of Aronofsky. Didn't think much of Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler.

But I liked Pi. And I think The Fountain is flat-out fantastic, wet and messy and wonderful. I have high hopes for his Wolverine.

rico said...

Ha, ha! C'mon, no need to be so modest when you write as well as you do.

On the contrary, I think a LOT of people, including fellow direks, absolutely loved SWAN. Meaning, whatever approach or attitudes they took with them beforehand, it obviously worked and clicked. I would not put Aronofsky in the company of filmmakers you mentioned because those guys were the complete antitheses of being "industry animals," of which, I think, DA can be comfortably categorized as belonging to. Example: Indie-- but still costing several millions. Slightly perverse-- but not disgustingly so. Visually adventurous-- but not too audacious to be off-putting. Ey, it worked obviously-- the Oscar nods proof enough.

dodo dayao said...

Agree. Aronofsky seemed to either be pulling his punches or that's really as far as he can go, aesthetically and at this point in his career.He's obviously channeling and at the very least has good taste with regard to who he's channeling. :) (Argento should be given a renaissance. After being referenced here and in Perfect Blue and by Ridley Scott in Hannibal and Polanski himself in Ninth Gate, his ouevre seems ripe for re-examining. Same goes for Russell,too.) I liked the bit where Natalie physically changes into a black swan but I wish the bit with Mila and the dressing room mirror turned out different, as it would've raised the stakes higher.

This is all nitpicking, of course, given that I had fun watching it. I love Mickey Rourke and all but I prefered this over The Wrestler, for a slew of reasons, some of which have little to do with filmmaking and more with prefering Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman and even a wasted Winona Ryder over Rourke any day. :)

rico said...

Do, sensya, nasobrahan ata ako sa kape, pare. Yup, agreed as well. And like you said-- pulling his punches and avoiding hitting the wrong notes has paid off BIG time for him: he's doing the next Wolverine! Like the Jam said-- this is the modern world (more like "corporate" world!). And the majority are just trying to keep the status quo or maintain their place in the food chain or improve one rung up in the ladder. Hollywood direks included. So when a genuine crazy, talented guy like Verhoeven actually makes something fresh and wildly imaginative within the giant Hollywood blockbuster system, be it, ROBOCOP or STARSHIP TROOPERS, then parang anomaly lang yun. Then again, astig rin yun WAR OF THE WORLDS ni Spielberg, he, he. Sige, salamat sa last post. :)

dodo dayao said...

Haha. No prob, men. Thinking about Aronofsky, the last time he really went insane and pushed the envelope,in my mind, was The Fountain, which bombed and was crucified by the critics but which I think is his finest work and have faith will have its day in the sun, like Bladerunner and Marquee Moon did. Terribly curious what he'll bring to the table when he does Wolverine. But I wish he'd bust loose on his version of Noah's Ark instead.

Speaking of Robocop,though, Aronofsky was supposed to helm the reboot. Apparently it's now in the hands of Brazilian director Jose Padilha, who directed Elite Squad and Bus 174, in a move that smacks of what MGM did when they gave the project to a crazy Dutch filmmaker many years back, which did pay off for Verhoeven but he's since gone back home to make movies there, which is also what sort of happened with John Woo and,indeed, Ken Russell. It's probably too overromanticized to say that their wild energy just couldn't be contained by the rigid Hollywood system but could be that's the bottom line. You do get people like Cuaron and Del Toro, who shuffle between two worlds without losing the edge on either, but those that do secure positions for themselves within the system, the Wolfgang Petersens and Renny Harlins and Roland Emmerichs, were never wild, crazy visionaries to begin with.

dodo dayao said...

I'm not sure if this has anything to do with anything but I remember talking with John Sayles when he was here, and one of the things that struck me was his disbelief that we can make movies in two weeks here, and rather competent ones at that. i mean, here was this independent filmmaker, who's worked on the cheap for most of his career and who's also done significant time under Roger Corman's aegis, but seems beholden to what I've always felt was a very rigid style of working. There was an interview with Kirk Wong when he was doing The Big Hit and he was talking about how his fundamental disconnect with Hollywood was how slow and cumbersome the working process of American mainstream movies were, which was not what they were used to in Hong Kong apparently, where shootings are fierce and fast and prolific. And both Jon Woo and hell even Robert Rodriguez reportedly pissed off their Hollywood crews because they worked so fast they couldn't keep up, and with an utter disregard for protocol at that.