So here's the thing,
I first became aware of "the Facebook movie" when it was announced that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin had joined Facebook as part of research for the film. Most people reacted to this news with bemusement at the idea of a Facebook movie, but not me: Sorkin is a genuinely talented writer (at least when he's not using his writing to settle personal scores), and if he thought that the creation of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg was a story that's worth telling, there must be something there. I was more curious about the idea of Sorkin having a Facebook page - Sorkin rather famously went onto the internet and engaged with fans once before (it didn't end well), and even Sorkin's announcement about his Facebook account (which stated that Sorkin's long-dead grandmother has more internet savvy than he does) implies that the common suggestion that "Sorkin hates the internet" may not be that far from the truth. All this had me waiting for Sorkin's entry into the world of Facebook to explode.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) there were no notable disasters coming out of Sorkin's Facebook account, and when David Fincher became attached to the project as director, my interest really shot up. Fincher is one of the most vital filmmakers working today: Se7en and Fight Club are two of the highpoints for filmmaking in the 90s, and the phenomenal Zodiac marked a maturation in the director's style, as he became less focused on show-off stylisations and more focused on simple storytelling and characterisation. My excitement rose even further as we started to see glimpses of the film - especially the film's main trailer, which frankly moved from mere promotional material to standing as a compelling work of art in its own right. (There were a number of times when I would watch and rewatch that trailer five or six times in a row, in awe of how just perfectly constructed it is.)
And then I saw the film.
(Comments on The Social Network, along with this year's other nine Best Picture Oscar nominees - The King's Speech, Black Swan, True Grit, The Fighter, Inception, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, The Kids Are All Right, and Winter's Bone - follow after the jump.)
With that level of anticipation, it would have been so easy to be disappointed by The Social Network - if anything, it would have been difficult for a film to live up to my expectations - but instead, I was astonished, invigorated. Sorkin and Fincher have taken one of the least cinematic ideas for a movie - the creation of a website - and turned it into one of the most alive pieces of cinema in the year. Just look at the early sequence where Mark Zuckerberg creates the Facemash website. All that happens is a guy hacks into a number of private Harvard websites, steals some photographs, and then makes a website. But as shot by Fincher and edited by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, counter-pointing sequences of debauchery from the final club with the initial events that would lead to the creation of a worldwide final club, with Zuckerberg's own words (apparently taken from his actual blog posting from that night) narrating events, and the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross providing a propulsive tone, it's utterly thrilling.
The dialogue from Sorkin's pen is on par with some of his best work on The West Wing. This is a film about intelligent people, and Sorkin's delight in being able to write for them is clear. This is particularly true of Zuckerberg, who is presented as being so constantly focused on a multitude of issues that he's always five steps ahead in the conversation, at times taking a while to realise the conversation he's in isn't the one he thought he was in. What's particularly impressive is just how compelling Zuckerberg is as a character. There's been a lot of discussion about the level of truth in the film, and in particular in the portrayal of Zuckerberg, but, while I do have sympathy for the man (after all, public perception of him will for the rest of his life be shaped by Eisenberg's performance), issues of strict truth or accuracy are irrelevant, even in a film ostensibly based on a true story. Zuckerberg's recent appearance on SNL may have demonstrated just how far Eisenberg's performance of the character might be from reality, but I'd rather have Eisenberg's great performance as it exists than one that holds closer to the real Zuckerberg.
And the movie Zuckerberg is, as Erica points out in the brilliant first scene, an asshole. He's not the villain of the film (that role is pretty unambiguously given to Sean Parker, presented as the devil himself in a smarmy performance by Justin Timberlake), but he is cocky and arrogant, he lies, he hides information, and he's constantly determined to prove himself the smartest person in the room. Yet he remains sympathetic throughout. And I think that may be because of the duelling perspectives of screenwriter and director. Sorkin the internet-hater clearly seems to dislike Zuckerberg and the world that he has been instrumental in creating, but Fincher, who never met a technology he didn't immediately want to play with, seems to approach the character with a lot more sympathy and understanding. And that all leaves the film's view of the character rather ambiguous - in a good way. It's astonishing just how differently people view Zuckerberg following the film, almost as if the character has become a Rorschach test, with your perception of the man saying less about who he is and more about who you are.
There's very little gratuitous showing-of by Fincher as a filmmaker. The camera never travels through any coffee-mug handles. Instead, there's only one stylistically noticeable scene - the great moment where the Winklevoss twins row in the Henley regatta, and the scene is presented almost as a series of impressions. But other than that, it's just a skilfully constructed film. Right from the opening scene, where Zuckerberg is dumped by Erica Albright, we can see just how great the direction is. I've heard reports that the Sorkin script was too long for a two-hour film but, rather than cutting the script, Fincher just told his actors to speak faster. I don't know if that's true, but the opening scene certainly feels like it. And the shooting and editing of the film has that pace as well - apparently there are 114 separate shots in the scene, which give the otherwise standard talky-breakup scene remarkable urgency. It challenges the audience, tells them that they'll need to work to keep up with Zuckerberg, and then having put the audience in that mindset eases up a little bit to actually make the film accessible. (In some ways, it reminded me of Moulin Rouge!, which was also deliberately assaultive in the opening sequences to force the audience out of complacency.) But while the film does settle down in later scenes, it never becomes dull. Instead, there's a constant urgent motion, as well as a sense of inevitability, that pulls the film forward. This is heightened by Sorkin's decision to frame the story with scenes from depositions hearings in the two major lawsuits that arose out of the film's events. It gives the film an added tension, reminding us of the massive commercial and personal consequences of Zuckerberg's every choice.
(EDIT 4 March 2011: I just came across this excellent article that analyses exactly how Fincher's direction works, and just how skillfully-crafted the film is. And yet Fincher did not win the Best Directing Oscar. Stupid Academy.)
Everyone's talked about the performances in the film, and that's understandable. Jesse Eisenberg is nominated for Best Actor, and deservedly so. What's surprising is the lack of nominations for anyone else. Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Max Minghella, even Rooney Mara in the small but pivotal role of Erica Albright, all give compelling performances and manage to give a natural flow to Sorkin's dialogue. Of particular note is Armie Hammer, who created the Winklevoss twins thanks to some remarkable face-replacement work. Fincher has clearly stopped the excessive camera moves to show off his technical know-how, and instead moved to uses of cinema technology that are simultaneously more impressive and more subtle than anything he once tried. The face-replacement in this film is a flawless technological achievement that never once seems fake or unreal. But it doesn't work without skilled actors able to convince that these are two separate characters, and Armie Hammer (working closely with Josh Pence, who gave an acting job that was only ever seen on set) does great work. Not only is each character identifiable as their own person, we also get performances that feel real, that convince as actual people, and never feel constrained by the technological needs involved in the doubling. It's an impressive performance by Hammer, largely because it actually feels like acting, not a special effect.
The thing I was relieved by, given my concerns about Sorkin writing the film, was how little attention was actually paid to the internet in the film. There's really only one moment when Sorkin actually gives voice to his views about the online world: when Erica makes it clear how much Mark hurt her with what he wrote on his blog, commenting "You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that's what the angry do nowadays." (I disagree - I will myself admit to being an angry person, but right now I'm writing this while sitting in my lounge with the lights on.) Other than that moment, sure, there are inevitably scenes where people huddle around the computer, but this isn't a film about websites or the internet. This is a film about class, about envy, about empty success, and about the tragedy of close friendships being destroyed by the lure of money. The business may happen to be Facebook, but this is a story about human emotions and people behaving the same way they always have. It's one of the most essential films of the year, and one of the most thrilling.
At the start of the Oscar race, The Social Network was the presumptive winner. But in the past few weeks, the tide has turned, relegating the Fincher film behind The King's Speech. Looking at the film, I was a bit dubious - a film about a stammering king and his speech therapist? A film where (as Mark Kermode has pointed out) the happy ending is the completion of a speech declaring that England will be at war for the next six years? Having seen the film, I'm not convinced it deserves the title of Best Picture, but it is definitely a good film, and much better than I was ever expecting.
Most people accept that the Best Actor Oscar will be going to Colin Firth, and that's absolutely understandable - it's an excellent performance, and his stammering king has been pitched perfectly. He never goes overboard with a th-th-th-thing; instead, it's almost more like a halting hesitation, where it's a struggle to even start to get the words out. But not only does Firth provide a subtle but convincing speech disability, he communicates the absolute terror that the disability inflicts, the paralysing fear that takes hold of the speaker, and how that heightens his difficulties. And you get a good sense of how this problem infects every aspect of his life - it's one thing for the stammer to affect him when he's addressing the nation, and another thing entirely when it hits him as he's playing with his daughters. But there's a lot else going on in the character - there's the reluctant monarch element, his inherent shyness, his anger at his brother for abandoning his responsibilities and running off with that American woman, his sharp intelligence, the growing awareness of the oncoming war, and the complicated relationship between the king and his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush, who is good, but a little overly eccentric tending toward comedic in the role). And the great thing about Firth's performance is that he never gets bogged down in the stammer. Many actors will lose track of the totality of a character when they focus on a particular showy aspect of the performance, but there's never any doubt that Firth is portraying a fully-rounded individual.
I did like the way the film approaches the issue of stammering so seriously. Speech disabilities are something that, on the rare occasion that we do see them on-screen, is usually played for laughs, and so in some ways it was disorienting to see the issue played so seriously. The script addresses the problem with insight, exploring not just the consequences of the problem on George VI himself, but also the burdens created by changes in media, and how essential it was for Britain as a whole that he overcome the problem. And when the film reaches that final wartime declaration address, I was surprised to find that he wasn't cured of his stammer - it's still there, quite noticeably. It's just that he's now equipped to work through it. Which to me seemed like a more honest portrayal of what must have happened than one would normally expect in a movie portrayal.
The film is certainly solidly-made. Director Tom Hooper is a relative newcomer, although he has worked on several well-received projects previously. And he does a functional, but unspectacular, job, although there is something of a sense that he may have just sat back, watched, and avoided getting in the way of his actors (which is easy to do with actors of this calibre), and a few moments where he seems to make strange decisions to force a visual style that doesn't really work. The film is well-written: surprisingly well-written in fact, given that the screenwriter's previous highest-profile work in his 20-plus year career was the late-90s cartoon version of The King And I (the one where the schoolteacher falls in love with the king AND fights an evil wizard) as well as the TV movie Come On, Get Happy: The Partridge Family Story.
The problem with the film is that it is one of those films that seems to have been made in a calculated way to get Oscar attention. Every year, we get films like The Queen or Atonement or The Reader, where you can tell the movie exists, at least in part, because the producers want to stand on the stage of the Kodak Theatre, and they think this is the vehicle that will allow them to achieve that dream. Now I'm not saying these Oscar-bait films are necessarily bad (although The Reader was); indeed, sometimes they can be really good (I was surprised just how much I liked Atonement, for one). But you can see that the films aren't just being made because the producers believe in the story. In the case of The King's Speech, it's an inspirational true story, it's a film about a man overcoming his disability, it's about the British royalty, and it's about World War II - four aspects that, in and of themselves, the Academy has shown itself to be partial to. When combined into a single film, and presented with a nice "prestige film" sheen, it's the nearest thing to a sure-fire Oscar winner. And that's unfortunate.
Look, I'm not saying The King's Speech is a bad film; it's a pretty good film, I walked out of the film happy, was glad to have seen it, and actually learnt a few things. Afterwards I looked at a friend's copy of a commemorative publication dating back to George VI's coronation, which (since I usually have no interest in royalty) I found fascinating solely because I had enjoyed the film. But best film of the year? Never. In five years time, I'm not going to be thinking about the film. When I'm watching the 2016 Oscars, and they have the Best Picture winners montage, I'll see The King's Speech listed and think "I had forgotten that film even existed; I think I remember liking it." And then I'm going to think "But The Social Network really should have won."
My five-year-old niece is learning ballet. And, by all accounts, she has some talent for dancing (allowing for the fact that she is only five) - at least, I know that she was moved up to the "proper" ballet class earlier than they normally do. And so, as a family, we are all very encouraging of her in her love of ballet and very proud of her. But watching Black Swan, I'm not sure that this is something to encourage. I don't think the ballet world is entirely healthy.
I've enjoyed Darren Aronofsky's films ever since seeing his first film π at the 1999 Film Festival. Requiem For A Dream is a striking movie that somehow manages to be beautiful even while exploring all the nightmarish degradations the characters undergo. I'm one of those who genuinely loves The Fountain - an incredible, moving, visually-stunning film that is one of the most gorgeous Blu-Ray discs I own. And even if I was a little disappointed by The Wrestler, feeling it was a film of great performances and striking direction let down by an unsurprising script, it's still a very good film. So I was always going to be excited about seeing Black Swan. And I like the fact that he made The Wrestler and Black Swan one after the other. The Wrestler is the story of a man who constantly abuses his body in the pursuit of one of the most base forms of entertainment; Black Swan is the story of a woman who does the same in the pursuit of great art. And the style of the two films are strongly influenced by their respective subject matters: The Wrestler has a seedy realism appropriate for a world where people beat each other to a bloody pulp, while Black Swan embraces the over-the-top melodrama, theatricality, and artifice that is present in ballet and opera.
(To be honest, I wrote the last couple of sentences thinking it was an original point, only to later realise that I had some months ago read Aronofsky himself make much the same point in an interview, where he also revealed that the two films had their origins in a single project about a love affair between a wrestler and a ballet dancer.)
Natalie Portman provides the centre of the film as Nina, the ballet dancer who is given the lead role in a production of Swan Lake after the company's previous lead ballerina (a scene-stealing Winona Ryder) is forced into retirement. The company's director has reservations about the choice - he thinks Nina will be ideal as the beautiful, pure White Swan, but worries that her frigid dancing and focus on technical perfection will limit her ability to portray the Black Swan, a role that requires her to be wild, free, seductive. So Nina tries to perfect her dancing while exploring her dark side and her sexual being, all the while under the eye of her controlling mother, and aware that waiting in the wings is Mila Kunis, an ideal choice for the Black Swan role, looking for the opportunity to steal the part. And then there's this weird rash she's developing on her back that just will not go away. All of which starts to disrupt her mental stability.
If you're after a nice film about ballet, do not see this film - watch The Red Shoes, which was recently given a beautiful restoration and which deals with some similar ideas in a more real-world setting. On the other hand, if you're interested in a campy exploitation film where a beautiful but emotionally-fragile woman is slowly driven insane by brutal physical demands, clashing egos, fierce rivalries and jealousies, a lecherous director, an overbearing mother, and the occasionally indulgence in masturbation and lesbian sex, all the while undergoing a bizarre physical transformation, then this is a film that you want to see. It turns out that's a film that I really want to see, because I pretty much loved every over-the-top minute of it. It's utterly insane, but in a way that is appropriate for a melodramatic artform where the most famous piece is one where a woman is turned into a swan and commits suicide after a prince marries her doppelganger. By the film's ending, which I won't spoil except to say that it completely breaks with any form of reality, I was so completely caught up in the emotional catharsis involved that the absurdity of what plays out on screen almost seems irrelevant. It's not a film for everyone - and if you don't love the film, you're going to haaaaate the film - and I'm surprised that such a divisive film would be so well-received that it managed to be nominated, but I'm glad it was.
Aronofsky is a skilled and deliberate filmmaker, and his shooting style with the film is quite fascinating to watch. There has been a trend in modern filmmaking toward greater use of the close-up, and frankly it's not a filming approach I particularly like (it tends to result in a shot/counter-shot film structure rather than one where actors actually act against each other). But here, Aronofsky almost seems to have no other tools in his basket other than the close-up. While he may step back in many of the dance sequences, allowing us as an audience to enjoy the actual dancing motions, outside of those moments he almost seems to be thinking "Can I use a close-up to express what I want," and only goes to a mid-shot or long-shot if he has to. And it's not just a close-up, but an uncomfortably-close-up. He seems to delight in pressing in to Natalie Portman's face just that little bit more than most directors would, creating an effect that is weirdly unsettling, as though we're so close we're inside her fractured psyche, where every slightest motion declares her current mental state to the audience. When we're not staring at her face, we're following her, almost breathing down her neck as she walks through backstage, like an unseen stalker. The film therefore forces the audience into an awkward position. We're so uncomfortably and intrusively close to her, even while she's in public, that it feels inappropriate, and once we go into her private world, it just seems wrong. (There's a moment where Natalie Portman thinks she's alone, only to discover after a minute that she's not, and the horror of that realisation is writ large on her face. The fact that the audience was initially watching her from the position of the other person - even if the shot technically isn't a POV shot - forcefully reminds us that we are in a position of watching her when she does not want to be seen. Which is unsettling and uncomfortable.)
Which brings me to Natalie Portman's performance. General wisdom has Portman winning Best Actress come Oscar night, and there's a good reason for this. Portman is set a real acting challenge for this film: she's playing a person who is going insane, which is exactly the type of role that prompts actors to go completely over-the-top in their performances. But Aronofsky's shooting style doesn't allow her to go over-the-top - he's so close in to her face that any overacting, or even just standard-level acting, would be intrusive on the big screen, even in a melodrama like this. So Natalie Portman almost needs to underact the pressures, the stresses, the fears and panic that lead to her going insane, relying on twitches, small changes in expression, glances, breathing, to communicate her character's deteriorating mental state. And it works, it utterly convinces. It's not my favourite acting performance of the year - I still love Jennifer Lawrence and the way she communicates her character's emotional state behind a stony expression of determination - but it is a genuinely good performance in a challenging role.
Also noteworthy is the Clint Mansell's score. Mansell, one of the more original and varied composers working today, drew strongly from Tchaikovsky's music (which obviously already has a strong presence in the film), breaking the music down then reconstructing it so that, while it is in fact an original work, it is still so reminiscent of the Tchaikovsky in the instrumentation, the phrases, the note patterns, that it's difficult to recognise where Tchaikovsky ends and Mansell begins. It cannot have been an easy task to compose music that can seamlessly exist with one of the most famous compositions by one of the greatest composers that ever lived, and the fact that Mansell achieved it is to his credit.
One of the most exciting things about cinema at the moment has been the resurgence of and acclaim given to the Coen Brothers. During the 80s and 90s, Joel and Ethan Coen had a perfect run of nine great films, from Blood Simple in 1984 to The Man Who Wasn't There in 2001. These were brilliant films, displaying a slightly twisted, arch sensibility. Sometimes the films were actual comedy, sometimes drama, but they always displayed a strong humorous line to them, as well as a passion for subverting their ostensible genre. But then something went wrong. They tried their hand at romantic comedy (as well as their first and only effort at reworking an existing script), and we got Intolerable Cruelty, the blandest work the Coens ever did. Then they tried a remake of the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. The premise (incompetent criminals try to kill an old lady, kill themselves instead) should be a perfect match for their black-comedic sensibilities, but instead we get a tonally-inconsistent film, jumping from Tom Hanks' polite southern gentleman to Marlon Wayans' foul-mouthed obscenities to JK Simmons' flatulence, that was just agonising to sit through. It seems that after that disaster, they must have sat down and reconsidered where they were going as filmmakers, because it was three years before their next film. That film, the remarkable No Country for Old Men, won them four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, and since then every year they've given us some excellent cinema. Burn After Reading has certainly divided audiences, but I love the cynical comedic tone it brings to the Washington espionage thriller genre; and I've already discussed my feelings about A Serious Man, back when that film was nominated last year.
And now we get their new film, True Grit, nominated for ten Oscars. The film tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who hires a run-down, one-eyed, drunk old US Marshall to hunt down the man who murdered her father. I confess I've never seen the earlier 1969 film of this story, which I'd only ever heard of in the context of being the film that won John Wayne his Oscar. But then, I'm not much of a western fan, and never really cared to dig too deep into the genre. So I wasn't too bothered by the idea of the Coens doing a remake of this film: I was more bothered by the idea of them doing a remake full-stop, since their only previous remake was such a disaster. Still, it was an interesting idea - so many of their films, be it O Brother Where Art Thou or No Country, had a distinctly western tone in a non-western context, and I was curious about how the Coens would approach making a genuine entry into the genre.
And they did well. The brothers reportedly went back to Charles Portis' original book, rather than the earlier film, and drew massive amounts of material from the book - supposedly 85 percent of the dialogue is taken straight from Portis. If so, the Coens found a source material that is perfectly suited to their own long-established sensibilities. Yet, for the first time in their career, the brothers give us a movie that operates as a straight effort operating purely within its genre. There's none of the subversion, irony, or commentary on the genre itself that we might expect from the Coens. Nor is it the revisionist or deconstructed view of the western that we've seen so much of of late. It's just a good story, approached with a serious and honest intent, and told extremely well within a classic style. It's a straight story of revenge, with a slight acknowledgement of the personal impact of violence, but none of the posturing on the issue that we see in most modern westerns. Now, all this is making it sound like a terribly serious film, and it is, but that's not to say that it's not funny - I doubt the Coens could ever make a film that doesn't feature some laugh-out-loud moments, and there's one scene in the film (around a public hanging) that manages to simultaneously be hilarious, horrifying, and thought-provoking in exactly the way we expect a Coen Brothers film to be - but the natural laughs that arise in the course of the film never take away from the film's serious determination to function as a true entry in the classic western genre.
Many have commented on the fact that Hailee Steinfeld's nomination for Best Supporting Actress is frankly absurd. The film is her character's story - it opens with Mattie, it closes with her, Mattie narrates the film, and I don't think there's a single scene in the film that doesn't feature her. If anything, she is the lead character in the film, and Jeff Bridges (with a Best Actor nomination) is a supporting character. The Supporting Actress nomination reflects only the film studio's desire to push her into a category where she stands more of a chance of winning. What isn't absurd is the idea of her being nominated for this performance. Mattie Ross is exactly the type of character you almost don't want in a film - a young girl, forceful, determined, fast-thinking, convinced of her own righteousness, able to bend situations to her advantage, someone innocent enough to seem a child, yet someone who is undeniably a young woman, and someone who can convincingly seem willing and determined to kill. It must have been a nightmare to cast, especially since the role is so central that, without the perfect Mattie Ross, the film just fails instantly. One of the first scenes in the film has Mattie negotiating with a stable owner for a payment and the purchase of various horses. And as the girl runs rings around the stable owner, wearing him down until she gets exactly what she wants, it's a relief, because it's clear that Hailee is up to the challenge. Her performance seems completely natural, there's never any sense that she's acting here. But nor does she come across as some precocious kid, annoyingly old for her years. She just is Mattie Ross, exactly as Mattie Ross would have had to have been in those circumstances, and it's great to watch.
The one person taking attention from Steinfeld is Jeff Bridges, playing the role John Wayne played: the eyepatch-wearing Marshall Rooster Cogburn. This is only the second time Bridges has worked with the Coens - the first time gave us Jeff "the Dude" Lebowski, probably the role he is best known for, and if there's any role that will ever come close to topping the Dude as his most iconic character, then Rooster Cogburn would be it. Just a month earlier, I'd seen Jeff Bridges essentially playing Jeff Bridges on Tron: Legacy, and the stark disparity between Tron's Floyd and True Grit's Rooster is striking. There's no sign of the laid-back dude that Bridges seems to be in real life: Rooster is a harsh man who is utterly remorseless over the lives he's taken. In one scene, he even pulls a gun on Matt Damon, and it's chilling to realise that you're actually convinced that the cocking of the gun was no idle threat. Meanwhile, the character's drinking and incomprehensible mumbling seem less like a western cliché, and more like a pivotal detail that says a lot about the character and his place in the story - that this was once a man who was great, who was legendary, but who is now rendered pathetic by the inevitable passage of time and his reluctance to accept it. At the same time there's a genuine bond that develops between Rooster and this girl, and I'm aware as I write this just how standard this all sounds - tough guy comes to care about young girl - but it doesn't play like that. Bridges and Steinfeld so inhabit the roles that we're not watching two movie characters working through a cliché, but two people developing a natural bond. (This of course makes his eventual fate, and the breaking of that bond, especially tragic.)
Yet the most surprising thing about the film is how much Matt Damon, playing the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, seems to have been overlooked. Now, we all hopefully know by now that Damon is a much finer actor than his pretty-boy status would suggest. But LaBoeuf is a curious, difficult character that must have presented a definite challenge for Damon. Given that the man they're hunting for is absent for much of the film, LaBoeuf essentially fills the role of the antagonist until Chaney turns up. Yet LaBoeuf is also the comic relief character. He needs to be a skilled Texas Ranger, yet not so skilled that he stops being something of a blundering idiot. He has to be vain, self-interested, and cocky. And he has to be incredibly inappropriate to the 14-year-old girl at the centre of the film (when we first meet LaBoeuf, he's talks about trying to kiss Mattie while she's sleeping; later on he bends her over his knee for a very harsh spanking). And despite all that, he also has to be one of the film's heroes, someone that we genuinely like, so that we want to cheer when Mattie eventually accepts LaBoeuf as someone who can help her. Damon manages to navigate the myriad of pitfalls in the character, and becomes someone I really did enjoy watching. Around about the point where Cogburn and LaBoeuf have a shooting contest against each other, I realised I would be happy if the rest of the film were just the trio bickering. It's a perfectly-pitched, very wry performance from Damon, one that is essential to the film, and one that has been unfairly overlooked.
One last note: please, can someone just give Roger Deakins an Oscar. Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in the business, and it's shameful that (despite eight previous nominations) he's never won an Oscar. His work on True Grit has again been nominated, and I'm worried that (the also very well-shot) Black Swan may take the award. But True Grit is another fine piece of work from the man. It's beautifully shot, with no finer display of his skill than the courtroom scene. Watch that scene carefully, notice the way the lighting almost has weight, how much character it lends to the film. It's truly striking award-worthy cinematography that is utterly deserving of recognition.
Last year, I commented that, with the introduction of the ten nominees, we could use the Best Director nominees to determine which of the movies were the five "real" nominees, and which were the "also-rans." That was not strictly true - historically, there seems to usually be one Best Director film that doesn't get a Best Picture nod (and vice versa). This year, I suspect that film would have been David O Russell's The Fighter. Russell has been basically been missing ever since his some-love-it-some-hate-it-no-one-understands-it I ♥ Huckabees, which is a shame since he is a talented director. So it's nice to see him back working, and interesting to see him bring his indie-film sensibility to a film that, in other hands, might just have been a generic underdog boxing movie, but that in his hands turns into a more interesting family drama with some boxing. While it definitely has its flaws, and Russell's inclusion as a Director nominee at the expense of someone else does bother, it's still a very fine film.
The film is based on the true story of two half-brothers, Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. Dicky is a local hero, having once gone the distance in a boxing match with Sugar Ray Leonard, but 15 years later he's a crack addict, being followed around by a film crew making a documentary (which he believes is about his career comeback). His younger brother, Micky, grew up idolising Dicky, and is now managed by his family as a boxer himself. But over the course of the film, he starts to wonder whether he really can rely on his family and his brother to manage his best interests as his career progresses.
As the central character, Micky, Mark Wahlberg is as good as he's been. He can a very variable actor at times, but with the right role he can be really solid. Here the role calls for someone small, subdued, someone who has always been overshadowed by his big brother. It's not a showy role, and very few people will walk out of the film thinking "Wow, that Mark Wahlberg really can act," but the film would not work without that performance.
The reason why no-one will remember Mark Wahlberg is because Dicky is played by Christian Bale, and he has, as Christian Bale is wont to do, undergone a drastic weight-loss to portray the crack-addicted character. (He's not quite at Machinist levels, but nor is he far off.) Now I fully understand why Bale has received such notice for this role. It's not just the weight-change (although that is the type of thing that many people seem to feel is the mark of great acting); he is a genuinely enjoyable character. We've seen so much of the glowering, sullen, angry, withdrawn Christian Bale (in his roles in Batman, Terminator, The Prestige, and so on) that it's nice to see him playing someone people like. As Dicky walks down the street, people seem genuinely happy to see him; not just because of his reputation as a local hero, but because they genuinely like the character. The problem is, so do the filmmakers. Dicky is a big, showy performance by Bale, of the kind that the Academy likes, but at the same time it somehow never feels real. For a start, because Bale is so funny and charismatic, there's surprisingly little sense that he is actually a serious drug addict. Sure, we see him smoke some crack, sure, he's lost weight, but mostly the film seems to be about the wacky misadventures of Dicky. Dicky walks out of the crack house and can't find his car, so he decides to run to the boxing gym. Dicky pretends to be a cop to steal cars from guys trying to pick up a prostitute. Dicky leaps from a second-story window into a bin to avoid his mother. Oh, Dicky, what scrapes will you get yourself into next? It's so bad that, when the film crew's documentary airs, and it's revealed to be about the negative effect of crack in America, it's almost surprising because we haven't really seen the negative side of Dicky's addiction. The other problem is, these big performances can work in small doses, but because the film is about the relationship of these two brothers, we spend a lot more time with Dicky than we should, and that imbalances the film. He's the first person we see in the film, he has an entire subplot about the documentary film crew, and even when he's not on screen the character are always talking about him. He almost becomes the main character of the film, to the point where the film's climactic fight seems less about whether or not Micky will triumph than Dicky's place at the fight. Indeed, there's a point in the film where, for twenty or so minutes, Dicky is more or less taken out of the picture, and it actually feels like a different movie. Now, I don't want to completely disparage the performance - there are some great moments, like the scene where Dicky hears his mother's commentary on one of Micky's fights over the telephone - but on the whole, this is an overly big performance that does imbalance the entire film.
And the issue is, even without Dicky, the film's tone never feels settled. At times it feels like Russell is playing the film for laughs, and it seems weird. That's never clearer than in any scene with Micky's sisters. Now for a start, it doesn't help that the sisters are frankly irrelevant to the film, to the point where they could literally be removed without anyone noticing. And whenever we see the sisters, we see all the sisters - Russell is very careful to show them all in a group. There's never a sense that these are individual people; they're just a single group, and on the rare occasions when one of the sisters does speak, she's not speaking for herself but as the representative of the group. And it's very clear, just by looking at the family as a whole, that they've deliberately cast the sisters to look like they share the same mother, but no-one has a father in common. Add to that the weird, over-the-top, late-80s, early-90s style all the sisters have that, when contrasted with almost every other character in the film, just does not look real. In fact, the sisters look so cartoonish and unreal that (and I'm serious about this) every single time they appeared on screen, my audience laughed out loud. In one particularly laughable moment, the sisters get so angry that, as a group, they decide to drive over to Amy Adams' house to fight her. Cut to a shot of all seven sisters trying to squeeze into a little tiny car as though it were a clown car. Now, I am positive that Russell must have been intending that scene to be funny, if only because he's a good director, and the scene was so comical that I have difficulty believing he could not have recognised how silly it was. But in a film that is a family drama, to treat a significant portion of the family as basically a comic device that cannot be taken seriously, while still requiring us to believe those family relationships that are central to the movie, really does ruin the film's tone.
And then we have Amy Adams, as the girlfriend Micky starts seeing at the start of the film. (Have you ever noticed how, whenever there's a true life movie, the main character always starts seeing someone at the start of the film, and that relationship proves to be the most significant the person's life, and they're always revealed to still be together in the "where are they now" end of the film?) Here, Adams plays someone who is smart but unmotivated - she dropped out of college because her studies got in the way of her partying, and now she's resigned to working behind a bar for the foreseeable future. Yet she displays remarkable drive in getting Micky to change his lifestyle and look to further his own, rather than his family's, interests. Given the fact that her character is so closely tied to Micky, it's understandable that she would give a much more low-key performance, better aligned to Mark Wahlberg's acting than Christian Bale's. And this means that she is, herself, unjustly overshadowed, in her case by Melissa Leo, playing Micky and Dicky's mother. Melissa Leo continues to be an underrated actress, and here convinces as someone trying to appear to fit in the boxing world as a manager. She has this whole power-look and style of behaviour that is jarring in the real world but blends in ring-side. It's not a subtle performance by Leo, but it's not quite as showy as Bale, and fits absolutely for the character and her world.
One thing I did love about the film (once you ignore the irrelevant sisters) was this sense of an unusual family dysfunction communicated by the film, particularly on the part of the family matriarch. There's the odd scene of histrionics, sure, but for the most part the dysfunction is nicely understated. We're used to seeing the dysfunctional family as a world of abuse, where mothers try to drop TVs on their children. That's not this family. There's clear genuine family love, and the mother really seem to want everyone to succeed. But at the same time, she has a clear favouring of one brother over the other - she's more interested in Dicky's comeback (that is never going to happen) than in actually helping Micky with his career, even if she doesn't realise it. And that actually profoundly damages Micky, even though his mother doesn't see it or understand it.
So that's The Fighter. A very good, entertaining film, and hopefully the start of a rejuvenated career for a talented filmmaker. But also a problematic film that has, in my opinion, been overrated by the Academy.
Which brings me to Inception. Part of me wonders whether there's even any point in writing about Inception: if you've read this far through this post, you're clearly interested in movies, in which case you've probably already seen Inception, because it was the film to see in 2010. So you know all about dreams, levels, limbo, an idea is the most resilient parasite, whose subconscious are we going into now. You've watched a heist film, a tragic love story, a comedy, a drama, an action movie, and a thriller. You've seen tops being spun, vans falling off bridges, and buildings collapse. You've been in an elevator, a hotel, a hospital, a plane, a college, and a café in Paris. You know Cobb, Ariadne, Fischer, Arthur, Saito, Eames, and Mal. Now, it's not a perfect film - I do think it is guilty of thinking it's smarter than it is - but it is an original, surprising film that challenges its audience to actually pay attention, and that does display much more intelligence than almost any other summer blockbuster in recent memory. And it's heart-warning to realise that, for a moment, the movie-going public decided that it would not be satisfied with a dumbed-down Hollywood film playing to the lowest common denominator (yes, I am thinking about Michael Bay, why do you ask?). If only it could always be like that.
The big news story of the Oscars nominations was the fact that Christopher Nolan failed to receive the expected nod for Best Director (losing it to the aforementioned David O Russell). I've enjoyed Nolan's directing ever since Memento, and have never missed a chance to see one of his films on the big screen. Nolan had famously developed the script for Inception a decade ago, and had it sitting in a drawer waiting until the billion dollar grosses for The Dark Knight gave him the clout to make any film he wanted. Now, most times, when you get a director who made his name making small independent movies, when they get a chance to make the big-budget movie they seem to just abandon any intelligence or creativity, so it's exciting to see the way Nolan's career has developed to a point where he is making huge-budget movies while still trying to offer us something new and original, something we haven't seen before. He approaches his big Hollywood films with the same care that he gave to his smaller early films, and that's refreshing.
The mark of how good Nolan's directing really is can be found in the way it handles exposition. Exposition can kill films - remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Army intelligence agents come to talk to Indy about the mission, and how that one five-minute scene stops the film dead. Then realise that Inception has about an hour's worth of exposition - they need to set up the world, set up the conflicts, establish the rules that govern the dream world, introduce us to a whole lot of new terms we've never heard before, and establish the different roles that the characters have in the heist. That's all pure exposition required to set up the actual story, which is the inception job. And then realise that, despite the fact that the first half of the film is just a sequence of scenes where people talk to each other to explain what's going on, it's never boring, even on repeat viewings. And a huge amount of credit for that goes to Nolan, both as a screenwriter for the way he wrote these scenes, and as a director for shooting them in a way that we're barely aware that we're watching exposition at all.
The other thing I want to note is Nolan's development as an action director. His early films had a few action scenes, but it wasn't until Batman Begins that his difficulty directing action was revealed. He simply struggled communicating the space and geography of any action scenes, so we never really knew where anyone was in relation to anyone else. Sometimes that was deliberate (see the scene with the guys on the docks, panicked as Batman took them out one-by-one), but by the time of the final confrontation between hero and villain it was clear that action was one of Nolan's failings as a director. So it's exciting to see that Nolan has developed in this area. The action remains clear and coherent, we know who's where, who's who, and what's happening at pretty much every moment. Which is a relief, because this film is enough of a challenge to follow without throwing incoherent action into the mix.
But just as egregious an omission as the failure to recognise Nolan was is the failure to give a nomination to Lee Smith for Best Film Editing. Just look at the last hour of the film. At this point, the story is taking place on four different levels, each with their own characters undertaking their own tasks, and each with their own timeframe. And there's a delicate balance in the sequence - the film needs to hold its focus on Di Caprio, since that's the plot, but we can't be allowed to forget where we are in the other levels. At times Smith relies on an insert of a single shot to inform the audience about another level, and the fact that we as an attentive audience never lose track of the story, never get confused by which level we're in now, shows how carefully and skilfully constructed the editing of the film was. This was film editing that should have won the Oscar, and the fact that it didn't even get nominated was one of the shocks in the nominee list.
One last comment I do want to make about Inception: a couple of weeks ago, I was looking through YouTube and I came across this video of the famous scene in Royal Wedding where Fred Astaire dances on the walls and the ceiling of the room that he's in. It's one of the most famous of all movie dance sequences, and deservedly so. But one of the things I love about the sequence is the fact that you can see the way he shifts his feet to steady himself and make the transition from floor to wall to ceiling as the room around him rotates. It's a remarkable sequence, largely because it looks and feels real. And in an age of CGI trickery, it's exciting that Christopher Nolan took a deliberate choice to avoid using CGI unless absolutely necessary. So in, for example, the shifting-gravity hallway fight, they did exactly the same thing that Astaire did - they built a hallway, and they rotated it. And it works - you can see the actors adjusting their feet and holding the walls as the room moves around them. And the sequence convinces because you can see that the room clearly operates at a fundamental level on the same gravitational pull that we're all used to. You don't need a group of guys in a darkened room somewhere trying to decide which way is up from second to second and then trying to imagine how the human body would respond to that movement. You just need to put the actors in that situation and see how they respond naturally. The end result is a scene that is remarkable, and one of the best scenes of the year.
As a director, there are several ways you can get the clout to make any film you choose. One is to earn Warner Brothers a billion dollars. Another is to win an Academy Award, as Danny Boyle did two years ago for Slumdog Millionaire. Suddenly everyone wants to help make the next Danny Boyle film, even if its a project that would otherwise never ever be made. Which is how we get 127 Hours, based on the true story of Aron Ralston, who (in a story that was given much media coverage at the time) got his hand trapped under a falling rock until, after a number of days, he summoned the courage to remove his own arm. I repeat, the entire reason for this film's existence is because the happy joyful life-affirming ending is a man cutting off his own arm. With a cheap pocket-knife.
Now, firstly, I know it's silly and pedantic, but there's one thing that really annoyed me about the film: what exactly are the titular 127 hours? Going into the film I understood that that was the amount of time Aron Ralston spent with his arm trapped - so the first hour starts with him getting trapped and when we come to hour 127 he cuts his arm off. And the film seems to support that interpretation - it delays showing the title on-screen until immediately after he gets trapped, almost as if saying "this is how long he'll be here for." So, when he immediately looks at his watch and sees that it's around 3pm on Saturday, I naturally do some quick calculations. 127 hours is 5 days, 7 hours, so he'll get free on Thursday at 10pm. So now I've got a way of measuring how far through this ordeal he is, as well as measuring how long it will be before I need to prepare for the scene. They very helpfully provide on-screen cards helping us keep track of the days - Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, ... - unless I missed it (and I don't think I did, since I had a friend look for it when he saw the film), there was no Thursday card. So did he cut his arm off on Wednesday or Thursday? Another point - 10pm is night-time - it's two hours before midnight. But it was not night when he cut off his arm - there was bright sunlight. So let's assume that it was late Thursday morning - I give it that time because after the arm removal, he still manages to do a lot in daylight (he manages to rappel down a cliff, and walk eight miles until he finds someone to help him, and then they manage to get a chopper in to help him, and it's still day). So perhaps the 127 hours is measured until he's actually rescued? No, that doesn't work either , since it was still daylight when the helicopter arrived, so he was rescued well before 10pm. The only way I can make a 127 hour timeframe for this story is by counting from the start of his trip - if we say his trip starts at 9am on Saturday, then 127 hours later would take us to 4pm on Thursday, which would be right for an afternoon rescue by chopper. Except that that means that the 127 hours includes all the time he spends with the two girl trampers, which I guess means not all of the 127 hours were a horrible ordeal. But in that case, delaying the appearance of the 127 Hours film title until he gets trapped is fundamentally misleading, because at that point he's already five or six hours into those 127 hours. But as far as I can see, that's the only possible way I can get that time period into the story.
(EDIT: After writing the above passage, I leafed through a copy of Aron Ralston's book. According to that, he says the rock fell on his arm at 2.41pm on Saturday, 26 April, and he cut himself free at 11.32am on Thursday, 1 May. I make that as being 116 hours, 51 minutes. I also found a passage where, as he is wheeled into the hospital, he writes "my streak of 127 hours of uninterrupted experience ends at three forty-five p.m., Thursday, May 1, 2003." (p326 of the movie tie-in edition) Which does mean he is counting from the start of the trek, and which means the late appearance of the film title on-screen is entirely misleading. I really do think that they should have either have had the title appear onscreen as he started his day or, if they were determined to have the title appear when he was trapped, they should have called the film either 117 Hours or 121 Hours.)
But I do want to say, none of my pedantry about the time involved in this ordeal is in any way intended to detract from the core of the story, which is a phenomenal story of survival. Regardless of any quibbles over ten hours here or ten hours there, whether it was 117 hours or 127 hours, this is about a guy who spent five days trapped under a rock, and who had such determination and will to live that he cut off his own arm with a cheap pocket knife and without any form of painkillers. And that is incredible.
Central to the film is James Franco. He's the one who spends most of the film stuck there, in a narrow ravine, all alone. If he doesn't work, then the film doesn't work. I've admired Franco as an actor, ever since seeing him in the TV show Freaks and Geeks. (In fact, the very first episode of that show that I saw, "Tests and Breasts," had a couple of great scenes where he delivered a monologue about being put at a young age in Track 3 with all the dumb kids - it's still one of the most memorable moments in that much-loved show.) After that show, he seemed like the most likely star to come out of that show - justified comparisons to James Dean (who he later played) abounded. Yet his career seemed to go nowhere - he was noteworthy as Peter's best friend (and son of the Green Goblin) in the Spiderman films, but every time he took on a lead role, the films failed. But in the last few years, as the cast from F&G have mostly had their careers take off, Franco has also become a recognisable name. But what I love about the guy is that he seems to have no ego. He doesn't take on a project because it will help his career - instead, he seems to choose his projects on a whim. So he'll take on several stints on daytime soap General Hospital, then he'll take an art piece based on a dramatic interpretation of Three's Company to Sundance, then he'll decide to host the Oscars, then he'll make an uncredited unpromoted appearance in The Green Hornet, and he'll arrange for a college to offer a paper on James Franco to which he, as the subject of the paper, will contribute. And in between all that, he'll work on what is almost a one-man film in which he basically spends the entire film unable to move. And he approaches all of these projects with absolute conviction and dedication. That he has managed to become a recognisable celebrity figure, almost despite his best efforts to work against it, shows how strong his charisma and his talent are. The character of Aron Ralston is overconfident, cocky even, at the start of the movie, but Franco plays him with such joy and excitement at life that he's impossible to dislike. For the rest of the film, he manages to skilfully portray the breaking of that person, cycling through every emotion imaginable, yet doing so with subtlety and honesty. (Apparently this was achieved by filming many of these scenes in an uninterrupted ten-minute period with Franco improvising his dialogue.) By the time we reach the climax of the film, Franco convincingly portrays that weird mix of desperation, resignation, and determination that would cause someone to deliberately break their armbone and then use a pocket-knife to slowly saw through his own flesh, veins, and tendons. It's a stunning performance that reminds us of the genuine talent that has allowed him to advance his career to this position.
If I have a problem with the film, it's with Danny Boyle's direction. Now, I enjoy Danny Boyle as a filmmaker. But here he's almost worried about the cinematic qualities of this film, and whether watching a person trapped by a rock for 90 minutes will actually be entertaining for audiences. So he goes overboard with every cinematic trick he can - much of the early film is hyperkinetic, filled with split-screens and pounding music, which seems mostly to be about telling the audience "this will be exciting". Once the film slows, we get flashbacks with an almost dream-like tone, we get actual dreams, we get hallucinations, we get everything possible thrown in to detract from the true challenge of making this film. And at times it almost seems intrusive - there's one shot where the camera is inside the water container's sipper as he takes a drink of water that just irritated me. (It was like a shot David Fincher would have filmed ten years ago.) Now, to be fair, the shot does get a payoff later, when we get the same shot repeated when he's drinking his urine, but I'm not sure the revulsion of the audience from that moment (which could just as easily be achieved by more standard shooting methods) was worth the overly-stylised shot selection. Now, once we get into the scene where Aron cuts off his arm, Boyle's shooting style is perfect. He, along with Franco's performance, manages to communicate the horror and pain involved in doing something like that, while not going overboard - this is not a Saw film, that glories in the gore, but nor does it shy away from the experience. As someone who was not looking forward to this film, largely because of the reports of people fainting in the film (along with my own squeamishness in even the mild body-horror scenes of Black Swan), I was surprised at how quickly and tastefully the cutting scenes were handled. If anything, it's the sound design of the scene, rather than what we see, that makes it difficult to watch. In particular, there's a strange, almost screaming, sound effect that they pull out at one point that, more than anything on screen, communicates the mental agony of doing what he does. The scene is over in a few minutes, and is perfectly watchable, but is still effective in allowing the audience a glimpse into understanding the horror of the experience. It's an impressive feat.
My other problem with the film is that it is not subtle in ensuring the audience is very clear in understanding what the main idea of the film is. It's a great idea - a man, overconfident in his own abilities and eschewing other people in favour of himself, discovers his own limitations and his need for other people. But the film just keep repeating how this is a guy who craves solitude - we see him decide not to answer his mother's call, we see him literally running away from the female trampers as they say Goodbye, we hear them comment that they "didn't figure in his day at all." When he gets trapped, we hear him repeat over and over again his regrets at not answering that phone call, imagining himself going to the party that he seemed slightly dismissive of, remembering his ex-girlfriend, regretting that he'll never be at his sister's wedding. And that's all very well, and I'm sure this is all an accurate reflection of what he was thinking about. But after the dozenth variation on "I wish I had talked to you more, I wish I had not gone out without telling anyone where I was, I wish I hadn't so overconfident in my abilities" - at times stated almost as baldly as that - it starts to get wearying. It's great when films have something to say, and it's even okay to not be subtle about that theme (after all, no-one would ever accuse Mad Men of being unclear what each episode is saying), but when you have as limited action or opportunity for variation as this film, stating and restating your message gets tiring. (And believe me, I'm not unaware of the irony in my criticising others for saying the same thing over and over again.)
But my issues with the film aside, it is still an excellent film. This is a movie that took a story where the main character stands, alone, in the same spot for about five days, a story where everyone knows how it ends, and managed to make the movie cinematic, intense, and genuinely suspenseful. Did the film go overboard in trying to do so? Sure. But when you consider what Danny Boyle had to work with, and the fact that he managed to stay true to the actual events, with little or no embellishment, and still gave us a film this good, this involving? It's possibly the most impressive piece of filmmaking this year.
I'm someone who loves animation, especially the early Disney films. And one of the things that is great about those films is that they were not made for kids. They were made for the adults who were making the movies; they were films that the animators would want to see. The fact that the films were child-friendly was important, but they were not and are not "kid's films." There is clear care taken in the development of the character, in the stories, in the dialogue, in the artistry. And there are genuinely scary or disturbing moments in Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, or Fantasia; moments that would never have been allowed in something viewed solely as kid's entertainment. Much of that approach to making an animated movie applies also to the work of Pixar. They never approach their films with a dismissive attitude or a sense that any less care should be taken just because kids will watch anything. As I discussed last year, a film like Up has a lot of extremely mature ideas underpinning it that you would never see in a film intended to be a kid's film. And it's the same with Toy Story 3.
There's one decision that was made in the film's production that made this film as good as it is, and that was the decision to recognise the passage of time. It's been 15 years since the first Toy Story film, and 11 since the second. Now, being animation, they could easily have made a story that takes place a few months after the last film, and no-one would have thought anything of it. But instead, they made a film that takes place a decade later. And in so doing, they took one of the best sequences in Toy Story 2 (the "When Somebody Loved Me" scene, where we get Jessie's back story, from treasured plaything all the way to rejected and forgotten object) and expanded on the idea, playing that inevitable moment where the child grows too old for his toys for maximum impact, because now we're watching it with characters we've known and loved for years.
And that's the key element that makes it clear what this film is about. The closing credits for every Pixar film always include a list of all the Pixar babies born during the production of the film. (Even recognising how many people work on these films, I'm always surprised by just how many babies are listed each year - when do the Pixar staff find time to come into work?) But that list, which often seems like a slightly excessive piece of sentiment, is actually significant with a film like Toy Story 3. Because this is ultimately a film about parenthood. Those people who worked on the first Toy Story film 15 years ago, drawing on the experience of watching their kids play with toys? Well, those kids have left home now, they're off at college. For the parents, they were once the most important, most reliable figures in their child's lives. They used to love playing with their kids, but more than that, they were always there for them. But then the kids grew up, went through the teenage years, rebelling and rejecting their parents, who sit by, watching, loving, and wanting to once again be the most important person in their child's life. And now, with the oldest Pixar kids leaving home, the parents are learning how to let go of their children. That's pretty much exactly the position the toys of the film are in. And that makes the film work so well - because it's not just another inventive and imaginative adventure for the characters that we all love, but it's a story that is underpinned with genuine human emotions that I imagine more than a few of those working on the film were undergoing.
At this point, the Toy Story series has acquired a sizable cast of characters (just look at the number of people in the poster above), but the screenwriters know exactly how to use them all, and give them their own individual moments. It's surprising to go back to the first film, and see just how much it was the Buzz and Woody show, with little contribution by the others at all. Two films later, Woody is still clearly the lead, but with Buzz receding into the rest of the cast, the film becomes much more of an ensemble cast. And it allows everyone an opportunity to shine - particularly in the climactic "prison break" sequence, where everyone's individual skills come to the fore. (In one of the best, most crowd-pleasing instances, the screenwriters use Mr Potato-Head's removable body parts, as well as the long-established rules about how they interact with Potato-Head's body, for an extraordinary comedy scene that was one of the most surprising and funniest moments of last year.)
The thing I found surprising is just how scary the film gets at times, both in big moments and small. In particular, there is a sequence toward the end where it seems like the toys are facing inevitable doom. And I mean it. There are moments in the earlier films where characters seem at risk, certainly, but you're never afraid for them because you know they'll escape. But in this particular scene, there is no hope for escape. Indeed, the point of the scene has the toys giving up, being resigned to their deaths, and just finding comfort in the fact that they're sharing their last moments with each other. It's a beautiful moment, one of the best the Pixar people have ever given us. And at that moment, I was astonished. I was seriously wondering whether they would really kill off these beloved characters. That seemed improbable, but the situation they were in seemed so impossible that their deaths seemed inevitable. The solution to the problem amounted to a massive deus ex machina (albeit one that was smoothed over by a very funny joke that was a payoff to a setup from two films ago). But that's the astonishing thing. If I, as a mature adult, genuinely thought that these characters were doomed, just how much more scared for Woody and Buzz must the younger audiences have been? But yet, they seem to be able to cope with it. Kids seem to be much more resilient than most kid's filmmakers believe. My friends' three-year-old son may run and hide from the screeching monkey, but it doesn't stop him watching the film. It's not a dumbed-down, safe kid's film with the edges smoothed off, and I appreciate that.
I was listening to a film review show today where a listener defended the Yogi Bear movie by saying "you're being too critical; it's just a kid's film." And that's one argument I hate. Kids will watch almost anything. They're not demanding viewers. But why should that mean we as adults are okay with letting our kids watch irredeemable rubbish? If a child gains just as much enjoyment from watching Toy Story 3 or Beauty and the Beast as they do from watching Yogi Bear or Alvin and the Chipmunks, why do we as a society even entertain Yogi or Alvin as an acceptable option to fill our children's minds with? Toy Story 3 is not a kid's film, but it is a kids-friendly film, and that makes all the difference. Regardless of your age, it's quality filmmaking, with intelligent humour, careful characterisation, and genuine emotion. And it's a worthy of its place as a Best Picture nominees.
One of these days, Pixar will make a bad film. I'm aware of this. To be honest, at the moment I think 2011 may be that year - they're releasing Cars 2, a sequel to the least of their films, and the premise (something about an international car race and Mater being mistaken for a spy) seems so far from anything that the first film did well that I'm for the first time not looking forward to a Pixar film. But for the moment, I can look at my DVD shelf, see the long line of great films from the studio, and be happy. Not even the Walt Disney studios in its heyday achieved a continuous run of greatness as long as Pixar did. I hope Cars 2 doesn't break that run, but if it does, it seems right that a great Toy Story film should end a run that started with a great Toy Story film.
Then there's The Kids Are All Right, which to be honest is not great, but is certainly far better than all right. The film revolves around a long-term lesbian couple who have two teenage children, both fathered by the same anonymous sperm donor. The eldest daughter, who has turned 18 and is about to go to college, makes contact with the sperm donor, and as he enters into their life, his presence brings out previously unexplored tensions in the characters' relationships with each other. There's not a lot of startling material in here: the set-up (new person disrupts happy life) isn't overly original, and the characters are drawn a little too simply to convince (there's an early dinner scene where we first see the family together, and the scene is pretty obvious in establishing every one of the personality traits that will govern how these characters will behave in the rest of the film). And the script frustratingly manages to find the easiest way out of the situations it creates, offering the most pat resolution possible - the film winds up unfairly placing all the blame for the film's events on the new guy without acknowledging that he wasn't the cause of the the problems, but rather was merely the catalyst that brought out existing problems.
But what the film does have is one of the strongest collection of actors on-screen this year. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play the couple around whom the film revolves, and they have a sweet easy relationship that's fun to watch. It's always nice to see Julianne Moore, an actress I've loved ever since seeing her in Short Cuts, but it seems like it's been so long since Annette Bening was around that it's almost a surprise to remember that here's an actress I genuinely like but had completely forgotten about. Mark Ruffalo has built a solid career as a supporting actor - not quite a film star, but by no means a character actor - and he's enjoyable to watch as this easy-going guy who is just going through life, never really thinking about where he is or the consequences of his actions. I was particularly excited to see Mia Wasikowska as the daughter in the family - she was the best part of the first season of In Treatment, where she played a suicidal gymnast, and her ability at such a young age to act such a challenging emotionally-raw role against an actor as great as Gabriel Byrne without ever being overshadowed by him was impressive. I've therefore been pleased to watch Wasikowska's developing career - she did well with the limited material she was given in Alice in Wonderland - but it's nice to see her get some solid acting work in this film. And as the younger brother there's Josh Hutcherson, who seems really familiar to me although I have never seen anything he's ever done. In any case, he impressed me as a solid performer.
The Kids Are All Right maintains that identifiable tone of light comedy-drama that has become so distinctive over the past twenty years of independent films. Now, that lighter tone does later challenge the film in ways that I'm not sure it overcomes, by blunting the dramatic effect as relationships break down. But when the film is trying to be comedic (which is much of the film), it usually works well. There's seldom any outright jokes, and when they do openly seek after a big comedy moment (such as a scene where the volume on a porn film is accidentally turned up loud), it's too obvious to work. But usually the humour is smaller, more subtle, and funnier than what passes for humour in most multiplex comedies. One thing I did enjoy was the way the camera would linger on a scene, just observing the characters interacting, often just barely catching small but funny moments - a glance, an expression, a minor piece of business that feels unscripted, as though just watching people enjoying themselves. It gave the film a lovely natural feel - we're not setting out to barrage you with jokes trying to force you to laugh; instead, we'll just let you watch until you, as the audience, find something that amuses you. And I was amused.
And that's what the film does well. The script may not be as strong as it could or should be, but there is enough in it for the actors to take hold of and give fascinating, watchable performances that elevate the material beyond what I suspect was on the page. And the actors give the film a lot of goodwill - I was surprised at how much affection I had developed for the characters, and in the hands of other actors, I'm not sure I'd have liked them as much as I do. It's not a revolutionary film, it has definite flaws, but it is well-made and enjoyable to watch. It's certainly my least favourite of the Best Picture nominees, and is in no way an essential film in the way that The Social Network, Inception, or Winter's Bone are essential, but walking out of the cinema I was smiling, glad to have seen it.
The final nominee is Winter's Bone, which was my favourite movie of the year. I've already discussed the film in an earlier post, and I don't know that I have much else to add to those comments. I will say that I am delighted to see it get three other nominations: not just the nod for Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress that I had hoped for, but also well-deserved recognition for John Hawkes (who was chilling as Ree's meth-addict uncle Teardrop) in Supporting Actor, as well as a nomination for Adapted Screenplay. It has been a full year since Winter's Bone first gained attention as the hit of the 2010 Sundance Festival, and over half a year since it was released in the States, and such a low-key film could so easily have been forgotten amidst the end-of-year rush of films vying for a nomination. The fact that it still received four nominations shows just how great a film it really is, and what a strong impression it made on the Academy members. It won't win, of course, but it's good to see the film receive the recognition of a nomination. Part of me is still opposed to the idea of ten Best Picture nominees, which was clearly intended as an obvious and cynical ploy to make room for more popular films that might otherwise not be nominated. But then I look at films like Winter's Bone, or A Serious Man last year, which would never have been nominated were there not ten nominees, and I consider the possibility that more people may see these films because they were nominated, and then I'm okay with the larger number of nominees.
Looking over the list of nominees, I'm struck by just how strong these films really are. Last year's ten nominees included films like the effects-heavy-but-empty Avatar, or generic-feel-good film The Blind Side, as well as the indulgent and offensive crime against cinema that was Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire. Looking at that list, you can see just how much the Academy struggled to find ten 2009 films worthy of being proclaimed Best Picture. This year, while I may have issues with some of the films, we still have a genuinely solid list of films being nominated. And many of these films have done well with film-going audiences, with five of the nominees (Inception, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Black Swan, and The King's Speech) earning over $US100m in the box office, and a sixth (The Social Network) falling just short. All of which suggests that, despite the significant amount of dross during the summer, 2010 was actually a very good year for high-quality cinema which managed to find significant audience appeal. Hopefully 2011 will also prove to be so.