It’s been an unusually poor year for films, it seems – or maybe I’m just getting harder to please. But over the weekend I saw three holiday releases that were, well, at least watchable. The first, True Grit, based on the Charles Portis novel and starring Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, was perfect material for the full Coen Brothers’ treatment, with their attraction to self-consciously literary dialog, dry humor and idiosyncratic characters. Since both it and the 1969 version starring John Wayne and Kim Darby draw many lines of dialog straight from the novel, it would be edifying to compare the two films back-to-back for their starkly contrasting directorial and production styles, not to mention their performances. You can get a hint of the contrast from the trailers, each of which is available on YouTube here and here.
The second film of the weekend, Black Swan, is, as many reviewers have noted, way over-the-top, but I enjoyed it. Director Darren Aronofsky returns here to his fascination with slow descents into psychosis of the sort he explored in his Requiem for a Dream – the film for which Ellen Burstyn should have won the academy award, truth be told. Natalie Portman, the main character here, is no Ellen Burstyn, but she is very well-cast as the ballerina trying desperately to get in touch with her darker, more passionate side. The deteriorating interiors of Burstyn’s and Portman’s apartments are so similar in style, and serve so similar metaphorical purposes, that Aronofsky seems to be committing a sort of self-homage with them (and he is clearly responsible, since the art directors were different on the two movies). My only quibble with the script concerns the final thirty seconds or so. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that if Aronofsky had been a bit more compassionate towards Portman’s character (and had made a few tweaks elsewhere in the film to heighten the ambiguity of her situation), he might have made a truly inspiring film about the sort of tunnel-visioned dedication it takes to become a great artist, rather than, well, a downer that verges on self-parody.
The third film, The King’s Speech, featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Colin Firth, was the most restrained (befitting the reserve of its royal British characters), but I think the best of the bunch. Of course, I might be prejudiced by the fact that, like Colin Firth’s King George VI, I required the services of a speech therapist for a time, albeit at a much younger age than he. While King George had a stammer even as an adult, I had the much easier-to-correct problem of my Ls and Rs sounding like Ws – real cute at 5, a real curse at 7 (when I had my sessions with my therapist). I don’t remember her name; I just remember how she gently and kindly taught me where to put my tongue in order to properly pronounce my consonants. We played board games that, when you landed on certain squares, required the making of certain sounds. Fun! Within a few weeks, the issue was resolved before it had the chance to permanently scar my personality… It’s best to save the scarring experiences for adolescence.
Anyway, here’s to the world’s speech therapists, the unsung heroes of uncounted zillions of children and at least one King of England-