Monday, December 20, 2010

The King's Speech (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

One advantage remains unchallenged about living in Los Angeles--far more opportunities to see movies for free.  Case in point:  My own chance to see The King's Speech last week, followed by a fascinating Q&A with the film's screenwriter, David Seidler.

A bit of background for those who don't know (and judging by the reactions of my friends, that might be the majority).  When King George V (Queen Victoria's grandson) died, his eldest son David became King under the name Edward VIII.  But David didn't take his duties seriously at all, was actually something of a Nazi sympathizer, and insisted on marrying a woman who was twice divorced.  This last was legally insurmountable at the time, so Edward VIII abdicated.  Next in line lay his brother, Bertie, the Duke of York.  Bertie, a shy man with a pronounced stutter, had no desire at all for the throne.  Quite the opposite!  But he also regarded it as his duty to the nation, a nation then on the road to the second world war.  As George VI, he reigned during that war and eventually became a much-loved figure.  His daughter Elizabeth is Queen of the United Kingdom today.

The movie deals with the relationship between Bertie (played by Colin Firth) and the man who became his voice coach--an Australian named Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush).  Considered quite a radical for his time, Logue focused on the emotional reasons behind a stutter--much to his patient's displeasure and reluctance.  As it happens, the more we glimpse of Bertie's childhood the more heroic he seems, the more we see him as potentially a great monarch and yet we ache that he might be forced into such a role.  More subtly, we come to understand the quiet, reserved and fathoms-deep love between him and the woman who was first his Duchess then his Queen (played by Helena Bonham Carter).  It is she who finds Logue and overcomes her husband's reluctance to see another damn specialist.  Maybe it shows my age, but something about the portrayal of a love affair between a happily married middle-aged couple touches my heart.

Logue turns out to be charming, irreverent but respectful, and also to know what he is about.  From the Q&A I was pleased to learn the director wanted historical accuracy if at all possible, down to ditching a nice subplot when evidence emerged weeks before filming began that its central tenet happened to be untrue.  Logue himself presented far fewer problems, mostly because he didn't leave detailed notes of what he did during his sessions with the King.  The screenwriter drew upon his own experiences as a stammerer who underwent treatment.

I will mention here that Colin Firth will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar.  He not only turns in a fine performance (when has he not?) but does so with great technical skill, both subtle and obvious.  This is the kind of thing the Academy likes to award.  That sounds cynical, doesn't it?  But it makes sense, given how many extremely good performances dot movies each year.  The ones that show some real flourish get the most attention, and understandably so.  In this case, not only is there a technical matter of an almost-crippling stutter, but the way he has to spend so much of the film with a stiff upper lip, ramrod straight, formal and polite and yet half the time in something like emotional agony.

The whole cast does a splendid job.  Geoffrey Rush almost effortlessly steals most films in which he appears simply by turning in such interesting, entertaining performances.  Here we have no exception, save that Firth stands toe-to-toe with him.  Amusingly, Derek Jacobi plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, a well-meaning but overly conventional man who disapproves of Logue--amusing because of course Jacobi gained fame playing another stuttering prince himself, in I, Claudius.  Bonham Carter is likewise splendid as the gently courageous lady later known as the Queen Mum.  Another amusing story was that the screenwriter had to get the real Queen Mum's permission to access what notes Logue left behind.  She granted it, but only after her death because of the painful memories involved.  She was in her eighties at the time and he thought he wouldn't have long to wait.  Then she lived to be over a hundred!

Enough of fascinating trivia!  How is the film?  As might be obvious, I thought the whole thing both moving and charming, a portrait of friendship that allowed a quiet hero lead his people during the worst hours they ever knew.  Having already won a slew of awards, I'm sure it will win many more.  And will deserve every single one.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Violence and Drama

(Some) spoilers ahoy!

One of my favorite t.v. shows is Criminal Minds, about a fictional unit of the FBI that does nothing but hunt down serial murderers.  Actually, the FBI does have such a unit, but one a lot larger and less of a small elite team.  Dramatic license and all that.  I'm not complaining about that much.  Helps to make a more dramatic story-telling format and all.  Plenty of other absurdities in there as well--like the wonderful Dr. Reed whom I just don't believe as an FBI agent at all.  The current season is introducing a new character, a trainee with a unique insight because her father was a serial killer, a fact with which she struggles every day (at one point she almost cried when admitting that, try as she might, she doesn't hate him).  Good stuff, from a dramatic standpoint.  From a reality one?  No.  Just like Clarice Starling would never, ever, under any circumstances have been allowed to work on the Buffalo Bill case.  No way, no how.  But Silence of the Lambs is a totally brilliant film that I love dearly.

But I came across an interesting interview today about the spinoff being developed, starring Forrest Whitaker, Richard Schiff and Janeane Garofalo (wow--talk about a dream cast!).  Ms. Garofalo has mixed feelings.  Loves to have a job, grateful in fact.  But uneasy about a program that regularly depicts women being tortured and murdered.

With respect, I do believe she's missing the point.  It all comes down to context.  Depictions of something do not equate to endorsement.  Not in and of themselves.  Methinks she and anyone else would have an excellent case against a program (or movie, or book, or anything really) that treated the violence in what might as well be dubbed pornographically.   If we the audience are meant to revel in the violence for its own sake, if the violence is portrayed so as to get us all worked up--that is very different from what Criminal Minds does.

Let me mention here I don't mind portrayals like that, necessarily.  I loved both Kill Bill movies, and as my previous blog entry shows I adore the show Dexter.  But both those films do more than celebrate the violence involved--they examine it, stirring up more feelings that simple joy at "taking care of business."   Both explore the ambiguity of violence in what is after all a violent world (although not universally so).

Criminal Minds touches on that as well, barely.

Mostly, the show depicts serial killers as twisted human wrecks who need to be taken down, or at least neutralized.  The violence is played not for excitement, but horror.  We see the families of the victims, often in shock and dismay, as well as the sickened faces of those who confront the worst of what men do virtually every day.  No two of them respond the same, and the complexity of their reactions helps make it a successful, gripping series of stories.

In fact, I'd say this show avoids what has been a trap for the genre ever since Silence of the Lambs came out--the tendency to glamorize serial killers.  Yeah, Hannibal Lecter fascinates as well as horrifies, and in a weird sense we're almost on  his side.  But the human monsters the BAU confronts are never like that.  They are at best pitifully warped souls, at worst the equivalent of mad dogs.  People sometimes forget that memorable as Lecter is, the main character and spine of Silence is Clarice.  Sir Anthony Hopkins even said at the time the movie is a love story--about how the courage and compassion of Clarice stirs love in this terrible human being who cannot feel pity or kindness.  Without her, there is no story.  Or at least no good one.

So it is on Criminal Minds.  Whereas Dirty Harry might be an avenging icon of frontier justice in a modern world, the BAU team have more in common with Batman or Sherlock Holmes.  Theirs is not a mission of violence or revenge.  Rather they see themselves as guardians against chaos, who apply human genius against darkness threatening the innocent.

One episode in particular sticks in my mind, "The Uncanny Valley."  The Unsub (UNidentified SUBject) has been kidnapping women to keep them drugged and dressed up like dolls.  Not for any sexual reason, but as it turns out to substitute for the dolls her father took away.  Those dolls were all she had, what she needed to make herself feel whole following her own father raping her in childhood.  He wanted her to keep silent so subjected the then-twelve-year-old to electro-shock therapy, permanently damaging her brain.  This story could have been so incredibly ugly, so misogynistic, so unclean in its treatment of the subject.  For one thing, the Unsub might have repeated her own abuse onto her dolls.  But no, she just wanted to comb their hair and have tea.  What really got me was the end--not only how Dr. Reed defused the situation by giving this crippled soul her original dolls back, but the joy in the faces of her latest abductee and that woman's husband as they are reunited.  This was not a story wallowing in violence for its own sake, or lingering voyeuristically over torture.  Here we saw a tale of heroes, doing their best to protect and serve all the innocent victims--even those who go on to have victims themselves.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Friend Dexter

Spoilers ahoy!

I can still remember first becoming aware of Dexter, the Showtime series.  These huge billboard ads near my workplace in Hollywood, proclaiming "America's favorite serial killer is back."  Michael C. Hall (of Six Feet Under fame) smiled out at passers-by with a silly grin and blood drops splattering his face.  Okay.  Got me intrigued enough to check it out.  Said ad campaign proved to be somewhat misleading.  They often are...

At heart Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who wants not to be.  Adopted at age three by cop Harry Morgan, he began to show early signs of psychopathy.  Harry did something unusual--he trained Dexter, not only in how not to get caught but also in who should die.  The Code of Harry was born, with its commandment that only murderers are valid victims, those Dexter can prove beyond any shadow of doubt guilty.  The idea was to protect Dexter, allowing him to vent his violent tendencies (Dexter calls that part of him his "Dark Passenger").  By the time of the series, Harry is long dead but appears in the title character's mind to offer advice, warnings, etc.  Surprisingly some fans seem to think this is literally Harry's ghost, which is a little odd since even Dexter knows this is just a part of himself.

Going in, I expected a dark, quirky comedy.  Well, that the show is but even more impressively it is a compelling drama about a man who believes himself inhuman, a monster incapable of human emotions, a man who constantly examines his life via inner monologue--yet is all-too-clearly human, shows emotions (which often surprise him), and often has little clue as to what is going on around as well as within him.

Something to mention about that is his pathology.  Writing merely as a layman, Dexter doesn't really come across as a pure sociopath to me.  For one thing, he displays genuine remorse.  I suspect it is pretty minor remorse compared to what I feel, but in his limited emotional landscape that is huge.  For another, he seems to genuinely care about others.  He is startled to learn just how reluctant he is to kill his foster sister, Deb (a great character in her own right--foul-mouthed, hard-edged, workaholic homicide detective with a startlingly tender heart at times).  When one of his victims uses a foul word for Dexter's girlfriend Rita (supposedly nothing more than a prop to help him blend in, seem normal) Dexter instantly puts a knife through the guy's heart--and look surprised at his reaction.  Make no mistake, the man is still a ruthless killer with an impressive body count (a couple of dozen at least--and some of those kills are hilarious to watch).  But he cares.  About some people, anyway.  Sociopaths don't.  More, Dexter actually displays a few symptoms of very minor autism--his appearance of being a normal guy a rigorously constructed series of masks, not like the virtuoso manipulation so many high-functioning sociopaths demonstrate (Ted Bundy, for example).

Plus there's the fact he's lonely.  In fact, one consistent tension in the show continues to be how others fill some kind of emotional void in Dexter's life, yet when some of them get too close, they end up dead.  In season one, it was Dexter's long-lost brother and fellow serial killer Brian--who really should have known better than to reveal himself given Dexter's M.O.  Season  two saw Lilah, a sociopath artist who believed she'd found a soul-mate in Dexter, and found out in the end that trying to kill Rita's children was a sure way to have her heart not so much broken as pierced.  Literally.  Miguel Prado in season three was a quietly dangerous assistant district attorney who accidentally discovered Dexter's secret, and tried to be his friend, to enter into his world of death-dealing.  Yet Miguel didn't really care about the Code, and when thwarted tried to kill Dexter.  Well, there was a season four so we know essentially how that ended.  Season four pitted Dexter up against the Trinity Killer, a hugely successful serial murderer who (like Dexter) maintained a seemingly normal family life--which proved fascinating for Dexter.  But only one of them could survive in the end...

We are now approaching the final episodes of the fifth season.  The irony inherent in the show continues to echo through nearly every detail.  But this season has brought with it the most fascinating guest character so far.  Lumen, played by Julia Stiles, was raped and tortured for god-only-knows how long before Dexter killed her would-be murderer.  She saw him do it, and despite a part of him (Harry) all but screaming in Dexter's ear to simply let her die, he just couldn't do it.  Rather, he treated her wounds and helped.  Eventually, she saw him as someone who understood, the one person with whom she could open up about her longing--because she'd been tormented by a group of men, not just one.  She wanted them dead, to see each one of them die, as the only way she could ever again feel peace.

And he did understand.  He promised to help, hoping that in helping her the pain of his own loss (Rita, murdered by Trinity) could be healed, at least some.  What has followed frankly resembles a kind of dark and weird courtship.  At first Lumen (quite understandably) could not bear being touched by anyone.  Yet after a while when Dexter wiped a drop of blood off her cheek, she didn't even react.  Then, later, she hugged him spontaneously.  When he gave her a pair of gloves (to avoid fingerprints) she almost blushed, noting "They're just like yours."  Which was adorable.  As was Dexter's reaction upon learning Lumen's boyfriend had finally found her and wanted her to go away with him.  It was almost like a pair of thirteen-year-olds with a mutual crush and no idea how to handle it!

Not surprisingly, when Lumen herself drove a knife directly into one of her rapists' heart, while Dexter watched, it really played like losing her virginity--to someone she loved.  That night, they even consummated their relationship, while Dexter's amazed inner dialogue noted that in this young woman he's found someone who sees the real him--but does not see a monster.  Not at all.

Methinks a lot of what makes this series so powerful is that it is all about the troubling truths we carry around us every day.  Who does not feel (at least sometimes) like a total stranger?  Haven't we all found the idea baffling that anyone could know us totally and feel anything but distaste?  Isn't finding love or genuine friendship a surprise?  Aren't we all freaks, surrounded by normal people?  Don't we all have unhealed wounds, and feel desire for dark horrible things sometimes?

I do.  And so Dexter is my friend.  My brother.  An avatar of parts of me that usually remain hidden, because looking at them hurts, especially in the unforgiving glare of the sun.