Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The King's Weakness

Michael C here from Serious Film.

That low hissing you may have heard coming from the Hollywood area over the last week is the sound of the air leaking out of Tom Hooper's The King’s Speech and its status as Oscar frontrunner. That’s the trouble with leading the pack. Any indication you’re not steamrolling the competition is instantly seized upon as proof that you are nothing but a lot of well-orchestrated studio hype, and before you know it voters are mentally test driving the image of David Fincher holding an Oscar to see how it feels.


So what is tripping up the King? It’s not simply that its current chief rival, The Social Network, has staked out an early dominance in the critical awards circuit. Being the critics darling can be helpful, as it surely was for The Hurt Locker, but just as often it's a sign that a film will end up an Oscar bridesmaid. Films like Sideways or Lost in Translation garnered critics prizes by the bucketful and they couldn’t so much as ding the Oscar favorites for their respective years.

My hunch is that more people are seeing the film and finding that it's not clearing some basic hurdle. To be perceived as a viable Best Picture winner a film has to connect to some grand emotional current, to make it about more than the nuts and bolts of the story. It’s not enough to be an amusing story well told, which is where it appears The King’s Speech is landing, despite all its prestigious trappings.


Sure, Speech has big ideas around the periphery, the ones about Colin Firth finding great recesses of strength at the crossroads of history, and so on. But at heart it really is just the story of poor Bertie overcoming his bizarre childhood to conquer his stutter, and a stammer vanquished does not a Best Picture Oscar make. The fact the Churchill is wheeled on and off a few times for the occasional portentous line doesn’t automatically lend the story significance. It’s an anecdote.

In other years that might be enough, but Hooper's film is up against an assortment of movies that do reach that deeper plane. 127 Hours, quibbles with the film aside, made you ask how much you would be willing to sacrifice for life. That rock was every obstacle, every fear Aaron Ralston ever faced. The Social Network, contrary to scuttlebutt about how cold it is, really lands those themes about loyalty and friendship in a way that stays with the viewer. David O. Russel’s upcoming The Fighter packs an enormous emotional wallop with many of the same ideas King’s Speech was circling: casting off the limitations instilled by your family and taking control of your own destiny. 

Maybe I’m wrong and Speech can coast to victory on being pleasant and well-crafted, but Hooper’s film certainly has its work cut out for it holding off the threat of more resonant films.
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30 comments:

stjeans said...

Never believed in it's change anyway. I think it's gonna be ''Social Network'' all the way.

adam k. said...

I too think Social Network will dominate, and TKS will settle for acting, and maybe craft, awards. TSN really hits the zeitgeist in terms of both the trappings of fame and fortune, which have always been grand themes, and how they relate to this particular point in history as well. The rise of the Facebook empire and its dominance (and supplanting) of our social lives is really interesting in terms of how it relates to Zuckerberg's own loss of his previous emotional center (if there ever was one). And most importantly, it just FEELS like a winner. Superbly crafted, deep, relevant.

I do think TKS has something interesting to say about how a royal bonding with a commoner enhanced both their lives, and in fact led to success for the country as a whole. That's a powerful theme and is also very relevant to the country (and world) we live in today, with the great divide between people and government that we all seem to feel. But the film doesn't really frame it that powerfully. The direction is the weak link, I feel. The film feels like too much of trifle. Very twee, and with a score that I honestly was SHOCKED to see came from Alexandre Desplat... it felt so generic to me. There was literally a moment when I thought to myself something along the lines of "why couldn't someone like Desplat have scored this?". I think it was the director's fault. Lots of "insert moving music cue here" kind of thing.

I think TKS will lose out on a director nod and TSN will win picture/director/screenplay/editing.

Michael C. said...

It's worth noting that the director's last film, The Damned United, was to my mind a much more resonant piece, touching on ideas of professional envy and self-worth in a very affecting way, but it was ignored cause nobody cared about an English football movie.

Jack said...

Was "The King's Speech" ever really going to win? Every time I heard the line about 'it's the kind of thing Oscar loved in the 90s', I always thought the same thing - did Howard's End, or Remains Of The Day, or anything else like that win Best Picture? I think we all know the answer to that.

NANI GAITÁN said...

Nat have you seen the new international trailer for BLACK SWAN? it's incredible

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWeEJBCMz58

Rob T. said...

I'm a little bit handicapped here by not having seen all the movies in question--The King's Speech and The Fighter have yet to premiere in my hometown--but I think the real problem for the former's "best picture" Oscar chances isn't that it lacks "grand emotional current" so much as that it seems old-fashioned, like one of those beautifully photographed, lavishly set-dressed Oscar-winning period pieces from the 1980's (e.g. Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa and The Last Emperor).

In the last decade, clever (or at least flashy) editing seems to have displaced cinematography and art direction as the virtue Oscar voters want to see in the films they honor. At least two of the films you cite--The Social Network and 127 Hours--have lots of tricksy editing, and I'm willing to bet The Fighter does as well. The King's Speech will have to be a lot less straightforward than it appears to be to compete with those films.

Incidentally, the whole "grand emotional current" thing seems to play into the Academy's long-standing bias against comedy, which to my mind is the main thing holding back The Kids Are All Right. This would be a shame because it certainly is "about more than the nuts and bolts of the story"; not only is same-sex marriage a hot topic, but the emotional friction between Nic and Jules isn't only a problem for same-sex couples. (Kids has some fine editing too, but it isn't as obvious about it as some of the other Oscar contenders.)

Even so, if it's got witty dialogue and visuals then how serious an Oscar contender can it be? I hope Academy voters remember Annie Hall (or even It Happened One Night) long enough to find out.

Michael C. said...

Yeah, the emotional resonance thing probably does play into the comedy bias, but it shouldn't. My favorite movie of last year was In the Loop, and struck such a chord that I can barely get through a news story with thinking about it.

That said has there been a comedy this year that really qualifies? It's been a lean year for laughs unless we're counting half-dramas like Greenberg and Kids Are Alright. Am I forgetting something?

Rob T. said...

Well, there are some very good animated comedies out there but that just makes two strikes against them instead of one. I also laughed out loud more at Exit Through the Gift Shop than just about anything else this year, but it's an unlikely candidate for "first documentary nominated for the 'best picture' Oscar". I'm even having a hard time thinking of a candidate for the spot the AFI traditionally reserves for popular comedies (e.g. last year's The Hangover), except maybe for Easy A.

Volvagia said...

(sigh) No. The closest is maybe Get Him to The Greek, but Apatow never tries to push at all with his concepts (and they're pushy concepts.) Take The 40 Year Old Virgin, okay? Seems like a perfect concept for a a very funny, very raunchy and very biting take on matters of sexual orientation. Instead, the project pretty much assumes he's straight from square one so we can focus more on the friends. The 40 Year Old Virgin: For sheer lack of daring, I can't give you more than a C grade.

NATHANIEL R said...

rob t-- EASY A would be such a travesty as a "best" in a pic category though. That entire thing is just propped up by the magic of Emma Stone (seriously other than Tucci & Clarkson -- also awesome the cast is a mess and the storytelling is so weirdly convoluted)

i'm guessing we're going to get something DUE DATE and MADE IN DAGENHAM at the Globes. i'm kinda confused by that category. what could they nominate past THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT? they can't even nominate Toy Story since it isn't allowed.

NATHANIEL R said...

Jack -- well certainly a lot of people think it (kings speech) will win (a lot of pundits as it were) but I personally don't and i think michael has sound reasoning.

anyway, the only time Oscar has ever really objected to being told what to vote for was in the year of Brokeback -- at least that's the excuse people kept giving despite that they never object to that -- so i don't see why they won't hop on the Social Network wagon once it starts winning everything.

Volvagia said...

I'm guessing Get Him to the Greek, Red, Made in Dagenham and either The Trotsky or something totally out of left field, possibly Easy A as the pop floater that doesn't really belong (see also: It's Complicated getting in over In the Loop last year.)

adam k. said...

Hmm. I don't even remember Get Him to the Greek and Red? What were those about?

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
MADE IN DAGENHAM
GREENBERG
EASY A?
I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS?
EAT, PRAY, LOVE?
COUNTRY STRONG?

There are usually tons of worthy candidates for best comedy slots but yeah I can't really think of many this year...

Maybe they'll campaign GET LOW as a comedy?

adam k. said...

Oh, what about PLEASE GIVE? That should make it, given the dearth of competition.

Volvagia said...

No way they're going Due Date. Horrendous reviews and the few times they've gone against the reviews, it's been for Snap Decisions that they think are going to be well reviewed. (Nine and It's Complicated last year, for example.) The Trotsky has to get in, mostly because, for comedy, this is THE YEAR OF JAY BARUCHEL and they can't nominate him for anything else. (American belief that VO is not acting discredits Dragon and they won't nominate She's Out of My League or The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Baruchel's at least getting a comedy Lead Actor nom, if not the win. The Trotsky's his shot.)

Volvagia said...

Please Give? If the over-indie ness wasn't enough, there's no awards angle like The Trotsky has. It may get a Lead Actress Nom, but full blown pic? No Way.

I've said this a few times, but they should divide it into:

Drama, dramedy or musician biopic (essentially: THIS IS THE OSCAR CATEGORY) and Musical or Comedy.

If the Globes did that, it would signal to studios: "We have an Oscar category. Push all your contenders there. Mus/Com is entirely for visibility."

NATHANIEL R said...

volvag - i've actually seen The Trotsky so i know in fact that the movie does exist. But to my knowledge no one else in the entire world knows of its existence ;) so I'd say that's the longest of super super super super duper califragilistic longshots. wont' happen in a million years.

adam -- you're right. forgot about Please Give for a minute.

Rob T. said...

Since you brought up Brokeback Mountain, I might as well mention my pet theory that one of the factors that played into its "best picture" Oscar loss to Crash was its resemblance to older-style "prestige" pictures (beautifully photographed landscape and music, strong individual performances, story by a respected writer adapted by another respected writer). It certainly broke new ground in terms of content, but Crash was the more formally daring film (an original contemporary story with lots of plot threads being juggled, an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle), at least as far as supposedly Oscar-worthy films are concerned.

Volvagia said...

I'm not saying it's going to win, (probably not well known enough) but, as I've said, the Globes will probably want to honour Baruchel. The Trotsky gives them an out without looking completely stupid. The Trotsky has an angle to draw people to it (This guy starred in that animated Dragon Movie, now let's see what he can really do in the flesh.) Please Give? Only if you're a fan of Cat Keener or Oli Platt.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

Given that Mamma Mia! could make the cut in its year, I'm surprised no one is talking about Burlesque as a possible Best Picture - Musical or Comedy.

The sheer genre classification of "Musical" generally puts a mainstream film that much further ahead with the HFPA, even if they're bad, just given the sheer dearth of real contenders in that category every year. Remember, this is the voting body that nominated The Producers and Across the Universe for best picture.

I think The Social Network will dominate critically, but not be a sweeper with the major awards, even if it ultimately wins best picture. It will probably win the Directors Guild, but the Producers might give it to The King's Speech and SAG will probably give their ensemble prize to neither. I think it'll be fairly tight this year.

Volvagia said...

You know why no one's talking about Burlesque? One: It's been received a bit worse than even Nine or Mamma Mia! was on RT. Two: They'll have had a month to think on Burlesque. Three: It's not quite popular enough to overcome problem two. Country Strong seems a bit too little too late to effect major cats, Please Give has no award angle (it'll get LA, but not pic).

Alex C. said...

Maybe if they released 'The King's Speech' in more than 6 theatres in the country it would get some attention.

NATHANIEL R said...

Burlesque is SO MUCH BETTER than mamma mia! like, they ought not to be even mentioned in the same sentence.

Anonymous said...

Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind and Million Dollar Baby all had lead characters that suffered something and despite woeful acting, writing and directing they all nabbed the Best Picture and other awards!

Regardless of whatever Kings Speech might not have for the critics to do cartwheels - I think it has enough to beat out Social Network.

And seriously people - is Social Network really the nectare of the gods as some of you claim it to be or just a moderately entertaining telemovie masquerading as a motion picture???

bettestreep2008 said...

Social Network is gonna be the critics darling - just like LA Confidential, Sideways and Lost in Translation were but period pieces and films about illnesses or hardship always win the big ones come Oscart time.

Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind and Million Dollar baby were all rubbish but they somehow won the big ones and don't get me started on Shakespeare in Love!

Don't forget a lot of Academy members don't know how to use computers or even the remote control but can relate to the King of England overcoming a stutter amidst beautiful period art direction and costumes. And trottering out Winston Churchill is a nice touch.

Social Network will walk away with Adapted screenplay and that is it!

Rob T. said...

Coincidentally with Alex C.'s statement, I just got back from a screening of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest at the local art theater, and before the movie a man went before the audience and announced some of the upcoming movies. After the announcement, I heard the following from one of the viewers behind me: "What did he say? The King's Feet?"

Devlin said...

I'll hope for the best with "The King's Speech." Love Colin Firth and want to see him go all the way. I love a good Brit period piece, so I'm there whenever this film gets to my area on opening night. I think the problem is that the initial word propped this up like it was "The Queen" or something, when in reality, it might be more like a "Mrs. Henderson Presents." Not to knock that film at all. Loved it and Judi Dench's and Bob Hoskins's performances there, but would I ever think it was BP worthy? No, just a great chamber piece for the acting mostly. So judging how "TKS" will play against a zeitegesty film like "The Social Network" is tough. It probably would have killed in the 90s, but this is a new day where edgy and topical rule. And there's nothing wrong with loving both films equally. It's just this Oscars mentality where we pit these films and actors against each other. That's not right. Here's to the best for both of these films this season.

Glenn said...

Country Strong is a drama at the HFPA. They've apparently set out to really make the "musical biopic" subgenre work hard for their musical classifications. And rightfully so. Ray is more of a drama than what I would be a "musical" and so on (La Vie en Rose, anyone?)

Having just seen The King's Speech today, I must agree with the post. It's all very polite and nice, but even for a rousing, crowd-pleasing, smile-inducting type of flick it doesn't have enough of the juice. I dunno. The Social Network has energy to spare, maybe Fincher could give some to The King's Speech?

Lucky said...

what about Somewhere? Is it considered a Comedy at the Globes? what are its chances?

gabrieloak said...
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