Reel Life

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Friends and Enemies in the Movies

The Oscar nominees for Best Picture help us see ourselves.

The movies can see right through us, much like those x-ray machines at airport security which strip away your clothes, leaving you standing naked and exposed. Most of us don't realize how much of ourselves we expose, just standing there. A few people may actually enjoy exposing themselves to one and all, even realizing that everyone can see right through them, stripping their facades down to the soul.

Why do we go to movies?
1. We go to movies to fall in love.
2. We go to movies to see how the other half lives.
3. We go to movies to see and feel what it must be like to live a life other than our own.
4. We go to movies to feel the drama and excitement movies can bring but without the risks or the dangers.

But at the movies we come face to face with what people go through in life. We may just want a cheap thrill but we experience much more. We come to understand more of the human condition.. We're all hiding things, we all tell lies and pretend to be different from the way we are. The interplay between players on the human stage, even at its most open and honest, abounds in secrets and lies.

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Six of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture reveal and explore the emotional atmosphere between people and shed light on their understanding (or lack of it) of themselves and the people around them. There are no car crashes, no cute little over-simplified cartoon characters, no pneumatic naked youngsters licking their lips and making faces at the camera, no blue-skinned people.

Instead, characters on the screen take turns exposing themselves to one another, sometimes in real time and in realistic settings, sometimes on separate continents, sometimes in different centuries, but we always know that this is the real world, as real people exchange influences. The characters may be interacting in the Wild West at the end of the 19th century, in Buckingham Palace in the late 1930s, at a boxing ring in Boston a generation ago, at a New York City ballet studio not long ago, at Harvard a few years ago, and next door, yesterday. The filmmakers may set these interactions and conversations in a specific time and place to make it feel all the more real. We must remember that Hamlet and his family could go through the same rigors if set in the South American jungle, in downtown Chicago, amongst a Hungarian circus troupe, just to remind us that we are all far more alike than otherwise.

These six movies I have already seen have inspired audiences and joined our culture. I'm hard put to say which of these films is the greatest, but I do know my favorites.

THE KING'S SPEECH, directed by Tom Hooper, has already inspired audiences and joined our culture. It is quintessentially British, and blue blooded at that. It tells the tale of King George VI, known as "Bertie," (Colin Firth) who became king of England by a stroke of fate. His slightly older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) was a quiet and shy playboy, hell bent to marry an unsuitable queen. He handed back the crown so he could marry Mrs. Simpson. Edward insisted he could not sit on the throne without "the woman he loved" at his side. Perhaps he saw the ambitious Mrs. Simpson as having strength and power that he lacked.

George VI offered the ideal queen, the impeccably virginal and correct Elizabeth, who became the mother of the current Queen Elizabeth II. No one has ever been more proper than George VI and his Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). They held Britain together during WWII through strength of character and loyalty to her people while Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson were hanging out in elegant resorts, dancing in the hotel ballrooms.

The new king looked great and smiled sweetly, but when he opened his mouth and tried to speak, he stuttered and sputtered incoherently. The queen sent out for a speech therapist and found Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush of SHINE, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN). Logue was oblivious to palace protocol. His approach to his craft was rebellious as well. Before his royal student could learn to speak without stuttering, he had to scream, or sing, or just shout obscenities.

The handsome, soft faced Colin Firth is most memorable for his Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Firth played opposite Jennifer Ehle, who here plays Rush's wife. Firth is rather like Hugh Grant, without the quirks and tics, but always tongue in cheek. Despite Bertie's stage fright, he promised to carry Great Britain on his back. And he did, and the audience cheered. He and Logue remained lifelong friends.

Few movies have been so star-studded as this. Even the tiniest parts are given to instantly recognizable stars, like Claire Bloom and Michael Gambon, as the parents of the two young kings. The sets and costumes are lavish, the sparkles of the crystal dazzle.

Director Tom Hooper tended to every detail. It is delicious. Rush and Firth are so inventive and playful that they capture your attention totally, but if your mind should wander a bit, the corners of the screen are full of beauty. A comedy of manners and the absurdity of those who take manners seriously are always funny, and this film keeps a smile on your face.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, is another film that stood apart from the crowd. It is a very American domestic comedy about a couple of mothers raising a pair of teenagers. The kids bully the mothers to bring the family sperm donor into the household, which shakes everything up for everyone. The film is set in generic housing in sunny California, stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Bening, a doctor and breadwinner, is the boss. Moore tells Bening, " You're always trying to make us look like the ideal lesbian family." Bening is threatened and feels the need to fight back. This is an ordinary family in every way except gender, and it takes the sperm donor, Mark Ruffalo, to expose the emotional truth.

THE FIGHTER, directed by David O Russell, is two movies in one, a sparring match between two brothers, tiny, heavily muscled Mark (underwear model) Wahlberg and Christian Bale, who starves himself close to death for a movie role. Bale plays his part as though he were severely hyperactive. The two boys and their six stay-at-home sisters are under the power of their overbearing mother (Melissa Leo). She sabotages one brother while cheering the other onward. What is this about? Of course it is about a family secret. Barmaid and girlfriend (Amy Adams) adds the genuine touch to the mix. Some memorable performances largely compensate for the rather simple plot and the secret keeps the cast alternately tense and excited. Despite the fireworks coming from Mother Leo, the movie belongs to the two boxing brothers.

TRUE GRIT, written and directed by the Coen brothers, is a remake of the classic TRUE GRIT with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. This one is the same story with a stronger script. It's about 15-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who sets out to avenge her father's death. He was killed before her very eyes. She has little money but she hires a decrepit, invalid of a hired gun, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). A more romantic but clumsy figure (Matt Damon) joins the chase. The film is dark and grim and therefore overflowing in macabre humor as we would expect from the Coens. Most of this comes from the interplay between Mattie and Rooster over who is boss.

BLACK SWAN, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is the darkest of these six nominees. His last film, THE WRESTLER, was at least as dark. This sado-masochistic exercise in burgeoning paranoid schizophrenia is about infighting and rivalry in a New York City ballet company. Winona Ryder is on the way out and Natalie Portman on her way into the starring role and the arms of the brutal ballet master (Vincent Cassell). She is haunted by condescending and conflictual advice from her rival (Mila Kunis) and her nightmare stage mother (Barbara Hershey) who finds fault in her every step, as she relives her own failures as a dancer. The painful exercises, the backstage nail tearing, back stabbing and the suicidality of it all make ballet even more repulsive. The more we care about Portman, the more we hate ballet. Portman is startlingly beautiful even after a year of starving of herself, but she falls apart as she distrusts everyone offering her comfort and hope. What a terrible way to raise little girls, to be skinnier, more anxious, and leaving little footsteps of blood in the name of high art.

SOCIAL NETWORK, directed by David Fincher, is the semi-documentary about the creation of Facebook and its founders who made billions and ended up in court, suing one another. The focus of the film centers on Harvard student Mark Zukerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). His unusually oblivious impact upon Harvard was far deeper than Harvard's impact on him. He started out trying to engage his sophomoric world in online contests choosing which girls on campus were hottest. He was depicted as selfish and arrogant, but may have been just autistic, incredibly savvy on computers and disdainful of human relationships. His isolation from other people is creepy. He calls for "friends" but doesn't act friendly. The character shows no feelings much less any empathy for others. It is weird to see him set up a place online for millions of friends to meet while he ditches his own friends and partners. Social misfits rule!

 

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a psychiatrist/family therapist in Atlanta., author, international lecturer and film critic.

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