Archive for January, 2011
In a time where special effects and 3-D seem to have taken over Hollywood, “The King’s Speech,” directed by Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams), is a refreshing alternative that relies on storytelling and organic human drama rather than computer-generated synthetic excitement. Although the film takes place during the Abdication Crisis of 1936 — where King Edward VIII became the only monarch in British history to voluntarily give up the throne — that isn’t the focus of the movie. The film chronicles the life of Prince Albert (Colin Firth) during the crisis, including his struggle with a debilitating speech impediment and his reluctant ascension to the throne.
After a lifetime of failed treatments, Albert’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) leads him to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a roguish Australian speech therapist of paltry means yet acclaimed reputation. Though battling his own demons as a failed actor, Lionel and his unconventional style empower Albert to admit the childhood sources of his stuttering, stand up to his vainglorious older brother Edward (Guy Pearce), and eventually fulfill his destiny as King George VI. The film climaxes with Albert’s first wartime speech as King, and Hooper does a stunning job turning the speech itself into a powerful three-act narrative.
Albert is often times unlikeable and painfully human due to a strong performance by Firth – watch for subtle nuances such as facial ticks and slumped posture that accompany his failed diction. However, the family drama that unfolds is gripping and leaves you rooting for Albert in spite of his flaws. Despite stuttering since the age of four, his father believes the simple suggestion of, “slow down, form your words,” should absolve the problem. Albert also struggles with the public affairs of the Royal Family, as newly crowned King Edward is more concerned with a steamy love affair than his duties as King, simplifying his role with the classic line, “I’ve been busy kinging.”
Hooper wastes no time demonstrating the disabling grip Albert’s handicap has on his life by opening the film with a powerful scene at Wembley Stadium. The setting is devoid of color aside from the ominous “live” red light of the microphone staring at Albert as he painfully stammers through his address. The director also helps us connect with the protagonist by using unique camera angles and techniques that echo Albert’s emotions throughout the film, such as a distorted fish eye lens to capture an entire room of dignitaries staring back at the frozen King preparing to speak. An interesting cinematography choice that serves as an ongoing reflection of personality is the film’s framing, which often places Albert and Lionel on the wrong side of the screen with little-to-no look room. This becomes more relevant when Albert reveals he is left-handed but was forced as a child to use his right. It is a rather jarring technique that envelops the audience in Albert’s continuing discomposure and agitation.
Though mostly free of political rhetoric, the film does make note of the media’s growing role in politics when King George V asserts to Albert, “we’ve become actors!” The King’s Speech has been criticized for taking liberties with historical facts, but the story here is the relationship between Albert and Lionel, with the wartime drama merely serving as a backdrop. Filled with drama, intrigue, and heartfelt laughs, The King’s Speech is a smart, can’t miss motion picture that appears worthy of the recent 12 Academy Award nominations. I expect it will leave many viewers, well, speechless.
It’s never been more timely to talk about “The King’s Speech” — not simply because it’s landed in Quincy after a long run in limited-release, and not even due to its recently acquired mass of Academy Award nominations. We can now add to the stack of discussion points this weekend’s Directors’ Guild Award win for Tom Hooper, which officially places “The King’s Speech” as the one to beat come Feb. 27.
Though my true affections lie with David Fincher’s “The Social Network” this awards season, there’s no denying the power of King George VI’s story, and it seems somehow fitting that the two find themselves paired off this year — Aaron Sorkin’s script gives vibrancy to a film comprised largely of dialogue, while “The King’s Speech” gives the very act of talking the urgency of an action flick.
The agony begins in the first 30 seconds, when Colin Firth greets the camera with a look not so much of panic, but of deeply rooted despair. Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George (or Bertie for short) approaches his premiere radio address like a gallows and is almost instantly rendered speechless by his profound stammer.
Throughout the film, Firth’s dialogue is such that moviegoers in my theater attempted to finish the then — Duke’s choked — out words for him, an effect ten times as striking as a horror film inspired scream. And while the sheer mechanics of his performance are notable enough on their own, it’s Firth’s ability to move past the obvious that makes his performance more than deserving of the vast amounts of credit being given to him. One moment, Bertie’s delivering a symphony of swearing, and the next, he assumes the precise manner of a chastened six-year-old — when shouted down by his father King George V.
Luckily enough for Hooper, Firth isn’t the only one working at top level in the cast (as was my recent complaint towards fellow Oscar-nominee “The Fighter,” featuring a stellar Christian Bale and numerous ho-hum trappings). Both Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush provide a necessary level of levity, with Guy Pierce dropping in for a number of perfectly-acted scenes as Prince Edward VIII, whose blithe nature might not be a great fit for all this “kinging” business after all.
Aside from the monarchy and war bits, “The King’s Speech” is at its heart an underdog-champion tale, complete with training montage. Bertie might not get a fist-pump at the end, but the sentiment remains, and is every bit as triumphant as an audience could hope.
WIEGENSTEIN: “O Brother, Where Art Thou”
In my recent review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “True Grit,” I scoffed at the idea that “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” could be considered a true adaptation of “The Odyssey.” And while the characters that make up Homer’s work are present and accounted for, from the sirens to a Cyclops, the film owes an equal-if-not-greater debt to the fiction of a modern era. The shades of Southern magical realism in “O Brother” can be found in the biting humor of Flannery O’Connor and the too-good-to-be-true memoirs of Fred Chappell. The Coens’ 2000 screwball comedy is basically a collection of excellent short stories – ones that are consistently a pleasure to return to.
By the time the film reaches its close (and it moves at a surprisingly brisk pace), a trove of one-scene wonders has paraded through, a trio of escaped prisoners the sole thread connecting them. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney, joyfully abandoning vanity), a man with a “gift of gab” as oily as his hair pomade, breaks out alongside the cantankerous Pete (Coen staple John Turturro) and sweet-tempered idiot Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) with tales of hidden treasure. And while he fails to predict the group’s encounters with gangsters, the KKK and an entity who may or may not be Satan, it’s these deviations from the course that give the film both humor and heart. After all, who wants to watch a movie about a trip where nothing goes wrong?
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” takes both its title and its goofy temperament from Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels,” a movie that came at the Great Depression’s tail end. In keeping with the Dust Bowl-style setting, cinematographer Roger Deakins digitally saturates each shot with hues of gold and brown, giving “O Brother” the look and feel of a well-worn photo. Characters speak fondly of all things “old timey” throughout the film, and the soundtrack, helmed by T-Bone Burnett, crafts the feel of a jukebox musical – the sprightly tune “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” is a major plot point that never wears out its welcome.
Though much of the humor derives from the dialogue’s fast-paced loquaciousness, Joel and Ethan Coen have pointed to the comedy of the Three Stooges as a direct influence. An odd combo, perhaps, but each scene is a stunner, mixing sharp wit with genuine silliness. When brought together, the result is a film that’s eternally enjoyable, and among the Coen brothers’ finest works.
“Desperado” is a 1995 action film by director Robert Rodriguez. It stars Antonio Banderas as the character known only as El Mariachi and it features Salma Hayek as his love interest, Carolina. It is the sequel to the 1992 indie film, “El Mariachi,” and it’s the second movie in Rodriguez’s three-part film series that was inspired by the Spaghetti Westerns made famous by Sergio Leon and Clint Eastwood in the Mid ’60s.
The film takes place in a small Mexican town that has been completely taken over by an ultra-violent drug cartel that’s lead by a sociopath known as Bucho. He rules the town through money and intimidation. It is a complete dictatorship that is actually easy to believe given the news stories that have come from the border towns of Mexico recently. Everyone is on the payroll and no one is safe.
The film opens with Steve Buscemi walking into the seedy Tarasco bar. He takes a seat and proceeds to tell the bartender (Cheech Marin) and the bar patrons, a mildly exaggerated story of a man with a guitar case full of guns. We see the story play out as the man gets into a gunfight that only he and Steve Buscemi’s character walk away from. It’s a pretty violent and well-shot action sequence that will become the norm for the remainder of the film.
Banderas’ character, El Mariachi, is on a mission to find Bucho. He wants revenge for the murder of his girlfriend from the first film and he spends his time searching the town bars for anyone with information on the elusive Bucho. His inquiries, more often than not, get him into trouble. The trouble always seems too come in the form of a cinematically heightened shootout.
There is a lot of violence in the film, but it is the kind of fantastical violence that exists only in the fictional world of cinema. The sequences are well done. Not just well shot, but rhythmically edited with a lot of attention to sound design that adds to the richness of each scene. There might not be a whole lot of character development, but so what. People don’t watch these types of films for character development anyway.
Don’t be afraid to check this out if you’re in the mood for a good action film. It has guitar cases full of guns, knife throwing assassins, plenty of shootouts and a sexy as ever Salma Hayek. What more could you want?
WIEGENSTEIN: DVD set has ability to suck time away
At several points throughout the expansive two-disc edition of “The Social Network,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin expresses extreme gratitude that Facebook empresario Mark Zuckerberg was so detailed in outlining his computer programming feats. Sorkin, like myself and a large percentage of the viewing audience, can barely comprehend such a vast coding process.
Luckily for all of us, “The Social Network” isn’t really about computer science, just like Facebook isn’t really about listing one’s favorite quotes. According to The New York Times, this is a movie to define my generation, just as Facebook itself has proved to be an undeniable piece of architecture in my life. And, amazingly enough, “The Social Network” manages to capture all that this entails — it’s about ego, it’s about façade, it’s about connection and it’s about loneliness.
At the center of all this is Mark himself, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who ping-pongs from staggering levels of unlikabe to moments of pure sadness with ease. He’s desperate to be included, despite disliking nearly everyone he encounters. He lacks both the natural charm of his best friend, who played by Andrew Garfield, and the captivating smarm of his tech idol, played by Justin Timberlake, who provides a true sense of creepiness at times. His initial goal of taking the experience of college and transporting it into an impersonal, online world is as telling as it is genius.
Given that the film takes place largely in flashback via side-by-side legal deposition scenes, there’s plenty of room for Sorkin to do dialogue as he does best — one moment of argument involving the president of Harvard University is as classic as any back-and-forth on “The West Wing.” Meanwhile, Fincher stages Mark’s journey from prickly college student to billionaire in a stark, chilly manner that seems only appropriate.
The richly-furnished DVD/Blu-Ray release of the film allows nearly every aspect of the creation to be delved into, from Eisenberg’s hypertalkative thoughts on his character to Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, detailing his perfectly-constructed score. Hearing stories of David Fincher’s perfectionist tendencies — 99 takes for the first scene — only make a rewatch of “The Social Network” more impressive. Much like its namesake, the discs make it all too easy for hours of time to be sucked away.
SHULL: Film is well written and skillfully directed
When I first heard there was a movie in production that would chronicle the birth of the social networking site Facebook, I admit that I was definitely less than interested. When I found out that Aaron Sorkin would be writing the script for “The Social Network,” I changed my mind. After all, give him just two characters and the man could probably make a feature length script about paint drying into an Oscar worthy masterpiece.
He’s an interesting guy, that’s for sure. I’ve had the chance to spend some time with him, both in his Warner Brothers writing room and at the many “The West Wing” Emmy parties where the show dominated for most of its run. He’s a humble guy who is very social and welcoming to everyone around him. He is very much the opposite of the way his script portrays its antihero, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. That’s why, for most of the film, I really didn’t like this character at all.
The film opens with Zuckerberg sitting in a bar with his then girlfriend. The conversation is rapid and full of passive aggressive remarks. It’s a wonderfully written scene that introduces us to the socially inept Zuckerberg and his poor girlfriend. The moment after we start to wonder why she would put up with him in the first place, she seems to wonder the same thing, and she dumps him before storming off.
From here on, the audience is sprinting to keep up with the story. It’s definitely not boring, because it is really interesting to see an account of how this cultural phenomenon named Facebook came into being. We are walked through its conception, its adolescence and finally through the impending lawsuits that will always accompany a financial success story like this.
The structure of the film adds to the intrigue as it bounces back and forth from legal depositions to the occurrences that sparked this legal mess. Next, we are introduced to the Winklevoss twins who arguably inspired the site’s genesis. They are the first to feel betrayed by Zuckerberg but they are not the last. In one great scene involving the twins and a third friend, the friend quips that they should hire the Sopranos to beat Zuckerberg with a hammer. Without missing a beat, one of the twins interjects with, “We don’t even have to do that. We can do that ourselves. I’m six five, two twenty, and there’s two of me!”
Zuckerberg doesn’t just have those two to worry about though. His only friend, Eduardo Saverin, who starts out as the CFO of the site, quickly joins the resistance. He feels that he was viciously and dishonestly tossed aside after Napster creator, Sean Parker, gets involved in the project. And actually, it appears that he was.
Even though anyone today that hasn’t been living in complete isolation knows that Facebook ends up being successful, the tension of it being forced away from Zuckerberg and being something less is always present in the film. It is presented as something so delicate, especially during its initial success, that I found myself stressing. Some scenes were so heightened that I felt like I needed a drink just to get through them.
This feeling really just means the film is well done. It’s well written and skillfully directed and the performances are amazing throughout. So if you missed it in theaters, it’s time to go out and rent the DVD.
SHULL: Bale gives an oscar-winning performance
“The Fighter” is based on the true story of boxer Micky Ward. Although Micky is the main protagonist in the film, this is not solely his story. It’s really a story about family and struggle. It’s a story about shattered lives and dreams and it is a story about hope and determination in Lowell, Mass.
The film opens with Micky, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his older brother Dickie, played by an amazingly malnourished Christian Bale, being interviewed on camera by a documentary crew. The crew is there to follow Dickie. He tells everyone the film will be about his comeback into the world of professional boxing, but we quickly realize that it is really following his fall into the darkness of crack addiction.
The first and the last scenes of the film are appropriately shown as footage taken from the documentary crew. It bookends the film perfectly, because the rest of it is also stylized in a way that gives it a documentary feel. Not just in the choice of handheld cameras and grainy film, but also in the composition of each shot and in the suggested use of natural lighting. In more than one interior scene, we see the sunlight glowing, slightly overexposed, through the windows and shining in a very unflattering way on our all-around imperfect characters.
It’s purposely not the prettiest film, that’s for sure. But, frankly, I would have it no other way. I praise the talent of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. His brilliant work was also a major reason why I consider “Let the Right One In” one of my favorite films of all time. The style is controlled and well used in a way that brings the viewer into the film. You can almost smell the blood, sweat and tears that saturate the gym and practically taste the cigarette smoke built up in the neighborhood homes and bars.
It seems that stylistically, the film is taking cues from “The Wrestler” or “Black Swan.” And while I do credit director David O. Russell for bringing the style and content together, I still find it interesting that Darren Aronofsky was an executive producer on this project.
So, style aside, let’s get back into the narrative. While Mark Wahlberg does a good job in his role, he is still somewhat of a side note for parts of the film. He is a crash test dummy for a family that would throw him into the ring against anything if it means a few bucks in their pocket. The family is led by the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed matriarch Alice. She is played so believably by Melissa Leo that it’s difficult not to look at her and think, “I know someone just like that. I know her and it creeps me out.”
It’s not until Micky meets girlfriend Charlene that, through her, he finally gets a voice. She is willing to say what he won’t. She’s the only one that is really with Micky, in his corner, fighting for a better life.
If you do see the film, and I think you should, stick around for a few seconds after the credits start to roll. The filmmakers have added a little footage of the real Micky and Dickie talking to the camera. It’s recent footage, so they are a little older than their characters in the film. Still it’s great to see the real deal. Also, watching the real Dickie for a few moments will make you appreciate the amazing and dedicated performance that Christian Bale brought to the character. It’s an Oscar worthy performance if I’ve ever seen one. Bale has earned it, so lets see if he takes the statue home.
WIEGENSTEIN: Film stars don’t stand up to real-life
“The Fighter” is a film that rolls off the mind by the time one traverses the theater parking lot. Upon returning home, I was left with vaguely positive feelings toward the film, but nothing that rooted it in my mind as particularly stand-out.
Nothing, that is, save for Christian Bale. It’s lucky for David O. Russell’s film that Dicky Eklund, a hyperactive drug addict, plays such a huge role in its story. Without him, “The Fighter” would simply be the cookie-cutter underdog-athlete picture that its preview suggests. Bale’s name is currently being bandied about as a potential Best Supporting Actor nominee throughout the upcoming award season, and watching any five minutes of “The Fighter” gives a strong case for him.
The fact remains, sadly, that though Dicky once was a champion fighter, Russell’s story is not about him. In truth, it’s shouldn’t even really be about Mark Wahlberg’s protagonist, Micky Ward. His conflict and emotions are meant to be internalized, but are so deeply submerged that Wahlberg’s screen presence is frustratingly dull. While the boxing scenes here are visually sharp and expertly choreographed, the fighting that’s of true interest is within the family of Eklund and Ward.
Headed by Alice, played by Melissa Leo, who is able to dominate the screen every second she’s there, and rounded out by an imposing Greek chorus of seven sisters, the relatives are omnipresent, but frustratingly vague. The inter-family strain that mounts throughout the film as Micky attempts to separate himself from his half-brother’s questionable influence on his boxing career are fascinating enough to warrant the movie’s focus — much more so than the heavy emphasis on Micky’s love interest, played by Amy Adams.
It’s worth mentioning that “The Fighter” closes with a clip of the real Micky and Dicky, interacting much as they do in Russell’s fictionalized world. And while the similarities between the actual Eklund and the Christian Bale version are remarkable, the inclusion has the unintended side effect of wishing that the whole film could have simply been a documentary on the Ward-Eklund relationship in the first place. Such are the perils of filming interesting real-world personalities — they can always play the parts better than Hollywood could ever hope to.
SHULL: Film is a must-see
“True Grit” is the latest Coen Brothers film. It stars Jeff Bridges as “Rooster Cogburn,” Hailee Steinfeld as “Mattie Ross” and Matt Damon as “Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.”
Let me be clear that this is not a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne, but rather a retelling of the Charles Portis novel. Not that there is anything wrong with the John Wayne version, it is a good film and is important in its own right. The Coen Brothers “True Grit” does however, in my opinion, bring a darker version of the material. The characters are rougher and the landscapes are much more stark. The tone of the film is appropriately dark but with moments of levity peppered throughout.
The plot surrounds Mattie Ross and her desire to avenge the death of her father. From her first introduction, we see her as an intelligent, strong willed and precocious 14-year-old girl. She arrives in town to claim the body of her father who was killed by Tom Cheney (who is wonderfully played by Josh Brolin) and refuses to head home until Cheney is brought to justice.
After securing money by sharply negotiating some terms of her father’s estate, Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn to help her track down Cheney. Mattie chooses Cogburn, because his reputation leads her to believe that, like her, he is an individual who possesses true grit.
As the two head out in search of Cheney, they are joined by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. He has already been tracking Cheney for a few weeks and hopes to lead the group in the right direction.
Much of the humor in the film occurs between LaBoeuf and Cogburn, as they bicker back and forth for most of the time they are together.
“True Grit” is a must-see. A good Western is a rare thing lately and this film really knocks it out of the park. It is a classic story that is skillfully told by the always-amazing Coen Brothers and the performances are excellent throughout. The actors are barely recognizable as they transform themselves into the characters.
Check it out and let the Coen Brothers take you back to the 1880’s for a few hours.
WIEGENSTEIN: Movie blends dark and humor
In recent years, the term gritty seems to be almost exclusively applied to franchise reboots — Christopher Nolan’s take on “Batman,” to use one notable example, it was darker and edgier. Once a descriptor has become a parody of itself, once it’s possible to find a gritty version of “Blue’s Clues” on YouTube, it’s easy to forget what the meaning was to begin with.
Here, the quality of grit is of ultimate importance. Mattie Ross, as Hailee Steinfeld, will accept nothing less to avenge the murder of her father, and is pointed in the direction of (in)famous U.S. Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn. She is sold on him the minute he lists, with no small amount of pride, the number of killings throughout his career.
Joel and Ethan Coen have largely stuck to stories of their own creation, with excursions into remakes and adaptations being highly hit, like “No Country For Old Men,” or miss with “The Ladykillers.” Here, though, the duo revels in elements of the source material that line up perfectly with their fixations — most notably the fantastically verbose dialogue — while bringing the best of their own recurrent team to the forefront.
As Roger Deakins frames a wilderness both harsh and beautiful in one exquisitely composed shot after the next, Jeff Bridges returns to the Coen universe in an attempt to fill the aging, alcohol-soaked Rooster’s shoes in his own way, rather than try out his best John Wayne impression, thankfully. And while there are many old friends throughout “True Grit,” it’s the debut of the remarkable Steinfeld that anchors the film.
“True Grit” finds the Coens in harmony with both their dark and humorous sides. However, the resulting blend may not inspire a CollegeHumor.com parody, and I mean that as the highest compliment possible.
Note: Though the wonderful “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was nominated for an Adapted Screenplay Academy Award, I exclude it from my own listing. Once we claim one “hero’s journey” tale as being adapted from “The Odyssey,” thousands must be instantly added to the tally.