Sunday, February 20, 2011

The King's Speech (2010) ****



Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon
Written by Davie Seidler

I’m sure everyone has said “They don’t make them like that anymore!”  after seeing or hearing or reading something great that was from an earlier era.  You’re wrong.  They just did.  I relish in films like this.  I love adult dramas that don’t use special effects, which instead use people, emotions and humans to tell their stories and make scenes with just two people in a room talking riveting.   

I loved this film, if you haven’t noticed.  Colin Firth should and, by all accounts will, win the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role for this film.  His characterization of the Duke of York (otherwise known as Prince Albert, not in a can) is amazing.  Geoffrey Rush plays  the man who becomes his speech therapist and only friend.  Rush has a great shot at picking up the Oscar for Supporting Actor as well, and although I’d like to see Bale win for The Fighter because Rush already has an Oscar, I don’t think I’ll be upset if he does win over Bale.  He plays his role wonderfully.  He makes what he does look effortless.  Helena Bonham Carter is no slouch either, as the Duchess of York and future Queen Mum.  She is utterly charming in this role, a quality she is not often able to display because of her normally dark, brooding and sometimes evil characters.  She was quietly powerful in every scene she was in. 

The direction deserves some recognition as well.  Tom Hooper has taken this story of a stammerer and made it enthralling.  He does not waste a scene, nor does he over-fill the film.  The picture is about two hours and in less deft hands could have been drawn out to two and a half, easily.  There is a bit more.  These types of films can be made boring by uninspired direction.  Static cameras that make the scene static no matter what is being said, poor lighting that makes the dialogue harder to focus on because nothing is happening, etc.  Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen work very hard to make every scene exciting.  They have used the camera in very interesting ways (one scene when Prince Albert is approaching a room of national dignitaries to read his acceptance of the crown is straight out of the Kubrick handbook) to make scenes of two people talking, as I stated above, riveting.  One shot, during a physical exercise early in the treatment, Hooper and editor Tariq Anwar (who also cut American Beauty) use a simple camera push in on a blank wall and a ratty old couch into a time jump.  One exercise is being done on the push in, and a different one on the pull out.  This is actually a cop from Alfred Hitchcock from when he was shooting Rope.  He wanted it to seem as though it was one long take with no interruptions, but the film cans only held eight minutes of film, so he would have the camera go behind a person or a chair or something to blank the screen to change the can and go on filming.  But, cop or not, it’s a magnificent use of the camera and editing to mark the passage of time. 

The film takes place between 1925 and 1939, bookended by two major speeches made by Albert.  The first takes place at the Commonwealth exhibition and the second over the airwaves when Albert, then King George VI, declares war on Germany.  The first speech is a disaster, because Albert stutters horribly.  This leads to his wife Elizabeth (the mother of the current Queen) to look for remedies.  The first ones try the old methods, like marbles in the mouth, and Albert gets very angry and will not continue.  Elizabeth finds Lionel Logue in a basement.  She is referred there by a respected physician, though his methods are unconventional.  Logue does not know who is client is at first, being Australian and Albert being the Duke of York and not in immediate line for the throne.  Logue learns of Albert’s true identity, but does not change any of his methods.  He insists on first names, which to Albert is just not done.  He does not think he’s better than other people, but he is Royalty and commoners do not speak to Royalty in the familiar.  But Logue understands that the speech impediment is more than physical and to get at the root, he needs to know Albert intimately.

While these elocution lessons are transpiring, we learn that the current King, George V, has always preferred Albert (Bertie to family and Logue, the latter despite Albert’s objections) to his older brother and heir to the throne, Edward.  Edward insists he is in love with a woman who is currently twice divorced and in process of getting a third. 

Edward becomes King when his father dies, but abdicates to marry his thrice divorced love (apparently, according to England’s constitution, a divorced person cannot be presented to court, which would make it difficult for her to be Queen) and suddenly Bertie is thrust onto the throne he never wanted.

Logue becomes even more important during the preparation for the coronation and other duties the new King George VI must do.  Bertie and Logue have become very close, to the point of Logue’s being seated in the family box for the coronation. 

This leads to the final speech, when the King declares war on Germany.  King George’s speeches to the British people during the war were a beacon of hope for all those in the empire and this was the first of them.  Logue has decorated a soundproof room for the King so he can be isolated from people, just him and Logue to get him through the speech.  Without Logue, these speeches may never have taken place.  Without the hope they instilled in the people of England during the bombing raids done by the Germans, Britain may have fallen.  We may never know, but it is true that due to this unlikely friendship, England did not loose hope, and neither did her King.

This film is important for many reasons.  It calls attention, and if I may, gives voice to those that seldom have one simply because they cannot get the words out.  Stuttering is a source of frustration and torture for those who suffer from it because they cannot speak as fast as they think and therefore appear to the cruel as stupid.  This causes ridicule and shame.  This film should give hope to those with speech problems.  It shows that you can live with it and do great things despite it.  The film is also important because it shows just what friendship is capable of doing.  Because of this lifelong friendship, as it became, a man was given the confidence to inspire a people.

I read Roger Ebert’s review of this film and wanted to call attention to something, but didn’t want to leave out what got me thinking about it.  Ebert states that this is a unique period piece because it does not focus on the majesty of the period, but focuses on smaller-scope scenes.  This did strike me during the film.  The period detail is great, but because so little of the film takes place outside of a series of rooms, we are not beaten over the head with the fact that the film is not contemporary.  Tom Hooper made wonderful use of very restrictive areas to keep the focus on Albert and Logue, not on the sensational abdication of Edward VIII or of the rising threat from Hitler and Germany.  It is the story of two men and what they work together to accomplish and does not strive to be more than that.  This is a great film.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Fighter (2010) ***1/2

Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson

I really enjoyed this film.  I know, I've mostly put up reviews of movies I liked, but I have Twilight: Eclipse on the DVR, so a bad review is coming soon, I swear.

To start over:  I really enjoyed this film.  There was a magnificent dynamic between the characters.  This was ultimately an actor's dream.  The supporting roles are rightfully nominated for Academy Awards, and Wahlberg's nomination is unfortunately absent from the film's multiple nods.  The direction and cinematography were fantastic.  Russell uses a pseudo-documentary style for parts, then somewhat polished film for others, and during the fights, you feel like you're watching an HBO fight, it looks identical.  That ties in with the cinematography.  Hoyte Van Hoytema (who shot the spectacular 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In) uses the color of the film to depict the shifting perspectives inherent in the film.  Part of the film is shown as the filming of a documentary for HBO about Dicky Eklund (Bale), a one time almost boxing champ who fought Sugar Ray Leonard and knocked him down, then fell into a life of drugs and ultimately crack addiction.  So, what Russell and Van Hoytema do is use a hand-held camera to show the "fly-on-the-wall" perspective of the documentary film crew.  When the fights begin, you feel like you are watching the actual HBO fight.  The camera work does a great deal to immerse you into the film.

The story centers around Micky Ward (Wahlberg), a small time boxer out of Lowell Massachusetts.  He is fighting his way through the welter-weight devision of professional boxing.  His manager is his mother, Alice Ward (Leo) and his trainer is his older half-brother Dickey Ecklund (Bale).  The dynamic of this family can only politely be called dysfunctional.  In addition to Mickey and Dickey, Alice has had seven daughters from two husbands.  I will say that one of my biggest problems with the film is the depiction of the sisters.  Though this is based on a true story and the people portrayed did participate in the filming (there's a short clip at the end with the real Micky and Dickey and the performances were spot on, even based on a 30 second clip), I feel that the sisters were portrayed a bit too cookie-cutter.  They aren't particularly major characters, in fact they really only factor heavily in three or four scenes, but  I wish they had seemed a bit more real and less just loud, pushy women.  In some ways, that's how I felt about Alice too, but I suppose they could just be loud, pushy people.  Alice is dominating and overbearing (this may be a trend in last year's good pictures, as Black Swan had a similar mother character, just portrayed very differently), but her character is more fleshed out.  Alice thinks she is doing everything she can for Micky, as Dickey is no longer fighting, yet her primary concern is (and as far as the film lets on) always has been about Dickey.  The story progresses and ends as you would expect it to, in terms of the boxing portion of the story and that is my biggest point of contention. Micky gets his shot and wins, but that's not the important part of the film, so I am not reticent in revealing it here.  More on the ending later.

The main focus of the film is Micky and his relationship with his family.  Alice wants to control everything and guilts Micky into keeping everything "in the family".  Using phrases like "You wouldn't be nowhere without Dickey"  and other similar ones, she uses the family as a hammer to keep Micky from venturing out and doing well for himself.  Alice seems to think that as long as she is his manager and Dickey is training him, Dickey can make a comeback.  But, as I mentioned, Dickey is a crack-head, and that doesn't go well with boxing.

Micky's turning point comes when he is pushed into a fight by Alice and Dickey with a man twenty pounds heavier than he is, because his original opponent is down with the flu.  Micky gets pummeled and begins to question if his family is best for him in business.  Enter Charlene (Adams).  She is the local attractive bartender that Micky started talking to at the behest of his father ( Jack McGee).  Charlene enters Micky's life and begins to plant the seeds that maybe his family isn't best for his career.  After an injury Micky receives to his hand while trying to help his brother, Charlene and George (McGee) get him in contact with a local businessman who becomes his new manager, with the head of the gym, Mickey O'Keefe (played remarkably by himself) as his new trainer (Dickey was sent to prison), Micky begins his rise to prominence.  This is when the story starts to veer into typical sports movie formula, but still manages to skirt it due to the focus still not being on the fights themselves.  But there is a fight montage followed by a training montage.

There is a lot that happens in this film, most of it does not need to be recounted here.  I've touched on many of the plot points, but for 115 minutes there is a lot of story packed into it.  Now, as I've said, the crux of the film is the family and how these actors play these roles.  Bale plays Dickey very over-the-top and loud, but in an exceptional way.  He vanishes into his character in a way only Bale can.  I'm rooting for him on Oscar night to finally be awarded with the statue he's earned many times over in the course of the last ten or more years.  Leo is similar in her take on Alice.  She is loud and pushy, forcing everyone into feeling that her opinion is right because she does not let anyone contradict her, in fact she does not even let them speak for the most part.  She is very good in the role considering she is playing Bale and Wahlberg's mother and she is only thirteen and eleven years older then them, respectively.  The make-up for her was fantastic. She does a wonderful job of appearing as though she belongs in  the town of Lowell.  She will quite possibly win the Oscar for Supporting Actress, but that category is always unpredictable.  This is Leo's second Academy Award nomination, her first was for 2008's Frozen River.  Also competing for Best Supporting Actress, and very rightfully so, is Amy Adams for Charlene.  I haven't said much about her making her role seem very small, but it isn't and it is pivotal to the entire story.  She plays a very strong character and like Bale and Leo is remarkable in her ability to disappear into the role.  I'm hoping for her to win the Oscar, because this is her third nomination in five years, after Junebug in 2005 (a really small but very charming film) and the wonderful Doubt from 2008.  She's a great actress and she continues to turn in remarkable work.  This brings me to Mark Wahlberg.  He has been consistently playing great roles for the last 14 years, since 1997's Boogie Nights.  I'm always amazed at his work, except in The Happening, which I wish hadn't.  With the two strong, over-the-top performances the film needed an anchor.  That anchor is Wahlberg.  His quiet and intense performance is what allows the loud characters around him to be who they are.  There is a scene early in the film that sets up his contrast to the rest of his family.  They are all in a bar, all seven sisters, Alice, George and Dickey.  They are all whooping it up and being generally loud and Micky moves off to a separate table, on the same bench as his sisters, just removed.  The fact that he was not nominated for Actor in a Lead Role was a travesty.  That is not to take away from the actors who were nominated, but as Christian Bale said "The quiet roles are never recognized" and indeed it seems as though this time is as usual.

I stated earlier that I had an issue with the end.  The end betrays most of the tone of the film.  There is a big reconciliation with the family, then Micky gets his title shot.  The script eschews the normal sports movie clich├ęs by focusing on the family and it's various dysfunctions.  When the family problems disappear and the focus turns to the fight, the film looses some of it's punch (pun intended, and stolen from Leonard Maltin).  The fights are exciting, don't get me wrong.  Russell directs the fight scenes with gusto and Wahlberg does wonderfully in the ring.  Having said that, I think that directing the attention to the fight and dissolving the family tension makes the emotional climax of the film kind of rote and a little cheap.  I was drawn in by the fight and very happy at the end because he won, but the feeling was a bit empty.  The trouble is the turmoil of the entire film is dispelled with a couple of scenes and ta-da!  all ill will is gone and we can focus on the championship.

As it is fairly obvious by now, the good far outweighs the bad in this film.  I highly recommend you see it for all it's virtues, even if it does stumble in the last little bit.