The King’s Speech

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Warm, resonant, and perfectly crafted cinema that pops with strong performances.

Review:  Something I notice about great movies is that they often play so strongly that it makes me wonder how everybody else missed the mark.  The drama is so deceptively organic that it leaves me, the stumbling storyteller, wondering how I became such a dunce.  If filmmaking is like a farming metaphor, ‘The King’s Speech’ was ripe for the picking.  If in truth we’re all walking about blindfolded, director Tom Hooper and company had fate’s guiding hand.  It’s so good that they must have cheated.

I’ll put off the puffery for a moment.  ‘The King’s Speech’ appears as a simple story, an inspirational drama about overcoming personal difficulties to do great things.  The trouble is, great movies like this aren’t simple, they’re just compact.  The tapestry is woven tight.  There are no bizarre rabbit trails or meaningless moments bridging story beats.  Every word, every shot, every emotional beat is part of the organism.  No perfect dividing line exists between good and bad cinema, but certainly one of them is unity.

Here’s what I mean.  ‘The King’s Speech’ appears simple because its emotional center never sways, always developing the central character in direct and indirect ways, examining him from every angle; character, culture, criticisms, and whatever is necessary.  If you said, “It’s a film about British monarchy in the early days of World War II”, you would be partly correct.  In a strictly dramatic sense, the only reason the British monarchy is in this story about a king is that it reveals something about his character, a vital part of his emotional journey.  Even saying, “It’s about speech therapy“, is not completely on the mark.

There’s a tool you’ve probably heard of that storytellers use to help isolate the kernel of emotional truth behind a good story.  This is a premise.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, just dramatically sufficient.  Consider this version of the premise from IMDB:  “The story of King George VI of Britain, his impromptu ascension to the throne and the speech therapist who helped the unsure monarch become worthy of it.” If in some way any moment of the film diverts from this premise, there’s something wrong.  You’ll notice.  Compromising unity is like breaking a bone.  It makes forward movement awkward at best.   Again, I quote Stanley Kubrick, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.  It should be a progression of moods and feelings.  The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” Filmmaking is not like writing a novel, designing a video game, or painting, well, a painting.  They all have things in common, to be sure, but in effect film is music evolved.

Okay, now that I’ve rattled off my usual cool, detached analysis, here’s a little specificity.  I loved, perhaps most of all, the familial element.  Despite a distinctly tragic backdrop — both personally for George VI and culturally — it felt warm.  Human.  Relatable.  Whimsical, maybe.  I had this big silly grin on my face for most of its running time; that is, when the filmmakers weren’t yanking the tears out of my ducts.  Partially it was from the clear, classical craftsmanship, but mostly it came from the performances.  If Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush get Oscars, they deserve them.  Unsung, I feel, is Guy Pearce as Edward VIII.  I didn’t realize it was him until the theater lights came on.  And I mustn’t forget Helena Bonham Carter!  She’s the picture’s backbone.

I love this film.  As a resonant, accessible story (forget the swearing!) and clever cinema, it’s not only Oscar-worthy, it’s classic.

Classic Review: The Truman Show

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A true modern classic, delving deep into philosophy while not compromising its broad appeal.

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Review:  Wait.  ‘The Truman Show’.  Classic?  It’s only 11 years old!  It’s not as famous as films from the same decade, like ‘Jurrasic Park’ and ‘The Matrix’!

Yeah, that’s right.  I just read your mind.

Well, not really.  ‘The Truman Show’, directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey in a role that took him from strictly comedy to dynamic drama, came out in 1998 and was the 11th highest grossing film of the year.  I remember going to see the film in theaters, while my brother went to go see Roland Emmerich’s ‘Godzilla’ (which I still hold to be a fun B-movie).  I didn’t get the philosophical backbone of the story at the time, but looking back on it, I realize it is very rich.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi drama about a man, Truman Burbank, whose entire life is faked.  He lives inside the world’s largest structure, a dome containing an island and a faux ocean.  The first child legally adopted by a corporation, he is being viewed, unawares, by an audience of millions on television.  Christof, the creator of the show, fancies himself Truman’s caretaker and a true artist, but some disagree.  Conscientious people are constantly trying to break in and warn Truman that his life isn’t what it seems.

The story is very close to the philosopher Plato’s allegory of ‘The Cave’, which I’ll let you look up on your own.  The idea being that Truman, once he discovers that his world is a fake, cannot go back.  He has to get free.  Since everybody around him in the dome is an actor, he starts breaking his daily routine to throw them off.  He erratic behavior is especially affecting to his “wife”, who ends up breaking character in front of him in a moment of desperation.  Carrey’s performance, as he goes from happy, to discontented, to dangerous and rebellious, is utterly convincing.  Equally convincing is Christof, played by Ed Harris, who shows us a man so obsessed with his work that he fancies himself a god.

So far I haven’t mentioned why this is a classic.  Obviously, it just hasn’t been long enough- and isn’t popular enough -to be considered universally a classic film.  Some do, however, citing it as “prophetic” of the coming of reality television in the 2000s.  I would agree.  It is an excellent, excellent movie, both funny and heartwrenching, with an excellent score to boot.  The visual effects seem a little subpar, especially in contrast to the following year’s hit ‘The Matrix’, but they are adequate.

‘The Truman Show’ is dystopian, in that it shows us just how far we can take our entertainment.  When we treat people as objects, who knows what lengths we will take to ensure perfect entertainment.  The motivation for trapping a human being in the dome is a desire for genuineness.  Truman, Christof explains, lives in a fake world, but his every feeling is real.  Christof seems convinced that he has the right to give Truman life or take it away, for  the sake of the show.  Truman is an object to him.  From Truman’s point of view, freedom is the ability to take control of his own life and to live from his heart.  The film illustrates why the doctrine of free will is so instinctual; we have to be in control of our own lives, whether in the end we are good or evil.  Determinism threatens this, and makes human desire seem irrelevant.  If desire is irrelevant, then so is creativity, exploration, love.  All that makes us human is stripped away.  Truman made the decision to be free from the shadow world (look at ‘The Cave’, please), and in doing so preserved his freedom.  He had only an illusion of freedom previously, but since he was enlightened, he couldn’t turn back.  It is established that he has a crippling fear of water early on in the film, and as he approaches the film’s climax, he overcomes it and takes a boat out on the faux sea.  His humanity gave him the strength to overcome his fear.

Most definitely a 4 star film.  I heartily suggest you rent it, or buy it.  Take a good, long look at ‘The Truman Show’.

Classic Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A splendidly photographed parable that would go on to set the standards for sci-fi films for decades.

This scene never happens, but that what 21st century fan fiction is for.

This scene never happens, but that's what 21st century fan fiction is for.

Review:  Military officials throughout the world track an unidentified object in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which is speeding in for a landing.  The United States deals with panicking citizens as the vessel from another world lands in Washington D.C.  The military creates a perimeter, and just in time; an alien emerges, claiming to have come in peace.

It all sounds so… cliche.

Robert Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ created this formula, which would be imitated and aped by inferior directors with inferiors stories ever since.  Though suspenseful, ‘Day’ is not a horror movie.  It is intelligent, thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction, its focus on character, not carnage.

The film opens in what I just described.  What happens next is simple, but interesting.  The alien- a very human-like being named Klaatu -is shot by a nervous soldier, bringing the wrath of his robot protector, the now famous Gort.  The machine unleashes a ray that vaporizes many of the soldiers’ weapons, until Klaatu orders him to stop.  He then allows the military to take him in for medical treatment and examination.  At the hospital, he meets with a government official, attempting to convince him to arrange a meeting of all the world’s leaders.  Due to the Cold War attitudes, the official laments, this will be impossible.  Klaatu insists.  When nothing is done, he escapes military custody.

The film chronicles his attempts to accomplish his mission on Earth, namely warning the world of some danger.  Eventually he works with Gort to cut off all the world’s power for a limited period of time, hence the title.

The cinematography and editing is very easy on the eyes.  There seems to be little about the photography that is special, but it is very pleasant to watch.  The special effects, though, are truly innovative.  The shots of Klaatu’s saucer landing and taking off are impressive, as are the various effects of Gort.  The ship design is elegant and utilitarian.

Bernard Herrmann, famous for his work on ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Psycho’, among many others, composed the music.  Utilizing the eerie, ethereal sound of the theremin, he created a signature soundscape that is pulsating, emotive, iconic and unsettling.  The themes would go on to be parodied and imitated like every other aspect of the film.

The acting is not striking, but workable.  The lead, Michael Rennie as Klaatu, surpasses all the others.  He carries both the warmth and wrath of his character equally well.

The film is in direct response to the Cold War.  Klaatu’s mission, it is revealed, is to warn Earth’s nations that they must give up their violence, or at least severely limit it, or else the federation he represents will be forced to intervene.  The execution of the final scenes, though memorable, seems forced and contrived.  Nevertheless, the message he brings raises several questions.  Is it ethical for a third party, such as Klaatu’s federation, to enter into a strange conflict and dictate terms?  Isn’t Klaatu’s threat of annihilation just perpetuating the same ideas that were fueling the Cold War in the first place?  After all, isn’t he taking the position that the U.S. often takes, being the nation with the bigger guns?  What makes his message, from a more advanced civilization, so much more progressive than our own collective culture?

The film suffers from a dated feeling in some cases, yet it is still a breath of fresh air.  I gave it three stars for its ideas, but I removed one for a contrived ending and a dragging second act.  All things considered, if you are a fan of sci-fi, this film is required viewing, and if you are a film buff, this is a guilty pleasure.

Gran Torino

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Aging actor/director Clint Eastwood delivers an understated, truly moving motion picture.

Some things never change.

Some things never change.

Review:  This was my first R-rated film in theaters.  I couldn’t have picked a better one at the time.  I’m very disappointed this film was snubbed by the Academy this year.  It at least deserved a nomination for Best Picture, though I would argue it holds up well in almost every category.

Oh well.

Clint Eastwood leads as Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, a bitter, racist old badass who recently lost his wife to old age. With his old dog and his shiny muscle car, the titular Gran Torino, for company, he sits on his porch drinking beer and warily watching Hmong immigrants move in next door.  His adult children try to move him into a retirement home, but he refuses with a few choice words.  He’s sort of an old Dirty Harry, one of those guys you just don’t mess with under any circumstances.  After a few encounters with the children of the afore mentioned immigrants, he is slowly drawn into a conflict with a local gang.  Along the way he becomes a changed man.

Though filled with very crude language and some questionable discussion matter (to say the least), this only serves to underscore the characters.  It makes them real people, not caricitures.

This is a fantastic film, one of the greatest dramas I’ve ever seen.  It was much better than the leader in nominations for the Oscars this year, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’.  There is an important comparison I’d like to make between the endings of these two films, but I’ll do so in a seperate study.