The King’s Speech
The King’s Speech tells the story of British royalty during wartime. It is about a king who must overcome a handicap against all odds to better his personal life as well as the life of his nation. In the hands of Oscar god, Harvey Weinstein, this film could not have been destined for anything less than the top prize of the coveted Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But this now exists as a history lesson and I think we can all agree that that is a matter that needed to get put to rest a lot sooner than it actually did. But the debate about the quality of the film is something that needn’t be so easily dismissed. The fact is that this is a by-the-numbers historical feel-good drama that misses significant dramatic cues and stands as a formulaic and generic piece whose primary redeeming quality is a its acting (which isn’t even entirely satisfying to me because my favorite of the three stars is the one who really didn’t have much to work with; I don’t think I need to be any more specific).
The film opens with several shots of recording studios (for radio) that are tight spaces with intimidatingly large microphones in the center. This series of shots sets the stage for the claustrophobia and pressure that ensues. Amongst glimpses of microphones, there is a shot of Bertie (Colin Firth) standing nervously off-centered against a blank white wall. He is about to give a public speech. With Danny Cohen’s beautifully composed and deceptively implicative shots edited smoothly over Alexandre Desplat’s finest moment of the film’s otherwise wan soundtrack, this sequence is the best in the film. This scene, without words, more effectively captures nervous, “in-over-your-head-ness” that Bertie is forcibly subjected to than the rest of the film. From this point onward the plot details the account of Bertie’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) pursuing help from Lionel Logue (Geoffery Rush), a theatrical speach therapist that screenwriter David Seidler felt obligated to make as eccentric as humanly possible. Bertie refuses to go at first and he is not impressed with Logue’s unproffessional demeanor but inevitably embraces him in what turns out to be a buddy-buddy screwball relationship. After the relationship is established, there is a montage of good times passing that consists mostly of Firth utlizing Rush’s techniques and giving modestly successful speeches. Naturally, after the film has allowed for enough time to pass, there needs to be a conflict. Logue tells Bertie in the park one day that he thinks Bertie would be a better King than his brother Edward (Guy Pearce). Bertie considers this to be treason and walks away from him. There are a few problems with this moment. The first being that (just like the rest of the film) the timing and existence of the strife is utterly formulaic and generic. And even if it were mildly unexpected, the screenplay does not prepare or develop the onset of the strife. Most of the first half of the film consists of Bertie yelling at Logue, this incident doesn’t look much different, making the following silence between the two seem unnatural (if not confusing).
The other considerable flaw that sticks with me is the concluding speech. Director Tom Hooper has said in interviews that he specifically wanted to make the film feel like Bertie did not have an unrealistic instant transformation into Lawrence Olivier, which I understand. And he also discussed that he didn’t want to overdramatize the moment to make it appear as though there was a full remedy for the impediment. He wanted it to be more about learning to live with the symptom than recovery. I understand this as well. But that doesn’t change the fact that I found the conclusion completely unengaging to the point that I checked my watch during the speech the first time I saw the film.
On the bright side, the film is a visual “feast for the eyes;” Cohen’s unusual take on many shots in the film actually prove to be the highlight of the film for me. There is hardly a static camera in the film and the movements seem neither unnatural or disorienting. The art direction (including the use of the gay porn set) is very elemental and conducive to claustrophobia which is effective in recreating Bertie’s less tangible disorder. And then there is the acting. I have no realy qualms with Helena Bonham Carter’s work here, but it doesn’t stand out next to Firth’s masterful performance. Geoffery Rush has the most eccentric character and he embodies it with a calculated amount of absurdity and restraint. If there is one thing I truly appreciated about the film that I would otherwise label overrated, it was the choice to have the closing shot on Rush’s and not Firth’s face. It really is his story as well.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
… is a mouthful of a title. But the movie it belongs to is rather empty. Never before has a film so embedded with the idea of wizardry been so lacking in what makes filmgoing such a magical experience. To say that this is a mainstream appeal to a very limited (albeit large) audience, is an understatement. The film is a serviceable rendition of the first half of something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Fortunately for the studio, that is all it needs to be. But I doubt this film brought the franchise any new fans.
Let me say up front that I have read all seven books and seen all of the films, most of them multiple times. However, my approval of these works is a little less consistent than my acquaintance with them. The books are far from qualifying as considerable pieces of literature. But they are entertaining and quirky diversions and I see the value of a franchise that can reach to the ADD generation of video games and social networking. The idea of adapting a seven-part series into eight feature length films is an ambitious undertaking that has worked incredibly well for the most part. It is an impressive feat. But moreso in terms of box office revenue and production values than artistic integrity.
The first two films, while certainly flawed, are films that effortlessly capture the spirit of the books by emphasizing the awe at which we and Harry are first exposed to the world of magic. With John Williams’s dramatic melodies elevating the tone of the light-hearted, but dark world, these are pure cinematic fairy tales (although structurally these films are far too similar). The third film is a glorious piece of cinema. It captures the magical awe of the first film, adapts the most narratively pleasing of all the books, successfully displays growth and maturity in the three leads (both in terms of character development and acting talent), avoids the self-seriousness that ruined the later films, introduces and best utilizes my favorite performance of the series (Gary Oldman as Sirius Black), and is the most impressive film visually with Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) at the helm. Breathtaking.
If the producers were after producing the best Harry Potter films possible and weren’t driven by box office revenue, they would have planned ahead and split the fourth book into two films. While I consider the third and sixth book to better narratively, the fourth is the most impressive structurally. With Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling had managed to produce a 700+ paged novel that appealled to ten year-olds in a healthy way and doesn’t contain much fluff or unnecessary information. Instead the filmmakers departed from producing films that can work as stand alone features or appeal to any unexposed audiences. The fourth film has good things in it, but it so desperate to tell its story that it is massively rushed.
The fifth book is a disaster that almost killed the series. I would describe the movie as the best that they could do under the circumstances. The one thing that the book does have going for it is the character Umbridge who was once labelled by Stephen King as the best villain of the millenium. The regular screenwriter, Steven Kloves went on a hiatus for this film. The film has a distinctly different feel as a result. The replacement did a good job finding a story arch where Rowling seemingly forgot to write one but also wrote some horrendously cheesy dialouge, including the closer, “…we have something Voldemort doesn’t: something worth fighting for!”
As I stated previously, the sixth is one of the better books in the series. The narrative simplicity helps this one to adapt smoother to the big screen. This one reincorporated the humor of the earlier films while creating a sympathetic villain out of the underused Malfoy. The love stories develop smoothly and Quidditch returns. It isn’t a great film, but there isn’t much to dislike. Jim Broadbent and Helena Bonham Carter help this leg of the series hold up. Fans of the books tend to criticize this film as being dangerously far from its source, but I argue that it simplifies the book properly and produces something artistic and entertaining without feeling crammed.
At this point, I think you can imagine where I’m headed with the seventh film. The book lacks Hogwarts which takes away what little resemblance the past few outings have had to the originals. There are no new teachers or quirky characters to enjoy. In fact we don’t even get to enjoy most of the ones we are acquainted with since much of the runntime consists of the dysfunctional trio dealing with adolescent drama in unfamiliar and unnostalgic exterior locations. The film is plagued with awkward moments including one embarrasingly awful moment of dancing between Harry and Hermione.
The series has gotten darker and for many this works as justification for the film’s lack of awe and humor. Also, at this point the characters have all been exposed to magic giving less to reveal to the audience. In a narrative sense, this makes sense, but it doesn’t make the film any more enjoyable. Instead of dramatic John Williams music, Tim Burton-style imagery, and eccentric characters in a castle, we get whiny teenagers who are lost in the woods. In a climactic moment of wizardry and human drama, Ron must destroy a Horcrux. The scene plays up romantic drama and jealousy in a giant whirlwind of CGI that looks like something Michael Bay might dream up during a bad acid trip. The plain fact is that this film has much more in common with Twilight than it does with Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the work of Jean Cocteau, or any other great fantasy films.
I waited a week to post this because the Harry Potter film was awkwardly released not on a Tuesday. So I have a lot of stuff to cover here. Unfortunately, most of it sucks. Somewhere, Rabbit Hole, Gulliver’s Travels, The Way Back, and Country Strong are the big first-time-releases that I haven’t seen. Clare Denis’s excellent White Material got picked out by Criterion along with Le Circle Rogue, Sweetie, and Kes. Also, you can now watch both Mortal Kombat films in hi-def!
There is a good mix of much appreciated films this week, I just happen to be in the minority by either disliking or being disinterested in all of them.