November 26, 2010

The King's Speech (11/26/2010)

Lettergrade: A

The King's Speech is about the man who would become King George VI played by Colin Firth, and the horrible stammer he overcame with the help of a failed actor-turned-speech therapist, played by Geoffrey Rush. It also covers a fascinating period of world history ranging from 1925 to the late 30s (and the start of World War II). On the surface, one might suspect it to be a dry history lesson, and the more cynical might even point out that the main elements seem to go right down the awards' season checklist: a dramatic historical setting... a charismatic future-leader before he became a leader... a disability to overcome... the lines of succession within the Royal Family... World War II... Nazis... Winston Churchill... Helena Bonham Carter; all the things that Academy voters eat up. Believe me, I'm as sensitive to crass Oscar-bait as anyone, but so much of The King's Speech is well-done and the movie works so beautifully that it's hard to think that the filmmakers had much in mind other than making a good movie.

As the picture opens, King George V (Michael Gambon) is fading, and fears that his eldest son, played by Guy Pearce, will be too busy philandering to meet the responsibilities of leading the Empire and dealing with the gathering war clouds over Germany. Should Pearce's Edward VIII pass the Crown on instead, Firth would be next in line, but he himself lives in mortal fear of such a scenario due to his stammer, which leaves him more or less paralyzed at public engagements. And the film skillfully underlines that this is a time where oratory skills have never been more important. Early on, George V notes that the increasing omnipresence of newsreel cameras and radio technology require that all nation's leaders must not just look regal, but be able to elocute accordingly. "It's turned us into actors," he sighs.

The future George VI winds up taking top secret speech lessons from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who treats his client a bit more gruffly than Royals are used to. Their "inspiring teacher / reluctant student" dynamic feels a little familiar at first, but Firth and Rush sell it so well that it's hard not to be engaged by their electric screen time together. Indeed their lengthy sessions both dominate the picture and comprise what is best about it. Midway through, I wondered if screenwriter David Seidler, who also wrote 1988's highly underrated Tucker: The Man And His Dream, adapted the material from a stage play of some kind, but I've not seen anything in the credits or the production notes to suggest that he did. In any case, the writing is clear and sophisticated, it's hard to think of lead actors who could perform it more convincingly. The play-like structure is smartly counterbalanced by quieter scenes here and there where both men spend time with their families, and the geopolitics of the day churn in the background, causing Firth to interact with several alumni of the Harry Potter movies.

Director Tom Hooper last made the seven-part John Adams mini-series for HBO, which I tried to watch, but found a bit tough to get through. Part of what turned me off was that the key moments of Adams' life were filmed with an MTV-inspired "shaky cam," as if he thought history needed to be sexed up so teenagers would watch. In this one, he sticks with a fairly classical approach, pulling fantastic work out of cinematographer Danny Cohen, editor Tariq Anwar, and composer Alexandre Desplat, without letting any of them get too crazy.

There's a lot of awards season buzz around The King's Speech already. I never like making predictions on what might be nominated and what won't be, but all indications are that this one will turn up in many of the major categories, most conspicuously for its acting. As a kid, I think I might have rolled my eyes a bit at seemingly stuffy costume dramas like this that always dominate awards shows. As an adult who feels nauseated that a movie like Alice In Wonderland might get nominated for Best Picture, however, I recognize that a solid drama as well-crafted and as well-performed as this is award-worthy indeed.

Something about a reluctant king having to learn how to behave properly seems familiar, though...

November 19, 2010

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (11/19/2010)

Lettergrade: B

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1 adapts the first half of the series' final book, its seventh, into an exciting, well-paced 2 1/2 hour movie. Being a devotee of the books, I have my complaints about what made it into each of the flicks and what didn't, but by and large I try to look at the movies as separate entities: Are the characters and story points clear and interesting on screen? Is, at the very least, the spirit of the source material there? And above all, do the films simply "work" as enjoyable reasons to go out to the cinema? For the most part, I'd say that this one did. I've got some major beefs (beeves?) with how it is as an adaptation (as ranted on below), but if we're talking about it as a film that follows the other films in the series, it's a good one. The four or five action scenes in the picture are thrilling, and there's enough intrigue and mysticism to keep even casual fans of the movies entertained.

I started reading the books after the third film came out in 2004, and during these last couple movies I've sat in the theater wondering if certain moments would make a lick of sense to people who were not already familiar with the texts. Maybe concerns like that are irrelevant... If you haven't read the books by now, you're probably not that interested, and if you're not that interested, what are you doing at a teenage wizard movie in the first place?

The main action of this one breaks from the tradition of each installment covering another year at Hogwart's School For Witchcraft And Wizardry, and instead has Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run from the authorities (now under the control of the bad guys), and hunting for magical objects that will aid in the destruction of Harry's arch nemesis, the noseless Voledemort. Being free of the series' signature formula allows director David Yates to stage things on his own terms, leaving no frame of comparison to whatever the franchises' earlier three directors might have done. Unlike the Hogwart's-based stories, this one moves in a little more of a straight line from clue to clue to clue... the overall plot development is a bit more confined, and Yates is able to get things to progress much more fluidly than he was with the turgid part 6.

Because the preceding movies omitted details that wound up being important in the final book, a good amount of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is spent filling in missing pieces and playing catchup. Early on in particular, there are several awkward scenes where "Movie Harry" must be awkwardly introduced to characters that "Book Harry" has known for years already... the new Minister of Magic played by Bill Nighy, members of Ron's family who never made it into previous films, and a questionable good guy named Mundungus Fletcher, who, had he been around earlier, would have already stolen some key stuff that turned out be a problem in this one. By necessity, Yates has no choice but to patch the holes as efficiently as he can, often by simply having one of the characters in the scene recite a short, declarative statement that doesn't seem to be motivated by anything.

I have mixed feelings about Yates' handling of these movies overall. On one hand, his entries in the franchise have had the unenviable task of boiling massive, beloved books by J. K. Rowling into functional movies, and my hats off to him for getting the feeling right in ways that some of the previous directors did not. On another, though, his three movies have also felt strangely "thin" - seeming to rely on viewers' fond memories of the books, rather than finding ways to translate that emotion to the screen as complete movie scenes. Neither part 5 nor part 6 were entirely coherent or satisfying for me, as I felt they required audiences to already know the details by heart, and even then, to interpolate feelings and ideas that the films only vaguely touch upon.

While we're on that subject, I think I finally put my finger on what really bothers me about the three Yates movies midway though this one: Although he handles individual moments in the series as well as any of the other directors, there's a weird lack of momentum, tension and context in many of his scenes (all of which practically drip off the pages of the book). By that, I mean when a character speaks, he doesn't seem to be thinking much more about what he's saying at that precise moment. You don't see his or her eyes shifting with ulterior motives... you don't get a sense of where these characters have been or where they might go next.. there's no attempt to at the very least allude to aspects of the book that the movies didn't make time for. So many scenes seem to feature passionless recitations of dialogue (ala the Star Wars prequels), as if everyone was more concerned with professionally hitting their marks rather than really understanding how the scene fits into the larger whole. The big "oh shit" moments in the movie only seemed to work for me because I remember how I felt when I read them originally, and that's really not how it should be.

During the whole first part of the film, where the kids are getting ready to set off on their Horcrux quest, there's a patently bizarre lack of discussion about where they might need to start looking. In fact, I don't believe they talk about it at all, which is the exact opposite of the book, wherein every waking moment is spent trying to figure out what the miniscule clues they've got might mean. Later, when the kids are stranded in the woods, without any ideas about what to do next... what are they thinking about? Well, they don't seem to be thinking about anything. They don't talk about anything or really even do anything... they sit and sulk, gradually getting more and more pissed at eachother. The book has scenes like this too, of course, but unlike the film, it always keeps the personal squabbles in the context of the impossible task ahead.

One of the great running concepts throughout pretty much all the books are that the adults - even the ones the kids really look up to - all have their flaws... ranging from vanity, to egotism, to pride, or to long-standing disappointment that makes one bitter. Really, there are no benign older characters at all... not even Dumbledore, who, starting in the sixth book and especially in the seventh, is revealed to be just as imperfect and as troubled as anyone. I can't tell you how disappointed I am that this movie in particular failed to capture that aspect of the books. Posthumous stories come out about Dumbledore and his early life (in the book, at least), which are not entirely truthful, but nevertheless make Harry feel angry and abandoned, as if he didn't know his old teacher at all. It's agonizing and soul-crushing for him, and indeed I would argue that the whole element of Harry kind of losing faith in Dumbledore and becoming more aware of his less-than-saintly attributes is pretty much the essence of the first half of the book! There miiiiiiiight be a line or two of dialogue in the picture that references this, but it sure doesn't get you to feel it.

And while we're at it, there's another powerful component of the book that the movie fails to stage effectively too: The idea that Harry's thought-be-be-dormant psychic connection to Voledemort has again started opening up at will, giving him chaotic, uncontrolled peeks at what the baddie is up to. In the fifth movie/book, Harry attempted (unsuccessfully) to control these visions, but then they sort of went away on their own anyway. In this one they're back, and just as dangerous as ever. There's powerful scene from the middle of the book (appearing close to the end of this film) where Harry digs a grave with intense emotion, and has a series of blinding epiphanies. Without getting into specifics, he's suddenly renewed with a searing sense of purpose and at long last his thoughts are clear and focused, meaning, among other things, that he is now in control of those visions, and can keep them out whenever he likes. It's a major turning point for Harry, and it is appropriate that the first part of the story should conclude not long after. Nevertheless, my key argument here still applies: Yates shows images that kinda sorta represent this major change in his lead character, but I'll repeat that he sure doesn't get you to feel it. Had I not known what I was looking at from reading the books, would I have intuited that it was such an important moment at all?

My journal entry on part six, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

And my entry on part five, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix

November 6, 2010

Due Date (11/06/2010)

Lettergrade: F

Apart from a dozen or so really good laughs, most of Due Date is pretty terrible. I don't mean terrible in the way that highly entertaining movies like UHF or The Kentucky Fried Movie or even Happy Gilmore are terrible, where a large part of the joke seems to be that a movie so strange somehow got made and was put in theaters in the first place. No, I mean terrible in the sense that it's derivative as hell of older, better movies... it leans heavily on tired cliches and on Zach Galifianakis's schtick in order to get from scene to scene... and it goes for cheap, bludgeoning sentiment that is completely unearned and totally unmoving. I don't ask for much from movies, but I do insist that the characters in them behave in patterns that are at least semi-consistent with actual human behavior. A lot of the characters in Due Date act like people who learned how to conduct themselves in life by watching other movies, and that drives me up a wall.

As the picture begins, smug architect Robert Downey Jr. is on his way to catch a flight from Atlanta back home to LA, allowing plenty of time for him to be there for his wife's planned c-section at the end of the week. Of course, Galifianakis-style hijinks somehow get the two placed on the No Fly List, and so the Oscar and Felix strangers team up to make the 2000 mile trip together (you know, sort of like Planes, Trains And Automobiles, or Midnight Run, or the middle of Tommy Boy, or the second half of Twins, or certain segments of Rain Man).

The main problem, I think, is that the picture seriously miscasts Downey Jr. in a mean-spirited part that pretty much destroys any chance the rest of the movie had of being funny. He's a cruel, indignant cad pretty much from frame one of this sucker, a choice that doesn't really work when played up against the otherwise-very-funny Galifianakis, who again goes with his type and plays a sweaty, awkward dude who is well intentioned, but highly irritating. He worked so well in The Hangover because he was a complete and total surprise: There were three normalish guys on a bachelor party weekend and then this very unusual, mentally unstable, bearded psycho creating all kinds of uncomfortable moments and unknowingly derailing everything. But it really falls flat in Due Date and I hold Downey Jr. responsible for that. I feel like it might have functioned a bit better if the character had been a bit softer: a Paul Rudd or a John Krasinski, if you will, who could maybe be pleasantly tolerant of Galifianakis's wake of destruction before gradually losing his shit on him.

On that subject, let's have a closer look at 1987's Planes, Trains And Automobiles (Due Date's four screenwriters sure as hell did!)... John Candy's antagonism of Steve Martin is similar to the point where the John Hughes estate should really think about pressing charges. The antagonism works in that movie, however, because Martin has a great deal of natural charm and even when he hits his breaking point, there has been a relatable build that allows you to sympathize with his tantrum. Like in this family friendly scene:

In the very first scene of Due Date, Downey Jr. treats even the slightest offense with a Keith Olbermann level of outrage ("How dare you SIR!!!), and the almost instant result was that I didn't like the guy, I didn't care about whatever Galifianakis did to him, and I had very little investment in whether or not he got to his wife in time. Seems like a pretty fatal miscalculation, huh?

But character problems aside, this movie has some other serious issues. A solid number two on my list of grievances is its highly episodic nature. The guys go to one place and a certain amount of segmented wackiness ensures for a bit, but then they move on to another place and another kind of completely random wackiness happens. These self-indulgent and nonsensical segments include such unrelated highlights as:
•Danny McBride as a disabled Western Union clerk who beats Downey Jr. up?
•Jamie Foxx as Downey Jr's pro football best friend in Texas, whom Downey Jr. suddenly suspects is the actual father of his to-be-born child??
•An extended sequence where the boys visit an Alabama pot dealer played by Juliette Lewis, for whom Galifianakis performs scenes from The Godfather, much like Jon Lovitz did in City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly's Gold???
Worse yet, the events of these sequences often BEAR NO CONSEQUENCES WHATSOEVER FOR ANYTHING THAT FOLLOWS IN THE MOVIE. What about the climactic scene where Galifianakis busts Downey Jr. out of a border patrol facility that he was sent to for attempting to sneak marijuana across the Mexican border? He drives a stolen government truck through a high security INS compound, smashing through walls and causing thousands dollars worth of damage. Sounds like a pretty serious national security incident to me... but one that doesn't seem to merit any reaction from the law enforcement officials of the southwestern United States at all in subsequent scenes. They even keep the stolen government truck and take it all the way back to Los Angeles, but no one comes looking for it once the scene is over. But wait... I guess they did get the pot from Juliette Lewis earlier in the movie, so I guess that's some continuity between the movie's segments.

Director Todd Phillips last made The Hangover. Once upon a time, he also made 2003's highly entertaining Old School and before that 2000's raunchy but really funny Road Trip. You might look at those movies and say the guy's on a hell of a winning streak. Have a look his IMDB page, however, and note that inbetween all those movies he also made some serious clunkers: That god-awful Starsky & Hutch movie with Ben Still and Owen Wilson, School For Scoundrels with Billy Bob Thorton and the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite, and now this one.

Of course, we are talking about three really funny comedies mixed in with three not so good ones here, but the hit-and-miss ratio is great enough that the casual film goer should be cautious whenever the words "from the director of "The Hangover" are used to advertise a picture in the future.

Check out my entry on The Hangover, and my entry on last month's It's Kind Of A Funny Story.

November 3, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (11/03/2010)

Lettergrade: A-
"Oh Lisbeth! It's the Big One! I'm coming to join you honey."
-Fred Sanford
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest is based on the third part of the late Steig Larsson's "Millennium" books, which were all filmed as a Swedish miniseries in 2009, but recut for the States and released as separate movies this year (with subtitles). The series follows the exploits of investigative journalist Michael Blomqvist and his complicated relationship with the mysterious and intriguing Lisbeth Salander, a punk bisexual computer hacker who has a deeply troubled past. I don't think I found this third film to be quite as stellar as the first one, but I'll give it the same lettergrade anyway for succeeding as an excellent thriller, as a satisfying legal drama, and as a fitting close to the high-caliber series.

I greatly enjoyed the first picture, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, as a well-above-average potboiler featuring atypically compelling characters (and in part because I had pretty much no expectations going in). The second movie, The Girl Who Played With Fire, while still enjoyable, stumbled a bit for me. Instead of simply working on a independent mystery, as Blomqvist and Lisbeth did in the first picture, the second story had them caught up in a larger conspiracy plot that delved deeper into Lisbeth's personal history. The tone was quite different, and certain key elements felt like they were on loan from the James Bond franchise: The blond muscle-bound thug who could not feel pain, the mysterious villainous Zala, who was hideously deformed from an accident earlier in his life, etc. The story was a little sleazier (gratuitous lesbian sex scenes for Lisbeth), there was all this weird shaky cam stuff, and less satisfaction came from the crime solvin' aspect as the two leads were kept apart for virtually the whole movie.

The second film was also designed as something of a cliffhanger that would lead more or less directly into this one. Getting into the nuances of the plot would be pointless for the uninitiated and redundant for those who have already read Larsson's books. Suffice to say that part 3 brings several elements of the first two pictures to a boil, and finds Lisbeth defending herself in court for much of it. The picture seemed to tone down a lot of aspects that I had a problem with in part 2 (thankfully, Zala's appearance in this one is brief), and gotten into territory that doesn't necessarily recreate what the first movie was, but is arguably just as effective.

It's interesting to me that all three stories feature much older characters attempting to keep covered crimes that were committed long ago. In this film, as in the others, we spend time with seemingly-benign, grandfatherly men who it turns out have done some pretty messed up, horrible things earlier in life. Hornet's Nest features a governmental group called "The Section" which was formed long ago to protect Soviet spies who defected to Sweden (presumably for the health-care, the world-renowned culinary offerings of the Swedish Chef, and for the excellent, inexpensive build-it-yourself furniture that populates the land). Early in the movie, the now-elderly guys meet up to discuss what to do about the growing threat of their program being exposed, and who they need to kill to keep it a secret. It's sort of a like a bizarro scene from Cocoon, where Hume Cronyn and Don Ameche draw up a list of people to brutally murder. I was amused later in the movie when a member of the geriatric mafia takes a break from his dialysis treatments and dodders into a local hospital to bump a key player off.

Larsson's plan was have the series continue well beyond this entry, but he died suddenly after completing the manuscripts for parts 2 and 3 (although a fourth unpublished one is said to be caught up in a battle over Larsson's estate). I bring this up because although the various threads were not necessarily intended to be all tied up by the end of this third story, the film, at least, concludes everything in a way that I found extremely satisfying.

My journal entry on part 1, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

And my entry on part 2, The Girl Who Played With Fire