Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: The King's Speech

The King's Speech (2010)
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce
Directed By: Tom Hooper

It has, arguably, been a slow year for film. Although there have been a few great ones along the way, I've found it tough to come up with a top ten list for the end of the year. Considering the Oscars will, yet again, announce 10 Best Picture nominees, a handful of those films will get in simply to fill out that list.

The King's Speech has had buzz surrounding it since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The premise is simple enough and, on paper, doesn't sound like it would make for epic historical cinema.

Set in the late-1930s, with the ominous (and, at the time, largely misunderstood) rise of Nazism in the background, Prince Albert (Colin Firth) struggles to overcome a speech impediment he's had since childhood. His debilitating stammer has led to countless public embarrassments; however, a long line of "doctors" have been unable to find a cure. After the death of his father, George V (Michael Gambon) and the surprise abdication by his older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), Albert becomes King George VI and is thrust into the public domain at a time when Great Britain is on the brink of war and in need of leadership now more than ever. With the help of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), George finds a speech therapist from Australia named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a man with a reputation for unorthodox treatment methods.

Who knew a film focused on the speech therapy of a now-deceased king could make for such compelling drama? Even I had my doubts, going into the film. I worried the film was all hype and wouldn't live up to all of its praise. I'm glad I was wrong.

With the advent of mass communication in the form of the radio, George is expected to rise to the challenge and lead his people, as a united force, against Nazism. This would be no easy task for anyone, experienced or not, let alone someone with a deathly fear of public speaking due to a seemingly incurable speech impediment. George's desire to no longer speak with a pronounced stammer becomes less about helping himself and more about having the clarity and strength to inspire his people into action. He's no longer simply trying to find his own voice, but that of his entire kingdom. When his daughter, Elizabeth, asks him what Hitler is saying in a rousing speech the Royal Family watches on a newsreel, George replies wistfully: "I don't know. But, he seems to be saying it rather well."

Firth is on a hot streak. With The King's Speech coming so soon after his heartbreaking and underrated performance in A Single Man (2009), he is one of the best actors working in the industry today. As George VI, his performance is subtly beautiful. A lesser actor would have chewed the scenery and over-embellished every emotion, yet Firth's polished and nuanced performance adds layers of emotion and character development with professional restraint. The man understands his character and how to properly portray a man on the brink. It is, without a doubt, the finest performance by a male actor this year. Firth makes George VI heroic and brave without simply playing off his disability. Firth works hard to earn the audience's sympathy to the point where, in the climactic speech at the conclusion of the film, you are on the edge of your seat as though watching an action thriller. The scene is so exciting because Firth made it so.

As Lionel, Rush is at his quirky best. He's such a fine actor that he does more than his share in a supporting performance. At times both hilarious and fiercely proud of his work in his field, Lionel provides friendship and emotional support to a king that experienced very little of either growing up. Like his character, Rush provides support for Firth as both Firth's acting equal and for his ability to allow (and help) Firth to shine. Rush's work in The King's Speech is the definition of a supporting performance.

The rest of the cast is just as stellar, with Bonham Carter, Pearce and Gambon all strong in their supporting roles. If nothing else, the film is a genuine performance piece with talent at every turn.

Director Tom Hooper (who last year helmed the wonderful and sadly underrated film, The Damned United) has done a wonderful job of making what could have been a dry concept and turning it into something fascinating. I especially admired the unique framing techniques. The camera had the tendency to be off centre, leaving ample head room above the actors as well as on one side. It gave the film an artistic, indie feel. Most costume dramas tend to focus on beautiful pastoral images to make up for the stuffy, routine indoor shots; however, Hooper and his camera crew gave it a fresh spin.

The King's Speech just might end up being the film to beat during the awards season.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Movie Review: Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy (2010)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, James Frain and Michael Sheen
Directed By: Joseph Kosinski

I had no idea what this film was about, going into it. I was coerced into seeing it. I wanted to see The Fighter, my friends voted for Tron: Legacy. It all came down to a vote and I lost.

The film was, according to my friends, a sequel to a trippy 1982 sci-fi adventure with a 20-something Jeff Bridges. I'd never heard of it. To me, the trailer for the sequel looked like a blue-hued version of Speed Racer. And, really, who actually liked (or even saw) Speed Racer?

However, sometimes going into a film you have absolutely zero desire to see can work to your advantage. I had no preconceived notions, no expectations. I couldn't have cared less whether Tron: Legacy was a great action sequel or a complete dud. Now that I've seen the film, I realize how hard it is to review. As my sister (and countless others) pointed out, critics should not attempt to review action films. But, I'll give it a go.

The premise (and I will try my best to get all the lingo right): Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a "virtual world designer" who went missing more than 20 years ago. During his renewed search for his father, Sam is accidentally pulled into the same computer world as his father. Sam encounters violent Programs, a sexy sidekick named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and an evil (and younger) digital alter-ego creation of his father named Clu. Sam, his father and Quorra race across a virtual universe (the digital world is referred to as The Grid) in order to return to the real world after defeating Clu (a creepy CGI version of Bridges).

The film, like The Grid itself, is in a state of near-constant gamer warfare. As Clu schemes to steal Flynn's memory disc (something everyone in The Grid has strapped to their backs), he stages gladiator-esque duels between Programs. Clu's intention is to abandon The Grid and travel into the real world to kick human ass, with all of Flynn's genius creations (physically) in hand. Somewhere in the last 20 years, Flynn had lost his power to Clu, who lords over The Grid like an emperor while Flynn has retreated to a temple-like abode away from all the havoc.

Everything is coloured in cold (and eerie) shades of blue, black, white and the occasional orange. The visuals and animation are all excellent. Having computer programs fight one another, with the defeated ones crumbling out of existence, makes for entertaining action sequences. I can't recall having ever seen a film where computer programs faced off against one another by throwing memory discs at each other like Frisbees. My only major qualm, in terms of animation, was the horrible CGI face on Clu. Seeing a younger version of Bridges' face on another actor's body is unnerving and ridiculously phoney looking (and, considering the whole film is essentially CGI and special effects, it should have looked more realistic).

The film is, if nothing else, pure adrenaline. Granted, the premise is a little lacking (having a son go back to rescue his father has a very "been there-done that" quality to it) but many aspects of it still work as an action-packed sci-fi adventure. The cast plays a role in helping Tron: Legacy rise above other mundane films of the genre. Bridges is a great actor and, while this is far from his best work (hearing him say lines like, "You're messing with my Zen thing, man!" made me laugh for the wrong reasons), he seemed to be having a great time and that comes across to the audience. Hedlund and Wilde, on the other hand, are charming as Sam and Quorra, but there's not much else to say beyond that fact.

Two casting choices, in particular, surprised me. James Frain (as Clu's henchman, Jarvis) and Michael Sheen (as the all-knowing Castor) are two excellent English actors who have done much better work in much better films. Seeing Frain as a bald, silver-lipped computer program and Sheen (pictured above) as an all-white merry prankster who looks (and acts) like the love-child of David Bowie and Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) from A Clockwork Orange, was bizarre, to say the least. However, Sheen comes out as the stronger of the two, stealing all of his scenes from the other actors and providing much-needed comic relief. Even in a silly sci-fi movie, he's wonderful.

In the end, my favourite aspect of the film turned out to be the soundtrack, provided entirely by the French electronic duo, Daft Punk. I'm not, by any means, familiar with their work; however, in the context of this film, their musical creations worked perfectly. It added both an ominous and rave-like quality to action sequences that were already pretty trippy to begin with.

Overall, Tron:Legacy was a lot more enjoyable than I expected it to be. Granted, I know nothing about the original film, so I can't say whether or not it was a faithful sequel. It's one of those films where you leave the theatre thinking, "that was cool" before putting it out of your mind almost instantly. A part of me had fun while the other half still wished I'd seen The Fighter instead.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Black Swan (2010)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

We've seen films that have been focused on a protagonist's descent into madness before. But it's never been done quite like director Darren Aronofsky's film, Black Swan.

This was one of the few films I was excited about this year -- from the moment I first saw the trailer, I couldn't wait to see how the two duelling halves of a ballet dancer's mind would pan out under Aronofsky's direction. There's always this reluctance when I'm really excited about a film -- I always wonder if it will live up to the hype and the greatness of its trailer. Thankfully, Black Swan lives up to its rave critical reviews.

This is a very difficult movie to review without giving everything away. For a lack of a better word, the film is completely demented. It's bizarre, twisted, over-the-top and, at times, downright campy. That being said, I loved every minute of it. It's a breath of fresh air amidst the sequels, prequels and romcoms that usually fill the cinema's around this time of year.

What it all comes down to, though, is the performance by Natalie Portman. Without her, Black Swan would have lost a large portion of what makes it work so well. As young dancer, Nina, Portman is so convincing in her role that you literally feel you are witnessing an actual nervous breakdown. Nina works though her gruelling auditions in an attempt to convince both herself and her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), that she can convincingly portray both the ethereal and graceful white swan, Odette, and Odette's dark, sexual and possessive counterpart, Odile, the black swan, in the company's upcoming production of Swan Lake.

I've always found Portman to be a little hit or miss, as an actress. It's hard to believe the same woman who struggled through the Star Wars prequels is now the lead contender for Best Actress in this years Oscar race. Her delicate, innocent and almost childlike portrayal of Nina is heartbreaking as she awkwardly struggles to find her darker, sexualized self. Portman effectively portrays both the light and dark within Nina and, most surprisingly, does a lot of her own ballet dancing in the film. I have nothing but the utmost respect for actors who immerse themselves in research for their roles and it's clear that Portman spent a lot of time preparing for her greatest role yet.

Nina lives in a world of pink pyjamas and teddy bears (her mother, played by Barbara Hershey, still tucks her in at night) in an attempt to move past her dark past of bulimia and a scratching disorder. But with the mounting pressures of the upcoming Swan Lake production and the vicious taunting by Thomas, backup dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) and former ballet queen, Beth (Winona Ryder), results in Nina's violent, sexual and dark hallucinations. Her dark swan is struggling to break through it's pure white exterior.

The Toronto Star movie critic, Peter Howell, made a good point when he said that Aronofsky tends to take one intense main performance (as he did most recently with The Wrestler) and "frames it within an unyielding study of an obsessive pursuit."

The supporting cast holds up well considering the focus is almost entirely on Portman. I only wish we got to learn more about Cassel's Thomas in terms of his motivations and treatment of Nina.

Overall, this exciting and odd little film has not only one of the strongest female performances of the year but it's also visually beautiful and the dancing is incredible.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 17


It's not often that you come across a film where everyone is perfectly cast in their respective roles -- especially a cast as large as The Lord of the Rings. Thanks to director Peter Jackson and his casting directors, fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel were treated to an enormously talented international cast.

I always respected the decision to ignore the head honchos of New Line Cinema and go with lesser known actors. Sure, we may have grown up watching Elijah Wood movies when he was a child actor or we may have been familiar with Ian McKellan and Cate Blanchett from big-budget costume dramas; however, when The Lord of the Rings finally debuted on screens, the biggest "star" of the picture (at the time) was Liv Tyler -- and she's wasn't exactly going to be filling seats. Therefore, I admire the decision to use talent over star-power. It's how it always should be.

By the time all three films were released (The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, The Two Towers in 2002, The Return of the King in 2003) the entire cast had become household names for Tolkien fans and film buffs alike. The decision to cast virtual unknowns worked entirely in the franchise's favour. There were no preconceived notions about the actors going into the film. Most of the faces were completely unfamiliar to its audience and, as a result, there weren't big name stars (like a Tom Cruise or Nic Cage) to ruin the film. It was about the character development and the actual performances. No high-priced egos here.

When most people think of fantasy films, one doesn't normally equate it with great acting. Or, at least, it's not the first thing that comes to mind. This is why, in my opinion, The Lord of the Rings stands head and shoulders well above any other film(s) of the genre and beyond. You've got McKellan, Blanchett and Wood, but you've also got Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Viggo Mortensen, Christopher Lee, Brad Dourif, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, David Wenham and ...last but definitely not least, Andy Serkis as Gollum/Smeagol (pictured above). Serkis, especially, became a household name for me and everything I've seen him in since The Lord of the Rings has not disappointed. He's one of the best and most underrated actors working today.

The cast managed to elevate the trilogy even further beyond being just another cash-grab franchise.