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Royal problems: Firth and Bonham-Carter in The King’s Speech.

He Said a Mouthful

By Ann Morrow

The King’s Speech

Directed by Tom Hooper

 

The King’s Speech earned seven Golden Globe nominations, and by rights should garner at least that many Oscar noms. A dramatization of the future King George VI’s stuggle with a speech impediment on the eve of World War II, this wonderfully episodic view of Great Britain’s royal family is about much more than Prince Bertie’s private travails with a humiliating stutter. It’s also about the newly emerging role of telecommunications on the world stage, sly glimpses at a charming and supportive royal marriage (Bertie’s with Elizabeth, the future Queen Mum), child abuse behind closed palace doors, the national security risk posed by the vapid heir apparent, Prince Edward, and, last but not least, an enduring friendship between two men who seemingly could not be more different. Bertie’s unlikely friend and ally is Lionel Logue, a failed actor from Australia who becomes Bertie’s last-ditch effort to find an effective speech therapy.

The importance of Bertie (Colin Firth) being able to speak directly to the public is shown in two different scenarios; first by his ailing father, King George V (Michael Gambon), who easily conquers “the wireless” in his baritone radio addresses, and later, in a newsreel of Hitler’s oratory inspiring endless columns of marching troops.

Adding to the pressure on Bertie is the realization that his older brother (Guy Pearce) is more concerned with his paramour, the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, than he is with being king. With a push from his regally no-nonsense wife (Helena Bonham Carter), Bertie meets with Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) at the Logues’ shabby flat. That the first meeting is not a success is an understatement (and the royals are all about understatement, even when discussing such inflammatory topics as a sadistic nanny). Bertie finds Lionel’s unorthodox methods to be disrespectful, and his personal questions to be painful. Yet Lionel is convinced that he can help the quietly despairing prince, and senses similarities in Bertie’s upbringing and the shell-shocked soldiers he treated in Australia. And even at their most mutually stubborn, the two men have a bantering rapport. “Surely a royal prince’s brain knows what its mouth is doing,” asks Lionel in exasperation. “You’re not well acquainted with many royal princes, are you?” replies Bertie in his characteristic deadpan.

Firth expresses the prince’s speech impediments convincingly without sounding the least bit laughable, even when Bertie’s flashes of verbal temper are channeled into liberating bursts of obscenities. Firth is just as sensitive with revealing the toll royal burdens and uncertainties have taken on the prince, as the camera catches a depth of sadness or bittersweet smile in Bertie’s private moments, even during a happy interlude with his two daughters, who heedlessly ask their father to tell them a story. Rush, too, excels at the nuances of his character, especially Lionel’s tenacious pleasure in being an actor, albeit an unemployed one. All of the supporting cast rise to the occasion, from Bonham-Carter’s delightful queen-consort to Timothy Spall’s ungainly yet believable Churchill. In one incisive mise-en-scene, religious preparations for coronation by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) are swept aside for “rehearsals.”

The pitch-perfect script by David Seidler (Tucker) and the actor’s-dream direction by Tom Hooper, whose background in class-conscious Brit-lit dramas apparently prepared him to knock the stuffing out of royal pomp, are unobtrusively bolstered by the evocative camera work (by Danny Cohen) and original score (by Alexander Desplat), ably serving the cause of the King’s speech to his peoples (the radio address that made the new monarch the symbol of English resistance), an act of friendship as much as bravery.

 

Determination personified: Steinfeld in True Grit.

Ornery Creatures

True Grit

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” So begins both Charles Portis’ elegiac novel, True Grit, and the new movie of the same name, directed by the Coen brothers. The speaker of this amazing pronouncement is 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who has left her home and family in search of the cold-blooded killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who gunned down her father. When told Chaney has lit out for Indian territory, she hires the meanest U.S. Marshal she can find, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who shushes her attempts to haggle over money by assuring her that he’s giving her the children’s rate. Soon, Mattie and Rooster are joined by the bounty hunter LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is pursuing Chaney for a different crime.

If this sounds very familiar, it may be because you’ve seen the 1969 version of the movie, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne (in his only Oscar-winning role), Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. That version was rollicking and still highly enjoyable, but it’s light years away in terms of tone and meaning from the Portis/Coen vision. Whereas the earlier movie was dappled in sunlight and shimmering with boisterous performances, this True Grit is raw, gray and utterly unforgiving. Mattie’s stubborn determination brooks no compromise, not even when Rooster tries to give her the slip and set off solo after the fugitive. Her righteousness could be off-putting, even annoying, but newcomer Steinfeld makes it believable, even touching.

The movie is pretty near flawless. The elegant dialogue is delivered superbly by all, and I particularly enjoyed Damon’s recitations of LaBoeuf’s self-important pronouncements and observations. True Grit is the kind of movie that you can enjoy with your eyes shut, so rich is the vocabulary and the cadences—think Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons on the frontier. Roger Deakins’ cinematography transports the audience to a savage and barren landscape fraught with danger behind nearly every crevice.

It would be easy to go on about the overall excellence of the filmmaking while giving short shrift to the narrative, which is truly exciting and suspenseful. It’s standard Western fare, and that’s meant as a compliment. Indeed, there are gunfights and chases on horseback, but at its core, True Grit is about the tension and ongoing conflict between good and evil. Much like The Night of the Hunter, which showcases the same hymn, True Grit hones in on the nature of good and evil, and comes up with the obvious but no less disconcerting conclusion that the two are often intertwined.

—Laura Leon

 

Blood brothers: Bale and Wahlberg in The Fighter.

Punch-Drunk Love

The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell

The names attached, however briefly, to The Fighter, preproduction, indicate that it was always intended to be a big film. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon were in the running for the part that ultimately went to Christian Bale; Mark Wahlberg reportedly attempted to secure Martin Scorsese to direct. After the fact, and all the acclaim, that doesn’t seem surprising. But the failure of those A-listers to commit is more telling: Though The Fighter is becoming quite a big movie, it’s not a very big story. Really, it was a bit of a long shot, itself.

Most overtly, The Fighter is the story of boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) and his elder half-brother and sometime trainer, Dicky Eklund (Bale). Dicky was himself a talented boxer, famed for a controversial, apparent knockdown of “Sugar” Ray Leonard, but his career was consumed by crack addiction. Where Dicky is colorful, dramatic and self-destructive, Mickey is earnest, striving and loyal. It’s a dysfunctional combination that, along with the enabling interference of the boys’ mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), threatens to consume Mickey’s career, as well.

The dramatic arc of this story is so evident as to be cliché. A working-class underdog story? Haven’t we seen this? You can easily guess how this all plays out. So, what’s the hubbub?

As you no doubt have already heard, the performances are very good. Yes, Christian Bale has, again, immersed himself, lived in character and transformed himself physically to fully inhabit a character. No sarcasm, here: He is as good as you have heard. But, still, that, in itself, wouldn’t have been enough. Leo, as the abrasive, explosive Alice, is also excellent, as is Amy Adams as the love interest, and the actresses who play the gaggle of trashy sisters.

But it’s Wahlberg and director David O. Russell who transform this predictable story into something worth watching. Russell expertly crafts a setting—specifically, depressed Lowell, Mass.—and an atmosphere of mingled desperation and fat-chance opportunity that subtly raises the question, “Is Mickey merely in this setting or wholly of it?” Wahlberg is absolutely perfect and natural as Mickey. His unaffected performance provides a still center without which the movie would have twitched into camp. It’s not just a family drama; it’s certainly not just a boxing movie. It’s an endearing existential riddle in satin shorts.

—John Rodat

 

Unhappy together: Gosling and Dunst in All Good Things.

The Rich Are Always With Us

All Good Things

Directed by Andrew Jarecki

This disturbing, engrossing drama of emotional and physical abuse, murder, cross-dressing and mental illness is a success in large part because it walks a fine line between the familiar and the absurd. The film begins as a heartbreaking domestic drama, and turns into something resembling comic horror—except that you’re more likely to choke on the laughs than enjoy them.

Based in part on real-life events, All Good Things is told in flashback as the graying, middle-aged David Marks (Ryan Gosling) testifies in some kind of legal proceeding. (Is he on trial? We’re quite pointedly left in the dark.) The action quickly shifts from “now,” the mid-aughts, to a vividly re-created 1971. We see the young David, alienated from his cold, powerful real-estate tycoon father Sanford (Frank Langella), fall in love with vivacious, blonde, and non-Jewish Katie McCarthy (Kirsten Dunst). Fleeing the family business, David romances and marries Katie; the two of them move to Vermont, where they open the portentously named store All Good Things.

This rural, quasi-hippie idyll doesn’t last, however; Sanford pressures his son into bringing his bride to Manhattan and into the family fold.

Jarecki made his reputation with Capturing the Friedmans, a wrenching documentary about a family torn apart by allegations of child sexual abuse. The fictional Marks family’s dysfunctions aren’t sexual in nature, but are just as devastating in their impact. What makes all the difference, however, isn’t the nature of the crimes, but in how the crimes are dealt with: The Markses are wealthy, powerful New Yorkers with influence purchased at all levels of government.

Back in New York, things go terribly wrong. David’s growing mental illness puts him in conflict with Katie, especially as his job collecting rents from whorehouses and porn theaters for his slumlord family wears on his fragile mental state. Things go from bad to worse, but the Markses aren’t really sweating it: They own everyone, from the unnamed mayor of New York to the then junior U.S. Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And when the action shifts locale to the Southwest, things get really weird, but no less compelling. The Markses don’t care what happens to David as long as his troubles stay out of the public eye.

Jarecki knows just how to use the historical context and changing mores to hit the audience hard. The casual acceptance of domestic abuse in 1970s culture is a terrible shock, for example, even if it’s thoroughly recognizable to those of us who were around then. And the film gives the audience just enough information to make us feel like we know what’s happening, even as key information is withheld.

Gosling is terrific, managing to be sympathetic and then monstrous as circumstances require. Langella deftly embodies the gravitas and entitlement of a man who literally controls the lives and futures of millions of people. Dunst is engaging as the doomed Katie, realizing too late her position (or lack thereof) in the scheme of things. There are some stunning cameos, too: Diane Venora as a slick Westchester prosecutor; Philip Baker Hall as a neurotic old veteran; Kristin Wiig as Katie’s coked-up friend; and Trini Alvarado as a sympathetic neighbor.

All Good Things saves its last big reveals for the final moments; they’ll haunt you as you leave the theater.

—Shawn Stone

 

Am I blue? Wilde in Tron: Legacy.

It’s Beautiful, Man

Tron: Legacy

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

If you’ve ever wanted to enter a video game instead of just playing one, then Tron: Legacy will undoubtedly provide a temporal fix. Forget the barely serviceable plot that doesn’t quite pick up where Tron left off 28 years ago: as Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) would say, it’s all about the visuals, man. Actually, what Kevin says is, “You’re messing with my Zen thing,” and his Zen thing is not the least dynamic aspect of Kevin’s digitalized existence. Neither is Kevin’s avatar’s visage, which is of the “I’m mel-ting” plasticene variety. But no matter, because once your in, you’re in. It took decades of CGI advancement and over $200 million, but the black-light interior of the Grid is as immersive a gaming landscape as any joystick (or glow stick) addict could dream of. In its best sequences, the film’s light sabers, er, wands, expand into drop-down motorcycles that roar through cyberspace in a hallucinatory approximation of the speed of light. The avatar-gladiators wear neon-tailored wetsuits and die by corruption, their pixilated bodies tearing away like mini-wheats of flesh while other, nimbler programs take their place in the Grid’s death-match relay.

But in between tripping the light fantastic by way of stratospheric circuitry, there is the story, of Kevin’s grown-up son (Garrett Hedlund) coming to reclaim his father for passage back to real life, and the battle against Kevin’s totalitarian alter-ego, Clu, a frustrated perfectionist and unwieldy narrative device for the screenwriters to recycle The Matrix’s Tron base.

Amid the eye-popping pleasures of future-shock velocity (and the occasional throwaway line of recognition of the original) is the quest, and all the mind-numbing mumbo-jumbo that Kevin must spout to develop it, but there’s also a live-wire Michael Sheen as a living, breathing, dancing and conniving entertainment archive, and also a gymnastic Olivia Williams as Kevin’s anime-stylin’ daughter figure and messianic heroine. Oh, and there’s a cautionary tale in there somewhere, too, which might be, simply, to watch your back whenever there’s a giant laser pointed at it.

—Ann Morrow

 

Striking out: Wilson and Witherspoon in How Do You Know.

Love Stinks

How Do You Know

Directed by James L. Brooks

The unfinished portion of the title is supposed to be “when you’re in love,” but while watching How Do You Know, one can’t help but think of other, more apt, endings, like “when you’ve completely wasted the price of the movie ticket” or “when you should have gone to see The King’s Speech,” even “when you should have stayed home to regrout the shower.”

How Do You Know has pieces of what it takes to make a great romantic comedy. It’s central character, Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), is a confident 31-year-old pro softball player whose life loses its direction when she’s cut from the team. Cast aside, she drifts into a relationship with Washington Nationals player Matty (Owen Wilson), a guy who keeps an inventory of women’s track suits (sizes S and XS!) in his bathroom closet and a dental clinic’s supply of toothbrushes to accommodate any lady who happens to spend the night. With Lisa, he tries hard to understand the new emotional territory he’s feeling, and his attempts to get chick psychology are truly the film’s best moments. At the same time as Lisa loses her ballplaying gig, she meets George (Paul Rudd), a stock trader about to be indicted by the feds for fraud. His world is clearly swallowing him up, but Lisa’s lustrous cheer and winsome smile give him something to hold out hope for, and to his father Charles’ (Jack Nicholson) bewilderment, he skips attorney-client sessions to try to score face time with Lisa.

The idea of a couple meeting when they are both, unbeknownst to each other, at the lowest ebb in their lives is workable, and the unexplored terrain of Lisa’s suddenly prospectless future is tantalizing. But Brooks focuses instead on countless scenes in which the leads yak yak yak like a C- version of Woody Allen. Conversations start and stop in annoyingly staccato fashion, like “Well, but, I mean, well, frankly . . . ” to which another character responds something like “What do you mean, frankly?”

Lisa questions everything and George mostly just gazes at her in wan admiration. For all his wanton hedonism and politically incorrect sexual mores, Matty is far more intriguing and likeable; I described him to some friends as the only person in the movie I didn’t want to slap. Of course, it doesn’t help that Rudd, who is sort of cute but not really, doesn’t have the appeal we’d like in a romantic lead. For his part, Nicholson is all wrong somehow. He looks physically ill at ease, which could very well be script-related. And Witherspoon, hopelessly attired in baby-doll dresses that make her look like a 12-year-old, not a world-class athlete, doesn’t have much to do but look golden and dimply. The whole movie plays like a very slow-moving exercise in testing our collective patience, not at all a serious romantic comedy or even a pleasantly mindless bit of cinematic fluff.

—Laura Leon

 

The big dude: Black in Gulliver’s Travels.

You Know Jack

Gulliver’s Travels

Directed by Rob Letterman

First, you must ignore the title of the movie. Gulliver’s Travels shares so little with the Jonathan Swift book of the same name that it might just as well be coincidence. Sure, there’s a castaway and an island called Lilliput and some very small people but, really, put the book out of your mind. It’s not relevant, here. (And, honestly, was it ever really even in your mind? Really?) Next, remember it’s a Jack Black film, for kids. So, we’re pretty much done here.

What? Oh, OK, fine. Black plays a semi-delusional, self-aggrandizing mail-room clerk who secretly, awkwardly, pines for the travel editor (Amanda Peet) of the newspaper where he works. He bumbles his way into a writing assignment for her section, and travels to the Bermuda Triangle where he is swamped by a CGI storm and dumped on the island inhabited by tiny people who are amazed at his physique and charmed by his braggadocio.

If you, like they, find Jack Black charismatic, you, like they, will find the experience of him rewarding. If not, well, not. There’s almost no other way to evaluate the movie. Despite the presence of other talented and/or appealing but strangely underused actors, this is wholly a Jack Black vehicle. Billy Connolly and Emily Blunt as members of the Lilliputian royal family are barely present; Jason Segel is almost entirely effaced in a gentle wash of bland likability; and though Chris O’Dowd (from the amusing The IT Crowd), puts up a game fight as cruel and narcissistic general, he, too ends up overpowered by CGI effects. Amanda Peet is pretty, as if it’s a stage direction.

That being said, there is something mildly charming about Black’s earnest vulnerability, something heightened (no pun intended) by having him match his outsized personality against the courtly dignity of the tiny Lilliputians. Black’s outer-child act works well—if you can bear it all, that is—with mini costars. And, probably, works best for comparatively mini fans.

—John Rodat


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