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The Favourite (2018)

As soon as I saw the name Yorgos Lanthimos attached to the royal costume drama The Favourite I knew it would be one of my most anticipated films of 2018. I’m not naturally a sucker for these kinds of movies without some interesting new angle (Mary Queen of Scotts, we’ll meet soon), but Lanthimos has quickly become one of my favorite (favoruite?) voices in cinema, rivaling perhaps even the esteemed Charlie Kaufman. His movies are so wonderfully weird and tonally distinct. A Lanthimos joint, if you will, is two hours of surprises and expanding the surreal with assured foresight. He’s earned such a highly regarded reputation as far as I’m concerned that I’ll see any movie with his name attached in any creative capacity. The Favourite is a different kind of costume drama.

In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is leading her country through a protracted conflict with the French that is weighing heavily on everyone. Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is the Queen’s childhood friend, close confidant, and secret lover. She’s also perhaps the real power behind the throne, directly influencing the Queen to enact her own bullish policies. Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of a parliament, is worried about the country going bankrupt from the military expenditures. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin to Sarah and someone seeking to save her once proud family’s name. She rises through the ranks and becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections and a threat for Sarah to maintain her position of power in the court and with the Queen.

What distinguishes a Lanthimos experience is the development and commitment to a distinct vision and the sheer unpredictability. You really never know where the man’s films will go next. One minute you’re following a man struggle to find a romantic partner, and the next they’re talking about turning people into lobsters. One minute you’re watching a family deal with a creepy stalker, and the next people are debating which family member should be killed in the darkest family game night ever enabled. Even though Lanthimos did not write The Favoruite, it still feels of his unique, deadpan, darkly comic worlds and his fingertips are all over it. The story is already playing fast and loose with the history (it’s pretty unlikely Queen Anne was a lesbian, despite the centuries of character assassination from Sarah) so its curiosity where it might go next is electric, especially when it shows some bite. This is a movie that’s not afraid to be dark, where characters can behave badly, testing our sympathy and allegiance as they fight for supremacy. I love how unapologetic the characters are in their pursuits. They will scheme and manipulate to whatever extent works and demonstrate abuse of power for power’s sake (poor bunny). “Favor is a breeze the shifts direction all the time,” says Harley. “Then in an instant you’re back sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.” The ensuring two hours of palace intrigue and political gamesmanship is given a sordid boost from the historical deviations, making the political more personal and even more intriguing. I cackled often throughout with the amazingly witty one-liners and curt insults as well as the wonky asides and tonal juxtaposition. It’s a funny movie for offbeat audiences who enjoy offbeat humor.

This is a costume drama that is radical amongst the stuffy world of prim and proper Oscar bait involving kings and queens and the ostentatious royal courts. I’d say it reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and how it broke from the long film tradition of costume dramas, but I’ve never watched Barry Lyndon, my lone Kubrick omission (what, do you have three hours to spare?). Lanthimos has an anachronistic visual style that allows The Favourite to feel modern and different as it plays in familiar terrain. What other Oscar drama can you expect to see a modern dance-off in the queen’s court? The visuals make use of very stylized deep photography with the use of fish-eyed lenses and a locked camera position even while panning and moving. It’s not exactly the colorful, punk rock aesthetic of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette but it gives the film a dreamlike, odd sensibility. It’s a nice visual pairing that achieves the same effect as the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tom McNamara; it piques your interest, drawing you closer with each moment.

Lanthimos requires a very specifically attuned ironic wavelength that comes across as purposely deadpan, muted to better make the bizarre as the mundane. It’s a type of acting that can be very restrictive unless an actor can tap into that specific rhythm. The three women that top line The Favourite are each terrific. Colman (taking over Queen Elizabeth from Claire Foy in Netflix’s The Crown) is the standout as the temperamental monarch. Her favor is the prize and at some level she knows that people are playing games with her. It’s hard to know what degree of self-awareness Queen Anne is capable of considering she is beset by maladies both physical and mental (she really did lose 17 children in her lifetime, a dozen of them miscarriages). Because of all of this, the unpredictable nature of the Queen matches the unpredictable nature of the film, and one second she can be childish and defiant, the next playful and warm-hearted, the next manipulative and pushy, the next easily cowed and embarrassed. It’s a performance that has definite comic high-points as she howls at her servants and confuses her confidants, but there are layers to the character that Colman digs into. Sure she can be volcanic in rage or extremely funny when giving into the Queen’s whims, but it’s the degrees of sadness and vulnerability that creep through that round out the performance and person.

Weisz (Disobedience) has already starred in one kooky Lanthimos film (The Lobster) and easily slips into those peculiar comic rhythms again like a nicely fitting dress. Hers is the “fall” of the rise-and-fall tale, so she begins self-satisfied and ends humbled, except under Weisz she is never truly humbled. Her spirit does not break regardless of her unfortunate circumstances, including at one point being held hostage at a brothel. Even when she knows she must write a gracious letter she can’t help herself, composing drafts that keep veering into profane insults. Weisz is deliciously deadpan and never abandons the confines of that narrow acting range required for a pristine Lanthimos performance. Stone (La La Land) is the freshest face of the troupe as the underestimated young companion who rises through the ranks thanks to her cunning. Stone adopts a solid British accent, which is helpful, but her intonations are perfectly suited for Lanthimos. There are small, stranger moments where the character is breaking the facade with the audience to reveal an eager peculiarity, an imitation of a monster that’s random, or the most delightfully dismissive “yeah, sure” snort in the history of film. Stone is a versatile talent with comic bonafides, so it’s fun and satisfying to see her expand her already impressive, Oscar-winning range.

This is a movie that does not work without a distinct vision, sure handed direction, and pitch-perfect acting, all seamlessly working in tandem to create such a finely crafted dark comedy that can go in many perversely entertaining directions at a moment’s notice. Lanthimos and his cadre of award-worthy actresses have great, prankish fun playing dress up in their fancy locations and making a costume drama with a dash of anarchic farce. The Favourite doesn’t quite rise to the top of my own list of Lanthimos favorites (I’d probably rank it a noble third) but it’s still a razor-sharp, sardonic, unpredictable, and wonderfully, vibrantly weird movie worth celebrating.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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Early Man (2018)

It’s not quite one of their bests but even a mid-level Aardman movie still presents enough pleasures to justify one viewing. Early Man is in that big-eyed, big-toothed stop-motion clay animation style they’re renowned for, so it makes even more visual sense that we’re following cavemen. What I wasn’t expecting was that the entire movie would be a sports film about the cavemen facing the team of elite soccer players of the Bronze Age. Once that realization settled in, I began lowering my expectations, which lowered further from the less imaginative use of comedy. I chuckled here and there but this is a comedy that relies much upon slapstick. It’s at its best when it veers off into strange tangents or really doubles down on its absurdities, like a pig posing as a masseuse or a recording pigeon that acts out its messages. The character work is pretty minimal and relies upon a lot of stock characters, with the supporting players given one trait or less. While lacking in some areas, Early Man is still an amusing story that has its moments of goofy whimsy even amidst the sports clichés. I especially enjoyed Tom Hiddleston’s vocal performance as the ignorant, effete leader of the Bronze Age. It’s no Chicken Run or Pirates: Band of Misfits, but the gentle comic rhythms of an Aardman movie can still be refreshing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

High-Rise (2016)

mv5bmjm3mjm4nzmwml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtq4mjuzode-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Watching High-Rise left me in an agitated state of bafflement. I was desperately trying to fumble for some kind of larger meaning, or at least some kind of narrative foothold from this indie movie about a high-rise apartment complex where the rich reside at the top and the lower classes below. I was holding onto hope that what came across as messy, incoherent, and juvenile would magically coalesce into some sort of work of satiric value. This hope was lost. Director Ben Wheately’s (Kill List) movie is disdainful to audience demands, disdainful to narrative, disdainful to characters that should be more than vague metaphorical figures against the British class system. The social class commentary is so stupidly simple. At one point, the upper floor rich talk about how they have to throw a better party than the lower floor plebs (slobs versus snobs!). The movie lacks any sort of foundation but just keeps going; I would check how much time was left every fifteen minutes and exclaim, “How is there still more left?!” This is a chore to sit through because it’s so resoundingly repetitive and arbitrary. You could rearrange any ten minutes of the movie and make nary a dent in narrative coherence. There are some striking visuals and weird choices that keep things unpredictable; it’s just that I stopped caring far too early for anything to have mattered. Tom Hiddelston plays a doctor in the building and becomes the intermediary between the oblivious rich and the rabble rousing and vengeful poor. I can’t tell you why anything happens in this movie. I can’t say why the characters do what they do, why the events happen, why anything. It’s all just weightless materials for Wheatley’s empty impressionistic canvas. As society breaks down, things get violent and yet the movie is still boring. I was hoping for something along the lines of Snowpiercer but I got more of a pulpy Terence Mallick spiral of self-indulgent nothingness. High-Rise is a highly irritating and exasperating movie and I know it’s destined to be a future favorite of the pretentious. If anyone says it’s one of his or her favorite movies of all time, please kindly walk in the other direction as fast as you are able and then tell an adult.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Woman in Black (2012)

It’s got a decent ending but it’s a long, lumbering walk to get there. This handsomely mounted Hammer throwback involves Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, slowly walking through a spooky old Victorian haunted house. And he slowly peeks around a door. And he slowly holds a candle. And I slowly go to sleep. There’s a 40-minute sequence where I swear only two things are spoken. Radcliffe plays a widowed father who has to investigate a haunted house to make ends meet. The movie has a few genuinely creepy moments, mostly owing to set design, but it gets hooked on jump scares and doesn’t know how to quit. The jump scares, accompanied by what sounds like an eagle screeching as music, happen at near two-minute intervals, like some sort of alarm the movie can’t turn off. Alas, The Woman in Black is a pretty staid ghost story where once again a restless spirit is terrorizing others and somebody takes it upon themselves to help that spirit find closure. The plot is so transparently predictable that it becomes fairly frustrating when the movie takes so long to get to its pre-designated stops. The pessimistic ending is weirdly given the most positive spin imaginable. For fans of this horror sub-genre, there may be enough going on to entertain. I just keep learning that ghosts are never grateful and satisfied even when you help them. Ghosts are jerks.

Nate’s Grade: C

Submarine (2011)

Submarine is the latest coming-of-age story, this time set in 1980s Wales, and while not breaking any new ground, it manages to be witty, stylish, and a completely winning portrait of a unique kid and his unique view of the world.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a 15-eyar-old kid with two life goals. He’s like to romance the rebellious loner Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and, if possible, lose his virginity in the process. Oliver is also on a mission to save his parent’ marriage. Jill Tate (Sally Hawkins) has been drifting from her husband, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), a marine biologist who has been in a depressive funk for years. Jill’s old boyfriend, Graham (Paddy Considine), has moved in next-door and begun to insert himself back in her life.

Submarine is going to be something of an acquired taste. It’s almost drowning in whimsy, following the numerous affectations of its main character. Fans will say that the movie borrows liberally from Wes Anderson’s 1998 film, Rushmore; non-fans will just say the movie cops to outright theft. Like Rushmore, this movie follows the coming-of-age trials and tribulations of an intelligent but lonely outcast, a wiseacre beyond his years. What sets this movie apart is that we taken on the point of view of Oliver. He often refers to his life as if it were a movie, noting dramatic moments that would be accompanied by dramatic music, and a solemn moment that would feature a crane shot rising above the ground but if the budget were low he’d settle for a slow zoom out (the actual movie chooses the slow zoom). “I have turned these moments into the Super-8 footage of memory,” he remarks. Oliver is a student of pop-culture, an early Rob Gordon (High Fidelity), and as such blurs the line between reality and the movies. He will routinely point out film tropes ad then indulge in them. We are each the stars of our own stories. In this manner, Submarine separates itself from the idiosyncratic, miniaturized-doll house world of Anderson’s films or the fanciful magic realism of Jean Piere Jeunet (Amelie). For me, the multitude of quirks were appealing instead of insufferable because we were inside the mind of Oliver, seeing his world through his unique worldview. This brings rationale for the whimsy.

Oliver is both an unreliable narrator and a flawed protagonist, a fantastic development. So often coming-of-age tales are mainly autobiographical (this one is based off a book by Joe Dunthorne), and as such the authors usually portray themselves as individuals whose chief fault is that they are naïve. Some life experience will shatter their innocence, usually a girl, and thus they will grow and learn. With Submarine, Oliver gains our sympathy by being clever but then he tests it with the compromises he makes to fit in. He engages in some very mean bullying all to win over Jordana. He’s trying to seem so mature, using advanced vocabulary to provide the illusion of adulthood, but really Oliver can’t comprehend the subtleties of social cues. Just when Jordana appears to be opening up and looking to him for need, that’s when he botches it, acts kind of awful, and then justifies it in his head, like so many of us will do with our mistakes. Still, I never stopped rooting for this kid. I was rooting for him and Jordana to work out. So hard was I yearning for these two loner oddballs to have their happy ending, I think I pulled something (my dignity?). We can see Jordana through Oliver’s infatuated eyes, but then we can also see deeper, see the vulnerability that comes forward that Oliver might be blithe to. Paige (The Sarah Jane Adventures) is a true breakout star and it’s easy to see why Oliver is so infatuated with the charming lass. She’s bruised but approachable, risky but relatable. We can see the connection building between these two, and we want it to continue (maybe that’s my own high school experience speaking out). The youthful romance is sweet and unconventional without seeming like a coming-of-age folly, something that Oliver is supposed to learn some gallant life lesson.

The other plot development, the rocky relationship between Oliver’s parents, is less resonant but it does provide for some fine moments of humor. The new neighbor, Graham, who practices martial arts and believes himself to be a New Age mystic, healing people by sensing their aura colors, just feels like a leftover Napoleon Dynamite. It provides Considine (In America) a springboard to act goofy, which he’s quite good at. The goofiness of the character, however, cuts into the credibility of being a threat to steal away Jill. She may be caught up in this guy’s tiny bubble of fame, but there’s no way she would leave her husband for this doofus, even if her husband has been suffering from depression for years. Oliver’s attempts to reignite his parents’ marriage are plenty hilarious, but they’re also informed with a sweet, if misguided, earnestness. He loves his parents and wants them to stay together. He doesn’t want a ninja mystic for his new dad. Fortunately, Oliver’s attempts to sabotage Graham are kept to a minimum and restrained enough not to resort to cheap slapstick or gross-out humiliation. Maybe it’s the distinctive point of view steering the narrative, but the potential doom of the marriage never feels as portentous and heartbreaking as Oliver’s hope at wooing Jordana.

Debut director Richard Ayoade, who also adapted the screenplay, utilizes every visual trick in the book to tell this story. If the main character weren’t so amusing, and his plight so interesting, all the visual artifice might be exhausting. Instead it keeps the movie lively, crafty, and constantly wonderful to observe. Ayoade’s also quite a talent when it comes to screenwriting. He smoothly captures the very mannered speaking style of Oliver. Then there are just lines that make you laugh out loud from the sheer absurdity of misplaced teenager awe: “He wasn’t even considered hard until the Watkin twins famously stabbed him in the back with compasses. He said nothing; showed no discomfort as his shirt blossomed with blood poppies. His stoicism reminded me of the brave men who died in the First World War.” Ayoade, best known for his starring role on The IT Crowd, will probably soon have a lot more offers to direct features once people get a gander at Submarine. The man’s a natural storyteller and will be snapped up by Hollywood in no time flat.

Finally, the movie’s lead actor needs to be good, better than good, if this movie is going to rise above the din of precocious, coming-of-age cinema. Roberts (Jane Eyre), hollow eyed and just a little “off” looking, handles the material with ease, never letting his performance transform into a series of tics strewn together. Oliver is straight-laced throughout, letting the peculiarities of his imagination and worldview seem ordinary. Roberts doesn’t get overwhelmed by the material and makes a strong impression as a more literate, less rebellious, more anxious, less despondent Welsh version of Holden Caulfield (okay, so maybe that allusion doesn’t hold).

Submarine is an unfailingly entertaining vehicle full of quirk and humor and surprising heart. Oliver’s relationship with Jordana is sweet and mildly touching. I was surprised at how emotionally invested I was in their romance.  The movie is also refreshingly low in angst, resorting more to Oliver’s comic anxieties and insecurities. It certainly owes a debt to Anderson’s Rushmore, but Submarine is so good, so thrilling in its creative voice, that it can stand outside the mighty shadow of Anderson and his indomitable influence.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Attack the Block (2011)

Attack the Block is the hip new sci-fi comedy/thriller from across the pond. The Brtis know a thing or two about elevating genre movies to an art form. While not rising to the same level of executive producer Edgar Wright’s oeuvre, this is one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in a movie theater all year.

On New Year’s Eve in a South London ghetto, a very different kid of firework is lighting the moonlit sky. An alien race is crashing to Earth as fiery meteorites, which the kids of the neighborhood term “Gollums.” Moses (John Boyega) is the leader of a group of teenage wannabe hoodlums. Their crazy night begins with mugging Sam (Jodie Whitaker), a nurse who lives in the boys’ apartment complex. Moses and his crew later run into Sam and need her help when one of their own is injured. The alien monsters have descended upon their block, scaling the apartment building looking for easy prey. Moses and other block residents band together to battle a common foe, the outer space monsters, which have the misfortune of trying to invade the wrong neighborhood.

Attack the Block is a refreshing spin on a genre that seemingly had covered every ground. But lo, it never covered the modern urban landscape, or, as the tagline succinctly puts it: inner city vs. outer space. It’s not long before you realize that writer/director Joe Cornish (writer of the upcoming Tin Tin flick) is the real deal. The camera angles are lively and inventive, without crossing over into self-infatuation for style’s sake. The cinematography by Thomas Townend is delightful to look at, often making our own home feel like an alien landscape with harsh color tones. The movie has the slick look we associate with music videos and commercials, but never does the movie let the visuals overwhelm the story. The edits are crisp and quick, packing a lot of material into a small 99 minutes and doing well to quicken your pulse during several iterations of the alien attacks. But most of all, the film is completely, unabashedly fun with a capital F. It has a swagger to it, adopting the same cocksure attitude of its main characters. The accents and the breathless jargon take some adjusting, but by the time we’re running from aliens you’re pretty much at the same pace of astonishment with the characters, forgetting the language barrier. I was quickly sucked into the world of this movie, able to enjoy the depth of skill by the invisible technicians. There’s an immense sense of satisfaction watching this crew band together to take out superior numbers of baddies, some of them even Earthlings. Cornish confines his narrative focus to one apartment building over the course of one night, setting up our orientation to the building so that when we have characters running back and forth, and various storylines criss-crossing, we are kept in the loop. As people start becoming monster chow, the stakes get even higher.

The dialogue is regularly clever without having to stoop for self-aware gags. This is not a genre spoof. This is played relatively straight, just with amusing characters (“You’d be better off calling the Ghostbusters, love.”). One of the kids, who is on a pay-as-you-go cell plan, breathlessly says, “I only got one text left. This is just too much madness for one text!” Attack the Block is the right combination of scary and funny, the same fine line that its forebear, Shaun of the Dead, so successfully walked. This is the kind of movie that genre fans tell their pals about in breathless declarations of awesome before falling over dizzy. Nick Frost, star of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, even has a minor roll as the neighborhood pot supplier. While Block doesn’t approach Shaun’s utter genre-spoofing greatness, there is enough of squandered potential in Cornish’s script, particularly how the various pieces ultimately stack together for its standard but effective fist-pumping climax, to keep Block from being crowned an instant genre classic. The characters remain little more than types, distinguishable by the few traits thrown to the actors like meager breadcrumbs (kid with glasses, angrier kid, white kid, etc.). If you’re a fan of Shaun of the Dead, and witty, bloody sci-fi, then you already know that Attack of the Block is destined to beam into your home.

The aliens themselves deserve a special mention since they break away from the traditional mold of cosmic movie monster we’re familiar with. These minimalist aliens look more like giant yeti creatures that run on all fours. They’re all black, like inky black hole light-cannot-penetrate black, which is scary but also a clever way to hide the shortages of a limited budget and the reality of people in suits. The only thing that stands out is a set of fluorescent blue jaws that snap wildly. It’s like the monsters ate a can of glow sticks. This aspect is smartly used at points to pump up suspense. It’s a novel approach that veers away from the H.R. Geiger (Alien) stuff that’s been copied and recopied to death for the last 30 years. These aren’t smart aliens. They’re more like rabid beasts overwhelmed by their biological impulses. These aliens don’t come across as organized as other movie aliens. It seems like they’re just floating around through the void of space waiting to land on the right rock and multiply.

The musical score is greatly enhanced through the talents of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, better known to big beat electronica fans as Basement Jaxx. The musical duo provide a score tinged with their famous electronic mélange of sound, including pieces that sound like retro video game sound effects (Space Invaders?), 1950s sci-fi movie scores thick with Theremin use, and an ongoing sludgy beat that weaves in and out of the picture. Working with Steven Price (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), traditional rousing musical pieces are enhanced with the Basement brothers’ dubsetp influenced bass and drum lines. The score perfectly matches the frenzy of what’s happening onscreen, evoking a fuzzy mood. I have been listening to clips of the Attack the Block score for days. It’s not as integrated and essential to the film as Run Lola Run’s famously kinetic electronica score (the standard bearer of all electronica-enhanced scores), but I was delighted every time it remerged. With the Chemical Brothers score for Hanna and Oscar-winner Trent Reznor’s score for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo later this year, this may be the best time yet for film lovers that enjoy toe tapping to some electronic beats. These kinds of scores age so much better than synth scores, one of the absolute worst things ever to happen in the history of movies (Apocalypse Now is almost unmatchable thanks to its dreadful synth score).

Of course your level of enjoyment is going to severely rest upon whether you want the main characters to survive or get eaten. Attack the Block begins with an empathy deficit, meaning it puts its hoodlums immediately in a hole that they might not get out of. Our first introduction to Moses and the gang is watching them mug Sam. Later on one of the guys says the knife that was bared was just for show, and that the boys were just as scared as she was. I doubt that. When you’re on the receiving end of a weapon, and outnumbered, and surprised, it sure seems like you got it worse. The movie then spends the rest of its running time with these wannabe ruffians, and we do get to know them slightly better but really only slightly. Some of the kids have absentee parenting situations, which isn’t too shocking, and occasionally a character will take a moment to reflect, thinking beyond the situation, blaming the government in a fit of paranoia for being behind the alien nasties. One kid even makes a curt remark when he finds out Sam’s boyfriend helps impoverished kids in Africa. “We don’t got poor kids here that could use some help?” he comments. Well, kid, I wouldn’t dismiss the magnitude of systemic poverty in the African continent, but you could have made your point without seeming like a dick. And these are our characters. They blather a lot; in fact they rarely stop talking. Eventually they do apologize to Sam for mugging her and Moses does take the mantle of hero to redeem himself. However, by that time some audience members may have checked out. Attack of the Block is decidedly less fun if you don’t give a fig for its wannabe thug figures.

Attack the Block is like a delirious head rush, witty, full of energy and style to spare, and an infectious attitude that washes over you. The movie delivers what Super 8 promised, namely the bond of kids coming together to thwart an alien invasion on their home turf. This is a high-energy flick that succeeds as a comedy and a thriller, with a few nasty splashes of gore thrown in for good measure. It has some issues that keep it from the pantheon of genre greatness, but I won’t quibble the movie to death. Not when I get something as deliriously entertaining as Attack the Block.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The King’s Speech (2010)

Public speaking is a nerve-racking position. Nobody wants to seem like a fool but it can be hard to do anything else when all eyes fall upon you with expectation. There was a poll a few years ago that asked Americans what their top fears were, and death came in second to public speaking. The Grim Reaper should feel relieved. Now imagine that you’re the leader of a country during a time of duress and you have a speech impediment. That’s the grueling circumstances for King George VI (affectionately known as “Bertie” to family), leader of Britain on the eve of World War II. The King’s Speech tells the inspirational true story of one of the most powerful men in the world finding his own voice.

Before becoming king of his country, Bertie (Colin Firth) was the Duke of York and a man suffering from a debilitating stutter. When stressed, it was difficult for Bertie to even read a statement. This speech impediment is made all the more troublesome now that the world has entered into the radio age; kings and presidents are now expected to speak to their peoples, no longer content to just be a striking figurehead. Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), future Queen Mother, seeks out different speech therapists but the traditional methods are getting her husband nowhere. Then she comes across Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a self-taught speech therapist who worked with shell-shocked WWI soldiers in his native Australia. His methods are unorthodox but he’s the first to begin to get results with Bertie. The demands of his position get even greater when Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon), dies in 1936 and Bertie’s older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne. Now Bertie is expected to lead his nation, that is, if he can string two sentences together in public.

The King’s Speech is really the heartwarming story of the unlikely friendship between a king and a quirky Australian commoner. Their warm, humane friendship allows for several scenes of great humor and great drama. Watching the irreverent Lionel bounce off the proper and isolated Bertie supplies plenty of comedy. It’s essentially an odd couple comedy mixed with a true-life historical drama. There’s great pleasure in watching the chilly relationship between classes thaw, the men grow closer together, and Lionel’s unconventional tactics make progress. Each time Bertie discovers a new practice that removes his stutter, whether it is speaking while listening to music or speaking in the cadence of a song. This is a film that follows the English tradition of understatement even given the dramatic setting, principle characters, and a speech impediment. The characters don’t go around blurting their feelings, leaving the actors room to explore oodles of subtext. There’s a signature scene where Lionel coaxes Bertie into opening up by promising to allow him to paint a child’s model airplane (a treat for a man of title never allowed such toys). As he paints away, Bertie reveals a damaging truth about a neglectful childhood nanny. The truth is so painful that Bertie is forced to reveal it through the cadence of song, which somehow makes the revelation more sad and tragic. Their ongoing relationship is deeply satisfying and emotionally rewarding.

You won’t see a better-acted movie all year, thanks to Firth and Rush. More than following a checklist of gimmicks, Firth inhabits his character from the inside out. He feels like a living, breathing, somewhat broken person instead of a collection of ailments. Firth doesn’t overdo his stutter and treats the character, and the ailment, with a deep sense of compassion. Firth gives what is likely the greatest acting performance by any male in 2010. He is magnificent, commanding, and empathetic in every scene. Likewise, Rush doesn’t overpower as a personality foil. His character manages to be irreverent but without being flippant; he finds a reverent irreverence, if you will. Lionel is treating the future King of England, and the gravity of this stately relationship is not lost on him. Both men hide an inner melancholy, perhaps one of the things that ultimately bonds them together. Rush is flush with vigor and merriment, truly delightful to watch. This is his finest onscreen performance since he won his Oscar in 1996 for Shine.

The enormity of the king’s duties is given due care. You feel the weight of the crown that awaits Bertie and empathize with his quaking hesitation. Ever since childhood, his family looked down on Bertie. His father felt a stern tone would best aid the young stammerer, and his older brother would often belittle Bertie with cruel taunts. You see flashes of this unhealthy dynamic when Edward cuts down his little brother after their father passes.

Bertie was seen as unimportant. Edward was the one set up for the throne. And yet Edward is the one who shirks his responsibilities in the name of love (a twice-divorced American woman). Edward refuses to become the leader of his people if the ancient rules forbid him from marrying a divorced woman. Bertie cannot buckle under the tremendous pressure and expectations that wait. Even when the rather passive Bertie lashes out, you feel like his anger is a moment of achievement. King George VI also had to deal with the fact that his brother is still alive and well and an alternative to the throne if Bertie is deemed incapable. Firth makes it easy to feel the remarkable pressure of being a leader not born or elected, merely expected. And even if an audience is clueless about British monarchy history and the rules of royal succession, The King’s Speech is easy to follow and comprehend for a daft American like myself.

Truth be told, The King’s Speech is a little stagy, a little square, and a little too fastidious for its own good. Hooper and crew are too content with making a pleasant moviegoing experience that the film lacks any slight form of edge. It’s all just a little too safe, a little too staid. While rated R, this movie could easily be a PG-13 family film, maybe even a PG one, sans the two sequences where Bertie unleashes a torrent of profanities in frustration (he discovers that he does not stutter while swearing). I feel like a curmudgeon for dinging a movie for being, essentially, too nice and gentle, but it clips the ambition of the movie when crowd-pleaser is the zenith of accomplishment. The fateful speech to the nation, on the eve of war with Germany, is even given an extra oomph thanks to the background music of Beethoven. A larger story of triumph seems reduced to the Oscar favorite storyline of Man Overcoming Physical Adversity. The direction by Hooper has some curious tics to it, like sequences of two people talking where they will never share the frame despite sitting side by side. I assume Hooper is trying to communicate some form of emotional distance or wariness, or perhaps it’s just a nod that different actors had unworkable schedules and could not be filmed together. Hooper is a talented director, as anyone who saw the massive undertaking of the masterful HBO miniseries John Adams can attest. However, like John Adams, Hooper is prone to TV-movie staging. His direction limits the cinematic power of the film. It looks like any ordinary episode of Masterpiece Theater.

The King’s Speech is pretty much everything you’d wish for in a movie groomed for awards consideration. This is prime Oscar bait. You may tear up at points, you’ll probably smile in many places, and your spirit will definitely rise. Plus it features some of the finest acting you’ll witness all year. And yet it’s that conscious need to please, to uplift, that can occasionally distract you from the many charms that The King’s Speech offers. The fact that the story is predictable is not a detriment, but the fact that the film doesn’t push harder, dig deeper, or expect more from its audience is a missed opportunity. The material is so rich, but a terrifically acted, smartly written film isn’t a bad consolation. Especially when that film happens to be one of the most rousing and rewarding theatrical experiences of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Never Let Me Go (2010)

You’ll be excused for mistaking Never Let Me Go as one of those austere boardinghouse dramas the English are fond of cranking out. I mean it even has Keira Knightley in the thing for goodness sakes. Pretty lily-white British actors trying to find their place in a reserved society spanning the 1970s to the mid 1990s. You’d be forgiven for stifling a yawn. But then Never Let Me Go takes a sudden left turn into a realm of science fiction morality play. It becomes something much deeper and menacing. I am about to go into some major spoilers concerning the sinister premise of the movie, so if you’d prefer to stay pure then politely excuse yourself from the remainder of this review and come back at a later time. I won’t think less of you but only if you promise to come back.

Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and her pals Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley) all grew up in the remote countryside school of Hailsham. It’s like any other school in most regards, except at Hailsham the children all wear monitoring bracelets, are afraid to leave the boundaries of school for fear of being murdered by outside forces, and are told that her physical fitness and internal health are of “paramount importance.” Figured it out yet? My wife didn’t take long before she leaned over and whispered, “Are these kids organ slaves?” Kathy and her friends find out their true identity when an outside third-grade teacher (Sally Hawkins) takes pity on them. She reveals that the students of Hailsham are clones whose sole purpose is to be raised into healthy adults who will then give “donations” to the ailing public at large. Most clones will go through one to four “donations” before “completing,” unless they so desire. You see Never Let Me Go exists in a realm where medical science has made momentous breakthroughs and now people can live to 100 years of age on average. Kathy and her friends are the dirty details.

The rest of the movie flashes through our trio’s teen years. Kathy has always been kind and affectionate to Tommy, but before she could seal the deal Ruth swooped in and took Tommy for her own. Kathy has waited in vain for the two to break up, but that day just never comes. The trio ventures out to a small farmhouse in their teens to do some work and see the outside world. They’re living with a few other Hailsham alums that show them the knack for social interaction with outsiders. There are two rumors at play. One is that the Hailsham alums think they’ve found Ruth’s “original,” the person she’s been cloned from. The second rumor has greater significance: if two Hailsham students can prove that they’re in love, deep, honest love, then they can defer their donations for a few years. This idea takes hold of Tommy and consumes him. Except, we don’t really know whether Ruth or Kathy will be his partner in love.

So why don’t these people run away, or fight back, or do anything of defiance once they discover the horrible truth that will befall them? I have read several critics taking the film to task for being so painfully prosaic and passive, and Never Let Me Go can admittedly fall prey to those detractions at times. However, this is not the Hollywood version where the abused (clones) fight back for their survival and regain independence in a hostile world. That movie was called The Island, plus the several other films that Michael Bay sort of ripped off and then added extra loud explosions. Never Let Me Go has nary an explosion or moment of triumphant revolution. There is no revolt coming because the film doesn’t want to let anyone off the hook; these people are society’s collective collateral damage. They have been bred to be walking, talking, mostly demure, fleshy warehouses for spare parts. It’s only a matter of time before they leave everything on the operating room table, and these people benignly accept their doomed fate (“We all complete”). They march forward, trying to find some level of dignity and beauty before they get the call for “donations.” These people don’t know what it means to rebel; they have no real concept of liberty. They’ve been conditioned since childhood to obey, and that’s the whole point of the film. They have no self-preservation instincts. Likely any cloned child that was expressing strong feelings of boldness was removed, and destroyed, so as not to taint the rest of group. These people are like gown-up versions of veal. They’ve been cultivated since birth for the purpose of destruction, and their knowledge of the world is limited and cruelly self-serving. Watching innocent characters march off to a merciless fate can be very emotionally draining. It should also make you angry.

These people are hopeless so that the movie’s full impact is absorbed. This isn’t some far off nightmarish scenario, because we as a society are already reaping the rewards of a lifestyle, a lifestyle that we’re loath to think about the mechanics of how we got so fat and happy. I can go to a Walmart and buy a T-shirt for a dollar. I am a happy consumer, but what did it take for me to get that product at such a discounted rate? Sure there are variables up the wazoo, but there are many negative factors that go into why that price stays low, invisible hand of the market be damned. Workers clock long hours in unsafe conditions in order to meet supply, earning a penance just enough to keep them alive and moving product. Environmental concerns are overlooked because that would mess with production. Long-term generational poverty can develop. The worker has ceased to be a person and is merely a dispenser of product, much like our clones in the film. This is not a definitive example of what goes on in the world, mind you. Never Let Me Go isn’t some far off scenario; we’re already there, albeit less explicitly. If the price of gas rose a dollar a gallon but it meant that people in other countries could have safe, uncontaminated water and enough food to stay healthy, what do you think would happen?

With all of that said, Never Let Me Go can’t fully fight the trappings of inert drama. For two hours we are watching somewhat nice, somewhat bland British kids gawk and smile their way toward the inevitable. The conceit calls for the breeding of rather milquetoast personalities. It simultaneously makes the characters more innocent and less emotionally involving. The screenplay relies on our sense of outrage and injustice to fill in the gaps of emotional connection. There are little molehills of characterization at best. You’re supposed to be choked up on indignation and sadness so as to not notice that the threesome of character are all rather good-natured but boring. That even may be an aim of the screenplay to accentuate the terrible fate that awaits, or maybe I’m just being overly analytical. Never Let Me Go reveals its awful truth fairly early at about the 40-minute mark, making sure that the audience is fully aware that we are definitely not headed for a happy ending. As it is, the actors are all lovely and talented but there’s only so much silent emoting and teary eyes can conjure.

It’s credit to the talents of the actors that you do feel a storm of emotions from such otherwise frail characters. Mulligan (An Education) showcases her great gifts for communicating sadness. Her face just crinkles up, her eyes get glassy, and you want to hug her. She’s our dramatic linchpin. Her looks of conflict and yearning do well to communicate the inner struggle of her character’s abbreviated life. There’s a lot left to the imagination and Mulligan once again crushes it. Garfield (The Social Network) is stuck playing a wishy-washy character, which makes him seem a bit thick at times. He’s the most naïve and hopeful of the three, so when those hopes get crushed again and again his breakdowns have the most emotional heft. Knightley (Pride and Prejudice) has been in six period films since 2005, so she’s got this thing down pat. Ruth is a bit more assertive and angry than her friends, and it’s a pleasure seeing a more calculating side from the actress. It seems like the filmmakers had a troublesome time trying to downplay the attractive features of their cast. So it seems that they relied on the actors eating less. Knightley, and particularly Garfield, look rather gaunt and puckish, even before they begin “donations.”

I’ve gone this far without even mentioning director Mark Romanek’s (One Hour Photo) contributions, or the fact that the film is based off the 2005 novel by author Kazuo Ishiguru (Remains of the Day) and is adapted by Alex Garland (28 Days Later). Great artists that shaped the vision of this film. It’s a shame then that the impact of Never Let Me Go is blunted. It’s an intelligent, poetic, haunting, and emotionally wrenching film experience, and yet it could have been far more penetrating and devastating. The passive nature of the characters accentuates their doom and our sense of outrage. But that same passive nature makes them less than engaging characters. It’s been days since I saw the film and it still lingers in my memory, a testament to the moral quandaries and acting prowess. The existential drama of the film is better suited for the page where the questions of identity and morality can be given more careful and rewarding examination. The movie has an oddly detached feel to so much suffering. Never Let Me Go is a hard film to let go but also a hard film to truly embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B

49 Up (2006)

In 1964, filmmaker Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) interviewed 14 seven-year-old kids from different British backgrounds asking them about their futures. The half-hour TV special by Granada was called 7 Up and it aimed to show the world where the future politicians and doctors and trash collectors would begin. Every seven years since, Apted has returned to those same kids and peaked in on their lives, chronicling their lives. It’s one of the most famous documentary series in history. Thanks to the virtues of Netflix’s streaming service, I was able to watch six of the seven movies in the Up anthology (sorry 35 Up, the lone film not available for streaming). I spent the next twelve hours watching the lives of 14 complete strangers from childhood to middle age, and by the end they didn’t feel like strangers any more. They felt, weirdly, like family. And that’s the true appeal of the ongoing series: you are watching the evolution of human beings. It’s not everybody that gets a visual scrapbook of their life that’s viewed by millions worldwide.

01_49up-1Finally, after many hours, 49 Up is the first in the anthology to address the ideas of selective editing and building storylines to suit the “characters.” Long before reality television smoothed away life’s edges to make everybody fit into archetypes, Apted positioned the Up series as his thesis on class struggle. He purposely selected a cross-section of English schoolchildren from private schools and public schools and even two from a boy’s school for orphans. You can see it at 14, 21, and 28 how Apted sticks to his same line of questioning about class advantages and disadvantages, peppering his subjects with questions about what they didn’t have and then showing their current situations in a specific manner to make the audience feel a specific emotion. It’s not deliberately diabolical or partisan but the class warfare ideology certainly can chafe. Do the kids at the top still get all the perks? Are the kids at the bottom suffering with limited opportunities? Has anybody transcended class? Apted starts attributing achievements by the upper class boys as part of their upper class advantages and not due to their hard work, dedication, or talent, which they have every right to complain about. John complains at 21 that when, at seven, they declare their education ambitions, and Apted follows it up with narration, “John did attend such and such,” that it creates the illusion that everything has been handed to them. The hard work and long hours are not shown, and fair point. A few of his subjects actually begin to challenge Apted over his perceptions. Suzy takes aim at his line of questioning, hinting at her life’s disappointments, and fights back, accusing Apted of trapping her into a small narrative box. She even brings up another heated conversation in the history of the series, when Apted questioned whether Suzy, at 21, had experienced enough of life to settle down (she eventually divorced years later). You witness her youthful indignation and she remarks, with some resignation, that Apted is free to edit this outburst as he will and she is helpless (obviously Apted kept this in). It’s the first time I’ve seen the stars of Up contest their onscreen portrayals.

It is also with 49 Up that the film series starts to finally reflect. Part of that comes with living half a century, and many of the 12 on camera subjects are now at an age where they have grandchildren and are setting up retirement (I wonder what the economic meltdown of 2008 did for those plans). They can reflect about the accomplishments of their lives, the past dreams captured on camera that never came true, the marriages that dissolved, the joys and struggles of rearing children, the pains of burying parents, etc. They seem to be at that stopping point where they can take stock of a life lived. On top of that, the participants now begin to reflect on what being apart of the Up series has meant to them. It certainly shapes public opinion about who they are as people, and Apted gropes for any new info to connect with the prior material in the earlier movies.

28 UpPerhaps Apted feels like he has to keep flogging his class thesis because most of his subjects are pretty regular, i.e. boring, people. They’ve lived lives of modesty and hardship and persevered, but they’re at heart no more interesting than your neighbors. The problem with selecting a bunch of seven-year-olds you plan to follow for the rest of their lives is that you have no clue what will happen. The narrative is completely up in the air. This is why Apted, early on in the series, sticks doggedly to his class thesis to provide some sort of framework he can revisit every seven years. That’s why the series starts to become something of an echo chamber. The exact same sound bytes get used over and over again, trying to find new relevancy. The adults get forever defined, and continuously redefined, by something they said at seven years old, like Neil’s worry that a wife would force him to eat greens and he “don’t like greens” (I’m in the same boat, kid). The echo chamber effect is even more obvious if you watch the Up series in a row. You will start to memorize the childhood catch phrase of everybody and then watch the same clips recycled from 7 to 42. Each is like a little stepping-stone to the present. When viewed as a whole, the series can almost come across as facile. Apted doesn’t probe very deep into his subjects and their lives, mainly sticking to the Life’s Checklist of Accomplishments of Being an Adult: school, job, spouse, family. Personally, I hate how we become defined by a profession. That seems to be the second question that rolls off our tongues when we meet a stranger: “Who are you and what do you do?” What do we do? That’s a loaded question and I object to the idea that our job is the only relevant thing that we “do.” But that’s just my hang-up, I suppose. Apted also lets his subjects reveal the biggest changes in their lives, meaning that if somebody doesn’t want to broach a topic then it gets left unanswered. It can get frustrating and makes for some opaque follow-up visits.

Not every participant is thankful for the Up series. In fact, many of them are wary and somewhat disdainful of participating. Every seven years these people have to rehash their life’s highs and lows, boil them down into a package, and then have it picked over by Apted and his leaning questions, stirring drama anew. It’s easy to see why this becomes a difficult and challenging experience for most, something akin to a cross-examination about your life. So why do most of the 14 return every seven years? Is it the secret hunger for fame? John Brisby ducked out of the Up series after the third installment, upset that he had been made into the series villain through editing. He came across pompous and like a prototypical “old money” sort who lived in a small privileged world (fox hunting!) and reinforced Apted’s thesis on class advantages. Of course his interviews didn’t help him, but I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt. I’d hate for everything I said when I was 14 and 21 to follow me for the rest of my life. Well, in 35 Up, John returned, though begrudgingly. He had a reason. His wife and he had begun a charity to raise funds to help the beleaguered educational state of Belarus, a country where John’s family once resided. In 49 Up, he travels once again to that ancestral country and he remarks, somewhat graciously, that it was directly because of exposure on the Up series that donations increased and the kids in Belarus today have books and school buildings and dedicated educators. John made the most of his fame and directed it to a worthy cause. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that John’s passionate desire to help Belarus (his wife is the daughter of an ambassador to the country) feels like the “character” of John has matured.

7up1-1Is there any sense of privacy when you know that cameras will be regularly scheduled to appear? There’s this enormous pressure to continue with the Up series, I imagine. But whom do these lives belong to? They were chosen by school officials and Granada at age seven, so they never really had much of a say in what has turned into a lifelong commitment. It seems that the world has a sense of ownership over these 14 individuals’ lives, an ownership that they never granted permission. They must feel an enormous obligation to keep informing the public about their lives, much like a nagging relative. We are a nosy, intrusive lot, human beings are. And I must say that I personally feel weirdly paternal about them. I feel happiness when they too reach happiness through whatever means. I was smiling from ear to ear when Nick, who at 14 was so shy and awkward, became a wonderfully charismatic, articulate, thoughtful, and rather handsome 21-year-old man (he looked strikingly similar to Andy Samberg). I feel despair as well when marriages don’t work out or once secure jobs vanish. Watching the Up series is like watching the evolution of a human being through time-lapse photography; it’s voyeuristic but at the same time it’s like having an extended surrogate family that requires no commitment. We can watch people grow up, mature, gain wisdom, and without anything more than the click of a button. We can watch hairlines get thinner, faces get larger, bodies get saggy, wrinkles multiply, all while playing the visual game of connecting the current iteration of participants with their past selves. We have these 14 people’s lives at our disposal for entertainment.

The Up series aren’t individually great documentaries. In fact, they’re pretty plain and not fairly insightful. As a whole, they present a fascinating document of the human experience and make for a great way to spend a rainy day. You can’t help but reflect on your own life after watching several of the Up movies, and curiously wonder what you have done with your own life at various intervals. As of this writing, all 14 original participants are still alive, which is somewhat amazing in itself. It will be morbidly interesting to see how the film series carries on after one or more of the participants pass away. Millions around the world will mourn what otherwise would have been a normal stranger passing. It’s probably selfish to keep hoping for future installments, and for the participants to keep updating me about their personal lives, but after a 45-plus year investment for some, it’s hard not to feel a sense of attachment to these people.

Nate’s Grade: B

Series Grade: A-

In the Loop (2009)

This is one of those movies that are so sharp, so bristling with intelligence, that you practically need to have a remote control glued to your mitt so that you can rewind and catch all the jokes. I turned the subtitles on myself just to make sure I could get everything. This British comedy is a wicked satire of the miscommunication and blunders that lead the U.S. and Britain into declaring war on a Middle Eastern country. There are some topical jabs but so much of the humor comes from the fractious character interaction; there is a real joy to watching these larger-than-life personalities clash over the course of two nations. It’s fascinating and biting and plays out like a more profane version of The West Wing. The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, with special notice going to My Girl‘s Anna Chlumsky all grown up and perfect with comic timing, and Peter Capaldi as the fearsome, fire-breathing British Director of Communications who can split an epithet like nobody’s business. You might expect his head to burst with how apoplectic he can get. This may be the most quotable comedy in years; every line of this screenplay is gold. There are Hollywood comedies that would kill for just one or two of the choice lines here, but In the Loop is chock full of the funny. It’s a machine gun spray of comedy. Something this scathing and this brilliant doesn’t come along every day.

Nate’s Grade: A

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