Monday, January 24, 2011

The King's Speech (2010)

Queen Elizabeth: My husband's work involves a great deal of public speaking.
Lionel Logue: Then he should change jobs.
He can't.
What is he, an indentured servant?
Something like that.

1925. King George VI is delivering, or trying to deliver, a speech to a large crowd, but his crippling stutter renders him unable to proceed beyond a few words. Ashamed of his handicap, the king tries every method of vocal coaching, but to no avail—until he meets Lionel Logue, an unconventional voice coach who promises success. And a tumultuous journey begins, spanning over 15 years that weaves a picture of political intrigue, betrayal, friendship, and trust. As the threat of Hitler draws near, King George must become the man his country needs him to be: a strong orator who will comfort and encourage his subjects. The day comes when the stuttering king must deliver a rousing speech, live, over the airwaves, to the people of England. Will the fear of failure and humiliation prevent him from succeeding, or will he be able to overcome his impediment in order to deliver the speech of his life?

Initial Thoughts

I had the privilege of seeing this film last week and I was incredibly impressed and surprised. Admittedly, the plot sounds rather boring on paper, and generally I dislike films about British monarchy, but the film transcended all expectations. The characters were so rich, the dialogue so crisp, the music so delightful, the conflict so relatable, and the resolution so satisfying, the film was hard not to love. Without hesitation, I would name this film one of the best of 2010 and deserving of all the critical acclaim and accolades it has received—including an impressive best picture win at Saturday night’s Producer’s Guild of America Awards.

The Characters

The king with the huge problem is marvelously portrayed by Colin Firth, who quickly disappears into his character. The king's handicap is so real that, at times, the movie is difficult to watch. The supportive Queen who only seeks to see her husband succeed is given little screen time, but actress Helena Bonham Carter shines in those moments. However, the real show-stealer is Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), the vocal coach with a questionable past but an unquenchable determination to see the king succeed.

As the movie progresses, each of these characters grows and evolves, revealing fears, motivations, and drives, which, despite the long run time, always kept me interested. Though I knew how the movie was going to end, I felt a certain attachment to the characters and thoroughly hoped they would succeed. The conclusion was satisfying, hopeful and, like a good film always does, left me wanting more.

The Dialogue

Generally well-written, the film relies heavily on dialogue and never uses action or narration to further the plot. The best scenes of the film involve interactions between Lionel and King George. George often questions Lionel’s methods and, on more than one occasion, they butt heads, resulting in verbal sparring matches which never lose believability or realism. In one more memorable scene which brilliantly portrays the relationship between the two characters, Lionel sits in the throne, much to the displeasure of King George. Ignoring the latter’s demands that he move, Lionel prods the king until the following lines are uttered:

King George VI: L-listen to me... listen to me!
Lionel Logue: Why should I waste my time listening to you?
Because I have a voice!
...Yes, you do.

There is no need for blunt explanations or narration as the writers rely solely on characterization, nuance and depth to convey the film’s messages of respect, friendship, trust, and determination.

The Score

It amazes me that reviewers tend to overlook the score of the film since I find that a good score can make a film great, while a bad score can ruin a film. Alexandre Desplat’s composition only serves to enhance an otherwise excellent film. His subtle yet peppy piano-driven orchestrations provide a perfect backdrop to each scene engaging the viewer who will, undoubtedly, fall in love with each scene. This is a score that can be enjoyed outside of the film and should not be missed.

The Bad

The cinematography lacked the sweeping shots of foggy England, the colorful array of royal palaces, and the interesting angles which would have added to the visual enjoyment of the film. To me, the film looked like a made-for-TV special as seen on PBS or BBC. The colors were drab, the choice of angles generally uninspired, and the shots tended to remove the viewer from the scene as if watching a stage play instead of bringing the viewer into the scene creating involvement with the characters. However, it was not enough to distract from the story and only served to annoy the visual perfectionist in me.

Also unfortunate, as I found out after the fact, is that Hollywood felt it necessary to intervene and change the story to make the conclusion more rousing and the situations more dramatic. Treat the historicity of the film with caution and take some time to learn the true story of King George VI, a truly inspirational and remarkable story indeed.

Finally, the film is rated R for “Some Language” which occurs in two scenes. As history chronicles, King George did not suffer from his impediment in one situation: when he cursed. Thus, in an attempt to cure him, Lionel encourages fits of cursing. While the profanity count is higher than I would prefer, the setting and context of the swearing was not nearly as offensive as in outbursts of anger, or casual conversation. However, the swearing is partially played for laughs and caution should be exercised in determining appropriateness for younger audiences.


This little gem of a film should not be overlooked. Its flaws are far outweighed by its merits and almost every aspect of the film brings joy and delight. The comedy, the dialogue, the character development, the music and the conclusion all make this film a must-see. Watch with a history book nearby, but watch indeed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

True Grit (2010)

First, a confession. I never saw the original “True Grit” of 1969. In fact, I've never seen any of John Wayne's western classics. And I never saw the complete modern retake—I arrived five minutes into the showing. So, no fuss at what follows.

» Plot

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield), a fourteen-year-old farm girl from Arkansas with braided hair and a vendetta against her father's murderer, is looking to see justice done and a man swing. Unfortunately, the law is tied up with other things at the moment, so Mattie—not used to standing idly by—decides to hire a U.S. Marshal to track down her man. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) seems to be just the candidate: he has “true grit,” and is “double tough,” though his love for whiskey occasionally unmoors him. And he is conveniently nearby—just down at the courthouse giving testimony.

If his sworn testimony is to be believed, Cogburn is not one to fool around with. But on the stand, Cogburn is a trite nervous: his one good eye skips around the courtroom as if looking for an escape route, while an angry attorney mincingly questions him on his career.

Attorney: “How many men have you shot since you became a marshal, Mr. Cogburn?”
Cogburn: “I never shot nobody I didn't have to.”
“That was not the question. How many?”
“Uh... shot or killed?”
“Let's restrict it to 'killed' so we may have a manageable figure.”

Satisfied with the marshal's effectiveness, Mattie hires him in her typical not-to-be-deterred fashion, unfazed by the fact that he, while recalling her offer to him, doesn't remember ever agreeing to it. With some twists and turns—including some uproariously brazen horse-dealing—the duo sets off on the warpath.

» Dialogue

Almost the first thing I noticed in “True Grit” was the dialogue. (There was much to notice.) The characters spoke with a genteel and idiomatic style that westerns writers would kill for. It wasn't just the smatterings of unusual archaisms and obsoletes—including some delightful legal jargon about a “writ of replevin” and “remitting”—and the ungrammatical strings of negatives that added flavor to the conversation, but the abundance of frontier phrases that you'll only ever hear from a redneck on the wrong side of a tombstone.

And the personality of the characters only strengthened this verbal confection. Mattie is headstrong, direct, and pointed to a fault. Confronted at one point with a man who bucks decorum by failing to rise when the lady approaches, she pointedly ignores him and converses with his more respectful companion—then, in departing, delivers the barb, “keep your seat, trash.” Over and again, her call-it-like-you-see-it personality adds a liveliness to the story.

Cogburn also amuses the viewer with his common-sense observations imbued with an almost unconscious scorn. An offer of coffee to his young employer results in a rejection just as pleasantly bitter:

Cogburn: “Give me your cup.”
Mattie: “I don’t drink coffee, thank you.”
“Well, now, what do you drink?”
“I'm partial to cold buttermilk.”
“Well, we ain't got none of that. We ain't got no lemonade neither!”

» Visuals, characters, setting

While the dialogue was superb, "True Grit" also stayed above average in other respects. The visuals were classic, and occasionally grandiose, ever keeping with the intended (and expected) tone of the movie and its story. The characters were believable and remarkably realistic—often comedic, but never caricatured. And the film's sometimes jarring representation of society on the frontier was both remarkable and utterly unapologetic.

Throughout the movie, non-whites were repeatedly presented in an unsympathetic, but probably historically accurate, manner. In an early hanging scene, two condemned white men were given a chance to speak their bit, while an Indian was roughly hooded and hanged as soon as he opened his mouth. When Cogburn enters a house, he despisedly thrusts some Indian children off of a porch with his boot as though kicking aside a stick of wood or a piece of garbage—and takes the time to do so again at his exit. A black boy is relegated to tending the horses, while a Chinese man runs a general store. In a genre born of blackface and WASP actors, these depictions offer a discomfiting but appreciated change.

» Language and gore

There was a small amount of profanity—not enough to pain my calloused ears, but enough to note. While there was a fair amount of shooting, hanging, and death and injury in general, it was always brief, not pervasive. In the most disconcerting scene, a gruesome and bloody brawl, a man loses first a set of fingers, and then his life—but all is over quickly.

» Overall

The conversation is reason enough to watch this movie; the writers deserve to have their names writ in gold. The film was coherent and cohesive, endlessly entertaining yet ever engaging. While I would warn the sensitive about some sanguine scenes, the production deserves a full five.