The King's Speech

This is the one to beat for Best Picture and Best Actor at the next Academy Awards. Director Tom Hooper ("John Adams") didn't cut the actors any slack, the cameras are right up in their faces and there is no place to hide.

This wonderful script by David Seidler (lots of TV) tells us about a little- known fact regarding the father of the present-day Queen Elizabeth II of England. Before he reluctantly became King George VI (remember his brother relinquished the throne to marry the woman he loved), Bertie and his gracious wife Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mum) had tried every humiliating technique under the sun to eradicate his crippling stammer.

I want to talk about this brilliant cast:
  • Colin Firth ("A Single Man") is the Duke of York, a loving father to Elizabeth and Margaret, happy in his marriage and hoping against hope that his elder brother will be a capable king. Bertie has no desire for the throne, in fact he's petrified at the very thought. We have to suffer through a couple of his painful attempts at public speaking and pray for something that will help.
  • Helena Bonham Carter ("Alice in Wonderland") is his wife Elizabeth: loving, supportive and resourceful in her search for a remedy. She even learns how to run an elevator all by herself! If this character is anywhere near true to life, it's no wonder the Brits loved their Queen Mum.
  • Geoffrey Rush ("Shine") is Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist who learned his craft treating shell-shocked veterans of WWI. He is sworn to secrecy about his client's status, but insists on calling him "Bertie." Their personality clashes are realistic and funny.
  • Derek Jacobi ("Endgame") is Archbishop Cosmo Lang who elicited groans from the audience with his unctuous offers of help for our hero.
  • Timothy Spall ("Enchanted") was better than I expected as Winston Churchill, complete with ever-present cigar.
The script goes big (a pending World War) and small (cozy family gatherings, complete with Corgis), funny (interjecting profanities into speech to distract the stammerer) and sad (Edward VI weeps as feelings of inadequacy sweep over him before his coronation).

We are treated to families who actually care for one another, colleagues who have good manners, actors with impeccable acting skills and the sweep of history. You shouldn't miss a moment of it!


Rabbit Hole

Is it Academy Award time again? So soon? It must be... here comes Nicole Kidman with her latest! Actually, this isn't as depressing as "The Hours," "Cold Mountain," or "Margot at the Wedding," but we DO get a workout.

It's good to see Aaron Eckhart ("Erin Brockovich," "The Dark Knight" and "Love Happens") cast in a role worthy of his abilities. He isn't a second banana this time and he certainly holds his own.

Eckhart and Kidman play a happily married couple whose four-year-old son was killed in an accident in front of their house. When we join them eight months later, things haven't improved very much. She is fed up with their grief therapy group and starts trying to cope in different ways ...one of which is to stalk the teen-aged driver who killed her boy.

Besides Eckhart and Kidman, we see:
  • Sandra Oh ("Grey's Anatomy" and "Sideways") who has attended those group sessions for eight fruitless months.
  • Dianne Wiest ("Dan in Real Life") is Kidman's mother, who has also suffered the death of a child.
  • Tammy Blanchard (lots of TV) is Kidman's free-spirited sister, who has just become pregnant.
  • Miles Teller (soon in the "Footloose" remake) is the hapless teenager who drove that car.
Of course there are assorted co-workers, friendly neighbors and concerned family members as well, but our focus is on these two stricken people who are basically decent folks. (Although I watched her make pie crust and... Oh my dear...)

I had the sense that writer David Lindsay-Abaire (who won both a Tony and a Pulitzer for the original stage play) has had first-hand experience with this sort of loss. The emotional arc and some of the statements ring very, very true. And to watch two people get the giggles in grief therapy was perfect! Kind of like the funeral for Chuckles the Clown in the old Mary Tyler Moore show.

It's good to be reminded of the resilience of the human spirit.


True Grit

Having never seen the 1969 John Wayne version, I can draw no comparisons to this remake. Of course Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men") have their own darkly humorous take in their films, so you have been warned....

You will notice a couple of things immediately: The musical underscore consists of various arrangements of old gospel music, which range from a tantalizingly sparse piano offering to a full-out vocal rendition of Leaning On the Everlasting Arms, during the closing credits. Also, the dialogue is quirky, as there are no contractions. No one says, "gonna" or "doesn't" but instead says "going to" or "does not." This creates a slightly stilted sound which enhances the characters' choice of words, like "stalwart" when describing a Texas Ranger.

Mattie Ross has come to retrieve her father's corpse. He was killed by Tom Chaney, who then stole his horse and crossed the river into Indian territory. After checking around, she determines that the U.S. Marshall she will hire to bring him in is Rooster Cogburn, as he has "true grit," and that's what she needs. Problem is, a Texas Ranger is also on Chaney's trail for an earlier murder committed in Texas.

The casting is delicious:
  • Hailee Steinfeld (mostly TV) is Mattie, a primly determined fourteen year old who is undaunted by the various impediments thrown at her. She is smart, resourceful and courageous. In truth, she epitomizes True Grit! Let's watch this youngster.
  • Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart") is Cogburn, a bearded, disheveled drunk...but a crack shot and a ruthless hunter of criminals. Plus, he needs the money she offers to do the job. Bridges clearly relishes his role.
  • Matt Damon ("Hereafter") is our stalwart Texas Ranger. He has no interest in Mattie's problem, his job is to catch Chaney first and take him back to Texas. Damon has become a good utility player; he works in comedies, dramas, TV and animation. He is excellent here.
  • Josh Brolin ("Milk") is Tom Chaney, almost mythical until Mattie gets him in her sights. There was a moment when he drew himself up and I could see the evil in his character's eyes. Brolin has been noticed by awards committees before and I think the best is yet to come.
Little things irritate me, like failing to synchronize the sound of hoof-beats with the sight of a horse galloping; failure to tend the horses, no frontiersman would be so heedless of his animal's needs; the snakes were too contrived, would they nest in a corpse?

In all, suspend disbelief and go enjoy the four lead actors, Hailee in particular. We already expect excellence from the other three.


The Fighter

Mark Wahlberg ("Date Night") has been trying to get this film made for years, so if we want to see someone persevere against long odds over a long period of time, he's our man. He kept himself in shape to play a boxer even when it appeared that all was lost. Way to go, Mark!

Wahlberg plays real-life welterweight boxer Mickey Ward who is saddled with a mother from hell and a brother who is her spawn! I got so exasperated by those two bozos I could hardly contain myself. The fact that they are played to perfection only made them so aggravating I wanted to slap them! The brother is Mickey's coach, while Mom is his manager. Early on, we can see how well THAT is working!
  • Christian Bale ("The Dark Knight") a method actor, lost a significant amount of weight to play Mickey's crack-head older half-brother, a one-trick pony who had (and lost) a match with Sugar Ray Leonard; that is his one and only claim to fame. He is an egocentric, monomaniacal motormouth who cannot accept that maybe his brother deserves a little attention for his hard work.
  • Melissa Leo ("Conviction") is that horrible mother...nine children and the seven daughters are a clamor of harpies (I just looked it up) who still live at home and answer only to her. By the way, Mickey was conceived during a separation, so his siblings are only half...
  • Amy Adams ("Leap Year") is the barmaid who falls for our hero. She can see the family dynamics and understands the perils of linking their future with Mickey's brother, an undependable drug addict, particularly when a title fight seems to be in the offing. This gal is tough and doesn't budge an inch even when out- numbered by those harpies!
Director David O. Russell worked before with Wahlberg ("Three Kings") and he captures the adrenalin rush of a close match. Of course as the "villain," Bale dominates his every scene; during the final credits the real-life brothers are filmed and even then, Mickey says, with a wry smile, "I can never get a word in edgewise!"

This is Lowell, Massachusetts, a working-class town filled with working- class people. Because we are in a gym a good portion of the time, be prepared for LOTS of profanity!

The Little Fockers

Yup, they're back! All those pesky Fockers, big and little, still struggling for approval. Again we have the classic stand off between Ben Stiller ("Tropic Thunder") and his militant father-in-law, played by two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro ("Machete"). Again the rejected fiancé played by Owen Wilson ("How Do You Know?"), makes a dazzling but unwelcome appearance. Again we marvel at the audacity of casting two entertainment legends as Stiller's parents: Dustin Hoffman ("Last Chance Harvey") and Barbra Streisand ("Meet the Fockers"). His character is learning the flamenco in Spain while hers is hosting a hit TV show about sex.

Here we have the sort of contrived coincidences that only happen in movies, with absurd humor and a sappy resolution. One key scene is centered around encouraging a patient to relax while instruments are inserted for a colonoscopy. We are shocked to see what must be done when the effects of a male enhancement drug last more than four hours. And then there is a brawl that takes place in a kiddie recreation park... So why wasn't I entertained?

To me, this was a comedy that just wasn't very funny. We mostly see Ben Stiller go from one embarrassing situation to another; he is humiliated by his father-in-law while trying to elude a ridiculously aggressive pharmaceuticals rep, played by Jessica Alba ("Valentine's Day"). On the other hand, his wife, played by Teri Polo ("Meet the Fockers") tries to plan a birthday party for their five-year-old twins (the Little Fockers) while evading an old suitor.

I can only hope this is a trilogy so I won't have to put up with those Fockers a fourth time....

How Do You Know

If I say "I really LIKE Reese Witherspoon," or "I really LIKE Paul Rudd," you automatically expect, "but..... " so here it is. This is a sweetly romantic comedy that hits all its marks: it has likable stars, an interesting script and no actual bad guys; it uses New York City neighborhoods so well I could almost live there myself. But... I just wish that the script wasn't overloaded with fortune-cookie type affirmations; it is trying to appear deeper than it is.

Writer/director James L Brooks seems to be resting on his laurels ("Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News") and his considerable clout must be why he was able to assemble this cast:
  • Reese Witherspoon (Academy Award for "Walk the Line") is a professional softball player who is unexpectedly cut from the team. She has never dated a non-athlete.
  • Paul Rudd ("I Love You, Man") works for his wealthy father in a multinational corporation. Problem is, he has just been subpoenaed to testify about a situation he's never heard of.
  • Owen Wilson ("Marley and Me") is a highly-successful baseball player who falls for our heroine. He is massively egotistical and blithely unaware of it.
  • Jack Nicholson ("The Bucket List") is the businessman/father whom we suspect should have been subpoenaed.
  • Kathryn Hahn ("Revolutionary Road") is Rudd's secretary. She knows some secrets but he isn't allowed to hear them until after he testifies. Oh, and she is pregnant and has no husband...
Even though it is pleasant enough, this film has no bite. The dialogue is spoken in quiet tones and there are a lot of perplexed looks and wryly sincere smiles, but Brooks missed his chance to make some commentary on the pitfalls of dating an egomaniac or Americans doing business in other countries.

I really wanted to LIKE this one...sigh...


I Love You Phillip Morris

In a film based on real people, Jim Carrey ("Yes Man") plays Steven Russell, a church-going cop who is happy to remain closeted until a traffic accident causes him to reassess his life. He has a wife and child, so he gets a divorce, moves to Miami and starts living the life of an "out" gay man. Of course his flamboyant version of that life is pretty expensive so he becomes a con man. Each con is a little more daring than the last, so eventually he is caught and put in jail.

He quickly learns the ropes and continues his cons, this time enlisting his fellow prisoners and guards. He hasn't been there very long before he meets the love of his life: Phillip Morris. Ewan McGregor ("The Ghost Writer") has never been more appealing! This time our Scottish-born sweetie has a mild southern drawl; his character makes it very clear that he too, is equally smitten.

Once Carrey's quick-witted character serves his sentence and is released, he begins a legendary bout with the law. This resourceful fellow is never without one audacious plan or another and he is determined to get our eponymous hero out of jail so they can live happily ever after.

The fun is in seeing how inventive and reckless Carrey's character is, and how cautious and gentle his lover is. Russell's former wife, played by Leslie Mann ("Funny People"), remains a loving Christian who never gives up in her quest to bring her erring husband back to the Lord.

As usual, I have some reservations about Jim Carrey, but Ewan McGregor stole my heart! My thanks to the European branch of JayFlix for this tip.


From the Ashes

Obviously I don't know how esoteric your foreign film taste is, but if you have a high tolerance for foreignness, I highly recommend "From The Ashes," a restoration of a Chinese film that had been partially lost. The "Redux" folks (including cellist Yo Yo Ma) have done a remarkable job of restoring a film that was heavily damaged in China's more recent political upheavals. If you want to be "in the know," watch the extras, okay? (They have English captions.)

Tony Leung is the marvelous heartthrob (...sigh...) from "In the Mood," even though he has a fairly minor role in this one: watch for the fellow who is losing his sight.

The script shows us a highly evolved society, and is written by someone who had great insight into human mental processes and behavior.

The cinematographer is the fellow who later shot the wonderful "Rabbit-Proof Fence" which I have highly recommended in the past...

I tend to fast forward through the martial arts stuff ...unless you really get off on Asian slo-mo blood-letting. The voice-over is actually quite wry but the stylized photography shows us why it won so many awards. It's amazing what a brilliant artist can do with a bird cage!

The restoration is seamless and you will be treated to a film that is the Oriental equivalent of our Occidental classic, "Lord of the Rings."


The Tourist

Anyone who has seen "The Lives of Others" is no doubt already a fan of Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. He can pull me in without pushing the standard conditioned-reflex buttons most directors use: music, back-lighting, voice-over...you know...

Angelina Jolie ("Salt") is her usual enigmatic, tantalizing self, relying on a poker face which provides a blank tablet on which we write all the emotions we expect her character to experience. And of course she's lovely... Skinny, but lovely....

Johnny Depp ("Public Enemies" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise) is fully capable of playing a grown up. He has proven it over and over, so are we going to keep calling him "Johnny?" Hasn't he earned "John" by now? Of course we still allude to Jimmy Stewart.... and Jimmy Cagney... Oh never mind!

Anyway... Johnny Depp is our eponymous tourist, a community college math teacher on vacation, picked at random by Jolie to confuse the gangsters and cops who are trailing her. They all hope she will lead them to her boyfriend who has stolen an astronomical sum from the gangster and has spent some of it on extensive plastic surgery and a new identity, so he can't be spotted. Naturally Depp is mistaken for the thief. His character is sooo American: a little naïve, a little gauche and more than a little scared. His futile attempts at speaking Italian insult the Italians because they always turn out to be in Spanish.

Paul Bettany ("Creation") is a British agent hot on Jolie's trail, much to the chagrin of his boss, played by Timothy Dalton ("Hot Fuzz"). Expect lots of humor, gorgeous clothes, swanky hotels, elegant surroundings and an interesting (bare) foot race on the tiled roofs of Venice as a pajama-clad Depp flees mobsters with guns. (His character's not very athletic so he really looks authentic!)

This one will open big! They had to turn away over 100 would-be screeners because the theater was full.

Oh, one last thought: Be sure to suspend disbelief, okay?

Chronicles of Narnia: Dawn Treader

The full title, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is too cumbersome. This latest installment in the classic Narnia series joins us once again with two of the Pevensie siblings Lucy and Edmond, who are the reluctant guests of their loutish cousin Eustace, in pre-WWII London. This massive, heavily CGI production is populated by familiar faces and excellent voices.

Let's talk about a few:
  • Georgie Henley (mostly "Narnia" films) is back as Lucy Pevensie: spunky, pretty good with a bow and arrow, and maybe attracted to Caspian....
  • Ben Barnes ("Locked In" and "Narnia" films) is Prince Caspian. He looks more like Keanu Reeves every day.
  • Skandar Keynes (mostly "Narnia" films) is Lucy's brother Edmund, who is royalty in Narnia and just a teenager back in London.
  • Will Poulter ("Son of Rambow") is that little toad Cousin Eustace. This kid has pretty good comedy chops and his character's evolution seems to be the main theme of this installment.
  • Tilda Swinton ("Burn After Reading" and "Narnia" films) returns as the White Witch, still trying to divert the Pevensies from their goal by tempting them with their fondest wishes.
  • Liam Neeson ("The Next Three Days" and "Narnia" films) is, once again, the voice of Aslan, the majestic lion who promises the orphans that they will see their parents again some day.
  • Simon Pegg ("Star Trek" and "Narnia" films) steps in as the new voice of our charming Reepicheep, the swashbuckling rodent.
This is a huge production with a huge cast, and suffice it to say it has lots of action, with flying dragons, huge sea serpents, endless sword-fights and general melees. Because this is juvenile literature by C.S. Lewis, there are no sweaty bodies and you'll see no blowie uppie stuff.

The audience seemed satisfied and entertained as we exited the theater. Me? Not so much. I never developed a taste for C.S. Lewis; his popular books came along after my childhood.