Tag Archives: Movies

The King’s Speech (2010)

9 Jan

A few years ago The Queen was released to great acclaim, earning Helen Mirren numerous accolades as she took up her role as the monarch in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. It was one of those ‘British Movies That Could’, heralding perhaps a new Golden Age for British Cinema.

But when I saw it I couldn’t help but look past Mirren’s – admittedly very believable – performance and wonder whether this was just another excuse to show off the British countryside and earn a few bucks from curious Americans with a fascination with the Monarchy. So I had some reservations going to see The King’s Speech, though it turned out to be a much more rewarding experience than Stephen Frears’ foray into heritage drama.

The King’s Speech is set in the couple of years leading up to the declaration of World War II, where Prince Albert (Colin Firth) is struggling to cope with his stammer, King George V (Michael Gambon) is nearing the end of his life and Prince Edward (Guy Pearce) is having a very open affair with twice-married American Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). After having a disastrous appearance in front of a crowd at Wembley, Albert’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) decides to send him to unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and the magic commences.

Let’s get this out of the way: by far and away the best thing about this movie is the on-screen chemistry between Firth, who is quite brilliant as the Prince, and Rush, who is both funny and compassionate towards his unlikely client. The best scenes of the film are undoubtedly those set in Logue’s workspace where both characters are able to let loose and be themselves rather than being constrained by any uptight rules surrounding the royals. These also happen to be the most heartfelt and genuinely hilarious moments, and you kind of wish that more of the film was set around this.

Instead, a lot of the film follows the history of the royals at this point in time, which, while important to the story, detracts a little from the more engaging scenes between Logue and Albert. By the end of the film, while there is a very satisfying (if predictable) conclusion, it feels more like a historical drama than a heartfelt true story. Okay, maybe it was a little too much to expect that a heritage drama starring Colin Firth was going to be solely set around a small and dingy room, but somehow this would have been more daring than having your conventional pomp and gold curtains that envelops the final third of the movie.  

Nevertheless, The King’s Speech has its great moments, not least when Logue actually gets the Prince to swear uncontrollably, which is strangely hilarious and when Albert talks about his childhood in a frank and heartfelt way. These moments are perhaps a little too fleeting though and Helena Bonham Carter is pretty much wasted as Elizabeth: usually she lights up any movie she’s in, but here she is given too little screen time to really shine. This could be said about the wealth of talent on offer here with the exception of Firth and Rush. It’s a real shame.

Verdict: Brilliant performances and chemistry between Firth and Rush are the shining lights in a film that can be categorized alongside many other British heritage dramas, thanks to it being swallowed by typical conventions in the slightly disappointing final third.

7 out of 10

This post is appearing in FreedomSpark Online.

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RIP Leslie Nielsen

29 Nov

After suffering complications arising from a bout of pneumonia, Canadian-born actor Leslie Nielsen died at his Florida home yesterday at the age of 84.

He was best known for his comedic roles although Nielsen actually started his acting career doing drama: his half-uncle was Jean Hersholt (best known for playing Dr. Christian in the radio show of the same name) and Nielsen aspire to be an actor as a result. He first appeared in television roles during “television’s Golden Age”, appearing in 50 live shows in 1950 alone. He was offered a role in Forbidden Planet, and later played the captain in the popular disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure.

However, Nielsen is best known for his roles in spoofs. Now in his 50s, his deadpan delivery as a doctor in Airplane! gave Nielsen’s career a much-needed boost and would set him up as a comedy great. Roger Ebert even called Nielsen “the Olivier of spoofs”. High praise indeed for Shirley:

It would be as Frank Drebin that Nielsen would gain his defining role. Originally a character in the TV series Police Squad! the character was revived for The Naked Gun: Files From The Police Squad! six years after the show was cancelled. The movie spawned two sequels (The Smell of Fear and The Final Insult) and cemented Nielsen’s place as a spoof comedy great. It remains to this day one of his greatest and most cherished roles, and the movies have stood the test of time:

RIP Lt. Frank Drebin.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (2009)

2 Nov

Kids movies can range from being quietly enjoyable for the slightly older of us and the slightly unbearable for the older of us. This of course is assuming that you’re not an eight-year-old at heart. When I first read reviews of Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs last year I thought to myself, “Hmm, this could quite possibly be at the worse end of the kiddie movie.”

But still I watched. I watched because I was riddled with a terrible cold that made me completely lethargic and in need of watching something that didn’t require the use of that thing in my head… oh, yeah, my brain!

Cloudy tells the story of Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) who thinks he’s a genius. Except, all of his inventions are rubbish or farfetched. When his mother dies, his father (James Caan) thinks he should give up his dream of being an inventor. But when Flint invents a machine that can turn the weather into food, he is hailed as a hero and a new age dawns over his sleepy town. He gets the respect of town weathergirl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) with whom he finds a special bond. But when Flint suspects that there might be a catastrophic fault with the machine, the town’s increasingly gluttonous mayor (Bruce Campbell) convinces him not to worry and continue producing food. Then everything descends into chaos.

Well we all know that this is all going to have a happy ending, and you can see what’s going to happen from miles around. There’s no real surprises in store so if you’re looking for a movie with at least one decent twist, you’d better look elsewhere. Much of the movie focuses on the different food-wishes of the townsfolk, leaving a weirdly small portion of the movie to the eventual catastrophe that happens to the town.

The town’s odd cop, played by Mr. T, frankly doesn’t get enough screen time. He is by far the funiest and most engaging character in the whole movie and yet is relegated to a bit-part in comparison to some of the other characters. But in its defence, the voice actors on Cloudy all put in good performances and bring some life to proceedings. Without that energy and enthusiasm it might be said that the movie would fall flat on its face. Oops. The film’s great premise doesn’t quite live up to expectations, and although I’m sure a small kid would laugh at some of the slapstick (which is mostly what the comedy element relies on) it doesn’t have that spark that makes it appealing to adults as well. Add into the mix slightly disappointing level of animation (like a poor version of the altogether more superior Monsters vs. Aliens) and it’s all a bit of a letdown.

But maybe I’m being harsh. It does boast a lovely end-credit sequence and the feat of having raised a smile on my face through my suffering, so it must have done something right. And the food looks good. Yep, I definitely felt hungry after seeing all those tasty-looking cheeseburgers fall from the sky. Too bad that level of quality wasn’t spread across the entire movie.

Verdict: Kids will love its simplicity and pratfall comedy but it offers little in terms of adult entertainment. Avoid if you’re feeling at all peckish: it will induce a stomach-churning need to eat copious amounts of food.

A Serious Man (2009)

24 Oct

I love Woody Allen films. To be more specific, I love Woody Allen films that actually have Woody Allen acting in them: think “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” or at the sillier end “Bananas” and “Sleeper.” It’s the neurotic, uptight and slightly hapless nature of his characters (all basically a flimsy parody of himself) that makes me love these earlier Allens so much.

“A Serious Man”, the Coen Brothers most recent and Oscar-nominated movie, follows on somewhat from this premise. It’s a film about Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics lecturer who’s locked in a loveless marriage, has two troublesome children, a brother with serious social problems and is doing his best to advance in his career. His life begins to spiral out of control as his wife demands a Gett (that’s a divorce that allows her to remarry in the church), his son keeps getting stoned in the days leading up to his Bar Mitzvah and he’s hassled at work by a South Korean boy and his family who try to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade.

It’s a film that centres almost entirely over Larry’s increasingly fragile mental state which is consistently shaken by a series of unfortunate events. Stuhlbarg is quirky and completely likable as Larry: so likeable in fact that in the closing scenes you can’t help but feel completely sorry for him. Joel and Ethan Coen handle the subject matter deftly, applying their magic touch which is clean, precise and lets the acting do the talking. They don’t litter the film with any ambitious shots, making you feel completely at home.

Indeed, there are two elements in the movie that make this story of Jewish karma and neuroses stand out from the rest. The editing is brilliantly put together, effectively using cross-cutting to make you see scenes in a certain light. At the same time sequences where characters have taken drugs are framed with a haze that creates a dreamlike atmosphere. But during dream scenes the camera is simple, the editing basic. This is all designed to eventually shock you when certain events “happen” only to be revealed as false and thought up by Larry’s shattered brain. These frights of course are typical of the Coens, who never fail to insert a shock or two even in their most sedate films.

The screenplay also has a zing that is missing from most dark comedies. The Coens do this kind of twisted humour so well: events on paper must seem quite farfetched but in their hands the storylines are not only completely believable but also engaging and hilarious, much like Woody Allen’s work. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could make this film work in such a wonderful way. It’s never boring and even scenes that are eventually said to be completely useless (like the story about the message in the teeth) have their place in this altogether twisted tale. Besides, where else would you see a young boy stoned at his own Bar Mitzvah?

Verdict: They’ve done it again! “A Serious Man” fizzles with energy, has completely human and funny performances and is a lovely Allen-esque insight into the Jewish mind. All to the sound of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love”!

District 9 (2009)

18 Oct

“Everyone Deserves Equality”. This is the message of this Prawn Rights program, designed to raise awareness about the plight of the Prawns, the quality of life that they have in Johannesburg and the discrimination that they are faced with every day. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi drama is a loosely-disguised story of Apartheid, and all the nastiness that went with it. Except Blomkamp was clever. Instead of just making a film about Apartheid he changed the focus to aliens, and added in a strangely plausible story about a man who is forced to live just like them.

The story goes that in 1982 a large mothership contained a race of starved and bedraggled aliens, known as the Prawns, arrived in Johannesburg. 28 years later the warmth to which the Prawns was received has faded to nothingness, and the Prawns were relocated to District 9, a ghetto where the race live in squalor and are exploited. In 2010, Multi-National United is contracted to move all of the Prawns from this ghetto into District 10, a sector located miles away from Johannesburg that is similar to a concetration camp. The operation was headed by Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) but when he is infected by a mysterious alien liquid his only hope is to rely on the help of his two new Prawn friends, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son.

The film is incredibly sympathetic to the Prawns, treating them like human beings and showing them more respect than most of the people involved with Multi-National United. It is terrible to see the conditions in which the Prawns live and the way that they are bullied by humans every day. Perhaps most revealing is the idea that all they want to do is go home, and indeed Christopher’s whole aim in life is to return to his home planet and rescue his fellow aliens from the squalor that they now live. The humans are portrayed as brutal, and the main military core of Multi-National United love nothing better than to threaten the Prawns, and even murder them for laughs. In this way it’s pretty gratifying to see these same men get blown to smithereens by the alien technology that Wikus is eventually able to command.

But the power and historical importance of the film isn’t the only factor that makes District 9 so compelling. Sharlto Copley’s performance as Wikus is incredible: he moves from being a slightly oddball pushover to a completely frustrated and ultimately moralistic character as he gradually, over seventy four  hours, accepts his fate. At first you dislike him for being so dedicated to his undesriable job of evicting the aliens, but eventually you warm to the fact that he knows he has been mistaken. In Wikus’ tag-team with Christpopher the pair even manage to be unintentionally funny: I laughed at some of the comments made by the pair, but also had the sneaking suspicion that I probably shouldn’t. But perhaps Blomkamp bravely wasn’t afraid to place humour into what is ultimately a serious drama.

 The CGI technology used to bring the Prawns to life is also amazingly impressive. You have to consider that in the same year Avatar was released at a cost of $237m. It only took Blomkamp and his producer Peter Jackson $30m to create this incredibly convincing and realistic effect, not just for bringing the Prawns to life but also for all the explosions, makeup, mechanical effects and sets used while creating the movie. Put into perspective, the pair were working on a shoestring. But didn’t it work well? It is a perfect representation of how you don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot back.

In addition to this, the movie makes use of three very distinct filmic styles. Sociologists and entomologists are interviewed in-between the action to give their comments on the alien behaviour. Wikus’ team film the eviction process through the use of cheap-looking handheld cameras while the second half of the movie is captured entirely using more recognisable standard film cameras, reminding us that this is a movie, not a documentary, as the first half would have you believe. The editing is impreccable, always knowing when to give you new information of to use certain footage. It all helps to form this particular mindset of how immoral Multi-National United are. And in the end, the message against discrimination is what Blomkamp wants us to take away from watching the movie.

Verdict: An incredibly impressive sci-fi that moves from a realistic documentary style to a thrilling action climax. But on the whole this is a very powerful story about prejudice mixed with a believable “what if” style plot that changes your view of events. It will keep you riveted, make you think and if you don’t feel sorry for Wikus by the end then, quite frankly, you don’t have a heart.

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988)

27 Sep

Before this, I’d never seen a Pedro Almodovar film before. Shocking, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, it’s always been on my list as something to do, knowing that he’s probably one of the most famous Spanish auteurs ever. So yes, I had to watch something, anything, by him. So it was good luck when my work threw up this fabulous opportunity  to watch Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, his breakthrough film.

It stars Carmen Maura as Pepa, a woman desperate to know why her lover Ivan has left her over the space of two days. She goes to see Ivan’s wife and son, but they are just as clueless as she is. Meanwhile, Pepa’s friend Candela (Maria Barranco)  is convinced that the police are searching for her after she slept with a member of a Shiite terrorist cell. She turns up at Pepa’s flat and tries to commit suicide. Luckily, Pepa’s self-appointed son-in-law (through Ivan), Carlos (Antonio Banderas), turns up at the flat with his fiancée Marisa (Rossy De Palma) for a viewing and they help to pull her back up from the side of the building. Marisa accidentally drinks a gazpacho made by Pepa with a packet of sleeping pills in it while searching for water for Candela. And here starts a series of strange and farcical events where the characters get more tangled up in each others’ lives than they may have first anticipated.

The movie has more of the feel of a stage play than a full cinematic piece: most of the action takes place in Pepa’s flat, where the layout is pretty much open-plan with a huge terrace, and other locations are used frequently, such as the back seat of a Mambo Taxi and the studio where Pepa works. The backdrop on Pepa’s terrace also seems a little too fake, although it’s strange things like this that give the movie a quirky charm that is hard not to fall in love with.

The characters have a great deal of chemistry, where it’s hard not to believe the tangled up relationships between them. Each actor’s performance is also very strong, and the fact that Spanish is such a fast language lends well to the fact that some of the characters are losing their minds while others are simply panicking and highly-strung. Some of the costume, of course, is a little dated (hey, it was the 80s!) but apart from this detail you get the impression that this movie could have been made at any time and it still would have been fresh as a daisy.

Something about the film reminded me of some of the farcical situations of Woody Allen movies, which I was actually surprised at since Almodovar is known for his works in melodrama. But Women is hilarious and never seems try-hard. The laughs are genuine and even though the characters are suffering from hysteria most of the time, it’s not hard to sympathise with Pepa and her acquaintances. You even feel just that little bit sorry for her at the end. But hey, pathos is what great comedy is all about.

Sacha Baron Cohen: Is He Freddie?

21 Sep

I’m not a fan of Queen at all.

Queen are the bastion of all things middle-aged-man. Queen can be heard playing at every social occasion where age groups are brought together, they can be heard on every karaoke machine and have soundtracked the lives of many a man. Which is exactly why I don’t like them. I can’t listen to anything by Queen without having a horrible image of dad-dancing. Not specifically my dad dancing but the type of dad who perhaps might have let his hair grow, mistakenly, so it’s straggly on the ends and exaggerates that thinning, balding patch on the top of the head. Who wears waistcoats. And completes their music collection with Status Quo, sin of sins. They make me think of Martin Kemp, who provided the reasons why Queen were the best band ever on I’m In A Rock’n’Roll Band. Which is terrible, because there’s something horribly slimy and newt-like about him. The Spandau Ballet factor.

Those were the numerous reasons that I don’t like Queen. I won’t be moved on this subject. So I’m not very excited by the fact that Peter Morgan is writing a script for a new Queen biopic. Because the cinemas will be filled with Kemp-a-likes, which is a terrible turn-off. No, the only reason that I’m interested in this is because of the casting of Freddie Mercury. Okay, you probably all know who it is already, but dun-dun-DUUUN, it’s Sacha Baron Cohen:

“That’s Niiice” (in a Borat voice. Doesn’t really work in print, does it?). Yes Mr. Cohen is going to be Freddie Mercury. The question, then, is why? Well, Sacha is best known for his roles as spoof people who go and irritate others in real-life situations, causing scandal. But you might remember he was also in Sweeney Todd. Remember that? Well, he didn’t do an awful lot of warbling in the film, but he was there, giving it what-for. To land the role, he also had to sing in the audition so he must have some pretty decent vocal chords going on there (but then again, he likes doing voices, so maybe this isn’t such a surprise).

Plus, if we only learned one thing from Borat, it’s that Sacha looks good with a ‘tache:

Left: Freddie Right: Borat - separated at birth?

So that might settle it then. Besides, with the flamboyant tendencies of his creations, surely Sacha can’t mess up being a flamoyant person who actually existed? Isn’t that logical? Well, only time will tell. At least we covered the reasons why Mr. Borat will be Mr. Mercury, even if it was a little… quickly.

But we did discover why I don’t like Queen.

What do you think? Should Sacha Baron Cohen really play Freddie Mercury?

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