REVIEW: Suffragette

9 11 2015

SuffragetteSuffragette” feels somewhat like the cinema’s equivalent of getting a flu shot. It’s a necessary boost of social consciousness that is good for the way it keeps the world honest. But is it fun or enjoyable, something worth looking forward to? Ehh.

Sarah Gavron’s direction gives some urgency to the century-old tale of British women gaining the right to vote that might otherwise reek of mothballs. The film does not need its scrolling list of dates for women’s suffrage worldwide before the credits to convey this. Good filmmaking renders fact recitation dull at worst, unnecessary at best.

Though Gavron’s frequent use of shaky-camera as a shorthand for intense moment is rather uninspired, “Suffragette” feels appropriately militaristic and angry given its subject. She conveys this most effectively when Abi Morgan’s script focuses on the women’s suffrage movement and the splintering divisions within its ranks. Some prefer a more aggressive, confrontational approach; others, however, support playing the politics of respectability to eventually curry enough favor for their right to vote.

Thankfully, the world seems in agreement that women should have the right to determine their own destiny by casting a vote at the ballot box. Yet these sections that specifically examine the challenges of organizing social action prove so compelling because they are applicable to plenty of modern movements, be it LGBTQ rights, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter. At times, “Suffragette” even recalls “Selma” in the way it presents a fascinatingly nuanced but generalizable portrayal of organizing collective civil disobedience.

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REVIEW: Terminator Salvation

23 06 2015

To get one thing straight, I adore the James Cameron “Terminator” films.  I have written a full essay on Sarah Connor’s femininity for class (if you’re interested in reading it, leave your email in the comments) and will gladly stop on whatever cable channel happens to exhibit the morphing metal men on any given weekend afternoon.

Yet as different directors, writers, and creative teams have dragged out the franchise, the movies lose what makes them special.  Sure, the time travel proves fascinating, but the human characters grappling with fate, agency, and responsibility set the series apart.  Fixating on the minutiae of revisionist timelines does little to capture the appeal of the original two films; this proves the primary sin of McG’s “Terminator Salvation.”

John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script toys around with two pivotal characters in the mythology of the series: resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) and his father from the future, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).  John must continue to wage the war against the sentient Skynet system that aims to destroy humanity, although he must also ensure that Reese survives until the point when he goes back in time to inseminate Sarah Connor.  The mysterious arrival of cyborg Marcus (Sam Worthington) in the presence of Reese throws a wrinkle in everything and essentially constitutes the entire conflict of “Terminator Salvation.”

If you think this sounds like a movie made for only the most hardcore fanboys, you are correct.  Seemingly, the only aim of “Terminator Salvation” is to add even more wrinkles and potential plot holes to the scrambled clock of the series’ narrative.  If Cameron’s films were mind-involving blockbusters, McG’s movie is just a head-scratcher that cannot even fall back on visuals or performances to save it.  Bale and Worthington, the films dueling leads, each turn in work about as dull as McG’s color palette of muted gray.  They grow the franchise longer, sure, but not deeper or better.  C2stars





REVIEW: Les Misérables

19 12 2012

Les Miserables“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent,” wrote Victor Hugo in his novel “Les Misérables.”  Though his work has found expression in a number of different mediums since its publication in 1862, none has captured the public’s imagination quite like Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical.  It took the spirit of Hugo’s classic novel and put it on stage to powerful effect with an operatic score and poetic lyrics.

The endearing place “Les Misérables” holds in contemporary musical theatre is due to the supremacy of the music, featuring showstopper after showstopper that tug on the heartstrings and open the floodgates of the tear ducts.  I’ll go ahead and declare my lack of objectivity since I was fortunate enough to be a member of a production of “Les Misérables” in high school.  Watching the show from the audience is an ethereal experience, but living with that show for several weeks and being a part of conveying that show’s magic to an audience made it a truly spiritual experience for me.

However, theater does have its limitations.  Using terminology from cinematic camera proxemics, the audience is locked in perpetual longshot, forced to view the action from a distance.  Though the immediacy of the performer is felt, we see only broad strokes of emotion.  So for “Les Misérables” on stage, the potency must come across through the notes of the music, putting the emphasis on execution of the orchestra and the voices of the performers.

Yet these complex and well-written roles are a goldmine for actors, offering them chances to explore rich internal worlds and manifest them through beautiful song.  On stage, we are overcome by spectacle and score, so much so that we can lose the depth of the characters that build the colossus that is Hugo’s novel.  If the stage actor chooses to build in nuances in facial and body movement into their performance, it would be mainly for them alone as most in the auditorium would only be able to discern larger, grander motions.

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REVIEW: Dark Shadows

2 10 2012

I’ve been critical of Tim Burton’s artistic choices over the past decade or so, taking material already marked with an inexorable aesthetic and cultural stamp to put a slight Burton refinishing on the top.  With the exception of “Big Fish” (and “Corpse Bride,” I guess – but that movie was just atrocious), the last 15 years have been one big long commercial for a peculiar visionary, a selling out and a selling of the soul.

I’m not even a big fan of “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood,” Burton’s two most acclaimed movies that are renowned mainly for their originality and peculiar personality.  So calling “Dark Shadows” a return to form isn’t exactly the phrase I’m looking for, because it still falls into the typical Burton pitfalls.  But it’s a flash of vintage Burton, a film with winning personality and a sharp sense of macabre humor.

That’s largely due to the fact that he draws a fantastic performance out of his choice surrogate, Johnny Depp, whose been acting in a bit of a fog for the past decade.  He’s not the first superstar who’s fallen victim to becoming a great imitator of himself, and he certainly won’t be the last.  Save perhaps Sweeney Todd, we’ve been seeing 50 shades of Jack Sparrow for movie after movie, and that’s really selling Depp short.  His delivery is deliciously deadpan, his period acting totally self-assured in “Dark Shadows,” and that alone makes for a surprising amount of fun.

Depp’s baroque sensibilities as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy heir in the early United States turned immortal vampire, are uproarious when juxtaposed with the 1970s in which he reawakens.  Burton’s version of the decade, a gloriously campy nostalgic pop song, is a fantastic character in and of itself.  It serves as a marvelous foil to Barnabas, unaware of just how different the times have become (and how at times they can be eerily similar).

The script does Depp and the decade a disservice by being clunky, unfocused, and a bit too dragged out.  It inundates us with an ensemble – including the siren who bit Barnabas turned business rival of the Collins family (Eva Green), an austere matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), a moody daughter (the ubiquitous Chloe Moretz), and of course Helena Bonham Carter as … um, Helena Bonham Carter – that are never quite sure of how they fit into the story.  That’s particularly true of the governess Victoria Winters (newcomer Bella Heathcote), who begins the film as a lynchpin of the plot only to disappear for nearly the entire movie.  (But don’t worry, she’s back for the climax!)

I would not go as far as to call the screenplay a mere stringing together of events that holds the funny moments together, but those moments are what make the movie memorable and entertaining.  Burton has still yet to make a truly great movie in my estimation, but the man sure can direct some riotous scenes.  B





Know Your Nominees: “The King’s Speech”

10 02 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, our next stop on the tour is “The King’s Speech.”

“The King’s Speech” should feel like a very personal movie for a number of reasons, but probably chief among them is screenwriter David Seidler.  As a boy growing up in England in the 1930s and ’40s, Seidler was a stammerer and idolized King George VI for his ability to overcome his problem.  He had to wait many years to secure the rights to write a movie about his hero, mainly due to being asked personally by the Queen Mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the film) to pass away.  Seidler then wrote it as a play, which director Tom Hooper saw and decided to make into a movie.

The director then added his own personal touch to the movie as well.  Hooper stated in an interview that “The King’s Speech” is really a movie about his family.  For example, the opening scene of the movie showing the preparations for the radio broadcast is an homage to his sister, a presenter for Radio 4.  But mainly the connection comes from the relationship between the British Bertie and Australian Logue as Hooper has an Australian mother and an English father. He talked greatly in interviews about the interesting relationship between the two countries and how he conveyed it in the movie.

Lionel Logue, King George’s speech therapist played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush, kept a detailed set of diaries chronicling his work (although they don’t start until the coronation of the king).  However, the diaries were not made available to the filmmakers until nine weeks before the shoot.  Hooper has said that the only changes they made were for the sake of accuracy, and nothing was drastically altered.  He also stated in an interview that some of the best lines in the movie were taken directly from the diary.  For example, after the climactic speech, Logue jokingly says, “You still stammered on the w,” to which King George replies, “Well, I had to throw in a few so they knew that it was me.”

Colin Firth looks like a sure-fire winner for Best Actor, but this easily could have been someone else.  Firth was actually the third choice to play King George VI and only received the role after first Paul Bettany and then Hugh Grant passed.  Neither have Oscars at home on their mantle, so I’m pretty sure that both are regretting this decision.

So how did Firth nail down that stammer, which he executes so immaculately in “The King’s Speech?”  What might be surprising is that Firth did not work with a speech therapist.  He did, however, use a dialogue coach who helped him make the stammer come from a very personal place while also not affecting the pacing of the movie (imagine how dreadful the movie would be if it took him 20 minutes to utter each word).  A speech therapist did come to some of the rehearsals for the movie, and Firth’s sister is also a vocal therapist, which he claims was very helpful for consulting purposes.  He also talked a lot with screenwriter David Seidler, who compared stuttering to being “underwater.”

Does stammering come with side effects?  For Colin Firth, it did.  During the shoot, he claims to have suffered from some headaches and neck tension.  But the more debilitating toll was on his arm, which became numb, went to sleep and thus hard to use.  He went to the set doctor who had little to offer due to the lack of precedent.

Helena Bonham Carter received her second Academy Award nomination for her work in “The King’s Speech,” but just as the case was with many of this year’s nominees, she almost missed the chance.  Due to her commitment on the “Harry Potter” movies, Carter turned down the role numerous times despite director Tom Hooper’s insistence.  Yet she did star in “The King’s Speech” by making what she calls an “illegal” maneuver – shooting BOTH at the same time.  Carter would go off on the weekends and shoot her scenes for Tom Hooper while never being truly “released” from the “Harry Potter” sets.

How do you get a good actor – an Academy Award winning actor, for that matter – to play a convincing mediocre actor?  Tom Hooper got Geoffrey Rush to do some unconvincing Shakespeare by shooting the scene on the first day with English actors in the room who knew that Rush had some experience with Shakespeare. To quote Rush, “I was nervous and I was bad, and he just shot it.”

What of the royal reaction to the film? Queen Elizabeth II, George’s daughter portrayed in the movie as a young girl, gave “The King’s Speech” her seal of approval.  Cynics might ask how much Harvey Weinstein paid for it; others are probably just thrilled to see the royal family showing interest in popular culture.

Cynics might also say that “The King’s Speech” is a stuffy British royal family costume drama that’s totally designed to win over the Academy.  The last part seems to be somewhat true, but it’s hardly stuffy like most other movies about royal life.  Director Tom Hooper is largely responsible for that.  He stated in an interview that he purposefully set up the opening and closing shots of Bertie/George VI so that the movie would stand apart from others in the genre.  We first meet Bertie in normal clothes, not looking all snazzy in his royal get-up.  The movie closes reaffirming King George and Lionel Logue’s friendship, not with him cured of his stammer as if by magic or medicine.

Check back on February 13 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “127 Hours.”





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 14, 2011)

14 01 2011

As a stage actor in high school, I’ve gained a certain appreciation for how in-tune the performances have to be.  The actor must always be acting as any member of the audience can simply shift their gaze on him at any time.  Cinema has marked a new era for the actor, where he doesn’t have to be finely in-tune for hours at a time.  The camera can cut away from him when he doesn’t speak, finding something that the filmmakers believed that impatient audiences will be more interested in than a mouth not sputtering out dialogue.

Yet it’s in those stray moments where we really see the power of the actor.  It’s in these moments that usually get left out of movies where we can truly visualize an actor’s vision for their character.  Through extensive use of split-screen, “Conversations with Other Women,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M.” of the week, is able to capture those moments and bring them to a largely unfamiliar destination: the silver screen.

After spending 80 minutes with Aaron Eckhart and probable 2010 Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter in “Conversations with Other Women,” you’ll have no doubt that they have complete understanding and mastery of not only their characters, but of the craft of acting as well.  They play unnamed people, but just because we can’t identify them through nomenclature doesn’t mean that we can’t connect with them.

Eckhart and Carter strike up amicable conversation at a wedding reception, but the dynamic slowly changes to reveal that these aren’t just perfect strangers.  The methodical unraveling makes for a fascinating watch, as does their banter, which is very much like something that would be performed on stage.  Eckhart and Carter’s two-actor conversation works marvelously well, and the fact that they can keep us drawn in for the entire movie without ever letting go or letting up is nothing short of astounding.  With comedy, drama, and intrigue, “Conversations with Other Women” is a quirky but immensely satisfying showcase of two actors doing what few screen actors dare.





REVIEW: The King’s Speech

28 12 2010

There’s a cynical term for movies like “The King’s Speech” that has become so overused that we forget how derogatory it can actually be: “Oscar Bait.”  People assume that when you throw together Academy-friendly stars in a movie set at least a few decades ago with some pretty costumes and fancy sets, the movie is made just to win a few Oscars at the end of the year.  In essence, we are completely disregarding the art and looking only at the competitive aspect, which is only an auxiliary component of the filmmaking process.

But Tom Hooper’s movie reminds us why this so-called “bait” often works: his story of King George VI’s incredible triumph over his speech impediment with the help of a gifted Australian therapist is a rousing chronicle of a peculiar kind of history.  It doesn’t feel like a page of a textbook but rather a fresh look at a historical figure.  While it’s not revolutionary or incredibly remarkable, “The King’s Speech” makes for an inspiring and very entertaining trip to the movies.

Whether due to his tumultuous childhood or just a lack of confidence, Albert (Colin Firth) cannot speak without a stammer and can hardly speak at all in public.  To remedy this as the radio forces the royal family of England to be a vocal as well as visual presence, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) turns to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an obscure Australian speech therapist in London with rather unorthodox methods.  At first, Lionel seems like a crackpot to Albert, who is used to working with specialists who are more like witch-doctors practicing ancient voodoo rituals.

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