Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The King’s Speech

I am not a fan of the British monarchy, an anachronism if ever there was one. But Americans, defenders of democracy, adore the British royals. The King’s Speech (2010; dir. David Seidler) feeds that adoration.

This film’s virtue is that its real interest is not the monarchy but the developing friendship of two men—one of them a shy man with a temper who happens to be second in line to the British throne; the other a failed actor turned voice coach whose controversial methods are said to help people who stutter. Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), doesn’t wish to be king, though he recognizes that his brother David, the Prince of Wales, is immature, shallow, and unprepared to lead. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) on the other hand wants to make a mark in some way. He fails at landing roles in the theatre, so he works as a speech therapist. His family lives in a shabby apartment, and he ekes out a living at what he does. The parallels between them extend into their families—the tawdry apartment and meager circumstances of the Logues and their sons contrasting with the plush, elegant surroundings of the prince, his wife, and their daughters—Margaret and Elizabeth.

Albert’s wife, Elizabeth, seeks Logue’s help for her husband’s stammering, and the voice coach and the prince begin working together. Both are aware of the differences between them in class—an impoverished teacher on the one hand and a member of the royal family on the other. Albert expects to be addressed by his royal title, but Logue insists on calling him Bertie, a name used only by family members. Logue requires that they work together on a basis of equality, a requirement Albert resists. At one point Albert’s objection to Lionel and his methods brings an end to their work together. But when brother David (King Edward VIII) abdicates the throne Albert finds himself King George VI of England and in need of speaking successfully to the British people on the eve of the Second World War. His relationship with Lionel resumes.

The title has multiple meanings. One is the literal matter of the king’s speech. Albert suffers a terrible stammer that prevents him from speaking publically without great difficulty and embarrassment. His stammer causes him to doubt his own worth, especially in comparison to his older brother , who makes vicious fun of his speech difficulties during an argument. Another meaning is the radio address Albert gives on the eve of the Second World War He needs to speak well enough to reassure and inspire the British people, who are about to enter a long and painful war. A third meaning derives from the power that derives from the speech of a king—as an expression of will, power, authority.

This friendship and the surrounding melodrama give The King’s Speech its interest. It doesn’t rely on the aura of glamour surrounding the monarchy. Nor does it show the royals as anything more or less than what they are—privileged, imperfect people. The acting of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush is excellent, and as a human story set in a mid-twentieth century historical context, the film works on every level.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Several reviews suggested that this film would be entertaining. I found the first Transformers film (2007) diverting. It had a sense of play, didn’t take itself seriously. The inevitable sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) cranked up the noise and mayhem. Despite some impressive effects, its story (even for a Transformers film) was weak, and its point seemed encapsulated in the giant toys, the explosions, and Megan Fox’s heaving breasts.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011; dir. Michael Bay) is far worse than I’d expected. It’s profoundly bad and doesn’t even function well on the level of the comic book characters it’s bringing to screen. The few moments of pleasure come from minor characters played by Frances McDormand , John Torturro, and John Malcovich (my favorite; he plays a raving Ayn Rand-inspired tycoon). The main character Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley—well dressed in every scene) seem basically to go through the motions.

Is it really possible that Sam, who has “saved the earth” twice and received a medal from the President, is unemployed?

Many of the Transformer robots have the quirky personalities of Disney or Warner Brothers cartoon characters—they’re types, some of them vaguely ethnic types.

The film briefly haunts us in several scenes with images of collapsing skyscrapers and sheets of paper wafting down from the skies--echoes of Sept. 11.[1]

The battle between the Autobots and Decepticons is a battle between the forces of freedom and its enemies. This film is far more violent than its predecessors, where violence against humans was mostly implied. The thin and illogical story, the often preposterous dialogue, the acting of the main characters, the Transformers themselves, the battles and explosions—none of it mattered.

[1] See Dana Stevens review of the film and its references to the events of 9-11 in Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2298063/.

Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles (2011; dir. Jonathan Liebesman) has an ample amount of CGI special effects. Aliens attack the major cities of the earth, and Los Angeles proves to be the one place where resistance is not futile. A staff sergeant on the verge of retirement (Aaron Eckhart) finds himself called back to duty, and he and a platoon of Marines square off with the aliens. Much of the film focuses on the efforts of the soldiers to rescue civilians trapped in a police station. What sets this film apart from most films of this type is that it focuses more on characters than special effects and space creatures. It’s basically a battle movie, with all the standard clichés and formulas. The staff sergeant, Michael Nantz, of course, has a past—a decision he made a few years earlier in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of four men in his unit. His confidence is shaken, and this event helps convince him to retire. He finds in the platoon he’s assigned to the brother of one of the dead soldiers, who makes everyone in the unit aware of the sergeant’s past. So, in addition to fighting the aliens Nantz must battle his own self-doubts and those of the men he's leading. As is the rule in many battle films, we find our time occupied with wondering which soldier will die next, and how. We wonder whether the sergeant will overcome his self-doubt and win the confidence of his unit. We wonder how only a few men could possibly do anything to defeat the nasty and apparently invincible aliens, who have invaded the earth to harvest its water.

CGI spacecraft mostly hover in the background, with a few close-up encounters. We recognize some borrowings from other films-- Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) seems to be an influence on how Battle: Los Angeles shows alien weapons that disintegrate human bodies, and the appearance of some of the alien ships.

Like many battle films, this one is entertaining but in no way distinguished. There’s a lot of action, gunfire, and explosions, and the narrative moves fast. It’s fortunate the aliens hover mostly in the background. The one time we get to see them up close, they look like poorly made puppets. Staff Sergeant Nantz is the character who lends this film what virtues it has.