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The King’s Speech (2010)

by Steve Habrat

It drives me nuts when someone says that The King’s Speech was overrated and undeserving of its Oscar wins for Best Picture and Best Director at last year’s Academy Awards. I can see that to some, The King’s Speech is a tailor made Oscar film. It’s a period piece that is, yes, a bit dry and uptight. While the debate raged on last year over which film was more deserving of the Best Picture award, half siding with The Social Network and the other half siding with The King’s Speech, I found myself floored by The King’s Speech. Both films are a work of art and both are gripping, but I found myself invested in the warmth of The King’s Speech over the coldness of The Social Network. This is not to say that I disliked The Social Network, in fact I found it to stand in the top three films of 2010, but I found myself in love with the characters in The King’s Speech and rooting for Colin Firth’s stuttering King George VI. I rooted for him to overcome his disability and to make a friend in the process, someone he could relate to and share his bottled up feelings with. Someone he can sit back with, laugh with, and have a drink with.

The King’s Speech tells the true story of Prince Albert, Duke of York (Played by Firth), who suffers from a stutter that has plagued him his entire life. After years of ridicule and teasing from his strict father King George V (Played by Michael Gambon) and his older brother David, or Edward, Prince of Wales (Played by Guy Pearce), help is sought out for Albert and speech therapists are brought in who apply unorthodox techniques to help with the stutter. The techniques do not work and they end up sending Albert into fits of rage and anger. In a final and desperate attempt, Albert’s loving wife Elizabeth (Played by Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out the help of a patient speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Played by Geoffrey Rush), who’s only demand is that Albert comes directly to him in his office and that he isn’t called doctor. Albert reluctantly goes and he begins to strike up a friendship with the quirky Logue. Soon Albert finds himself taking the throne and war with Nazi Germany is declared. With his new leadership role, Albert begins to allow Logue to probe into his personal life, something strictly forbidden by the royal family. As Albert opens up, he reveals traumatizing moments in his life that he has never told anyone before.

Director Tom Hooper turns The King’s Speech into a stunning work of art that visually suggests Albert’s alienation. One speech therapist is filmed in an extreme and grotesque close up, bearing down on Albert as he spits commands and demands that he annunciates. A panic washes over Albert and it’s easy to see why, with someone bearing down on you who you barley know and commanding you to do something that is extremely difficult, it is easy to see why Albert falls to pieces so easily. Albert is often times photographed to one side of the screen, rarely falling in the neutral middle ground and if he does fall in the middle, he is surrounded with support for those who care about him. He is also often shown in a close up when is quivering with nerves so we can see the fear that has embedded itself within him. The verbal torment he has endured has taken its toll on his spirit, making him someone with no confidence in himself and uses anger as a defense mechanism. Hooper puts us in the shoes of a plagued soul who has hidden his scars in bitterness. This is an approach that I thought made The King’s Speech a triumph, because many films will present someone who has been tormented, but we never see things from their perspective. We are allowed to sympathize with a character behind glass, but we are never plopped in their shoes.

Lionel Logue is the complete opposite of Albert, someone who is confident and self-assured, usually photographed with busy backgrounds and near the middle of the screen. He has faced rejection in his life, but he overcomes the rejection and pours his focus in putting a voice in those without one. He is someone who works to understand those around him and willing to level with them, something a true friend should do. This is where I found the relevance in The King’s Speech. Logue is determined to make a real flesh and blood friend in Albert, even if Albert puts up a hell of a fight. We live in an age where we can avoid real human interaction through emails, text messages, Facebook, twitter, etc. There is almost no need to actually speak to anyone anymore and to experience real human emotion with a “friend”. The King’s Speech encourages us to seek out real interaction and to find our own voice. Albert needs someone to talk to so he can mend the wounds that he conceals and Logue loves the company. Hooper opens the screen up to make the viewer feel like he or she is sitting in the company of these two men and it truly is a warm and fuzzy feeling.

The King’s Speech is loaded with emotional weights that Hooper drops unexpectedly on the viewer. It’s best not to reveal them and to experience them as they play out. It ultimately gives The King’s Speech more of an emotional impact. From a historical standpoint, The King’s Speech is beyond interesting and shed light on an aspect of history I was unaware of. The film can be seen as a learning tool, something that should encourage the viewers to go out and do some research on King George VI. Graceful, moving, and relevant, The King’s Speech blends art with a lasting statement. It doesn’t shy away from showing how important friendship can be especially in an age of digital isolation. You’ll also be surprised by how unpretentious the film truly is. I think that many viewers go in to the film with the preconceived notion that this is a film for snobs, which leads them to deem it unworthy of the awards it received. Maybe I’m a sucker for crowd pleasers, something The King’s Speech is, but it left me on a high note that I just didn’t want to come down from.

Grade: A

The King’s Speech is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Is it me or are the Pirates of the Caribbean films starting to become almost an obligation to go see? The first two films in the series were fun high-seas adventure flicks that came equipped with a whole lot of action and reckless swashbuckling. But then came the bloated and incomprehensible third entry in the franchise and it became as clear as those Caribbean waters that this film franchise wasn’t entirely sure what to actually do with itself. For almost three hours, it ran in a circle and concealed the fact it had no major plotline by setting up countless side storylines. The promise of a better fourth entry that trimmed out the fat and stayed on one major course sounded like a real treat! Plus, it guaranteed Johnny Deep’s boozy punk rock pirate Jack Sparrow would get more screen time and not have to share it with the perpetually-doing-a-period-piece-movie Orlando Bloom. Unfortunately, the phrase “you can have too much of a good thing” applies to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, as once again the franchise has no real idea where to go or how to deliver a satisfying payoff. The film is all build up and then fizzles due to clutter. This is not to say it’s an awful movie but it sure appears like this was just a quick paycheck for everyone involved with it.

The glaring problem with On Stranger Tides is the script that it has to work with. Sure, the story has been trimmed down, but it drops the ball when it comes to the effortless humor and whimsy that the other entries executed with outstanding ease. Perhaps it’s the fault of new director Rob Marshall, who is inexperienced with Hollywood blockbusters, as he is the man who was behind the glittery musicals Nine and Chicago. He poorly paces the film to the point where he seems blatantly eager to rocket into one action sequence after another. While the action sequences are fine, the Pirates of the Caribbean films could always pride themselves on their clever and hilarious banter.

The storyline this time around is pretty straightforward: Jack Sparrow is suckered into finding the Fountain of Youth for the dread Blackbeard (Played by Ian McShane). He is fooled at the hands of Blackbeard’s feisty daughter, Angelica (Played by the sexy Penelope Cruz), while he is traipsing through Britain. The British Royal Army also wants the Fountain of Youth and dispatches the dreaded Captain Barbossa, a role reprised by the stellar Geoffrey Rush, to find it before Sparrow. On top of that, a mysterious group of Spanish Conquistadors also wants possession of eternal youth.

Sounds simple enough, right? It is for the most part. The film still takes outlandish detours and introduces new side characters that are there to fill out a two hour run time. The film looks nice and the 3D will wow the kiddies. Yet the film has an abnormally flat personality. It does not have hints of the spark that made the original film so damn fun. It shows brief glimpses of intrigue mostly when the film runs aground and the characters take to dry land. It also contains a bone chilling sequence that features a hair-raising encounter with mermaids. I will commend the film on it’s top notch directing and the infusion of new supernatural elements into the film. We get zombies this time around that is a brilliant tribute to I Walked With a Zombie and White Zombie.

Even if the film appears to be phoned in, the performances from Depp, McShane, and Rush are all in top form. They seem to be having a great deal of fun playing these grubby, rum-guzzling pirates. Rush steals the show as the grotesque and vengeful Barbossa. McShane is the embodiment of evil as the glaring and mystifying Blackbeard. McShane is the best villain of the series since Barbossa intimidated his way through the first film. Unfortunately, director Marshall didn’t seem to really know what to do with Cruz’s Angelica. She seems there only to provide a pretty face juxtaposed with the breathtaking backgrounds. It’s a shame, really, due to her talent that she so gracefully posses.

Then we have Mr. Depp as the infamous Jack Sparrow. He embodies the role like no one else could and it’s a thrill to see him back doing it. It’s funny because we get to see Johnny Depp playing Johnny Depp. He’s still the king of getting himself into sticky situations, deadpanning his way out of them, only to find himself in a worse predicament than before. Sadly, he lacks the effortless charm he once exuded. He’s a victim of poor writing and the film banks on the audience’s laughs just at his presence alone. He does muster up a few classic one-liners and reactions, but it makes me wish that he wasn’t front and center in the spot light. He needs another character to anchor his lofty persona.

The film also suffers from an unsatisfying payoff that seems like mere set up rather than unambiguous conclusion. The film raises more questions than it answers and you’ll see what I mean when you take yourself to see it. Characters seem present only to create unnecessary conflict. The ending is especially guilty of this crime, as at least one group battling for the Fountain seems to have no purpose there at all. To trim them out would have been a wise choice by Marshall. The film leaves us with the sinking feeling the Disney is certainly going to churn out more of these. I hope they don’t bog it down in needless muddle and meaningless characters.

No matter what I say, everyone will flock to see it and many will dash to the store come the holidays to pick up the Blu-ray and DVD. After all, it is your obligation! If there are to be more of these, I ask that Disney pay closer attention to the script and keep things light. It’s what gave them a winner in the first place. Hell, bring back those seriously awesome mermaids! They have solid characters to work with and a fresh slate to draw on. But On Stranger Tides feels oddly pedestrian when it could have benefitted from much more of the promised strangeness.

Grade: C

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.