Saturday, May 5, 2012


Year 4, Day 126 - 5/5/12 - Movie #1,125

BEFORE: Well, I've seen Lincoln go to Illinois, and Jefferson go to Paris.  If Nixon goes to China tonight, it'll be a thematic hat trick.  This one's over 3 hours long, so I'm breaking out the espresso beans and the Mountain Dew.  With all the actors in this film's giant cast, linking should be easy - ah yes, Nick Nolte co-starred in "Under Fire" with Ed Harris (last seen in "The Hours"), who's playing Howard Hunt.

THE PLOT: A biographical story of former U.S. president Richard Milhous Nixon, from his days as a young boy to his eventual presidency which ended in shame.

AFTER: I did do a Nixon-themed chain once before, with "Frost/Nixon" and "All the President's Men", but this one slipped by, it wasn't available to me at that time.  But the funny thing about Watergate is, I never really retained what was at the center of it all.  Every time I learn it, I tend to forget it.  But I do know that as a political scandal, it was like a Catholic sin - if you think about sinning, that's another sin.  And if you lie about committing the sin, that's a sin too - so you get three sins for the price of one!  Nixon got in trouble for planning the Watergate break-in, for the break-in itself, and for trying to cover it up.

This 3-hour epic film takes us from Nixon's childhood through his presidency and resignation, just not necessarily in that order.  There are flashbacks within flashbacks, and so much time-jumping that I was never sure what the proper framing device was, or if there was one at all.  I get that a man's entire political career can't be expressed linearly in a 2-, 3-, or even 4-hour film, but the use of montage and jump-cuts is so extreme here, I ended up not knowing what happened when.  Usually my mantra is "Show, don't tell" but this film shows so much, and tells us so little, that's the rare exception to the rule.

There are even times when people seem to flicker or disappear - they're in one-shot, but not the next - which leads to confusion about whether those people are real, or in Nixon's imagination.  It therefore makes it difficult for us to know what was really said when, and who was in the room, which may be the point after all.  Case in point - did Nixon hang out with hippies on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, shortly after Kent State?  Shots of them rapping with the president are intercut with him standing there alone, so maybe that's just conjecture or poetic license.

Another suspect clandestine meeting occurs in Dallas, shortly before JFK's assassination.  Are we tying in Nixon to that whole tangle?  Actually, the whole film is reminiscent of Oliver Stone's other film, "JFK", using a mix of new footage, stock footage, re-creations and black-and-white flashbacks - which creates a similar tone, but without one single event to focus on and parse over and over, it's like peeling back the layers in reverse.

Nixon also meets with J. Edgar Hoover (and his boyfriend?) at a horse-track in 1968, to try and get some dirt on Robert Kennedy.  (as with Nixon's visit to Chairman Mao in China, the meeting seems to be based around the philosophy that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend")  There's some kind of metaphor brewing that would compare the presidential race to a horse-race, but it can't quite put it together.  Is the fallen horse supposed to represent an assassinated Kennedy?  (Bonus, today's Kentucky Derby day, make of that what you will...)

Nixon was outshined by one Kennedy or another for the better part of a decade - portraying him as someone from the other party who benefited from their assassinations seems a little specious.  Either he's a political mastermind who was pulling more strings than any of us realized, or he was a paranoid egomaniac racked with self-doubt, who considered himself an honest man, despite all the dirty dealings he was involved in - so which is it?  The more the film shows us, the more enigmatic a figure he becomes.

His fragmented life here comes to resemble a skipping, spliced piece of tape.  Was that intentional?

Again, I feel the need to point out that my non-scientific rating system is not based on technical merit, or artistic achievement, but is instead a snapshot based solely on my enjoyment level at the conclusion of the film.  I can, for example, appreciate a piece of cinema as a masterpiece for some reason, but the rating may be affected by other factors, as always.

Starring (and this may take a while) Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "Thor"), Joan Allen (last seen in "The Ice Storm"), James Woods (last heard in "Stuart Little 2"), Bob Hoskins (last heard in "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties"), Paul Sorvino (last seen in "Romeo + Juliet"), Mary Steenburgen (last seen in "Four Christmases"), Tony Goldwyn, David Hyde Pierce (last heard in "A Bug's Life"), Powers Boothe (last seen in "MacGruber"), with cameos from E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, J.T. Walsh (last seen in "Needful Things"), Kevin Dunn, Annabeth Gish, Larry Hagman, Edward Herrmann, Madeline Kahn (also last heard in "A Bug's Life"), Dan Hedaya (last seen in "Joe Versus the Volcano"), Saul Rubinek, John C. McGinley, Michael Chiklis, George Plimpton, Fyvush Finkel and Bai Ling (another Star Wars actress!)  Whew!

RATING: 3 out of 10 Studebakers

Friday, May 4, 2012

Jefferson in Paris

Year 4, Day 125 - 5/4/12 - Movie #1,124

BEFORE: Another last-minute addition to the list - this ran on cable yesterday, and I couldn't ignore the similarity to the previous films title and topic, since this also details a U.S. president's (partial) history before being elected.   Linking from "Abe Lincoln in Illinois", Ruth Gordon was also in "Rosemary's Baby" with Mia Farrow, who was also in "New York Stories" with Nick Nolte (last heard in "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore").

THE PLOT: Story follows Jefferson to France (as the U.S. ambassador to the court of Louis XVI), after the death of his wife, his friendships and flirtations with the French, his relationship with his daughters and slaves from home.

AFTER: At first glance, this also seems like an odd focus for a film, the years between Jefferson's penning of the Declaration of Independence, and his time serving as U.S. President.   But it's the setting of the film that allows the little ironies to flourish.  Jefferson was ambassador to a country with a monarch, representing a country which had just rebelled against British rule.  So America was a free country, but one where not all of its people were free.  There was that little dispute about slavery that was boiling on the back burner, with some free states and some slave states.

Jefferson is seen here explaining to the French court how a country with "all men are created equal" right there in its Mission Statement was able to treat some people as more equal than others.  (There must have been an asterisk in the Declaration somewhere.)  But that's about the only time that anyone in the film really calls Ambassador SlaveOwner on his own bullshit.

Jefferson tells the French people, even his French girlfriend, that they just don't understand the "special relationship" that the colonists enjoy with the Negroes.  Oh, is that the one where you treat them as your concubines?  Irony upon irony, as his Italian girlfriend (who's married, BTW, but to a flamingly gay Frenchman) gets jealous of Sally Hemmings.  Tom, baby, it's France, they'll understand - they practically invented the concept of having affairs.

But just because everyone does something, that doesn't make it right.  Jefferson's relationship with Hemmings was not unique - the movie points out that he inherited slaves from his late wife's father, who probably did the same thing.  So Jefferson's first wife and Hemmings (common-law wife?) were probably/possibly half-sisters.  That makes Hemmings the aunt to Jefferson's daughters, and the relationships probably get more complicated from there, until somebody is their own grandfather.

But the cruel truth is, even if someone like Jefferson (who seems pretty enlightened about freedom of religion, except where his own daughter is concerned) were to grant freedom to his slaves, where would they go?  What sort of opportunities would they have in the America of the 1780's?  It would be the end of one set of problems, and the start of another.

NITPICK POINT: Thomas Jefferson didn't speak French?  I thought he was a super-intelligent guy.  Or is this just a case where the actor playing him couldn't speak French?  (Just as I thought - Wikipedia says that T.J. started studying Latin, Greek and French at the age of 9)

A couple of cameos from two eponymous historical figures - Franz Mesmer, German physician and hypnotist (seen here demonstrating the concept of "mesmerization") and Doctor Joseph Guillotin, who invented the humane (?) execution device "La guillotine" (seen here demonstrating the concept of "foreshadowing").

Also starring Greta Scacchi (last seen in "Presumed Innocent"), Gwyneth Paltrow (last seen in "Iron Man 2"), Thandie Newton (last seen in "2012"), Seth Gilliam, Simon Callow (last seen in "The Phantom of the Opera"), with cameos from Michael Lonsdale, Nancy Marchand (last seen in "Dear God"), Vincent Cassel (last seen in "Elizabeth"), and James Earl Jones (last heard in "The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride").  James Earl Jones showed up just in time for Star Wars Day, which was very thoughtful of him.  Actually, with Natalie Portman and Ewan MacGregor appearing, it's been a pretty good week for Star Wars actors.

RATING: 4 out of 10 powdered wigs (if you're into that sort of thing)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)

Year 4, Day 124 - 5/3/12 - Movie #1,123

BEFORE: Speaking of honest politicians, here's one about "Honest Abe". We're starting the ramp-up to the 2012 election season, so it makes perfect sense to focus on some presidents.  Linking's kind of tough tonight, but Broderick Crawford from "All the King's Men" was in a film called "Not as a Stranger" with Harry Morgan (aka Col. Potter from M*A*S*H), who was also in "How the West Was Won" with Raymond Massey, who plays Lincoln tonight.

THE PLOT: Covers the period from Lincoln's early years as a Kentucky woodsman until his election to the Presidency in 1860.

AFTER: We learn that young Mr. Lincoln failed at a number of professions, including store owner, soldier and boat captain, while attempting to avoid politics, viewing it as a last refuge for people with no useful skills.  Bear in mind, the circus hadn't been invented yet, so clowning wasn't an option... So, really, he failed upwards, and it's shocking to realize he never owned an oil company or a baseball team - but maybe I'm confusing him with someone else.

It's a rather dry accounting of Abe's career, hearing him conjugate Latin verbs doesn't really entertain, but the film does slightly better when it comes to his romances, and I use the word very loosely, with Ann Rutledge and later, Mary Todd.  Was Abe really holding a pig when he met Ann?  Does it really matter?  It helps spice things up a little - did Anne Boleyn really play sexual mind games with King Henry VIII?  No one knows for sure, but it makes for a more interesting movie if we see that.  Abe's simple down-home "aw, shucks" demeanor was apparently catnip to the ladies on the social scene in Illinois.

Still, there's not much action in the film - a little rassling, but that's about it.  What the film really needed was some vampires!  (Don't worry, Hollywood's apparently working on it.)  Instead, we get the verbal sparring with Stephen Douglas, which dated back far earlier than their famous debates, they even went at it at parties  (Sheesh, would you two just get a room already?)

It's kind of ballsy to portray the future president by using phrases like "lack of ambition", but eventually it's the desire for human rights and equality for all men (not women, apparently, America wasn't ready) that pulls him back into politics.  Inspiration is where you find it, I guess.  It's also very forward to portray Mary Todd as the ambitious one, she can't stand taking a back seat and cleaning house ("Look at this mess, Abe, what am I, your SLAVE?")  He even goes walkabout from their engagement, but not for the reason that gay rights advocates would have you believe...

Finally, we get to the Lincoln/Douglas debates, and Abe has to put his libertarian beliefs on the back-burner and start taking a stand on things.  I know I studied this in history class, but I didn't realize that on one side you've got Abe quoting the Declaration of Independence ("All men are created equal, period") and Douglas was working the Dred Scott Decision angle.  Douglas says that the Supreme Court's decision was the law of the land, which is correct, except that new laws can always be written.  The debates were for the Illinois senate race, which Lincoln lost, but after the debates were published as a book, they helped him get nominated for President - so in a way he lost the battle, but won the war.

The film ends on Election Night, 1860 (Spoiler alert - Lincoln wins) and it's an odd occurrence when the candidate who wins doesn't seem in the mood to celebrate.  Lincoln sees the strain that the campaign has put on his marriage, he realizes that he has to fulfill a bunch of "dirty promises" he made to get elected, and then there's the hard work of running the country.  Oh yeah, and the Civil War's coming - just call him President Buzzkill.

There's even talk of the need to protect him from assassination, right after the election.  Is this true, or was it a bit of a knowing wink to the audience?  If the latter, then I'm surprised someone didn't suggest he go to see a play and relax.  (What, too soon?)  I've got to keep myself entertained somehow, this was a tough one to get through without falling asleep.  It's great that they rounded out Abe Lincoln's character beyond the simple facts we were taught in grade school, but it's a shame that to do that, they had to portray him as unambitious and socially awkward.

Also starring Ruth Gordon, Gene Lockhart, Mary Howard.

RATING: 4 out of 10 Bible quotes

All the King's Men (1949)

Year 4, Day 123 - 5/2/12 - Movie #1,122

BEFORE: Yes, politics is the new chain topic, spinning off rather nicely from the royalty chain.  Since it's an election year, I figure I'm somewhat obligated.  And this is the 2nd Best Picture Oscar winner this week, so glad as always to cross one of those off the list.  Linking is not easy when I dip back for a classic film, though - but veteran actor Eli Wallach from "The Ghost Writer" was also in "Mistress" with Ernest Borgnine, who was also in the 1951 film "The Mob" with Broderick Crawford.  I know very little about Crawford, couldn't even pick him out of a lineup.

THE PLOT: The rise and fall of a corrupt politician, who makes his friends richer and retains power by dint of a populist appeal.

AFTER: This is based on a Pulitzer-winning novel, but I went into it knowing almost nothing about the story, other than that it's roughly based on the career of Louisiana politician Huey Long.  Despite the lack of chase scenes and female skin, it did manage to hold my attention, so that's saying something.  I'm pleasantly surprised to learn that someone was just as cynical about U.S. politics back in the 1940's as I am today.

The story wants to be told from the point of view of a reporter/writer, Jack Burden (Hey, he's got a name!  Which someone says every few minutes, so we'll remember it!) But someone didn't pay attention during films like "Citizen Kane" to learn how to tell this sort of story, so eventually the focus drifts to the politician character, Willie Stark. (Pick a horse, and then stick with it!)  At the start of the film, he's a simple, illiterate pig farmer who wants to run for city council, since he thinks he can do a better job - the reporter wants to cover him because he's supposedly an honest man (how novel!) being beaten down by the system.

We see glimpses of the sort of insider politics that are designed to keep out newcomers - Stark's speeches violate the town ordinances against crowds assembling, and his handbills violate the town ordinances against littering or something, and his son keeps getting beaten up because he violates the town ordinances against being a pussy.  (I'm paraphrasing here)

At first, Stark is just a patsy, a placeholder candidate recruited by the other party as someone they can easily beat.  But with the help of the reporter, Stark hits upon the secret to getting elected - he pitches himself as the simple, folksy outsider (hey, it almost worked for Ross Perot - wait, no it didn't) who hasn't been corrupted by special interests.  He points out the fact that the city planners rebuilt the town's school with cheap bricks and cheaper labor - because there's no way THAT can come back to haunt you.  So when disaster strikes, Willie takes advantage of it - yet somehow that's not considered shameless at all (P.S. it is)

Once elected, Stark becomes part of the political machine, making promises to everyone, including even some voters, and claims that he's going to "do good".  Ah, but who determines what is "good" and what is "less good"?  "That's easy", says Stark, "next question.  Oh, did you want an answer?  Next question.  What do you mean, I'm not answering these questions?  Next question."

"Good" arrives in the form of bigger roads, a football stadium, and a hospital, the biggest and best that money can buy.  And it turns out you can staff a hospital well by blackmailing doctors into working there, which is good to know.  I don't mean to second-guess a Pulitzer Prize winning author, but if they really wanted to show Stark's career come full-circle, they should have shown him cutting corners in the construction of the hospital - that ties back into the school incident, see?  Tell me I'm not the first one to think of that...

The novel's Wikipedia page says that it explores themes of Calvinist theology such as original sin, also nihilism, and the revelation that actions have consequences.  That's fine for a book report, but I think a better take-away from the film is the old stand-by "Power corrupts", or even "Politicians are dicks".  Stark is part of a love rectangle with the reporter character - you see love triangles all the time, but the rectangles are harder to pull off.  However, this also reinforces the belief that politics is the best career to go into if you want to cheat on your wife - that might have been true in the 1940's, but with today's paparazzi, investigative reporters, tapped cell phones, I no longer recommend it.

Overall, it's a rather bleak portrayal of American politics, which may in fact be accurate, but it's still a downer of a topic for a film.  But if everyone in the system is supposedly corrupt, and beholden to special interests, I have to wonder - it's now 60 years later, how come the system hasn't self-destructed by now?  Hasn't everything like schools and city services managed to find a way to work during all that time?

Also starring John Ireland, Joanne Dru, Mercedes McCambridge (last seen in "Giant"), Shepperd Strudwick, Raymond Greenleaf, and a young John Derek (future husband of Ursula Andress + Bo Derek)

RATING: 4 out of 10 letters of resignation

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Ghost Writer

Year 4, Day 122 - 5/1/12 - Movie #1,121

BEFORE: I fell a little behind in my postings, since there was a beer dinner I attended on Monday, and it ran long, leaving me short on time.  And occasionally some new flavor combinations are discovered at these things, through the deft pairing of beers with certain foods.  It's a difficult sacrifice, but one I'm willing to make to advance human knowledge.

Anyway, I'd originally planned to watch this directly after "The King's Speech" and not jump around so much chronologically - I don't want to wear out the time machine, after all - but rather than change course and watch a number of Natalie Portman films, I'm going ahead with the plan as originally scheduled.  If only there were a movie link between Natalie Portman and Ewan Macgregor (last seen in "Amelia").  Don't worry, I'm sure it will come to me.

THE PLOT: A ghostwriter hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister uncovers secrets that put his own life in jeopardy.

AFTER: This film pops up in my chain at a very interesting time, just as a book about animation is being released, for which I essentially functioned as a ghost writer.  Or perhaps "typist and resident grammar stickler" is a better title.  Anyway, you won't see my name on the cover (that's just the gig) but I was well-thanked in the acknowledgements.  Don't worry, I was paid by the hour and received some other benefits, and only had to give up a couple Saturdays last summer.

But what I did learn was how to write in someone else's voice when needed - taking that person's words (scribblings, really) and figuring out better ways to say certain things, changing the words, or improving the order of the words, without changing the meanings.   It's funny, I never considered myself much of a writer (my film-school writings are beyond embarrassing), nor do I call myself one now, but I've got over a thousand short essays under my belt, on a wide range of topics, so I could make a case for myself if I so desired.

As for tonight's film - Ewan MacGregor plays a writer brought in to ghost for an ex-politician who's written his memoirs, but unfortunately in a very dry, factual style.  His editors think the book will sell better if a more human element, some heart, can be added.  So he's sent to the P.M.'s vacation home (set somewhere on Martha's Vineyard, or possibly Nantucket) to interview him, and then shadow him on an upcoming tour of the U.S., improving the manuscript along the way.

But then a scandal breaks, something involving suspected terrorists, interrogation methods, and the politician's role in their transport (I think, it's a little bit fuzzy) so the writer is left alone, and while he claims to not be any sort of detective, still can't resist the urge to do a little sleuthing on his charge's backstory.

Right, right, spoiler-free zone.  I shouldn't even mention the spoiler-free zone, because then you might draw the conclusion that there are spoilers to spoil.  Look, just forget I said anything, OK?  Thanks.  Let me just say - debatable, quite unlikely, and HELLs no.

But even without discussing the plot further, I can point out some neat tricks in the film.  Like how the main character is never named - not in the dialogue, not even on the IMDB page, where he's just called "The Ghost".  I get it, you want me to think of him as everyone, as no one - but it's a little strange to have a main character that is regarded with such little importance that he isn't even given a name.  And I've got to call a NITPICK POINT here, since he gets introduced to, what, a dozen or so people in the film - and none of them ask him his name?  When I meet someone new, isn't that usually my first question?

Another neat trick is shooting a film set in New England when the director (Roman Polanski) is legally barred from entering the U.S.  I found a web-page that gave a detailed list of the shooting locations in Germany and the U.K., which were carefully selected for their resemblance to New England beaches and towns.  The giveaway was probably a particular ferry that looks nothing like the one that runs out to Martha's Vineyard, which I've been on.  So they didn't get it exactly right, but they sure came close.

I'm sort of counting on my BFF Andy to chime in here (assuming he's seen the film) and supply another nitpick point or two, related to the writing process.  I assume no one in this day and age would still be working with a giant phone-book-sized paper manuscript (except my boss, but that's another story) as well as a copy on a flash-drive.  It would be one or the other, right?  Because any changes one would make to the paper copy would have to be made AGAIN to the computer copy, so that's twice the work.  Welcome to my world.

Also starring Pierce Brosnan (last seen in "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief"), Olivia Williams (last seen in "The Postman"), Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "The Green Hornet"), Timothy Hutton (last seen in "Kinsey"), Jim Belushi, with a cameo from Eli Wallach (last seen in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps").

RATING: 5 out of 10 club sandwiches

The Other Boleyn Girl

Year 4, Day 121 - 4/30/12 - Movie #1,120

BEFORE: I decided to include just one more film about the British royalty, but only because: 1) one of the premium channels happened to be running it this week, 2) it's easy for me to link to, since Colin Firth was also in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (another film I'm adding this week, but with no immediate plans to schedule it) with Scarlet Johansson (last seen in "Iron Man 2") and 3) I did need to add a couple films to make my Memorial Day film land on schedule - this, along with two other films added this week that pertain to my next topic, should just about do it.  And if I land a few more sports movies, I can hit the "right" film on July 4 as well, but I'll work that out in June.

Anyway, I began this chain a week ago with "Elizabeth", so I'll wrap it up with a film about her father, Henry VIII.

THE PLOT: Two sisters contend for the affection of King Henry VIII.

AFTER: I'm assuming Mary Boleyn is the "other" referred to in the title, since I'd never heard of her before - but Anne Boleyn, a woman whose story is more well-known, is first pitched as the "other" Boleyn sister to the King, since Mary is (at first, at least) unavailable to him.

But this is a king who seems to enjoy chasing the unattainable, if a woman is married or forbidden, it just seems to increase his desire.  But he's king, damn it, so there ought to be a way to justify any or all of his desires.  This backs up what I was saying last week, about the royalty and their rock-star behavior, and also the fact that any behavior the king doesn't like is ultimately called "treason".

To her credit, Anne Boleyn understands the king's need to obtain the unattainable, so once Henry's focus falls on her, she plays a high-stakes game of hard-to-get.  Perhaps she realized that once he gets, umm, you know, what he wants, he might not want it any more - which is pretty much what happened to her sister.  So Anne understands that sex is a commodity, and making it scarce is the only way to make it valuable to the king.

But except for that, it's really a man's game.  Feminists may want to avoid this film, where women are essentially treated as property, with plenty of double standards that were designed to keep them down.  If a queen couldn't produce a male heir, that was her fault - though of course, centuries later, science would prove that it's the male's contribution to the party that determines the sex of a baby.  Also, women were of little value if they had been divorced, or proven to have sex out of wedlock - yet the king was allowed to sleep with married women, so essentially he was devaluing as many women as possible.  (some may say "degrading", depending on their point of view)

By today's standards, the behavior seems deplorable - but don't we have a bunch of people these days who denounce what they call immoral behavior, yet are then found to be guilty of it themselves?  I'm thinking of some very notable televangelists and also some high-ranking GOP members - some of our politicians who give speeches about family values seem to have no problem with getting a little action on the side.  And then there are the secretly gay conservatives - isn't that a double-standard too?  It's just "do as I say, not as I do."

Anyway, back to tonight's film.  Anne Boleyn tries desperately to produce a male heir for Henry, but it isn't in the cards.  This makes her more frantic, more desperate, and it turns out that frantic and desperate women are no longer attractive to the king, so there goes that plan.  Did she consider, I don't know, chilling out a bit, for Pete's sake?  Putting herself through a bunch of stress over it probably didn't make conceiving any easier.

Finally, there's a last-ditch, desperate solution, which I won't reveal here, but it's such outside-the-box thinking, I don't know how it ever could have been thought of as a good idea, not even for a second.  Bear in mind this was a time when there was no in vitro fertilization, no ultrasound, no paternity tests, and people couldn't even determine the sex or health of a baby until after it was born.  Medical knowledge regarding pregnancy and childbirth was, to some extent, still shrouded in mystery.  A woman who couldn't conceive was considered cursed, because of the "obvious" links between gynecology and witchcraft.

Scary stuff, but the film does end (after possibly the world's most depressing "Where Are They Now?" montage) by name-checking the young Queen Elizabeth as Anne Boleyn's daughter - so in a somewhat unexpected way, I feel like I've come full circle on the topic.

Also starring Natalie Portman, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mark Rylance, David Morrissey.

RATING: 6 out of 10 charges of treason

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The King's Speech

Year 4, Day 120 - 4/29/12 - Movie #1,119

BEFORE: It's always a big day here at the Movie Year(s) when I get to cross a Best Picture winner off the list, there's no doubt about that.  Linking from last night's film, Judi Dench was in a version of "The Importance of Being Earnest" with Colin Firth (last seen in "The English Patient")

THE PLOT:  The story of King George VI of Britain, his impromptu ascension to the throne and the speech therapist who helped the unsure monarch become worthy of it.

AFTER: The focus falls tonight on the grandsons of Queen Victoria, and the very public way in which the throne of England changed twice in relatively rapid succession, when George V died, and Edward VIII then abdicated the throne to marry a divorced American woman.  That story was also the focus of another film last year, "W.E.", which is not on my list.  More on that later.

The fly in the ointment is that the soon-to-be king, Albert Frederick Arthur George, aka George VI, aka "Bertie", has a stammering problem, which is on track to become a staggering problem one he is asked to address the nation, and speak on these newfangled radio broadcasts.  And he's tried every type of speech therapy available, so he's in desperate need of a maverick speech therapist who plays by his own rules, to succeed against long odds.  And I wonder if the stuttering hides some kind of darker, hidden pain...

If I sound facetious, it's because I found this to be a bit by-the-numbers.  While parts of the story are based on actual events, we know it's all in the presentation, right?  It's form over content, and therein lies the problem, for me.  Biopic?  Check.  Overcoming disability?  Check.  World War II?  Check.  It really was designed to appeal to the Oscar voters who vote with their guts rather than with their hearts.  I'll wager that a fair amount of voters went with this film because they thought all the other voters would too, and who doesn't like to back a winning horse?  Not to second-guess the Oscar voters, but was this REALLY the film you enjoyed the most in the whole year?  Come on, be honest.  By contrast, the film with a 2010 release date that score the highest on MY rating system was "Tron: Legacy", a film which garnered probably zero Oscar votes for Best Picture.

There's no question that the speech that King George is asked to give is important - it's a call to arms for World War II, and any stuttering or hesitation could be taken as lack of resolve, or worse yet, fear.  But in showing us the back-story and the behind-the-scenes work done to allow the King to give the speech, again the focus is on form, not content.  We're all listening to HOW he's delivering the speech, rather than what he's saying.  Are they both important?  The American equivalent would be something like Abe Lincoln overcoming a lisp to give the Gettysburg Address.  (And here we see another big difference between U.K. and American films - instead, Hollywood is making "Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter".  Make of that what you will.)

Form over content is an ongoing concern of mine, I realize it's easy for me to get caught up in the organization of my lists, so that the films themselves are occasionally like afterthoughts.  With that said, I'm at something of a crossroads - where do I go from here?  This could have been a good lead-in to WW2 films, but I failed to realize that, so they're scheduled for the week of July 4.  The next logical step would be to watch "The Queen", since George VI is the father of Queen Elizabeth II, who appears here as a young princess.

However, I've peeked at the synopsis for that film - "After the death of Princess Diana, HRM Queen Elizabeth II struggles with her reaction to a sequence of events".  That's it?  The Queen feels bad?  If you're looking for a symbol of the decline of the English monarchy, here it is - in a week, I've gone from Queen Elizabeth I fighting the Spanish Armada, to Elizabeth II feeling under the weather, what a sad state of affairs.  I don't think I'll be going in that direction - but as each film tends to suggest two or three others, I've also got to decide about "W.E.", "The Young Victoria", and "The Other Boleyn Girl".  Do I want to backtrack now, or follow-up on this topic later?  Which is ultimately more important, form or content?

 Also starring Geoffrey Rush (last seen in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), Helena Bonham Carter (last seen in "Alice in Wonderland"), Guy Pearce (last seen in "The Hurt Locker"), Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall (last heard in "Alice in Wonderland"), Michael Gambon (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1").

RATING: 6 out of 10 tongue-twisters