February 27, 2011
Drama, Epic/Historical, Film, Period
A Single Man, Alexandre Desplat, Beethoven, Colin Firth, Film, film music, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham-Carter, Hugh Grant, King George VI, Michael Gambon, movies, Mozart, New Moon, Oscars, picture, poster, review, Schubert, score, soundtrack, Stephen Frears, The King's Speech, The Queen, Timothy Spall, Tom Hooper, Twilight, Winston Churchill, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Leading all the others with 12 nominations, Tom Hooper’s film telling the story of Britain’s previous monarch King George VI, became a somewhat surprising Oscar front-runner. Its award success translated into a very healthy international theatre run and considerable box-office returns for what is after all a small and very definite, classic British drama. The tale of perseverance over disability as well as the period setting is of course exactly the type of genre the Academy loves to reward but to bash “The King’s Speech” on those grounds would be grossly unfair and a particular injustice to the performances of its central players. As with Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” four years earlier, the film is extremely accomplished in its look and feel, exuding visual, technical and atmospheric perfection from every frame, an art for which British films are rightly successful again and again.
In the late 1930s, Albert Duke of York (Colin Firth) is required to speak at public functions and more frequently over the new wireless radio technology to his people. However, the Prince struggles with a persistent stammer which, although not a problem in his daily life, renders him speechless at the most crucial of moments. Desperate after the failure of every known treatment, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) turns to the unconventional methods and highly eccentric personality of Lionel Logue played by Geoffrey Rush. Controversial from the outset and much to Albert’s reluctance (and indeed lack of self-belief), Logue sets about curing the disability. The relationship of the two wildly different men will be tested not only by the Prince’s imminent ascension to the throne of England as King George VI but by the looming World War II when the King will have to rally his people through speechmaking. As these period drama go, and in terms of plot the screenplay written by David Seidler never strays far from its presumed path, instead working the means for the cast to display their creativity. A perversion of humour perhaps, but the entirety of “The King’s Speech” is extraordinarily witty, its dialogues pitch perfect and in the hands of Tom Hooper, result in a coherent flow of storytelling that is quietly brilliant and too often absent in the scripts that make the rounds in Hollywood today.
In the follow-up hype, most praise was lauded upon the central performance of Colin Firth who, for the second year running (after “A Single Man”) churned out Oscar-worthy acting, thus firmly evolving from typecast Hugh Grant-esque bumble to serious character actor. Without any doubt, the success of the film hinges largely on his superb portrayal. Not only is his voice remarkably similar to the real monarch’s, his inability to articulate himself and frequent angry outbursts go far beyond a simple if sympathetic recreation but enthrals us and has us willing the formation of every strained syllable. Not granted as much mention, but equally superb is Geoffrey Rush in a role that is (take note Academy) as vital and leading as Firth’s. Though there are traces of his Barbossa to be found in Rush’s comic and out-of-place methods and quirks (particularly as an aspiring actor in the film), it is ultimately his off-beat charm that may seem incredulous but is key to holding proceedings on track. Other great British character actors line the supporting positions: Helena Bonham Carter generally enriches every part she plays but this is one of her best in years. Bit parts by Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon as Kings Edward VIII and George V respectively add further gravitas to the acting ensemble. Less convincing is Timothy Spall utilised as a purely comic Winston Churchill who, while providing some laughs, lacks the dramatic weight possessed by the other characters. A little lost amongst all the acting focus will be the cinematography, art-direction and costume design, all perfect to the last. As an exercise in stylistic accuracy, it’s every cinephile’s dream.
It’s ironic perhaps that a Frenchman has become the expert at scoring British films like “The King’s Speech” but Alexandre Desplat has once again delivered some of his trademark music to underline the film. Always incredibly elegant in his use of the orchestra, the composer has certainly fulfilled expectations if not exceeded them, utilising a familiar sparse approach of soft strings and classically inclined piano. All of his scores are incredibly hard to fault for their sheer beauty even if they do lack the sort of thematic development that constitutes a truly great score. Much publicised were his efforts to obtain the original 1930s royal microphones which do lend the soundtrack great authenticity. However, Desplat never strays from his comfort zone, leaving it instead to the classical maestros, Brahms, Mozart and particularly Beethoven to underscore the most pivotal scenes in the film (some of which is source music). On the album as well, it’s the classical pieces that will leave a mark on the listener. It’s a well-rounded combination but it would have been much more interesting to see the composer tackle these great moments himself and deliver more of the haunting beauty heard in his effort for “Twilight: New Moon,” a film that did not deserve such elegance.
Predictable at face value, “The King’s Speech” succeeds through it’s clever screenplay and the performances of its entire cast. Firth is outstanding but no more so than Geoffrey Rush. Together, this makes for a film that you will want to see several times over to fully appreciate. Highly recommended.
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January 24, 2011
Crime, Drama, Film
Berlin State Opera, Bob Gunton, Clancy Brown, Coen brothers, Film, film music, Forrest Gump, Frank Darabont, Gil Bellows, Hank Williams, IMDb, James Whitmore, Marriage of Figaro, Morgan Freeman, movies, Mozart, Oscars, picture, poster, Pulp Fiction, review, Rita Hayworth, Roger Deakins, score, Shawshank Redemption, soundtrack, Stephen King, The Green Mile, Thomas Newman, Tim Robbins, Titanic, William Sadler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
What began as a Stephen King short story outside of his usual horror genre, completely passed over at the box-office and by the Academy, “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of film history’s most improbable success stories. Eventually finding audiences on the home-video market, the film has since continually climbed up the ranks on the lists of both viewers and critics and, sitting on top of IMDb’s top 250, it continues to enthral and inspire the world over. Yet despite its almost supernatural and untouchable status Frank Darabont’s picture remains a very humble masterpiece, proving like “Titanic” did again three years later, that interest in old-fashioned stories will never wane.
Given two life-sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) arrives at Shawshank state prison in 1947. Over the space of twenty years he befriends Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, one of the prison’s “getters” who for a small price can smuggle anything, including a rock-hammer and even Rita Hayworth in through the bars. Life on the inside isn’t always kind to Andy who attracts both assault from a prison gang and the attention of cruel guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) and the warden Norton (Bob Gunton). The latter use his financial skills as the accounting end of money laundering deals that would see them becoming millionaires. The arrival of young convict Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) with proof of Andy’s possible innocence complicates events further, driving Andy towards the edge. The watershed we always expect yet it sleeps below the movie’s surface and still manages to surprise us when it bursts onto the scene. Far more than a classic prison movie however, the eventual redemption makes Shawshank a touching statement about dreams, hope, freedom and humanity. Its genius in this regard rests largely with Darabont’s masterful screenplay and superior directorial style, creating expansive brush strokes of plot and character development that only few others have matched.
In Morgan Freeman Darabont has found the film’s perfect anchor-point. Providing the calming and witty narration, the part of Red has proven the main source of the actor’s godlike standing that continues to the present day. Tim Robbins in the main role meanwhile is quietly brilliant, Andy remains to the last mysterious yet incredibly likeable as he unites the prison inmates with beers on the roof, expands the prison library and, in one of cinema’s most memorable and moving musical scenes plays Mozart through the speaker system, leaving every condemned man speechless in wonder and flashing light into even the darkest corners. They are roles that have defined the careers of both actors. Every other aspect of “The Shawshank Redemption’s” production are equally noteworthy, from the period-correct production and costume design to the wonderful cinematography by Roger Deakins (who regularly works with the Coen brothers) and the no less impressive supporting cast including the great James Whitmore as the ageing Brooks, and William Sadler as Heywood. The film’s extended denouement could well be accused of being overly sentimental, however to Darabont’s credit he leaves (literally) no stone unturned when setting out to tell the tale of endurance and hope to the very end. Thus the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in a true ending is all the greater for the audience who have patiently waited for it.
Composer Thomas Newman who was enjoying a high time in his career throughout the early 90s, approaches the scoring of “The Shawshank Redemption” like most of his other scores. That is with extended piano meandering and string plucking that bores many listeners. The difference between Shawshank and his later scores for “The Green Mile” and others is Newman’s writing of a gorgeously haunting and beautiful main theme that encompasses the spirit of the tale perfectly. Heard in “Stoic Theme,” and “Suds on the Roof” the theme is based on sweeping strings and the signature piano. The penultimate cue “So was Red” sums up the idea with an oboe performance and leading into “End Title” that mirrors a sense of accomplishment. And then of course there’s the Mozart: The duet from “The Marriage of Figaro” performed by members of the Berlin State Opera is rightly placed on the album as it is in the film. Similarly, several period songs including Hank Williams strewn across the album do not detract from the listening experience but complete the period setting musically. The score is Newman’s crowning achievement of that period and earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, an award he has yet to win.
Perhaps it was unfortunate that it was released almost concurrently with both “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994, two films that captured audience imagination and the prison epic was ignored, but “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of the few films that has the power to move viewers to tears no matter how many times they have watched it. Its place near or even at the very top of great films is well deserved and is unlikely to have its position challenged. Even for film illiterates, this is not something you can afford to miss. If six stars could be given, that’s what it would get.
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January 19, 2011
Action, Adventure, Drama, Epic/Historical, Film
Acheron, Bach, Boccherini, Christopher Gordon, Film, film music, Gladiator, HMS Surprise, Iva Davies, Jack Aubrey, Jack Sparrow, Master and Commander, movies, Mozart, Oscars, Patrick O'Brian, Paul Bettany, Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock, picture, Pirates of the Caribbean, poster, review, Richard Tognetti, Russell Crowe, score, soundtrack, Stephen Maturin, The Far Side of the World, The Truman Show, Vaughan Williams
Released a mere three months after the other great sea-bound movie of 2003, “Master and Commander” could not be further in spirit, gravitas and demeanour from the swashbucklery and general nonsense of its cousin “Pirates of the Caribbean.” That is in all but the first name of their protagonists. Scallywags be warned, the world of Jack Aubrey and his adventures in the Napoleonic wars is gritty, dangerous and above all, deadly serious. And while Jack Sparrow instilled a genre long dead with a new, drunken swagger, director Peter Weir and actor Russell Crowe too were sailing into waters uncharted for decades, the high seas notorious for the storms they can wreak on filmmakers. But in reality, the adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s popular novels provides the sort of material that both the director and star love to get their teeth into.
Combining plots and ideas from several O’Brian stories, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” tells the story of “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and his crew of the HMS Surprise, playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with French enemy vessel The Acheron, a ship with larger sails and more guns. Central to the plot is Aubrey’s relationship with the ship’s surgeon and amateur naturalist Stephen Maturin played by Paul Bettany. One a man of war, the other of science, their love for music connects them as their philosophies separate them. For Weir, always ready to take up challenging material – think of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or “The Truman Show” – this duality in nature of the plot allows him to stage life on a 19th Century marine vessel in a manner of realism that has never been achieved on screen before. On the one hand, the thrills and deadly blasts of cannons, chase and sea battles, on the other, the monotony, strict routine and tragic deaths that regularly occurred. For Crowe, “Master and Commander” provides yet another opportunity to hone the sort of thinking-man action-hero skills he’s been polishing since “Gladiator.” An equally on-form Bettany makes a good compliment, trying to see some sense amongst the carnage.
It will be easy to approach “Master and Commander” with the wrong expectations and feel let down at its close. The sense of fun and daring adventure we have come to expect from similar picture has been all but sunk and the extended interludes between action pieces may well have you bored to death. At times it is hard to maintain interest and it becomes blindingly obvious that Bettany’s character is used repeatedly as a plot function simply to ask silly questions of the hierarchy aboard. That and to ask for explanations of the plethora of nautical terms scattered very liberally around the place. To dismiss the film on these grounds however would be to misunderstand the talents of Peter Weir and while the different elements don’t always gel, the film still provides very solid entertainment and reflection for its more patient viewers who will be duly rewarded. In any case the look of the picture, the cinematography, production design and visual effects are simply stunning and deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination or two.
To complement the large number of classical and traditional pieces of music featured live on screen as Crowe and Bettany play the violin and the cello respectively, three composers were hired to write original score, namely Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti. How it took three composers to come up with such a small amount of score is beyond comprehension, however what the trio achieved is an unobtrusive score that fits exceptionally well around the source music. In the film the score goes mostly unnoticed but on album, combined with music by Bach, Mozart, Boccherini and Vaughan Wiliams, it is a highly enjoyable listen. The score highlight is the opening track “The Far Side of the World” but it is still placed in the shadow by the classical music which is what listeners will also recall from watching the film. For the score alone, this soundtrack is not recommendable.
How much you will enjoy “Master and Commander” will depend on how much longevity in drawn out sequences you are willing to tolerate. For a throwback to stirring entertainment of a more serious nature (as well as for fans of the books actually), it will represent over two hours of great filmmaking with Peter Weir stretching back to the glory of his 80s and 90s success. And even though it is possible to enjoy both films equally, for most of those swept away by the slick “Pirates,” this will represent the most unimaginable bore.
Music heard on Album
Do you prefer MAC or Pirates (let’s not get a MAC vs PC debate going here…)? Why not leave a comment with your thoughts? If you liked the review please share it with your friends on Face book and Twitter. Thanks and all the best!