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Glorious 39 (2009)
Unusual, unexpected, but satisfying
(Very mild spoilers.)
This movie came out in the UK almost a year and a half ago, and I had been following production for at least half a year before that, I think, so I'm not exaggerating when I say I've been waiting to see it for a couple of years. Now it has finally been released on DVD in the US, my hold came in at the library, and I was able to watch it with my parents last night. It had some flaws, but for the most part I greatly enjoyed it.
There seems to have been quite a bit of negative criticism regarding this movie, and I think it's mostly due to marketing. Most people who saw this were either expecting either a well-behaved period piece (the sort of thing most of these actors can do in their sleep) or a fast- paced, Hitchcockian thriller (as promised by the trailers), and it wasn't either, really. Certainly it wasn't "well-behaved." And it was far too slow-paced for most people who love modern thrillers. I'd described it more as a family drama/mystery with a strong sense of impending doom. And when you take it in that light, it's quite satisfying.
I'm a huge fan of Romola Garai, and I'll go ahead and admit that it was her presence that first interested me in this movie. For the first twenty minutes or so it seemed her part wasn't that large, and that she was just part of a strong ensemble cast, but both the role and her performance grew considerably as the movie wore on. The moment when she broke down and began cursing was cathartic, and reminded me a bit of Ingrid Bergman's "I am mad" speech from Gaslight. Need I mention that she looks gorgeous in her red evening dress?
As for the rest of the cast -- well, LOOK at the rest of the cast. British acting royalty, plus some great faces from the younger generation. I did think Jenny Agutter and Julie Christie could have been given more to do, but most everybody made an impression, especially Bill Nighy, Juno Temple, Eddie Redmayne, David Tennant, and Hugh Bonneville. Ooops, that's just about everybody, isn't it?
The countryside is beautiful, and director Stephen Poliakoff manages to keep the tension ratcheted up despite comparatively little happening in terms of action.
I did think the very last scene was a bit corny and contrived, found the sex scene thoroughly unnecessary, and wished a few things had been explained more clearly. But overall, a good movie, and one I'll watch again.
The King's Speech (2010)
Oscar bait? Yes. But good show all round.
I went to see The King's Speech with my dad and grandmother today. It lived up to my expectations: a lovely movie, and currently one of my top 5 favorites from this year. If I had one criticism, it would be that the film seemed to milk the emotion of certain scenes a bit too much: quicker cutaways would have made certain scenes just a wee bit better. But in general everything was excellent. The script was sharp and witty, the cinematography quite pleasing (although there were far too many shots with a person on the far left side of the screen to my tastes, and nothing to the right), the music beautiful (both the Beethoven excerpts and Alexandre Desplat's original score), and the acting was, of course, superb. Colin Firth, to my mind, has been coasting on his Mr. Darcy image for the last decade or so, with a steady diet of light romantic fare that doesn't really show him at his best. As the stuttering George VI, he is definitely working in a new direction. And the resultant performance is superb. In a role like this, one could easily resort to caricature -- Firth doesn't even brush with it. The last ten minutes alone may win him his long-awaited Oscar.
Geoffrey Rush may also run away with a little golden statue this year: he is by turns funny, wry, and sympathetic as Lionel Logue, and his scenes with Firth are invariably the highlights of the film. Helena Bonham Carter gives one of her most effective performances in recent memory as George's wife (the current queen mother); I only wish that one of her lines from the trailer had been left in, in which she says, "I intend to be a very good queen ... to a very great king" -- that simple cut may have cost her an Oscar.
Out of the other actors, Guy Pearce stands out for his brash and irresponsible Edward VIII. But really the whole cast is culled out of the depths of the British acting aristocracy: Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon, Claire Bloom, Timothy Spall, Anthony Andrews ... the names just keep coming.
Credit must go to director Tom Hooper for putting together such a wonderful film. This is only his third film, and the first to get any sort of major press, but he has had an award-winning TV career with such dramas as John Adams, Elizabeth I, and one of my favorite miniseries of all time, Daniel Deronda. It's nice to see his work on the big screens at last. The guy's a genius, and I'll definitely be looking forward to what he puts out next.
The Young Victoria (2009)
A fine period film and a wonderful love story
I just came back from seeing The Young Victoria. What a beautiful movie! Despite some flaws, I think it's probably the strongest costume drama we've had since 2006's Amazing Grace, although unlike Amazing Grace I don't think it's going to become one of my favorites. Let me set out by stating my problem with the movie: the pacing (also a common criticism of AG, but one that I considered unfounded in that instance). A large portion of it consists of a flashback, and a very awkwardly set up flashback at that; however, even putting that sequence aside, the narrative structure is just odd. The various scenes and plot threads just seem to be cobbled together without any dramatic purpose. But then again, I caught myself thinking that this approachwhile questionable artisticallymight better reflect real life than a more typical scriptwriting/editing job. The ending, too, doesn't feel particularly conclusive, but again this seems to be a conscious decision. Whether these things sink the movie or not is debatable, but they certainly distracted me.
However, The Young Victoria is also one of the best, most human love stories I've seen on the screen in many years. If what it shows us is factual, Victoria and Albert were a couple who really loved each other in every sense of the word, in spite of each others' mistakes, and in spite of the political maneuvering going on around them. Their refreshingly chaste courtship makes the intimacy they achieve in marriage that much more beautiful and satisfying: many of the scenes during their honeymoon period are highly sensual without being explicitly sexual, and the whole presentation just reeks of taste and class. But their relationship isn't idealized, either. They fight rather bitterly at one point, but make up later. (This scene does go rather over-the-top when Victoria accuses Albert for walking over her simply because she's a womana comment that seemed a little too modern in a movie that otherwise sticks close to the values of its period.)
Emily Blunt and Rupert Fiend do a beautiful job portraying this fascinating couple. Blunt manages to make Victoria a strong woman without falling into many of the standard Hollywood Strong Women clichés; again, she seems to be very much a woman of the period, but one with her own moral convictions. Friend's performance is similarly refreshing. Too often men in period movies are so charismatic and "in control" that they don't seem quite real; Friend's Albert, on the other hand, is timid, quiet, and has struggled with many of the same social inhibitions as Victoria. At the same time, he never comes across as a ninny. Kudos to them both!
The rest of the cast is quite strong, with Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong, and Harriet Walter all giving laudable performances, but not star turns. This too is in keeping with the film: it is Victoria and Albert whom we are supposed to remember. The costumes and cinematography are simply gorgeous, and the soundtrack by Ilan Eshketi (whom people may know from Stardust) is going straight to the top of my wish-list.
Recommended to all costume drama lovers.
The Yeomen of the Guard (1982)
It's a real pity that this is the only DVD available of The Yeomen of the Guard, for though there are momentary flashes of brilliance here and there, they only call attention to the overall blandness of the production. Generally of musical excellence, it features the London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus as conducted by Alexander Farisnot names to laugh at, that's for sure! Unfortunately, the visual and dramatic side of things are not nearly as well-handled. Very little on screen catches one's eyesI would not call either the sets or the costumes sumptuousand the cinematography did nothing to aid this. A few changes in lighting and camera angles would have added an immeasurable amount of atmosphere. The staging doesn't always make sense either: Pheobe should definitely be alone when singing her first song, and no one should ever be talking to the camera.
Let's talk a moment about the high points I alluded to earlier. At first I was worried there wouldn't be any, but during the chorus "Tower Warders, Under Orders," I was shocked to see Sergeant Meryll step forward and take the Second Yeoman's solo. Not only is this a splendid innovation, but Geoffrey Chard sings and acts the piece beautifully. The comedy of "Leonard" meeting Pheobe in the Act I finale is initially well played, as is the Pheobe-Wilfred dialog near the end of Act II. Elizabeth Gale, a beautifully-voiced Elsie, gives a simple but moving rendition of "Though tear and long-drawn" and also shows real compassion for Grey at the end of the operetta, which I had missed in certain audio recordings.
Unfortunately, Gale and most of her fellow cast members do not seem to be consistent in their characterization. Worst of all is Joel Grey. I wouldn't say he's quite as bad in this role as others make him out to be he does try to make Point into an Everyman, and he does know how to put a number over in the classic Broadway style, as can be seen from his "Oh! a private buffoon!" But he seems to have no real idea of who Jack Point is as a character, his singing is sub-par, and his death scene is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever seen in my whole life, simply because he is going through melodramatic actions with zero facial expression.
As if this weren't enough, several musical numbers were cut, including Colonel Fairfax's two solos, "Strange Adventure," and "When a Wooer Goes A-Wooing"only some of the most famous pieces in the show!
I watched this in order to experience Yeomen outside the bounds of an audio recording, but seriously, I rather wish I hadn't. I would counsel all others, no matter how desperate, to pass it by and find a better use for their time.