Holiday Movie Guide Part 2

The King’s Speech

Directed by Tom Hooper

“The King’s Speech” is a wonderful movie, on multiple levels. It manages to be a meaningful character study of King George VI, to portray serious dramatic conflict both between the characters and in the circumstances of the time, as a strange buddy movie, and as a worthwhile lesson in history and in capturing a time, a place, and a lifestyle. In all of these senses, it is reminiscent of last year’s similarly excellent “Young Victoria,” a movie about George VI’s own great grandmother.

George VI was plagued from early childhood with a debilitating stammer – something which wasn’t considered especially problematic as he was never expected to become king. However, his older brother, who became King Edward VIII upon the death of their father George V, abdicated within a year of ascending to the throne. As the head of the Church of England, the British monarch could not (at that time at least) be married to a divorcee and Edward was in love with a woman who was not only twice divorced but also American (scandal!). It’s this odd turn of events that ultimately caused Elizabeth II, George VI’s older daughter, to become queen upon his later death, and she remains queen today.

These events, and those leading up to World War II, made it imperative that George VI be able to speak to the nation, especially at a time when radio broadcasts and film newsreels were taking over communications. In an earlier era, he would have issued printed proclamations and few would have known that he could rarely complete a spoken sentence. But he and his wife had sought help from multiple specialists, with little or no success. That is until they met a rather unconventional Australian specializing in “speech defects.”

The movie is fascinating in all the ways mentioned above, but scores most strongly on great performances by Colin Firth as George VI, Helena Bonham Carter as his wife (an individual known, following her husband’s death in 1952 and until her own death in 2002, as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother), and Geoffrey Rush as the unlikely therapist who would, and did, befriend a king.

The events depicted in the movie are all somewhat truncated compared to real life, as are the relationships that developed, but those are necessary evils in telling a story that lasted decades. The overall tone and story work as close to perfectly as anything on screen this year. If you like period dramas and are picking only one film this holiday season, then this should be the one.

True Grit

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

If you’re picking two, then this is the other one. “True Grit” is less a remake of the John Wayne classic and more of a re-adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel. If you’re a fan of the 1969 movie and worried about the prospect of revisiting a favorite, don’t be. This version works, and works very well, to the point of perhaps deserving the alternate title of “Truer and Grittier” by comparison.

Here, the crusty character of the U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is played to great effect by Jeff Bridges (see also “Tron: Legacy” this week), with strong supporting performances from Matt Damon and, in lesser roles, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. But the standout performance of the group comes from Hailee Steinfeld, in her theatrical feature debut, as the 14-year-old Mattie Ross.

Mattie is the central character who hires Cogburn to help her track her father’s killer, despite her young age and her apparent lack of experience in such rugged ventures. For all of her inexperience, she is sharp-witted and well-schooled. The dialog is often laugh-out-loud funny as she stuns her elders with her remarks and commentary. In this regard, Steinfeld nails the character, and you’re likely to end up simply wanting her to say something else, anything else, in hopes of another zinger. This is an effective drama and western that’s also funnier than most of the year’s overt comedies (including this week’s “Little Fockers” and “Gulliver’s Travels”).

Tron: Legacy

Directed by Joseph Kosinski
“Tron: Legacy” is, in many ways, an unlikely film to even exist. Back in 1982 when “Tron” was released, it was noteworthy for its reliance on and inclusion of many CGI elements and an entire CGI environment populated with live action actors, including Jeff Bridges. These effects were the film’s gimmick and selling point. The story itself was fairly weak and limited in scope, revolving around a man (Bridges) who is absorbed into an electronic network existence and forced to do battle before escaping. That’s not such a conceptual stretch now, but in 1982 when gaming was at the graphic outline “Asteroids” level, it was noteworthy and a little confusing.

Remember that even though “Tron” came five years after “Star Wars” at a time when epic space battles were becoming familiar, they were still being shot with models. It wasn’t until 1984’s (conceptually intriguing but ultimately disappointing) “The Last Starfighter” that we got space battles entirely formatted on a computer.

Jump ahead 28 years, and not only are computers more commonplace and relatively well understood, but we’re also theoretically able to make Jeff Bridges look the same age as he did back then and to pick up the characters where we left them. That said, most of the action involves that character’s son, who is a reluctant heir to the family software giant, and yet (conveniently) a computer genius like his father.

To justify revisiting the original, not only did the effects have to be amped up, but so did the story. Some will object to the somewhat spiritual aspects of this sequel. At times it’s a little like the clumsy moments as Qui-Gon Jinn explains the existence of midi-chlorians in “The Phantom Menace.” But it worked for me, on balance, and I enjoyed the film.  

However, for all of the press that has surrounded the effect and process, the youthful Bridges never looks natural. For a franchise that has been this cutting edge in the past, that character looks like something from a couple of years ago and less effective than, for example, the Scrooge character in last year’s “A Christmas Carol” (a movie whose own secondary characters were more like Bridges’ smooth-faced vacant stare in “Tron: Legacy”).

I thought there was, perhaps, a missed opportunity in “Tron: Legacy” to have had some parts of the computer network, on its periphery, still appear as they did in 1982, to provide a visual connection and a story twist, but the updated machinery is both neat and consistent with the originals. I also made a point of re-watching the original the day before seeing the sequel, having not watched it in 20-plus years, and I think that helped in appreciating some of the details. I’m not saying that’s necessary, but it added some depth to the experience for me. With or without that, I’d recommend this despite mixed reviews.

Little Fockers

Directed by Paul Weitz
I’ll be honest – I’m not a big fan of Ben Stiller as a comedic actor. He’s one of the latest in a series of people that includes Bill Murray and Robin Williams, who are best known for comedy but who I think are better in dramatic roles. I’d probably prefer to re-watch “Greenberg” with Stiller alongside Sacramento’s own delightful Greta Gerwig than watch another “Fockers” franchise entry. I’m also a fan of Robert DeNiro but, again, not in comedic roles. I really enjoy comedy, just not very often as delivered by the
se actors. While Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand are both gifted comic talents, here they are reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes.

But none of that should actually matter in this case, as we’re talking about the latest in a series of movies that are consistent in both content and style. There’s no reason to expect that somebody who liked either “Meet the Parents” or “Meet the Fockers” would dislike “Little Fockers” – unless it’s simply getting old. This is not a franchise that delivers surprises, it just looks for ways to repackage the same awkward relationships and forced humor. On the upside, it’s not “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Gulliver’s Travels

Directed by Rob Letterman
“Gulliver’s Travels” is preceded on the big screen by a short film featuring Scrat, the rodent from the “Ice Age” movies. In it, Scrat’s desperate antics in the quest for the ever elusive acorn are depicted in ways that are intended to amusingly explain the cause of tectonic plate movement and evolution. This is both somewhat funny and also moderately worrying, as one can imagine this being cited in a junior high school science quiz answer. But it’s most noteworthy as being the best part of the program – I would recommend leaving before the actual feature starts.

“Gulliver’s Travels” itself could be renamed “Audience’s Travails” for the somewhat arduous nature of actually watching it. It manages to re-work a favorite piece of literature into a lowest-common-denominator series of butt crack and peeing jokes. One can only guess what fart jokes got left on the editing room floor, in a movie that seems more crudely cut than the craft services cheese.

Just when it seems like it couldn’t get any worse, it manages to do so in such jaw-droppingly efficient style as to make everything else at the multiplex, including the communal relish bin, seem relatively appealing. And that’s after watching the movie’s lead couples get together despite having less chemistry than a performing arts curriculum.

It’s fair to say that I didn’t enjoy this movie, although, to be fair, I’m not really in the target demographic. But the kids in the preview audience seemed to be having a good time, with laughter that was as free flowing as the onscreen urine.

Save the Dates!

The Sacramento Film & Music Festival
After several years expanding to ten days in the Summer, the Sacramento Film & Music Festival is splitting into two parts for 2011, with a WinterFEST in January and SummerFEST in August. Both will be held at the Crest Theatre. The first ever WinterFEST takes place on the Saturday-Monday of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, Jan. 15-17. The program is somewhat documentary-heavy, and culminates on Monday, Jan. 17 with three documentaries that address politics, peace, and social justice. The last of these, “Sowing the Seeds of Justice,” depicts the life and legal career of Cruz Reynoso. Watch this column for more information on this event in the new year.

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