Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Movie Reviews

The Queen: One of the watershed moments of my life was hearing Princess Diana had died. It wasn't that I was particularly fond of her or obsessed on what she was wearing or what charity she was working. It was just shocking. News that sobered and made you realize anything could happen at any time. That life could change in an instant for anybody regardless of title or wealth or privilege. I - and many others, I'm sure - will always remember where I was when I heard the news. It ranks up there with the shuttle disaster, 9/11, Larry Bird's retirement announcement, Len Bias' death, the 2001 Patriots Super Bowl, the Red Sox 2004 World Series win and finding out Benny Hill died as moments I will always remember.

I bring this up because 'The Queen' is not only a behind the scenes account of the British Monarchy in turmoil from mishandling the death of Princess Diana, but because - for the first time - I feel like there are actual people behind the icons. Hellen Mirren is astounding as the Queen, but so are the actors that portray Tony Blair, Charles, Phillip, Victoria and all the other 'characters' (who all happen to be real people still living). Every performance in this movie is flawless, which speaks well of director Stephen Frears.

One of the points of the movie isn't so much that royalty are people, too (everyone's warts are on full display here), but that Queen Elizabeth may have been taken for granted by her own country. Yes, she completely mashes up the Monarchy's response to the death of Diana (not flying the flag at half mast, issuing no statements, not showing up in London) but it was an unprecedented event. Since Diana wasn't technically royalty after her divorce from Charles, she was considered civilian. Royal decree states that no flag should be flown at half mast over Buckingham Palace unless a member of the royal family has died (or by Queen's decree).

Elizabeth was a traditionalist surrounded by other traditionalists. Diana's personal relationship with the Queen is only hinted at, but it seems things were beyond strained. As Charles says 'People don't know the Diana that lived here, they only know the public one. There were two Dianas'. The marvel of this movie isn't that the Queen and others are humanized, but that despite the crisis, you (or at least I did, anyway) are suprised by the respect you have for the Queen by the time this movie ends.

Here is a woman who has sacrificed her entire life in service to her country. Decorum must be kept, tradition maintained, and the will of 'her people' must be observed. Elizabeth (as well as her advisors) made the mistake of not realizing how much Diana meant to her country. To 'her people'. When Blair's speech writer coined the term 'People's Princess', he hit the nail on the head. 'She was one of them' is a prevailing line throughout the movie. A line the Monarchy doesn't fully appreciate until it's nearly too late.

The impressive quality of this film isn't that we see the Royal Family as flesh and blood, but that despite seeing them and their flaws, we wind up admiring them more than ever. I have no idea if Queen Elizabeth approved of this film or not, but she should. It emphasizes her grace and dignity more than tradition ever could. Already on my list of the best films I've seen this year.

Notes On a Scandal: Another great acting movie, but not sure I can recommend this one. Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett are fantastic in this, but every character's behavior goes beyond questionable. Blanchett plays a married high school teacher who somehow rationalizes away her affair with a 15 year old student. Dench finds out about the affair and uses it to worm her way into Blanchetts life. There is an under current of lesbianism with Dench, but in a creepy, stalker kind of way that makes things very uncomfortable (which is the point).

To top it off, Blanchett's character is also a mother of two (one of which has Down Syndrome) and has a devoted (if older) husband. The movie is extremely well done and if you want to see to actors at the top of their game, then you would want to see this. The patterns of behavior with the two main characters, however, make it hard to like - or root for - either one of them.

DreamGirls: Here's my problem with musicals. When the entire cast spontaneously launches into a musical number that forwards the plot, how does everyone know the same words to the song? How do they automatically know the dance moves? I can forgive all of these things if it's fun and electric (the Ray Charles scene from 'Blues Brothers' where everyone is dancing in the street is a great example), but you won't find many scenes like that here. If anything, the singing becomes an annoyance and actually slows down the movie. The movie works best when they are performing on stage, you know, where singing and dancing are supposed to take place. But, even then it succumbs to the MTV habit of never keeping the camera still.

I never understood why directors do this. One of the charms of musical numbers is seeing how everyone is so coordinated and in sync. But with this movie the director seemed more concerned about trying to create an 'iconic' scene (silhouettes with the crowd cheering behind the shadows or the girls posing while sparks fly all around them) instead of just letting the moment take control. The camera never stops moving during the musical numbers, as if somehow the constant changing angles made things more exciting. I would rather simply watch an extended single shot of a musical number than seeing it while we fly in from 40 different angles.

Even with that, I could have forgiven those moments, if others weren't so botched. Two in particular standout and they were (I'm guessing) supposed to be seminal moments in the film. The first was when they kick out the best singer in the band. There is an extended musical number of her refusing to leave the group that was (again I'm guessing) supposed to be emotional, but I finally turned to wifey and said 'Christ, does this song ever end??!!'

The second, and bigger missed opportunity, was when that same girl was auditioning for a club owner to be the nighttime act and get back into singing. It was simply her and a piano player on stage, but when she started singing, suddenly drums and an entire orchestra joined in while she obviously lip synced the entire number. Here's my problem with that. Wouldn't it have been more effective if they just had her singing and the piano playing? Why not film it live so we can actually get a glimpse of how powerful a singer she would be in an intimate setting. Instead we get the pre-recorded version that will be available at a store near you!

Complaints aside, Eddie Murphy (yes, Eddie Murphy) was fantastic in this! If you want to see Eddie actually act, then feel free to rent this. Otherwise, skip it. Not missing anything special.

Today's distraction: Another movie scene quiz. Hopefully I haven't run this one before. There are so many I can't remember which I've posted.

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