The King’s Speech * * * *

Genre: Drama

Director: Tom Hooper

Writer: David Seidler

Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Beginning in 1925, The King’s Speech tells the story of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon). As he’s not the eldest son, he is not expected to ascend to the throne. However, when his older brother Prince Edward (Guy Pearce) abdicates after the death of their father, the unwilling Prince Albert is forced to take his brother’s place. Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is equally unwilling to take up residence in Buckingham Palace. Also, the King is expected to make live speeches over the radio, another problem arises – Albert has a severe stuttering problem, and renders him virtually incapable of public speaking. In an attempt to rid himself of this speech impediment, he seeks out Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist harking from Australia and is known for his unorthodox (but effective) methods. The importance of overcoming his stutter is increased when the world is on the brink of descending into another World War, and Albert has to inspire and lead his people into war. 

Review: The synopsis for The King’s Speech may make it out to be a stuffy, boring biopic, but the end result is anything but. In fact, The King’s Speech is likely to be one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences in 2011, with an accessible, fascinating storyline (and a true one, at that), and some of the best ensemble acting I have seen in years. All the acting award nominations and accolades that the cast have received so far this awards season are truly deserving. Coupled with the polished, rousing screenplay and the assured direction of Tom Hooper, and it’s easy to see why The King’s Speech will end up as one of the best films in 2011 despite its early release date. 

There’s no denying that Colin Firth is an excellent actor, and in The King’s Speech he gives a performance that mirrors Helen Mirren’s equally brilliant turn as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen. Firth completely immerses himself in the role, effectively transforming into Prince Albert, and easily becomes the emotional centre of the movie. It’s not easy acting out a convincing stutter, but Firth more or less nails it.    Colin Firth deserves not just his Oscar nomination, but the win itself. 

Geoffrey Rush has the unenviable task of being cast opposite Firth as his foil, but Rush more than holds his own with a equally good performance as the quirky speech therapist who doesn’t quite know how to deal with a “celebrity client” like Prince Albert. Helena Bonham Carter is delightful in her small number of scenes, and the added bonus is that both these supporting actors have very good chemistry with Firth. Even the minor characters are rather impressive – Timothy Spall does a pretty convincing interpretation of Winston Churchill, and Michael Gambon exudes a regal air as King George V, amongst others. Fans of the Pride and Prejudice mini-series that made Colin Firth a household name would also be pleased to note that Jennifer Ehle, his co-star in the series, also shares screen time with him in The King’s Speech as Lionel’s wife (this is their first collaboration since P&P). 

The final scene of the movie, which revolves around the delivery of the titular speech, is a stellar example of top-notch filmmaking – the environment is sparsely adorned both visually and aurally, and only the two performers, Rush and Firth, factor into the scene. Hooper leads the audience into focusing on the back-and-forth that occurs between the two actors during the delivery of the speech, and when it concludes, it’s almost impossible to not feel a sense of exhilaration at what had just transpired. There’s no fancy camerawork, no visual trickery, and definitely no 3D – The King’s Speech harkens back to a time where films are taken solely on their core merits and not the pointless frills, and this it does very, very well. 

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)


Buried * * * *

Genre: Thriller

Director: Rodrigo Cortes

Writer: Chris Sparling

Cast: Ryan Reynolds

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is an American working in Iraq as a non-military truck driver. Unfortunately, his convoy comes under attack and he blacks out; when he comes to, Paul discovers that he is buried alive in a wooden coffin. Fortunately, Paul discovers that he has, amongst other items, a lighter, a pencil, and a working mobile phone with half its battery life and a weak reception. Using the mobile phone, Paul desperately tries to make connections with anyone that can help him out of his predicament, but not everyone he manages to contact with the phone have his best interests at heart…

Review: It is perhaps not surprising that this movie, though starring Ryan Reynolds, was birthed not in the USA but in Spain. Very few movies made in the USA would have the audacity to try to accomplish what Rodrigo Cortes has tried to do here, but what’s even more impressive is that it works. Buried is not an easy film to watch, and it might not be even considered an entertaining film, but it manages to present its single-minded proposition with such clarity and purpose that it is impossible not to feel impressed. Rodrigo Cortes has done an amazing job (although I question his choice of denouement), and Ryan Reynolds manages to put forth what is probably his best performance to date.

Unlike most movies founded on similar “locked room” concepts (Devil is a recent example), Buried never shifts its focus from the coffin and devotes the full 94-minute running time to Ryan Reynolds and the box he is trapped in. There are no flashbacks to fill out the story, no other peripheral characters on screen (although a fair number of characters are heard via Paul’s many phone conversations), and perhaps most surprisingly, no situations that don’t work in the film’s internal logic. The film’s plot feels watertight even after the credits roll, which is quite a rare occurrence these days.

Rodrigo Cortes manages to avoid visual monotony by offering up a surprising number of camera angles and introducing new plot elements just when the film seems to settle into a comfortable (relatively) groove. This creates an excellent atmosphere for the film, and the pacing is spot on, relentlessly piling on the sense of dread, never letting up till the very end.

Ryan Reynolds is perhaps better known for his pretty boy looks and his excellent physique, but in Buried he actually puts forth a very strong performance. This being literally a one-man show, Reynolds carries the entire weight of the movie on his shoulders and yet manages to do so with great aplomb. This is not an easy role – he is confined to a small space and yet has to portray a wide gamut of emotions, ranging from fear to anger to resignation. And because Reynolds’ portrayal is so believable, it is very easy to identify with and have a vested interest in his character’s fate. 

Buried is a very intense cinematic experience which honestly isn’t for everyone – if you’re looking for the typical action thriller movie then this would not fit neatly into the mould. However, if you are willing to give the movie a chance, this could possibly be one of the best movies you’ll see this year. Even if you don’t agree, be assured that this will not be a movie that you will forget anytime soon, and in a sea of same-old, me-too movies, that in itself is a quality that’s increasingly hard to find in the theatres nowadays.

Rating:  * * * * (out of four stars)


Inception * * * *

Genre: Science Fiction / Thriller

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cilian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

Running Length: 148 minutes

Synopsis: The less one knows about the plot of Inception, the better – so I will be brief. Set in a world when humans are able to enter the dreams of others, information that has been hidden away in the mind is no longer safe from prying hands. These thieves of dreams are known as “extractors”, and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is one of the best in the field. However, when corporate magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe) contacts Cobb and partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he is not looking for extraction but “inception” – the planting of an idea in one’s head. Cobb is convinced to take on the job, and has to assemble a motley crew, each fulfilling a specific purpose, to try to successfully attempt inception.

Review: Can Christopher Nolan do no wrong? First noticed for the exceptional mind bender that was Memento, Nolan has moved on to create two of the best superhero movies of all time (namely Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), and now Inception – his 10-year old project – has finally made it to the big screens. I’m happy to say that Inception continues Nolan’s winning streak, and it’s very simply the best live-action film I’ve seen this year.

Inception has an amazingly detailed story, working on multiple levels at one go, augmented by exceptional action sequences, good performances from its leads, some stunning camerawork and stuntwork, a great score and has been edited faultlessly. Seems like a lot of superlatives in one sentence, but Inception really manages to tick off almost every check box – to say that it’s an instant classic isn’t an overstatement.

Inception is a film that demands your undivided attention – it’s a long movie (almost two and a half hours), and the storyline is so complex that even a quick toilet break may mean a gap in comprehension. Make no mistake, this is a film that stands up to repeat viewings, and practically demands it. The concept may not be very new – there are shades of The Matrix, Dark City, Minority Report and more in Inception, but much like the best of these films, Inception presents it in a new light. The multi-layered narrative structure – at one point in the movie, four narrative layers were unfolding at the same time – could have been extremely confusing, but Nolan manages to weave the narratives together seamlessly, augmented by some excellent editing, and surrounds it with a watertight internal logic that helps with audience immersion.

Intellectual stimulation aside, Inception is also very accomplished as an action movie. A number of action set pieces are very thrilling and high-octane, rivaling any big budget actioner out there for adrenaline kicks. Visual effects do not overpower the raw action, and it’s very encouraging to note that Nolan had used physical sets in a fair number of scenes instead of relying solely on green screen wizadry. One particularly impressive scene involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt careening through a hotel corridor with varying levels of gravity, and it’s an extremely well-choreographed action sequence that truly excites the mind. This level of accomplishment comes as no surprise, since Nolan has managed to put together equally impressive action set pieces in the Batman movies. This is, to use a clichéd but apt phrase, truly a thinking man’s action movie. 

This is Leonardo DiCaprio’s second outing in a psychological thriller this year, the first being Scorsese’s Shutter Island. His performance here is more subdued and not quite so over the top (read: less “crazy eyes”) than in Shutter Island, which makes Cobb a fair bit more believable as a character and serves as a good emotional anchor in the film. Ellen Page is saddled with the unenviable task of delivering almost all the expository lines in the film, but still manages to do a pretty decent job as Cobb’s muse (of sorts). Amongst the rest of the strong supporting cast, Marion Cotillard’s performance is the standout – although she appears in a mere handful of scenes, they are impactful and memorable, and Mal easily becomes a central character despite having the least screen time.  

Inception bucks the trend of remakes, retreads, sequels and mindless action films that have overwhelmingly populated cinemas in recent years, and is a fresh, new piece of cinema that excites the senses and the mind. With the commercial success of the Batman movies, Nolan could have churned out cookie-cutter action films with guaranteed box office returns, but with Inception it’s clear he was willing to make a gamble for a project that’s close to his heart. Inception succeeds on many levels and is testament to Nolan’s talent, and is the first live-action film this year that I can recommend to any moviegoer without any reservation.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)


Toy Story 3 * * * *

Genre: Animation

Director: Lee Unkrich

Writer:  Michael Arndt, based on a story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich

Voice Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris

Running Length: 98 minutes

Synopsis: Years have passed and Andy is now preparing to go to college. The few toys that remain – which include Woody (Tom Hanks), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen),  are naturally worried for their fates, but Woody reassures them that they will all live in the attic until the next generation comes along and plays with them. Unfortunately, a series of incidents occur that lead to the toys ending up at a daycare centre, which initially seems like a dream come true as there is no lack of children to play with the toys. However, the daycare centre is ruled with an iron fist by Lots-o’-Huggin’-Bear (Ned Beatty), and Andy’s toys soon realize they need to make their way back to their owner. Escaping the daycare centre, however, is not going to be an easy task…

Review:  It’s been 15 years since the first Toy Story enchanted audiences both young and old, and 11 years since Toy Story 2 upped the ante even further. I am very pleased to say that Toy Story 3 has managed to maintain the pedigree of the Toy Story franchise, and manages to (presumably) conclude the Toy Story movies on a level that other animation studios can only dream of. With an excellent mix of action, comedy, and pathos, coupled with great characterization, good visuals, and a compelling plot for both children and adults alike, it’s not hard to presume, even at this point, that Toy Story 3 will be the best summer film I’ll see this year. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that this is probably one of the best movies of the year, if not the best.

It’s a given nowadays that computer animated films will look very polished and highly detailed, and of course Pixar is no different in this aspect. The look of Toy Story 3 is of course improved over the previous two films, but when computer animated films are released with such frequency these days, it’s no longer as easy to impress. And of course there’s the issue of 3D, which seems to be the Holy Grail for movies released of late. I believe the cinema in which I had caught the preview was not calibrated properly for 3D, which resulted in a very distracting background “shimmer” that made viewing a very taxing and distracting experience. However, even if this is accounted for, the 3D implementation of Toy Story 3 is woefully inadequate, and there are extended moments in the film where nothing very 3D seems to be going on. This is perhaps the only true blemish I can find in Toy Story 3, and hence my recommendation is to save the money and just catch the film in “plain” 2D.

Like many of its Pixar predecessors, the aspect in which Toy Story 3 truly shines is story, story, story. Although children will be able to enjoy the movie on a basic level (note that some scenes may be a little too intense for the very young), much of the movie will only truly resonate with adult viewers. Many of the gags, especially those involving Ken and Barbie’s romantic endeavours, will definitely be better appreciated by the secondary audience. Also, the amazing depth of emotion that can be found in this animated film is not even usually achieved by a live-action film, and huge props must go to Pixar for having crafted such a masterful work. One of the best examples of this is near the film’s end, after all the action has come and gone, where Andy introduces each of his toys to a little girl. Much like the first 10 minutes of Up, this scene packs such a massive emotional wallop that it wouldn’t be surprising to find more than a few audience members with tears in their eyes as the credits roll.

Few movie franchises manage to deliver after a couple of sequels, and it’s great to see that whilst Toy Story 3 has pulled it off, the denouement does also seem to suggest that there won’t be another sequel somewhere down the road. It’s possibly the best send-off we can get for these familiar and well-loved characters, and the Toy Story trilogy will live on timelessly as all great movies do. If you pick one animated film to watch in 2010, make sure it’s Toy Story 3.

Rating:  * * * * (out of four stars)