31 Dec 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 204 | December 31, 2010

It’s Kind of a True Story

Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Social Network:  Mark Zuckerberg
Tuesday         —   Nowhere Boy:  John Lennon
Wednesday    —   Conviction:  Betty Anne Waters
Thursday        —   Fair Game:  Valerie Plame Wilson

The King’s Speech:  George VI

the king's speech_new

Even if you don’t know the story of George VI, The King’s Speech offers few surprises.  You can tell where the movie is headed from the first scene on.  Yet it hardly matters.  It may not be the most ambitious of films, but it’s effective, providing two hours of comfortable entertainment, and nothing at all shocking (unless a few salty words from the mouth of a duke is more than you care to hear).

The King’s Speech is this year’s film about the British royals.  There must be a new one every twelve months.  That’s the bargain the English have made for putting up with a monarch all the way into the twenty-first century.  Having kings and queens gets pricey after a while, but those blokes are good for a few laughs at that local cinema.  Sometimes they’re good for an Oscar.  Something to be said for that.

Colin Firth plays the duke who becomes George VI after his father dies and brother abdicates.  It’s a job many would kill for (and over the years, some have), but one that this particular royal has dreaded his whole life.  The king may not do much but he must give speeches.  That’s a problem for George, a lifetime st-st-st-stammerer.

Lucky for George, Lionel Logue, a commoner from Australia, renders his unorthodox speech therapy services, and the crown, at the hour of its greatest peril, is saved.

The acting, as you might expect with the royalty of British acting on board, is wonderful.  Geoffrey Rush (the non-Brit here) plays Logue with a charming mix of duty and irreverence.  Helena Bonham Carter is Elizabeth, the devoted queen whose support for her husband never wavers.  If not for her, the Brits may have rid themselves of monarchs long ago.  Firth shines as the hapless king who finally finds his voice.

There’s an interesting back-story to the making of this film, an idea that began with writer David Seidler.  You can read about it in my preview of the film from October.

The King’s Speech (2010)
Tom Hooper, director
David Seidler, writer
Danny Cohen, cinematographer


The King’s Speech (2010)
Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush

Quote of note
Queen Elizabeth (as “Mrs. Johnson”)
:  My husband’s work involves a great deal of public speaking.
Lionel Logue:  Then he should change jobs.
Queen Elizabeth:  He can’t.
Lionel Logue:  What is he, an indentured servant?
Queen Elizabeth:  Something like that.
—Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), The King’s Speech (2010)

Final Friday Five, the monthly mini-quiz

1.  The following actors earned Oscar nominations for playing British royals.  Name the role that each played.

Charles Laughton, 1932-33*
Laurence Olivier, 1946
Peter O’Toole, 1964
Robert Shaw, 1966
Peter O’Toole, 1968
Katharine Hepburn, 1968*
Richard Burton, 1969
Genevieve Bujold, 1969
Vanessa Redgrave, 1971
Kenneth Branagh, 1989
Nigel Hawthorne, 1994
Helen Mirren, 1994
Judi Dench, 1997
Cate Blanchett, 1998
Judi Dench, 1998*
Helen Mirren, 2006*
Cate Blanchett, 2007
* Won Oscar.

2.  The film location of the year is Beantown (and environs).  Name the one film that is not set in Boston or Massachusetts.

Edge of Darkness
Shutter Island
The Ghost Writer

Knight and Day

The Town
The Social Network
Let Me In
The Fighter
The Company Men
(coming soon)

3.  Place these David Fincher films in order of release.

Fight Club
Panic Room
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Game
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Social Network

4.  Name the three films in which both Sean Penn and Naomi Watts costarred.

21 Grams (2003)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
The Interpreter (2006)
The International (2009)
Fair Game (2010)

5.  Name the best film of 2010 selected by each of the following critics’ groups.

National Board of Review
New York Film Critics Circle
Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Chicago Film Critics Association
Boston Society of Film Critics
San Francisco Film Critics Circle
Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics Association

Answers here.


 30 Dec 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 203 | December 30, 2010

It’s Kind of a True Story

Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Social Network:  Mark Zuckerberg
Tuesday         —   Nowhere Boy:  John Lennon
Wednesday    —   Conviction:  Betty Anne Waters

Fair Game:  Valerie Plame Wilson

fair game_new

I had included a quote from All the President’s Men when I previewed Fair Game in October, and now having seen the latter I’d say it’s as close to the 1976 Best Picture nominee as we’re likely to get these days.  It doesn’t measure up entirely, but that may be more a reflection of different times and different outcomes to the stories than a problem with the filmmaking.

Both films are about wrongdoing in the White House, and both follow a couple of characters as they try to shed light on the truth.  In the earlier film, the crime is a petty burglary at the Watergate complex, and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the burglary and its coverup lead to the resignation of a disgraced president.  The new film is about lies that the Bush Administration told to lead our country into war against Iraq, and the efforts of two whistleblowers, CIA agent Valerie Plame (dead ringer Naomi Watts, in a first-rate performance) and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson (a fine Sean Penn), to expose the truth.  In the end, neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney, who is the kingpin in this telling, is brought to justice.  Scooter Libby, advisor to the vice president, is convicted in the scandal, but Bush soon commutes the sentence.  Plame, meanwhile, loses her career as a CIA officer when her cover is blown by the White House as retribution for an op-ed that her husband wrote questioning the administration.

The story of All the President’s Men may have shaken people’s faith in our government, but at least the system worked.  No feel-good equivalent is to be found in Fair Game‘s storyline.  The film does try to leave us with a more positive message, but it’s only partly successful at dispelling the troubling sense we have watching a gross injustice go unpunished.

The Wilsons are not disloyal to the country.  Rather, they are portrayed as true patriots.  Yet the film is more than just about politics and justice.  It’s a personal drama, and we get a look at the pressures that nearly tear apart the Wilson family.  In this respect, Fair Game has a level of involvement not found in the earlier picture, in which Woodward and Bernstein have no life outside of their jobs.

Fair Game is recent history, a history still being written, and people with political agendas are actively working to skew reaction to the film.  For more, this article by David Corn is worth a read.

Fair Game (2010)
Doug Liman, director
Valerie Plame Wilson (book, Fair Game), Joseph Wilson (book, The Politics of Truth), Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth (screenplay); writers
Doug Liman, director of photography


Fair Game (2010)
Naomi Watts, Sean Penn

Quote of note
Valerie Plame
:  I get death threats every day.  People threaten to kill my husband, to hurt my children.  I went to the agency and I requested security to protect my family.  I was declined because, quote, my circumstances fall outside budget protocols.  If this is a knife fight, sir, right now we’re fighting it alone.
Jim Pavitt:  Joe Wilson versus the White House, huh.  But I feel as a friend I should tell you that those men—those few men in that building over there—are the most powerful men in the history of the world.  How much of a stretch do you think it would be for them to take on Joe Wilson?
—Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), Jim Pavitt (Bruce McGill), Fair Game (2010)


 29 Dec 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 202 | December 29, 2010

It’s Kind of a True Story

Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Social Network:  Mark Zuckerberg
Tuesday         —   Nowhere Boy:  John Lennon

Conviction:  Betty Anne Waters


Not all “true” stories are based on lives of the famous.  Here’s a film with people you likely would not know about otherwise.

Conviction tells the tale of a sister and brother living in a small town in northeast Massachusetts.  Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) is a high school dropout with two sons and no job.  In 1983 Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) is arrested for a murder that occurred a few years before.  He is found guilty, but Betty Anne believes that her brother has been wrongfully convicted.  She promises to fight until she wins his release.

That fight would ultimately take eighteen years, during which she put herself through college and law school, worked part-time to pay bills, and raised a family.  Finally a lawyer, Betty Anne enlists help from Barry Shenk of the Innocence Project, and through a combination of persistence and luck, they win justice for Kenny.

The film is more a drama about family and faith than a legal thriller.  For Swank, it’s a part not far from her two Oscar-winning roles, a working-class heroine who refuses to quit.  Rockwell shines as the incorrigible bad boy who suffers for the sins of a corrupt justice system.  Among the top-rate work turned in by a fine cast is Melissa Leo as the hostile cop who put Kenny away and Juliette Lewis in a small but knockout performance as the witness who testified against her ex-lover Kenny. 

This isn’t a big film and won’t win a big audience, but it’s a story that should be known.  Equal treatment under the law is an ideal, and unfortunately not the universal practice.  For many, especially on the lower end of the economic ladder, there’s scant hope for the justice that should be a birthright for all of us.

One sad note, not covered in the film.  Kenny, finally free after almost two decades in prison, died in an accidental fall just six months after his release.  He did at least live to see himself exonerated, and for Betty Anne, her story remains an inspiration.  She continues to work as a lawyer for prisoners’ rights.

Conviction (2010)
Tony Goldwyn, director
Pamela Gray, sceenplay
Adriano Goldman, cinematographer

Quote of note
“I’m going to start by trying to get a B.A….after I finally take the stupid G.E.D. test, and after that I’ll apply to law school, but you just have to promise me that you’ll never give up.”
—-Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), Conviction (2010)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 27 Dec 2010 @ 06:14 PM

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 28 Dec 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 201 | December 28, 2010

It’s Kind of a True Story

Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Social Network:  Mark Zuckerberg

Nowhere Boy:  John Lennon

nowhere boy

If you’d like to draw a comparison between the 1960s and our time, you might start with the two subjects of the films featured Monday and Tuesday:  both wildly successful young men, prominent voices of their time, advocates of change, idols of their generation.  Once upon a time rock ‘n’ roll wasthe revolution.  Now rock ‘n’ roll is mostly music, something on the soundtrack, and the revolution is technology.  Seems to me the dream has gotten smaller, and Mark Zuckerberg and his generation, for all their ambition, could learn from John Lennon and his.  Lennon, in his too-brief time, knew a thing or two about changing the world.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right, all right, all right

Nowhere Boy is a coming-of-age story, set in 1950s Liverpool, during Lennon’s teen years.  It’s not about the founding of the Beatles, and it’s barely about the founding of the Quarrymen, Lennon’s band that Paul McCartney joined in 1957, and George Harrison a year later.  The film’s primary focus is Lennon’s relationship with two prominent women, his Aunt Mimi, the guardian who housed him and raised him, and his mother, Julia, who abandoned him as a boy but later gave him the gift that would make him a figure for the ages, his passion for music.

Unlike the other “true-life” movies this week, Nowhere Boy has the difficult task of defining a character we already know, or think we know, too well.  A film about Lennon, one of the most famous men of the past century, is something we see for the experience, not so much for discovery.  The filmmakers give us only a short slice of his life, before he was a public figure, but there’s still a problem.  As we watch we can’t help but wonder, This is the boy that became John Lennon?  For the first part of the film, my answer was, I don’t think so.  We do see a transformation, but it’s sudden, not really earned, and the film feels somewhat disjointed.  One minute Lennon is quiet and passive, the next he’s the sarcastic rebel, a familiar figure that we can relate to.  Once the film finds its footing, it’s a more worthwhile and enjoyable show.

Though the hero of the story, Lennon is a difficult character, and the film, to its credit, gives us the good with the bad, as well as an understanding of the early hardships that would fuel his passions for the rest of his life.  Young British actor Aaron Johnson plays Lennon.  His resemblance works better in medium and long shot.  Kristin Scott Thomas as the tough-loving Mimi, and Anne-Marie Duff as the troubled Julia, give two solid performances.  Sam Taylor-Wood directed, her debut feature film.  (Taylor-Wood is now engaged to Johnson, who is 23 years her junior, and the couple had a daughter this summer.)

The film probably will appeal to Beatles fans more than to others, yet it may work best for those who bring an open mind and leave their expecations at the door.

Nowhere Boy (2010)
Sam Taylor-Wood, director
Julia Baird (memoir), Matt Greenhalgh (screenplay), writers
Seamus McGarvey, cinematographer

Quote of note
:  Why couldn’t God make me Elvis?
Julia:  Cause he was saving you for John Lennon!
—John (Aaron Johnson), Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), Nowhere Boy (2010)


 27 Dec 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 200 | December 27, 2010

It’s Kind of a True Story

“But William Randolph Hearst never even had a sled.”  As far as I know, no one ever made that complaint about Citizen Kane.  Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz may have modeled their main character on Hearst but they had the good sense to call him Kane.  They could take liberties with the story and sidestep certain criticism.  Of course, that didn’t stop Hearst from trying to destroy the film and Welles’s career, but others gave the movie a more generous reception.  Not everyone expected it to be a true story.  It never claimed to be.

Lots of films do claim to be “based on a true story.”  I’m not sure what others think when they see a movie billed that way.  Do people believe what they’re seeing onscreen really happened?  I tend not to have that expectation.  I assume that dialogue, events, characters, and more have been invented for the film, and whatever passing resemblance the final product has to the life or lives it was based on is not a great concern for me.

That depends, of course, on the kind of movie I’m watching.  A documentary better get its facts right.  A biopic has a looser standard but still ought to capture something of the true character and events of the real-life figures it depicts.  Other films adapting “true” stories have less of a need to stick to the so-called facts.  There are greater truths to be told, and the success of films based on true stories should be measured by how well the films capture the larger story.  Some of the best include Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull, and Schindler’s List.

Yet quibbles arise, and sometimes an outcry, and it’s fascinating to watch the reaction to certain films.  Oliver Stone’s JFK was attacked for telling a different history than the history that some politically influential interests would like to have told.  For the record, I don’t believe Stone’s particular account of the Kennedy assassination, but I do commend his questioning of the official story, and it’s a brilliant film, in any case.

Shakespeare’s histories took liberties with history too, but nobody today cares much if Richard III is true to the life of the fifteenth-century English monarch.  We go not to discover historical fact, but to experience Shakespeare.

Like the Bard, filmmakers are drawn to real-life stories for dramatic purposes.  So go for the drama, not for history.  It works better that way, and that’s a truth older than film itself.

Adapting true-life stories may be an age-old practice, but one that accounts for a lot of work these days in Hollywood.  The past few months have seen a glut of movies of this kind, more than I’ll be able to cover in one week.  I plan to highlight five of the films, all late-2010 releases, and as we close out year one at MAD About Movies, we’re still on holiday hours, so you can expect a briefer write-up than usual for the rest of the week.

Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people

The Social Network:  Mark Zuckerberg

the social network

The Social Network tells the story of the founding of Facebook.  Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard sophomore who started the soon-to-be-famous website in 2004.  You’ll find Zuckerberg’s green-eyed visage staring at you from the cover of Time magazine’s recent issue on Person of the Year.  His meteoric rise is quite a story.  He made a few friends along the way, and a few enemies.  You may have heard.

If you have not yet seen the film, what you think about it may depend on whom you listen to.  The critics have been overwhelmingly positive:  scores of 95 and 96% at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and top end-of-year honors so far from the National Board of Review and critics groups in Boston and Washington.  Some other voices have been less enthusiastic—Newark Mayor Corey Booker and some writers at the Huffington Post come to mind.  I find the dissenters usually fall into one of a few groups:  people who do business with Zuckerberg, people who would like to do business with him, and the social media utopians who see Zuckerberg at the forefront of the greatest revolution since Gutenberg.

But like the movie or not, most people agree that the depiction of Zuckerberg is negative.  The popular word to describe his film character is “jerk” (here, here, and here; Frank Rich spares the word but says that the film offers a “harsh portrait”).  I don’t see it that way.

The movie portrays Zuckerberg as a complex character, the good mixed with the bad.  We don’t always get nuance in films, but it’s one reason why the character seems so believable and why the movie succeeds as it does.  Zuckerberg, in fact, is the most sympathetic character in the film.  He has true talent, unlike his rivals, the Winklevoss twins; he has a clear vision of what his invention may become, unlike his friend Eduardo; he has the discipline to serve that vision, unlike fellow entrepreneur Sean Parker.  Within the story of the film, Zuckerberg pays a price for his success, losing friendships as he builds his company.  He may even be complicit in betraying those close to him, but still the audience’s sympathies are with him, not the others.  Near the end of the film, when Zuckerberg says to one of the lawyers, “I’m not a bad guy,” it has a definite ring of truth.

How much of the film is faithful to the “truth” of what really happened?  I don’t know and I’m not sure it matters.  I suspect Zuckerberg in real life is a better person in many ways, as others have claimed.  And I suspect he is a worse person in some ways, also.  He is no doubt talented, and no doubt flawed.  College is often a time of turmoil, and can any of us look back at those years and be proud of all our moments?  Add the pressures of a new business, especially one with tremendous potential, and it’s no surprise relationships were stretched beyond the breaking point.

The film captures the life of students at an elite college—the glamour and the genius—as well as with the combustible pressures of starting a business, the class tensions between old money and new, and the terrible price paid by those who follow their ambition. 

The critics are worth listening to this time around.  The Social Network is a superb movie, the best I’ve seen so far this year.  The accolades for director David Finch and writer Aaron Sorkin are well-deserved, and Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake do especially good work, leading a top-notch cast.

The Social Network (2010)
David Fincher, director
Ben Mezrich (book), Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), writers
Jeff Cronenweth, cinematographer


The Social Network (2010)
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg

The Social Network (2010)
Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker

“The Social Network” Press Conference
New York Film Festival
David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake
September 24, 2010
Part 1 (below)
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Director’s Dialogue
New York Film Festival
David Fincher
September 25, 2010
Part 1 of 6 (more at the link)

Quote of note
“If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”
—Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), The Social Network (2010)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 27 Dec 2010 @ 09:24 PM

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