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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on Movies: The King’s Speech and Yogi Bear

The King’s Speech (Four Stars)

U. K.: Tom Hooper, 2010

The King’s Speech — which tells the story of King George VI’s chronic speech impediment, and of how he overcame it with the help of a boisterous Australian actor/therapist just in time to help Britain win World War II — is being touted as this year’s probable Oscar winner. And, The Social Network aside, that makes some sense, even though it isn’t the movie I’d vote for.

This highly polished and entertaining British period drama from the Brothers Weinstein definitely has “class act” credentials. It’s well-written (by 71-year-old David Seidler, who also scripted Tucker: A Man and His Dream for Francis Coppola), well-directed (by Tom Hooper, Brit helmer of the recent PBS John Adams), and extremely well-acted by the usual top-notch British cast — especially by the three leads, Colin Firth (as the introverted, microphone-shy Duke of York and eventually, George VI), Geoffrey Rush (as his rowdily eccentric therapist, Lionel Logue), and by Helena Bonham-Carter, as Elizabeth, the future, much-beloved late Queen Mother of today’s Queen Elizabeth. (She’s quite good, quite stalwart, but I prefer Bonham-Carter’s screamy, sadistic Queen of Hearts in Tim Burton‘s Alice in Wonderland.)

Just as important, The King‘s Speech has that look and stamp of class: of quality, brainy scripts, impeccable style, good politics and good intentions, that Oscar voters like to find and reward. And who could blame those same academy voters — when many of them have to labor on super-expensive twaddle like “Yogi Bear” (see below) or on the latest slam-bang, script-deficient actioner, revenge thriller, horror show or sex comedy? (The joke: Some of those same cheesy-sounding movies do become Hollywood classics.)

But The King‘s Speech is a movie that deserves a prize or two, just as The Hurt Locker did last year. (Hurt Locker was as much an Oscar-slanted movie, as King’s Speech, though the same critics didn’t seem to mind, since Locker won most of its awards too. And it was equally well-intentioned.

Yes, Yes, I know … Good intentions are what the road to hell is paved with. But that doesn’t mean bad intentions, or none to speak of (except financial ones), pave the road to heaven. I have to disagree with some reviewers who feel that The King’s Speech may be some kind of cynical, calculated piece of Oscar-trolling, partly a pompous fraud of sorts. One thing this movie clearly is not, is cynical. It’s an obviously heartfelt piece from a writer who obviously saw it as a labor of love. (Seidler, a stammerer himself, researched and planned King’s Speech for years, holding off, at her request, until the real Queen Mother died. (In 2002, at 101).

The King’s Speech throbs with emotion, with full-hearted feeling, and that’s what makes it work. It carries us along with George VI’s (or Bertie‘s) anguish at his shattered speech, with the embarrassment of the Windsors, the Royal Family (including Michael The Singing Detective Gambon as a crusty King George V, Claire Bloom, Chaplin’s Limelight angel, as Queen Mary, and Guy Memento Pearce as the abdicating Edward VIII a.k.a. Duke of Windsor), and with the tension and fear of the oncoming winds of World War II. You could call all their acting florid and unsubtle, or you could also call it bravura. It’s certainly entertaining.


The movie begins in 1925, with Bertie freezing up on microphone at Wembley Stadium, and ends in 1939 with his “speech,” throwing down the gauntlet to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, a man — and a demagogue, tyrant and killer — who spoke very well indeed. (Insanely well.) In between, we see George V die, Edward VIII abdicate ( for “the woman he loves,” the sharkishly grinning Wallis Simpson, played by Eve Best ), Hitler’s early threats and beginning march over Europe, while Neville Chamberlain (Roger Parrott) appeases and falls, and another great speaker (and writer) Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) rises. The climax of it all is the King’s speech, and the story leading up to it: the initially stormy, finally productive teacher-student relationship — and friendship — between Bertie and Lionel.


That odd comradeship has to survive seemingly almost irreconcilably opposed temperaments and classes. Bertie, despite his unnerved and unnerving stammer, has some of the toniest credentials in the Western world: the imprimatur of the British Royal family — a pedigree so lofty that you barely have to do anything to win or keep it, except be born and not make a total ass of yourself. (A hard task for some, including Edward VIII and the current Prince Charles.)

Lionel, by contrast, has no highborn family, no degree, no official seal of approval — only his (very effective) self-made techniques and practice as a speech doctor. Lionel isn’t even British. He’s from Australia, land of wild colonials, prisoner, outlaws, the outback and cheeky characters of all kinds. Lionel, who was chosen by Elizabeth, doesn’t even know at first who his client is. Later he asks that he and the future king interact on a friendly basis, call each other by their Christian names — a suggestion that at first appalls Bertie, as does Lionel‘s insistence that his student sing “Swanee River“ and swear like a trooper.


There isn’t a whole lot suspense in whether Lionel will succeed; most of us never even knew about the king’s speech impediment. But still, the movie generates an achingly tense climax. And there is real suspense and unpredictability in watching these two disparate guys grow to know, respect and like each other. King‘s Speech is about the magic of words, the magic of voices, and it’s also about the importance of social imagery and public persona, especially in a class-conscious society like the old British Empire.


But most of all, it’s about an unlikely friendship. That unlikeliness, and that genuine camaraderie, couldn’t have found two better actors to express it, then Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth.

As a movie star of unusual activity, Rush is also an odd guy out. He looks a little like an Australian Bogie, but slightly homelier, and he projects more raw, sparking, high voltage brain power than almost any of his contemporaries. (If he sat down at a movie chess table with Anthony Hopkins or Jack Nicholson, you’d still bet on Australia.)

Rush’s forte — from David Helfgott in Shine to the Marquis de Sade in Quills, to Lionel in King’s Speech is that he can play geniuses, even obnoxious, eccentric ones, convincingly. And Lionel is both genius and eccentric, which is what makes him such a live wire on screen, and such a perfect contrast to Firth‘s royal wallflower George VI. (Rush’s Lionel reminds me a bit of a friend and teacher of mine, Gary Catona, probably the best speech therapist and voice builder in Los Angeles, and as “outside,” original and highly personal a teacher/mentor as Lionel.

If Rush is a great movie eccentric/intellectual, Firth remains one of the most affecting contemporary British leading men romantics, scoring on screen again and again, from either sexual preference, from 1984’s stage to screen Another Country on. (There he played the straight student radical opposite Rupert Everett‘s gay rebel.) Even against the formidable challenge of Laurence Olivier’s seemingly perfect Darcy in the 1940 MGM movie of Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice, most audiences consider Firth‘s Darcy in the 1995 BBC Simon Langton version of Pride, the role‘s perfect player, with Firth’s dark-tempered gentleman eloquently and sternly and believably winning the heart of Jennifer Ehle‘s Elizabeth Bennet. (Ehle is in King’s Speech too, playing Lionel‘s hardy wife, Myrtle Logue.)

Working with Rush and Bonham-Carter, Firth shows again how terrific he is at expressing repressed longing, and that trait mixes and clashes brilliantly with Rush‘s Lionel, who doesn’t repress anything.
Many thought that Firth‘s subtle portrayal of the Christopher Isherwood-modeled widower in Single Man should have won him the Oscar then. (Maybe he’ll get a “delayed” one this year.) But I agree. Too much Oscar-guessing may hurt your digestion, even make you dream up Oscar conspiracies, often involving this movie‘s executive producers, the Weinstein brothers.

Tom Hooper, the director here, made the Peter Morgan-scripted sports bio-drama The Damned United; last year (with Michael Sheen and Spall), and he also directed the celebrated John Adams miniseries, with Paul Giamatti, and a fine, long TV adaptation of George Elliot‘s Daniel Deronda. His ascension here is another example of what a fertile seedbed British TV is — since the British are not at all shy, as we Americans unfortunately sometimes are, of adapting their best literature, classic and popular, for TV.

I love sitting down to a British TV novel miniseries, even if it doesn’t hit the highest level, because the quality of the writing, the love and use of Britain‘s literature tends to inspire everybody. This helps the actors, is a blessing to the audience, and aids the direction too — since they’re working with such good and challenging material. (The contemporary British dramas are usually on a higher literary level too, which is why they could foster talents like directors Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Michael Apted and Alan Clarke, and writers Dennis Potter, Troy Kennedy-Martin and Andrew Davies — and why moviemakers like Hooper and David Yates keep popping up today.

Hooper’s work with the actors seems flawless, and not just because he has such a great cast. His visual style is a little reminiscent of John Frankenheimer crossed with, say, Nicholas Hytner. The frames are constricted, edgily compact, but the camera (Danny Cohen is the cinematographer) is often mobile, and swift, tracking and picking up pictures and people on the prowl.

In a way, The King’s Speech surprised me. I’m not that sympathetic to the problems of Royal families, and I think we spend too much time worrying about them, especially the Windsors. For me, it wasn‘t the voice of George VI (reading, probably, other people‘s words) so much that rallied his kingdom, his “subjects.” It was Winston Churchill whose eloquence, way with words and burnished timbre inspired the British — and Churchill is played here, almost as an afterthought or cheerer-on, by Spall. Shouldn’t we have got more of his speechifying too, to hear the tradition Bertie had to live up to?

But the important thing about ”The King’s Speech” is that we see the dramatized Churchill, we see George VI, we see the king, the man behind the throne, the teacher behind the voice, Lionel. The movie, thanks largely to Rush and Firth and the sparks of language they strike together, becomes an ode to expression and friendship and the English language, and to the power of the human voice, in the right hands.

Speak, speak, and drown out the dumb, harsh and spiky tongues of war. Rally our hearts, oh king, oh jester, oh voice that lives in all out hearts, that dreams in all our souls, unshackled and unbowed… Yeah. Well, who needs prizes anyway?


Yogi Bear (One Star)

U.S.; Eric Brevig, 2010

“It ain’t over till it’s over.“
Yogi Berra (from Wikipedia)

What can you say? A bunch of movie guys were determined to make a movie out of the ’60s TV cartoon series Yogi Bear — starring Dan Aykroyd as the voice of Yogi and Justin Timberlake as the voice of Boo Boo — and there was nothing anybody could do to stop them.

Yogi, of course, was that brash, picnic-basket-obsessed cartoon bear from the studio-shop of erstwhile “Tom and Jerry” Oscar winners Hanna-Barbera, whose signature was his cheap drawing, silly hat and goofy voice. In the era when limited animation became the vogue, Yogi was born to be cheap, made to be cheap. He was cheapness personified.

“90% of the game is half-mental.“

Now, defying all sense of proportion, and true bearishness, millions and jelly-ilions of dollars have been lavished on a big-movie reprise of Yogi, Boo Boo and Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon ecological showcase, Jellystone Park. The ultimate in CGI 3D wizardry has been employed to fly Yogi up in the air, scoot him over Jellystone panoramas, and sail him past picnickers and picnic baskets as the Yoge chortles “I‘m smarted then the average bear!“ and “Give me that pic-a-nic basket, dammit!“ and other witty or archetypal lines.

Screenwriters Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Stemin, fresh from their labors on Tooth Fairy, have been hired to write or rewrite those lines and others as well, producing (with the help of Brad Wild Hogs Copeland) a script that sometimes makes Tooth Fairy look like The Red Shoes.

Always go to other people‘s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.

There’s a romance between plucky Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh) and documentary filmmaker Rachel (Anna Faris), and there’s another, more gullible ranger, named Jones (T. L. Miller) and there’s an evil mayor (Andrew Daly), who wants to close Jellystone Park and turn it onto, I don’t know, Casino Jack condos or something. Couldn’t they just have advertised, “At this park, we have two talking bears who walk around in hats and shirts and crack jokes?”

“I really didn’t say everything I said.”

Visual effects guy Eric Brevig (who directed the recent Journey to the Center of the Earth) tries to make sense of all this. He can’t. But Aykroyd, ignoring any effort to reproduce the voice of original Yogi, Daws Butler, blazes new trails in Yogi-dom. (What about giving Dan that classic lost album, “Bluesbusters: Daws Butler and June Foray sing B. B. King?“)

What can you say about Yogi Bear? This movie is more profound than Huckleberry Hound, more moving than Snagglepuss, more shattering than Deputy Dawg.

Just kidding. It’s really just another big, bad, expensive movie that leaves you speechless. And kingless. And bearless. As a wise man once said: A movie as bad as this can’t possibly be this bad. Yogi, we hardly knew ye.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.“

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon