Sunday, January 14, 2007

Oscar-bait Movie Catch-up: Part I

The Queen

What a miraculous actor Helen Mirren is. It's funny that a woman who was known as a Shakespearean bombshell - famous for taking her clothes off onstage - has now played monarchs several times, and none so well as here. She's considered to be a lock for an Oscar nomination if not a win, and it's a good thing she's playing a real person because normally the Academy isn't known for its appreciation of performances that are this beautifully subtle. She's amazing.

That said, I wasn't blown away by the film. It's very well-cast; Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and James Cromwell (James Cromwell! Love him!) as Prince Philip are both excellent (Alex Jennings and Sylvia Sims as Prince Charles and the Queen Mum less so) and while I was a bit thrown off at first by the casual way Her Majesty is shown speaking to her servants I got used to it eventually. The cinematography by D.O.P. Affonso Beato is also stunning - I can't imagine they actually got permission to shoot on the Balmoral estate but obviously they must have been in the area, and I want to go to Scotland yesterday.

Nevertheless, I suspect that a lot of the acclaim the film's been receiving is based on emotions that have little to do with the work of Mirren, Sheen or Stephen Frears. Lots of people in the audience, myself included, were sniffling quite a lot, but it was all during the scenes where actual footage of Diana's death was used. I was in Britain the night she died - when we left Wales the accident had been reported and by the time we reached Gatwick airport some of the papers were reporting her death - and it was horrible. The footage Frears uses, of the normally reserved British nation rending its garments for the world to see, is still affecting nearly 10 years later, and confirms my opinion that fact can often be more moving than fiction. But getting tears out of your audience based on someone else's work (in this case, the BBC and other newsgathering organizations) seems a bit like ... cheating.


Another one that's getting a lot of Oscar buzz and, frankly, I ... don't really get it. Some of this is no doubt due to my indifference to Motown; I'm not a huge fan of the classic sound from the '60s, and despite having seen and enjoyed The Funk Brothers in concert, I still prefer the later, funkier stuff the label produced in the '70s. And the music in the film isn't even as good as the early Motown stuff; it's in the same vein, but it's much, much sappier with less catchy lyrics.

Part of it also has to do with Jennifer Hudson playing the diva Effie White. I hate myself for this, but I kind of agree with Simon Cowell, who told Hudson on American Idol that she was "too much." Hudson's big moment comes during the song "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and long before she howled her last note I was ready for it to be over. The girl has a fantastic voice, but someone with pipes that powerful needs to take Aretha Franklin, rather than Whitney Houston, as her model. When your vocal style resembles an oncoming freight train, please refrain from trilling.

That said, I really hope Hudson gets more acting gigs based on this, because she gives the second-best performance in the film. Jamie Foxx as the Berry Gordy analogue is pretty one-note due to the one-dimensionality of the character, and while Beyoncé has never looked more stunning (she should dress up as Diana Ross more often), she's not a master thesp either. It'd also be cool if Hudson should got some modeling work out of this. She's not the most classically beautiful woman on the screen (again, that would be Beyoncé) but when the story moves into the 70s and Effie adopts a kind of natural, black-is-beautiful chic, Hudson looks pretty gorgeous.

But the best performance in the film? Eddie Murphy. And it's not just because James "Thunder" Early's music is more entertaining than the rest of the pap on the soundtrack. Reviewers left and right have mentioned Murphy's James Brown (R.I.P.) parodies from SNL and how they make a reappearance here, but for me the best part of Murphy's performance comes near the end when Early has transformed himself into a Marvin Gaye-type soul singer. There's a moment, just before Early is about to shoot up, when he looks at Keith Robinson (playing C.C., Effie's brother), and the pain and weariness and general giving-up-on-life-ness is so plainly etched on his face that my breath caught. Murphy is notoriously press-shy and that may hurt his Oscar chances, but I really, really hope he at least gets a nomination out of this, because his performance is close to perfect all the way through.

Just as an aside: Diana Ross apparently wasn't too fond of the stage play and isn't thrilled with the movie's existence either, and I can't quite tell why. The Deena Jones character is much nicer than Ross probably is in person; the film makes her look next door to a saint. Unless it's the implication that Jones - and by extension Ross - was picked for her looks rather than her talent. Yeah, I guess I can see why Ross might not like that too much.


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