Posts Tagged ‘Hero’

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The King’s Speech – review.

January 23, 2011

I went to see The King’s Speech with Toby last night, and thinking about the experience, the main sensation that I feel is guilt. Guilt that midway through the film’s second third, I surrendered to sleep; guilt that I could not concur with the film’s largely glowing reviews from critics and friends alike; guilt that despite the actors’ invariably fine performances, there was just something lacking. It didn’t take me long to put my finger on what the main missing ingredient was, but first, allow me to expand.

The King’s Speech is a smug, self-satisfied film that surrounds itself with a certain air that says to its audience, that proclaims  to those who see its advertisements, “You are watching this because you are intelligent, because you are interested in History. Feel congratulated, feel superior to the hoi polloi.” This air of self-importance is perhaps fitting with the film’s focus on early 20th century royalty, but is certainly at odds with the flat cinematography. In Lionel’s basement, this cheapness, this absence of depth between the background, the foreground and the actors can perhaps be forgiven as it is evocative of the speech therapist’s relative poverty – all the more pointing out with a wry smile that the future King of England has had to go there, to such a lowly place (after all, it is in a basement that can only be accessed through a cramped lift) in order to find his redemption. But when in more royal quarters, how can you really feel a sense of majesty when the decor, the scenery does not evoke this? The film’s rather small budget of $15 million reveals itself early on. And yet, Firth’s previous film, the sumptuous A Single Man, was made on half that budget and both looks and, more importantly, feels like a million dollars. Go figure.

Nevertheless, the actors all provide stellar showings – none more so than Colin Firth, whose stammer never feels affected or artificial; whose frustration, anger, silence, tenderness towards his family, fear of and eagerness for being the country’s king ring true at every turn. Geoffrey Rush plays Lionel Logue with sincerity and humility, and while I much prefer Helena Bonham Carter as a sexy temptress à la Fight Club or a ridiculously pompous Red Queen in Alice In Wonderland, she more than does her part as Queen Elizabeth here. The King’s Speech is certainly not lacking in fine performances.

But unfortunately, the crux of the problem is this – characters cannot do anything without a story. The plot of The King’s Speech is as follows: the King has a stammer, so he gets some speech therapy to fix it so he can deliver speeches (thus the title’s double reference to the king’s ability to speak, and the film’s final speech – his ultimate test). That’s it. This plot is less than linear – it’s a dot. It goes nowhere, it does nothing unexpected or even notable. As mentioned earlier, I fell asleep for 20 minutes in the film’s second half, woke up and events were more or less where I had left them. And even worse, 99% of the film’s audience know the entirety of the plot before even entering the cinema! Even if you are not au fait with 20th century British history, the British monarchy nor the stories of wartime Britain, you will know how the film ends – for the pure fact that nobody under the age of 15 is going to see this film of their own accord, and the vast majority of those over 15 know that there has never been a king who died moments after being crowned during a World War, nor has there ever been a king whose stammer prevented him from delivering speeches. If either of these things had happened, they would be etched in our history in such a way that everyone would know about them, just as they know of the death of Princess Diana, of her wedding to Prince Charles, of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, of the Queen’s two birthdays. It would be another elementary fact. Thus, this means that it is inevitable that the King gets his stammer cured, or at least is able to manage it in order to perform his duties.

There is nothing approaching a subplot in the film to maintain interest. Edward abdicates in order to pursue love, and the audience is expected to just accept this because that’s how it happened in history – there is no attempt to probe beneath the façade of pompous dignity to question whether Edward is actually doing the right thing, the brave thing, pursuing truth over the pretences inherent in being a monarch (according to King George V himself). The film has only room for one triumphant victim, and that is Firth’s character – even when he is acting like a snobbish, spoilt moron, the viewer is not invited to feel repulsed or even more than mildly annoyed at his presumptuous pride, because he is the film’s Hero, the country’s King, and thus must not be questioned. If you are choosing to question him and other aspects of the film, then good for you – but you’re going above and beyond what the film requires you to do in order to get to the final triumph and achieve your gold star. Any attempts to psychologise the King’s speech impediment are completely reductionist – is it the absence of Daddy’s affections? The taunting of the mean big brother? Peer pressure? The King’s Speech expects its audience to overlook this simplicity because it is British, it is Royal, it is Historical – but if these explanations were transposed to an American rom-com or a Channel 5 drama, they would be seen and derided for the facile clichés they are.

Ultimately, The King’s Speech is a simple film that contains faultless performances, and whose stars should be amply rewarded for their acting. But nevertheless, it is a film that is a plotless puddle, all the while proclaiming itself a majestic ocean.

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Monica – Still Standing. (album review)

March 21, 2010

Still Standing is Monica’s first album since The Makings Of Me 4 years ago.  Like that album, Still Standing stands at a brief ten tracks (bonuses excluded), and the font on the album cover is the same.  Missy Elliott has a strong presence in the album’s production, and in case you forget this fact, she grunts and shouts at the beginning of some of the tracks to announce “New Monica! Hot shit!” This annoying tic disrupts the flow of an album that is largely slow to mid-tempo, and is unnecessary since we know we’re listening to Monica and we don’t need Missy Elliott to bludgeon us over the head with her opinion of her own track.

Unlike The Makings Of Me however, Still Standing is “hot shit” from beginning to end.  Representing the strongest album Monica has released since The Boy Is Mine (or possibly  All Eyez On Me), Still Standing contains one uptempo track, “If You Were My Man”, which is tellingly the album’s only weak point, riding an 80s groove that sounds genuine and laid back even as the bass knocks hard.  Apart from this song, the album runs at a slow, leisurely pace that really invites the listener to sink into the songs and contemplate the alternately loving and lovelorn lyrics accompanying the tracks.  Despite the album’s slow tempo, the 10 tracks seem to be over too soon, and when an album makes you want to press repeat immediately, that’s a good sign that it’s a decent effort.  What’s more, although there was a real danger that with so many slow songs, they might melt into one another to become a big treacly mess, the lyrics, melodies and production are all immaculate throughout and each song is distinguished from the next.  “Still Standing” (the first song we heard from this project way back in 2008, which opens the album with a declaration of strength and resilient and deserves to be the title track) and “Mirror” employ persistent, menacing synths and underlying piano to emphasise the empowering nature of their lyrics, and are two highlights from the album.

“Everything To Me”, the album’s first proper single, has been an unlikely hit considering its radio-unfriendliness (a 3/4 time signature? How refreshing!).  However, its soaring declaration of love is elevated by Monica’s stellar vocal delivery, and while sonically she sounds more and more like a young Mary J. Blige (Still Standing is the album Stronger With Each Tear should have been), it is becoming more and more apparent that Clive Davis was right all along and Monica is truly the vocal heir to Whitney Houston.  “One In A Lifetime” (which couldn’t sound more like a Mary J. Blige track if it tried, robbing liberally from her mega-hit “Be Without You”) is radio-ready but still sincere, while “Superman” employs a plethora of hero metaphors over a slow-jam beat.

In contrast to these romantic songs stands “Stay Or Go”, another album highlight which takes the flowing piano from Chris Brown’s “So Cold” (the best song from his mediocre Graffiti), slows it down and adds more mature lyrics and beautiful vocal stylings to the mix to serve up an effective ultimatum to Monica’s love interest.  Album closer “Believing In Me” sees Monica heartbroken, defiant and finding her strength of heart and soul all over again in the wake of a broken relationship.  Just as “Getaway” was a declaration of vulnerability at the end of The Makings Of Me, so is “Believing In Me” a declaration of vulnerability but also independence, which one might relate to Monica’s recent split from her long-time partner Rocko.  It closes the album well, with Monica’s vocals on the edge of tears close to the song’s climax.

Still Standing succeeds because while it sounds current, it doesn’t pander to radio’s demands for disposable fluff and instead hews close to Monica’s strengths as a supreme R&B vocalist, giving her solid melodies to express heartfelt lyrics.  Every song is strong and uncompromising, standing on its own merits and together these songs form a cohesive whole.  Annoying grunts aside, Missy Elliott handles production duties well, as do the other producers (particularly Bryan-Michael Cox), and if the album is brief at 10 tracks, at least it serves up excellent quality and is markedly better than The Makings Of Me which contained the same number of songs.  It feels like Monica has really hit her stride after previous album wobbles, and it’s so refreshing in 2010 to find some artists making true R&B still enjoying commercial and critical success.

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hypocritical much?

August 29, 2009

Okay, I realise that I’m in serious danger of stanning for Mariah Carey before the album even drops, and I posted about her only yesterday.  But reading certain blogs and forums, which I know are only opinions often by a lot of small minded people or people who are blatantly paid to support certain artists, I can’t help but feel that there is some injustice going on.

Mariah Carey releases a cover song, “I Want To Know What Love Is”.  According to some, she is whispering too much through the song because she has lost her voice and can never get it back.  Others say that she is shrieking and howling and squeaking like an animal.  Which is it?  Either you are shrieking and howling, or you have lost your voice – it can’t be both.  I personally think that her voice is damaged somewhat, and isn’t the same as it was as she first came out. I acknowledge that, and then I say that she is still the best female vocalist around today.  This is part of the hypocrisy I am perceiving; people want to down Mariah Carey for lip-synching a few times, but when she does sing live, they criticise her for a whispery voice not like on the record / oversinging her song with too many histrionic outbursts / not being able to sing and dance at the same time.  What do people want?  Nobody is perfect, but Mariah Carey is possibly the closest that we have.  I would like to warn Beyoncé, who is the most prominently successful young singer / songwriter / dancer / entertainer of the new era – THIS IS YOUR FUTURE. Hate no matter what you do, and the majority of people’s opinions on your album is dictated by how much media support / criticism it gains.  It was decided by the media before the album even dropped that The Emancipation Of Mimi would be a smash hit / “comeback”.  It was decided by the media before the album even dropped that E=MC² would not live up to The Emancipation Of Mimi either in terms of sales or in terms of quality.  I happen to prefer E=MC² because I think the songs are slightly stronger, whereas I tend to skip a few of them on Mimi. I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing, but I’m just tired of stans putting one artist down for no decent reason, and criticising an album when they probably haven’t even listened to it.  If you have an opinion, please back it up.  I may not agree with you, but at least I will respect you.

So people are dogging Mariah Carey because she decided to cover a song.  Um, “Without You” was also a cover, but nobody had a problem with her version of that 16 years ago?  Also, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was a fantastic song that was a cover version of Dolly Parton’s original. I don’t hear anyone having a problem with that song.  In fact, let’s talk about Whitney Houston.  I nearly did this yesterday, but I managed to restrain myself; after reading some of the frankly retarded opinions posted on Lil’ Kim Zone, I can no longer hold my tongue.  Whitney Houston’s new album is okay.  I like some of the songs (“Salute” is my favourite), I think others are atrocious.  Mostly, I like the ballads and dislike the uptempos.  That’s fine, you can’t win ’em all, and I know that other people are really enjoying her record.  Her voice sounds good, but undeniably not how it did before (she doesn’t belt, she riffs too much).  These are criticisms which, funnily enough, have been levelled at Mariah Carey.  Okay.  Whitney Houston’s new single “Million Dollar Bill” has peaked in the mid-70s on the Billboard Chart.  Mariah Carey’s song has stayed within the Top 20 of that chart for the past 5-6 weeks.  So don’t tell me that Mariah Carey is pushing her album back because she is scared of Whitney Houston; don’t tell me that her career is ‘flopping’.  If you want me to quote stats, I can do: “Obsessed” has had her highest chart debut in 11 years, and its digital sales currently stand at 526,000.  Whitney Houston’s newest song has sold 32,000 copies, which is about 6% of what Mariah’s single has sold.  Who should be scared?

Let’s talk about songwriting.  As far as I am aware, Whitney Houston has only written one song in her catalogue – the massively successful “Whatchulookinat” (that is sarcasm, by the way).  Mariah Carey writes 90% of all her material – and not only is she involved in writing lyrics, but she also has a hand in creating and producing the music.  Of course, because Mariah Carey’s newest song is a cover version, there have been snide comments about her not being able to hire a decent team of songwriters to write a hit for her.  In actuality, this is something Mariah Carey has never done; she has never hired anybody to write her material.  Songs such as “Vision Of Love”, “Dreamlover”, “Hero”, “Fantasy”, “One Sweet Day”, “Always Be My Baby”, “Heartbreaker”, “We Belong Together”, “Don’t Forget About Us”, “Touch My Body” all have songwriting credits to Mariah Carey. By the way, all those songs went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “One Sweet Day” and “We Belong Together” jointly hold the record for the longest stretch at #1, which is 16 weeks.  I enjoy Mariah Carey’s music, whether it charts highly or not.  I loved her Glitter album when her career was at a real low point, and I still think that “Lead The Way” and “Never Too Far” are two of her best songs and vocal performances to date.  I think that Charmbracelet was a more heartfelt and personal album than The Emancipation Of Mimi, despite Mimi selling 5 times what Charmbracelet sold.  I am able to have an opinion on the music which is separate from how much it sells, because what’s important to me is whether I like the damn songs and vocals and music, not how successful it is.  Just because an artist isn’t constantly at the top of the charts has nothing to do with their artistic merit.  However, it’s come to the point where I am quoting these statistics because certain foolish people are trying to down Mariah Carey too much, and it’s just ridiculous to me, not to mention utterly hypocritical.

Whitney Houston doesn’t write her songs.  I don’t think that this matters, because a great singer doesn’t have to be a great songwriter (as Aaliyah said); if they can interpret material well, that is equivalent to making the song their own.  As I said before, Houston did this with “I Will Always Love You”.  But if people want to talk about songwriting prowess, Mariah Carey wins hands down.  Sales-wise, both currently and in terms of their entire careers, Mariah Carey is ahead of Whitney Houston.  (Barbra Streisand is the biggest selling female artist of all time.)  If people want to talk about Mariah Carey not being able to sing live, then please hold your tongue until Whitney Houston sings her new single live.  I have yet to hear or see her performing “Million Dollar Bill” live, and I have yet to hear or see any announcement that she is going to be doing this in the near future.  Until she does this, can we stop criticising Mariah’s live performances, because whether her voice is damaged or not, the facts are that she is singing live and Whitney is not, so you can’t compare the two.

People say they have lost respect for Mariah Carey because she doesn’t dress her age (she is 39, and I see many women 10 years older than her walking around Bristol in far less, but anyway), she has had plastic surgery, she cavorts with too many rappers and doesn’t sing the way she used to.  A small point: on I Look To You, two of Whitney Houston’s songs were produced by Akon, and he features on one.  A larger point:  Whitney Houston was a drug addict for possibly a decade or more; she raised a daughter while addicted to drugs, and god knows what else her daughter has been exposed to during Houston’s drug addiction, marriage and divorce to Bobby Brown.  Mariah Carey has never done drugs, or even been reported to do drugs (yet… wait for it!); the worst vice she has is for a couple of glasses of champagne or wine.  Mariah Carey didn’t raise a family under the glare of the media nor while taking cocaine.  The worst that Mariah Carey has done is wear a few (debatably) ill-fitting dresses.  I think that Houston and Carey are both even in terms of diva behaviour (reported, not usually substantiated, by the way) and in terms of their ability to spend money on things which appear frivolous to you and me.  In my opinion (I keep repeating this) NONE OF THIS AFFECTS THEIR ABILITY TO SING OR MAKE MUSIC.  But since so many people seem to go on about Mariah’s imperfections whilst forgetting about Whitney, I just wanted to do a comparison to put everything into perspective.  Mariah Carey is the more successful artist in terms of sales, charts and airplay; she writes her own material whilst Houston has a team of accomplished songwriters to do so for her; Mariah Carey has never done drugs nor raised a child whilst on drugs; Whitney Houston has had a more successful film career (again, I am nothing if not fair) and dresses more conservatively.

I can’t stand the hypocrisy of people, both ill-informed stans of other artists and biased media acting on a propaganda brief.  When Michael Jackson died, people conveniently forgot about his repeated child-abuse trials, and overlooked his excessive plastic surgery.  Radio hadn’t played his records for years, and suddenly you can’t go a day without hearing “Man In The Mirror” or “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”, songs which radio stations in Bristol have never played.  I am pleased that in his death, his music has been made more accessible to so many people, and is finally being honoured, even if it is a little too late.  He was a truly legendary and fantastic performer.  But I don’t see how we can suddenly excuse Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston for their faults (in both cases, they have done things which are not only massively ill-advised, inconsiderate of young people, but also illegal), yet take Mariah Carey to task for wearing short skirts & low-cut dresses or for not sounding 100% perfect when she sings live or for choosing to do a cover version of a song.

I’ll say it once more: an artist’s sales, personal life, dress sense, media scandals and choice of partner / collaborator / pet should not influence whether you like their music or not.  I own albums by Carey, Houston and Jackson, and none of what has happened in the past year (his death, Houston’s “comeback”, Eminem’s annoyance with Carey) has remotely affected my enjoyment of their music.  Like what you like, because you like it. But if you really want to go there, and want to compare stats, then let’s compare stats.  The only thing I can think of is that some people are jealous, because Mariah Carey really does seem to have it all (even though she is not perfect and her voice is not quite what it used to be; I’m not deaf.) – the body, the voice, the talent, the money, the husband, the songwriting credits behind her songs. So if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all – don’t hate; appreciate.