25 October 2006

FILM REVIEW: "The Prestige"

October 25, 2006 07:04 PM EDT
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

pres·tige (prÄ•-stÄ“zh', -stÄ“j') n.

1. Every great magic trick consists of three acts.

1a. The first act is called "The Pledge"; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't.

1b. The second act is called "The Turn"; The magician makes his ordinary some thing do something extraordinary. Now if you're looking for the secret... you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called,

1c. "The Prestige"; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before.

Completely engrossing and compelling from the first line of dialog until the last, The Prestige is a grand success of a tightly plotted and twisted screenplay by a fascinating director, Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins, and the upcoming Batman sequel, The Dark Knight), that will definitely keep you guessing until the very end. This period Victorian twisted mystery chiller tells the story of an intense rivalry and long-time feud between two Illusionists living out their lives – and their feud – publicly on the stage in London.

In a rapidly changing turn-of-the-century London, magicians are the rock stars of their time. Two wonderful lead performances, both worthy of possible nominations, are turned in by the two competing magicians, Hugh Jackman as the sophisticated and courtly showman, Robert Angier (called Rupert in the Christopher Priest book from which it is based), and Christian Bale as his darker half, the brainier and more internalized, Alfred Borden. Both leads have shaded characters to play with many dark edges, and if careful attention is not paid the story will be hard to follow. In fact, the film opens with Michael Caine's character, Cutter, urging the audience to "watch closely" and those are not idle words.

Being that so many films are rushed into production without a truly finished script these days, it is an artful surprise to find a film with a tightly plotted story that almost, but not quite, feels a bit too long. The twists and turns of a plot well wound will impress you - as well as confound you - until the end. It's entirely likely that this script will receive a nomination for best adaptation.

In addition to the excellent script and lead actors, Director Nolan also deserves attention for his wickedly tricky direction and dark POV that tints the film with depth and darkness.

The film opens with Borden's arrest for the murder of Angier, and from there we flash back to reveal their story. The story begins at home for these Illusionists – on stage – as they are introduced as friends working a magic act together with Angier's wife, Julia (Piper Perabo, excellent in an extremely short-lived role).

Mistakes are made and one life is lost and that sets the stage for the competitive feud between the two magicians that ultimately defines both their lives. From that moment on they begin to focus on topping each other's illusions, and each illusion gets tougher and tougher to top.

When Borden creates the ultimate teleportation illusion "The Transported Man," Angier goes half mad in his attempt to find out how the trick is done so he can top his rival. Once he connives and bribes himself to the solution of the trick tables are turned once again. And the tables keep on turning through the entire film. Don't drink a lot of soda because you won't want to miss a thing if you have to leave the theater.

Michael Caine is his usual excellent self, a true actor with many faces; the face he exposes here is as a loyal assistant to Angier. It is Caine's character, Cutter, who steals each scene he's in as the insider who exposes the workings of a few of the illusions featured in the film. And it is Cutter who explains what the prestige is for the audience (via the definition at the beginning of this review, and of the film).

In another plot point Angier consults physicist, electrical engineer, and inventor Nikola Tesla (played wonderfully serious by David Bowie, whom you might not even recognize) who, at the time this story takes place, was working on theoretical work that formed the basis of modern alternating current electric power (AC) systems. Angier wants Tesla to create an illusion to top Borden. Tesla's assistant is played by the always-fascinating Andy Serkis in a sort of "Renfield" role, and his appearance in this film is always an amusing interlude.

Another in a long line of male-monk films, The Prestige features two actresses who look almost exactly alike playing the paramours of each magician, Scarlett Johansson as Olivia, and Rebecca Hall as Sarah, confusing matters even further. The only way to tell them apart is their hair color, wardrobe, and attitude, leaving one to wonder if this is yet another illusion of Nolan's purposefully thrown in to confuse us even more than we already are.

The Prestige keeps the audience guessing and wondering what's going to happen next – or wondering what you're not seeing that might clue you in to how a trick is done. After all, it's all sleight of hand… or is it?

NOTE: If you're a fan of the amazing Illusionist Criss Angel you just might be able to figure out how he does his incredible disappearing acts after seeing The Prestige. Good luck.


Digital Dogs rating: A

MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.

Running Time: 128 minutes

Producers Christopher Nolan, Aaron Ryder, Emma Thomas Director Christopher Nolan, Screenplay Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, Music David Julyan, Editor Lee Smith, DP Wally Pfister, Actors Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Ricky Jay

© 2006 by Digital Dogs


MUSIC REVIEW: John Mayer "Continuum"

MUSIC REVIEW: John Mayer "Continuum"
October 24, 2006 05:42 PM EDT
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

Released on September 12, 2006, John Mayer's Continuum is a recording full of reverential and derivative music. This is his third studio album following his multi-platinum Room for Squares (2001) and Heavier Things(2003), and he is currently on a world tour promoting it… next stop Dubai, the new Las Vegas of the Middle East.

Any true rocker will quickly relegate Continuum to the dinner music category. Mayer's laid-back white guy blues style, and his voice reminiscent of Dave Matthews', can lull anyone into amiable conversation and an insightful view of the world. But if you give this album a few devoted listenings you might find yourself tapping your foot and humming along with Mayer's catchy tunes, probably because they all sound so familiar.

While Mayer's music on this release is obviously derivative of many fine singer songwriters, Mayer himself is all about the lyrics. While listening to Continuum you might find yourself humming along to the first song on this recording, also the first single from this release, "Waiting on the World to Change", with the words "People get ready, there's a train a coming, you don't need no baggage, you just get on board," from Curtis Mayfield's 1964 brilliant hit song "People Get Ready."

When listening to other Mayer songs you might find yourself thinking of Van Morrison, Leon Russell, and Paul Simon. Being compared to the cream of the 60-70's singer songwriters is no low blow. But Mayer needs to develop his own sound, not favor the songs, tunes, and styles of others for his own material. With this issue in mind this reviewer won't be surprised to hear Mayer's next release will feature a bigger horn section ala Morrison, the addition of an acoustic piano player ala Leon Russell, or the collaboration with African and other World music artists ala Paul Simon. It would all be more inviting were Mayer to find his own unique musical style instead of borrowing from other masters of the singer songwriter genre.

On many Continuum cuts you will find yourself wishing for just one ripping guitar solo, but once again, Mayer tightly constricts himself and refuses to open up his music for a little jamming. He takes a few 2 bar solos on a few cuts - and one song fades out to the only 4 bar lead solo on the album - but Mayer never lets loose with his guitar, leaving this reviewer aching for some true guitar leads.

Perhaps Mayer needs to stop thinking of himself as a great guitarist, which he is clearly not – no matter how many times his own press material touts him as a great guitarist – none of his hoped-for guitar greatness is apparent on this release. Instead Mayer should take heed and focus on his real skill – that of writing lyrics. Then he can hire himself a true guitar gunslinger to rock the crowd - or to rock with.

How Mayer could compare himself to true guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, while exhibiting no flashy guitar work himself on his recordings, is hard to understand, except for the possible explanation of hero worship and wishful thinking. Nothing on Continuum would leave anyone thinking Mayer is a great guitarist. Mayer has a long way to go before he can be compared to such guitar legends. Perhaps that's why he realized he could never graduate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston – which he calls a "short-lived stint" on his website - and dropped out and moved to Atlanta at the age of 19.

Mayer is clearly a gifted lyrical songwriter and on Continuum he uses this gift to delve into the world of aging. About this he says:

"My generation was never told we were going to get older. We thought we were going to hear our names on 'Romper Room' for the rest of our lives. For a long time, I was really upset about getting older, worried that things were just going to level out. But then I realized that everyone around me was all getting older at the same time. We're all fighting it together, and we're always going to be those kids, the first really emotionally aware generation. When I realized that, I could relax about it a little bit. And I thought that maybe I can be the guy to sing about it."

Mayer might need to get a better perspective on life as all generations have said the same things about their own generations. Mayer, at 29, and his generation, was raised on Sesame Street and it's short segments and commercials for letters and numbers… the model for MTV programming. Perhaps the choppy 2-bar-only guitar-leads on Continuum reflect that life experience. That the young feel invincible is something that crosses all generational lines, and any good songwriter should be cognizant of that fact as it would only serve to make their work stronger… well that, and working on their guitar chops.

Though this release is pleasant enough to listen to – and you will definitely be tapping your foot to many of the songs - it's nothing groundbreaking, and nothing we haven't heard before from much more talented artists.


Digital Dogs Rating: a solid B. Something relaxing and meditative to listen to while stuck in traffic or at the dinner table.

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© 2006 by Digital Dogs


21 October 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: "Flags of our Fathers"

MOVIE REVIEW: "Flags of our Fathers"
October 21, 2006 12:48 PM EDT
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

Flags of Our Fathers is based on the best-selling book by James Bradley (the narrator of this film) and co-written with Ron Powers, which chronicled the battle for Iwo Jima and the fates of the existing flag raisers.

One moment caught in time in an iconic photograph of six men who raised an American flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, provides the basis for the story of Flags of our Fathers. Five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raised the U.S. flag on a desolate volcanic island of black sand beaches and scrub brush hills pockmarked with sulfurous caves that proves war is hell.

Flags was shot in Iceland and it certainly looks like hell on this Iwo Jima. Iceland was only other place on earth with a similar terrain and appropriate sulfurous smoke trailing up to the sky from any crack in the ground.

For these men caught in this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Joe Rosenthal the war for Iwo Jima was only just beginning as the flag was raised only after the first few days of a fight that went on much longer. Only three of the six men survived the assault and the two surviving Marines and the one surviving Corpsman were pulled out of action and sent back to the U.S. to bolster sales for the government's seventh war bond tour. Through their efforts they were able to raise $24 billion for the war effort though their war at home and within themselves continued on after they returned.

But these men couldn't leave behind their friends they fought with and they felt guilty every step of the way once they left Iwo. They were selected to be heroes, but they never felt they had done anything heroic. Their compromises with the truth leave them troubled and in emotional pain. Hayes can't stop drinking and all three men can't stop thinking about the men they left behind on Iwo Jima. Confusion about exactly which soldiers were actually in the photo – and the fact that there were actually two different flags raised - only added to their personal problems.

The men were ill prepared for the war bond tour or the greeting they received and felt guilty that they had been forced to leave their units behind. Their guilt is best typified by the complex and enigmatic Marine, Ira Hayes, a Native American played with great fluidity by the excellent Adam Beach (Windtalkers, Smoke Signals), which just might garner a Supporting Actor nomination for his work here. Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Cruel Intentions, Gosford Park, I Know what You Did Last Summer) plays Corpsman John "Doc" Bradley in a male model performance that could have easily been phoned in, and it is his character's son that narrates this film. Phillippe just does not have the gravitas necessary to play grownup men, nor does he have the acting chops to create a believable war hero. It's a shame casting went so awry and he ended up in the lead role. He plays the role with the same expression for the full 132 minutes of this film.

Director Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Unforgiven) does his usual spare job here, preferring to leave the actors to relate to bring out the spirit of the characters they play. Where Eastwood really excels is in the huge establishing shots of the American fleet steaming their way towards their destiny on the tiny island of Iwo Jima. What is most interesting is his meditation on the chaos and horrors of war, heroism, and instant media darlings created for ratings. The close fighting scenes are graphic and shocking, and we see the men who died in this battle were little more than boys themselves. Eastwood's score is haunting and his music appropriate for his meditation on the chaos of war.

Eastwood makes the war personal as the film opens with a shot of a sailor falling off a carrier. The first thing we learn about war is that these ships can't stop to pick up anyone who falls. The men on the ship toss a life preserver at him as they watch him struggle in the wake of the big boats that won't stop to save his life. The battle scenes are close and dirty and pure chaos, the beach landings dangerous, the caves of Iwo swarming with dug-in Japanese soldiers, and the scenes of the U.S. fleet in the bay are huge.

Shot back-to-back with Flags of our Fathers, and due out in 2007, is another Eastwood film, Letters From Iwo Jima that is the story of the same battle, but told from the perspective of the Japanese who fought it in with English subtitles.

Though Eastwood favors male-monk movies he most often has a deft hand and treats his subjects with nuance and respect. At 72 Eastwood is still producing some of the best work in the U.S. film biz. Let's hope he has a long life.


Digital Dogs rating: A-. A good 25 minutes could have been cut from this film without affecting the story or it's quality.

MPAA rating: Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.

Running Time: 132 minutes

A Paramount Pictures release. Producers Clint Eastwood, Steven Speilberg, Rob Lorenz, Director Clint Eastwood, Screenplay William Broyles, Paul Haggis, Music Clint Eastwood, Editor Joel Cox, DP Tom Stern, Actors Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell, Barry Pepper, Robert Patrick

© 2006 by Digital Dogs


20 October 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: "Infamous"

October 20, 2006 02:37 PM EDT
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

Though worthy of being remembered on its own, Infamous will likely always be known as "the other Truman Capote film." That's really too bad, as this film delves deeper into both Truman's life and his relationship with the killers he wrote about, focusing especially on Capote's relationship with killer Perry Smith during the writing of his greatest, and last, book, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences.

Taken from the oral biography by George Plimpton, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. This book of interviews with Capote friends covering the same period of time as the other Capote film (1959-1965) helps give Infamous a more realistic and urbane look at the New York society Capote cavorted about within.

A true friend to famous rich society ladies-who-lunch – most likely because Capote was no threat to the rich and powerful men they were married to – Capote loved nothing more than to sit in elite New York restaurants and gossip over long boozy lunches and parties with his socialite girlfriends.

Gossiping served Capote well as he is shown here snaking his way into the hearts and minds of the people who were close to the Clutter family in Kansas, the family who's murder was depicted in Truman Capote's last book, In Cold Blood. The book was a huge bestseller and created a new type of reportage that all current celebretainment magazines now feature.

Lovely cameo appearances of Capote's real life gal pals include brief performances by Gwyneth Paltrow playing Peggy Lee singing in an opening scene, Signourney Weaver as Babe Paley (wife of William Paley, founder of CBS, and famous for the saying "One can never be too rich or too thin"), Juliet Stevenson as fashionista editor Diana Vreeland, Hope Davis as Slim Keith, Issabella Rossellini as Marella Agnelli. There are more lengthy and interesting supporting performances by Peter Bogdonovich as columnist Bennett Cerf and, in yet another forgettable whitebread performance, Jeff Daniels as policeman Alvin Dewey, who knew the Clutter family and was protective of their memory.

Sandra Bullock as Capote's lifelong childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee, turns in her first real grownup role – played with gravitas and an excellent Southern accent - and Daniel Craig's Perry Smith is excellently menacing and desperate for attention. Craig plays gritty low class criminals with expertise, leaving this reviewer to wonder how he could possibly play an urbane and witty James Bond. It will be interesting to see if Craig can rise to play 007, with his apparently small stature - he is only slightly taller than the diminutive Jones - blond features, and petty criminal looks.

Playing Truman Capote is English stage actor Toby Jones who does a marvelous job and is as deserving of an Oscar as was Philip Seymour Hoffman for his role in 2005's Truman film, Capote. Jones has had minor supporting roles in various films (Mrs Henderson Presents, Finding Neverland, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), but is mostly unknown to American audiences and his Capote will surprise you as it is so close to the real Truman. Bullock adds a dose of reality to Jones' Capote as his lifelong friend, companion, liaison, assistant, and author (To Kill a Mocking Bird, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961).

Capote and Infamous will, no doubt, long be compared to each other. It's quite interesting to see two films about the same person focusing on the same period of time, but each with different focuses. Both certainly depend on the lead performances and Jones is particularly appropriate as he is as small a man as was Capote. He adopts the same fey Capote attitude and affected speech patterns, but in this Capote we also see a man yearning for love, even though he is shown here as having a lifelong significant other. The two films are different in a significant aspect, Infamous shows us how Capote becomes engrossed with one of the killers of the Clutter family, Perry Smith, during many intimate moments Truman spent in Smith's cell. Each begins to reveal facts about themselves to the other and they find that they have much in common, fathers who disappeared from their lives, mothers who were depressed and committed suicide, and both were clearly greedy for any attention they could get. In this film their commonalities connect the two and Truman was greatly affected by Smith's death.

The last half of the film focuses on the development of their relationship and provides a possible answer as to why Capote never had another book in him after Smith was hung for his crime. The scenes in Smith's cell show us a long protracted courtship between the two, culminating in a prison sex scene, and give a possible explanation for Capote's behavior afterwards. Capote finds himself waiting for his love to die so he can achieve the end of his book. And that end kills him as well, Truman Capote never finished another book, even though he was working on one even during the last days of Smith's life, it was called Answered Prayers and was published posthumously. Desperation for attention, and regret for the lives lived were what really connected these two.


Digital Dogs rating: A

MPAA rating: Rated R for language, violence and some sexuality.

Running Time: 118 minutes

Producers Jocelyn Hayes, Sidney Kimmel, Anne Walker-McBay, Christine Vachon, Director Douglas McGrath, Screenplay Douglas MvGrath from the book by George Plimpton, Music Rachel Portman, Editor Camilla Toniolo, DP Bruno Delbonnel, Actors Toby Jones, Daniel Craig, Signourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Juliet Stevenson, Hope Davis, Sandra Bullock, Isabella Rossellini, Peter Bogdonovich

Digital Dogs


09 October 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: "The Departed"

MOVIE REVIEW: "The Departed"
October 09, 2006 03:20 PM EDT
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

Any film starring Jack Nicholson will always deserve a screening and The Departed is no exception. Even at 69 years old, Nicholson is the most interesting character in this film, and any scene he's in is absorbing and often uncomfortable. In The Departed Nicholson plays Frank Costello, a violently out-of-control nasty womanizing drug-loving South Boston Irish gangland leader who's mouth is as dirty as the weird wardrobe he clothes himself in.

The film opens with a younger Costello playing up to a young boy, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon - whose acting skills still leave much to be desired), and the audience is well aware that Costello has big plans for Sullivan's future. Costello becomes a father figure to Sullivan who grows up to infiltrate the Boston police department and rises to be the leader of the Special Investigation Unit, which is ultimately tasked with finally making an arrest of Costello. True to his superior and devious mind, Costello has prepared well for this eventuality, as the adult Sullivan calls Costello Dad. Playing his doppelganger on the opposite side is Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young undercover Massachusetts State Policeman, who is sent under deep cover to become a member of Costello's gang. Each man becomes consumed with the impossibilities of dealing with their hidden double lives and soon they are running for their lives as both the mob boss and the cops realize they both have a mole in their midst. The ticking clock keeps time as each character tries to outrun being uncovered as a mole by the other. Complicating things is a thoughtful performance by the wonderful Vera Farmiga, who's work this reviewer has loved ever since she first co-starred in the short-lived sword and sorcery 1997 TV series Roar. Farmiga's time to shine as a leading actress has hopefully come. Though Farmiga is great, she is the only female in this male-monk cast, and the love triangle between her and Sullivan and Costigan feels a bit too contrived to really work - a common problem with male-monk films, the female role is added to improve cut-away choices for the editor, rather than to help the script move forward.

Steeped in testosterone and sweetened with a big measure of profanity and nastiness, The Departed is full of violence, anger, gore, and blood, and tons of actors who look alarmingly alike in many scenes. One standout performance that might garner attention is Mark Wahlberg's (as good cop Sgt. Dignam), who displays the most authentic Southie accent of this bunch and some of the best acting moments of this film. DiCaprio finally plays a real grown-up man for the first time in a film and doesn't do too badly, though he still feels a bit too lightweight to fully carry a film as a leading man. Perhaps that is why films he stars in as the sole leading man have faired so poorly in the critic's – and the public's – eyes. It's hard to understand DiCaprio's appeal to the masses as he often plays inadequate man-child roles and is his acting is most often sub-par.

Nicholson is over-the-top in many scenes, but isn't that what the audience has come to accept from him? He has some of the best lines and most violent scenes… and he must have had a ball playing Costello. The Costello role was first offered to Robert De Niro who turned it down (perhaps he's tired of playing the same violent mob role he's so famous for?), and Nicholson took it, most likely as a foil for his past few comedic outings.

Director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator) is adored by many great Hong Kong filmmakers, John Woo dedicated The Killer to him, and many Hong Kong films owe Taxi Driver a debt of gratitude for their slo-mo urban filmic styles, and here Scorsese returns the favor as he remakes this Hong Kong hit trilogy. A remake of the 2002 Hong Kong hit film Mou Gaan Dou (Infernal Affairs, which was so well received it went on to become a trilogy), The Departed does best when it sticks closer to it's original story, there are too many confusing and unnecessary scenes added in this version, and that's why this film clocks in at a full 48 minutes longer than the original.

As in most of Scorsese's films the music here is used to move the story along and many rock classics, as well as an interesting and appropriate score, are fully enjoyable. Exciting and fast-paced editing, typical of Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, make the first 1.5 hours of this film great fun, but it bogs down in the last unnecessary hour, and the film slows way down.

Problems with this script abound as many plot points are left out, cheated, or completely unexplainable. In the end, a triple undercover mole that had nary a speaking line ends up as another secret mole that completes the picture. It's really too bad that Screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) felt it necessary to resort to such unprofessional tricks to make his screenplay work. What's surprising is that a director of the caliber of Scorsese didn't protest the obvious plot holes. In the end, it appears that so many undercover cops and FBI agents were in Costello's gang – and on the police force – that without them both the bad and the good guys would have consisted of just a few men… the bad represented by Costello and his right-hand nut-job Mr. French (the marvelous English character actor Ray Winstone, who was the sexy beast in Sexy Beast), and the good by the various cops. Regarding possible nominations, as one of the many producer's, Graham King, said, "This film was made for commerce" not for awards. Remember that when you go see it.


Digital Dogs rating: A-

MPAA rating: Rated R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material.

Running Time: 149 minutes

Producers Martin Scorsese, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Graham King, Michael Aguilar, Rick Schwartz, Joseph P. Reidy, Director Martin Scorsese, Screenplay William Monahan, Music Howard Shore, Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, DP Michael BallhausActors Leornardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Marl Walberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone

© Digital Dogs


05 October 2006


October 05, 2006 06:53 PM EDT
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

To fully enjoy director Stephen Frears new historical docudrama, The Queen, one must be decidedly British, have an interest in the royals, or love a great actress in a fascinating performance. Through slow and dry at times, The Queen tells the story of what occurred behind-the-scenes in the British royal palaces in August 1997, the week after Princess Diana's death-by-paparazzi with a sense of humor and decorum. Though dealing with the subject matter seriously, Frears added just enough irreverence and humor to get the audience to laugh out loud through much of the film. Though this story has been told on TV – and is still MFTV fodder - the casting choices here catapult this film into an Oscar contender.

Intercut with news footage of Diana, the British mourning Diana, and scenes of her royal funeral, the true majesty here is another brilliant performance by the ever-classy Helen Mirren, who will be one of the top contenders for the Academy award this Oscar season for her performance as Queen Elizabeth. To prepare for a role as the leader of a royal family that, as a child of lefty communists she was taught to loathe (Mirren's words), Helen Mirren spent hours staring at portraits of the Queen she was to play. And that time served her well, as her Queen is so close to the real Queen as to be amazingly accurate, down to the small facial movements, pinched, expressionless mouth, out-of-date behavior and ideas, and her ever-present old lady handbag.

Director Stephen Frears has a long list of interesting credits from My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears (which should have won Oscars for its two leads, Gary Oldham and Alfred Molina) to Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, and 2005's joyful elder-romp Mrs. Henderson Presents (all films you should immediately netflix if you haven't yet seen them). The only thing typical about Frears directorial choices is his penchant for taking chances with unusual scripts focusing on outsider characters. And The Queen fits in that mold, as the royal family depicted here is more outsider than any other characters in recent history, save perhaps for the family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. What this film almost lovingly – and with humor - shows is how completely out of touch the royals are with the rest of their country.

The script, by screenwriter Peter Morgan, one of the co-writers of another 2006 Oscar contender, The Last King of Scotland, was written using "inside sources" in a period of only three weeks. Research, of course, took longer, but once Morgan had his focus down – that of the differences between new and old – the new typified by Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who had just been chosen as Prime Minister, and the old represented, of course, by the Queen herself, who is focused on her family's royal duty and its legacy. The juxtaposition of these two pivotal characters provides the audience with an outgoing and engaging Blair to identify with, and a reserved Queen, bred from childhood to serve her country, more focused on privacy, decorum, past glories, and a true dislike of Diana, who gave up everything the Queen herself holds dear.

Sheen is fantastic as Blair, and if you shut your eyes you could almost swear it is Blair himself who is up on the screen speaking. But once you open your eyes you will be drawn to Sheen's huge right ear, which is one-third the size of his full head. His right ear is so big, in fact, that not once in the film do we even get a glimpse of his left ear, which, one supposes, has a more modest proportion. Close-ups of Sheen begin to get a bit distracting as you might find yourself ruminating on his ears. Sheen must have excellent hearing. This reviewer wonders if Frears next film will star Sheen in My Right Ear. American James Cromwell (with the excellent and appropriate accent and dour face) was surprisingly chosen to play the Queen's husband, Prince Philip, who is more focused on murdering 14 point stags on the family's Balmoral Castle hunting grounds with Diana's two boys to, supposedly, distract them from the constant news stories about Diana.

The behind-the-scenes footage of the royal family is fascinating as we watch them view the outpouring of love focused on "The People's Princess" a famous Blair quote he rode well, and written for him by speechwriter Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley). The Queen is rigidly in line with maintaining a royal distance from everyone around her, it is clear that she has been raised to do so from an early age, and she does not seem to understand how to express any appropriate emotion. At times you will feel sorry for her distraction from real life as she lives in a world of manners and propriety that no longer have much import in the world. It is Mirren's performance that takes this film to Oscar heights, otherwise it is a story we have heard before, just not with the humor and pathos brought to it in this outing.

The only question remaining is why does the Queen carry a handbag? With drivers, footmen, aides, and servants galore, why would she need a handbag at all? What could possibly be in it?


Digital Dogs rating: A-

MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

Running Time: 103 minutes

Producers Pathe Pictures, Andy Harries, Tracey Seaward, Scott Rudin, Director Stephen Frear, Screenplay Peter Morgan, Actors Helen Mirren, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Michael Sheen, Sylvia Syms

© Digital Dogs