Friday, December 31, 2010

The Fighter

Based on the true story of Mickey Ward, a welterweight boxer from Lowell Massachusetts, this is a sure crowd pleaser and Oscar contender in multiple categories. Mark Wahlberg stars as Ward and he is the anchor of the film. Standout performances are all around him in the form of Melissa Leo as his mother, Alice, Christian Bale as his brother Dicky and Amy Adams as his girlfriend, Charlene.

While the film is about fighters, it's center is really about family. For years, Mickey has let his mother be his manager and his brother, his trainer. It hasn't gotten him anywhere except for multiple losses. He is fiercely loyal to his family but decisions have to be made.

David O. Russell directs and takes his camera directly into the eye of the hurricane of this highly dysfunctional family. Dicky had his shot in the ring but his life choices have led him astray. Mickey's last shot is redemption for both of them and the last act of the film takes us to a rousing finish.

The film also has a terrific soundtrack. Who would have thought I'd be humming "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake, as I left the theater.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another Year

Writer/director Mike Leigh's latest drama is an intimate look into the life of Tom and Gerri, a middle-aged, middle-class London couple that literally transpires over the course of a year. Divided into the four seasons, "Another Year" examines the impact and contrast of Tom & Gerri's happy, content life with the lives of their friends Mary and Ken as well as their son, Joe. The brilliant cast is led by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as Tom and Gerri.

Mary's life has been a series of failures and she clings to the warmth of her friend's marriage as a lifeline with one hand on the rope and the other wrapped perpetually around a wine glass. Played by Leslie Manville, Mary's downward spiral is hard to watch but heartbreakingly real. It's the standout performance of the film. Ken(Peter Wight), on the other hand has also had his failures. However, instead of fooling himself into thinking he's still got a chance at happiness, he's resigned himself to being a chain smoking, overweight drunk. Ken's attempt at courting Mary is only one of the many painful scenes throughout the film.

The counterbalance to the heartbreak and pain is the positive anchor of Tom & Gerri. Theirs' is such a strong, happy marriage that it almost falls into caricature. Can anyone be that happy? And can that happiness be absorbed by others? Credit Mr. Leigh with casting actors that never look or feel like they're acting. Furthermore, directing them with an improvisational style that gives the viewer a sense of watching real people navigate their lives... for better or worse.

All Good Things

Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst star in this "truth is stranger than fiction" crime drama. This is the fictionalized account of the Robert Durst scandal in New York during the '80's. Mr. Durst was the wealthy son of a New York real estate magnate who was suspected of killing his wife but never charged as her body was never found. The story got stranger as time went on and the film captures all of it with a knockout performance from Mr. Gosling as David Marks (aka Robert Durst).

The film also stars Frank Langella as Sandford Marks, David's father and the wonderful Philip Baker Hall as Malvern Bump, a man David befriends later in life only to get him caught up in his nefarious actions. Lily Rabe also co-stars as another important woman in David's life. Mr. Langella is so good at playing the strong-willed, overbearing patriarch and Mr. Baker Hall is woefully sympathetic as a man driven to circumstances beyond his control.

The story starts out simply enough as David and Katie (Ms. Dunst) meet, fall in love and marry but as the years progress, David's mental instability begins to come to the surface and and the "good things" take a turn for the worse. The film is directed by Andrew Jarecki, who's last film was the documentary "Capturing The Friedmans". It's a fascinating story and will definitely make you curious about the actual events. Thank goodness for Wikpedia.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Tourist

European in style and Hitchcockian in nature, "The Tourist" will come as a disappointment for most mainstream audiences. The problem occurs when you attach two of the biggest stars on the planet (known mostly for action films) and you don't give them the big "Hollywood" action film the audience expects. Earlier this year, George Clooney failed for the same reason in "The American".

Angelina Jolie is the mystery woman Elise and Johnny Depp is Frank, the title character. Ms. Jolie is actually terrific in the role, glamorous, mysterious, and dangerous all at the same time. Mr. Depp is terribly miscast as Frank and their lack of chemistry proves the point. Mr. Depp can be many things but coming across as a mild mannered math teacher from Wisconsin is not one of them.

The film is directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, who did a brilliant job on "The Lives of Others". Here, as a European director, he is asked to do an American remake of a French film that will appeal to American audiences. This is not Mr. Henckel von Donnersmark's strength and he ends up with a hybrid of styles that ultimately fail. The only star here that really shines is Venice (where the film takes place) as the beauty of the city is revealed through the director's eye.

Some foreign films, in the wrong hands, just don't translate well into American films. If you were intrigued by the idea of "The Tourist", seek out the French original, "Anthony Zimmer". I hear it's terrific.

Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit

I love a good western and "True Grit" is a good western. Is it great? No, I don't think so. In my humble opinion, The Coen brothers didn't need to do their own version of this film. I'm a huge fan of their work but this time out, they really don't infuse the story with their signature style. Even though they have tackled many genres, there is always something about their films that is distinctively "Coen Brothers". Their only mark on the retelling of "True Grit", is the fantastic cinematography of Roger Deakins.

Casting Jeff Bridges as "Rooster Cogburn", they might as well have called the film, "True Grunt". It's almost impossible to understand his dialog and subtitles would have been a blessing. As for his acting, he does redefine the role made famous by John Wayne but he plays it like an early ancestor of his "Crazy Heart" character, "Bad Blake". Matt Damon does a stalwart job as "LaBouf", the Texas Ranger. Josh Brolin gets top billing along with the others but his role is nothing more than a two scene cameo. The real praise must be given to Hailee Steinfeld as "Mattie Ross". Ms. Steinfeld won the role after apparently 15,000 girls auditioned for the role. The filmmakers got it right. This is her first film and she steals the movie with maturity and a natural charm.

The Coen brothers insisted this was not a remake but rather their own version of the book but if you watch the original film, you will still see that many of the scenes are shot for shot in the new version. I was hoping to heap accolades upon this film but I would give them to "A Serious Man", the Coen Brothers last film released in 2009 with an original story and better acting.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky brings us another minor masterpiece with "Black Swan". Using the same hand held technique he did in "Requiem For A Dream", he creates a claustrophobic world of ballet seen through the eyes of Nina Sayers, the dancer picked to play the Swan Queen in a new production of "Swan Lake".

Natalie Portman plays Nina. She is wonderful in a complex and difficult role as she slowly succumbs to the pressure of the lead. She also does an admirable job with her dancing as it is obviously her in many of the ballet sequences. Vincent Cassel, plays the controlling and manipulative dance company director and Barbara Hershey plays Erica Sayers, Nina's mother who has issues of her own. Winona Ryder has a small but pivotal role as Beth MacIntyre, the lead ballerina forced out by Cassel.

A real revelation (besides Ms. Portman) is Mila Kunis, who until now has not had any really significant parts. Here, she plays another ballerina who befriends Nina and yet is a rival for the Swan Queen. She shows a new maturity and depth to her acting. Ms. Kunis also does much of her own dancing quite well (at least to my untrained eye).

Mr. Aronofsky leads us into the world of ballet and then builds the suspense to a breaking point of an ending. The film has it's moments of beauty, shock and controversy and expect to be caught in it's seductive power.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


"Tron: Legacy" in IMAX 3-D is less a movie and more an amusement park ride. You are totally immersed in the digital world of the grid and it truly stimulates the senses. The audio and visual effects are wonderful and it really is quite the ride.

On the other hand, the plot is thin and the acting fairly robotic (especially considering two of the major characters are non-human). Jeff Bridges does double duty here as his image from the original film (some 30 years ago) is digital reproduced as the villain, "CLU" and he also plays his current age as Flynn, the inventor of Tron, trapped in his own creation. Garrett Hedlund, plays Sam, his adult son, drawn into the digital world who reunites with his father to bring down "CLU". Mr. Hedlund handles himself well in all the action sequences and also gets some help from the digital creation "Quorra", played by Olivia Wilde. The film also brings back Bruce Boxleitner (the original Tron) in a sentimental small role. Rounding out the major cast of characters is Michael Sheen, playing a digitally androgynous character named "Castor" who comes across as David Bowie circa "Ziggy Stardust".

Aside from the obvious father-son connection, the thread of a plot is concerned with "CLU" invading the real world with a digital army. There's lots of cyber speak and Mr. Bridges, as Flynn, talks a lot of Zen philosophy but you don't go to see Tron for the plot. This is all about the visuals and they are stunning. The "games" and various chase sequences are lots of fun and if you don't try to hard to understand the story, you will have a good time "lost" in this digital landscape.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Company Men

Last year, "Up In The Air" showed us what it was like to fire people in a downsizing economy. "The Company Men" gives us an idea of the receiving end of those pink slips. Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper are three levels of executives downsized by their company during the economic crash of 2008.

The film is both scary and depressing as writer/director John Wells holds a mirror up to the harsh reality of the employment crisis in this country. The film does have some redeeming moments though, most notably in the acting of it's three leads, each handling their situation in a different way. The script tends towards the melodramatic extreme in the case of Mr. Affleck and his family as their life crashes around them in less than a year but everything else about the film feels real.

A big surprise in the film is Kevin Costner, who shines in a supporting role as Mr. Affleck's brother-in-law. Out of the star spotlight, he can relax and just act naturally in his best role in years. Rosemary DeWitt is also excellent as Mr. Affleck's wife, standing by her man, even as everything they have is stripped away.

"The Company Men" is a hard sell as escapist entertainment when the subject matter is all round us but if you appreciate good acting, see it for the cast. They do their best to help the rest of us cope.

The Warrior's Way

A mash up of a samurai sword epic and a classic American western, this psychedelic genre crasher is a lot of fun. Filmed in New Zealand but mostly CGI green screen work, the film looks great and the stunts are plentiful.

The film's name stars are Geoffrey Rush, ("slumming" after what will be an Oscar nomination for "The King's Speech") as a drunken marksman, Danny Huston as the outrageous villain (disfigured face and all), and Kate Bosworth as the plucky love interest, good with blades of all kinds. Diminutive actor Tony Cox also has a key roll as "Eightball", the little person with a big heart. The real star, however, is the Asian actor Jang Dong-Gun, who makes intricate swordplay look easy.

When you take a semi-deserted town, throw in a bunch of circus rejects, add a bunch of villainous cowboys and ninja warriors, you get one crazy mix of a movie but writer/director Sngmoo Lee makes it work. It's got plenty of comic book violence, colorful characters and the most expressive baby I've ever seen.

If you're looking for something really different, "The Warrior's Way" fits the bill.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Barney's Version

Released in a very limited run (probably for Oscar consideration), this is a little Indie film with a big emotional payoff. Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, this is the story of Barney Panofsky and the journey through his adult life. It's dramatic with some comedic moments and you will quickly find yourself emotionally invested in Barney's life through all his ups and downs.

Paul Giamatti plays Barney and his rich, layered, terrific performance pulls you in and keeps you there for the entire ride. It's easily one of his best roles. Supporting him are Dustin Hoffman as Izzy, his father, along with Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike as two important women in his life. Mr. Hoffman is a joy to watch as he makes the most of his supporting character (he gets most of the laughs). Ms. Driver portrays a Montreal "Jewish American Princess" very accurately and Ms. Pike is a breath of fresh air in a role I will not reveal.

Richard J. Lewis directs this gem and condenses an adult lifetime into little more than two hours running time without sacrificing major plot points. Watching the film, you can imagine the complexity of the novel but the edited screenplay still captures the heart of the story and Mr. Lewis moves things along at a comfortable pace.

What makes everything work so well is Mr. Giamatti's portrayal of this fascinating character. I hope the release strategy pays off and he is recognized for his fine work here.