Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010: A (Film) Year In Review (with links!)

So, here we are. On Friday night, we'll count down the minutes until the year of 2010 is finished and 2011 is upon us. Depending on how you look at it, 2010 was either the beginning of a new decade, fresh with its own new personality and cadence; or it was the tag end of the millennium's first decade, rounding out the Aughts with its own brand of wisdom unique to the other nine years. I've always been the kind of person who counts the "zero" year as the beginning of a decade, and not the end (it's hard for me to wrap my head around the concept that some people still consider the year 2000 as the end of the 90's; I imagine that's what Sports Illustrated was doing when they called this year's The Fighter the greatest sports movie of the decade), so for the sake of this post, we will count 2010 as the beginning of its own decade, but that does not mean that this year doesn't owe some credit to years previous for the creation of one of the better film years in quite a long time.

Earlier this year, The Hurt Locker won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, became the first female filmmaker to win the Best Director award. Sure, Bigelow's win was historical, considering the male-dominated world that film tends to be (not only was she the first one to ever win, but she was only the fourth one to even get a nomination. For those counting, that's 4 out of a total 410 slots - a whopping 1% ... barely). But The Hurt Locker's February haul (6 Oscars altogether) meant a whole lot more than breaking down gender walls. This was an action film, and more specifically, a war film - a genre that is almost always ignored no matter what the quality of the film may be (remember how many Oscar noms 1999's Three Kings got? 0). Watching it walk away with a bundle of awards felt like a changing of the guard in prestige Hollywood films, but I still wasn't totally sure if it was only going to be a one-year trend. 2010 has shown that it wasn't.

Guy Lodge of the website 'In Contention' wrote a nice little piece about how 2010 was a continuation of the 'Year of the Woman'. Considering the high Oscar chances for Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, it's obvious that Lodge has an excellent point (Lodge's article does a good job of bringing attention to more female-helmed films than just those two). But I think if 2010 stands out for anything, it should be declared as the 'Year of the Actress'. I hate to judge a collection of films and performances in terms of Oscar, but this is true: seldom are the women's acting categories overflowing with choices, while the men are finding trouble, trying to scrap together a handful of performances worthy enough of a nomination (I mean, Christ, I've heard that Robert Duvall is still in contention for Get Low). Led by Natalie Portman's virtuoso performance in Black Swan, there were upward of ten wonderful performances from our leading movie stars, including both Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right, Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, amongst others. This wonderful collection of talent will have to be widdled down to five, and I'm not sure how you can make a case against any of these women getting in (though SAG has made it a bit simpler by referring to Hailee Steinfeld as a "supporting" performance - she's the film's protagonist, mind you).

This is the face that Bening and Moore make when someone asks them, "What are the chances of BOTH of you getting nominated?"

And 2010 was also a great year from auteur filmmakers being able to find critical and commercial success. Two years ago, both Danny Boyle and David Fincher were getting showered with awards for two watered-down films that were not at all indicative of those filmmakers' bravura - Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, respectively. In 2010, they returned with sharper, better films; more challenging and less crowd-pleasing. And alas, they find themselves in good position again. For Fincher, he's probably made the most talked about film of the year with the "Facebook Movie", The Social Network, which was a wondrous display of spitfire dialogue and American vanity. It was smart and funny, but was a steady return to Fincher's slick sarcasm which was unfortunately mellowed out in Benjamin Button. For Boyle, 127 Hours was a return to the fast, abrasive style that gained him recognition for films like 28 Days Later... and Trainspotting. Far from the Cinderella storyline of Slumdog, he made a film filled with such unstoppable energy that it makes up for spending almost the entire film in a mountain crevice in Utah.

Sure, 2010 was also delivered the terrible news of the disaster that became of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which crumbled just before the beginning of production. With every death, though, there is a resurrection, which is what we got in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. His best film in years, Polanski showed that even in the face controversy, he's still skilled enough to make a smart thriller and one of the best Film Noirs in decades. Not to be outdone by his 70's filmmaking brethren, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island was a beautifully shot, well-tempered suspense that had some of DiCaprio's finest acting. Darren Aronofsky's highly-anticipated Black Swan was another big auteur moment, as he released his first movie since 2008's brilliant The Wrestler. These were brave filmmakers getting recognition for the kinds of films that made them unique to begin with. Too often, these guys don't get recognized until they make a film that conforms to broad, Academy standards (case in point: Scorsese, The Departed; Roman Polanski, The Pianist), but not in 2010.

The one unfortunate part of 2010 was the still growing disparity between moviegoing audiences and the true quality moviegoing experiences. As Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience hilariously put, it seems like general audiences only really go to see four types of movies. Great movies like Toy Story 3 and Inception cracked the Top 5, but the rest of the Top 10 is a tightly woven collection of broad, effects driven films - often in connection with some type of forthcoming franchise (while the latest Harry Potter was certainly a well-executed picture, it's hard to ignore just how much of a gluttonous action it was to split the seventh film into two parts). While The Social Network and Black Swan have both performed well in their box office runs, their returns are graded on curves. Expectations for character-driven, auteur-produced films will always be low in terms of box office.

Why are bad movies made? Because people go to see them. Thus explaining that there will be a THIRD Transformers movie.

In independent film, there was the return of a couple guys who've been quiet for a few years. John Cameron Mitchell made Rabbit Hole, his first attempt at a mature, narrative-driven drama. While Noah Baumbach, seemingly hiding out since he made the atrocious 2007 film Margot at the Wedding, came out with the Ben Stiller vehicle, Greenberg, early in the year. Tim Blake Nelson, who hadn't directed a feature film since 2001's O, came out with the trippy Leaves of Grass which was one of the more under-appreciated movies of the year. Then, we had new arrivals on the indie scene, with filmmakers like Rodrigo Cortes making his first American film with the excellent Buried (or as some have gone on to call it, "The Coffin Movie"). Of course, we cannot forget Derek Cianfrance, who made his first feature length narrative film in Blue Valentine, filling it with such gritty brilliance that it ranks amongst some of the best love stories of the young 2000's.

I spoke with a friend earlier this month who explained to me why he thought 2010 was not a very good year in cinema. I guess it's a subjective matter. Sure, there was no movie this year that was as good as 2007's No Country For Old Men or 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The kind of movie that is so good that you know once you've finished it, that it is a masterpiece. I think it's unfair to judge a year by how many "masterpieces" it produces, because how often do "masterpieces" come around anyway? I know this: seldom can I say that I was able to see a quality film every month of the year. In a film industry that unfairly scales all the greatness toward the Fall season, it's rare that you can go to the movies in February and see something exceptional (Shutter Island), and the same in March (The Ghost Writer, Greenberg), and the same in April (Leaves of Grass), etc. Even the Summer, so often derided for it's pandering toward box office favorites, had some quality stuff. Think of this, three likely Best Picture nominations (Inception, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3) will have come out before Labor Day. We still have the usual December-heavy releases, but with such a great balance throughout, how can you deny 2010 its awesomeness?

I know I won't.

My Ten (Kinda) Best Films of the Year

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The King's Speech (***1/2)

Directed by Tom Hooper


I'm sure that it's tough being royalty. It no longer holds the political stature that it did throughout history, but it still carries with it the emotional burden of being the face of an entire empire. You represent the present, while providing a glorious reminder of the fruitful past. The King's Speech is one of many films that deal with that burden, but it attacks the subject matter in a way that I've never seen done before. It funnels it through speech therapy - through the coverage of a debilitating stammer. It seems so inconsequential on the surface, but it's a testament to the film's stellar cast and excellent, exciting direction that this story becomes about so much more. It becomes a story of a man's search for self-purpose.

Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York, has had a tough stammer for as long as he can remember. His father, King George V (Michael Gambon), has tried to cure him with ruthless pressure, trying to scream at Albert until his speech corrects itself. Surprisingly, this doesn't work. It doesn't help that George forcefully pushes Albert into positions where he must speak publicly. The film opens as Albert tries to make an address during the closing ceremony at the Wimbley race track. He can't even finish the first sentence. So Albert concedes his place, stepping back in fear of speaking, in fear of his father and the pressure of his position. After all, Albert is not the heir apparent - that position belongs to his older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). As long as George and Edward hog all the attention in front of the microphones, Albert will never have to worry about people teasing him for his impediment.

But Albert's headstrong wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) does not approve of this form of resignation, though, and takes it upon herself to find someone who can help her husband. They've gone through all the royally-suggested options, but they were left with bull-headed physicians who try meaningless tactics like stuffing Albert's mouth with marbles or advising him to smoke cigarettes because it will "relax your throat". Nothing has worked. Elizabeth must go off the board, looking for a man that was referenced to her from a friend. This man is Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian man and former actor whose methods with his patients have been described as unorthodox and controversial. When Elizabeth explains that it is the Duke of York who will be the patient, Lionel gladly accepts to meet with him and help cure him. But it has to be under his rules.

Upon initial meeting, Albert is his usual curmudgeon self, dismissing Lionel when he says that following his strategy will help cure him. Lionel demands equality and trust. He calls the Prince by his family's pet name, "Bertie" - which Albert finds particularly distasteful. But when Lionel starts showing results, Albert is more keen to listen. He needs Lionel's guidance even more when King George V passes away, and soon after Edward abdicates the throne in order to marry his notorious, American mistress Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Very swiftly, Prince Albert has become King George VI and with the threat of a Second World War coming right around the corner and Hitler quickly swarming across Europe, the British people need a king that they can stand behind. As Albert states, he is not needed to pass laws or declare war, but just to speak for the people. And with the help of Lionel, he hopes that he can do so softly and clearly.

The King's Speech has been one of the most anticipated films of 2010 (which is funny since it may very well be the last film I see of 2010). The film was directed by Tom Hooper, whose made a name for himself mostly in television, including the ingenious HBO miniseries John Adams. He directs The King's Speech with an energy that is much unlike most English costume dramas, using odd lenses and leaving actors out of center frame. He's unafraid to leave the image in imperfection, putting the audience in a place of unbalance, perfectly reflecting the discomfort of Albert's crippling stammer. In collaboration with cinematographer Danny Cohen, Hooper drenches the film in muted gray-bluish colors, creating the image of the bleak, cloudy England that is rarely showcased in most English films (that usually prefer to represent the UK as a world of wondrous colors - this film and Children of Men are the ones that got it right).

The film has received a lot of traction early in awards season, especially for the beautifully mannered performance from Colin Firth. The fifty-year-old actor is at his emotionally-reserved best, executing the stammer in a way that is effective without ever becoming distracting. But the best moments all lie within his weathered face that is able to show so much underneath the tough, elitist exterior. He should have no trouble receiving an Oscar nomination, but if he should manage to win, I would not object to it. But it should be noted that Firth's amazing work is boosted greatly by Rush's funny and poignant portrayal as the speech therapist. He doesn't play Logue as the snarky, sarcastic sidekick, but instead as a man with real confidence... and real insecurities. He believes in his methods, and not even an abrasive royal figure will change his mind on that. A key scene involving the two of them rehearsing before the King Ceremony is played with real conflict and intensity. Both actors hit exactly the right notes, leading fluidly to the speech that is the emotional highpoint of the entire movie.

There is also a slew of excellent supporting performances here, including Gambon who, while only limited to a couple of scenes, fills George V with such oppressive aggression that we instantaneously understand Albert's fear of him. Guy Pearce, as the liberal, womanizing Edward VIII, allows his character to be a bit of a wild card while never becoming an absolute scoundrel. He did, after all, abdicate out of love. Then there's Bonham-Carter, whose performance as Albert's wife is wonderfully comic and stern at all the right moments. It becomes obvious rather quickly that Elizabeth is the real mind and heart of their family, but she always allows Albert to think that all that responsibility lies at his feet. Bonham-Carter deserves a lot of credit for pulling this aspect off without ever drawing direct reference to it. Behind every king is a great queen, and Bonham-Carter makes Elizabeth seem like the best (certainly the most supportive) queen that any king could ask for.

The King's Speech is, in its heart of hearts, a genuine crowd-pleaser. It never goes in a direction that we don't expect it to. Every character that we expect to crack joke does, and every character we expect to deliver a brooding monologue delivers one right on schedule. In a way, that's part of its charm. Hooper doesn't make this film under the illusion that it's anything more than that, but he directs it with enough vitality that it seems different anyway. The performances here by Firth, Rush and Bonham-Carter are truly dazzling, but it's how they work together that really makes this film one of the most complete and satisfying viewing experiences of 2010. When we come to the end, and the rousing speech is made, we don't feel manipulated into celebrating what Albert has overcome. Because we've been able to connect with him so well, it's as if we truly understand him. Now, let's see if Firth can deliver that Oscar speech with as much spirit.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blue Valentine (****)

Written and Directed by Derek Cianfrance


If you can play "You Always Hurt The Ones You Love" on the ukulele, you might as well use it to your advantage in your romantic ventures. It's the kind of talent that is humble and endearing, showcasing your unique ability while still holding a modest grip on its simplicity. In Blue Valentine, we see a man who is able to perform this act during a date with a young woman, and he gets the girl. Go figure. But the film from first-time feature filmmaker Derek Cianfrance is not about the finding and wooing of the young woman. It's about the finding, the wooing, the consuming, the marrying, the loving, the conceiving, the discovering, the hating, the forgiving, the loss of forgiving, before finally leading to the divorcing and the eventual destroying. It's a long, drawn-out process that could have become bloated and cold if put into to the hands of less capable actors and a much more pointed writer-director.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) is a high school dropout, who's a charming young man and has the ability to give an abundance of love to anyone who is willing to accept it. He cares about people, and enjoys doing so. He begins working at a moving company, and he has to help an old man move into his new home at an assisted living center. There, he meets Cindy (Michelle Williams), who is there to visit her sickly grandmother. She is a student studying medicine, and has a boorish jock for a boyfriend, named Bobby (Mike Vogel). She lives in an emotionally abusive home, with a father that's abrasive and a mother that's defeated and who has had all the emotion beaten out of her after decades of it all. But when Dean and Cindy first catch glances with each other, they make each other smile, and every thing else seems to fade into the background. They begin spending more time together, and Cindy leaves Bobby for Dean. There's one thing they know for sure: they are madly in love with each other.

Years later, they're married. Dean is still working as a laborer, but now he paints houses. Cindy has found work as a nurse, but she doesn't have a degree (we never learn what actually did happen with that). They have a daughter named Frankie (Faith Wladyka), for who Dean may or not be the father. They are bitter, going nowhere. Dean resents Cindy's career-minded behavior, and Cindy can't stand Dean's inability to rise above basic labor work. Dean has to practically beg Cindy to make love, and when they do, it's sterile and uneventful. Cindy leaves the gate open and their dog, Megan, gets away. Dean never stops drinking. It doesn't help that Frankie shows much preference for Dean's laid-back attitude, as opposed to Cindy's strict disciplinary measures. On the few occasions that they do catch glances of one another, all they see are old memories and dreams that they aborted for this family. They know one thing for sure: they are no longer in love with each other.

The film goes back and forth between these two times in their relationship: their meeting and eventual marriage, and their disintegration and eventual divorce. It's up close and personal, shot with handheld immediacy. The film cares very little about following a strict plot structure, and would instead rather spend two hours following Dean and Cindy as they waver in and out of love with each other. The "break-up romance" is a sub-genre of the romance film genre - which was invented by Woody Allen's masterpiece, Annie Hall, in 1977. The comparisons to Annie Hall are bound to be made by many because of it's non-linear storyline that goes back-and-forth between the good and the bad. But Blue Valentine is not a romantic comedy, even though it does have a plentiful amount lighter moments. It's filmed in a bleak, Cinéma vérité style that makes their romantic implosion that much more real and more heartbreaking. But despite the abrasive visual style, Cianfrance is careful and delicate in the way he portrays the content, making sure we understand the people and their actions.

By allowing most of the backstory to be inferred, Blue Valentine is able to cut out useless exposition and get straight into the story. We learn enough about Dean and Cindy by seeing their actions, how they act around certain people, and Cianfrance's screenplay does a superb job really forming the two of them with small details and telling lines of dialogue. When we see Dean sit down for a job interview at the moving company, we know within two minutes that he is a free-spirited, blue collar guy. When we see how Cindy cares for her grandmother, especially in the more personal matters, we can tell that she's a caring, dedicated individual. It's a spectacular balancing act that Cianfrance pulls off, but Gosling and Williams are talented enough to really make it work. Their performances are raw and arresting, some of the best screen acting of the year (and they didn't even get noticed among their own brethren for SAG nominations - what a shame), and if neither of them walk away with Oscar nominations, it would be terribly disappointing.

Blue Valentine is brilliant in its simplicity. My only worry is that its modest stature amongst the other gargantuan Fall movie releases will lead to it being unseen. It's never great when your main source of publicity is an NC-17 rating controversy (it was re-adjusted to an 'R' after Harvey Weinstein personally showed up and lectured the MPAA appeals board about how not explicit the film is). The film's stark sexuality is one its highest achievements, as it is able to accurately both display sex of passion and sex of routine. Truth be told, there is nothing actually explicit in Blue Valentine, but there are few films that show sex in such a realistic way. I can see how it could scare the MPAA, because they like to think that sex in movies is done on tables and counters (and nobody's hair ever gets messy). But Blue Valentine is about all the messy parts of love, and it doesn't leave the sex out of that equation.

Love stories come and go in cinema, but seldom do we get something as honest as Blue Valentine, with such wondrous performances and inspired directing. Often, films like this are dismissed as "having no plot". I don't believe this is a fair criticism, because it does have a very real plot, it just decides not to structure the entire film around it. Instead, the characters are behind the wheel here, and when you get such beautiful work from your two lead actors, you tend to flirt with perfection. There are a lot bigger films coming out toward the end of 2010. Films that will dwarf Blur Valentine in terms of attention and box office receipts. But Derek Cianfrance's film doesn't strike me as the one that will only strive if people go out to see it. It's a humble masterpiece.

True Grit (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen


Chances are, if you're watching a John Wayne film, you're watching a western of the highest quality. Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are all amongst the best of the most American genre. But if you've seen 1969's True Grit (for which Wayne the Oscar for Best Actor), you've seen one of the worst of the genre. So, when I heard that the Coen Brothers' newest film was a remake of one of my least favorite films, I felt a bit dismayed. The 1969 True Grit was campy and sentimental, which seemed like everything that Coens had well avoided throughout their careers. But their reinvention of this classic revenge story has some freshness to it, and is made with such delicate care and grace that it almost allows me to forget what an unpleasant experience watching the original was. Almost.

Based on the all-time classic novel by Charles Portis, True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross (played here by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), who seeks to find the man who cowardly killed her father. That murderous man is Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She's a very capable young girl. She's able to hassle an old horse trader into paying $120 more than he wants on a pair of ponies. So, when she is told by the town's deputy sheriff that Tom Cheney is near the end of a long laundry list of accused being searched for at the moment, she decides to go out on her own and hire someone whose sole purpose will be to find Cheney. She asks who is the best US Marshall for the job. There are many good trackers who could get the job done, sure, but the meanest is Rooster Cogburn (the John Wayne role, played here by the one and only Jeff Bridges). He's a man with "true grit", as they say. It's fitting that when Mattie first sees him, he's sitting in a courtroom recounting how many men he's killed - it's 23.

Bridges' Cogburn is the key to what makes this film flourish where the original floundered. Jeff Bridges is playing the role of Rooster Cogburn, where John Wayne was playing (no real surprise here) John Wayne. The Cogburn of 2010 is much more grizzled - much more gritty, if you'll excuse the obvious adjective. He's more cold and calculating, yet a little more open. He allows us to get inside. It's odd that a man who seems more cut off can also seem more approachable, but that is the wonder of Bridges. The Cogburn of 1969 was brash and unafraid, but was also whimsical, bordering on campy. I wondered why he was tagging along with Mattie, and vice versa. I did not have that problem in 2010. Bridges delivers the comic lines with so much of a dry sensibility, yet they're so much funnier. The Coen Brothers did a great job of stripping the character down to its bare essentials, and let Bridges embody it fully.

Rooster and Mattie are joined by LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas ranger who has also been searching for Tom Cheney, but for murders he committed in the state of Texas. He tells them that his expertise on Cheney - he's been searching for him for months - will help Cogburn's expert tracking. But Leoeuf wants Cheney taken back to Texas and tried for his crimes, while Mattie specifically wants him taken to Arkansas to be hung specifically for the crime of murdering her father. Cogburn is only concerned about getting paid, so to hear Mattie and LeBoeuf bickering is not an ideal start to their trek. Finally, they come to a mutual agreement and head out toward Cheney who is likely to be hiding out in Indian Territory as a member of the gang led by Lucky Ned Pepper (played by the aptly cast Barry Pepper).

The Coen Brothers have often dabbled in classic film genres, usually making allusions to 1940's Film Noir (Miller's Crossing and The Man Who Wasn't There) and 1930's Screwball Comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty). They've never made an all-out Western, though No Country For Old Men had some of the characteristics. As usual, they attack the genre in a way that's loyal to its sensibilities, while still holding onto their own unique style and voice. Like most Westerns, it relishes in its scenery. Here, it's the wooded terrain of Texas. Along with their usual cinematographer Roger Deakins, they photograph the surroundings with gorgeous, yet dry, brittle colors. It's probably an academic thing to say that a Coen Brothers film "looks good", but True Grit is really a wonder to watch, capturing a way that is harsh, authentic, but still aesthetically beautiful.

One of my main objections of the 1969 film was its uneven screenplay, which was so heavily slanted toward its bloated first act that it felt terribly slow. The Coens chop it down, though, and tighten its entire plot to make it move smoother. There are times when the plot moves a little too smooth (there's very little in the way of suspense here), but once we get to the end, we feel like we've seen everything we needed and are comfortable with everything we've watched. This is the fourth film by the Coens in the last four years, but the previous three were all brilliant dissections of the darkness and absurdity within American culture (No Country, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man). This is a bit of a vacation from that: a straight genre piece that's impeccably made and capably acted. It's the lesser of the four films - definitely the least ambitious. But it's still a very engaging as an action film, and very captivating as a drama with characters that draw you in.

A lot of Oscar noise has been made about Bridges and Steinfeld getting Oscar nominations for their performances (though Steinfeld is running a 'Supporting Actress' campaign, which makes no sense, since she's the film's main protagonist). I wouldn't object to either of them getting nominated, since both performances are slick, well-written, and mannered without seeming histrionic or melodramatic. Steinfeld, in particular, is incredibly capable as the strong minded young woman with revenge on her mind. When she has her big showdown at the end with Cheney, none of her actions surprise us, and she's able to hold her own amongst such brilliant performers as Bridges and Damon. True Grit is not amongst the greatest within the Coens' resume, but that's not exactly saying anything bad. It is a lot like the Coen Brothers to think that they could make a successful film in a genre that hasn't succeeded in decades. I guess they have true grit.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Fighter (***)

Directed by David O. Russell


Sports movies are by the books. They always follow the same storyline: beaten underdog must overcome enormous odds to make it to the top of the mountain. And there's only two outcomes: either the underdog defies all the odds at the last second, reaching his ultimate goal (Miracle, Major League) or falls at the last second, still filled with pride to have gotten the opportunity (Rocky, The Bad News Bears). Even the gritty, realistic The Wrestler followed this blueprint. David O. Russell's The Fighter - the story of boxer, 'Irish' Mickey Ward - is no different (interestingly enough, Darren Aronofsky started working on The Wrestler after dropping out of this film). It's an almost seamless translation of the American sports film tradition, but it still works incredibly well. In order to rise above the usual the usual well worn archetypes, you have to have great actors embodying interesting characters, and there's plenty of that in The Fighter.

It certainly should be said though, that the story is less about boxing and more about family. If this film is rooted in even an ounce of truth (and Mickey Ward, himself, has said that it's as close to reality as it could be), then the Ward/Eklund family is like something out of Shakespeare - a motley crew of tragic, almost vaudevillian misfits that are all scratching for their own interests. At the center of everything is Mickey (Mark Wahlberg), who's trying his hardest to invigorate a young welterweight boxing career. His climb is frequently undermined by his family with his half-brother, Dickie (Christian Bale), also being his trainer and his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is also his manager. Together, Dickie and Alice send Mickey into a slew of bad fights and he develops the reputation of being a bum. A stepping stone. The kind of boxer that other up-and-comers like to chew meat on before getting to the fight that they really want. But Dickie and Alice are family, and if Mickey knows anything, it's loyalty.

A former boxer himself, Dickie has always been Mickey's best sparring partner and has taught Mickey everything he knows. Once upon a time, Dickie got his own shot to fight Sugar Ray Leonard and was able to knock him down. Over time, he's evolved into a local legend within his town of Lowell, MS; garnering himself the nickname "The Pride of Lowell". Since then, though, he's fallen on tough times, developing a harrowing addiction to crack cocaine. When HBO approaches him to make a documentary, he thinks its going to be about his big boxing comeback. In reality, it's about Dickie's catastrophic descent, allowing his drug dependence to totally swallow what could have been a successful career. Dickie is so oblivious to his role in his own disintegration, and it doesn't help that Alice, along with the rest of the family (which includes seven sisters), still treat him like the Pride of Lowell and not the junkie he's become.

So with Alice more concerned about Dickie's reemergence in boxing, and Dickie preoccupied with getting his junk, Mickey is often left to fend for himself, getting thrown into fights that usually lead to him getting pulverized. He doesn't even think to speak up, until he begins a relationship with Charlene (Amy Adams), a strong-minded bartender who does her best to convince Mickey that he will only move forward if he leaves his family behind. So back and forth Mickey goes, struggling to choose between the logical advice from Charlene and his own blood. I'm not sure most people would have trouble with this decision, but it says a lot about Mickey that he actually struggles with it. It's an interesting dynamic that The Fighter has, in that Mickey may be the most passive boxer I've ever heard of - he's certainly the most passive one in the movies. Alice and Dickie and Charlene are so dynamic when they're on the screen, that Mickey often becomes an afterthought.

And so we come to The Fighter's biggest flaw, and that is that Mickey may be the fifth most interesting character in the movie. We don't necessarily root for Mickey, as much as we root against everything that has held him back. Too often, I found myself frustrated by his inability to make the film's tougher decisions - instead, usually leaving them for Dickie or Charlene. And too often, I found myself wondering how different a film about Dickie may have been (perhaps, better?). To say that this is a movie about Mickey Ward seems misleading. It's a movie about the entire Ward/Eklund family, and their collective effort to rise to prominence again. Well, at least, that's the more interesting part of the movie. In the credits, we have a small scene with the real Mickey and Dickie, in which Mickey claims "I never get a word in, edgewise." I guess I can applaud the film on its authenticity, but to headline a film with someone so unwilling to make a statement sometimes left me a bit numb as how to feel about him.

But there is a collection of wonderful acting talent here. Even Wahlberg is good, he's just not given particularly juicy material. The real star is Bale, who is all kinds of mannered and jumpy as the strung-out Dickie. Eklund is not malicious, and does care very much for Mickey and his boxing career, he's just clueless. Bale does a fantastic at showing subtle glimpses of the soft mama's boy underneath the gritty addict. He may be vocal about his boxing comeback, but we can always see it in his eyes - he knows that his boxing days are over, and all hope that he has is invested in Mickey. As the horribly misguided Alice, Melissa Leo plays the film's strongest antagonist, fighting shamelessly for all the glory she has little to do with. If she can't get her champ with her favored son, Dickie, she's willing to settle on Mickey, even if it means selling him down the river. Leo's performance is appropriately wicked, but warm at all the right moments, never letting Alice walk down the path of complete monster. As Charlene, Amy Adams is fiery, defying her meek, virtuous reputation in what is one of the finest performances of her young but impressive career.

This is easily David O. Russell's best film since 1999's Three Kings (which has become one of the most unsung film masterpieces of the last three decades - beautifully blending action comedy with politically-fueled drama). He's spent the last ten years trying to overcome negative responses to his films (2004's I Heart Huckabee's was oddly brilliant at times, but never really found its audience; 2009's Nailed never got released) and bad publicity from altercations with various actors on set. You really only need one good film to leave all that behind, and The Fighter may just be the broad-enough crowd-pleaser that could do it. A lot of the visual technique here is taken right out of the book of Martin Scorsese (though, oddly enough, not from Raging Bull; but more alluding toward Goodfellas and Casino), while some other moments borrow from more classic Hollywood sports movies. It seemed odd that Russell - who's always kept style consistent in all of his films - decided to go all over the map on this one, never really settling on a specific storytelling device (or a protagonist, for that matter) to steer the ship.

I can see The Fighter taking off with American audiences, because it exploits the underdog storyline better than any sports film in many, many years. And by telling Mickey Ward's story through the prism of his family, it manages to rise above the cliche. I'm still wondering if a Dickie Eklund movie may have been even more interesting, but the chances of that happening may not be very likely (not to mention that The Fighter pretty much is a Dickie Eklund movie - he dominates the screen). It'll never surprise you, but it's charming, brimming with warmth and suspense in all the right moments. It has a prime collection of professional actors who all bring some inspired work to the screen. Every year, there is a film that will make you groan with its shameless pandering toward end of the year awards. At least The Fighter will make you smile.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Black Swan (***1/2)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky


On the surface, it seems odd to hear Darren Aronofsky talk about his latest film, Black Swan, as a "companion piece" to his 2008 film The Wrestler. One is a gritty journey of realism that is told from the abrasive world of the wrestling mat. The other one - the newer one - is a surreal psychological thriller about the ravishing art of ballet. But there are a lot of similarities, both thematically and visually. In The Wrestler, Aronofsky stripped down one of the more brutal physical activities (professional wrestling) and really exposed some of its beauties, showing how the form can be seen as an art form. It's the inverse in Black Swan, though, as the alluring grace of ballet is broken down into its most unattractive and emotionally demanding. And both show the kind of obsessive personality it takes to perfect either activity... and neither is too pretty.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a perfectionist, which is a very valuable asset in the New York City Lincoln Center Ballet in which she performs. Her meticulous dedication to her craft has vaulted her to the very top of the dancers in her troupe, and this has captured the attention of her sultry, but punishing French instructor, Thomas (Vincent Cassell). Thomas' latest show is a modest, but visceral "re-imagining" of the classic Swan Lake, and he chooses Nina to play the lead role: the captivating Swan Queen. The part is broken into two sides: the virtuous White Swan, and the seductive Black Swan. Thomas knows that Nina has the innocence and precision to master the White Swan, but does she have the passion and emotion to create a palpable Black Swan? Thomas hopes to bring it out of her, but finds it hard to overcome Nina's stringent, almost too perfect, mechanics. She's spent her entire life consuming herself in her dancing, so when Thomas asks her to "let loose", it doesn't come terribly easy to her.

That Nina never obviously comes across as the archetypal "naive girl caving under the pressure" is a testament to Portman's technically proficient performance. Nina's not a deer in headlights, but is in fact someone becoming harassed by her own mind. When Thomas uses his own pulsing sexuality to bring the Black Swan out of Nina by kissing her passionately in his office, she bites his lip. This is not the behavior of a girl who is shy or tentative, but someone whose own sexual repression runs very deep. Thomas asks her if she's a virgin, and for a second she has to think about it, before responding meekly, "No". It's pretty hard for the audience to believe her. Any passion that she may have comes through in her technique but not in her execution, and to everyone else in her life she's cold and unresponsive - careful to light up her beautiful, but fake smile to anyone can see it. In trying to become the allusive Black Swan, Nina's biggest obstacle is herself.

Of course, the people in her life don't make it any easier. In addition to Thomas' various advances, there is the arrival of the ethereal Lily (Mila Kunis). She's friendly, but also wild and fierce, with an exotic tattoo nearly covering her entire back. Basically, she's everything that Nina is not. Thomas and Nina watch as Lily moves through her routine on the practice floor, not nearly as skillfully as Nina, but certainly more effortlessly. "She's not faking it," Thomas tells Nina. In terms of a screenwriting concept, Lily works pretty brilliantly as a foil, and is embodied in an entrancing performance from Kunis. Lily works to bring Nina out of her steel shell, but her threat in the dance house sends Nina further down the rabbit hole of fanatical practice. When Thomas casts Lily as the Swan Queen's alternate, Nina becomes convinced that Lily is trying to destroy her.

The script to Black Swan (which is credited to three different writers, though none of them seemed to have worked on it together - for the sake of this review, though, let's just credit Andres Heinz, who apparently created the script's "story") is exposed by the end of the film to be a pretty generic psychological horror film. I guess it's up to individual viewers to decide to whether or not that's a bad thing. But Aronofsky is able to kink the storyline to make sure that the haunting brutality of ballet stays one of the main themes. It goes beyond the physical toll of practice. A sub-plot including Thomas' former main star and lover Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is important, showing the possible fate of these professional performers. Thomas has cast her aside for Nina, but Beth isn't particularly supportive of Nina's newest venture as the Swan Queen. The flip side of that is the character of Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina's mother. She was a former dancer who now lives solely to see her daughter succeed on the stage. But her maternal love is extreme, transitioning from unrelenting support to controlling oppression, making sure that Nina's obsessive behavior does not change. Making sure that Nina lives out the dream that she was forced to leave behind.

If you look through Aronofsky's films, from The Wrestler to Pi and Requiem for a Dream, we can see that he enjoys characters with that have radical, sometimes draconian behavior (do you remember Aronofsky's other film, The Fountain? The main character is trying to cure cancer). Black Swan is not much different, as we see that Nina's meticulous preparation leads to her own mental disintegration. I found it to be unnecessary that the film occasionally relies on the convenient crutches of the thriller genre (moving still figures, characters popping up from out of nowhere), especially considering how well the intensity and suspense is ratcheted by simply following the frightening transition happening within Nina's mind. Frankly, Black Swan's flaws are prevalent and real, not imagined or subjective to the viewer.

Perhaps, it is Aronofsky's own comparison to The Wrestler that put expectations of Black Swan so high. The film's themes cross over, but they're also shot in a similar fashion, utilizing handheld 16mm throughout. But that worked to supply The Wrestler with the gritty realism that it really needed. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does some truly beautiful work in Black Swan (and it is important to point out that the two films did have different DPs), but it clashes at moments with the film's ethereal surrealism. By the end, the film evolves (or devolves, based on your interpretation) into a 'Is it in her head or isn't it?' psycho-drama, and the shaky, docudrama shooting style is not exactly a perfect match with that. I know it's unfair to compare Black Swan (a film I've seen for the first time just recently) to The Wrestler (a film I love and have seen upwards of twenty times), but it's hard to separate the two. Especially after Aronofsky went out of his way to call them "companion pieces".

Watching this film reminded me greatly of the viewing experience I had during Danny Boyle's 2007 film Sunshine - which was basically Boyle's masterpiece until an unfortunate third act that allows it to tumble into a place that's far less sophisticated then anything that preceded it. Black Swan is a better film than Sunshine, and Portman's performance here is far more outstanding then any of the acting in Sunshine as well. But they both share that same flaw. But do the flaws within Black Swan in fact make it a 'flawed film'? I feel like I'd have to see the movie again in order to answer that honestly, but my early answer is no. Whether or not you care for its sometimes easy thrills (I blow hot and cold on it), Aronofsky's film is a truly intense experience all the way through that is careful to show the beautiful and the savage behind the elegant art of ballet. It contains a collection of excellently casted actors, led by transcendent work from Natalie Portman. It is probably the most interesting film of the year, if not the most hyped; and whenever you can get career work out of someone as talented as Portman, you have no choice but to take a look, don't you?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rabbit Hole (****)

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell


Everyone grieves differently. Some turn to rage, some turn to silence... others turn to misery. Some will get over it, some will die trying. Rabbit Hole is a film that addresses grief in a pretty interesting way, allowing us to take peeks at several perpetually nuanced characters who must deal with the death of their children - and how they do so in different ways. It's a well-worn film theme, but John Cameron Mitchell's new film manages to tell the story in a refreshing way that feels painful and poignant - never allowing the heavy content to overpower the overall good-natured ideals of the characters we see. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also penned the film's screenplay), it'll be hard to find a film in 2010 that is as emotionally-gripping as this one.

The film follows a young married couple, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), who are struggling with the death of their young son, Danny. It's been eight months since the accident, but it still doesn't seem like closure is anywhere nearby. Howie tries to be constructive, inviting Becca to accompany him at local support groups filled with grieving parents. But Becca is unresponsive. Even worse, she's abrasive and attacks those who try to console her. Every step she tries to take toward any kind of catharsis is always thwarted by a memory, a bleak reminder of the young boy she used to have. "Does it ever get easier?" Becca asks her mother, Nat (played with exquisite grace by Dianne Wiest) who has also had to deal with the unfortunate death of a son. Nat responds, "No... but eventually it becomes bearable."

Danny's school artwork laces the refrigerator and his room is wall-to-wall with colorful clothes and noisy toys. A stay-at-home wife, Becca becomes bogged down by all these images and the weight of his death. She begins to wonder if life will ever be able to go on. But life does go on, whether she wants it to or no. Howie is able to continue on at work, playing squash with his friends and trying his best to maintain a normal life - the life he had before Danny's death. Not that he's forgotten Danny. He still watches old family videos that are saved to his phone and he quite enjoys looking at Danny's artwork. But the weight affects him in a different way, and his burden seems to manifest itself in frustration and perturbation. He works hard to help Becca cope, but she'd rather cope on her own and that divide has left Howie in a negative place that he fears very much. The divide is taking a toll on their marriage, as their tempers become short and their arguments become very, very explosive.

Many of the scenes within the screenplay are set-up to present Becca and Howie with harsh reminders of what they've lost. It's a testament to the skill of the actors and the delicate balance of Lindsay-Abaire's script that it never seems that way. The real flow of the film is in how they both react so differently. When Becca's rambunctious sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), announces that she's pregnant, the young couple are both forced into positions of fake happiness and helpfulness. When Gaby (Sandra Oh), a friend of Howie from the therapy group, admits that she and her husband have been going to therapy for over eight years, they both become visibly fearful of their future despair, but Becca is open about it, while Howie is quiet and polite. I'm not totally sure that Rabbit Hole shines light on moments of grief that haven't been in countless other films with the same theme, but it's the film's powerful characterization that sets it apart. We really feel for these people. When Howie and Gaby smoke weed before one of their meetings and subsequently laugh at one man's recounting of his rage in dealing with his daughter's death from leukemia, we somehow feel like we like them all the better for it.

This is the third film from independent director John Cameron Mitchell, who previously made 2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and 2006's Shortbus. Both of those films dealt expertly with sexuality - though mainly the search for sexual identity (which may be why Mitchell sometimes gets pigeon-holed as a "gay filmmaker"). Rabbit Hole is a very effortless change of pace in both theme and tone. It's his first film that is based on a script that he didn't write himself and is also the first time he's been able to work with legitimate Hollywood actors (the main star of Hedwig? Mitchell, himself). We can see that Mitchell trusts his actors and allows them to fire up and simmer down appropriately, staying out of their way in the more important moments. Some of his technical choices (Mitchell and cinematographer Frank DeMarco employed more handheld camera then I think was necessary) were puzzling, and expose some of the few flaws that the film has. In Mitchell's attempt to draw less attention to the camera (a whole lot less then Shortbus and Hedwig), he actually creates what most be his most off-balance film, camera-wise. Oh! The irony...

It may be silly to talk about a film as thematically powerful as Rabbit Hole and get stuck on technical minutia, since that is not the focus of this kind of film. Surely, Mitchell is able to put his own visual stamp on the film in other ways. One way, is through the character of Jason (Miles Teller), who is a young man with a budding talent in graphic art that has captured the attention of Becca. She follows his school bus to his home and stalk him all the way into a library. SPOILER ALERT!! (not really) When they finally begin talking face-to-face and develop a relationship, he surprises us with his true relation to the story. Jason's artwork appears several times as a visual motif, reflecting perfectly the anguish and twisted emotions that travel through all the characters. Animation is common in Mitchell's films, and while subdued here, still allows the movie to have a very John Cameron Mitchell-y feel.

But Rabbit Hole is most definitely an actor's film, though. Which is why it's wise that Mitchell allows them to roam freely. Kidman and Eckhart, playing so well off of each other, really execute something very difficult: they play the grieving parents with occasional histrionic emotion, while never allowing the performances to become over-the-top. Both characters grow exponentially through the film, almost to the point that their roles in the relationship completely switch by the end, but the two actors make it feel natural and realistic. I've never been a huge fan of Kidman, whose always been so emotionally cold and distant in her approach, but really instills the character with a dynamic resourcefulness and legitimate warmth in what may be the best performance of her storied career. And veteran actress, Dianne Wiest, so kind and wise as Becca's mother, really gives the film some much needed tenderness and perspective. The supporting turns from Teller and Oh are both effective, adding dimensions to the characters of Becca and Howie, respectively.

Rabbit Hole may get eaten alive by critics for its occasional visual miscues, but doing so will be ignoring what is truly powerful here. In John Cameron Mitchell's short filmmaking career he has established a reputation for being a talented visual director, but that takes a backseat throughout this film. And because of all that, I may have enjoyed Rabbit Hole more than any other film from 2010. It's honest and carefully told. It surprised me in moments where I least expected it to and contained performances that affected me deeply. It's not a perfect film aesthetically, nor is it flawless thematically, but it gives the audience an emotional experience that was absent from any film I'd seen in a very long time. It's unlikely that Rabbit Hole will attract much awards attention outside of a Best Actress nomination for Kidman (perhaps an adapted screenplay nom for Lindsay-Abaire?), which is a shame. But it should definitely be ranked amongst the best films of the year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Biutiful (**1/2)

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu


It would appear that the very talented Mexican film director
Alejandro González Iñárritu loves making his audience gloomy. He's never made a bad film, but he's never made a particularly happy one neither. 'Who cares?' many may ask. I don't, particularly. Especially when you consider that this process has lead to films as excellent as 2003's 21 Grams and 2006's Babel. With his latest film, Biutiful, Iñárritu really pushes the boundaries of how much sorrow a single audience can take, and may have pushed clear off the map. His talent behind the camera is very much present - as well as a terrific performance from it's lead star, Javier Bardem - but Biutiful never really takes the time to acknowledge how good these two aspects of the film really are. Instead, it prefers to wallow in its own anguish.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a father of two young children who uses his vast resourcefulness to provide for them. He's so resourceful, in fact, that when he's pricked too hard by a nurse who needs a blood sample, he snatches the syringe away from her and extracts the blood himself. His business ventures aren't totally legitimate; he helps foreign immigrants find work in urban Spain. He bribes police officers so they can allow immigrants from Senegal to have open street vendors in the city, and he pays a Chinese sweat shop owner (Cheng Tai Shen) to hire needy Chinese immigrants in his warehouse. And Uxbal gets a hefty piece of all profits made. He does a careful job of teetering between helping and exploiting these people, but he always has the utmost respect for all them. He also has one specific, mystical talent: he has a connection to the afterlife. Many hire him shortly after the death of loved ones and he can speak with them briefly. This also gets him some cash on the side.

But Uxbal also has cancer, which has already spread so rapidly throughout his bones and organs that doctors can only hope that chemotherapy sessions can provide him with a few extra months of life. He's been forced into a position of vulnerability, which is difficult for him, because he's so used to being in control. His erratic ex-wife named Marambra (Maricel
Álvarez) struggles with bipolar disorder and has an issue with drug abuse, but he's still in love with her. He's a good father, knowing the delicate balance between good-natured fun and discipline. He's sure to take his young son and daughter to school every morning, but with Marambra's constant and disruptive interruptions in their life, he's finding it hard to keep his control over them as wel. We can tell very early that Uxbal has given Marambra many chances, and throughout the film he gives her a few more.

There are other subplots. One involving Marambra's affair with Uxbal's brother and business partner Tito (Eduard
Fernández). Another involving the Chinese sweat shop owner and his tumultuous relationship with his partner and lover (Luo Jin). These side steps are usually what allows the film to dip into its more indulgent moments, exploiting miserabilism to its fullest potential. Iñárritu is known for creating films with multiple story lines, but there's no debate as to who's story Biutiful is. Uxbal, as well as the performance from Bardem, dominate this entire film. It is the story of this man's need to discover he must ask help from others. That he must learn that all the problems that encompass his life cannot be solved by him alone. Everything that works within Biutiful has to do with this character.

That Biutiful meanders so often on tangents that have nothing to do with Uxbal is probably the fault of
Iñárritu. For the first time, he works without his usual screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga. Arriaga has shown a masterful talent for layering various conflicts within a screenplay so that they work together as one. With Iñárritu being the primary screenwriter here, things are not flowing quite as smoothly. For all intensive purposes, it probably would have helped if he wasn't such a revered film director, because someone would have had the balls to tell him that he should make this script a lot (a lot) tighter before shooting it. The fact that relatively minor characters are filled with such rich details and backstory is honorable, but there comes a point where I no longer care about the Senegalese and Chinese immigrants, and want to see more of Uxbal.

And the reason for that is because Bardem's work here ranks amongst the finest screen performances of the year. Already a well-respected actor, Bardem only solidifies his status with a performance that is such a brilliant mix of emotional torment and brutal physicality. Throughout Biutiful, Uxbal is decaying in several different ways, and as an audience, all we have to see in order to know this is Bardem's wonderfully controlled expression. The Spanish movie star has worked so often in American films lately (including an appearance in the very commercial Eat, Pray, Love), that it's almost a revolution to see how comfortable he becomes in his native language. In No Country For Old Men (for which he won the Oscar), it was his enigmatic, androgynous look that did a lot to help the performance. But Biutiful (along with his other brilliant, Spanish-language performances in Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside) is all Bardem and the raw emotion he's able to scrap up from deep inside.

I believe that
Iñárritu is a fantastic filmmaker, but in his first break away from Arriaga, he seemed to struggle greatly in telling such a complex storyline. He's a member of that boom of talented Mexican filmmakers that also includes the likes of Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) - and he may be the most consistently exceptional out of that group. I liked Biutiful overall, but its flaws are not subjective and pondering, but glaring and real. And while Iñárritu has never made the most uplifting films, Biutiful almost seems to relish in its own depressing content. Bardem, as all brilliant actors can do, really drags the material out of the dregs and makes it bearable. But Iñárritu is not always going to have actors as good as Bardem - especially if the scripts continue to be this unfocused - so let's hope that Biutiful is not the start of a trend.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Love and Other Drugs (**1/2)

Directed by Edward Zwick


You don't see many mainstream American films that are as open about sex as Love and Other Drugs, and for that alone, I guess the film deserves some credit. Of course, it's a little easier to get away with making a film about sex, when your two leads are as fabulously beautiful as Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. America loves beautiful people, they love beautiful naked people, and they especially enjoy two beautiful naked people having sex with each other (remember when Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett?). But is Love and Other Drugs really about sex? Is it just a crutch to get people interested in the film? If that's what it's about, why isn't it called 'Sex and Other Drugs'? I'm not totally sure about any of those questions, and I'm not sure that the movie itself knows either.

The film takes place in 1996. We know this immediately because the film opens with the song "Two Sisters" by The Spin Doctors (major movie pet peeve: obvious soundtrack choices). There's Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) working at a consumer electronics store. He's flirty with the female customers (of all ages), chummy with the male customers, and overall a pretty shameless salesman with a very ample talent for charming people into smiling. Is he particularly good at selling things? Not really, but he's exceptional at using that charm to sleep with women. Before the end of his work day, he'll be fired for sleeping with his co-worker (and his boss' girlfriend)... in the store's stock room. It's obvious that his main focus in life is finding physical love with many, many women. It seems to get in the way of the development in the other aspects of his life.

Unemployed, he decides to become a pharmaceutical representative at Pfizer, doing his best to sell Zoloft to doctors who are more interested in, you know, helping people. He's mentored by Bruce (Oliver Platt), an eccentric, Tumms-chugging sales veteran in pharmaceuticals who thinks Jamie is the key to the top of the business. Eventually, Jamie uses his greatest gift (his libido) to get his foot in the door with Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria) who's willing to sell Zoloft instead of main rival Prozac if Jamie is able to get him some quality women (I'd like to think that this is an area in the film that is poorly generalized, but in the Age of Cynicism, I don't think I can be too confident in that). When Jamie poses as an intern when Dr. Knight goes in to see a patient, Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Hathaway). She says she needs a renewal on her Parkinson's medication and would also like Dr. Knight to examine a spot on her breast, and Jamie isn't shy about peeking in on the examination.

Very, very soon afterward, Maggie discovers Jamie's fraudulence and attacks him in the parking lot. Their tension resolves itself quickly, though, as they escape to Maggie's apartment and have very tempestuous sex on her floor. At first, it's simply a physical relationship, with Maggie pulling away every time Jamie tries to treat her like some kind of girlfriend. She keeps her distance knowing soon enough that he'll be uninterested once her Parkinson's becomes more prevalent between them. A new drug is introduced at Pfizer, rumored to help men who have trouble performing in bed. Yes, Viagara. Bruce thinks Jamie is the guy to sell it, and pretty soon, Jamie is at the top of the drug market. He tries to hang on to Maggie and have her accompany him on the springboard to success, but she has her doubts. Now, Jamie finds himself choosing between a skyrocketing career and a woman he may be falling madly in love with.

I'm totally sure that Viagara would even be in this film if the script weren't a technical adaptation of the Jamie Reidy book, "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagara Salesman". I'll simply claim ignorance when it comes to my knowledge of Reidy's book, but I will say this: if his book is anywhere near as vapid on the issues of the ethics of pediatricians or the reality of living with Parkinson's Disease, then I will have to say that this is a book that is terribly drab. Sure, Love and Other Drugs does contain a much-needed scene where Maggie attends a meeting with a collection of people sharing their own personal suffering at the hand of Parkinson's. It's the only time when the film truly embraces the disease - until then it's really only a tertiary plot point that occasionally makes cameos between montages of Jamie distributing boxes of boner pills. Sure, there are a few finger tremors from Maggie, but there's not much else.

And then there's the character of Josh; Jamie's fat, obnoxious brother. The role is played by Josh Gad, who is a bit of a Jonah Hill look-a-like and fills the character with such boorish, inane piggishness. Because director Ed Zwick felt the film needed a punch of immaturity, Josh finds his way into Jamie's life after getting kicked out by his wife. He sleeps on Jamie's couch, but gives the film such a high number of disruptions that his very existence in this story could be questioned. Which is the film's central issue: too often, it finds itself tied between the boyish, laugh-a-minute sincerity of Judd Apatow and the swaying romanticism and melodrama of Cameron Crowe. The overall identity of this film is mystifying to me, because it's blending of raunch and victorianism made the movie feel totally off balance. When we're finally getting into the thick of Maggie and Jamie's relationship, we don't need a scene of tubby Josh masturbating to a home video of them having sex. But we get it nonetheless.

But there are certain things in Love and Other Drugs that work very well, including the performances from Hathaway and Gyllenhaal. Their ability to overcome the seemingly shallow way that the film covers subjects such as degenerative disease and the medical process says a lot about their ability. There is a dangerous imbalance between the comedy and the drama, but the two actors never fall into the awkwardness. Gyllenhaal has never been more charming, and even though Jamie is a real shitheel to start the film, his transformation doesn't feel too hokey - though he owes the script no favors for that. Hathaway, already established as one of the finest American screen actresses of her generation, has one of her more adventurous roles. The fact that the two have exquisite chemistry together doesn't hurt, because the film's greatest moments usually involve the two of them on the screen together.

A lot of the lukewarm reviews have singled out the performance of Josh Gad as the thing that neuters the film's effect. That is a bit unfair, because for all the indelicacy that Gad brings, he does do what he's asked to do: bring sophomoric humor. And I'd be lying if I said he didn't make me chuckle here and there. But his performance is a microcosm of where this film goes astray: it's screenplay. It wants to be Knocked Up and Terms of Endearment and Jerry Maguire all wrapped up into one, and by making all those tones balanced, the film itself becomes unbalanced. That said, I still like the concept of a studio film embracing its own liberal sexuality, but the issue is that Love and Other Drugs doesn't always embrace it. A small part of Zwick's film still wants to be the safe, adorable romantic comedy that appeals to a broad audience. You can't have it both ways.

Monday, November 29, 2010

127 Hours (***1/2)

Directed by Danny Boyle


In telling the story of Aron Ralston, there are few film directors I would have preferred more than Danny Boyle. When you know that the majority of a movie is going to be a guy stuck in the same spot for an hour and a half, you'd like the guy making the movie to bring a lot of energy. And that's what Boyle has brought to any film he's ever made: a great abundance of energy. In his first film since the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle moves toward a more singular story - even if the visual style isn't much different - in telling the harrowing and infamous tale of Ralston's journey at the bottom of a canyon.

Played with stunning physicality and captivating charm by James Franco, Ralston is displayed as a rambunctious thrill-seeker, taking very little time to think before his next great (or dangerous) adventure. When we first see him, he is waking up in the middle of the night, preparing for his morning hike through the Blue John Canyon in the Utah desert. He rides his bike haphazardly over small hills and valleys, looking for nothing in particular. Hiking is not about the destintion for Ralston, it's about the adventure itself. So, who cares if your front bike tire ramps off a small bush of dry grass which catapults you twenty feet through the air, landing on your back. For Ralston, that's all part of the fun. And he always makes sure to take pictures.

So hungry for excitement, Aron approaches two young women (played by Kate Mara & Amber Tamblyn) who are lost near the canyon. He volunteers to help them and tells them that he's a guide (in reality, he's just an engineer), leading them to a spring at one part of the canyon that you have to slide down a crevice to get to. It's something of a make-shift water slide, and this act endears him to the two girls. But as soon as his guide duties are finished, he does not follow them elsewhere. They invite him to a house party where they promise free alcohol and a giant inflatable Scooby Doo. He accepts the invite... tentatively. Then he's off.

Trekking deeper into the canyon, the space gets smaller and smaller. The walls start to close in on each other and the sun begins to hide. As Aron tries to climb over a boulder, it slips out and he falls. The boulder has trapped his arm underneath it and he cannot get it out. He screams the names of the girls he'd been with moments earlier, but he's so deep down that no one can hear him. At this point, I'm sure most of us know the story. Aron Ralston has run the media gambit telling his queasy story of survival, but part of the greatness of 127 Hours is how it tells us just about every thing we didn't know - and that's all in Aron's mind. How do you survive 127 hours with only a burrito and five hundred milliliters of water? We already knew how Ralston survived physically, but Boyle's latest film shows us how he did it mentally.

A picture of the actual Aron Ralston with his arm trapped under the boulder. Proof of the film's impeccable attention to detail. Franco and Boyle used the actual, seldom seen recorded footage of Ralston stuck in the canyon to make the film further more true to the actual story.

Everybody knows one thing about Aron Ralston: he amputated his own arm so he wouldn't die in a Utah canyon. We can imagine the kind of spirit and will that a person must contain in order to perform an act like his - we can also imagine the desperation. If there's one thing that I appreciated about 127 Hours, was that it did not default toward histrionic melodrama to visualize that desperation, as it would have been so easy to do. We are not shown a man with an unbridled will to survive - we see a charming, adventurous young man who's put in a very foreboding situation, who has to make difficult decisions about whether or not he even can survive. Ralston's story has become the stuff of folk tale, but this film does its best to present him as a very engaging human being not a back-against-the-wall hero. This makes his actions - even though we already know what they are - seem even more heroic.

You can credit the screenplay (written by Boyle and his Slumdog co-scribe Simon Beaufoy), which does an excellent job of forming an empathetic character without having the flexibility of being able to set up a strong backstory. But I feel all of the power emotes from its director and main star. Danny Boyle takes a chance by giving the film a very steady, borderline upbeat tone, utilizing his usual breakneck editing style and inspired soundtrack choices (a montage scored by Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" is particularly exceptional). And James Franco also rolls the dice with his stunning performance here. It would have been so easy to play Ralston with a brave desperation that lionizes him (you want to try and convince me that Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn't have played it that way?), but instead makes him a bit reckless, slightly nonchalant, almost unaware of the severity of the situation. It's hard to do a scene where the main character has to drink a bag of his own sterile, days-old urine without making it seem histrionic, but Boyle and Franco downplay it almost gracefully. I fully expect Boyle and Franco to receive Oscar nominations for their work (if they don't, it would be criminal).

The film was a bit of a Slumdog Millionaire reunion of sorts, since both films have the same production designer (Suttriat Larlarb), cinematographer (Anthony Dod Mantle), and film scorer (A.R. Rahman) - in addition to Boyle and Beaufoy. This shows in much of the visual aesthetic, t
where the two films are very similar throughout. Both films have a very strong forward movement that are manifested in camera effects, quick shots, and an astonishing use of color. But 127 Hours hit me a whole lot harder between the ears than the 2008 Best Picture winner did. Perhaps the character of Ralston just stuck with me more than Slumdog's Jamal did. One thing that can't be disputed, James Franco is a much more seasoned acting talent then most of the no-names in Slumdog, but this film goes beyond just the performance from it's lead actor. All the glitz and style was used to serve the story and the character, which I don't think was always the case with Slumdog.

I really feel like 127 Hours will get better with repeated viewings. The film's final moments felt long to me and there were some storytelling decisions in the last act that I may have questioned. Perhaps that has more to do with my own heavy anticipation of the ending, than it does with the ending itself. Despite all that, we still have this: the work that Boyle and Franco combine to do here makes one of the best movies of the year. It's a story of survival, sure, but a psychological survival more than anything. As a member of the audience, you expect a big physical release by the time his arm has become detached. But you don't get that. What you get is something you never saw coming.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Oscar Predictions

We're coming close to December. On December 3rd, The National Board of Review will give out their awards for the best films of the year and Oscar season will have officially kicked off. By that point, we'll be drowning in various critics' top ten lists and various organizations listing off nominations. Simply stated, we'll have less speculation at this point, and more solid predictions will arise. So, while we still can, less throw caution to the wind and make some (not so) educated guesses about how things will plan out when the Academy announces their nominations on January 25th. There have been very little changes in the last month or so. The King's Speech and The Social Network are still the two biggest Oscar sure things (at least as far as Best Picture goes), but soon Black Swan and 127 Hours will be heading toward general audiences soon. There are too many films (like Blue Valentine, Another Year, and Barney's Version) that are coming out in late December to January, so picking them is still pretty much a shot in the dark. But, since we still have no precursors to go on, I'm still going to take a shot and say they'll be in there in the long run. After all that, here's my Thanksgiving picks:

Best Actor

Robert Duvall, GET LOW


James Franco, 127 HOURS


Mark Wahlberg, THE FIGHTER

There are two performances that I'm still clinging two, even though I have my reservations: Duvall and Wahlberg. I've seen Get Low and I know how unremarkable the performance and Duvall's performance is, but I still think there is a lot of good will developed between Duvall and the acting community in Hollywood. If he could win an Oscar for his sleepwalking performance in Tender Mercies, I think he has a good shot getting nominated here. That being said, there is always an old man slot in the Best Actor category, and this year it's between Duvall and Jeff Bridges' performance as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. One of them will get nominated in 2010, but not both. With Wahlberg, I'm really going on the trailer for The Fighter, which look terribly uninspired (and Wahlberg seems to be absolutely dominated as an actor by Christian Bale). But people have been talking about how good Wahlberg could be in this film for so long, and sometimes people don't like to admit when they're wrong (evidenced by Angelina Jolie getting a nomination for the mediocre Changeling in 2008, while Sally Hawkins' excellence in Happy-Go-Lucky got snubbed - still haven't gotten over that). Firth and Franco both seem pretty cemented in their two spots, but that fifth spot is still uncertain. I'm giving it to Ryan Gosling for his seemingly stripped-down role in Blue Valentine, but I'm not confident in that pick whatsoever right now, and could easily be supplanted by other candidates. Other candidates: Javier Bardem, Biutiful; Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network; Paul Giamatti, Barney's Version.

Best Actress



Jennifer Lawrence, WINTER'S BONE

Natalie Portman, BLACK SWAN

Michelle Williams, BLUE VALENTINE

I guess I'm further proving that I still haven't gotten over Hawkins' snub in 2008 (Happy-Go-Lucky was one of the best films that year and she's basically the main reason why), because I'd like to think that the Academy still feels bad about it and are going to throw her a bone for her supposedly inspired performance in Made In Dagenham. She's far from a sure thing at the moment. There are only two of those at the moment: Annette Bening and Natalie Portman. People have been raving about Black Swan since its Venice Film Festival premiere, and Portman in particular. The same could be said about Annette Bening after The Kids Are All Right's modestly successful box office run this summer. The other three spots are really just a crapshoot. There's Hawkins, who I think will become more of a sure thing as we move forward (the film looks fantastic, despite the fact that it seems like prototypical Oscar fodder). Other than that, there are two modest performances in small, independent films. First is Michelle Williams, who is said to be incredible in Blue Valentine, but will anyone be able to see it with its December 31st release? Then there's 21-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, whose stunning work in Winter's Bone (which I've seen) has kept steam despite a modest July run in theaters. In a fair world, Lawrence would be a lock. Other candidates: Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs; Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right (Category fraud? We'll get to that later); Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole (who I'd put in the final five, if it were 2004 - but she's still has to prove something after the last few years of mediocrity).

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale, THE FIGHTER

Sam Rockwell, CONVICTION


Geoffrey Rush, THE KING'S SPEECH

Justin Timberlake, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

It's a bit disappointing that Mark Ruffalo's fantastic performance in The Kids Are All Right has been losing nomination momentum, but I still have faith that it'll work out in the end. Other than that, only Rush and Bale feel like safe bets in what is probably the most unpredictable of the acting categories. For the final two spots, I decided to side with two more unconventional predictions (though, with such lack of clarity in this spot, I don't think any pick should be considered to controversial). I'm in the minority with thinking that Justin Timberlake has a better shot for a supporting actor nomination than his Social Network co-star Andrew Garfield. It's certainly a more showy performance and you can't overstate Timberlake's overall popularity (will not be surprised at all if I end up being wrong about this, though). Then, there's Sam Rockwell heavily admired performance in Conviction as the wrongfully jailed brother to Hilary Swank's hard-nosed attorney. The film itself got a lukewarm response, but there was nothing but praise for Rockwell. Other candidates: Ed Harris, The Way Back; Bill Murray, Get Low; Bob Hoskins, Made In Dagenham. Yeah, it's a weak year.

Best Supporting Actress

Helena Bonham-Carter, THE KING'S SPEECH

Lesley Manville, ANOTHER YEAR


Miranda Richardson, MADE IN DAGENHAM

Diane Wiest, RABBIT HOLE

I'm taking a bit of a leap here, thinking that Moore and Manville (two Best Actress candidates) will hop over to the categories that they have a better shot in. Moore is fantastic (and she is a co-lead, not supporting), and I feel like people are going to find a way to get her nominated - but there's too much of a logjam in the lead category. I haven't seen Another Year (though it's #2 on my list of anticipated 2010 films - if you care), but I've heard that Manville is only a lead in terms of screentime, but is not the film's main star or protagonist. It's a flimsy line, obviously, but I'm exploiting it. The other three are simply obvious choices; three famous actresses in particularly bait-y roles. Richardson and Wiest are two veteran performers (of course, Wiest has already a two-time winner in this category) who are getting great marks for their turns. There hasn't been that much said yet of Bonham-Carter in The King's Speech, but if the film strikes gold on nomination morning like everyone expects, she's just popular enough to get a generous sweep into a nomination (think Alan Alda's puzzling nomination for The Aviator). Other candidates: Rosamund Pike, Made In Dagenham (might bump out Richardson); Amy Adams or Melissa Leo, The Fighter; Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom.

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, BLACK SWAN

Danny Boyle, 127 HOURS



Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION

When in doubt, just pick the five most talked about films and pick the directors. That's basically what I did here, trying to balance out the directors who are helped by the film (definitely Hooper and, to a point, Nolan) and the great autuers who've already made names for themselves (the other three). The one limb that I'm going out on: all five are (relatively) young guys and only Boyle has won one before. Usually, Oscar doesn't want to spend too much in uncharted territory and nominating both Aronofsky and Fincher in the same year seems a little good to be true (the only time Fincher ever got a bone was for the atrocious Curious Case of Benjamin Button). But I'm going to stick with them. The only one that gives me some trepidation is Tom Hooper, who is a relative unknown for The King's Speech, and it feels much more like an "actor's movie". Not that filmmakers shouldn't get nominated for making performance-based films, but other than Mike Leigh, when has that ever happened? Other candidates: Mike Leigh (hey now!), Another Year; Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right; David O. Russell, The Fighter.

Best Picture

127 Hours

Another Year

Black Swan

The Fighter


The Kids Are All Right

The King's Speech

Made In Dagenham

The Social Network

Toy Story 3

If I haven't made it obvious enough already: I've almost completely lost faith in the idea of The Fighter being a great film, but I still think it could make a strong run at some Oscar nominations (after The Blind Side debacle last year, I guess nothing is impossible). As for everything else, the only big leaps I'm making is Made In Dagenham making the cut over more critically acclaimed films like Winter's Bone or heavily-hyped Christmas releases like True Grit (I adore the Coen Brothers, but the original John Wayne film was horrendous, so my expectations have been lowered quite a bit because of that). Black Swan is on thinner ice then I'd like, but I would find it hard for the Academy to snub it in a category that is now ten spots wide and Another Year should make the list based on Mike Leigh's reputation alone. The easiest choices: The Social Network, 127 Hours, and The King's Speech. They can be considered retroactive locks pretty much. Then there's the tenth spot, which we've learned from last year will probably be reserved for the Best Animated Film. Toy Story 3 has been the greatest film of 2010 so far (still have so much left to see in only one month), and if it's Best Picture status isn't considered cemented at this point, it would be a travesty. Other Candidates: The Way Back; Rabbit Hole.

Here's the rest of my predix (w/out exhaustive commentary). Enjoy!

Best Original Screenplay

Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumber, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

Andres Heinz and Mark Heyman & John Mclaughlin, BLACK SWAN


Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION

David Seidler, THE KING’S SPEECH

Best Adapted Screenplay

David Lindsay-Abaire, RABBIT HOLE

Michael Arndt, TOY STORY 3

Simon Beaufoy & Danny Boyle, 127 HOURS

Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, WINTER’S BONE


Best Cinematography


Matthew Libatique, BLACK SWAN

Anthony Dod Mantle & Enrique Chediak, 127 HOURS

Wally Pfister, INCEPTION


Best Art Direction



Jess Gonchor, TRUE GRIT



Best Editing


Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Jon Harris, 127 HOURS


Andrew Weisblum, BLACK SWAN

Best Costume Design


Jenney Beavan, THE KING’S SPEECH

Louise Stjernsward, MADE IN DAGENHAM

Janty Yates, ROBIN HOOD

Mary Zophres, TRUE GRIT

Best Score

Carter Burwell, TRUE GRIT



Gustavo Santaoalla, BIUTIFUL

Hans Zimmer, INCEPTION

Best Visual Effects

Alice In Wonderland

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part I


Iron Man 2

Tron: Legacy

Best Make-Up

Alice In Wonderland

Black Swan

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part I

Best Animated Feature

How To Train Your Dragon

The Illusionist

Toy Story 3