Friday, December 24, 2010

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A Jive with Five

Oy, how to put five reviews up lickety-split? I may have to go shallow on this one.


One of the best horror films in recent years. Sexy and psychotic, something Brian de Palma, Dario Argento and David Cronenberg could have cooked up together. Natalie Portman's lead performance as the fragile innocent falling into madness is mesmerizing. It's a rush to see her transformation, from a virginal ballerina to a sexually-charged performer. I often thought to myself, "Where is this going to go? What happens next? Is she really going to pick at that? ew ew ew ew AHHHHH THAT WOULD STING!" Whether it be those scratches on her back, a hangnail, or even the fluttering of arms, the body is a thing of horror and beauty in the film: we see the dancers from a wide shot and are enamored of the grace and elegance, only to see the blistered toes and broken nails beneath the slippers. Portman sells it, though, convincing in both triumph and agony...or as Diablo Cody might put it, "Every score and sore".

My favorite shot
Mila Kunis manages to play sexy, scary, friendly and devious fluidly. Barbara Hershey is surprisingly sympathetic as the pathetically smothering Momma, Vincent Cassel wounds as the ballet director, and Winona Ryder's brief screen time reminds us why we fell in love with her in the first place. As if that weren't enough: effortless VFX (especially near the end), gritty but beautiful cinematography (Matthew Libatique, I salute you), costume and production design that is not only lovely to look at, but appropriate for the characters contained within. Like I Am Love, a truly operatic piece; the Big Finale literally had me gasping for breath. Three straight minutes of my jaw hanging open, aghast at the haunting splendor of this film. Aronofsky and the trio of writers get into the lead's head: I swear I felt her madness. What starts out slow soon spins out of control. What. A. Movie.


Just as engaging, just not as insane. Mark Wahlberg gives a quiet, deliberate performance as boxer Micky Ward, a boxer ready for a comeback. Amy Adams once again proves that she's one of the best, this time playing against type as a foul-mouthed, college drop-out barmaid who falls for Ward; she even hates foreign films! Believe what you read about Christian Bale: his performance as crack-addict/former boxer Dicky Ecklund is wild, stealing the show with his wide-eyed glassy gaze, goofy smile, and unbelievable energy; it's his best performance to date. Melissa Leo absolutely nails Momma/Manager/Enabler Alice, who doesn't realize how much damage her form of love is doing to her children. It's truly frustrating, sometimes, to watch Dicky and Alice and the sisters, because they don't seem to ever get it. They can justify everything they do, and it's remarkable how charming a family of ignorant loudmouths can be. There's a scene where Adams actually calls out Dicky on his truancy and crack addiction, and I had to laugh when Leo says, "I'm sorry, I don't know who you are or why you're talking." And Adams' caustic response is just hilarious in its honesty. Truly great ensemble work from everyone. It's embedded below:

David O. Russell and the quartet of writers are wise to focus so much on the family dynamics. Ward isn't just fighting for himself, no matter how much he may insist that he's the only one fighting, "not you, not you, and not you".  No, this is about the always genuine but rarely healthy love and bond of this family. Wahlberg and Bale are real brothers, Leo is a real mother to them, etc., etc., etc. The cinematography by Hoyte von Hoytema, as well as the decision to film the boxing scenes with the same HBO cameras and crew from the original fights, emphasizes the veracity of this world, these relationships. Boxing movies have been pretty of late; The Fighter gets us back to the nitty-gritty. Every hurt and every triumph is all the more heartbreaking and satisfying because it feels so real. Serious career highs for all involved.


It begins typically enough, with a voice-over by protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) explaining the whosit and whatnot of his Viking village and the dragons that terrorize it. You've seen the kind of monologue in every animated movie before: "Let me tell you about my life...first of all...and then there's...oh, and one more thing..." Since Baruchel was already on my Nnnngh List for The Sorceror's Apprentice, I feared that I would soon grow annoyed. Tired tropes + Nnnngh = Mediocrity, at the very least.

I was so dead wrong. I laughed, I teared up, I loved. It's a story of friendship, acceptance, believing in yourself, using what talents you have to better yourself and others. The need for patriarchal approval, the worry that you're not good enough, the feeling that the girl you like will never see you as a real prospect...I connected with all of it. The flying sequences thrill even on a small screen, assisted of course by the dazzling visuals and the score by John Powell. Oh, ho, that song by Jonsi is a catchy one, too!


I was surprised by how delightful this film was. Andy Garcia plays a corrections officer with a secret: he wants to be an actor. He takes secret acting lessons at night, making his wife (Julianna Margulies) think he's having an affair. His daughter's (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) a stripper, but nobody knows it. His son (Ezra Miller) has a strange fetish and hates everyone in the house. And he's just brought home a young prisoner (Steven Strait) who, unbeknown to anyone but our hero, is his illegitimate son. And let the screwball comedy and life lessons begin.

I have to admire this film for not taking itself too seriously. Everybody's doing these great Bronx accents, with Margulies and Garcia-Lorido getting the most out of their voice work. At times, that lightness gets to be a little too much. Emily Mortimer has a self-consciously played fairy godmother role that is a wee twee. Miller's entire subplot -- entire character! -- could easily have been cut without effecting a single thing. It's a shame, because he's a good actor, but the material he's given is awful and obnoxious, and ultimately leads nowhere. Strait, I'm shocked to say, has great chemistry with everyone, though I don't know that I buy his character as someone who'd hold up a pharmacy. He's just too nice!

Really, it's all about Garcia and Margulies as the clashing spouses. They hold it together, and despite all their yelling and screaming and frustrations, you sense the intimacy between the two. It's just a nice story, well-told. Who doesn't like those?


The Coen Brothers have made a Western. Those who remember the original will sigh with relief when they realize Hailee Steinfeld can actually act! As Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old who hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to track down the man who shot her father, Steinfeld shows pluck and seriousness. The character is as no-nonsense here as in Charles Portis' source novel, and Steinfeld' haughty portrayal does a justice Kim Darby barely touched. Thankfully, too, a real actor is playing the Texas ranger LaBoeuf -- Matt Damon plays the smug Texan perfectly, with a self-satisfied drawl and a well-clipped mustache that he simply luxuriates in. Josh Brolin's brief turn as murderous coward Tom Chaney, funnily enough, is the one that stuck with me after the film, such is the impact of his abbreviated performance.

And, of course, there's Jeff Bridges, slurring hoarsely as the oft-drunk Rooster Cogburn. He's quite good in the role, especially in his first couple of scenes. The relationship between him and Mattie is well-done: he's impressed with and protective of her, but not in the most obvious ways. In one scene, she rides her pony through a lake, swimming along side it. The look on Bridges' face then was the high point of the film for me: he clearly underestimated her, and it's impressive. The play between him, Steinfeld and Damon is well-done, though there's a long sequence where he rides drunkenly and makes a fool of himself trying to shoot corn fritters in mid-air. This is meant, I suppose, to be a character-building moment, and it also drives certain events of the plot forward, but I couldn't help feeling that it went on too long, and Bridges' performance went from character to caricature.

Seriously, though, Deakins rocks
Actually, I have to say that I admire the film more than I like it. As I said, the Coens made a western...and that's all they did. It was straightforward and impersonal, and though the novel is told in much the same way, there was still a sense of adventure. It helps that everything is written in first-person by Mattie, and I can't help but wish the Coens had taken the time to add that voice to it. Oh, sure, they do it literally, with an adult Mattie providing a prologue and epilogue, but there's very little let me confess: the original did a better job of emotionally getting you into the film. There was a lead up to the final confrontation between Rooster and gang leader Ned Pepper (played here Barry Pepper); in this version, it suddenly happens. We're at the end of the movie. There are also too many exits for Damon's character. Each disappearance and reappearance is jarring; once is effective, twice is lacking. The technicals are all there, but Steinfeld and Bridges are left to supply all the heart the script lacks. And frankly, I prefer John Wayne's more poignant Rooster Cogburn.

I liked it, I did. It's a solid B for me. I just wish I liked it more.


Robert said...

Ahhh, I loved Black Swan and "Dragon" surprised me in the best way. Great reviews, I have to say though - for me, Emily Mortimer was the best thing about City Island! Haha.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

See, I usually love Mortimer, but I felt like she was trying so hard to make something interesting out of an unfleshed-out role. But that Garcia-Lorido girl was tops! Tops, I say!

TomS said...

A terrific review of Black Swan. Such a rich film, hard to know where to begin analyzing it. You did well. I saw "How To Train Your Dragon" earlier this year, and loved how these creatures turned out to be loving and playful like dogs...
I can't understand why "True Grit" was remade now.... I am still reluctant to go....
Who knew that "The Fighter" would be such a contender? I am intrigued...

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Tom, I'd recommend renting True Grit down the road. It's good, but you've seen the original; there's nothing new here.