Sunday, January 30, 2011
Based upon the comic book series created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner
Screenplay Written by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber
Directed by Robert Schwentke
* (one star)
Am I glad that I didn’t see this movie in the theater!
In recent years, there have been certain big Hollywood features with big Hollywood stars that straddle the worlds of action and comedy, and have earned massive box office receipts and hoards of fans and yet, I have actually hated them. Strong word, but yes…HATED. Films like Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Twelve” (2004) starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and all of their celebrity friends in a shockingly uninspired sequel. Then, there was Doug Liman’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (2005) starring Pitt and Angelina Jolie. And there was even the massive box office hit reinvention of “Charlie’s Angels” (2000) starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu, a film which I included in my Time Capsule series as being one of the worst movies I had seen during the previous decade.
What essentially angered me the most aside from the lazy storytelling, if there was any to be found in the first place, and the unambitious presentation overall, was the massive collective of movie star egos defiantly at play as it was obvious that none of them arrived to the set ready to do any actual work. There is something so arrogant to those particular movies as none of them actually try to do anything creatively. Even worse, the stars themselves seem to be snidely thumbing their collective noses at us in the audience as we have paid our hard earned money and have spent our even more precious time to sit in a darkened room and watch these handsomely paid people do…absolutely…nothing. In all of those aforementioned films, I felt that viewing them was like seeing these actors, having already been paid an exorbitant amount of money, throwing themselves an extravagant party that we will get to be marvelled by only by coughing up the ticket price. As if the mere sight of them is good enough. Believe me, dear readers, it isn't.
I had that same miserably sinking feeling as I viewed “RED,” Director Robert Schwentke’s criminally terrible adaptation of a DC Comics series, starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malcovich as a collective of retired CIA veterans dangerously forced out of their quiet lives and back into active duty. Despite their combined star wattage and power, none of that palpable energy was ever seen, in any way, upon the screen, making this nothing more than a giant sized paycheck movie for all of them and a giant waste of time for myself. With its major box office success this past summer, I know under no uncertain terms that I am in the minority with this opinion but when a movie has this little excitement, enjoyment, involvement, and creative aspirations to begin with, my reaction could not be at all surprising or undeserved.
Willis laconically stars as Frank Moses, who has etched out a bored, sleepy existence in a boring, sleepy suburb. His only joy in life is speaking on the phone to Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), a bored, case worker employed at Frank’s Kansas City pension office who also happens to be a romance novel enthusiast. Late one evening, Frank’s home is invaded by a team of soldiers out to assassinate this seemingly quiet, older gentleman yet the tables are turned as Frank Moses quickly dispatches the entire hit squad, and subsequently goes on the run to Kansas City, where he kidnaps Sarah for her own safety. The twosome then begin to track down Moses’ former associates, including Joe (Morgan Freeman), now carving out his last days in a nursing home (and looking amazingly healthy for an 80 year old with stage four liver cancer); Marvin (John Malcovich) the unhinged, paranoid conspiracy theorist and Victoria (Helen Mirren) a restless weapons expert now tending to the gardening. After their reunion has been made complete, our heroes then embark upon one more adventure, trading quips and shooting bullets, as they attempt to discover the identity of the person or persons who compiled a hit list determined to eliminate them all.
There is a good, and quite potentially, a great movie to be made from this material. While I have not read the original comic series, I can see from the most basic framework of this story, that all of the ingredients are in place to create a truly impressive piece of cinematic work, for the summer movie season and beyond. So, it shocks me that Schwentke, his writers and his cast didn’t grab this concept with all of their hands and shoot for the stars, making “RED” such a wasted opportunity.
One possibility would have been to tell the story completely from the perspective of Sarah Ross. By making her an audience surrogate, we could be pulled along this adventure with her, as well as being able to watch her inner emergence from solitary cubicle worker to the woman who gets to live out her romantic adventure fantasies. It is an approach that worked so beautifully in Robert Zemeckis’ “Romancing The Stone” (1984) and with some great writing, that concept could have been used to tremendous effect in “RED.” But, as it stands, and while that particular idea is hinted at, Mary-Louise Parker is given absolutely nothing to do, a bad move as she is an actress of considerable charm and comedic skill. Her tonal expression remains the same throughout the entire move, regardless of any situation she happens to be placed into. This unfortunately makes for a character you cannot relate to or care a whit about as she has this unrealistic cool detachment to being shot at, drugged, kidnapped and hurtled along from one action set piece to another. And then, seeming as if Schwentke really did not know what to do with her, Parker vanishes from the film for a lengthy stretch. It felt as if her hiatus from her Showtime series “Weeds” had elapsed and she had to get back to that set for duty. Such a shame for an actress so likeable and a character with this much potential.
Even worse is how “RED” chooses not to deal with the story’s main conceit of mortality and insignificance, especially as these four aging warriors are pulled back into fighting force in a new, younger world. There could have been a strong element of dark thematic forces at play in this film, as these four characters are ones that will defiantly not go quietly into that good night. “RED” is a film that desperately needed more rampage, more raucousness, perhaps a bit of nastiness and gumption but definitely more two-fisted vigor of the emotional quality, all elements that would have given considerable weight to the endless pyrotechnics. Seeing Helen Mirren arm a machine gun, in and of itself, is a great image but it’s not enough by a long shot.
As Schwentke and his crew never seemed to discover a proper tone for “RED” as a whole, it seems as if they eventually decided to not have one at all. “RED” is just middle of the road, inoffensive summer movie blandness. Some friends of mine who did see “RED” during the summer described this film to me as being “cute.” Somehow, I really don’t think that “cute" is what the originators of the comic book series had in mind. While “RED” did not need to be a European tinged, methodical dirge about mortality, it did need some gravity to enhance the action, comic book origins, and to give the film a texture to play with. It could have been done. Look at Pixar’s “Toy Story 3,” and how those same themes were humorously and honestly incorporated into what is essentially a children’s movie. But, again, Schwentke did nothing and just let his film sit there like celluloid wallpaper.
“RED” is a toothless experience that is not at all aided by the awful screenplay and dialogue which, again, makes all of the actors equally toothless. 2010 has not been a good movie year for Bruce Willis as I just cannot remember if there was ever a time when he looked as uninterested and uninvolved on screen as he does in this film as well as in Kevin Smith’s horrendous “Cop Out” (honestly, if he is not going to try, then he just needs to stop). I even contend that Helen Mirren was cast for gimmick's sake alone. And please explain to me why Morgan Freeman was even cast in this film at all. I am sure that they enjoyed being around each other and receiving hefty payments for not doing terribly much, but that contains no enjoyment for me as a viewer looking forward to some exciting, frisky entertainment.
Beyond that, there is a deeper issue. Just within this month on Savage Cinema alone, I have spoken at length abut a variety of 2010 films that exuded wonderful displays of language, arming their respective films with mountains of creative verbiage that allows the actors to breathe succulent life into their characters, opportunities which contributed to the vibrant movie going experiences as a whole. The dialogue of Will Gluck’s “Easy A,” David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” and The Coen Brothers’ “True Grit,” are all films in love with language and how that language is utilized in the art if character development, motivation and storytelling. They are as much joy to listen to as to view, a difficult feat certainly, but an attainable one nonetheless.
The language contained in the screenplay for “RED” is the definition of “bland” as it is language that contains absolutely no color, no nuance, no vibrancy and therefore no emotional value whatsoever. For a film that carries a plot designed to possess a light footed sense of urgency, “RED’ is tragically languid as all of its heroes, especially Willis, sluggishly stand around and say the most basic, obvious things to each other…and questionably, extremely slowly as well. After a while of listening to this blank dialogue, it dawned on me that possibly this may have been a corporate business decision to keep the language so dumbly simple as “RED” also need to find an audience overseas to assist with the box office receipts to offset the production costs. If the dialogue is kept to a minimum, simply written and unhurriedly delivered, then the eventual translation process would be that much easier, potentially making the film more profitable in other countries.
Perhaps that is why the studio chose Robert Schwentke to helm this film as he has been a filmmaker that is kind of faceless in his cinematic personality and his films tend to have a tonal blandness that undercuts any deeper themes inherent in the material itself. All of his directorial choices in "RED” are MOR, non-controversial and sadly, very boring. All of the action sequences look and feel like action sequences you have seen thousands of times before…and better. Even the film’s music backdrop is a waste as the unimaginatively chosen rock songs (like Aerosmith’s “Back In The Saddle”—get it?) and pseudo ironic/hipster score do nothing but to only recall infinitely better films like Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997) and Soderberg’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001).
Previously, Schwentke directed the 2009 adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a film to which I also gave a harshly negative review, and for many of the same reasons I disliked “RED,” mostly that it was a missed opportunity and took very romantically tragic and dark material and drained it downwards to an MOR PG-13 world. Maybe to make films simpler, non-challenging, non-threatening, and accessible to the masses worldwide, studios feel that filmmakers like Schwentke are needed to increase their bottom line, which in the case of ‘RED” worked very well.
If that’s true and commerce has overtaken art once again, what a loss it is for us as audience members and consumers. For when we are all disrespected as people who deserve high quality entertainment and art, and are, over and again, treated like product, the only losers are all of us in the theater seats.
“RED” is indeed a film that possess no artistry, no entertainment, no emotion, no excitement, and no reason to exist in any form beyond its one sheet poster. If you have not seen the entire film, then just look at that poster. That image is the entire film and you can get that for FREE!
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
This morning, the nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards, which will be held on Sunday, February 27th were announced and my initial reaction is a combined emotion of happiness and a complete lack of surprise. Happiness, because, for the most part, the Academy got it right by really focusing on the very best 2010 had to offer and in all of the correct categories as well. The lack of surprise comes from the fact that while greatness existed in the cinematic year of 2010, it was decidedly not a great movie year at all, making the nominations more than obvious and eliminating any sense of major surprises.
Out of the ten Best Picture nominees, I have currently seen nine of the films, as I just have not gotten myself to viewing "Winter's Bone" as of yet. Without producing any major spoilers as I have not yet published by Top Ten of 2010 list for your reading consumption, I will tell you that many of the nominated films are housed on my personal list. The nominated list as a whole was quite pleasing as it did cover the cinematic divide by celebrating the box office blockbuster, critical darlings, independent film favorites and at least one film that may be somewhat of an obscurity (the aforementioned "Winter's Bone") to general audiences.
If I was especially happy to see certain nominations, I would have to say that seeing Hailee Steinfeld's nomination for Best Supporting Actress as the young and feverishly determined Mattie Ross in the Coen Brother's "True Grit" made me smile the biggest. Her performance was so striking in its immediate command and authority and coupled with her mastery of the difficult language taken from the original Charles Portis novel, Steinfeld made this girl someone not to be ignored.
I was also beyond thrilled to see the Oscar nomination for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' deeply innovative film score for David Fincher's "The Social Network." It was an unpredictable series of compositions that unearthed the interior dread and venom that lurked within that film's primary characters and how they are all undone by jealousy, betrayal, greed and sorrow.
On the other hand, I do believe that while the wealth of nominations for David O. Russell's "The Fighter" were not unexpected, I did feel they were a bit overdone as I still contend that film is more than a little pedestrian and MOR compared to the likes of the forward thinking "Inception," "127 Hours" and definitely "Black Swan."
In other categories, it saddened me that the Academy could not seem to find space to honor Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim VS. The World" in the Visual Effects section. There's no way you can tell me that the endlessly creative eye-popping effects, which completely validates the usage of CGI in the movies, was lacking when compared to the excellent but standard special effects of "Iron Man 2" and the bloated, and horrifically bland CGI wasteland of "Alice In Wonderland."
I was also sad to see Julianne Moore's omission for her work in "The Kids Are All Right" as she was entirely Annette Bening's equal. The greatness of each performance in that film was due to what they gave to each other and Moore gave it all she had in a performance that was as hysterical as it was compassionate and heartbreaking.
And then, Oscar always seems to find some omission that is so jaw dropping, so incomprehensible as it almost invalidates the ceremony as a whole. Typically, it is always in the category of Best Director as for the second time, Oscar has refused to honor Christopher Nolan for his outstanding work on "Inception," in which we were all in the palms of a cinematic master's hands. It's not like this film, which is nominated for Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, Original Score, Sound Editing and Original Screenplay directed itself!!
As I have said so often over the years, this program is my Superbowl, the culminating event of a year at the movies. I will save my official predictions until a closer period towards the telecast, a program that will undoubtedly be OVERlong and filled with the type of self-important and self-congratulatory pomp and circumstances the Academy Awards are known for.
And I wouldn't miss it for the world.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Based upon “Le Diner de Cons” written by Francis Veber
Screenplay Written by David Guion and Michael Handleman
Directed by Jay Roach
½ * (half of one star)
Oh…my…GOD!! What a disaster! “Dinner For Schmucks,” the latest…ahem…comedy, and American remake of a French film, from Director Jay Roach is the kind of movie you fire your agents over and I think that whomever represents Steve Carell and Paul Rudd should be checking their portfolios and hope they have enough to live on. But, I will not solely lay the blame at their feet. Honestly, do you expect me to believe that Carell and Rudd, with their level of talent, as well as having a strong presence in the A level of comedies being produced today couldn’t see the quagmire in which they were sinking? You just cannot tell me for an instant that for not even one moment during the filming of this garbage that neither of them said to absolutely anyone, “You know…this isn’t working at all!” Watching a blank screen would have been more hysterical.
Paul Rudd plays Tim Conrad, a rising executive hoping for a major promotion, who finds that his opportunity to rise up the corporate ladder hinges upon his ability to find and bring a particular individual to a private company dinner, where the guests are all an assortment of oddballs secretly meant to be ridiculed. Against his better nature, and against the wishes of his adorably lovely French art curator girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), Tim’s grand opportunity literally crashes into the windshield of his Porsche as he meets Barry, the lonely, bizarrely socially inept IRS agent and taxidermist who creates mini-sculptures of deceased mice. Tim seizing his opportunity for corporate success, invites Barry to be his dinner guest, an invitation to which Barry excitedly accepts.
As these things tend to happen in comedy films such as this one, Barry clings to Tim’s side like glue by first arriving uninvited at Tim’s apartment, mistaking the exact evening of the dinner. And of course, Barry then systematically and unintentionally begins to dismantle the order of Tim’s life through an increasing ridiculous sequence of events that involve a sexually driven self-involved artist (Jemaine Clement), whom Tim fears Julie is having an affair; a lascivious and grotesque stalker (Lucy Punch) who has been chasing Tim for three years, and a wealthy Swiss businessman (David Walliams) with whom Tim hopes to orchestrate a landmark deal. If that were not enough, let’s toss in Therman (Zach Galifianakis), Barry’s boss and romantic rival who thinks he has the power of mind control. All of these situations finally collide at the titular dinner sequence, which captures more crazy guests than at a backwoods carny goon show forcing Tim to confront his decisions, his behavior and his new, surprising friendship with Barry.
Look…I think that if done correctly nearly anything is ripe for comedy and with a screwball premise such as this one, I really believe that a defiantly nasty comedy lurks somewhere just itching to be made. But, “Dinner For Schmucks,” as it stands, is clearly not that film for a myriad of reasons that I am not sure exactly where to begin. OK dear readers,…let me clear my head, find my remaining brain cells and cobble this together for you. I’ll start small and work my way upwards.
First of all, the film is so poorly paced. This is supposed to be a screwball comedy and by their nature, those films need to be paced rapidly. In “Dinner For Schmucks” however, scenes drag beyond their shelf life, jokes are telegraphed so obviously and terribly and hen they occur, they’re beaten beyond the status of the proverbial “dead horse.” This is sadly a trait of Roach’s who has previously helmed the enormously successful “Meet The Parents” (2000), its sequel "Meet The Fockers" (2004) as well as Mike Myers “Austin Powers” series, none of those films I liked very much at all for precisely those reasons. Comedy is so very difficult as each interpretation of what is funny is so personal and Roach's pedestrian style is just one I do not respond to in the least. Even so, none of those films had the misfortune to be this shockingly terrible and believe me when I tell you that I only laughed during this nearly two-hour film…one time. “Dinner For Schmucks” felt like a collection of the worst "Saturday Night Live" sketches held together by the thinnest of plots and you could feel every minute ticking by.
Secondly, the story construction is awful through its collection of characters that never felt believable. The misunderstandings and Tim’s misfortune are so sloppily convoluted that it makes the tales of mistaken identity seen every week on “Three’s Company” seem almost Shakespearean by comparison. I just could not believe for an instant that Barry is so inept, so uninformed, so naive that he would do so many of the things he would end up doing and that Tim, supposedly the film’s straight man, would not just run the other way or just do the most obvious thing. This, I suppose, is again Roger Ebert’s “Idiot Plot” set in motion, where if Tim just did or didn’t do one thing, the movie as we know it would be mercifully over. “Dinner For Schmucks” spends most of its running time spinning its wheels in situation after situation that betrays any sense of character and reality that I slapped my forehead repeatedly in disbelief. And again, Steve Carell and Paul Rudd should just know better, especially as they has combined their talents with Judd Apatow, a modern comedy filmmaker, who in his films and very best productions, creates works where they are all character driven, a quality that grounds the story in reality no matter how outrageous the film grows. “Dinner For Schmucks,” by comparison, is an undisciplined mess featuring characters who don’t exist anywhere and any world.
Third, if you are going to take on a film that is supposed to be tasteless, then go for it!! Roach and his writers tried so hard to be as inoffensive as possible with the concept that they shoot themselves in the foot creatively. Yes, the sexual innuendo probably goes as far as you can take it in a film that is rated PG-13, but even then, its just juvenile and brutally forced. Its not edgy or risky or dangerous or scandalous or anything resembling something I would think of as just being funny. It was as if Roach was afraid of offending audiences in a film that, by its nature, should be offensive. Which leads me to the grandest point of all…
“Dinner For Schmucks” makes its greatest error by becoming painfully and pathetically sentimental and extolling words of sympathy for the geeks to the point of condemning the white collar corporate folks, and the audience, for laughing at them in the first place. This makes the entire film disingenuous as it is clearly designed for audiences to laugh at the strange cavalcade of oddballs and eccentrics and then at the end we get criticized for doing so?! Roach wants to have it both ways by throwing his film so far up the middle that it cannot have an opinion about anything, making the film, as a whole, shamefully pointless.
Sometimes, when I see films this terrible, I just click them off. On a rare number of times, I have actually walked out of the theater. But sometimes, it just becomes a battle of wills, as I will not allow this film to beat me by checking out of the experience. By God, I will see this damn thing to the end even as it is making me miserable, even as my brain cells are melting from my ears, even as I am realizing that these two hours are two hours of my life that can never be returned to me. I’ll do it. I’ll take that cinematic bullet. Just so you won’t have to.
My experience with "Dinner For Schmucks" was a battle of wills and man, did I lose. People, please spare yourselves from this travesty. For if you don't, the last laugh will be upon you for having sat through this atrocity.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Not terribly long after the end of “At The Movies,” Roger Ebert made a startling, joyous and much hoped for announcement. He and his wife Chaz would be resurrecting the movie review program as "Ebert Presents At The Movies” and in a most elegantly gracious turn, the program would return to its roots and be filmed at Chicago's WTTW public television studios and presented on public television, just as the original show premiered and was nurtured during its earliest days in the mid 1970s.
Well, dear readers, late last night, the dream was fulfilled as “Ebert Presents At The Movies” debuted its premiere episode starring Associated Press film critic Christy Lemire (who was a substitute film critic once Ebert was no longer to appear on television due to complications from his cancer surgery) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a young critic for the cinema website Mubi.com as well as a contributor to the Chicago Reader. After the program began and throughout the lusciously packed 30 minutes, “Ebert Presents at the Movies” felt like a breath of fresh air. It was like having the opportunity to re-enter a conversation long set in motion but was sadly interrupted by the circumstances of life. Thankfully, this program allowed anyone who chose to view it, to just pick up right where we left off and the sensation was deeply comforting.
“Ebert Presents At The Movies” continues the program with the exact same format that has existed since 1975. Two critics, seated opposite each other, within a balcony set discussing the week’s latest film releases without any unnecessary flash or prefabricated style. Just the art of conversation filtered through the world of movies. Where Siskel and Ebert’s trademark “Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!” ratings have returned, there are some noticeable changes, which I think will help to advance the show greatly while not messing around with the basic formula in a negative fashion.
During a segment set within the program’s mid section was an Orson Wells/”Citizen Kane” inspired featurette introducing the audience to not only Lemire and Vishnevetsky, but also to a collective of new contributors who will be adding their voices to this unique cinematic conversation. Last night’s debut featured essayist Kim Morgan, who will be spotlighting classic films from cinema’s past. Future programs will contain segments from on-line critic Omar Moore and filmmaker Katrina Richardson, who will explore issues of race and gender in cinema. According to Ebert’s website, the program will also feature contributions from Jeff Greenfield, Nell Minow, and David Poland, all handpicked by Ebert himself as he has been a deep admirer of their respective works.
By widening the net in regards to the amount of voices being heard on this program is a beautiful way for this program’s continued and increased vibrancy. If memory serves, every single movie review program that has previously aired consistently featured the viewpoints of two White males. Now, by seeing women and others of varying ethnicities at the forefront, the inclusionary quality of the program becomes even more apparent as it is welcoming more ideas, concepts and opinions into the mix.
The increased representation of different film genres and styles of films being discussed is deeply based in the classic Siskel and Ebert aesthetic, which often showcased works and filmmakers that would otherwise have been ignored or forgotten. This is also a beautiful tactic as it opens the world of film past the offerings of the multiplex, with the potential of inspiring viewers to try out films they otherwise would not have. As I have said before, I would not have seen a documentary film or a foreign film if not for Siskel and Ebert. Making special sequences throughout the show completely designed for the purpose of celebration can only be a great thing.
And then, what a pleasure it was, and will be, to see Roger Ebert back in action with a feature entitled “Roger’s Office,” where he will spotlight films of personal interest and meaning. Last night’s show featured the voice of filmmaker Werner Herzog speaking Ebert’s words as he ruminated over an animated film called “My Dog Tulip,” the story of the 16 year relationship between an elderly gentle man and his German Shepherd. Being able to hear Ebert “voice” again in the context of this program is truly a blessing as it is a way for him to be a featured player instead of a phantom guiding force. It illustrates again how deep his love for cinema actually is as well as his equally deep desire to continue to remain a vibrant part of the cinematic conversation.
So, how are Lemire and Vishnevetsky as a pair? We’ll see, but I am positively hopeful as it was only the first show. Having seen Lemire before on television, I knew she would be more than capable with handling the task at hand. Vishnevetsky, perhaps due to his age and also due to stepping into such a rich legacy, quite possibly over-compensated a bit with his enthusiasm and repeated contentious remarks of “I completely disagree!!” But, that said, Lemire and Vishnevetsky are not actors. They are critics. They are writers. They are people we would most likely never see on television. Now in the position of having to be on television and create a certain chemistry. I feel that once the show gets rolling and time passes, we will see their chemistry grow, making the conversation that much richer indeed.
But, that is a minor quibble, if it is a quibble at all. I’m just so happy to have this show back where it belongs. It never should have been cancelled but the past is the past.
This is the future and a future with the presence and influence of Roger Ebert is a wonderful future to exist in.
Welcome back, Mr. Ebert and long may you remain with all of us.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson & Keith Dorrington
Screenplay Written by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson & Scott Silver
Directed by David O. Russell
** ½ (two and a half stars)
The rating I have given to filmmaker David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” has considerably little to do with the actual execution of this production and almost everything to do with my reaction to it. All told, this is a film where it is difficult for me to point out actual areas that felt wrong to me as the overall quality is high, the deceptively simple story line is complex and the intentions behind the film feel pure. But, somehow, it didn’t reach me. I wasn’t resisting its cinematic pull so to speak. It just didn’t leave me with very much to hold onto as I watched. As I write this review, nearly two hours after having left the theater, the film has hardly etched a lasting impression. This particular reaction can happen to any one of us, even during the very best films. All of our personal perceptions and tastes come into play when viewing any film but when it is all said and done, either the story works or it doesn’t. And in the case of “The Fighter,” despite all of the exceedingly hard work and strength on display, it just didn’t move me.
Based upon a true story and set during the early to mid 1990s in Lowell, Massachusetts, Mark Wahlberg stars as “Irish” Micky Ward, an aging professional boxer itching for his chance at the welterweight title championship but living in the immense shadow set by his former boxer, crack head half-brother Dickie Eklund (a blisteringly shifty Christian Bale). Dickie is a local legend in the working class town of Lowell as he historically faced off with none other than Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, a feat he never allows anyone to ever forget, even as he is consumed with narcotics and spends his days and nights fueling his habit amongst hangers on inside of a crackhouse. When not completely consumed in some sort of stupor, Dickie also barely functions as Micky’s unreliable trainer and sparring partner while their garishly flamboyant Mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo) serves as Micky’s manager.
After losing bouts to one dead end fighter after another and culminating in a punishing loss to a substitute fighter from an entirely different weight class, Micky’s confidence is severely damaged, forcing him into a hiatus and questioning if the life he lives inside of the boxing ring is truly meant for him. Yet, in a rowdy neighborhood bar, he meets the feisty bartender Charlotte (Amy Adams), who encourages him to try and step away from the very people who are harming his chances the most (i.e. his family) and possibly attain new sponsorship which may elevate his chances at the welterweight title. This very idea comes as a realistic possibility once Dickie is incarcerated for drug possession, an idea that infuriates Alice and her belligerent herd of ever present seven daughters who all feel that Charlotte is nothing more than an opportunistic hussy waiting to cash in on Micky’s potential success.
While Micky carves out his gradual return to the ring, he is confronted with obstacles more severe than any individual boxer, as he struggles to negotiate and maintain the alliances, allegiances and the irreplaceable love he holds for those closet to his heart.
“The Fighter,” much its leading character of Micky Ward, faces quite the uphill battle as it is stepping into the cinematic ring, which, in the past 35 years alone, already houses Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” series and Martin Scorsese’s untouchable “Raging Bull” (1980) as new standards for stories set within the boxing ring. In fact, “The Fighter” is actually as old fashioned a film as Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech.” It is a film that contains a well-worn story with well-worn clichés that Russell, his screenwriters and more than able cast work diligently to transcend.
In addition to being a boxing film and even a story about one man’s crippling addiction, “The Fighter” works mostly as a complex family drama in which each character is battling their own sense of delusions concerning their relationship to each other as well as themselves. Alice needs to believe in Dickie’s purity and ability to successfully train and mentor Micky even though his rampant irresponsibility and crack addiction stares her in the face. Most dramatically, we have Dickie’s intense delusions of grandeur as he has convinced himself that the HBO film crew, which has been following him, is documenting his boxing comeback trail when they are actually filming a documentary about crack addiction. With just those two aspects of the film’s storyline, we have the ingredients for exactly the type of film we typically do not see too often out of Hollywood these days: a film about behavior as well as that eternal Savage Cinema theme, humanity.
Ensuring the correct presentation of reality expressed through the complexities of human behavior is exhibited properly, the right actors must be present and I am pleased to say that nearly all of the performances in “The Fighter” are first rate. Amy Adams is quite the surprise as she presents a beautifully convincing level of grit, sexiness and toughness that has been previously unseen in her roles so far. Christian Bale is worlds away from his muscular status and brooding, tormented turn as Bruce Wayne as his sinewy, jittery frame is spring loaded like an uncontrollable live wire. His performance is a compelling stew of unpredictable ticks, turns and combating motivations that consistently keeps the viewer off guard and riveted to his every gesture. He is impossible to ignore or disregard in any way whenever he is on screen.
That said, I do think that for all of the attention Melissa Leo and Christian Bale are already receiving for their work, I am going to go out on the edge and state that Mark Wahlberg’s performance is the one to really watch, especially as it is the least flashy role and mostly internalized.
Although the character of Micky Ward is 31 years old, he essentially exists and functions as the youngest child of a large family and is perpetually lost in the shuffle while everyone’s focus is simultaneously riveted upon him. Everyone in his life speaks for him, makes decisions for him to a detrimental degree. Every move of Micky’s independence is depicted and executed as a baby step but those steps prove to be seismic within the inner circle of people who simply want to mold him to their own particular whims and internal desires, whether positive or negative and sometimes they straddle the fence. The juxtapositions within this framework are compelling as Alice, Dickie and Charlotte vicariously use him to realize their own respective lost or shattered dreams while also loving him fiercely. Even Micky’s fight sequences function as extensions of his personality as he withstands beating after beating, allowing the opponent to control the fight, until he finally lashes out, ensuring victory.
The way Wahlberg shoulders the love, disappointment, anger, sad resignation an hopefully resolution to all of his relationships is excellent work and like the most gracious of actors, he never calls attention to himself and almost allows himself to fade into the background, perhaps as much as the real Micky Ward felt he had to do. Wahlberg is an actor I have enjoyed but understand that he needs to be paired with certain directors to get the very best out of him. With David O. Russell, this is his third collaboration after the Kubrickian Iraq war satire “Three Kings” (1999) and the messy metaphysical/philosophical comedy “I Heart Huckabees” (2004) and this cinematic relationship shows no signs of slowing down.
Through Wahlberg’s performance, “The Fighter” could almost be a companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s excellent “The Wrestler” (2009) which delved so sorrowfully into the interior life of its titular character. Yet “The Fighter” never quite goes that distance perhaps because Micky is just beginning to learn about himself, therefore the audience doesn’t really know much about him either. I don’t think this is a fault overall but it may become an obstacle for some viewers wishing to make a greater emotional connection.
I think that was the major problem of this film as a whole for me. I didn’t have an emotional connection to what I was watching and when it was over, I just shrugged my shoulders and walked out of the theater. David O. Russell is a highly idiosyncratic filmmaker who appears from time to time with a new project that certain raises hopes for me and am happy to see on my cinematic radar. Russell made an audacious splash with his incest comedy “Spanking The Monkey” (1994), Russell followed with his sexually driven cross country adoption comedy, “Flirting With Disaster” (1996) starring Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni and Patricia Arquette. With the aforementioned “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees,” Russell continued to carve out a niche as one of our most unique cinematic voices, placing himself in league with filmmakers like Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, Michael Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. I think what may have surprised me most with “The Fighter,” is that it is easily Russell’s most pedestrian film to date. There never seems to be anything at risk creatively and it never seems to have any teeth either. “The Fighter” just kind of sits there on the screen, waiting to be admired for its pedigree rather than storytelling.
Additionally, I did have slight problems with the otherwise wonderful Melissa Leo and her daughters. Alice Ward and the squadron of Micky’s seven sisters veers dangerously close to caricatures instead of functioning as characters and every time that troop tromped onto the screen, I was easily reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) which featured a surreal take on a man-child overrun by seven sisters. By contrast, the world of “The Fighter” is a realistically gritty one and they often felt false to me. A similar complaint was hurled by detractors of Clint Eastwood’s wonderful “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) in regards to the opportunistic family of Hilary Swank and through “The Fighter,” I could understand that criticism better as that was how I felt here. Melissa Leo is a powerhouse of an actress known for her gravity and subtlety (especially on the eternally brilliant television series "Homicide: Life On the Street") and while her performance in "The Fighter" often slides to the Shakespearian, I wished it had remained there consistently.
Dear readers, “The Fighter” is by no means a bad film, or even a disappointing one. I would not discourage any of you from seeing this film and in fact, many of you may even love it. It is a film of quality performed in an adult fashion with complex themes at the ready. But, I guess as I watched, I felt it was just going through the motions, dancing around the ring, never quite making that knockout punch.
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Written by David Seidler
Directed by Tom Hooper
**** (four stars)
While majoring in the field of Communication Arts in college, one required course was a class in Public Speaking. I wanted nothing more than to avoid that class altogether but it was not to be. The class itself was taught in a smallish classroom with no more than twelve students to one Teaching Assistant, who instructed then tire course. The Teaching Assistant was a diminutive, youngish woman with a chirpy yet serious disposition and perpetual dark circles underneath her eyes, most likely due to her own course work combined with her teaching duties. On the very first day of the class, she informed all of us that at some point during all of our lives, we will all be required to stand in front of a room full of people and deliver a speech. Internally, I said to myself, “Lady, you are completely wrong!” as I was not the sort of person who ever desired to speak within a classroom setting, let alone stand behind a podium and present. As far as I was concerned, the days of standing in front of a classroom to deliver oral reports were over and after this one course, so would any days of public speaking.
On the first set of public speeches we were required to deliver in class, I distinctly remember one girl. I cannot place her face now and I do not even remember her name but I will not forget this particularly intense moment. After sitting through the first few speeches, it was time for this girl to have her turn. From the moment she walked to the podium, we could see that she was visibly nervous. By the time she faced us, we could see that she was terrified. I remember looking quickly around the room to see everyone sitting patiently and attempting to offer her visual cues of support. I performed the same feat, hoping that this girl could see that we all understood, that she was amongst friends and nothing horrific was bound to happen to her. Unfortunately, it was all for nothing. The girl tried to squeak out a few words, shaking and stammering throughout and growing visibly unhinged at the idea of having to stand in front of us for one moment longer. She eventually stood silently, tried again and then, fear having overtaken her, the girl raced from the podium and out of the classroom. We never saw her ever again.
Now, this girl is a person I have not thought of since that class in the spring of 1989. Yet, this memory flooded back into the front of my mind during the crucially painful opening sequence of Director Tom Hooper’s wonderful new film, “The King’s Speech,” as Albert, the Duke Of York (an astounding Colin Firth), and son of King George V (Michael Gambon), makes a disastrous speech at Wembley Stadium due to a debilitating stutter. The severe embarrassment, frustration and shame are all apparent in Colin Firth’s eyes and the empathy, conveyed without any overly sentimental cinematic trappings, could be felt throughout the theater as our collective hearts could not help but to reach out this man in need.
Whether through cinematic accident, coincidence or grand design, it amazes me when films of completely different subject matter and tonal quality can all ultimately revolve around shared themes and concepts. Very recently, I have written about films that have been structured around the beauty of language and communication, from The Coen Brothers’ “True Grit,” Will Gluck’s “Easy A,” and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” And if there exists a common theme on Savage Cinema, the concept that I keep returning to time and again, it is the theme of humanity. In my mind, “The King’s Speech,” a movingly humane film that utilizes issues of language and communication brilliantly, is easily one of 2010’s standout films.
After the Wembley Stadium debacle and enduring one failed attempt at curing his stammer with one speech therapist after another, Albert has resigned himself to his fate of veritable speechlessness. Yet, his wife Elizabeth (a wonderful Helena Bonham Carter) has not given up as she has resigned herself to exhausting every conceivable opportunity in aiding her husband. Acting upon a recommendation, she finds the location of speech therapist (and failed actor) Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unorthodox manner and perceived inability of being intimidated by royalty intrigues her enough to encourage Albert’s subsequent visitation.
As their lessons are at first tentative but cordial, the relationship between Albert and Lionel soon grows contentious and becomes a dual battle of wills: Albert’s resistance to Lionel’s teachings and Albert’s resistance against himself. Understandable as the pain of trying again when only failure has ever been the result outweighs any potential successes. The sessions, which do include copious amounts of vocal, breathing and other physical exercises, broaden into the psychological as Lionel is able to probe into Albert’s past, allowing both men to reveal some of the possible roots of Albert’s stammer. As new understandings arise, a greater sense of mutual respect and friendship forms between the two men.
Through eventual family complexities and the dawn of World War II come into striking focus, Albert, now christened King George VI, is faced with mustering the courage to unite and lead a nation. But first, he must discover the courage within himself to accept the help he desperately needs to find and utilize his voice.
Splendidly executed, Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” is like a perfectly composed and performed piece of classical music but it is not a piece of exclusivity. It is designed for the masses. There is a unique quality surrounding “The King’s Speech” that allows the film to avoid every possible cliché and potential obstacle. It is an old-fashioned film yet never grows turgid or stodgy, as it possesses an internal momentum and sharp energy the keep everything flowing ever so smoothly and provocatively. The consistently witty screenplay by David Seidler gives Firth and Rush ample opportunity to include many doses of humor and a few brief moments that lean towards a Monty Python-esque quality, amidst the pathos.
Perceptively, “The King’s Speech” also finds the opportunity to make sly critiques at the media’s presence and how significant a role it plays within our political structure. As King George V is the first British monarch to elicit a radio address, he grumbles to his son Albert that the majesty of his royalty has officially been reduced to a lower form: those who are actors. How apt an observation, especially as we ponder the current status of our political structure. We all understand just how crucially this one skill of public speaking can make or destroy an image as well as a perception of one’s self-worth. Think a moment about our current President as well as those from our recent history and ask yourself how their abilities (and NOT the content of their messages) on television, in debates and speeches contributed to your perceptions of who they were and even their level of intelligence. This specific layer adds additional weight to the story of “The King’s Speech,” making the parallels between that era and our current one so palpable.
Further and most importantly, “The King’s Speech” is an intimate, eloquent and deeply felt drama. Despite my status as a lifelong anglophile, I have to admit that I tend to hold an aversion to the genre of historical dramas and the “Masterpiece Theater”/”Master Thespian” style of acting as I find those regal stories of the ruling class rather stuffy. But, what the film accomplishes immediately in the film’s opening minutes is to strip away the pomp and circumstance and make the story instantaneously accessible. Not by dumbing it down in the least but by making the story so recognizably human and therefore completely relatable. As previously stated, it’s all in Firth’s eyes as we see the character of Albert, the Duke of York, struggling to verbally form the words swimming in his head and that epic disappointment he feels within himself for being unable to do so. Who could not possibly relate to that level of perceived and realized failure and public humiliation?
The lessons in proper elocution and diction Lionel Logue teaches to Albert leads to greater lessons as the film’s emotional journey takes the forefront. The film is extremely perceptive in how personal fears and inner negativity can plant insurmountable seeds that grow into even more insurmountable psychological walls. In its non-preachy fashion, “The King’s Speech” illustrates so simply how we are all the products of who we were as small children and how those events shape us into the adults we become, for better or for worse. In the case of Albert, his private demons have led him to be stubbornly stoic, making the difficulty of asking for and accepting help so seemingly impossible.
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush make a combination of absolute perfection and both men are working at the top of their games. These are two amazing performances that play off of each other, compliment each other while feeling effortless, convincing and entirely natural. They are obvious and much deserved picks for Awards season nominations and if both men shockingly do not receive attention, then something has gone horrifically wrong in Hollywood. Firth and Rush are an acting dream team to savor, using the language of cinema to communicate so completely, our collective foibles and failures and how through patience, empathy, tolerance and acceptance, we have the ability to succeed and soar.
Returning to that speech class from long ago, I survived it. In fact, I did surprisingly well by the course’s end and I did feel a sense of accomplishment. But morseo, returning to the prophetic words of that youngish Teaching Assistant back in the spring of 1989, I have to concede that every single word she uttered concerning the reality of all of us speaking publicly has proven to be more than valid. In my profession as a preschool teacher, I am required to deliver an orientation to new families every September and I have done so for the last thirteen years. Additionally, I have spoken at my parents’ retirement gala event and last year, I spoke at the funeral of a cherished Uncle. Despite all of the experience, the task has never grown easier for me as I am still that silent child sitting in the back of the classroom fearing to open his mouth lest I risk public ridicule. As I feel so much more comfort with the written word, I still would prefer to write my thoughts down and send it along, without having to engage anyone so openly. And like it or not, I am forced to confront my own fears and just speak.
While I speak, my mind indeed races towards the negative, especially during those school settings as parents regard me. I fear words will fail and they all find me a fraud who has no idea of what he is talking about, questioning exactly why they pay so much in tuition for this clown before them who desires to be an influence within their children’s lives. And always afterwards, I am surprised and relieved with the positive results.
It is that particular experience I found to be so profoundly moving in “The King’s Speech,” as the communicative power of the spoken word is actually achieved through a symbiotic act. Like King George VI, or anyone else who has ever addressed a group of people, be it 12 or one billion, we all desire to receive the information the speaker wishes to deliver. As I speak within a classroom setting, or in honor of my parents or in remembrance of my Uncle, despite my hefty and constant fears of failure, I somehow know that there is no one wishing me harm. Each word spoken is assisted by each waiting gaze and our collective success is based in our collective desires for nothing less than the positive. Like that terrified girl in that speech class, we only wished her well and I would like to think that everyone is wishing me the same. But, that girl, like Albert, the Duke of York, seemed to be in a state where she was either unwilling or unable to accept the assistance we were all desperately trying to deliver to her. And I wished that she could have only received the message we were sending to her.
“The King’s Speech” is a tale of two men who perform this exact feat, as their symbiotic nature allows both men to rise to their grandest heights. Through patience, sympathy, understanding, and some tough provocation, they become the best of themselves only through the aid of each other. No one accomplishes this feat through the solitude and emptiness of a vacuum. It is through our collective humanity that all messages sent are graciously and enthusiastically received. The messages of “The King’s Speech” arrived loudly, clearly, through enormous entertainment value, exquisite artistic skill, knowing psychology and deep sentiment.
“The King’s Speech” is one of the most beautifully realized and empathetic films of 2010.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Based upon characters and situations
created by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird
Story by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz and Brian Klugman & Lee Strenthal
Screenplay Written by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
*** (three stars)
In 1982, I was 13 years old and whether it was through a suggestion by my parents or through my own desire, I was enrolled in a summer computer class. While my memory informs me that I performed fairly well in the class, I quickly realized that the mathematically driven course was not designed for me as my particular brand of literacy drifted towards words and not flowchart. The bottom line for me was simple: I enjoyed playing video games and simply had no desire or ambition to create video games. So, any fondness that remains from that time consists of all of the truly primitive video games I was enthralled to play and some strange fascination and comfort I felt when I heard the constant white noise of the printer churning out sheets and sheets of code onto those larger, perforated green and white striped sheets.
That same summer also saw the release of Writer/Director Steven Lisberger’s ambitious science fiction computer wizard joyride entitled “Tron.” The story of genius computer programmer Kevin Flynn’s (Jeff Bridges) journey into the world behind his computer screen and his adventures with the titular and virtual hero (played by Bruce Boxleitner) excited my sci-fi/fantasy spirit and I was as anxious to see the film as I was for any new spectacular from Steven Spielberg. But, somehow I had to convince my parents, strict disciplinarians who, at times, did not suffer or entertain my enthusiasm for cinema. So, after convincing my Father that seeing “Tron” would be beneficial to any potential success in my computer class, he agreed and I saw the film opening weekend and even wrote a review of the film and handed it in for extra credit the following week. “Tron” was a veritable neon colored wonderland with sights, sounds and experiences to highly regard. Yes, the story was a bit silly as it did not transport me in the same way or to the level that Spielberg and George Lucas were able to. But, I loved it anyway as it was a unique experience that really has not been duplicated in quite the same fashion. In “Tron,” computer technology became elevated to the near mystical, the battle disc fight sequences and light cycle chases blew my mind and the devil may care presence of Bridges made for a great hero to follow absolutely anywhere.
Even with all of my weariness with the current glut of sequels, re-makes and reboots plaguing our cinemas these days, I have to admit that I was extremely curious and excited when it was first announced that “Tron” would be receiving a follow-up installment. When I saw the first trailer, my jaw hit the floor as the idea of a sequel to “Tron” somehow felt more valid to me than the standard cash and grab mentality, especially as the original film did not set the box office on fire and has remained more of a cult film favorite. The possibilities and potential behind such a sequel intrigued me and I knew I would not miss this event for anything.
And now, at last, we arrive 28 years later with “Tron: Legacy,” helmed very confidently by Joseph Kosinski, his directorial debut! It is a film that has (almost) everything I could have ever expected from such a sequel while also upgrading it to a modern darkness that speaks knowingly to our dark times. This is no brain dead sequel and its own sense of ambition is greatly appreciated, as this is a film that is truly making an honest effort. While it is a little too convoluted and also more than a little silly like the original, is an exceedingly good and well made film. It’s not great but there is much greatness in it.
Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn, now the long running CEO of the ENCOM corporation he battled in the first film. Beginning in 1989, the ever-innovative Flynn is on the brink of a new technological discovery with which he hopes to bridge the gap between electronics, religion, and philosophy, elevating society as a whole. Yet, after a weaving fantastical bedtime stories of electronic other worlds to his young son Sam, Flynn mysteriously disappears, never to be heard from again.
Zooming to present day, Garrett Hedlund stars as Flynn’s 27-year-old son Sam Flynn, equally brash, cocky and technically brilliant as well as being the main shareholder of ENCOM, who has endlessly searched for his Father since his disappearance. After being visited by Flynn’s one time romantic rival and subsequent closest friend and ally, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, reprising his role as well) and being informed of a mysterious page he received from Flynn’s defunct video arcade, Sam begins to embark upon a transformative journey he has only ever dreamt of.
Discovering his Father’s secret office housed underground from the arcade, Sam, like his Father before him, finds himself transported into The Grid, the virtual world of Flynn’s conception, and is forced to partake in a series of future games and fight for his survival. Sam soon meets Clu (again played by Bridges), the virtual representation of Flynn’s original program now gone amok with malicious power and consumed with intentions of manipulating and manifesting the power of his artificial intelligence beyond The Grid and into the real world. As Sam dangerously navigates through The Grid, he desperate hopes to find his long lost Father, defeat Clu, discover the secret of Tron’s whereabouts and finally, return to the real world.
As those crafty kids of the 21st century would say, “Tron: Legacy” is a mash-up. Yet, it is a solid mash-up of ideas, themes and concepts filtered through a gorgeously visual thrill ride blender. For fans of the original “Tron,” all of the classic iconography is present and proudly on display from the battle discs, light cycle chases and soaring flights on the light sail barges. It even ensures nods to Journey (who contributed music to the original) as well as physically re-imagining the original film’s now iconic one sheet poster image. Beyond that, there are many nods to other classic science fiction films including: Stanley Kubrick’s vortex sequence from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); The Wachowski brothers’ “Matrix” series (which itself had to have been influenced by “Tron”), Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), mostly through its highly synthetic film score by Daft Punk, which nods to Vangelis’ innovative score, and more than enough steals from the entire “Star Wars” saga that I hope George Lucas notices the obvious affection and chooses not to sue Kosinski and his filmmaking team.
Underneath the special effects sheen, I really appreciated that Kosinski and his screenwriters (veterans of television’s “Lost”) desired to add some depth to the material, making this film stand for more than a virtual war between programs and users. “Tron: Legacy” presents a grim landscape inside and outside of the computer realm as the real world and sci-fi dystopia each contain warnings about humans losing their humanity to the machines who crave it and will ultimately enslave us. As presented in David Fincher’s “The Social Network” and even Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim VS. The World,” the advent of the internet and constant presence of computer technology has allowed cyberspace to become an extension of ourselves. ”Tron: Legacy” is an action film devoted to the concept of what happens when the lines between our real and virtual selves becomes blurred, distorted and overtaken. What is Clu but Flynn’s raging ambition gone completely out of control?
Jeff Bridges’ performance is a masterful dual role elevating this material to almost becoming a sort of 21st century Paradise Lost crossed with “Star Wars.” “Tron: Legacy” features the Jedi Knight/God version of Flynn VS. the Sith Lord/Satan version of Clu with the fate of the world trapped in the middle and Sam the Son as the Savior to release everyone from virtual tyranny. The most stunning effect in this film, which is filled with stunning effects, is the sight of a young Jeff Bridges in the form of Clu, allowing old and young Jeff Bridges to act together. The sight of an incorrect looking 30-year-old Jeff Bridges is a creepy effect that should be a warning to all CGI artists everywhere but actually works to support the theme of machines suffocating our humanity.
Aside from the deeper themes, I have to give special mention to Michael Sheen as the sinister, effeminate program known as Zuse. Sheen’s performance is a wacky hybrid of Sydney Greenstreet and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane characters. When he was on screen, the film perked to some oddball subversive planes.
But for me, the weak link is Garrett Hedlund who does indeed bear a strong resemblance to Bridges and even more strikingly, Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker from “Revenge Of The Sith” (2005). But as this film stands, Hedlund almost feels as if he has graduated from the “Kristen Stewart School Of Acting” as he harbors one expression and vocal tone throughout the entire film. He has the physicality and the energy but no emotional range and it ultimately made for a weak and dangerously bland hero to follow.
The film also has more than enough exposition to deal with and when that is merged with the mythological/biblical allegory, those sequences do tend to drag a little bit but not so much as to derail the experience as a whole. And for as stunning as "Tron: Legacy" is presented and executed, it wasn’t that much fun. Where was the awe? The wonder? Or at least, that “gee-whiz” excitement? Since so much was done to weave the sinister web of the virtual grid, it was as if Kosini and his writers forgot about the playfulness of it all. Such a shame as this all takes place inside of the computer world lodged underneath a dilapidated video game arcade. Again, nothing derailed the entire experience but I just wasn’t as exhilarated as I am certain the filmmakers wanted me to have been.
At this time, if I could offer Joseph Kosinski any word of advice (and knowing that he would listen to little old me), I would advise him to not let his film references overtake his own artistic vision. Yes, this is his first film and again, it is an excellent form of craftsmanship, but everything in it has been recycled from something else and without a sense of any new perspective. In comparing "Tron: Legacy" to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” we have a film that proudly wore its influences upon its dream world sleeves but everything was filtered through Nolan’s consistent themes and concepts of duality and mind games, themes which have been a part of all of his films since “Momento” (2000). “Inception” was yet another chapter in Christopher Nolan’s ongoing oeuvre and I would love the chance to see what a filmmaker of Kosinski’s obvious talents would do with an original story.
All of that being said, "Tron: Legacy" is a much worthy sequel to the original, presented in grand style and supreme confidence with the amazing Jeff Bridges, obviously having a blast and in full command of his acting powers. Even with my quibbles, this is a strong effort that will easily reward you with a fine time at the movies.
Sunday, January 2, 2011
Based upon the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth
Screenplay Written by Rowan Joffe
Directed by Anton Corbijn
** 1/2 (two and a half stars)
There’s a “blink and you’ll miss it,” moment in Director Tony Scott’s kinetic paranoid surveillance thriller “Enemy Of The State” (1998) that made me smile and pause. During a brief respite in the action, fugitive attorney Will Smith comes across a photo of a younger version of Gene Hackman’s embittered surveillance expert. I smiled because the photo appeared to be a promotional head shot from Hackman’s starring role as surveillance expert Harry Caul from Francis Ford Coppola’s atmospheric, paranoid thriller “The Conversation” (1974). I paused because as I saw the photo and thought of that film, I remarked to myself that there would be absolutely no way “The Conversation” could be made in the exact same way today.
My relationship with “The Conversation” has been previously detailed on this site yet to quickly recount, my initial meeting with that film was not a pleasant one. I found the interior story of a psychologically tortured surveillance expert consumed in self-isolation and increasing paranoia and guilt to be a excruciatingly boring experience, and its deeply celebrated legacy escaped me completely. But, subsequent viewings over the years revealed to me its brilliance. It is not a film with much action. There’s not much actual momentum as Gene Hackman is in a state of emotional paralysis for much of the running time. But the atmosphere Coppola creates, combined with Hackman’s incredible performance, weaves a spell of dread, anxiety and anguish that is nearly impenetrable and amazingly artful. It truly is one of the best films of the 1970s.
With that memory in place, I can easily see why photographer turned filmmaker Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” did not survive long at the box office this past fall. It is an internally complex and provocative film which proves that a film like “The Conversation” could get made in the 21st century. However, despite its classy stature, noble artistic intents and another strong leading performance by George Clooney, it is a film that is much too dry for its own good and brooding to the point of being somnambulant.
Clooney stars as Jack, an aging assassin and arms maker who is increasingly confronting the consequences of his chosen profession. As “The American” opens, Jack is nestled quietly in Sweden with a lover. While on a silent morning snowy walk, he is attacked by two Swedish hit men, which jack quickly and fatally dispatches. Leaving no loose ends, Jack is also forced to murder his lover. Upon exiting Sweden, Jack is given a cell phone and informed by his superior Pavel to relocate to a small Italian town named Castlevecchio, await further instructions and under no circumstances, create any friendships or relationships with anyone.
Once Jack arrives in Castlevecchio, he reconsiders. Seemingly appearing to reject his profession and the accompanying psychological and spiritual baggage, Jack ultimately rejects Pavel’s orders as he throws away the cell phone and relocates to a nearby town called Castel del Monte. After acquiring simple lodging for himself, he throws caution to the wind. Jack, now identifying himself as “Edward,” is soon befriended by Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a highly gracious and astute Priest, who sees right through Jack and offers comfort, food, drink and spiritual counseling. To satisfy his physical needs, Jack begins to make frequent visits to a local brothel where he surprisingly discovers his growing affection for Clara (Violante Placido), his prostitute of choice. His nights are plagued with restlessness and nightmares and his source of tranquility is a small almanac of butterflies.
Compulsively, Jack finds himself at a pay phone, placing a call to Pavel, alerting him to his whereabouts and announcing that he is ready for new instructions. Jack is ordered to create a weapon for a female assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) to be used in an upcoming political killing. As Jack silently and diligently creates the weapon, and deepens his romance with Clara, he continues to wrestle with his inner turmoil as the life he feels resigned to and the life he truly wishes to lead ultimately converge with tragic results.
“The American” is a story of isolation and quite possibly, the character study of a man on a quest for atonement he knows is undeserved, yet nonetheless seeks it. Like “The Conversation,” Corbijn weaves a predominantly silent tale of insular sorrow There’s not much in actual momentum and actually, there’s not much copious dialogue either. “The American” is a moody affair designed to create a certain pall of existential melancholy, which is elegantly delivered through Corbijn’s stark, sharp cinematography where you can feel the openness of the landscapes and the emptiness contained within them. Ironically, for a film entitled “The American,” the film actually feels like a European film with its complete lack of concessions to Hollywood film conventions and spectacle. This is a film about behavior, something Hollywood thinks audiences do not have much of an interest in anymore.
I have to commend George Clooney, who also serves as one of the film’s producers, for being able to get a film this meditative made at all in today’s cinematic climate, which has grown increasingly unwilling to take artistic risks. I must also commend him fro his performance, which is filled with depth, pathos and gravitas, and all without very much dialogue at all. We are forced to study Clooney’s face and the most minuscule expressions in order to fathom just exactly what he may be thinking about in any given moments. It is a fascinating portrayal that sits nicely alongside his many other illustrations of the lives of solitary men from Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” (2002), Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” (2007), and Jason Reitman’s "Up In The Air” (2009). Clooney’s skillful performance reminded me very much of William Hurt’s series of roles in the 1980s, like Randa Haines’ “Children Of A Lesser God” (1986), James L. Brooks’ superlative “Broadcast News” (1987) and Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Accidental Tourist” (1988). Within all of those roles, Hurt was sublimely able to fully realize the souls of the faceless men who wear business suits and that specific quality is one of Clooney’s greatest attributes as each of his portrayals is independent from each other and uniquely rich in quality and dramatic heft.
With the character of Jack, Clooney embodies the spirit of a man who exists but is unable to live. He skulks in a haze through the world as a living dead man, a reticent specter consumed with eternal punishment for his evil deeds. Yet, he struggles to exit his violent life with finality, rediscover and reclaim his humanity and the juxtapositions of his character are compelling. Amidst all of the sequences where we watch Jack slowly creating a rifle we are given scenes of his desire to engage his fragile spirit, either through his romance with Clara, discussions with the priest or his fascinations with butterflies. Furthermore, I think we are actually meant to wonder if his pseudonym of “Edward” is actually his real name, and even deeper, his real self.
All of that is extremely gripping and I love character studies of this sort but I did not love or even really like this film. I appreciate this film. I admire this film. I commend Clooney for making it. But, again I just didn’t like it very much. Like Noah Baumbach’s well-intentioned “Greenberg” (2010), “The American” was a film severely undone by its own inertia and snowflake silence.
Perhaps this was another fault of the studio’s promotion and advertising elements as the film’s trailer and one sheet poster suggested a film that is much more aggressive than it actually is. Certainly that could be a dramatic contributing factor to the film's massive box office drop off from its first weekend to its second. But, on a creative level, Corbijn, while able to elicit terrific performances, visual sophistication and complex themes, is not quite able to establish a certain momentum to keep the story flowing. I mean, there’s contemplative and probing and then there’s narcoleptic!
And worst of all were his choices for the film’s final moments of which I would certainly not reveal here, but I will say drifted towards a higher melodrama that was not present at any point, anywhere else in the film, making an ending that was almost laughable instead of crippling. Since Corbijn is a photographer, I wondered if that had anything to do with my lack of emotions for his film, for this is a motion picture and “The American” felt static to the point of being emotionally stifled.
“The American” is a valiant effort and I am so pleased that it at least tried to address issues of humanity honestly. Can you ever truly escape the life you make for yourself? Is what you do the thing that truly defines who you are? Can you ever really change and do you deserve to? Great questions but I wish the way in which those questions were addressed were more emotionally satisfying.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
My feelings concerning this particular film genre do not exist for any real reasons but somehow, the sight of the lone cowboy riding the range on the dusty trail just doesn’t carry much appeal for me. This is not a set in stone rule with me, as every Western I have seen has filled me with various levels of enjoyment.
Yet, if I did have one quibble with "True Grit” and maybe with Bridges in particular, is that perhaps his performance was a tad too lived in as the glorious language spews forth from his mouth in a guttural garbled morass that is, at times, difficult to understand and I sometimes wished that I had a subtitle feature switch to click. He often reminded me of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes”(2009) where he was inebriated as well as half-mad, making his amazing dialogue came forth in an speed rap rush which was also filtered through a British accent at that.
Then again, both Damon and Brolin are also found in situations in “True Grit” where they deliver oodles of dialogue as they are verbally compromised as well. Was this was an intentional quality set in motion by the Coen brothers? What if the patterns of speech are garbled simply to belie the intelligence and artfulness underneath the deep character flaws? Have the flaws beaten down the elegance, virtue and “true grit” beneath the rough, questionable veneer and the impediments of speech can purposefully cloud the language? Intentional or not, it was difficult here and there and I just wished the words could be more easily understood at times.
But, hey, that's an extremely minimal criticism for a movie that has been mounted so handsomely. Has the excellence of "True Grit" cured my aversion to the Western. Maybe not. But, I do have this Western, presented under the filmmaking brilliance of the Coen brothers. A Western I am already extremely eager to return to.
Story by Andres Heinz
Screenplay Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
**** (four stars)
As far as I am concerned, just give Natalie Portman the Oscar for Best Actress right now. Skip the contest and preamble and just give it to her. She deserves it and she more than earned it. Case closed. But, more on Ms. Portman a bit later…
During the month of December, magazines and television programs all create their year-end wrap-ups, many of which culminate with a series of lists that contain selections for the best and worst of a particular genre. I will tell you that for movies, and for Savage Cinema in particular, I will not compile a final list until around late January/mid February, the period just before the late February 2011 Academy Awards telecast. This is simply because many films have not received a wide release as of yet and/or I just have not had the time and opportunity to see everything that I wish to see.
For most of 2010, Writer/Director Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” became and remained my favorite film of the year. I have seen many films that I have loved or admired so very much throughout the latter half of 2010 but I just had not found anything that I felt had reached even beyond the immense heights set by that awesome head spinning experience. But then, in the afternoon on the very last day of the year, I walked into a screening of “Black Swan,” Director Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller set within the world of Ballet Theater. Two hours later, I walked out of that film knowing that the bar set by “Inception” had indeed been dramatically raised. I realize that it is going to be a bit of a premature statement as there are more films I wish to see. But, I am going to go out on a limb and announce that “Black Swan” is, far and away, my favorite film of 2010.
Natalie Portman gives a fearless, dynamic, swan dive of a performance as Nina Sayers, an aging ballet dancer, desperately trying to attain the dual leading role of “The Swan Queen/The Black Swan” in her company’s production of “Swan Lake.” Nina’s overly intensive and obsessive quest for perfection leads her down increasingly and equally intensive confrontations with all of the primary figures in her life. She struggles physically and professionally with pleasing her powerfully demanding artistic Director/Choreographer Thomas Leroy (a brilliant Vincent Cassell). She weathers the jealous wrath of her dancing peers, most notably Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the once glorious now “elder” dancer being kicked aside for Nina in the “Swan Lake” production. Additionally, Nina faces extreme competition and fear of replacement from Lily (an excellent Mila Kunis), a new dancer, whose outward confidence and sexual energy assures her a more perfect fit for the role of the “Black Swan.” At home, life is no calmer as Nina lives with her suffocating Mother, Erica (a downright creepy Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who is obviously living her own failed dreams through Nina. And yet, Nina’s greatest foes are the demons that exist within herself and surround her constantly, defying her to “let go” and give herself into her darker tendencies in order to fully embody the role of “The Black Swan.”
Like the very best films I saw in 2010, “Black Swan” is a one-of-a-kind experience that announces itself in the movie theater so confidently as being unlike anything else currently showing on any other screen. For those of you who were expecting either a quaint, straightforward filmed version of “Swan Lake” or conversely, a Lifetime/”Fatal Attraction” styled thriller, “Black Swan” is defiantly not either of those types of movies. In addition to having a front row seat to the self-destruction of a woman’s fragile mind, not since Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008), have I seen a film that established its own high level of intensity so immediately, subsequently tightening the experience within an inch of its life and carrying the audience along with it. It is a character study of a young woman’s relentlessly unforgiving nature against herself. It is an exploration of the grueling athleticism and competition of dance while also functioning as a horror film. And as the tension skyrockets, Nina's descent becomes that much greater making the experience unrelenting.
Extreme congratulations must be given to the film’s entire cast and crew for the grand success of this motion picture as Aronofsky is in full command of his filmmaking powers, creating what may be his best film to date. MVP status must first be awarded to Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose hand-held camera work places you so dangerously close to Nina Sayers’ head that the audience serves as her eyes, making us see the world the exact way she sees the world, suddenly arriving hallucinations and all. Composer Cliff Mansell’s film score, which utilizes many elements and themes from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” is possibly the most sinister and disturbing usage of classical music in a film since Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1972). Aronofsky’s Sound Department, Editing team and Visual Effects team also deserve top awards for their contributions to “Black Swan” as they make the film a full auditory/visual experience with the eerie sounds of fluttering wings, disembodied noises of laughter and crying traveling through visual moments on wondering if you indeed saw what you thought you saw. All of these combined efforts make the experience of “Black Swan” akin to having a first class ticket to the inside of an unhinged and unraveling brain.
Most compellingly, Aronofsky has fashioned a fever dream feast of thematic, conceptual, physical and psychological juxtapositions that is nothing short of magnificent and deeply labyrinthine. Combined with the dueling color schemes of black and white and the constant presence of mirrors and mirror imagery, the story of “Black Swan” itself is a mirror image of the story of “Swan Lake” with the actors functioning as mirror images of their film characters, and their film characters function as mirror images of their “Swan Lake” personas. As for Nina Sayers, the mirror imagery grows deeper as all of the characters, in her life and in the story of “Swan Lake,” are also reflections of her fracturing psyche. It is not as confusing at I may have may it sound as the experience of “Black Swan” is jarringly yet brilliantly seamless.
Certainly when it comes to all forms of artistic expression, to each their own. I will greatly concede that the experience of “Black Swan” is not meant for everyone. And it shouldn’t be. That said, I do have to say that as I heard the harshly negative comments by two older women being presented LOUDLY behind me once the film concluded, I do have to admit that I desired strongly to jump into the conversation and verbally clean their collective clocks. This feeling became especially apparent when they actually criticized the performance of Natalie Portman, proclaiming that while she is pretty, all she did over the course of two hours was look pained and that she really did absolutely nothing at all. Ladies, you’re dead wrong.
Natalie Portman has been an actress I have admired for many, many years yet I have often felt that she tends to hold back within her performances, like there is this untapped energy she is either unwilling or unable to access. In Luc Besson’s “The Professional” (1994), Mike Nichols’ “Closer” (2004) and even Wes Anderson’s “Hotel Chevalier” his prelude to “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), I saw flashes of that hungry energy underneath the precious china doll fragility. For “Black Swan,” in order to feel the complete fury of Nina Sayers’ psychological descent, Natalie Portman has to be able to harness that particular energy and take the audience to Hell.
Yes, Natalie Portman does carry a pained expression throughout “Black Swan” and she does carry the gait of a dying flower. But don’t let that quivering visage fool you. Natalie Portman is a powerhouse and her performance is a complete work of physical and psychological anguish. Yes, like Nina, we can see the toll the physical demands of this role have taken upon Portman’s already diminutive frame. But, I would mainly like to focus upon the insular aspects of her work.
As I have already stated, “Black Swan” is a film of juxtapositions and the character of Nina Sayers’s mental breakdown occurs through her own self-punishment with attempting to tap into her darker energy to fully convince theater audiences that she is both the Swan Queen and the Black Swan. Similarly, Natalie Portman herself has to convince the audience in the movie theater that she is able tap into that similar energy. Portman is playing a dual role while Nina plays a dual role as well and both of whom are involved with the painful act and art of becoming.
For Portman, her physical nature informs and enhances the psychological as the psychological informs and enhances the physical. This particular act creates a conceptual wheel that is in constant revolution, revolving faster and faster until the breaking point. Yet, here is where Natalie Portman and Nina Sayers divide as Portman is in complete control while giving the performance of a woman spiraling entirely out of control.
The casting of Mila Kunis as Lily, Nina’s rival, is deeply inspired as Kunis instantly conveys to the movie theater audience an ease with herself, a supreme inner confidence, as well as a provocative carnal energy that makes you snap your head towards her the moment she arrives on screen. Like the energy between Lily and Nina and their combined effect over their director and ballet troupe, Kunis effortlessly keeps your attention and nearly steals every scene she shares with Portman. But just when she is about to claim the scene for herself, Portman wrestles it back, re-asserting that she is indeed the star of this movie. The acting dance Portman and Kunis share throughout “Black Swan” is electrifying and every single moment between them, combined with all else that I have mentioned, has created the performance of Natalie Portman’s life. Yes, she is indeed that spectacular and if people cannot see that, I just don’t know what movie they were watching.
Throughout this review, I have referred to “Black Swan" as an experience. For me, when I think of my favorite films of the year, I ponder which films made me forget that I was even watching a movie. I think of the ones that could even make me forget that I was in a movie theater and I just became a part of what was in front of my eyes, no matter the genre. Those films transcend just being films and they ultimately receive the highest of praise from me.
“Black Swan” achieved that feat stronger than any other film I saw in 2010. It transcended its form and became something so much more. “Black Swan” will rattle your cages and alter your senses. “Black Swan” is an opera for your nightmares.
Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” featuring the uncaged, blistering work of Natalie Portman, is cinema to behold.