"The Fighter" (***-114 minutes)-Monday December 6, 2010
Critically acclaimed Director David O. Russell directs yet another boxing tale that is at the heart and soul of lead actor, ex-Backstreet Boy, Mark Wahlberg who spent years trying to get it made. Based on the true-to-life story of Massachusetts boxer, Mickey Ward, the film, strangely, is focused more on the people around him: Alice, his domineering mother/manager wannabee (Melissa Leo who was nominated for her riveting performance last year in the indy film "Frozen River" and who gives a bravura performance in this role); his crackhead ex-boxer older brother Dicky (Christian Bale who gives a somewhat over-the-top interpretation of a guy whose only claim to fame is that he might have once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard), his tough-as-nails girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams, giving a feisty memorable turn as the barmaid who tries to wrestle Mickey away from his mom and take over Mickey's future); and, in a supporting role, 7 (very annoying) sisters who are more caricature than real in the several scenes they appear. The storyline, of Mickey attempting to step in and fill the shoes vacated by his loser brother, and his journey to succeed, well, we've seen this all before. In addition, the fight sequences are pedestrian at best when compared to such classics as "Raging Bull", "Body & Soul", and even "Rocky I". However, this film gets an above average three stars more for its endearing characters and acting chops from the principals, than from its familiar storyline.

"Black Swan" (*** 1/2-108 minutes)-Monday December 13, 2010
Director Darren Aronofsky's 2008's "The Wrestler" put Mickey Rourke back on the map. His latest should put actress Natalie Portman squarely in the middle of the map-especially come Oscar night. Her interpretation of Nina Sayers, the troubled ballet dancer trying to win the dual roles of the white/black swan in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake", is clearly one for the ages. Portman actually trained for ten months to prepare her for the physical and psychological challenges the script demanded-and it all paid off in spades. Nina has always dreamed of landing the lead role and knows that it demands professional perfection. Unfortunately, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the creative director, sees her only as the white innocent swan and incapable of transforming herself into the darker black swan. Driven to get the part, she realizes that to achieve perfection, and to successfully gain the dual roles, she must submit to the iron wills & devious motives of everyone around her. This realization starts her spiraling down to professional, personal, and psychological hell. Of particular note are the top notch supporting roles of Barbara Hershey in a wonderful, long overdue comeback, as Erica, Nina's failed ex-ballerina stage mom who sees Nina as merely a reflection of her long abandoned ambition, and Mila Kunis ("Date Night", "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") as Lily who is the understudy Nina fears is vying for her job. Also, look for Winona Ryder as the aging ballerina, & Leroy's lover, who is about to be replaced by Nina. And always in the background is a wonderful score provided by Clint Mansell as well as the continuous swirling sounds of the great 19th century Russian composer whose ballet is the backdrop of the story. However, it is Aronofsky's talent of portraying the devious inner workings of professional ballet companies, as well as the inner minds of driven, talented artists who cannot determine what is real and what is not, that makes this a potent unforgettable thriller.

"True Grit" (*** 1/2-110 minutes)-Tuesday December 14, 2010
The great Coen Brothers are at it again. This time, they are applying their enormous talent and vision to a somewhat surprising new project: a remake, of sorts, of the John Wayne 1968 western that earned the late veteran an Oscar. Of sorts because, unlike the original, their story more closely follows Charles Portis' 1968 novel about an old grizzled U.S. Marshall who is more interested in drinking whiskey than helping a young girl track down and bring to justice the murderer of her father. And that young girl takes the original Kim Darby part and turns it on its ear, as newcomer Hailee Steinfeld turns in a memorable performance opposite Jeff Bridges. Although his turn does not top Wayne's, Bridges interprets a very believable, albeit, slightly different "Rooster" Cogburn . A solid supporting cast includes Matt Damon, practically unrecognizable here as the Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (I love that name!) who briefly joins the tracking party in search of Tom Clancy, played by the always reliable Josh Brolin-who doesn't appear until the final reel. Of particular note is Barry Pepper as "Lucky" Ned Pepper, leader of the bad dudes, who is the absolute personification of evil. What really stood out for me is the language. Joel & Ethan have created words and sentences that sing. (In any other year, I would predict they'd take home the Best Adapted Screenplay-if not for the extraordinary screenplay by Aaron Sorkin for "The Social Network"). And their longtime cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, has created a feel for the old west that is glorious on the big screen. (My jaw dropped when I saw the western town in the opening 5 minutes. I started brushing the dirt off my clothes.) The Coens are defined by their offbeat films and characters so, it was refreshing in a way, to see them successfully tackle a new genre and, for them, play it straight.

"The King's Speech" (*** 1/2-118 minutes)-Tuesday January 25, 2011
Little known director Tom Hooper (he did a TV drama in 2007, "Longford", and a critically well received sports movie in 2009, "The Damned United") has created a small ($15 million) intimate historical drama that is gaining Oscar momentum, the likes of which has not been seen in years. When King Edward abdicated the throne to marry Baltimore-bred socialite, the twice divorced commoner Wallis Simpson, it fell upon his brother Albert (who would become the father of Queen Elizabeth II) to take over the realm in 1936. The only problem was, the shy reserved Albert had absolutely no desire to take the job. Another reason was that he had been suffering from stuttering since an early age. The film opens with him giving a speech to a vast British audience to open The British Empire Exhibition in 1925. Considering how hard it must have been to deal with the malady in private conversation, imagine the terror he must have felt delivering speeches to what essentially was 1/4 of the world's population at that time! When visits to various speech therapists failed, he happens upon an Australia actor-turned therapist Lionel Logue who realizes that, to be successful, a friendship must be established first & foremost if Albert was to see any progress. Looming in the background is that speech referred to in the title (as well as referencing his speech malady). Due to the ever-growing German threat, it will be up to the monarch to address his vast kingdom-as well as the rest of the world knowing that strength of speech is paramount. Until I witnessed Colin Firth's performance, I thought James Franco ("127 Hours") had given the best male performance this year. Now, make that second best. Colin, who missed out last year for "A Single Man", will not lose out two years in a row. You can mail him The Oscar. This is a brilliant nuanced performance that had me spellbound throughout. Equally impressive is Geoffrey Rush as Logue and he could easily get his second (after winning BA in 1996's "Shine"). Also, on hand is the always-dependable Brit, Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mum). A wonderful score by the great Alexander Desplat, with a welcomed well-placed sprinkling of Beethoven, further enhances the total experience. Of particular note is the brilliant screenplay by David Seidler, who, as it turns out, also was a stutterer. Having always identified with Albert and wanting to write the story, he properly asked Queen Elizabeth if he could proceed with his dream. She asked him to wait until after her life was over as it was still too painful for her. That opportunity finally came in 2002 when she passed at the age of 102. Finally, what makes the story even more fascinating is the discovery of diaries and letters by Logue's grandson that chronicled the relationship between the two men that forms the backdrop for this wonderful human drama and glorious peak into recent history.

"Another Year" (***-129 minutes)-Sunday January 30, 2011
The latest human drama from the great, critically acclaimed writer/director Mike Leigh ("Secrets & Lies", "Vera Drake", "Happy-Go-Lucky") is not one of my favorites but is definitely worth seeing on many levels. First, is the (always) outstanding acting; second, is the story that grabs you and takes you along without telescoping any of the plot paths; and thirdly, his use of actors that, physically, are as far from attractive Hollywood-types as the moon is from Earth. In other words, real people whom everyone can identify & empathize. Leigh writes and directs characters & depicts slices of life that, I am certain, you will constantly be shaking your head in recognition. As the title suggests, the film expands over the course of a year in the lives of Tom & Gerri (played by Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen)-still very steadily & happily married after 30 years. What makes the year so diverse are the folks who swirl around them-bouncing in and out of their lives as the story unfolds. Their stable lives and homestead serve as a focal point for much of the action. However, the story concentrates mainly on Gerri's co-worker, Mary, played by Lesley Manville, another Leigh staple, in an incredibly exact performance. We have all come across a "Mary" in our lives. Attractive, middle-aged, still single, drinks a little too much, and is always looking for Mister Right, Mary is constantly calling on Tom & Gerri for companionship and acceptance. They, reluctantly, serve as sounding boards to her longings. Other characters come and go as each of the four seasons arrives, but it is Mary's story that is constantly changing with the seasons. We first see her as quite happy & affable, if somewhat annoying, but by story's end, our feelings for her have changed which is a tribute to the wonderful coloration Lesley brings to the role. Gary Yershon, who contributed the music for "Happy-Go-Lucky", provides another fine unobtrusive score. Yet another terrific effort from Mike Leigh who continues to be one of the world's leading dramatists and filmmaker of our generation.

"Biutiful" (*** 1/2-148 minutes)-Sunday February 6, 2011
Like Mike Leigh, writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu is accumulating a catalogue of successful films that is firmly establishing him as one of the planet's best. The director of such films as "Amores Perros" (2000), "21 Grams" (2003), and one of my personal favorites, 2006's "Babel", has enlisted the services of one of the greatest actors working today: Javier Bardem who won a supporting Oscar as the frightful Anton Chigurh, in the Coens' "No Country For Old Men". Here, Bardim turns in another stunning performance as Uxbal, whose criminal activities involving sweatshops and illegal immigrants in Barcelona are just one of several life issues he is struggling to deal with. There is also his on-again off-again relationship with his bipolar wife (Maricel Alvarez), raising his two children, and (not a spoiler as he learns of this condition in the opening reel) an illness that threatens his life. Uxbal, however, is not a cold, heartless criminal. On the contrary, he is quite sympathetic, despite living an amoral existence. He wants to do good-but is incapable of deciding how to accomplish that goal. Instead, he pours his love and soul into his children and is determined to successfully pass his legacy, both tangible & intangible, to them. This is a gritty, somewhat depressing tale that makes one of the beautiful cities on earth look like a slum town. Despite that, the story & artistry by the incredibly charismatic Bardem is so compelling that it makes it all worthwhile. Although, in general, the audience I screened it with thought it could have been considerably shorter, I did not check my watch at any time during the nearly 2 1/2 hours. By the way, the ironic title refers to an incorrect spelling of "beautiful" he gives to one of his kids. On the contrary, like Todd Solondz's (unhappy) "Happiness" (1998), "Biutiful" is anything but. However, it is unrelenting and unforgettable.

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