Thursday, December 30, 2010

THE FIGHTER: The Film Babble Blog Review

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale play Boston boxing brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund in this strong drama based on true events.

Set in the early '90s, the film begins documentary style as HBO is filming Bale for a film about his comeback. We see archival video of the real Eklund in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard.

Wahlberg is following in his half brother's footsteps, being trained by him for an upcoming fight. Their tough talking mother Melissa Leo manages Wahlberg and also has 7 daughters who act as a sort of trashy teased-hair Greek chorus on the sidelines.

A very skinny Bale (well, maybe not as thin as in THE MACHINIST) is unhinged and bug-eyed, yet utterly believable and not over the top in his portrayal. He spends most of his time in a crackhouse when he should be at the gym with Wahlberg.

Wahlberg meets Amy Adams as a bartender and asks her out, but he stands her up because he's embarrassed about losing his latest bout. She confronts him on this and almost immediately they are dating.

Wahlberg is offered a chance to be paid for training year round in Las Vegas for a chance at the title, but his loyalty to his mother and brother gets in the way.

Adams believes he should take the opportunity and this makes her unpopular with Wahlberg's family - especially the 7 sisters who gang up on Adams, but they find that the petite redhead has a bit of the fight in her too.

Trying to hold on Wahlberg, Bale goes to the dark seedy side of addiction and creepy criminal behavior. We find out that the HBO documentary about Bale is actually about his crack issues, not his improbable comeback. Bale lands in prison while Wahlberg signs on for new management. Wahlberg starts winning fights, but he's aware that it's Bale's training that ultimately gets him there.

With it's blue collar background and salt of the earth archetypes, THE FIGHTER doesn't break any new ground and its narrative rambles at times, but it has solid performances and a great grasp on the genre's well worn conventions.

In his third film with director O. Russell, Wahlberg shows off the years of work he's put into the part and delivers some of his most layered acting. Bale may steal every scene he's in (it's nearly impossible to look elsewhere when he's on the screen), but Wahlberg more than holds his own as do Adams and Leo.
The fight scenes are shot digitally so that they resemble how boxing appears on television through bright lighting and resolution lines - an effect that enhances the realism nicely.

O. Russell has had trouble when thinking outside the box in previous work (I HEART HUCKABEES was an overreaching unfunny mess), but here his indulgences are reigned in - seems here he neatly thinks inside the box (or in the ring) and it pays off big time.

More later...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

THE KING'S SPEECH: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Tom Hooper, 2010)

When Prince Albert, the Duke of York, steps up to the microphone to deliver the closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925, we sense his extreme trepidation. As portrayed by Colin Firth, the Duke is a dignified yet nervous man - nervous because he's suffered his whole life with a debilitating speech impediment.

Albert's audience at Wembley cringes at his painful attempts to oratate in which the awkward gaps between words (or more accurately word fragments) seem to stop and start time. The Duke's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) desperately wants to help her husband, and after much looking for a qualified speech therapist finds Geoffrey Rush as the erudite and sharply eccentric Lionel Logue.

Rush, who doesn't make house calls, doesn't want to take on the patient until he finds out who it is.

Firth is also hesitant thinking that his stammer is beyond repair, but after a short session is convinced otherwise because of Rush's recording of the Duke speaking almost normally while music plays through his headphones.

When the Duke's brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicated from the throne for marrying a twice divorced American woman (Eve Best), Prince Albert becomes King George VI and is set to give a crucial radio address as war is looming.

Although it has a highly capable supporting cast including Michael Gambon as King George V, and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, it's mainly Firth and Rush's show. As good as Bonham Carter is here she's considerably just decoration on the side.

Firth dives into Rush's treatments involving breathing exercises, untangling tongue twisters, and a hilarious spouting out of a string of profanity in a scene that alone gives the film its R-rating. Even as it can be seen as largely a filmed play (much like FROST/NIXON) there's an elegant film surrounding the 2 excellent actors.
It's mostly set in Rush's study, but director Hooper allows for a nice amount of visual splendor.

In a rare break from the indoors the therapist and his royal patient take a walk together in a sunbathed park that fades behind them. It's arresting imagery that draws us closer to the leads and greatly enhances our emotional investment.

An investment that really pays off.

Firth takes on a difficult role - that of a stuttering man of stature - and infuses it with a living breathing fully realized performance, but it's Rush who truly steals every scene he's in. Rush is an absolute delight as the confident commoner speech therapist who fancies himself an aspiring actor.

A winner in every way, THE KING'S SPEECH was made for awards season, but unlike with such Oscar bait as CONVICTION or FAIR GAME - that's so not a bad thing.

It's witty, wise, and wonderful - well deserving every bit of recognition it will definitely get.

It feels cheesy to use such clichéd critical accolades as "uplifting", "inspirational", and God forbid "the feel good movie of the year", but dammit if the shoe fits...

More later...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

TRUE GRIT: Another Instant Classic From The Coen Brothers

(Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010)

Since they stumbled in the early Aughts with a couple of sub par offerings (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, THE LADYKILLERS), Joel and Ethan Coen have been on a grand roll. The Oscar winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the comedy hit BURN AFTER READING, and last year's critically acclaimed A SERIOUS MAN were all excellent additions to their canon, but their newest film, TRUE GRIT, may be the best of the batch.

An adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis rather than a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, TRUE GRIT is in many ways a traditional example of the Western genre. What makes it so much more is its handling of the manner of characters that appear naturalistic yet still exuberantly exaggerated - in a way that long-time followers of the Coens will appreciate royally.

The "Dude" himself, Jeff Bridges, plays U.S. Marshall Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn - an iconic role that is considered one of the most definitive of the Duke's. Bridges owns it here however with a drunken swagger and a grizzled gusto. The real protagonist of the story is the 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who recruits Bridges to help her hunt down her father's murderer (Josh Brolin).

For such a young whippersnapper, Steinfeld has a stern delivery confirming her determination and her sometimes harsh words to Bridges have a sting to them that is more than equal to Kim Darby's readings in the 1969 version. See? It's hard not to compare this film to the original adaptation. They follow the same plot progressions and the spirit of Western homage is certainly present, but the Coens saw the piece as funnier with less Hollywood sentiment and they deliver a film that lives up to their vision gloriously.

Matt Damon, who was long overdue for a part in a Coens production, has a juicy gruff character of his own in Texas Ranger Le Bouef. Damon is at first just along for the ride with Bridges and Steinfeld, but his jaded face-offs with the Marshall and the foes they encounter along the way have a hilarious bite to them as the tension builds.

As a Western in the classic mold with a body count, I didn't expect TRUE GRIT to be as funny as it is - it's for sure one of the Coen's most laugh-filled films since THE BIG LEBOWSKI - just about every utterance of Bridge's is comic gold and his fellow cast mates (including crusty turns by a deranged Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper funnily enough) hold their own humor-wise as well.

Then there's the magnificent cinematography by Coen Bros. collaborator Roger Deakins that fills the frame with striking shots of the blinding terrain in New Mexico and Texas as well as the extreme jolting actor close-ups that flicker with raw emotion. Another Coen Bros. co-hort Carter Burwell, who has been with them since BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), provides a score composed of gospel hymns and effectively spare piano accompaniment.

TRUE GRIT is an instant classic.

From the Coen Brothers' ace direction to the cast's top notch acting spouting out hilarious dialog line after line and then on to the wondrous look, feel, and heart of the film, I honestly can not think of a negative criticism of it. I can't wait to see it again. If I find anything to dislike about it then - I'll get back to you.

More later...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The (Many) Troubles With TRON: LEGACY

TRON: LEGACY (Dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

Despite that I wrote about this project last year being one of my Top 10 Sequels To Classic Movies That Really Should Not Happen, I still secretly had hopes that it would be one of those rare follow-ups that would right the wrongs of the furiously flawed original - that being the fanboy loved but else forgotten TRON (1982).

Well, the wrongs (glacial pacing, incomprehensible storyline, and clunky dialog) are still there in this hugely hyped high tech piece of glorified fan fiction. You'll see many reviews that compliment this movie for its shiny slick stylized look, but bitch about its weak and soulless plot and as much as I wish I could disagree with that - the consensus is right.

TRON: LEGACY is by far the most convoluted movie of the year. As in the first film Jeff Bridges is a computer genius who finds a portal into the world that exists behind the computer screen - "the grid" he calls it in bedtime stories to his son (Owen Best).

Bridges, who appears as his younger self via CGI) disappears and leaves his son to grow up to be a rebellious motorcycle driving shareholder of his father's corporation Encom embodied by Garrett Hedlund. Bruce Boxleitner returns as Alan Bradley/TRON - a surragate father of sorts to Hedlund who informs the unruly roustabout that he got a page coming from his dad's former establishment Flynn's Arcade - a number that's been disconnected for 20 years. Hedlund bikes over to the arcade now in a broken down slummy part of town, switches on the power (yeah, the power is still on), and powers up his dad's old computer.

Before long Hedlund is sucked into the computer and is designated into the games department. At first he thinks he's found his father when he meets Clu - who again is a CGI-ed Bridges made to look like his '80s visage - but it turns out its his father's program now gone evil.

After a somewhat hard to follow yet still cool looking light cycle sequence, Hedlund is intercepted by a spunky Olivia Wilde and taken to his actual father - Bridges again but this time as his normal aged self with a beard and his patented laid back persona (yep, the "Dude" abides once again). You get that? Hedlund and Bridges fight a CGI Bridges in a chaotic plot involving flashy yet plodding set pieces and something called ISOs (isomorphic algorithms).

In one of the movie's only good ideas, the soundtrack is orchestrated by Daft Punk. The French electronic duo also appear DJ-ing a club party scene in which Michael Sheen appears as a bleached Bowie-esque nightclub owner whose significance in the film I really couldn't tell you. Still, Sheen and Daft Punk's inventive score are 2 of the only things of merit here.

Clu, Bridges' evil '80s digitized doppelganger is a big fail. With its creepy frozen expressions and completely unconvincing mouth movements, its a huge distraction that takes one far away from any sense of engagement. I'm a huge Bridges fan and all for more Bridges for your buck, but this conceit seriously doesn't work. Maybe one day they'll be able to make seamless CGI human recreations, but we're far from there yet.

Unfortunately thats just one of many factors that make TRON: LEGACY a bad bland bomb. The pages of soulless exposition, the lameness of the writing (Bridges actually says "You're messing up my Zen thing here, man!"), and the overall sense that the film takes itself way too seriously all add up to a deeply unsatisfying experience.

But, then at least it's about as good as the original. Not that it's easy to compare them - the first one is out of print and not available on Netflix. It's not been shown on TV lately and DVD copies go from $90 to $200 on Amazon. It's almost as if Disney with their home video moratoriums and all were purposely trying to make it hard to see the first TRON!

With the hundreds of millions they pumped into its sequel it looks like they didn't want folks to get the right idea that TRON and its sequel are equals in the digital realm of empty eye candy cinema.

Maybe it's great if you're a geek gamer or lover of kitschy '80s crap, but yawn inducing throwaway tripe if you're anybody else.

More later...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

BLACK SWAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

BLACK SWAN (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Last weekend the Carolina Theater in Durham as part of their "Retrofantasma" revival film series presented a double feature of what they dubbed "Prestigious Horror Movies": Brian De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and Ed Bianchi's THE FAN (1981). 

 I predict that one day Darren Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN will be included under that banner - it's an extremely classy psycho sexual piece of prestigious horror if there ever was one. In his follow-up to THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky focuses on the vastly different world of ballet. He recently told an interviewer: "Wrestling some consider the lowest art - if they would even call it art - and ballet some people consider the highest art. 

But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves." As a dancer in the New York City Ballet Company, a stressed out Natalie Portman is told by her director (a sharply abrasive Vincent Cassell) that for his stripped down production of "Swan Lake" that she is perfect for the role of the White Swan - not so much for the part of the Black Swan.

Since it's a dual role for one dancer, this is a bit of a dilemma for the beleaguered ballerina. Cassell: "I knew the White Swan wouldn't be a problem. The real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin." 

 Portman sees a less skilled yet more passionate dancer, Mila Kunis, as competition, but Kunis appears aloof at the prospect and appears to be offering friendship and congratulations when Portman gets the duel lead. Meanwhile Cassell's former star (and former flame) Winona Ryder is on her way out of the company because of her age and clashes with Portman as she is being made her successor. 

 Back in their narrow NY apartment Portman's mother - a well cast Barbara Hershey - also a former ballerina, pushes her daughter to work harder to perfect her craft. Perfection is exactly what Portman craves, but little things like nightmarish hallucinations start getting in the way. Portman gets majorly freaked out by scratches and abrasions on her back which she can't explain and keeps seeing herself in the face of Kunis. 

There also seems to always be taunting laughter coming from the shadows or under the surface of the tormented terrain Portman is desperately trying to navigate through. To her mother's disapproval, Portman goes out for a night of drinks, drugs, and debauchery with Kunis. "Ah, ballerinas. No wonder you two look alike" says one of 2 guys at the club attempting to hit on them. It's an apt comment that Aronofsky runs with. 

Portman is constantly tortured by her own visage - obviously because she's becoming her own evil twin just as "Swan Lake" dictates and Kunis is the unknowing recipient of Portman's image. Except for a number of behind the back of the protagonist's head shots as she approaches a scene, BLACK SWAN bares little resemblance to THE WRESTLER especially as it embraces startling surreality. THE WRESTLER had gritty white trash grounding; "Black Swan" wants to soar in a higher class with a deliriously scary blend of art and life. 

 Although it has its share of horror or suspense movie clichés including mirror scares and fake-out dream sequences, BLACK SWAN is an incredibly immersive experience. Aronofsky thoroughly gets inside of Portman's emotional and professional obsession as the actress delivers a career best performance. Kunis puts in some of her finest work as well with a loose uninhibited demeanor that effectively balances with Portman's plague. It may disturb some audiences, but with its vigor and justified vanity BLACK SWAN is a towering achievement. 

It may not be the perfection that Portman desires, yet its ambition coupled with its sweeping visual style makes for one of the most intense and intriguing films of the year. Expect to hear about it over and over during the upcoming awards season.

More later...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

RESTREPO Now Out On Blu Ray, DVD, And Streaming On Netflix Instant

(Dirs. Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger, 2010)

You really feel like you're in the middle of combat in this intense war documentary by Sebastian Junger (author of the book "The Perfect Storm" and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington.

Opening titles tell us: "In May 2007, the men of second platoon, Battle Company, began a 15 month deployment in the Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan." Hetherington and Junger spent a year filming the troop as they build an outpost in the valley which was dubbed "the deadliest place on the planet" by CNN.

One of the first casualties shortly after deployment was a well liked medic - Private First Class Juan "Doc" Restrepo. Once venturing into the treacherous terrain ("where the road ends is where the Taliban begins" says one soldier) they establish a fire base and named it Restrepo in tribute to their fallen friend.

The men constantly get fired upon by insurgents in the hills which we never see, but that's completely understandable under such dangerous circumstances. It's amazing enough what we do see particularly one scene in which a cameraman captures from inside a army humvee when it runs over an IED and explodes.

In another harrowing sequence following the Company into what's called "Operation Rock Avalanche" we see a soldier emotionally break down after another death. Addressing his men, Capt. Dan Kearney tells them "to mourn then get over it and get back to work."

Interviews conducted later with principle platoon members help the narrative thrust, most in extreme close-up, and are full of painful memories yet a stirring proud-ness still remains. Much of the footage is grainy and shaky (the sunlit scenes fare the best aesthetically of course) but this obviously could never be a polished portrait - the reality of its penetrating rawness is precisely the point.

Like many other recent war documentaries RESTREPO will likely be ignored by the populace. Most folks like to look away from such harsh and devastating non-fiction. However those who pony up to watch it will find it impossible to ignore.

More later...

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Noting The MPAA Rating System Denotations

If you've looked closely at a movie poster at the multiplex or read the fine print in, say, the Raleigh News & Observer's film listings, you've probably noticed that how crammed with tiny denotations many ratings boxes are.

The Motion Picture Association of America used to just tell you what the film's letter rating was, but it seems that sometime after the PG-13 rating was introduced they starting providing content description such as:

"Sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language, and some thematic material" - That's from BURLESQUE which was PG-13 by the way.

I was particularly amused by this denotation for last summer's Adam Sandler and Co. comedy GROWN UPS: "Some male rear nudity."

Of course they've got to warn parents about violence, but it's funny when they to explain the violence by genre:

"Bullying, martial arts action violence" - THE KARATE KID (2010)

"Intergalactic violence" - ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007) I've also seen "Sci fi violence. The only thing that I can guess that that means is when there's alien blood.

Andrea James on the site Boing Boing in a great post entitled "Fun With MPAA Ratings" that the "capsule rational" for 3 NINJAS KNUCKLE UP is simply "For non-stop ninja action."

James mentions one of the all time classics of the form: "Rated PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather" from TWISTER (1996), and also links to a great list by Zack Tropf on Gunaxin Media of "The Twenty Best MPAA Ratings". Very funny stuff.

One that I knew would be on Tropf's list: "Rated R for graphic crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language - all involving puppets." - TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004).

When watching the trailers on the DVD of the excellent documentary WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY I saw the denotation "For historical smoking" on the preview for another Disney doc WALT & EL GRUPO funnily enough.

Another favorite: "Comic nudity" - JOHNNY ENGLISH (2003). 

Anybody else seen any good ones they'd like to share? That's what the comments section below is for.

More later...

Thursday, December 02, 2010

127 HOURS: The Film Babble Blog Review

127 HOURS (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2010)

To put it bluntly Danny Boyle makes incredible life affirming movies that are not for the squeamish.

Early reports of people passing out at screenings of this true story adaptation may be exaggerated, but having witnessed many walk outs when working at a theater during the run of Boyle's last movie SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, I can safely say that many folks are going to have a wee bit of trouble stomaching this.

However those who can get past the one particular extreme scene - it can't really be a Spoiler to say what happens since it's been so well documented - the "amputation scene" are in for a gripping and invigorating ride for "127 Hours" is one of the best movies of the year.

Boyle begins with pulsating rhythmic shots of crowds of commuters and hoards of people at sporting events; the masses that make up our world, then focuses on the solitary life of a man who wants to get away from all that.

James Franco plays the part of that man, Aron Ralston, with great gusto. You can feel his thirst for adventure and nature as he attacks the trails of Blue John Canyon in Utah.

Before his accident, Franco befriends and flirts with 2 women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) while hiking and helps them find their way around the area.

The women are unfortunately are long gone and can't hear him yell for help when he falls into a deep crevasse along with a boulder that crashes on top of his arm trapping him there.

Franco does everything he can to dislodge the boulder but to no avail. He has a backpack with a bottle of water, a video camera, a watch, a little bit of food, and a pocket knife with a dull blade.

The major hook the film has is that he told no one where he was going.

For being mostly set in one small space there's a lot to be said for how there's never a dull second here. Boyle fluidly captures the manic mindset of Franco's predicament and never loses it.

It's a career best performance by Franco - a tour de force that even eclipses his wonderful work in "Howl". I'll be shocked if he's not nominated for an Oscar.

At one point Franco does a humorous mock morning TV show interview with himself on his video camera. It's completely believable and gels with how the film makes a statement about our perceived conceptions of the world around us.

In a number of Franco's many flashbacks while trapped we see an ex-girlfriend (Clémence Poésy). He breaks up with her at a basketball game surrounded by hundreds of people. He flashes back to this moment of feeling intense loneliness in a crowd again and again.

Like just about every other element in this film that has a powerful effect. We're never truly alone like we think we are most of the time. It's in those very rare horrifyingly tragic circumstances that we most appreciate other people.

Ralston's story may be difficult to watch for some, but it's a must see movie in absolutely every respect. In so many ways it's as memorable and moving as motion pictures can get.

More later...


(Dir. Don Hahn, 2009)

Veteran Disney producer Don Hahn here provides an engrossing inside look at the world of Walt Disney Feature Animation from the years 1980-1994. Years in which as an opening title tells us: "A perfect storm of people and circumstances changed the face of animation forever."

Hahn, who narrates, takes us through the studio's struggle in the '80s after animator Don Bluth left taking with him half of their staff. It was incredibly difficult to compete with Bluth and Steven Spielberg's more-Disney-than-Disney productions such as "An American Tail", so it looked like time to step up their game.

This resulted in the "Disney Renaissance" which included such smash hit features as "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty And The Beast", "Aladdin", and "The Lion King."

We hear the voice of Roy Disney (older brother of Walt) explain how in 1984 Paramount Pictures chairman Michael Eisner became chief executive officer of Disney. Also recruited from another studio (Warner Brothers) was Frank Wells who was made Disney's President and Chief Operating Officer. In addition Eisner brings in former Paramount colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg to run the film devision of Disney.

Hahn considered this an "invasion from Hollywood" and bemoans the changes that were being made: "I remember interior decorators tearing down walls that hadn't been touched since 1939."

These shake-ups dishearten the animators who are relocated to their chagrin to smaller shabbier production facilities.

Newly appointed President of the Feature Animation Peter Schneider (and co-producer of this doc) causes some controversy when he changes the title "The Basil Of Baker Street" to "The Great Mouse Detective."

The name change didn't help the film beat the box office of "An American Tale", but a collaboration with Spielberg on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" a few years later would do a lot to spurn on the "Disney Renaissance."

From there we learn about the background on Disney's home video moratoriums, the making of various projects, we see grainy video of musical recording sessions, and we get the scoop on the rise of computer graphics via a small firm that experimented with character animation that made Listerine commercials on the side. The firm's name was Pixar.

Then there are the tragic deaths of song writer Howard Ashman who died from AIDs before he could see a final cut of his work in the smash hit "Beauty And The Beast" in 1991, and Disney President Frank Wells who died in a helicopter crash in 1994.

Wells was the glue that kept it all together, the go-between from ego to ego, so his passing made worse the friction surrounding Roy Disney, Eisner, and Katzenberg. Katzenberg wanted Wells' job and he learned he wasn't going to get it - he resigned.

WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY may be a bit self congratulating at times, but it's a well told story that breezes by aided by classic film clips, sketchy yet eye-opening works-in-progress, excerpts from TV interviews, and much home movie quality film shot by Hahn over the years.

It's a must for Disney fans as well as anybody with an interest in the juicy details of what goes on behind the scenes of a major studio from turbulent to triumphant times.

Special Features: A bevy of featurettes entitled "Why Wake Sleeping Beauty?", "The Sailor, the Mountain Climber, the Artist and the Poet – Celebrating Roy Disney, Frank Wells, Joe Ranft, and Howard Ashman", "Studio tours" including Randy’s tours, "Roger Rabbit" studio, "Oliver studio", "A Reunion – Rob Minkoff and Kirk Wise", "Walt - What Would Walt Do", and "Compare Walt’s Era And This Era". There's also 3 webisode shorts, deleted scenes, and an extensive photo gallery.

More later...