Monday, January 31, 2011

The Fighter

2010, US, directed by David O. Russell

Notwithstanding the fact that he tends to be tough on movies I like, I enjoy David Cairns's forays into newer releases, and his recent take on The Fighter is both amusing and illuminating, particularly his analysis of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his girlfriend Charlene Fleming (Amy Ryan), or more accurately the film's version of Micky and Charlene. Still, I wouldn't mind seeing the Rashomon version of the story, given how the film portrays Micky's mother and his truly dreadful coven of sisters, each one more sullen than the last; unlike the real-life Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, his half brother, the women were notably absent from press coverage of The Fighter, and I wonder to what extent the film slights them. It's a truism of boxing movies that fighters struggle in the lower social depths, but the film implies that Micky's greatest challenge is neither money nor the drugs that consume his brother but rather the predations of his female relatives; they come off much worse than his later, male promoters, usually the source of all that is wicked in the world of boxing.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon

2010, US, directed by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders

The sheer exuberance of How to Train Your Dragon is beguiling, with the directors placing the emphasis on out-and-out fun rather than on Meaningful Moments; the moral, very much present, doesn't threaten to overwhelm the material here. The pacing and wit are tremendously enjoyable, although the film lacks the consistently polished look of the Pixar competition; it's as though the filmmakers have elected to pour their onscreen resources into certain sequences (the beautifully animated dragon book or the thrilling flight sequences) rather than others (the backgrounds when we first encounter the film's main dragon look rather like those of a standard computer game, lacking the richness and realism of Pixar fare, where every scene is beautifully rendered).

Friday, January 28, 2011

Easy A

2010, US, directed by Will Gluck

Although there are several enjoyable character bits - Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as a pair of indulgent parents, and Thomas Haden Church as a trying-to-be-cool teacher, in particular - this is Emma Stone's movie, and she seizes her lead role with such zest and charm that it doesn't really matter that she's clearly too old for high school. It's one of those parts where you suddenly sit up and pay attention to a performer, irrespective of the quality of the rest of the movie - a mixed bag in this case, with some rather obvious high school stereotypes and narrative obstacles, although the film does give a vivid, enjoyable sense of the speed with which gossip travels in the Facebook age.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The King's Speech

2010, UK/Australia/US, directed by Tom Hooper

The King's Speech is a rather unexpected royal-imperial fantasy, in which the empire extends across the earth but thankfully doesn't have to be dealt with too much in close-up: the crowds on Empire Day, when the film opens, look reassuring like those at any 1920s football match (in reality, the crowd was probably filled with children given a half-day off school), with the imperial residents themselves safely at the other end of transmitters marked Barbados, Bechuanaland, and so forth. There's something oddly moving and yet absurd about the way that the film still invokes, in 2010, the idea of imperial solidarity despite the fact that even the Australians featured onscreen clearly bore the brunt of much English contempt.

As in The Damned United, Tom Hooper's previous film, The King's Speech is primarily concerned with the actual human being behind a public persona, and while the narrative is brisker and more confident this time around, Hooper's visual choices are less illuminating. He used light and dark, for instance, rather usefully as a window into the mind of football manager Brian Clough, whereas here the sometimes eccentric framing choices, squeezing the king into a corner of the frame at times, don't add much to our sense of George VI as a person beyond perhaps emphasizing that he was ultimately as frail as any other human being.

By contrast, the straightforward close-ups at moments of great tension, the already outsize microphones looming larger in front of the king, are simple and effective, conveying the dreadful fears in George's mind as he attempts to deliver his few words. Colin Firth is quietly terrific in these scenes, his face conveying a sense of the terror that accumulates with each passing second, before he's even uttered a syllable; he does a fine job with the king's line in self-deprecation, too, keeping his voice bone dry. Geoffrey Rush, in careful counter-balance to Firth's controlled performance, overplays most enjoyably, playing up his Aussie impudence; it's hard to imagine that the real Lionel Logue was anything like as disrespectful, even for therapeutic purposes, but the pairing works well on film (by contrast, Timothy Spall, generally a fine actor, is terribly miscast as Churchill, far too patrician a character for the more working-class Spall, while it's a shock - a veritable slap in the face - to see Anthony Andrews so suddenly old, his appearance somehow betraying the memory of his ever-youthful characters in Danger UXB and Brideshead Revisited).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Brooklyn's Finest

2009, US, directed by Antoine Fuqua

There's barely an original idea in Brooklyn's Finest - Antoine Fuqua even recycles from his own movies, most obviously Training Day - so the movie's principal pleasures come from watching the narrative pieces click into place and from several strong, if occasionally overblown, performances. The script is ultimately too neat, the parallel lines intersecting in rather unlikely style, although the final sequences, in a claustrophobic apartment block, are among the film's strongest: grimy, tense, and unheroic. The three main characters, played by Don Cheadle, Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke - are all generically troubled cops, but Cheadle and Gere in particular manage to make something interesting from the raw materials, injecting a little soul into the conventions, with Gere playing an unusual unlikeable character by his standards.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany's

1961, US, directed by Blake Edwards

In her appreciation of the career of Blake Edwards, penned just after his death last year, The Siren makes a convincing case for excusing the flaws of Breakfast at Tiffany's based on the wonderful final scene. The film is complicated enough, though, that you could almost as easily make the case that a single scene might cause you to overlook all of the film's virtues. You could choose any of the scenes featuring Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese caricature of cringeworthy insensitivity, as your Exhibit A.

I found those scenes so troubling that it was somehow easiest simply to block out their existence to focus on the film's strengths. There's the brittle emotional texture, with constant, confident shifts in tone, from comedy to pathos to a kind of urban ennui to romance; the terrific use of screen space, whether in the famous party sequence - an apparently chaotic scene that's actually perfectly controlled, with multiple visual storylines unspooling in parallel - or in a quieter moment like the scene at the bus station where Holly, Doc Golightly, and Paul each seems to occupy just the right spot in relation to the other; the perfectly judged movement in the suspenseful, even Hitchcockian, scene where Holly, observing from outside a window, discovers the truth of Paul's situation; the lush overhead shot of Holly just after she finds out about a death in the family. Enough, just perhaps, to balance out the ill-judged Mr. Yunioshi scenes?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Toy Story 3

2010, US, directed by Lee Unkrich

I couldn't help but get the feeling I was supposed to like Toy Story 3 more than was actually the case. Like all of Pixar pictures, the film is exquisitely crafted, with astonishing attention to detail both in the construction of scenes and the physical details we see (the true-to-life scratches on the bottom of a plastic container, for instance), but the emotional core didn't quite grab me as intended.

As Glenn Kenny notes in his review of Rango, Pixar movies often seem to reach for the Meaningful Moment, something that was underlined in director Lee Unkrich's Oscar acceptance speech, and that can come at the expense of the sheer joy of a rollicking story. For instance, late in the film there's a perilous setpiece that's constructed like a finely calibrated emotional rollercoaster, but the resolution of the sequence is so foreordained that I found myself losing interest. There's also an inevitable repetitiveness that comes with sequel territory, as the toys join forces for the third time to solve a major problem. Still, the care lavished on every detail of the screen makes the film consistently worthwhile, and there are several terrifically funny sequences, particularly when Buzz Lightyear accidentally gets re-programmed in Spanish.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Young Frankenstein

1974, US, directed by Mel Brooks

For my money, easily the most successful of Mel Brooks's series of parody/pastiche films, perhaps because his love for the source materials shines through so clearly. Even as he pokes fun, it's clear that he's unspooling scenes he's watched dozens of times with the greatest of pleasure, and the jokes are only improved when his viewers share that affection. Although Brooks doesn't have the same visual interests as James Whale, on whose films he draws most obviously, he still ensures that the black and white looks the part here, so that it's not simply a 1970s imitation but has the richness of the 1930s originals.

The cast, too, is terrific: they look nothing like the kinds of actors who made their names in Universal's classic horror movies - with the possible exception of the blockheaded Peter Boyle - but their timing is masterful: Kenneth Mars is particularly wonderful as an Inspector with an apparently fake arm that misbehaves at the most inopportune moments, though Marty Feldman always steals the movie for me, his rubber face never more perfectly put to use than as Igor, though his way with a throwaway line is equally memorable.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still

1951, US, directed by Robert Wise

Despite the film's intergalactic plotline, in its own way it's very much a plea for the kind of values associated with small-town America - getting along with one another, creating a safe place for the younger generation, and being able to accept even the more eccentric residents. Of course, the tolerance has its limits; though Washington, DC occasionally has the feel of a village, where you'd trust your son with a new arrival, it's a village filled with white folks; there's more diversity at the scientific conference that's at the centre of the film than on the streets of the city.

This is very much from Robert Wise's early, brisk period: there's not an ounce of fat in the running time, with the director wasting no time on lengthy exposition, getting his space traveler onto the ground as quickly as possible. He creates an arresting sense of the panic that the arrival created, through the now-clichéd use of journalist talking heads from a variety of locations; there's a nod or two in the direction of Welles's legendary dramatisation of The War of the Worlds before the film goes in a different, more domesticated direction.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Soul Kitchen

2009, Germany, directed by Fatih Akin

Soul Kitchen has the same urgency, the almost frenetic pacing, of Fatih Akin's previous work, but where the whirlwind spun in destructive directions in Gegen die Wand, here the energy is positive, with the sense that good things can happen almost overnight. There's a romance, and a winning naivete, that harks back to Akin's earlier romance Im Juli, with here a hint that perhaps multiculturalism still has something to offer for the immigrant in Germany; that's probably placing more weight, though, than really belongs on a film which narrates an ecstatic triumph over the odds.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States