Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Fighter

THE FIGHTER is a fairly formulaic sports film.  About as formulaic as you can get.  And there’s nothing really wrong with that aspect of it.  It does contain all the proper ingredients to engage and uplift and inspire and so on.  It’s expertly executed all around, with superb direction from David O. Russell, and great performances from Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams.

It’s crippling weakness, at least for me, lies in terrible characters.  Weak characters.  It’s hard to give a crap about these kind of characters.  I often find myself having trouble when it comes to films trying to portray white trash as some kind of “aw shucks, they just have so much heart” type of people.  You have an unrepentant drug addict and a manipulative family that’s more invested in sticking together in one dysfunctional group that doing anything to improve the situation.

And in the middle of it all you have Micky, who is supposed to be the focus of the story, basically floating around like a piece of driftwood in choppy water.  What’s his motivation?  Eh, not important, whatever fits the scene.  By the time he has a mild outburst (especially compared to everyone else) and asks “am I being selfish?”  No, you’re not, the movie is supposed to be about you and your family, not your family and you.  The character is a damp rag.  There’s nothing compelling about him to pull us along other than that general sports movie feel of “go team!  Let’s win!”

And Mark Wahlberg continues his long, long string of ho-hum performances with this.  I have to wonder why he fought for so long to get this movie made.  The story is nice and all, but the character has no meat.  What, specifically, did he bring to it?  Wahlberg didn’t do a bad job, to be fair, but you could’ve slotted anyone in there and the film would have been unchanged.

Christian Bale completely disappears into the role, which is no surprise, and owns the first three quarters of the movie.  Once his character redeems himself near the end he loses anything that made him interesting.  But a top performance of the year, nonetheless.  Melissa Leo, as well, does an amazing job as the manipulative mother.  Amy Adams is always great, and it’s nice to see her playing a character with some amount of edge this time.

So is it good?  Yeah, a little.  Is it bad?  Yeah, a little.  Is it worth seeing?  No, probably not.  Unless you really like sports and/or boxing films.  Which is fine, they’re just rarely my cup of tea.  But there have been better, and there will be more, and they’ll inevitably be the same story yet again.

C+

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Black Swan

I’ll preface this by saying I did not see this film in the setting it probably deserves.  This film definitely demands proper presentation, including sound, to be fully effective.  Given the opportunity, I’d give it a second chance.  But if it does play in Germany in English, it won’t be for several months, so I couldn’t wait.

Darren Aronofsky has always had the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but that’s always worked in his favor before.  With the BLACK SWAN he’s just flinging the sledgehammer around without thought it seems.  Because for all its frantic, psychological horror and melodrama, it’s crippled in the worst way from the very beginning.  Literally, as in the first scene.

Natalie Portman’s character, from the very get go, is unstable and unclear.  The first thing we see is her possibly seeing her double on the subway.  Yes, this sets a tone of unease that never lets up once, but it also sets up that the center of the whole film is untrustworthy.  You have nothing to anchor on to, no way to ever find something to connect to.  And so you have no way to care.  At all.  Her character is perpetually weak and hollow and, as Chris put it, spends nearly the entire movie looking like she’s about to cry.

Here’s a bit from the review on Slate that sums up my feelings on the subject.

But as the movie goes on, this visceral imagery of bodily disintegration never finds a dramatic context to make sense in. Nina is just a collection of neurotic behaviors, not a character, and nearly all the conflict on screen derives from her victimization (or perceived victimization?) at the hands of others. We never understand what’s at stake for her as an artist, other than sheer achievement for achievement’s sake. With this movie’s curious inattention to the question of why performing matters to its heroine, it could just as easily be a movie about a girl’s brutal struggle to become Baskin Robbins’ employee of the month.

And that’s the fatal flaw in a nutshell.  If so much of this is about performers, and what drives them, and why it could lead them to madness, why is that question just ignored?  Because there’s that gap there, I just couldn’t get caught up in it.  And I can tell that, if you do get caught up in it, it’s quite the ride.

There are a few frantic moments in the film where you find yourself just as dizzy and nerve wracked as Nina.  And those are exciting moments, but I still feel nothing in the end.  Which is a shame.

Portman, who, let’s face it, has never been that spectacular an actress, does a good job.  But too much of it is just looking like on the edge of tears.  Too much white swan and not enough black swan.

And that’s another thing.  In the end *SPOILER?* when the black swan is supposed to be in full effect, that’s not even that convincing.  The dancing doesn’t look any more intense or amazing.  Her performance doesn’t seem to change all that much.  If the film hadn’t been blaring to me that everyone thought she was great I would’ve thought nothing really happened.  *END SPOILER*

Still, the ingredients are all executed perfectly.  The cinematography is absolutely amazing.  Great, visceral handheld sequences and playing with shadows and such.  Just wonderful stuff.  The music, though melodramatic in parts, also works very well.  The performances are all pretty great, and it’s nice to see Mila Kunis breaking out and doing something very serious for a change.  I wish she’d do more because she’s always very good.

The sound design is also stellar.  A lot of what’s effective in this movie is dependent on the sound.

Aronofsky is usually so good with his sledgehammer, and he’s still one of my favorite filmmakers.  You can never guess what he’s going to do next, and that’s always exciting.  Hell, his next project is the new Wolverine film.  What he’ll bring to an X-Men action blockbuster…well…who knows?  I’m sure it’ll be something to talk about.  I know Hugh Jackman was trying to convince him to direct a new movie version of the musical Carousel.  That would also be awesome to see.

But there’s just no subtlety here at all, and no foundation to make all this psychosis compelling in any way.  It is a love it or hate it kind of film, that’s to be sure.  You’ll probably know within 10 minutes what camp you’re in.  Maybe I’ll change my mind later if I see it in a theatre.  But for now, it’s an utter miss for me.

C-