Digital Monkey Shines

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Majestic Preview: Rango

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It’s another week and another film at the Majestic.

Rango

Rango is an unusual film, in that it’s an computer animated film with plenty of kinetic energy for young audiences, but delivers its best flourishes that only a niche audience will appreciate.  It tells the story using a wide selection of small fauna, including various rodents, lizards, and the occasional amphibian.  The protagonist Rango is voiced by Johnny Depp, who leads a surprisingly deep voice cast including Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant, and Ray Winstone.  In fact, there are so many different inhabitants of the town of Dirt, that it can be difficult differentiating the minor characters.

The story is as uncomplicated as one expects in a children’s film, in which Rango is deputized after killing a hawk that has plagued the town.  He must save the town by discovering what happened to the water supply.

The richness of the texture work on the character models gives a nearly photo-realistic appearance to the film, which also means there’s a lack of cuteness, outside of Rango’s asymmetrical form.  I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take me to locate a broom, should I find a Rango-critter on my porch.  Younger children may also find the bad-guy rattle snake, voiced by Nighy, to be a bit too scary.

Despite everything working in its favor, including a focus on ensemble-performance of the voice characterizations, Rango seems to have just missed the cusp of success.  Even the numerous cross-references to other films and a general send-up of the western-stranger-comes-to-town genre can’t quite deliver.  Maybe they should have gotten Clint Eastwood’s help.  Rango, fails by a small margin to a level of greatness in animation often seen in the films of Pixar, like Wall-E or Ratatouie, or the best work from other animation houses like How to Train Your Dragon or Despicable Me.

Perhaps it is worse to fail by a small margin than to fail so utterly.  Don’t get the impression that you should, under no circumstances, go to this movie.  Rango is good for its breed and an engaging hour and forty-seven minutes.  Keep a sharp eye out in the Ride of the Valkyries chase sequence, which is the best action set of the film.

See Also

To properly orient yourself to the narrowly-defined western subgenre in which a stranger comes to town, check out classics such as Shane, Bad Day at Blackrock, and Pale Rider.

As it’s referenced heavily in one particular scene, watching Rango is a great excuse to dust off Apocalypse Now for its Ride of the Valkyries sequence.

The first Toy Story is also a stranger-comes-to-town story, making it closely related to Rango in plot and animation.

Written by Bill

April 5, 2011 at 6:34 pm

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Majestic Preview: The Adjustment Bureau

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Hello film fans, it’s a new week and a new film for the Majestic Theater in Wayne!  This preview is brought to you by the hyphen, for all your word-linking needs.

The Adjustment Bureau

Let’s get it established right now that The Adjustment Bureau is a science fiction film.  Perhaps one may also view it as a spiritual film, but it is not overtly so.  Even though the original story of The Adjustment Bureau comes from the mind of towering-science-fiction-idol Philip K. Dick, it’s not a ray-gun-oogy-alien-iPad-red-shirt science fiction story.

Matt Damon (the Jason Bourne films) takes the lead in this story, as a bad-boy politician in the middle of a scandal derailing his senate run.  At the worst moment of crisis, in which he take a moment to compose himself in the bathroom before giving his concession speech he meets Emily Blunt’s  (Young Victoria) intriguing party crasher.

As the story unfolds, we start to see how Damon is managed clandestinely by an inconclusively-defined group of beings referred to as the Adjustment Bureau.  Among their behatted ranks are front-line agents played by Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) and John Slattery (Mad Men).  More senior and certainly more scary is Terrence Stamp as a sort of heavy-handed fixer that reminds me indirectly of a fellow played by Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs.

The motivation of the story is that Damon’s character has fallen in love with Blunt’s character, even through the Adjustment Bureau is determined to keep them from ever meeting again, in order to maintain “The Plan”.  This is more than a first-college-then-job-then-marry-then-kids-then-midlife-crisis sort of plan.  I won’t spoil the plot further, but will admit that the sort of questions raised by the film regarding free-will might put you into an existential crisis, if you’re prone to such things.  All the best science fiction runs that risk.

The Adjustment Bureau is not a great film for all time, but it is a very capably executed film with a kinetic flow which builds slowly throughout the run time.  The only real sin committed by the director is to require Matt Damon to wear a fedora a few sizes too small.  It is a plot necessity, so we must all endure.  I feel that this film perhaps would have done immensely well had it been made in the nineties, but the target market for old-school-small-scaled-what-if science fiction has just grown up and/or old in the new century.

Everyone acquits themselves admirably on screen, although I find myself again flummoxed by Emily Blunt, of whom there never seems to be enough when she’s working at her top ability.   Mackie shows hints of great potential; this role has officially put him on my radar.  I’m also curious to see what first-time director George Nolfi will come up with next.

See Also

Emily Blunt has been stealing a scene here and there, most notably in The Devil Wears Prada.  For leading roles, I suggest digging up My Summer of Love for the edgier material, or Young Victoria for more safe territory.

Anthony Mackie might have been overlooked in all the hoopla over The Hurt Locker in 2009.  Renner was clearly doing excellent work, but Mackie was instrumental in contextualizing the Renner’s character.

Philip K. Dick’s works have spawned a number of science fiction films, the best of which is almost certainly Blade Runner.  Also worth checking out are Minority Report and Total Recall, the latter for which I must admit an embarrassing affinity at odds with my normal preferences.

Written by Bill

March 29, 2011 at 8:57 pm

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Majestic Preview: I Am Number Four

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It’s right up against the first showing, so you Thursday night folks might miss out on today’s preview.

This week at the Majestic Theater is…

I Am Number Four

(Rated PG-13)

If you know much about my personal film preferences, you might wonder, “why in the world is he writing about this movie?”

Let me enlighten you.

I watch a lot of movies and I take a fair amount of care to select things I’m bound to enjoy and/or from which I will learn something new.  Nonetheless, I do believe that almost every film ever made has something that justifies it.  Sometimes, it may be something as transient as an accidentally well-composed frame of New Jersey industrialia like what one would see in Sandy Hook Lingerie Party Massacre.  Not that I have ever seen Sandy Hook Lingerie Party Massacre.  You’ll never get me to admit it.

I Am Number Four is not a film targeted at my demographic.  If you fancy yourself a sophisticated viewer of movies, you’re bound to find the plot predictable, the stereotypes of high schoolers tired, and the action not very engaging.  As Timothy Olyphant is the biggest actor attached to the project, there are not any high-value marquee actors to watch at work.  So what does I Am Number Four offer?

The story is, in its largest strokes, similar to the Twilight films.  We have an alien from an advanced race hiding out on earth played by Alex Pettyfer (also in the recently released Beastly).  He is being chased by another alien race with gills on their noses, bad head tattooery, and trench coats.  Naturally, he chooses to hide out in a local high school where he can brood, have trouble avoiding fights with the local bully (Jack Abel, Percy Jackson), and make doe eyes at the arty girl (Dianna Agron, Glee).  Also on his trail is another of his race, a tough gal numbered Six (Theresa Palmer, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).

Your intrepid author even attempted to read some of the source material for this movie, the book book of the same name.  I gave up thirty pages in, but I can honestly say the movie improves the experience.  It is competently made, sufficiently performed, and the special effects look as if proper care was taken.

It’s easy to lament the multi-plex model of film distribution, which seems to have reduced the film-going public to a single teen-aged demographic and given us a stream of screeching banshee films for short-attention spans.  At least a film like I Am Number Four doesn’t pretend to reach for every audience.  I can see that it should work well for its teen-aged fans, and I shouldn’t begrudge it.  If you like a little science fiction and action, go see it, even if you need to leave your expectations at the door.

See Also

The presence of Jack Abel wasn’t the only thing about I Am Number Four that reminded me of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.  It’s another juvenile/young adult film that could be considered a bit underrated.

Twilight, duh.

I cannot recommend highly enough Easy A, which knows more about the social life of teenagers than all of the Twilight-grade high school fantasies put together.

Written by Bill

March 25, 2011 at 12:21 am

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Games on Film: The Dungeon Masters

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Since Digital Monkey Shines examines the intersection of film, games, and other media, it’s a natural consequence that a films that deal with gaming and gaming culture deserve a close look.  It’s the start of another themed series for DMS, which I’m calling Games on Film.

Today, we’ll start with the 2008 documentary The Dungeon Masters, released on DVD in 2010.  It is viewable on demand at FilmBuffOnDemand.

If you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a golden age for documentaries.  Thanks to improvements in technology and the corresponding decrease in prices for equipment, it’s now possible to assemble a professional-looking film for a very modest investment.  The cost of production has long been a difficult hurdle for documentary filmmakers, whose films have long struggled to make earn back their expenses as commercial products.

Documentary film makers are now, more than ever, able to put their lenses into the darkest, most obscure corners of everyday human experience.  The director of Dungeon Masters, Keven McAlester, presents a portrait of three game players in both their fantasy and real environments.

Everyone who’s ever crossed paths with the more enthusiastic elements of the roleplaying game participants will have to restrain their urge to groan in frustration.  To some degree, the roleplaying community deserves its stereotype of the socially marginalized but, just like any stereotype, there are plenty of people who don’t conform.  I understand why we get to follow these three particular representatives of the hobby–they’re more interesting than a normal guy who holds a normal job and knows how to get along well with all types of people.

This film’s rogue’s gallery consists of Richard Meeks, Scott Corum, and Elizabeth Reesman.  While each of their situations has a distinctive arc through the documentary, they share a common malaise of the lower-middle class.  One’s need for escape is the resonant theme throughout the film, although there is little follow-through on the idea.  The Dungeon Masters fails to communicate the enjoyment that playing games brings to these people, which means it fails to understand the role of gaming on more than a facile level.

Richard Meeks and Scott Corum are both solidly middle-aged, apparently coming into Dungeons and Dragons in its earliest hey-day.  By the time they are filmed, life seems to have passed them both by.  Meeks works in a mundane job for a local utility and is in the reserves while Corum works part-time as an apartment complex manager.  Very early on we get the feeling that Meeks may be a powerless man who uses his role as gaming referee to exert some kind of control over people.  What little we see of his wife hints at a power dynamic, that she treats his interests as juvenile.

And yet, Meeks is the most animated of the three subjects when shown in his element leading a game.  Unfortunately, the directors choose to follow his attempts to restart a game that had been played for years before with a group of friends in Florida.  The original game ended in a Total Party Kill (TPK), in which Meeks created a situation that led to the death of every player’s character.  The reunion returns to an old source of discontent for Meeks and he ends up writing a dramatic sermonizing I-quit-because-you-people-don’t-play-right letter.

Corum becomes the most accessible of the subjects because, despite his admitted failures at a few careers, he still strives to make a dream come true.  At this point in his life, he has chosen to work on publishing a fantasy novel.  Anyone who’s tried to write a novel sees the warning signs right away–his manuscript is far too long, his craft comes across as amateur, he relies on the opinions of partial readers like his father, and his agent doesn’t seem to have much of a record.  Along with the writing, he gets wrapped up in creating a cable-access television show based on the premise of a failed super-villain hosting a cable access show.  As bad as it sounds, you can actually see a glimmer of talent among all the obligatory shoddiness of the first episode of the show.

Reesman, only in her early twenties, is the would-be foil to these two dreamers.  We first see her in full convention gear: black body paint, elf ears, and platinum-blond wig.  Then she speaks, her voice a monotone drawl that seems to be terribly effective at making one’s thoughts wander.  Eventually we see her in natural state, and it’s surprising how anonymously she presents herself, a marked contrast from her Drow getup.  Then, as if to give us nothing but an excuse to arm-chair psychoanalyze, she proceeds to recount a series of failed relationships, miscarriages, slime-ball bosses, and other travails.  She complains about men liking her for what she does (i.e. gaming) and not who she is.

And therein the documentary raises a fundamental question.  What do roleplaying games do for these people?  As outside observers, we can only collect circumstantial evidence.  From what we see, the reality of each of the subjects presents qualities that one would wish to escape from–under-employment, the tension of relationships, specters of past failures and regrets, shoddy living arrangements, and general existential ambiguity.

What we can’t really measure the effect playing Dungeons and Dragons or other roleplaying games has on the inner lives of the subjects.  In my experience, roleplaying games had several aspects that I enjoyed–the social element of hanging out with friends; the excitement of learning something filled with minute detail; the activation of one’s imagination; the satisfaction of problem solving, the dissection of personalities, plots, and the arts of storytelling.  To its credit, a roleplaying game works for people because it engages them in an active way.

The Dungeon Master’s subjects clearly have an affinity for their hobby.  Perhaps their connection with “reality” is too tenuous at times.  Maybe they aren’t the perfect versions of themselves.  Their ideas of social norms can be different in the insignificant dimensions.  It doesn’t seem fair to somehow treat their particular spot of happiness any less respectfully than anything else that people use to mark and pass their time on this earth.

Written by Bill

March 24, 2011 at 3:28 am

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Majestic Preview: The King’s Speech and Gnomeo and Juliet

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Showing at the Majestic from March 17th to March 20th is a pair of very British movies, The King’s Speech and Gnomeo and Juliet (in 3D).

Let’s start with the wee tots’ fare.

Gnomeo and Juliet is an animated version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which has been through more cinematic interpretations than any sane person can count.  The gimmick, this time, is to tell the story for a younger audience through garden gnommery.  Yes, those little tacky garden gnomes with the pointy hats, who apparently need to make up for the income lost from pitching for Travelocity.

For those deficient in the finer experiences in life, the story is about the doomed love of the title characters, who come from two different, feuding families.  While tension escalates, they dream of escaping their dilemma and being together forever.  Best of all, the star-crossed lovers never get to the let-down stage of normalcy in their relationship.

Like the best of Shakespeare, there’s plenty of death to go around, and it’s the major thing you’ll notice missing in this child-friendly rendition.  Gnomeo and Juliet side-steps this issue in a funny meta-technique, in which the bard (or rather, his statue) is brought forth into the story and told “That’s a horrible ending!”

Central to the movie is the music provided by Sir Elton John, who also was the executive producer.  The lyrics have occasionally been refit to support the story, so the purist might find the presentation grating.  Sometimes, I felt it was lost in the jumble of overloaded visual action.

Voice characterizations are provided by a solid ensemble of British character and costume drama actors, including Emily Blunt, James McAvoy, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Fry, and…um…Dolly Parton.  Oh yes–I’m lying about Stephen Fry.  They must have locked him out of the building, since he seems to be in everything made across the pond.

I think Gnomeo & Juliet is average fare for children–they’ll probably enjoy it but won’t want to get the DVD and play it on endless repeat for the next three mispent years of their adolescence.  Unfortunately, in a trend I’ve noticed with many films, this movie reaches a bit hard for the adult audience, mostly through a series of clever Shakespeare cross-references.  It works for me, but I’m the guy who took the senior Shakespeare class in college for fun, even though I was a math major.

And where the heck was Kenneth Branagh?  I thought he held all the Shakespeare licensing…

Did you know that King George VI had a bit of a speech impediment?  Did you know that The King’s Speech won the Oscar for Best Picture just last month?  Did you know that Colin Firth looks all hunky when his shirt gets wet?  Now it’s your chance to see and judge (except for the wet-shirt, see “see also” below for further guidance).

The trailer lays out the premise of The King’s Speech quite adequatly, so let’s just say that the King (Colin Firth) needs help and he gets it from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The queen (Helena Bonham Carter, apparently all screamed-out from the Harry Potter films) facilitates their meeting and working together and provide wholesome moral support while the entire country moves into an inevitable conflict with Germany.

Tom Hooper directs, and it’s not surprising how successful this film is given his recent C.V., which includes the mini-series John Adams and The Damned United, which is the best soccer movie you’ve never seen.  In all three films, Hooper displays a fundamental understanding of the historical film form–that when you find the interesting truths about history, you don’t need heavy contrivances to make them engaging for the viewer.  Tell the story and don’t get too cute.

Honestly, I can say that if you’re the kind of person who likes movies like The King’s Speech, then you’ll like The King’s Speech.  If you are one of those people, you know what I mean.  I have a certain weakness for British costume drama, which often has good production values and makes use of a really strong cohort of British actors.  Along the spectrum of British costume drama from the past ten years, The King’s Speech comes solidly in above median–better than The Young Victoria, probably not as good as Romola Sadie Garai’s recent Emma mini series.

The heart of this film is the friendship and trust that grows between Logue and George.  The former is prone to unconventional behavior and therapy techniques, and eventually wears down his patient.  It retread a similar lesson to other films about power, that people in powerful positions are humans and sometimes need friends.

Backing up the central trio is a very solid supporting cast, which includes Guy Pearce, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon, Dereck Jacobi, and Timothy Spall.  Ironically, Ehle and Firth are kept apart through most of the film, since Logue must keep the King’s confidence, but when they do finally share the same space on screen, it’s a nice moment to remember their pairing in Pride and Prejudice.

In short, neither of this weekend’s options is a bad choice and there’s a little something for everyone.

See Also…

The most essential Romeo & Juliet on film is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet, which won Oscars for Cinematography and Costume Design.

There isn’t really an obvious recommendation I can make for very-young-audience Shakespeare, but most production-code era films are relatively benign, such as those maid by Welles or Olivier.  There are some very indirect Shakespeare adaptations geared towards high school age audiences, such as 10 Things I Hate About You and O.

People who have somehow missed most of Colin Firth’s career until this point should start with the BBC television Price and Prejudice from 1995, which absolutely put Firth on the map.  From there are plenty of other options, only one of which I wish to strenuously suggest skipping (St. Trinian’s).  You should also take in the other role for which Firth would have won an Oscar, in A Single Man.

If you’re new to this whole British costume drama thing and suddenly want more, I might suggest starting something recent and popular, like Emma (2009) starring Romola Sadie Garai, before moving into the obscure, like She Stoops to Conquer (2009).

Written by Bill

March 14, 2011 at 9:42 pm

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A Personal Film Biography

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Recently in conversation with a new acquaintance, I was asked if there was a specific film that turned me into an avid cinemaphile. I started to respond, but my answer got too long and I realized this was the perfect sort of thing for DMS.

The short answer is that there isn’t really a single film that turned me into film nut #1,489,324. In my case, it was a slow seduction perpetrated over several decades by a series of films. Even people who know me pretty well may be surprised by some of the films I cite below.

We’ll do this in my personal chronological order:

Time Bandits (1981 Terry Gilliam)

At the age of seven, this was the first film I ever went to without my parents. Ever since, I’ve had a taste for quirky directors, including the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch (when he’s not overtly being annoying), dry Scandinavian comedy directors like Bent Hamer, and almost every dark British comedy ever made (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, Shaun of the Dead, etc).

Batman (1989 Tim Burton)

I think of Batman as the turning point for me, where I started to develop my first overt preferences for movies. In particular, at that time it was for visually inventive fantasy. On the down side, Batman also laid the groundwork for my disappointment in directors who pull off a few visionary films only to then get caught in a cycle of cribbing from their own work. In Burton’s case, Sleepy Hollow may be the last of his “great” films if I were asked to draw a line. This is why, to this day, I have an almost knee-jerk aversion to directors identified as modern savants when they aren’t even a third of the way through their careers (Aronofsky, Nolan, etc).

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948 John Huston)

I don’t know what it has to do with high school biology class, but that’s where I saw it. For a long time it was the only black and white film I thought was cool enough to bother watching. After laying dormant for a decade, its effect developed into an interest in classic American cinema, especially those films which delved into the darker side of personality. That of course puts me into Film Noir in a hurry (The Third Man, The Big Sleep, The Big Heat, etc).

Sideways (2004 Payne)

Sideways was the first indie that really hooked me. I lived three blocks from an art house theater in Connecticut at the time, but that was the only film I saw there before I moved to Indiana. Sideways made me realize that, at the age of 30, the majority of films were manufactured for a younger generation. I had this realization about popular music when I was only 22 or 23 and Britney Spears ruined it all.

Sideways definitely reflects my preferences for art film. I like a focus on good characterizations and stories which have at least a bit of an uplifting payoff at the end (Juno, Up in the Air, Amelie, Slumdog Millionaire, An Education, etc). I like my art films to have a little bit of sense of humor, even if they aren’t exactly comedies. Even Hamlet, with all its tragedy, had the gravedigger scene just when some tension needed to be released.

All About Eve (1950 Mankiewicz)

When I went back to library school I got my first library job working at the media desk for minimum wage. It quickly occurred to me that I knew very little about the “old” movies I was handling.

To remedy that, I wanted guidance as to what to watch. I found Roger Ebert’s Great Movies book at the local book store and got sucked in. I also bought All About Eve shortly thereafter, which was the beginning of my attempt to see all of Ebert’s selections. That started in 2005 and I’m about 2/3rds of the way through that ever-expanding list.

All About Eve and Mr. Ebert turned me into a collector, because your average rental chain doesn’t keep a sufficient back-list collection. All About Eve also made me interested comedies that have aged well. Why do we still laugh at Keaton’s Our Hospitality and not at the Amos and Andy movie Check and Double Check? Okay, maybe that’s a bad example as it’s painfully obvious why Check and Double Check stinks.

Pride and Prejudice (2005 Wright)

This totally girly film did two things to me: 1. Appreciate the quality of the UK film industry relative to the American. 2. Turn me into an obnoxious, brimming reservoir of film trivia. From memory I can tell you most of the non-head lining cast and what some of their other films are:

  • Matthew MacFayden (Darby): Frost/Nixon, last year’s Robin Hood, The Bank Job
  • Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennett): An Education, Surrogates
  • Talulah Riley (Mary Bennett): St. Tristan’s
  • Carey Mulligan (Kitty Bennett): An Education, Wall Street and everything else to be made in the next two years
  • Brenda Blethyn (Mrs. Bennett): Secrets and Lies
  • Kelly Reilly (Caroline Bingley): The Spanish Apartment, Russian Dolls, Mrs. Henderson Presents
  • Rupert Friend (Wickham): Young Victoria, Cheri
  • Tom Hollander (Lady Catherine Deberg…er Mr. Collins): In the Loop

Then if you then link the discussion to Atonement via Knightley and Wright, one falls into the whirlpool of Romola Garai’s film career. She seems to show up in everything I’ve liked. She’s probably even in the background of that GEICO commercial with Charley Daniels.

This knowledge of British costume drama is why I get a chuckle when Colin Firth is introduced to Jennifer Ehle in The King’s Speech. They were another Darby and Lizzie combo…

Someday I’m going to map the six degrees of Pride and Prejudice.

Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001 Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Also known in the U.S. as just Amélie, this film broke the last boundary for me–the foreign language film. I’d seen quite a bit of foreign language cinema, especially working on Ebert’s great movie list, before I watched Amélie, but this was the first French film to really steal my heart. It’s probably because Jeunet is a sort of narrative-focused director with a visual style to which I’m already susceptible (see Burton, Tim). The real irony is that a friend of mine with a very similar preferences for books and movies had been pestering me for years to see this movie. Naturally, I resisted for a long time.

I appreciate why foreign language films are a tough hurdle for people. Subtitle reading is a bit of a skill. That’s why it’s important for people to run into a seductive film like Amélie, which stays close to film and genre forms we’re familiar with while still having a distinct cultural style. Others in this category include Tell No One, a French thriller adapted from a Harlan Coben novel, Wasabi, a French buddy-cop comedy, or The Spanish Apartment, a multi-lingual comedy about coming of age and many other things.

Written by Bill

February 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm

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Majestic Preview: The Fighter

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This is a trial post for a possible tie-in with my local theater, the Majestic.  Learn about Wayne’s community-operated theater here.

Showing at the Majestic for February 17th to February 20th is David O. Russell’s The Fighter.

The Fighter presents the story of real-life boxer Micky Ward, who won the WBU’s Intercontinental Light Welterweight title in 2000.  Mark Wahlberg plays Ward, while Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams also headline.  The film has been nominated for seven Academy Awards and Christian Bale and Melissa Leo both won Golden Globes for their supporting roles.

This is a classic boxing underdog story set in Lowell, Massachusetts.  While similar films from Rocky to Cinderella Man tend to focus on the individual boxer’s struggle, The Fighter gives way to a rollicking account of a socioeconomically-disadvantaged family coping with addiction.  While Wahlberg plays the protagonist, both Leo and Bale carve out plenty of attention with their flashy parts, playing Wahlberg’s bother and mother, respectively.

The standard mileposts one finds in a heroic sports movie are also there: the agony of mediocrity and failure, the internal in-fighting, the slow enlightment of the protagonist as he learns his life lessons, and the eventual climb to the top.  The ending isn’t over-wrought with emotion, but all the more satisfying due to its basis in reality.

Wahlberg is in danger of being lost in the shuffle of action in the film, and most performers would suffer under the disadvantage the role has put him in.  Wahlberg, who has had a surprising run of good comedic performances in the past year, becomes a master of negative space, content to provide a point of purchase for the plot and performances of others.  We may not learn much about Micky Ward, but he’s the most obvious character we can relate to in the film and without his nuanced performance, we might not care.

Christian Bale is the sort of actor to whom I have almost a knee-jerk aversion.  I can’t help but see him as a flouncer trying to engage the cheap seats, while being chronically incapable of laughing at himself.  Given this, one can imagine my surprise at how impressed I was by Bale.  He’s given license in a supporting role to go all out and this suits Bale’s ability perfectly.  I suppose it’s better to be right 10% of the time.

Melissa Leo and Amy Adams tackle less-than-glamorous roles.  One expects this of Leo given her recent work, but to see Adams step away from a princess role is refreshing, even though she can hardly be heard through the tempest of Leo and Bale.  While I can’t recall Leo’s work before Frozen River, she’s clearly showing an entire generation of female actors how to disappear into roles with real depth.  Leo’s facial expressions also remind the viewer that acting is more than just reading lines.

Perhaps the aspect of The Fighter that won me over was how effectively it put me into a time and place, in this case a run-down neighborhood in the mid-1990s.  It’s a real shame that The Fighter didn’t get any awards recognition for its costume and make up work, which capture all the worst styles of the era.  While watching this film, try to take in the sets and costuming, which are serving the film in a less-perceptible way.

See Also…

Like Melissa Leo in The Fighter and want more?  Try the gritty drama Frozen River (2008).

For struggles with addiction and functioning within one’s vocation, The Fighter shares many similarities with Half Nelson (2006).

Another recent film that uses an urban place to great effect is the comedy City Island (2009).

The most classic boxing film ever made is, debatably, Rocky (1976).  For a boxing film that is structured more as a character study, one can’t go wrong with Raging Bull (1980).

Written by Bill

February 14, 2011 at 11:09 pm

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