Phil on Film Index

Sunday, February 27, 2011

DVD Review - Leap Year (Año bisiesto)

The Film

As polished and superbly shot as Leap Year consistently is, Michael Rowe's debut feature remains an extraordinarily hard film to watch. It is a study of loneliness and longing, with its narrative following a month in the life of Laura (Monica del Carmen), a journalist living in isolation in Mexico City. Laura clearly desires companionship; the film opens with her observing a male shopper as she wanders around a supermarket, and in an early scene we see her masturbate as she watches a happy couple in the apartment across the street. It's a desperately lonely existence, and the only solace she finds is in the one-night stands she frequently has with the men she takes home from bars and clubs.

Rowe's depiction of the sex between Laura and her various partners is frank and clinical. We view their loveless encounters in stark single shots, with the director frequently lingering on his characters in the moments after their unsatisfactory climaxes, as the men immediately make their excuses and leave (one even phones his girlfriend while Laura lies beside him, quickly forgotten). The only man who comes back for more is Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra). He introduces Laura to rougher sexual exploits, beginning with some strangling during intercourse, and soon his visits become a regular highlight in Laura's life. She leaps to attention when he appears, ready and willing to push the boundaries of sex and pain further, and things escalate quickly; Laura is whipped by his belt, pissed on and burned by his cigarettes. At last, she's finally feeling something.

Even though Leap Year is set entirely within the cramped confines of Laura's apartment (aside from that brief supermarket opening), Rowe ensures his film is cinematic, with his superb compositions creating a sense of claustrophobia and tension. It's a slow burner of a film, with Rowe pacing his picture steadily, but it grows quickly absorbing and downright riveting when Laura and Arturo start engaging in ever more intense sexual activities. Essentially a two-hander for half of its running time (although Laura's brother makes a few short appearances), Leap Year benefits hugely from the conviction and authenticity of del Carmen and Parra's performances. In particular, del Carmen shows a complete lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera (Rowe's camera often watches her sitting on the toilet picking her nose of performing mundane household tasks) and brings a note of tenderness and integrity to her troubled character.

What Leap Year ultimately lacks is a real sense of purpose. The climax feels hollow and underwhelming after the often gripping drama of what has gone before, and we might be left wondering what exactly we have learned about these characters at the end of it all. The sense of trauma that hovers in Laura's past – we are led to believe that her father died on February 29th – is poorly developed and doesn't really resonate as a key factor in her behaviour. Nevertheless, this is a strong, challenging piece of filmmaking, and a hugely impressive debut from Michael Rowe. It's worth recommending for its performances and aesthetic style, both of which far outweigh its occasional shortfalls.

The Extras

The bulk of the extra features consist of two substantial (both around half an hour) interviews with director Michael Rowe and star Monica del Carmen. Between them, they cover all aspects of the film, from the characters and themes, to the challenges involved in making the picture on an absurdly low budget. There's also a short behind-the-scenes featurette, a trailer, and a cheesy music video for the song that plays over the closing credits.

Leap Year is released on DVD on February 28th

Buy Leap year here

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Review - Waste Land

Early on in Lucy Walker's Waste Land, Vik Muniz stares at some aerial shots of Jardim Gramacho and he marvels at the size of it. Jardim Gramacho is the largest landfill in the world, with 70% of Rio de Janeiro's garbage being transported here daily, but what that aerial view doesn't show us is the people who toil away there day and night."From above, you don't have any of the human factor," Muniz observes, and the power of Waste Land lies in how close we get to that human factor. Shot over the course of three years, Waste Land follows Muniz, a renowned Brazilian artist, as he embarks upon an ambitious new project, but it is the "catadores," Jardim Gramacho's garbage pickers, whose stories and experiences provide the film with its considerable emotional impact.

They offer surprises too; when Muniz first begins walking around the site with his camera, he is met by smiles and laughter, rather than abject misery. They take great pride in the work they do, considering it good, honest labour, and many of the pickers compare themselves favourably with the drug dealers and prostitutes that they see every day in the favelas. There may be a sharp contrast between the pickers and Muniz, a wealthy and famous artist, but he is capable of striking up an instant sense of trust and rapportwith them, perhaps because he knows what it is to be poor. Muniz talks about the fact that he could easily have ended up working at Jardim Gramacho if he had been less fortunate in life, and now that he has achieved financial security, he wants to give something back.

The central narrative thread of Waste Land follows the creation of portraits of the catadores using items retrieved from the dump, but that's not the real focus of the movie. Muniz habitually steps away from the spotlight and both he and Walker seem far more interested in learning more about the characters who participate in the project. We meet Tião, a determined and charismatic individual who dreams of establishing an association to support his fellow catadores; Zumbi, who retrieves discarded books from the dump in the hope of starting a library; Suelem, an 18 year-old with two children who has been working at Jardim Gramacho since she herself was a child; and Isis, the one who touched me most deeply. Isis talks openly and movingly about her tragic life and she is the one who seems to be most affected by the experience of working with Vik, making it clear that she has no desire to return to Jardim Gramacho having had this taste of another life.

This is a tricky juncture for Waste Land to negotiate, and one scene shows us Vik and his team sitting down to discuss the ethics of dramatically altering their subjects' lives in such a way; giving them a brief glimpse of an alternative reality before sending them back to their lives at the landfill. "Maybe their minds need to be messed with," Muniz suggests, believing completely in the empowering potential of his project, and the film mostly justifies that belief. We watch these people as they are inspired and moved by their experience, and because Waste Land has involved us so deeply in their lives, we are inspired and moved alongside them. Waste Land is superbly put together by Lucy Walker, who has great storytelling instincts, and its momentum is aided by slick editing and a fine Moby score. It's an uplifting and deeply touching human story, and a stirring celebration of art's ability to transform lives.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review - I Am Number Four

That I Am Number Four has little coherence in its logic or the physics of its action is not its greatest crime. After all, the film is a sci-fi blockbuster aimed at undiscerning teens, for whom such things aren't so important, and as it has been directed by DJ Caruso and produced by Michael Bay, we should anticipate empty flashiness (and slow-walking away from exploding fireballs) as standard. What's more frustrating and disappointing is the film's total lack of regard for the basics of story and character. The plot has something to do with an alien race from the planet Lorien. They are identified by numbers rather than names (Alex Pettyfer being the eponymous Number 4) and nine of them fled their doomed planet when an alien race called the Mogadorians came to destroy it. Now, the alien teenagers are hiding out on earth, but the pesky Mogadorians are still hunting them down and at the start of the picture, Numbers 1, 2 and 3 have already met their end.

All of this is explained in a laborious fashion at various points in the film, and yet it's both difficult to follow and impossible to care about the rather nonsensical plot. The characters are so poorly drawn they barely exist, and the young actors playing them bring little substance to their performances. Pettyfer plays a young man coming to terms with extraordinary abilities (shooting lights out of the palms of his hand, etc.), but the actor's abilities don't extend to expressing more than a single emotion. Number 4 is frequently told, "You don't know what you're capable of" by his mentor/protector (Timothy Olyphant), but we never get a sense of his exhilaration or anxiety as he discovers his powerful new gifts. Much of I Am Number Four's opening hour is focused on the lead character's experiences at Cliché High School, which he attends as 'John Smith' and where he falls in love with a free-spirited beauty (Dianna Agron), incurs the wrath of the school bully (Jake Abel) and bonds with an insecure UFO nerd (Callan McAuliffe). There isn't a single character in this film who doesn't feel like they have been built from a predesigned teen movie template.

For the most part, I Am Number Four is witless and boring, and it steals so many ideas from other sci-fi/action/teen/romance movies, it never develops a consistent or distinctive identity of its own. It feels cynical and soulless in its attempt to kick-start a franchise without giving us a single reason to want to follow these characters or this adventure in subsequent instalments. I spent much of I Am Number Four slumped in my seat, waiting for it to end, but I must admit the climactic battle between the heroes and their Mogadorian foe did enough to get my attention. It's loud, stupid and overwhelmed by CGI, but I think I was just glad that something was finally happening, and the presence of Teresa Palmer was a welcome bonus too. She plays Number 6 and she brings an attitude to her brief appearance that the rest of the movie conspicuously lacks, making me wish that I'd spent the past 90 minutes watching I Am Number Six instead. Number 6 is also given the film's most telling line of dialogue – "Hit me" she tells Number 4, "I need to power up," and it's true, these characters and this movie possess all the depth and weight of a video game.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Review - Carmen 3D

What does 3D really bring to the film experience? Some filmgoers have embraced the presence of a third dimension in their cinematic lives, while others continue to claim it is nothing more than a distraction, a gimmick and an empty moneymaking venture. Either way, 3D is here to stay for the time being, so the best we can hope for is that the technique is applied with skill and intelligence, and in a manner that really adds something to the viewing experience. A prime example of this is Carmen 3D, a new film that uses its additional depth to approximate a theatrical experience for us within the confines of a cinema. The film is a recording of Carmen as staged at the Royal Opera House, and both in its content and its presentation, it is a captivating experience.

Carmen 3D will be released in cinemas in March, and this distribution will hopefully allow people who have never attended the opera before (whether for geographical reasons, the prohibitive cost, or simply because it is perceived as an elite, esoteric pastime) the opportunity to experience it for the first time. Georges Bizet's opera is also a good place for neophytes to start, as much of the music, notably Carmen's Habanera or the Toreador song, may already be familiar in the same way that certain lines from Shakespeare are known by those who have never read or seen one of his plays. The storyline is a relatively simplistic one, focusing on a seductive gypsy woman who inspires obsessive love in her suitors, but the opera's themes of love, hatred and jealousy feel universal, and it is the telling of the tale, rather than the tale itself, that is truly extraordinary.

While the overture plays, director Julian Napier opens his film with some glimpses of the cast in their dressing room and behind the curtain, putting the final touches to their preparations in the moments before the opera begins. Once the curtain has been raised, and we see the large cast fill the stage, the benefits of the film's 3D approach become apparent, giving us a sense of depth and space, as if we had a stage in front of us rather than a cinema screen. Credit for the production must be split between two people: Francesca Zambello, who directed the lively, raunchy and powerful onstage performance, and Julian Napier, who orchestrated the 3D camerawork. Napier knows when to move his camera elegantly and when to cut, and he does so successfully without disrupting the rhythm of the opera.

The greatest tool at Napier's disposal is the close-up, allowing us to witness the emotion in the performers' faces as they passionately sing songs of joy and pain. I was hugely impressed by the exceptional performances turned in by Bryan Hymel as Don José, the soldier who foolishly falls head over heels for Carmen, and the beautiful soprano Maija Kovalevska as Micaëla, the smalltown girl who loves him; but it is Carmen herself who rightfully dominates the show. Watching Christine Rice in this role is an electrifying experience. She brings an astonishing emotional force to her performance, displaying a remarkable vocal range, and while she is a magnetic presence every minute she is on stage, a couple of individual sequences are particularly worthy of praise. The first is her introduction, in which she scandalously taunts and tempts the soldiers, and another powerful scene occurs at the end of Act 2, when she persuades the disgraced Don José to run away with her gang of bandits. The scene that really struck me, however, was the one in which Carmen turns over tarot cards to predict her future, and Napier's camera allows us to see Rice's eyes filling with tears as she learns of her tragic fate.

I doubt you'll see many female performances as good as this on a cinema screen all year, and Carmen 3D as a whole is as exciting and satisfying a cultural experience as I've had in some time. To the uninitiated, the sound of a two-and-a-half hour opera might sound forbidding, but I was enthralled by the drama, and those hours flew by. I wouldn't be surprised to see 3D opera emerge as a regular feature at cinemas around the country; in fact, another event is taking place this week which should draw plenty of curious customers.

On February 23rd, Mike Figgis will direct a new production of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which will be performed by the English National Opera at the Coliseum while being simultaneously beamed live into 3D cinemas, and screened on Sky Arts and Sky 3D. It is an ambitious undertaking, but the chief fascination for me with this production lies in the presence of Mike Figgis, a daring and mercurial filmmaker whose absence has been felt from cinema for the past few years. It has the potential to be a very special night, and one that should appeal to both opera connoisseurs and adventurous cinephiles.

Carmen 3D will be released in cinemas on March 5th 2011.

Lucrezia Borgia will be performed live at the Coliseum on Wednesday February 23rd, while also playing on Sky Arts and Sky 3D, and at selected cinemas around the country.

Review - True Grit

The Coen brothers' work has so frequently displayed many of the attributes that go into making a great western, it comes as something of a surprise that they haven't tackled the genre head-on until now. Think of the Coens' films and you think of their facility for stylised, verbose dialogue, their penchant for eccentric character details, and their superb location work, in which their protagonists often find themselves framed against stark landscapes. There's also the brothers' relationship with classic Hollywood genres to consider. They have tried their hand at noir, romantic comedy, screwball and Chandler-esque detective stories, but in most cases they have put their own distinctive spin on the material and subverted genre expectations.

With True Grit, however, the Coens have instead subverted audience expectations by putting away most of their usual idiosyncrasies and playing it straight. Charles Portis' novel has already been filmed once, with John Wayne winning his only Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway's 1969 version, but the Coens' adaptation is closer in spirit and structure to the source material. In the role of Rooster, the Coens have cast Jeff Bridges, but their most crucial casting choice lies in the role of Mattie Ross. Played in the '69 film by Kim Darby, a good few years too old for the part, the character is here embodied by Hailee Steinfeld, a 14 year-old debutant who is the right age and possesses the right attitude and demeanour for the part. She might seem slight and vulnerable, but Mattie displays her maturity and intelligence early on, negotiating a horse trader into a corner in a superbly written and performed scene.

Mattie has come to Arkansas because this is where her father was killed, and she is determined to see Tom Chaney brought to justice, one way or another. She hires drunken, violent, half-blind marshal Rooster Cogburn to track him down, and Bridges makes him a much more irascible and spiky figure than Wayne's incarnation; we see him before we hear him, mumbling angrily from inside an outhouse as Mattie makes her opening offer. He's a hard character with a mean streak – even finding time to inexplicably kick two children off the porch as he walks into one house – and when a gunshot victim appeals to him for help, he flatly replies, "I can do nothing for you, son" before finishing the job. As the third part in the film's unusual central trio, Matt Damon's LaBoeuf, a vain and arrogant Texas Ranger, acts as a superb foil for Rooster, and Damon's performance is a marvellous display of sly understatement.

The Coens' films rarely contain poor performances, of course (although I'd argue Josh Brolin's turn here as Chaney comes close), and their craftsmanship is similarly so customarily flawless that praising it once more feels like stating the obvious. As ever, Roger Deakins' cinematography is beautifully composed, capturing the majestic sweep of the land the bickering trio are traipsing through, while saving his most extraordinary work for the film's moonlit sequences. Carter Burwell provides another superb score, both thrilling and haunting, and the Coens' staging of the film's action sequences – a nighttime ambush, the climactic "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" face-off – are staged and cut with breathtaking precision.

It is the final twenty minutes, however, that elevates this film from merely an exceptional example of its genre and turns it into something approaching greatness. The climactic cave sequence, horse ride and final epilogue deliver an unexpected emotional kick to the picture and bring True Grit to a most satisfying close. There will be those who complain about the lack of a distinctive Coen-ness in this picture, and will argue that the brothers have blunted their edges in order to make a mainstream hit, but that would be unfair. True Grit is the kind of effective, old-fashioned, richly enjoyable piece of storytelling that too few filmmakers know how to deliver anymore. It has been made with skill and sensitivity, and it possesses the kind of deceptive simplicity that only filmmakers at the very top of their game are blessed with. In years to come, I'm pretty sure we'll look back at this film and view it as a true classic.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review - Paul

How much you enjoy Paul may depend on how much enjoyment you get out of spotting references to other movies. If you do love that sort of thing, then Paul is the picture for you, as Nick Frost and Simon Pegg have filled their screenplay with nods to Star Wars, Aliens, Titanic, Mac & Me, a chunk of the Spielberg canon, Titanic and even Lorenzo's Oil among myriad others. The two earlier films this pair featured together in, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, were more successful as spoofs of genre conventions as a whole rather than individual films, but Paul is happier pulling lines and sight gags from more specific targets, an approach that has always seemed a little smug and lazy to me. Still, if you throw enough shit at a wall some of it is going to stick, and Paul's rapid-fire joke delivery does hit the mark every now and then. Pegg and Frost star as a pair of sci-fi geeks touring UFO sites in America who have a close encounter with a real extra-terrestrial. Paul (voiced by a very recognisable Seth Rogen) has escaped from Area 51 and he asks the bumbling nerds to help him get home, which means the film eventually becomes one long chase movie. Greg Mottola may not be a visual stylist in the mould of Edgar Wright, Pegg and Frost's usual collaborator, but he knows how to frame a shot and he knows how to keep the film moving smoothly forward. There are a couple of laugh-out-loud scenes here (mostly involving the reliably funny Kristen Wiig, who can find comedic notes in the thinnest of parts), but it's more often gently amusing in a breezy and forgettable kind of way. Pegg and Frost's genuine bonhomie goes a long way to giving the film some charm, and Paul himself works a lot better than expected, but Paul doesn't quite have the legs to maintain a sense of energy and momentum all the way up to the climax. It feels tired by the end, and the climactic pile-up of movie references feels cheap and unworthy of the fine comic cast. Leave that kind of thing to the Friedberg and Seltzers of this world; the talent involved in Paul should surely be aspiring to something more.

Review - Two in the Wave (Deux de la vague)

Two in the Wave is a documentary about a pair of filmmakers whose vibrant, groundbreaking work defined the French Nouvelle Vague, but I wish it shared some of their imagination and style. Emmanuel Laurent's film charts the relationship between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, two film critics turned film directors, whose shared cinephilia and adventurous spirit saw them forge a close bond in the early years of their career, as they shook up the cinematic establishment. Little in Two in the Wave will shake up the viewer, however. Laurent uses archive footage, interview excerpts and newspaper clippings to tell his story in an efficient but disappointingly flat manner, and his only stylistic flourish – employing a bored-looking Isild Le Besco to flick through magazines or wander around their old haunts – feels like a pointless affectation. The film holds the interest simply because the story of Godard and Truffaut is a fascinating one, and to be fair to Laurent, he does serve up some enlightening nuggets. There's an interesting sequence that details the filmmakers' influences, revealing that they learned how to shoot female faces by watching Bergman's Summer with Monika, and another fun scene shows some members of the French public reacting, often adversely, to the first showing of Godard's À bout de soufflé. The film also has a strong final section, which focuses on Jean-Pierre Léaud and depicts him as the rather bemused child torn between two squabbling fathers. Moments like that can't really turn Two in the Wave into anything more than a mildly intriguing curio for film buffs, however, and its failings can be summed up by one observation – soon after the film's start, I anticipated that it would end with the final shot of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and I was disappointed to be proved right. Such predictability hardly seems fitting for a study of two directors who always sought to surprise their audiences.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

DVD Review - The Rebound

The Film

The Rebound feels like it wants to be one kind of film, but it's constrained and compromised by the conventions of the genre it exists within. At a certain point in Bart Freundlich's picture, the pace finally settles and the focus shifts onto the characters, and the film starts to chug along nicely as a watchable, if not exactly exciting, relationship drama. You get the sense that this examination of the problems facing a relationship between a 40 year-old divorcée and the babysitter almost two decades her junior is the real reason Freundlich wanted to make the film, and when the two lead characters are allowed a little time and space together, The Rebound almost starts to find its feet.

Before we reach that point, however, we have to suffer through the film's 'comedy', which fails even when set against the low standards of the contemporary romantic comedy. Arriving in New York with her two kids after leaving her philandering husband, Sandy (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is determined to start a new life. Unfortunately, New York – or at least The Rebound's depiction of it – is full of homeless people pissing in the street or exposing themselves, all of which prompts Sandy to take a self-defence class that eventually leads to her meet-cute with Aram (Justin Bartha). He's dressed in a fat suit and ready to be beaten up by the female participants, in a sequence that grows more embarrassing and unfunny as it drags on. That's not the film's lowest point, however, as the film's inarguable nadir is reached when Sandy goes on a date with a doctor who inexplicably takes a very audible shit early in the evening and then leaves without washing his hands, before getting very hands-on with Sandy throughout the rest of the night.

I was ready to give up on The Rebound right about then, but when it's not jumping through silly hoops in an effort to make us laugh, it can be quite charming in its own low-key way. This is primarily down to fine performances from Zeta-Jones and Bartha, who both make their characters surprisingly likeable and share a chemistry that holds the film together. Freundlich appears much more comfortable with actors than he does with comedic set-pieces, and he draws good natural turns from the children playing Sandy's son and daughter, while Joanna Gleason and Art Garfunkel (!) offer solid support as Aram's parents. Alas, despite showing plenty of promise in its middle section, The Rebound is a film that ends as badly as it starts. It shoots off on a bizarre tangent in the final 15 minutes, throwing in a weirdly misjudged travelogue sequence, before returning to New York for a finale that's both unconvincing and sentimental.

The Extras

Just a trailer.

The Rebound is released on DVD and Blu-ray on February 7th.

Buy The Rebound here

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Review - Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole is a film about a married couple trying to come to terms with the death of their young son, and I'm sure that basic description has already turned off a number of readers. I know what it sounds like; a wallow in misery and a blatant grab for awards recognition, the kind of film you've seen too many times already, but Rabbit Hole is not entirely the picture you expect it to be. Instead of wallowing, the film moves swiftly, displaying a sharp edge, a keen insight, an unexpected sense of humour, and a deep empathy with its characters' confused and turbulent emotional states. When we are introduced to Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), eight months have passed since the death of their four year-old son, but that sense of loss can still be felt in every scene, and neither parent has yet found a way to return their lives to their previous state of normalcy. "I was trying to make things nice," Howie says at one point, after Becca rejects his romantic advances. "You can't, you just can't" she retorts, "Things aren't 'nice' anymore."

Everyone grieves in a different way and Rabbit Hole follows both Becca and Howie as they take very different approach to coping with their pain. Howie is more open about wanting to deal with their loss in a traditional way, persuading his reluctant wife to attend weekly group therapy sessions, and trying to reignite the sexual spark that has been non-existent between them since the incident. At every attempt he makes to reach out to his wife, she recoils. Becca is a prickly, difficult character to get to know, and she internalises her grief, maintaining an emotional distance from those around her. Both characters appear trapped in a state of stasis. With no one to blame for the tragic and purely accidental death of their son, they lack an outlet for their grief, anger and dismay, and they're both searching tentatively for the next move. Should they maintain their son's memory by preserving his room, keeping his paintings on the fridge and re-watching their home movies? Or should they clear it all away, perhaps even sell the house and try for another child?

These are complicated questions with no right or wrong answers, and they are questions handled with sensitivity and intelligence by David Lindsay-Abaire, who has adapted his own play for the screen. Rabbit Hole only occasionally betrays its stage origins, with the odd exchange or monologue that sounds overly written, and it would be easy to accuse the film of employing a too-neat structure as well. Both Howie and Becca find people outside of their marriage that they can form a connection with; Howie comes close to straying with a woman from his support group (Sandra Oh), while Becca begins spending time with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenager who hit Danny with his car eight months earlier.

Even if such a setup does feel schematic, Rabbit Hole pulls it off superbly. The film feels incredibly tight, with every scene having a sense of weight and meaning, and the performances are truly remarkable from the whole ensemble. In particular, Nicole Kidman gives one of her finest performances to date in an enormously challenging role, and she shares some superbly judged scenes with Teller, who is outstanding as a young man coming to terms with his part in her son's death. John Cameron Mitchell may have seemed an unusual choice for this project, based on his outrageous and sexually charged earlier films Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, but his more restrained style fits the material beautifully, and he shows himself to be exceptional at directing actors and handling the most emotionally explosive scenes.

I should also mention the performance given by Dianne Wiest, who plays Becca's mother Nat. She also understands the pain of losing a child, with her son having died of an overdose, and her delicate performance seems to encapsulate one of the film's central themes. Grief never goes away, but you learn to deal with it, and learn to accept it as a permanent shadow in your life. "At some point it becomes bearable," she advises her daughter, "It becomes something you can crawl out from under and carry around, like a brick in your pocket." That's the lesson Becca and Howie learn in different ways in Rabbit Hole. They take wildly diverging paths but they ultimately find themselves at the same point; ready to move forward, but taking one careful step at a time.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Review - The Fighter

The Fighter is a boxing movie, but it's also a film about a family, and what a family Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) had to contend with as he made an unlikely tilt at the world championship. His mother, the chain-smoking, tough-talking Alice (played by Melissa Leo), acts as his manager, but she has been mismanaging his career for years, exploiting his talents and lining up no-good fights that take his career nowhere. Micky is also surrounded by a terrifying brood of sisters – seven of them, in fact – all of whom share the same wild hair and wilder temper, and all ready to jump at their mother's command. As we watch Wahlberg we get the sense that Micky has spent his entire life acquiescing to their wishes, giving in to his sense of family loyalty and the desire for a quiet life, while watching his career and potential slowly drain away.

Micky's brother is a troubled soul too. In 1978, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) took Sugar Ray Leonard to the distance, losing on a points decision, in a performance that secured his lifetime status as a local hero in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. When we meet Dicky, in 1993, he is a scarily gaunt crack addict, who spends his days holed up in a crack den and launches himself out of the window when his mother comes to find him. Dicky is supposed to be Micky's trainer, but he's not much use to the frustrated boxer when he turns up at the gym spaced-out, or forgets to turn up at all.

So, Micky's fight lies not only in the ring but in his home, with him having to stand up to his overbearing family and cut the ties that are holding him back. The Fighter has all of the hallmarks of a fine underdog-makes-good boxing story, but it never quite finds a sense of focus, and as enjoyable as the film is to watch, it failed to fully involve me in Micky's journey from nobody to contender. With such talent in front of the camera, and with David O. Russell behind it, perhaps I was simply expecting more from The Fighter, expecting it to break with the traditions of the true-life boxing movie and energise old clichés with a fresh vigour. Russell is responsible for a couple of impressive moments – the opening reveal of his characters being a particularly dazzling shot – but for the most part his direction has been dialled down significantly from the lively eccentricity of Three Kings and I ♥ Huckabees. He handles the film's boxing sequences well enough, skilfully incorporating TV footage of Micky's bouts into the drama, but there's very little here that doesn't feel well-worn and familiar.

Perhaps Russell's biggest achievement as director on this film can been seen in the way he keeps the picture moving and keeps it feeling cohesive, while simultaneously indulging performances that range from gritty and sullen to borderline cartoonish. Leo and Bale deliver the kind of high-wire turns that might have unbalanced the movie, but both are good enough to invest their roles with a sense of soul and stop them from veering into caricature. In particular, Bale is remarkable, with the extraordinary nature of his performance extending far beyond his now-customary dedication to the physical requirements of his role. It's a showy piece of work, sure, but Bale is magnetic, with his jabbering, wired, bug-eyed display feeling consistent and lived-in rather than a self-conscious piece of gimmickry. In her own, quieter way, Amy Adams gives something of a revelatory performance too, with her strong portrayal of Charlene – the woman Micky falls in love with, and the woman who supports him in his battles with his clan – allowing her to display a tougher edge to her persona, and she clearly relishes the opportunity.

Sadly, the problem is Wahlberg. This film has been a passion project for the actor, one he has been trying to get off the ground for years, but where's the passion in his performance? Of course, it's understandable and even crucial that Wahlberg should provide The Fighter with a calm centre capable of providing balance and contrast with his attention-grabbing co-stars, but the actor comes off as stolid, passive and inert. I found it impossible to get involved in Micky's story simply because he barely seemed to be involved in it himself, and the unfortunate truth about The Fighter is that the film reflects Wahlberg rather than its more colourful characters in its latter stages, narrowing into a flat and humdrum boxing picture, and leaving behind the real drama outside the ring.