Friday, December 31, 2010

Blue Valentine (The Weinstein Company)

By Harry Forbes

Much as one can admire the work of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple at the beginning and (possibly) end of their six-year relationship, this intentionally murky scenes from a marriage which toggles back and forth in time is more frustrating than enthralling.

As the story unfolds so meticulously by degrees, almost any plot description might spoil the pleasure of the revelations such as they are. But suffice to say, at the film’s start, couple Dean and Cindy are married with a young daughter. Frankie (Faith Wladyka). Cindy’s a medical technician; he’s a house painter.

Though it’s clear that director Derek Cianfrance and his fellow screenplay writers Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne has striven mightily to keep the two protagonists in balance, I’d say Gosling still emerges as the more empathetic character by far, both by dint of the actor’s personal charm, and his character’s apparent devotion to his wife and child.

As Cindy expresses ever increasing frustration with him, his biggest sin – apart from perhaps drinking too much -- would appear to be lack of professional ambition, whereas her increasing sense of discontent seems ill-founded.

The film achieved some notoriety when the MPAA slapped it with an NC-17, though it’s since been edited to R specifications. There still remain a couple of graphic sex scenes (only one involving Gosling), but they’re reasonably organic to the story.

The ending is somewhat open-ended, or at least that’s how I saw it, but on the whole, I thought the narrative has too many holes and contrivance to seem totally convincing.

The early scenes were shot in super 16MM - and the present in extreme close-up using two red cameras -- but the filmic texture of those processes notwithstanding, it is Gosling’s hairstyle that provides the clearest clue as to which time period is presently on view.

(Rated Rated R on appeal for strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating; originally rated NC-17 for a scene of explicit sexual content.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fighter (Paramount Pictures/Relativity Media)

By Harry Forbes

“The Fighter” is the gritty true life story of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) who, after losing a series of fights, has the chance at the World Championship but is handicapped by his overbearing manager mother (Melissa Leo) and his drug-addicted half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) who serves as his trainer. The blue-collar setting is Lowell, Mass.

Dicky, a former boxer himself, once shared the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson (though he lost), and is now a ne’er-do-well who runs off to a crack house at every opportunity, and eventually, after a violent encounter with the police, ends up in prison.

Micky’s barmaid girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) urges him to break with his family which also includes nine (count ‘em!) sisters, seemingly all as ferocious as their mother, but ultimately, Micky comes to learn that he needs his wayward brother’s expertise and the support of his family, for all their flaws.

Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson’s screenplay is as much a sordid domestic drama as it is a boxing picture, so be warned: the family squabbles are pretty relentless. Mother Alice is one tough cookie, though her bravado is scarily entertaining.

The downbeat milieu notwithstanding, the film is not without humor, and ultimately it becomes a story of redemption, sending you forth with a feeling of uplift.

Performances are first-rate. Wahlberg proves again what a solid actor he’s become, and his fight scenes are totally convincing. He's the relatively calm center of the scenery-chewing histrionics around him.

A gaunt Bale has a much flashier role, and he truly inhabits the unruly Dicky. Leo impresses anew as the harridan mother. And Adams’ atypically tough portrayal, far removed from her more ladylike roles in “Enchanted” and “Julie & Julia,” is also outstanding.

David O. Russell directs the personal drama and the ring scenes with equal flair.

(This film has been rated R by the MPAA for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality.)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate)

By Harry Forbes

If you were to avoid the adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play fearing its downbeat theme – a couple, Becca and Howie, coping with the sudden death of their four-year-old son several months earlier – you’d be missing one of the year’s best.

For starters, Nicole Kidman gives an absolutely extraordinary performance – as did Cynthia Nixon in the play, for that matter – and for Kidman, this is one of her finest portrayals in a career full of them. And Aaron Eckhart is also spectacular as her spouse, futilely trying to bring their lives back to normal. Without outward signs of conventional grief, it’s clear these two have lost their purpose in life, and simply don’t know what to do with themselves.

The film is one of the best depictions of the grief process shown on screen, and even as it ends on a hopeful note, there’s nothing contrived or false about how that is achieved.

Howie tries to find solace in a sympathetic woman (Sandra Oh) from his bereavement group, while Becca (Kidman) – most interestingly -- reaches out to the quiet and sensitive teenager (Miles Teller) responsible for her child’s death.

Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay – nicely opened up from the stage -- is so deftly constructed so that even this simple plot description contains some spoilers best experienced moment by moment as he shows us the couple’s predicament by subtle degrees.

John Cameron Mitchell directs with the utmost sensitivity to the subject matter.

There’s fine work, too, from Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother, who has experienced loss herself; and Tammy Blanchard as Becca’s sister. But it’s Kidman, whose low-keyed, superbly natural performance blows you away.

The film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for mature thematic material, some drug use and language.)

Black Swan (Fox Searchlight)

By Harry Forbes

The buzz you’ve been hearing about Natalie Portman is true. As a ballerina slowly unraveling as she rehearses for her first starring role in “Swan Lake” at New York’s Lincoln Center, she gives a compelling, multi-faceted performance.

But the framework around her -- a luridly melodramatic story involving an overbearing, ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey), a sexually predatory choreographer (Vincent Cassel), an embittered fading star (Winona Ryder), and a sluttish rival (Mila Kunis) – is predictably clich├ęd.

The film derives its title from the ballet’s dual central part – the good Odette and the evil Odille – the latter presenting Portman’s character with its greatest challenge. She can handle the good character with aplomb, but worries about the sensuality and duplicity of the latter eluding her, particularly with Cassel’s character feeding her insecurity on that score.

Mind you, the ballet setting is intriguing and not a little exotic, but there’s none of the artful visual composition or detailed plotting and ballet world atmosphere of Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes,” a film to which some have wrongly made flattering comparisons. This is not to say that the direction of Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”) is lacking in flair, but it strikes me as flash with little substance.

“Black Swan” is rarely tedious and there are some twists, but the payoff is less than satisfying, and even then, not adequately explained in the script credited to Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin.

There’s a curiously trashy ambiance throughout, including a gratuitously graphic lesbian encounter between Portman and Kunis.

Still, Portman holds your interest and earns your sympathy, and even allowing for some cinematic doubling, convincingly executes her dance movements.

(The film has been rating R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.)

True Grit (Paramount Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

The Coen brothers have done right by Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, already famously filmed in 1969, when it garnered an Oscar for John Wayne. The present version is, well, grittier, and truer in spirit to Portis’ vision.

The story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who hires a dissolute Marshall (Rooster Cogburn) to help her locate and bring her father’s killer Chaney (Josh Brolin) to justice in post-Civil War Arkansas continues to exert an irresistible appeal

Jeff Bridges has a field day with John Wayne’s role of the boozing Rooster Cogburn, though I sometimes found his dialogue a bit unintelligible for all its grizzled ripeness.

Matt Damon, whose natural good looks can make you forget his skill as a fine character actor, is also outstanding as the garrulous Texas Ranger also on Chaney’s trail who joins up with the duo as they venture into Indian Territory to find the miscreant. He gives the role far more substance and humor than Glen Campbell’s rather generic interpretation in the earlier film.

And Steinfeld is a younger heroine than Kim Darby, making her courage, determination and resourcefulness all the more striking. And a coda to the main narrative with Mattie now an adult (Elizabeth Marvel) gives added substance.

Brolin’s role is short, but vividly characterized. Barry Pepper is well cast as outlaw Lucky Ned, the leader of Chaney’s gang, who runs into the Mattie’s posse midway through the film.

The look and feel of the film is far more atmospheric than the earlier version which today has the somewhat flat look of a made-for-TV movie.

(The film has been rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing image.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company)

By Harry Forbes

Colin Firth will almost surely get his second Oscar nomination in a row (after last year's "A Single Man"). But then, co-star Geoffrey Rush and many others connected with this fine film are also likely contenders.

Here's my review at "America."

(The film has been rated R by the MPAA for some language.)