biopic

The Fighter

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The Fighter

The Fighter

Rental and Snacks

Based on a true story, the tale of Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund [note: between the film itself and various online sources, I have not seen one that agrees on the spelling of these guys’ names] is one seemingly tailor-made for awards consideration. Eklund (Christian Bale) was a professional fighter who now (1993) is a local hero in his home town of Lowell, MA, and a crackhead. His little brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg) is going into the family business, but is a different sort of fighter than his elder brother. The difference is not just their physiques or fighting styles, though that certainly enters into it. The family idolizes Bale, and all but Wahlberg is in total denial of how lost their elder son really is. Wahlberg loves his family and he wants his shot, and is strangling in the arms of his eight siblings and his pushy mother/manaer (Melissa Leo).

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I Love You Phillip Morris

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I Love You Phillip Morris

The events in this film are true ones — which makes it possible to enjoy the seemingly impossible misadventures of pathological con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) for what they are. If it were fiction, you’d roll your eyes at the ridiculous stretching you would need to do to suspend your disbelief. This may force some comparisons to Catch Me If You Can, but as the title implies, Russell’s motives are not eluding the authorities or even his own gain, but instead are for caring for those who most matter to him. He’s not greedy or a narcissist, he’s a guy who just wants to do right by his family, be it his wife and daughter or the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Russell’s story is simply unbelievable — and all true.

We can debate all day and night as to why Hollywood casts straight actors in gay roles (see this film’s polar opposite, Brokeback Mountain, where the struggle comes from hiding their love rather than supporting it), but for this film, Carrey and McGregor as simply the best big-name choices. No-name actors might have killed this movie, which would be a tragedy. My readers know of my appreciation of Carrey’s acting skills, particularly in the twin arenas of great falseness and true sincerity. Carrey’s natural cock of the walk attitude suits Russell’s effortless impersonations. McGregor need only set his glassine, dreamy eyes to “in love” and you believe in his feelings to his core. He’s great at the aw-shucks and he’s strong enough to match Carrey. Mann gets to show us her non-Apatow side and she too can keep up with Carrey in a scene.

Russell meets Morris in prison, after the former was imprisoned for various moneymaking schemes he devised to support his newly adopted gay lifestyle and lover (Rodrigo Santoro). Before he accepted his homosexuality, he was an aggressively normal husband to Leslie Mann, living on the down-low and existing wrapped in lies, searching for who he really is. However, once he meets Morris, he opens like a flower, giving his heart with all honesty of feeling — but his need to lie about who he is continues, keeping his love alive and happy at any cost. Some of those costs lead to more legal misadventures and cross-purposes with McGregor. Through it all he adores Morris, and they have true happiness. His facility with pretending makes for some serious hilarity. What’s most enjoyable about the movie is how funny it is, and also how very romantic and sweet. It’s heartfelt and has an ending you will not see coming so don’t Google it! Let the movie take you there.

MPAA Rating R- sexual content including strong dialogue, and language.
Release date 12/3/10
Time in minutes 100
Director Glenn Ficarra, John Fequa
Studio Roadside Attractions

The King’s Speech

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The King’s Speech

King’s Speech, The

Full Price Feature

What a superb film. Colin Firth plays the Duke of York, son of George V (Michael Gambon) brother of King Edward I (Guy Pearce), and future King George VI. Bertie, as his family calls him, has a life-long, debilitating stammer. I did knot know about the upbringing of the father of Queen Elizabeth II, but as you watch him with his royal family, his disability is no surprise. Firth listened to recordings of the man he plays, retraining his confident and witty vocal instrument to stick in his throat and choke him. To listen to him struggle with such labored strain, it’s almost unbelievable when he finds his voice. Firth is fantastic. He balances the childhood wounds of the forgotten, abused son with the inborn sense of entitlement and detachment of a royal. Watching him juggle his self-esteem extremes and his plosives with such facility is a wonder.

He is aided in his treatment by Australian Geoffrey Rush — esteemed and successful in his field, yet subject to the merciless dialect snobbery of that country which was depicted with such humor in My Fair Lady. Rush’s character Lionel Logue recognizes the psychological, rather than mechanical, origins of such conditions, and breaks down Firth’s not-inconsiderable barriers to achieve his goals. A wonderful aspect of this story is not just the peek of a royal into the common world, nor the intellectual joys of seeing two actors ply their craft so masterfully — it’s how very funny The King’s Speech is. With all the high stakes and deep sympathies and swinging-pipe power plays, ultimately the treatment relationship becomes a jolly friendship and meeting of minds.

Guy Pearce plays David (King Edward I to you) the dissolute heir to Gambon’s throne. Pearce looks healthier than he has in years, and I delighted in his mincing Royal elocution, particularly around his flat native Australian tendencies. Gambon pulls out a formidable tyrant from his acting toolbox, making you forget all about his sweet hippie Dumbledore, and causing you to stammer a bit yourself. Jennifer Ehle (once Elizabeth Bennett to Firth’s Mr. Darcy) plays Rush’s wife in only a few small scenes, but she reminds those of us in non-monarchist America just how different the royals always were. David Bamber, who played Mr. Collins in that same production of Pride and Prejudice, has a small role here for us geek girls out there.

The acting is fantastic. Danny Cohen’s photography is gorgeous (a fact I felt compelled to keep reminding myself of in my notes), and the period equipment is spectacular. Radio was such a new technology in the 1925-1939 period during which this story takes place, we forget in our 24-hour news cycle how vital basic showmanship is to a public figure. It’s such a given that anyone hoping to be taken seriously in the public eye be able to speak clearly, it’s nice to dip back into time when it was a rarified talent. As television kicked Nixon in his debate with Kennedy, so does the radio weaken the public’s faith in a monarch whose choked “EK” noises ring out over the hushed and embarrassed crowd. The weight of history rests on the shoulders (and diaphragm) of the man who became George VI of England, and Firth shows us every ounce. Do see it.

MPAA Rating R-language
Release date 12/17/10
Time in minutes 111
Director Tom Hooper
Studio Weinstein Company

Mao’s Last Dancer

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Mao’s Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer

Full Price Feature

Oh, this film is lovely. I have done my readers a disservice for taking so long to review it. Please, go see it. In 1972, Cunxin Li, only a small boy, was one of 40 selected out of thousands of rural Chinese villagers to go to Beijing and be trained up for the ballet under Mao Tse-Tung’s communist arts initiatives. State-funded arts are a fantasy for Western artists since the WPA, but for young Li, it was a compulsory chance to escape poverty and bring honor to his family and glory to China.

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127 Hours

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127 Hours

I did watch it without looking away. Absolutely yes, it’s worth seeing. Oh, sorry, what was the question?

Oh, yes, you do need to be in a pretty serene frame of mind, for certain. Finding a companion to watch a movie named after five days of time but that’s really about around 50 minutes of time is difficult. The intense, unimaginable 50 minutes that you spend only about 5 minutes of your comfortable existence watching is probably the lead reason you go see the movie in the first place, but that does the other 89 minutes of the movie a grave disservice. The film as a whole is fantastic.

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The Last Station

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Despite the Oscar-nominated actors and performances, despite the moving themes of loyalty and love, the drawing of strength from a cause or from your heart, despite all this tasteful Quality, The Last Station was a bit meh for me. The things I really loved best were Helen Mirren and the props. Sofya Andreyevna Tolstaya (Mirren) lives in 1910, at the precipice of Victorian-like modesty and the stirrings of Free Love. Helen Mirren excels at these sorts of roles; her natural brazen confidence and her innate regality make this one look like child’s play for her. Sofya struggles in her marriage to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), who is torn between leaving his politically radical and influential works to his family or to the people of Russia. The Last Station plumbs all sorts of interesting inner circles, such as the near-cult of Tolstoy followers swarming in direct contrast to the actual man and his life.

As an allegory — nay, a corollary — to misguided practitioners of organized religion defying the very ideals they push to uphold, the film is vivid and deft. Personifying the misguided practitioners is the nasty and manipulative Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). The People, and their inevitable fall from the fever of their Tolstoyan idealism, is represented by the charming and earnest James McAvoy. He enters the inner circle of Tolstoy’s house from the fundamentalist commune life of the author’s followers. He is the purest of Tolstoyans, having taking every precept literally and deeply to heart. In the presence of his idol, the realities of life and love confuse him. As a result, McAvoy is imprisoned by the freedoms his new life presents him. He has a wonderful romance with a member of the society, and watching it cautiously unfold is lovely and romantic.

Love is the foundation that the followers are missing, losing that basic message in the words. Love and knowing one’s own mind is a simple principle to explain but harder to enact. To see so many people fall over themselves to the point of actual cruelty to own and control the legacy they have so misinterpreted is sad but fascinatingly vivid. Plummer, as Tolstoy, does a warm and believable job but he gives nothing we haven’t seen before. Mirren and McAvoy had more interesting things to do with their characters than Plummer or Giamatti.

Once I left the theatre, however, I found myself unable to hold on to those deeper truths, instead just crushing on Mirren and fervently admiring the production design. The props in this film are astounding — when I notice impressive props and am drawn away by the story by them, it is sometimes not the story’s fault. Andreas Olshausen has found beautiful and pristine Russian typewriters from the Fin de Siécle, amazing cameras and lamps. 1910 brought such an explosion of modern technology, and in those days Russia could still keep up. I ruefully considered that some government office probably still uses that typewriter every day.

The Last Station is indeed well done, very moving, and informative, but it left me a little cold at the end. Perhaps I just felt frustrated at how little the world changes even when people with good ideas come along.

MPAA Rating R-a scene of sexuality/nudity

Release date 1/15/10

Time in minutes 112

Director Michael Hoffman

Studio Sony Pictures Classics

The Young Victoria

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Many films and novels have examined the political maelstrom and religious upheaval that attended the life of Queen Elizabeth I, but Queen Victoria is not as well-known, it seems. As a female ascendant to the throne, naturally Victoria is surrounded by men eager to manage her and further themselves with her power. Like Elizabeth, our heroine manages just fine, thank you, and reminds us what a powerhouse her total reign was. Hers is both an interesting historical origins tale and a rather breathtaking romance between herself and the man we know as Prince Albert.

Emily Blunt plays Victoria with barely suppressed yet still-regal wildness — her stultifying childhood was priming her to be a tool for a man and nought else but the result was fierce independent rebellion when her time came. Every chaperoned trip up the staircase lights a fire behind Blunt’s eyes until the day comes that she is suddenly sovereign of England. She is a plain sort of beautiful — straightforward, graceful, and intent, rather than fluffy or glamorous. Whether in her chemise or her coronation robes, Blunt exudes a vitality that will not be suppressed. She is wonderful as Victoria and alone reason enough to see the film.

Rupert Friend plays Albert with a delicate German accent, not daring to seem eager or overstep his bounds or believe his good fortune in finding a fellow spirit inn the small and constricted world of royal matchmaking. Her stubborn independence and his gentle kindness draw them together even as the wonderful cast of the film tries to pull her into various snares. Fans of British films will find many familiar faces here — Jim Broadbent, Miranda Richardson, Harriet Walter, Paul Bettany — swooping around Victoria like moths to a flame. I wish we could have had more scenes with Broadbent — his King William is a treasure.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee does not come with the built-in reverence an English or American director might have for the most influential British sovereign since Queen Elizabeth; instead, he brings the feel of the microscope under which royals squirm, the tickle of eyes from every corner of the room and every station of society, the absurdities of court and traditions for the sake of their own existence. Victoria’s story is so interesting and the other actors so familiar that I forgot to be a dispassionate observer most of the time. The complex political machinations are clearly presented and the feel of the time are painted for us with care, from the class divisions to the burgeoning Industrial Age. To see Victoria as she was beginning, chafing from her muzzle and yearning to do real good in her country is fascinating — to see her find her beloved partner Albert in a society set up so even a wealthy gentleman’s daughter has difficulties marrying for love is entrancing. Do see it.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 3/6/09

Time in minutes 100

Director Jean-Marc Vallee

Studio Apparition

Bright Star

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I am loath to confess this, but I really did not like this movie. On the one hand, the time seemed to fly by in that I was waiting for the actual story to begin and then what? 40 minutes already? On the other hand, I found everything so melodramatic and capricious that I couldn’t follow anyone’s emotional arc without being derailed constantly. And then it hit me: this is basically a Regency version of Twilight. Spoiler alert! Not unlike how Eragon is basically Star Wars, Bright Star structurally and thematically is freaking Twilight. He’s even pale and wan and she is superficial and sarcastic. I really didn’t want to do this, but I must.

Mum: Here we are in our new house in a small village.

Savage Friend: Leave us be. Oh, this is Keats.

Her: I like you and will pretend I am something I am not to get you to notice me.

Him: You should probably go away from me.

Her: Oh god I love you.

Him: OK, I love you but this can never be.

Her: Oh no! Woe is me!

Him: Do you still love me?

Her: I do I do!

Him: Ok then I love you back.

Her: Let’s kiss.

Him: Only kiss.

Her: Yes, of course.

Him: Just a reminder, this can never be.

Her: Mm-hm, certainly.

[Idyllic scenes of nature and longing looks and chaste finger touching]

Someone: You can’t be with him, he is a penniless poet(read:vampire) and will ruin your life.

Him: I feel ill. Here are some mixed messages for you.

Her: Your skin is like ice. I will follow you anywhere.

Someone else: Honestly, you can never be together.

Her: But he makes me feel afire.

Savage Friend: Oh, he’s gone now.

Her: Woe is me!

Now, the story is a sad one. I wanted to be sad, I wanted to be moved by Keats’ poetry and swept away by their love. I wanted them to be successful and get what they want. I admired Abbie Cornish’s acting and the strange get-ups her character Fanny would sew for herself. The gorgeous vocal music by Mark Bradshaw actually overshadowed the poetry being read beneath it — I wanted to twine myself in the notes as Keats’ immortal verse murmured around me. Keep your eyes peeled for Liam Neeson’s son from Love Actually and Hugh Grant’s sister from Notting Hill.

Paul Schneider transforms into Keats’ Scottish boor of a partner, Charles Brown, with unexplained hostility and wild possessiveness. We don’t learn much about Keats except for how he spent his time in this one house — his moves and moods are as intransient as the butterflies Fanny breeds in her room. The film appears to be flirting with the idea of superficiality and romance and wit and depth of character but never really explores any tack at length, except the agonies of their love.

Now, as films (and books) of this period go, the characters are actually very physical. None of this super-restrained drawing room nonsense — people dance and laugh and pat hands and hug acquaintances and flop onto furniture and basically act like real people. I enjoyed this, for much as I love this period in literature sometimes it is a little stultifying and it’s impossible to believe that humans could manage to be so completely against their natures for so much of the day.

MPAA PG

Release date 9/18/09

Time in minutes 119

Director Jane Campion

Studio Apparition

Me and Orson Welles

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A week in the life of a player in 1937, those early days of Orson Welles’ famed Mercury Theatre, might sound like it can’t encompass much, but you may be forgetting just what a towering figure Welles was.  After seeing this film, you won’t seen forget it; nor will you soon forget Christian McKay who plays him.  Zac Efron, as the young actor swept up into the maelstrom of the Mercury Theatre, may be the lead in this film, but McKay is most definitely the star.  McKay has the ungovernable fire, the burning eyes, the imperious tone, and the ticking brain box of Welles down.  In this script he is endowed by every other character with a panoply of larger-than-life qualities and he portrays them all without ever turning into a cartoon.  His performance alone merits a viewing.

Efron seems to me to be beginning to travel the Johnny Depp career path, and I hope he is as fortunate as Mr. Depp in doing so.  After High School Musical (21 Jump Street, anyone?) he has generally made choices that demand he produce more than just another singing dreamboat.  In this film, no one responds to him as if he is anything special, as if he doesn’t have a laser-cut facial structure, and we get to see him act.  His interactions with a young, ambitious writer (Zoe Kazan) aren’t about him charming her off her feet, but her passion inspiring him.  His Richard is earnest, eager, young, positive, and full of trust.  We care about this kid and he humanizes the surreality of his adventure in Welles’ orbit.  Claire Danes warns him to guard himself from Welles, but not from her charms.  She plays her part with a mellow, womanly confidence and wise resignation, it’s an interesting fence between self-actualized and beholden that she straddles.  Ben Chaplin plays George Coulouris, a real-life actor who went on to be in Welles’ seminal 1941 film Citizen Kane.  Chaplin nails that particular transatlantic cadence that marks the period (he, like Coulouris, is British) and gives us a sense of the rest of the cast in the shadows of their director and star.

The film centers around the week before opening of Welles’ daring production of Shakespeare’s (Julius) Casear.  He takes very modern artistic liberties during the very fecund 1930’s and defines his career and character thus.  A member of my audience actually saw this production when he was a child.  He said he didn’t remember much, but he did recall the impact of the uniforms.  I am still jealous.  The late 1930’s was such a rich time for the arts, with the WPA and the responses to WWI and the Depression and Black Friday and the news coming over from Europe about fascism on the rise.  It’s an exciting time in history and an exciting week in Richard’s life as well.  Me and Orson Welles speaks of the transformative power of creating art and the power of those who can create it over others.  It’s also a little coming of age, a little romance, and a lot of enjoying the spectacle of Welles and Caesar.

Robert Kaplow’s novel was inspired by a photograph from this play of an unknown actor playing lute next to Welles in a scene.  The film isn’t pat, it isn’t aimless, and it isn’t epic.  It’s just a nice tidy wondering about that bit player and what his life must have been like, with the sweet aftertaste of a fable.  What surprised me the most about this film is that it was directed by Richard Linklater, a man whose work almost universally bores me.  All my usual issues with Linklater (dialogue, pacing) are gone here and as a result I got to really enjoy the story.  I thrilled to my geeky bones over all the delicious period details and the visceral emulation of the chaos of a disorganized theatre production.  Me and Orson Welles taken as a whole isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it is a well made, nicely-performed fable about art and self-actualization and theatre.  It’s worth a look.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 12/11/09

Time in minutes 109

Director Richard Linklater

Studio CinemaNX

Invictus

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With a brief background on Nelson Mandela morphing from political prisoner/terrorist to president of a new South Africa, Invictus then leaps into the real focus of the story: Mandela’s drive to unify his countrymen through the national rugby team (long associated with apartheid) and their push for the World Cup. It’s an inspirational story, a politically genius move, and a different look at the other side of the world. Mandela’s amazing rise to power from a wee 10 foot square cell to chief executive would have been a better use of Morgan Freeman’s perfection in the role. The film seems to imply that the only thing that managed to reconcile a nation with eleven official languages and an acrimonious racial history is sport.

The spoils of colonialism render Johannesburg almost unrecognizable as being in “Africa,” the one we see in movies (which I know is also not the real Africa). Director Clint Eastwood surprisingly chose to narrow his attention to the Springboks team and the generalized paying audience’s attitude toward the players. Knowing just enough to be tantalized about Xhosa and Bantu and Indian and Khoisan and Boer swirling about in one country, I was hoping to have a window into that world so far away; I was disappointed to instead end up watching a whole lot of rugby (and yet I didn’t learn much about the sport either). Matt Damon did a great job as the captain of the Springboks, juggling a rugby physique and Afrikaans accent with the determination and gravity required by his character, Francois Pienaar.

As we near the climax, we begin having numerous false climaxes through egregious use of too much tension and much too much slow motion. The film at large suffers from pacing problems, perhaps deciding midstream what it wanted to be about. Based on John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy, the script by Tony Peckham felt as if he wanted to broaden the paintstrokes, but either faltered in his resolve or was directed not to.

Americans are used to seeing our particular brand of white versus black racism and relations play out on screen — for better or for worse, we at least know the dynamic. It is both illuminating and horrifying to see the differences from us in South Africa. These tantalizing scenes made me even more frustrated with the lengthy rugby sequences. They may have inspired the incredible cultural shift that Mandela was betting they would further, but the game was in the way of the real magic that I wanted to see.

During the overlong final game, a series of locations showing people of every stripe watching or listening to the game is inspiring and illustrative, but so very brief and a tad predictable. We have seen many montages of different people gathered around a television waiting for something momentous to happen; when something doubly momentous is happening, we expect something more. I felt Mandela wasn’t getting filmic credit for his big-picture thinking when he was being portrayed as a smiling rugby fan first — even the characters around him were repeatedly questioning his priorities, forcing us to agree with them. It’s a good and interesting story, but this film is not doing it justice.

MPAA PG-13

Release date 12/11/09

Time in minutes 134

Director Clint Eastwood

Studio Warner Brothers