oscars

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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Black Swan

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Black Swan

Black Swan

Matinee

If you are not familiar with the story of Swan Lake, never fear — Aronofsky makes sure you can follow…before he leaves you in the hallucinatory, disturbing dust. Natalie Portman is a ballet dancer in a prestigious company who has won the dream role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. She plays the twin roles of the heroine White Swan and the deceiving Black Swan, fighting for the hand of the prince. Black Swan does not retell this story so much as it deconstructs sheer, unfiltered mental and physical stress. We are never quite sure when we are seeing reality or fantasy and nightmare. I commented to my companion late in the third act, “I was really kind of hoping that part was in her head.” A new dancer, Mila Kunis, joins the company and appears to be a Single White Female -type rival (perhaps a Black to Portman’s White), but, honestly, Portman’s demons are foils enough.

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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 Extra Man

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There are some actors who excel at playing a wide range of eclectic roles, high or low status, mighty or feeble, comic or tragic. There are some few of these who can do so and yet still can shape a character into a thing that could only have been played by themselves. Kevin Kline is that later sort. This is not to say that every character he plays is himself, or is the same. Rather, Klein’s Henry Harrison (a nod to Henry Higgins by Rex Harrison?) becomes a creature even greater than could possibly have been on the page because he was played by Kline. It has been too long since we’ve enjoyed him on the big screen (2008’s Definitely Maybe was too little to count). His Harrison is why you would go see The Extra Man, for the rest of the film struggles to keep up with him. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini build a microcosmos of character, rather than fussing about the world at large.

Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a timid academic with a mild budding fetish, and who was born about 80-90 years too late. He finds himself Harrison’s roommate and eventual protégé in the business of being an “extra man,” a sort of sexless escort for rich people for whom sycophancy and the balance of the dinner table is more important than sincerity or friendship. Harrison is maddeningly opaque and calculatingly eccentric — a charge that could have been levied against this movie had it not been peopled with actors of such sincerity. Louis is almost embarrassingly naïve and repressed, but Dano makes it charming. Harrison is beyond sexist, flighty, and unsustainably cavalier, but Kline makes it charming and even appealing. Their dynamic could feel forced — it almost does when their inexplicably falsetto neighbor John C. Reilly joins the scene — and yet by some miracle they keep it grounded and keep it real and sweet. One scene in particular recalls many such “lovable eccentric” moments in other films, but never devolved into preciousness. I consider that a great triumph.

The art of being an Extra Man does not contribute much to the narrative, but it does enable us to have a couple of lovely scenes with The Billionairess, played by Tony darling Marian Seldes. A fun piece of trivia about La Seldes: she was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for appearing in “Deathtrap” from 1978 until late in 1982 without ever missing a single performance. Even though her part is small in this movie, she makes a terrific, bewigged impact. Louis’ crush on his unavailable, uninterested, and uninteresting coworker Mary (Katie Holmes, enunciating like she’s in a madcap 1920’s film) has nowhere to go either, but it provides us with the chance to see Louis grow elsewhere. Writing this now, it seems like none of the things that happen in this film have a point, and maybe they don’t need to. Harrison’s life is a quest only for pleasure, and Kline and Dano definitely provide it, even if their arc is short and shallow. See it for Kevin.

MPAA Rating R-some sexual content (?)

Release date 8/13/10

Time in minutes 105

Director Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Studio Magnolia Pictures

Toy Story 3

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It seems impossible that a movie with a 3 at the end would be able to boast any commentary better than “not too bad, considering.” But Toy Story 3 may well be the least unnecessary sequel ever. Toy Story 2 left Andy and his toys in the playroom in 1999; now, 11 years later, Andy is going off to college, and Toy Story 3 completes the circuit of the relationship kids have with their most significant toys. Full disclosure: I have long enjoyed the embarrassing sentimentality of anthropomorphizing my toys; every drop in the Goodwill box twinges my guilty conscience even without Pixar’s incomparable franchise to press the point. I will fully grant that some of the struggles in this film get me right where I live more so perhaps than regular people, but I will also attest that I was far from the only person blubbering at the end. Even hardened critics weren’t immune to this lovely story.

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The Secret of Kells

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The one unknown entry in the Oscar category of Best Animated Feature, The Secret of Kells is a twinkling gem of a movie that should be overlooked no longer. The marketing artwork makes it look no more substantial than that egregious Snow White sequel Happily Ever After, but this movie is much, much better than its limited marketing.

Kells is set in medieval Ireland, around 800 AD, in Kells, when the European world was beset by the plundering conquests of the Norsemen, when Christianity was still a wobbly faith finding new converts in the chilly corners of the continent, and when books were copied by hand. Filmmakers Moore and Twomey designed the look of the film to be reminiscent of the gloriously detailed and geometric illuminations that adorn that famed transcription of the Bible. The character’s figures are cut and segmented like the also-newish art of stained glass. The swirling, organic Celtic styled depictions of the natural world co-exist with formal Christian iconography in the beautiful art in this book, and the film follows suit. In the film’s Kells, the forests are cathedrals and the villages are anthills, with repeated patterns and depicted in that medieval flat perspective. Neolithic triskelions, Celtic knots and ouroboros twine around saints, crucifixes, and even the sacred text itself. Absolutely, I was captured by the beauty of this film. I admit that I have been seduced before into loving something that has only a lovely surface, but this story has firm substance as well.

These early people of 9th century Ireland were caught in the struggle between early Christian rigidity (embodied by the Abbot, played by Brendan Gleeson) and the centuries-old traditions of the Aisling (Christen Mooney), a spirit of the pagan woods. The Secret Of Kells tells a story steeped in history of how such a miraculous treasure of art and devotion to both Christianity and the natural world managed to survive the Scandanavian invaders. As Brendan (Evan McGuire) rebels against his strict uncle the Abbot, so does the Abbot rebel against even the other clergy in his care, single- and closed-mindedly pursuing what he thinks to be the best course of action for all his people. He builds walls real and mental around himself while magic flows around and in spite of him. Knowing the forest as his people once did, creating unnecessary beauty even in the service of glorifying God, even the art of making inks, all are trampled below the blocky red robes of his terror of the invaders from the North. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), twinkling like a Scottish Willie Nelson, tries to balance the world for Brendan and show how the old and the new ways can co-exist.

It’s evident upon watching this meticulously designed and hand-drawn wonder that Up was in more danger of not winning the Oscar than you’d think. Yes, I said it. This movie is gorgeous, both visually and narratively. I urge you to see The Secret of Kells if you can at all manage it.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 3/5/10

Time in minutes 75

Director Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey

Studio GKids/Les Armateurs

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