Thursday, December 23, 2010

Awardsworthy? - Movie Reviews

It's movie award season and the studios are blanketing the cinemas with "important" fare to get those noms. Here's some more films that will potentially (actually, probably) join The Social Network and Toy Story 3 onto those nomination lists. Though are they actually awardworthy? (Warning, Reviews may contain spoilers)

The King's Speech = B+
Written by David Seidler, Directed by Tom Hooper

It has all the elements for the Oscars. An underdog story, who happens to be royalty. It is a historical piece (so hence old costumes and old props), which happens to be the history of royalty (castles as sets), and yet, it is still modern enough (for us to relate and recognize) that happens to have recognizable royalty that are still alive today (Queen Lizzy the 2nd makes an appearance as a child). And Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth are simply superb as the speech therapist and the man that is to become King George V (and father to Queen E II). Helena Bonham-Carter is lovely as Firth's wife.

Colin Firth gets the Oscar bait role of underdog who will be King with a STUTTER. It's not an obvious mental handicap but as Kate Winslet would say, it's enough to win an Oscar, and Firth's performance manages to be completely believable and lovable, all the signs to Oscar gold. Rush tries to help Firth's King, amusing vignettes ensue, and Rush's speech therapist ignores the difference in social class levels between them, giving the audience some nice moments where Rush gets to stick it to the rigid social hierarchy.

There's also a nice Pride & Prejudice reunion between Firth and Jennifer Ehle, as well as seeing Dumbledore Michael Gambon (as King George IV) hang out with Slytherin's Pettigrew's Timothy Spall (as Winston Churchill) and Bellatrix Lastrange (HBC). Plus Guy Pearce as the abdicated King, and Eve Best (Nurse Jackie) as his mistress/wife.

It's a great uplifting film with winning performances by all, beautiful sets and cinematography and some terrific humourous moments, but in the end, it just feels like a really well produced, well acted, TV-movie of the week, with the underdog (true) story never feeling weighty enough for its production values. This is the Oscar choice for old people.

Rabbit Hole = A
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

This is the story of a lovely looking couple who has lost a child, and the emotionally crippling aftermath. The film, based on Lindsay-Abaire's own play, is a beautifully observant and quiet film that cleverly starts months after the tragic incident, and under Mitchell's mature pacing and intelligent directing, Rabbit Hole really gets to breathe through all the grief and sorrow.

Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brokovitch) and Nicole Kidman put in devastating and smartly underacted performances. Ok, Kidman's plastic surgery, made even more obvious in the lack of makeup in this role, is a bit odd to watch in this many close up scenes, but her performance manages to get through the botox, so you know her performance is outstanding.

Sandra Oh (Grey's Anatomy), Tammy Blanchard (in upcoming How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway), and Dianne Wiest keep the acting standards high. Miles Teller is wonderfully understated as Jason, the teenage boy who accidentally killed Eckhard and Kidman's son. Teller and Kidman's moments together are stunningly simple and effective with both actors giving tremendous performances without the need for the obvious.

I was very impressed with Mitchell's film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (based on the musical he wrote and starred in, which I also enjoyed), and while I thought Shortbus was an interesting experiment, I had my doubts about him directing Rabbit Hole. I'm truly impressed with his work here, with nothing showy or overdirected to elevate this simple story of living life after a tragedy.

Reviews of True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter below:

True Grit = A-
Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the book by Charles Portis

Look, I just don't love westerns. They bore me, and I don't care about revenge and gunslinging and all that. So for the Coen Brothers to make a Western remake (though it is apparently less of a remake of the John Wayne classic as it is a remake of the book that film was originally based on) and make it interesting enough for me to enjoy it, says a LOT.

The Coens have returned to the source book and made the remake by re-positioning the movie with the teenage girl Mattie Rose back at the centre of the story, out for vengeance on her father's death. Hailee Steinfeld is superb as Mattie Rose and holds the film together with her pluck and no-nonsense charm. She avoids being cute and all the trappings of young actresses are bestowed on these roles and Steinfeld's performance feels both real and sharp.

Set against Steinfeld's Mattie is big ol grumbly softy Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn, a no-nonsense bounty hunter, making Cogburn and Mattie a wonderful odd couple on this trek to find Mattie's father's killer (basically a cameo from top billed Josh Brolin). Add in a third wheel with Matt Damon as LaBeouf, a Texas Ranger after the same outlaw, and we get a surprisingly funny and heartfelt road trip tale of revenge. Fun stuff!

The excellent Bridges gets to throw in an almost undecipherable drawl (subtitles would seriously help), and his performance is superb, but the film still belongs to Steinfeld for me.

I loved the Coen Brothers signature mix of humour and tense drama into their take on a western, and it's all great until a seemingly rushed finale, and a story appendage (the hole part) that feels a bit tacked on to move the story to its final denouement (which is a nice moment).

The Fighter = A-
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson based on the story by Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington, Directed by David O. Russell

Kudos to director David O. Russell for making this fresh and honest looking bio-pic about fighter Micky Ward and his struggle to succeed whilst living under obstacles of an overloving, if troubled family, particularly a drug addicted brother Dicky Ecklund and know-it-all mother. The end story if essentially one big feel-good Hollywood pic, yet The Fighter seems as far removes from Hollywood as you can; an amazing feat considering it stars the hunky Mark Wahlberg as Mickey Ward.

Mark Wahlberg is terrifically understated here, easily keeping the movie grounded as Melissa Leo and Christian Bale get the showier roles as his white trash family. Leo is hysterical as Ward's mother, along with the gaggle of sisters who seem to become Leo's chorus.

Christian Bale totally transforms (again) into the gaunt looking Ecklund, the former fighter now undone by years of drug use. Even Bale's hair looks different, and Bale's performance is both over-the-top and yet realistic (especially when compared to the real Ecklund shown during the credits). Even his body contorts itself differently and Bale even nails the addicts swagger and cadence, all while his bulging eyes want to pop out into your face.

Amy Adams gets the more subtle role of Ward's girlfriend (and eventual wife) and her scenes with Walhberg are sweet without being syrupy, and give the film some of the more quiet moments to balance Bale and Leo's performances. Adams still plays a far rougher and lowered-class girl than she usually does, but her warmth just glows through no matter what (as DameJames has said, Amy Adams is like a basket of kittens).

Mickey O'Keefe (Ward's trainer, playing himself) and Jack McGee as Ward's father, team up with Adams' to pull Ward from the control Ward's mother and brother have on Micky Ward, and the family and backstage drama is a fascinating counterbalance to the intense and brutally realistic fight scenes (cleverly filmed in live TV footage camerawork).

This could have easily been a schmaltzy formulaic film with its underdog story and success-story ending, but both Mark Wahlberg's commitment (as producer and star), and David O. Russell's intelligent directing (much like his fantastic Three Kings), keeps The Fighter feeling original and new.

Black Swan = A-
Written by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, and John McLaughlin, Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The layers shown in this film, at both the narrative level, to the production level, is simply too numerous to properly take in during one viewing. Director Aronofsky has made a beautiful film about the internal struggles of an artist trying desperately to reach artistic perfect, and has amazingly dressed it up as an artsy pulp thriller.

Natalie Portman is stunning as Nina, a ballerina on the cusp of stardom, as she gets the lead role in Swan Lake, all while her life starts to mirror the story itself. Her mother (a very creepy Barbara Hershey, very far from Beaches), her rival ballerinas (including Nsenia Solo from Life Unexpected), her future (Winona Ryder as the pissed-off prima-ballerina Nina has ousted), her coach/director (the always over-the-top Vincent Cassel) and her latest competition (Mila Kunis, as the newest ballerina rival, who seems to look an awful lot like Nina herself), all are seemingly trying to block or conspire against Nina's rise to perfecting the leading role in Swan Lake.

Portman is perfection in the role, and all the mirrors and multiple angles we see reflected cleverly adds a mysterious chill to Nina's unravelling. Using Swan Lake as a template is pretty meta and interesting way to plot the story (although since I was the only one in my group that knew the ballet, I was also the only one that seemed to have anticipated the plotline, and figured out and understood the story as we left the theatre) though my only quibble is with the tightness of the entire film, as the 3rd quarter of the film felt it dragged on a bit and could have edited out a few seconds from all the scenes. (Though maybe it's because I had a feeling how it was all going to end and at that point, just wanted to get to the terrific final scenes of Nina's ultimate moments).

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momo said...

As usual, the glut of year-end movies means I haven't had a chance to see any of the them yet, but I will give it a try. Happy New Year to you, and thanks for all the reviews!

Esther said...

I saw The King's Speech today and really enjoyed it. I hope Colin Firth does win the Oscar. He and Geoffrey Rush were both terrific. It was also beautifully filmed - the way the close-up shots of people listening to his speech were set up, the long shots of London and Westminster Abbey (I think it was filmed in another church, though.) It looks gorgeous. I thought Timothy Spall was a bit of a caricature as Churchill, although he has the jowls!

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