PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Fighter (B)
U.S.; David O. Russell, Paramount Pictures, 2010
Why are most sports movies so phony, predictable, corny and schmaltzy, while boxing movies (or movies that use boxing as a dramatic sparkplug) tend to move us more, play more realistically, work better dramatically, and supply more film classics than the norm?
I'm not saying that David O. Russell's The Fighter -- which is about the relationship between light welterweight fighter Micky Ward and his half-brother trainer Dickie Kelvin -- is in the class of The Harder They Fall, On the Waterfront, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Ali, Million Dollar Baby or Raging Bull. Or even, God help us, Rocky. But it's certainly a good movie, an arena for really good actors and technicians to show their stuff.
Maybe it's because boxing movies can focus more easily on character and individual combat. In The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg plays Micky and Christian Bale plays Dickie (respelled "Dicky" in the movie, to match "Micky"), and they're the classic pair-up of good-guy/prodigal-guy (half) brothers. Both are from working-class Lowell, Mass. (Jack Kerouac's town). Both are the sons of tough cookie Alice Ward (Melissa Leo of Frozen River and 21 Grams). But they're way different.
Micky is diligent, self-sacrificing, a terrific boxer with a great temperament who works hard, survives unusual hardship (including a busted hand), and who won't fold under duress. His nickname is "Irish Thunder." Dicky is a natural athlete and sometime irresponsible goofball who was a star fighter when Micky was 12, fought Sugar Ray Leonard even up (Leonard appears as himself), and now trains and strategizes for his half-brother (and does it well).
But Dicky has gotten heavy into crack cocaine. He's a certifiable bad influence, and the new managers who take over Micky's career, after the boxer gets whipped a few times, don't want him around, especially when Dicky pops up on camera in a TV documentary on cocaine use called "High on Crack Street."
Micky goes along with the program and splits up with his brother, despite being pushed toward Dicky by their mother and pushed away from him by Micky's contentious girlfriend, Charlene Fleming (played, in a real change of pace, by sunshine gal Amy Adams). Soon Micky is fighting for the Intercontinental light welterweight championship -- against the snobbish champ, a British pugilist who'd rather have a different opponent.
You probably know what's going to happen even if you don't know the real life story. (The real-life Micky and Dicky show up under the credits.) But this isn't a case where predictability matters. It's a character study of depth and power, and Wahlberg, Bale, Adams and Leo -- and a lot of the supporting actors -- really shine. Perhaps most impressive is Bale, who looks, and acts, something like a Dead End Kid on crack, an elongated mix of Huntz Hall and the younger Mean Streets De Niro, oscillating franticly between the goony and the near-tragically self-destructive.
Bale, like De Niro as LaMotta in Raging Bull seems willing to all but deform himself for his roles, and here, he plays Dicky as a guy who thinks he's a Golden Boy but keeps slipping, slipping, fouling up. Wahlberg has his role as Micky, the less splashy one, down pat, and Melissa Leo seems like a Lowell mama who just walked into the movie. As for Adams, playing a tough bar girl in a low-cut blouse may not be her type and metier, but I liked her better here than I did Julia and Julia. Then again, these four actors are always good.
The Fighter -- scripted by Scott Silver, Paul Tahasy and Eric Johnson -- has a real wealth of characters, several dozen good speaking roles, where the average movie focuses on maybe a half-dozen people or so. That richness may come from the fact that the sources here were real people. A real story. If I could hand the Hollywood studios one motto (or two) that would make their movies better -- at least as good as The Fighter -- it's this: Trust life. See and trust the world around you. Make your people breathe before you make them fight.
Inside Job (A)
U.S.: Charles Ferguson, 2010, Sony Picture Classics
Listen, you've got to watch Inside Job. And not just because it won the Oscar for best documentary this year.
In this absolute gem of movie reportage and analysis, director/writer Charles Ferguson and producer Audrey Marrs do a splendid job of laying out the reasons for the 2008 American financial crash: of explaining how and why it happened. Of revealing who the culprits were, how many of them weren't punished and why they should be (the miscreants include both Republicans and Democrats, though the grand empty-headed economic strategies were classic corporate Republican, and still are). Of demonstrating beyond a doubt that we were crazy to let every president and administration from Reagan to George W. Bush keep progressively deregulating the banks, savings and loans, insurance companies and financial institutions, insanely pulling away every safety net put in place after the Great Depression. Of showing how some of these companies became (rigged) gambling casinos run by crooks and scoundrels, some of whom were jamming cocaine up their noses and hiring hookers on their cell phones while lying to and bilking their clients and robbing them blind. Of detailing how watchdog groups like the Securities and Exchange Commission, were gutted and hamstrung.
This was a bipartisan catastrophe. Greed seduced business and government people on all sides, and Republicans and Democrats alike wallowed in the deregulated swamps of gambling and outright thievery. But there were more Republicans involved in it, and it was the Republican Party's longtime philosophy of "Leave the rich people alone" and "Leave the markets alone" that triggered much of the mess, as well as their worshipful, near-mythological conception of the wealthy as angelic "job-creators," who deserve all the GOP's favor and efforts -- rather than, say, helping the public employees and the labor unions their bullyboy state governors are now attempting to crush, in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Matt Damon narrates. Good guy. Always willing to stick his neck out. And Ferguson and Marrs deserve far more than an Oscar for this job.
Inside Job is an essential movie. It shows, pretty conclusively I think, why documentaries are such an important cinematic and journalistic form these days. After you see this picture, you won't be able to say you weren't informed, won't be able to see you weren't warned. You'll know, if not the whole story, a big important part of it. So don't be a sucker. See it. (Extras: commentary by Ferguson and Marrs; featurette; deleted scenes.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
TCM Greatest Classic Legends: Jean Harlow (A-)
U.S.: various directors, 1933-36, TCM/Warners
Jean Harlow may have been the first of the movie blond bombshells, but her sharp, saucy screen persona was quite a ways removed from that of her sublime successor, Marilyn Monroe.
Brassier and earthier than Monroe, Harlow was a bouncy sexpot who knew what she wanted and knew how to get it: a streetwise babe who lived in the real world and knew how to manipulate it to her advantage. Harlow, like Monroe, had a baby-talk mode, but it was more clearly a put-on. Marilyn, or at least her screen persona, often seemed more like a little girl in a woman's body, a blond baby doll who never quite grew up, and often lived in a world all her own.
Harlow had a caustic sense of humor and a brazen sexuality that promised fun and orgasms in equal measure. Marilyn obviously knew her way around a bed ("Happy Birthday, Mr. President"), but she sometimes acted as if she didn't, as if her little girl pose was no pose. Harlow's juvenile antics, her "Daddy's girl" banter with sugar daddies like beefy Wallace Beery, let the audience firmly in on the joke.
When Monroe undressed, she seemed to be in another costume, maybe her true costume. Harlow, Red Dust-style bath scenes excepted, had to keep her clothes on. Most of her movies came during the early Production Code years, and, though a super-cheesecake shot showed up in Hollywood Babylon, she had no nude calendar. But Harlow's bosom and derriere poked at her clothes in ways that un-depressed Depression-era males in a hurry. Marilyn on screen, in some ways, was always a fantasy. Harlow on screen is usually real. Very real.
Something else: Harlow was a damned good actress, a first-rate comedienne, still a bit underrated. In the movies in this TCM "Greatest Classics Legends" box, she holds her own with the elite of MGM's '30s studio acting royalty -- with the Barrymores (John and Lionel), and with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell, and classy supporting players like Billie Burke, May Robson and C. Aubrey Smith, and even with the young Jimmy Stewart. (Extras: documentary Harlow: the Blonde Bombshell; vintage comedy, musical, "Fitzpatrick Traveltalk" and "Crime Does Not Pay" shorts; MGM radio promo; trailers.)
Dinner at Eight (A)
U.S.: George Cukor, 1933
Another MGM all-star special, and in some ways, a better movie than Grand Hotel: wittier, more knowing, with a deeper, stronger cast, and more beautifully directed, by Cukor. David Selznick was the producer, and the source was the classic hit Broadway play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, with the screenplay and additional dialogue from two more of their occasional Algonquin Club mates, Herman Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart, plus another Hollywood legend, Frances Marion.
The play is classic. The script is brilliant. The direction and production are impeccable. The stellar cast, one of the all-time great Hollywood ensembles, includes Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke as the beleaguered shipbuilder Oliver Jordan and his fluttery society wife, who's holding a society dinner (at eight) for the British aristocrats Lord and Lady Ferncliffe.
On her guest list: washed-up alcoholic Hollywood actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore, in an astounding piece of self-revelation and a classic of the actor's art), who's romancing their twentyish daughter Paula (Madge Evans), voracious bullyboy business shark Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his feisty platinum blond trophy wife Kitty (Harlow, in one of her best roles), smooth society doctor (and Kitty's lover) Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) and his tolerant wife (Karen Morley), Paula's hapless society beau (Phillips Holmes) and Milly's relatives and regular pinch-hit guests (Louise Closser Hale and Grant Mitchell.)
The rest of the cast includes fast-talking Lee Tracy (as Renault's agent), Jean Hersholt and May Robson. It couldn't be bettered. And neither could the movie, which, in some ways, is less another Grand Hotel, and more in the line of Jean Renoir's great ensemble comedy-drama The Rules of the Game. Not as good, of course. Nothing is.
Libeled Lady (A-)
U.S.: Jack Conway, 1935
Classic screwball comedy about reckless journalism, society scandals and trumped-up romance. Spencer Tracy is the hardcase newspaper editor being sued for libel (he's guilty), Myrna Loy is the society gal suing him, Walter Connolly is her rich but nice father, William Powell is the newsman Casanova trying to get the goods on Myrna, and Harlow is Tracy's long-suffering often-at-the-altar-but-always-left fiancé, who marries Powell (Harlow's real-life inamorata) as part of the plot.
This one is a little overrated, but you can't beat that cast. And there's a terrific fishing scene, with amateur Powell trying to pretend he's a trout-loving sportsman while surreptitiously using an angler's manual, that I'll bet partly inspired Howard Hawks' Man's Favorite Sport?
China Seas (B)
U.S.: Tay Garnett, 1935
Another MGM all-star special, this time set on shipboard in the China seas, on a boat plagued by piracy and romantic rivalry -- with a quadrangle that embraces brash hero captain Clark Gable, shady lady songbird Harlow (in an archetypal role), British flower Rosalind Russell and sneaky crook and Harlow admirer Beery. The supporting cast includes C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Benchley, Hattie McDaniel, and MGM monument Lewis Stone, as a kind of Lord Jim. Rough and zesty, and not as good as director Garnett's other '30s shipboard classic, One Way Passage, this one lacks the high gloss of some of MGM's ensemble specials, and the story is sometimes silly. But, like Gable and Harlow, it gets the job done.
Wife vs. Secretary (B)
U.S.: Clarence Brown, 1936
Magazine mogul Gable, who has a perfect marriage to super-wife Loy, begins to notice the charms of his versatile secretary Harlow, whose boyfriend Jimmy Stewart gets sullen and jealous. Not a screwball comedy, this class-crossing romantic drama is directed with polish and intelligence by the underrated Clarence Brown, and the movie is a bit underrated too. It's also an off-type role, a noble working girl, by Harlow, and one of her subtlest, most realistic performances.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Next Three Days (C+)
U.S.: Paul Haggis, 2010, Lionsgate
Paul Haggis' new movie is a romantic thriller about love that goes past all boundaries, past all reason, a love that makes a man (Russell Crowe, in fact) want to move heaven and earth to rescue his beloved. I'm all in favor of that. But The Next Three Days, I'm sorry, made no sense to me -- even though I'll give it some points for being so well-acted (by Crowe, Liam Neeson, Elizabeth Banks, Daniel Stern and others), and fairly well-written and directed by Haggis, screenwriter of Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and of his own Crash.
Check this out though: Crowe is playing a pudgy, undershaven teacher named John Brennan, whose beautiful wife Lara (Banks), is convicted of murder after she's seen driving away from a parking lot that's also a murder site with the dead woman's blood on her coat. If I were a jury member, I wouldn't have necessarily bought that kind of evidence.
But this jury does buy it. Then, even though he's convinced of his wife's innocence, John gets derailed by the bad luck in court and a few discouraging words from lawyer Daniel Stern, and decides not to keep appealing but to break Lara out of jail instead. He's inspired by the wisdom of successful jailbreak artist/author Damon Pennington (Neeson, who's one of my heroes).
So what went wrong? Well, this isn't a true life story, like Conviction, nor a courtroom drama inspired by life like 12 Angry Men, nor a cleverly crafted, humanistic American ensemble piece, like Haggis' Crash. The Next Three Days was adapted from a French movie called Pour Elle, which was directed and co-written by Fred Cavaye. Now, I might buy all this in a French movie. But that's because the French are famous for film noir and l'amour fou and for turning crazy melodrama into art and then writing long impenetrable essays about it.
So what do you want? Many thrillers insult our intelligence, play havoc with our sense of reality. This one, at least, doesn't insult us. It looks good, sounds good and plays good. (Extras: featurettes; deleted scenes; extended scenes; bump key video.
Dhobi Ghat (B)
India: Kiran Rao, 2010, UTV Motion Pictures
This polished and very good-looking romantic drama (also called Mumbai Diaries) follows four people around modern Mumbai (or Bombay): semi-abstract painter Arun (the big Indian movie star Amir Khan), pretty investment banker Shai (Monica Dogri), handsome young washer man (or "dhobi") Munna (Prateik), and Mumbai newcomer and amateur video camera bug Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a young woman from the provinces.
It's a roundelay of sorts. Bubbly Shai and shy Arun meet at a gallery showing of his works. They sleep together, split, and then Munna (who does the wash for both) falls in love with Shai. There's also some drugs and crime erupting out of Munna's lower-class world, and a touching ending.
Dhobi Ghat is the feature debut of writer-director Kiran Rao, who is married to the producer, Aamir Khan. It's a sympathetic attempt to tell a realistic story that crosses class boundaries, but I'd have to say, speaking as a guy with lower-class origins, I found it somewhat condescending, despite itself, toward the dhobi, whose hold on our sympathies seems to stem mostly from his shy puppy dog manner and movie star handsomeness.
But it's a well-done, pretty, good-hearted film. The fine, wistful score is by Gustavo Santaololla (Inarritu's composer), and Arun's paintings were done by Ravi Mandlik and Sukanya Ghosh. They're not bad.
A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (A-)
China: Zhang Yimou, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics
Zhang Yimou tries his exert hand at a lively combination of period romance, dark comedy and neo-noir thriller, inspired by the Coen Brothers' debut movie Blood Simple (1984). Here, as they did in Simple, a wife's infidelity and her husband's rage (there in a Texas bar, here in an isolated mountain-area noodle shop) trigger a storm of murder, robbery and pathological derangements. (The Coens' corrupt private eye, played unforgettably by M. Emmett Walsh, here becomes a corrupt swordsman.)
Noodle Shop has some of Blood Simple's comedy, somewhat broadened, but it has even more of the mood and look of early Zhang romantic melodramas, like 1988's Red Sorghum and 1990's Ju Dou. And, as you'd expect, it's been stunningly designed, directed and shot, by one of the great pictorialists of contemporary international cinema. With Sun Honglei, Xiao Shenyang and Yan Ni. In Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles.
Bill Moyers "Genesis: A Living Conversation" (A)
U.S.: Catherine Tatge, 1996, Athena
More good, smart and sometimes eloquent conversations between Moyers and his illustrious guests, here examining the Bible and its tales, influence and import, in 10 PBS episodes. The subjects include Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and the participants in the group discussions include writers John Barth, Elizabeth Swados, Mary Gordon, Oscar Hijuelos, Barati Mukherjee and Faye Kellerman and theologians Burton L. Visotzky, Jean-Pierre M. Ruiz, Lewis B. Smedes and Dianne Bergant. (Extras: viewers' guide booklet, with introduction by Moyers, background and essays.)