Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best Films of 2010

Backstabbing computer geniuses, arm-hacking survivalists and incinerator-avoiding plastic toys were just a few of the characters movies had in store for us in 2010.

As I initially approached this list, I considered that this was not a particularly great year for movies. But as deciding on the top 10 became a greater challenge the more I hit the theaters, I realized there were quite a few great films out this year. Here's a look at the 10 best:

1. The Social Network: Proving it's more than just "The Facebook Movie," David Fincher's fast-talking drama could very well be this generation's defining film. Powered by Aaron Sorkin's breathless and intelligent script, this is a thrilling look at the personality clashes, betrayals and possible ethics violations that led to the creation of the world's most popular website. Sorkin's dialogue launches off the page, delivered by a pitch-perfect ensemble that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield. It's a film about a revolution that changed the way we connect with our friends, business partners and families - and it may have all been thought up by a man who was too brilliant to navigate any of that correctly himself. Funny, tense and almost dangerously brilliant, this is far and away the best film of 2010.

2. 127 Hours: Much of this film's publicity centered on the "keep your eyes open" climax, when Aron Ralston - played with wonderful nuance and depth by James Franco - cuts off his own arm with a pocket knife to free himself from death in a narrow gorge. While the scene is one of the year's most visceral, the film is not the extreme experience many have hyped it up to be. Directed with boundless energy by Danny Boyle, "127 Hours" is an exciting, powerful and moving meditation on survival and the things we cling to to keep ourselves alive.

3. Four Lions: Chris Morris' debut film has not opened on Detroit screens yet and I'm not sure when, or if, it will ever get a wide release. This British film follows a group of Islamic suicide bombers as they plot a massive attack - and it's a comedy. Understandably, many aren't ready for a "terrorism comedy" yet, but Morris' film defangs the jihadists by making them a group of bumbling, in-fighting idiots who can barely keep from blowing themselves up during practice runs. Full of surprising wit and insight, while still being explosively funny (pun intended), Morris manages to take the wind out of terrorists' sails by exposing them as hypocritical oafs, but also keeps in mind the dangers that stupidity can cause.

4. The Fighter: David O. Russell's boxing drama embraces and transcends its formula trappings with this tale of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a Beantown fighter with a shot at the championship. On the surface, "The Fighter" is the typical underdog story we've seen hundreds of times before. But, like "Rocky," it's elevated to greatness by a cast of diverse, fleshed out characters, most notably Micky's brother Dicky, a one-time contender felled by a crack addiction. Played with manic energy by Christian Bale, Dicky is the unpredictable livewire who could help or hinder Micky's career. Bale finally delivers on the greatness he's been promising for years, and forces Wahlberg, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams to match him with their solid work.

5. The King's Speech: Director Tom Hooper makes history engaging, funny and all too human with this fantastically portrayed look at King George VI's struggle with speech. Colin Firth delivers the best performance of the year as the hot-tempered, easily-frustrated and reluctant monarch. Geoffrey Rush is hilarious and humane as the doctor who befriends and helps the king as he prepares to address the nation in the early days of World War II. By focusing on fears of public speaking, Hooper grabs our attention from the first scene, and Firth and Rush have never been better in this inspiring film. It's "Rocky" with a radio.

6. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: Each year, there's a film that I love unconditionally because it's shown me something I've never seen before. Edgar Wright's adaptation of Brian O' Malley's underground comic is that film for me this year. Michael Cera brings new shades to his awkward young man persona as a self-obsessed indie rocker who must literally fight for the love of a beautiful woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Proving that his phenomenal comedies "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" were just warm-ups, Wright infuses this action-comedy with so much energy, wit, visual flair and joy that it nearly explodes off the screen. I've seen "Scott Pilgrim" three times since its release and each time I discover some new trick Wright throws into the mix. The most fun I had at a theater this year.

7. Get Low: Just as much a pleasure as "Scott Pilgrim," but more deliberately paced, "Get Low" is a funny and touching look at guilt, forgiveness and friendship in a small Depression-era village. Robert Duvall is at his grizzled best as a recluse who comes out of hiding to throw a funeral party for himself and Bill Murray is as wonderfully sardonic as ever as the undertaker looking for ways to exploit the situation. Director Aaron Schneider's film is funny and beautiful to watch, and its final moments reveal a surprising resonance. A wonderful little gem.

8. True Grit:
Joel and Ethan Coen may appear to have gone mainstream with this remake of the popular John Wayne film, but a closer look reveals all their quirks are still intact in this enormously entertaining take on the Charles Portis novel. Once again, Roger Deakins delivers breathtaking cinematography. Once again, the Coens' love for language results in dialogue that tickles the ears. Once again, they get a phenomenal performance out of Jeff Bridges and, once again, their film perfectly balances darkness, humor and heart. And so, once again, they've made one of the year's best films.

9. Toy Story 3:
There are few greater pleasures each year than watching a new Pixar film. Not content to simply recycle old gags for their third go-round with Buzz, Woody and company, the animation wizards concoct what may be their funniest and most heartfelt adventure yet. Bursting with originality, this prison-break take on the tale has more laughs than the majority of the year's comedies and yet it also manages to deliver some of the year's darkest adventure scenes, mixed with a heart-tugging meditation on loss, mortality and growing older. Anyone with dry eyes in the final scenes has never truly been a child.

10. Inception: How did Christopher Nolan decide to follow up "The Dark Knight's" commercial success? By gambling on an inventive, labyrinthine and visually exhausting action movie that makes his "Memento" look like an episode of "Two and a Half Men." The gamble paid off and, fueled by a phenomenal ensemble and deliriously inventive special effects, "Inception" became the year's most complex, original and enjoyable head trip.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The 2010 Dubbies!

Alright gang. This time next week I'll be posting my thoughts on the 10 best films of 2010. But every year I decide to do an "alternative" list, where I make not of films I particularly enjoyed that were just did not make my top 10 list.

This year there were plenty of films that were hard to cross off my list in order to make room for the best. But here are some of the films I greatly enjoyed and, in fact, will likely return to more than the ones on my top 10 list for sheer entertainment value. Enjoy!

1. The "Seriously, this was Number 11" award--Winter's Bone: I went back and forth about whether I was going to include this great little thriller on my top 10 list and, sadly, I had to sacrifice it for another film that I loved just a little bit more. But don't let its absence fool you--this is a fascinating little film. Jennifer Lawrence is phenomenal as Ree Dolly, a teenage girl in the Ozarks who must navigate a labyrinthine community of pseudo-related meth cookers and addicts to locate her father's body and save her home. There's a wonderful sense of setting to this film and the town of tightly-related, closely-guarded folk is perfectly realized. John Hawkes should also be recognized for his role as a grizzled hick with a heart of gold. A fantastic little movie.

2. "The Best Non-'Inception' Mind Game of the Year"--Shutter Island: Leonardo DiCaprio fried audiences' collective brains on several occasions this year. And while Inception is the more complex, tightly-wound piece, it's Shutter Island that packs the more emotional punch. Directed with wonderfully tense and disorienting "bump in the night" flair, this dark mystery--set on an island asylum in the 1950s--is twisty and unsettling, getting more dangerous and bleak as its secrets are revealed. DiCaprio, as a US Marshal with some secrets of his own, is perfect and the film's final moments turn Dennis Lehane's original pulp twist into one a harsh, disturbing and unforgettable rumination on guilt and fear.

3. Best Horror of the Year--"Let Me In": Being an ardent fan of the original "Let the Right One In," I wasn't too thrilled when it was announced "Cloverfield" director Matt Reeves was going to helm an American remake. But Reeves' take on the story keeps tale's dark heart alive, in this sad, brooding story about a lonely young boy (Cody Smit-Mcphee) who befriends a girl (Chloe Moretz) who is not what she seems. A haunting and poetic meditation on lost innocence, Reeves gets surprisingly adult performances from McPhee and Moretz and Richard Jenkis turns the young girl's caretaker into a tragic figure. Tense, horrifying and sad, this is a movie that crawls under your skin and haunts you all the way home, but it's also a surprisingly tender story of friendship and young love that equals its Swedish counterpart.

4. Best Mainstream Comedy--"The Other Guys": There's another comedy--one that hasn't gotten wide release yet--that was actually the funniest movie I saw all year. But behind that was this fourth collaboration between Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Their riff on the buddy cop comedy may have more plot than their previous films, but it's just as bizarre, quotable and hilarious as an "Anchorman" or "Step Brothers." Ferrell creates another great character as a buttoned-down desk jockey and Mark Wahlberg ratchets up his intensity as his action-loving partner. But it might be Michael Keaton, as a cop with a fondness for R&B group TLC, who steals the show. Just remember: pimps don't cry.

5. Best Popcorn Movie--"The A-Team": I'm still not entirely sure why this film did so poorly at the box office. I was well prepared for Joe Carnahan's update of the 1980s TV show to be dark and gritty, getting rid of everything that made the silly, over-the-top program so beloved. Instead, Carnahan pulled together Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley and Quintin Jackson to create a movie that's just as absurd as the show ever was, with stunts that make over-the-top sound conservative and nods to the franchise that made fans smile. Bonus points for Patrick Wilson, whose villain was so wonderfully daffy that I'd like a spinoff just of him.

6. Best Art House Drama--"Never Let Me Go": What a sad, beautiful little film. This haunting science fiction drama--about boarding house kids with a tragic future planned for them--never goes the conventional route. A rumination on mortality, it starts with a fantastical premise--what if we grew clones to supply us with organs--and then keeps its foot squarely in the side of drama, letting the implications of that reality play out. Carey Mulligan continues to prove she's the real deal as a sad, sympathetic young lady dealing with a destiny to die young. Kiera Knightley shows an anger, passion and range I didn't know she had and Andrew Garfield continues his strong year as the conflicted and angry young man who knows the world regards him as worthless. A beautiful, tragic drama that left me shaken as I left the theater.

7. Best "Non-Inception and Non-Shutter Island" Brain Bender--"Black Swan": What a weird, beautiful, terrifying and disturbing little movie. Natalie Portman may never be better than she is here as a ballerina whose grip on reality begins to shatter as she prepares for the lead roles in "Swan Lake." Mila Kunis is revelatory as a fellow dancer who may be our heroine's competitor/friend/lover. Darren Aronofsky's direction is dizzying and the final 20 minutes are pure delirium. Had the film cared a bit more for its narrative and not been so content to depart from reality in its final act, this would have been on my top 10 list.

8. Best Horror, Part 2--"Frozen": Adam Greene's survivalist/horror story is a chilling addition to the "don't go outdoors, because you will die" genre. Three friends get on a final run at a ski resort and, through a set of surprisingly plausible circumstances, are left stranded above the snow when the resort closes for the week. What unfolds is a taut and grim battle with fear, frostbite and the howling wolves circling below. I'm not a skier; this movie will not change that.

9. Best indie comedy--"Greenberg": As Ben Stiller milks money out of a dead franchise this week with "Little Fockers," it's nice to be reminded he can still do solid work with this little gem by Noah Baumbach. Stiller plays a cynical young man recovering from a mental breakdown at his brother's house who develops a crush on his brother's assistant. Hateful without being hated by us, Stiller captures all of character's sadness and anger. As the girl who begins to heal him, Greta Gerwig steals the show--and there were times I wish the film had been simply about her confused and aimless twentysomething.

10. Best documentary--"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work": If, like me, you don't care much for Rivers' acerbic humor, this movie won't much change it. You will, however, garner a great respect for this woman's career, as the movie unflinchingly follows her for a year and lets her tell about her struggle with Carson, her husband's suicide and her fears of being left without work. A fascinating look at showbiz.

Movie Review: "The King's Speech"

Just edging out fear of death, the fear of speaking in public is the world's No. 1 phobia. As Jerry Seinfeld once put it, that means for the majority of people, if they were at a funeral they'd rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

Using that very relatable fear, director Tom Hooper accomplishes a remarkable thing with "The King's Speech": He makes us understand, empathize and share emotions with a man whose life should be far removed from our own understanding.

That man is King George VI (Colin Firth), who took the throne in the early days of World War II after his brother (Guy Pearce) abdicated the throne to marry a twice-divorced American woman. Being king was the farthest thing George, known to his family as "Bertie," ever wanted, even though the film suggests that he was probably the better son for the job. But in this new age, as radio takes the world by storm, kings are expected to be polished, dignified speakers. And Bertie has a problem-he's plagued by a horrible stammer that makes even normal conversation impossible.

We first see this in effect back when Bertie is just Prince Albert, freezing up in mid-speech at a sporting event. Scarred by the event, the young prince turns to a variety of doctors who offer up a number of remedies that don't work - including putting hot marbles in his mouth. Hoping to find any possible help for her husband, Bertie's wife (Helena Bonham Carter) contacts Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed Australian actor who helps those with speech defects. Logue at first offends Bertie with his refusal to treat the monarch differently than anyone else - he expects the prince (then king) to meet him at his own quarters and addresses him as friends, by first name. But the two tentatively strike up a professional relationship that turns into one of King George's closest friendships.

While "The King's Speech" is, at heart, a typical "triumph over adversity" tale, what's admirable is how ably Hooper also incorporates a touching study of a friendship and a fascinating look at history, as Germany prepares for war and circumstances maneuver Bertie to the throne. The titular speech does not simply provide a climax, but is the culmination of the various narrative threads that have been weaving in and out of the story. It comes about organically and not simply as an oratory version of the film's "Big Game." I was quite impressed how well Hooper, best known for his work with HBO's "John Adams" miniseries, sucked me in with this personal story and then taught me a thing or two about history in the process.

Most notable, however, is the showcase the film provides for Firth and Rush, who both deliver career-best performances. Portraying a character with a speech defect can be tricky, but Firth makes Bertie's stammer seem natural and creates a sympathetic character - a scared, self-conscious man who can't even read his daughters a bedtime story, let alone inspire a nation. I've never been tempted to cheer because a character completes a sentence, but Firth's climactic scene at the microphone is every bit as inspiring as Rocky's bout with Apollo Creed.

In many ways, Rush has the easier job as the quirky doctor and he does get quite a bit of humor with Lionel's eccentricities, particularly in a scene where he gets the monarch to spit out a stream of curse words to relax his speech. But there's a warmth and empathy Rush brings to the role, making Lionel not simply a good doctor, but a kind one, and a good friend to the king. Carter is also wonderful as a woman deeply concerned for and supportive of her husband.

"The King's Speech" could easily have been stilted, dry and boring. But in the hands of this cast and crew, it is a funny, inspiring and wonderful triumph that climaxes in one of the year's most uplifting endings. It is definitely worth talking about.

I would normally end this by telling you see either "True Grit" or "The King's Speech." But I know how the holidays get and, chances are, four hours away from the family may be a nice escape. So treat yourself to both of these films - they are wonderful year-end gifts.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Movie Review: "True Grit"

"Mainstream" and "Coen brothers" do not normally go hand in hand.

True, the directorial duo have had their share of hits with "No Country For Old Men," "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou." But they remain most notable for their quirky, dark comedies and edgy thrillers like "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona" and last year's phenomenal "A Serious Man."

The brothers are known for zigging when everyone expects them to zag, which may be why they decided to follow up their intensely personal take on the book of Job with this adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, which was already made into a popular 1969 film famous for winning John Wayne his only Oscar, as hard-drinking Old West bounty hunter Cogburn.

What's not so surprising is that, as they seem to be doing every awards season, the Coen brothers deliver another funny, powerful and highly entertaining movie to close out the year.

Hewing closely to Portis' novel, the film stars newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a young girl looking to avenge her father's murder. Mattie may be young, but watch the way she deals with a local merchant who tries to scam her out of horses; able to barter with the best of them and unwilling to take "no" for an answer, Mattie is wise beyond her years. This is star-making work by young Steinfeld, who delivers one of the finest child performances I've seen.

Ross recruits Cogburn (Bridges), who she first meets while he's being deposed in court. With a patch on one eye and whisky always in his hand, Cogburn is more interested in getting drunk than in helping out a kid. But he agrees to take on Ross' job, although he's less thrilled about bringing her along. Even worse, he's required to team up with cocky Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who was tracking Mattie's target in Texas before getting the slip in Arkansas. The three set out to find the man (Josh Brolin) and bring retribution to him.

While the storyline is likely familiar to those who've seen the original film, the Coens make their telling fresh by sticking closely to Portis' prose, with dialogue that flows poetically, as if contractions were a hanging offense. The Coens have always coupled their visual artistry with a love for language, be it the hippy proclamations of "Lebowski's" Dude, the backwoods poetry of "O Brother" or the political double-speak of "Burn After Reading." Like this year's "The Social Network," here is a film I'd be content to sit and listen to with the picture off, although then I would miss Richard Deakins' marvelous cinematography, which turns every shot of the Old West into a scene worthy of framing.

Bridges' grizzled Cogburn is no hammy, one-note creation, but a man who is both humorous to watch and fearsome to behold. He may be full of adventurous stories and able to give Jack Sparrow a run for his rum, but with a gun in his hand he's quite an intimidating figure. Just a week after Bridges played three versions of himself in the "Tron" sequel, he disappears into this character and proves again why he's one of the most consistent actors working.

In a film full of surprising humor, Damon garners the most laughs with LaBeouf, a character a little too proud of his Ranger status. At first unwilling to help Ross because she's a child and not a beautiful grown woman, LaBeouf strikes up a friendship with the duo that has a surprising heart to it. Brolin and Barry Pepper are also particularly good as the outlaws the group encounters, one of whom is a remorseless killer and the other a scoundrel with some manners. Every supporting character is fully drawn and richly created, a rarity at a time when films are filled with ciphers and stereotypes.

The adventure gets a little intense sometimes, but it's possible the Coen brothers have made their first family film. Anchored by Steinfeld's phenomenal performance, here's a movie that features a child as the hero, and has all the adventure, intrigue and romance of the classic Westerns, told with a love for language, an eye for detail and affection for character that seems to have been lost in recent years.

Joel and Ethan Coen are known for being unpredictable. What's fascinating is how their quirks have led them to create one of the most enjoyable and entertaining films of 2010.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Movie Review: "Tron Legacy"

When I was a high school freshman, my family took me on a trip to Disney World. I haven't had the opportunity to go back since the early 1990s, but I remember it being unlike any other theme park I'd been to before or since. The production design on every ride made it feel like you were zipping through another world. There were stunt shows with fantastic sets, special effects and characters dressed in outlandish clothing. It was like spending the week experiencing the highlights of a movie without having to check out and be bothered by things like plot or character.

I thought about that several times when watching "Tron: Legacy," Disney's sequel to its cult-classic 1982 hit, "Tron." The film is a loud and stylish adventure with incredible special effects, some thrilling set pieces and a pulsing, theater-shaking soundtrack by techno band Daft Punk. Seeing it in Imax 3D has moments that are thrilling and borderline epic...but then the characters start speaking. And they rarely stop.

Full disclosure requires me to state that I haven't seen the original "Tron," in which (according to Wikipedia), Jeff Bridges played computer hacker Kevin Flynn, who was sucked into a digital world where he had to engage in deadly light cycle chases and throw colored discs at his enemies. The film didn't exactly set the box office on fire, but it's groundbreaking use of computer generated special effects captured the attention of nerds and future filmmakers, who made the film into a pop culture staple in recent years.

"Tron: Legacy" takes place a few years after Flynn has disappeared again, leaving behind son Sam (Garett Hedlund). Sam has refused to take up his father's mantle as head of ENCOM, a software company that has grown from making video games to becoming a Microsoft-level corporation, with its future hinged on a young mogul (Cillian Murphy--in a 2-minute sequence that basically just exists to let us know the character will play a major role in a third film). Sam spends his days using his trust fund to hack into ENCOM's system and give away free software--his way of honoring his late father's wishes.

When a mysterious pager message sends Sam to his father's defunct and abandoned arcade, he finds himself zapped into a bizarre cyberspace world where computer programs--who look just like people--are forced to compete in gladitorial races and matches. He meets a mysterious and beautiful program (Olivia Wilde) who takes Sam to meet his father, who has been trapped in the computer world for decades, growing a long beard, speaking in hippy-dippy dialogue and basically turning into a digital Buddha. The cyberworld itself is ruled over by Clu (a digitally made character of Bridges' younger self)--a program created in Flynn's likeness to shape the computer world into perfection, although doing so means some sort of compu-genocide. This all somehow devolves into a standard "beat-the-villain/get-to-the-portal/grab-the-disc" thriller that fuels every big budget adventure.

Having not seen the original film, I find myself without the nostalgia that fuels many fans' desire for this movie. And I find myself pretty baffled about the whole concept--having seen "The Matrix" and "Inception," I am not averse to characters' minds being trapped in fantasy worlds. But I'm a little more curious about "Tron," where it seems an entire physical self is digitized. How does that happen? Is there oxygen in the computer world? We see food that Flynn and Son eat...but how did it get in there as well? Is there a laser at the grocery store that zaps ham and fruit into the cyber realm? Much of the plot concerns evil programs trying to get out into the real world--how does that happen? Why is there water in this cyberworld? I get that the people in the computer are programs and not actual humans...but programs exist to serve a function; do computer programs really have the free time to go watch gladitorial matches?

It's best not to think about this and just accept the world of "Tron" as a fantasy world, not a science fiction one. The problem is that the film keeps grinding to a halt to explain the world's history, rules and the other complications that the characters find themselves facing. In a world so full of amazing visuals and ideas, violating the "show, don't tell" rule is unthinkable--but this film keeps stopping to explain everything time and again, with probably a quarter of the film's run time given over to plodding exposition.

The cast is fine, although Hedlund has a bit of the same problem that I have with Sam Worthington--he strikes a good hero's pose and can angrily spout dialogue, but I don't really see much depth to him that makes me want to see him in another role. Wilde plays innocent and excited very well, and her character has a nice moment at the end that is the film's most human moment. Bridges is fine, spouting hippy dialogue ("you're messing with my Zen thing, man") and does a good job playing both his current age and a soulless younger version of himself; but, truthfully, if you want a good Bridges performance, just check out "True Grit."

Most bizarre is Michael Sheen, who channels his inner Bowie for a role as a flamboyant club owner. Putting aside the fact that I don't know why a computer world would have recreational nightclubs, Sheen struts and preens like some sort of glam rock star in a role that he must have thought would be the flashy, funny centerpiece of "Tron: Legacy." But he dials his character's quirks so high that he drowns everything else, making his moments grating and bizarre instead of humorous.

That said, the film isn't without its merits. The cool black and neon computer world is a sight to behold and the action sequences are flashy, fun and exciting. I particularly liked the multi-level, ever-shifting arena where the disc games are held. Daft Punk's score is propulsive and there are times when the movie can be purely enjoyed as a visual and aural spectacle, kind of an abstract music video/stunt spectacular. In theater-shaking Imax 3D, it has moments that approach epic scope, even though in most epics I care about the characters and their quest.

But there's too much confusion and self importance to make "Tron: Legacy" truly memorable. It's best enjoyed as a sensory experience. When the characters open their mouths, you'll want "game over" to come quickly.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Detroit Film Critics Society announces Best Films of 2010!!

(Detroit, Michigan – December 16, 2010)…The Detroit Film Critics Society is pleased to announce the BEST OF 2010 nominees and winners in eight categories. The society was founded in Spring 2007 and consists of a group of 20 Michigan film critics who write or broadcast in the Detroit area as well as other major cities within a 150-mile radius of the city including Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Flint, Michigan.

Each critic submitted their top 5 picks in the following categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Ensemble, and Best Breakthrough Performance. From these submissions, each entry was given a point value and the top 5 in each category were put on the final ballot. The final ballots were then given to each critic to rank in order. The results were once again tabulated and the winners were decided.

The group also has decided to add two new categories in 2011: Best Documentary and Best Screenplay.



( in alphabetical order)

Winners are in red




















The Detroit Film Critics Society members for the 2010-2011 season in alphabetical order are Kirk Baird – The Toledo Blade, Jason Buchanan –, Colette Evangelista – Capital Women’s Lifestyle Magazine, Jim Fordyce –, Adam Graham – The Detroit News, Corey Hall – The Metro Times, Tom Long – The Detroit News, Jeff Meyers – The Metro Times, Warren Pierce – WJR Radio, Greg Russell – WMYD-TV, James Sanford – The Kalamazoo Gazette, Tom Santilli –, Debbie Schlussel – Sirius Patriot Channel 144’s Mike Church Show, Perry Seibert –, John Serba – The Grand Rapids Press, Lee Thomas – Fox 2, Kirk Vanderbeek – Real Detroit Weekly, Greg Walton – WIOG/KRSP, and Stephanie Webb – WZZM, ABC 13, Chris Williams – Advisor & Source Newspapers.



AT (248) 703-0997 OR

More information is available on the website at

Movie Review: "The Fighter"

Full disclosure: When I first saw the trailer for "The Fighter," I groaned and rolled my eyes.

I can hardly be blamed. The boxing genre is not necessarily fresh in Hollywood, pummeled into cliche by one too many Rocky sequels. Since his last critical and commercial hit with "Three Kings" in 1999, director David O. Russell has become mostly known for his tirades on the set of "I Heart Huckabees." Star Mark Wahlberg is fairly inconsistent, following up Oscar-nominated performances in films like "The Departed" with laughable work in drek like "The Happening."

"The Fighter," then, was an underdog in my opinion. So perhaps it's fitting that the film, much like the character at its center, delivers a shocking knockout punch that will leave audiences elated.

The film is the true story of boxer Micky Ward (Wahlberg), who tries to fit in a few fights when he's not paving the roads in his hometown of Lowell, Mass. He's managed by his brash mother (Melissa Leo) and loopy older brother Dicky (Christian Bale), the former "Pride of Lowell," whose claim to fame was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a professional fight. Followed by an HBO documentary crew, Dicky hopes Micky's success will be the start of his own comeback.

Dicky is Micky's hero, the reason why he's content to take fights that pay peanuts and get jerked around by ESPN. Dicky's the reason why Micky won't pursue offers to train fulltime in Las Vegas. Between Dicky and his mom, Micky is compelled to stay in Lowell, keep tight with his family and pursue a boxing career that looks like it will never get him much farther down the roads he paves each day.

But Micky is also well too aware that Dicky could be his undoing. Charismatic and fun-loving, Dicky's a livewire who is rapidly ruining his life with a crack addiction. Pretty much everyone in town knows this except for Alice, who chooses to believe her boy is doing just fine.

After a bungled fight scars his pride and a pretty girl (Amy Adams) captures his attention, Micky begins to take his career into his own hands. But his attempts at moving forward are hampered by Alice, who seems to see management as her maternal duty, and Dicky, whose personal woes begin to capture the attention of Lowell and drag down Micky's reputation.

"The Fighter" may follow the outline of a typical underdog story, but its success is in the way it fills up the space between the predictable beats. Russell captures the crude, brash tone of Lowell, a small town where everyone knows everyone else and is probably related to them. There's a lot of humor and drama to be found in the gang of Alice's sisters that seem to constantly be at her home. Early in the film, as the HBO crew follows Dicky and Micky around Lowell, we get a sense of just how much Dicky's previous success captured the attention of the town and, when the crew's true intentions are later revealed, we realize just how far Dicky's travails have made him a joke in the town that used to revere him.

Wahlberg is effective as Ward, and the tough guy sensitivity that he brings to the role serves him well as a self-doubting boxer. While some may argue that Micky has no personality of his own, the truth is that Wahlberg is playing a man whose personality has been forged by who his family tells him he is. Micky is informed at one point that he is a "stepping stone" - a boxer who basically helps other fighters advance in their careers. But he's been used as a stepping stone for Dicky, to fuel a comeback that everyone knows will never happen.

Micky is shaped by the women in his life. Leo is wonderfully trashy as Alice, who favors Dicky over Micky, and seems to see boxing as a chance for her boys to bond and for Dicky to get the respect she feels he deserves. It's far from a one-note role; there's a heartbreaking scene between Dicky and Alice where Leo reveals that her character knows more about her son's problems than she's letting on, but she's also a mother who sees the promise and potential in her boy.

Adams has made a name for herself as a perky, optimistic young actress and surprises here by how well she plays a tough-talking Boston girl. Her Charlene is the force Micky needs to show him how his family has held him back and challenges him to fight (literally) for what he deserves. It's a new direction for Adams, who shows just as much skill talking trash as she did for being a princess in "Enchanted."

But "The Fighter" belongs to Bale, who entirely loses himself in his portrayal of Dicky. Wiry thin, eyes bugging and unable to stop moving, Dicky is a mess. He has one success story in his life - and there are hints that even that may not have been as he remembers. He sees his brother's career as his shot at redemption, but he can't bring himself to stop his bad habits, confident that what we see as charisma and charm will get him out of trouble. There's a sobering moment when Dicky finally sees the depth of his problems, and it's to Bale's and Russell's credit that the moment comes honestly, not through manipulation. Bale has never been this loose or unpredictable before, and it's the best role of his career.

It's tempting to say that Dicky may have made the more interesting subject, but by putting him as a supporting character, the film maintains a suspense it would not have had were it a typical addiction story. Those tales can end only one of two ways - redemption or tragedy. With Dicky off to the side, Russell creates a great deal of dramatic tension as we wonder what Dicky's impact will be on Micky's career: Will he reform? Will he screw up? Will he die? Go to jail?

"The Fighter" may follow the broad path of a traditional boxing story - complete with training montage - but it zigs and zags on its way to the Big Fight and, like the original "Rocky," succeeds not because of the action in the ring but because of the drama outside it.

Russell tones down his quirks and visual tics, and delivers a realistic, gritty movie - much the same move that Darren Aronofsky made in moving from "The Fountain" to "The Wrestler" (incidentally, Aronofsky is an executive producer of this film). The boxing in the movie is fine, but the personal stories dominating the film are far more involving, something that is refreshingly rare in this genre.

"The Fighter" is that rare film that tells a traditional, crowd-pleasing story, but does it with enough craft and passion to elevate it beyond formula. Fueled by powerful performances and a gripping true-life story, it is one of 2010's best films.

Originally published in the December 19 version of the Advisor and Source Newspapers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Movie Review: "Black Swan"

Natalie Portman finally delivers on the potential she's only previously hinted at in "Black Swan," a delirious and haunting psychological drama set in the competitive world of ballet.

Ever since capturing audiences' attention as a child in 1994's "The Professional," Portman has been on the cusp of delivering a performance to cement her status not only as a movie star, but as a serious actress. Roles in the "Star Wars" trilogy and "V for Vendetta," plus a popular "Saturday Night Live" digital short, kept her popular with the mainstream and, occasionally, performances in films like "Closer" would hint at what she is truly capable of.

Prior to "Black Swan," however, Portman has failed to deliver a performance that lingers after the credits have rolled. While a capable actress, there's always been a woodenness to much of her work, a coldness that keeps her from totally losing herself in a role and going beyond the poise of mere acting to deliver a truly memorable performance.

Much as he did with Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler," director Darren Aronofsky points Portman at a role that forces her out of her comfort zone and pushes her to deliver not only the performance of her career, but one of the very best of 2010.

Nina Sayers, much like Portman herself, is an artist too poised and perfect to be phenomenal. A ballerina in New York, she struggles under a womanizing director (Vincent Cassel) and goes home to a mother (Barbara Hershey) who bitterly reminds Nina of all she's sacrificed to support her dream.

After violently rejecting his sexual advances, the director thinks Nina may be perfect for the lead role in "Swan Lake." His concern, however, is that while the artist is precise and perfect enough for the role of the White Swan, she doesn't have the lust and recklessness needed to take on the role of the Black Swan. As Nina struggles to unlock her passion, reality begins to disintegrate around her, and things get even more disorienting when classmate Lily (Mila Kunis) enters the picture. As the performance nears, Nina is unsure whether this new addition to her life is a teammate, competitor, friend or lover. And what, exactly, is she to make of the scratches, cuts and other afflictions that mysteriously show up on her arms, legs and back?

Madness is not a new subject for Aronofsky, who previously tackled the link between insanity and genius in his debut, "Pi," and further examined the disintegration of reality in the haunting "Requiem for a Dream." One could also find a connection between "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan," as the director returns to a world where people sacrifice themselves for their art.

Unlike "The Wrestler's" gritty reality, however, "Black Swan" is filmed with an operatic sense of style and several tricks designed to unsettle audiences as Nina begins to crack under the pressure. Aronofsky skillfully allows reality to crumble around us, be it through startling in-camera trickery in a shot where Nina enters her mother's art studio, quick flashes of a reflection in a mirror or his use of computer-generated effects in the final dance sequence, as dancers sprout feathers, and reality and fantasy blur together in ways that only an artist can totally understand. Aronofsky skillfully filters everything through Nina's perspective, and if we're unsure of what's real it's only because she is as well.

Aronofsky largely keeps things from getting too confusing, although the narrative begins to slip away from him in the film's final act. There's a fine line between disorientation and confusion, and as the film breaks further from reality, the story loses its tenuous grasp on coherence, until many of the relationships and plot threads we've followed throughout the film are abandoned in favor of delivering a hauntingly beautiful dance sequence for the climax.

The film fares much better when it comes to atmospherics. I've already lauded Aronofsky's ability to shift reality and get audiences into Nina's fragile mind. But "Black Swan" also would be a riveting view if it were just about the world of ballet. Aronofsky is drawn to the way dancers' bodies move in the spotlight, the way the skin and muscles react to movement, and the color and light of the stage. It's one of the most beautifully photographed looks at theater I've seen and the final 30 minutes are among the most breathtakingly filmed of the year.

Sexuality is also a tricky subject to tackle in a film so centered on its characters' burgeoning lust and passions. Many have remarked about a scene in which Portman's and Kunis' characters make love, a scene that could easily have been prurient and gratuitous. Aronofsky's approach to Nina's awakening sexuality is vital to the films themes. While unflinching and heated, the film's approach to Nina's rising passions is handled with taste and power, and fuels the movie's emotional backbone.

The film wouldn't achieve that power, however, without a series of fantastic performances. Hershey is effective in her brief role as Nina's overprotective mother and Cassel nails it as the tough, womanizing director. Kunis ("Forgetting Sarah Marshal") has been slowly turning into a star herself and ably goes toe to toe with Portman, with Lily being the uninhibited dancer Nina wishes she could become.

But it's still Portman, wrenching her body and mind apart as Nina tries to unlock her passion, who commands all attention. She's simply never been this powerful, nuanced and unpredictable. By the time Nina takes the stage in the finale, fully embodying the role of the Black Swan, it's not only the character who has transformed. This role marks the arrival of Portman as a serious actress and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Originally published in the December 12 edition of the Advisor/Source newspaper,

Monday, December 6, 2010

Catching Up...

It's been awhile since I've posted a proper review, simply because it's been awhile since I've actually sat in a movie theater and watched a film.

The Thanksgiving holiday, naturally, threw a crimp into things. And then, following that, I had some travel for work that took up all of last week and is taking up much of this week--although on Friday I'll have my thoughts on "Black Swan" up for you all.

However, things have been relatively busy on the movie viewing front with some films released early this year that I am just now getting a chance to see. It's the critic's busy time of the year and I'm knee deep in screeners for the Detroit Film Critics Society and trying to see as many movies as I can before having to turn in my article on the 10 Best of 2010. There's a stack of screener DVDs on my table about a foot high--I've made it through a handful, but thankfully there was a lot I'd already seen this year. But rather than write full reviews about movies that have been out for awhile, I figured I'd just post some quick thoughts about what I've seen and, as the list grows, I'll post more of these entries.

So, here goes. . .

  • I know that most critics fawned all over The Kids Are All Right earlier this year, and it's not hard to see why. The concept--children of lesbian parents seek out their sperm donor father--is fresh and can go in many different directions and when you have a cast with Annette Benning, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo at the center, it's hard to fail. But this film just never connected with me. Don't get me wrong--the three leads are reliable as always, particularly Moore, who does a fantastic job creating the neglected and self-doubting half of the couple. But the characters struck me as selfish and largely unlikable and the film nearly sweats through the celluloid to be as progressive as possible, constantly pointing out how cool it is that the lesbian parents are just like other parents, that Ruffalo's character is a hipster restaurant owner and that everyone lives in a world where they shop at Whole Foods and drink wine while listening to NPR. It's liberal porn--and this is coming from someone with liberal tendencies. The film tries so hard to impress moviegoers with its new-world attitude that it forgets that the characters are insufferable, immature and unlikable. I'm in the minority on this one, I understand. But this one just didn't do it for me.
  • On the other hand, I found Winter's Bone to be just as fascinating as I'd been told. Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the year's best performances as a teenager in a backwoods, meth-addled community, searching for her father before their home is repossessed. Director Debra Granik creates a tense and moody film set in a closed off culture of poverty-riddled drug addicts who are nearly all linked by blood and deeply entrenched ideas of gender and loyalty. The film is tense and riveting, boosted by John Hawkes' fantastic portrayal of a grizzled hillbilly with a heart of gold. A wonderful little mystery-thriller that manages to take us into areas of the world movies usually don't show.
  • I find it hard to believe that in this awards season Get Low has been so seldom mentioned. A wonderfully low-key story about a Tennessee recluse (Robert Duvall) who decides to throw a funeral party for himself before he passes, the movie is a great showcase for the veteran actor. Duvall is as ornery, funny and powerful as ever as Felix Bush and he's matched by Bill Murray who is his usual sardonic self as a funeral parlor honor looking to make some good money off Bush's send-off. The film moves deliberately, but it's never boring--it's funny and touching in equal measure, particularly when Sissy Spacek shows up as Felix's old flame. A charming and surprisingly resonant little movie that didn't get the attention it deserved earlier this year.
  • I also was surprised to find Stone fade from the spotlight so quickly. Ed Norton gives a solid performance as a prisoner eager to be released and Robert Deniro delivers some of his best work in years as the self-righteous parole officer who is faced with his own inherent sinfulness. The film comes off a bit heavy handed and Milla Jovovich is a little one-note as the seductress willing to do anything to free her husband. But Norton and Deniro elevate the film above its script and director John Curran manages to pose some thought-provoking questions about sin, grace, hypocrisy, redemption and forgiveness.
  • Similar in theme, Conviction is another prison-set drama, albeit one that's a bit more uplifting. Hilary Swank takes on the role of Betty Anne Waters, an uneducated woman who went back to school to become a lawyer after her brother (Sam Rockwell) was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she doesn't believe he could commit. The film hits all the predictable biopic notes like clockwork and its reliance on formula keeps it from garnering the power the story deserves. But Swank does a fine job portraying Waters as a fierce and loyal sister and Rockwell--continuing to prove he's one of the most intriguing working actors--knocks it out of the park as the convicted brother. Minnie Driver and Juliette Lewis contribute some wonderful supporting work. "Conviction" is a little too pat and manipulative to be a great film, but it's worth a look for the fine performances on display.
  • Similarly, I found Noah Baumbach's Greenberg to be a charming, funny and sweet little comedy that gives Ben Stiller some of the best work of his career as a misanthrope who house sits for his brother and strikes up a tentative romance with his assistant (Greta Gerwig). Stiller's funny as the caustic, juvenile and bitter Greenberg but it's Gerwig as a young 20-something suffering an identity crisis who really commands the movie--it's a fantastic and wonderfully nuanced performance. My only complaint is that Greenberg spends so much of his time complaining and moping that I found myself wishing the movie had been about Gerwig's character instead, who is easily more intriguing and mysterious. Still, worth a look.
  • How you feel about Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will likely depend on how you feel about Joan Rivers herself. The film is a fascinating look at the comedienne's career and it's amazing to see how relentlessly self-promoting she is. No one can deny her work ethic or the dedication she puts into her career. Her many fans will likely find this to be one of the year's best documentaries. Those who aren't big fans will probably admire the movie and acknowledge her workmanship, but I doubt they'll be convinced that she's any less self-centered, bitter or prideful than they did before going in. I'm not entirely sure where I stand on her yet.
  • And finally: "Four Lions" hasn't opened wide yet, so I can't review it. But trust me--this is one to keep an eye out for. If you're not aware of this one, I'll just give you a hint as to what it's about: it's about suicide bombers. And it's a comedy. If they play their cards right, this is a film that will get people talking--and it should.
Alright. Like I said, Friday we'll have a "Black Swan" review up for you all. I'm still going to be trying to hit the screeners over the next few weeks, so look for more entries like that. Also, in the coming weeks I'll have thoughts on "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," "Tron: Legacy" and "Little Fockers," as I see them.



About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.