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Saturday
Dec042010

2010 Films 

119 Films Screened.
Last updated on December 4th, 2010. Links go to reviews when applicable.

 

127 Hours
After.Life
Alice in Wonderland

Animal Kingdom
Another Year
Applaus
Babies
Black Swan
Blue Valentine

Bomber
Boy
Bran Nue Dae
The Burial
Buried
Burlesque
Cairo Time
Catfish
The Chameleon
Cleanflix
City of Borders
Contracorriente
Conviction
Cyrus
Date Night
David's Birthday
Despicable Me
Easy A
Eat Pray Love
The Eclipse
Elvis & Madona
The Fighter
Fighting Fish
Get Low
The Ghost Writer
happythankyou...
Harry Potter Hallows
Hereafter
Herpes Boy
Hipsters
Holy Rollers

��

Friday
Dec242004

Angels & Devils (Million Dollar Baby & Closer)

MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Boxing is the most violent of mainstream sports. Other two person contests like, say, tennis don't require beating your opponent senseless to win. So, when I think of boxing and the movies, I think not to the popular Rocky and his personal triumphs but to the savagery of Raging Bull's relentless biography. Based on advanced word and critical reaction you can safely assume that Million Dollar Baby will join those two classic films to form the undisputed trinity of major boxing flicks. Yet for a film detailing such a violent activity it's kind heart strikes me sometimes as an overly facile fit for the genre.
Baby is essentially a three hander about a gym owner and trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) his employee and confidant "Scrap" (Morgan Freeman) and Maggie (Hilary Swank) a hillbilly with a dream. She wants to make something of her life and she's come to view fighting professionally as her one and only shot at doing so. Reluctantly Frankie, who has never trained a woman and who is nearly through with boxing, takes her under his wing. All three of the roles are well cast and the actors do charming work. There are some wonderful character bits sprinkled throughout the tale but Frankie, Maggie, and Scrap remain "types" rather than character. The narrative also traffics in comfortable cliché; the familiar and comfy 'grumpy old men' banter between Freeman and Eastwood, The rags to riches journey of Maggie as she becomes a champion. Million Dollar Baby may be overly familiar, but it's so well played and artistically presented that it's quite pleasurable to watch.
The use of types rather than true characterizations limits the film's serious reach for greatness but it succeeds in winning its audience over. Boxing may be a risky life-threatening sport for its contenders but the movie always plays it safe. All three of the protagonists are exceedingly likeable with no visible flaws to turn off audience sympathies or engagement. Maggie, a forceful but warm Hilary Swank, has no defining characteristics outside of her status as poor "trash" (the movie's description of her as well) and her ambition to be a fighter. Frankie has an estranged hurtful relationship with his unseen daughter yet nothing in his character suggests any sins he could have committed to have left such lifelong scars. As written and portrayed he is a big hearted, generous, and unwaveringly loyal. Scrap is a retired boxer who shares these admirable character traits. He's also a defender of the down and out. Essentially all three characters are saints. There's not a mean streak in any of their bodies. For a movie bathed in beautiful chiaroscuro cinematography, the darkness is strictly external. These characters are filled with light. So what are they doing in the violent kill-or-be-killed world of boxing?
This is not to say that Million Dollar Baby is too "soft" for its own good or its own genre as "no nonsense" spirits and hardened physiques are on display. And even the audience pandering perfection of the heroes serves as an expert manipulative maneuver for the film's big knockout. The films third act gets at some tough truths about the inevitably of tragedy and ethical conundrums, whether in boxing or in life. Bad things do happen to good people after all. The sport seems to be serving rather obviously as metaphor for hard knocks rather than as a realistic milieu. Which is all well and good, I suppose, for such an essentially strong yarn. Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis may appear to be bleeding hearts but when the time comes, they doesn't hesitate to deliver that killer final blow. You'll probably stay down for the count.  
B/B+

Love is the Devil: Clive, Anna, Julia & Jude
CLOSER
While Million Dollar Baby spends a lot of time dancing in the ring, Closer is the current release with the deadliest right hook and the most unique fighting style. Originally written for the stage, Closer tells the stories of a warring quartet of desperate and cruel hearts. The four characters Dan (Jude Law), Alice (Natalie Portman), Larry (Clive Owen), and Anna (Julia Roberts) and their ever shifting duels/confrontations are the focus. With only minor exceptions each scene is a two hander with half of the ensemble present for a major transition; a meeting, a breakup, a long-boiling confrontation, the beginning of an affair. But in these emotional conflicts there's no one to root for. All the characters have hearts in their eyes but devils on their shoulder.
It's an exceedingly theatrical conceit, and the director Mike Nichols has a long history of embracing the theatrical in his filmography, making his name with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the 60s and recently having a major comeback with the television version of Angels in America both of which were famous and lauded plays before Nichols converted them into acclaimed films. He isn't shy about stylization and this play which characterizes the heart as a "fist covered in blood" needs that vote of confidence. In fact, Closer has such an abstract theatrical conceit (its structure being transitional sequences only) and such highly stylized language (Patrick Marber the playwright adapts his own work for the screen and does not de-stageify the text) that it maybe could have been pushed even further in the style direction.
The film's perfect opening sequence will acclimate the more attentive audiences into the movie's stylized world. It's a slow motion meeting between Alice and Dan set to the entire Damien Rice song "The Blower's Daughter" and it proves a dreamy and purposely "off" way to drop you into the film's conceit. At first the scene appears to be romantic, a traditional "meet cute" opening if you will but it ends abruptly with a car accident (Alice is hit crossing the street). Love, you see, is dangerous stuff.
From there on out Closer is a slightly uneven affair with its series of minor clashes and colossal scarring showdowns. It's a dream of an actor's showcase and all four principal's are clearly working hard throughout. Jude Law for his part embraces his characters pettiness. Though it's a brave move his movie star charisma is running on fumes in this particular film. Julia Roberts fares better. She's a pleasant surprise in one of her most unusual roles. Her Anna is a very unhappy woman. At one point during a confession to her lover she whispers "I'm disgusting" Julia keys you in here to Anna's self absorption; she wields this self-loathing as both a weapon and as an excuse for her unattractive behavior. Natalie Portman's Alice makes far less sense as a character but as an example of a movie star ascending, Portman is hypnotic. And, saving the best for last, Clive Owen owns the film as the bullying Larry who is, surprisingly, perhaps the most romantic of the lot.
If Closer doesn't completely gel, it still offers a number of dynamite sequences and fascinating performances as well as food for thought. The characters may appear to be less than three dimensional but we are only, by the structure of the piece, seeing them at their most vulnerable, trapped, or ugliest moments. Closer is harrowing nightmare stuff for the sentimentalists but the realists will admit that no one is an angel during a breakup. Love, at least when it's ending, is the Devil. 
B+/A-

 

Friday
Dec172004

Spanglish

 

"You'll Laugh. You'll Cry"  It's the most generic and familiar of movie poster blurbs. That junket-friendly quote would normally be an apt description of the audience reaction to any James L Brooks film. That writer-director is the man behind an impressive array of television series and funny Oscar-lauded tearjerkers such as Terms of Endearment , Broadcast News, and As Good as it Gets. If those three success stories have one thing in common (apart from their three hanky laughs) it's that they all feature awards-baiting roles for actresses playing funny, frazzled neurotic women with big hearts. It's not as misogynist as it sounds. Or it hasn't been up until Spanglish...

Much to Spanglish's discredit, the Brooks heroine has been cleaved in half. The loving maternal heart has gone to the character of Flor (Paz Vega), a Mexican immigrant who has taken a position doing the bidding of Deborah Clasky (Tea Léoni) the wealthy wife of a famous chef. Guess who gets the other half of the character, the frazzled neurotic? Unfortunately in this character split, neither woman retains the sense of humor that is often a redeeming factor in Brook's work; comedy can make neurosis palatable and maternal bleeding hearts less gooey with sentimentality.

 
Spanglish has more problems than just its duo of and duel between heroine and anti-heroine. It's attention is similarly divided. There are two families in crisis rather than one. One major subplot involving the career of Deborah's husband John Clasky (Adam Sandler) is also included which makes for a film with three leads and several important supporting characters, chief among them the hilarious Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), Deborah's boozy mother. With so many characters to include and dance around, the film feels overstuffed and shapeless. As can be expected in a Brooks production, there are several terrific individual lines. But as a whole his latest screenplay has severe attention deficit disorder or, rather, no discernment about which items to pay attention to.
For all of its narrative chaos, Spanglish might have still been fun to watch but for its two dimensional characterizations and odd messaging. Flor and her rapidly assimilating young daughter, John Clasky and his kids, and even the hard-drinking mother-in-law Evelyn are all portrayed as perfectly caring and mostly deeply responsible people. They are in the end and without fail, "good people." When all the characters in a story are as saintly as the heroes in a comic book film, where do you find the conflict in a narrative? Rest assured, find it Spanglish does. This movie has a villain; Tea Léoni has the thankless job of filling the role. Deborah Klasky is practically a demon. She cheats on her husband, intrudes and controls Flor's personal life, and belittles her daughter. Throughout the film it's implied that she's dragging two otherwise loving and perfect families down into the mud with her. Her wealth is often suggested as part of her character problem. Yet her husband, who is hardly a loser in the wealth game, never lets his good fortune diminish his basic good heartedness.

It's actually very odd to sit through a movie that isn't a comic book or action film that has it so in for a major character. And even then, those movies with their hero=good / villain=bad simplicity still manage to drum up more sympathy for the villains than this movie has for its frazzled mother. In a drawn out traffic jam of character arc climaxes late in the film Deborah has a hysterical breakdown when she realizes she may lose her husband due to her selfishness. As Brooks is often prone to do with meltdowns, this sequence is played for both tears and laughs. As her drunk mother comforts her through the tear soaked evening Deborah asks if she should fix her face. Evelyn, lovingly looking at her daughters tear-streaked reddened face, suggests that she'll "need a hose." It's one last joke at this demon wife's expense. I didn't laugh. My sympathies go entirely to the vilified. If I were Tea Léoni, I'd be crying too.  D+