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Column Fri Dec 10 2010

The Fighter, The Tourist, I Love You Phillip Morris, Tiny Furniture & Heartless

The Fighter

Sometimes, when you don't expect something to be truly great, it goes and surprises the hell out of you and turns out to be just that. Like many of you, I'd seen the trailer for director David O. Russell's The Fighter, the first film in far too long from the maker of Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees and his previous best work, Three Kings. The two latter films star Mark Wahlberg, who has done arguably much of his best work under Russell's direction. But The Fighter is an entirely different animal, possibly because this project has been Wahlberg's passion for the better part of the last decade. Not only is this the best performance in the actor's career, but the film itself easily ranks among the best of the year. There's a good chance you're going to be hearing me say that about a couple more films before the end of the year, for obvious reasons, but The Fighter is so nakedly raw as a narrative and stylistically flawless that it's virtually impossible to escape its brutal grip.

Based on the lives of two real-life half-brothers, The Fighter tells the story of Micky Ward (Wahlberg), a stepping-stone boxer through the mid- to late 1980s, who thinks he might actually have a shot at something great in the 1990s. Living in the working-class neighborhood of Lowell, Massachusetts, Micky is horribly mismanaged by his mother Alice (the phenomenal Melissa Leo) and trained by his unreliable half-brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale). Micky is time and again humiliated in the ring after being paired with fighters way above his weight class and taking some real pummelings. After his latest embarrassment of a match, Ward makes the decision to take some time off and determines if he even wants to continue down his path, and it's in this phase that he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a one-time party girl and currently a bartender, who agrees to go on a date with Micky without much convincing.

Charlene might be the only person who has Micky's real interests at heart, and while she does not think he should quit boxing, she does encourage him to seek new management and a new trainer, which clearly doesn't sit well with the Ward/Eklund clan, which includes an endless supply of sisters and half-sisters. Meanwhile, Dickie has an HBO film crew following him, he says, because he's staging a boxing comeback of his own that the crew is documenting. Dickie was once a professional boxer who once knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard (some say Leonard tripped), and he serves as an inspiration to the younger Micky and taught him boxing fundamentals that he used throughout his career. But the film crew is actually following Dickie around because he's a former local hero turned crackhead.

It's no secret that Bale is a terrific actor, but his performance as Dickie could not have been achieved by any other actor — pure and simple. His combination of addict fast talk — loaded with excuses and lies — is jumbled in with his clear devotion to his brother's career. Of course, none of this stops him from letting Micky down time and time again, and the family is no help because even though they all know what he's into, no one will talk about or even admit that he's a junkie. I have such a clear memory of seeing HBO's High On Crack Street documentary featuring three crack addicts in Lowell, because it was the first time I really saw what crack does to people both emotionally and physically. Bale's Dickie embodies all of awful damage this drug wreaks on a person's mind, body and soul, but director Russell almost refuses to let us feel pity for pity for the man. It doesn't take long for Dickie to land in jail, forcing Micky to get another trainer whether he wants one or not, so he uses the opportunity to cut his mother out of his career as well.

Under this new regime and using new techniques along with the ones his brother taught him, Micky starts to improve as a boxer and begins winning fights most didn't think he could. Charlene is an excellent one-woman support system, but Adams hardly plays her as a background player. She goes nose to nose with Alice and even exchanges blows with Micky's sisters, who think she's a skank and an "MTV girl," which apparently means she's wild. Adams plays Charlene as a fully loaded pistol, who cowers before no one, and isn't afraid to scrap. She's also hopelessly sexy, as one would expect an MTV girl to be. But the film's real secret weapon (as opposed to Bale, who is the not-so-secret weapon) is Melissa Leo, who has had an impressive second half of 2010 between Conviction and Welcome to the Rileys, both of which feature her in very different roles from Alice, a woman convinced she's a little better than others because of the middling success of her sons. As Micky's manager, her only skills as a business negotiator are screaming and ultimatums. When Micky's new team makes him ban her from the gym, it's not difficult to understand why, and Leo is mind-blowingly great in this role. It becomes clear that Micky may be attracted to Charlene because she's got a lot of Alice's fire.

One of the style choices Russell makes that I wholly approve of is how he handles the boxing matches themselves. I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure we only see extended versions of three of Micky's bouts. But rather than place the camera in the ring, weaving around and between the boxers, Russell does something I hadn't expected. He allows us to watch the fights on TV, relying on HBO or ESPN cameras to show the fight the way most of us view them, complete with the commentators' voices, and shots of the crowd, the corner men, the family. The end result is some of the most realistic-looking boxing I've seen in films in recent years. But Russell only does this for Micky's televised fights; some of his lesser matches, he offers up a bit more style, slow-mo, close-ups. The idea is so simple that it shouldn't be as effective as it is, but I found myself incredibly wrapped up in the contests as a result.

Eventually, Micky gets a title shot, and it's in these scenes where Wahlberg brings us his A-game as an actor. His love of this man, this family, and this story are all over The Fighter, but when he is faced with the very real possibility of seeing his dreams come true, he almost slips. At this point Dickie is released from prison a very different man. He's nine months clean, in great physical shape, and ready to be the steady hand he never was for Micky. Clearly wanting his brother in his corner, Micky nearly throws away months of positive work and achievements, but his faith in Dickie is unshaken, for better or worse and Wahlberg embodies this so clearly and confidently. Micky is a man with confidence issues, mother issues, and a lifetime of feeling like he's second best to the man he has most looked up to since he was a kid. And it's all there on Wahlberg's face — the uncertainty, the doubt, the fear. I'm still partial to what Wahlberg accomplished in Boogie Nights, but his performance in The Fighter might be his greatest technical achievement as an actor.

And on top of all these accolades, The Fighter is engrossing entertainment and a triumphant underdog story that is certainly one of the greatest sports movies in my lifetime. For hours after seeing the film, my brain was battling itself trying to figure out which performance I loved the most or what my favorite moments were. I eventually gave in and realized that I loved every second of and every performance in The Fighter, from Wahlberg, Bale and Leo to the wonderfully scary ladies with the out-of-control hair who played the Ward sisters. The film is as inspirational as it is heartbreaking, as tough to watch at times as it is one of the most watchable films I've seen all year. Prepare to have the earth move under your feet.


The Tourist


For a film that's got a Great Big Mystery at its center, The Tourist is a ridiculously simple film to figure out; it's told in the most straightforward way possible; and it manages to take a fairly conventional path toward decent entertainment. That sounds like a back-handed compliment, I know. I've never forgotten that it's possible to thoroughly enjoy a film even if it refuses to challenge you in any way. And usually when that happens you have a the actors to thank.

I actually expected something a bit deeper from director and co-writer (along with Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose 2006 Oscar-winning foreign offering The Lives of Others was a triumphant examination of loneliness set in the world of clandestine listening. I was encouraged when the opening sequence in The Tourist involved surveillance as well. Beginning in Paris, a group of mostly British agents are spying on Elise (Angelina Jolie, who struts around this film like she knows she's Angelina Jolie and that those who enter her gravity can't help but look at her). But it's not Elise they want, but the man she's involved with and hasn't seen for a year, Alexander Pierce. When she is finally contacted by Pierce, he instructs her to take a train to Venice, pick out a man of his approximate height and build, and somehow get those who are following her on the wrong scent. Agent Acheson (Paul Bettany) is the man leading the hunt for Pierce, although his boss (an appropriately smug Timothy Dalton) doesn't think he's up to the task.

Once on the train, Elis singles out Frank (Johnny Depp), an exotic-looking math teacher from Madison, WI as her decoy, and she comes on strong, even invited him to spend the night at her fancy hotel suite (on the sofa, of course). The key to their relationship isn't as clear cut as chemistry; in a way, it has to be anti-chemistry for a time. Frank knows that even talking to someone like Elise is out of his depth, but he doesn't spend much time questioning his good fortune and goes along for the ride... until people start shooting at him. The Brits figure out early that Frank isn't Pierce, but some misinformed Russian gangsters whom Pierce stole money from never got the memo. They want their money back and Pierce dead. The action sequences in The Tourist are actually quite fun, and having them staged against a backdrop as gorgeous as Venice was a smart choice.

And that's pretty much the movie. Sure, there's more chasing, Frank gets captured, he escapes with Elise's help, and eventually Pierce reveals himself. But before he does, Elise develops a strong affection for Frank's plain-spoken, charming ways. It's perhaps not much of a stretch to believe that Elise might fall for someone who looks like Johnny Depp — some might say it was the biggest leap in logic of the entire film — but Depp does a credible job dweebing it up a bit. Not much he can do about those looks, however.

There are a couple of twists in the back half of the film — one big one I saw coming from the trailers and one lesser one I didn't. But The Tourist isn't so much about the bends in the plot as it is about placing two of the world's most desirable people in the middle of a truly exquisite location. For as much as Depp is dialing the sexy back, Jolie is aiming for something just above smoking hot. There is literally a brief shot at the beginning of the film that is nothing more than a celebration of her (clothed) ass. But even Jolie in seductress mode is holding back somewhat in this PG-13 affair, but it still works. You can almost catch Elise cracking herself up that her most obvious moves are working so well on this rube.

There's nothing grippingly wrong with The Tourist (a remake of the 2005 French film Anthony Zimmer), but once all is revealed, certain assumptions and plot elements from earlier in the film seem far fetched to be sure. Bettany is perhaps a little too tightly wound and one-dimensional as the pursuer, and whenever Elise and Frank narrowly escape his grasp, he tends to break out the equivalent of Homer Simpson's "Why you little..." Still, I'm pretty sure The Tourist isn't meant to be taken all that seriously. You can almost spot the leads winking a little at the audience as the absurdity of the story grows over time. Often, when you can tell the actors are having fun, that doesn't always translate into a good time for the audience. But in this instance, everything is largely in synch. Depp and Jolie are a solid pairing, and maybe one day they'll make a real movie together. In the mean time, this is a decent warm-up act.


I Love You Phillip Morris


Whenever you hear about a film being on the shelf for a year or two, your mind tends to assume the thing is junk and probably not worthy of being released theatrically. But sometimes, a movie just gets caught in legal wrangling or in a question of who owns the rights when a studio or distributor falls apart. Thankfully, somebody out there realized that I Love You Phillip Morris was something worth fighting for, even if I can't imagine many people going to see it because of its overtly gay themes. But the movie gives us Jim Carrey's best and bravest performances since maybe The Cable Guy, and if it weren't largely true, I never would have believed any of what happens in this movie.

Steven Russell (Carrey) is a God-fearing southern police officer, husband to Debbie (Leslie Mann) and father. But after near-deadly car crash, Steven decides to stop living the lie his life has become, and he comes screaming out of the closet as a gay man. Somehow, this decision to be more honest about who is is also tied him wanting to live his life to the fullest. He takes up with a handsome Latin man (300's Rodrigo Santoro) and lives well beyond his means with a little help from fraud. Eventually breaking the law catches up with Steven, and he lands in jail where he meets the withdrawn but also openly gay Phillip Morris (a bleached-blonde Ewan McGregor). The ever-wheeling-and-dealing Steven manages to bribe a few prison folks, and the pair are soon cell mates.

By hook or by crook, Steven manages to get them both free from prison and jumps right back into living a lie that results in him earning a lot of money at a job he is in no way qualified to have, but he studies up on what he's supposed to know and manages to pass himself off convincingly. He also finds a way to skim a whole lot of coin from the company to earn a couple million more. Carrey in con-man mode is something to behold, something he was destined to play. He blends right in with corporate America, or as the welcoming neighbor in his ritzy neighborhood, or as the center of attention in a gay club. There is no situation he can't manage. He's even stayed close to his ex-wife. But the driving force in his life is his devotion to Phillip, and this movie filled with outrageous behavior is very much grounded in their relationship. McGregor's Phillip just wants to be in a stable, loving relationship, and while he's happy to live in the lap of luxury, he also sometimes questions where all the cash is coming from.

I Love You Phillip Morris was written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, both of whom wrote Bad Santa and the Bad News Bears remake, and they certainly bring a great deal of their dark-edged humor to their latest work. The gay jokes may put off those of you with sensitive natures, and that's too bad because I don't think that any of the humor is mean spirited or cruel. I was genuinely entertained and impressed at how much I laughed with and cared about these characters. In order to be with his beloved Russell escapes from jail three times, and each time he does so using his incredible intellect as his only weapon. Some of the film's best moments are the lengths the guy goes to to get out of jail, not that he ever makes himself that difficult to find once he is out.

I know the story sounds too far out for some, but I hope those of you committed to seeking out and watching original and wildly funny films give I Love You Phillip Morris a shot. Carrey hasn't been this good in a while, and this is a story worth being told. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Tiny Furniture


When done well and by those who know how to make it work, films that rely on heavy doses of improvisation can be a great thing. Look at movies like Humpday, Greenberg or Cyrus for proof. I knew nothing about writer-director-actor Lena Dunham (Creative Nonfiction) when I sat down to watch her latest feature Tiny Furniture, but learned a lot about her as a result of watching her movie. Dunham plays Aura, who comes home to her mother's Brooklyn home after college, where she spent four years on a film theory degree and a long-term boyfriend who dumped her to attend Burning Man. She, and many around her, view her 22 years of life so far as a failure. Before I dive into the rest of the film, I will say that Dunham's persona (which is probably a lot like her, since this film wasn't really scripted) takes some getting used to, but I did grow to be charmed by her openness and her naivety about how the world works.

She resists getting a job, but does get the easiest job in the world — as a restaurant hostess who answers the phone and takes reservations and nothing else. She basically only works when the restaurant is closed. I didn't know this going into Tiny Furniture, but Dunham's real mother (Laurie Simmons) and younger sister (Grace) play themselves in the film, and I was especially amused by the verbal jousting the two sisters frequently engage in. Aura meets a true slacker in Jed (Alex Karpovsky), who she allows to stay at her mom's place while mom is out of town. The guy is a leaching douche, but by taking him in, Aura feels like she's making a better world, while all she's really doing is watching her mom's food and liquor disappear.

The film drifts from funny to more serious as Dunham's goes deeper into why Aura's life feels so incomplete. This leads her to engage in some behaviors that might be considered unwise or even dangerous (random, unprotected sex, for example), but Tiny Furniture isn't trying to go too deep into the human condition, and that's probably wise since I'm not sure Dunham and her family (the film was largely shot in their home) would have been up to the task of heavier acting. The truth about Aura's situation is that she doesn't feel completely comfortable anywhere but home, and her mother doesn't really want her living there any longer and sucking up resources. I had strong but mixed feelings about Tiny Furniture. I liked all of the performances a great deal. But I felt like I spent giant chunks of the movie grasping for, not so much plot, but meaning and purpose. And even if Dunham sat in front of me and explained the meaning, I'm not sure it's really there on the screen. Still, I always applaud someone who does something interesting, and this movie sure is interesting, and often quite enjoyable. This may not be my strongest recommendation for the week, but you could do a whole lot worse. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Heartless


I wish I had more opportunities to say this in a given decade, but the latest work from cult director Philip Ridley (The Passion of Darkly Noon, The Reflecting Skin) will mess with your head. Heartless makes a convincing case that truly terrible things don't happen randomly but occur as part of a necessary pattern to remind people that the world and society are fragile, and that they shouldn't feel too comfortable or secure in their lives because they could lose everything in an instant. And this message is delivered in a visually terrifying style that left me mildly rattled for a couple days after seeing it.

I'll be the first to admit, the film's star, Jim Sturgess, was one of those guys who just never really had me convinced he had anything to give the acting world. I wasn't a fan of either Across the Universe or 21, but then I caught his leading role in the IRA-themed 50 Dead Men Walking and my opinion of him began to turn. I'm hearing very good things about his work in the upcoming The Way Back, but nothing quite prepared me for what he pulls off in Heartless, in which he plays the reclusive Jamie, a photographer born with a heart-shaped portwine stain birthmark across the left half of his face and parts of his body. Kids pick on him, women are turned off by him, but we're not always convinced it's the birthmark that's pushing them away. Jaime has an off-putting personality, cultivated after years of being picked on and ignored, certainly.

The only people who loved Jamie unconditionally were his late father (Timothy Spall, seen in flashbacks) and mother (Ruth Sheen). One night, on a walk home through some sketchy neighborhoods, Jamie sees shadowy, hooded figures running through the streets. He follows one of them and catches a glimpse of a face under the hood, that of a fucking scary demon ready to bite his head off. Jaime runs for his life and gets away.

But not long after, news reports tell of random acts of violence in East London, where roving bands of hooded and masked teens are throwing Molotov cocktails at random passers-by and watching them burn to death. The city falls quickly into a paranoid state, and someone close to Jaime is killed by what he knows to be gangs of demons. Deep in depression, Jaime is taken to meet Papa B (British TV mainstay Joseph Mawle), who might not be the devil, but he certainly is on a first-name basis with the dude. Papa B makes a deal to remove Jamie's birthmark if he assists him in his chaos-making ways by spray painting anti-religious messages when called upon. Jaime agrees, but soon realizes he was tricked into something much worse with the assistance of a "Weapons Man," played by the great Eddie Marsan. Jaime is also guided by Papa B's young helper, Belle, an Indian girl played by newcomer Nikita Mistry, who soon become Jaime's sort-of-adopted daughter, much to Papa B's anger.

All Jaime really wants is to take advantage of his now-gone birthmark so he can make a play for Tia (Clemence Poesy, best known as Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter films), a part-time model Jaime met in his studio. Just when you think Heartless can't get any darker or more depraved, that's exactly what it does. So much of what Jamie goes through occur due to rash decisions made at the most emotional times in his life, and we all know how reliable such choices always are. And as much as we're able to sit back and judge his poor decisions, I think it's safe to say, most of us probably would have done the same.

At its core, Heartless is a horror film, but it could easily make you cry, especially the flashback scenes between a young Jamie and his father. The movie also has big ideas and interesting ways of tackling them. Its strong social commentary is fairly bleak if you buy into it. Hell, even the idea that some people might agree with Ridley's anarchist way of looking at the world is disheartening, but that makes the movie all the more powerful. The film is scary, beautifully acted, and I never knew quite where it was going. But once it got there, my heart started racing. And none of it would have worked nearly as well without Sturgess' fearless performance. I'm actually glad he is shunning the cutesy stuff right now, and challenging himself at every turn. But even I was shocked by what he does in Heartless, screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, Dec. 11 at 7:45pm; Monday, Dec. 13 at 7:45pm; and Thursday, Dec. 16 at 8:15pm.

 
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