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True Grit movie poster.
The Fighter movie poster.
The Golden Globes will be handed out in a few days (and they may actually be over by the time you read this), and the Academy Awards are not far behind, so I thought I’d offer a quick opinion on four movies that will likely be sharing the spotlight and competing with each other at both awards shows. I do so with some slight trepidation, because I’m sure many members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences read this blog, and I wouldn’t want to give one movie unfair advantage over another by influencing the voters. But what the heck, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
True Grit is a remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie, in which a young girl hires drunken marshal Rooster Cogburn to track down her father’s killer and bring him to justice. I don’t remember if I ever saw the 1969 original, though I know I saw its sequel, Rooster Cogburn and the Lady. Jeff Bridges takes the Cogburn role in Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake, and he’s great. Jeff Bridges has always been a stalwart actor, a reliable one who could always be counted on to turn in a superior performance. It seems that in recent years his career is really starting to kick into overdrive, especially since he won the Best Actor Academy Award last year for Crazy Heart (right now sitting on my coffee table, waiting to be watched). Watching True Grit and Bridges’ irascible marshal with the growly voice, it’s funny to think back to his previous Coen Brothers experience, playing the Dude in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. As good as Jeff Bridges is, the breakout star of the movie, though, is Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross, the girl who hires Cogburn. She’s a mountain of determination in her obsessive quest to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the no-good weasel who plugged her dad in the back. Mattie’s confrontations with everyone she crosses paths with is a joy to watch. Particularly fun, even though they were by no means a large part of the movie, were two scenes where Mattie engages in some wheeling and dealing over money and horses with Colonel Underhill, played by Dakin Matthews (one of those character actors you may recognize but who’s name you do not know).
As with many Coen brothers movies, there is a rich assortment of secondary characters to keep things interesting. A couple of standouts in True Grit are Barry Pepper, unrecognizable as villain Lucky Ned Pepper, and Ed Corbin as Bear Man. Bear Man has about five minutes of screen time, if that, but he definitely makes an impression. I found myself doing Bear Man impersonations for days after seeing the movie. I liked the way he talked.
Though I usually like their scenery, I’ll admit to never having been a huge fan of westerns. I didn’t seek them out as a kid, though I loved the show The Wild, Wild West, mostly because it was more James Bondian due to the bizarre villains and wacko plots (long live Dr. Loveless!). I like the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, especially The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, as well as other occasional westerns, such as Tombstone and Unforgiven. The primary lure of True Grit for me was that the Coens directed it. I’m a big fan of theirs, and though some of their movies, including Barton Fink and The Ladykillers, didn’t thrill me, anyone who makes classics like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo and No Country for Old Men is OK in my book. I’ll always give them a chance to impress me, and with True Grit, they did. And the scenery is really pretty, too!
If you like boxing movies you’ll no doubt enjoy The Fighter, even though the boxing takes a backseat to the antics of the boxer’s family. Mark Wahlberg (who also produced the movie), here calling upon his quiet, nice-guy, aw-shucks persona, plays real-life boxer Mickey Ward from Lowell, Mass., who’s struggling to make a name for himself. Complicating matters are his mother and half-brother, acting as his manager and trainer, respectively. These two are a toxic combo when it comes to Mickey’s career, booking him for mismatched fights and generally making his life hell. Melissa Leo plays Alice, Mickey’s mom, and she’s a fearsome tyrant. When she flies into a rage, often backed by Mickey’s gaggle of even scarier sisters, watch out! They take family pride to near-lethal levels. Amy Adams plays Mickey’s tough bartender girlfriend, Charlene, who engages Alice in a tug of war over Mickey’s future. The entire cast, including several non-professional actresses as Mickey’s sisters (Conan O’Brien’s sister, Kate, among them), is great, but Christian Bale is getting the most buzz for his role as Dickie Eklund, Mickey’s junkie half-brother. Bale has starved himself for roles before (most memorably for 2004’s The Machinist), and here he transforms himself once again. Bug-eyed, sweaty, strung out and constantly bouncing, Bale steals every scene he’s in. He should be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win.
The Fighter ultimately becomes a question of whether Mickey will forsake his family to further his career. Everything in it worked for me. I was there, in the ramshackle living room among the sometimes-brawling family, in the crack house with Dickie and his junkie comrades (whenever Alice shows up to hunt him down, Dickie jumps out a back window to make his escape) and in the ring with Mickey while he gets the crap beat out of him (and dishing out some beatings himself). David O.Russell and Wahlberg have collaborated on a few occasions, including the great Three Kings and the not-so-great I Heart Huckabees. With The Fighter, they have created the movie that I think should win Best Picture.
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Black Swan movie poster.
The King's Speech movie poster.
Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan, specializes in movies about tortured souls. His first one of note was Pi (1998), about a paranoid, hallucinating math genius. Many people loved it; I didn’t. I thought it was boring. Then came Requiem for a Dream, about a woman who gets hooked on speed, in the form of diet pills. I loved that one. She, too, experiences a spiral into a mental abyss, complete with her own hallucinations, including a memorable one involving a refrigerator. After Requiem came The Fountain, a futuristic trip of a film about lovers who’s love transcends death itself. I thought it was a dud, but it was followed by the terrific The Wrestler, the title of which tells it all, and the movie that made it possible for Mickey Rourke to stage a big comeback to the movie biz limelight. For playing washed-up wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson, Rourke won the Golden Globe for Best Actor last year, for which he thanked his pet dogs (this guy loves his chihuahuas), and a Best Actor Academy Award nomination, which he lost to Sean Penn for Milk. Too bad his next role of note was in the disappointing Iron Man 2, though he was at least interesting in it, which is more than I can say for most of that movie.
Aronofsky makes movies about unhappy people, and Black Swan, which I think is his best, keeps up the tradition. Natalie Portman is stunning, and stunningly beautiful, as ballet dancer Nina Sayers. Nina is a perfectionist, and this movie provides a pretty good argument for not wanting to achieve perfection. That may not have been the point, but that’s one of the things it said to me. Another thing it said to me is ballet dancers must have a bit of a masochistic streak in them. Me, I’m not a ballet fan. I can certainly appreciate the talent, devotion, grace and skill involved in the art, but I’m just not into it. That’s not to say, though, that I haven’t enjoyed movies in which ballet plays a central role, namely this one and Billy Elliot, which, softie that I am, managed to eke a couple of tears out of my eyeballs. Black Swan, meanwhile, riveted me to my seat. It was like watching a hallucinatory train wreck, with tutus.
Nina wins the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake, and her battle to nail the dual role she’s to play in it takes its toll both physically – there’s an ouchy scene involving a broken big toe nail – and mentally. She’s challenged mercilessly by the ballet’s director (Vincent Cassell), and placing even further strain on her brain is Nina’s mounting paranoia that another dancer (the excellent Mila Kunis, who shares a much-ballyhooed love scene with Portman) is snapping at her heels. Soon weird things are happening. A mysterious rash appears on her shoulder, mirror reflections misbehave, and dancers appear to morph into creepy creatures. Is Nina going crazy? Are others really out to get her? And what’s the deal with her odd, super-overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey)?
Like many of the better psychological thrillers, such as The Sixth Sense and Jacob’s Ladder, Black Swan is methodical in its progress. It’s not fast paced. There are some good jolts, but if you like your thrillers loud and brash, it may not be your cup of tea. If you like them quiet and filled with a stealthy dread, though, and you relish dark twists and turns, Black Swan will pirouette its way into your memory and stick there.
Last, but certainly not least, we have The King’s Speech. It’s a critical darling, and with good reason: Like the previous three movies I’ve discussed, it’s excellent. Prince Albert (Colin Firth) has a nasty stutter. Imagine his terror, then, when upon the death of his father and the abdication of his brother, he suddenly finds himself crowned King George VI. The position will naturally involve a lot of public speaking, and Albert, perfectly content to remain a barely noticed figure in the background of life, is mortified when he is thrust under the country’s collective eye as its new king. How, he frets, can England be expected to embrace a king who can barely get a sentence out?
Help arrives in the form of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, terrific as ever), an Australian speech therapist, frustrated actor and first-rate eccentric. The interplay between Firth and Rush is delightful to watch, as Logue antagonizes, coerces and cajoles Albert into accepting his help. Soon they’re engaged in a series of amusing elocution lessons, while learning much about what makes the other tick. A moment of truth arrives when England enters World War II. A stirring speech from the King of England, to rally his country at this darkest of times, is a must, and that speech is what the movie moves inexorably toward.
Directed by Tom Hooper (who made the HBO miniseries, John Adams), The King’s Speech features award-worthy performances by both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Firth is said to have a lock on the Best Actor awards, and he deserves them. I think Rush, though he was great, may have a tough time beating Christian Bale in the Best Supporting Actor category. Helena Bonham Carter, no stranger to playing royalty after her stint as the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland last year, plays a much nicer queen here.
So there you have it, four movies well worth your time. And not one in 3D!
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