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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Winter Break Catch-Up: The Figher, The King's Speech, and many more

With a two-week winter break (and a bout of sickness before that), I tend to do so much watching of movie that I have little time to blog. Preparing for my end-of-year wrap-up, I'm trying to catch up on a lot of 2010 movies. Here's some longer notes on The Fighter and The King's Speech (look for both to rack up the Oscar nominations) and some short notes on my Netflix views.

The Fighter

The Fighter is a traditional boxing movie with a twist. It is an up-by-the
bootstraps tale of a weak fighter (Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg), who, through some training and determination, makes it to a big fight. The difference, however, is how little the movie is really about the boxing. Director David O. Russell, who made Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, uses the boxing story as a chance to take a sociological/tragic/humorous look at Ward's extended, highly dysfunctional family, especially his crack-addict brother and sometime coach Dicky, played in a remarkable performance by Christian Bale.

Micky is initially managed by his mother, played brashly by Melissa Leo. She is constantly followed by a throng (7?) of his sisters decked out in early-90s trashy outfits. Things start to change when he starts a relationship with a local bartender (Amy Adams) who encourages him to stand up to his family.

The performances are all great. Mark Wahlberg is the least colorful of the main characters, but he still manages to imbue his character with heart and sympathy. Christian Bale is simply astonishing in his crack-addict role, and I'll be very surprised is he doesn't win the Supporting Actor Oscar. I also loved Amy Adams in an atypical role for her. She's the best she's been since her revelatory role in Junebug, one of my favorite movies ever.

The Fighter is the kind of movie where I cannot find much to quibble with at all. Perhaps there were times when mom and sisters threatened to go over-the-top, but it also made the movie so much fun. Nevertheless, it doesn't quite rise to the level of greatness to me, although individual scenes do achieve that power. Perhaps the sports-movie story arc is too familiar, but as much as I enjoyed the movie, it didn't hit greatness for me. A well-made, extremely well-acted, and very entertaining movie that will do very well Oscar nomination morning.

Grade: B+

The King's Speech

While The King's Speech is a very different movie than The Fighter, I have many of the same feelings about it. A somewhat familiar genre (royalty drama), great performances, highly entertaining, well made, and yet not quite transcendent.

The best reason to see this movie is the absolutely masterful performances by Colin Firth (as King George VI) and Geoffrey Rush (as his speech therapist Lionel Logue). The movie starts a little slowly, as we see the Duke (he later becomes king) hobbled by his stutter and pitied by his royal family. As soon as the two men meet and begin their sessions, however, the sparks in the movie start to fly.

The core of the movie is really about friendship. In a world where royalty and commoners were kept apart, but where a vicious war was about to unite the country, here is an example of what friendship can achieve. A late scene in the movie of Rush standing by as Firth gives a speech is truly beautiful.

Director Tom Hooper crafts The King's Speech expertly, filming the whole movie in a sort of muddy War-era England. He wisely keeps the action on the main relationship in the movie, while giving us glimpses of the rest of the royal family.

As with The Fighter, I don't have much to criticize in this movie, but neither did it achieve greatness for me. I've heard a lot about the Best Picture race boiling down to The King's Speech vs. The Social Network. While it's certainly plausible The King's Speech could pull it off, I would have to put my money on The Social Network. You can already ink in your ballot for Best Actor, though. Colin Firth will be on stage.

Grade: B+

Other notes.....

Since I've been busy viewing, I'll try to keep my notes quick. I've been especially trying to catch up with some prominent foreign and documentary films.

Cairo Time

A very pleasant surprise. This movie is sort of a Lost in Translation set in Egypt. The principal characters are Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), an American traveling to meet her husband, and Tareq (Alexander Siddig), her husband's colleague who joins her for her journey through the city. This movie is definitely worth seeing for Clarkson's performance alone. She is that amazing. Her character arc is slow and gradual, but Clarkson is such a masterful actress you can feel each moment of change so beautifully. Candian director Ruben Nadda has made a very impressive movie. For those who want movies with a lot of plot, you probably won't like it. For those who are into atmosphere and acting, however, I definitely recommend it.

Grade: B+

Easy A

Another pleasant surprise, and it also has a great performance by Clarkson. Emma Stone is fantastic as Olive, a whip-smart teen who gets mistaken for a slut and has some fun with her classmates. She also has some really cool parents played by Clarkson and Stanley Tucci. This movie was definitely reminiscent of 80s John Hughes movies (it even acknowledges its debt with a little montage) in a good way. Of course elements are predictable, but it was really fun to watch, and I think Emma Stone is on her way to stardom.

Grade: B+

Everyone Else

If you know me as a blogger, you know I love quiet character studies. In fact, they're one of my favorite genres. Even so, this German movie tested my patience. This story of a disintegrating relationship between a young German couple was well-acted and interesting for a while, but it gradually grew tiresome. The stakes in their casual relationship didn't seem that high, so I eventually lost interest.

Grade: C

Exit Through the Gift Shop

I don't want to say too much about this movie, because the less you know about it the better. It's about the street art (or grafitti) movement and many of the folks involved. It's made by Banksy, the British graffiti superstar and focuses on another fascinating character. If you're into art, or street art, or self-delusional people, watch it. It's on Netflix's Watch Now.

Grade: A-


This Korean thriller was funny and atmospheric and I admired a lot about it. Kim Hye-Ja is excellent as the mother of a mentally challenged young man accused of murdering a young girl. Something about this movie didn't quite click with me, though. The mystery gets a little overly murky. It's the kind of movie I can see others loving, but it just wasn't quite my taste.

Grade: B-

Mother and Child

This movie from director Rodrigo Garcia (who directed the excellent movie Nine Lives and created the excellent HBO series In Treatment) is about the scars of motherhood and adoption. It's kind of one of those "we're all connected" movies (think 21 Grams, Babel, Crash), so if you like those you'll probably be intrigued. The lead actresses (Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, and Kerry Washington) are all excellent in tricky roles that have to be both sympathetic and yet a bit off-putting. Samuel L. Jackson and Shareeka Epps (who was sensational as the young teen in Half Nelson) also provide strong support. It's good, but it's filmed a bit like a TV show. If it had some more filmmaking aplomb, I think it would have been stronger. It's good, though, and worth checking out.

Grade: B


This documentary follows a company of soldiers as they work in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan. This documentary was extremely eye-opening for me in getting an inside view of what life in wartime is like. You get both the good (the friendship, sacrifice, and strength of the troops) and bad (masculine energy run amok, a certain callousness to deaths of Afghan civilians and soldiers). Perhaps a little longer than it needs to be, but very strong.

Grade: B+

Soul Kitchen

Turkish-German director Fatih Akin made The Edge of Heaven, one of my favorite movies of 2008. His movies usually involve the stresses and opportunities of a cross-cultural Europe. In Soul Kitchen, he turns the same theme to comedy, as his Greek protagonist tries to turn a dump of a restaurant into a great dining experience. This movie started out really strong, but I thought it focused too much on the relationships outside the restaurant and not enough on the fascinating interplay of the food, cooks, and patrons in the restaurant.

Grade: B-

Watching again.....

As I've been sharing my favorite movies of the year with others, I've had the chance to watch some of my favorites of the year again. Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right looked even better on a second view, so much so that I think I'll change my grades to solid As and drop the minus. Toy Story 3, which I originally gave an A, absolutely deserves it. It's absolutely terrific.

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