Monday, December 27, 2010

The Fighter

Spoiler alert-o-meter: There are more spoilers on Micky Ward's Wikipedia page than in this review.

The Fighter follows a long Hollywood tradition of sports movies. It uses the classic underdog-comes- from-behind sports-movie paradigm by showing the rise, fall, and rise of boxer Micky Ward. But The Fighter hinges on much more than this simple trope. To call this a movie about boxing does not do it service, and to say it’s a movie about brothers and the ties of families takes away from the fact that it’s also a riveting boxing movie and a fiercely anti-drug movie.

Shot in and around Lowell, Massachusetts during the very hot summer of 2009, The Fighter showcases my current home city. This fact alone might lend to my subjective take on the movie. We didn’t see any of the location shooting like we did for Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying, but often I’d see the arrow signs along Thorndike Street directing the cast and crew to that day’s location. Having a major Hollywood movie shoot in your town is like having your best friends crowned King and Queen of the senior prom. Mark Wahlberg, who stars as Ward, fought for the film to be shot on location. This is not simply a movie shot in Lowell, but features a story about characters born and raised here that could not be shot anywhere else and purport to be authentic.

The Fighter fully and perfectly captures the story of Micky Ward, his girlfriend, his family, and above all the relationship with his brother, Dicky. Christian Bale, who has played Batman and an American Psycho, made me forget all his previous roles. In The Fighter he becomes Dicky Eklund, Mickey Ward’s half brother.

The story starts in 1993, on the hot streets of Lowell. The title sequence alone is a killer, opening with shots of Micky and Dicky (hey, that rhymes) working on a road paving detail early one steamy morning. They’re playful while they spar and reenact Dicky’s knockdown of Sugar Ray Leonard from a 1978 bout. Micky’s a junior welterweight who hasn’t had a fight in a while, he retired in 1991 after four straight losses. He’s learned everything he knows from his brother Dicky, a former welterweight and “pride of Lowell.” But now Dicky’s a crack head, which makes him unreliable as a brother and trainer. But that doesn’t stop Micky from loving him, and believing in him.

Dicky is manic and delusional, thinking the HBO film crew that is following him around Lowell is there to document his comeback. The crew is actually shooting what would become the near-legendary (at least here in Lowell) documentary, High on Crack Street, Lost Lives in Lowell. When this fact comes to light over the course of the movie, it’s heartbreaking.

Micky’s a good boxer, but he’s in his early thirties and isn’t getting any younger. He wants to start fighting again. His mother, Alice (a blistering Melissa Leo), acts as Micky’s manager. Alice gets Micky in the ring again, but he ends up fighting a boxer who’s got twenty pounds on him and he suffers another painful loss.

He starts dating local bartender, Charlene. Amy Adams plays Charlene as a tough, sexy, college-educated woman who feels she never lived up to her potential after dropping out of college. She helps Micky see that being managed by a mother who is blind to Dicky’s debilitating drug use and who books fights based solely on the money may not be the best choice for his career.

If all this sounds rote, it’s not. Director David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings ) and executive producer Darren Aronofsky (who directed Black Swan and The Wrestler), and the many writers credited with the screenplay (including Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy) leaven what could have been an average or even at times depressing story with humor and a compassion for all the characters, including Alice, Micky and Dicky’s seven sisters, and Micky’s beleaguered, henpecked stepfather.

When Dicky is sent to prison on a number of charges, Micky starts training with Lowell cop Mickey O’Keefe (who plays himself!), a mentor and longtime friend. Micky starts surrounding himself with people who know what’s best for his career. He starts getting better matches, and starts winning. Micky’s style is unique in that he will take punch after punch, round after round, until his opponent lets his guard down. Then he pummels with combination punches to the head, body, head, body until the opponent drops.

We’re never told exactly why he waits so long in a match to strike, but maybe it’s better left unspoken. For a boxer, the character of Micky Ward as played by Wahlberg is a passive guy. He’s nice to a fault, loves his mother and his stepfather, half brother, and his many sisters. Almost to a fault.

But toward the end, as he brings his newly clean brother into his corner that already contains Charlene and Mickey O’Keefe, it’s obvious Ward’s strength lies in his quiet persistence and ability to arbitrate the many facets of his personal and professional life to work together for his benefit. As any sports movie must, The Fighter builds to a final competition. In this case the bout between Ward and British fighter Shea Neary, with the winner taking home the WBU Light Welterweight Champion.

More than a movie about a boxer, The Fighter offers riveting storytelling, great acting, and exemplary location cinematography. 


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Thursday, December 23, 6:45 show. Price $10.50. Viewed with Liz. Snacks--Water.

Coming Attractions:

Lincoln Lawyer. Based on the Michael Connelly novel. Matthew McConaughey in full-on serious lawyer mode. Co-starring Ryan Phillippe and Marisa Tomei.

Unnamed Alien Invasion Movie. The trailer cut off before they showed the name of it. Looks like District 9 crossed with Cloverfield. After a Google search (2011 alien movie), turns out it's called Battle: Los Angeles. Looks effective and frightening. 

Thor. Marvel Comics' Thor gets the big-budget treatment. With Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero, along with Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, and Anthony Hopkins.

No Strings Attached. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play friends who end up sleeping together. And, I'm guessing from the plot twists exposed in the trailer, that he falls for her and she just wants the sex because she has a busy life as a doctor and doesn't have time for more? Could be cute, since the stars are both cute. Not sure Portman's made a rom-com like this.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas (Re-Post)

I know, I know: Where's this week's movie review? Don't worry, it's coming. I'm not quite finished with it. And you want it to be perfect, don't you?

In the meantime, enjoy this video I took at last year's Boston Bazaar Bizarre of a musician doing Santa Claus is Coming to Town on a theremin:

Friday, December 17, 2010


Although Tron Legacy, the sequel/remake/re-imagining of Tron comes out today, this week I hunkered down in a secret screening bunker in the heart of a cold Lowell December night to gather with dozens of like-minded lovers of movie cheese to watch an invitation-only showing of the original Tron.

Set the way-back machine for 1982, and all things Disney. At the time, Disney was trying to compete with the popular and lucrative sci-fi market but had only come up with The Black Hole, a static, woefully unsuccessful space-opera snoozefest, and The Cat From Outer Space. Dragonslayer, from 1981, was a step in the right direction. Then along comes Tron. As an almost thirty-year-old time-stamp, it’s pretty entertaining. As a movie that makes sense and uses good actors well, it's not so successful.

Jeff Bridges stars as Kevin Flynn, a curly-haired carefree software engineer who looks and talks a lot like Mathew McConaughey. Flynn runs a successful video arcade but holds a grudge against the computer company where he used to work. The company, Encom, canned him, and since then he’s been hacking their Master Control Program to find evidence that evil software engineer Ed Dillinger, stole his lucrative video game ideas. Dillinger's played with a torpid evil by David Warner. He’s a bad guy that doesn't have any fun at all—Come on Disney! Didn’t you learn anything from your lengthy history of great animated villains?

That’s the real world. The conceit of the movie is that whenever a character logs into this Master Control Program, the story moves to a world inside the program. Matrix/Avatar-like character doubles run around in tight, colorful body suits (lots of man buns), with black and white, or tinted skin. The Master Control Program was written by Ed Dillinger, but it's becoming sentient, and prefers to run things like the Roman Empire where little programs who never caused anyone any harm are forced to duel it out with one another on the grid.

The Master Control Program laser beams (seriously!) Flynn into the digital world where he ends up fighting for his life. He also helps security program Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) and resident Master Control Program hottie Yori (Cindy Morgan: Caddyshack's Lacey Underall!), do, um, something to get the mainframe to kick out the evil totalitarian program…Or something like that. Here's how IMDB describes it: "A hacker is literally abducted into the world of a computer and forced to participate in gladiatorial games where his only chance of escape is with the help of a heroic security program."

Before the screening, I couldn’t remember if I’d seen Tron. I knew I hadn’t seen it in the theater when it came out, but I was sure I caught it on VHS sometime in the ‘80s. The iconic image of the cyber bikes zipping across the grid were still so vivid. But as soon as Jeff Bridges appeared, with his McConaughey curls, I knew I was in a very special Disney world I'd never been to before.

As dull, lifeless, and Disneyfied as the real-world scenes are, all the scenes inside the Master Control Program make up for it. Well, just about. There’s still the bad acting, goofy dialogue, and an animated sidekick (Bit, the animated polyhedron!) all drizzled over one chase or battle sequence after another.

The set design incorporates grids, blocks, spheres, and lots of neon. Throughout are whispers of other sci-fi movies. The chases through a landscape of grooves and columns remind one of Star Wars, specifically the scenes of X-Wing fighters flying through canyons along the surface of the Death Star. The costumes look leftover from Buck Rogers, although these glow, change color, and have circuitry-like detail. The monochrome look of the character's faces hark back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

There are also a couple drug references which amazed me considering this is PG-rated stuff: In the Master Control Program the programs refer to the developers who created them as users. Also there is a scene whose placement in the plot defies logical explanation. It concerns a pool of liquid the characters drink from because it gives them the feeling they can accomplish anything.

Your enjoyment of Tron depends on your fondness for its elements. For me, it was entertaining to watch the animators and filmmakers struggle to forge the future of computer graphics. And chuckle at the storyline. And wonder why they cast poor David Warner in this thankless role. Tron Legacy looks like Tron remade with more money and a better graphics program. For all those big budget effects, my money's on the original Tron still standing in another thirty years.


Theater location: Super Secret Underground Bunker. Price: Free, but donations accepted. Viewed with Liz and Amanda.
Snacks—A stick of sugarless Non Stop Mint Stride gum.

Coming Attractions:


Friday, December 10, 2010

The Warrior's Way

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Medium spoiler alerts ahead.

The Warrior’s Way is a mash-up of multiple genres and movies—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, wild west meets Asian buddy movies (yes, it’s a very limited genre, but it exists thanks to Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon/Knights), Fellini-esque fascination with character grotesquery, the comic book/graphic novel, and the visual whimsy (minus the originality) of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Amélie and the City of Lost Children. It's been described as a Wuxia Western, the mixture of martial arts chivalry and the American Western.

The debut of director Sngmoo Lee, The Warrior's Way looks like it was designed and shot in a computer program. It’s one of those movies where the exterior scenes are hyper-stylized, over-processed, with the sepia cranked to eleven. The action appears to happening within the panels of a comic book (for visual reference points, see Sin City and Speed Racer). That’s good and bad. It’s an effect that adds to the anything-can-happen adrenaline shot the movie wants its audience to experience, while also leaving nothing to the imagination. There’s no in between or breathing room, making for an obvious and tiring movie going experience.

But, it’s also goofy fun. Popular South Korean actor Dong-gun Jang (whose acting style is minimal, austere, and he only comes alive when he's working the sword) plays Yang, a warrior during the late 1800s or early 1900s (my guess) who longs to be the best warrior in the world ("ever," as a subtitle over-explains).

When Yang finally kills the best warrior to capture the title (as defined by who, exactly?) he discovers that a baby lolling in a nearby bassinet is the next generation of his enemy. The baby smiles at the tough Yang and melts his cold heart. Yang travels with the baby to the American West to avoid his own clan who insist he kill their enemy’s next generation. He ends up in a small town where his old friend lives.

Turns out Yang's friend is dead, and the town—a sanded-over desert boom-town gone bust complete with a set of forlorn citizens—is in shambles. The centerpiece of the erstwhile town is a traveling carnival that had stopped there years before and got stranded. All this exposition, in case you have your eyes closed during the movie, is obnoxiously voiced-over for you.

What’s a bored warrior with lots of time on his hands to do? He decides to lay roots and reopen his old friend’s laundry business (Note: the original name of the movie was, get this: Laundry Warrior. A lost opportunity for best movie title ever). The warrior meets a young lady, Lynne. Lynne is played by Kate Bosworth, with a rictus smile and a manic energy that makes up for her leading man’s somnolence. It’s fair to say that her technique is so over the top as to appear another CGI effect.

Kate flirts with Yang while he teaches her the fine art of swordsmanship. She needs to defend herself because, as it turns out, Kate’s parents and sibling were killed years ago by a band of bad men, led by Danny Huston as a character called Colonel. And Colonel and his pack of nasty gunmen return to pick up terrorizing the town where they left off. Kate, using the element of surprise (Colonel thinks he's killed her years back), tries to dispatch him, but only makes him angrier. Yang saves her life but Colonel escapes.

And on and on it goes. You either like this kind of stuff or you don’t. I’m not sure what age group this movie is aimed for: some of the humor in the beginning is sophomoric, to a degree that I was shaking my head and waiting for the laugh track since nobody in the theater was laughing. But the violence, while entirely computer generated, is grisly, with body parts flying and the spray of blood lovingly attended to with sound effects and lingering camera work (or, program work—I’m not sure where a camera actually comes into play with so much digitization going on).

While full of visual potential, the film's use of a carnival and insistence at populating the town with sideshow freaks has nothing to do with the story. Only one of the characters, a drunk carny played by Geoffrey Rush, turns out to have much to do with the plot. And then he’s only a device to help Yang dispatch not one but two sets of enemies during the elongated climax. 

Although a romance never really blossoms between Yang and Lynne, there is much hooey about how if you love someone and you’re a warrior, you better stay as far away from that person as you can or they will eventually be killed.

 There is some fun to be had:
  • The carnival folk finally fighting back, with Yang and Geoffrey Rush (when he's sober he's an excellent shot) leading the way. 
  • One set of bad guys set upon by the next. Always entertaining!
  • A visually stunning set piece that takes place in a house’s dank upstairs hallways where Yang fights his way through gun toting desperados in near darkness to reach the room where Colonel has stolen the baby (remember that baby?). 
  • The final fight between Lynne and Colonel. She’s no master warrior, and while I never felt her life was in danger for a second (Yang was nearby by the whole time) it was good to finally see some fighting that wasn’t entirely assisted by a computer.
The movie was shot almost two years ago, and is just now in theaters. Probably the post-production process held up the release. Not for the kiddies, but aimed straight for 12-year-olds, The Warrior’s Way is an entertaining, stupid, derivative, and sometimes visually stunning piece of American/Korean pulp hooey.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday afternoon matinee. Price $8.50. Viewed solo.
Snacks—Peanut butter Builder's Bar.

Coming Attractions:

Season of the Witch. More Nicholas Cage goofiness. Has everyone forgotten this guy can really act?

Sanctum. "An underwater cave diving team experiences a life-threatening crisis during an expedition to the unexplored and least accessible cave system in the world." To say the least.

The Rite. The Exorcist meets Anthony Hopkins, and brings this kind of devil-lives-in-innocent-kids scare tactic to the 21century. "An American priest travels to Italy to study at an exorcism school." Wow, what a boring IMDB description.

The Fighter. Go Micky!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Steel Helmet: An Appreciation

Released in 1951, Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet remains a revelation. A Korean war movie shot cheaply on sound stages and in the foothills of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, The Steel Helmet was released when the war was in full swing. It's a harrowing, claustrophobic portrait of Americans at war in a strange land. They don't understand each other let alone the enemy.

The movie begins with a close-up shot of the titular helmet. It belongs to Sergeant Zack, a grizzled, seen-it-all soldier played by real-life WW II vet and (until this movie) bit player Gene Evans. Zack and his helmet rise over a the side of a hill. The camera follows Zack as he climbs over the ridge and through the dirt, his hands bound behind him. He crawls through a cluster of dead bodies--fellow soldiers recently killed in a skirmish. It's a riveting shot, hard to watch and disorienting, but essential as an opening. We are there with Zack, deep in the shit. 

Zack hears footsteps and plays dead. Instead of a North Korean soldier, the feet belong to a young South Korean boy. The boy cuts Zack loose. Zack is grateful, but he's also a squinting, cigar-chomping, war-weary soldier, and so can't let his soft side show. Short Round, as Zack christens the boy, tags along, promising he knows the way to the nearest river.

Photographed in black and white, the scrub brush and sparse tree cover of the foothills they walk certainly look as though the famous Hollywood sign is just over the next ridge. But the over-bright landscape adds to the feel of men out of their element.

Soon Zack and Short Round are walking through an even more otherworldly landscape, that of a foggy nighttime. With each footfall echo, it's obvious the night exteriors were shot on a Hollywood sound stage equipped with an enviable fog machine.

They run into an American patrol. Zack knows some of the men. He shows his beleaguered courage by helping save the patrol from two snipers hiding in nearby trees. It's a tense scene shown in real time as Zack lays down fire, watches where the return shots are fired from, and takes dead aim at the snipers. It's one of the many examples where director Fuller brings his wartime experience to bear. Another concerns a soldier told to retrieve a dead American soldier's dog tags, only to walk into a rigged bomb.

The patrol eventually holes up in a temple that houses a huge statue of Buddha. Short Round, a Buddhist, begins to pray to the statue immediately. The statue's presence calms the soldiers, and they do their best not to disturb the peace of the temple. This plan is short lived.

With a brimming social conscience, Fuller equips The Steel Helmet's ragtag patrol with a cultural cross section including an African American, a Japanese American, and a conscientious objector nicknamed Conchie. At one point the black medic, while dressing the wounds of a captured North Korean, concedes that he is fighting a white man's war while still consigned to the back of the bus. "Maybe in fifty years I can ride in the middle," he says. It's amazing to think that this movie was made before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Not many Hollywood directors were casting black actors at this time, let alone dealing with race issues.

After the North Koreans discover there's an American patrol hiding out in the fortress, an enemy battalion attacks. The final shootout is almost thrilling in a kind of Wild Bunch way (certainly the way a stationary machine gun is used seems tailor made for a Peckinpah movie). But Fuller doesn't want his audience to feel a thrill; he wants them to feel the call and response of actual wartime battle. He's depicting the reality of death tolls on both sides, and the strain put upon those soldiers that survive. Each soldier fighting alongside Zack has his own quirks and hopes: when they die we too are hit with their loss.

The movie cost $100,000 to make--a tenth of the average movie budget of the time--and was shot in ten days. Technically, it's a bit rough and overreaching; certain scenes seem cramped, perhaps due to the fact that Fuller had to cheat shots to make it appear that his scope was wider than he had the budget for. And the film includes some painfully scratchy real wartime footage of anti aircraft guns going off and the resultant explosions. But overall the movie achieves a unique vision of a single episode in a war full of thousands of such episodes, told by a filmmaker who had the gravitas to pull it off.

Considering that no movie about the Vietnam war was released until about four years after that war ended, you get an idea of the cojones hanging low on Mr. Fuller for releasing this just when America's involvement in the Korean war was getting hot. But the movie was a big success for him, so apparently the audience of the time craved just such brave storytelling.

Samuel Fuller was born in Worcester, Mass in 1912. His career was full of iconoclastic choices, and he continued writing, directing, and even acting in Hollywood movies well into the 1990s. He died in 1998.

Some of his other films as director include:
I Shot Jesse James, 1949
The Baron of Arizona, 1950
Fixed Bayonetts! 1951
Pickup on South Street, 1953
China Gate, 1957
Underworld U.S.A., 1961
Shock Corridor, 1963 (soon to get the full Criterion Collection treatment)
Naked Kiss, 1964 (also getting a Criterion face-lift)
Shark (aka Caine), 1969 (with Burt Reynolds!)
The Big Red One, 1980 (with Lee Marvin and Luke Skywalker!)
White Dog, 1982 (about white supremacist dogs! With TV's Kristy McNichol and Jameson Parker! And Paul Bartel?)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Like the runaway train central to the movie, director Tony Scott is unstoppable. Thoroughly commercial in all his instincts and training, his movies, which include Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Man on Fire, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, and True Romance, are examples of filmmaking as corporate product. Meaning there is no artistic pretension.

Sure, the same can be said of almost all Hollywood movies today. But this seems doubly true for Tony Scott, brother of Ridley. Tony comes from a background of TV commercials. So all his movies play like an extended commercial for themselves. His stories are simple and streamlined, his dialogue is obvious, his characters nothing above tropes, and his filmmaking style apes mid-1980s television.

He's a hack. And I'm not trying to be mean. That's just the way it is. When you go to a Tony Scott movie, you know what to expect. So, I knew generally speaking what to expect from Unstoppable. What I hoped was that I would see a movie that was better than his last movie I watched, Domino. The nadir of cinema, Domino is one of the worst American movies of the last ten years. The language that Tony Scott uses to convey the story of a spoiled rich brat turned bounty hunter (based on a real life story) originates not from cinema, where each shot logically follows from the previous shot, but from the power cord of his favorite Avid editing system. Unfortunately, Domino was a watchable, if disposable, movie. So, I concede that every Tony Scott movie is entertaining on a level that co-mingles with the knowledge that he is also reducing modern culture to the level of bright colors, loud noises, and grunts.

Unstoppable is watchable because it is one of the better Tony Scott movies. It is what it is. The story of a runaway train and how the corporate suits want to stop it in a way that will reduce risk to their public image. Denzel Washington (old dude) and Chris Pine (young dude) work together to first get out of the way of the train, and then put themselves completely in harm's way to stop it.

There are stereotypes (corporate suits are stupid, working class rail men know better) and tropes (children and horses in the way of the train!). The only surprise comes when Tony Scott, his writers, and, in many respects, his editors, just shut up and let this relatively old-fashioned story play out along the rails of hard Pennsylvania country. Will Denzel and Chris save the day? Will all the news helicopters crash into the train? Will Rosario Dawson as a dispatcher get her hair tied back correctly? Will Denzel's two beautiful daughters (they're waitresses at Hooters!) stop sulking and answer the phone when their dad calls? Will Chris's wife drop the restraining order against him? None of the story complications matter against the man against train elements of the movie. And at that level, this movie entertains.

One more surprise: Kevin Corrigan, cast as a train safe inspector, doesn't talk with a doofus accent, trims his beard, and makes his slicked-back hair look almost regal. More Kevin Corrigan please! And Rosario Dawson, she's always fun to watch.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday afternoon bargain show. Price $6.00. Viewed solo.
Snacks—Twizzlers! Diet Coke with Lime! (I splurged).

Coming Attractions:

The Next 3 Days. Paul Haggis directs what looks like a pretty preposterous movie, about a woman convicted of murder and her husband who tries to break her out of prison. Actually, sounds good on paper, but it looks like a slog with Russell Crowe as the husband doing some stupid stuff to spring the wife. Is she innocent? Why is it called the Next 3 Days? Is that how long it takes a movie to tank?

Love and Other Drugs. Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway. It’s a rom-com. Liz said, “It’s weird to see Jake Gyllenhaal smile.” He plays a slick salesman who falls for a beautiful free spirit. So, maybe we’re not supposed to trust his smile.

The Dilemma. Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connolly, Winona Ryder. Directed by Ron Howard. This could also be called, "Where Starlets Go After They Turn 35." All I can think is that Jennifer and Winona, who can be wonderful actresses, take these types of supporting roles because there are no other roles offered. Both actresses are relegated to wife roles. Winona plays a woman who cheats on her husband (James) but is discovered by his best friend (Vaughn). So, the movie’s dilemma is, should Vaughn tell his best friend his wife’s cheating. Regardless, it’s great to see Winona Ryder in a mainstream movie again.

Scream 4. I lost track at Scream 2. I don't see much new here in the fourth installment. I loved the first Scream, it blew my socks off and thought I was witnessing a revolution in cinema. I'm actually serious, I thought it was opening the door to some new stuff. But, in retrospect, it was just ushering in the next generation of more of the same. As a horror movie franchise, Scream 4 comes off as a bore here. It doesn't give us anything new to gnaw on. Maybe Sidney Prescott tweets, but that's it on the update.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Morning Glory

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Medium spoiler alerts ahead. Safe for: All ages.

Morning Glory is old-fashioned in an ‘80s kind of way. Reminiscent of ‘movies like Working Girl, Broadcast News, and even Soapdish in its behind-the-scenes depiction of live TV. It never takes itself very seriously, which is good because, if there’s a message here it’s that news should entertain as well as inform. Well, at least morning news.

Rachel McAdams plays Becky, a perky, hyper, workaholic producer at a popular morning news show in New Jersey. She’s good at her job, and her co-workers who adore her think she’s being groomed for a promotion. Instead, she’s fired. But (since this is not real life) it's not long before she picks up another job in Manhattan at a low-ranked morning news show. It’s a sad little program with grand dame Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) who’s been co-anchor at the station for years. She looks like Diane Sawyer crossed with Martha Stewart.

It’s no secret that Becky is good at producing, and early on she gets to show everyone at the station how she can take control. She helps win over her new blasé co-workers by firing Colleen’s co-anchor, a smarmy douchebag played by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell. That leaves a vacancy next to Colleen. Through sleight-of plot manipulation, Becky strong-arms Harrison Ford’s Mike Pomeroy (one of those iconic newsmen who used to actually report the news) to take the job because he's languishing at the station without much to do until his contract runs out.

So, there’s the set up. It’s fill-in-the-blanks, with scenes of chilly Mike Pomeroy doing his best to anchor the news part of this morning show, while Colleen handles the fluffy stuff. Think Tom Brokaw slumming it on Good Morning America. Pomeroy's a pain to work with, so the movie gets a lot of mileage out of showing Becky trying to deal with him, and get him to loosen up and play along.

Ford plays Pomeroy as a self-centered asshole so our sympathies and allegiances are clearly aligned behind the Becky character. Although, deep down I wanted Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Rick Deckard, and Han Solo to do what ever the hell he wanted and have a happy ending.

Jeff Goldblum (who looks better here than I’ve ever seen him, and if he’s aging, it’s a backwards process) plays a bad-ish suit who, because of the show’s low ratings, gives Becky six weeks to hit the right viewership threshold or he’s canceling the show. Since Becky has no life (although Patrick Wilson gives it a shot playing apparently the hottest single guy working in broadcast TV), she devotes all her time to get the ratings back up. Predictably, this includes stunts for Colleen and a hapless but game weatherman. The execution of these scenes works well, and the infusion of new extreme-morning show tactics is a hoot to watch.

I’ll stop there and won’t ruin the ending (which, please, you already know). So, what makes this movie worth seeing? The early scenes are a bit dreary, with Rachel acting manic and obnoxious, making Becky a character I don't want to spend two hours with, but after about fifteen minutes the tone evens out, Becky grows on me, and we’ve got a heroine to root for, bad guys (or not-so-nice folks) to sort-of dislike, and an almost-love interest in Patrick Wilson who doesn't have much to do, but is one of the more pleasant characters in the film.

The film is boosted from predictable to pretty good due to the main actors. Harrison Ford plays off his serious movie actor schtick, so when his heart finally melts just enough to suit the story, it works. Diane Keaton is nice in this very slight role. It’s the type of character whose success and believability depend on the actor, and it's good to see her playing a strong woman not afraid to take risks and look silly on camera. Rachel McAdams plays Becky as an ambitious young suit, infusing the character with a blind belief in what she's doing that allows us to easily empathize with her. If she has a flaw it's that she works too hard.

Ultimately, Morning Glory is not the story of how Becky learns about bigtime TV, she already knows that. It's about how she rises to the occasion, gets rid of those hick bangs, and saves the show. In today's movies about working girls, the love interest takes a back seat to job success. Does she end up with Patrick Wilson? It's implied. But her life is her work, and according to this movie, she's okay with that.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday night bargain show. Price $6.00. Viewed with Liz.

Coming Attractions:

The Next 3 Days. Paul Haggis directs what looks like a pretty preposterous movie, about a woman convicted of murder and her husband who tries to break her out of prison. Actually, sounds good on paper, but it looks like a slog with Russell Crowe as the husband doing some stupid stuff to spring the wife. Is she innocent? Why is it called the Next 3 Days? Is that how long it takes a movie to tank?

The Tourist. Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie. “Revolves around Frank, an American tourist visiting Italy to mend a broken heart. Elise is an extraordinary woman who deliberately crosses his path.” Is she a spy? Is he? Nothing is as it seems…

The Fighter. Shot in Lowell, so of course I’ll be seeing this one. About Mickey Ward, the boxer from our mean streets. Story seems very conventional, following the sports underdog template: athlete has potential, has personal problems, loses his first shot, overcomes adversity, gets a second shot. On the plus side it's directed by David O. Russell.

Love and Other Drugs. Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway. It’s a rom-com. Liz said, “It’s weird to see Jake Gyllenhaal smile.” He plays a slick salesman who falls for a beautiful free spirit. So, maybe we’re not supposed to trust his smile.

No Strings Attached. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play friends who end up sleeping together. And, I'm guessing from the plot twists exposed in the trailer, that he falls for her and she just wants the sex because she has a busy life as a doctor and doesn't have time for more? Could be cute, since the stars are both cute. Not sure Portman's made a rom-com like this. Due out next year.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tarantino and Peckinpah, Auteurs of Revenge Violence

I originally published the following essay earlier this year as a guest post on Henriette Lazaridis Power's blog, The View Finder. I'm reprinting here because, well, it was a pretty lousy week for movies. I just couldn't bring myself to see Due Date, For Colored Girls, or Megamind 3D. Next week I promise a return to the regularly scheduled review format. Anyway, this post is a little different for Unreliable Narrator. Hope you like it.

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Multiple spoiler alerts ahead

Watching onscreen violence can be a release, a harmless thrill; we watch murder most vile so we won’t actually perform the acts ourselves. Today, PG-13 movies show blood-soaked bullet holes and hungry vampires/zombies in action. And America loves it.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which includes scenes of intense violence, was on many critics’ 2009 top ten lists. Reviews skewed mostly to the B, B+, A- range. It was nominated for best picture back in February, but lost out to the Hurt Locker. While it’s not the best movie of last year, it was one of the most entertaining ones. And was not just critics who thought so: the movie became Tarantino’s biggest box office hit.

Most of Tarantino’s movies exploit violence, and especially violent revenge, for entertainment. But years before Tarantino watched his first exploitation flick, director Sam Peckinpah released a string of visceral action movies, starting with The Wild Bunch in 1968, which helped usher in a new generation of movies that didn’t have to shy away from realistic gunplay. In The Wild Bunch, and later with The Getaway and Straw Dogs, Peckinpah staged action scenes as an extended slo-mo catharsis of revenge-fueled violence.

His movies don’t just build to a violent ending; they start violently and continue relentlessly until the bloody finale. Peckinpah’s anti-heroes live by an ethical code of conduct that ultimately places them in deadly confrontations whose outcomes are certain death. But the protagonists continue in the face of incredible odds because they know they are doing the right thing within the construct of their world view. For Peckinpah, codes are often forged from money, friendship, and revenge, forking into sub-code tributaries like honor, pride, and shared history.

His scenes of violence cultivate a universal feeling of us-against-them. The aging gang at the heart of The Wild Bunch is screwed by a Mexican general when he kills a member of the Bunch after promising to let him go. In turn, they kill the general in his compound and go down in a blaze of guts and glory. The Bunch knew their way of operating was displaced in the new west and would probably get them killed. Why not go on their terms?

Peckinpah was always attracted to outsiders and what happens when they’re double-crossed. As David Thompson says in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “Throughout Peckinpah’s work, there is the theme of violently talented men hired for a job that is loaded with compromise, corruption, and double-cross. They strive to perform with honor, before recognizing the inevitable logic of self-destruction.”

The Getaway starts with Steve McQueen as Doc McCoy leading a dangerous a bank heist. When he’s double-crossed, the movie blooms into a drawn-out chase, ending with a brutal, inevitable shootout in the hallways, stairwells, and elevators of a Mexican border town hotel. We know what’s coming, the movie telegraphs it an hour beforehand. But this foreshadowing ramps up the conflict and tension leading to McCoy’s final retribution.

Peckinpah is a master at building tension. Even after a dozen viewings I still get a jolt when I pop in The Wild Bunch. The title sequence alone is textbook Peckinpah: cross-cutting between the interior and exterior of a bank during a daring robbery. It's like putting the climax of a film at the beginning, and pulling us along through the rest until the bloody end.

Straw Dogs breaks Peckinpah's own mold, showcasing the slow boil of violence within an average man. Dustin Hoffman plays a laid back mathematician, recently moved, with his beautiful blond wife played by Susan George, to George's hometown in the UK countryside. The movie builds by highlighting a series of increasingly intense conflicts that play out between Hoffman, George, and a band of insular and increasingly dangerous locals.

During the last half hour of the film, the band lays siege to the couple's house. Mild mannered Hoffman, until then avoiding confrontation, protects his wife, his house, and ultimately his life with acts of barbarity and cunning that make the previous 90 minutes look like a vintage PBS special about life in rural Britain. We are all capable of revenge violence, Peckinpah seems to be saying.

Pupil Tarantino tweaks Peckinpah’s vision of revenge ethics so that dilemmas are never black and white. Tarantino’s rogue characters operate in a contemporized moral gray area. In his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, (notice his tip of the hat to his elder by using Dogs in the title) a band of robbers is hired by a third party to pull a heist. 

After the robbery, the band meets in an abandoned L.A. warehouse where each character introduces personal codes that fuel his behavior. For example, Michael Madson’s Mr. Blonde likes to torture cops and Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White is an old-school criminal in it for the money. Mr. White also has a gooey moral center that does him in by the end when he discovers the robber he’s been protecting turns out to be an undercover cop. 

In Pulp Fiction's moral universe, Butch the fighter (Bruce Willis), through a series of random events, helps his nemesis, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), out of a tight spot. Butch and Marsellus are tied together by double-cross and revenge: Butch was paid to throw a fight, which he did not. Marsellus lost big money on the fight and wants Butch gone. Saving Marsellus’ from the clutches of a couple of L.A. racists will more than square Butch. Butch is generally honorable, so watching him liberate Marsellus is entertaining and satisfying.

In Kill Bill 1 and 2, Tarantino serves revenge as the main course, and turns in over three hours of Uma Thurman's wronged Bride as an ass-kicking samurai warrioress bent on completing the titular task. It’s almost a let down when Bill is finally killed with a low-key martial arts blow—tame compared to the mayhem that precedes it. 

With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino revises WWII for a new generation, this time as a revenge-fueled fantasy pitting American and French Jews against Nazis in German-occupied France. Audiences gave two thumbs up to the movie’s hard R-rated violence, perhaps suggesting Americans are collectively tired of fighting unwinnable wars and amorphous foes. Maybe we want to relive America’s last genuine win. 

The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds extends for about 20 minutes. Presented in real-time, the scene sets up many things: we’re in Nazi-occupied France and are in the company of feared Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, nicknamed the Jew Hunter. During an extended dialogue scene in a farmhouse where he sweats a farmer for information, Landa determines that the cellar below them is the hiding place of a Jewish family. When German soldiers kill the family, a girl escapes. 

This sets up what must be the most outrageous revenge fantasy ever filmed. Tarantino revises history to suit his purposes of conflict, tension, and revenge. Seeing a theater-full of Nazis, including Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, die at the end of the movie was a little bit of heaven on a rainy September afternoon. For decades the Holocaust has been the subject of movies that were sometimes of questionable taste. Finally a filmmaker cuts to the chase and shows us what audiences have wanted all along. 

Where does violence in movies go from here? What else is there for these aging outsider anti-heroes and their directors to do? Peckinpah, for his part, tackled oncoming old age by asking the macho old-man question: how do you grow old without getting done in by modern ways? The essence of Peckinpah’s aging moral outrage can be reduced to a moment, a sentence, when during The Wild Bunch’s opening bank robbery William Holden shouts to one of his Bunch: “If they move, kill ‘em.” 

Tarantino, now in his mid-to-late 40s, shows no sign of changing gears. As he said in the August 2009 GQ, he has already made his character-driven, mature work about getting old, Jackie Brown. “And it’s as much of an old-man movie as I ever want to make.” Tarantino will eventually pass the torch to another generation of revenge-violence filmmakers, but it sounds like he’s not going quietly out without a cinematic fight. 

The Wild Bunch trailer:

Need more? To see an 30-second distillation of Reservoir Dogs performed by animated bunnies, click here.