Saturday, October 1, 2011


Warrior:  B+

Warrior, the new film by Gavin O'Connor, is all the more impressive because it reheats leftovers (to name a few - sibling rivalry, broken families, underdog fighters), but sells it as fine dining.  Starring two relatively new actors to most American audiences (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), O'Connor's film allows each of them an emotional journey that feels hackneyed at times, but it ultimately delivers upon its premise in a manner earned through a series of smaller scenes focused around familial conflicts and the jolting, genuinely thrilling fight scenes.  You'll walk out of the theater satisfied at this rousing, unexpectedly emotional throwback.

Hardy plays Tommy Reardon, an ex-Marine who returns to his father's home in Pittsburgh for the first time in years.  His father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), is an alcoholic approaching 1000 days of sobriety.  We learn that Tommy and his mother fled Paddy after she'd suffered too many years of abuse.  After her death, Tommy joined the Marines, and the film slowly fills in the details of Tommy's time in the military. His reunion with his father is strictly business.  Tommy, once a state wrestling champion, decides to enter a Mixed Martial Arts competition called Sparta; he wants his father to coach him.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Across the state in Philadelphia, Brendan Conlon (Edgerton) is a physics teacher married to his high school sweetheart, Tess (Jennifer Morrison).  Together, they have two young daughters and a house they can no longer afford.  Looking for a way to earn enough money to make the payments, Brendan, an ex-UFC fighter, starts to get into some low-rent MMA fights against the better wishes of his wife.  His plan backfires when he shows up to school looking like he'd participated in a fight club; the school district suspends him without pay.  With no other viable options and plenty of time on his hands, Brendan begins readying for an opportunity to fight in Sparta with his old trainer, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo).

Only those who have never watched a single film in their lives would not predict we're heading for a showdown between the two brothers.  And the film doesn't disappoint on a visceral level; superbly filmed and edited, the fight scenes don't even attempt some hyperbolic attempt at poeticism.  The fights are brutal; some shockingly quick, while others (mostly Brendan's) display a grim resilience to take a beating.  Nonetheless, these scenes are thrilling, and they incite a worthy sense of viewer conflict because you don't wish to see either brother lose.

Still, the fights just provide some of the scaffolding.  The dominant architectural structure revolves around family, and story excels here.  O'Connor displays a tremendous respect for his characters, their strengths, their flaws, their humanity.  Brendan's remark that "we're not going backwards" when his wife mentions giving up the house speaks of a larger profundity for his characters: the need for forward progress in order to remove oneself from the past's shackles.  For Brendan, this means severing himself and his family from Paddy in order to become the type of father and husband Paddy never could be.  For Tommy, it means exorcising his demons by confronting his past head on.  Like Paddy says, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't."  The accumulation of various intimate moments (Tommy calling an a Marine buddy's wife in El Paso, Frank expressing wariness for Brendan's comeback, Tess's incessant checking of her cell phone while waiting for word of Brendan's victory/defeat) and the subdued respect it demonstrates for working-class individuals allows for the viewer to be swept along by the film's mechanized plot.  This is a film that actually cares for its characters; instead of the characters existing for fights, the fights exist for the characters.

In the end, as The National's "About Today" mournfully plays, a simple declaration uttered from one brother to the other cements the film's rugged, but traditional, sense of storytelling.  And in this day and age, it's nice to know that emotional truisms unencumbered by fancy stylistic tricks or meta-significance or ironic hipster detachment can still pack a punch. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Better Life

A Better Life:  B

 I see this movie, and I think of all the students and the families I've been fortunate to work beside these past nine years.  I think of all the kids I know who aren't in this country with papers or those students who were born in this country, but whose parents were not.  I think of the time I used the expression "illegal alien" during my first year of teaching in Lynwood, CA, and I was coolly informed by a (white) teacher that many of his family members were these "aliens."  I think of students worried about going to college because of their citizenship status, about families living in converted garages because they cannot afford anything better, about the intoxicating allure of gangs, about mothers who work for unfair wages.

In other words, I think about myself when it comes to immigration, and I myopically view events at first glance through a self-reflexive lens.  Which really is pure narcissism, the kind that reeks of hitting a situational lottery.  Because I don't have to hide my identity, I don't have to worry about deportation, I don't have to worry about losing everything during a simple traffic stop, the way Carlos (Damian Bechir) worries when driving around in the pick-up truck he purchased to provide a livelihood for him and his son, Luis (Jose Julian).  A Better Life, directed by Chris Weitz, tells a simple, universal story of a father's love for his son, but it carries it around on the back of a more compelling, frustrating, and terrifying figure: our country's immigration policies.  Weitz and Eric Eason, the screenwriter, do an admirable job of letting the milieu provide a strong backbone for their treatise, and the situations concocted (Carlos has his truck stolen, so he and Luis embark on a journey around (mostly) East LA to recover it) whisper rather than scream their message about the unfair conditions under which so many undocumented laborers toil.

However, the strongest support is provided by Belchir.  I've never seen the man in any other roles, but the highest compliment I can pay him is I now want to see more of what he's done and I look forward to his future projects.  Belchir's handsome face, creased with years of experience, his eyes expressive pools of constant worry, tells the story as well as any of the dialogue.  I often wished the film had less conversational pieces, since the moments where Belchir is simply allowed to be (a shot of him planting shrubbery at an ocean-front mansion lingers) provide the most power.  He's working on another level than Julian and the other adolescent actors, who often recite their dialogue like just that:  actors.  They don't embody their characters the same as Belchir, and I often found myself vexed by their artificial performances.  If you want to see tremendous naturalistic performances by teenagers, rent Raising Victor Vargas.  

The dilemmas presented in A Better Life call attention to the very real lives of the millions of undocumented workers currently living here in the United States as well as the untold numbers preparing to make the journey North (as well as from other countries).  Unfair wages, educational inequity, inhumane working/living conditions, and more corrode any kind of moral high ground the US stakes claim to.  The entire thematic topic of immigration deserves a kind of Wire-like treatment since it encompasses so many strands of the American fabric:  education, economics, culture, language, politics, religion, and more.  A Better Life does not delve much into these systemic quagmires; it's position is more simplistic, but no less powerful: to humanize those men and women who work quietly in the shadows desiring nothing more than a better life for themselves and their families.  These people don't deserve our pity or our hatred; they deserve basic human rights.  They deserve justice.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Video Review: A Single Man

A Single Man: A-

I spent the evening with A Single Man, and I found it to be maddening and hypnotic, not to mention wonderfully sad in a way that I adored.  After letting the film stir in my consciousness for a while, I have realized it to be a potent little film with nothing and everything to share with people.  And it shares it in a way that might prove frustrating for some, but I thought (in hindsight) it did an excellent job of projecting the main character's interior and exterior state of being.

Based on a novel I've never heard of and directed by fashion designer, Tom Ford, the movie tells the story of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor at an unnamed college in Los Angeles in 1962.  While news of the Cuban Missile Crisis is mentioned throughout the course of the film, George has other, more personal issues on his mind such as committing suicide.  As George goes about his mundane daily rituals, from dressing to teaching to spending time with a friend, Charly (Julianne Moore), George also prepares for his death.  He buys bullets for the gun he'll use to shoot himself, leaves money for the maid who will inevitably find his body, lays out a dapper suit for his burial; George does all of this with the precision and single-mindedness of man who knows exactly what he wants and does not want.  Why does George wish to kill himself?  His lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), has died in a car accident.  "My heart has been broken," George declares in voiceover.

At first, I believed the simplicity of the tale to be sabotaged by Ford's film making.  His liberal manipulation of space and time become irritating as he utilizes jump cuts, cross cutting between the past and present, dream sequences, close ups, non-diagetic sound; these vexing stylistic tics became less and less frequent as the film progressed, and they also began to coalesce into more of a formal representation of the main character's fractured state and perpetual dislocation.  I slowly came around to admiring the cumulative effect of these devices, helped in no small part by a number of beautiful performances.

 First and foremost, Firth is deserving of the Academy Award nomination he received for this role, but I can see why he won for The King’s Speech and not here.  The role of George is mirthless for the most part, and it doesn’t project the kind of vanity often displayed by actors when they play historical figures nor the flashy quirks often used for shorthand to portray personality.  Instead, Firth is given the unenviable task of a repressed man struggling to control the flood of emotions he’s drowning in, unable to call for help and (for the most part) unwilling to accept it even if offered.   Despite the inherent obstacles presented by his character, Firth is able to express George’s grief for his lost love, his disgust with society’s lack of acceptance, his attraction to a couple of younger men, and more, all through a carefully calibrated performance built around what isn’t said as often as what is stated outright.  An early scene, where George learns of Jim’s death and he’s told not to attend the funeral services, expertly captures the delicacies of the performance; Firth’s vocal intonation, the quiver of his lips, the slackness of his body as if suddenly the bones have been removed all present the layers of a man suffering not so much a soul-crushing loss, but of the one’s spirit being extracted.  A later, luminous scene (George and one of his students swimming in the Pacific Ocean) further opens up the character in ways that no dialogue would do justice, but continues to add layers to the character.

Firth is supported by a trio of terrific performances from Hoult, Goode, and Jon Kortajarena, but his best accomplice remains Ford.  What could have simply been a series of artful images with no real dramatic heft instead evolves into an emotional collage that presents a portion of a man’s life at his most vulnerable moments.  Ford captures each snapshot into George’s life as a singular, crystalline vision; while the content presented is by no means definitive of George’s life, it succeeds at depicting him during very specific times in order to capture his mood.  And while I have no doubt some might not find such melancholy bearable, I happened to revel in it.  A Single Man reminded me of those memories you have that might be painful in reminiscence, but that have shaped and continue to shape your perspective of the world.  Memories wrapped up in pain and sadness, sure, but also memories so vivid in an emotional language that they speak to you in ways you wish all of life could articulate.  They are the moments that define you and the world you’ve created.  As such, they become life itself.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Oscars: A Follow-Up - Part 2 (The Fighter)

The Fighter (A-)

Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride:  Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams)
Tied the Knot!  Oscar and Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress), Oscar and Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor)

One of the best films of the year and an important film since Amy Adams sheds her cute girl image faster than Rajon Rondo sheds defenders.  After being the sweet, uninteresting wallpaper in films like Leap Year, Sunshine Cleaning, and Julie and Julia, Adams is provided the opportunity in The Fighter to throw down, verbally and physically, and she does so with much sneaky aplomb.  She plays Charlene, the girlfriend/confidante of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a working-class boxer from blue collar Lowell, MA living in the shadow of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale).  Adams nails the simple complexity of a woman who finds her shadow in Mickey.  She recognizes she needs to not only help Mickey conquer his demons (his family, first and foremost), but her own: the inability to act on the persistent failure that's smothered the dormant potential residing within soul.  For her and for Mickey, their symbiotic relationship allows for each to bring out the most authentic version of each other, but not without severe struggle, which is made emotionally resonant via the boxing metaphor.  Watching Adams in this film provides a sigh of relief for the actress herself because she sheds the baggage of unfulfilled potential she's been carrying since her exquisite turn in Junebug.  

The Fighter plays out in predictable fashion, but that doesn’t make the characters predictable or their predicaments any less gripping.  If anything, the film grounds Ward’s journey in a verisimilitude that provides the audience the ability to identify with his heroic everyman archetype.   We want Ward to succeed because we want the same kind of success.  You know the kind – the kind that rewards hard work, gritty determination, perseverance, and the often brutal pain (physical/emotional/social/economical/spiritual/you name it) people suffer through in order to achieve that success.  Early in the film, Ward loses a fight he never should have taken part in; later, he takes Charlene out of Lowell for their first date to see the French film Belle de Jour.  He falls as asleep during the movie.  Why? she asks.  Why did you drive me 30 minutes out of town to see a film you couldn't care less about much less pronounce?  He finally admits shame, wounded pride, the simple fact he's lost face in the eyes of his daughter (from a previous relationship) and the people who know him around Lowell.  This scene tenderly captures the real and perceived tendencies people have to judge others and judge oneself.  Whether founded or unfounded, Ward's admission of his pain and embarrassment to Charlene feels like it's tethered to a universal weight people carry around when trying to measure up to expectations, both other people's, but also their own.  

Sometimes, this verisimilitude might veer towards the garish: Ward’s family appears straight out of some stereotypically twisted white-trash, urban hillbilly The Hills Have Eyes freak fest.  Besides ex-professional boxer turned crack addict Dicky (Bale plays him as a garish ball of energy as if his body is plugged into some off-screen electrical outlet that’s constantly shocking his system until he’s all spastic limbs, head bobs, bugged-out eyes), there's Micky’s seven hideous sisters and one mama bear, played by Melissa Leo.  Both Leo and Bale give mannered performances that provide the film a hefty dose of entertainment bravura (especially Bale's), but neither should have won the Oscar for supporting actress and actor (Adams should have won for supporting actress and John Hawkes for supporting actor).  Thankfully, director David O.Russell balances the more histrionic performances with subdued, but effective turns by not only Adams, but star Wahlberg  1.  This guy got no recognition during the awards season; instead, critics fawned over Bale and Leo.  But his performance provides the ballast for the other performances.  Wahlberg gives Ward a reticence and integrity that allows for the viewer to understand the difficulty he faces when dealing with his family and struggling to move on to another plateau in his life.

Best picture of the year?  No.  One of the top ten?  Absolutely.  Even those who don't love the sport of boxing should discover that boxing is just the architecture The Fighter uses to construct an engrossing, well-told tale.

1 - I do hope David O. Russell goes back to writing original material after The Fighter.  He's an inventive, exiting storyteller, and I'd like to hear more of his voice.  Three Kings is still one of my all-time favorite films; an astoundingly amazing blend of tremendous visuals, deft satire, wicked action, and intelligent geopolitical polemic.  If you have not watched it, shame on you!  It never feels dated, and only feels more relevant today. Frankly, that movie is ripe for a sequel right now what with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Check out this great trailer:  Three Kings


Monday, February 28, 2011

The Oscars: A Follow-Up

I've been slacking when it comes to sitting down at the computer and actually writing about film.  All the guilty parties have been present and accounted for: a steady workload, family, travel, lethargy, exhaustion, torpidity, lack of films to write about.  But I'm forcing myself to sit and write some mini-reviews because the Oscars went down yesterday, and in spite of the parochial perspective focused around 5-10 films (you'd think The King's Speech, Black Swan, The Social Network, True Grit, and a few more were the only worthwhile films released this year) and my indifference towards James Franco (whom I admire) and Anne Hathaway as hosts, I still blocked off time on my calendar to sit down and spend the evening watching the awards.  It's been a tradition ever since I can remember.  Sure, the loved ones I watch the Oscars with have changed (I watched with my wife in California instead of my parents/siblings in Boston) and the hosts were different (I grew up watching Billy Crystal although Steve Martin might be my favorite).  More importantly, my cinematic sensibility has shifted directions.  Until I entered high school, I had never seen most of the films the Oscars honored.  Instead, I used to be a sucker for blood-soaked action flicks; some of my fondest cinematic memories consist of seeing unedited versions of John Woo's Hong Kong blood ballets (Bullet in the Head, A Better Tomorrow 2, Hard Boiled) at the Brattle with my father.  I used to think Arnold Schwarzensger films were the shit and my idea of a great comedy was Dumb and Dumber.  I fell hook, line, and sinker for every arch, twisty crime thriller after I had seen Pulp Fiction seven times in the theater (and I wasn't the only one - just look at the glut of copycats that followed in its wake). At the same time, it was 1994 when I first began to get really invested in the Oscars because I actually began to watch many of the nominees/winners.

Now, well, I would never say my sensibility has evolved.  That word is all wrong and untrue; Dumb and Dumber is still one of my favorite comedies, I still love bathroom humor, and a twisty, violent, disgustingly bloody film with nothing more on its mind than splintered body parts still can work wonders.  But that kind of limited film vocabulary leaves one struggling to articulate a love for cinema, so I've deliberately expanded my choices; I'm a much bigger fan of documentaries these days and my top films for the year don't always feature violent content.  I'm more inclined to try foreign films that don't feature Chow Yun Fat firing away with two pistols in slow motion.  Comedies don't have to feature fart jokes to make me laugh out loud; one reason (it has many) that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World functioned so well at comedy was because its actors delivered performances that sweetly mocked and honored a generation addicted to social networking and gamesmanship better than The Social Network.  All in all, I think I've become better versed in past and present cinematic trends and techniques, and I'm better off for doing so.  

But no matter what, I still come back to the Oscars to watch and absorb.  And truth be told, I saw all ten (ugh!) of the Best Picture nominees in the theater and many of them are worthwhile films (I've offered complete reviews of several of them on this site:  Inception, Winter's Bone, The Kids are All Right, 127 Hours, True Grit).  So I want to offer my brief point of view into the other Best Picture nominees/winners as well as some other issues at hand.  Every day I will post a brief review of a film/performance that was nominated and/or won.  And I welcome any and all dialogue regarding your own opinions about the films/performances mentioned here on Bread Whore.   

Black Swan (D)

Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride:  Best Picture/Best Director/Best Cinematography
Tied the Knot! Oscar and Natalie Portman, Best Actress Winner

I love Darren Aronofsky as a director; the man has a gift for making me visually intoxicated.  He's not simply an empty stylist; his visual theatrics carry weight.  Requiem for a Dream was one of the greatest movie experiences of my life.  In Requiem, he didn't just get a great performance out of Ellen Burstyn, but he coaxed career-defining acts from Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, and Marlon Wayans (yes, you read that last name correctly).  So when I say Black Swan is a hysterical piece of hysteria, unfortunately, I don't mean that in a kind way.  Everything about this movie is hideously exaggerated from the camera work to the writing to the performances; Natalie Portman, you did not deserve an Oscar!  To be fair, a lot of the technical aspects of the film (editing, sound design, etc) do well to mirror the psychotic fragmentation going on in the mind of the main character (Portman).  That doesn't make the film good.  Smear lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig.  And no amount of dress-up can compensate for the fact that this tale of a ballerina's mental/physical disintegration is cheap, engineered animal product.  Take away Aronofsky's name and the talented thesps (Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey), and Black Swan goes straight to video.  Instead, those names fooled people into believing they were getting a cut of grade-A, organic, healthy cinema rather than this cinematic mutation that's been pumped so full of artificial hormones it bursts from the pressure of its perversions.  In other words, it's not worth your time, money, or health.  Stay away.           

1 - Let's be honest:  Arnold made some great action films back when Hollywood still made balls-to-the-walls R-rated, visceral epics.  Go back and watch Total Recall, Predator, Terminator 1 and 2, True Lies, Red Heat.

2 - Good "Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery":  Bound, Go, Amores Perros, Early Guy Ritchie - Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

True Grit

True Grit:  B+

Not on the same playing field as Coen brothers' classics like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, or (my personal favorite) Miller's Crossing, True Grit is still Triple A worthy with strong performances, some arch hilarity, and a couple of scenes of exquisitely morbid violence. Based on a novel I have never read and a remake of an old John Wayne film I've never seen, True Grit concerns itself with what some call vengeance and others justice, the likes of which Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) seeks against Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father.  She enlists the help of US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the unwanted help of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).  The hunt commences.  

The focus of the film remains on Mattie despite what previews might suggest; she bookends the film as a grown-up telling of a very precise time in her life.  She's the spiritual life of the film, a young woman who refuses to acquiesce to a man's world and who willingly, defiantly demands respect from the men who initially belittle and condescend to her.  Steinfield does an excellent job portraying the stubborn young woman whose iron-clad desire to see her father’s killer brought in, dead or alive, reflects her pragmatic belief in justice and her path towards feminist empowerment.  We never quite learn how she came to such conviction; the journey she takes during the course of the film only strengthens her, but she’d already shown a rich sense of empowerment when the film begins.  Early scenes where she challenges a local businessman for control of the money he owed her father lay the groundwork for the film’s sense of humor and Mattie’s rectitude.

Cogburn alternates between drunkard prone to fits of braggadocio (the scene where he attempts to shoot biscuits out of the air verges on overkill) and cunningly lethal lawman, such as a cabin shootout where he rescues LaBouef.  Bridges takes what could have been a complete caricature (portly, one-eyed alcoholic lawman) and turns him into an artful dodger with a weakness for the bottle and a burgeoning respect for his client.  Just as good a performance as last year’s Oscar-winning Crazy Heart, Bridges provides True Grit with its most unpredictable asset since you’re never quite sure what to make of Rooster; think of the Dude mixed with Dirty Harry and you have an idea of the direction Bridges takes Rooster.

Occasionally, the actors seem to choke on the mealy language and it plays like they have marbles stuck in their mouths.  Plus, the vernacular does take some getting use to - contractions are rarely uttered, and it was disconcerting to this 21st century viewer.  And after Mattie encounters Tom Chaney, the film becomes rushed and the quickened pace is slightly jarring after such a languid, methodical build-up.  However, the last two gripes I might just have to attribute to the source material.

No matter its failings, True Grit is a Coen Brothers film; you owe it to yourself to get to a theater and judge its merits.