The Fighter

Some time ago I reviewed The King’s Speech, and expressed some surprise that two of the film’s standout performers, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush, weren’t more decorated than they ended up being when awards season rolled around. The film that snatched the ‘Best Supporting Actor/Actress’ Oscars away from them was The Fighter, which I have no got around to watching.

In some respects, The Fighter is just another sporting underdog story; the underdog in question is Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer who lives and trains in his home town of Lowell, Massachusetts. His trainer (whenever he can be persuaded to stop smoking crack) is his brother Dicky, a former boxer himself (“the pride of Lowell”) who is perpetually obsessed by his career highlight, beating Sugar Ray Leonard live on HBO some years ago. With his brother proving an unreliable trainer and his mother (Melissa Leo) an imperfect agent, things come to a head when Micky is soundly thrashed in a high-profile match against someone twenty pounds heavier than him. Ashamed and unhappy, Micky starts to withdraw from family affairs and, when his brother is arrested and discredited, he turns his back on boxing altogether. And you can probably guess at the basic outline of the rest; persuaded to get back into training by his father (Jack McGee) and inspired by his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky wins a couple of high-profile matches and takes the welterweight title.

Put like that, you might think this film was a sort of gritty reimagining of Rocky, but there are three very good reasons why a boxing film managed to overcome all the Academy prejudice you might expect against this sort of thing and bag two Oscars. The first is that all-important phrase ‘based on a true story’: Micky Ward is a real guy with a successful career behind him (he has now retired) and, although multiple details are apparently innacurate, Ward really did give up on the sport for several months amid his brother’s battle with drug addiction before achieving success. Not only that, but the entire film is done in an incredibly realistic fashion; there are no stylistic frills stuck on for the sake of appearances or to make anything more ‘dramatic’. This works perfectly with the gritty, uncompromising and in some respects unpleasant story, and the dedication and attention to detail of all involved is plain to see.

This sense of realism spills over into the film’s second killer edge: the acting. Although Wahlberg, apparently a big fan of Ward’s, was possibly the most committed of all those involved (spending four years in training, refusing stunt doubles for the fight sequences, living with the real Ward brothers for a time), he frequently struggles to deliver much beyond gritty seriousness in his non-comedic roles, and his performance here, whilst more animated, is merely good. The real stars are, perhaps predictably given the awards they bagged, his supporting cast: Amy Adams is the least decorated of them, but her performance is infused with a kind of fierce determination that both perfectly suits her character and builds throughout the film, giving the piece an extra level of depth and realism as we see development across the board, rather than just those the story deals with. Melissa Leo delivers a masterclass in character acting as the matriarch of the Ward family, her simplest mannerisms and inflections allowing the audience to pretty much fill in her entire back story and character traits with barely a word spoken. However, it is Christian Bale’s performance as Dicky that really steals the show- every half-smile, every crazed whirl of limbs, all the casual swagger, even the way he hangs his shoulders reveals to us the character within, building this complete image of a character built entirely on his own brand sometimes delusional self-confidence (bordering on arrogance on occasion), yet still encompassing some small sense of shame and self-loathing at what he knows are deplorable activities. When his fall finally hits, as it inevitably must, one facial expression is all it takes to show us how this entire frame of reference has come crumbling down around him, and it is Bale who offers up the majority of the film’s emotional punch. In a nice extra touch, director David O. Russell included a small segment featuring the two real-life Ward brothers during the credits, showing just how well Bale captured both Dicky’s distinctive, outgoing style and all his expansive mannerisms. Whilst I’m not 100% sure that Leo’s performance beats Bonham Carter’s in The King’s Speech that won her the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Academy award (although, frankly, trying to compare two such radically different films is a somewhat impossible task), I am damn sure that Bale here knocks just about every other supporting actor role ever performed into a cocked hat and thoroughly deserved his Oscar.

The final thing that elevates The Fighter above mere ‘sporting film’ status is its thematic nature. In most sporting films, the key theme is one of redemption, of overcoming some great adversity and winning through despite all the odds. This idea is most certainly present in The Fighter, and indeed forms the centrepiece of the film, but it is underplayed and, much like with the acting, in which the supporting actors  are able to add so much more than the apparent lead, it’s the supporting, secondary themes that really drive this film: those of family, of self-destruction and of trying to do what’s best. And all the casualties that those result in. One particularly well-used underlying theme is that of shame, and indeed it could be argued that shame, or at least guilt, becomes a key motivating factor for every one of the characters in the end, each character having their own personal moment of epiphany of their own failings that drives the film onwards. Indeed, the character of Ward is perhaps unique in this regard, for whilst shame forms a key part of his character early on, the key moment of his character development comes from positive outside influence.

The limitations (to call them failings would be far, far too harsh) of the film’s central premise and character are enough to prevent The Fighter from being a perfect film, and cause it to lack something in the way of true emotional weight; but then again, a truly perfect film will never be made. What makes this film work is David O. Russell’s ability to weave the apparently secondary themes and stories that the film has to tell into its very fabric, turning it into a film that is fundamentally about so much more than a boxer and a couple of big fights. I didn’t fall in love with The Fighter, but I am prepared to stand up and applaud all day anyone who takes an easy story and does something special with it.

FILM FORTNIGHT: The King’s Speech

Ah, Tom Hooper, whatever are we to do with you; a professional Oscar-bagger whose adherents’ vociferousness in their praise of his directorial skill is only matched by his critics slagging him off. This is not to say that he makes bad films (although I have seen one reviewer call Les Miserables the third worst film of 2012; a somewhat bold claim), but more a reflection of the fact that Hooper’s style of film making is pretty much what the Academy thinks is the cinematic equivalent of nirvana. This very… specific style has not endeared him to everyone, specifically those who think his films are all the more dull and predictable for it.

Where was I again? Oh yes; The King’s Speech, the most critically successful to date of Hooper’s films, bagging a Golden Globe, seven BAFTAs and four Oscars. For the four of you who never quite heard what the plot was about, our gaze is cast back to 1925 and onto the then Duke of York, Prince Albert (Colin Firth), second in line to the throne after his older brother David (Guy Pearce). Albert is among of the most interesting Royals in (relatively) recent history and was the father to our current Queen, but the part of his character we are most interested in now is his heavily pronounced stammer. This impediment is hardly conducive to him being comfortable in a heavily public role, and he tries multiple methods to cure himself; but this is the early 20th century, and we are yet to see the extraordinary advances in medical science that came along during the decades after the Second World War. As such, the treatments offered are somewhat Victorian in nature and don’t work, leading to increasing frustration from the Prince regarding the issue, to the point where he basically decides to give up. His wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), however, is more determined, and puts him in touch with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist with somewhat unconventional methods (and indeed mannerisms) for the time.

The changing relationship between Logue and the Prince is the central plot thread for the remainder of the film; one a rather bluntly-spoken commoner and the other who has spent his entire life being served in deference to with the complex rules of formality and tradition acting as his social bodyguard. That this is going to cause tension is obvious from the opening scene, and is indicative of one of the film’s most prominent flaws; the near-total lack of anticipation. This does not half to be a bad thing necessarily; many a good film has been so without any need to resort to tension or anticipation, but every scene of The King’s Speech can pretty much be calculated from the first five seconds, and sticking around to watch frequently doesn’t add anything to the central plotline.

It’s a shame really, because there are other aspects (and other scenes) that the film gets magnificently right, particularly those scenes that focus on the transitional state of the world at the time. This particular point in history was a turbulent one; times were changing, the new and old were trying (and in many cases failing) to coexist, and the establishment was frequently struggling to cope with all this newness. No establishment embodied this more than the royalty; these were the last days for nobility in all its pomp and finery, the days when it finally realised how much of its power had been stripped away and how it could not go on pretending to be a divine figure of authoritative power. As the film makes clear, monarchies had been falling across Europe, and others were to be reduced to puppets beneath new regimes, and while this theme is never explicitly mentioned or made a central part of the film, it subtly pervades all around it in a way that makes one feel genuine sympathy for the characters concerned. It is present in the way the prince treats the children and the stories he tells of how his father treated him, in the methods that work for him and the methods that don’t, even in the way characters address one another. All in all a wonderful piece of directing to work in there; I only wish it had taken centre stage more frequently. Perhaps then it wouldn’t perpetually feel as if it were 15 minutes away from finishing.

Mention must of course be made of the actors; Colin Firth took three ‘Best Actor’ prizes for his role as the king, and I found his portrayal incredibly interesting. Firth has always brought a particular brand of confidence, even cockiness, to the roles he plays and is frequently cast in controlling figures of power for this very reason; but here he is required to express both the power and authority of a monarch and the fragility of a patient. The film’s plot, and in particular Geoffrey Rush’s perfectly executed character of Logue, mean that these two opposing images must frequently share the limelight and come into conflict with one another, whilst all the while having to make themselves felt through the Prince’s stammer. This would be a mean task for even the most skilled of actors, and for someone such as Firth who I have never seen portray weakness in this way, it is a particularly interesting challenge. I wouldn’t say that he pulls it off perfectly, or that I find his performance massively compelling (he doesn’t quite manage to express how hard he’s trying, from my point of view), but it is nonetheless a good attempt at a very challenging role. This may have been somewhat hindered by the fact that, as usual, Bonham Carter manages to steal the show, once again showing her extraordinary versatility as an actress with a striking, and occasionally even funny, portrayal of the Duchess (a woman we would now refer to as the Queen Mother). That she and Rush only took home one ‘Supporting Actor/Actress’ role apiece is, to me, quite an eyebrow raiser, even if it was up against The Fighter. Some other performances, most notably Timothy Spall turning up as Winston Churchill for no readily explained reason, are less beneficial to the film and often feel as though they are taking screentime away from what’s important (there’s a fine line between ‘interesting cameo’ and ‘why the hell are they here?’), but thankfully they are not prevalent enough for this to be a massive problem.

To me, The King’s Speech is far from a perfect film; it is not terribly compelling all too frequently, large pieces of the plot seem to serve very little purpose, the script takes significant artistic liberties with historical fact (yes, I know that shouldn’t be important, but I’m too much of a nerd about these things), the plot is somewhat formulaic and predictable and it can’t quite seem to make up its mind over what it is, thematically speaking, about. However, it is executed so exquisitely that these flaws, in part, hardly matter; yes, they’re there, yes the film is imperfect, but that’s no reason not to sit back and enjoy the experience. Did The King’s Speech deserve two ‘Best Picture’ awards? Perhaps not. Is it a bad film? Not a chance. Perhaps not worth digging through to see, but certainly worth watching if you get the chance.

FILM FORTNIGHT: Rain Man

Hey, I run out of ideas sometimes, and it is partly for that reason that I like my little on-running series’ (although I try to minimise continuity here as a rule). So, for the next two weeks, I’ll be putting up six film reviews as posts. These are films selected pretty much at random from my back catalogue of ‘stuff that is reasonably interesting to write about and that I’ve watched fairly recently’. First up, something that I only got round to watching a couple of days ago; four-time Oscar winner Rain Man.

Rain Man has a lot to answer for nowadays; not only does it suggest that card counting in blackjack is illegal (it isn’t provided you use no electronic aids or camera equipment, but will get you thrown out of every casino in the world) but it is also responsible for almost every presumption going on the subject of autism. Back in 1988 autism was a rather poorly-understood issue by the general public, so when a film about an autistic savant completely lacking in social and human skills but with a superhuman memory and mathematical ability came onto the scene, it was projecting itself onto a somewhat blank canvas. Unfortunately, this has lead (perhaps understandably) to a public perception that autism automatically equals superlative brainpower alongside mental deficiency, which is both very wrong and a heinous oversimplification of a complex issue. However, the film does at least have the guts to put such a serious and previously largely unknown illness on the big screen, and deserves plaudits for managing to do so with respect without being preachy.

But back to the actual film; our first lead character is Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), a west-coast car dealer and insufferably arrogant berk with a somewhat stormy relationship with father Sanford. When said father dies, Charlie learns that he will not be inheriting his father’s $3 million estate but has instead been left a ’57 Buick and a few rose bushes,as something of a final ‘get stuffed’ from beyond the grave. To say Charlie is slightly annoyed by this would be rather a gross understatement, and he is quick to seek out the Cincinatti mental institute which his father has made a trustee of the money in search of a few answers. He finds them in the form of long-lost brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), the elder of the two siblings who Charlie was hitherto completely unaware of. Raymond is confined to the institution on account of crippling autism, giving him a religious obsession with schedule and routine and a near-total inability to communicate or interact with the outside world. This doesn’t sit too well with his brash, outgoing brother who dislikes the idea of $3 million going to a man with ‘no concept of money’ so he whisks him away to LA (where his business is located) in an effort to wring some cash out of the institute in court. Unfortunately, Raymond refuses to fly or drive on major highways, turning what should have been a simple journey into a long haul, cross-country road trip, which rather strains the nerves between the mumbling autistic and the guy who thinks it’s all just some big show.

And that’s… pretty much the film; indeed the entire second act can basically be summarised as two guys in a car getting angry at one another for an hour. In this small way it is vaguely similar to The Motorcycle Diaries, but whilst Diaries featured two relatable, funny and genuinely meaningful central characters we here have one person who we don’t want to relate to (re the ‘insufferably arrogant’ comment above) and one to whom it’s almost physically impossible to do so. It is possible to build a meaningful, compelling storyline around an unsympathetic character as District 9’s Wikus van der Merwe proved (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I highly recommend changing that), but it’s certainly difficult and Rain Man doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. That neither character either develops or builds any sort of relationship to the other for the first two-thirds of the film hardly helps matters, and this period is not one of compelling watchability once we’ve got over the essential theme of ‘Hey, autism! It’s weird!’. Yes, it’s all very real and due kudos to the director, but it tends to get a little too real in patches, concentrating on the facts and parts of life that don’t make compelling screentime.

That the first part of the film is rather trying to watch is certainly no fault of execution; director Barry Levinson won an Oscar for his work on this film, and his cinematography is certainly effective (if somewhat clunky and obvious in places). Added to that, we have the acting; Cruise offers up a complete performance, bringing his character’s personality to the fore through his every action, big or small, and manages to make up for the communicative difficulties of Hoffman’s character and carries the film with aplomb. However, even his impressive acting performance is knocked into a cocked hat by a piece of typical Hoffman brilliance; Hoffman reportedly spent time with American memory savant Kim Peek (the man who inspired the film) among others before taken on his role, and it shows. His performance is so whole and complete that it’s genuinely mind blowing, and even to someone such as myself who has very little experience with severe autism it feels more real than any other acting role I’ve seen this year. His is a performance made in the details; not just all the little ticks, but the repetition of them, the execution, the little movements of the head and hands that are never explicitly mentioned, even the way his expression changes, all manages to portray a powerfully consistent image of a trapped, distorted mind hidden away somewhere. This is the first time I have been genuinely moved by an acting performance alone, and it was a fantastic experience.

However, waxing lyrical about an acting performance still doesn’t overshadow the film’s initial failings , but I am happy to report that the film’s twist (which I won’t spoil for you) kicks in at around the hour and a half mark and finally gives the experience some momentum. With events moving along nicely with a definite direction and emotional dynamic in place rather than the aimless meandering we were previously subjected to, one is finally able to settle back and enjoy the experience, and to immerse oneself in the film in front of you. It is something of a pity that Cruise’s character loses some of its steam when called upon to offer up some emotion, but he nonetheless does his job and the conclusion has an eerie, if somewhat cliched, beauty about it. Rain Man is a film that takes its time to get going, and one that I nearly gave up on after the first hour, but it’s most definitely worth sticking to; recommended, at least to to those with the patience.

The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.