Monday, December 20, 2010

What I watched this week: December 13-19

The Fighter (2010) dir. David O. Russell:
Just when you thought the boxing genre had nothing else to offer, along comes David O' Russell's The Fighter, telling the true story of "Irish" Mickey Ward and his last shot at success. While Russell and crew may not turn the genre on its head, they invest enough time in the complexities of the characters that by the time the film reaches its somewhat generic climax, there's actually some tension as to whether Ward (Mark Wahlberg) will come out on top. Yet while Ward may be the main character, the film completely belongs to Christian Bale as Mickey's dodgy brother Dickey. From the opening sit-down interview scene, Bale's performance completely holds your attention, and not just because of the actor's disturbingly gaunt physique. Like the movie itself, he's a live-wire, and you'll have a hard time looking away. Rounding out the superb cast are Melissa Leo as Mickey and Dickey's mother Alice, and Amy Adams in a surprisingly believable turn as the girl who starts to lure Mickey away from his traditional outlook on boxing. In addition to the fiery performances, Wahlberg grounds the movie with his everyman appeal. In a film filled with so much shouting, Wahlberg is able to lend the film a stabilizing presence. Spanning nearly 2 hours, The Fighter ranks among the year's best when it comes to editing, never lagging for an instant despite its lack of reliance on boxing scenes to drive the story forward. Character is key here, and by giving the actors room to breathe, we're left with an ensemble of real people, as opposed to potential caricatures. And even though the film's ending may wrap up just a tad too neatly after all of the bickering and conflict, O. Russell manages to avoid sappiness. Like Wahlberg's Mickey Ward, O. Russell's film is lean and tough, but still full of heart.

Grade: B+

The Story of Adele H. (1975) dir. Francois Truffaut:
One of those classic cases of truth being stranger than fiction, Truffaut's tale of Adele Hugo's (daughter of Victor) quest for unrequited love ranks up there among the strangest of them. When Hugo, under the fake name of Ms. Lewly, arrives in Halifax in 1863, she searches for Lt. Pinson, giving a different connection (niece's boyfriend, cousin, etc...) to everyone who she asks about him. It's just the start of what turns into a truly bizarre story of deception and obsession. As the film's central focus, Isabelle Adjani commands the screen as a woman who refuses to give up on a love that she genuinely believes in, even after Pinson repeatedly rejects her and tries to avoid her. Unfortunately, the movie itself isn't up to the same level of Adjani's work. Quick glimpses into Adele's dreams/nightmares, which usually involve drowning, are horribly overwrought. The film would have been better off simply focusing on Adele writing in bed, rather than having the dream sequence partially dissolved over her. The film somehow loses intrigue even as Adele becomes increasingly unhinged and her desperation grows. By the time it reaches its conclusion in the Caribbean, Truffaut seems to have run out of steam, and this mutes the effect of what is, at its core, a fascinating tale of real-life obsession.

Grade: B-

Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles:
It's hard to live up to an opening shot as brilliant as that in Touch of Evil, but this noir, one of the last of its kind, is up to task. Granted, certain parts have aged awkwardly given the current state of Mexico's drug/gang violence, and at times the film seems to want to become more intricate than it ought to be, but overall, this ranks as one of the greats of the noir genre, and one of the finest moments of Welles' career as a director, writer, and actor. Though I was never quite sold on Charlton Heston as the film's leading man, he's competent enough, and co-star Janet Leigh holds her own in the role of his surprisingly tough (relatively speaking) wife. But the star here is Welles on all fronts. As a director and writer he beautifully captures a sense of menace and danger in the film's border-town setting. And as an actor he creates a noir villain for the ages as Hank Quinlan, a police captain playing both sides of the bombing investigation that sets off the story proper. It's hard not to view Quinlan as some forerunner of great neo-Western villains like The Judge in McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," albeit slightly more theatrical. But the film also benefits from fantastic tech aspects, namely the striking cinematography which beautifully utilizes deep focus and low Dutch angles that add tension to even the sunniest of shots. And even though time has worn it in spots, it's hard to deny the significance and craftsmanship of this last-of-a-dying-breed story all these decades later.

Grade: A-

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