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The Fighter

Should I go see this movie?

You should see The Fighter for the emaciated face of Christian Bale acting at his method-best, slipping inside the role of ex-boxer Dicky Eklund to bring us a vision of cocaine-addled charisma; for Amy Adams’ feisty character of Charlene, who chomps and bites out each line of dialogue as if she was the only sassy bar girl worth your attention. And you should see this movie for the authentic depiction of blue-collar Massachusetts.

So, what’s it all about?

It’s based on the life of professional boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a welterweight who retired from boxing in 2003. The Fighter follows his

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale as Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund in The Fighter

progress from small-time matches to a championship fight and the problems he has with his family and older half-brother Dicky (Bale), who acts as his trainer and is famous for knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard. Amy Adams plays Charlene, Ward’s girlfriend, and there’s a terrific performance by Melissa Leo as Alice Ward, Micky’s mother and matriarch to nine children.

Can Mark Wahlberg really act?

The jury’s still out. In every film his dour and frowning face remains, and he’s been typecast as a tough guy. His role as the smart-ass police detective in The Departed was enjoyable, and he should explore his comedic potential. As Micky Ward, I wasn’t convinced he really loved his brother, as he no doubt does, and his desire to win a championship is only half-fleshed by Wahlberg. In fact, there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the leading actors, and the brotherly camaraderie between the two boxers, which should be obvious, is only fleetingly seen. But The Fighter probably represents Wahlberg’s best work in his persuasive portrayal of a straight and quietly determined Ward.

Bale has gotten most of the plaudits, due to the more idiosyncratic nature of the character he plays. Dicky is a wiry, slithering figure and Bale had to work hard – the director David O. Russell has said the part required more than mimicry: “Dicky has a whole rhythm to him, a music. Christian had to understand how his mind works.”

What are the fight scenes like?

The fight scenes in boxing movies range from the highly stylised (Raging Bull) to the dramatic (Rocky) to the very realistic which is where The Fighter sits. Wahlberg endured real punches for this film, but there is no real sense of pain, with the scenes more revealing of boxing technique than kinetic action. More sparring between the two brothers, who have contrasting boxing styles, would have added value whilst more boxing action in general would’ve been appreciated.

Amy Adams as Charlene

Is a boxing film a good vehicle to explore themes of family, sibling love and drug addiction?

David O. Russell uses a film-within-a-film device to explore Dicky’s addiction, with a HBO documentary crew following the brothers. There’s a great scene when the resulting documentary airs and we see Bale speaking to the camera, who displays a wincing construction of ambition derailed. Indeed I thought the documentary looked like a better film than the TV movie rhythms of the actual feature, and would’ve probably been more revealing.

The relationship between the brothers is fairly straightforward, while the smothering family, with a retinue of pecking sisters, showed how Micky was kind of used by his family for money. This film has few intimate scenes of dialogue, no drunken or lonely moments, or moments of quiet which reveal deeper considerations. There are no great speeches, save perhaps the one mentioned above, with Dicky in the HBO doc. It’s an undemanding movie, which shows the background of a boxer’s career, which is lost in the glitzy commentary of a real-life boxing match, where an ESPN man might condense a boxer’s life into one sentence…”And here’s Micky Ward who’s had some problems recently”.

For small-time dramas, The Fighter is worth the pay-per-view.



127 Hours

James Franco as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours

I’d sooner lose a finger than chop my own arm off. I’d rather shoot myself in the foot than chop off my own arm. In fact, chopping off my own arm comes pretty low on the list of things I’d like to do, along with shit-eating and talking about sex with my mother. But Aron Ralston in 127 Hours faces a choice altogether more stark: life or limb?

James Franco (of Spiderman fame) plays Aron Ralston, an engineer with a passion for climbing. He’s easygoing with a do-it-all attitude. He takes a trip to Utah, to mountain bike, hike and climb, but doesn’t inform anyone where he’s going. He slips while he’s climbing and gets trapped when a boulder falls on his arm. 127 hours later, he’s armless but free, with the aid of a blunt knife, and lives to climb another day.

It’s a true story which occurred in 2003 and in an interview, the real-life Aron Ralston, 35, said “The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama”. And what drama Danny Boyle has wrought is testament to his skill as a film-maker. This is Boyle’s tenth feature and follows his trend of character-driven movies, whether they’re an ensemble of heroin addicts in Trainspotting, a spoiled adventurer in The Beach, or the love-struck Jamal in the life-affirming Slumdog Millionaire.

Every one of his movies has energy and wit, a willingness to play with composition, texture and expectation. But the success of his latest owes as much to James Franco’s detailed and awe-inspiring performance as directorial technique. The movie has a curious style. From the beginning, Boyle makes use of all the tricks he has, with split screens, close focus shots of arbitrary things – tap water running, a Swiss army knife missed, and images of the inside of objects – the whir of a lens motor in a digital camera, the x-ray of a knife being plunged into bone. This and the super-vivid colours reminded me of the band Maroon 5’s hyper-slick, advert-style music video to ‘Sunday Morning’.

These tics and decorations are needed in a film with a bare-naked plot and mostly just one cramped setting. And it’s a film of lovely details. Images of ants being chased by the sun and in one superb sequence, we get a Gatorade reverie, with a lip-smacking shot of a shivering, sweating bottle of sugared liquid.

James Franco’s smile would probably be the smuggest smile in the world, if it were not so seductively likable. It radiates confidence and ease, and fits the glow of happy solitude that anyone who has ever gone hiking would recognise. But when the boulder falls and traps him, watch his face. His smile almost lingers, his eyes almost drool as they start to comprehend despair. It’s a microcosm of emotion and dawning realisation.

As background, we get flashbacks to Ralston’s childhood and mental replays of what could have been. Clemence Poesy has a small part as an ex-girlfriend and her prettiness is welcome in so rugged a film. When finally we get to what must be done, to what most audience members probably have come to expect as climax, the grisliness of the whole affair does not disappoint.

Using a crappy multi-tool with a crappy knife to slice his arm, it definitely gave me a sour taste of sharp pain and I’ll never think of tendons in the same way again. Franco acts of all this with a face that flickers, sniggers, grimaces and winces in all the right degrees, it’s as perfect a performance I have seen, and the director has filled the movie with just enough focus and distraction to balance narrative tension. The soundtrack works well with songs from Beck and Bill Withers used to good effect and A. R. Rahman‘s score, which changes from kinetic to quietly stirring, is one of his best.

Any moral one could draw from all this would be vapid. Be more prepared? Buy better knives when you go hiking? Don’t be so proud? Who cares. What Danny Boyle has managed to do is make something unfilmable flow in what almost feels like real time. I came out upbeat but not uplifted, and it was a good call not to show Ralston as any kind of superhero. His actions could have been repeated by any one of us, and yet could only really be his.

This is Ralston’s story and 127 Hours is not a film, it’s an experience.


Black Swan

Natalie Portman as the black swan

“Natalie Portman plays a psychotic ballet dancer who turns into a lesbian?”

“Yeah, and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a long while”.

This was how Black Swan was sold to me by a friend. It’s an engrossing and vivid film, flawed by the hyperactive tendencies of its director Darren Aronofsky.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer situated in New York but who lives entirely in her ballet world. Nina’s devotion stands out, even in an art where every sinew is forced to bear the weight of unnatural grace. She battles for the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake, which will be “visceral and real” according to its choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell).

He needs someone who can embody both swans, white and black, and Nina struggles to portray the salacious nature of the black swan. Her competitor is Lily, a seductive schemer, played by Mila Kunis, whose sashaying eyes are all that’s needed to imply her darkly allure.

Nina’s sanity is shown to be slipping early on but what started it? Possibly her possessive mother who herself was a dancer, but of lesser talent. She salves her daughter’s wounds and helps her undress in the bathroom. She’s definitely crazy but not mad.

Aronofsky uses the idea of the doppelganger as the motif of madness. Mirrors are everywhere and in their reflection we begin to see the schizoid panic of Nina. Portman’s beauty acts to her advantage in Black Swan, where her girlish, small-chin features look all too prone to cracking under strain.

Wincing injuries to fingers and toes are a physical sign of Nina’s mental degradation as she fixates on perfecting her dance. She worships ballet and it becomes her undoing. Cassell is perfectly cast as the demanding maestro, who implores Nina to ‘touch herself’ to prepare for her role – and to lose her innocence along the way, preferably with him.

She also has to watch out for Lily, presented as funky and free, but who actually acts like any normal adolescent. She befriends Nina and takes her clubbing which leads to an outburst of rebellion and lesbianism. Black Swan is about repression, hatred, perfection and jealousy. Nina’s old enough to go clubbing but her room is filled with cuddly toys. Her mother is oppressive and it’s small wonder that Nina self-harms and her ‘evil twin’ is dying to break out.

The jittery camera work, by Matthew Libatique, conveys a shivering claustrophobia. The grainy texture of the film with its muted colours, have the atmosphere of horror, and the lighting impresses, especially on stage where Nina’s final transformation into the black swan is quite spectacular.

The set designs, the similarity in looks between the leading ladies all serve to bolster the film’s notion of duality. But the use of music grates. Aronofsky has done psychotic breakdowns before, in his debut feature Pi, and in the drug-addled Requiem for a Dream. In that film, fevers boiled in searing music and sweaty editing. But the incessant classical score which emphasises every dramatic beat in every scene of Black Swan is fucking annoying.

The sensual ambition of Black Swan and the camera’s looming view of Nina, her fevered obsession and anxiety over perfection propel this film, while the dark edges of madness provide a captivating portrait of denied adulthood. ‘Lose yourself’ is Leroy’s advice, and the black swan manages to seduce.


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