Friday, December 31, 2010

2010's Entertainment Stays with Me

A couple nights ago, I re-watched the series finale of Lost for the first time in about four months. I'm happy to report that I enjoyed it as much, if not more than, I did when the episode first aired in May, and the last time I watched it back when the DVD was first released in August — and that's not just because I'm still blown away by how great Evangeline Lilly looked in that black dress. That's a relief, because when the finale aired, I was lamenting the end of one of my all-time favorite TV shows. The last episode of Lost not only lived up to the hype, but it endures and continues to be great.

Good entertainment does that: It stays with you and doesn't lose its appeal over time. 2010 had a handful of those kinds of things. In addition to Lost, I got immense pleasure from watching Community, Modern Family, and Glee (the second season, not the second half of the first). I'm still really enjoying Jamie Cullum's latest album (it's even better live in concert), as well as the new release from Maroon 5. I was excited to see American Idiot the week it opened on Broadway, and I even finished a book I really enjoyed, The Accidental Billionaires.

And then there were the movies. As of this writing, I've seen 57 of the films considered 2010 releases. (Some films I saw in the early part of the year were considered 2009 releases.) Of them, I have my favorites. It should be noted that the list that follows is not a list of the best movies of 2010, and it's also incomplete because there are a couple films I have yet to see that may make this list. So with those caveats, here are the 10 movies I saw in 2010 that I enjoyed more than the rest:
1. The Social Network (which I've seen three times)
2. The Fighter
3. Inception
4. 127 Hours
5. The Kids Are All Right
6. Toy Story 3
7. Greenberg
8. Solitary Man
9. The Town
10. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work/Winnebago Man
Honorable mention: The Expendables, which was crap, but really fun crap.

And rather than list the 10 worst movies I saw, let's call this list the 10 movies I enjoyed the least:
1. Piranha 3D
2. Valentine's Day
3. Alice in Wonderland
4. Knight & Day
5. Secretariat
6. The Tourist
7. Shutter Island
8. Little Fockers
9. Due Date
10. Dinner for Schmucks

What were your favorite movies, TV shows, albums, etc.? Please do share your thoughts with me.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Was for the Birds

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's no coincidence that one of the biggest timewasters of the past year was the iPhone app Angry Birds. That's because as far as I'm concerned, 2010 was for the birds. 2009 was an awesome year for me, and this year was, well, not. I started the year alone in my apartment on New Year's Eve, and then it continued from there. There was disappointment, frustration, challenge, and laziness. Relationships didn't pan out, I got too used to spending time on my own, I was let down a few too many times, and things I hoped to do I never was able to set my mind to. Sure, things got better after the midway point, but especially after the year I had 12 months earlier, this year just kind of sucked.

Not that it was all bad. I mean, "for the birds" could also refer to Twitter, and the way that particular social media site (and others) made the year more fun. It wasn't just the free ice cream in August. It was the mayorships for no reason, the connections I made and the things I learned on Twitter, and the enjoyment I got from using Facebook — on screens both small and large. Social media was good to me this year, and it's no exaggeration to say that I consider my use of it a highlight of 2010.

There were other highlights:
* I traveled a bit, both for professional and personal reasons. Work trips took me to Captiva Island, Fla.; Lake Tahoe; and Park City, Utah, among other places. I also went on my annual 4th of July trip to Chicago and enjoyed my first family vacation with my niece.
* Speaking of which, I enjoyed watching and listening to Abby over the course of the year as she got older and more fun. During our conversations on my rides home from work, she'd tell me what to have for dinner or update me on her day, and she always made me smile. Spending time together was always great, and she broke my heart when we had to say goodbye. Now Abby's going to be a big sister to two identical-twin boys, due in March. How cool is that going to be?
* My last two articles for Continental magazine were interviews with Kristin Chenoweth and David Hyde Pierce.
* There were a lot of cupcakes — probably too many, and some better than others.

One other highlight of the year was the time I spent getting in touch with the old me. It showed me just how much I've changed since my high school days, sometimes in shocking fashion. It also showed — reminded — me that I've always had up years and down years. So when the clock strikes midnight on December 31, I'm going to hope I'm saying goodbye to one of those down years and hello to an up year. There are already indications that I'm on an upswing. Let's hope it continues.

In addition, rather than make a list of resolutions I know I'll never keep, this year I'm going to resolve, simply, to make 2011 better than the year before. That I should be able to do.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sad Version

Don't go to see Rabbit Hole expecting a comedy. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as Becca and Howie, two parents still coming to terms with the death of their four-year-old son. Whereas he is fixated on the past and trying to deal with his emotions, she is letting go rather than dealing with the loss. Becca finds comfort in the high school student who was driving the car that killed her son, and Howie bonds with another member of a support group (Sandra Oh). As you may assume, the film is not big on laughs. Thankfully, it's not a total tear-jerker, either, but it won't be the lightest moviegoing experience you have. If you've seen Ordinary People or In the Bedroom then you know what to expect.

Rabbit Hole, which was adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his play and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, is an intimate, poignant look at grief, and the differing ways it plays out. Kidman, in the role that won Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon a Tony award, is very good, as is Eckhart, but for me, it's Dianne Wiest, as Becca's mother, who gives the better performance. It's hard to say I enjoyed this movie, and I thought there were some moments and scenes that didn't work, but the whole thing ends nicely, and I walked out of the theater thinking positively about the movie. So I'm giving Rabbit Hole a B.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

She's Truly Great

Here's the weird thing about True Grit, the Coen brothers' remake/reimagining of the classic Western tale: About an hour after seeing it, I couldn't remember much about it. The film just didn't stay with me. And it's not that I didn't like it or anything. It just didn't have any lasting impact on me. And that's a shame, because I love the Coen brothers (Fargo remains one of my all-time favorite movies, and last year's A Serious Man ranked number three on my list of favorite movies), and I'd had high hopes for True Grit. Oh well.

In the film, young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the role that won John Wayne an Oscar) to help her find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. Also on Cheney's trail is Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon). Bridges speaks in such a heavy drawl that after a while it's really off-putting. Damon does his best to keep up with Bridges, but he's just not a strong enough presence. That leaves Steinfeld, who at the age of 13, blows the other two guys away. She's really the star of this movie, and the reason I'd give anyone to see it. It's all the more remarkable when you realize this is her first movie.

Anyway, I wish I had liked True Grit more than I did so I'd have remembered more about it. That's why I'm only going to give it a B–.


Monday, December 27, 2010

There's a Place for Him

If you want to know what Sofia Coppola's latest film, Somewhere, is about, the first two minutes provide a handy (and not too subtle) synopsis. In those opening moments, actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) drives his Ferrari around and around in a circle, and then finally comes to a stop and realizes how much he's missing when he gets out of the car and looks around. The real plot of the movie is about how Marco's life is going nowhere until he's visited by his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), and he decides to change his self-destructive lifestyle.

The thing is, saying Somewhere has a plot gives the wrong idea of what actually happens in the movie. The answer to that question is not much. Coppola is more concerned with atmosphere and style than actual forward narrative movement, so at many times, it seems like nothing is happening. That's partly because there's very little dialogue (one wonders if there was an actual screenplay or if everything was improvised), and partly because it takes a good third or more for the plot to kick in, and for Cleo to show up. And maybe it's also because the story of a self-destructive actor who finds meaning for his life when he meets or reconnects with a child has been done many times before.

I don't mean to disparage the movie, though. Or at least, not as much as it may seem. Despite any misgivings I may have about the point of the whole exercise and what point Coppola is trying to make, I still generally liked Somewhere. Dorff gives a very natural performance — which is not to say it's a stretch or maybe even an actual performance, just that it seems very lived-in — and he and Fanning have some good chemistry. The film looks good, very indie chic, and its minimal scoring lets the action unfold without much emotional orchestration. Coppola's frequent long takes makes it seem like she just set up the scene and let her actors go to work. As a result, Somewhere often feels like you're eavesdropping on some private, intimate moments.

I doubt Coppola will ever make a movie as good as Lost in Translation was, and Somewhere doesn't come close. It would be easy to say the movie goes nowhere, but it deserves a little more credit than that. I'm giving it a B.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Strangers on a Train

The biggest mystery about The Tourist isn't the whereabouts of the guy people think Johnny Depp's character is. It's how a movie with so much going for it could be so disappointing. Depp stars as Frank, a Wisconsin math teacher, who innocently meets the mysterious Elise (Angelina Jolie) on board a train en route to Venice. Elise involves Frank in a plot to distract some mobsters and some British Interpol agents, but something goes wrong and of course, the two fall for each other. It all unfolds on land and water in the Italian city, and the film was directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director of the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others.

Sounds intriguing (mostly), but I just didn't buy it. I'm not sure exactly when the film lost its credibility, but it had to be around the part when Depp revealed himself as the most stylish, sophisticated, athletic, and resourceful math teacher of all time — and he's from Wisconsin to boot! Is there any reason for him to fall in love with someone who has put his life in danger, even if she looks like Angelina Jolie? Of course not. So I don't mind telling you that the "twist" at the end couldn't be any more predictable. And as moviegoers, we're left wondering why Depp, Jolie, et al didn't just stay home instead of taking this ill-fated trip. I'm giving The Tourist a C–.

Labels: ,

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Hanukkah, Greenberg's Delicatessen!

On this, the day of Christmas Eve, allow me to wish all my non-Jewish readers a very merry Christmas. My "gift" to you is this clip from Turner Classic Movies, which shows It's a Wonderful Life as it was originally intended: As a Hanukkah story. Enjoy, and ho ho ho!

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It Wouldn't Be the Holidays Without Her

A few years back, I got into a discussion with a friend when I told her how much I love Christmas. "No," she clarified. "You love the Christmas season. You don't have to deal with the family and the religious stuff." She was right about all of that. I'm a huge fan of the season, with the pagentry and the lights and the deals and the happier mood and the lighter workload and the food and the celebrations and the traditions and yes, the music. Oh, how I love the music of the Christmas season.

As has been noted here in a previous blog post, my creation of a holiday mix each year has become as much of a beloved holiday tradition for me and those who receive it as the airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas or the all-day A Christmas Story marathon on TBS. And yet, as much as I love making and distributing my mix, one holiday tradition I enjoy and look forward to almost as much is the annual night-before-Christmas episode of Late Show with David Letterman.

On this particular episode, there are always two guests: comedian Jay Thomas and the great Darlene Love, brand-new inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jay comes on first and tells the same story every year, about how when he was younger, he did a gig with Clayton Moore, the former Lone Ranger, and how Jay and his colleague were "herbed up" and got into a car chase with someone who hit their car, while Clayton was still in the back seat. Same story every year, and it always gets the same laughs. Then Jay and Dave try to knock the meatball off the top of Dave's Christmas tree by throwing footballs at it.

Darlene then comes on and simply blows the roof off the joint with her classic holiday tune, one of my all-time favorites, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Blows the roof off. Seriously. It's always great: Darlene is backed Phil Spector–style by Paul Shaffer's band, sax player Bruce Kapler makes a memorable entrance, there's snow at the end, and Darlene just nails it year after year after year. (Eat your heart out, U2.) The performance is such an annual highlight for me that I included her version from 2004, which was one of her best ever, on my 2007 Very Marty Xmas mix. The song is reportedly Dave's favorite holiday tune, and he once called Darlene's performance on his show "the best thing about the holidays." Couldn't agree more.

Oh, and as if those two things aren't enough to get you to watch ... throw in Paul Shaffer's impression of Cher, with her hands in a muff, singing "Oh Holy Night." Classic holiday TV indeed.

So tune in tonight at 11:35 and/or set the DVR for 11:35 and make sure you set it for an hour and 5 minutes, since the show always runs longer than an hour. You may have listened to A Very Marty Xmas a bjillion times already (like I have), but it won't officially be Christmas until you hear Darlene Love singing on Letterman. It's a tradition that really makes the holiday season complete.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Godfocker

Was anyone really asking for a third film in the Meet the Parents series? I guess someone was, because in theaters now is the totally unnecessary Little Fockers. In this latest go-round, Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) is feeling mortal, so he dotes on his son-in-law Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) to make sure he's got the stones to take on the mantle of family leader. Essentially, the jokes are as broad and old as they were in 2000, and some of the references are just as dated (for example, when Jack learns how to Google himself, and when he looks up someone on the web and finds her MySpace page). Essentially, the film comes off like a desperate attempt by Universal for a holiday hit, and a paycheck gig for the actors. I'm giving Little Fockers a C–.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sweet, Sweet Victory

Generally, I'm a guy who avoids confrontation. I'd rather just live with an unpleasant situation than confront the person who is making it unpleasant for me.

No, actually, what I usually do is be all passive-aggressive about it, and complain, bitch, and moan — often for the sake of a laugh — even though that does no good in terms of helping the situation.

It's what happened in my old apartment building, with my violin- and flute-playing neighbors, and for a whille, it was happening with my current upstairs neighbor, who would not only never remove her shoes when she walked around her apartment, but had a proclivity to clean her apartment late at night, and worse, to vacuum her floors at even later hours.

That's exactly what she did Sunday night: vacuum her floor at 1:30 a.m. This, of course, followed a brief clothes washing, which began around 11:30. And what did I do about it? Nothing. I twisted and turned in my bed, unhappy, concocting a revenge plot that would show her how disgruntled I was — but that I knew I'd never have the guts to pull off.

Another time she did this, about a month ago, I sent my neighbor an email that went ignored. So when I woke up in the morning, I decided to write her a note and leave it under her door. Here's what it said: "Hi there. Can you please please not vacuum your floor after 11 p.m., and especially not at 1:30 a.m.? It's louder than you think, and it's very inconsiderate. Thank you. Martin." I figured that would fall on deaf ears too.

Except it didn't.

In the early afternoon, I received this reply via email:

No joke, I stood up at my desk, put my two fists in the air, and exclaimed, Johnny Drama–style, "Victory!" I had finally gotten through, and Lydia (that's her name, which I knew) was finally going to stop. Sure, her email kinda made her look like a moron (she's my upstairs neighbor, "caused such nuance," "such sagely patience," etc., not to mention the fact that in three years it never occurred to her that vacuuming her floor at 1:30 a.m. was not appropriate), and she didn't hit all of Loren McDonald's 13 elements of effective apology emails, but she understood she was being inconsiderate, and was promising to be better in the future. Chalk one up for me.

I had known such a feeling only once before, and that was when my banging on the ceiling caused some upstairs neighbors to stop rehearsing their instruments. This time, my response was more civil, but it was equally rewarding.

Ahhh ... Sweet, sweet victory.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Worth a Listen

The King's Speech is one of those good-for-you movies that feels like it's been made and engineered to win awards. (Kind of like a Tom Hanks–Steven Spielberg production for HBO.) It's got an Oscar-pedigreed cast above the title (nominees Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter and winner Geoffrey Rush), it's being distributed by the Oscar-hungry Weinstein Company (see Shakespeare in Love, Inglorious Basterds), and it's about that veddy British of subjects, the Monarchy. Oh, and it's a period drama set during the 1930s. What about that doesn't scream high-quality Oscar bait?

I don't say all that to be dismissive. The King's Speech is, indeed, a very good film, and it will likely win a handful of awards in the coming months — and those will be well earned, no matter how much promotional backing the Weinsteins give the film.

In The King's Speech, Firth plays Prince Albert, Duke of York, who has a terrible speech impediment and a fear of public speaking. When his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), dies, and his older brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates the throne, Albert suddenly becomes King George VI. With his country on the brink of war and in desperate need of a leader, Albert's wife, Elizabeth (Carter), pairs her husband with an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush), who, of course, breaks through and helps Albert's problem.

Beautifully written by David Seidler, beautifully directed by Tom Hooper, and featuring some top-notch performances by the aforementioned three lead actors, The King's Speech is certainly an impressive film. Despite its subject matter, it's not stuffy (like a Merchant Ivory film would be), and it's actually quite funny at parts. Sure, parts of the story can be conventional and the whole thing could have been edited down by about 5-10 minutes, but overall The King's Speech is worth a listen. I'm giving it a B+.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Off the Grid

Jeff Bridges just doesn't look right in Tron:Legacy, and it's not just because he's been stuck in a computer game for 20 years. In this sequel to the 1982 film, we learn that Bridges' character, Kevin Flynn, has been trapped inside the game he created, and he's been held captive by the avatar of himself that he created. The "real" Flynn has aged, but the avatar, called Clu, has not — and quite frankly, it looks creepy. Worse, the "real" Flynn has gone all Lebowski, with his beard and his propensity to attach "man" to his speech. It's just not right.

The original Tron wasn't any kind of masterpiece or anything (not that I've seen it in 25 years), and this new take likely won't be perceived as a classic, either. It's got some cool special effects, but those are mostly in the first half when Flynn's son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), has first entered the game. The dialogue is often stilted and clunky, and even Bridges can't save the material. I wish I could say Tron: Legacy was at minimum a fun movie, but I think all the good stuff is still stuck in the machine. I'm giving the movie a C+.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Very Special Xmas for Me

I don't know exactly when it was that I became such a fan of Christmas music, but 10 years ago I decided to create a mix of my favorite holiday tunes. A friend of mine suggested I give it out to people as a sort-of Christmas card, and she even gave the mix the name A Very Marty Xmas. The rest is history. With the exception of 2008, I've made a mix every year for the past decade. I say humbly that these compilations have become as much of a beloved holiday tradition as A Charlie Brown Christmas or the all-day A Christmas Story marathon on TBS. And yes, I'm Jewish, which makes the whole thing even more fun. (Then again, so was Irving Berlin, and he wrote "White Christmas!")

Which brings us to A Very Marty Xmas 2010, the special, extra-festive tenth-anniversary edition. This year's CD is one of my better efforts, if I do say so myself — and yes, I do say that every year. But it's true: I think the collection somehow gets better every year, and that's an amazing feat considering that after all this time, you'd think I'd have exhausted all the good stuff. If you think that, you're wrong. All it takes is a browse through iTunes or the far reaches of the Interwebs to discover unheard riches that have yet to be included on one of my mixes, and that makes the compilation of each year's mix unpredictable and a project I look forward to all year long.

For example, this year I found Trijntje Oosterhuis, a Dutch singer, whose cover of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" is one of my favorite tracks. I also discovered a rare, unreleased recording of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing "Merry Christmas, Baby" live in Asbury Park on December 17, 2000, and a nice cover of "Fairytale of New York" by Bob Schneider. There are great holiday songs by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Owl City, Lenka, and Straight No Chaser. New releases this year from Mariah Carey, Train, Indigo Girls, Lady Antebellum, and the cast of Glee are all represented. Harry Connick Jr. returns after a couple years off, the Jackson 5 make another appearance, and Big Al Carson with Lars Edegra bring the New Orleans sound. The mix even includes a Hanukkah tune by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, and a fun version of the Band Aid classic "Do They Know It's Christmas" by a guy named Richard Cheese. Talk about a diverse mix of music.

So alright, enough teasing. What exactly is the track listing for this year's mix? Here you go:

“I Wish It Was Christmas Today” — Julian Casablancas
“Shake Up Christmas” — Train
“Deck the Rooftop” — Cast of Glee
“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” — Gretchen Wilson
“Fairytale of New York” — Bob Schneider
“All My Bells Are Ringing” — Lenka
“Step Into Christmas” — The Puppini Sisters
“Hey Santa!” — Straight No Chaser
“Oh Santa!” — Mariah Carey
“The Christmas Song” — Owl City
“It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)” — Indigo Girls
“Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” — Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
“This Christmas” — Trijntje Oosterhuis
“Winter Wonderland” — Tony Bennett
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” — Harry Connick, Jr.
“Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” — Wilson Phillips
“Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?” — Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart
“The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” — Sheryl Crow
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” — Lady Antebellum
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” — Big Al Carson with Lars Edegra
“Do They Know It’s Christmas” — Richard Cheese
“Someday at Christmas” — Jackson 5
“Merry Christmas, Baby” (live 12/17/2000) — Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
“Auld Lang Syne” — Pink Martini

And of course, there are also little sound clips peppered throughout. In short, the 2010 edition of A Very Marty Xmas is nearly 80 minutes of fun from start to finish, and I think people will really enjoy listening to it.

Now that this year's mix is done, I can start working on next year's mix. I've already got half of it ready to go, and I'm sure I'll find more than enough tracks to fill out the rest. Are there another 10 editions of A Very Marty Xmas to come? Is Santa Claus real? (Yes.) So stay tuned, Virginia. There'll be another mix next year. Till then ... I've made 11 mixes (including my best-of mix). That's nearly 15 hours of music, or enough to last all day long on Christmas Day if you have the complete set. It's quite impressive, if you think about it.

Merry Xmas to all, and to all a very happy holiday!

A Very Marty Xmas 2009
The Best of A Very Marty Xmas
A Very Marty Xmas 2007
A Very Marty Xmas 2006
A Very Marty Xmas 2005

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What He Did for Love

I Love You Phillip Morris begins with the statement, "This really happened." And it sets the tone appropriately, because the story that's told in this movie is so absurd, so unbelievable, that it just has to be true — and it is. Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey) is a charming, charismatic con man who gets sent to prison for fraud and meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The two fall in love, and Russell attempts con after con to free Phillip and build a perfect life with him.

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the pair behind the equally twisted Bad Santa, Phillip Morris is an offbeat love story, to put it mildly. It gives Carrey one of his best roles in years, and he does a nice job with it. The film has some good laughs, some charming moments, and again, it's so unusual, so absurd, that I found it quite enjoyable. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and in those cases, it makes for fun films. I'm giving Phillip Morris a B+.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Dance Club


What do you get when you cross Swan Lake, All About Eve, Showgirls, and Fight Club? That's right: Black Swan, one of the strangest, most confusing movies of this or any year. In the film, Natalie Portman stars as Nina, an up-and-coming ballet dancer, whose sanity unravels when she scores the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. If you don't know this ballet (and I didn't), it requires the lead to play two roles: the White Swan (notable for her innocence and grace) and the Black Swan (the polar opposite; a more sensual, seductive character). This duality proves a challenge for Nina: she is nothing if not delicate and graceful, but exploring her seductive side is less natural. When Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the company, she is seen as a more perfect fit for the Black Swan, and she becomes a rival to Nina. Their relationship develops into a twisted friendship, and as it does, Nina begins to lose her grip on reality.

That said, though it's set in the world of ballet, Black Swan is not a ballet movie. Instead, it's a psychological thriller that's creepy and keeps you guessing. Having seen it, I still don't exactly know what to make of it, and that's not meant to be a dismissive statement. Generally, I enjoyed the movie — it's attractive to watch, Portman is very good, and it's certainly thought-provoking. But like Fight Club, I think I may have to see it again before I really understand and appreciate it. So for now, pending a repeat viewing and more discussion, and because writing about Black Swan means revealing important plot points, I'm going to cut this short and only give the film a B.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Worth Fighting For

When was the last time you saw a movie so good, so easy to root for, that all you wanted to do was shout from the rooftops and tell everybody you know to go see it? For me, that movie is The Fighter. This gritty, real-life story has been brought to the screen by Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and director David O. Russell, and it's just an awesome, beautiful film. Wahlberg, who also produced, stars as "Irish" Micky Ward, the boxer from Lowell, Mass., who fights to overcome adversity both in and out of the ring. Micky is being groomed by his older half-brother, Dicky (Bale), to be a welterweight champion and to capture the title that eluded Dicky when he chose drugs over the sport. Now, Dicky's struggles with crack are threatening both his life and his brother's career.

The Fighter is about boxing like The Social Network is about Facebook — which is to say, that's not really the point of the film. Rather, The Fighter is a story about a man and his brother, and how strong those ties are. No matter how self-destructive Dicky may be, no matter how Dicky (the former "Pride of Lowell") disappoints him, Micky is fiercely loyal. And not just to him but to his entire family (including his mother, played wonderfully by Melissa Leo). Micky's never been the one in the spotlight, and when he finally gets his chance to go for the title that has so far eluded him, will he stay loyal?

Wahlberg spent almost a decade working to getting this film made, and get in shape, and his passion is all over the screen — most notably in his quiet, controlled, soulful performance. I've never seen him this good. Hopefully he's got his tux ready for the Oscars and Golden Globes and SAG Awards, etc. And yet, as good as Wahlberg is, Bale dominates this film. He has the accent, the mannerisms, and the look down (as proven by a short clip of the real Dicky that plays over the closing credits). This is one of those showy, transformative performances (Bale lost about 30 pounds for the role) that attracts attention from awards voters, and it's captivating. You can't look away. I'd consider Bale to be a lock for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Rounding out the cast is Amy Adams as Charlene, Micky's girlfriend, who sees the potential in him that Dicky has nearly derailed. It's an against-type performance not in the same league as Wahlberg and Bale's, but Adams holds her own. Like Ben Affleck did in The Town and Gone Baby Gone, director Russell imbues the film with a real sense of Boston-area place. This is a working-class film set right on the streets of Lowell, where Wahlberg's Ward often feels like he's let down not only himself but his neighbors and fellow townies. When he and his brother are on top, they're celebrated in the streets. Russell gets the tone of the film right, keeps the action moving, and yes, has elicited some great, impressive performances from his stars. He also deserves some kudos for using the Heavy's "How You Like Me Now?" in an effort to amp up the mood at various points.

The Fighter runs the emotional gamut: It's heartbreaking, inspiring, powerful, exciting, devastating, and ultimately, uplifting. Parts of it will test your strength of will not to get teary, and parts of it will make you stand up and cheer. The Fighter instantly takes its place towards the top of my year's best films list. You must go see it. I'm giving The Fighter an A–.


Friday, December 03, 2010

Chatting About Culture with Mr. Crane

There's a pretty good chance that David Hyde Pierce won't see this. That's because when I interviewed him for Continental magazine a few months back and I asked him about whether he uses social media and is on Facebook or Twitter, the erstwhile Niles Crane responded rather quickly and tersely, "I'd rather die." Alright, fine. So that subject was a dead end. But thankfully, there was plenty else for us to discuss, and some of that conversation is now on planes and on the magazine's website for all to read.

No surprise, the man folks know from his TV, film, and stage roles is not much different from the man I "met" on the phone back in August. He was well spoken, even-keeled, polite, and calm, and happy to chat about subjects as varied as Alzheimer's research and the difference between theater audiences in New York and London. I thought he'd be turned off by a question or two about Frasier, the show on which he starred for 11 years, but instead he told me he's always happy to talk about it. "I have only been blessed and not been cursed by 11 years of Niles," he said of the role for which he won four Emmy awards.

Pierce and I conducted the interview so he could promote his role in the current Broadway revival of La Bête, which opened in mid-October and is scheduled to close in early January. In the play, Pierce plays a sophisticated director who clashes with a boorish performer, and that gave me the perfect opportunity to ask him for his thoughts on the current state of pop culture. I figured he'd have something to say about the gap between silly reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and more substantial fare, and I was right:
"There’s always going to be a large market for crap, and there’s always going to be a smaller market for high art. And the really great works of theater are the ones that manage to bridge the gap. Shakespeare did that. He had his clowns smack in the middle of Hamlet because he understood not only the theater, but that life is a mixture of extreme comedy and extreme tragedy. Life very seldom separates itself into one or the other. The things I’ve been drawn to, Frasier included, are things that mix both the high art and low art, or comedy and seriousness."
It was truly a pleasure to speak with David Hyde Pierce. If you'd like to read my article, just click here.

Labels: , , ,