Monday, January 31, 2011

Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!

This year's roster of Best Director nominees includes three of the "Rebels on the Backlot," the filmmakers profiled in Sharon Waxman's book of the same name who emerged in the past 20 years and helped blur the line between independent and studio filmmaking. It's exciting to see the mavericks of my formative years of movie love - filmmakers like David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky - celebrated by mainstream Hollywood for making films that speak to wide audiences even as they retain their directors' distinctive voices. Among them is David O. Russell, the director of The Fighter, who has bounced back from the never-completed comedy Nailed to make a boxing movie that, in a subgenre riddled with cliches, is surprisingly affecting. Equal parts Rocky and Truffaut, with a pitch-perfect sense of character and location, The Fighter is the rare crowd-pleasing sports movie that never talks down to its audience.

Based on the true story of Mickey Ward, a junior welterweight from Lowell, Massachusetts, The Fighter begins with Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) struggling in the ring and stuck in the shadow of his half-brother and sparring partner, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). A former pro welterweight who became addicted to crack, Dicky’s old glories, along with his domineering mother Alice’s (Melissa Leo) mismanagement of his career, lead to Ward’s retreat from boxing. As Mickey is inspired by new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) to take control of his life in and out of the ring, The Fighter escapes familiar territory largely thanks to the film’s excellent use of Lowell as a location. Russell blends strong character work with a carefully observed portrait of the film’s working-class neighborhoods; the verisimilitude goes so far as to have Ward’s real-life trainer Mickey O’Keefe play himself. The film follows these characters and their city with a close-up, character driven visual style (influenced by the French New Wave) that brings to mind the handheld approach of The Wrestler (Aronofsky was originally going to direct The Fighter and retains an executive producer credit). What separates The Fighter from The Wrestler and most other sports movies is the light comic touch Russell brings to the material, presenting Dicky and the rest of Mickey’s family with a lightness that avoids the story’s potential for melodrama and shows a profound sense of respect for Mickey, his family and his hometown.

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Mickey and Dicky, and both actors are terrific. Interesting that it took playing a crackhead for Bale to lighten up; he captures the likeable, slightly na├»ve charm of the real Dicky. Wahlberg (who shepherded Ward’s story to the screen) hasn’t received as much praise as Bale, but he’s just as good as the slightly introverted Mickey; surrounded by bigger, louder characters, he demonstrates why listening is the most important tool an actor has. It would be clear to any director that the brothers’ relationship drives the film; what Russell brings to The Fighter that other directors might overlook is the importance the women in Mickey’s life. Alice at first seems monstrous, but Leo’s performance gradually reveals the great love she has for her sons, even if she puts it in the wrong places (Jack McGee is also great, and hilarious, as Mickey's henpecked dad). The veritable Greek chorus of Mickey’s many sisters are hilarious and completely believable. And Amy Adams is great as Charlene - turns out she’s as good at playing earthy and self-reliant as she is at playing princesses, and the scenes between her and Wahlberg are surprisingly sexy. It’s the three-dimensional portrait of Mickey’s complicated family that makes The Fighter work; when the inevitable climatic fight arrives, the victory belongs to the whole family. Russell has long specialized in examinations of dysfunctional families; it’s nice to see the director arriving at an honest, fully earned portrait of a family coming together.

Having started making movies in the 1980s, the Coen brothers are a sort of spiritual link between the maverick directors of the ‘70s and the new bunch. They’ve also found themselves being accepted into the mainstream in recent years; their newest film, True Grit, is their first unqualified blockbuster (as well as the first smash hit western in decades). Based on the Charles Portis novel previously adapted into the movie that won John Wayne the Oscar, True Grit finds the Coens bringing their unique sensibility to the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who hires grizzled U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the dim-witted crook who killed her dad. Watching the original on AMC a few weeks ago, I was struck by how close the two films are, almost scene-for-scene, and yet the movies feel completely different - it’s a fascinating reminder that what matters most is not the story itself but how it is told. Whereas director Henry Hathaway staged True Grit as a sun-drenched adventure yarn, the Coens have made a rouge-edged, unsparing and thrillingly alive western, with a Cogburn that speaks in a often-indecipherable growl and finds his heroism almost accidentally (frankly, Bridges mops the floor with the Duke).

But while the brothers’ offbeat sense of humor is definitely present in the film (few other filmmakers would have included the “bear doctor” scene), its lack of ironic distance makes it a departure for the filmmakers. It’s not an anti-western in the No Country For Old Men vein; while it has a wry sense of humor about Cogburn and Texas Ranger Laboeuf’s (Matt Damon) macho posturing, it’s also driven by a very real romantic admiration for true heroism. Snobs have branded the film a sell-out for the Coens, but this stems from the common incorrect reading of their films as misanthropic – from Norville Barnes to Marge Gunderson, the Coens have always been on the side of the good guys, even when (like Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell) they prove outmatched. If anything, it represents the directors growing more diverse; as skilled as they are at being smartasses, it’s exciting to witness them go straight for the heart. They succeed largely thanks to Bridges and Damon, and especially Steinfeld, who is astonishingly assured as the strong, self-reliant Mattie. It’s a greatly entertaining adventure, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins (as if I needed to tell you that), and, in its final minutes, it reveals itself as unexpectedly heartwarming. After the socks to the gut that were their last several endings, it’s just as bracing to find the brothers arriving at a moment of grace; if that doesn’t represent growth in an artist, I don't know what does.


jennifer said...

I really like how much care you take in each analysis. And the fighter rocked.s

contactos madrid said...

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generalpervaizmusharraf said...

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