Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Director Report Card: David O. Russell (2010)

5. The Fighter

At this point in his career, David O. Russell seems to have alienated most industry people with his massive dickish behavior. His career was built on eccentric comedies so making “The Fighter,” a mainstream, true-to-life, Oscar-baiting film, was probably solely a business decision. (His next movie is a video game adaptation, so maybe it wasn’t…) I wasn’t anticipating the film, expecting a typical underdog story swiped from “Rocky.” Well, yeah, it is that, but it’s also the story of a normal guy’s relationship with his wildly dysfunctional white trash family.

Right from the beginning, Russell spices up the story with racing cameras and other tricks. There’s a lot of training montages, obviously, but there are all dynamic and a few actually got me kind of pumped. The actual boxing scenes show Russell’s talent for action. The two boxing matches near the end of the film are, in particular, extremely exciting and rousing. Russell even visually quotes “Raging Bull” without it coming off as obnoxious or obvious.

As is expected of an awards courting production such as this, the performance take center stage over everything. Mark Wahlberg, seemingly the only person who can stand Russell, is a real hit-and-miss performer. He sleepwalks through action hero roles but, when given comedy, he does better. He does a decent job, undergoes an impressive physical transformation, making Mickey a sympathetic sad sack. Christen Bale and Melissa Leo both won Oscars for their roles here. Is it warranted? Leo plays Mickey’s mother and manager, a manipulative, selfish, narrow-minded, bitter old evil shrew of a woman. She’s always surrounded by her posse of five daughters, all of which are just as trashy and stupid as she is. Leo certainly makes this despicable human being well-rounded but, as far as I’m concerned, she stole the Best Supporting Actress award from little Haliee Steinfeld.

What about Bale? He’s got the juiciest role in the movie, as the crack head has-been brother that is pretty much directly responsible for ruining Mickey’s life and career. Oh, it’s a good performance, don’t get me wrong, and Bale probably deserved the award for it. It comes off a bit like an inner city trash minstrel show but Bale, naturally, commits everything to it. But Bale has given better performance and, personally, nothing will ever top Patrick Bateman for me. Amy Adams did better then Melissa Leo, as Mickey’s supportive girlfriend. She’s had a rough life but still has the ability to see the good in people. Adams is really a strong dramatic actress who will probably be doomed to stupid leading roles in stupid rom-coms for the rest of her life, simply due to the nature of the industry.

The movie is watchable character study through the first hour, but also a somewhat depressing slug through miserable human lives. But, after Bale’s character winds up in jail and Mickey cuts his asshole family out of his life, actually gets his life together, and starts to find some success as a boxer, the movie actually becomes a legitimately inspiring true life story. The family drama ties in dramatically in the last act. “The Fighter” doesn’t completely escape the conventions of the genre but there are a number of reasons its worth watching. If this represents the next step in Russell’s career, I guess I’m okay with that. [Grade: B]

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rango (2011)

Rango (2011)
Directed by Gore Verbinski

At this point, I was just about ready to jump Good Ship Gore Verbinski. In his attempt to balance a personal visual style with a commercial viability, he’s only managed alienate me. Most days I think of him as a slightly more talented Bret Ratner. Well, “Rango” has changed my mind, at least a little bit.

For what’s ostensibly a kid’s movie, it’s surprisingly smart. It’s a little on the, what you’d call, “meta” side. Within the opening minutes, our titular lizard is talking about acting and story-telling. Soon, a metaphor-speaking mentor is introduced. (In an amusingly surreal way.) Before you know it, this movie is cracking jokes about Joepsh Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. A mariachi band of owls function as a Greek chorus, telling us what's going to happen before it does, though this somehow doesn't spoil things. Before the main story proper even gets going, we get a visual shout-out to Hunter S. Thompson. In a kid’s movie! Crazy, right? It’s clear early on that “Rango” isn’t going to throw some celeb voices and fart jokes onto funny talking animals and call it a day.

By the time our hero wanders into the town of Dirt, the movie is well on its way to feeling like a real spaghetti western. The visual style here is impressive. While most CGI features these day focus on color and brightness, “Rango” is instead characterized by grit and detail. Though obviously cartoons, the animal characters are still designed to look as realistic as possible. Often, the character designs lean more towards amusingly ugly then cartoony cute. There’s a sense of lived-in reality to the setting.

The quirkiness extends pass the character designs. Rango is a captivating protagonist. Fancying himself a dramatic actor, his true personality seems rather meek. However, as soon as he gets into the flow of a story, he fashions a bravado, building a fantastic mythology around himself. It’s soon obvious that he’s really a coward but, as these things go, the townfolks buy his story. Through coincidence and luck, Rango is soon the hero of Dirt. It’s not the most original story. (The movie even lampshades that fact several times.) But Johnny Depp vivid vocals and the movie’s high comic energy sell it.

The rest of the cast is equally strong. Isla Fisher’s Miss Beans is clearly set-up as the love interest early on and, while that does happen, the character is a head-strong, independent woman… Uh, lizard. Her physical quirk seems to be an example of indie-movie wackiness trickling down to mainstream Hollywood, but Beans is far from a Manic Pixie Dream Lizard.

Abigail Brelins doesn’t have much to do as Priscilla, the mole/rat/schoolgirl thing, but the character is a good example of ugly-cute. Ned Beatty and Ray Winstone provide appropriate weight to their villainous roles. Later, Bill Nighy, his voice almost unrecognizable, shows up as Rattlesnake Jake, a villainous old gunslinger with a Gatling gun rattler. (He even has a pencil mustache!) Nighy oozes sinister dread and aggressive anger. It's the best performance of the film and one of the better performances of Nighy's recent career.

After a very funny opening act-and-a-half, the movie gets focused on regaining the lost water. A big chase scene, which then evolves into a bat-filled aerial battle, follows. It’s honestly a little disappointing. The movie drags a bit during these sections. Naturally, it isn’t long before a conspiracy against the town is uncovered. Our hero’s true identity is revealed, the populace’s trust is betrayed, and he’s run out of town. The movie’s self-reflective streak is forgotten as our hero (metaphorically) dies, journeys into a metaphorical cave, and encounters his mentor, Clint Eastwood. (Technically Timothy Olyphant doing a very good impersonation of Man-with-No-Name era Eastwood. But you don’t realize that until the credits.) You know what happens next. Its story-telling 101. Our hero journeys back into town and saves the day. The bad guys are vanquished. The legends of the west are eulogized. All is well.

Which isn’t to say that none of this isn’t incredibly satisfying. “Rango” knows the formula and follows it, but not without adding a lot of endearing quirkiness, strong characters, and a gorgeous visual aesthetic. Powered by Hans Zimmer’s amazing straight-out-of-Sergio-Leone score, it’s a kid’s flick that’s probably too smart, too dark, and too violent for most kids. But who even cares about that. Enjoy this treat for the surprise it is. Maybe Verbinski should stick to animation. [Grade: B+]