Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Prince and the Pugilist

The King's Speech and The Fighter were released in New Zealand at the same time and there's much about them that is similar and, of course, not.

They both deal with men in a time of crisis who are then helped by another man and woman. Both have problems with their siblings. Both are triumphant.

But that is more or less where the similarities end.

Their differences are that the former is English and the latter American, the first about royalty and the second about commoners, The King's Speech a little like a filmed play and The Fighter by those who understand that you can make magic with the right  people, pictures and sound.

JG Ballard rejected being given a CBE, dismissing it as a "Ruritanian charade", but you are not going to persuade royalists that people can solve their problems without the help of a small group of people who generally do very little and talk with plummy accents.

So, apart from all that, is the film any good? Well, it wouldn't be nominated for an Oscar if it were altogether bad and Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush give absolutely flawless and touching performances.

Helena Bonham Carter, too, gives a finer performance than the loyal, supporting wife she's portrayed as in the trailer. To a non-royalist, she comes across as a lively, astute and accurate portrayal of the woman we used to see in newsreels and Firth in an interview said took 186 years to die.

Interestingly, there is a kind of geopolitical subtext to this story in that an American, Wallace Simpson, leads to the abdication of the king and a failed, lowly Australian actor, leads to his triumph. That Rush's Logue comes from Perth, which is now one of the wealthiest new districts in the Commonwealth, is a very timely coincidence indeed.

In fact, the film also holds up an unsettling mirror to Kiwi society, which on the one hand can't quite bring itself to let go of the distant mother (is)land, whereas on the other it embraces American culture just up to that point where it might get too loud.

But there are dull spots in the slower-than-its-trailer film, especially - and oddly - with Michael Gambon, playing George's overbearing father. The scene doesn't seem as well oiled as most of the other scenes are, many of which are long and some of which occasionally border on becoming a tad boring.

That fine composer, Alexandre Desplat, has been nominated for an Oscar, but his music from the dire Birth and Roman Polanski's excellent The Ghost Writer was much better - and it doesn't help that when the king of England tells his nation that they must brace for war, it is a German composer's sublime music - the immortal allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony - that fills out that speech.

Still, it's a very beautiful film, with great performances and it should at least get an Oscar for best actor.

The Fighter reminded me of sitting in a Swiss festival cinema about eight years ago and seeing a film by an Australian, Eddie Edwards, who'd been living in South Africa for a decade. I can't remember its title but it was a documentary about a black boxer from the Crossroads squatter camp in Cape Town and his low-class Afrikaans trainer.

The boxer had to win to feed his family and, it being about South Africa at one of those human rights kind of fests, I was expecting the worst. But the boxer won! And his white trainer and I laughed! Through tears! Agh!

Well, that's the kind of film The Fighter is. Golden Globe winner Christian Bale's Dicky Eklund takes you by the scruff of the neck and drags you into this lowlife boxing story and before you know it you're in love with his half-brother, Micky Ward, his girlfriend, their streetsmart Momma, her seven ugly daughters, the works.

Wahlberg's Micky slowly emerges as somewhat screwed up but always dignified. It is one of the greatest "quiet" roles played in a long time, but then he's been nominated for a producer's Oscar, since this has been his baby for a long time.

Charlene, the barmaid Micky falls in love with, played straight down the line by Amy Adams, is perfect. Her catfight on the porch with one of the sisters is almost as feral as Faye Dunaway's in Barfly, with which this film shares a great deal of addiction humour. Alice, Micky's mother, played by an unrecognizable-from-the-Homicide: Life-on-the-Streets-series Melissa Leo, is painfully on the money, peroxided hairdo and all.

She and Adams clearly deserve their nominations.

The Fighter does what a motion picture is supposed to do: it moves. It doesn't just move the action, it moves our heads and hearts in ways that are neither soppy nor royal, showing just how messy (and funny) things can get when you mix family and business, athletics and drugs.

If The King's Speech is a royalist film, then The Fighter is a people's film.

There was one moment when Wahlberg wanted to put his head against a doorpost to signify dejection. You can actually see him rejecting the notion, and that is what this film is about: avoiding every acting and boxing-film cliche you can conjure up. Unless you're a boxing historian or fanatic, you really don't know what's going to happen at the end.

If there is one minuscule criticism then it is that Dicky has his moment of rehabilitation - which for a junkie usually means admission, art or, in this case, Jesus - too briefly, and in silhouette. We needed to see his eyes receiving "the light", but the reason why he won that Globe and should get the big one is because for the first time one of his many lizard-like characters is ablaze with his illusions, failures and hopes.

In short, he is passionately human.

Neil Sonnekus

*Next week I'll review one of the Oscar contenders for best actress, Black Swan.

** Since I'll be publishing on Friday 25 February anyway - that is, two days before the Oscar evening - I'll be giving my predictions and wish list, which are like chalk and cheese. Please feel free to do so, too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Parents Are Frazzled

Picture by Leo Sonnekus

Back from a relaxing holiday at Hot Water Beach and the pleasures of sandflies, sand in the anti-itch cream, bed and ears, toe-jam showers, teenage texting and wondering - in the middle of the night - where the bladder hell you left the torch.

Then there was still the weird image of adults walking to the beach with spades, passing the tsunami evacuation route signs, gathering on the shoreline at low tide like religious zealots to start digging for that heat rising up from two kays underground into the foam.

But there was also that otherwordly massage in Whitianga after reaching it by ferry, the hollow but oddly comforting sounds of bamboo scraping in the windbreak and, finally, sunrise at the edge of the world.

It was definitely time to get back to watching movies, and The Kids Are All Right was still showing, having garnered a best actress Golden Globe for Annette Bening. But is it any good? Well yes, going forward it's great entertainment about a lesbian couple who each have a child by the same, nameless sperm donor.

Bening plays Nic, the "male", alpha, controlling or financially stable one as a doctor, and Julianne Moore plays Jules, the more "feminine", insecure, less successful one as a landscape designer. As far as I'm concerned she should have got the award for playing against type, showing a more humane side to the usual kind of role she plays. Slightly New Age ditzy, as only some LA and Cape Town types can be, but with her heart in absolutely the right place.

But now her son wants to meet his donor father and the sister is old enough to contact him legally. A meeting is set up and much hilarious awkwardness ensues. Mark Ruffalo is allowed to play the sexy man he can be, as in Jane Campion's In the Cut, but once again he is emasculated.

The reason for this is that Jules falls for him, briefly, and they have amazingly funny sex, a welcome relief from the usually embarrassing dreck that Hollywood can dish up. Naturally this causes all kinds of trouble in the household, the family, and Jules has to sleep on the couch, lower back pain and all, until she apologises.

She doesn't, however, apologise to or reinstate the Mexican gardener she fired in a fit of guilty passion.

And when Ruffalo's character, Paul, offers an apology to the children and family, it isn't accepted. He is told to go and start his own bloody family, which is a point, but only half a point. In fact, from being a rather nice, easygoing kind of guy who makes the mistake of falling for a lesbian, he is vilified, and just to underline what a bastard he is he tells his occasional sleeping partner that it's over.

Is it a coincidence that she's black and that this just goes to show what a prick he is? Maybe not, but it is a little reminiscent of those Oxfam appeals to charity which feature black peasant woman, thereby implying that poverty and victimhood are the sole province of Africans.

So, from the start it's a very funny comedy, good entertainment, a nice light way to start the year; looking back it looks like needless point-scoring in the usual battle of the sexes, using family values (which will nevertheless have every patriarchal fundamentalist choking in his beard) as its weapon.

As far as The Tourist is concerned, just how the director of the masterful The Lives of Others ended up making this dated caper only Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck will know. He has tried to make an old fashioned romantic thriller in the grand old Hollywood style, but it ends up being neither and was deservedly ripped off by Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes evening.

Angelina Jolie stutters along in her impossibly high shoes, oozing designer gowns, while Johnny Depp looks more like an EngLit associate professor, specialising in the romantic poets, than a mathematician. Yes, the idea is that he affects this character, but it's not like he suddenly goes from effete to International Man of Mystery in his last few minutes of the film.

He and Jolie are ably supported by ex-Bond Timothy Dalton and Paul Bettany, growing in stature, and controversial playwright Steven Berkoff, growing in girth and his I'm-only-reprising-my-Beverly-Hills-Cop-villain-for-the-money smile. Also, it helps having Venice as a backdrop, but we all know that Angelina is going to go back to Brad and Johnny is going to go back across the border to France.

Then, for those who like their fare much less touchy-feely, there's Unstoppable, starring the man. Or rather, that's why I went to see Denzel Washington, in his fifth movie with Tony Scott, but he wasn't quite doing the Man on Fire thing this time.

Starring alongside Chris Pine, they are going to spend time in a goods train and work out their past and present resentments while trying to stop a runaway chook-chook with chemicals on board.

Will it be a good thriller, cranking up the pace in that classic Scott mode? Yes it will. Will our engineer and conductor do the business? Of course they will. Will we remember this film tomorrow? Of course we won't. Will people still insist on seeing it? Yes they will. Why? Because it's got the man in it, playing a little too subdued with his perfect teeth for anyone's good.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, The Fighter and The King's Speech, which had better be better than its virtually tell-all trailer.