A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Try Going 15 Rounds With These Families

In drama on December 1, 2010 at 6:45 pm

It’s almost the holidays – well, I guess they’ve technically already started if my local Target has anything to say about it – and that means time for families. And nothing says family like in-fighting, murder, drugs, and maybe some food. The one good thing that comes from all of these things – at least in the movies – is award-season buzz. Of which both of today’s movies have in spades.

THE FIGHTER and WINTER’S BONE, are undoubtedly about family and what people will go through for the people related to them. Both are tough movies to watch – for a number of different reasons – but should definitely been seen. 

David O. Russell’s career has been full of fights of different kinds. But it can’t be said that when he comes out with a new movie, it’s not one to see. THE FIGHTER is no different. It’s gone through the paces of a number of different directors and leads, all in the effort of trying to get to the screen. Ultimately it pulls out a victory just like the lead character, Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg, who was also the champion of the story and made sure it was made) does time after time.

The story of Micky starts with him training for chance at the big-time. He’s got a good match-up and his brother Dickie (Christian Bale) training him. Well, when Dickie’s not out doing unsavory things, like smoking crack. Only on the night of the fight it’s revealed that the “black, jewish guy” Micky was supposed to fight can’t, so they’re matching him up against a guy named “Machine Gun”. (Which in boxing terms can never mean a good thing…Not that there’s really ever a time that the term “machine gun” can really be used as a positive.) Well, Micky is embarrassingly defeated. Which begins the downward spiral of breaking up his family dynamic; his brother as trainer, his mother (Melissa Leo) as manager, and no one looking out for Micky’s best interests. Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), who’s the local bar-maid and girl Micky’s got his eyes on. They come to a deal where Micky will train, but his brother’s got to stay away – which becomes easier when Dickie’s sent to jail – and eventually gets him a fight.

Despite all this, the real pull of the story isn’t the boxing. It’s about family and the title of the movie really relates to both brothers, who spend more time fighting out of the ring for their lives – the love of their mother, their children, for Dickie it’s kicking drugs, and for Micky it’s to get out of his brother’s shadow. Not to mention that there’s actually some literal, physical fighting that takes place outside the ring as well. The one thing that threw me, though was just the direction that the movie was going to take. There are certain moments – and God knows Dickie talks enough about making a comeback – that I wasn’t sure if the story was going to switch momentum and wind up with Dickie in the ring again, or what was happening. (Guess, it’s my fault for not knowing the true story.)

The true showcase of the movie, though, are the performances. Mark Wahlberg, who plays Micky, does a fine and adequate job. He’s really here to be the punching bag (that’s only slightly a pun), for the other characters to bounce off of. Amy Adams, as Charlene, continues to show new and interesting sides to her ability. It’s almost hard to imagine that this is the same woman from DOUBT, JULIE & JULIA and even TALLADEGA NIGHTS (bet you don’t remember her). Here she’s hot, a badass, snide and full of attitude. Some of her best sparring (sorry, can’t be helped) is with Melissa Leo’s character. (Personal favorite, is her actual introduction to Micky’s mother.)

Leo’s performance isn’t anything to sneeze at either. I’ll admit I haven’t seen FROZEN RIVER – which garnered her an Oscar nomination a couple years ago – or been too conscious of her other work; but she’s amazing here. She’s slimy like most boxing managers are conventionally portrayed. She continually neglects Micky in favor of either getting paid or to comfort Dicky. She also spends most of her time surrounded by a gang of her “daughters”, who are basically sounding boards for their mother. It’s all fantastic stuff, and when backed up with another great performance by Jack McGee, who plays Micky’s dad; helps to make this family as dysfunctional and imminently watchable as Russell captures them.

But the star of the show is Christian Bale. His Dickie is thin, wiry; his head full of rotting teeth, and as cracked out as you can get. It’s a pitiful sight to see through the majority of the movie. Whenever he’s confronted at his crack-den, he’ll jump out of a second-story window in order to not be seen by his mom. Not only is his performance a tragic character to see on-screen, it’s really the time that the movie comes alive. Dickie, no matter how screwed up he may be, is always “on” and willing to be the showman.

At the beginning of the movie, it’s revealed that some HBO documentarians are following Dickie as he prepares for a come-back fight (in the early eighties, he had a title shot with Sugar Ray Leonard, where Leonard was knocked down – disputably, apparently). They follow Dickie and his brother through Lowell, Massachusetts, as people gather; grab photos; get autographs and talk about what this fighting family has done for their city. Eventually, the cameramen are asked what it is that they’re actually filming Dickie for and it hits like a bomb, because it’s not as grand as he thinks it is.

THE FIGHTER is a fantastic movie, filled with great and outstanding performances. It’s heavy and packs quite a punch.

 

WINTER’S BONE, the newest movie from Debra Granik (DOWN TO THE BONE), is about Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) – a seventeen year old girl who has seemingly had to drop out of school to care for her two much younger siblings and a mother who is just this side of comatose. The movie is the story of survival in back-water America. Where most of the people that live in the same county are all related to you in one way or another, and where the only real option if you want to get away is to join the Army. Which, Ree had been looking to do. But her father who is currently awaiting a court-date for drug charges has disappeared, after having placed his house and property up as the bond for his release from jail.

The story follows Ree as she attempts to find her father and a way to keep her family in their home. Plenty of obstacles are placed in her way – mostly in the form of people that all refuse to actually help or to tell her where her dad is. I honestly, have to say this is my biggest issue with the movie; if say the story had been about a girl that comes home – from say, the Army – then these people waving her off would make sense. She’d technically be an outsider, or hardly remembered. As it is, her family is neck-deep in the community and as mentioned most of the people we meet in the movie are actually related to her. But, she’s still treated as a stranger. There certainly had to be ways for this to be worked around. (Having grown up in similar – though, definitely not exactly the same – circumstances, it just rings false.)

But, again, the key here are the performances. Lawrence, who is mostly handed a character that is never successful in her search and only winds up at the end getting in over her head, does a believable job in her role as caretaker of her siblings. The rest of the movie is filled with performers that all look familiar – Dale Dickey, Sheryl Lee – but may not be easy to place; or people that are a little shocking to see in the movie. Like Garret Dillahunt – who is criminally under-used in the movie – and John Hawkes, who is this movies Christian Bale, to an extent. For the man that played smaller-statured, less imposing part of Sol Starr in the television series DEADWOOD, here he’s incredibly scary. Going by the name “Teardrop”, he comes off as villain, and then slightly less-so. But there’s always an energy and danger to his character.

The thing that really brings Winter’s Bone alive, is a certain scene towards the end. When we finally see Ree get to the end of her journey. It’s almost comedically funny in how dark, and disturbing it gets. Obviously I’m not spoiling it here, but I didn’t see the movie quite going there when it started. I don’t necessarily know that it deserves all the acclaim that has been heaped on the movie; but it certainly fits into the subgenre of movies of this kind. Movies like SNOW ANGELS, IN THE BEDROOM, and TWO GATES OF SLEEP (seen at AFI FEST, with no seeming release date at the moment).

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