Thursday, January 27, 2011

The BC Review: Stone

I have been wanting to see the Robert De Niro and Edward Norton psychological thriller, Stone, since opening night some three or four months ago, but until last night, never got the chance. Although not quite as good as I had hoped, Stone leaves a powerful mark on the psyche. That is, for better or worse, it leaves you thinking (never a bad thing in my opinion).

Stone opens with a young couple living in suburbia circa late 1960s, an Italian man with greased hair sits in an armchair sipping Jack Daniels and watching television. His young auburn-haired wife strives to get his attention, but is rebuffed. Fast forward a few moments we see the woman carrying the couple's small child up the stairs to her bedroom, her mother tenderly kissing her before turning to leave. But for some reason the woman stops. Her attention is placed on a small fly caught in the screen of the window. She watches this fly as it furiously flaps its wings, creating a grating buzzing sound, chillingly contrasting with the quiet room and pastoral scene below the child's window.

Unable to save the trapped insect, the woman descends down the stairs. The tension builds. She enters the living room, stops, and addresses her husband. Four simple words come out - "I am leaving you." The man turns, runs up the stairs, grabs his daughter from her bed and holds her out the bedroom window, threatening to drop her. The wife pleads and promises - "I will not leave you."

We are now in present day.

We learn more about the man. His name is Jack. He is life-long prison psychiatrist three months shy of retirement. The woman, his wife Madylyn, appears broken and distant - she has learned to live a life with Jack; not a healthy or loving one, but a life.

Jack (played by Robert De Niro) is the doorway to the outside for his patients. To get 'out there', you must go through him. He's had many patients, some tough, some not so tough, some clearly described as con artists, but it is not until he meets Stone (played by Edward Norton), that he is truly challenged. Stone, a convicted arsonist, believes he has served his time (8 years out of 10-15) has a job lined up on the outside, a record of good behavior in prison, and a loving wife who has been faithfully awaiting his return. Jack has dealt with thousands just like him. Young, cocky, raring to get out. But there is something Jack does not know - Stone is a master manipulator. His one goal, his only goal, to get out, consumes him. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Edward Norton is one of the most authentic actors out there. He does not disappoint as the arsonist, adorned with tattoos on his forearms, corn rows, and piercing eyes. His portrayal of a young man with an unsavory past and not-so-hidden agenda is stirring and reminiscent of his role as a violent white supremacist in American History X. Just listening to this guy carry on in his vaguely southern accent and self-deluded grandeur makes my skin crawl. An excellent performance.

Stone both loves and uses his wife. Perhaps telling of his feelings for her, he likens his wife to an 'alien' stating she does not feel as others feel, she does not act as others act, and most events she treats as simply games. Lucetta (played by Milla Jovovich) is arguably the most interesting character in the film and Milla gives an honest and visceral performance as the strong-willed vixen.

Finally, interwoven throughout this thriller is the presence of God and the Church. It seems to guide the characters along and we experience each struggling to define what God means to him/her. The line between 'good' and 'evil' is blurred and each character makes her/his own way through the use and study of divinity - and often failing to understand its true meaning and place in their lives.

- Jack spends much of the film driving in his car, listening to preachers using radio as a powerful medium. But we see he is beginning to fall apart at the seams, visibly questioning his faith. His wife Madylyn reads every night from the Bible, often asking Jack to finish the blessings. He often loses his place.

- Stone begins to experiment with God as well, only he takes a different angle. The clear bastardization of religion.

- To Lucetta, there is no God.

Stone will leave you questioning and perhaps wanting more.

The Bee Charmer Review Rating: C -

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The BC Review: The Fighter

I suppose a celebration is in order - this is my first post of the New Year! Happy New Year everyone! Fortunately, there seem to be quite a few good flicks opening this year (and so early on) - hopefully this is telling of what the year has in store for us movie-buffs!

I am happy to report one of the first ones of the 2011, based on the true life story of Micky Ward and his brother Dickie Eklund, The Fighter, is hands down one of the best sports-themed films I've ever had the pleasure of viewing. I may even go as far as to say this is one of best films of the year (early, I know, but I'm in the gambling mood!). For those of you like myself who may not be up on the sports scene, let alone, the boxing world, I will tell you that flat out The Fighter gives you a feel for what goes on behind the scenes of the sporting world and the dynamics of family.

In the late 1980s - mid 1990s Micky Ward, hailing from Lowell, Massachusetts, was making his way into the world of boxing -- following in the foot steps of his once great half-brother, Dickie Eklund, aka "The Pride of Lowell". The Fighter is the true story of their lives, full of chaos, drama, love, sacrifice, and ultimately, enduring support for one another.

Mark Wahlberg stars as the up and coming Micky Ward. Rumors have it Wahlberg hand-picked this film, serving as its producer, and physically preparing for it - consistently training his arms, legs, and well, fists - for several years. It shows! As many of you know, I am an admiring Wahlberg fan (catch him in The Departed, Date Night, Rock Star, and Boogie Nights to name a few of his highlights), and yes, he was genuine and convincing as the Irish underdog, but paled in comparison to the real star of the film - Christian Bale.

Christian Bale plays Ward's older half-brother, Dickie Eklund, a former pro boxer who (arguably) bested the great Sugar Ray Leonard, however has fallen from grace and battles a crippling addiction to crack cocaine. Our first glimpse of Bale is in the opening scene of the film. Suffering in the sweltering summer heat, we see the camera following Micky as he does back-breaking work sweeping the streets of Lowell while Dickie follows-- jovial in mind and in spirit throwing fake punches at his kid brother. The camera pans out and we see an emaciated Bale, easily 50 lbs lighter than normal (this is no Dark Knight) with a sweat-stained shirt, backwards hat, shorts, and Timberlands. We soon learn that HBO is filming Dickie -- he is set to make a come back and is apparently a very good showman (dancing around working his fancy ringside footwork, mugging for the camera, and stopping to kiss and hug various women on the street). Bale truly transforms into what we can all imagine the real Dickie would look like -- a battered crack addict with a glory-filled past and a not-so-bright future.

Amy Adams lends her charm to the film as well. Playing Micky's girlfriend, Charlene, sassy red-headed bar tender who partied too much and dropped out of college. Charlene is dynamic - it's evident she loves Micky and she is strong, constantly battling Micky's (on all accounts crazy) family. Starting with Micky's no less than six sisters (some real, some half, some adopted) and Micky's mother/manager, Alice, expertly played by Melissa Leo, and of course, Dickie. But she does it well - she loves her man, she sticks by him, and she teaches him that love comes in all forms.

Finally, we come to Micky and Dickie's mom, Alice Ward, played by Melissa Leo. Alice is exactly what one would expect of a woman who's lived a hard life and tries to do what's best for her family but just can't get out of her own way to see the damage she is doing to them. Alice is bleach blond, chain smoking, loud, and if nothing else, ambitious. She manages Micky and she'll be damned if anyone else will take her place (even if it means putting her son's future in jeopardy). We want to hate Alice for what she does to her son (mostly Micky, but Dickie has suffered at her hands too) but in the end we do see she is a mother with nothing but the best intentions.

In addition to the actors (all of whom deserve an award nomination - Bale and Adams likely an award win), there are two factors that put this film at the top of my list for best film of the year.

1. The locale
2. The cinematography

As I mentioned, the film takes place in Lowell. As my friends from Massachusetts put it - Lowell is easily considered the "deep south" of MA. Everything from the accents (think Boston with a much harsher sound) to the clothing (circa late 1980s-early 1990s), to the make-up (lots of eye shadow and pink lip gloss), to the hair (easily the best part of the sisters- huge bangs sticky with hairspray), and even the bar, feel authentic. It's as if the audience is transplanted from our cozy AMC seats to the gritty streets of Lowell 25 years ago.

The second aspect that makes this film great is the cinematography. As we see Micky slowing climbing the ladder to success the audience is taken on that journey with him through time. When we see Ward fighting in the arena during a televised event the film quality itself actually changes and it looks as though we are watching him fight not only on television, but on our old tube television complete with old school HBO graphics, sound quality, lighting, and music. This level of detail takes the film to an entirely new place and in this reviewer's opinion, firmly secures its place at the award winners' table.

The Fighter is recommended for fans of the sports biopic, dramas, and of course The Dark Knight and Marky Mark.

The Bee Charmer Review Rating: A