Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Last of 2010 Roundup

I've seen four very good films in the past week in theatres. I had to see them right away because the Oscar buzz they're being lauded with and the heavy praise my friends are giving some of these pictures makes me eager to rush out to see them so I can finally make up my own mind.


The unproven boxer with the odds against him as he sets out to take the title. Been there, done that, but director David O. Russell and actors Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo make it fly. An arresting and visually striking execution of otherwise cliched material with masterful performances and a good dose of humour to balance the gritty drama make this one of the year's best surprises.


Joel and Ethan Coen, no strangers to remakes since their update of the 1955 British comedy The Ladykillers, tackle John Wayne/Henry Hathaway territory. Theirs is a version with more grit and truth than the 1969 original, although the first version was a strong picture with a great story (The Dennis Hopper scene is a compelling and dark standout.) Here the Coens stay fairly faithful to the source material, with the intermittent turn into sequences that highlight their quirky sensibilities, especially with a deliciously black ending that strays far, far away from the cozy finale of the Duke version.

The performances of the cast prove why I believe that the Academy should create a Best Ensemble category. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper and impressive newcomer Hailee Stanfield are outstanding and believable. Bridges' portrayal of Rooster Cogburn is a dirtier, grungier, cynical version of the character. His first scene is him talking to the heroine while he does his business in an outhouse behind a saloon. Look at Tron: Legacy and True Grit and you'll see Bridges further proving that he has much versitility.


I wonder if the praise Darren Aronofsky's latest film is getting makes this film sound more serious than it probably is. In the right frame of mind, Black Swan is enjoyable as a bold, operatic piece of joyful silliness. Natalie Portman goes all out in her performance as a frigid and fearful ballerina whose quest for balletic perfection leads to mental destruction...and mistaking herself for a lesbian. Her self-pleasure scene is the most erotic thing I've seen on the big screen in a long time. And am I the only one who thinks that Barbara Hershey is underrated?


Colin Firth plays King George VI, a man whose ambition to be the king Britain needs in the wake of Hitler's rise to power, is hindered by his stammering speech. The always dependable Geoffery Rush plays the speech therapist who challenges the king to overcome his disability. The two men develop a poignant friendship in the process.

This is the kind of film the Academy relishes, an historical drama about unlikely triumph, but this movie really works and it's a simple and elegant story that's consistently entertaining, moving even and funny. Danny Cohen's great cinematography adds some welcome visual flourish. Do I need to mention that Firth, Rush and Helena Bonham Carter (as the King's loving wife) are fantastic? I guess I just did. The climax is very well handled without overdoing it.

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