I was a little hesitant when I first heard about this one; I'm a big fan of David O. Russell, but this seemed like an obvious attempt to play nice for the studios and make a mainstream crowdpleaser to rehabilitate his image, following a box office flop and some very unflattering behind the scenes footage of his approach to directing actors. The Fighter was produced by Darren Aronofsky, and after the critical/commercial/awards success of his The Wrestler, I couldn't help but see this as a transparent attempt to repeat the formula. Is it? Maybe. Did Russell sand down some of his rough edges in the process? Sure. But as far as crowdpleasers go, this is a keeper. Russell may be playing nice, but one of the joys of The Fighter is how he still manages to build up a lot of manic energy in the performances and the story, which is sort of his trademark and I'm glad he didn't downplay it. The show-offy stuff goes to Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, and especially Christian Bale (the consummate overactor) in the supporting cast, but it's the good kind of show-off. Lead actor Mark Wahlberg, after his live-wire turn in Russell's I Heart Huckabees, gives one of his most restrained performances, going for an unshowy naturalism that helps ground the film.
Speaking of Aronofsky, he was never a filmmaker of subtlety or tact, but he never needed to be. Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain are all bold, blunt objects, but gloriously, excitingly so. Personally, I've never much valued taste or class in my films, so I was all set for an unhinged, overwrought ballet-themed melodrama from the modern king of cinematic audacity. Black Swan is good fun with a lot of good atmosphere, and I was happy to discover that it plays at least 30% like a horror movie, always a plus with me. Yet, possibly due to the level of hype this film generated, I was little disappointed by the final result. It's big, crazy, messy and fearlessly unsubtle (all good things), but I would have appreciated some degree of ambiguity or mystery. It's a story told from the POV of a character who is losing their mind, yet it never really plays with reality in any provocative ways: the audience is always basically aware of what is real and what isn't. When the end came, to my dismay I felt as though I understood everything about the film; it had no mysteries left for me to discover. It's a glistening, dazzling surface, but surface is all it is, and it was out of my head practically as soon as we left the theater.
I Love You Phillip Morris
Not really a prestige film, though as unlikely as it is, I honestly think Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor could garner some awards nominations if this film gets more attention. The directorial debut of the writers of Bad Santa, I Love You Phillip Morris is a reasonably entertaining true-crime con man story that suggests Catch Me If You Can rewritten as a dark, foul-mouthed comedy. It's treatment of homosexuality is a little juvenile in places (a few too many punchlines seem to consist of nothing more than two men being intimate, as if that's immediately funny), but what's admirable is how the love between Carrey and McGregor's characters is treated with sincerity, leading to a few unexpectedly heavy dramatic scenes between the two of them in the later stretches of the film. Not a strong recommendation, but worthwhile to those seeking a good comedy after a year that felt a little dry for the genre.
I've never read the novel, but I have seen the John Wayne film, and was surprised at just how closely this remake sticks to it. And yet somehow still the Coens have come up with something special, a western that feels like both a throwback and a revision; it keeps the original film's flip humor and deliberate, bon mot-filled dialogue, while adding a harsh layer of tough violence (I have no idea how this film got a PG-13). The Coens' mix of playfulness and unsentimental brutality, told with their typical attention to detail and painstaking craft, is a potent combo. Their films in the past have often been challenging and purposefully unsatisfying; this is their most mainstream and conventional film (at least since their lackluster comedies of the early 00's), and yet it is a great, tremendously entertaining mainstream film that will likely have a spot on my list of the year's best.
Finally, just a quick shout-out to J.T. Petty's S&MAN (pronounced "sandman"), a documentary about perverse, violent underground horror movies that SPOILERS turns into something of a horror movie itself, when one of his documentary subjects starts dropping hints that maybe his films aren't exactly faked. Petty has made some good horror films himself, but this one really announces itself as something special. It's a mix of actual documentary footage with staged footage meant to look like a documentary; sort of a mix between tired horror fakumentary movies like Paranormal Activity and is it real or is it fake docs like this year's excellent Exit Through the Gift Shop. The staged footage wasn't quite convincing enough to trick me for long, but that's hardly the point. It's a thoughtful, occasionally tense film about the nature of cinematic violence, with questions about cinematic "realism" that kinda tie into some of the discussions we've had on this blog lately. A mix of genuinely interesting documentary and clever meta-commentary, it's not perfect, but I do think a must-see for fans of the genre.