Catching up to the Winter (2010) releases, as I do inevitably every Spring (2011), always yields belated Christmas gifts of confirmations and surprises. In the case of the latter, I had avoided The Fighter because the idea of a go-for-it Oscar-bait true-story boxing movie shot with epileptic camerawork and performed by a hollering Boston-accented cast seemed almost as appealing as a nail drilled through my head -- indeed, the director, David O. Russell, took up the project only after his latest unbankable black comedy on that very subject (Nailed, starring Jessica Alba), was aborted by the studio. I should have had more faith, though. Beantown stepbrothers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) are indeed followed by a camera crew filming an HBO documentary, but Russell keeps the integrity of his own superb framing, maintains his own humorously-askanced yet emotionally-invested point-of-view.
Russell's approach is beautifully in-synch with his star, Wahlberg, who occupies the still center of a familial storm that includes drug-addled Dicky, emasculated father George (Jack McGee), seven scary sisters and an even more terrifying matriarch Alice (Melissa Leo). Dicky, a former welterweight who once gave Sugar Ray Leonard a run for his money, is the central figure of the HBO doc, and for a while this conceals the predictability of Micky's sports-triumph arc, adds a layer of comedy and complication to what becomes ultimately Micky's story. At 31, Micky, a plowhorse junior welterweight, knows that his days as a contender are nearing an end, and is forced to consider whether his loyalty to what his advising barmaid girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) and encroaching boxing professionals call "the circus" -- his brother-trainer and mother-manager -- is keeping him from fulfilling his potential.
The Fighter is Russell's most commercial movie since Three Kings (1999), and just as that film made compromises to the war genre (including an upbeat ending that the director himself has expressed misgivings about), so too does this one embrace sports movie cliches. The boxing matches, filmed in the same ESPN style in which they were originally telecast, offer little strategy beyond the dubious Rocky notion that getting beaten to a pulp makes you stronger. Fortunately, The Fighter also marks a return to the comedies of family suffocation with which Russell launched his career. Both Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996) are about characters trapped in families they are desperate to escape; The Fighter extends this theme into the effect of parents and siblings on one's vocation, with Alice and Dicky depicted as hyper-supportive, well-meaning individuals who don't know when to back off. The histrionics of Bale and Leo in their respective roles have come under some criticism, and while I found the latter's Oscar campaign particularly odious, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed their performances. They play their characters as constantly circling, negatively-charged electrons, no doubt precisely what their director had in mind. David O. Russell may be a thug, a bully, and a maniac, but The Fighter shows, once again, that he's also enough of an artist to examine how he got there.
If nothing else, the over-the-top dynamism of The Fighter makes a refreshing tonic to Never Let Me Go, a drizzly, plinky thing about a trio of nearly-human clones who accept a cruel fate as organ-donors the jolly-old-English way: because to revolt would be rude. Adapting a reportedly hugely popular 2005 novel (I have to take that at its word more and more these days) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Danny Boyle's favorite screenwriter Alex Garland fashions a common love triangle whose uncommon elements are barely emphasized or explored. At the telegraphically-named Hailsham boarding school, young
Harry, Ron and Hermione Kathy, Tommy and Ruth become, at various turns, friends, love interests, and romantic rivals; yet not even growing up to be played by well-bred twentysomething movie stars like Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley is enough to deter their destinies as "donors." True love may, possibly, be grounds for a "deferral," a rumored pardon to be granted by the enigmatic school headmaster (an underused Charlotte Rampling). But, alas, Kathy and Tommy are kept apart by Ruth's machinations, until a reunion years later gives them One Last Chance.
Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of the Day, adapted into a fine 1993 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The Merchant/Ivory imprimatur was often misinterpreted as mannered: their best work (including Remains) conveyed the tension between stoic appearances and emotions roiling beneath the surface. Never Let Me Go is too refined to roil. The director, Mark Romanek, has had a long career with the likes of Madonna and The Red Hot Chili Peppers(not to mention a foray into feature films with the terrible Robin Williams stalker-picture One Hour Photo); I never thought I'd use this as a criticism, but he brings nothing that he's learned from directing music videos to the table. Scenes are static; the editing is uninspired; the score, by Rachel Portman, is the same piano-based tuneage she always delivers (Emma, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, et al.). Mulligan and Garfield are pleasant as star-crossed Kathy and Tommy, Knightley effectively unpleasant as the scheming Ruth. Although she could have easily played the lead, Knightley was shrewd to take a smaller part that pays bigger dividends -- a jealous, insecure young woman whose motives are so ambiguous that her final act of manipulation could be taken either way as an act of penance or vengeance. It's the kind of unsympathetic performance in a drearily tasteful movie that would have made Pauline Kael pull her finger out of her throat in admiration.
Kael once quipped that she retired because "The thought of sitting through another Oliver Stone movie was too much to bear." That was during Stone's early-90s age of agitprop, with JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon sending film critics running from early screenings to the nearest CNN panel discussion. Yet modern American cinema's most controversial director has been accused more recently of toothlessness, which Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps does sadly little to dispel. It's a deeply strange movie, with an odd piggy-back structure that keeps Gordon Gekko, its ostensible uber-villain and sole reason for existence, on the sidelines before suddenly vaulting him to the top of the pyramid. (The easily distracted screenplay was co-written, ironically, by former critic and Kael apostle Stephen Schiff.) With Michael Douglas appearing only incrementally to spit his lines and waggle his eyebrows, Shia LaBeouf, as Gekko's latest young pawn and prospective son-in-law, engaged to his lefty-pixie daughter (Carey Mulligan again), is required to hold our interest for the majority of the running-time, an inadvisable strategy no matter how many Hollywood pictures continue to use it.
The original Wall Street (1987) is minor Oliver Stone, but it made for entertaining melodrama and served as a warmup for the full-bore multimedia assaults he would come to helm a few years later. Money Never Sleeps features even more intricate split-screen sequences (complete with Stone cameo) and is amazingly smooth on a visual level for a story that narratively makes no sense. Stone's father, of course, was a stockbroker, and this might explain the weird sentimentality of the movie, which transforms Gordon Gekko from the kind of shark who devoured old-school financiers like Stone Senior into, essentially, the patriarch himself. Is Greed Good? is the title of Gekko's fresh-out-of-prison bestseller, an apparently rhetorical question, given our economic climate, belied by an unexpected answer: Yes, when tempered with a pregnancy ultrasound photo.