Year-End Movie Reviews Pt. 1: TRON Legacy, The Fighter, How Do You Know, The King's Speech

Time is running out on the year and I’m already behind so rather than give you full reviews of each film, I’ll give you a little taste of my thoughts.  Feel free to chime in and share yours.  And check back at the end of the year for Pt. 2 of these reviews (including Yogi Bear, True Grit) and my official Best Of/Worst Of 2010 post.  Will any of the following make the cut?

I’d been looking forward to this sequel to the 1982 original TRON all year.  I’d easily count it as my most anticipated film of 2010.  Before seeing it, Julie warned me to lower my expectations.  She had no basis for this – she just didn’t want to see me get my heart broken (cough, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, cough).  Having seen it now, TRON Legacy is not a huge disappointment – it delivers solidly in the visual effects department and neon cool production design.  It looks amazing.  When it sticks to action – light cycle chases, disc fights, etc. – it scores.  There are moments in Legacy where I could feel a big fat stupid smile on my face, and felt like a little kid again.  I loved, LOVED the heavy synth-electronic score by Daft Punk.  Best musical score of the year, if you ask me.  But how’s the plot?  The less said the better.  Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn.  As the movie opens, Flynn is missing – lost in the “Grid” of the video game he helped create – and it’s up to his son Sam to find and rescue him.  Yes, the plot sucks.  But it wouldn’t be a big deal if the filmmakers didn’t focus on it so much.  Instead, they stop the kinetic eye candy action sequences and stop the movie dead in its tracks with lumbering exposition which takes up the whole second half.  I’m not asking for much – the barest narrative thread to connect light cycle chases that continually mount in tension and scale.  That’s what I want in a TRON movie.  That’s not what I got.  And while a sequel is definitely hinted at (why else is Cillian Murphy seen in such a small role?) and the potential is there, it remains a bit unrealized at this point.  
THE FIGHTER (****1/2)
I don’t know what it is with boxing as a sport (the violence, the physical/mental toll, the adversity, the training), but for some reason, almost every major boxing film is quality.  Think about it: Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man – great movies all, and you can now add The Fighter to that list.  Though it has elements of the cliched sports drama, The Fighter transcends the limitations of the genre and succeeds by focusing on the familial dynamics of one boxer – Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) – and how his family members bring him down and alternately raise him up, as he sets out to win a Title.  This is by and large an actors’ showcase and the entire cast is awards-worthy, none more so than the never-nominated Christian Bale as Ward’s brother and trainer (and heroin addict) Dicky Eklund.  Dicky is a magnetic personality – and Bale, in another awe-inspiring physical transformation (a la The Machinist), rips into the role and commands the screen.  He’s touching, funny, haunting – Bale is a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nom, and should win.  Equally impressive is Amy Adams – cast way against type as a tough bartender who stands in Micky’s corner and up against his family.  You’ve never seen her like this before.  Melissa Leo does plenty with the domineering stage mom role and also earns her keep.  All three are so good, in fact, that Wahlberg – in the least showy performance – just kind of keeps things simple and gets out of the way of his co-stars.  If there’s a knock against The Fighter, it’s that it mines thematic territory we’ve seen before (think Rocky meets Rounders) – but director David O. Russell keeps the movie lively, funny, and – always – human.
How do you know when a writer-director has lost his mojo?  You pay $10 to see this, James L. Brooks’ follow-up to 2004’s brilliant-in-comparison Spanglish.  First things first – Brooks is a genius.  He’s behind some of the greatest television sitcoms of all time.  He can list Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets on his film resume.  Having said that, you won’t see any genius on display in How Do You Know, a limp, unfunny romantic comedy that strains for laughs, emotion, and relevance.  At its core, How Do You Know is a love triangle between recently cut softball player Reese Witherspoon, major league reliever Owen Wilson, and disgraced corporate executive Paul Rudd.  All three are fine actors – but Brooks does them no favors here.  Witherspoon is particularly horrendous, over-emoting up a storm as Brooks stays behind the camera, letting reaction shots go on for 5-10 seconds too long.  Rudd, normally likeable in just about everything, tests that theory by playing a flailing idiot – a character meant to be endearing to the audience, but without the funny to make him palatable.  Don’t even get me started on Jack Nicholson, who’s clueless and just plain lazy here, delivering every line as a lecture and using the same stupid gesture: index finger touching thumb, right hand moving forward and back.  Only Owen Wilson as the egotistic, casually misogynistic doofus manages to wring any laughs out of the material.  I use the word “laughs” loosely. You won’t laugh – instead, Wilson lets you see the kernel of the joke that Brooks intended.  The dialogue is obvious and overwritten.  The whole movie plays like you’ve got a front seat at a bad community theater production of a new playwright’s show. Given the talent, the $100 million budget (spent on what?!!!!), and Brooks’ reputation, this is a huge misfire – so big that it qualifies as one of the worst of the year. 
This is the kind of movie programmed to win Oscars.  It’s smartly written, well-acted, gorgeously shot, scored and designed, and, as an added measure, it throws in a WWII subplot to further boost its chances.  Colin Firth is fantastic as the stuttering, speech-impaired King George VI of Britain.  It’s a performance that could easily go overboard and become unwatchable – Firth is anything but that.  He is equally matched by Geoffrey Rush, as a failed actor-turned-speech therapist.  The scenes between Firth and Rush crackle with the wit and verve of a well-written chamber piece.  Most scenes are set in one location and are dialogue-driven (typically involving only two characters), so you wouldn’t be crazy to think that this is an adaptation of a play.  It’s not, and director Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams miniseries) doesn’t treat it as such.  He uses a wide variety of low angle shots and off-center framing techniques to add some visual intrigue to the picture.  The score by Alexandre Desplat is regal and inspiring.  All in all, it’s a great story, well told.  So why wasn’t I more taken with it? I think because as good as The King’s Speech is, it lacks a certain excitement.  Given its competition for Best Picture (and if you’ll believe the prognosticators, The King’s Speech is a strong contender), the movie seems awfully quaint.  Retro, even.  it doesn’t push the filmmaking medium any further – there’s nothing cutting edge about it.  Older audiences will lap it up.  But it just feels a tad too safe and predictable to me.

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