Opening this week, the mixed martial arts movie Warrior follows all the rules of a boxing movie. Mixed martial arts is basically the boxing of our day, and for it to be good, it has to be good in the way boxing movies are good. And what does that mean?
In criticizing David O. Russell’s eminently classical boxing movie The Fighter, a friend of mine said, “All boxing movies are the same—it always comes down to one last fight, and you always now the hero’s going to win.” That is, of course, true. But like a perfectly executed offensive move in football, classically structure stories work even if you know what’s coming. Boy and girl end up together, the good guy beats the aliens, and the through their trials and tribulations the odd couple find common ground. That’s how it works. And when it’s done well you’re gonna cry. Major chords make you happy. Minor chords make you sad. Aesthetic determinism. Yeah, I said it. I’ll say it again: aesthetic determinism.
It may be that because the central image of a boxing movie is so simple that some people think that the movies themselves are simplistic. All of the work on character and theme and historical whatever end up being represented by two guys in a ring beating each other bloody, and the meaning of the whole thing boils down to who wins the fight. In other words the impact of a fight movie has to do with the moviemaker’s skill in packing that last fight with as much meaning as possible.
Rocky’s pretty simple, but perfectly effective. The Fighter similarly so, with a powerful new level of meaning added when we see that only by incorporating the lessons of his brother Dickey can Mickey win his fight. In Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese creates a kind of anti-boxing movie, ending with Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta shadowboxing backstage at a comedy club.
My favorite ending to a boxing movie is in Martin Ritt’s 1970 film version of Howard Sackler’s masterful play The Great White Hope. The movie tells the story of Jack Jefferson, a thinly veiled version of legendary African-American boxer Jack Johnson. James Earl Jones plays Jefferson with a studied power, giving a performance that earned him a Tony and Academy nod.
Sackler and Ritt spend their efforts on solid character-based storytelling rather than historicizing and moralizing – and their choices lead to a taught, harrowing, and perfectly told story of freedom and love. That said, Ken Burns called his documentary on Jack Johnson Unforgivable Blackness, and that’s a lot of what goes on in The Great White Hope.
But it’s a boxing movie, so all of the narrative thrust of the film is contained in the last fight. I won’t give too much away by saying that for Jack Jefferson that last fight is a no-win situation. No matter what he does, he loses. Like Jefferson’s life, like Johnson’s life, like many people’s life, the meaning of the man comes not in whether he wins or loses but in how he fights. It’s a masterful reversal of the notion that winning or losing is what makes the end of a fight movie worthwhile.
Because it’s true that every boxing movie ends the same way. They all end with a fight. But like every other genre form, it’s all about how you use the conventions to tell your own story. Win, lose, whatever, the fight movie when done well can still move you to tears. Even if you know who’s going to win that last fight.
In this era of remakes and reboots writer-director J.J. Abrams is here to introduce a third option: the throwback. Though ostensibly an original work his new film Super 8 is meticulously designed to appear as otherwise. Its intent which it makes no effort to hide is to mine our nostalgia for the early oeuvre of Steven Spielberg to invoke our affection for films like E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even Jaws. Should Mr. Spielberg be concerned? Hardly: He’s complicit in the scheme. The presence of his name atop the poster and his production company Amblin in the opening credits doesn’t just bestow credibility; it embeds the association in our memory making the bridge between what is and what was that much shorter.
Super 8 is set in 1979 – a creative decision which affords a measure of built-in nostalgia and allows the filmmakers to sidestep modern narrative nuisances like cell phones and Google – in the fictional working class community of Lillian Ohio. Our hero our embodiment of those prized (and I believe copyrighted) Spielbergian virtues of youthful innocence and wonder and unbounded curiosity is Joe Lamb (wonderful newcomer Joel Courtney) a polite earnest boy made all the more sympathetic by the recent death of his mother a steelworker in a workplace accident. Joe’s home life is rather dreary – his father Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is too immersed in grief to be much of a parent – so he jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his mates shooting a DIY zombie movie.
They gather one night at a local train station to shoot a key scene for which they’ve pulled off the minor coup of convincing a pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead. But the camera has scarcely started to roll when a passing train collides head-on with a pickup truck. resulting in perhaps the most over-the-top train crash I’ve ever seen on film an interminable sequence of ever-escalating vehicular carnage that would make the Final Destination folks gasp.
The driver of the truck that caused the crash is revealed to be the kids’ science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Bloodied but still breathing he delivers them an ominous warning: “Do not speak of this. They will kill you.” We learn who “they” are soon enough when hordes of soldiers members of a top-secret branch of the Air Force descend upon the crash site to comb the wreckage.
Shortly thereafter the town is beset by strange unexplained phenomena. Engines disappear from cars. Dogs flee en masse. Worst of all townsfolk are vanishing abductees of a creature glimpsed only in shadow and yet utterly terrifying nonetheless. We need not see the monster to know its fearsomeness: All of the scare scenes are expertly choreographed by Abrams the score shot and sound design fine-tuned for maximum menace.
Chaos and panic spread. Believing the mysterious events and the train crash to be related Joe and his pals decide to mount their own investigation. With each successive clue they gather the implications of the conspiracy become clearer and they are soon on the verge of a revelation that will change their lives – and indeed the world – forever.
Super 8’s genre spread is staggering. The film is equal parts sci-fi epic conspiracy thriller creature feature coming-of-age drama and teen comedy. (You can even add “zombie flick” if you include the film-within-a-film.) The mish-mash isn’t so much a problem in the first half of the film – Abrams is such a gifted storyteller that he handles massive tone shifts with almost laughable ease – but as the story gathers steam it has more and more difficulty reconciling its disparate elements. More than once in the third act does Super 8 teeter on the edge of Shyamalanism only to pull back at the last moment.
The film is surprisingly affecting but never in a cynical or manipulative way. (This is a minor miracle.) Abrams’ secret weapon in this regard – and easily the film’s best feature – is his cast of child actors who are universally superb. Their interactions feel genuine their comic rapport natural and unforced. Fanning in particular is wondrous. At this point calling her a “child actor” feels somehow belittling as her talent easily outpaces that of the majority of her adult counterparts.
Their efforts are largely betrayed by an ending that feels false. A hasty and belated attempt is made to turn the creature into a sympathetic figure followed by a denouement drenched in artificial sentiment with smiles and hugs and assurances both stated and implied that everything is going to be all right from now on. It’s an ending that Spielberg might have been able to pull off but Abrams is no Spielberg. Not yet.
Oscar favourite Natalie Portman, whose portrayal of a troubled and dedicated ballet dancer in the film has won her global acclaim, was named Best Actress, while Black Swan also picked up Best Feature, Best Director for Darren Aronofsky and Best Cinematography.
James Franco's performance in 127 Hours made him the surprise winner of the Best Actor prize, beating the seemingly unstoppable Colin Firth, who has swept the board for his role in The King's Speech throughout awards season.
Drama Winter's Bone, which led the nominations with seven nods, only managed to pick up two honours: Best Supporting Male for John Hawkes and Best Supporting Female for Dale Dickey.
The full list of winners is as follows:
Best Feature: Black Swan
Best Director: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Best Male Lead: James Franco, 127 Hours
Best Female Lead: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Male: John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Best Supporting Female: Dale Dickey, Winter's Bone
Best First Feature: Get Low
Best Screenplay: Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right
Best First Screenplay: Lena Dunham, Tiny Furniture
Best Cinematography: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Robert Altman Award: Please Give
Best Documentary: Exit Through the Gift Shop
Best Foreign Film: The King's Speech
John Cassavetes Award: Daddy Longlegs
Acura Someone to Watch Award: Mike Ott, Littlerock
Aveeno Truer Than Fiction Award: Jeff Malmberg, Marwencol
Piaget Producers Award: Anish Savjani, Meek's Cutoff.
Director Debra Granik's film, about a young woman's search for her drug dealer father, will compete for Best Picture against ballet movie Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, James Franco's survival drama 127 Hours, Ben Stiller's Greenberg and Annette Bening's The Kids Are All Right.
Winter's Bone star Jennifer Lawrence will battle it out with Bening and Portman for Best Actress, in addition to Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole) and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine).
Franco and Stiller are among those tipped for Best Actor, alongside Ronald Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs), Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole) and John C. Reilly (Cyrus).
Winter's Bone also earns nods for Best Cinematography, Best Director for Granik, and Best Screenplay for the filmmaker and her co-writer Anne Rosellini, while Lawrence's co-stars John Hawkes and Dale Dickey have been recognised in the supporting actor and actress categories, respectively.
The Kids Are All Right is the second most-nominated film with five, including Best Supporting Actor for Mark Ruffalo.
Organisers announced the nominees on Tuesday (30Nov10).
To be eligible for an Independent Spirit nod, all films must have been made for less than $20 million (£12.5 million). Movies must have either screened at a major film festival including Sundance, Toronto or Film Independent's own Los Angeles Film Festival or had a one-week engagement at a commercial theatre.
The awards will be handed out in Santa Monica, California on 26 February (10), a day before the Oscars.
Director Debra Granik's acclaimed new movie stars Jennifer Lawrence as an impoverished teen who goes in search of her drug dealer father after learning he's put the family home up as a bail bond.
The chilling tale proved to be a hit with judges at the Gotham event, which is considered by many to open the awards season, taking home the best picture award ahead of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and Annette Bening and Julianne Moore's family drama The Kids Are All Right. Blue Valentine and Let Me In were also nominated in the category.
Winter's Tale went on to claim the Best Ensemble Performance for its cast, which also includes John Hawkes, Dale Dickey and Lauren Sweetser, although Lawrence lost out on the Breakthrough Actor title to Daddy Longlegs star Ronald Bronstein.
Speaking about her film's win, Granik tells the Hollywood Reporter, "The year started with getting recognition at Sundance, so that was a very intense night. It doesn't get any easier, though, to win awards."
Kevin Asch was named Breakthrough Director for Holy Rollers, a drama about an Orthodox Jew who embarks on a career as a drug pusher, while Laura Poitras' study on the war on terrorism in The Oath was hailed as Best Documentary.
Education system documentary Waiting For Superman earned the Festival Genius Audience Award, which was determined by online voting, and Mike Ott's Littlerock scored the prize for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.
In addition to the competitive awards, Hilary Swank, Robert Duvall, Aronofsky and movie mogul James Schamus were each presented with a career tribute.
Honouring his Get Low co-star Duvall, Bill Murray told the crowd, "He is better than all of you... He is better than me, too."
Black Swan star Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Leighton Meester and Anthony Mackie were also among the guests at the 20th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards, hosted by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci and held at Manhattan's Cipriani Wall Street restaurant.
Last year's (09) Best Feature winner, The Hurt Locker, went on to win the Oscar's Best Picture prize.
What no "giant sea pods" this time? Instead The Invasion skews the Body Snatchers scenario by making the alien invasion a virus rather than plant life. Said virus which comes to Earth via a mysterious crash of a space shuttle is transmitted by some form of bodily fluid-to-bodily fluid connection. For example throwing up into people's faces or coffee cups is a fun way to spread the disease. The end result however is the same: Once the infected person falls asleep they undergo a transformation and wake up looking the same but are unfeeling and inhuman—and ready to organize. As the infection spreads and more and more people are altered there are a few humans left fighting for their lives including psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her doctor friend Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). Carol’s only hope is to stay awake long enough to find her young son who may hold the key to stopping the devastating invasion. But we won’t tell you how. OK it has something to do with an immunity but that’s all we are going to say. Nicole Kidman has had a string of bad luck since winning that damn Oscar for The Hours. One wonders if maybe the golden statuette might actually be a curse (Cuba Gooding Jr. anyone?). Still regardless of the movie--be it Bewitched The Stepford Wives or Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus--Kidman manages to turn in a decent performance. The same goes for The Invasion. Her mother bear act is quite believable as she races to find her son (played with spunk by Jackson Bond) while trying to stay awake and pretending to be cold and unemotional among the pod people--oh excuse me the virally infected people. You root for her all the way. Craig doesn’t have as much to do but still delivers when it counts. In a supporting role Jeremy Northam does a nice job as Carol’s ex-husband a CDC doctor who is one of the first to get infected. As does the always good Jeffrey Wright as a very clever genetic scientist. Even Veronica Cartwright one of the survivors in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes a cameo as one of Carol’s patients who tells her “My husband isn’t my husband!” Famous last words. Body snatching must be a popular water-cooler topic at the movie studios. Starting with the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Kevin McCarthy barely escapes his small town with his life running into highway traffic screaming “They're here already! You're next! You're next You're next...” there have been at least two other versions including the above-mentioned 1978 film and the 1993 film Body Snatchers. To its credit The Invasion switches things up a bit nixing the pods and making it more relevant to our current socio-political climate. It even begs the question: Could we be better off if we didn’t have emotions? But the movie is still mired by its derivativeness and too-pat ending—and it also apparently had problems getting off the shelf. Originally wrapped in early 2006 rumor has it the studio didn’t like German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut and brought in Matrix’s Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski for rewrites and James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) to direct the new scenes. Again to its credit The Invasion surprisingly feels cohesive despite all the different influences. Let’s just say whoever came up with the tense car chase in which Carol tries to throw off the pod people (it's just more effective calling them that) draped all over the car kudos to them.
HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 15, 2000 - First "Ocean's," then the "sea." Variety reports today that Brad Pitt has signed on to star in Joel and Ethan Coen’s "To the White Sea." The actor will reportedly make the film in Japan, after he’s finished with the rat pack remake, "Ocean’s 11," next year.
Based on a novel authored by James Dickey, the story follows a World War II tail gunner who’s stranded in Japan after the bombing of Tokyo.
LOPEZ DOES KAHLO: Variety columnist Michael Fleming informs us that singer-actress Jennifer Lopez is eyeing to portray Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in a biopic developed by United Artists.
'HOTEL' SOLD: Trade papers said today that Lions Gate has bought the U.S. rights to German art house director Wim Wender’s futuristic thriller "The Million Dollar Hotel."
Based on a story written by U2 frontman Bono, the flick - starring a ensemble cast that includes Mel Gibson and Milla Jovovich -follows the events in a run-down hotel after the son of a media tycoon dies on the premises.
SEEING 'GHOST': Daily Variety says that "Blade" director Stephen Norrington is likely to direct and develop the film adaptation of "Ghost Rider" - a Marvel Comic character who’s a motorcycle stuntman by day and a crime-fighting superhero by night.