Gavin O’Connor’s (Miracle Pride and Glory) stirring new drama Warrior is an underdog tale set in the nascent sport of Mixed Martial Arts fighting. In its relatively short life MMA has yet to inspire much quality cinema of note. It now has its Rocky.
Warrior’s twist on the traditional underdog formula is to provide us with dual protagonists: the fightin’ Conlon brothers Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy). Neither have spoken to each other since the dissolution of the parents’ marriage fourteen years earlier. Both of late have fallen on hard times. Tommy is an Iraq war veteran who has turned to pills and booze since returning from abroad; Brendan is a high school science teacher and devoted family man victimized by the financial crisis. Circumstances compel them both to seek salvation in the fight game.
Conveniently enough the opportunity of a lifetime arrives in the form of Sparta a brand-new winner-take-all MMA tournament that awards its champion a cool $5 million – more than enough for Brendan to save his house from foreclosure or for Tommy to make good on his pledge to provide for the family of a friend killed in Iraq. By this point we know for certain that fate has determined Brendan and Tommy will meet in the final and we know for certain how utterly ridiculous this scenario is. And yet we accept it because by this point Warrior already has us in its corner.
The origins of the brothers’ enmity are ultimately traced to their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) a monstrous alcoholic whose abusiveness led their mother and Tommy to flee fourteen years prior. Brendan stayed behind and Tommy never forgave him for it. When we see Paddy he’s broken-down husk of a man God-fearing and 1000 days sober his face creased with shame and regret. Neither son can stand the sight of their old man but Tommy in need of someone to train him for the tournament reluctantly enlists his father’s help. Paddy eyeing a last chance at redemption enthusiastically complies.
Cue the training montage. A fighter rising from obscurity to the upper echelons in his sport within a matter of weeks is hard to swallow; when two fighters do it it’s a borderline insult to the sport. MMA aficionados might blanch at watching Tommy and Brendan gain one unlikely win after another; more likely they’ll be too absorbed by the action to care. It helps that Hardy and Edgerton both look the part and are both skilled enough at their craft to lend the film’s many brutal fight scenes a distinct realism. It helps even more that the story and the actors' stellar performances have us firmly aligned with their goals.
O’Conner a veteran of the genre deploys the underdog tropes at his disposal freely but assiduously crafting a tale that is unabashedly far-fetched but grounded in characters who are intensely appealing and who feel authentic. The storytelling is clumsy at times – that Nolte’s character listens to a book-on-tape of Moby Dick throughout the film feels particularly heavy-handed – but Warrior wisely steers clear of bombastic speeches or cloying sentiment.
Warrior’s climactic final fight in which the estranged brothers at last meet in the ring is both gut- and heart-wrenching. When the film’s suitably happy ending does eventually arrive the film gives way ever-so-briefly to hokeyness. But after what these kids have gone through you can forgive them for getting a little emotional.
Holly Kennedy (Hilary Swank) doesn’t know how lucky she has it. She’s smart beautiful and married to Gerry (Gerald Butler) a passionate funny and impetuous Irishman who loves her with every breath in his body. But when that breath runs out--Gerry dies unexpectedly from an illness--Holly’s luck runs out. Barely coping her salvation arrives in the form of letters from Gerry that come to Holly in unexpected ways--letters he wrote to her before he died to help her get through the pain and move on with her life and letters that always end with “P.S. I Love You.” A saint huh? Holly’s mother (Kathy Bates) and best friends Sharon (Gina Gershon) and Denise (Lisa Kudrow) begin to worry Gerry’s letters are keeping Holly tied to the past but in fact each letter pushes Holly on a journey of rediscovery and to show her how a love so strong can turn the finality of death into new beginning for life. Tissues please! Swank will be damned if she pigeonholes herself into always playing serious women who don’t wear makeup. P.S. I Love You is her stab at romantic dramedy and while the genre may not suit her best the Oscar-winning actress still has fun playing a spirited woman who wears designer clothes cute hats and gets to make out with a strapping Irish hunk. Actually Swank gets to bed TWO strapping Irish hunks in P.S. I Love You: The first is the yummy Butler of course and the other is Gerry’s old bandmate William played by American Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who’ll be seen in the upcoming romantic comedy The Accidental Husband with Uma Thurman). Lucky girl. Butler however is the one the ladies will sigh over the most. Having already given a powerhouse performance this year as the Spartan king in 300 the Scottish actor turns the tables to show his soft underbelly as the adorably romantic and fun-lovin’ Gerry. The abs still rock though. One can easily see why Holly is such a mess after he dies. Gershon and Kudrow add some genuineness as Holly’s friends (someone please find a Kudrow a TV show) as does Bates as Holly’s hardened mother. Harry Connick Jr. however seems out of place as Holly’s would-be suitor. She just needs to stick with the Irish guys. Hilary Swank teams up with her Freedom Writers director Richard LaGravenese once again for P.S. I Love You and it’s clear they have a symbiotic relationship. Swank probably likes the way LaGravenese accentuates her best features turning her into a glam leading lady while LaGravenese obviously enjoys gazing at her through his camera lens. Unfortunately the two really haven’t found the best material. Freedom Writers is the mother of all teacher-gets-students-motivated retreads while P.S. I Love You--based on a novel by Cecelia Ahern and adapted by LaGravenese and Steven Rogers--is just pure fluff with very little substance behind it. Not that the film won't inspire some romantic feelings or work up tears but its only real strengths are: 1) the players who somehow rise about the triteness of it all especially Butler and 2) the gorgeous landscapes of Ireland which should send any woman in her right mind straight to the Emerald Isles to find her perfect man. Seriously ladies book your trips NOW.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
The thing is Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties doesn’t even have anything to do with the classic Charles Dickens novel. Two Kitties is more a pauper/prince type story. I guess kids probably don’t know what a “pauper” is and well The Prince and the Pussy wouldn’t really work would it? Still they could have at least come up with a clever story to go along with the title. This time around Garfield (Bill Murray) wants to stop Jon (Breckin Meyer) from asking cute-as-a-button vet Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt) to marry him on a trip to London by stowing away. Once over the pond the fat yellow cat ends up being mistaken for a royal fat yellow cat Prince (Tim Curry) who has just inherited a castle. Sure Garfield likes all the perks--minced pie anytime he rings a bell; pampering beyond your regular tongue bath; and no Odie. There are a few downsides namely an evil relative (Billy Connolly) who wants the cat dead so he can get the estate but it doesn’t matter. Both cats are killed in the end anyway. Oh I’m kidding (I only wish). The laconic Murray is certainly a wise choice to voice the indolent fat cat and was mildly entertaining in the first Garfield. But for the Oscar-nominated actor to agree to do it again let’s just say it must have been very costly for the producers. I would hope anyway that he asked for a lot of money because why else would you do something as inane as this? The character interminably grates. There are also a bevy of British actors in Two Kitties who are equally annoying doing animal voices--from Curry as the mollycoddled Prince to Bob Hoskins as a bulldog and Sharon Osbourne as a pig. As for the human factor Meyer and Love Hewitt are gag-producing sugary sweet while Connolly just makes a complete ass of himself as the dastardly villain. It’s kind of embarrassing actually --for everyone involved. It still boggles the mind the first Garfield grossed $75 million domestically. Yes it was an understandable endeavor since the comic strip has always been immensely popular and with the advent of CGI creating the Garfield we all know and love for the screen was finally possible. But the first Garfield was so mind-numbingly ridiculous you just have to wonder what the audiences saw in it. I guess maybe it had something to do with keeping 7-year-olds occupied. Of course all the studio execs saw were dollar signs so it stands to reason they’d make a sequel. It made money dammit so we have to do it again can’t you see that? OK so let’s say we go with that reasoning hoping maybe they’ll have realized their mistakes with the first and come up with something better. No such luck. I have feeling this time around however those same execs may be disappointed. In a summer full of far more stellar entertainment for the kiddies these Two Kitties are going to thankfully fall by the wayside and put an end to the franchise once and for all.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.