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.
Liv (Kate Hudson) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) are lifelong best friends obsessed with getting married -- and more importantly having the perfect wedding at New York’s Plaza Hotel. Except there’s a glitch: Their June weddings get scheduled for the same Saturday and no other date is available for three years! When neither agrees to move to a different venue the battle is on. And the pranks: There’s Emma’s disastrous trip to a tanning salon where her skin becomes solid orange and Liv’s appointment at a beauty salon where her blonde locks are turned mysteriously blue.
Adding this to her recent list of dumb comedies like My Best Friend's Girl and Fool's Gold Hudson is in need of a serious career intervention. Her character here a supposedly smart lawyer who will sink to ANY depths to get married and have a dream wedding just doesn’t mesh. It’s SO 50 years ago that feminists watching these two engage in a knock-down drag-out fight over a hotel ballroom will recoil in horror. And after all that acclaim for Rachel Getting Married Hathaway should just find a place to hide – though to be fair in one or two scenes she does manage to find a shred of believability. Too bad it’s not nearly enough. Although it starts out with a bit of promise director Gary Winick clearly just sat back as the proceedings spun out of control with one ridiculous scene after another. Of course he isn’t given much help by Greg DePaul CaseyWilson and June Diane Raphael’s waaaaaaay over-the-top screenplay which reduces these two apparent friends into babbling morons. Those interested in witnessing two women demean themselves for 90 minutes should have a lot of fun.
Merging Serpico with an almost Shakespearean sense of tragedy Pride and Glory details an extremely complicated investigation into the gunning down of four New York City cops after an attempted drug bust goes terribly wrong. With increasingly bad PR and an apparent cop killer still at large the Chief of Manhattan Detectives Francis Tierney Sr. (Jon Voight) assigns his son Detective Ray Tierney (Edward Norton) to lead the probe. The younger Tierney is reluctant since he knows all four cops served under his brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich) and brother-in-law Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). Ray’s instincts may be right because as he digs deeper he discovers an awkward and uncomfortable connection between Francis Jimmy and the case. Could his own family have been involved in an inside job and tipped off the drug dealers? Soon Ray finds himself having to choose between the greatest moral dilemma of all: loyalty to the job or loyalty to his family. Although Pride and Glory doesn’t break any new ground and is composed of elements we’ve seen in many previous films dealing with police corruption this film is distinguished by some of the finest work in the storied careers of many of its cast. Norton follows up his summer comic-book movie The Incredible Hulk with a far smaller and more focused character in P&G playing a man caught in a moral bind facing the unthinkable prospect of going after his own family members. Norton wears his ticklish predicament on his face and is enormously effective conveying pure angst. Emmerich (Little Children) delivers a rich portrayal of a tortured soul not only caught up in an intense investigation but dealing with a wife (Jennifer Ehle) dying of cancer. Farrell is better than he has been in some time playing a shady officer who seemingly will stop at nothing to get what he needs. Voight as the proud family patriarch and veteran of the NYPD clearly understands the dilemma of this man who is watching his family torn apart. Co-writer/director Gavin O'Connor has spent a frustrating couple of years trying to bring this story to the screen but his perseverance pays off. Pride and Glory is a well-written cop tale that co-exists as an interesting character study about the power of family ties vs. personal pride. O’Connor manages to put us right in the center of the moral conflict at the heart of his story and with several first-rate actors (even in the lesser roles) crafts a film that seems authentic to its core. Incorporating Declan Quinn’s in-your-face realistic cinematography O’Connor resists going for a more obvious audience-pleasing flashier style achieving a look and feel that seems more grounded in the milieu he’s trying to capture. His script co-written with Joe Carnahan (who wrote and directed the equally gritty Narc) is tight and unsympathetic slowly letting layers of a very intricate and complex story peel away to reveal a core that packs a punch right to the gut.
In the teensy-weensy town of Passaic New Jersey there exists a dying breed: a video-rental store--as in VHS not DVD. Just across the street from said store exists a power plant. And in between the store and power plant exists a doofus named Jerry (Jack Black). Yeah it’s a disaster waiting to happen (at least in writer-director Michel Gondry’s kooky mind). One night when Jerry sets out to sabotage the power plant whose microwaves he swears are killing him that disaster happens. He winds up getting zapped and even worse erasing the contents of every single tape at the nearby rental store Be Kind Rewind. It was already at risk of being demolished in favor of an aesthetic upgrade to the building but this turn of events would seem to be the nail in its coffin. And when a faithful customer (Mia Farrow) threatens to tell Be Kind Rewind’s owner (Danny Glover) unless Ghostbusters is in stock by the end of the day Jerry and his friend Mike (Mos Def) the store’s loyal employee must think and act quickly. And so they do recreating Ghostbusters and every other movie that is requested for rental. Unwitting customers are none the wiser and before long their store-made movies become a hit in the neighborhood and possibly a source of sufficient enough funds to save Be Kind Rewind from demolition. That is until Hollywood comes knockin’. Jack Black continues to expand his comedic horizons with Be Kind proving that virtually any role calling for funny has his name written on it. This isn’t his prototypical flaunt-your-paunch scream-like-a-maniac role and as a result Black’s versatility within the realm has never been so apparent. He gives the well-meaning dimwit several layers--vulnerability imagination pitifulness ambition--but maintains the recognizable energy for which we all know and love him for. Rapper-turned-actor Mos Def however is rather bland in playing straight-man to Black’s klutz. It’s occasionally a nice disparate dynamic between the two actors but Mos much like some of his past movies (16 Blocks The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) just doesn’t seem suited for the style at play. Glover meanwhile is suited for Be Kind lending stability to the quasi-fairytale as an old-school sage. Then there’s Farrow who only further tarnishes her once legendary status with another laughable role choice and performance. Of course it’s hard to ever look at Farrow the same way following her role in last year’s worst movie The Ex. In a somewhat disappointing turn of events Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The Science of Sleep) screenplay for Be Kind Rewind just doesn’t make the grade. It goes from a silly conceit in the beginning to a way-too-feel-good ending using filmmaking as a sappy uniting-the-people cure-all to get from point A to B. And oddly enough the movie often resembles a traditional slapstick-y comedy. Luckily Gondry the director comes to the rescue. Chief among his accomplishments here are the meta moments the film-within-a-film sequences. The scenes are truly enlightening and elevate Be Kind a great deal. In fact a movie full of such scenes would make a great next project for Gondry--and maybe would’ve made a better project out of Be Kind. The sequences which thriftily remake mainstream classics like Ghostbusters Driving Miss Daisy and Robocop--the only kind of movies that would exist in a VHS-rental store--offer a glimpse into Gondry’s fantasy mind where the creativity wheels are always spinning and the camera is always rolling. Some of the remakes are featured in Be Kind’s trailer and it’s unfortunately one of those cases where the trailer shows the movie’s best parts. But it’s still worth seeing and his fans will likely not suffer such a letdown.
At first glance The Family Stone appears to be yet another silly romp about family dynamics. But the Stones a vivacious loving liberal-minded New England family are more than just cardboard cut-outs; they’re as real as any dysfunctional family can be. The film begins with the Stones getting ready for their annual holiday gathering. Matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton) is especially anxious to meet her eldest son’s (Dermot Mulroney) girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). The family has been warned Meredith is a controlling neurotic New Yorker with very little redeemable qualities. And when Meredith arrives she certainly does nothing to dispel the notion meeting her potential eccentric in-laws with a mix of awkwardness confusion and hostility. Yet oddly enough the disruption brings about some needed changes within the family Stone allowing them to come together and realize their extraordinary capacity for love. Everyone in this stellar ensemble rises to the occasion and truly paints a very vivid picture of a family devoted to one another--but who are less than approachable to outsiders. As mom Keaton turns in yet another genuine look at a complicated woman dealing with some insurmountable obstacles while Craig T. Nelson as her loyal husband does a nice job conveying a warmth to their marriage. Playing their grownup children is Mulroney as the straight-laced “suit” Everett who isn’t all that priggish; Luke Wilson as the laid-back Ben who seems to have strayed the most from his family; and Rachel McAdams as the passionate if rather acerbic little sister. But the real revelation is Parker as the uptight highly unlikable Meredith. It’s quite a departure from her fun-lovin’ Sex
and the City days and the Parker--who truly is one of the better comedic actresses we have today--easily handles the unpleasant chores of playing someone suffering with chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome. Like many newbie filmmakers writer/director Thomas Bezucha--whose only other credit is the little seen indie Big Eden--has the advantage of having that certain fresh quality to his work. Stone’s dialogue is snappy poignant and spot-on as the Stones interact with each other in all too familiar ways. The whole Meredith scenario will perhaps have many of us remembering similar situations--from both sides of the fence. It’s just as painful to have to meet the family of someone you love for the first time as it is dealing with a family member’s poor choices in mates. And what makes
The Family Stone stand out even more is how Bezucha truly defines the term “dramedy.” From the trailer the film seemed to be a balls-out slap-sticky comedy which in many ways it is but you may be surprised to see how The Family Stone’s more serious tones will touch you.