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.
Based on an award winning book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson Savage Grace is a true story of a societal poseur Barbara Daly (Julianne Moore) who climbs her way into a different class by marrying Brookes Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) heir to a plastics fortune. Soon the birth of their only child Tony turns their union upside down as the boy becomes uncommonly close with his mother and remains a failure in his father’s eyes. As the story spans years ranging from 1946 to 1972 dad disappears into his own world of work and affairs while Barbara becomes increasingly lonely desperate and clingy--entering into an incestuous tryst with her now grown son (Eddie Redmayne) a homosexual. The film details her pathetic attempts at presenting herself as something she’s not as she carries on the unnatural relationship-- which eventually leads to tragic consequences. There is no question Julianne Moore is perhaps the most courageous certainly most daring actress of her generation. Again in Savage Grace she proves herself willing to do anything and go further than most. Unfortunately the stilted dialogue and tone of the piece don’t do her any favors. We never get the feeling we’re watching real life unfold as most of these characters speak like they are in a stage production. Nevertheless Moore--with her flaming red hair and open sexuality--is still a treat to watch. Her Barbara is sensual dangerous and unpredictable. British thesp Dillane (HBO’s John Adams) proves again he can do just about anything and rises above the melodramatic script--mostly in the film’s first half. Redmayne’s Tony--a twisted mama’s boy trying to carve out his own identity--is rather hopeless and the actor struggles to make us empathize with him. Hugh Dancy turns up as Simon a gay friend of the family who winds up in a threesome with mother and son. Director Tom Kalin does no favors for his actors by creating a fake atmosphere around them. Even though Savage Grace is shot on a number of glamorous worldwide locations it feels small and claustrophobic. Kalin--like his talented cast--seems a little defeated by screenwriter Howard A. Rodman’s dreary and soapy script heavy with bloated dialogue and far-fetched situations. Writer and director seem to have taken a number of liberties with the real life story and the book the film is based on instead “interpreting” the characters actions from photographs taken at the time. Unfortunately their technique leaves the audience out of the loop. Rarely has a movie particularly one with the gifted Moore seemed so distant and uninvolving. Graphic sexual scenes in the unrated film seem only there to shock not enlighten and by the end we know little more about the Baekeland saga than we did going in.
If there’s one positive thing about Delta Farce is that is actually follows a tried and true comedy formula-- namely the fish-out-of-water scenario—with moderate success. Down on his luck after losing his job and his girlfriend on the same day Larry (of the Cable Guy variety) decides to join his neighbor Bill (Bill Engvall) and his combat-happy buddy Everett (DJ Qualls) for a relaxing weekend of playing army. But when the three unlucky guys are mistaken for Army Reservists they’re loaded onto an army plane headed for Iraq--and mistakenly ejected in a Humvee somewhere over Mexico. Don’t ask. Convinced they’re actually in the Middle East the clueless wannabe soldiers turn into Magnificent Seven meets the Three Amigos and save a rural village from a siege of bandits proving to be real heroes after all. If you need to laugh at the war on terror you might as well do it with Larry the Cable Guy. He serves up his particular brand of comedy making light of a bad situation. In fact not only does he come off somewhat sympathetically as the hapless boob with a heart of gold he also gets the hot chick at the end of the movie. Go Larry! As his accomplice fellow stand-up Bill Engvall follows his own comic routine playing a hen-pecked trailer trash denizen who views this adventure as a great way to escape his overbearing wife and snotty kids. As the third doofus DJ Qualls (Hustle & Flow) plays a trigger-happy wannabe jarhead who sees this opportunity as a way to gain some street cred. And in a supporting role Danny Trejo a Robert Rodriguez regular pokes fun at his scary looks as the leader of the marauding bandits aptly named Carlos Santana. Yes the jokes are plenty. Director C.B.Harding is obviously a Larry the Cable Guy crony since his only other feature film credit is the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie. Honestly all that’s really required of him is to point and shoot with maybe a few action sequences to coordinate here and there. But while the formula works as a cohesive movie having to sit through Delta Farce’s comic stylings is the tricky part. What it really boils down to is whether you’re a fan of Larry the Cable Guy. If so you’ll (I would hope) realize you’re watching a pretty stupid comedy but will laugh in the appropriate parts. If not I would really wonder what the heck you are doing sitting in the theater.
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.
Maybe it’s Accepted’s whole getting-into-college experience that grabs you. Most people have gone through it at one point or another--and for those high school seniors who are about to go through it Accepted should ring true for them too. The film revolves around Bartleby “B” Gaines (Justin Long) who has been rejected again and again from the colleges he’s applied to. It’s very frustrating especially with his parents breathing down his neck. So what does the clever B do? Simple: Open his own university the esteemed South Harmon Institute of Technology (of course the acronym is not missed). Juggling the balls delicately in the air B and his other college-less friends forge ahead with maintaining a fake functioning university. But it may take more than just sleight of hand to keep the very free-forum South Harmon going which has now gained quite a name for itself in the short time its been open. A lot more. Long has been turning in hilarious performances as awkward but lovable goofballs in comedies such as Dodgeball and Galaxy Quest--and is probably most recognizable right now as the Mac guy who makes fun of the Dell guy in those Apple computer ads. But the affable actor finally gets his big shot at full-fledged goofball-hood successfully carrying Accepted on his own. As B you quickly warm up to his easygoing yet quietly sarcastic style a method he told Entertainment Weekly he developed under the tutelage of fellow Frat Packer Vince Vaughn. Of course in Accepted Long has some help too. There’s some strong supporting bits especially from comedian and The Daily Show regular Lewis Black as Uncle Ben the university’s neurotic “we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore” make-believe dean. Good stuff. Rounding out the colorful cast is cute-as-a-button Blake Lively (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) playing the girl-next-door B adores who defects to SHI...well you get the picture. You have to admit college-based comedies are usually mindless fun and Accepted is no exception. The premise alone lends itself to all kinds of mishaps and guffaws especially when B and the gang turn a deserted former mental institution into an institution of higher learning. In his directorial debut Steve Pink--best known for co-writing comedies such as High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank--understands this and hits most of the right beats. But unfortunately Accepted can’t keep up its inimitable momentum--as B fights for the school’s unique curriculum as well as its right to exist at all--becoming Revenge of the Nerds meets Animal House meets Old School meets...I could go on forever. Maybe in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker Accepted could have been taken to its own higher level instead of lapsing into standard underdog territory.