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Following up on the 2009 sur­prise hit The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky has offered us anoth­er film about people who des­troy them­selves for our enter­tain­ment – this time in the rar­efied world of bal­let. Tiny Natalie Portman is plucked from the chor­us of the fic­tion­al but pres­ti­gi­ous New York City Ballet for the dream role of the Swan in a hot new pro­duc­tion. It’s the chance of a life­time but her fra­gile psy­cho­logy shows through in her per­form­ance even though her dan­cing is tech­nic­ally per­fect. Maestro Vincent Cassel tries to recon­struct her – as you would a first year drama school stu­dent – while dom­in­eer­ing stage moth­er Barbara Hershey is push­ing back in the oth­er dir­ec­tion. Something has to break and it does.

Black Swan is excep­tion­ally well made, beau­ti­ful and chal­len­ging to watch – and Portman’s per­form­ance is noth­ing short of amaz­ing – but films that aspire to great­ness need to be about some­thing more than, you know, what they’re about and once I’d decoded was going on I couldn’t see enough under the sur­face to jus­ti­fy the hype.

The Fighter is ostens­ibly a biop­ic about the rise of a box­er from jour­ney­man (or “step­ping stone” as he’s described in the film) to cham­pi­on – a stand­ard enough nar­rat­ive you might think – but it turns out to be about a lot more than that. “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) was about to give up the fight game after a pun­ish­ing career – man­aged by his moth­er (Melissa Leo) and coached by his older broth­er (Christian Bale) – got him pre­cisely nowhere.

Bale’s char­ac­ter, Dicky Eklund, was anoth­er failed con­tender and now a crack addict and his trip to the slam­mer is the cata­lyst for the whole fam­ily to get their shit togeth­er. He comes out clean and has to prove to Ward, and his new man­age­ment, that he’s worthy of being in his brother’s corner. It’s Bale’s movie – he is an abso­lute rev­el­a­tion. There’s a reas­on why the film is called The Fighter and not The Boxer – Bale’s jour­ney of redemp­tion is the soul of the film and the act­or him­self has nev­er been bet­ter. I’ve nev­er warmed to him as a movie star but as a char­ac­ter act­or he’s got all the chops.

Another con­tender for some big gold prizes this year is little English bat­tler The King’s Speech, star­ring ever-reliable Colin Firth as Bertie, the mod­est man who would become King George VI. Bertie suffered from a stam­mer and the 20th Century require­ment of the job to front up and make speeches put enorm­ous pres­sure on someone ill-suited to the task.

His wife, the future Queen Mum (superb and funny Helena Bonham Carter) finds a failed Australian act­or and rad­ic­al speech ther­ap­ist (Geoffrey Rush) and between them they bring shy Bertie out of his shell. The King’s Speech is sat­is­fy­ing enough enter­tain­ment I sup­pose but it does seem like a ter­ribly tiny little foot­note in his­tory to jus­ti­fy all this attention.

Elsewhere, I can recom­mend the power­ful adapt­a­tion of Somali super­mod­el Waris Dirie’s auto­bi­o­graphy Desert Flower, a film whose power sneaks up on you and you might well find, like me, that you can’t leave your seat for a while after the cred­its have rolled.

In a dif­fer­ent realm entirely, I enjoyed the pre­pos­ter­ous Unstoppable, about a giant run­away train loaded with tox­ic waste career­ing through Pennsylvania with only Denzel Washington (and Chris Pine) in pur­suit. It’s a the per­fect defin­i­tion of a “boys movie”, spoilt only by the assump­tion that the audi­ence will need a run­ning com­ment­ary to under­stand what’s going on.

Burlesque is a vehicle for the “mutant lungs” of pop star Christina Aguilera and she’s enlis­ted the sup­port of legit­im­ate legend Cher who then pro­ceeds to show her how it’s done. Aguilera plays Ali, a small town girl in LA to make it big. She stumbles across Cher’s old-fashioned nightclub (itself threatened by real estate devel­op­ment) and blows them all away with that dread­ful vibrato-warbling that she does. Cher gets a couple of num­bers to show Christina how to pick a note and stick with it but it’s not enough. The great Stanley Tucci rises above the mater­i­al once again in a sup­port­ing role.

Late last year anoth­er loc­al review­er cas­tig­ated Little Fockers for (among oth­er things) being beneath the great Robert De Niro. I dis­agree. Little Fockers worked because of De Niro (he works his ass off) and because it was De Niro – mess­ing with our expect­a­tions. My com­pan­ion and I laughed like drains – and we weren’t expect­ing to – and that was mostly down to De Niro.

Readers with long memor­ies will know that I was not a fan of last year’s “ama­teur super­hero” movie Kick-Ass so it may not mean much when I say that The Green Hornet was approx­im­ately 2.65 times as enter­tain­ing – mainly because it’s much bet­ter natured. Seth Rogen plays a play­boy heir to a media for­tune who is thrust into the middle of the Los Angeles crime scene when a prank involving his father’s statue goes wrong. With the help of major­do­mo Kato (Jay Chou) he becomes a masked vigil­ante and soon dis­cov­ers he is way out of his depth.

One source of mod­est pleas­ure in The Green Hornet is dir­ect­or Michel Gondry’s trade­mark visu­al wit – his trans­itions between scenes are often quite beau­ti­ful and there’s a lovely gag involving a Cadillac and a glass elev­at­or – and anoth­er is the pres­ence of Inglourious Basterds vil­lain Christoph Waltz as a crim­in­al mas­ter­mind hav­ing a mid­life crisis.

The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell is a decent little NZ film with a hor­rible title. Snell, played by Aussie William McInnes, is a Howick clean­ing con­tract­or with two kids who are push­ing for suc­cess as kart drivers – eld­est Marc (Josh McKenzie) might be on the verge of the big time – and a wife (Robyn Malcolm) who is miss­ing out while the boys (not least Gazza him­self) are get­ting all the atten­tion. A tragedy at the track throws the spot­light on how fra­gile Gazza’s dreams are but the setup writes cheques that the con­clu­sion fails to cash.

Brendan Donovan’s script (and dir­ec­tion) hurtles the film towards melo­drama when the cent­ral idea might have been bet­ter served with a less kit­chen sink approach. And for the second NZ film in less than six months we have a scene where a rebel­li­ous teen­age Asian girl and a pakeha boy sit and watch the Auckland sky­line at night (cf Matariki). Perhaps these film­makers should talk to each oth­er a bit more, eh?

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 26 January, 2011.


  • mafalda says:

    I agree with The King’s Speech may seem a ter­ribly tiny little foot­note in his­tory but actu­ally that was one of the things I liked the most about it; how such a min­im­al story was turned into a great movie. I think all the atten­tion is abso­lutely jus­ti­fied as it’s a bril­liant film.

    • Dan says:

      Fair enough. On reflec­tion it could be read as a very per­son­al story set against at the back­ground of his­tor­ic­al events. But tak­ing that tack, stam­mer­ing isn’t a ter­ribly drastic afflic­tion to overcome.

      I guess, I would rather not see every roy­al burp turned into a movie if we can pos­sibly avoid it and TKS will likely lead us in that direction.