41 posts categorized "family drama"


Editor and publisher: Reining in Mr. Write

Colin Firth, left, as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." (Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions)

In the movie industry and in film critic circles, there's a term called a parking lot movie.

That's a film so good, so compelling or so thought provoking that movie-goers emerge from the creative darkness of a theater into the harsh bright light of reality and talk -- and perhaps argue -- about what they have just witnessed all the way to the car.

Genius, the dramatic verbal sparring match between early 20th century novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor-publisher Max Perkins, drove me far beyond the aforementioned parking lot.  For the greater part of this morning, I've thrown myself into digging deeper into this volatile relationship between one of the most important writers of his lifetime and the word master who published and molded his work into Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Pairing accomplished British actors Jude Law and Colin Firth perfectly as Americans Wolfe and Perkins, Genius dares to stick closely to something rare in a based-on-truth night at the movies:  truth.  We can thank a trio of filmmakers for that.  The movie is based on A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins:  Editor of Genius.  Berg spent nearly a decade developing his Princeton University senior thesis on Perkins into the biography.  Gifted screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, Hugo) has fought to get this film to the screen for 20 years.

As for first-time director Michael Grandage, also from Great Britain, the respected actor-playwright has the most difficult task of all; combining all the elements into a cohesive biography of two towering forces of literature who may have been forgotten, or almost forgotten by too many.

I like the way Grandage doesn't feel the need to mention the Great Depression in words in this drama set partly in 1929.  His scene where Wolfe and Perkins walk down a New York street and encounter a soup line for the first time suffices nicely.

Genius is a clash-of-the-titans extravaganza not of swords, sorcerers and special effects, but of words.  I can assure you the battles here are just as grisly.  Every word or phrase lost by the loud, grandiose young author who writes furiously in pencil using the top of a refrigerator as his desk wounds Wolfe deeply.

Jude lays the Law down with rare, bombastic abandon as Wolfe, challenging, befriending and fighting with expertly skilled Charles Scribner's Sons editor-wordsmith Perkins.

Firth has the tougher acting chore as the editor who has previously worked with  novelist titans F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms).   The best actor Academy Award winner for The King's Speech in 2010 perfectly corrals Perkins' quiet demeanor into a wordsmith who doesn't just correct spelling and grammar.

Perkins was perhaps the first truly great editor-collaborator.  His keen sense of story structure and ability to pare down phrases to their true essence is at first celebrated by Wolfe, who delivers his second manuscript to Perkins' office in several crates.  The novel that would eventually become  Of Time and the River originally numbered 5,000 pages.

It's not easy for women to stand out in a male-dominated movie.  However, Laura Linney (The Truman Show) and Nicole Kidman (an Oscar winner for The Hours) make the most of their screen time as Perkins' devoted wife and Wolfe's mentally unstable mentor/lover.

It's probably no accident that Genius arrives in movie theaters on Father's Day weekend.  Wolfe's writing, especially in Look Homeward, Angel, was, in his own words, "the search for the father of our spirit."  Perkins, the father of five daughters, nurtures Wolfe at times like the son he never had but always longed for.

If I can fault Genius for anything, it's for trying too hard to include all the elements of the Wolfe/Perkins relationship.  Fitzgerald weaves in and out of the story fairly effectively, but Hemingway's inclusion, brief and sporadic, seems tossed in just to include his weighty novelist reputation.

That's a small flaw, indeed.  Any movie that compels us to want to learn more about the real people behind the characters, is a must-see for everyone. 

Beyond that, Genius is an exciting journey and a true joy for anyone who respects writers and loves the power of words.

From this aisle seat, sublimely crafted words are the real special effects.

MPAA rating: PG-13 ( Some thematic elements and suggestive content)

104 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3½ (out of 4)



How come 'The Judge'?

The judge's son (Robert Downey Jr.) draws up a contract to defend his estranged father (Robert Duvall). (Warner Bros.)

Judge, if I may approach the bench, who directed this cliché-filled misuse of two of our finest living dramatic actors?

Let me amend that, Your Honor.  Much of the blame must go to the screenwriters.  Oops, check that.  It seems that you, David Dobkin, co-authored the original story as well.  Well, guilty as charged, then.

The Judge, which hangs around for well over two drawn-out hours, is a hard-hitting father and son courtroom melodrama that plays out in small-town Indiana.  If it wasn't for Academy Award winner Robert Duvall and two-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr., this carnival of a courtroom drama would be thrown out of cinematic court the first time highly unlikely circumstances keep the plot chugging along to its inevitable, contrived conclusion.

That's the rub for critics and movie fans, though. The Judge pairs Duvall and Downey as an estranged small town judge on the brink of severe human frailty and the son who only interrupts his pending bitter divorce and his successful Chicago law practice of getting rich crooks off the hook because there's been a death in the family.

Once back in his old tiny Indiana burg, Downey's Hank Palmer clashes violently with the old man, Duvall's Judge Joseph Palmer, bumps into his old high school girlfriend "Sam" (Vera Farmiga) and steps in to defend his reluctant father when he's linked to a hit-and-run incident.

To be honest, Duvall and Downey together were all I needed to pay retail and stand in line.  Once there, though, I felt a little sorry for both tremendous actors who had to wade through one plot cliché after another to get to the money shots:  Duvall at 83 and Downey, who almost threw his acting gift down the drain through drug abuse, in fine form and duking it out verbally with the precise timing and nuance few other actors can bring.

Director Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) co-wrote the original story that became the flawed, almost laughable at times screenplay by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque (a first-timer).  Dobkin insults his audience and his actors repeatedly by asking everyone to suspend their disbelief to impossible limits.

What must Downey have thought when he read in the script that when he falls off his bicycle on the highway that the first driver by would be his old high school squeeze "Sam"?  Actually, it's testament to his will to stay in character that Downey (and Farmiga, who was so terrific opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air) got through the scene without breaking character and laughing hysterically.

This kind of silliness happens at all-too-regular intervals for, I suppose, comic relief in a movie crying out to play it straight and edgy as a taut drama about a father and son fighting through deep wounds to reconnect.

I can't even imagine Gregory Peck having to succumb to cliched bits of comic relief to portray deeply conflicted small town lawyer Atticus Finch. 

Of course The Judge is by no means a drama even remotely resembling the greatness of To Kill a Mockingbird or other memorable courtroom classics.

Occasionally, great acting trumps sloppy film-making, though.  This is one of those cases.

If you're a fan of Duvall (Tender Mercies, The Godfather) and/or Downey (Chaplin, Zodiac), The Judge is worth it just to see two great actors clash like verbal titans able to elevate even trite dialogue to the level of an art form.

MPAA rating:  R (for language including some sexual references)

141 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  2½ (out of 4)


Thornton's 'Car' gets flat, tired

Billy Bob Thornton, left, and Kevin Bacon as conflicted brothers. (Anchor Bay Films)
Leave it to Billy Bob Thornton, perhaps the quirkiest of the quirky when it comes to actors and filmmakers, to assemble a notable group of A-list or former A-list actors to slog through an idea that Thornton says was in his head “for quite some time.” 

Rational reasoning, and, I’m guessing, a good number of movie studio decision makers would vote to leave this idea of a family patriarch obsessed with visiting gruesome car crashes on the highway outside of a small town in Thornton’s head.

Not Billy Bob, though.  After all, this is the guy who has portrayed everything from a fiddle-playing Davy Crockett (The Alamo) to implement-wielding, lovable killer Karl Childers (Sling Blade).

There’s nothing wrong with bringing odd or even severely flawed characters to the screen.  The problem with Jayne Mansfield’s Car, co-written by Thornton and former collaborator Tom Epperson (One False Move), co-starring Thornton and directed by Thornton, is that the paper-thin plot stalls in neutral much of the time.

Set in small-town Alabama in 1969 while this country’s hippie movement embraced free love at the same time the USA was divided over the Vietnam War, Jayne Mansfield’s Car spins its creative wheels trying to say something important about families torn apart emotionally yet somehow still bonded together, about fathers and sons and, oddly enough, about the fatal car crash that cut short the life of movie star Jayne Mansfield in 1967.

Thornton’s cast list is impressive.   Oscar winner Robert Duvall, who played Thornton’s conflicted father in Sling Blade, is back as Thornton’s tight-lipped, conflicted dad again here.  Although Thornton, Kevin Bacon and Robert Patrick portray play middle-aged siblings all going a little middle-age crazy, this family dynamic is about as far removed from the old TV sitcom “My Three Sons” as one can imagine.

Bacon takes on the role of Carroll, the aged hippie of the family, and looks more than a little silly in long hair leading a lethargic small-town Vietnam War protest parade.  Patrick, probably forever typecast as robot T-1000 in Terminator 2:  Judgment Day, is Jimbo, tarnished by both his brothers’ reps as World War II heroes.   Skip (Thornton), a pilot in the WWII, bears scars – emotional and otherwise – that have left him stuck in child mode in many ways.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car suffers no lack of grist for the dramatic mill.  And that’s where Thornton and Epperson eventually begin to build at least flickers of decent dramatic fire.  Papa Duvall’s ex, who long ago ran off to England and never returned, has died.  Her widower (John Hurt) and family have accompanied the body back to Alabama for burial.

As Duvall and Hurt, two formidable actors, spar verbally with very little to say to each other, the other members of this oddball household engage in various degrees of flirtation and coupling, dope smoking and generational bonding.

Don’t expect anything as gripping as Sling Blade.  For me, though, Thornton is one of those filmmakers who pushes the envelope fearlessly.    And he has assembled some really good actors and actresses around him.  It’s just that this project lacks the emotional punch – the Thornton kick in the gut, if you will – of some of his earlier work.

As offbeat as Jayne Mansfield’s Car is onscreen, it is almost as odd off.  Thornton’s semi-failed experiment in hard-hitting family melodrama just opened in a few movie houses on Sept. 13 (appropriately enough, Friday the 13th).

Odder still, Jayne Mansfield’s Car parallel parked in several cable and satellite systems’ On Demand queues two weeks prior to the movie-house release.

That’s where you can find it; lurking and bizarrely interesting, like accident victims on the highway just outside the city limits.


MPAA rating:  R (profanity, sexual content, nudity, drug use, bloody images)

Running time:  122 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  2 (out of 4)


Woody and his sisters

For movie directors, some of the most important choices come before the word "Action" is ever spoken.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), right, and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) fight to survive. (Sony Pictures Classics)
Casting is key, and Woody Allen made a brilliant choice when he selected Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett to play a New York socialite whose opulent lifestyle has shattered in the severe drama Blue Jasmine.

Allen’s prowess is equally impressive. At 77 Allen, like Clint Eastwood and other elder statesmen filmmakers, continues to impress. With Blue Jasmine, though, Allen showcases one of his biggest cinematic attributes: the uncanny ability to cast the actress.

Blanchett, the Australian acting powerhouse known for two turns as Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth in 1998 and Elizabeth: The Golden Age in 2007), is the latest in a long line of female Allen stars who have dazzled. His work with Diane Keaton in early comedies like Play It Again, Sam in 1972 and Annie Hall in 1977, which won Academy Awards for best picture, best actress (Keaton) and best director (Allen), is legendary.

Allen has always known how to write for and showcase talented women as memorable characters. Case in point is Mia Farrow, a former muse and companion. Farrow is a prime example with extraordinary performances in Hannah and Her Sisters, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo and several other Allen gems. In 2008 it was Penélope Cruz in an Oscar-winning performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

When we first meet Blanchett as title character Jasmine, she is chatting nervously and rapidly to a total stranger on a flight from New York to San Francisco. That’s the physical flight plan. Emotionally, the well dressed woman who we’ll soon learn has been known to chatter out loud to herself, is in catastrophic freefall.

Jasmine, once a well-heeled and high-heeled princess of Fifth Avenue thanks to her marriage to free-wheeling (financially, ethically and martially) husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), is popping pills to compensate for suddenly deflated financial circumstances. And because, in a desperation move, she is moving in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and way down the social ladder.

No one should mistake Blue Jasmine for one of Allen’s funny movies. Earlier in his career, the versatile filmmaker leaned heavily on Ingmar Bergman, Sweden’s master of the dour and dreary, to churn out dramas such as Interiors (1978), September (1987) and Another Woman (1988).

Blue Jasmine, though, is pure Woody Allen. It succinctly chronicles a handful of humans in crisis from Jasmine, frantically grasping at perhaps a final chance to grab a sophistication lifeline by wooing a government official on the way up in Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), her sister’s former husband whose own hopes of moving up in his blue collar world were dashed inadvertently, at least, by Jasmine.

By far the most significant relationship here is the delicate relationship between sisters who aren’t bound by blood, but who somehow come together to flounder around in the often-painful arena of life when no one else seems willing to help them battle the bull.

British actress Hawkins, a Golden Globe winner for her work in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008, is superb as Ginger, Jasmine’s savior and sounding board until she summons enough backbone to be her own person.

Allen’s latest dramatic masterpiece belongs primarily to Blanchett, however. The superior talent who took home a best supporting actress Academy Award as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in 2004, is a shoo-in for at least a nomination as best actress in a leading role this year. Blanchett’s portrait of a socialite melting into oblivion before our very eyes is both stunning and, at times, almost unbearable to witness.

Why? Once again Allen, who could be headed for another best director Oscar, has found his muse.

In this case it’s an apocalyptic one, and Blanchett is the perfect actress to channel her emotionally.


MPAA rating: PG-13 (mature thematic material, language and sexual content)

Running time:  98 minutes

Jalapeño rating: 3 1/2 (out of 4)


'The Butler' could learn from the butler

President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and Cecil Gaines in the cinematic White House. (The Weinstein Company)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
does something its title character, poised, non-intrusive White House butler Cecil Gaines, would never consider.  It rushes and over-serves. 

Generally, though, The Butler, as the sprawling political drama was called until a title squabble necessitated the addition of director Daniels' name, is a noble project of keen interest to anyone willing to take a hard look at the grittier side of U.S. history.

It should come as no surprise that Forest Whitaker, the Academy Award-winning title character of The Last King of Scotland in 2006, is superb to the point of jumping into the Oscar contender’s race again as Gaines.

Whitaker waved his fist in the air and screamed orders as dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  As Gaines, though, one of his generation’s most gifted actors gets under the skin and into the soul of a humble man whose granite backbone was forged as a young boy when he witnessed ruthless mistreatment of both parents on a cotton farm in the Deep South in 1926.

 Slavery may have officially been a thing of the past by about a half century by then, but this film’s early  scenes may inspire some in the audience to dig out a history book and check to make sure.

First as an act of survival, then as a vocation, Gaines learns to serve.  Once he makes his way to Washington, D.C., the observant servant lands a job first at a fine hotel and finally at the White House, where he stands out as a loyal African-American serving wealthy white folks.

The Butler begins to flounder when it becomes apparent that Daniels, the Oscar-nominated director of Precious:  Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009), and screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change on HBO) haven’t set out to tell a personal story, but a personal story that will touch on every significant moment in black history from cotton field violence to Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House.

Not since Little Big Man (1970), which featured Dustin Hoffman and spanned about a century of Old West history, has a film bitten off so much.  Even with a running time of 12 minutes past the two-hour mark, The Butler rushes along; alternating scenes of Gaines serving seven presidents from studious Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to gregarious Ronald Reagan, who is very well-acted by Great Brit Alan Rickman, with Louis, Gaines’ eldest son who migrates south for college and chronicles the civil rights movement.

Some characters come and go swiftly in this father-and-son tale of reverent service by the elder that contrasts sharply with rebellious freedom fighting by the son.  That son, by the way, is performed without flaw by David Oyelowo (Lincoln), who appeared last year in Daniels’ The Paperboy and could be in the running for a supporting actor Oscar himself.

Oprah Winfrey also brings strong support as Gaines’ longsuffering, often boozed-up wife Gloria.  Perhaps a bit advanced in age to pull off scenes as a young adult, the near-legendary TV chat host and media mogul performs her difficult character with nuance and skill the rest of the way.

I also enjoyed Jane Fonda’s brief scenes as Nancy Reagan.  Not just for Fonda’s acting chops, which she has long displayed, but just for the irony of Fonda, the über liberal, portraying the wife of a famously conservative U.S. president.

It would be a mistake to think of The Butler as the accurately portrayed story of a humble man who had a backstage pass, as it were, to history and polished the White House silverware as his ostracized son fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement, however.

This is a case of a story “inspired by” the extraordinary life of Eugene Allen, who actually served eight presidential administrations.  Strong’s screenplay merely uses the real story (which can be found in Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post piece titled A Butler Well Served by This Election as a dramatic launching pad.

Characters and historic conflicts are inserted to stir the dramatic pot wildly when, from this aisle seat, the man and his humility would have served the dramatic purpose just fine.


MPAA rating:  PG-13 (some violence and disturbing images, profanity, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking)

Running time:  132 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3 (out of 4)


'The Help' wanted, very wanted

Every once in a while a movie comes along that's daring enough to lift the lid covering the grisly history of mistreatment of black people in this country up just enough for movie-goers to take a clear, often painful look at reality.

In 1985,Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" drew an Academy Award nomination for Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, a mentally and physically abused victim of incest first seen as a teenager and followed for 30 years.

"Precious," ironically also about an incest victim having a second child, moved the struggle against social injustice into modern-day Harlem.  Like Goldberg, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who portrayed the mentally tortured title character, made the short list of Oscar nominees, but did not win.

"The Help," based on Kathryn Stockett's best selling novel of 2009, operates in the same downtrodden arena. This time, though, there's a buoyancy of levity to ease the blows as snooty white society "ladies" mistreat their nannies and maids in 1960s Jackson, Miss.

Here's what those who dearly love Stockett's novel need to know first:  Don't worry.  "The Help" is, in my semi-humble opinion, one of the finest films of 2011.

If you don't fight back tears, laugh out loud and want to stand up and cheer more than once, it might be a good idea to have someone check you for a pulse.

Director Tate Taylor worked with Stockett, his longtime pal on this project.  They grew up in Jackson, Miss., so capturing the mood of the era is never a problem.  And there's this.  This project was churning along as a movie-in-the-works before the author even found a publisher for the novel.

For that reason, "The Help" deserves a break from the usual concerns the transition from novel to big-screen of hugely popular books ("Harry Potter," "Twilight," "Eat, Pray, Love") usually stir up.

Viola Davis, who earned an Oscar nomination for brief screen time opposite Meryl Streep in "Doubt," graces this inspiring tale of courage throughout.  Davis turns in a brilliant, understated performance as Aibileen Clark, a Mississippi maid and nanny who has raised 17 white children of employers.  During that long stretch of low-pay servitude, Aibileen saw her only child die needlessly.

Reluctantly, Aibileen reveals the secrets, struggles and sacrifices it takes to be a black servant in white households in the racist '60s Old South.  She gradually opens up to Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent Ole Miss grad who dreams of being a writer.  Skeeter, gradually standing up to her racist grownup of childhood pals, might just have an ear for a novel about black maids willing to tell all.  A New York City magazine editor is intrigued.

This may sound like grim subject matter, and it certainly is at times.  Armed with a smart, inspirational script he co-wrote, however, director Taylor ("Pretty Ugly People") uses the comic talents of Octavia Spencer ("Dinner for Schmucks"), who plays Minny (Aibileen's best friend), and others to garnish the difficult subject matter with effective Southern fried humor.

"The Help" is what I used to call a station-wagon movie.  We can update that now to call it an SUV movie.  That means gather as many friends and family members as you can pack into your car, van or sports utility vehicle and get to the movie house to see a spectacular crescendo of emotions likely to sweep you off your feet.

When you steady yourself, you might discover you're in a better place; a place of acceptance, compassion and understanding.


Grieve it to 'Beaver'

You heard the raging telephone tapes. You thought you had your mind made up about Mel Gibson, didn't you?

Well, not so fast, at least from the artistic standpoint. The man who may be Mad Max in real life, the man who has a Best Director Academy Award statuette on his mantel for "Braveheart" still has plenty to give when those troubled blue eyes stare into a movie camera.

Gibson and old pal and former co-star Jodie Foster ("Maverick") team up for something exceeding daring and pretty special with the dark, dark, dark depression drama titled "The Beaver."

We're talking two two-time Oscar winners. Still, "The Beaver," which Foster apparently lobbied to direct, is the kind of movie that turns a movie studio head's toupee prematurely gray.

Fractured families trying to heal themselves (or not) are not exactly strangers to a movie marquee. But this one wallows in the kind of rotted family tree you might find after turning over a rock, like Sam Mendes' Best Picture Oscar winner "American Beauty" of 1999.

Family man Walter Black (Gibson) suffers so deeply from depression that the doctors can do nothing for him. All the former toy company CEO -- who inherited the company from a father he hated and ran it into near-bankruptcy -- does is sleep.

The wife (performed with stunning quality by Foster) finally has enough and kicks him out. Walter is even lousy at suicide attempts. But when he retrieves a beaver hand puppet from a trash bin, suddenly Walter, who has lost his will even to communicate, finds a voice.

Not his voice, exactly, but a spokes-beaver with a guttural British accent.

Talk to the hand has probably never been used quite this literally in a motion picture. The outrageous, compelling screenplay comes from first-timer Kyle Killen, who lives in Austin.

In addition to Gibson, rising-star actor Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek," "Terminator: Salvation") is also superb as Porter, Walter's almost equally-depressed son. While the dark drama plays out among Meredith (Foster), Walter and The Beaver (even in bed), Porter is suffering through a complicated relationship with a high school cheerleader.

Norah, brainy but troubled as well, is portrayed very well by Jennifer Lawrence, the Best Actress Oscar nominee for her tremendous work in "Winter's Bone."

News of Gibson's telephone rants to Oksana Grigorieva, the mother of his child and ex-girlfriend, didn't surface until after "The Beaver" was shot. So feel free to read whatever you will into what fueled Gibson's rage-filler performance here.

The fact is it's a kick-in-the-gut moving performance from an actor who has never lacked for verbal intensity throughout his long career. Foster, who is outstanding both in front of and behind the camera, is to be applauded for the emotional explosion she captures in only her third directing effort.

In a town and a career where image is everything, it takes guts to put on a beaver hand puppet and bare a soul, even if the depression and rage might be partially fired from the actor's own torment.

"The Beaver" will probably not appeal to many mainstream movie fans.

For those able to separate an actor's personal life from what he leaves on a movie screen, though, "The Beaver" is dam good.


'Fighter' almost up for the count

Serious movie lovers know that any boxing drama based on real people enters the cinematic ring on the ropes and with the ref pointing and counting.

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro saw to that with "Raging Bull," the boxing movie of all boxing movies in 1980.

"The Fighter," though not as precise with its dramatic punches, matches "Raging Bull" blow-for-blow in authenticity and, in some cases, outrageous, offbeat style.

Scorsese used extreme slow motion, animal noises and blood splattering onto ringside fans to orchestrate pugilistic history into big-screen entertainment. Director David O. Russell, every bit as eager to punch his audience below the belt, goes for a big family, big 1980s hair and the fighter's big brother, mentor and failed idol sucking on a crack bong.

A dream project for star Mark Wahlberg, "The Fighter" instead becomes a macabre showcase in human and emotional transformation for Christian Bale. He may play the Caped Crusader in the modern-day "Batman" franchise, but it is as fighter-turned-crack head Dicky Eklund that I long expect to remember Bale's riveting acting.

Wahlberg is "Irish Thunder" Mickey Ward, the little brother once in awe of his elder, then later poised to perhaps get a title shot that his brother tossed aside for a crack not at a title, but at more crack cocaine.

"The Fighter" is such a good stirring pot for drama, in fact, that I found myself wishing Wahlberg were the great actor and Bale merely supported his performance. That's how it should be in a perfect cinematic arena.

But let's not be quick to criticize Bale's outstanding talent. His Dicky never chews the scenery in order to steal a movie. Instead, Bale gets so far under a real person's skin that it's impossible to muzzle a persona that pranced to the front row in prison like a movie star at a world premiere to take a seat for an HBO documentary on addiction that chronicles his downfall. Dicky truly believes it to be a showcase of his boxing comeback.

Like "Raging Bull," "The Fighter" will have you squirming in your seat at times. In addition to the usual tale of the cinematic tape that unfolds in steely Lowell, MA (and actually shot there), this is a drama that nails an equally vicious preliminary match between the boys' manager mom, Alice (Melissa Leo), and Charlene (Amy Adams), Mickey's steel-willed girlfriend.

Actually, the women are almost as intriguing as the men in this heavyweight battle of wills. Leo is the Oscar nominee as the desperate single mom of "Frozen River."

Adams is cast way against her usual softer type. Make no mistake, though, the double Oscar nominee ("Junebug," "Doubt") who shared the screen (if no scenes) with Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia" is up to the challenge.

"The Fighter" isn't quite world champeen caliber like "Raging Bull," perhaps because Russell doesn't quite congeal all the excellent parts into a master work whole, as Scorsese managed.

Go for the performances, though. Three out of the four lead acting turns are knockouts.


Allen curses the chaos yet again

Almost every filmmaker deals with clichés.

Woody Allen, however, has the uncanny ability to exploit the trite and overused as if he's the Magellan of literature; bravely forging first footprints.

In addition to getting to watch some good actors work in the offbeat romantic-comedy (See, there's a cliché) "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Allen dishes on an aging husband ditching his wife for a younger woman, the seven year or so marital itch, stealing another creator's work and, ah yes, Woody's favorite, that unavoidable date with the grim reaper.

This is not one of Allen's best films, even when narrowing the comparison to relatively recent ones.  "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," the 2008 venture out of New York (Allen's comfort zone) that netted co-star Penélope Cruz a supporting actress Oscar, is far superior, for instance.  

This title, though, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," is Woody at his cowering-in-the-face-of-life's-ultimate-outcome best.  Unlike the bouncy soundtrack, which might just feature the director himself on clarinet, the tale of much ado about life's major bumps in the road plays a little off entertainment key.

Veteran actor Anthony Hopkins -- all slimmed down these days, like a senior lifeguard -- fidgets as Alfie, an elder "player."  His wife Helena (Gemma Jones) tried to commit suicide when Alfie split, muscled up and bought a convertible.  Now she drinks and wastes her money on a charlatan fortune teller named Cristal (Pauline Collins, who's quite good).

Helena's daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) has tired of waiting for her out-of-work husband Roy (Josh Brolin), a long-ago one-hit-wonder novelist, to write something else that'll sell.

She's slowly falling for Greg (Antonio Banderas), the art gallery owner she works for.  Meanwhile, Roy spends most of his time staring out the window at a mystery young woman (Freida Pinto of "Slumdog Millionaire") in the apartment building -- Excuse me, flat; Woody's shooting in London for the fourth time  -- next door.

Oh, and there's one other major character in the mix. British actress Lucy Punch ("Dinner for Schmucks"), who reportedly took over for Nicole Kidman in this role, portrays ditsy-like-a-fox Charmaine.  Alfie (Hopkins) first met her by ordering Charmaine on the telephone like a pizza (or, since it's London, fish and chips).

The acting is top notch.  But the tired central theme -- a cliché in itself -- is growing whiskers by now.  Once again, Allen returns us to his creative vortex; the chaos and nothingness of the universe.

We get it, Woody.  Life's a bitch and then we die.  But not before seeing one more of your movies cringing at the issue.

I like the title very much, though.  And Leon Redbone singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" to open and close the hopelessness of it all ...



Ben Affleck's big score in Bean 'Town'

Ben Affleck, the director, is solidifying the talents of Ben Affleck, the actor.

In "The Town," in which the formerly chagrined actor (remember "Gigli") stars, directs and contributes to the script, Affleck shows steady confidence wearing several film-making hats.

Doug MacRay (Affleck), a failed hockey draftee back in his 20s, has returned to the old Charlestown neighborhood of Boston older but not wiser.  He joins the family (and friends) business.

That business, as evidenced by the incredible statistics in real and imagined Charlestown, is robbing banks.

Affleck stayed behind the camera three years ago for "Gone Baby Gone," his initial feature-film directing assignment.  Little brother Casey, also an actor of note, took the lead in that mystery-thriller that also played out on Affleck's home streets of Boston.

Now, perhaps feeling confident enough to face the camera and the editing room, the elder Affleck tattoos up, portrays the leader of a bank robber gang, and even allows himself to fall for a bank manager he forced to the floor during a robbery.

In fact it's Affleck's on-screen relationship with Rebecca Hall ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") as bank manager Claire Keesey that tips "The Town" into the go zone as a dramatic-thriller.

Affleck's slowly climbing his way back up the credibility ladder as an actor.  When he steps in front of a camera these days, it comes down to -- for me at least -- whether or not I believe him as an actor.

I do in "The Town," which is co-written by Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard ("Gone Baby Gone") and based on Chuck Hogan's 2004 novel "Prince of Thieves."

Director Affleck revs up the dramatic adrenaline with high tension, blazing gunfire and riveting, metal-crunching car chase scenes.  "The Town" may not trash more cop cars in Boston than "The Blues Brothers" did in Chicago, but it would be worth a comparison count.

This is without a doubt a tale of robbers and cops, not the traditional way around.  While TV star Jon Hamm ("Ad Men") displays a knack for knowing his way around a movie set as the determined FBI agent on the case, another actor commands every scene he's in.

Jeremy Renner, a best actor nominee from "The Hurt Locker" (the reigning best picture Oscar winner), is a bulldog and a joy to experience as Affleck's best pal and off-the-hinge career criminal James Coughlin.

In fact, the Oscar race might just begin this weekend.

"The Town" is not a film without some minor flaws, but the sum of most of its parts adds up to mesmerizing.