The past week's vacation found me and the bride spending a fair amount of time catching up on (and trying to relax with) films. Among the viewing: "Winter's Bone," "The Fighter," "The Kids Are All Right" (yes, I am also doing some pre-Oscar prep), "How To Train Your Dragon," "How Do You Know," "TRON: Legacy" in 3D, and a couple of oldies, "All Through the Night" and "The Maltese Falcon," courtesy of the Warner Bros. essential Bogart box.
Notes on all these, and "Blue Valentine," following the jump.
All this viewing reminded me that, as much as I think about writers and directors, I think about actors more. And not always the main actor.
I know, for instance, that Jennifer Lawrence is quite good in "Winter's Bone," but what about the work by John Hawkes as Teardrop? Loved him on "Deadwood" (whose Garret Dillahunt is also in "Bone") and he's equally impressive here. I know that Christian Bale is terrific in "The Fighter," but what about Melissa Leo as Dicky and Nicky's mother? And yes, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are solid in "The Kids Are All Right" -- although Bening has done this sort of prickly role before, in "Running With Scissors" -- but Mark Ruffalo is the movie's acting gem. Still, I try to keep in mind that even fine actors are at the mercy of their scripts and direction; Owen Wilson, for instance, made my skin crawl in "Little Fockers" but was much better in the (better but still not good) "How Do You Know." So, with that proviso, let's go to individual movies. In alphabetical order, except for the Bogarts, which I put at the end. So ...
"Blue Valentine" has not opened here yet, although I'm told it will arrive on Jan. 14. I saw it before Christmas and have a review in the hopper for when it does open. Let me just say here that everything good you have read about the leads -- Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, as a couple seen in the first blush of romance and the more recent, painful part of their marriage -- is correct. Both are marvelous, and well matched. I keep thinking that the movie would have been better had we seen the middle of their relationship, but the script and direction give us some clues about what's gone on, often in little lines late in the movie which will have you going, "Oh, I see..." Still, it's a powerful movie overall.
"The Fighter." Based on the life of boxer Micky Ward (though with certain dramatic omissions), this stars Mark Wahlberg as Micky and Christian Bale as his half-brother, Dicky Eklund, once a promising fighter himself but, as the movie begins, trapped deep in a crack addiction. Dicky wallows in the delusional belief that he can make a comeback -- and that he can help Micky succeed as a boxer. But Dicky, and their mother-manager (Melissa Leo), are too willing to make compromises to help themselves instead of Micky. It takes a good woman (Amy Adams) and one too many crises for Micky to find his own way -- but he is also still drawn to his family. Good movie, though not a great one, especially in the latter stages when it begins an unstoppable march toward a happy ending. Before that, though, it is driven largely by director David O. Russell's documentary style (mirroring a documentary being made about Dicky) and by the performances, which are consistently strong. I've already made note of how good Bale and Leo are, but Wahlberg stands in with them -- no easy task when you are playing the nice, low-key guy surrounded by fast-talking extroverts. And Adams is perfectly believable in her moments of decency and those of foul-mouthed toughness. (No one in this movie dials down the language.) When she has to confront Micky's seven sisters, it's electric. And, over on the side, is "Rescue Me's" great Jack McGee, adding red-faced credibility. And, after all the agony, audiences kind of deserve a happy ending.
"How Do You Know." Writer-director James L. Brooks makes movies that not only look good in their time, but which age well. "Broadcast News," for one, seems even stronger now than it did then (although I still think its big revelation at the end is implausibly shocking to one character). But I don't think "How Do You Know" will look any better 10 years from now than it does in this moment. It's a movie with a big empty spot in the middle, one that is very fond of its characters but does not quite know what to do with their lives. This is a shame because the cast is stacked: Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson. And there are little things in it that work very well. Wilson, as I said, nails his character, the kind of guy whom you like instantly but who, as he does awful things, won't let you forget that there's something sweet about him. But the basic story -- which involves both Rudd's and Witherspoon's characters at transitional points in their lives -- goes nowhere. It's just something to hang a mild romantic comedy on, and not much at that. Even Nicholson, a regular in Brooks's movies, flounders here as Rudd's domineering father -- and there's a resolution to their conflict which feels as if there was another reel to this movie that was left behind. I did not hate it as much as I was puzzled by it, thinking again and again that it should be better, and it never was. I don't blame the actors, who make what they can of this, but Brooks's script and direction were just flat.
"How To Train Your Dragon." I caught up with this because it may end up in the animated Oscar nominees, and it was all right. Good visuals, funny gags, sweet story. But I wouldn't rank it ahead of "Toy Story 3."
"The Kids Are All Right." The very virtue of this movie is what made it take time for me to like it. That is, it believes that even with big dramatic developments, real life can be relatively quiet. (I am reminded of the scene where Emma Thompson faces up to Alan Rickman in "Love Actually," all the more touching because it happens so softly.) This is not to say that the crises are unimportant, or that there is no emotional price for the characters. It's just that these people, in these situations, are less likely to shout than the cry.
The movie stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a longtime couple who, via a sperm donor, have had two children. Their son (Josh Hutcherson), who is 15, wants to meet the donor and persuades his newly 18-year-old half-sister (Mia Wasikowska, who was Alice in the Johnny Depp "Alice in Wonderland") to ask. The donor, played with considerable confusion and charm by Mark Ruffalo, proves to be different from what the "kids" expect, but he proves to be the kind of guy who could have sired these young people. (Let the nature vs. nurture debate resume.) But his presence is complicated for Bening and Moore in ways both surprising and not so. And it's by no means certain that he can fit with this existing family -- even if the kids are in fact "all right," that does not mean their moms are. I liked this movie very much, and more the longer I think about it. Directed by Lisa Chodolenko (who cowrote with Stuart Blumberg), this -- like "Blue Valentine" -- feels raw and honest; it puts a family fraud like "Little Fockers" to shame. Look at the way this allows for clutter, and clumsiness, and dirt, in places you wouldn't expect to find it in a glossier movie. Bening is good although, as I said, I've seen these riffs before. Moore is better, filling in all sorts of gaps just by the way she says lines. And Ruffalo almost walks away with the whole movie.
"TRON: Legacy." It was big. It was 3D, which doesn't work consistently well with my specs and which always makes movies seem very dark. (Of course, I go to a lot of matinees which seem dark generally.) The story was better than I expected, and Jeff Bridges as his aged character from the original "TRON" was kind of fun; he gave it a very "Dude" spin. But, having seen it, I feel no compulsion to watch it again.
"Winter's Bone." I will be seeing this again. Maybe my favorite of all the movies discussed here. It's close with "Kids" and "Blue Valentine." Adapted by Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, and directed by Granik, it's a grim and largely uncompromising story of life among the poor and criminal in mountain country. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old who has taken over the care of her younger brother and sister; her mother is incapable, and her father has apparently disappeared. The father's disappearance is very bad news because he was out of jail on bond, and put up the Dolly house and land to cover the bond. If he does not show up for his court date, the Dollys -- already in a strangling financial struggle -- could end up homeless. Ree sets out to find him, only to be told again and again that she should not be looking. Her father was involved in bad business, and there's no wisdom in stirring things up. But Ree's desperation makes her determined, and most of the movie makes us ask how far she will go before something terrible happens -- as well as what terror awaits if she gives up.
It's a tense, dark movie, full of ominous silences and scary characters, not least among them Ree's uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes). But "Winter's Bone" understands that its characters have a code, albeit a complicated one; it may include looking past the meth labs and keeping one's mouth shut, but it also has its layers of loyalty, especially when it comes to family. Ree gets that, and her pushing against the silences around her father is rooted in her need to take care of her mother and siblings. If the ending is a touch too pat, much of what precedes it is exceedingly well done. Lawrence is getting Oscar talk, and it's deserved. But, as I said, I would hate to see Hawkes overlooked. He's crucial to the movie.
Finally, and briefly, because I have rattled on so long, the Bogarts. If you have not seen "The Maltese Falcon," please do so. Then watch it again. I do not know how many times I have seen it now, but there are always little things that surprise and delight. This time, for instance, I was caught up by the grin on Mary Astor's face as she sat, back to two aggressive police detectives, and watched Bogart spin them a yarn. The grin was the admiration of one con artist for another, and it informed a lot of the Astor/Bogart relationship in the movie. "All Through the Night" is a less-known, and lesser, part of the Bogart canon, and one of several Nazi-fighting films on his resume (the most legendary being, of course, "Casablanca"). But it is still fun. Bogart plays a big-city gambler whose fondness for his mother and for a local baker sends him on a search that winds up face-to-face with nasty Germans. Besides a good wisecracking script, the movie includes a host of character actors: Judith Anderson, Conrad Veidt, Frank McHugh, William Demarest, Jane Darwell, Peter Lorre -- and, in small roles. Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. Check it out.