Tag Archives: Golden Globes

La La Land (2016)

Of all the movie genres out there, I would say the musical is probably my least favourite, followed by romance. There’s just something about suddenly breaking into song and dance that takes me out of a film, and most romance flicks are done so poorly that they make me cringe with embarrassment. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part I try to avoid them. La La Land, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to director Damien Chapelle’s Whiplash, has received a lot of acclaim, and yet I still did not know what to expect because it is both a musical and a romance.

Well, I finally got around to watching it at the cinema today, and all I can say is, “Wow”. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie knowing it has received good reviews and then having it exceed my expectations this much. 

The premise is actually quite simple: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, respectively, who come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams.  That’s pretty much all you need to know, but it is a romance after all. so you know they are going to meet and fall in love. However, it is the way that this is portrayed that makes the film so engrossing. We already know that Gosling and Stone have excellent chemistry from Crazy, Stupid, Love, and here they elevated to a whole other level. There is just something really organic about their interactions, which never feel forced or contrived. It also helps that they are both well-developed and likable characters you want to root for. 

The first half of the film is sweet, dreamy and full of energy, just like the characters pursuing their dreams and falling in love. The second half is darker and more serious as it deals with the practical realities of their lives and careers. I don’t recall a movie in recent memory that got me genuinely smiling (not because of a joke, but because of how joyful it is) and then genuinely on the verge of tears. It’s one of nose rare bittersweet films that sucked me in right from the beginning, warmed my heart, then damn near broke it. I can’t imagine how people who are have really gone to LA to pursue their dreams feel when they watch this movie. As I said, I usually don’t like romance films because they’re so poorly made. La La Land, on the other hand, nails it perfectly.

The other thing I was afraid of, the singing and dancing, surprisingly did not bother me. Part of it is because the songs are so fantastic and catchy, and part of it because the lyrics fit the emotions of the narrative so well. And part of it is because the amazing choreography and the way it was shot is so flawless. I was sold from the opening  sequence that really set the tone for the rest of the film. I had always felt that musicals would be better confined to stage plays, but the incredible long takes and creative camera angles, as well as the way Chazelle blends them in with the stunning cinematography, makes La La Land an experience built for the big screen.

Full credit must go to Gosling and stone for their performances, both of which deserve Oscar nominations if not wins. They play off each other seamlessly, from the silly banter to the serious conversations to the cute duets and dance numbers. It was almost a little annoying to see such highly attractive and fit people be able to sing and dance this well. And who the heck knew that Gosling was such a good piano player?

Chazelle has also made himself a favorite for Best Director and Best Screenplay by proving that Whiplash was no fluke. La La Land is so different from Whiplash, and yet both films exude the same type of self-assured confidence and controlled pacing. I can’t wait to see what Chazelle comes up with next. 

I’ve heard some people call La La Land a love letter to Los Angeles, and I guess you could construe it that way. I just think it’s a brilliant, funny, sweet, heart-felt movie from start to finish. There were a couple of decisions I perceive as minor missteps, though on the whole, there’s really nothing to dampen how I feel about the movie. Perhaps it’s just the dreamer in me talking, but I just can’t believe how much I love it.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: I literally walked out of the cinema after watching La La land to discover that it had won a record seven awards at the Golden Globes with a clean sweep. I’m not usually one for hyperboles, but it’s well-deserved. I still have a few films left to watch that could potentially knock it off its perch, but as of now, La La Land is the best 2016 release I’ve seen.

Joy (2015)

Jennifer-Lawrence-Joy-Movie-Poster

David O’Russell must really love Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The latest collaboration of this celebrated trio is Joy, a loosely based biopic on the life of American inventor Joy Mangano. While it is a solid film fueled by yet another Academy Award-nominated performance by Jennifer Lawrence, it’s also clear that Joy is a much weaker motion picture than Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. And I t’s not even a debate.

It’s hard to review Joy without discussing Mangano’s life, and I suppose certain details may be considered spoilers if you’ve never heard of her or see the trailer (or even just the poster). But since this is Spoiler-Free Reviews, I’m just going to assume that you don’t know anything at all other the basic premise: Joy is a single mother struggling to make ends meet while taking care of everyone in her family from her parents (played by Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen) to her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez). And yet, she still dreams big, and as the opening caption of the film will tell you, she is an inspirational woman.

As such, there is a sense of inevitability about the movie even if you don’t know who Joy Mangano is. She goes through plenty of heartache and frustration and despair, but you do get the sense that everything will eventually be okay in the end. Credit to O’Russell for still keeping the story relatively intriguing, with moments of hard-hitting drama and tension — though very little comedy, which begs the question why it is listed as a comedy-drama and was nominated as a comedy at the Golden Globes (I guess if The Martian is a comedy then any movie could be one too). The pacing could have been better, as it does drag at times and feels longer than its already-long 124-minute running time.

The Academy must also love Jennifer Lawrence because I’m not sure her performance in Joy was one of the top 5 female performances of the year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really really good, probably top 10, as she completely drives the movie from start to finish, though I still got the feeling that she was probably miscast — she simply looks too young and fresh-faced to be totally convincing as a single mother of three who has lived a really hard life.

Apart from Lawrence, the rest of the supporting cast deliver fine performances as well. It’s more or less expected when you have the likes of De Niro, Bradley Cooper and Isabella Rossellini on the roster. However, Lawrence is the clear standout, and despite my misgivings about the suitability of her casting, she gives it everything she has to elevate the movie above what it otherwise would have been in less capable hands.

This is not Lawrence’s fault, but I also felt the film was lionising the protagonist a little too much. Joy is practically a saint in this movie and it never changes despite some really nasty stuff happening to her. It may be all true, but it would have been nice to see more “human” emotions from her character to keep it interesting.

Overally, Joy is a solid and occasionally very good biographical drama thanks to the direction of O’Russell and a great performance from Lawrence. The problems I had with it perhaps lay more with the script than anything else. It’s an inspirational story, but it’s one that also feels overlong and somewhat repetitive in that it keeps putting Joy down so that we can all feel the joy (pun intended) when things finally start going right for her. The result is O’Russell’s least impressive effort in recent years, though by most other standards it’s still a pretty enjoyable film.

3.5 stars out of 5

Creed (2015)

creedpostersmall

As a fan of the Rocky franchise and Michael B Jordan, I was desperate to watch Creed, the spin-off about the son of the late Apollo Creed, the initial rival and subsequent best friend of Rocky Balboa. What made it even more exciting for me is that the film is directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, the man who brought out the best in Jordan in the hard-hitting, gritty and emotional Fruitvale Station.

And so it pleases me to declare that Creed is an absolute winner, a powerful, energetic and moving boxing drama that manages to effectively milk the cache and nostalgia of the Rocky franchise without coming across as cheap or cheesy.

While this year’s other boxing blockbuster, Southpaw, disappointed me to no end because of its lack of realism and over-abundance of predictability and cliches, Creed impresses with relative realism, pleasant surprises and by embracing the right cliches at the right times. The resulting experience is night and day; in boxing terms it’s a first round knockout by Creed.

The first reason why Creed succeeds is because it’s driven by wonderfully developed central characters — Adonis (Jordan) and Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). As per my usual policy, I’m not going to divulge anything more than the basic premise you already know, though I will say it is best to avoid the film’s second (and more detailed) trailer due to spoilers.

It would have been easy to just bring back Rocky in his capacity as a trainer like in Rocky V and make Apollo a stock hero with a typical rags to riches trajectory (like Billy Hope Southpaw), but Coogler (with apparent minimal input from a very respectable Stallone) manages to flesh out both of them extremely well and give them worthwhile personal journeys.

I loved Rocky’s development since the last film and there are tragic elements to his story I found surprisingly moving. On the other hand, you might have a preconceived notion of who Adonis is, but there are many aspects to his character I did not anticipate, and I enjoyed the little bits of misdirection that Coogler throws our way to play with our prejudices and expectations. Though this is ultimately still a Rocky-type movie with typical elements from the franchise, I liked how Coogler added wrinkles to the story to remind us that it’s not a clean-cut fairytale and there are harsh realities to be faced. It’s not 100% realism of course, but it adds an edge to the characters and their situations.

The performances are spectacular. Jordan deserves as much praise as Gyllenhaal received for Southpaw (he’s easily just as ripped too), while Stallone deserves the supporting actor nominations he has been getting, reminding me that Stallone can actually act (his running around in platform boots shooting baddies with his buddies in recent years has made me forget). The chemistry between them is fantastic, and I’m happy that this really is a Creed movie as opposed to a clever disguise for another Rocky movie.

In terms of the action, the boxing scenes in Creed are excellent. The training sequences look authentic, while inside the ring the fights are generally well-choreographed, though still slightly on the wild brawling side of the Rocky films of old rather than the realistic technical brilliance of true elite-level boxing. Thanks to the creative camera angles Coogler adopts, there is a bit of that “fly on the wall” feel, which is great because it adds an extra dimension to the usual TV-style presentation or first-person point of view.

As with Star Wars: The Force AwakensCreed has taken an old formula and rebooted it, and in my humble opinion it might have done it even more effectively. It’s a mixture of the old and new, going back to the root of the Rocky Balboa underdog story but with an intriguing new lead and twist. There’s nostalgia but also freshness, solid boxing action but also moving drama. Creed is without doubt the lineal boxing movie of 2015.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Into the Woods (2014)

into-the-woods-poster1

Sometimes you just have to go against the grain. Despite the awesome ensemble cast, the reputation of stylish director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean 4), the box office and critical success, there is only one thing I am certain of: Into the Woods is a shit film.

Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, Into the Woods cleverly builds a world combining several Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. At the centre of the story is a couple played by Emily Blunt and James Corden, who come in touch with all these classic fairy tale characters as they try and break a curse that has prevented them from having a child.

It sounds like a fun idea, and for the first few minutes of the film (at least) it was not difficult to see the potential of the premise. You get a bunch of big name stars — from Meryl Streep (whom I cannot believe was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role at the upcoming Oscars) and Anna Kendrick to Chris Pine and Johnny Depp — playing wacky characters. The tone is light and tongue-in-cheek, and the script makes good use of our knowledge (and the characters’ lack of knowledge) of the fairy tales they’re in.

And so it came as a slow and painful shock to me that Into the Woods simply didn’t work as a feature film. It may have as a Broadway musical — I don’t know because I haven’t seen it — but I found myself not caring much for the story or the characters. There are some admittedly funny moments, many of which are sarcastic or involve Billy Magnussen, who plays Rapunzel’s unfortunate prince, though the whole “turning fairy tales on their head” gimmick grew tiring in a hurry.

At 124 minutes, the film is far too long and the dark final act dragged on for what felt like an eternity. I actually thought the movie was already long when it hit its faux ending much earlier and had to be forced to endure about another 20 minutes of soulless mayhem.

Strictly speaking there’s nothing wrong with the production per se, though as a whole Into the Woods failed to engage me. I couldn’t get into the story because it was so all over the place, I didn’t get into the songs because there was nothing resembling a catchy melody or song, and I didn’t care about anything or anyone because there was no heart or genuine emotion.

Maybe it’s my bias against fairy tale “reimaginings” or my inability to get most musicals, most notably the big screen adaptation of Les Miserables from 2012. But  even had I approached it a clean slate I just don’t see how I could have come to a different conclusion — and that’s the film is strangely detached, unexciting, and far too long.  It’s a pretty movie to look at and I have the utmost respect for the talented cast on the screen, though these positives alone are insufficient to drag Into the Woods out of the shitter.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

inside_llewyn_davis_ver2

My love for the Cohen brothers is profound. They may have had some misses over the years, but when they hit the mark the sky’s the limit. Their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, a comedy drama about a struggling folk singer, is not a miss, but it’s not quite a spectacular hit either. It features some of that trademark Cohens quirky humour that I love and plenty of wonderful music, but the story itself is not quite engrossing enough to keep me drawn in for the entire 105-minute running time.

Set in New York in the 1960s, Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is not doing too well. We can tell from the opening scenes that he’s a pretty good signer, but his solo album, which shares the same name as the film, isn’t selling, and he is forced to sleep on the couch of a friend’s family. He’s not a horrible guy but he’s not exactly likable either and often comes across as a bit of a dick who’s not afraid to speak his mind regardless of how offensive his words  may be.

It’s a bit of a meandering film with no real direction, one that follows Davis around for a week as he tries to land gigs and score performances to earn himself some dough. We see him looking after a ginger cat, get hassled by his casual girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) and taking a road trip with some interesting people. His personal life is in a complete mess and his relationships are all over the place, and his existence is more or less one misadventure after another, and the majority of them are his fault. It’s not exactly a riveting plot, and at times I wondered what the heck it was trying to say, or whether it was trying to say anything at all.

And no, it’s not one of those poignant dramas either. There’s no touching message about life or underlying beauty. It’s just Davis being who he is, for better or worse, battling to survive in a tough industry where artists often find themselves making compromises to make ends meet. I actually prefer that, though I wish there was more of a focus and a proper story to tell.

The strength of the film lies in the offbeat comedy that the Coens are masters of, and much of it comes from the sharp conversations between Davis and the people in his life. There are plenty of witty and dumbfounding lines that elicited chuckles from me throughout the movie, though not many huge belly laughs like the ones I got in Fargo.

I had never heard of Oscar Isaac before but he’s terrific in this — both his acting and his singing. And I had no idea that there were so many big names in supporting roles, from the aforementioned Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F Murray Abraham, Max Casella (Doogie Howser’s buddy!) and Girls‘ Adam Driver. All of them stand out in their own way, especially Mulligan, whom I didn’t think much of before but was thoroughly impressed with here as the straight-shooting and ball-busting ex. She was very funny.

In the end, I don’t really know what to think of Inside Llewyn Davis. I enjoyed this finely crafted film and found it highly amusing, no doubt, and I also surprisingly liked the music a lot. But at the same I was a little disappointed with it and wished I could have liked it more. It’s a strange experience that will probably polarize viewers, but if push comes to shove I would probably still recommend it, especially to people who enjoy a good Coen brothers project.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

bluejasmine-firstposter-full

I don’t think much of Woody Allen as a husband or father, but I still get excited whenever I hear that he has a new film out. Despite a mixed bag in recent years, I loved Match Point and thought Midnight in Paris was one of the best movies of 2011. His latest, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in possibly a career-defining performance, is definitely right up there as one of his better projects over the past decade.

In tradition with Allen’s unique style, Blue Jasmine is a small, chatty, neurotic character movie, this time about a woman who had everything coping (or not coping) with losing everything. Blanchett plays the titular Jasmine, a New York socialite who once had wealthy husband (Alec Baldwin) and all the branded handbags and shoes a woman could want, but begins the film travelling to live with her not-so-well-off sister and her two sons in San Francisco. There are reasons for her downfall and breakdown, and we find this out gradually, piece by piece, through a series of well-designed exposition and flashbacks.

It’s clear from the very first scene, a one-sided conversation aboard her flight, that Jasmine is not a likable protagonist, someone who cannot let go of her elitist attitude and high and mighty behaviour despite no longer having the status or bank balance to back it up. Much of the fun is watching this very self-centered, pompous and cluelessly tactless woman trying to “put up” with people she thinks are inferior to her, though at the same time there is a certain poignancy to Jasmine’s ordeal because she is fighting so hard to not crumble under her depression. Despite all the obnoxious and insufferable things she says and does, it’s no easy hating Jasmine because she’s so laughably pitiful.

Part of that is Allen’s masterful writing, but most of the credit should go to Blanchett’s performance, which has already won her a Golden Globe and makes her a favourite heading into the Oscars. She is simply perfect as Jasmine, exuding an elegance and presence that is tailor made for the role. Everything, from her posture to the way she seems to start every sentence with a heavy sigh, tells you the kind of horrible character she is, and yet you understand why men are drawn to her. And most of all, she is incredibly funny, in an endearing Larry David/George Costanza kind of way.

Backing Blanchett up is a strong cast that includes Sally Hawkins as her “far too nice” sister, Bobby Cannavale as the sister’s middle-class boyfriend, and Peter Sarsgaard as a potential new love interest. Rounding out the effective ensemble are Alec Baldwin as the sleazy husband (another wonderful bit of casting), Louis CK as the sister’s new potential love interest, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a creepy dentist.

Blue Jasmine is an unusual, quietly brilliant movie because it doesn’t follow Hollywood’s typical “character journey” plot. Some of the subplots were a little on the predictable side — you just knew Woddy was setting certain relationships up for a dramatic moment — but by the end I was pleasantly surprised with its unconventional, and probably more realistic, conclusion. The film does lose momentum and become more serious and less funny as it progresses, but with a crafty pace and a compact 98-minute running time, Blue Jasmine is a pure delight that doesn’t come around very often, even for Woody Allen.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

captain_phillips_ver2

To be honest, I wasn’t really all that interested in Captain Phillips, which depicts the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates in 2009. I dunno, maybe I had been put off by pirates because of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (there may actually be an element of truth that joke), or perhaps it was because it looked like another boring a Oscar bait. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Captain Phillips is, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling and captivating movies of the year.

As always, if you don’t know about the Maersk Alabama hijacking then don’t read up about it before you go watch the movie. First of all, it’s best not knowing how the story ends, and secondly, you won’t be distracted by any of the creative liberties taken by the filmmakers. I went into it not knowing anything about it at all other than that it’s based on a true story, and as a result I was glued to the screen for the entire 133-minute running time, which didn’t feel one bit overlong at all.

To just give a basic background of the premise, the film tells the story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama who took orders to sail through the Gulf of Aden to Mombasa with aide cargo. The ship gets hijacked by a band of Somali pirates, who take Phillips hostage for ransom and sets off a major international incident. It’s an extraordinary story of bravery and survival, one that I’m sure has been at least a little embellished and sped up for the purposes of the movie, but I have no problems with that at all because it worked. Apart from a brief intro, Captain Phillips is intense all the way through, rarely easing up to give audiences time to take a breather. The sense of dread is real, the fear of danger is genuine, and the action feels authentic without being not over-the-top. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking considering that almost all of it takes place on the sea, and in nothing more than a couple of boats, and yet it’s far more exciting than many films that follow characters to multiple locations all around the world.

I’ve been a fan and critic of director Paul Greengrass, who directed two of the Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum) as well as the underrated war movie Greenzone. I like the way he handles his action sequences but I’m not a fan of his trademark handheld camera. In Captain Phillips, however, it feels as though Greengrass held back on the queasy-cam sequences, and even the scenes where the handheld cameras were more obvious were almost fitting because they were on the rocky seas.

As for the performances, I expected an Oscar-nominated one from Tom Hanks, which he delivers, but I was equally impressed by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who has nabbed a Golden Globe as the lead pirate and I think deserves an Oscar nod too. You would think as a hostage Hanks won’t get to show off his acting chops as much, but he’s so solid as the stoic but clearly terrified captain and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off the role the way he did. Adbi, on the other hand, is brilliant as the young leader of the pirates, who is frightening and vulnerable at the same time. All of the newcomers who play the pirates are terrific — they are the bad guys but you almost don’t want anything to happen to them — but Adbi is the one who stands out the most because of his screen presence.

In all, I was very impressed by Captain Phillips. It ticks all the right boxes — riveting plot, thrilling action, just the right amount of political intrigue and well-developed characters backed by top performances. A smart, intense and highly enjoyable film.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Barney’s Version (2010)

A bit of a delay in this review, but I guess better late than never.  I wasn’t quite sure going in what to expect from Barney’s Version, a drama starring Paul Giamatti as a man who, based on the snippets from the trailer, likes his ladies.  That was pretty much all I knew.

Well, I admit I was surprisingly impressed with Barney’s Version by the time the credits rolled.  Based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version is a crafty, captivating film bolstered by some superb performances.  Paul Giamatti is brilliant as Barney Panofsky, an unlikely ladies’ man who recalls his unusual and highly interesting life through various flashbacks dating back to the 1970s.  I won’t say much more about the plot because it’s the type of film where you don’t really know where it’s heading but you just go along for the ride.  There’s lust, romance, friendship, betrayal and an intriguing mystery too, ensuring that there’s hardly a dull moment in the lengthy 132 minute running time.

What surprised me about Barney’s Version is that I enjoyed the film despite the immensely flawed and unlikable protagonist.  Barney is a fascinating character but he’s a complete douche no matter which way you look at it.  Nonetheless, Giamatti’s performance makes Barney human and almost sympathetic at times.  I was shocked to discover that I was actually touched by Barney’s story towards the end.

Of course, it’s not all Giamatti (who won a Golden Globe for his performance).  The supporting cast was also amazing and it is a travesty that not more acting nominations were garnered.  Dustin Hoffman was a standout as Barney’s father.  Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman and Bruce Greenwood were also fantastic in their respective roles.

I understand some of the complaints about the film — that Barney was too much of a prick for the film to be enjoyable, that Giamatti was too fat and ugly to attract such pretty ladies, that it was misogynistic, etc etc — but I think they are missing the point.  For starters, the film is called “Barney’s” Version for a reason, and although the format doesn’t quite capture the ‘unreliable narrator’ of the book as well as I thought it should have, this was Barney’s story from his perspective and his memory.  Besides, there are far less attractive men with more attractive women in the real world, and in any case, I personally thought Giamatti’s persistence and zest for life did give him a peculiar charm (but hey, what would I know?).

Ultimately, I found Barney’s Version to be a lovely film about the ups and downs of life and its moments.  It’s not perfect but it’s one film I’ll likely remember years down the track.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)

I find it strange that director Darren Aronofsky calls Black Swan a ‘companion piece’ to his 2008 film The Wrestler (probably my favourite film of that year) because while they are both excellent, they are completely different films.

This one is about a New York ballet production of Swan Lake and the rivalry and obsession between two dancers (played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) that spirals into deadly madness.

I’ve been a fan of Portman since Leon (or The Professional), and this is perhaps her best performance.  It didn’t surprise me that she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and is the heavy favourite at the Oscars.  The supporting cast was also terrific, in particular Barbara Hershey as the frighteningly overbearing mother.  Vincent Cassel’s sleazy ballet director and Winona Ryder’s ageing dancer were also solid.

Unlike The Wrestler, which is a moving drama, Black Swan is as dark and disturbing a psychological thriller I’ve ever come across.  At times it plays out like a horror film, making the audience squirm in their seats and challenging us not to look away.  It’s a beautiful, atmospheric, chilling, masterfully directed film that kept me at the edge of my seat, even though for much of the 108-minute running time I was struggling to put the pieces together.

As Nate from TheNinthDragonKing said, the movie is at times reminiscent of David Lynch’s wonderful but hugely frustrating Mulholland Drive — except in my opinion Black Swan is less confusing and has an ending that doesn’t disappoint.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Fighter (2010)

[Apologies for the massive influx of movie reviews but I’ve just got too many lined up — it’s the award season anyway, so why not?]

I saw an advanced screening of The Fighter a few weeks ago but haven’t had a chance to review it.  Just as well, because I’ve allowed the film to sink in, allowing me to make up my mind that this is one of the greatest boxing movies ever.

I am quite well-acquainted with “Irish” Micky Ward, a professional boxer from Massachussets best known for his three epic brawls with the late Arturo Gatti, including a ridiculous round 9 in their first fight that has been called ‘The Round of the Century”.  However, I didn’t know a whole lot about Ward’s background, and I knew almost nothing about his half-brother and fellow former pro boxer, Dicky Eklund, who once fought the great Sugar Ray Leonard.

As with most boxing films, The Fighter is a bit of an underdog story — and it’s one heck of an underdog story.  Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) comes from a crazy ‘white trash’ family, with a drug addict brother Dicky (Christian Bale) who serves as his trainer and a controlling mother (Melissa Leo) as his manager.  He’s what you might consider a journeyman boxer — someone with tremendous heart but not particularly gifted in the ring.  The film follows a familiar trajectory as Ward goes from a down-and-out boxer to a rising star, but most of the drama revolves around Ward’s relationship with his family as well as the new girl in his life, barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who threatens to tear his family apart.

Inside and outside the ring, The Fighter is intense, packed with emotion and turmoil, and ultimately inspirational and triumphant.  It does take some liberties with the truth, as most ‘based on a true story’ movies do, but for the most part it is a pretty realistic portrayal.  And since most of the characters in the film are still alive, the actors were able to study their real life counterparts closely, resulting in some amazing performances.  Mark Walhberg gives perhaps the best effort of his career with a low-key, nuanced performance that holds the movie together and allows his co-stars to shine — and man they really do shine.

Christian Bale was simply phenomenal and I believe will add to his Golden Globe win with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (and in doing so establish himself as one of the best actors of this generation — I mean, name one other actor that can play Patrick Bateman, Batman, The Machinist, John Connor and Dicky Eklund?).  Melissa Leo ousted Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes, but I would not be surprised if either won at the Oscars.  Leo had the meatier role but Adams probably did more with what she was given as the feisty Charlene.  Both were outstanding.

As for the boxing?  Also some of the best, most realistic we’ve ever seen.  Part of that is because Wahlberg physically looked like a boxer, having trained for this role for several years to replicate not only Ward’s body but also his fighting style.  And apart from some real fight footage, director David O’Russell also did a fantastic job of imitating that slightly grainy TV feel and presentation, complete with authentic commentary.  Apparently a lot of the fight scenes were also punch-for-punch lifted from Ward’s real life bouts.  The action was therefore as close to real as we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

The only disappointment (not really a complaint) is that the film only followed Ward’s career up to a certain point in time, meaning that the epic Ward-Gatti trilogy become no more than a footnote.  A shame because it would have been fantastic to see them try and duplicate those amazing fights.  Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the Gatti biopic.

At the end of the day, in my humble opinion, The Fighter is better than Ali, better than Cinderella Man, better than The Hurricane, better than any of the Rocky movies (which were, let’s face it, not the greatest films).  I dare not throw Raging Bull into the equation because it’s considered an all-time great (regardless of genre) and Million Dollar Baby holds a special place in my heart — but The Fighter is the real deal.  Whether in terms of the boxing action or the drama or the performances, this one is right up there in the pantheon of boxing films.

4.5 stars out of 5!

The Fighter commences across Australia tomorrow