Category: Best Supporting Actor


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When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.

When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.

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(A quick aside before my actual review. So, some context for long-time readers about why I haven’t done any other blogging this week. As some of you may know, I work at a bar where there are slot machines. Generally, they’re fairly safe, but every once in a while, they get robbed. I was robbed Tuesday at knife point by a dude on heroin. He put a big-ass butcher knife against my ribcage and made me give him all the money in the bar. Anyways, for obvious reasons, my mind hasn’t been on blogging and so I apologize for that and for the possibility that this review is going to be a mess)

The 90s were the true hey-day of independent cinema. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still an extraordinary amount of great independent film-making being done today (Margaret, The Master, Winter’s Bone to name a few). But, the birth of modern indie cinema as we know it in the early 90s was a pure feat of wonder that was only multiplied ten fold when visionaries like the Weinsteins (over at Miramax) realized that there was a mainstream audience for these independently developed films. One of the most popular (and well made) indie dramas of the 90s, which was overwhelmed at the 1997 Academy Awards by a certain movie about a ship and an iceberg, was the Gus Van Sant directed Good Will Hunting. And while age has worn a tiny amount of the luster off this still wonderful film, nothing can take away from the superb performances from Matt Damon (The Departed) and Robin Williams (Hook).

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As a film on the topic of undiscovered genius, Good Will Hunting is slightly hit-or-miss. But, as a film on the idea of social alienation and the long-term psychic costs of abuse and abandonment, Good Will Hunting remains one of the most emotionally powerful films of the 1990s. I bring up the aspect of undiscovered genius because though the film makes clear, time and time again, how absurdly smart Will is, those moments aren’t nearly as interesting as the time he spends with Robin Williams and Minnie Driver. Perhaps, there’s a slight coldness to the Stellan Skarsgaard (Thor) sections of the film, but mostly, the Oscar-winning script from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Argo) shines so bright when we’re confronting the emotional problems of one of the most psychologically complex characters of the 90s that everything else just pales in comparison.

Unbeknownst to anyone but his circle of friends, a lonely, angry MIT janitor, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), is a genius of nearly Einsteinian proportions. When a Fields medal winning MIT Professor (Stellan Skarsgaard) puts a complex mathematical proof on a chalkboard at the beginning of a new semester, none of his students are able to solve the proof, but Will is. But, Will, an orphan with an angry streak a mile wide, doesn’t want to be the genius the world wants him to be. But, after punching a police officer, Will is given the choice between going to jail or going to math lessons with the professor as well as weekly therapy sessions. After pissing off every therapist who comes his way, Will finally meets his match in Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) whose brand of tough love reaches the emotionally damaged young man. But, when a bubbling romance with a Harvard girl (Minnie Driver) revs up Will’s abandoonment issues, it threatens to undo all of the work he’s accomplished with Sean.

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First and foremost, I feel relatively certain in my proclamation that this is the best performance of Matt Damon’s career. The only reason I can’t say the same thing for Robin Williams is that Dead Poet’s Society exists. Will Hunting is the type of meaty, complex role that any young actor would kill for, and perhaps because he wrote the script with co-star Ben Affleck, Damon is acutely aware of the psychological pathology on display in his character (an abused child with a genius intellect with crippling abandonment and intimacy issues). Throw in the heart-wrenching vulnerability and emotional nakedness that he displays as his walls are slowly torn down, and it’s easy to see why Damon’s performance and the Will Hunting character have become an archetype in cinema for the troubled genius.

But, the best performance of the film is Robin William’s Sean Maguire. It speaks directly to Robin William’s immense talents as a performer that though he is most famous for comedic roles like Aladdin‘s Genie or the DJ in Good Morning Vietnam that he is also capable of producing jaw-dropping feats of dramatic acting. Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 1997 Academy Awards, and looking at the list of the other nominees, I can’t imagine anyone else winning. Once again, the role and the performance have become so iconic that the tough and troubled mentor has become its own archetype. Sean helps Will work through Will’s issues, but Will is just as instrumental in helping Sean work through his own problems. And William’s beautifully understated performance (which still allows him to utilize deadpan humor to great effect) is a wrenching and haunting portrait of despair and mourning.

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In fact, my only substantive complaint about the film is Gus van Sant’s direction which leans a little too far into 90s indie cliches that we’ve thankfully gotten rid of since then. It’s not that his direction is bad. There are inspired shots, but often the film feels leading. Where the screenplay is showing subtlety or restraint, the film’s visual composition (and particularly the score when it’s not Elliott Smith songs) are too obvious. It’s a similar complaint that I have with Forrest Gump, but clearly, Good Will Hunting is leagues better than that film. And, though I appreciate how Will’s romance with Skylar is used as a way to examine Will’s abandonment issues, Skylar’s characterization is fairly paper-thin. She is more of a plot device than a character in her own right, and in the face of the richness of Will and Sean, it’s a shame that such a major character seems so flatly drawn.

If by some stroke of poor luck, you’ve yet to see Good Will Hunting, you need to remedy that situation immediately. It is one of those rare defining films of a decade that is completely deserving of the praise heaped upon it. It’s not quite perfect. I think when I sat down to watch it the other night that I was likely to give it one of my rare “A+”s and it didn’t quite cross that threshold, but it’s still an absolutely superb film. It actually makes me sort of sad to think that Matt Damon’s early career dedication to subversive and complex roles like this and Rounders has disappeared as he’s took on the task of less complex, blockbuster roles (The Departed a major exception). I wish he would go back to the indies that helped turn him into the star he is now. And Good Will Hunting is 100% responsible for that.

Final Score: A

 

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Oh Quentin Tarantino, why do you tease me so? When was your last truly consistent film? Jackie Brown? Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds (especially Basterds) are overflowing with brilliant moments, but they are either flawed in some structural way (Basterds) are simply, intentionally not serious (Kill Bill and Basterds). I honestly believe that he hasn’t been able to put together a consistently perfect film from beginning to end since his Jackie Brown/Pulp Fiction heyday. His penchant for excess and for cartoonish genre caricatures have taken over his rock solid characterizations and peerless ear for quotable dialogue. As a long-time fan of the Western genre and Quentin Tarantino, I’ve long awaited Django Unchained, and while the film is literally perfect for an hour and fifteen minutes (possibly the best work Tarantino has ever done for that time frame of the film), Tarantino’s juvenile sensibilities and lack of an internal editor turned Django into a bloated, imperfect “what could have been.”

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the film. Django Unchained is an unquestionably great film. The missteps it takes generally remain in the shadow of the moments of true inspiration in the film although they are just glaring enough to consistently draw you out of the picture. The stretch of the film where Tarantino nails the themes he’s trying to capture (more on that later) are dark, complex, morally ambiguous, and consistently subversive in a way that only Tarantino seems to be able to achieve. But because the film decides it has something to serious to say, it’s general inability to see through on those grand statements and it’s constant devolvement into slapstick-levels of comedic violence creates a frustrating and ultimately immature emotional dichotomy for the movie that begins to tear itself apart from the inside as Django progresses.

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Two years before the beginning of the Civil War (which lends a dark fatalism to the timing of most of the film), German bounty hunter/retired dentist King Schultz (two time Oscar-winner Christoph Schultz) makes a living killing criminals for the U.S. Government. They may be wanted “dead or alive,” but dead is easier to transport. As the film begins, Dr. Schultz is hunting the Brittle brothers, three former foreman on a large slave plantation. Schultz’s only lead is Django (Horrible Bosses‘ Jamie Foxx), a slave from that same plantation who has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz buys Django (in a classic Tarantino cold-open) with the promise that if he can help him find the Brittle Brothers, Schultz will give Django his freedom and $75. And the hunt for the Brittle brothers is only the first act of the film.

After Django and Schultz score the Brittle Brothers Bounty (I can’t possibly imagine that being a spoiler), the real meat of the film begins when Django joins Schultz to become a bounty hunter in his own right so that he can buy the freedom of his wife. And after a winter of hunting criminals, Django and Schultz track down Broomhilda’s new owner, a Francophile slave master and slave fighting ring baron, Calvin Candie (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). Understanding that Candie won’t sell Broomhilda at a reasonable price willingly, Django and Schultz concoct a plan to infiltrate Candie’s plantation, “Candieland” (I shit you not), to free Django’s beloved. And if that means that Django will have to go undercover as a black slaver (the lowest of the low in the 19th century black community), so be it, although the real threat may not be Candie but Candie’s scheming head house slave Stephen (The Avengers‘ Samuel L. Jackson) who immediately loathes the free Django.

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Like every Tarantino film before it, Django Unchained‘s greatest strength in addition to its stellar dialogue is the absurd depth of its cast. Jamie Foxx’s performance is probably the slightest out of the primary characters (well, Kerry Washington’s performance is fairly forgettable but she’s rarely on screen and her characterization is intentionally paper-thin), but even he finds the steel and anger that transforms Django into the force of pure revenge he becomes by film’s end. Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for playing King Schultz (his second for a Tarantino film) and while Schultz isn’t nearly as compelling or complex as Basterd‘s Hans Landa, but Christoph Waltz is one of the best foreign actors to grace American screens in decades so I’ll forgive Tarantino if he couldn’t make this role quite as great as the past one (though Philip Seymour Hoffman should have won for The Master. Him or Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln).

Funnily enough, I don’t even think that Christoph Waltz gave the best performance in the film. That was either Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie or Sam Jackson’s Stephen. I know that’s an unpopular opinion but both characters were far more complex and better written, and they required more talent to play, and both actors seemingly totally lost themselves in the part. I might even go as far to say that Candie is possibly the best performance of DiCaprio’s career. He took to the bad guy so much better than I could have ever expected. Candie has a slick, charming side, but DiCaprio also displays the fierce evil and anger rooting in his heart. And Sam Jackson… just Jesus. In the entire Tarantino canon, Stephen makes a strong case as the most despicable/brilliant villain yet (only behind Hans), and Sam Jackson’s devotion to brutalizing every classic Uncle Tom stereotype ever is insane. DiCaprio and Jackson were robbed of Oscar nominations.

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And, as I’ve said, the film’s second act is perfect. Literally. It’s probably the best hour or so any Tarantino film ever made. And that’s saying something since I worship the man. It has something serious to say about slavery, revenge, and the moral inequities we are willing to commit in the name of something good. Unlike a lot of films about slavery, it is not watered down in this movie whatsoever. In fact, its portrayal of slavery is so dark (and accurate) that it may come as a shock to many modern audiences. And Django nearly loses himself in the character he has to portray in order to enter Candie’s farm. He allows slaves to die and be beaten and he is as awful to them as the whites just to rescue his wife. It’s moral ambiguity at it’s finest, and up to a climactic dinner where Django and Schultz are on the cusp of freeing Broomhilda.

Which makes the rest of the film such a frustrating affair. Don’t get me wrong, I could watch the film’s final forty minutes over and over again. I could watch Jamie Foxx kill slave-owners in an orgiastic display of blood lust all day, but what makes that explosion of violence different from Basterds is the lack of a metatextual subtext shaming the audience for enjoying the gore so much (i.e. Inglourious Basterds eventually became a satire of overly nationalistic war films). Django is simply a revenge fantasy played brutally straight. Except not because it’s a cartoon in live-action for gore-chasing grown-ups. I understand that something can be both serious and juvenile, but Tarantino doesn’t toe that line as well in Django as say Woody Allen or even Chasing Amy-era Kevin Smith. And because of the movie’s constant mood whiplash, you can never tell when you’re supposed to be taking a scene seriously and when you’re supposed to be laughing at the silliness of it all.

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I loved Django Unchained. When it was done, my dad and I talked about how much I enjoyed it but I also had to immediately temper it with the various criticisms that I laid down before. I would have loved to see a version of this film that Tarantino plays more seriously. I think that could have been the best movie Tarantino had ever made. As it is, Django Unchained has all of the hallmarks of a great Quentin Tarantino film. Sharply realized characters, quotable dialogue, a distinct visual style, and a never-ending supply of fun. But it also falls prey to all of the curses facing his most recent crop of films, mostly an excess of violence removed from a serious context. It’s not enough to make me not love this movie and I’m sure I’ll watch the hell out of it like I have every Tarantino film, but it fails to reach the apex of Tarantino greatness because it doesn’t seem to know exactly what movie it wants to be.

Final Score: A-

P.S.: It may however have the best Tarantino soundtrack ever for what that’s worth.

TheGodfatherPartII-1

We’re going to start out with a quick discussion of Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari grading protocol before this review because it bears on my opinion of this film and how it strays slightly from my usual behavior. The Godfather: Part II marks my 317th movie review for this blog. Out of those 317 films, 16 films will have received the illusive score of “A+” (The Godfather: Part II is about to become movie #16 in that list). Generally, the films that receive this score either leave my intellectually breathless (Synecdoche, New York, 8 1/2, Persona) or they leave me emotionally devastated (The Tree of Life, Winter’s Bone, Glengarry Glen Ross). Occasionally though, films will come along that just such perfect, flawless, and thrilling demonstrations of masterful cinematic technique that there is no other score you could possibly hope to give them. Chinatown or Ran are clear examples. The Godfather: Part II is one of the most technically superb films ever made and one of the true masterpieces of the 1970s (and all of American cinema) and simply superior to its predecessor.

Expanding on every theme of The Godfather: Part I while upping the ante in the tragedy department tenfold as well as shoveling more dramatic irony than one would think humanly possible into a film (though at three and a half hours, I guess you have plenty of time to put as much in there as you want), I think it might be fair to say that The Godfather: Part II could be the greatest American epic of all time. Throw in the fact that these films (particularly this entry) are much lighter on actual violence than people seem to remember and that becomes all the more impressive. Yet, in all of American cinema, the exploration of the destruction of one man’s soul, integrity, basic human decency, whatever you want to call that last shred of “goodness” in our hearts, has never been put on more fuller display than in The Godfather: Part II.

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Set a few years after the end of the original film, Part II finds the Corleone family migrated to Nevada where Michael’s (Al Pacino) plans to get an early foothold in the Las Vegas casino business have borne marvelous fruit. Alongside strong-arming a U.S. Senator who wants to squeeze the Corleones for a gaming license, Michael’s life is complicated by the arrival of Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), a Corleone family capo who is feuding with the New York based Rosato brothers. The problem is that the Rosato’s are allied with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and Johnny Ola (The Sopranos Dominic Chianese), Miami gangsters who are involved in a lucrative business deal in Cuba with Michael. When a botched assassination attempt on Michael in his own well-guarded compound awakens Michael’s vengeful side, Michael will stop at nothing to get revenge on those who could have harmed his family even if it ultimately means he destroys his family in the process.

Alongside the story presented in the late 1950s about Michael’s attempts to root out the rat in his family and protect his interests at all costs, the film also flashes back to the turn of the 20th century where you see the humble origins of Michael’s father Vito (Wag the Dog‘s Robert De Niro) from an exiled Sicilian boy to one of the most powerful gangsters in America. Born Vito Andolini, Vito has to flee his hometown of Corleone where a local mafia Don has a price on his head. He takes a boat to America (where he takes the name of his hometown) and after a run in with a local racketeer heavy, Fanucci, Vito quickly amasses power and respect in his community. In fact, there’s almost a victorious, triumphant feeling to the tale of Vito (although with the ultimate price his criminal activities cost his family weighing over every second) but I’ll have more to say about that important bit of ironic dichotomy later.

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As stated before, The Godfather: Part II (particularly when taken in conjunction with the first film) is a classical tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. Michael Corleone is a tragic hero to rival Hamlet or Macbeth. Here is a man who over the course of these two films starts out with at least somewhat noble intentions (and ultimately this film answers my concerns about the flimsiness of Michael’s transformation in the first film). He wants to protect his family. He wants to avenge the attempted murder of his father. He wants to provide for his screw-up siblings. But, by being so excellent at the business he was born into (but didn’t want anything to do with), Michael ultimately tears his family apart (and spoiler alert), he even orders the cold-blooded murder of one of his own siblings because the sibling betrayed him. He loses his wife Kay (Manhattan‘s Diane Keaton) and everyone is terrified of him. Yet, Michael rarely acts out of a place of pure selfishness (though he certainly ceased to be a good guy a long time ago) and he always thinks he’s doing the right thing, and it’s what makes Michael one of the greatest characters in movie history.

And compare that to the path Vito travels over the course of two films. Michael ultimately proves to be more effective as the head of the family. He makes the Corleones more wealthy than Vito could have ever imagined. But Vito achieved a modest success without alienating and ruining his family. The only casualty that Vito’s family ever suffers (besides his own near death at the hands of Solazzo in the first film) is Sonny (James Caan) but that was also about half Sonny’s fault. Yet, his sons (and daughter Connie [Rocky‘s Talia Shire]) wind up so disconnected from each other as a family that an avalanche of tragedy faces the family once Vito finally dies of a heart attack. Vito doesn’t have the same ice in his vein as his son that Michael thinks he needs to keep the family safe, but ultimately Vito proved to be a more moral man (in his own odd way) than his son transformed himself into being.

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It’s hard for me to name a way in which this film isn’t vastly superior to The Godfather: Part I, but let’s start with the performances. Al Pacino’s Michael in this film is not just the best performance of Pacino’s career (managing to even eclipse Glengarry Glen Ross for me) but arguably one of the most important of all time. This film was only made two years after the first film, but Pacino makes Michael seem decades older and more world-weary. Part of it is the excellent make-up he wears (you see what he usually looks like in the flashback that closes out the film), but you see just how dead inside Michael becomes over the course of the film. It’s one of those performances that can’t really be appreciated without seeing the other film, but Pacino is so great at losing himself in Michael’s emotional turmoil and decay, but he still finds the right moments to explode when he needs to, like when he discovers that Fredo (Jon Cazale) has betrayed him or that Kay has had an abortion.

De Niro so totally nails the mannerisms and vocal affectations of Brando’s Vito that it’s one of the all-time great cinematic impersonations although you also just have to savor the chance to see De Niro when he was so young and untested really exploring the palette of emotions and styles that would go on to define his legendary career. But like Joseph Gordon-Levitt simply became Bruce Willis in Looper, De Niro becomes Brando and it’s a sight to behold. Other stand-out performances from the film include Jon Cazale’s timid and naive Fredo, Diane Keaton’s abandoned Kay, Lee Strasburg’s scheming Hyman Roth, and, of course, the drunken and put-upon Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli.

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There’s a moment late in the film that to me sums up not just the story strengths of the film or the acting strengths (though it contains some of the best moments of both) but just the attention to visual detail and the exceptionally strong direction that Francis Ford Coppola lends to the crown jewel in his career as one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. Michael has brought Fredo back to his estate after discovering in Cuba (after a drunken Fredo lets slip that he knows Johnny Ola) that Fredo was the one to betray him. Although he initially wanted to forgive Fredo, Fredo’s unwillingness to take responsibility for what he did (by trying to blame Michael for treating him like a child) has finally pushed Michael over the deep edge. Michael essentially tells Fredo that he is now nothing to him. And it is so cold, that ice literally comes out of Michael’s mouth as he’s giving this speech. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for how cold and uncaring he’s becoming and it’s one of the defining moments of the film and Coppola’s career.

I could write 2000 more words about everything I love about this film, but I’d like to actually watch a movie today (or maybe get started on my third screenplay so I can rack up a hat trick of unpublished works) so I’ll draw this to a close before this becomes an academic essay on the cinematic import of this film. The Godfather: Part II won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1974 Academy Awards. It shouldn’t have. Chinatown and Roman Polanski should have, but if any film was going to beat Chinatown, I’m okay if it’s this one. Whereas the first film falters under the weights of its own ambitions, The Godfather: Part II not only meets those high standards, it exceeds them in every way. That a film that is three and a half hours long was able to carry my attention for every second of its running time should speak volumes to why this is one of the greatest films ever made.

Final Score: A+

AnOfficeAndAGentleman1

Maybe it’s just me, but there are certain films that I avoid ever watching. They may be considered classics but because they often don’t fit into any of the preconceived cinematic fields that I know I enjoy or they come from genres I usually know I hate (i.e. chick flicks), I just overlook them even though I consider myself to be a true student of the theater. 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman is an Academy Award winning film and one of the more beloved romances of the 1980s, but because of its reputation as a massive chick flick, I never convinced myself to take the time to watch it. It certainly has a Cinderella romance at the heart of the film, but An Officer and a Gentleman couldn’t be any less of a chick flick. Although the film isn’t without its share of flaws (primarily in the acting department), this was a wonderful surprise and a sort of campy, cheesy pleasure.

Richard Gere (Primal Fear) stars as Zach Mayo, a cocky loner that decides to join Officer Training School with the navy so he can fly jets. Raised by his alcoholic, whore-chasing sailor father after his mother’s suicide, Mayo has no friends, no sense of community, and no attachments to anyone other than himself. But that type of attitude doesn’t work in the military, and sadistic drill sergeant Emil Foley (an Oscar winning Louis Gossett Jr.) makes it his personal mission to either force Mayo to learn to be part of a team or to break him and make him quit in the process. Along with his only friend in the program, Okie innocent Sid Worley (David Keith), Zach begins dating some local girls known as “Puget Debs” who make it their mission to snare a fly boy as a husband. But when Zach begins to fall for the beautiful Paula (Terms of Endearment‘s Debra Winger), he begins to find something to care for in the world.

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For a film that has such a reputation as being  a chick flick, An Officer and a Gentleman is surprisingly dark and cynical. Although there is a predictably triumphant romance by film’s end, it’s really a movie about men and women who don’t know who they are, that don’t know what they want, and have had poverty, fate, and family dictate their lot in life and not their own free will. It’s about the bonds of friendship and romance and the tragic consequences of having those bonds shattered. And even the romantic subplot speaks to a sense of desperation in the lives of characters like Paula or her friend Lynette in that the only way they think they’ll ever escape their humdrum lives is through a globe-trotting pilot. And considering how this film predates Full Metal Jacket, it’s portrayal of the life of a cadet would prove to be highly influential (but more on Louis Gossett shortly).

The script simply allowed the characters to breathe and grow at a believable pace. Although the film ran a little long, that had more to do with pacing problems and subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere (until their tragic ends anyways) than it did with any deficiencies in character development. Although the two principal leads were not up to the task of delivering their lines, Zach Mayo and Paula both felt like well-realized and three dimensional characters that traced a rewarding arc over the course of the film. Even if much of what was to come felt predictable from the early minutes of the movie, the trials and tribulations of the heroes seemed so realistic and pulled off with enough honesty that you didn’t care that you could call virtually ever scene of the film twenty minutes in.

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Sadly, Richard Gere and Debra Winger nearly derail the whole production. For the most part, Gere nails the cocky, good-looking rakish mercurial charm that has let Mayo get by his whole life but when it comes time to summon any dramatic emotion whatsoever, he completely falls apart. One of the most famous lines of the film is him telling Sgt. Foley that “I got nowhere else to go” and I almost laughed out loud at Gere’s absurdly over-the-top delivery. The scene became funny. But, at least that’s better than Debra Winger who has proven herself in my eye to be a completely flat, one-dimensional actress with the emotional range of Keanu Reeves. How she garnered an Academy Award nomination for this film is simply beyond me. Along with the film’s hysterically victorious ending sequence, Gere and Winger could rightly be called the film’s primary shortcomings.

Thank god for its supporting cast then. Louis Gossett earned every inch of his Academy Award as the foul-mouthed, vitriolic, bad-ass drill sergeant. Until I realized that this film came first, I thought he had ripped off R. Lee Ermey’s character from Full Metal Jacket, but, in fact, R. Lee Ermey actually helped to train Louis Gossett Jr. on how real drill sergeants behaved (since R. Lee Ermey is a drill sergeant in real life). He was a pure, destructive force on the screen but with enough subtlety and nuance to let you know that he actually cared about the cadets under his care. And David Keith was no slouch either as Sid Worley whose own personal shortcomings provide the tragedy of the film’s final acts that lead to Mayo’s eventual triumph and self-realization.

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I’m not saying this was a great movie, and it had moments that were downright awful, but this was an  undeniably fun movie. It was feel-good in the right sense of the word and only with the film’s god-awful closing scene did it ever feel cloying and overly sweet. Sure Richard Gere and Debra Winger fell flat on their faces, but David Keith and Louis Gossett Jr. were there to make up for it and then some. As far as insightful looks into the life of a military cadet go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than the engrossing character study that forms the beating heart of An Officer and a Gentleman. It doesn’t always have the brains to pull off all of its ambitions, but few films have as much heart.

Final Score: B

TheUntouchables1

It’s always disappointing to return to movies that you have very fond memories of from when you’re younger that fail to live up to the high expectations memory has endowed them with. It doesn’t happen often. Usually the sheer nostalgia factor tends to overwhelm the senses and make me push aside any shortcomings I have towards a film. This is particularly true of children’s films and the reason why you could pop in any episode of any 90s cartoon and I would be lost in joy for as long as you put it on. But for a film presumably for grown-ups which I watched first as a young teenager, my mature self (and certainly more knowledgeable of good vs. bad cinema) can pick out the flaws in films I used to enjoy so completely. And although The Untouchables can be a rousing adventure story; it is just that. While trying to capture the feel of the classic crime films of yore, The Untouchables comes off like an overly romanticized (and overly directed) boys tale.

In the 1930s, Prohibition is in full-swing and bootlegging alcohol is the key to making a quick buck. And in the corrupt streets of Chicago, nobody does it better than Al Capone (Robert De Niro). A self-made millionaire, Capone was a murderous gang leader who held the illegal alcohol racket under his boots through a mix of intimidation, murder, and great press relations. After one of his thugs accidentally murders a ten year old girl as part of Capone’s racketeering schemes, federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) makes it his personal crusade to bring down the most powerful man in Chicago. And when Ness quickly discovers that Capone has most of the Chicago police department in his back pocket, he forms a small team, including wise Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), crackshot rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia), and G-Man accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), to get the job done.

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I have a litany of complaints about the film but at the end of the day, it’s still enjoyable as long as you realize that this isn’t an especially serious take on one of our nation’s most famous criminal investigations. The film’s script came from the inimitable David Mamet (Wag the Dog), and either his famous ear for dialogue was completely broken for this movie or director Brian de Palma intentionally dumbed the script down. I don’t know who to blame. But at the end of the day, the film sounds almost comically noble. Whereas White Heat or The Public Enemy succeed because their dialogue sounds realistic and gritty, The Untouchables makes Eliot Ness and his crew sound like superheroes. The only exception, of course, being Sean Connery’s Jim Malone (but more on that shortly). Certain scenes ring with the typical Mamet brilliance (a great speech from Al Capone before he murders an associate rings to mind), but the majority of the film features hilariously overblown theatrics.

And this is going to sound crazy, but Ennio Morricone’s score for the film is also downright laughable. He’s a man that is perhaps one of the top three or top five beloved scorers in the history of cinema, but the score for the film is laughably over-the-top. It was holding the audience by the hand and telling them exactly how to feel in every single scene without a hint of concern for subtlety or not being laughably obvious. Though, to be fair to Morricone, certain numbers worked very well. Although one can’t blame him for his score being over-the-top and noble in a strained sort of way when virtually everything about the film screamed of simply trying to hard.

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And, boy, did Brian de Palma just over-direct the hell out of this movie. I love Fellini. I love Terence Malick. I love Akira Kurosawa. I love directors that put themselves into every frame of their films. But, you have to know what you’re doing in order to make that kind of constant visual flourish work. And, at least for this picture, Brian De Palma did not know what he was doing. And, if he did, he was clearly trying to frustrate trained viewers with almost unending, unnecessary visual quirks. One of the film’s most famous moments (and arguably the climactic shoot-out) nearly made me start laughing, not because the scene was supposed to be funny, but because De Palma was so desperately trying to channel Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin when it was totally not needed. And about half of the film consists of such over-the-top silliness.

The movie does have one absolutely perfect thing going for it, and it’s the delicious performance of Sean Connery as Jim Malone. As the foul-mouthed, uncomfortably racist, street-wise cop that helps Ness break up the whole Capone operation, Sean Connery breathes a breath of life and realism into a film that is otherwise something a bunch of wide-eyed teenage boys would tell each other around the camp fire as they recount the feats of heroism of “the Untouchables.” The way that Connery makes you forget how terrible his dialogue can be (and boy can it be bad) is a marvel. Compared to the stone-faced performance of Kevin Costner (who, let’s face it, isn’t exactly an Oscar-caliber performer), the Academy Award-winning performance from Sean Connery lights up the screen and your imagination, and if you’re anything like me, you likely spend much of the film simply wishing there was more Jim Malone.

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After so many harsh words (and so few good ones), you might think that I really hated this film. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it. As a cops & robbers movie, it’s fun. You just have to know that it isn’t a serious look into this fascinating period. It, in fact, reminds me of a conversation Jesse James and  Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James about Robert Ford’s love of the dime novels about Jesse’s exploits. This film is the 1980s version of a 1930s story. And that’s ok. For what it is, it’s a fun movie. Just don’t expect it to be anything more. Because otherwise, you’re going to be greatly disappointed. It’s just sad because you expect so much more from the pairing of David Mamet and Brian De Palma.

Final Score: B

I’ve actually debated whether to even write my review for this movie at all or not. It’s not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Mike Mill’s heavily autobiographical 2011 film Beginners. I thought it was a lot better than many of the movies that were nominated in this year’s very weak field of Best Picture nominees. Seriously, how did they manage to get things so right (at least in terms of the nominees, if not necessarily the winner) last year, and fuck things up so horribly this year. There were three different movies this year that I actively thought were bad (The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and War Horse). I haven’t seen The Artist yet so I can’t comment on its quality though I seriously doubt it will be better than The Tree of Life. That’s not why I’ve questioned writing this review though. I happen to have a fairly massive sinus infection, and I’m so much Claritin and Suphedrine that I’m buzzed as shit. So, I’m not entirely sure I can even put together comprehensible sentences. We shall see. Maybe this will be my grand experiment to see if I’m capable of Hunter S. Thompson style drug-induced ravings, although if I were channeling Raoul Duke, I’d need to be on something a little heavier than allergy/sinus medicine. Anyways, for those who have any interest in the LGBT movement or great father/son stories, Beginners is a wonderful and quiet film even if it allows itself to ramble on just a little to much (a trait we both share).

Told in non-linear order (along with still-image voice-overs to further break up the linearity of the film), Beginners is a story of romance, fathers and sons, and being true to yourself no matter what your age is. Oliver is a graphic designer dealing with the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) in one half of the film while also dealing with the shocking revelation that his father had come out of the closet as a gay man at the age of 75 after the death of Oliver’s mother/Hal’s wife in the other half of the film. Because a psychiatrist in the 1950s told Hal that his homosexual urges were caused by a mental illness, he sought to cure himself by marrying a woman and maintaining a heterosexual lifestyle even though he was miserable. So, even though he is diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after coming out of the closet, Hal decides to live his remaining days to his fullest (even though he eventually begins to deny the impending reality of his inevitable death). Oliver on the other hand is a commitment-phobe who has never known how to love because of the loveless nature of his parent’s marriage. It takes him meeting fellow commitment-shy lost soul Anna (Inglourious Basterds‘ Melanie Laurent [an unbelievably gorgeous woman if there ever was one]), a French actress in L.A. that Oliver starts a tentative romance with at a party where Anna’s laryngitis makes her unable to talk, for Oliver to finally learn to deal with his father’s death as well as his own commitment issues.

Christopher Plummer won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role, and while I’m not certain if he was better than Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (he was seriously one of the two redeeming factors of that film), it was still a tender and lively performance for a man in his 80s in real life. I might be wrong but I’m fairly certain that Christopher Plummer is now the oldest person to win an Academy Award. So, the sheer joie de vivre (though the characterization as well as Plummer’s performance were far more complicated than that) is incredibly impressive. Everything about Hal as he turned his back on his impending death and chose to celebrate living his life was an ode to existence in both its tragedy and brilliance. I still feel like Plummer’s award was more about A) the role and B) a testament to his career. I still think Max Von Sydow was better (I haven’t seen the other three nominees). Ewan McGregor was very withdrawn and restrained as Oliver, but that’s written into the character so I can’t fault him for it. He just wasn’t especially exciting to watch. Melanie Laurent is one of the most gorgeous women acting right now, and she’s also very talented. She was good in her role although once again, this part wasn’t nearly as demanding or interesting as Shoshana in Inglourious Basterds.

This movie isn’t really going to be for everyone. It meanders along at its own pace, and the plot is fairly simple. A man comes out of the closet, gets cancer, and dies, and then his son falls in love with an actress and has to finally deal with his own issues. There are long moments in the film where dialogue is put at a minimum and the film takes a stab at visual poetry. Not at any sort of Fellini-esque or Malick-ian level, but it will tone all of the talking down and let the faces/physical nature of the scene do the speaking. I loved all of those things about the movie but I know those tend to turn off the more casual movie fan. The film takes some fun stylistic experimental turns. Hal has a Jack Russell terrier that Oliver has to adopt when his father dies, and there are several scenes in the movie where Oliver converses with his dog via subtitles. It’s adorable. Also, the film makes good use of symbolic repetition by comparing visual stills from the 1950s and visual stills from today to make a point both about how much things have changed in the last 50 years but also how much they’ve tragically stayed the same for the LGBT community.

I want to review more but I fucking feel terrible still and I’ve sneezed legitimately like 30 times over the course of this review. So quick last thoughts. The movie meanders just a little too much for its own good and because so many scenes are so sharply realized, the weaker moments seem even more weak. That’s the curse of having some really great moments in a movie. Other than that, it was a beautiful film. Great, understated films don’t come around often enough, and Beginners know that you can create truth through quiet honesty. You don’t have to beat your audience over the head with your points. I also have to review the season premiere of True Blood. Although, I’m considering not reviewing it just because of how disappointed I wound up being with last season. The season premiere was good though. Not great, but I was able to enjoy it which was a serious step up from last time around. Anyways, we’ll see if I wind up feeling any better. As it is, I just feel like I have the bubonic plague.

Final Score: A-

This blog is well over a year old now, but I’ve only reviewed three other films from the 1930s (and only The Birth of a Nation from before the 30s). I have sort of a complicated relationship with movies (specifically dramas) that came out before the mid-1960s. They have their own idealistic, nostalgic beauty, but more often than not, it’s their same idealism and simplicity that I found to be terribly boring and overdone in the face of the more mature and sophisticated narrative and cinematic devices that have come to define top-tier dramas since the 1960s. However, when I find dramas from that era that I love, I form an almost instant attachment with them because their ability to transcend time and space. If their story or message or simple style seems relevant and entertaining despite being over 60 years old, that’s a fairly massive achievement and it signifies their deserved place in the canon of film beyond the simple fact of their age. Casablanca fits in this category. The films of Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder are other notable timeless works. Well, I now have another film that despite its almost Aaron Sorkin-esque romanticism speaks across the chasms of decades (the film is over 70 years old) with a story that is as relevant today as when it first came out. While it suffers from some of the flaws inherent to the biopic genre, The Life of Emile Zola is a striking statement on our civic duty to stand up against injustice and government hypocrisy.

In the mid 1800s, French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) and his closest friend, artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), are starving for their craft in the impoverished streets of Paris. Emile Zola writes by night and works by day as a clerk at a bookstore where his “slanderous” (i.e. true) attacks on the French government and the social injustices inherent in French life mark him as an active enemy of the state and cost him his job. When a random encounter with a French prostitute inspires him to write a novel that also works as an expose on the harsh realities of French working girls, Zola is suddenly thrust into the international literary spotlight and enjoys a truly prolific career as one of France’s most celebrated authors. He is essentially the Dickens of France in the way that he explores the less glamorous side of the exploding Industrial Revolution. However, in his success, Zola becomes content to while away his years in contented satisfaction despite the condemnations of his former best friend Cezanne who continues to pursue art above wealth. Zola finds himself back in the midst of another moral crisis when a Jewish captain in the French army, Albert Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), is falsely accused of being a spy and a massive government conspiracy arises to frame him for the crime rather than face a more politically tumultuous reality of admitting they charged the wrong man. When Zola embarks on his mission to clear the name of Capt. Dreyfus, he risks not only his legacy among the French people but even his own freedom when the French government accuses him of treasonous libel and places him on trial.

Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film despite the fact that he was only in the movie for at most fifteen minutes or so of actual screen time. Despite the briefness of his presence on camera, he gave a deeply emotional performance that was certainly helped with the effective close-ups of his subtly emotive face. Emile Zola is without question the main character of the film, but the trials of Capt. Dreyfus propel the film’s second half and it’s very important that we care deeply about this unjustly accused man, and Schildkraut aptly garnered my sympathy with his characterization of heartbroken betrayal. However, Paul Muni was the real star of the film, and while I haven’t seen Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (who beat out Muni for the Best Actor Oscar that year), I can say that Paul Muni gave an all-star performance as the titular Emile Zola. It may have had some of the over-the-topness and emoting that characterized the big screen in the decade following the transition from silent films to “talkies,” but there was a genuine passion and intelligence in his role and Muni captured the moral outrage that any rational and ethical man in those circumstances would feel. I haven’t enjoyed watching a character give speech after speech in a movie like this since the last time I watched To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch. Muni’s version of Zola might seem very old-fashioned by modern standards, but even though I knew his acting didn’t really jibe with the more naturalistic modern conventions, I still enjoyed the theatrics and fire he brought to the role.

For the reasons laid out earlier, I was actually dreading putting this in my DVD player. It sounded terribly boring and the plot description on Netflix made me fear that this was going to be a film with an era-relevant theme that wasn’t going to translate well to the modern era. I was completely wrong. Whether it was Emile Zola’s position as a 19th century Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Julian Assange or the way that justice and truth were being railroaded in the vague name of the state, this film is perfectly relevant in the post-Bush era of endless government secrecy. There was a scene during one of the trials where Zola’s lawyer requested the presence of a string of high-ranking army officials to testify, and they all used some imaginary government immunity to not participate. It was like a scene right out of the investigations into torture and inethical spying against the Bush administration. I could just hear Alberto Gonzalez and the rest of the Bush administration saying “I do not recall” over and over again. Similarly, while the film didn’t outright make Dreyfus’ Jewish ancestry the reason why he was being chosen as the scapegoat, the film definitely maintained that subtext (very subtly), and in an era where our government and our nation like to blame one ethnic group or another for our nation woes rather than face harsher truths, it all rang amazingly true. Yes, the script took some liberties with history (though I don’t know how many), and there was a lot of speechifying in this film, but as a product of a day when movies were nearly synonymous with the stage, I thought it was all entertaining and illuminating.

If you’re a fan of classic dramas, The Life of Emile Zola is an obvious pick considering its place as one of the most acclaimed biopics of the early days of cinema. However, if you’re like me and think film noir was the only consistently watchable non-comedy genre from that day, The Life of Emile Zola deserves your attention because of the renewed sense of urgency and relevancy it holds in the modern political climate. The film may paint Zola in the most romantic light possible without exploring any of his potential flaws and so it paints its hero in a very favorable light, but even without getting an entire picture, it’s a fascinating look at a page of history that hasn’t been done time and time again. The acting is excellent (by the standards of theatre anyways) and it was a surprisingly well-shot and well-edited film from this era. If you’ve ever found yourself in a liberal uproar because of social inequality or the government sacrificing justice in the name of a “greater good” that only really profits them, The Life of Emile Zola is an astounding artifact of the dawning of the silver screen to show how some issues have never really gone away.

Final Score: A-

I have not made it much of a secret on this blog or in my personal life generally that I am not a man of faith. I would consider myself to be a “teapot agnostic”, so named for a thought experiment conducted by Bertrand Russell as  counter-argument to the “You can’t disprove God” rationalization for religious faith. Russell’s teapot refers to a hypothetical teapot that may or may not be in orbit around the earth. I can’t disprove that the teapot is there, but that doesn’t make it any more likely that it does exist. That being said, I have a moderate amount of respect for the power to commit good that religion can inspire. However, I also have an extreme cynicism towards organized faith brought on by all of the violence and tragedy that has been committed in its name over man kind’s history. Centered heavily in the sort of religious faith and love that can do good in our communities, 1944’s Going My Way, winner of many Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, takes a positive look at Christian love than even a jaded cynic like myself can respect, but that doesn’t save the movie from being an incredibly boring and slow two-hour slog through the worst aspects of older cinema.

A comedy/musical/drama hybrid, Going My Way stars Bing Crosby (Best Actor, 1944) as Father Charles O’Malley, a Catholic priest sent to a financially strapped parish on the verge of being repossessed by the bank. His predecessor, Father Fitzgibbons (Barry Fittzgerald, Best Supporting Actor 1944) is a cantankerous old traditional priest who is blind to the needs and realities of his failing church. Father O’Malley is from a more progressive and liberal theological school, and it’s up to him to get the community interested in the church again and to help raise the money that will keep it from being shut down. Father O’Malley’s special gift is his angelic voice and song-writing skills, and before Father Fitzgibbons even knows it, Father O’Malley has formed a choir of the local boys who were nothing but hoodlums before he arrived, and it isn’t long before he’s attracting the attention of a famous singer at the Metropolitan Opera.

Say what you will about his alleged past of severe child abuse (which is indescribably tragic), Bing Crosby is a heck of a performer. All of the music of the film occurs diegetically, i.e. within the context of the scenes, and hearing Bing Crosby croon out old standards (including an original song for the film which won an Oscar) is a delight. He also has a fairly dry sense of humor. He isn’t a spectacular dramatic actor but he doesn’t disappoint in this role. Barry Fitzgerald was the real scene-stealer as the curmudgeonly older priest. I honestly believed that he spent half of the movie not knowing where he was in some addled senility. Fitzgerald easily nailed the self-righteous and stuck-in-his ways aspects of any older clergyman, but he also showed a sensitive and kind side that explained much of his oblivious naivete. I wish I could say anything positive about the large host of child actor’s but I really, really can’t. The red-headed kid that was the head of the choir gives the boy from Shane a run for his money in the bad child-acting department.

As much as I enjoyed the performances, the story itself wasn’t enough to keep me engaged with the film. Running at a lengthy 2 hours and 10 minutes, there wasn’t enough substantive plotting to keep me engaged or some other stylistic or character heavy aspect to make up for deficient storytelling. As much as I liked Father O’Malley, I knew very little about him or why he was so progressive compared to his peers. Father Fitzgibbons felt fare more fleshed out, but he too seemed disappointingly ill-defined. Also, the story itself just never amounts to much more than some slight conflicts at first between Fitzgibbons and O’Malley and then O’Malley’s plot to raise money for the church. None of that was particularly insightful or exciting. Films can get away with being boring if they’re smart or intimately detailed or have something important to say. Going My Way is none of those things, except perhaps panderingly heart-warming (though I admit I did shed a tear the film’s end).

Maybe I’m too cold-hearted and cynical to enjoy this supposedly inspiring film, but my problems with it are more associated with simply how boring and stale the story of the film is. For fans of classic movies, this film has garnered quite a reputation for itself, so you need to watch it, if only for Crosby and Fitzgerald’s performances. I’ve made this observation on this blog before, but it bears repeating. I am simply incapable of enjoying dramatic films before the 1950’s. While Netflix categorized this as a comedy, it definitely had dramatic elements and they were far too moralistic and idealistic for me. If you’re of a religious orientation, you’ll most likely adore the over-all message of true Christian love and tolerance that this film displays, and that (along with the performances) is virtually all this film had going for me. It officially gets the worst score I’ve given a film that won Best Picture at the Oscars.

Final Score: C+

Ever since Rocky climbed up the steps of the Philadelphia Public Library, there has been something about the under dog story that has enchanted movie-goers ever since. Seeing somebody who is put down, not expected to succeed, up against insurmountable odds, and seeing him succeed fulfills a certain amount of catharsis and escapism that everybody needs to feel every once in a while. Generally speaking (Rocky being the most notable exception), a lot of these under dog stories are based off true events because the story might be too happy and escapist if it were fictional. So, 2010’s The Fighter, while not necessarily being a great film, serves as another fine entry into the classic under dog genre.

The Fighter is the true story of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer who is suffering from an extended losing streak and is on the verge of his career falling apart due to disappearing from the radar. Mickey is trained by his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale in an Oscar-winning performance), who was a semi-successful boxer in his hey-day but has descended into self-destructive drug abuse. The film focuses as much on the dysfunctional relationship between the various members of this family including the brothers controlling mother Alice (Melissa Leo in an Oscar-winning role), the veritable army of daughters, and Mickey’s new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) as it focuses on the comeback story of Mickey’s career. The film offers a pretty harrowing and heart-breaking look at the way the drug problem tears apart families.

The films story isn’t something you haven’t heard before and it left more bored on occasion and waiting something more interesting to happen. However, this is a performance film where there are several performances that if you’re a fan of great acting, this movie is a must watch. This is easily Christian Bale’s best performance since American Psycho. He is terrifyingly accurate in his portrayal of the junky brother. He looks, acts, and just radiates the part. He inhabited the character and just became Dicky. Melissa Leo was great as the mother, but I was actually much more impressed with Amy Adams performance as Mickey’s girlfriend. She should have won the Oscar in my opinion. Mark Wahlberg was also great, but this wasn’t as good as his performance in The Departed or Boogie Nights.

I can recommend this film to any body who likes a good sports movie, or if you’re a serious Christian Bale fan, then you definitely need to watch it. I’m sure that if the Academy was still only nominating 5 films a year for Best Picture instead of the current 10, this one wouldn’t have received a Best Picture nomination, but it’s still worth a watch. I’ll probably forget a lot of things about this film years from now, but Christian Bale’s incendiary performance will stay with me for a long time.

Final Score: B