Melissa Leo

Big Screen Review: Red State

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The Pitch: Assault On Parish 13.

The Review: Chances are, even before you start reading this review, you’ve made your mind up about whether you’re going to see Red State, and probably even if you’re going to enjoy it. Because Kevin Smith makes a certain kind of film, with ripe dialogue that has an honesty that at its most extreme becomes a form of cinematic Asperger’s syndrome. Even when he’s diverged a little from his original themes and settings with the religious discourse of Dogma or the unlikely porno making-of Zack and Miri, pretty much those same dialogue staples and that same directorial style stay in place. The most adventurous camera work in any of his films up to now has probably been a dance number in Clerks 2, and even that wasn’t exactly revolutionary. Maybe it’s the feeling that his movies never surprised people that’s driven Smith to attempt something completely different, although after the critical beating handed to Cop Out you could forgive him for wanting to retreat back into his old style and to be as familiar as possible.

And for the first few minutes, that appears to be exactly what he’s done. A school setting, three young men discussing an unusual proposition, all of which appears to be very familiar, but it’s what that proposition leads to which is unfamiliar. The three (of whom Michael Angarano is probably the most familiar face) soon end up in the clutches of a Westboro Baptist Church-like group, having been lured in by Melissa Leo’s middle-aged stooge. She’s the wife of the group’s leader, Michael Parks, who has a very specific plan in mind for those who deviate from society’s norms, and even the intervention of the local law enforcement (led by Stephen Root’s cowardly sheriff) won’t get in his way.

Smith has advertised this as a horror movie, maybe as an attempt to distinguish it from his earlier efforts, but anyone expecting a gory slasher will be sadly disappointed. His interest here is in psychological horror, particularly in an extended early sequence where Parks’ preacher lays out his mission statement while his young captives await their fate. Audiences are likely to be divided into two groups at this point: those that buy into the psychological horror of the sequence and the youngsters’ potential demise, or those that are bored rigid for a man standing and preaching for a significant chunk of the running time. Anyone lost to the film at this point is unlikely to be redeemed by what follows, although it does stray away completely from the horror genre of any kind and most of the second half is more siege movie than anything else. Unlike some of his previous work, though, Smith is a little less judgemental here, using the religious devices purely to drive the plot, rather than to generate debate.

There’s a good cast assembled, who are all on form, and as well as Parks, Leo and Angarano there’s John Goodman and Kevin Pollak as a couple of ATF officers who quickly end up out of their depth. Despite the varied themes, Smith never completely releases his hold on his own particular writing style, and even to the end the dialogue and settings are unmistakeably Kevin Smith. What is a revelation here, though, is Kevin Smith the director. Shot with the RED digital camera system, the visual style is bleached out, the camera is more active than in any of his previous efforts, and the overall sense of composition and the action shots elevate the whole film at least a couple of notches. It’s a little rough around the edges, and maybe the digital technology allowed Smith to edit it a little too quickly, but this could be his best film since Dogma, and if it’s an example of what he’s still capable of, let’s hope that talk of his retirement is unfounded.

Why see it at the cinema: The stark digital photography and the dramatic siege sequences are worth hunting out on the big screen; it’s also worth being in the cinema for the ending, which is likely to surprise and amuse Smith fans in equal measure and will benefit greatly from a cinema with a good sound system.

The Score: 8/10

Review: The Fighter

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The Pitch: I like Christian Bale, but then again I like Mark Wahlberg. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out…

The Review: Boxing movies have a lot to live up to when it comes to covering new ground, with both the fictional (such the “Rocky” series) and the biographical (including “Raging Bull”) giving this particular sub-genre an incredibly strong pedigree. There is, of course, a part of the audience who will be judging on the realism of the fights themselves, while others are looking for satisfying drama between the punches, and to be successful a boxing movie really needs to score on both counts. Given the depth and breadth of the history of the sport, it’s not surprising that you can still find true stories worth telling but, as a philosopher once said, “it’s the way ya tell ‘em.”

The first thing that The Fighter has in its corner is a story with a strong array of characters, strong enough that the cast were showered with awards and nominations. Christian Bale’s performance is the most obvious, and he does push his portrayal of Dicky, the once successful elder brother who lives off his moment of glory as he slides ever downwards, as far as he can – anyone who’s a fan of Christian Bale will know that’s pretty far. By contrast, Mark Wahlberg’s Micky is the polar opposite, quiet, reserved and unwilling to challenge his mother and manager, Alice (Melissa Leo), at least until he begins a relationshop the similarly reserved but more defiant barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams). The family is rounded out by Micky and Dicky’s father and seven sisters, and the influence of both becomes increasingly crucial as Micky attempts to further his career while Dicky begins to make promises he can’t keep.

Bale has stated that he couldn’t have given such a performance without Wahlberg to counterbalance it, and it’s hard to disagree, the quieter moments of Bale and Adams’ relationship providing a needed contrast to the family dramas that populate the rest of the film. Occasionally picking out humorous moments, the main body of the drama is driven by Dicky’s behaviour and its ramifications for all of those around him; themes of family and loyalty come up repeatedly, and also the impact that both the highs and lows of the brothers’ actions on the local community, but the drama eventually boils down to the actions of the two brothers. While Bale got all of the attention, Wahlberg’s contribution as both actor and producer shouldn’t be underestimated, having trained for four years (and made six other films in the mean time), working to turn himself into a believable physical specimen for a world championship fighter.

The fights themselves are maybe the weak link, having neither the poetic beauty of a Raging Bull or the physical intensity of the Rocky movies. Director David O. Russell has chosen to portray much of the footage as if seen through a TV screen, which serves to distance the audience slightly from the experience, although the punches still land with a certain amount of weight. That style does succeed in capturing the shiny glamour of the Vegas lifestyle and why it would be so aspirational to a couple of fighters from the poor end of Massachusetts. There is a tension as to the eventual outcome throughout proceedings, and this is despite the fact that the general structure doesn’t really deviate all that much from the majority of other sports movies ever made, never mind boxing movies. Russell manages his actors well enough, but the film lacks any truly standout moments to elevate it to true greatness. Still, it’s a fascinating story and the family dynamics give it a certain feeling of freshness, but by the time the final bell rings we’re left with a film that doesn’t quite site at the top of the genre.

Why see it at the cinema: You’ll need a big screen to be able to differentiate between all of the seven sisters and their mother, but the cinema is also the best place to take in the razzmatazz of the fight scenes.

The Score: 8/10

Why I Don’t Sit Up For The Oscars Anymore

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Tom Hooper, that’s the reason.

OK, maybe I should qualify that a bit. This weekend has been a fascinating series of contests, fought by competitors at the top of their respective fields, producing some scintillating viewing and some incredibly close, and unpredictable calls. Then after that, we had the Oscars. Yes, for anyone who loves their sport almost as much as their film, and is as English as The King’s Speech is British (i.e. very), then this has been a great weekend: England earning a hard fought victory over France in the Six Nations rugby, and an even harder fought tie at the World Cup cricket against India. Thrown in Luke Donald’s triumph over Martin Kaymer at the WGC Match Play golf, and the Carling Cup final’s amazing comedy ending between Arsenal and Birmingham, and this weekend of sport has had it all.

The theme throughout all of that is that the best person or team won. In the final case, it came down to an extraordinary piece of bad luck, but live television means that we can see every stage of the competitive process, almost feel the sweat dripping from the pores of the exhausted competitors as they struggle for one last ounce of effort. Of course, justice isn’t always done in sporting contests, but by and large this weekend the right results came out, and watching them was tense, very dramatic and ultimately worthwhile.

It’s been a while since you can say the same about the Oscars, which have now become pretty much the antithesis of a sporting contest. Already the poor reviews for James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s hosting gig are turning up in large numbers; if you’re going to have a three hour awards ceremony, you think you would at least want to make the watching of it in some way enjoyable, but all that’s left is to watch who carries off the awards, and most of them have been entirely predictable. For the second year in a row, Best Actor and Actress have been nailed-on certainties for weeks prior to the awards, and the only acting Oscar where there there was any doubt was Supporting Actress. As it turns out, even a disastrous self-funded ad campaign didn’t dent Melissa Leo’s chances.

Consider that I'll drop an F-bomb accepting the award. Now do you want me?

But every year, hoping against hope, I still cling to the increasingly naive belief that some sense of justice will be meted out at the awards, and not in a Jeff Bridges going round and offing the poorer nominees while wearing an eye-patch kind of way. The majority of people this year seemed to be predicting a split of the top two nominees, for Best Picture and Director, and that’s what BAFTA had done only a few short weeks ago, giving Director to David Fincher for The Social Network but The King’s Speech picking up Best Picture. It wouldn’t have been the first time Oscar did that, though, with Ang Lee (for Brokeback Mountain) and Steven Spielberg (for Saving Private Ryan) as examples where the seeming favourite picked up the Director statue, only for another, less critically acclaimed film to steal in and take Best Picture (Crash and Shakespeare In Love, in case you’d successfully wiped that horror from your memory).

But no, this year a man who cut his teeth on Byker Grove and who just turned down Iron Man 3 has taken the award, at the same time his film got Best Picture. Given its capturing of the time it was made in so perfectly, it is somewhere between disheartening and heartbreaking that The Social Network’s only real love was for Best Adapted Screenplay, a deserving Aaron Sorkin picking up that one. But the injustice goes deeper than that.

If you look at the Best Director category, and then consider the directorial effort and achievement, separated from the film itself, then it’s a hard job to argue that the best five got the nominations. Within his fellow nominees, I can’t help but feel that both Fincher and Aronofsky were more deserving of the award. When looking at the other five Best Picture nominees who missed out, then Danny Boyle, Debra Granik, Lee Unkrich and especially Christopher Nolan all probably deserved slots more than David O. Russell or the Coen brothers, or even Tom Hooper, but their films weren’t serious contenders for the top award, so they missed out. Others who excelled in direction in overlooked films, such as Mike Leigh or David Michod, also didn’t get a look in.

Unfortunately Fincher, who is now 0 from 2 for nominations, is in good company. (Spare a thought for Christopher Nolan, who’s yet to even get a nomination.) While Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty, Ron Howard and Barry Levinson all have a shiny gold man to put on their mantlepiece, the directing efforts of Quentin Tarantino, Alan Parker and Mike Leigh (2 nominations each), Ridley Scott, David Lynch, James Ivory, Ingmar Bergman (3 each), Peter Weir, Sidney Lumet, Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick (4 each) and Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock (5 nominations each) have never been directly rewarded by their peers for their efforts in a particular year, although Mr Oscar has occasionally put his hand in his pocket and given out a special award for those who’ve been snubbed a little too often.

And this is why I no longer make the effort to stay up for the Oscars. Despite the fact that it’s in the exact middle of the night for us, thus rendering staying up late or getting up very early as impractical options on their own, and that the accompanying awards show has all the charisma of an elderly dentist with halitosis half the time, it might still be worth it if the awards themselves generally found their way into the hands of the most talented individuals in each case. As long as the Tom Hoopers of this world continue to win, then I’ll be sleeping soundly in my bed come Oscar night.

Review: Conviction

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The Pitch: Oh my god, they falsely imprisoned Kenny! You bastards!

The Review: True stories have always been a staple of cinema, and when it comes to recognition, either from audiences or their peers, then it’s sometimes the sheer magnitude of the events that can determine how much attention you should give. So try this one for size: guy gets arrested, tried and imprisoned for murder but proclaims his innocence. OK, you’re thinking, so far so typical, but then how about this: sister of imprisoned murderer believes his innocence but can’t find a way to convince anyone, and their poor background means they can’t afford fancy lawyers. So she decides to become a fancy lawyer herself, attempting to put herself through a degree, law school and then to attempt to overturn the conviction.

If it sounds like a TV movie of the week, then the material might well be a staple of that genre, but the acting talent here raises things up a level or two. Sam Rockwell is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, so manages to inhabit Kenny Waters successfully to the extent where he fully engages your sympathies, but that you still believe he might have been capable of the crime in question. Taking the other main role of his sister, and carrying the film for long stretches, is Hilary “I’ve got two Oscars me” Swank, portraying a naivety at first, then a grim determination to see her quest through, and at the same time rid herself of the giant Eighties hair she’s portrayed with at the start of the film.

This is one of the side effects of the passage of time the film portrays; not only through a large chunk of adulthood, but the film also has a choppy narrative which allows it to cast back to the childhood of Kenny and Betty Anne, putting valuable context around their later situations and strengthening the bond between them, so we can understand exactly why Betty Anne gave up such a large part of her life on this quest. There’s a few famous faces along the way, including Minne Driver as Betty Anne’s best friend at law school and Juliette Lewis as a key witness at the original trial; Melissa Leo has also picked up a Golden Globe this year for her efforts in The Fighter, but she may be the only one from this cast to trouble the engravers at awards time and her role here is tiny.

The reason for that is not the strength of the acting, which is at least good across the board, or the story itself which is compelling, but the direction, from Tony Goldwyn. You might remember him from such films as Disney’s Tarzan (he was Tarzan) or Ghost (he was the creepy bad guy), but you might not remember him from his other directorial efforts, which have been predominantly TV shows, and this TV background does show through, unfortunately. The story, despite its epic sweep through the characters’ lives, does occasionally get bogged down; at the point when one crucial piece of evidence is missing, the characters spend so long looking I was tempted to offer to help myself. The movie also leaves out one crucial detail about the lives of the characters after the events of the movie that could have put an entirely different, and possibly more interesting, spin on the outcome. That said, if true stories with good acting are your thing, then I’m convinced you’ll get something from Conviction.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s the performances more than the visuals that will draw you in on this occasion, although there is the occasional well-framed image that deserves a big screen outing.

The Score: 7/10