Saturday, December 18, 2010

Week of Dec. 17 to Dec. 23

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

There’s a Christmas present for all of you down at the Tropic. A Golden Globe, or maybe I should say a constellation of them, because three of the five Globe nominees for Best Picture-Drama are all slated to open over the holidays, two this week and another the following week.

This week’s pair share a theme, the devotion of the central character to a calling that brutalizes the body in pursuit of glory. In THE FIGHTER, it’s boxing. In the BLACK SWAN it’s ballet. But, befitting the radically different aesthetics of the two endeavors, the tone of the movies is dramatically different.

THE FIGHTER is based on the real life of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) a welterweight boxer who rose from the gritty world of Lowell, Massachusetts. He idolized his half-brother Dicky Eklund, who had a moment of boxing fame, and became the “Pride of Lowell” when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Micky won a string of amateur titles and had some success as a professional before injuring his hand and dropping out. The movie takes up Micky’s career as he attempts a professional comeback. It’s a family matter, with his mother (Melissa Leo from Frozen River) as manager, his half-brother (Christian Bale) as trainer, and a collection of seven sisters as a Greek chorus, while a new girlfriend (Amy Adams) struggles to achieve influence.

Walhberg gets top billing, but Bale carries the movie, dominating almost every scene. As Robert DiNiro famously gained seventy pounds for his role as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Bale went the other way, losing thirty or forty pounds to capture the physique of the skinny strung-out crack addict that Dicky had become.
He’s a boxing genius, but he’s a narcissist fuckup.

Micky has two challenges: to win his fights, and to escape the dominance of an overbearing mother and junked up half-brother. It’s no coincidence that Darren Aronofsky, the director of last year’s hit The Wrestler is an Executive Producer on THE FIGHTER, and considered directing it. Both films are as much about the family stories as about the ring. The quest to win is the front story, but the quest to live is the real heart of the film. It’s “rousing, … real and … full of complicated emotions, …. blends history and fiction in fascinating fashion, and includes several of the year's best performances.” (

Aronofsky didn’t want to return to the ring because he had moved on to the stage, with BLACK SWAN, the story of a ballerina (Natalie Portman) dealing with the triple pressures of a Balanchine-like master (Vincent Cassel) who wants her to rise to new stardom performing the white and black swans in Swan Lake, her prima ballerina predecessor (Winona Ryder), and her aspiring understudy (Mila Kunis). The result is a visually stunning cross between a backstage melodrama and a horror film that has leapt to almost everyone’s top ten list.

I’ll discuss the BLACK SWAN more next week, when I’ll also be taking up THE KING’S SPEECH, which opens on Christmas Day. But if you love ballet, you won’t want to miss one of the Tropic’s showings of the Nutcracker. On Sunday, it’s The Bolshoi Ballet live via satellite from Moscow, and on Tuesday, the British Royal Ballet in high def from London.

Meanwhile, this week’s program also offers some gentler, but no less compelling dramas. MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON brings a French perspective to bear on that most fraught of adulterous affairs, that between a father and his young son’s school teacher. “An exquisite chamber piece made with the kind of sensitivity and nuance that's become almost a lost art.” (L.A. Times)

LAST TRAIN HOME is a documentary about the annual migration of millions of Chinese workers to their rural homes for the New Year’s holiday. But “it works like stunning, grieving fiction,” as it follows one family over three years in “a reality Dickens could hardly have imagined.” (Roger Ebert).

And the Special Events calendar features a premiere screening of YASUNI, local filmmaker Leonardo Wild’s documentary about an initiative to preserve the Ecuadorian rain forest in face of large oil discoveries. He’ll be there for a Q & A on Tuesday evening.

What a week!

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