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Holiday Movie Guide- Round 1

Black Swan & The Fighter

In their respective ways, both “Black Swan” and “The Fighter” feel related to last year’s excellent “The Wrestler.” In the case of “Black Swan,” it’s not just the follow on project from “Wrestler” director Darren Aronofsky, but it’s also reminiscent in its depiction of raw obsession even when it takes one to the brink of personal destruction. It makes the beautifully-staged world of professional ballet look even more competitive in the struggle for dominance than the equally choreographed but entirely predetermined world of professional wrestling.

Meanwhile, if Mickey Rourke’s character in “The Wrestler” had a kid brother who wasn’t as washed up and still had a shot at success, and if you translated that dynamic from wrestling to boxing, you’d have a story close to “The Fighter.” Here, Christian Bale, in a role that transforms him as much as anything since “The Machinist,” is big brother and erstwhile role model to Mark Wahlberg’s younger contender.  Wahlberg’s Micky Ward isn’t young himself, in boxing terms, but he’s been languishing for years in the shadow of his brother’s local legendary status.

In “The Fighter,” the story is actually true – which is interesting given other parallels with the fictional “Black Swan.” In both, the lead characters are children of mothers who are even more obsessed than their offspring. The boxing Mom is still living in a world where the older brother has a chance at redemption and is the prodigal son, despite rampant drug abuse and criminal activity. The ballet Mom is re-living her own stalled career through her daughter’s successes and controls her every waking moment.  It’s telling that Natalie Portman’s Nina has a bedroom that doesn’t look like the room of a successful adult dancer but rather like the room of a fixated seven year old, where everything is light and bright except for either mother’s or daughter’s demeanor.

Micky allows his mother and brother to pick his fights, even when they aren’t to his advantage, until the time when he feels justified in breaking away from their dominance. Nina’s world is similarly defined, but her own escape is so late in coming that it threatens her sanity, as she teeters on the edge of what is real and what is imagined.  

In both films, the performances are more remarkable than the stories. Portman shines as the tortured dancer, ably supported by Mila Kunis as the new dancer on the block. In “The Fighter,” it’s also the younger boxer (Wahlberg) who is supporting the performance of Bale’s burnt out older brother, although it’s Wahlberg who is the lead actor to Bale’s supporting role. It seems likely that both Portman and Bale will be noticed by those with awards to hand out.

Of the two, “Black Swan” is likely to garner higher praise overall, but both are worth watching and are successes for their respective directors, Aronofsky and David O. Russell (“I Heart Huckabees,” “Three Kings,” “Spanking the Monkey”). The description of Russell’s first short film, “Bingo Inferno: A Parody on American Obsessions” (1987), make it sound like it might play well with Aronofsky’s great “Requiem for a Dream” – so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at any other commonalities.

The Tourist & How Do You Know

Two other films that seem somewhat related, albeit for entirely different reasons, are “The Tourist” and “How Do You Know.” Both, put simply, seem far too expensive for their own good and seem destined to struggle as a result.

“The Tourist” is a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in an international crime caper set largely in Venice. But Depp’s performance is remarkably flat and dull, while Jolie’s is relatively smoldering but still seemingly out of place in the project. It just felt like a lighter weight movie that might have been more suited to up and coming actors, with a lesser budget and equally reduced expectations.

“How Do You Know” is equally over-burdened with payroll costs, with reported salaries of $15m for female lead Reese Witherspoon, $12m for Jack Nicholson, $10m for Owen Wilson, $10m for director James L. Brooks (“As Good as it Gets,” “Terms of Endearment” and TV’s “Taxi” and “Lou Grant”), and $3m for male lead Paul Rudd. If this indicates anything, it’s that Paul Rudd (who carries the movie) is underpaid.

Rudd is son to Nicholson, in the family financial firm, and meets softball star Witherspoon through a friend’s date recommendation. Wilson is her other competing beau, as an athlete who has so many female overnight guests that he keeps a toothbrush supply that rivals Rite Aid. It’s a fun little romp with an odd tempo, filled with awkward pauses and blunders that seem both out of place in most movies and yet strangely realistic at the same time. But that “light romp” aspect is likely to be crushed under the star power and cost.

It’s still more enjoyable, however, than “The Tourist” which is a film that tries so hard to keep you guessing that you’re likely to guess the ending. I’m guessing both will end up losing money.

Check next week’s column for reviews of “Tron: Legacy” and “True Grit.”


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