Sunday 20 January 2019

Lord of the ring packs a punch

Of all sports, boxing has provided the most fertile ground for movie makers. The solitary nature of the discipline is often surrounded with a shady, seedy atmosphere where corruption and temptation are never too far away.

The fact that most of the sport's practitioners come from the poorer fringes of society only adds to the drama, as dreams of breaking away from one's roots can become tainted once the bright lights and big money beckons.

Over the years The Set-Up, The Harder They Fall and Fat City -- minor classics all -- showed us the darker side of the fight game, while Martin Scorsese brought all his skills to bear on the brilliant 1980 biopic of Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull. Oh yes, and then there's the small matter of a low-budget 1976 'little guy triumphs against the odds' flick called Rocky. Sylvester Stallone's story of a Philly slugger getting a shot at redemption is a fine drama which spawned a series of ludicrous sequels, but the original's spirit and storyline is inescapable here.

In fact, were the story of how 'Irish' Micky Ward turned his career around to get a shot at a world light-welterweight title in 2000 not true, one would be tempted to think that the screenwriters had been overdosing on Rocky movies and lost the run of themselves. But, the fact that this story actually unfolded in real life makes the movie all the more compelling.

Set in the run-down Massachussets city of Lowell, David O Russell's movie uses Micky Ward's career turnaround as the spine of the story around which he weaves a compelling narrative of determination, family and divided loyalties. Mark Wahlberg, himself a Massachussets native and, like Ward, the youngest in a family of nine, has been working to bring this project to completion for more than five years and his efforts have been well rewarded.

Although Wahlberg takes the lead role he's overshadowed by Christian Bale's eye-catching performance as Ward's older half-brother Dickie Eklund, a one-time contender whose claim to fame is that he once knocked down the great Sugar Ray Leonard, but who's now a gaunt, frazzled crack addict.

Dickie's brushes with the law affect his ability to operate as Micky's trainer and the bad fights being organised by his mother and manager Alice (Melissa Leo) drive him to the brink of retirement.

It's only when he becomes involved with feisty bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) that Micky decides that his career can at last find some form of focus, but in order to do so previous ties must be severed, and that separation does not come easily.

The Fighter isn't merely a movie about boxing, but a strong story about struggle and identity. The way director David O Russell draws us into this world is masterful -- a film crew follow Dickie, who thinks he's being filmed about a comeback when, in fact, they're making a film about crack abuse -- before opening out the story as we see how much Micky is in the shadow of his mother and older brother.

On the acting front Wahlberg is restrained, playing Micky as a calm centre while around him Bale goes over the top as the hyperactive Dickie, Melissa Leo gets stuck into her role as the brassy Alice and Amy Adams shows her tough side as Charlene. The latter three have all received Oscar nominations, as has Russell and the film itself, but Mark Wahlberg is the beating heart and sturdy soul of this tremendous movie. HHHHI

Based on a play by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole isn't likely to set the box office ablaze given that it deals with the difficult subject of parental grief -- hardly likely to shift many units of popcorn among the demographic major studios like to target. Like Blue Valentine a fortnight ago, this story focuses on a marriage coming under severe strain and doesn't exactly make for comfortable or comforting viewing.

Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play Becca and Howie Corbett, a couple going through the motions of life together while we await the details of just what's clearly driving them to distraction. Once it's revealed early on that they've lost their young son in an accident, the film follows them as they try to come to terms with their grief in their own way.

There are trips to a grief support group where Howie strikes up a friendship with Gabby (Sandra Oh) while Becca goes her own way and begins to meet with Jason (Miles Teller), a teenager who was involved in the fatal accident and is himself traumatised by the event. Meanwhile, hovering in the background is the not always sympathetic figure of Nat (Dianne Wiest), Becca's mother who has also lost a child in her older brother.

While hardly a barrel of laughs -- although there are some inspired lines of the blackest humour -- Rabbit Hole is a strong, well-structured and impeccably performed adult drama, with Nicole Kidman on top form and Aaron Eckhart totally believable as the husband who's clearly suffering but wants the pair to get their lives back on some sort of track. HHHII

There's a lot going for this take on Brighton Rock, with the first half of the movie in particular having a style and feel which is quite engrossing. First-time director Joffe has come up trumps in deciding to set this tale of small-time but vicious crooks in 1964, with the rioting mods and rockers providing a suitably wild and anarchic backdrop to the murderous turf war being waged by Pinkie (Sam Riley) and his gang against the old order, headed by the sinister Mr Colleoni (Andy Serkis).

When a victim is photographed with an innocent waitress, Rose (Andrea Riseborough) prior to being dispatched by the gang, Pinkie quite heartlessly sets about seducing and eventually marrying her to maintain her silence. He's a cold and repulsive character but somehow Riley's portrayal is too one-note, with Pinkie being too oppressive and exuding none of the cynical cunning that would enable such a man to ensnare even the most heartstruck young woman.

Despite strong supporting roles from Helen Mirren and John Hurt the final third of the film descends into a rather unfortunate and hysterical mish-mash, with religious imagery thrown about willy-nilly and the director eschewing the novel's bleak ending in favour of the 1947 version's softer release. HHHII

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