“Trouble with the Curve”—Catching the Unexpected

Trouble with the Curve
Trouble with the Curve

This 2012 film is another  Clint Eastwood sports movie. That being said, “Trouble with the Curve” is not so much about sports as it is about a father-daughter relationship. It also touches on how the human element (and an “old-school” methodology) cannot be discounted in favor of technology. (Think: “Money Ball” as its opposite!)

In the opening scene Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood) is attempting to hide his macular degeneration from the execs at the Atlanta Braves, because, as one of their top scouts, he must be able to spot the next star. But crusty, aging Gus is more than a pair of eyes with over forty years of experience. He can tell a pitch by the crack of the bat and now must fight for the career that defines him. Gus’s daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), a high-powered lawyer on the partner track, has also gained an astonishing knowledge of the sport. But father and daughter are estranged and rarely see each other.

Forced to be together for the first time in years, Mickey and her father travel to North Carolina to look at the slate of possible rookies. Mickey risks her own career to do this. A classic double-bind plot device.

In a surprise supporting role Justin Timberlake plays an aspiring recruiter and former baseball rookie, who tries to woo Mickey even though she is reluctant to become involved.

Even if you are not a baseball fan, you will enjoy this movie. A thoroughly entertaining, feel-good film with some humorous dialogue and some totally predictable scenes. The family secret for the estrangement between father and daughter is one curve this viewer did not expect. A good movie for both adult and teen audiences!

“Her”—A Techno Romance

Her

“Her”, a wistful meditation on where we are and where we might be going in the not-too-distant future, is an inspired film by Spike Jonze who questions how technology will connect or disconnect us.

A lonely recently divorced man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), develops an emotional connection  with his newly purchased operating system —OS Samantha (the dulcet, sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson).  While Twombly doesn’t understand why his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) fell out of love with him—she accuses him of being emotionally distant— OS Samantha seems to have been engineered to meet his every need.  Siri she is not.

Theodore Twombly who suggests “Your past is just a story you tell yourself”, tells himself a fantastical one about his computer. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, Twombly has developed a skill: writing eloquent imaginative letters for strangers — birthday wishes, love notes — but ill-equipped  to communicate with real people or even make eye contact (with the exception of one neighbor played by Amy Adams).  The strengths and failings of  relationships depend on the ability to talk about feelings and for Twombly the only safe environment appears to be with his computer.  He soon finds he is not alone in thinking that.  While she seems to fulfill his fantasy of a perfect relationship,  the more complicated she becomes, the more Twombly pulls away.  In this respect, the movie “Her” is like “Ruby Sparks”(see my review, November 11, 2013)—raising the question: If you could have your dream  of the perfect partner come true, would that bring you happiness?

One of the most provocative and original movies of 2013, “Her” plays with the future and the interface between humans and their machines as well as the problems and pitfalls of communicating feelings in any relationship. “Her” is part romantic comedy, part sci-fi with the brain teaser that falling in love in a cyber-relationship is not as far-fetched as it would have seemed even five years ago. Enjoy, laugh, and then think about how technology can both alleviate and increase a sense of loneliness!

“American Hustle”:—Everyone Hustles To Survive

13_2654_Sony_Form3_AdamsBanner_R9With its ensemble cast, this film has received almost unanimous accolades for the universally stunning performances, under the direction of David O. Russell. Still at the top of his game (after “I Heart Huckabees”, “The Fighter”, and “Silver Linings Playbook”).   All of Russell’s movies, intentionally or not, are the embodiment of a certain malaise, the sense that we have lost our community spirit, and everyone is on his or her own.  It is a war of all against all, or at least a cold indifference of all to all.

“American Hustle” is about the ultimate con game, of which there have been many in US history involving financial get-quick schemes.  (“Hustle” is purportedly based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970’s).  How far are people willing to go to grasp the golden ring, to try to capture the American Dream:  namely, wealth as synonymous with identity and happiness?  “American Hustle” goes even further, digging deeper into how much we lie to ourselves, in order to believe what we want to believe.

But on a more personal level, this film is also about human relationships:  who can be trusted and who can’t.  That is the nature of a con game:  building trust only to deceive and swindle.  In “Hustle” we see the main character, Irving Rosenfeld (another riveting performance by Christian Bale), a vain and insecure man obsessed with combing over his bald spot, try to build a successful business presence in New Jersey through a small dry-cleaning chain.  Enter Amy Adams, also a mover and shaker, as the beautiful Sydney Prosser,  who wants to badly leave her personal history behind and who quickly becomes Rosenfeld’s astute business partner and lover.  Irving and Sydney soon discover how a con game can connect them to greater financial opportunities. Together they meet Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, again surprising  with a winning interpretation of human vanity, ambition, and vulnerability), a mafia kingpin (Robert DeNiro), and the Camden, New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner).  (A small part by  Louis CK as the FBI supervisor is exceptionally well-played too.)  Rosenfeld’s dealings  with these characters hinges on a masterful scheme that will scandalize and destroy all its participants.

The small part played by Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the wife and mother of Irving’s child, is virtuoso acting that startles at times.  Lawrence is almost unrecognizable in body, facial expressions, and voice.  When she is on screen, my eyes could rest on no one else.  Each slither and flirtatious gesture is both brassy and calculated, suggesting an intelligence beneath the bleached blond hair of a bimbo.  As Rosalyn, Lawrence eliminates the stereotypes of what intelligence should look like and be like.  Amy Adams is the perfect counterpoint:  both are exceptionally beautiful sexy women,  in love with the same man, in a zero sum game.

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“American Hustle” boasts a combination of craftsmanship and delectable moviegoing pleasure set in a time period of disco, that holds a nostalgic if discomforting appeal to baby boomers.  The hustle to survive is just that:  all are wounded and no one heals.  Run to see it so you can enjoy it for its own value and then wait to see if it wins Best Picture from the Academy Awards!

 

“The Fighter”–A Knockout

The 2010 blockbuster and critics’ darling, “The Fighter”, won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (an astounding Christian Bale) and best supporting actress (the masterful Melissa Leo).  However, I hate boxing movies, especially the tawdry “doormat turned boxing champion” variety we have seen in movies like “Rocky”.  This movie, however, is more in the genre of “Raging Bull” or “Million Dollar Baby”, movies in which “boxing” is a metaphor for the volatility of punches that life can throw to anyone, especially the underdog.

This time around the story is about Irish American Micky Ward, an actual boxing hero in working-class Boston during the 1990’s.  Mark Wahlberg, who both directs and plays the role of Micky Ward, has said he was inspired by the local fighter and determined to tell his story on the silver screen.  And the story is a remarkable one.

There are actually two stories in one:  Micky’s story as the welterweight boxer who dreams of  the championship, and the story of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (spellbindingly played by Christian Bale),  who  could have been a champion but checked out of the competition because of  a fierce drug habit that none of his family can deal with.

Dicky’s story dominates during the first half of “The Fighter”.  Balding, skeletal, and nearly toothless, Dicky brags incessantly of his championship fighting, particularly against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, and dreams of a comeback while training Micky for upcoming fights in the bowels of the boxing league. Dicky’s self-deception is so profound — and so impervious to reality — that he fails to recognize who he really has become.  Christian Bale justifiably won the best supporting actor’s role for his scene-stealing performance.   The impeccable supporting cast includes Melissa Leo as the heartbreaking, shrewish mother and Amy Adams as Dicky’s feisty girlfriend.  Without Mark Wahlberg’s  understated acting, which  is the foundation for Christian Bale’s, the latter would have seemed over-the-top or  overreaching.

The story in the second half of the film now shifts to Micky’s ordeal as he slugs his way to the top, in spite of his dysfunctional family and his mother’s lack of interest in his success.  Melissa Leo plays the mother with a wickedness in which the unrecognized damage she has done to her younger son creeps into her face with horror and unflinching sorrow as she finally realizes what she has done to him (and to Dicky). It’s like viewing the scene of an accident.

“The Fighter” appeals to the viewer on several levels.  It is a boxing film, but doesn’t need to be.  It is a film that taps into the narcissistic archetypal mother whose impact on her children is grotesque.  And most of all, it is a story of choices we all face–some at the expense of those we love–in order to move on to another stage in life.  The everyman underdog’s desperation sometimes requires stripping delusions of what family can and cannot do for you. We can understand why both his mother and half-brother imprison Micky and why he can’t turn his back on his brother. “What passion doesn’t blind, it opens the eyes and mind.”  For Micky that isn’t possible until his girlfriend (played in an elusively simple way by the talented Amy Adams) reveals the true dynamics of his family.

The film is not without its shortcomings, but I think all boxing films are prey to these flaws, even while telling a story based on fact. For one, the scenes of the family clan that includes seven young sisters to Micky and Dicky, do not integrate well and sometimes verge on the melodramatic and unbelievable, truth or not.   Still, every scene between the two brothers is riveting and hints at the exculpatory. The love that they feel for each other, even when they realize its destructive nature, is palpable and desolate.  The not-so-simple lesson they both learn is that, even if you run away from your family, they are always with you.