Thursday, April 28, 2011

Country Strong

Director: Shana Feste
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

I remember reading an article some time back describing Gwyneth Paltrow the "anti-girl next door." As inaccurate as that title is is, it's still pretty funny since you immediately know what it implies. Yes it's true that Paltrow isn't really like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts or even Jennifer Aniston, despite being more talented and doing more consistently diverse work than them. Women don't want to be her best friend or hang out with her. Guys generally aren't interested in bringing her home to mom. There's this aura of sophistication and aloofness to her that's caused the media to unfairly or not label her as "cold." Worse yet, there's this perception she's unwilling to get her hands dirty in a gritty role. For many, just the thought of Paltrow drinking a beer, much less playing a alcoholic country singer caught in a downward spiral of addiction and depression, would be good for a few laughs. And in Country Strong it is. But not because of her performance, which while very good, is strangely still the least impressive in the film. She's completely believable as a country superstar, especially onstage where she's no better or worse than some of the singers you'd typically see on the Country Music Awards or Billboard charts. It's everything that happens off stage with her character that's ridiculous. And that's not Paltrow's fault. It's bad form for me to do this but Roger Ebert hit the nail right on the head when he wrote in the first line of his review:

"Country Strong is one of the best movies of 1957, and I mean that sincerely as a compliment."
There's almost nothing to add to that. A true throwback, the movie is essentially a full-length melodramatic soap opera and guilty pleasure worthy of a recommendation if not for the fact I still have to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow morning. It's awful and at times unintentionally hilarious in how it piles on every cliche in the book, but has so much fun doing it and wears its heart on its sleeve in such an honest way that you're almost willing to forgive. At least until the end. Forget about this being Gwyneth's Crazy Heart, the similarly themed 2009 film that won Jeff Bridges his Oscar. That was about a washed-up country legend on his last legs, his demons and alcohol abuse sabotaging whatever shot he has left at a comeback on stage and in life. In it alcoholism is actually treated as a disease. Here, you'd think being an alcoholic is kind of fun. If "Bad Blake" is a grizzled warrior than Paltrow's Kelly Canter is a pop diva (that the character's supposedly patterned after Britney Spears isn't surprising). That's an important distinction both in terms of how they're entirely different films and why Paltrow's casting makes sense. When Kelly's latest rehab stint gets cut short by her controlling manager/ husband, James (Tim McGraw) and she's thrown back on stage before even being close to ready, only her "sponsor" Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) realizes what a huge mistake it is. Except he's a lot more than her sponsor and a great singer in his own right who joins Kelly on tour with up- and-coming country starlet Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty queen with a big voice but a lot of self-doubt. With her career in turmoil, Kelly knows her days on top are numbered as Chiles inches closer to taking her spot.

The irony is with all the effort that's put in to selling the central storyline of a fading country star being swallowed up by her inner demons, it's the sub-plot involving the supporting characters that soars. We know Paltrow has the perfect look for this and can sing and perform with the best of them, but Kelly's sporadic episodes of self-destruction are so insanely over-the-top it almost becomes irrelevant whether or not she's even capable of playing an addict. This is really just someone who drinks and cries a lot. It's still a good performance, but it's at the service of a story that has a TV movie of the week feel, complete with the "evil manager" who Tim McGraw somehow manages to make human. It's the complete opposite of the saintly husband he played in The Blind Side, another throwback film this closely resembles for about three quarters of its running time. For most of that time its moderate success can be attributed to Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund, the real stars of this who deliver performances about five times better than anyone had any reason to expect.

It's a shock Meester and Hedlund are even better country singers than Paltrow but less surprising is how real and well written their scenes together are compared to the goofy central storyline. Meester brings this optimistic, sweet faced innocence to Chiles and shares a great late scene with Paltrow suggesting this movie really should have been about her, and if it was, she'd have no problem carrying it at all. And it probably would have been a lot more interesting. Last seen in the digitized grid of TRON: Legacy, Hedlund (totally unrecognizable) wasn't given the type of role that gave us any indication whether or not he can act. Turns out he can and very well. Watching this you realize he wouldn't really seem that out of place in something grittier like Crazy Heart, as he gives off a cool, tough vibe that recalls a young Penn or Brando. It's a shame he's in this instead but you have to start somewhere and he and Meester walk away in much better positions than when they went in, especially considering the film's failure will unfairly fall on Paltrow.

The director of this, Shana Feste, also made a little movie a couple of years ago called The Greatest which also attempted to lift a familiar soap opera story to a higher level with almost equally mixed results. There is actually a lot to like here. The production value is top notch. The music is great. The acting is strong across the board. And it's definitely not a rip-off of the far superior Crazy Heart, which itself was always falsely accused being a rip-off of The Wrestler. Seemingly forgetting the type of film this is, Feste loses her way in the third act, making a brave but tonally inconsistent decision that puts the focus exactly where it shouldn't be at the worst possible time. It's ironic a movie about a veteran performer in danger of being upstaged by new, younger blood ends up being the story of the film itself. If nothing else, Country Strong is at least one of the more fun bad movies you could accidentally stumble on while flipping through the channels on a slow weeknight. Having actually rented it, I'll have to come up with another excuse.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Love and Other Drugs

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathway, Josh Gad, Judy Greer, Gabriel Macht, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, George Segal, Jill Clayburgh
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

An ambitiously entertaining mess, Love and Other Drugs deserves credit for being an unconventional romance that attempts to give us something we haven't seen before. It isn't often a raunchy sex comedy doubles as an emotional medical drama set in the world of pharmaceutical sales. Besides breaking a cinematic record for onscreen nudity and featuring an unintentionally hilarious depiction of the mid to late 90's, it's also noteworthy for stretching a couples' third act break-up crisis over an hour. All over the map in terms of tone, I found myself liking it anyway, with its flaws making it more fun than it otherwise would have been if everything flowed perfectly. It's also one of the few recent rom-coms that might actually have some re-watch value, if only because it's so wacky. But if you replaced Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal it wouldn't have worked. They bring needed dimension to questionably written, sometimes unlikable and self-pitying characters who aren't the easiest to root for. It's one of those rare star pairings that not only looked good on paper, but exceeds expectations on screen.

It's 1996 when charismatic electronics salesmen and med-school dropout Jamie Randall (Gylenhaal) is fired for sleeping with the store manager's wife and his millionaire brother Josh (Josh Gad) lands him a a medical sales rep job for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Working alongside his more experienced partner Bruce (Oliver Platt) Jamie initially struggles in the field, pedaling Zithromax and Zoloft to Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), posing as his intern and bribing and seducing his receptionists. It's during an impromptu breast exam he falls for one of Knight's patients, the feisty, sarcastic Maggie Murdock (Hathaway), a 26 year-old with early onset Parkinson's Disease who has as little interest in a serious relationship as he does, making them the perfect match. But when Jamie unexpectedly wants something more, he finds the one woman he may be incapable of winning over, so angry and closed-off because of her condition she's unwilling to let anyone in. This is all happens just as the new drug Viagra, hits the market for Pfizer, changing Jamie's prospects considerably and putting him at the forefront of a major drug boom.

The first hour of this film is fantastic, working really well as a screwball romantic comedy, while cleverly sending up the drug industry. It isn't exactly a scathing social commentary but the life of a medical sales rep is something we've haven't seen on screen before so there's a freshness in watching how they push doctors to prescribe medications by promising perks and bribing them. For a while at least the screenplay flawlessly juggles this topic with the entirely physical relationship between Maggie and Jamie. Just in case you didn't get the memo, Anne Hathaway likes to do nudity. Or if she doesn't, she's a much better actress than we thought since there's a hardly scene in the first 60 minutes where she isn't topless. Given the total amount of graphic sex scenes it's kind of shocking director Edward Zwick wasn't slapped with an NC-17, especially considering the MPAA's notoriously prudent stance on sex and nudity. After a while there's so much of it you almost lose track of whether it's gratuitous or not. If the purpose is to convey Maggie and Jamie's relationship is purely physical that point gets across loud and clear, and in a strange way, it's kind of a relief to see a film so unafraid of going all the way with this. Either way, the first half is a blast before turning deadly serious. The Parkinson's becomes a factor, but not in the way you'd expect, which is mostly due to the fact that the disease is progressive so the clock on her life isn't rapidly ticking like it would for a "disease of the week" melodrama like Love Story or Autumn in New York. It becomes more about whether Jamie can break down the wall she's put up and stick around despite the certainty her condition will worsen (he even gets to hear exactly how it in the film's most brutally honest scene). And if he does stick around, the question becomes whether he'll be able to do it for her rather than out of self-guilt.

There's definitely some clumsy writing and the tone's all over the place in the third act but Hathaway and Gyllenhaal possess such an understanding of their characters that they're able to make the necessary adjustments to sell it. I can't say I was thrilled with the arc Maggie took, being this strong, free spirit who deteriorates into an emotional mess, but it's fairly realistic given the context of the story. It's also a tough role for Hathaway since she has to not only convey the physical characteristics of the condition but all the baggage that comes along with it. Gyllenhaal's character also has take a more serious turn and while I prefer the how both started much more than how they ended up, both actors don't miss a beat in having to perform in what seems like two wildly different films. Jonah Hill clone Josh Gad as Jamie's overweight, annoying brother Josh brings what's expected to the sloppy sidekick role while Hank Azaria is so believable as a doctor you'd think they accidentally cast a real one. Once again, the awesome, should-be-famous Judy Greer is delightful in another one of her "crazy chick" supporting roles, and it does soften the blow a little this time that she's playing second fiddle to a genuine talent like Hathaway instead of Heigl, Aniston or Hudson.

Why this is set in a late 90's time period aside from the fact it's based on the non-fiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Pfizer's Jaime Reidy, isn't exactly clear, but that small detail sure makes the film funnier. Did they really still sell boom boxes at electronic stores in '96? Was anyone still listening to the Spin Doctors in '97? What were we thinking with the Macarena? Was the internet really so popular then that doctors worried about patients diagnosing themselves? But being a big fan of everything mid to late 90's I was just happy to see that time period depicted in a film at all, no matter how ridiculous. Any points lost for historical accuracy is made up for with originality. Playing by slightly different rules and crossing conventional genre boundaries, Love and Other Drugs is a risky alternative, proving it's sometimes better for a film to suffer an identity crisis than have no identity at all.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr, Richard Kind, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Derek Jacobi
Running Time: 129 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Had all of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter been as thrilling as its opening ten minutes it could have been one of the best films of 2010. In a different way, the rest impresses also, but those first ten minutes, a CGI re-creation of a real-life catastrophe, won't leave you anytime soon and might stand as one of the more frightening natural disaster effects sequences put on screen. When a movie starts this ambitiously and a director of Eastwood's caliber is attached, it makes sense lofty expectations accompany the rest of it and everyone would feel let down when it doesn't unfold as trailers would indicate. But what sold me is it's sincerity and upfront honesty with what it's trying to do. It's a well-acted introspective, thought provoking character study that's slightly frustrating since it doesn't do much wrong, but doesn't amount to anything monumental either. I'm not even sure it was meant to as Eastwood, perhaps too generously, wanted audiences to do most of the intellectual heavy lifting. Those who appreciate that approach will enjoy it while everyone else will feel left out in the cold, but at least give the director credit for making the movie he wanted to make, regardless of any pressure he could have encountered from the studio to deliver your typical supernatural thriller. This is anything but. 

The film tells three parallel stories of people affected by death that eventually intertwine in a fairly straightforward manner, with few twists or surprises.  The first, and most interesting, concerns blue-collar factory worker, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) a former professional psychic who views his supposed gift as curse, and one that threatens to ruin a potential relationship with enthusiastic cooking class partner Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). French television reporter Marie Lelay (Cecile de France) is a survivor of The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, but not without being traumatized the near-death experience, its after effects interfering with every aspect of her life and work. And the U.K. twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are about to be removed from the custody of their drug-addicted mother when tragedy strikes and Marcus is killed, leaving a distraught Jason in search of reputable psychic, only to discover there are very few. You can probably guess where that storyline's going.

If this all seems to slightly similar to 2006's Babel with its vaguely interconnected narratives that's because it is, with a big difference being this isn't as emotionally manipulative or press nearly as many buttons as that far busier script did. It's definitely more low-key and introspective, primarily concerned with observing these how people view death. Some will find this boring but I was surprised how the lengthy over two-hour running time flew by despite there being little excitement outside the incredible opening sequence. Damon's story is by far the best and the scenes he has with Bryce Dallas Howard are easily the most engaging in the film because Damon (in his most somber mode here) perfectly conveys how George's abilities can really destroy any chance he has at forging a real relationship. Melanie wants a reading, but he tries to resist. By the time he's done with it she realizes she should have taken the warning and we realize she wasn't what she seemed. The other two stories don't click as well, though the reporter's storyline benefits greatly from having a documentary realism to it. Eastwood flirts with corniness at the end, but somehow I bought it because the ideas were at presented in an intelligently restrained way throughout, never forcing the issue.

Flopping at the box office late last year, it was one of the most poorly received and reviewed films of Eastwood's career, which probably speaks more to the public's distaste with the subject matter than anything else. For whatever reason mainstream moviegoers have a major aversion to seeing the afterlife depicted in popular entertainment. Whether it's What Dreams May Come, The Lovely Bones, or even recently proven on television with Lost, very few efforts dealing with this topic have ever been met with a favorable response. It seems there are certain preconceptions about how this should be presented on screen and whatever choice is made ends up being wrong if it doesn't match what's in audiences' minds. To Eastwood's credit, he doesn't seem to care. Hereafter works as an exploration of human behavior that probably won't come together how anyone wants it to, but that doesn't necessarily make the trip there any less absorbing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Morning Glory

Director: Roger Michell
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, Ty Burrell, Jeff Goldblum, John Pankow, Matt Malloy
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In what has to be considered somewhat of a shocker, Harrison Ford gives one of his best performances in years in Morning Glory. Yes, that Harrison Ford. In a comedy. And he's funny. After a decade straight of flops, he finally lands a role worthy of his talents and reminds us how good an actor he can still be with sharp material. It's a shame no one went to see it because I could easily envision Ford's role here eventually appearing on a his career highlight reel and gaining respect as time goes on. It's that good. As for the movie itself, it's essentially a well-executed chick flick about a morning show set against the backdrop of a timely news vs. entertainment debate, but any guy should be relieved if they're forced to watch to it because it's one of the rare good ones. A 90's throwback of sorts, it recalls a time when romantic comedies were smart didn't star Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston, and featured characters that were likable and worth rooting for. While this was a surprisingly pleasurable experience, it's easy to see why many stayed away considering it did look awful from the previews and this genre has the worst track record of any. But here is the rare, sophisticated, adult-minded romantic comedy that succeeds in entertaining the audience it's aimed at.

After being laid off from her job at Good Morning New Jersey, plucky, aspiring news producer Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) gets the call of her life to join the struggling morning network news show, Daybreak as their new executive producer. With The Today Show, Good Morning America and whatever that other show is on CBS (their words, not mine) crushing it in the ratings, Becky is hired by IBS network suit Jeffrey Barnes (Jeff Goldblum) in a final attempt to revitalize the program and save it from impending cancellation. In dire need of a new co-host for self-centered former beauty queen Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton), Becky finds a clause in the contract of respected veteran IBS newsman Mike Pomeroy (Ford) preventing him from sitting out the remainder of his six-million dollar deal and blackmails him into taking the gig. Unfortunately for Becky and the rest of the show's staff, Pomeroy makes his disgust of "soft news" stories and witty banter abundantly clear, often when the cameras start rolling. His refusal to cooperate puts the show and Becky's already shaky future in further jeopardy, as she tries to fight off her workaholic tendencies long enough to launch a fledgling relationship with another network producer, Adam (Patrick Wilson).

No one could have possibly guessed it would be this fun watching Harrison Ford look miserable. It's so entertaining that at first I just chalked it up to Ford actually being miserable that he's appearing in this film, which wouldn't be a stretch given his recent track record. After a little while though it becomes clear that can't be true since no actor that miserable would be able to give a performance this inspired and Ford has no reason to be cranky or embarrassed about appearing in this. Whether Pomeroy is arguing with his co-host on-air, shooting off a priceless look of disgust when confronted with a fluffy news story, or being mistaken for Dan Rather on the street, Ford never wavers in his portrayal of this unlikable old crank. He shares great chemistry with Keaton in their on-air scenes with both being completely believable as sparring newscasters but real pleasure comes in watching him play off McAdams during Becky's many clumsy attempts to integrate the straight-laced Pomeroy onto the program. This is essentially a one-joke movie but that one joke is hilarious and never comes close to wearing out its welcome because of Ford's comic timing. And when the time comes for Ford to sell a transformation that should seem impossible, he manages to pull that off also, revealing a different dimension to the character.

While it's hard to say Keaton is underutilized in her role, it isn't nearly as essential as Ford's, but that hardly matters since she's great anyway and it's one of the few recent parts she's had that matches her talent. Rachel McAdams is just terrific, effortlessly carrying the entire movie as the lead and putting to shame most of her less talented contemporaries. At first glance it seems as if she's saddled with one of those stereotypical female  rom-com roles, playing a stressed-out busybody whose life is being squashed by her career. To an extent that's true, but she's so ridiculously likable and you hardly stop to notice and the script deserves some credit for not making this about that or having her "choose" between the two. Her relationship with Patrick Wilson's character isn't essential to the plot, which is actually ends up being a relief since it's unobtrusive and handled reasonably without feeling tacked on. Wilson seems to be playing the thankless boyfriend role in every other romantic comedy released these days but it's a credit to him that he hasn't come out of even the dumbest ones looking like a fool.

Anyone criticizing this for being a lightweight comedy rather than a hard hitting social commentary on the television industry like Network or Broadcast News probably needed to adjust their expectations. It definitely won't be winning any awards for its realistic depiction of broadcast journalism, but it may as well be a documentary compared to something like 1996's unintentionally hilarious Up Close and Personal, which was easily the silliest portrayal of the news industry on screen up to this point. This is supposed to be mindless, enjoyable fluff and it is, with the laughs being well-earned by its clever script and the actors, especially Ford, who hasn't been this good in ages. Morning Glory does have a few interesting (if glaringly obvious) things to say about the sorry state of network news, even if some might look for a message that isn't there at the end. Its best aspect is assuming its audience is smart enough not to need one.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Fighter

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, Jack McGee
Running Time: 115 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The Fighter is a story about a hard-working guy surrounded by well-meaning morons. That comes as a relief since here I was going into this thinking I'd be re-watching The Wrestler, only this time with boxing. It isn't technically about boxing, or even really a sports movie. The morons in question are family and this film offers up the best case yet for that old saying that you can't choose your family. The Fighter is all about family, but not in that sappy, sentimental way most sports movies are about them sticking together to triumph over adversity. This is about how they can, despite their best intentions, hold someone back and stop them from getting where they need to go. That's just the starting point for a true story that actually feels like a true story for its brutal honesty and realism, holding nothing back in its sometimes ugly, occasionally hilarious depiction of its subjects. That the director's controversial hot head David O. Russell (ironically taking the reigns from The Wrestler's Darren Aronofsky who dropped out to make Black Swan but stayed on as a producer) insured it would be edgy and not go the predictable, sentimental route of other true life sports stories. His gritty, take no prisoners approach to the material helps a lot as for nearly two hours the biggest fights happen outside the ring, in living rooms, outside of crack houses and on front porches as a dysfunctional family struggles to get on the same page. Anyone arguing that a frightening Christian Bale or to a slightly lesser degree, his unrecognizable co-star Melissa Leo, didn't deserve their supporting Oscar wins (or Amy Adams her nomination) for their work here don't have a leg to stand on. Mark Wahlberg may be the star, but this movie's theirs.

"Irish" Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a struggling, slightly past-his-prime welterweight boxer from a working-class family in Lowell, Massachutsettes whose older half-brother Dicky Eklund's (Bale) claim to fame is maybe (depending on who you talk to) knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard years ago in a televised HBO match. Now, he's a 40-year-old crack addict thinking he's getting a televised special on his "comeback," that's actually a documentary on the dangers of drug use. Consumed with the past and living vicariously through Micky, Dicky is a total disaster as his trainer, driving his career into the ground by spending his days at a crack house and booking him against much heavier fighters he doesn't stand a chance against.  Not helping any is their manager mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), more concerned with Dicky's hopeless, imaginary comeback and re-living the past than getting Micky the right fights. Only their father George (Jack McGee) seems clued into reality and when he introduces Micky to feisty bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) and they begin a relationship, her attempts to get him to see the damage his professional damage his family is causing him results in an ugly feud. With Dicky's crack addiction and erratic behavior worsening, Micky is forced to choose between his career and family.

One of the film's most memorable moments is its opening as Dicky, once known as "The Pride of Lowell" for his in-ring accomplishments, walks the neighborhood with his brother and it's clear at least some of Dicky's boasting is true, or was at one point. This great sequence (set to The Heavy's "How Do You Like Me Now") really takes us into the neighborhood and lets us speculate whether these guys are local legends because they're great, or just simply because of a lack of better alternatives or anything else for these locals to latch onto. It's never really established whether either of these guys were ever great boxers (you could even argue Micky is somewhat terrible based on what we see), which ends up being one the story's better attributes. A glory hog, Dicky is a legend in his own mind and all the attention (whether it be good or bad) is just added fuel for him to self-destruct as he selfishly but maybe unknowingly leads his brother's career down the gutter while succumbing to his addictions. And boy is this some supporting performance from Christian Bale, reminding us in case we've forgotten during his Batman stint, why he's still one of the very best at what he does. The transformation he undergoes here is nothing short of astonishing. Unrecognizably skeletal (dropping nearly as much weight as he did for The Machinist) and perfecting a credible Boston accent, this is an acting tour-de-force that if entered into the lead category at this year's Oscars probably would have sent Colin Firth home empty handed. No one could have also guessed Bale was capable of being this funny, as he keeps us laughing uncomfortably at his antics at even the film's darkest moments. 

Almost equally unrecognizable and powerful is Melissa Leo as the hot-tempered, delusional matriarch who seems to want to do the best for both her sons but is just too stubborn and narrow-minded to have any kind of a positive affact on either of her sons' lives. What Bale and Leo both do best is make sure neither of these people come off as outright despicable or out to destroy Micky, which is a small miracle considering all the heinous damage they inflict. At times both almost seem to try to be helping, but in the only way they know how. You'd see how someone as loyal as Micky would fall into the trap of not wanting to turn his back on them, even as they unintentionally sabotage his future. Considering Micky's supposed to be 31 years old and 145 pounds, Wahlberg is definitely miscast on paper but he pulls it off anyway if only because it's difficult to picture anyone else playing this role. He's always good at conveying quiet determination, and is more low-key than anyone, which strangely makes him perfect for this. It's most fun to watch Wahlberg when he's hilariously miscast (like in The Happening and The Lovely Bones) because he always manages to overcome it through sheer hard work, which is commendably rare. As Charlene, be prepared for Amy Adams as you've never seen her before. As a tough, angry bitch who refuses to back down to Micky's family (and shouldn't because she's right), she displays a side to her acting talent totally unanticipated. One scene in which her fearless character goes toe-to-toe with all of Micky's repulsive sisters on the front porch is alone worth the price of admission. While it's unusual the lead is completely overshadowed by the rest of the cast, given the nature of the story, it almost seems appropriate here.

Playing half like a hard-hitting docudrama and also a true-life sports story, Russell carefully avoids the pitfalls usually associated with these types of films by focusing with unrelenting honesty on this family feud. The boxing scenes are well choreographed and easy to follow but that probably occupies the least amount of time in this story. Music plays an important role as the action takes place in 1993 and feels like it, many of the rock soundtrack selections (including Led Zeppelin, The Scorpions and Red Hot Chili Peppers) are lifted from other eras, yet are interwoven seamlessly. As is unfortunately the norm these days, none of these songs (some of the best musical choices assembled for a picture this year) are available on the officially released album due to rights issues so enjoy them in the movie while you can. Some may take issue with the ending and that's understandable but I didn't have a problem with it since it's difficult coming up with any alternative that could have worked any better considering this is based on a true story and that's exactly what happened. It doesn't feel like a cop-out. Underdog stories about an athletes overcoming the odds have been done to death, but The Fighter isn't exactly that and deserves credit for putting a fresh spin on something we thought they ran out of fresh spins for.