Journal Logo

Turrisi Takes on the Movies

Movie reviews of interest to cancer specialists by a radiation oncologist and film buff

Friday, March 25, 2011

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams. Directed by David O. Russell;  Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson; story by Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, and Keith Dorrington. Rated R, 115 minutes

While there is a certain formulaic expectation of fight movies, no two are the same, and few are as much about the fight as it is about what makes the fighter fight.  We can go from Raging Bull to Rocky to Million Dollar Baby.  Last year’s The Fighter, which won multiple Academy Awards, is quite a good one, and calls up a Greek drama, starting with the epic efforts by Mark Wahlberg to get it produced, to the sterling performances of Christian Bale as the quirky crackhead and heroin-tooting brother, Dicky Eklund, and finally the harpy mom, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo). 


Dicky and his seven sisters, who serve as the Greek chorus, are Eklunds; only Micky is a Ward. Dicky famously fought Sugar Ray Leonard, who appears in a cameo, and perhaps knocked him down before losing. In the aftermath, Dicky splits his time between a crack house and bar room as a hero to grimy, lower-middle-class Lowell, Massachusetts. The production took years and stumbled through a variety of directors before settling on David O. Russell, who previously worked with Mark Wahlberg on I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings.


Tough Boston haunts are familiar to Wahlberg, and skirting propriety and class are in his roots. He has been criticized for Micky Ward here as a hero without heroism, a void of a character without moral compass against the anti-heroes of his brother Dicky and his mother, who throw him to the wolves. Dicky’s bartender girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams) wears midriff-exposing garb as she pulls beers from the tap, sets up shots, and absorbs vulgar stares and comments from the denizens with vacant lives utterly without hopes or heroes.


As with Million Dollar Baby, the fighter’s family is predatory and venal. Christian Bale lost 30 pounds for The Fighter and looks gaunt and jittery as a cocaine fiend; he has temporalis wasting but is still shown running without getting breathless. He remains absorbed with his past, and glories in the memory of his fight with Sugar Ray Leonard -- real or imagined. 


The plot is drawn from a true story of the Eklund/Ward half-brothers, including bouts with the now-murdered Arturo Gotti. Dicky’s addiction and ego are not suppressed as he attempts to manage and train his younger brother. His drug-hazed life causes him to be chronically late. His management advice along with his viperous mother, utterly in his thrall, add up to no concern for Micky’s safety and welfare, but play him for the sucker to fund the family of hangers-on. 


Charlene steps in as a foil to the malicious family, and sets the ultimatum with his fight managers: we will find you opponents, but you must jettison Mom and Dicky. In attempt to fund an alternative, Dicky schemes to pose as a cop after entrapping would-be johns and then rolling them.  When the real cops show up, the ensuing chase leads to Dicky’s arrest and Micky’s hands are broken in the scuffle, threatening both of their futures.


Micky’s career takes a turn upward when he escapes the misguidance and malfeasance of family “help.” Dicky does time, and HBO makes a documentary, originally planned as the story of his comeback, instead shows him as a crack head and prison king pin. The pathos is obvious even to the hardened inmates and hard-hearted family, from the mother and seven harpies, to Micky’s ex, who poisonously wants his daughter Kasie to see the sorry state of her famous uncle Dicky.


David Russell’s direction shines light on the performances of Bales, Leo, and Adams, and keeps Wahlberg’s performance of Micky intentionally muted. The dramas of the fight story, the crack-head brother, and the dysfunctional family play a volley of interests, with Micky making some odd choices that work. The acting is laudable, with Bales’ performance excellent in its depictions of a manipulative drug addict, and Leo’s outstanding failure of deluded matriarchy and self-justification amplified by the Greek chorus of vulgar and vituperative daughters with colorful nick-names and mindless complicity.


There is redemption and resolution in this popular movie that I think has been misunderstood by some. It is directorial strength and personal triumph for Mark Wahlberg to shine the light on the sterling performances, and stand quietly in strength rather than upstage those performances. Mark Wahlberg has journeyed far from his native Massachusetts and his billboard role in Calvin Klein briefs.


The movie’s extras include many locals, and as well as Eklunds undoubtedly getting a pay day on brother Micky but only because of Mark Wahlberg. You will thrill for Micky, and wonder at his blind devotion. See if there is truth and virtue in this passive pugilist who tries to redeem himself, his brother, and the entire family.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder. Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin. Rated R, 108 minutes


Everything is beautiful at the ballet, or so the song goes about the escape from a less fairytale life to a Chorus Line.


The soaring music and classic ballet of Swan Lake is the tableau of this tale that runs the gamut of a simple story of the good White Swan paired against the malevolence of the Black Swan. 


For those not familiar with it, the back story of Swan Lake is a bit mysterious:  Siegfried, celebrating his 21st birthday, stumbles on a pond with swans, one with a coronet. His mentor, Von Rothbart, has cast a spell on the entire herd of swans, who are really enchanted girls, with the pond composed of the tears of their parents. Siegfried, unaware of Von Rothbart’s dark side, falls in love with the beautiful white swan, Odette.


Von Rothbart’s beautiful daughter, Odile, is disguised as a black swan, who seduces Siegfried.  When danced, the roles of white and black swan are commonly danced by the same ballerina. 


Von Rothbart’s spell makes Odette a swan by day, but woman by night -- thus Siegfried can see her as a woman. 


Tchaikovsky is said to be the first symphonist to construct a ballet, and was an admirer of Delibes and Drigo, ballet composers of the day. 


Darren Aronofsky directed the critically acclaimed The Wrestler, which brought Mickey Rourke an Oscar nod in 2008.  The story of struggle has echoes of that one, with the ugliness of a wrestler who abandoned his only child and romances a pole dancer, comparable here to the obsessive devotion of a mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey) to her daughter Nina’s (Natalie Portman) obsession with perfection.


Heavy makeup masks the beauty of Barbara Hershey, the only woman to have been twice cast by Martin Scorsese in a major role (The Last Temptation of Christ and Boxcar Bertha). 


Nina and Erica share an upper Westside apartment, and the movie opens with her in a casket of pink satin, and a room filled with stuffed pink animals.  She is tackled and stifled rather than tickled pink into a little girl’s world.


The ballet company is ruled by the aristocratic Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel), the literal king who commands that they will re-do the classics this year and need to re-cast the role with a new star, an act of utter humiliation to the principal ballerina, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), who then declares her retirement. 


LeRoy tells Nina that her virginal and child-like purity make her the ideal White Swan, but the question is whether she can conjure up the seductiveness and carnality to be the Black Swan. 


We can track Nina easily by her flocked pink coat, as she furtively spies a new dancer on the subway. She exits at Lincoln Center, and the new girl misses the stop. 


Nina tries out for the part fervently, but we notice a crop of what seem to be vesicles on her shoulder -- later worsened to deeper self-inflicted excoriations.


The new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), bursts in late, interrupting Nina’s tryout, which was going weakly. The triple entente of mother and older and younger rivals, as well as the demanding and pressuring expectations of LeRoy, who presses Nina about intimate details of her life, set the stage for the inevitable pressure. 


LeRoy hectors and bullies her and tries to steal a kiss, but she bites him.  Adding to the tenseness, her cell phone constantly rings, lighting up with “Mom.”


Portman took nearly a year off before the film to study the rigors and athleticism of ballet.  The details of the curing of the ballet shoes, the stretches, the positions, the pain, the consummate emersion into the task are real, and echoed in Nina’s bath -- she submerges herself and finds drops of blood. 


This is not just an excursion into competition and rivalry, or the beauty of the ballet, but also a psychological thriller with uncertainties about who is good, what the quest is, and who exactly is a rival. 


Nina endures being called a whore, suspected of sleeping her way to the role of a lifetime. Mommy Dear gets a perfect cake with strawberry crème icing and large pink roses that Nina cannot stomach. When it’s rejected, it seems aimed for the trash, when Nina cajoles mommy into saving it from the dust bin.


Lily is the perfect vamp and counterpoint to Nina’s fairy princess.  She is from San Francisco, free and uninhibited – her back is streaked with lightning-bolt tattoos declaring her unconventionality. 


She seems the natural choice for the role; but oddly, LeRoy picks the unlikely one. 


Winona Ryder’s Beth is pitiful as well as spiteful, and then suicidal. Erica hovers and dotes, controls and obsesses on her pink-struck child, who forced her to abandon her own career in the ballet corp.. Who is Nina’s opponent?


The pas de deux between Lily and Nina is more intense. Nina’s childlike persona and inexperience seems a vulnerability to the worldly Lily, not so delicate a flower. Is she a venus flytrap or a delicate rose? Is her invitation to friendship and fun sincere or a ruse?


Benjamin Millepied (David/Siegfried) is indeed a real life dancer, principal at the New York City ballet and formerly of the Paris Opera.  His name, odd for a principal dancer, means one thousand feet.  He is the choreographer for the movie, but uncredited for that work. He and Portman are now engaged and she is expecting their baby.


The movie skillfully turns on dreams and imaginings -- or are they hallucinations?  Nina strives to be perfect, but slowly psychologically begins to unravel, spinning, spinning, spinning, out of control, out of touch.


Portman is spellbinding in her portrayal, as a little princess, as a woman not ready for the choices required, but completely willing to drive herself to oblivion, as Odette and Siegfried were driven into the lake.


The forces pressuring performance perfection, the malediction of misdirected mentorship, and the pitting of good versus evil, internal versus external, propel Nina and the viewer through this amazing movie, which also has stellar performances by Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Vincent Cassels. 


Is psychopathology imposed by others? Can you tell the demons to behave? I anticipate that Ms. Portman, already a Golden Globe winner for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama, will also be in contention for an Academy Award.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek , and Lucas Black.  Directed by Aaron Schneider; Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. Rated PG-13, 103 minutes

People who withdraw from society and retreat to solitude are often thought to be either crazy or saints. They have secrets that they often take with them to their graves. 
The story behind this movie, allegedly drawing on a true episode of 1938 Tennessee, has won praise for its beginning and criticism for its shortcomings. Both the director, Aaron Schneider, and one of the co-writers, Chris Provanzano, have worked in TV, but the other writer, C. Gaby Mitchell, wrote Blood Diamond, and Robert Duvall has executive produced as well as carried this movie from its highs to its lows as its star.
We open on a windy night with flames licking at the dormers of a frame farmhouse, gaining energy, engulfing the building, when something--is it debris or a person?--falls from the far gable. Sometime later a boy cracks a window pane, and then scurries to a barn like a varmint. A shot rings out. Is this the same house? 

The boy is confronted by a frightening vision of a man with wild hair and beard carrying a shot gun, and the miscreant petrified youth reflexively vomits. The scraggly old man (Duvall’s character, Felix) pounds into the ground at the property border a neatly lettered sign: “No Damn Trespassing; Beware of Mule.”  He then receives the local preacher announcing the death of a friend and invites him to the funeral.

As he meanders aimlessly through the cemetery to pay his respects, pausing briefly to stare at an older grave with fresh daffodils, I was reminded of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”: 

"I wander’d lonely as a cloud; That floats on high o’er vales and hills; When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils."

Felix hooks up the mule to his buck-board of what must be rural western Tennessee. He goes to town to speak to the preacher about organizing his funeral, recognizing that his time to “Get Low” is nigh. The preacher is not enticed by a wad of cash, but the idea of organizing a funeral and having a funeral party has been hatched. 

The local undertaker--Bill Murray’s character, Frank Quinn--muses that the funeral business can never fail, but that the people around there just won’t die.  His second in command, Buddy, was in the church and recognized that they had an opportunity with Felix Bush. (Seeing this brought me back to my own family burial rituals: The Quinn funeral home on Park Avenue in East Orange, NJ, was for the Irish, like my grandparents, Tom and Margaret Carney; whereas, the Italian funerals were at Ippolitos in Orange, near the Mt. Carmel church and St. Mary’s Hospital ,where I was born).

Felix returned to his mule and rig to receive the taunts outside Lou’s café, whose proprietor shoos him away but physically threatens him. Felix throttles and knocks him down, and we see that he is loathed, feared, and hated, but no one knows exactly why. He’s a recluse on his own, and society has filled in the blanks with their own versions of made-up reality. He’s known for being ornery and quick-triggered: his reputation grows, but the loose-lipped gossip amplifies anecdotes into verities without needing evidence. 

Mattie Darrow, played by Sissy Spacek, was Felix’s love interest years ago, but she moved to St. Louis to marry a doctor. When he died, she returned home, and visiting Felix finds an old photo--Is it her? It strikes a troubling chord and sounds the tone of mystery.
Robert Duvall’s storied career began with his 1963 portrayal of “Boo” Radley, another bogeyman holed up in his house and rarely seen. Duvall’s acting is intense and admired, his performances filled with quirky tics and halting to raging dialog. His performance here animates the movie.

Recognizing death knocking should be familiar to every oncologist. Surprisingly for our death-denying society, this movie tackles mortality with a mixture of seriousness and absurdity with more of the emphasis on the former.  Duvall is known for his mannered performances and quirky cadences of speech, and his plays these with virtuosity. Felix may be a riddle to most, but he has more humanity than he is given credit for.

Those living long lives always have stories. Rarely do we savor the lives our patients have lived, learn where they come from, and why did they come to where they are. There are no RVUs for finding out whether they came from Paradise Valley or Albany Georgia, or even how to properly pronounce that.

The unlikely next chapter in the movie is a drive to Southern Illinois to meet the Reverend Charley Jackson, a thick-set, white-collared black preacher who knows all of Felix secrets. His beautiful chapel of handhewn wood was constructed lovingly by Felix. I wondered how Felix and Charley, a white man and a black man, bond in the turn of the century when this was surely forbidden? Did he seek redemption in his craftsmanship? Did he seek God or Jesus where he was least expected?

 But not only were they friends, they were intimates knowing each other’s secrets. Felix begins to get cold feet about having the funeral party where everyone would tell their stories about him. His dark secret needed to be told. Could he have the guts to do it? Would Charley be better at it? Since a great deal of money had been accumulated to buy the raffle tickets for his land, both Frank Quinn and Buddy had more than a passing  interest in the funeral party taking place, and Felix seemed to be backing out.

The movie purportedly is based on a true story of a man wanting to attend his own funeral party. The themes of guilt and devotion, forgiveness and redemption echo through the thicker gothic portion of the movie.  Can we trade a life of sacrifice to atone for sins real or perceived? Can we earn forgiveness by our actions or is it grace bestowed despite our unworthiness?

A self-sentenced exile, a torrid lost and forbidden love, and a need to set the record straight before breathing a last breath all energize and animate this movie.

Robert Duvall’s performance at age 79 must spring from a source close to home, but his ability to humanize this feral recluse to a sympathetic, credible, and loving character requires magic. Death is not only a reality, but an opportunity to finally make sense of a life’s long journey of suffering brought quietly to an end. See it and see how.

"For oft when on my couch I lie; In vacant or in pensive mood; They flash upon that inward eye; Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills; and dances with the daffodils."