Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Year of the Ram

I don’t know why everyone is so surprised that Darren Aronofsky was able to make a subdued character study like The Wrestler. Is this so different from Requiem for a Dream? Not really. Think about it. They’re both about people, their addictions, loss, pain, regret, and loneliness. Okay, so his films are kind of depressing, but give me depressing, aesthetically innovative, and emotionally engaging over happy-go-lucky, artistically bankrupt, and forgettably vapid any day. If you have any semblance of a heart whatsoever, The Wrestler will break it. It will make you sad. This is a tough film. But it will also make you cheer: for the spirit of Randy “The Ram,” for Mickey Rourke’s glorious victory, and for the beauty of filmmaking at its finest. The Wrestler is a film that is not easy to shake. It’s easily one of the year’s very best.

I came away from The Wrestler with a huge amount of respect and appreciation for professional wrestling. Aronofsky is so meticulous in his recreation of this world. The details are painstaking and fascinating. In fact, I’m not sure there IS another sports-based film that honors its subject so well. There is so much skill and planning involved, and the wrestlers are so dedicated to the sport and to each other. I was incredibly moved by the overwhelming sense of camaraderie that Aronofsky captures in the wrestling community.

The Wrestler is the ultimate underdog film: it immortalizes the comeback of fallen and, arguably. past-his-prime actor Mickey Rourke playing (BEING) the comeback of fallen and past-his-prime wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson. I can’t think of another role that is so inspiringly autobiographical, or if one exists at all. Randy works weekdays at a grocery store and weekends in the ring. Even though he is still wrestling, and the other wrestlers respect and admire him tremendously, it’s clear that his time has past. 20 years ago, he was on top of the wrestling world. Now, he does shows, but he also appears at fluorescent-soaked, echo-y community centers for autograph signing sessions with a bunch of busted old-timers in which barely any fans attend (but those that do adore him - see why this film is so interesting?). He takes all the wrestling work he can, and while he still has skills, I wonder if he’s being included in these events partly out of pity.

Randy gets the chance of a lifetime when he is offered to headline a major upcoming wrestling bonanza in a re-match of his career-defining defeat of his arch-nemesis, The Ayatollah. Randy enthusiastically, and gratefully, accepts, but in the meantime, after a particularly brutal match involving a staple gun, Randy has a heart attack in the dressing room and requires bypass surgery. He wakes up in the hospital to his doctor telling him that his life is essentially over. His body, ravaged by steroid use and the very real blows in the ring for so long, just can’t wrestle anymore. Hopelessly alone, Randy seeks comfort in Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper at the club he frequents, and Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter he estranged. He gives up wrestling for as long as he can, but it’s in his blood. He fights the big fight at the end. How could he not? A lot of stuff, surprising and wonderful, happens in this film; I promise I’m not giving anything away. But just in case, I’m going to refrain from doing any more plot regurgitation so that I don’t ruin the purity of the experience for you.

Darren Aronofsky confounded many people with his incomprehensible-yet-beautiful film The Fountain, including myself. But with The Wrestler, he, like Rourke, is back on top. He is truly one of the greatest filmmakers we have and, I would wager, THE most visceral. Even if you don’t understand The Fountain, you feel it. Then there’s the wrenching Requiem for a Dream, an emotional anvil of a film, and one of the greatest masterpieces in cinematic history. God, I love this man. He brings such a visual vibrancy to this story. His style is bold and distinct, he constantly takes risks, and he never compromises his startling and unique vision. He uses the camera as a character to create a sense of claustrophobic isolation. There’s this authentic, documentary-style aura about the film that transcends aesthetics. You are an active part of this world. The aesthetics, though, are astounding: the gritty and gripping cinematography by Maryse Alberti, the powerfully naturalistic and humanistic writing by Robert Siegel, the intricate and essential sound design (Aronofsky utilizes sound as well as Paul Thomas Anderson), and the soul-piercing melancholia of Clint Mansell’s score…when you factor in the acting…it all adds up to perfection.

So, let’s talk acting. WOW. Evan Rachel Wood is intensely moving as Randy’s daughter. She is one of the most gifted young actresses out there. Marisa Tomei should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She is divine. Her performance is so brave. She’s an aging actress in Hollywood portraying an aging stripper that no one desires anymore. Talk about tough. This is one of the best women’s roles I’ve seen in years. Cassidy is such a strong, compassionate character, and the fearless way Tomei throws herself into this part is mind-boggling. She has to do all of these scenes nude or mostly nude (and she looks fabulous), playing a woman who is being rejected and humiliated by scum whose money she needs. That is some SERIOUS stuff. Women today are under more pressure than ever to maintain a certain (unrealistic) body image, and I admire Marisa Tomei more than I can express for doing such a beautiful job, for the confidence and class she exudes, and for exposing much more than just her body.

Mickey Rourke. What can I say that could possibly be adequate? He’s officially back, and he IS this film. He is its throbbing, beating, bleeding heart. I could see his soul in that weary face. Like Tomei, he is brave and totally fearless. He is utterly unflinching in his commitment to this role. He’s so many different superlatives that there’s no point in me just rattling them off. They’re not good enough, even if they’re all true. The only word that I hope can come close to describing his work is “heroic.” It’s rare to care this much about a character…or an actor. Rourke IS “The Ram.” He’s so astonishingly real that I often felt physically uncomfortable, like I had to turn away from the excruciating loneliness and humiliation that he personifies so relentlessly. Mickey Rourke is primal; he almost looks like an animal. He's got this sexual aura, this rawness, that actually unnerved me at times. He's almost off-putting in the way he looks, but then he's also just a big, adorable teddy bear that I wanted to rock in my arms. I think I kind of fell in love with Mickey Rourke while watching The Wrestler. He made me weep with the beauty and genuineness of his performance. When Rourke enters the arena at the end for the big fight, I got chills all over that were so intense, it felt like my whole body was on fire. I can pay no higher compliment than that.

I’m outraged that he didn’t win the Oscar. A great injustice has been done. Years from now, people will have forgotten all about Sean Penn in Milk, but future generations will always remember and cherish Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Perhaps that’s his real award, and the greater one at that.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Thunder Blunder

Tropic Thunder is a movie about a group of self-congratulatory assholes MADE by a group of self-congratulatory assholes. This alleged comedy has been nearly universally lauded by critics and audiences. Everyone seems to think it’s the funniest thing since a kick to the groin (which, by the way, is akin to the maturity level of this movie’s “humor”). Merely imitating, or imitating with a bit more raunch, is NOT satire. If you’re looking for a humorous skewering of the big-budget war movie, skip Tropic Thunder. I mean, skip it anyway, but see Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary chronicling the making of Apocalypse Now. No, in all seriousness, Tropic Thunder is not the brilliant satire that everyone seems to think it is, and which IT thinks it is, and certainly its filmmakers and cast think it is. Ugh. Let me say this loud and clear: Tropic Thunder is NOT good, and it’s NOT funny.

Honestly, this movie isn’t worth much of my time, so I’m going to rip off the critical band-aid as quickly as possible. Tropic Thunder is about the making of the making of the making of a war movie, or something like that. At any given point, it’s various levels of real for random characters. It gets old really fast. This painfully unironic macho fest (no, this is not just because I’m some man-hating feminist) is the immature mind ejaculation of writers Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux and writer/director Ben Stiller. The predominantly male cast includes: Ben Stiller (who is actually pretty good), Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Robert Downey, Jr., Jay Baruchel (he‘s so annoying that I wanted to smack him), Nick Nolte (redefining “grizzled” and reprising his mug shot, though not unfunny), Danny McBride, Steve Coogan (wasted and irritating as Damien Cockburn - get it? teehee), Bill Hader (always funny), Matthew McConaughey (Ben Stiller’s character’s agent, goes by “Pecker” - oh, how droll), and Tom Cruise, who I will not say one snide word about, because he rocks this movie in surprising and unrecognizable fashion as chunky, angry, crude studio head Les Grossman.

So, it’s not all bad. I’ll make some concessions. The movie LOOKS good. It looks like it cost a lot of money, so that equals good, right? Sorry, that was snarky. It does look good. And the selection of music is pretty rocking. It was mildly funny and even very funny sporadically. Tugg Speedman (Stiller’s character) and Simple Jack? Hilarious. Tom Cruise is a RIOT. He should have gotten the Oscar nomination if anyone from this movie was to get one, and even then, no one deserved to get one. The cast is decent, some much better than others (Stiller, Cruise…um, thought there would be more…I guess Downey, Jr. and Black), but there are definitely some talented comedians here. However, they know it, and it’s obvious. I could appreciate the concept. I got where they were trying to go with it. And it did work occasionally. The experience wasn’t a totally miserable one. There were fleeting moments of brilliance (SO fleeting, though), which made me even more disappointed because I saw that it had potential. Too bad Stiller and company (I’m looking at you, RDJ) couldn’t put their egos aside for the greater good. They just think they’re really cool.

And come on, really? An Oscar nomination for Robert Downey, Jr.? Like that guy needs his head inflated any more. Yes, he’s a great actor, and yes, he’s really darn good here, but this performance is ultimately nothing. It’s not memorable or special. It’s cheap and wrings the hell out of a joke (Kirk Lazarus is SO method…how method is he? He’s so method that…you get the idea…GAG) that isn’t very funny to begin with. The whole movie feels that way. Everything is drawn out to the brink of insanity - MY insanity for having to endure it. Also, Jack Black is so randomly used in this movie as a heroin addict. I laughed at his scenes more out of disbelief than anything else. If all that wasn’t enough, the movie is too long, the pace is often agonizingly slow (like that insufferable climax), the narrative is disjointed, it’s one of the most self-indulgent things I’ve ever seen, and oh yeah, it’s NOT FUNNY.

The movie is a totally self-serving project. It left me completely unsatisfied. Tropic Thunder is impotent. Sorry, fellas.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

A Tale of Two Men

Just when you thought you had seen everything about Richard M. Nixon, along comes Ron Howard with Frost/Nixon making the subject all fresh and topical and, well, brilliant. I think Frost/Nixon is THE quintessential Nixon film. I scoffed when it was nominated for Best Picture, but I humbly retract. It deserves to be nominated. It’s probably the most solid piece of throwback filmmaking of 2008. When I say that, I mean that it’s just good old-fashioned storytelling of the highest order. There’s nothing particularly fancy about it; it’s just a well-made studio product. But don’t let that fool you - Frost/Nixon is one helluva film.

The decision to focus on the interviews between recently-disgraced Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and desperately-seeking-fame British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) was a stroke of genius, both on the part of screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted his own stage play, which had also starred Langella and Sheen) and Ron Howard. I don’t know about the general public, or at least my generation, but I didn’t know these interviews existed before this film.

There were four televised interviews that took place in 1977 between these two psychically similar (the connection is gloriously Shakespearean) men, both with nothing and everything to lose. Richard Nixon had just resigned the Presidency after the shame of Watergate. After he received a full pardon from Gerald Ford, people were outraged. He had gotten away with it on a legal level, and on a moral level, he slickly never admitted fault. David Frost, a British talk show host who had fallen from grace in his own way (his career was floundering; he longed for his former fame in the U.S.), marveled at the ratings for Nixon’s resignation and decided that he could revive his career by doing an in-depth interview with Richard Nixon. His producer, and most everyone else, thought he was insane. What could he, a mere “performer,” do? No one took him seriously, not even his inner circle. He didn’t have the chops or the credibility to get this project going.

And yet, somehow he did, hiding his struggles beneath a trained emcee’s gleaming smile, raising the funds at any cost, using his own money, never knowing if the interviews would ever be aired and all of his efforts would be for naught. He would have been worse off than ever had these interviews failed. David Frost wanted to elicit a confession from Tricky Dick. Richard Nixon wanted to set the record straight, to remind people that more happened during his administration than Watergate, to regain the public’s acceptance and to enter political life again. These interviews with Frost were viewed by him and his camp to be nothing more than fluff, an easy opportunity to get back into the limelight. It was a chance, the last chance, for both men. That's good drama.

The Nixon in this film is unlike any other portrayal of Nixon I have ever seen. Frank Langella plays him as half god/half mortal, a smooth operator, very powerful and intelligent and charming and funny, but also as someone who is deeply bitter and full of pain, anger, regret, and guilt. I just couldn’t believe how much I liked Richard Nixon when I was watching it. I was almost cheering for him. Both men are sort of equal parts relatable and pitiable, which makes the experience so rich. You can identify with them, and I did. The parallels between the two men are striking. It seems like their livelihoods are almost inextricably linked. They’re inversely proportionate: as one rises, the other falls, and that’s the only way it can be. This is a duel to the death. And it’s so thrilling to watch! I was riveted the entire time. It’s epically engaging.

I’m not quite sure why, but Frost/Nixon reminds me a lot of one of my favorite movies ever, Howard Hawks’ fast-talking His Girl Friday (1939). I think it’s the really great balance between humor and tragedy, and the frank tone. I just love it.

Frost/Nixon is the perfect example of how a good script serves the film, the story, its characters, and its actors. Milk could have been this good, maybe, with a better script. Peter Morgan’s witty and insightful script for Frost/Nixon is nothing short of astounding. It brings you inside the minds of these men like few things I’ve ever seen. Sean Penn can only do so much work on his own, you know? With Frost/Nixon, EVERYTHING comes together, and it’s spectacular.

The acting in Frost/Nixon is universally amazing, from the supporting cast (Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, an underused Rebecca Hall) to the main giants (Sheen and Langella). Michael Sheen has gotten a bum rap with this film. His fantastic performance has been so overlooked that it’s ridiculous. He makes smarminess seem genuine, and he guides his character through a remarkable arc that is always believable. His face is an ever-changing canvas of emotion and likeable humanity.

And speaking of canvases of emotion, Frank Langella is like Leonardo da Vinci, and his face the Mona Lisa. Holy crap is he good in this film! It’s unreal. His Oscar nomination was a given. I actually think, at this point, that he should take home the trophy. I have to see a couple performances still, but it’s going to be damn hard to top him. He’s in a league of his own. The turning point in the film is a killer scene in which Nixon makes a late night phone call to Frost. He’s a little drunk with a lot of candor. We know that these are Nixon’s deepest-buried feelings. Every word Langella utters of what is basically a ten minute monologue is palpable and rich. It’s one of the best acted scenes in the history of cinema. Frank Langella practically redefines nuance with this role.

There’s a moment near the end of the film, in the last interview, when Frost asks Nixon about the American people, and before he answers, there’s about twenty seconds of silence as we stare into Langella’s face in close-up….it’s like we’re looking into Nixon’s very soul. Watching his face in those moments of silence, I actually got chills. There is so much going on that we can read his subtle and skillful face like a map. Frost/Nixon made me want to bow down in awe of Frank Langella. It’s a mind-blowing performance for the ages.

Frost/Nixon: the little movie that could…and did. Outstanding.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I dropped a Peanut M&M, and it rolled over here...

I love you, Christian Bale, but this is too funny. And you, Family Guy, you complete me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Sunshine Valentine

For as sensitive as I am, you'd think I'd be more into Valentine's Day. I'm not terribly, and yet somehow, I find myself brimming with romantic sentiment. Shrug, I say. Shrug.

I can solve a bit of the mystery, as I know I was definitely inspired by the lovely Missa's cinematically-inclined V-Day shout-out on her amazing blog. It doesn't get much more real, beautiful, or romantic than Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise/Before Sunset.

And speaking of real, beautiful, and romantic, it just doesn't get any better than Joel and Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is the film that immediately popped into my head after the wheels o' love were set a-spinnin' after seeing the clip of Before Sunrise. Joel and Clementine...swoon.

Happy Valentine's Day, my lovelies.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

War, Tarantino-Style

We finally got our first look at Quentin Tarantino's war epic (four words I never thought I'd string together, but hey, why not?), Inglourious Basterds. It looks like so much campy fun. Saving Private Ryan, it is not, but war often gets taken too seriously in films. To me, Inglourious Basterds (the snobby speller in me cringes every time I type that title, but I sort of dig the unconventional spelling in this case) is reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven's campy, brilliant, and emotionally engaging Black Book, which I absolutely adore. I'm not sure how emotionally engaging Basterds will be, but I'm hoping it's a true return to form for the egomaniacal auteur, meaning that we will actually care about the characters doing the nutty things, unlike the vapid Death Proof. So, bring it on, I say!

Kudos to Tarantino for having the longest teaser trailer ever, clocking it at almost 1:45. The more I watch it, the more intrigued I get. I feel the cinematic adrenaline rushing through my body. To put it simply, it looks seriously badass. And oh, Brad Pitt, how do I love thee? He gets better all the time. This, for sure, is going to be the iconic performance that Coen-lite Burn After Reading should have been for him. Brad Pitt is going to end up being known as one of the greatest actors of all time by the end of his career. You'll see.

Anyway, the trailer:

You've got Eli Roth, Ryan from The Office (B.J. Novak), the only Freaks and Geeks alum yet to make it big (Samm Levine), Brad Pitt rocking a 'stache and a redneck accent (and still looking damn good, may I add) while delivering this killer monologue and OWNING the entire 1 minute and 43 seconds, Nazis, Hitler (in a hilarious trailer cameo), war, and violence galore.

I'm not sure how it will all add up, but I eagerly and glouriously await the final result. Quentin Tarantino, you basterd, you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I hope everyone is getting pumped up for Joss Whedon's new show, Dollhouse, starring long-time muse Eliza Dushku and premiering Friday the 13th on Fox at 8 pm central. I know I sound like a TV promo, but a new Whedon project is like nerd crack. And as Joss Whedon is a muse of MINE, I owe it to him to do my part to get the word out.

I don't want to jinx the show, but I have a bad feeling about the decision to air it on Friday night (TV wasteland) after the already-struggling Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In fact, I'm surprised you can't already pre-order the DVD set with all of the unaired episodes.

However, I feel hopeful as I am LOVING the new grindhouse-y ad campaign. I think whoever thought it up (I'm betting Joss had a hand in it) really knows and understands the target audience. It's spot-on.

They're going with the "double bill of hot babes" angle, and it rocks. Check it out:

Brilliant. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino would be proud (though the commercial is already better than Tarantino's Death Proof...).

Support Joss Whedon. Please watch Dollhouse. Let's give it a fighting, ass-kicking chance.