Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Wrestler

Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Viewed: In the Balcony

It would make fun reading to see a dissertation on professional wrestling in America and the place it holds in our culture. What, exactly, is going on among the world of body oil, tights, and plentiful folding chairs that makes it so appealing to certain classes of people (and wrestling, more than almost any other form of entertainment, has an identifiable class element among its fan base)? It's all strange gender roles, substitutes for sexuality and masculinity, violence, and deception - pretty much the standard buffet of themes for any half-decent postdoc in literary studies, sociology or anthropology.

For starters, it's about as low-brow an entertainment as you can fund. Most perplexing to normal adults, and a comment I heard often in my younger days as a WWF fan, is 'how you can care about something that is so obviously fake?' And it's true that there is some cognitive dissonance going on to both know the events are staged and the outcome predetermined and yet still act and care as if it were real life playing out before your eyes. But maybe it's not all that weird. Had I been a more clever child, I might have simply responded to those looking down on my cultural consumption: 'hey, you like movies, don't you?'

Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the titular character of Darren Aronofsky's moving if too-often conventional The Wrestler, is of course as much a fictional creation as any contest between The Ultimate Warrior and King Kong Bundy. It's all fake: contrived images, personae, and dramatic elements created with the intention to manipulate the emotions of the audience. But rarely, if ever, have I heard the complaint about film, literature, or art: 'how can you care about that, it's fake!'

The difference lies not in the form - violence is as common in film as the world of professional wrestling - but in the judgment of the produced emotions themselves. Good fiction - like, say, The Wrestler - leads a person to empathy while bad fiction - like, say, the WWF - leads to something like blood lust. That, anyway, is my quick guess on the matter; I'll leave it to the literature and anthropology departments to explore further.

I don't know if Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel were thinking about exploring the nature of fiction when they made The Wrestler, but fittingly the movie is at its best when it recreates the fictional world of wrestling rather than the more traditional movie ground of 'real' human relationships. Randy, apparently played by some sort of novice alien shape-shifter trying out 'Mickey Rourke', careens between the world of the 'squared circle' and the world of real life. In the ring, he is a God; in real life, a self-described 'fuck up,' and the slight dramatic narrative of the movie is driven by which life he will eventually chose.

It's the performance in the 'real world' of relationships and family that will likely gain Rourke the Oscar, but the most impressive stuff comes in the ring. In fact, a rollicking all-wrestling beginning is severely hampered by the cloying second act as Randy moves away from the ring and into the lives of two women: Pam, a stripper played by the always game Marisa Tomei and Stephanie, played by the worst actress I've seen in some time, Evan Rachel Wood.

I'll start with Tomei, whose performance, combined with the opening scene of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, leaves little to be desired. I suppose I'm not alone in thinking Tomei is just a marvelous actress with a stunningly gorgeous face, but her performance merits noting - it's not quite the transformation of Rourke's, but I'm surprised that few reviews mentioned how good she was.* In a world other than Hollywood, her role could have been fleshed out more, and we could have had a better movie entitled The Wrestler and the Stripper.

*I've since read Sean Burns's review, and (as I could have guessed) points out how great Tomei was.

Unfortunately, Randy's attentions are split, and he is forced to leave his budding romance with Pam to try to rebuild a relationship with his estranged daughter, played by the insufferable Wood. This girl simply cannot act. About half-way through the movie, after all the well-paced attention to subtlety and detail put into Randy and Pam's characters, it's near criminal to see Wood's shrieking cardboard figure. She isn't helped by the fact that the father-daughter thing seems to be added as padding or Oscar-filler, but I can't imagine seeing a more melodramatic show this side of soap opera.

Wood's performance and the general sluggishness of the second act aside, Aronofsky has made a pretty good film with a pretty damn awesome main character. If there are few of the director's quirks - those weird corpuscular closeups are gone! - there is still evidence of an excellent craftsmen. The fight scenes themselves surpass anything that's been done in boxing or sports movies, and the weird behind-the-scene world of the professional wrestler is captured in its most sympathetic and frightening lights. If Aronovsky relies a little too heavily on one shot of Rourke's back as he walks around (it seems Van Sant isn't the only American director who has been studying his Bela Tarr), he more than makes up for it in the staging of the fights, bars, and landscape of suburban New Jersey. The only real hiccup comes at the end, when the dramatic and brilliant final scene is nearly destroyed by the Bruce Springsteen tie-in song that plays over the credits.

But the film, as you might have heard, belongs to Rourke, who takes the washed-up Rocky character out of near-caricature and brings it to the level of great drama. Sean and I may be the only people who didn't realize Rourke needed a comeback, having enjoyed his work Animal Factory (Sean), Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (me) and Masked and Anonymous (both), but it's good to see him get his due. I always thought Rourke had an oddly grotesque face even back in his leading man days, but it's likely you won't get this guy's mug out of your mind for quite some time.

The time spent with Randy is detailed and deliberate, and even while doing something as basic as taking my shoes off two hours after the movie, I had a weird shudder and a thought of a faded and washed-up wrestler in the locker room, where the act of taking off one's shoes is a trial and laden with meaning. It took me a second to realize it was the movie still working on me, and just how fully realized a character Randy was. So hats off to Aronofsky, Rourke and Tomei for creating two new classic film characters. Even if they weren't real.



I couldn't help but think of Barton Fink's struggle with his first Hollywood screenplay to bring art into a Wallace Beery wrestling picture leading up to watching The Wrestler. Perhaps Robert Siegel, former head-writer for The Onion, was inspired by Barton's plight and decided to make this his first screenplay? To prove that "some fruity movie about suffering" and a wrestling picture can co-exist -- to realize what Barton Fink's movie would be?

Darren Aronofsky: "Well I think the whole line between what’s real and fake became a big theme when Rob and I were talking about it early on, because there’s this whole idea of “Where’s the real world—is it in the ring or out of the ring?” That was a main reason why Rob fought to keep the stripper in the film. I was open to changing it, because an independent film with a stripper… I was nervous about it. The more we thought about it, the more we realized the connections between the stripper and the wrestler were really significant. They both have fake stage names, they both put on costumes, they both charm an audience and create a fantasy for the audience, and they both use their body as their art, so time is their biggest enemy."

As Padraic said, these two characters of The Wrestler and The Stripper are brought so fully to life by Rourke and Tomei that it transcends the rote trappings of the aging, down-but-not-out ex-sports legend genre. But credit to Aronofsky and Siegel who aim more for Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront territory than another rehashing of Rocky's (no offense to Rocky, a fine picture, but those notes have been played to death) themes. While Stallone's Rocky could really be a reflection of any blue collar boxer casualty (in the first one anyway), Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a top to bottom unique individual. As well, the film strikes a gold mine with the scenes world of professional wrestling that is so rich with captivating material that it feels like it's been lying in wait for decades waiting for someone to discover it with a story as perfect as The Ram's.

There's a certain Hollywood subtext I couldn't shake that is certainly heightened with Rourke's well-known personal back story -- but also the general way Hollywood treats its actors, especially the female ones. Marissa Tomei is at that tough age where Hollywood basically stops producing movie's for them. People want to see pretty young things dealing with featherweight issues that the almighty 18-35 demographic can relate to. So once you hit forty you can plan on getting a nice place in New York and hope to land some good gigs on Broadway with maybe the occasional guest spot on a Law & Order. Tomei is lucky she can actually act or else she'd probably be resigned as an answer to a pop-culture trivia question like Sandra Bullock or Alicia Silverstone. Tomei's character is well-aware of this and working on back-up plans as she dances her last few nights at a Jersey strip club. And for Rourke, how is The Ram wrestling at the local rec center different from Rourke showing up in Another 9 1/2 Weeks? But like The Ram, Rourke's been giving great performances no matter what movie he's been in since the first 9 1/2 Weeks -- most recently for me, his amazing Marv in Sin City. But rather than have all this personal baggage distract from the story at hand it adds layers and makes for an even stronger statement and testament to endurance.

While I'll agree with you, Paddy, about Evan Rachel Wood being a bit of a week link in this, I couldn't help but be affected by his relationship with his daughter. I'll admit though that this probably has to do more with my own daddy issues more than the strength of the sub-plot but I did appreciate the scene when they finally do re-connect, if only for that moment, amidst the decaying surroundings of the Jersey boardwalk -- a perfect metaphor for their relationship. It is a shame though that Wood Acts! throughout her scenes while everyone else is simply reacting.

Another inspired scene I'd like to mention is the first deli-counter scene. In Rourke's attempt to retire from the ring and work a steady paying job he agrees to work the deli counter at the grocery store (managed by a surprisingly effective Todd Barry in his first substantial role I've seen him in), but he's clearly dreading having to deal with the customers. As Rourke begins his shift he's looking in the mirror, putting on a ridiculous plastic bag over his long Randy "The Ram" hair and as he makes his way to the deli we follow him as we would if he were about to begin a match. He pauses before parting the plastic curtain separating the station from the "backstage" and Aronofsky goes so far as to add in the sound of an eager wrestling audience applauding as he enters. We first encounter the worst supermarket patron, the old lady who doesn't know what she wants, and we think The Ram is going to be down for the count. But The Ram doesn't even take a knee, he slowly starts to get the hang of things and even gets a rapport with the customers going, and by the end of the day he's completely conquered the deli counter and I was cheering him on like he was taking down Andre The Giant.

The attention to detail in scenes like these are simply triumphant. As great as Rourke's and Tomei's performances are I came away with equal if not greater amazement at Aronofsky's eye. The lived-in state of everything we see is not only Aronofsky brilliantly using everything his locations have to offer but the places he creates are so perfectly put together as well -- from Rourke's taped together jacket to his arrested development trailer home with the nudie mag photo taped to the wall of his bathroom and the hilarious yet spot-on 80's soundtrack.

And as you mentioned, Paddy, the wrestling matches capture an intensity and brutality rarely captured as effectively. It's not the glorified, cinematic battles of Raging Bull or any of the other slow-mo happy films. These are clear-eyed, close-ups on a lifestyle that has very little glory to it. It's a sport that exists solely for the fans and the appreciation they can lovingly return to its athletes. And for The Ram, that appreciation, when a fan can literally give you an (fake) arm or a leg (to beat the other guy with), it's worth everything because sometimes it is better than nothing.

Unlike Mickey Rourke's strong performances in a small role in Sin City or The Pledge, his Randy "The Ram" is going to win him those real fans as this truly is a transformative performance, the kind of jaw-droppers that he was giving 20 years ago. So in a way, it really is a comeback. For Robert Siegel it's a damn strong introduction. And for Tomei and Aronofsky it's simply a reminder that if you give them the right material you'll see some of the best talent working today.



Since we agreed on so much, I’ll just follow-up on my criticism of the father-daughter relationship. I’m not sure if I should be surprised you liked it or not. On the one hand, the Randy/Stephanie stuff comes off as the kind of sentimental stuff people write when they don’t really know anything about the subject. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Robert Siegel knows as much about absentee fathers as Paul Haggis knows about race relations: that it’s an important subject and something they’ve heard or seen other people talk about.

On the other hand, this is the stuff that critics like Ebert eat up, and you generally don’t seem too skeptical about movies that try to say something important, even if it is in completely reductive and stereotypical terms. But the part with Wood just is false, and throughout the entire boardwalk scene I was looking around the theater, about to exclaim “oh, come on.It took Rourke and Tomei shooting the shit in the bar to get things back on track or I might have left. To use an apt phrase I recently heard: the Wood scenes were like someone taking a shit in my birthday cake.

It’s a fine movie with some outstanding performances, but I think there is some truth in one of the lone dissenting reviews. I don’t take the argument quite as far as Turan, but I find more truth here than in the breathless praise found elsewhere. Rourke for sure deserves it, but the movie itself suffers from some very serious and very contrived emotional manipulations; stuff I hardly notice when portrayed by Rourke and Tomei, but become stunningly obvious when Wood shows up.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Oscars and the Couch

My relationship with the Oscars is my one sorta guilty pleasure. You see, I don't believe in guilty pleasures as far as entertainment goes. If I find enjoyment in something, I don't feel guilty about it. There's obviously some something right going on. However cheesy the exterior may be, within, someone has done a good job and I can find value in that. Be it the Shakespearean undercurrent of Gossip Girl (an entire show based on the city-wide fallout of one toxic couple, brilliant!) or the way a badly conceived horror movie like Hostel 2 can still comment more on the human condition more than most movies with loftier ambitions.

It's with a cheerfully dreadful anticipation that I approach the Academy Awards telecast with every year. The kind of feeling that you might get with the approaching season of your favorite sports team who you know deep down will only crush your soul. The Academy never picks the right movie to win; often, like this year, it doesn't even nominate them. So as I do every year I make it even more potentially painful. I bet on them. And you can too with the handy-dandy Fun Pointz system found in the ballot above. Good luck.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Los Cronocrímenes (Timecrimes)

Dir. Nacho Vigalondo

Viewed: From the Balcony

Like the best, mind-blowing episodes of the Twilight Zone, Timecrimes requires a bit of a dance to review without exposing the delicious twists that lie in wait. So I'll tread lightly, but know that the best way to see Timecrimes is with little knowledge of what goes on in it's brief but densely woven hour and a half run time. But let's get into it a little bit.

Hector is doing well for himself. He's got a nice complacent belly, a loving, pretty wife and he's moving in to a big new house out in the country where he can spend lazy afternoons on lawn furniture, scoping out the woods behind his back yard with his binoculars. As he peers out on a sunny afternoon he notices a couple things... What's with that weird antennae out there? And wait a minute, what's with that hot chick taking off her t-shirt? And why isn't she wearing a bra? That last question isn't really a question the film asks, and it's not one that I asked either, just making a note there.

Of course Hector shouldn't be going out into the winding roads and paths of those woods to check on some naked lady, no matter how perfect those breasts may be. Perhaps Hector is a bit of a perv. He sure does like his binoculars after all. So off he goes and so begins a dizzying chain reaction that leads to a deadly end. But getting to that end is only the beginning. You see, Hector finds the naked lady, lying in a clearing and propped against a large stone. She does appear to be breathing. But when he gets to close to her, like his guilt manifesting itself, he's stabbed in the arm from behind with a pair of scissors, which sends him running into the woods. What happened? He pauses behind a tree and peers back towards the clearing with his binoculars only to find some guy with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head, mocking him with his hands cupped around his eyes. It's a brutally funny moment while being slightly disturbing as well, one that sends Hector hauling ass further into the woods. He comes to a flimsy chain link fence that surrounds the building producing that odd antennae. In it, he doesn't find the phone he's after, but he does find a helpful man on the other end of a walkie-talkie who leads him to his laboratory and eventually into his time machine. Yes, it gets heavy, Doc. And it only gets heavier as Hector discovers how the naked lady got there and what happened to her, who the bandaged man is and just how many Hectors he'll need to fix a really big mistake. Karra Elijalde is terrific in the lead role, wonderfully expressive as he tries to keep up with the abuse and insanity that gets progressively heaped upon him as the film races to it's end.

There are a couple similarities here to a movie called Primer that I've written briefly about in the past. But these are very surface-only similarities. Both are inspired and inspiring, low-budget, sci-fi films featuring a time-travel device at it's center. Yes, a mistake is made and things turn deadly, but isn't that always the case in a movie featuring time travel? What's blessedly different about Timecrimes is that it doesn't take an updated Visio diagram to keep track of what's going on. It rewards the viewer's attention on the first viewing -- I'm sure even further on the second but that isn't absolutely necessary as it is with Primer. And unlike many other films that venture into the loose-end happy genre of time-travel, Timecrimes sticks the landing beautifully. You're not left scratching your head -- you're left with a giant smile on your face because every one of the questions your asking yourself has been addressed in one hell of a fun ride.

It's been a long time since I've had this much unabashed fun with a film... probably going back to The Host. This is one I stress anyone to jump at the chance to see this one as it looks like it's doing a city by city release. It's wildly funny and suspenseful. It has the crazed spirit of the great late 80's DIY genre movies like Evil Dead 2 and Blood Simple -- an honest to goodness diamond in the rough that succeeds at every turn. Bravo. 2009 has some work to do to top this one. And being a highly accessible foreign film it's naturally in the works for an American remake. (sigh) But there's a rumor Cronenberg might have something to do with it so fingers crossed.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

See what winning a Couchie can do?

Shortly after winning a Best Film of 2008 Couchie for My Effortless Brilliance, director Lynn Shelton got her follow-up film Humpday picked up for distribution by Magnolia Films. Kudos Ms. Shelton and no thanks necessary -- you deserve it. Any chance this means Brilliance might see at least a Netflix release?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Paranoid Park

Dir. Gus Van Sant

Viewed: From the Couch

There was another Gus Van Sant movie released in 2008 called Paranoid Park. It has Van Sant returning to the streets of Portland and focuses on a Very Big Mistake made by a high school kid and his skateboard. It doesn't quite fall in line with his Bela Tarr phase/"Death" trilogy, there are a few lingering takes but the feel of the movie is a lot less meditative and precise and more loose and French New Wave inspired. In fact, the movie could be taken as a companion piece to Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

The story is centered on Alex, a high school kid who likes skating with his friend Jared more than hanging out with his girlfriend. First-time actor Gabe Nevins does plays Alex -- for the most part we're watching a lot of non-actors, but Nevins does a better job than most and conveys the weight Alex carries on his shoulders for most of the film. The film is non-linear for the most part. We're introduced to Alex as he's writing in a journal and in his narration he apologizes that he's writing down the events out of order. There's a detachment Alex has to the rest of the world both before and after the Very Big Mistake -- one simply reflects his age and the other is Alex being pre-occupied with the guilt and paranoia and trying to figure out what, if anything, he should do about it.

There are periodic scenes of kids coasting along and through the air on their skateboards and it makes a beautiful analogy to this ideal frame of mind for Alex. There isn't anything else to think about when you're skating. It's a perfect in-the-moment state of mind. You're not worrying about your parent's getting divorced or girlfriend drama when your at the skate park. When Jared coaxes Alex to visit Paranoid Park, a skate park with a reputation for a more hardcore breed of kids, Alex isn't sure if he's ready, if he's a good enough skater yet. But even sitting on his board and watching the other kids proves to be blissful for him. Alas, Paranoid Park does live up to it's reputation and Alex is wooed by an older skater and the romanticism of jumping a freight train which leads to an unfortunate, deadly encounter with a security guard.

From one of the opening images of Alex's god-awful penmanship, to the way Van Sant keeps parents out of focus or off in the distance of his frames and in the clipped, awkward voice of Alex's narration, Paranoid Park is seeped in the world of a 16 year old. It's an immersion similar to his peer Larry Clark's work in Kids and Wassup Rockers and made all the more effective by the always brilliant, frequently amazing cinematography of Christopher Doyle (can't wait to see what happens in his upcoming collaboration with Jarmusch). His colors always pop a bit more than anyone else and his shadows are always a bit moodier. There's frequent moments in the film where Alex is seeking isolation, often to continue his writing in the journal, and Doyle's work in capturing these sanctuaries are gorgeous.

Some of Van Sant's more adventurous work in Paranoid Park are with the music cues which range from Nino Rota work cribbed from Felini films, to The Revolts to Elliott Smith. And for the most part I think it's wildly successful except for the Smith songs. I love the Nino Rota detours. There are these wonderful moments when the film sometimes literally slows down into these almost POV shots and for a minute we're just basking in whatever feeling the song is feeding us. You can even take your pick whether these are the songs that are going on in Alex's head or the mind of the person he's encountering. When Alex gets in the car with Jared The Revolts kick in and it's a sinister minute as we watch Jared behind the wheel, from the passenger seat, in slow motion and take in his evil grin. When a pretty girl interrupts Alex and Nino Rota begins to swoon, we're caught up in it as well and it's an beautiful, ethereal minute. I'm not 100% for the repurposing of another films music, but when it's done right as Van Sant and Tarantino are capable of, it's downright transcendent. In the case of the Elliott Smith songs, it's a really hard sell for me. His music, for me, is very precise. There isn't much vagary in Elliott Smith's songs so when Van Sant tries to insert "The White Lady Loves You More" into a scene where Alex is walking away from his first run in with the police officer who's investigating the Very Bad Mistake, it just doesn't jell for me. Otherwise, Van Sant's unexpected, even playful, small music experiments work wonders and they service the film and the story much better than the similar trademarked slow-motion, cue song technique that Wes Anderson has pretty much used to death.

Van Sant wisely employs all the tools and techniques at his disposal to create a unique kind of mystery/morality tale. It's a brief story and one that unfolds in it's own peculiar way. It's ending is an open one (as he's been known to do to the frustration of some, I'm sure) but it feels right. It'll leave you wondering what it's all about -- there really isn't any lesson learned and the mystery isn't very mysterious. Slice of life tales usually don't involve cops or severed bodies. But it's an interesting story told in an interesting way. Like Larry Clark, Van Sant is giving you a window into an exclusive world, but he does one better than Clark, he gives you a window into Alex as well and it makes for a fascinating hour and a half. Even with the cops and the death, it feels real in a way that makes it a great achievement. Gus Van Sant had two great successes in 2008 and is on one of the best streaks any filmmaker has achieved.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sean's 2008 Couchies - The Miscellany

Documentary -- Man On Wire

Viewed at the Ghent Film Festival, without the aid of subtitles during the French parts, this at times stunning documentary captures the events leading up to Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between NYC's World Trade Center towers in 1974. Luckily for us there is a treasure trove of home videos and amature filming of the preparations that took place as well as the event itself. But the recreations are the real gold here. Stylishly shot in black and white the recreations add the suspense of a great heist film to Phillippe's already breathless story of how a street performer came to follow his dream at any cost and capture the world's spotlight -- if only for five minutes. Man on Wire is a loving documentary notable for its complete disregard for the elephant in the room and sticking to the story at hand which is touching, funny and inspiring.

(Runner Up: Encounters at the End of the World)

Comedy -- Tropic Thunder

I don't think the art of acting has gotten as thoroughly buggered in a movie as it does in Tropic Thunder (only the Ricky Gervais series Extras does a better job). Ben Stiller's film brings together a group of actors who are narcissistic to the point of delusion and dropped in the middle of Cambodia in an effort to save a failed war movie. Robert Downey Jr. is amazing beyond reason as the actor who stays in character until the DVD commentary is finished (and yes, the DVD commentary is hilarious). Jack Black even has one of the funnier scenes as a strung out junkie who ends up offering oral sex to anyone who will help him out. And as with Stiller's Zoolander, there's great attention payed to the every detail and brilliant bits in even the smallest of moments, especially Nick Notle's guilt ridden on-set advisor.

(Runner Up: Forgetting Sarah Marshall)

Horror -- Funny Games US

Runner Up: Stuck

I can't say for certain that Stuck falls into any specific categories. It could also be described as a exceedingly dark comedy or a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. But in a somewhat unfortunate way, it starts out one way and ends smack dab in the Horror category. I shouldn't expect the movie would stay to stay in stark reality but the ending betrays its true story origins as a morality tale involving a quasi-homeless man being struck by a car and the driver leaving the man stuck in the windshield to die. As told by horror auteur Stuart Gordon, the lessons are learned the hard (and often bloody) way. The laughs don't come easy but thanks to an impressive cast including Stephen Rea as the stuck man, an under appreciated Mena Suvari as the irresponsible driver and a frequently funny Russell Hornsby as her hapless and helpless boyfriend, the movie never strays too far off target. It's a nasty little thriller with a sharp head on its shoulders that should be endorsed by the Good Samaritan society.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rachel Getting Married and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Don't get me wrong, I hate people that make proclamations and insinuations on films they haven't seen. It's right on top of the worst things a person who talks or writes about films can do. No, I have not seen Slumdog Millionare and really shouldn't say anything bad about it. There's every (slim) chance it really could be the best movie of 2008. But be it bad advertisement or whatever reason, it's low on my list of films I need to catch up on. High on that list is Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married and David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Rachel Getting Married doesn't focus so much on Rachel. Like Margot at the Wedding, the sister of the bride shows up and demands the spotlight. The similarities though, pretty much end there. Rachel's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) is getting a weekend pass from her rehab facility to reunite with her family for the weekend wedding cerimony. The reason(s) why Kym is staying at a rehab facility make for some of the great revelations of the movie. Kym is happy to announce early and often to anyone and everyone that she's drinking tonic water and giving out appologies while everyone else (except a friend of the husband and unexpected fellow NA attendee) is drinking wine and giving out blessings to the happy couple. Kym's need for attention is mostly her desire for pity but also her need to show how much her battle with her past consumes her.

Anne Hathaway is just as great as you've no doubt heard. She deserves her accidentanly pre-announced Golden Globe tonight. The film gives her character these great reveals, what was this car crash about? Who is Ethan? We discover these answers through her and as the film goes on, and as revealing as those answers are, she continues to walk the line between sympathetic and pathetic -- never giving over to the temptation of shmaltz.

If Jonathan Demme has a autuer touch it's that in every one of his films, in one way or another, America is being represented in its multi-cultural best. There's definitely some shots, like the character talking directly into the camera, that you can spot every once in a while, but his take on America is very much his own. This melting pot view is apparent in my favorite movies of his (Something Wild and Married to the Mob) but never so much so as in Rachel Getting Married. Rachel, a thuroughly white woman, is getting married to Sidney, a black man played by Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of TV on the Radio. He plays a musician in the film and this interracial marriage couldn't be less of an issue to any character or plot point. In fact if anything it's being celebrated. The ceremony is an multi-cultural influx and perhaps the most badass wedding ceremony ever -- with Neil Young being recited, Robyn Hitchock noncalantly performing, Brazillian drumming, and a killer DJ doing the recpetion. This perfect syncronicity of everything America coming together is downright too perfect but yet I couldn't help but be overjoyed to the point of tears. This is what it's like when everything in America clicks into place. No doubt that there will be issues -- recovering addicts, divorced parents and sibling rivalries -- but these things are all universal issues.

I have this notion that Jonathan Demme has made it his life's work to film America with such a race-blind eye so that maybe it might catch on and people will see what America is really all about. No other director from the states is doing what Demme does nowadays. I salute him and the wonderful movie he made. It definitely would have been mentioned in the 2008 roundup.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button however has a few too many flaws to overcome, try as it might. I can't help but take into consideration the film's scope and it's lofty themes. I can tip my hat to David Fincher for his ambition but unfortunaltely the movie fails to connect for a number of reasons.

The movie takes it's name from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that can be read here. I've read it numerous times while at work when things slow down. It's a perfect story for a lunch break or waiting for the clock to hit 5pm. But aside from the title and a few charater names, the movie is it's own unique beast. The Fitzgerald story deals with the birth of a fully grown old man who ages into a child. At close to 3 hours the film tells the tale of a baby born with arthritis, bad eyes and ears and at death's door who grows into an adult and then back into a baby. Different stories. But I can understand. I mean, the reason that Fitzgerald's story has taken as long to get to the big screen has been due to the peculiarity of the source matierial and how best to translate it to the screen. I'm usually not one to complain about the details lost in translation but in this case, it does bother me a bit.

One important flaw is that the movie tries to make itself a fable while at the same time teather it soundly to the real world -- even giving it the structure of being told by a woman on her death bed whlie hurricane Katrina is pounding away outside. We're told Benjamin's birth is tied to a clock that counts backward (by a blind clockmaker as a gesture to try and bring the WW1 troops back home) -- not in the FSF story in case you were wondering -- but makes his birth as real as possible. In the story he's sitting in the delivery room complaining of inapropriate clothes and already world weary. Specifically, the child in the story grew young in every sense, born with an old man's mind. Whereas the child in the movie grows young only in appearance, born with a normal child's mind, and grows from a wrinkly baby into a normal looking child with Alzheimer's. Yes, it's a completely different story. But it's not one without some interesting themes of it's own -- why it couldn't have been released under a different name and left the Benjamin Button story for someone else to take a more literal crack at it, I don't know.

So we have a wrinkly baby that grows up in a retirement home as a small man in a wheelchair with an 80 year old body (and a CGI'd Brad Pitt face) on a seven year old fame who plays with toy soldiers (unlike the man-child in the story who didn't approve of the toy soldiers an instead prefered flipping through Encyclopiea Brittanica). He meets Daisey, to be played by Cate Blanchet, and they both get along because they're the only children in an old-folks home. Their relationship will of course span generations and test the limits of love.

The CGI work is practically flawless, but at times it can prevent you from really connecting with the film. And while there are fantastic moments in the film, this isn't the kind of movie where a handful of fantastic moments can save it from occasional tedium. For one it's nearly 3 hours long, for another it's story isn't exactly unpredicatble. Its themes of love vs. mortality are told in an original and entertaining way but aren't exactly as impressive as the small moments of a young Benjamin quickly going throught the begining and end of his first sexual romance (with a once again great Tilda Swinton) and encountering deadly action on the seas during WW2. The supporting players are great -- as is Pitt, but the actors aren't given more than these small moments to really excell in. It doesn't build to much more than what you expect. But to the film's credit, even though you can see where the story of Benjamin's life is going to lead to, it still packs an emotional punch. How much of that hit is earned is a good question.

Being that the film comes from the writer of Forrest Gump, comparison's are inevitable. Even if it were two different writers, they'd be forthcoming. We watch a lifetime through the eyes of a rather simple person. Benjamin, like Forrest, isn't a deep man. He has simple desires and much of his good fortune falls in his lap. The film even has a version of the "box of chocolates" saying in "you never know what's comin' for ya." Benjamin Button to it's credit has a good deal more to say about the heartbreak and futility of life than Gump did. The love story between Benjamin and Daisey is more potent and oddly more realisic. In fact, the story of a backwards aging person is far more realistic than Gump. But what cuts to the bone the most are the notes of quiet amazement for the best and worst life has to offer, sometimes in the same scene. When Benjamin takes his dying father to watch the sunrise over the ocean rather than die in his sleep, I've never quite come as close to smelling the salt air in a theater before.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sean's 2008 Couchies - The Movies

Sean's 2008 Couchies - The Movies

To be certain, there's some quality film I'm sure I missed this year. The Visiter is being shipped from Netflix this morning, Let in the Right One In and The Wrestler only just arrived over the past couple weeks, and well, I'm not going to dwell on excuses (Wendy and Lucy still hasn't shown up around these parts!). There just comes a time when the Couchies must be given out and I've got my pick so let's do this.

I've come the conclusion that I do indeed think this year was a bit lackluster. If it weren't for the Boston Independent Film Festival, I would say it was downright no-luster. Or maybe I've become a bit jaded. I mean, a film that virtually everyone is raving about, Slumdog Millionaire, doesn't interest me in the least. And I have nothing against Danny Boyle, but if some convoluted rags to riches tale is what passes for the apex of excitement in what is supposed to be the prime-time film season than it must be a sign that all the real surprises are waiting for next year. Which is good, because next year I'm planning on attending the Toronto Film Festival, so I'm hoping for a killer line-up.

That's not to say there weren't some winners. Some fun was had tweaking genre conventions this summer. The Dark Night, Wall-E, Pineapple Express and Burn After Reading turned out to be great, dark, subversive entertainment that were highlights in a year otherwise filled with predictable fare. The Dark Night proved once and for all that source material that comes from your local comic book shop can be just as, if not more, relevant than any other source with Wall-E proving the same for cartoons. Pineapple Express proved that a movie about a couple stoners doesn't have to be dumb but it can be funny and brutally violent in equal measures. And Burn After Reading proved that while the Coen Bros may be the premiere film noir directors of our time, they are still first and foremost happily bug fuck crazy. I suppose you could argue that no one expected Indiana Jones to have to escape from an underground alien spaceship, but no one expected Speilberg to shoot a globe-trotting movie entirely in his backyard either. But let's get to the real magic...

Harmony Korine could have filmed his beautifully disturbed Mister Lonely just about anywhere and still have generated the uniquely touching impact his film has -- I do think he's that good. But by going to the cliffs of Scotland, the movie touches the ether and achieves that surreal dream-like quality all the better. A singular film experience which I'm sure was inflated by the packed house and following Q&A at the BIFF but nonetheless soars (like a nun falling from a twin engine plane piloted by Werner Herzog) above most other films this year in terms of pure cinema. While the story may be something in need of repairs, Mister Lonely features images and moments that have stuck with me through the year like no other film.

Milk is an excellent story, and I doubt anyone could have told it better than Gus Van Sant did with Sean Penn. While it might sadden some fans to see Van Sant take a break form his more avant-garde recent track record, I think it's a story that benefits from the more conventional approach that he took. Van Sant has been making "based on a true story" films since Drugstore Cowboy in the 80's and his recent trio of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days were all elegant interpretations of true stories and benefited from the approach he took. Milk, with a larger, less inward leaning story, also benefits from the fairly more conventional approach he took. It's an Important Movie and I can't fault a filmmaker with wanting to make an Important Movie highly accessible. At the same time, there's a great amount of singularly Van Sant mise-en-scene and an attention to the grey areas of Harvey Milk that a lot of other directors would have tried to clear up. While we spend all of our time with Harvey, except when he's dictating to his tape recorder, we are viewing him through other people's eyes which makes it perhaps the most honest biopic possible since that's all the filmmakers had to go on -- other people's accounts. We don't try to clear up his contradictions or mull over his bad decisions or try to paint him in some inscrutable, larger than life, glowing light. Milk is a great achievement so filled with pitch perfect acting that it lands high on the list of the best movies of the year.

But the Couchie goes to:

The top honor goes to My Effortless Brilliance. A movie that in many ways lives up to its name. The improvised dailog and the deliberate pace so perfectly lull you in to this uncomfortable weekend in the woods between estranged friends that you're completely taken off guard and can't help but feel the honsety of what's in front of you. Many people, especially men, can relate to Dylan and Eric who want to heal old wounds, but don't know how; who want to appologize but would rather just put it behind them than actually say the words. It's a story so simple yet devestatingly profound. Yet, the movie is completely lacking in pretension and so amiable in it's search for this tiny nugget of truth that I was completely won over and very rarely feel such a close assotiation with a film as I did with My Effortless Brilliance. There isn't a false note, a bad line of dialog or a meaningless moment in this film -- it's the perfect film of the year. Lynn Shelton, the director and co-writer who really deserves as many kudos as she can get for co-ordinating this film with such a male-centric story with the required gentle touch and results that appear so, yes, effortless. Though I'm sure effortless is the last thing the long process of completing a no-budget labor of love film could be called.

Sean Nelson as Eric, trying to re-connect with the friend who dumped him and Basil Harris as Dylan, the friend who still thinks Eric is an asshole but is willing to see where the weekend goes are extraordinarily refreshing actors. Both are brilliantly deadpan in the funniest moments and have great chemistry together. It doesn't take more than a few moments of Dylan and Eric sitting across from one another to fully believe in their relationship. And there's is a relationship so perfect in it's dysfunction, so relatable and geniuine that somehow it's rarely the sole purpose of a film and yet their story beautifully fulfills that role in My Effortless Brilliance. What more does a film need than the importance of two friends coming to terms with one another?

I love this film and The Independent Spirit Awards are dead-on for giving Lynn Shelton a special award for the film. I can only hope it provides her with more distribution money in the future so that more than just a couple cities get to check out her next film.