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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Wrestler (****)

A couple of my favorite moments in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler – one of the best films of 2008 and the greatest pro wrestling film ever made - involve the kids who live next door to Randy "The Ram" Robinson's trailer. When he's woken up from sleeping in his Dodge Ram, Randy bursts out of the back door and “wrestles” the kids, giving one a chokeslam on the ground. Later, he invites another kid over to play Wrestle Jam on his 8 bit Nintendo. While the kid complains about how ancient the game is and baffles Randy about Call of Duty 4, Randy beats the kid in the game and invites him to a rematch. It's a perfect little moment if you understand pro wrestling: Randy beat the kid in the first match and he wanted the kid to win the rematch. The kid put him over, now he'll put the kid over. That's pro wrestling.

If Randy “The Ram” Robinson were real, I'd have seen him wrestle live probably dozens of times. As it was, I actually struggled not to call the action during the matches in the film. To the chagrin of anyone who's ever sat in the row in front of us at a wrestling show, my friends and I love to provide funny (we think) color commentary, usually quoting Gorilla Monsoon, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Jim Ross, Jerry “The King” Lawler, and Vince McMahon when he was “just an announcer” in the 80's. The Ram's dive over the top rope onto the Ayatollah deserved a McMahon-esque “Whatamaneuver!” When the Ram stuffed the Necro Butcher into a garbage can before hitting him with some guy's fake leg (which really happened in a Shawn Michaels vs. Diesel match on pay per view in 1996), it would have been a perfect time for a Monsoon-esque “That piece of garbage!” And in the final moments of the movie when the Ram's weak heart was giving out on him, but he still climbed the top rope (“Quick as a cat!”, I did joke) to deliver his Ram Jam finisher, Vince McMahon might have been heard to worriedly exclaim, “Let it be over! Let it be over!”

The Wrestler blatantly exposes the pro wrestling business. It's not the first movie to do so as exposes about professional wrestling have become commonplace since the late-1990's. To its credit, The Wrestler depicts professional wrestling with verisimilitude, especially on the level of weekend independent wrestling shows run out of high school gyms and VFW halls. It's all there, just how it really is: The audience made up mostly of grungy men, the occasional hot-looking girls, and the …how you say… retards. (With some exceptions, ahem ). The seedy-looking promoters with questionable grasps of grammar (“Two words: Re. Match.”) The backstage areas, usually classrooms or VFW lounges, populated by hulking dudes in spandex possessed of various levels of talent, most of whom will never make it to McMahon's WWE. These are, in wrestling vernacular, “the boys”. The boys have camaraderie unique in any walk of life, involving them privately deciding how they plan to make it look like they're hurting each other while doing their best not to hurt each other before they “go home” and perform the predetermined finish of their match.

The use of real-life magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated in the opening credit montage detailing Randy “The Ram” Robinson's main event-level career in the 1980's was appreciated. We are also shown in great detail how to create a razor blade, how it's hidden, and when it gets used in a match by a wrestler to cut himself (“draw color”). That moment reminded me of when Quentin Tarantino showed step by step how to freebase heroin in Pulp Fiction. Kids, don't try this at home.

Apparently, Vince McMahon screened The Wrestler privately and was said to have “hated” it. It would have surprised me more if he didn't. The story of this broken down old wrestler with a shattered family life who will wrestle until it literally kills him is not how McMahon wants his business seen by the general public. The Wrestler clashes with WWE's image of perfect, muscled physiques; men and women in their physical prime who entertain thousands of adoring fans, accompanied by state of the art lights, music, video and pyrotechnics. And yet every one backstage in WWE knows someone, or is actually related to someone, similar to Randy “The Ram” Robinson. It's a cautionary tale any professional wrestler has heard of from the “old-timers” or seen with their own eyes.

Something else McMahon might not be too crazy about is how, in the relationship between Randy “The Ram” and Marisa Tomei's stripper, The Wrestler cannily equates professional wrestling with strip clubs. The two businesses do have a number of qualities in common: In both professions, the performers use fake names and guard their true lives from their fans/clients. (There is a clever reversal where Randy, who despises his real name Robin Ramzinski, spends his waking life always trying to be Randy “The Ram” while Tomei's dream is to stop being “Cassidy” the stripper and just be Pam, full-time mom to her 9 year old son.) The Wrestler depicts the many cosmetic duties of a pro wrestler, from streaking his hair, to shaving his upper body hairless, to tanning. Wrestlers have to sell their “look” just as much as a stripper would, and sex appeal does play a large role in wrestling.

Indeed, both professions are about physically offering audience gratification, both professions tend to (with exceptions, ahem ) attract the less-desirable types in our society, and both professions are not looked upon favorably by polite society. ( The Wrestler provides a mouth piece for those who look down upon pro wrestling in Randy's boss at the grocery store, who calls his weekend passion “sitting on other guys' faces.” Meanwhile, Randy catches him watching porn on his work laptop.) McMahon presents his WWE as entertainment for the whole family the equal of anything Hollywood has to offer, but no matter how glossy WWE is (and to be clear, I love WWE) they can't escape the grimy and unfortunate aspects of their business.

There is humor in The Wrestler, such as the scene where Randy (scowling because his nametag says Robin) enjoys himself working at the supermarket deli counter, calling his ugly and old customers “good lookin'” and “spring chicken”. There is a nice laugh when Randy gives Pam a Randy “The Ram” collectors item action figure "worth $300". (“Really?” “No.”) Anyone familiar with the predilection wrestlers have of wearing T-shirts with their own names and logo on them was amused when Randy picked out a shirt for his daughter and thought she'd love it because it has an S on it. (“The S stands for Stephanie!”) I appreciated Randy's love of 80's hair metal and his loathing of “that pussy Cobain ” and the 1990's. I thought it was funny how much the Ayatollah broke "kayfabe" during the last match in the film, showing his genuine concern for his "hated" opponent. I also loved the “shopping for the hardcore match” scene where Randy and one of his co-workers hit a supermarket and look for “plunder” to use in their match.

The hardcore match itself was not funny. It was bloody and brutal, although the exchange backstage about using staple guns and mouse traps in the match was amusing. I was surprised by the gasps and shock in the theater during the hardcore match, until I remembered most people in the audience are not wrestling fans. To me, guys wrapping each other in barbed wire, getting thrown through tables, and stumbling to locker room with thumbtacks stuck to their back and ass is old hat.

I see now I've written well over 1,200 words and not mentioned Mickey Rourke by name. Rourke is incredible; delivering the year's most worthy Best Actor Academy Award performance. From years of real-life hard living, Rourke does look like a broken down professional wrestler. He amazingly performs a great deal of his own stunts in the wrestling match scenes. Most importantly, Rourke creates Randy “The Ram” Robinson from the inside-out. His attempts to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) lead to the most raw, moving moment of the film when Randy called himself “an old broken down piece of meat” and asked his daughter not to hate him. (If only Stephanie would have listened to the really good explanation as to why he missed their planned dinner date before she evicted him from her life: he met a skank in a bar, did some blow, fucked her in a rest room, and woke up in her bed surrounded by posters of firemen. It could happen to anybody!)

Rourke's Wrestler is a heartbreaking performance of a suffering man desperate for love and acceptance who defeats himself in every aspect of life except when he's in the ring wrestling in front of a couple of hundred people chanting his name.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gran Torino (***)


The strangest movie I've seen this year. In its own way, the funniest movie since Borat. Gleefully racist; in between scowls and growls, Cliint Eastwood somehow gets away with firing off every insult in the book to just about every race and creed, with special attention paid to Asians. And judging from the applause at the end, we love Clint for it. About halfway through it turns into a bizarre race/reversal of Karate Kid when Clint takes the Asian boy next door under his wing and makes him do all the odd jobs Miyagi made Daniel do, plus a bunch more Miyagi never thought of. Finally, Gran Torino dives into the crazy old man revenge fantasy it purports itself to be, then it pulls the rug out from under us. Such a weird movie, but still really satisfying.

Revolutionary Road (**1/2)


Revolutionary Road postulates an alternate reality where Jack and Rose didn't meet on the Titanic but instead got married and moved to the suburbs of New York in the 1950s. Except Jack kept calling Rose "April" and Rose kept calling Jack "Frank." Revolutionary Road is seriously damaged by the existence of Mad Men, which is a more subtle, layered take on many of the same themes of the lies, hopelessness and emptiness behind the American Dream of love and marriage in the 1950's. DiCaprio's character sometimes even alternates between behaving like both Don Draper and Pete Campbell. Kate and Leo have scenes together where they're really excellent, and then there other moments where Sam Mendes directs them up to the edge of shrill histronics, then lets them dive right over without a net. (Leo busts out the Harrison Ford Finger of Doom more than once.) There are intriguing issues regarding marriage, compromise, happiness, manliness, and the 1950's cultural image of what a perfect life should be vs. the pursuit of an ideal life free of culturally-determined burden and responsibility. There's also an interesting exploration on why married people have affairs. Some of the arguments and emotional blackmail between Kate and Leo become so uncomfortable, the audience's reaction becomes laughter just as a release to the tension. While the performances are generally terrific from the leads and the issues are intriguing, the movie doesn't end when it should and goes on ten minutes too long, filling in details that just weren't necessary. There is a built-in laugh where Kate and Leo plan to go to Paris and decide to go there by steamship. It probably would have been better for them to go out that way than remain on the sinking ship of their marriage.

Doubt (***1/2)


The few years I spent in Catholic school growing up instilled in me a healthy ...what's the word?... fear of nuns. Priests? Priests were cool (save the jokes, folks) but nuns, not so much. Nuns were the ballbreakers of the Catholic schools. As nuns from Hell go, Meryl Streep plays a doozy. And though Doubt is set in 1964, the story could have been ripped from the 6 o'clock news of just a few years ago, when sordid tales of priests tickling young boys' balls and not busting them like the nuns were rampant. Caught in the middle of the war of uncertain conviction between Sister Streep and Father Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Amy Adams, a sweet-hearted young nun in Streep's Catholic school. Perhaps the great tragedy in Doubt is how Streep's intolerant hard-assedness creeps into Adams's soul and she gets pulled more and more towards Streep's methodology. Doubt gets the details just right of Catholic school and being an altar boy. It all looked very familar to what I remember growing up. The acting is superb, though the writing and blocking is very stagey and the camera angles strangely tilt so that Doubt looks like the old 60's Batman TV show.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (****)


Natalie Smyka, star of Across the Hall, hails The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as the best film of 2008. I share her enthusiasm and I'd say it's right up there. Benjamin Button is a sweeping, ambitious film of stunning scope and depth of feeling. Far from being what I joked would be a remake of the last season of Mork and Mindy, with Brad Pitt standing in for Jonathan Winters, Benjamin Button told an unforgettable story of a boy born old and growing younger and the extraordinary life he lead from 1919 to 2003. The special effects are so seemless, the illusion of Brad Pitt growing young is completely persuasive. I found Benjamin's early years as a young/old man much more more interesting than his later years as an old/young man, though the ladies might disagree, after having to wait close to two hours to finally see Brad Pitt all handsome and strapping. Me, I liked the shriveled up, hobbled Brad Pitt who went to his first brothel at 14 but looking like he was 74. I was also more fascinated and moved by his relationships with his adoptive mother and birth father than his love affair with Cate Blanchett. And though the film loses a bit of steam in its last act and glosses over what would be annoying details regarding Julia Ormond's character, it can be forgiven. Benjamin Button is groundbreaking, epic film making. Not without its flaws, but quite grand.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Valkyrie (***)

“The last time I saw Hitler, we had dinner and laughed about it.” – Abe Simpson

The end titles of Valkyrie inform us that numerous attempts were made by conspirators in the Nazi High Command to assassinate the Fuhrer. The plot lead by Tom Cruise apparently came closest to achieving that goal. Since history records… hold on, let me look this up… the Allies won World War II (I'll be damned!), Valkyrie by its very conception immediately places itself in a situation where we march towards an inevitable conclusion where the protagonists can't possibly succeed. This different from something like Titanic; we all know the boat sinks but we didn't know if Kate and Leo would get off the boat together. In Valkyrie, there was no doubt that A) Cruise and his friends would fail and B) since this is Nazi Germany, their Nazi hearts would not go on.

Tom Cruise delivers a performance quite unlike anything he's done in the past. Donning an eye patch to cover his missing left eye, lacking a right hand and two of the fingers on his left, Cruise is a stiff-upper-lipped powder keg that never quite goes off until the end, when his one good eye is staring at the business end of Nazi rifles. Cruise never once flashes his trademark grin. He delivers his dialogue in rasps and whispers. His one moment of levity was how he recruited Eddie Izzard to the Kill Hitler Cause by dropping his fake eye in Izzard's drink.

Cruise becomes the leader of a secret cabal of the some of the finest actors in movies today, including Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkerson; all tightly-wound in their Nazi best. They're the Justice League of Germany, banded together to bring down the greatest super villain of the 20th century. Valkyrie is effective in showing that these were flawed, frightened men trying to do what they thought was right. Some of them saw the removal of the Fuhrer as an opportunity to ascend to power, others were simply trying to do what was best for the Fatherland. There's an amusing line during one of their many secret back-room arguments about how badly their plot was going; that the Allies would hardly be inclined to negotiate with them if they're already in Berlin before they got their act together. Whatever their intentions were, these men were simply not up to the task they set out for themselves, nor did it seem like they could have stabilized Germany if they had succeeded in killing their Fuhrer.

The plot itself was a crackerjack, fiendishly clever in its intricacies. Step one, the actual Kill Hitler part, involved low-tech explosives in leather satchels and basically hanging out with Hitler in his bunker. Step two was infinitely more complicated. This required Cruise and company to take control of High Command, bluffing everyone who runs panicked into their office, while tricking the SS into performing the coup and controlling the army for them.

Valkyrie's last half hour was its best, as Cruise personally dropped da bomb on Hitler and flew back to Germany to assume control of the country. Except Cruise blew it. He didn't get the job done, all the while behaving in the most suspicious manner possible. His folly becomes more exponentially more pitiful (“I saw the blast!”) when it becomes clear Hitler was barely harmed by the explosion. Then the SS figures out they were being played and the jig was up. Cruise and the Justice League watch powerlessly as all their lofty, well-meaningness comes crashing down on their heads. If Peter Sellers were alive, no doubt he would taken the same material in Valkyrie and come up with a hilarious satire. As such, Valkyrie was a comedy of errors without any comedy

Hitler himself (David Bamber) was a disappointment. If there's one bit of praise one can give Adolph Hitler, it's that he was charismatic. This is a man who gave rousing speeches that inflamed the hearts and minds of Germany to follow him in a racist, genocidal quest for world domination. You'd never know it from the way Hitler was portrayed in Valkyrie, as a withering old mope brushing the bangs from his forehead. Sure, things were going badly for him by 1944 and Hitler likely would have lacked the verve of a decade prior, but the opportunity was missed entirely to showcase why Hitler was the Fuhrer. At the end of Valkyrie, Hitler delivers one of his famed radio addresses to reassure Germany that he was alive and the plot to kill him failed. Instead of being inflamed in rage and righteousness, he sounded like grossvater offering every Nazi a piece of Werther's Caramels.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux (*1/2)


This review isn't in the Christmas spirit but Tale of Despereaux blew. I have a standing rule that I don't see any animated movies that aren't from Pixar. Broke the rule because my niece wanted to see this. Sometimes rules are made to be broken, but that rule exists for a good reason. Shoddy, awful script that needed a serious rewrite and doctoring; no way that script should have gone into production. Not a single character said anything interesting or clever and there was no one to root for. The main character Desperaux is an underwritten collection of dull cliches, and the rest of the characters were even less developed. The storytelling is as full of holes as the cheese the mice eat. Gloomy and cheap-looking animation compared to Pixar. There was no humor or joy. The mice and rats can speak but the movie plays fast and loose with when people can hear the rodents and when they can't. There's a theme involving cooking soup that Ratatouille did far better. Even the voice acting sounded trite, especially the narration by Sigourney Weaver, which at times entered Mohinder on Heroes territory for insipidness. Unless you're 6 years old, this movie sucked.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Frost/Nixon (****)


Celebrated former sitcom voiceover narrator and occasional guest star on The Simpsons Ron Howard outdid himself with Frost/Nixon. I'm just goofing on Ron, but what a great reminder of how formidable a director he can be. The 1970's setting in Frost/Nixon is persuasive and the performances in the key roles by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are two of the finest of the year. Especially Langella, who creates a tormented, fascinating, sympathetic portrait of Nixon. The interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon play like a devastating prize fight. The war of words and unlikely triumph by the underdog over the tenured, superior champion is in its own way as thrilling as a Rocky movie. We see an awkward, uncomfortable, but defiant Nixon ultimately, painfully humbled by the unlikeliest of giant-slayers. I loved how Langella's Nixon spends the whole movie mindfucking Frost, who maintains a bizarre obliviousness that ultimately benefited him. Meanwhile, Nixon is so embroiled in his guilt and self loathing that despite running rings around Frost, he provides Frost with the means to glean that historic confession out of him. (The pivotal, entirely-fabricated scene where an inebriated Nixon calls Frost and lays his soul bare was the one moment I couldn't fully buy into, though the acting is killer and cemented the similarities Nixon saw between him and Frost.) There's a brilliant runner throughout the movie about Frost's "too effeminite" Italian loafers that ends with a terrific payoff. It was also fun to see Kevin Bacon, who said in JFK "Nixon was gonna be one of the great Presidents of this country before Kennedy fucked it all up!", get to play the Waylon Smithers role to Langella's Nixon. If Josh Brolin is worthy of an Oscar nomination for W., then so is Langella. Between George W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon, I vote Nixon by a landslide.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Ruins (**1/2)


It's rare I like a gimmicky dead teenager movie but I like this one. Better than the similar Turistas; not a bad concept with supernaturally evil foliage protecting a Mayan temple from intrusive ...turistas. The four Americans and the German they followed to the ruins were above average in their behavior and relative intelligence level usually found in movies like these. Once one gets over wondering what Jena Malone is doing in this movie, it turns out the acting was also above average. I liked the kid who was studying to be the doctor incredulously stating, "Stuff like this doesn't happen to Americans on vacation!" Standout was Laura Ramsey, who I just saw seduce Don Draper in season 2 of Mad Men the other day, so it was great to see her here. The Ruins is quite all right.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Punisher: War Zone (*1/2)


At a rating of one and a half stars, the best Punisher movie ever made. There was one gag I liked: a bunch of parkour gangsters were flippy-flopping across a rooftop, and then the one in the middle gets exploded by an RPG rocket. That was fun, cheered me up for a second. War Zone is violent, yes, but it goes for the Tom and Jerry level of violence. In this movie, the Punisher can punch his fist right through a man's face. Every male character and one female cop is shot, exploded, impaled, amputated, deformed, with as much blood splurting out as the budget would allow. I'd love to see squib budget for this picture. Ray Stevenson steps in for pouty Tom Jane as ol' Killy McSkull Chest. Stevenson was awesome as Titus Pullo in Rome, but here he has nothing to play. A few dumb one liners aside, he mostly has to be stoic and shoot people. By saying next to nothing and squeezing triggers on some big, fake looking guns, Stevenson manages to out-act everyone else. The rest of the cast decided to compete in the Bad Acting Triathlon and the Iron Man is Dominic West as preening peacock turned ugly mug Jigsaw. Holy shit, was West terrible, swaggering around in a grating Italian New Yawk accent. Getting two fine actors from Rome and The Wire together in the same movie and making them perform at the caliber of 13 year olds playing the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game was a mean feat. Numerous scenes and moments are outright stolen from other superhero movies; primarily Batman (1989), including the famous "the mirror!" scene when the Joker removes his bandages. Jigsaw's clothes and demeanor are textbook Harvey Two-Face from Batman Forever. They even swiped "The World Is Yours!" from Scarface. The simple and depressing origin of The Punisher is of course touched on: Frank Castle sees his family brutally murdered during a picnic in a park for witnessing a mob hit. Castle goes insane, yet comes up with a wildly marketable skull design to wear on his chest, decides to call himself The Punisher, and declares war on the New York mob and other bad people. That's it. Apparently, this story is so powerful and important it was worth adapting three separate times into three unrelated motion pictures. (Except it really isn't.) War Zone more or less stays close to the details of the comic book; the 2004 Tom Jane starrer changed the details and moved the battleground from New York to Tampa. War Zone disavows its predecessors the same way The Incredible Hulk did the 2004 Hulk directed by Ang Lee. One doesn't need to see any prior Punisher movie to see War Zone. Also, eliminate every word after "see" and before "war" in the previous sentence.