Posted by mike in Entertainment,Film,Predictions at 3:43 pm on February 21, 2009

Despite my sometimes less-than-stellar track record, I continue to find it fun to make predictions in public. I think this year is pretty easy to call (hint: Slumdog is going to win a shitload of awards, and deservedly so), but that remains to be seen, of course. Below are my predictions for who will win, as well as my personal choices if it were up to me to decide the winners (the “should wins,” if you will). We’ll see if I do better than I did last year (and at the very least, hopefully the format of this post is more clear than last year’s). I realize that a lot of this is redundant with my previous 2008-in-summation post, but this one is specifically geared towards the Academy Awards.

Category: Best Picture
Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
My Pick: Slumdog Millionaire
I can’t really see this category going to any other nominee, although if I had to name a dark horse, I think Milk might have a chance in always liberal, always happy to make a political statement Hollywood. Don’t count on it, though.

Category: Director
Prediction: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
My Pick: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Though I’ve not seen it, I would not be surprised if this went to David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. My money’s still on Boyle, though.

Category: Actor
Prediction: Sean Penn, Milk
My Pick: Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
There are three really outstanding performances in this category (the two listed above, plus Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler), one that was as much special effects as it was acting (Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button), and one that’s the indie darling that probably not enough voters have even seen for it to have a shot (Richard Jenkins in The Visitor). I think it’s nearly a toss-up between the “big three,” with my personal preference being for Langella’s heartfelt portrayal of Nixon, because I think it was the most difficult to pull off, but again I think that the Academy might prefer the more topical and politically-charged Penn role (and he’s certainly deserving).

Category: Actress
Prediction: Meryl Streep, Doubt
My Pick: I have to abstain, due to not having seen 4 of the 5 films
I think this is basically a two-horse race between Streep and Kate Winslet, and it could go either way.

Category: Supporting Actor
Prediction: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
My Pick: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
I think this is as much of an Oscar lock as there’s been in a long time. I do love RDJ’s performance in Tropic Thunder, though.

Category: Supporting Actress
Prediction: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
My Pick: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
The dark horse potential surprise pick here is Viola Davis for her incredible single-scene performance in Doubt, but I think I’d rather see one of the two I’ve listed here take it. They’re neck-and-neck in my book, too, but the buzz has seemed to be centering more on Cruz, so I think that’s what the Academy will go with.

Category: Cinematography
Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
My Pick: The Dark Knight
Benjamin Button might have a real chance in this category as well, if for no other reason than the fact that it might be the most visually ambitious film of the year. While I don’t think that Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog) would be undeserving, I really thought that Wally Pfister (TDK) broke some new and impressive ground.

Category: Original Screenplay
Prediction: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
My Pick: Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
Though I really think that In Bruges deserves at least some recognition, I could see this category going a few different ways. Mike Leigh wouldn’t surprise me too much with a win here for Happy-Go-Lucky (though, from the accounts I’ve heard, he wouldn’t be too happy to accept it, believing his film to be more of a collaborative, improvisational writing effort). We shouldn’t overlook the originality and biting social commentary of WALL-E, either, which I could see being rewarded here as well as in the Best Animated Feature category. I think this is another chance for the Academy to recognize Milk, though, and they’ll likely embrace it.

Category: Adapted Screenplay
Prediction: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
My Pick: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
I’m having a really hard time imagining any of the other nominees winning this category, but I think if I had to pick a dark horse it’d be Doubt because of the tight, dialogue-heavy script. I wouldn’t be betting against Slumdog here, though.

Editing: Editing
Prediction: Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire
My Pick: Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire
Lee Smith (The Dark Knight) might have a slight chance here, but really what this comes down to is the fact that this is Slumdog‘s year, and rightfully so. It was the most visually interesting, the most polished production, and the most effective storytelling of the year, and I think (along with pretty much everybody else) that it’ll be rewarded handily.

While I don’t think this was nearly as strong of a year as 2007 was, I do think that this should be a good Oscars ceremony, not only because it sounds like it’ll be a bit unique, but also because I look forward to seeing a celebration of Danny Boyle, one of my favorite filmmakers of recent times who is long overdue for some recognition and looks to be primed to finally receive some in spades.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 3:50 pm on February 20, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 2/13/09)
Directed By: Tom Tykwer
Written By: Eric Singer
Cinematographer: Frank Griebe
Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen

I admit that I didn’t initially think the idea of a bank as a criminal organization sounded very interesting (at least not as the basis for a movie), but I think I was forgetting the times we live in: aren’t the finance-related professions the most criminal of all? According to The International, at least one of them is, but by taking a more sophisticated than expected perspective on the issue, the film becomes both more interesting and more relevant.

Such a story takes a lot of exposition to set up, but Eric Singer’s script has a good innate sense of what to gloss over and what to delve into. The story is humanized through the eyes of Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), but it’s globalized by its bold willingness to touch upon a wide breadth of international issues: terrorism (of course), money laundering, arms dealing, and the dirtiest sides of the dirty business of politics. The film exudes a realistic, worldly sense of international intrigue, with a globe-trotting production that’s not unlike the recent James Bond film Quantum of Solace, particularly in its delvings into the behind-the-scenes machinations of world governments. It has a broader scope than that film, though, more comparable to last year’s Body of Lies: the focus here is on the cascading effects of the various players examined, most prominently the fictional International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC), which Wikipedia tells me is loosely based on the real-life (but defunct) Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).

For an audience, this film works best if we just let all of the exposition wash over us and take it as it comes. There is no character present to act as our surrogate, to ask the questions we’re wondering, or to request the explanations we would require to fully understand all of what’s going on. Viewed casually, it all certainly seems like it must add up, somehow, but I’m not entirely sure it’d hold up to scrutiny if we really wanted to try to insist that all of the pieces fit together as we’re told they do.

No matter, though; this film is about setting up an international conspiracy with far-reaching implications, and we see that there’s a conspiracy, and we get to experience several of its implications, and that’s enough. It’s also about suspense and action, though it doles the latter out in more moderation than I would’ve expected (this film should not be confused as having much in common with Owen’s earlier Shoot ‘Em Up, to say the least). The one exception to this comes at the climax of the second act, with a lengthy, bloody, and altogether impressive shoot-out sequence that takes pace at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Director Tom Tykwer (who I am familiar with—as I assume is the case with most American audiences—from Run Lola Run) handles this scene with an impressive sense of balance, keeping it above a simple bullets-flying bloodfest—although I did feel that he went a little overboard with the gore, past the line of “this feels real” and into “it’s so bloody, it’s funny” territory at times. There is genuine character progression during the shoot-out, though, and some notably good pieces of performance from Brian F. O’Byrne (the Irish cousin from Brotherhood) as the anonymous “Consultant.”

The performances throughout are above average, actually, and that helps to keep things feeling realistic, even if in the back of your mind you’re not sure you’re buying everything being thrown at you. Armin Mueller-Stahl, here in a sort of Eastern Promises reunion with Naomi Watts, is particularly good, and Owen and Watts both hold their own in the leading roles, as expected. Tykwer’s direction matches the rest of the film by coming across as more interesting than I was prepared for, not only in the aforementioned Guggenheim scene, but also notably during a pivotal interrogation scene at the start of the third act, which he shoots partially through the grates in a heavy metal door, effectively enhancing the lonely solitude the scene’s focal character finds himself confronting. By the time we reach the film’s climax, things get a bit jumbled and increasingly harder to keep track of—no matter how well the actors are selling it—but The International does a better job than most movies of this ilk at maintaining its internal consistency, at least, and that ensures that it remains enjoyable throughout.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 9:21 pm on February 17, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 2/13/09)
Directed By: Marcus Nispel
Written By: Damian Shannon & Mark Swift
Cinematographer: Daniel Pearl
Starring: Jared Padalecki, Amanda Righetti, Travis Van Winkle, Derek Mears

My first college roommate and I shared a fantasy of hosting a Siskel & Ebert-style movie review show, but on HBO or Showtime, where we’d be free to speak our minds on current releases in an uncensored fashion. The highlight of our shared imaginings of this dream was always the thought that perhaps some day we could become known for vulgar catchphrases that we’d repeatedly reuse in our reviews, with the ultimate goal being to have them incorporated into the movies’ marketing. We never grew tired of joking about video box covers quoting our exclamation-riddled take on the films of the day: The Big Lebowski (“You’ll never see this shit coming!”), Pi (“An intriguing indie mindfuck!”), Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho (“Pure balls”), or Shakespeare in Love (“Could probably get you laid!”). It wasn’t exactly a heady aspiration, but it never ceased to keep us amused with ourselves as we sat around our dorm room watching laserdiscs that we’d checked out from the campus library. The persistent punchline, though, was our imagined trademark phrase, our answer to the “Two Thumbs Up!™” of our inspiration: “Sucked Except For the Titties!™”

If ever there was a movie deserving of this would-be one-line review, it’s this year’s “reboot” of Friday the 13th. Sucked Except For the Titties! It’s a whole lot of generic with a whole lot of gratuitous nudity, but the latter is very welcome, especially in light of the former. I’ve not read the screenplay, of course, but I’m pretty sure it must make frequent use of the words “or something.” As in, “Jason Voorhees is mad that he drowned and his mom got beheaded, or something.” “There’s some douchebag college-aged kids who go camping in the woods to, um, find some weed that’s planted there or something.” “She gets naked to… go waterskiing or something.” “Jason kills everybody using, like, a machete or something.” It’s not a film, though, that’s meant to tell a story, or depict realistic characters, or do much of anything other than evoke an emotional response from its audience. At this, it is mildly successful, though its effectiveness wears off rather quickly as a result of extreme repetition. We learn early on that if there’s an empty space behind somebody, that space will more likely than not be occupied by Jason after return from a cutaway.

After a brief introductory scene recapping the thinnest amount of plot (not that it matters) showing how Jason’s mother was killed in the original film, there’s a prologue sequence that I actually think could work well on its own as a short film—although I found a clumsy and totally out of place attempt at a Blue Velvet reference to be pretty annoying. We’re then introduced to a bevy of completely stereotypical characters: a couple of frat boys, a few bimbos, a goofy Asian guy, a stoner black dude. They’re all headed to a lake house that is, of course, close to Jason’s turf, and they’re all going to get killed in surprisingly uninteresting fashion. There’s also Clay (Jared Padalecki), the sensitive moody guy with the wavy permed hair who drives a motorcycle and obviously won’t get killed. He’s looking for his sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti), who we saw in the prologue (though we’re not sure what happened to her).

The lake house belongs to the father of the alpha frat boy, Trent (Travis Van Winkle). Apparently on all of the previous occasions when they paid visits to it, Jason was in a more mellow mood, because his presence this time comes as a complete shock. (Does Jason sleep? Does he eat? Does he go to the bathroom? Is he alive, or undead, or what? Who knows? More importantly, who cares?) These kids live up to the most tried-and-true of horror movie stereotypes by constantly walking straight into situations where they’ll find themselves alone with a dark empty space behind them for Jason to show up in and start hacking away. As a boisterous fellow audience member shouted out at one point during the showing I attended, while watching one of the girls head upstairs to try to find a place to hide from the murderous invincible guy in the mask, “She ain’t even got no common sense!”

Indeed, every typical horror movie aphorism is alive and well and exhibited here. As previously intimated, this includes the one where attractive women enjoy getting naked for no apparent reason before becoming the next victim. There’s even a gratuitous sex scene that borders on softcore porn—and, of course, immediately precedes a bloodbath. If you’re the type to be startled easily, and get a kick out of the emotional rush of it, there’s probably something here to enjoy. Otherwise, you’re more likely to find yourself just waiting for the next set of tits to pop out, as I did, and wondering if there would actually be the possibility of this film living up to one more horror cliche: the never-ending stream of sequels.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 6:47 pm on February 15, 2009

Status: In theaters (in limited release since 12/26/08, opened wide 1/23/09)
Directed By: Sam Mendes
Written By: Justin Haythe
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

It’s not hard to see what attracted the director of American Beauty to Revolutionary Road: it’s a similar style of tale of the doldrums of suburban living, the grind of marriage, and of unfulfilled dreams when reality gets in their way. Here we have the Wheelers, Frank and April (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), starting a young family in the 1950s in a house on Revolutionary Road in an affluent Connecticut suburb. Frank works for the same soul-sucking corporation that his father gave 20 years to, commuting back and forth to New York via train like so many breadwinners from the 50s. April is a failed actress who has succumbed to the demands of homemaking. Neither feels satisfied with where their lives have led them up to this point, and they dream of making drastic changes to realize the exciting life the 20-year-old versions of themselves had imagined they’d be leading by now.

Kurt Vonnegut called Richard Yates’ novel the Great Gatsby of his time, and in that comparison, the Wheelers’ green light at the end of the pier is Paris. It represents their idea of freedom (particularly of the intellectual variety) and becomes their unattainable—yet nevertheless constantly desired—goal. If only they could move to Paris, the Wheelers believe, then they would finally have the freedom to become the great people they’ve always known they would be, to accomplish Big and Great Things with their lives.

Are these sentiments that all people experience? I know I certainly do. While I didn’t celebrate my recent 30th birthday by banging my secretary, as Frank Wheeler does, I can definitely sympathize with the feeling of bitter reflection that came along with it: Didn’t I imagine myself accomplishing more by this point? Didn’t I think I would have done something special by now? While most of us, I think, accept life as it is for the most part, the Wheelers instead choose to run away from the lives they’ve found themselves in. This desire, as I say, seems to me to be a somewhat universal sentiment, and it’s personified in heart-wrenchingly realistic exchanges between them. Kate Winslet, in particular, gets to deliver some dialogue that expresses emotions I think we all must face at some point in our lives. She does so, as always, with a touching humanity and fierce passion, and watching her do so is a true cinematic treat.

The Wheelers’ dream, though, is a juvenile escape fantasy, an immature solution to a very adult problem. The fact that they have established a family (with 2 kids) and a life for themselves that is very much the portrait of the 1950s “American dream” makes it even more escapist. When they share their plans with their friends, Frank’s coworkers, or their real estate agent-cum-neighbor (Kathy Bates), the response is generally a thinly-veiled silent judgment, or a fake smile that does little to hide the “they’re not really serious, are they?” thoughts running through their confidantes’ minds. The one exception to this is John Givings (Michael Shannon), Bates’ character’s son, an institutionalized former mathematician. As the local crazy guy, he allows himself to speak out, and his character functions as the audible voice of Frank Wheeler’s inner conscience. It’s a joy to watch DiCaprio and Shannon play off of each other, one showing a man who doesn’t really know what he wants but is going to do something to get it anyway, the other showing a man who understands the dilemma and isn’t afraid to publicly point it out or to question the solution’s motivations.

The movie loses a little steam after setting up its characters’ central desires and conflicts, partially by starting to ignore basic tenants of storytelling (which I assume is a side effect of the adaptation process, with some events and explanations from the book necessarily being left out). For instance, there are long periods of time during which the Wheeler children are nowhere to be seen, although their care is supposedly providing somewhat of a burden to their parents. Then there’s an awkward scene at a nightclub that feels like it exists on an island, and is too obviously of a single purpose. These are minor gripes, though; this film is one that exists to convey emotions and states of mind, and it does so quite well, thanks primarily to the exceedingly strong performances from its two leads. These states of mind are so easy to relate to, and so thought-provoking in general, and communicated by such talented individuals, that thoughts of them will stick around in the minds of its audience long after the movie’s over.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 7:13 pm on February 13, 2009

Status: In theaters (in limited release since 12/12/08, opened wide 1/9/09)
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Written By: Nick Schenk
Cinematographer: Tom Stern
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley

I’ve heard a lot of people describe Gran Torino as a sort of final Dirty Harry chapter, but I think that’s far too crude of a view to take. Sure, both Inspector Callahan and Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) are “badasses,” but there’s different levels of badass, and these two characters do not share one. In the earlier role (appearing in no fewer than five films), Eastwood played a duty-driven stoic who lived only to bring major criminals to justice. Here, his Kowalski is a grizzled veteran who has recently buried his wife and seems like he’s just waiting for his turn.

Walt Kowalski is so grizzled, in fact, it’s comical—and unintentionally so. If all I told you was that this was a movie about an old guy who didn’t like the riff-raff in his neighborhood, you’d probably jokingly guess that he at some point recites the old cliched line, “Get off my lawn!” Unfortunately, you’d be right… twice. And yes, it’s supposed to play completely seriously. His delivery—not just of this line, but of every grizzled, growly line throughout the movie—is like a parody of Christian Bale’s exaggerated growl in The Dark Knight (one that I thought already played like a parody to begin with). The vast majority of Eastwood’s lines, in fact, will elicit more laughter at than reverence in his character.

Added to the over-the-top delivery is Kowalski’s over-the-top behavior, his constant scowling and growling under his breath at his immigrant neighbors, and his overt racism. He throws every racial epithet imaginable—with a single, glaring exception—for both Asians and blacks, and he does so regularly and freely. This too is over the top and treads more into the realm of comedic parody than it does serious depiction. And yet, despite all of this, Walt Kowalski is a character we find ourselves caring about and rooting for. We find, inevitably, that he has the ability to connect with his neighbors, relocated Hmong refugees from the war in Vietnam. He does, of course, have a soft side, and we see it show through ever so tentatively as the story unfolds.

There are two young neighbors in particular that Walt ends up spending a lot of time with, Sue and Thao (Ahney Her and Bee Vang). Sue serves, in an amateurish screenwriting ploy, as the character who explains everything for the audience: she tells Walt who the Hmong are and why they’ve emigrated to eastern Michigan, she explains her brother’s personality and the troubles he’s found himself in, and she explains her family’s traditions in a way that both the audience and her next door neighbor can understand. Both of these characters are played by first-time actors, and unfortunately this fact is painfully obvious. I place as much blame on Eastwood, as the director, as I do on the kids playing these roles, but the bottom line is that their performances are groan-inducingly poor, to the point that some of their scenes—particularly those featuring Thao attempting to interact with Walt—are borderline unwatchable.

Every aspect of this film, in fact, is handled in a dichotomous balance of cringe-worthy displays of amateur-level filmmaking, mixed with genuine thoughtfulness and emotion. For instance, Walt has a tenuous (at best) relationship with his wife’s pastor (Christopher Carley), and the two engage in some philosophical disagreements that would be realistically interesting give-and-take—particularly having to do with their focus on how one’s religious affinity often grows stronger late in life—if only the dialogue itself weren’t so poorly written and comically delivered. What should be heated exchanges play instead like boring recitations of teenage philosophy. And yet, somehow, the film manages to overcome the poorly-written dialogue, rising above to the overall scope of the story itself. This is true of every plot line, in fact: the story is good, the resolution fulfilling, but the details muddled and not handled very well.

Gran Torino is a film that is made much more enjoyable if you’re able to distance yourself from the specifics of its devices. Walt’s demeanor and overall lot is a good basis for a character, if you can get past Eastwood’s dialogue and delivery without laughing at it. His relationship with Thao is touching if you can ignore the specifics of their discussions. His relationship with his family in the absence of his recently diseased wife is bitter and real, if you ignore the caricature-level roles themselves (especially his granddaughter, who comes across as over the top even in a film that relies solely on over-the-top portrayals). Walt’s progression is intriguing and heartfelt, if you take a step back and view it as a parable while ignoring the specifics of how he arrives where he does. And the film’s resolution, even while overly simplistic and a bit too contrived, is nonetheless engrossing and thoroughly emotional.

Like The Wrestler, there is a titular original song that plays over the end credits that summarizes the overall mood of the movie itself to a T. This one, though—written by Eastwood, his son Kyle, British pop and jazz singer Jamie Collum, and composer Michael Stevens—sung in the film by Eastwood himself, is the perfect way to summarize this heartfelt tale. In the end, of course, that’s what it is, execution be damned: a heartfelt tale of an old retiree coming to terms with who he is, what he believes, and those with whom he inhabits the world, and what meaning he wants to get out of all of it. Would that every film could deal with such issues… although it’d be nice if they could be handled more maturely and more professionally.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:56 pm on February 12, 2009

Status: No longer in theaters (opened 12/25/08)
Directed By: Bryan Singer
Written By: Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander
Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson

I have to assume that, outside of WWII or general history buffs, most people have a general idea of how Adolf Hitler died, but are not typically aware of the several failed prior plots to take his life. I count myself among this group, and recognizing that it might be naive of me to presume that I am no more ignorant of this piece of history than the typical moviegoer, I feel that historical accuracy is Valkyrie‘s downfall: the plot centers around a failed 1944 attempt to kill Hitler, and its suspense is betrayed by the fact that we’re aware of its outcome going in. Imagine the story of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, told from the perspective of John Hinckley, Jr. as the protagonist, and you’re only experiencing a slight exaggeration (perverted by the fact that Reagan wasn’t generally considered to be one of the most evil men to ever live, of course, but the dramatic perspective would be similar).

It doesn’t help that the general public never gave this film a chance. There were widespread reports of the kind of massive nerd hysteria that can only be found on the internet, demonstrating a kind of unfair prejudice that even a Scientologist probably doesn’t deserve, as Ebert so eloquently pointed out. Questionable writing and direction don’t help silence the premature critics, either, but the film does have more redeeming qualities than the results of a typical Google search might have you believe.

The focus of the story is on the planning of the Hitler assassination attempt, concentrating on the involvement and perspective of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), and the plot itself is certainly intriguing. We get not only an overview of Germany during WWII, but also a survey of the internal workings of the Nazi government, not to mention a cool and interesting look at 1940s-era technology—particularly in the improvised bomb department. We’re introduced to a ton of characters during the film’s lengthy exposition, including several high-ranking Wehrmacht officers and a secret cabal of Germans intent on overthrowing their government. In fact, there are so many intersecting interests and so many characters who serve important functions yet do not warrant enough screen time to become familiar with, that frankly it’s all a bit too much to keep track of, and somewhat confusing. Valkyrie is a movie that knows it’s going to go over the heads of most of the members of its audience, and it tempers this by always making sure that we’re aware of the main thread of its story: von Stauffenberg is going to kill Hitler, and using some esoteric military plans and procedures, the Resistance of which he is a part will take over Germany. How many of the details you care to pay attention to are going to depend on your level of interest in the specific subject matter, and on how much effort you wish to put in to make note of each character’s function, desire, and role in the grander scheme.

Singer makes use of some directorial tricks to aid in this, most prominently the decision to have all of the characters speak unaccented (for the most part) English. This is one of the things the aforementioned nerd-vultures jumped on as a sign of Cruise’s supposedly bad acting, but it’s actually handled fairly well, using a device similar to that used in The Hunt for Red October. Personifying the German Resistance movement primarily as von Stauffenberg makes for a more relatable drama, too, and there’s a trick he and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie play with keeping the results of a major plot event a secret long past the point of audience frustration, which might have been even more annoying if it didn’t succeed so well at maintaining dramatic tension.

Ultimately, though, we know the outcome, even if we do have trouble following the intricacies, and the main plot is one area where the film shouldn’t assume it can continue to sail over its audience’s heads, but it does. There’s a lot of talent here, from a director we know as talented to a very sound and broad ensemble cast. They’re in a bit too deep for their own good, though, and the balancing act they play between historical accuracy and dramatic structure is not completely pulled off. It’s a fairly intriguing effort, though.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 11:17 pm on February 1, 2009

Status: In limited release (opened 12/17/08)
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky
Written By: Robert D. Siegel
Cinematographer: Maryse Alberti
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

To anybody interested in seeing Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, I offer this advice: try your damnedest to avoid the theatrical trailer. Either that, or see the trailer instead of seeing the movie—it’s not so much a preview of what the movie entails as it is a complete summary of it, complete with the perfectly-matched Springsteen song (which isn’t even actually in the film itself until the end credits). I might get more annoyed than most when a trailer not only tells too much about a movie but also gives away its most dramatic moments and plot points up front, but I found this to be an extreme example. It’s quite a testament, then, to the quality of the filmmaking, and primarily Aronofsky’s skills as a director, that I was still able to enjoy this movie despite the over-reaching trailer.

In my review of Slumdog Millionaire, I talked about Danny Boyle’s impressive ability to jump from genre to genre, his style adapting as needed to best convey each individual story in the most effective way possible. Here we see that Darren Aronofsky, while still developing as a director, certainly has the capacity to become that type of filmmaker as well: following the overly ambitious yet under-appreciated millennium-spanning tale of The Fountain with an intimate character portrait is nothing if not an exhibition of versatility. That he largely pulls it off is also a testament to not only his willingness to go in wildly different directions, but his ability to do so successfully.

The screenplay by Robert Siegel, the once long-time editor-in-chief of The Onion, is surprisingly heartfelt. Rather than a retrospective on the career of a big-name professional wrestler, the story instead is of the post-fame years of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a former headliner who is well past his prime. We see every type of behind-the-scenes information you’d expect and want from a reality-based take on professional wrestling: pre-match planning sessions, dalliances with steroids, tricks with razor blades, and the pre-planned use of props (including one fairly disturbing example involving a staple gun).

The Ram is immediately and eminently likable, and we are treated to his touchingly personal interactions in many settings outside of the wrestling ring: the children who live in his low-income trailer park, the patrons of the grocery store where he works during the week to make ends meet, and of course other wrestlers ranging from his fellow has-beens to the hopeful up-and-comers grinding out their early-career experiences. Most notable, though, is his relationship with his favorite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). This is more or less your typical “hooker with a heart of gold” character, but Tomei brings her unique charm (not to mention her incredibly sexy-as-ever body) to the role, fleshing it out to provide a powerful emotional basis for Rourke’s character. The counter-balance to Cassidy is The Ram’s estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and in this relationship we see the script begin to falter: Wood is tragically under-used, though she does have one very powerful scene.

Aronofsky goes for a sort of half-documentary feel for this film, preferring to go with handheld cameras whenever possible. While he overuses the technique a bit too much, he also counterbalances it with some greatly cinematic depictions of the wrestling matches themselves, which show the heart-wrenching attempts at live-action grandeur still being made by men who are no longer in the spotlight but aren’t ready to admit to that just yet.

What this movie is about, though, is Mickey Rourke and his depiction of The Ram. It is a character study, and Rourke’s characterization is beyond impressive. He shows a man driven in the face of adversity, trying to overcome all that the world has thrown at him, and doing it with an almost endless amount of charm and good nature. There is a breakthrough moment that, like so many of the film’s high points, is spoiled by the trailer, but it still manages to play as emotionally and as truthfully as anything I’ve seen in the last year. There is a lot of joy to be derived from watching Rourke command the screen, particularly in the scenes he shares with Tomei. The film, disappointingly, doesn’t do as much with its characters as it could, preferring to present them more as static states-of-being rather than goal-oriented, living individuals who are striving for something. There are revelations to be had, however—exclusively by the main character—and they are satisfying in their unpredictability, if not always in their content. Aronofsky’s and Siegel’s quasi-verite approach, along with their wholly emotional attachment to their subject, makes it work—for the most part.

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