January 29, 2009

"The Wrestler" -- Movie Review


"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."
-Samuel Johnson

"The Wrestler" is a backstage peek, not just at the titular profession, but at life and the harsh, gritty sadness it can hold; at what happens when your give yourself so fully to one aspect of yourself that everything else withers up and dies, leaving only the aching strangeness of a phantom limb or, in this case, a phantom life.

Seeing the man behind the curtain is one of the pervading themes of "The Wrestler," and Mickey Rourke deserves the highest possible marks for not only bringing burnt-out wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson to Ram-Jamming life, but also for revealing the rickety clockwork of humanity ticking away beneath the blustering facadé of muscles and spandex.

Randy, a former pro-wrestling super star, lives a life of scraping by between weekends headlining small-circuit matches. He works part-time unloading trucks, sleeps in a crummy trailer park -- or in his van, when he can't make rent. Basically, he stumbles through the day to day, not in a literal, clumsy way, but as a man who only know how to live one kind of life: the life he has in the ring. Camaraderie, showmanship and the cheering of the crowd.

But it's not all huge men in tight clothes -- far from it. We also have Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper whom Randy obviously has a thing for -- though, for some bizarro-logic reason, he seems to be the only one. Unlike Randy, Cassidy has no love for the person she pretends to be, choosing that life, not for any kind of satisfaction, but merely to provide for her son. An unsavory but necessary sacrifice.

And beyond peeling away the layers from the main players, even the very scenery of "The Wrestler" is all about looking beyond the familiar surface. Randy picks up his part-time work at a supermarket, and we follow him through the storage areas, cramped hallways and backrooms behind those universally familiar, fluorescent aisles. The woods around his trailer park aren't any kind of Hollywood landscape, either. They're brown and broken, littered with tangles of brush and thin, weak examples of plant-life. Grounded and familiar for anybody who's lived the scrape-by lifestyle, I'd wager. Indeed, it's the regularity of this world that helps draw us in, leaving us that much more impacted by the lives we watch unfold.

"The Wrestler" is deep, human drama played out on an odd, but familiar stage. It shouldn't be missed by any who consider themselves moviegoers.

5 / 5

As a quick postscript: Randy "The Ram" Robinson's real name, we discover, is actually Robin Ramzinski, which makes this a clear case of "Boy Named Sue" Syndrome. Give a guy a girlish name and he'll become a giant ball of muscle and machismo. Try and give them an overly manly name, and they'll likely end up wearing spandex for an entirely different reasons. Hooray for movie tropes.

-Thad out

This film is a tragedy of great magnitude performed on a microscopic stage. The resulting contrast is an unbelievably moving opus on regret, loss, love and the masks we wear in our lives -- and how, tragically, some confuse the mask for themselves... if that makes sense. If not, don't worry. I'll try to make myself clear as the review goes on.

If you have been reading the reviews on Darren Aronofsky's newest offering you would have undoubtedly read such blurbs as “Mickey Rourke's come-back performance,” “a one in a lifetime marriage of actor and role,” and, my personal favorite, the overly melodramatic “...witness the resurrection of Mickey Rourke.” I can't imagine where these people were when Rourke turned loose his brilliant interpretation of Marv in “Sin City.” His Marv was one of the best performances in prosthetics since Ron Perlman's Hellboy.

Semantics aside, Rourke does give the performance of his career. He's a force of pure, physical nature in this film. He takes the hits and the falls in the arena, while outside he conveys the emotional hits and falls from life. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a cyclone of brutality, sportsmanship, loneliness, ache and determination who ultimately realizes that life is a play which holds no part for him.

Marissa Tomei's stripper with a heart of gold may well be a cliché, but Tomei manages to pull a rabbit out of that hat by infusing her with simple, down-to-earth sweetness and confusion at her genuine feelings for Randy. Tomei, at 45, is only getting sexier and more fearless with age. Her scenes with Rourke are the true wrestling scenes, as she tries to comprehend her growing affection for this beaten old man.

What they both fail to understand is that both of them are actors in a part, Randy is “The Ram” and Cassidy is merely a stage name hiding Pam, the single mother. Both play a part, and both try to discover what are pieces of the persona, and what is truly genuine.

At the same time, you get the sense that both characters are more comfortable in their stage persona. For they only truly mess up when they leave their characters and try to inhabit the world outside of their respective arenas -- Tomei's stripper realizes she is in love with a man who can no longer operate in the real world, while Rourke's wrestler who is forced, in his silver years, to re-enter society and finds he is not entirely welcome. He learns that his years away from a real life have left him unable to live life without screwing up.

And now I would like to take some time/space to address a certain grievance I've noticed with other critics: that Evan Rachel Wood is the the films only hiccup, and that she hits mostly false notes. This, in my opinion, is untrue.

True, Wood's performance as Randy's daughter, Stephanie, is not of the same mood as Tomei's or Rourke's -- possibly because, out of the trio, she is the only one without a stage persona. She lives, breathes and operates totally in the real world. Her “overly melodramatic performance” could be attributed to a young girl letting loose on her father for his transgressions against her, both past and present. Out of the three, oddly enough, she's the most well-adjusted. To me, her performance rings true, and just as close to the bones as her co-stars.

I must confess something, before I wrap up. This is my first, but certainly not my last, Darren Aronofsky film. I'm aware of his others and have added them in my Netflix Queue. From what I know of his other films though, this is the most simple, yet subtle, movie of his career. There is plot and story, but the attention to these three characters as they live and love is astounding. This is a film filled with rage, regret and yearning. For being his fourth feature film, it is simply startling.

“The Wrestler” is a film much like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Gran Torino” that will linger with you among your subconscious. The length and intensity of that lingering is what separates merely great movies from all-out masterpieces. I'm not quite sure which one “The Wrestler” is, but I have a sneaking suspicion it might be the latter. If nothing else, Randy “The Ram” Robinson belongs in the great pantheon of cinematic characters, of that much I'm certain.


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January 24, 2009

"Gran Torino" -- Movie Review

More and more I'm convinced I was in right in a thought I had four years ago: Clint Eastwood is a modern John Ford. That is to say, much like the forgotten great, his style is subtle and surprisingly touching. Unlike Danny Boyle with “Slumdog Millionaire,” Eastwood feels no need to pull out the stops. You'll find no wild cuts, zooming camera movements or any other flashy stylistic choices. Eastwood prefers to sit his camera down and let the characters and story do all the heavy lifting.

Don't get me wrong, “Slumdog Millionaire” is still one of the best films of the year. And another is “Gran Torino.”

Eastwood paints a subtle, complicated and incredibly moving portrait about a man who is far from ready for his generation to hand over the reigns of the world. He doesn't understand what the fast-paced, spoiled, lazy rabble the present generation -- including his own family -- has to offer.

With his increasingly concave features, grizzled expressions and unmistakable growl, Eastwood dominates the screen. This is the meanest we have ever seen Eastwood. It's also the best we've ever seen him, acting wise. A bittersweet landmark, as Eastwood has since announced that he is retiring from acting.

For those who still don't know, “Gran Torino” is about Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) a Korean War veteran who, after his wife dies, is left alone and embittered against... well, people in general. To top it all off, his neighborhood consists largely of Hmong (an ethnic group hailing from Southeast Asia), which irks Walt to no end.

After he inadvertently saves a young boy next door, Thao (Bee Vang), from a local gang one night, Walt finds himself inundated with unwanted attention. Thao's sister, Sue (Anhey Her), begins to realize -- along with the rest of us -- that Walt, while spouting slurs left and right, is really anything but a racist. He's just an old man who is disappointed with the entire human race, and doesn't care much about the decorum of political correctness.

As the movie progresses, a friendship begins to form between Walt and his neighbors. Despite whatever else happens in the movie, these three are the core. It is to the credit of both Bee Vang and Anhey Her that they manage to shine, even while being encased in the shadow of Eastwood's performance.

Eastwood outdoes himself with every film he directs, his work growing more textured and vibrant with each passing year. It must be said that, even at 78, he shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. For the second year in a row, he has managed to put out two movies a year, while directors half his age do well if they crank out one.

For those who point to Eastwood's retirement from acting as a sure sign of the mega-talent starting to slow, I counter with this: It is my belief that he is retiring from acting so he can bump his quota to three films a year.

Mark my words, the only thing stopping this guy is death, and from what I saw in "Gran Torino," Clint could probably make the reaper crap his pants and move right along to the next person. Masterpiece!

/ 5

Walt Kowalski is not racist.

It may be easy to confuse him with the like, what with the constant stream of ethnic epithets he issues forth to anyone who pauses in front of him for too long. As my former room mates and I often said, old guys can do whatever they want. And Walt doesn't want to mince words. So yeah, maybe he buys into stereotypes, but he also gives credit where it's due... it's just that most of the people in his life haven't earned shit. And nothing hacks a man off more then dumbass entitlement.

"Gran Torino," which I totally knew beforehand was also the name of a car, is a film about people that the world doesn't want. Specifically, Walt and Thao.

Walt's family -- his two sons and their respective families -- don't see him as a person. To them, he's more like leftovers. Grumpy, gravely leftovers. A relic of a world that doesn't exist anymore. Utterly dismissible. As we grow to know the man, we see this callousness of those who should be closest to him as utterly terrible. And yet, these aren't terrible people. They're normal... which may be the most horrible part of all.

Thao is also dismissed by his family. Quiet and introverted, he's easily pushed around by pretty much everyone, from his well-meaning sister to his bastard cousin Spider (Doua Moua). After Spider and his gang 'protect' Thao from the bullying of another, Hispanic gang, he pushes Thao to join them. The initiation: steal the Gran Torino.

With Sue as the catalyst, Walt and Thao strike up an odd relationship. Walt finds family for the first time -- not counting his departed wife, whose funeral opened the film -- and Thao learns how to be a man... though Walt's teaching methods are far from orthodox. His teaching Thao "how men talk," with help from his barber (John Carroll Lynch) was absolutely hilarious.

Actually, there was a lot of humor in "Gran Torino," even among the grit and harshness and sadness and drama.

Not to be pigeonholed, "Gran Torino" is a movie about life and death and rebirth. It's about the things we should pass on and the things we should learn. It's about the meaning of being a man, and of family. It's about sweet, American-made muscle car.

5 / 5

Do not miss this movie.

-Thad out.

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"Seven Pounds" -- Movie Review

“Seven Pounds” is designed to make you cry and, depending on who you are, it probably succeeds. It's a little hard to review a movie like “Seven Pounds,” where so much of the purpose of the movie is trying to solve the puzzle that it lays out. To be armed with too much knowledge, in this case, will do you more harm than good.

Ben Thomas (Will Smith) is an I.R.S. Agent. Ezra (Woody Harrelson)is a blind telemarketer. Emily (Rosario Dawson) is a woman with severe heart problems. Dan (Barry Peppers), a friend of Ben's seems, emotionally distraught over a deal he made with Ben. There's a social worker Holly, (Judyann Elder), who's happy to see Ben. Connie Tepos (Elpidia Carrillo), a mother trapped in an abusive relationship, wishes only to escape with her children to a new life.

Discovering who these people are and how they are connected is the joy of “Seven Pounds.” It is so integral, in fact, that I'm not sure how enjoyable the movie would be on repeat viewings. Suffice to say, if you were to ask me what the movie was about, I'd say it was about sacrifice... and jellyfish.

The movie has been charged with being manipulative, and it is unquestionably guilty. Yet, when it's done well, I have absolutely no problem with being manipulated. I don't think you will either.

/ 5

There are many movies where the overall quality is so grand and appealing that even when all the great twists have been revealed, you'd still be full-willing to watch it all over again. I had the endings of "Fight Club," "The Sixth Sense," and "The Matrix" spoiled for me before I ever saw them, but that didn't keep me from enjoying them the first time or any of the enumerable, subsequent times.

"Seven Pounds" is not any of those movies.

Not to say it's bad, but I heartily agree with Jeremiah on the point of... well, most of the things he said, to be honest. It manipulates you -- but in a charming way, as opposed to a psychotic ex-significant other sort of way. A solid story, with some top-notch talent, but it just doesn't have the clout to make it any kind of enduring classic.

"Seven Pounds" is a movie for people who enjoy feeling ways about stuff. If you tend to shun emotions, because they are for sissies and meatbags, you would likely be happier trading your money for a ticket to a different movie. If, however, you enjoy smiling and crying; stories of a more limited, human scope; and watching as pieces fit together into a full picture, this is probably just the ticket for you.

In a season of Must-See Movies, "Seven Pounds" just doesn't quite measure up. But if you've already seen the heavy-hitters, or you just want a good cry or something, you could do a lot worse.

3.5 / 5

-Thad out.

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January 15, 2009

"Slumdog Millionaire" -- Movie Review

Danny Boyle's “Slumdog Millionaire” is a life-affirming, emotional roller-coaster of a fairy tale, filmed with such ferocity and virtuosity that it will leave you, quite frankly, breathless at its beauty. The plot is straight out of Dickens, yet told in a fashion that feels as new as the last breath you took.

Jamal (Dev Patel) is a poor Indian boy who has grown up in the slums of Mumbai: a slumdog. After managing to become a contestant on an Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”, he defies the odds as he pushes closer and closer toward the top of the million-dollar heap. He's not a genius, not particularly educated at all. But nevertheless, he has each answer -- because each question relates to the traumatic or dramatic moments of his life.

As we follow him back through these moments, we meet Jamal's older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and the love of Jamal's life, Latika (Freida Pinto). There are many more, but much like Dickens's, they are too numerous to mention -- though their roles are equally crucial to the the movie.

Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan show you the whole beautiful, miserable mess that is India, boils and all. The effect is a dizzying visual poem of that nation and its people. All in all, a true cinematic feat of joy, longing, regret and the magic of that lofty idea of true love.

It is written, after all.

/ 5

For me, the beauty of "Slumdog Millionaire" is in how well the story and the characters and the world are woven together into one beautiful, continuous tapestry of love, struggle and the unbearable condition that is human life.

Fancy words aside, I was pleasantly surprised by the actors (and actress) playing Jamal, Salim and Latika from youth to adulthood. Normally, children -- with their minute stature, greasy hands and banshees' wail -- are to be avoided at all costs... in film. Or retail.

Anyway: Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubiana Ali steal your heart as the youngest Jamal, Salim and Latika, respectively. From the brothers' bittersweet first meeting with Latika, through the growing bonds of friendship and on to their tragic separation, they pull you into their world and simultaneously beat the living guts out of foolish, lesser child-actors... figuratively speaking, of course.

This leads us to Tanay Chheda, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar as the teen-years trio, and to describe what these characters go through in their reunion, which is any way but what you expect, would be a crime to those yet to see it.

And while I'm playing the name-game, I'd like to throw an honorable mention up to Anil Kapoor, who portrays gameshow host Prem Kumar -- imagine a parallel universe where Regis Philbin is Indian, and slightly more sinister, and you wind up with a surprisingly accurate picture of his performance... but I mean that in the nicest way.

Beyond gushing accolades on the acting and directing, it's important to note the appearance of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" on the soundtrack. I dig that song. She's also featured in an original piece by the film's composer, A. R. Rahman. So if you're a fellow M.I.A. fan, that's another little treat for you in what I could only describe as a holiday-huge meal of a movie... only no matter how much you eat, you never get full or throw up. Fantastic.

So, yeah -- see "Slumdog Millionaire."

5 / 5

And don't you dare miss the credits.

-Thad out

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January 04, 2009

"Transporter 3" -- Movie Review

Due in part to a rash of recent temporal anomalies, but largely to the tawdry lifestyle of The Editor, the following review is well beyond recent... but if you haven't read it, it's new to you! And so, ONWARD!

I haven't decided whether I should recommend “Transporter 3” to you or not. It's a fantastically fun movie to be sure, and yet parts will push you back in your chair and just about roll your eyes for you -- but, oddly enough, the scenes I'm talking about will not be the ones where the filmmakers blatantly, and with unrepentant joy, rape the laws of physics on the screen. The guilty scenes are found in the subplot of blossoming romance between Frank Martin (Jason “Bad Ass” Statham) and his cargo Valentina (Natalya “Making Freckles Ungodly Sexy” Rudakova).

Those scenes press the audience's level of suspension of disbelief, not because of the age difference, but because the dialogue was written by what must have been a hopelessly romantic junior-high-schooler, with such gems as: “No, that's what you're thinking. I'm talking about what you're feeling.”

And yet, when the movie is not concerning itself with blasé emotion or focusing on the sizzling sex appeal of its stars -- as both of them are undeniably pretty people -- it's giving you a healthy dose of impossibly unrealistic action sequences that hark back to the days of “Commando.” It's a fine way to wile away an hour and forty minutes on a Saturday night.

Now, a word about the action sequences: I enjoyed the way the director, the fantastically named Olivier Megaton, used a steady cam for certain action scenes. Sure there are cuts, but they're there only to switch views and done entirely without our old foe The Shaky Cam. Not to mention that he seems to be just as in love with Rudakova as the audience is.

There were times where I couldn't shake the sense, both from Rudakova and Statham, that they could be doing better. They were simply not pushed to do so. That, I blame on the script, co-written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. But since I love Luc Besson, I'll credit him with the the good stuff and blame the other guy for the stuff I didn't like. Is that not professional? Then you're going to hate this next line.

For those of you who might scoff at the non-realism displayed by Frank Martin and his Audi, might I remind you to blow it out your ass? (Told ya.) It's a “Transporter” movie. The previous entry into this series had Statham breaking a dude's back in an underwater fight inside the hull of a recently submerged airplane.

Should any human being ever one-arm a rocket launcher? Arnold Schwarzenegger, I'm looking your way. No. Do I need to see Stallone, in a business suit, standing in front of an oncoming bus, almost daring the bus to hit him? No.

But that's the fun of a great bad action movie, and “Transporter 3” is just that. Stuff 'splodes; impossibly sexy girls from Czechoslovakia get themselves into distress; and our hero will sit in his car, all steely eyed, on a bridge with both exits blocked, surrounded by machine-gun-toting henchmen. And yet miraculously, amid the hail of bullets, no one will be hit -- even though the bad guys stand on opposite sides of the hero, unloading ungodly ordinance and their enemy and each other. Trapped, our hero has only one option left to him: he must drive...

And if you need me to finish that sentence, this movie is not for you.

/ 5

Yours Until Hell Freezes Over,

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