Monday, February 23, 2009

The Wrestler

The critics of wrestling write off the profession, claiming that it is fake and scripted and therefore doesn't have any merit whatsoever. And while it is true that professional wrestling matches are scripted, this fact does not mask the toll that the profession takes on those that partake, both physically and mentally.

The Wrestler tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) 20 years after his glory days, hanging on to what used to be with his battered hands and the use of a hypodermic needle. Outside the ring, his only possessions are a trailer home he can barely afford, a fledgling romance with a stripper (Marissa Tomei), and a failing relationship with his daughter that he cannot mend. However, when the shot of a comeback comes along, hope glimmers in his personal life as well.

Rourke is able to, through his moving, 'Contender'-like performance, capture the humanity and the anguish of The Ram and magically captivate his audience. Right beside him, Tomei plays the exact same character in a different costume and is able to match Rourke step for step in her own stunning performance. Both are dealing with aging within their profession, both are dealing with their own separate child issues, and both are looking for companionship. It is amazing to see these two on screen with one another.

Adding to the overall experience is the fabulous directing by Darren Aronofsky. The constant over-the-shoulder shots of The Ram bring to mind the wrestler's walk from the dressing to the ring to face his next battle. However, these walks aren't to the ring, but rather to another area of Robinson's post-wrestling life where he must face a new battle, whether that be starting a new job as a deli clerk or trying to get let into his trailer after being locked out for not paying his rent on time. Aronofsky's directing, teamed with Rourke's acting, is able to capture the tormenting struggle of adjusting to a new life outside the ring.

This is definitely not your typical "feel-good" film. The potential for happy endings is rare to find and just when you think that things are going to end up all right, the tide changes just as fast as it does in the ring. Sadness and anguish dominate this movie, but they do so in a way that simply grabs hold on an audience and doesn't let go. I cared for The Ram as much as have with any other character and
The Wrestler, with all of its individual elements, is simply amazing in telling his touching tale of grief, heartache, and loneliness.

Being that the Academy Awards are over, my film hindsight is perfect. And even though I have yet to see
Milk, and that Sean Penn probably did do a phenomenal job to earn him the Oscar, The Wrestler deserved to be nominated for best picture, and the night should have belonged to Mickey Rourke. His performance, along with that of Marissa Tomei, was absolutely breathtaking in a film that is arguably the best of 2008.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Liveblogging the 2009 Oscars

Here is my first attempt at liveblogging. Hopefully everything goes smoothly. If you wish, submit comments and join in with the liveblogging. And here is my NY Times Oscar ballot.

Gran Torino

Gran Torino tells the story of an aging Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) who is forced to confront his tainted past after the death of his wife and the influx of the Hmong community into his neighborhood. Kowalski is a mean, Pabst Blue Ribbon chugging racist who wants nothing to do with his new neighbors, or anyone else for that matter. It's obvious that Kowalski carries around a tremendous amount of emotional baggage, and it appears that repressing those thoughts is a full time job.

Kowalski slings racial slurs so often that the cultural shock wears off within the first half hour of the movie, making these offensive remarks more and more comical as the film progresses. But as he becomes more and more involved with the neighboring Hmong family, the more he realizes that he has more in common with the "gooks" than with his own remaining family. It is for this reason why he helps the shy and quiet neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) to get a job and help him to "become a man." Or why he rescues Thao's older sister (Ahney Her) from a harassing gang of black thugs. But even as he shows his softer side, Walt maintains his reputation by calling his friends "zipper head" and "dragon lady." But these slurs have nearly evolved into simple terms of endearment.

Gran Torino tells the story of the opening of minds to the different people around you. But because you see it through the eyes of a once cantankerous old man, the story is lifted to a whole new level. Walt does not make excuses for the way he views different races and he refers to them through the use of slurs throughout the entirety of the film. But because he doesn't apologize for who he is and of the continued usage of racial insults, when he does come to the realization of his common humanity with his neighbors, it makes it seem real and not something scripted to leave the audience with a sappy feel-good story.

Eastwood shows off his versatility once again, directing himself in his own movie, and doing one hell of a job. He even receives a singing credit for the song that plays during the end credits and it is truly a real shame that this movie didn't receive any attention from the Academy. Regardless, through his traditional toughness, Clint is able to touch the heart of his audience with a fabulous film, one racial slur at a time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Destiny and fate are themes that are commonly used throughout many films from every genre. But it can be argued that these films have never captivated an audience as much as this film is able to.

Told in a series of flashbacks, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, an orphan boy who grew up in the slums of India with his brother. The movie opens with Jamal being interrogated after being accused of cheating on the Indian version of the game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" It seems that it is hard to believe that a boy from the slums could not make it all the way to the final question on his knowledge alone. But Malik insists that he knew all the answers and by watching his recorded performance, explains how each question he received was specifically tied to a memory from his turmoil filled childhood.

Throughout these flashbacks, there is a juxtaposition between the glitz and glamour of the game show and the world that Jamal grew up in, and some of the horrific things that a third world orphan may encounter. The horrific shots of an impoverished India border on unbelievable, with kids living in garbage dumps and outhouses that are simply a hole that opens up into the marsh below. Contrasted against the flashy game show set makes these images even more unreal. But from these slums rises a hero that anyone can cheer for. Using only his wits, Jamal is able to survive trial after trial to find himself not only staring a fortune in the face, but the love of his life as well. Not bad for someone who was probably expected never to make it out of the slums in the first place.

Every aspect of this film is tremendous, from the brilliant acting of young Dev Patel and the rest of the cast, to the seamless editing of a beautiful story. And while director Danny Boyle flirts with the line of pushing the envelope too far in order to depict the harsh realities of a chai wallah slumdog, it does not take away from this fantastic rags-to-riches love story. In short, it is a phenomenal film that lives up to all of its hype, and then surprises its audience by surpassing it ten-fold. And come Oscar night,
Slumdog will not stop at meeting, and exceeding, everyone's expectations.