Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

The Wrestler (2008): When you first see Randy "The Ram" Robinson, you don't see his face. He's just a silhouette, a burly phantom moving through empty hallways and New Jersey trailer parks. When you finally see his face, it's tired but spirited. And perhaps that's the best way to describe Randy, a professional wrestler, a legend in his own circle but now playing the indie circuit. Randy was a big deal in the 1980s, especially for his round against "The Ayatollah," the wrestling heel against his face. Mickey Rourke, the actor who embodies Randy, was also a big deal in the 1980s and is perfect for the role. Both men had astonishing careers that seem to have faded into the background. Rourke was a professional boxer and actor, receiving some critical fame for his roles in Diner and Barfly. But during the 90s, he more or less disappeared, playing a few small roles but never getting recognized. Over twenty years later, Randy Robinson is his breakout role; you wonder if he's acting or simply being himself.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler is a film about a broken man with a waning dream. He's broken physically; years of wrestling has left scars and aches that will never heal. No matter how "fake" wrestling might seem, the pain is real. These guys are intense, using cocktails of steroids and painkillers to keep it together. Yet Aronofsky captures the heart and warmth underneath the wrestling ring with a beautiful sense of authenticity. These guys are playing school gymnasiums and community centers, using kindergarten classrooms as a makeshift dressing room. And they love it. They care about each other. They slam each other to the mat, hitting each other with chairs and tables, then congratulate each other and go out for beers. It's a bizarre culture, but one that Aronofsky brilliantly brings to life.

Apart from the physical pain, there are emotional wounds that Randy is coming to terms with. He has a connection with a local stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, in an Oscar-nominated performance). She's both feisty and kind, and he's clearly attracted to her. He's just not sure if she sees him as more than a customer. Cassidy eventually comes alongside him as he seeks to repair an estranged relationship with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He's done some serious damage to the relationship and he's trying to mend a lifetime of wounds he's caused.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film was the concept of identity. Whether they realize it or not, Randy and Cassidy are in the same business--they're performers. They are playing a role, acting out a part, using their bodies for entertainment. The question is this: which person is the real one? Take Randy for instance. In one version of reality, Randy is a loser. He's alone, having burned nearly all his relational bridges and barely scraping by, living out a dream that might not really matter. He knows it too; in a beautiful scene between him and Stephanie, he calls himself "an old broken down piece of meat." But in another reality, he's a legend--he is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the wrestler who defeated The Ayatollah back in 1986 and who is known and respected by everyone in the wrestling world. Yes, Cassidy is a stripper, but she's more than that--she's a human being. She's a person with feelings and stories and a family and dreams. It's significant that Cassidy and Randy aren't even these people's real names.

What makes this film so personal and moving is that we are all Randy. I'm struck with the fact that I too struggle with identity and authenticity and integrity. There are so many moments when I feel like I'm on stage playing a part in a social situation. Are we just performing for one another, playing the roles that we seem to have fallen into? Or are we unearthing and revealing the people we truly are, living out life authentically? Then again, which person is more real: the Randy in the wrestling ring or the Randy weighing the deli meat at the grocery store?

The thing is, both are real. Both are true. And that's what makes this film so beautiful--these are real, down-to-earth human beings who are just as broken and complex as you and I. This might be one of the most human films of the year. I admit that I cried in the theater a few times. It is gritty and sad, but far from depressing. It offers hope that a person can find a dream and live it out, that a person doesn't have to be alone, that we're all human beings and we need community to truly live. Rourke deserves an Oscar, and The Wrestler is one of my favorite films of the year.

(Caution: The Wrestler is rated R for nudity, violence, and language; be forewarned)

Appaloosa (2008): I have to say that Viggo Mortensen might be one of my favorite actors. I can't recall any films I've seen from him that I haven't been impressed with his performance, and Appaloosa is no exception. Like a slow sunset, this charming film moves along at an unhurried pace, perfectly creating the 1800's Western atmosphere. The days are slow, the gunfights are fast, and the terrain has a rugged beauty to it. The film is about two lawmen-for-hire, a pair of gunmen who've been doing this kind of thing for a long time. Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, who also directed and co-wrote the film) is the elder marshall; Everett Hitch (Mortensen) is his perceptive deputy. Hired by the rich guys of Appaloosa to take care of a renegade rancher (Jeremy Irons), these two go to work.

These guys have synergy. I haven't seen an on-screen pair quite like them since Danny and Rusty in Ocean's 11. There are moments of humor between the two, and an unspoken loyalty to one another that can be seen. I loved the character of Everett, who ambles along throughout with the film with a huge double-barrel shotgun and a serene look upon his face. He's got honor, grit, and a great vocabulary (he periodically helps Virgil find the wording he's looking for). The two men have a really interesting bond that is beyond their common interest of shooting criminals.

The directing and cinematography aren't particularly revolutionary, but Harris gets the job done. There were a few scenes--especially one shootout--that stand out as memorable as far as directing goes. The only low point in the film comes in the form of Renee Zellweger. I don't particularly care for her as an actress, nor did I really enjoy her character in the film. Yes, she plays a significant role, but she's not a significant character. Overall, it's a solid Western with a great on-screen friendship between Virgil and Everett. If you like Westerns, you'll like Appaloosa.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003): They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a film that does its best to prove the saying right. Graceful and captivating, this film communicates a great deal with very little dialogue. A young maid (Scarlett Johansson) working in the house of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) becomes the muse and model for one of his greatest paintings. Tom Wilkinson also makes an appearance as a womanizing patron who purchases many of Vermeer's paintings. The only distracting character was Cillian Murphy as a potential love interest in the butcher's son; the character seemed a bit out of place, though Murphy did a good job with it. 

The film was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design Oscars, which are appropriate for such a quietly artistic film. The story is not the strong point of the film, but the visuals and performances make up for it. There is an extraordinary relational dynamic between Johansson and Firth, revealed almost entirely through their faces. She seems attracted to him for his artwork, and he's literally obsessed with her, yet they hardly speak throughout the film. However, despite the tension the two live in, they never act on their underlying feelings. 

Well, that's not completely true--he does paint a portrait of her. That's gotta be worth something.

1 comment:

  1. i have never seen the girl with a pearl earring but have wanted to since reading the book a few years ago (i think it was a portland reads rec). thanks for the review!