Thursday, May 7, 2009

MOVIES- The Wrestler

During the last winter I watched quite a few movies, but didn’t write much about them. And during the springing of spring I’ve been too busy with a new work schedule and enjoying time in my 350Z convertible tanning bed to do much writing either. (One recent trip started as an expedition to invesigate the mysteriously named town of Ozone, TN and wound up instead encompassing parts of TN, KY, and VA before arriving home long after dark. All that meandering and I never wound up actually making it to Ozone. In spite of a desire to walk into the local café and address the people there by saying, “Ozonians! Take me to your leader!” in my best Darth Vader voice.)

But time on the night shift, the release of the Best Picture nominees on Blu-Ray, and almost two weeks of rain have allowed for some rumination. As always, my reviews are not so much reviews as examinations and, as usual, are long after the fact.

One of the most affecting films I’ve seen lately is THE WRESTLER, the story of an end-of-the-road entertainer who acheved fame in the 1980s in what would eventually be referred to as “sports entertainment”. Mickey Rourke, in a title role it’s hard not to say he was meant to play, was nominated for an Oscar for his work in this film. If his performance wasn’t such as tour de force it could easily have been obscured by the parallels with his own career, but that doesn’t seem to happen because he is so powerful and perfectly cast. Instead his acting seems informed by the similarities of his career and the story of this aging has-been. Rourke gives an understated, sympathetic, touching, and brave performance here. And did I leave out believable? I shouldn’t have. I haven’t seen Sean Penn’s turn as Harvey Milk yet, but if it’s better than this it should go down as one of the greatest pieces of acting in the history of cinema because here Mickey Rourke so completely vanishes into his character that you sometimes forget you are watching a movie. As I’ve said, such a self referential role should have you constantly thinking of the path that must have led from the handsome, stylish rogue who seduced Kim Basenger in 9 ½ WEEKS to the battered, worn, down on his luck non-fighter who fills the screen in this movie. It’s a tribute to pure acting that you don’t.

The funny thing is that Rourke isn’t the only comeback in this movie. Marisa Tomei was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. My first guess would have been that the Academy was finally through punishing her for her win as Best Supporting Actress for MY COUSIN VINNY, but truthfully I think it’s more that the work she does here is also so powerful that they simply couldn’t ignore it. Not only is she the sexiest woman in a movie last year, in spite of being long past Hollywood’s typical ‘Use By’ date for female actors, but she is charming, funny, and nearly naked a great deal of the time. Sure, she’s beautiful. Sure, she’s aged far better than most of the women of her generation. Sure, she was gifted to start with. But here she not only proves her chops as an actor, but also throws shit in the plastic faces of so many other cowardly women who have succumbed to the fear of aging and allowed themselves to be mutilated into walking characatures. As a man who once talked his wife out of having bags of goo shoved into her chest because he felt that changing her amazing natural beauty could only be vandalism, all I can say is- You Go, Girl.

But I can’t help but feel that in the hands of a less gifted director this would have still come out as a superficial melodrama. Luckily Darren Aronofsky was up to the task. I liked his feature film debut, PI, but thought that it was rather contrived. The visual style and techno editing style were interesting, and perfectly in tune with this rather disjointed narrative but I didn’t find it moving. Likewise, in THE FOUNTAIN he also indulged himself in a directorial vision that was appropriate but almost too clever for it’s own good. But here he shows that appropriateness was always his intention, rather than just showing off by drawing attention to himself. Here he approaches a film from 180 degrees the other direction. Oh, the artifice is still there. But as he moves the camera in an almost documentarian fashion, following the characters through their arcs as he frequently follows them literally, shooting their backs as they walk from place to place, he accents the realism of the performances and script by carrying that realism forward almost subliminally. The cinematography is harsh, the set dressing is exquisite, and the camera never draws attention to itself. For instance, in one scene he shows Randy (The Ram) Robinson at a convention of Professional Wrestling greats held in a VFW hall. The folding tables are set in a semi-circle to allow the adoring fans access. Numerous over-the-hill wrestling ex-greats sit behind stacks of posters, tee-shirts, and VHS tapes to eek a few more dollars from their dying legacies. As Rourke’s character scans the room and realizes how many of the other “celebrities” are in wheelchairs, or are damaged, or are just plain old, the camera takes his POV to show the audience what he sees. The effect is subtle, but profound. A master stroke from a director who isn’t as interested in drawing attention to himself as he is in telling a story and drawing the viewer into an alternate reality. Shots like this one fill the movie. Randy working behind the counter at the deli in the grocery store. Randy alone in his trailer. Randy at the strip club. Randy being uncomfortable in the second hand clothing store. Aronofsky never takes you out of the lead characters mind for a moment. And as a result, he leads you to that character’s fate as if it was your own. Before this movie I was afraid that Aronofsky was too impressed with his own intelligence for his own good. Now I see that he’s just too smart for his own good. But you’ll see me in the front row on opening night of his next movie. Hellishly smart directors might not be mainstream successes but they get my business every time.

So if you are the kind of moviegoer who likes things dumbed down to rating movies by the direction of thumbs, or the number of stars, or some other kind of arbitrary graph, well, you probably aren’t the kind of movie buff that would ever come to this site. But if you want to see masterful performances, stories that are more involved with the human condition than explosions, or great experiences and tales told in a way that only film can tell them- see THE WRESTLER and marvel at how involving these things can be when everyone involved is at the absolute top of their game.

And if you want to know what it will be like when you approach the half century mark and your life is losing the shine of youth but you still have to live in a world where youth is valued over wisdom and the young still grapple with lessons life has long since taught you, see THE WRESTLER.

And if you think that life is over after the kids have grown up and you realize that you never been an astronaut or discovered the cure for cancer and so your life was wasted, see THE WRESTLER.

And if you are young and think none of those things could ever happen to you, see THE WRESTLER.

And if you find yourself in Hollywood Video and just want to see a great movie, see THE WRESTLER.

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