Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Wrestler: A Masterpiece of Cinema

The Wrestler (David Aronofsky, 2008) (Home) The Wrestler is a quintessentially human film, and is heartbreaking in its simple honesty: Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) is a broken down old piece of meat that has only ever felt alive in the wrestling ring, invigorated by the adoration of the crowd.

Rourke plays Randy straight up: he's not a complicated or conflicted character. He likes to live hard and fast to a soundtrack of Gun-n-Roses and Skid Row, but a few too many fights and a heart attack under the belt and it seems like time to slow down. Time to take stock before he's wearing a catheter, wheel chair bound, or rendered a mental cripple.

As Randy looks around him and sees how empty his life outside of the limelight is - a crappy job, a ratty trailer to call home, an estranged daughter, a sort-of-maybe girlfriend - my heart ached. I felt his confusion and fear as he scrambled to build a few connections, to root himself in a real world where relationships are not choreographed and there is no roaring crowd to render even the most egregious sin forgiven.

This film brought tears to my eyes, and made my heart literally ache at the vast emptiness this simple but quintessentially good man lives in. I have always loved Scorcese's Raging Bull for its ability to make the audience understand even a little bit the way that Jake LaMotta sees the world - but in the end La Motta never boils down to anything but a wounded animal.

Randy the Ram is wounded, but it's his heart that is broken by more than cardiac arrest, and he understands instinctively that his redemption is not to be found in the ring - even though that may be all that is left.

I lament the fact that I missed The Wrestler in theatres, where I could have sat in the dark sharing the experience with the crowd and savoring that glorious last shot, and the abrupt climax, haunted as it is by the spectre of what could have been. It's not often that we have a chance to see such powerful performances as those given by Rourke and Marisa Tomei as they wound and soothe each other - their characters have both been used hard in this life, and they have so much to give each other.

The Wrestler is a compelling portrait of the human condition, and a true masterpiece of cinema. I saw Milk, and I respect Sean Penn - but Rourke deserved the Oscar.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Julie & Julia

I'm a bit slow out of the gate with this one, having seen it at least two weeks ago. However, one way or the other, here we go.

Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009) (The Oxford) I have recently received some feedback on my blog to the effect that my posts are too long and too detailed - it seems that many people don't make it to the end of the post, where my recommendation is usually served up as a grand finale. In a nod to the wishes of my long-suffering readers, I shall dispense with preliminaries and declare Julie & Julia a wonderful film that is very worth watching- actually, I think that delightful may just be le mot juste.

No Basterds Here
However, J&J is not delightfully indulgent as was the case with Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. Far from it: J&J is delightful for bringing a luminous character to life on screen and making the audience feel that they are getting to know her via some kind of telephone line through time - no blood, gore, gunfights, or explosions folks.

The film actually intertwines the stories of two now famous cooks: Julia Child herself (Meryl Streep), as she discovers the wonders of French cooking while in Paris in 1948 and decides to share it with the average American housewife by writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking; and Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a young American who hated her job and in 2002 found a way out of it by writing a blog chronicling her determination to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the space of one year.

Two Stories Boil Down to One
Sure J&J is ostensibly the story of these two aspiring cooks, but to my mind it is really only about one person and one cooking journey: Meryl Streep steals the show so completely as Julia Child that when I think of the movie I barely think of the Julie part of it. This is no slight to Amy Adams, who does a very good job playing the pouty/perky/precocious/pouty New Yorker cooking away her frustrations in life and making her own lucky break in the process. Rather it is a tribute to an actress who hardly needs another tribute (As The Onion is happy to point out).Few actors or actresses reach the height of the dramatic arts with as much class as Ms. Streep. I don't even know where to begin: an angel on earth, appearing in a soft halo of ethereal beauty in The Deer Hunter, a poet dreamer in Out of Africa, an action hero in The River Wild, a bitch goddess to beware of in The Devil Wears Prada, a temptress of the innocent in The Simpsons, and a flinty incarnation of the cold, inhuman power of politics in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

And Meryl Streep is the essence of J&J, outshining the entire cast by reincarnating Julia Child right before our eyes. A cursory viewing of Julia Child clips on YouTube immediately shows how minutely Streep captured every detail ranging from the master chef's cadence of speech to her sweeping body language. The vivacity of this performance cannot be overstated, and the sheer joy with which she plays the sometimes overbearingly bubbly role is evident in every frame

Admittedly I don't know much about Julia Child, and the film may have (and, who are we kidding, probably did) present a biased imaged. One way or the other, it makes for an engaging movie that leaves you smiling, full of culinary optimism, and hungry for beouf bourguignon.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

District 9.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) (Bayers Lake) About 30 years ago, a massive alien spacecraft entered earth's atmosphere, passed over the great cities of Washington, Paris, and Rome, and came to rest above Johannesburg, South Africa. And it just hovered there, making no contact and showing no signs of life. As time passed, curiosity got the better of those living in its shadow, and a team was sent up to cut its way into the ship.

First Contact
First contact was not epiphanic nor even remotely uplifting - rather than the marvels of a more advanced civilization, those that entered the ship found a motley crew of dirty, malnourished, and thoroughly stranded arthropod-like aliens. A full-scale humanitarian mission ensued, ferrying the pathetic creatures to earth for resettlement and rehabilitation.

The aliens quickly wore out their welcome, as the people of Johannesburg increasingly resented the time and money that was being spent on the newcomers. Far from integrating into human society, the aliens were herded into District 9, which became a heavily-guarded slum rife with crime (such as an underground cat food market to complement a booming arms trade), gang violence, and prostitution.

District 9 picks up up at around this point, with the government having decided to adopt a policy of "out of sight, out of mind." MNU, the multi-national security company charged with policing alien affairs, is assigned the task of evicting the aliens - derogatorily referred to as prawns - and transporting them some 200 miles into the desert to a makeshift concentration camp.

Wilkus van de Merwe (Sharto Copely) is the hapless (read ignorant) middle manager tasked with overseeing the eviction, which quickly devolves into mayhem as heavily-armed, government-sponsored thugs break into the stinking, broken-down hovels and heap both insult and injury on the degraded inhabitants

Echoes of Reality
District 9 is presented as a pseudo-documentary, and is shot in a grainy, raw light that makes it feel very real - similar to The Hurt Locker, or footage you would see from Iraq or the Middle East on the evening news. Everything we view looks extremely real and, more to the point, plausible: the space ship is dirty and rust-streaked even in its hovering majesty; the aliens are individuals with children to care for and mundane real lives that are very apparent rather than merely sci-fi, special effects eye candy; and the MNU agents are (for the most part) bumbling bureaucrats with very human failings. This is not a slick, spit-and-polished movie with a patina of reality - it is gritty realism done right.

Ranging as it does from pseudo-documentary to gory-horror film, shoot-em-up action movie, and thinking man's sci-fi, the look and feel of District 9 is a great accomplishment in film making and a pleasure to behold - even if the short "gory-horror part" was a little more than I could handle.

This sense of realism is further heightened by - and indeed adds to - the eerie resonance of the aliens' milieu vis-a-vis South Africa's very real experience of apartheid, particularly when the fictional neighbourhood of District 9 is contrasted with historical reality of District 6, an inner-city area of Johannesburg that was forcibly cleared under apartheid.

District 9 opened in South Africa yesterday (August 31), and the viewers I heard interviewed on the radio this morning made much of this retelling of the history of apartheid and the all-to-present legacy of that system today - but those reports strike me as a little biased towards the feel-good marketing side of things.

Social Commentary or Rehashed Stereotypes?
I have no doubt the filmmakers were very aware of the correlations between the fictional world of District 9 and South Africa's history of racism and abuse. However, after viewing the film and discussing it with a few friends, I am not sure that this intention is more than skin deep.

There are three main reasons for this, the most glaring being the stereotypes that the filmmakers fall back on. The slum area of District 9 is not a post-apartheid collection of the disadvantaged segment of South Africa's population. Rather, it is an old-school ghetto inhabited by the near-feral aliens and black African arms dealers, pimps, and drug lords who prey on the newcomers. Now, true to the allegory that the makers claim to be presenting, the aliens move towards a light at the end of the tunnel, ending the film with a glimmer of hope. Not so their black cohabitants, who are a literal embodiment of the heart of darkness, not given even the most subtle hint of redemption.

Secondly, the glimmer of hope that the film ends with is not achieved by the aliens overcoming odds. Rather, it is handed to them by a white bureaucrat (Wilkus) who has seen the essential flaw in his character and taken the high road. No, in District 9 the possibility of dignity for the aliens is a gift from a white ruler, not a natural expression of the will to be free on the part of the oppressed.

Thirdly there is the arc of the story itself, which does, as I alluded to earlier, an incredible job of portraying everything from the spaceship to the aliens as very real rather than as fantasy. However, this tone, which is particularly suited to prompting introspection on the part of the audience, is severely undermined by the film's climax. By abandoning the reality augmented by the odd piece of alien technology that seems altogether feasible in favor of a no-holds-barred alien robot vs human heavy weaponry showdown (the shoot-em-up action sequence alluded to above), any semblance of this being a topical film is lost.

Worth a Visit to the Multiplex
I still recommend District 9 highly, especially - as I discussed above - for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the dystopian reality that the filmmakers have so artfully created. However, I do caution that you should not attend in hope of seeing the in-depth analysis of apartheid-era South Africa that the media has gleefully portrayed it as being. Watch, enjoy, cover your eyes at times - but mostly, discuss the issues I have raised above upon exiting the cinema. Even if the film subverts its supposed intention of educating and/or inspiring its audience, you can bring this analysis of the real world it echoes to the table yourself - that's what I would call responsible viewing.