Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Wrestler

"I'm an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be all alone

Written by: Robert D. Spiegel

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

My rating: 10/10


Ok, so a part of me really loved Rocky Balboa for it's sensitive treatment of the ageing sports legend but part of me knew it was a chickenshit movie and due to a lazy ending, only mediocre. The Wrestler is what Rocky Balboa could have been if Stallone had the balls that Mickey Rourke and Darren Aronofsky have. The Wrestler follows the flagging career of an ageing, you guessed it, wrestler. In his prime Randall "the Ram" Robinson was a true wrestling star, complete with Nintendo game and action figures. However, 20 years on he is still competing in matches with younger men and pumping himself full of steroids in order to keep up. His body is giving up and he is coming to terms with his limitations, giving the impression that this is the first time he has ever had to consider such a thing.

To say that Mickey Rourke puts in the performance of his career is an understatement. He puts in one of the greatest performances anyone has ever given. Due to the obvious parallels to his own life, it is insanely brave to take on this role with the passion and vigour that Rourke goes for here. His crumbling exterior, his grotesquely bulky body, it all seems like Rourke is taking a long hard look in the mirror and coming to terms with what he has become.

The film deals with so many issues that we have seen onscreen before, but Aronofsky is a deft hand at revitalising stories with his kinetic camerawork. A completely new style for the director, the stripped-bare, warts n all cinematography is just as intense as his usual fast-paced, punchy style. In fact, it seemed he learned a lot of lessons from his overly-ambitious last film "The Fountain". His latest film is personal and intimate, yet no less involving.

When I heard the Oscar nominations this year, I was shocked to find that this wasn't nominated for a screenplay award. Actually, I was disgusted. The dialogue in theis film is so streamlined and natural that it nicely covers how deliberate and important every single word is in giving the audience a sense of a man living forever in his glory days. His refusal to listen to anything post-Cobain, or to play video games that aren't Nintendo are little illustrations of his tendency to live in the past.

This film is a tragedy, an epic tragedy that doesn't over-indulge in melodrama. It actually goes so far as to bring the story to the point of melodrama, then fade to black, leaving the devastated adience to deal with their feelings themselves, without the help of closure or sad music (although Springsteen's beautiful theme song, The Wrestler is aptly heart-wrenching).

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It is beautiful, eloquent and inspiring, with superb performances and I must say it's worth watching just to see what came of Aronofsky's makeover from flashy to verite!

- Charlene Lydon (25/1/09)

Monday, January 05, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Written By: Charlie Kaufman

Directed By: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan

My rating: 7/10

Charlie Kaufman, the most twisted, sincere, crazy, heartfelt writer in Hollywood is allowed to direct his own crazy vision. Good thing? Bad thing? I have to say I am a true believer in the role of the studio bigwigs in reining in directors and saving them from themselves. Give an auteur too much power and sometimes they go crazy and just make a load of drivel (see Woody Allen back catalogue from the past 15 years). Unfortunately, Synecdoche, New York is a prime example of this. It is a film so vast in it's thesis that it could only be pulled off with strict and delicate discipline. I really felt that Kaufman went a little bit haywire and destroyed his potentially profound masterpiece.

The story is about a theatre director, Caden Cotard (Hoffman) who decides to embark on a project which is based on his current life, a sort of ongoing play which twists and turns with his life. He casts actors as himself and as the women in his life. However, as life and the play begin to intertwine the play takes on a life of its own and the line between reality and fiction are crossed and crossed and crossed.

The concept of the film is wonderful, and brilliantly pulled off. The development of the story and the ease with which the craziness is created is really admirable. Every single actor in the film is wonderful and their characters are brilliant, particularly Samantha Morton as Caden's true love.

The main problem with the film is that Kaufman doesn't stick to a realistic craziness, he adds a few moments of magical weirdness which, to me, upsets the story and takes the audience out of the illusion of Caden's life-play. There's Hazel's house which is constantly on fire. Literally. Then there's Sammy, a mysterious man who follows Caden around from the start. His reasons, when they are revealed, are also a bit silly. Think how the second season of Twin Peaks got silly for the sake of silly, unlike the first season that gave the audience enough reality to stick with it. That's the feeling I got from this movie. When a plot is so outlandish, it needs to keep it's feet on the ground and I really think this was Kaufman's fatal flaw. This is where studio bigwigs may have actually been helpful for a change. I believe he was given too much creative control for such an immense project.

Negative aspects aside though, this is an amazing film in many ways. The scope of it, and the depth of it reaching unimaginable proportions. Just thinking about trying to put this film together is enough to make your head spin. Kudos must go to the entire cast and crew of this film for giving it socks in every way. Hoffman was his usual sad-sack self and really gave his character, em, character, if not likeability. Michelle Williams absolutely glows as the actress Caden falls for and the casting director gets serious slaps on the back for casting Emily Watson as Samantha Morton. They're identical, who knew??

This is a difficult film to recommend to people. It is his most challenging film to date, and unfortunately, his most pretentious.However, it is enjoyable and certainly profound. The end of the film pays off as it starts to get back to the heart of the characters and this is definitely where Kaufman prevails. Nobody does love like Charlie Kaufman. It's tragic, it's full of mistakes and regrets and it's all-consuming. See it if you feel like a challenge but beware, it's a tough one.

By Charlene Lydon 05/01/09

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Seven Pounds

Written By: Grant Nieporte

Directed By: Gabriele Muccino

Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson

My Rating: 8/10

Seven Pounds is one of those films that seems to divide people dramatically. It may be called emotionally manipulative, unrealistic and overly sentimental. It may also be called profound, Shakespearean, and an interesting examination of the human spirit more in-depth than most other films dare to go. It seems to me that all of the above are true. The film is overly sentimental and tries its damnedest to make you cry every 15 minutes or so. However, it is also a really beautiful story based around a man’s search for a redemption he can’t ever really give himself, inspired by Shakespeare’s “pound of flesh” in Merchant of Venice (hence the title).

It is difficult to describe the plot without giving too much away. Will Smith plays an IRS worker named Ben who appears to be visiting random people and testing them emotionally. The audience pieces together over the course of the film exactly what Ben is doing and why. This all builds to a wonderful denouement which will either make you queasy or deeply moved.

There is an argument to be made that the premise is a bit silly and could never really happen in real life but isn’t this why we go to the cinema at all? Gabriele Muccino has that European lack of respect for reality and I truly believe that if this had been a foreign language film, its outlandish premise would be less jarring for the audience. Muccino seems to have found his perfect partner in Will Smith. In their previous film together, The Pursuit of Happyness, they also managed to make an utterly schmaltzy and unabashedly emotionally distressing story into something that seemed to touch people deeply. With Seven Pounds, I felt that they had achieved their goal of telling the story, making it a character study, a love story and a thesis on human guilt and frustration. Will Smith goes darker here than he’s gone since Six Degrees of Separation and it suits him. He and Muccino must be commended for making his relationship with Rosario Dawson’s character so desperate and unsexy and tragic. It really adds to the frustrated mood of the film and the slow and awkward build-up of the relationship was brave, knowing that the box office won’t like that both stars look like death, even at their most radiant.

This is a daring film, an interesting film and if you let yourself get swept away in the story and try to remain uncynical (easier for some than others) you will certainly get something from it, especially towards the end where there is one of the most chilling suicide scenes ever committed to celluloid. It’s probably not for everyone but it is a skilfully made film with yet another great Will Smith performance. Give it a chance.

Charlene Lydon 01/01/09

Brideshead Revisited

Written By: Andrew Davies & Jeremy Brock

Directed By: Julian Jarrold

Starring: Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell

My Rating: 5/10

Brideshead Revisited is a British costume drama in the vein of the Merchant Ivory Productions of the 80’s and 90’s. It is sweeping, elegant and sexually charged, but keeps so many things withheld that it is difficult to connect with the characters at all. I know this is representative of what the restraints of society forced people to withhold but this film doesn’t allow you to get to the heart of the story or characters simply because the filmmakers don’t seem to have the skill to represent emotion in such a subtle way.

The story is told from the point of view of Charles (Matthew Goode), a poor working class man who goes to Oxford and falls in with the very rich Sebastian Flyte (Whishaw). They begin a relationship of sorts and Sebastian takes Charles to his home, Brideshead, where he meets his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) and his commanding, devoutly Catholic mother (Emma Thomson). As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that this woman’s strict enforcement of Catholic guilt has destroyed each of her family members who can’t seem to forgive themselves for any indiscretions and therefore hate themselves.

Charles acts less as a typical protagonist but more as a catalyst for the events that transpire. The film is at its best and it’s darkest when it explores the fall of each individual character due to their mother’s successful attempt to make them fear their God. For a film whose basis is a homosexual relationship, I think this relationship could have been explored a bit more. The TV miniseries on BBC in the 80’s had an excuse for shying away from the homosexual elements, but in this day and age I would have thought that it could be explored more fully and that sexual tension could have been heightened to more than the odd, awkward kiss on the lips.

While the performances were all perfectly fine, there was an overall lack of charisma onscreen, even in the presence of Emma Thomson who was flaunting her thespian ways but not really achieving anything. The direction and pacing were uninspired and at no point did it rise above feeling like television. It is difficult not to be pulled into the scandaliciousness of it all but that fizzles halfway through and leads to an ending that leaves the audience to shrug their shoulders and wonder why they bothered at all.

To the uninitiated (like myself) into the world of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, there’s plenty here to entertain. The story goes along well and the performances are enjoyable. I imagine fans of the book would balk at the mediocrity of the film. It isn’t an entirely unpleasant film to watch but ultimately there’s just not enough of an ending to warrant what comes before, main characters just fall by the wayside and the final scenes feel very tacked on.

Charlene Lydon 28/12/2008

Bedtime Stories

Written By: Tim Herlihy & Matt Lopez

Directed By: Adam Shankman

Starring: Adam Sandler, Keri Russell, Guy Pearce

My rating: 6/10

It’s hard to believe that nobody thought of this before; Adam Sandler doing Disney movies. It makes perfect sense really. There’s something so over-the-top about Adam Sandler’s presence that children would easily enjoy him. He obviously likes the gimmicky comedy and he did well in his previous foray into what was kind of a children’s movie Click. The Sandler-Disney dynamic actually seems to work very well. Finally, he’s forced to make a film that’s not interrupted by very jarring Sandler wit. There is still the obligatory Rob Schneider cameo, but it is not allowed to destroy the flow of the film. Bedtime Stories is a straight up Disney movie. It’s big-budget, heart-warming, full of special effects and big characters.

Bedtime Stories tells the story of Skeeter (Adam Sandler), who works as a handyman in a hotel which, according to a promise made long ago to his father, he should now be running. He is looking after his sister’s (Courteney Cox) kids for a week and while telling them bedtime stories, the stories start to come to life. No scientific explanation necessary or, indeed, attempted. Skeeter uses this to help him overcome the snooty hotel manager (Guy Pearce), find love (with pretty teacher Keri Russell) and discover what’s truly important in life.

This film is very fun and full of the trademark Disney magic. It reminded me a lot of films like Jumanji or Night at the Museum but unfortunately it fails to provide the action-packed fun of those films. There are surprisingly few action sequences in the film. Each time a bedtime story is told, there’s a fun little fantasy in which Sandler becomes a cowboy or a chariot racer. These are really silly and ridiculous and fun. It’s nice to see Sandler’s humour used for kids. I think it really works and it’s just a pity that there aren’t enough of these sequences.

The supporting cast were pretty lacklustre. It seems Courteney Cox has had so much botox she can no longer speak properly or move her face. Russell Brand plays Skeeter’s wacky best friend. Reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’ forays into Hollywood, his performance feels awkward and contrived, an imitation of himself almost. Guy Pearce plays against type as the villainous hotel manager. He seems to have a lot of fun with it, all false tan and pink lip gloss, and it’s nice to see such a serious actor have a bit of fun. He even treats us to a song and dance number.

Bedtime Stories has a cute post-modern vibe but a very predictable plot. The Sandler-Disney team has potential though and his humour works in the context of a children’s film. It’s definitely just for kids, there’s not much here for grown ups but it’s the kind of big-hearted, magical film that are few and far between.

Charlene Lydon 28/12/2008