Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Wrestler

Though Darren Aronofsky's career hasn't been that of commercial successes, his short but powerful resume has mustered a hefty amount of critical acclaim. Beginning with the quirky math-thriller Pi and his painfully honest adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr's novel Requiem for a Dream. After a long and troubled production on his 3rd film, the fantasy parable The Fountain, which was ultimately panned by critics, Aronofsky stepped back to the small scale character drama The Wrestler featuring the comeback of former Hollywood heartthrob turned hulking behemoth, Mickey Rourke.

Adorned with flowing blond locks and about 35 extra pounds of muscle-mass, Rourke re-emerges on the big screen (small screen if you missed the theatrical release like me) as the washed up pro-wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson. We only get a glimpse of his former glory in the opening credits, awash with main event posters set to the various over-enthusiastic announcers and Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head" (which also doubles as The Ram's entrance music in later scenes,) but any pro-wrestler that has his own action figure (sadly displayed on the dash of his beat up van) and Nintendo Game representation was a big deal in his glory days.

Aronofsky's work is no stranger to personal tragedy and "The Ram" is no exception. Immediately following the credits we're greeted with a "20 Years Later" title matched with a shot of Rourke sitting in a locker room with his back to us. And the sadness begins. The tale of Randy "The Ram" Robinson is that of a man who never created a coping mechanism for the real world, having spent the majority of his adult life in the pro-wrestling circuit (so we're led to believe) in front of the camera as an entertainer. In essense, he's a horse put out to pasture with no intention of dying on someone elses terms. Trying desperately to hang on to who he once was by partaking in small circuit matches and conventions on the weekends, a day job is seemingly out of the question. Though maintaining said lifestyle (heavy training, enhancement drugs, booze and strippers) without the benefit of the big WWE bucks presents a challange in and of itself. And then his heart gives out.

A large portion of the film (including the first 10 minutes of so before we even see Randy's face) is shot handheld, following behind the character. It wasn't until a key moment that I realized exactly what the purpose was. Having seen a handful of WWE shows on television, the camera will follow a given opponent through the green-rooms and back hallways on their way to a match. This aspect of Randy's former lifestyle was seamlessly applied to his everyday life, adding more weight to the tragic narrative that is The Ballad of Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

Of course all the "Resurrection of Mickey Rourke" talk is completely true. Since he re-emerged from his bare-knuckle boxing days looking less Rocky Balboa more Rocky Dennis, he's knocked out a few roles here and there (the most memorable being the oafish hard-luck Marv from Sin City, less so was his hard-ass mercenary from Domino) but nothing with the dramatic weight that he displays in The Wrestler. It's one thing to be able to spout one-liners and act thuggish, but it's another kind of talent to make an audience feel sympathy for someone who, at the end of the day, really deserves none. Marisa Tomei reins in a performance infinitely more deserving of the Oscar she claimed back in '93 (granted the competition was tighter this year) and Evan Rachel Wood pulls off some of the most heart-wrenching verbal fights I've seen onscreen in recent years (granted I haven't seen Revolutionary Road yet.) Stepping the realism up a few more notches are the actual indie-circuit wrestlers that make up "The Ram's" opponents throughout the story, some of the stunts (staples, barbed wire, hidden razors for impromptu bleeding in the ring) I am still not certain were "effects" or not.

After seeing this (and subsequently seeing it performed live not long ago,) I think it's an outright travesty that Bruce Springsteen's song of the same title as the film wasn't even nominated for an award by the Academy this year. I mean, I'm glad Slumdog Millionaire swept the way it did, but this song is nothing short of epic. And it's The Boss. I mean, come on.

Darren Aronofsky has proven himself to be not just a good filmmaker, but an exceptional one. In a way, I almost prefer that he maintains his footing on the edge of the mainstream industry, shepherding in new talent the likes of Rian Johnson (Brick and the upcoming Brothers Bloom) and Brad Anderson (The Machinist and Transiberian.) With four wildly diverse films under his belt, I'm eagerly anticipating whatever comes next in Mr. Aronofsky's expanding resume.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crank: High Voltage


Ok. Since the movie in question is hands down the most ridiculous thing I've seen onscreen since Shoot 'Em Up (and Crank 1 before that,) I'm going to dispense with the formalities and make this review as crass as the movie itself. Also... Spoiler Warning. Just putting it out there.

Holy shit! You knew after seeing the end of Crank that somehow, some way they'd bring back errant bad ass, Jason Statham, for a follow up, and boy did they ever deliver. The answer? Robot Heart. That's right. They gave Chev fuckin' Chelios a goddamn robot heart.

Now the premise of Crank was that his bloodstream was toxified with an agent that required him to maintain a constant release of adrenaline. This made for all kinds of absurd behavior, ranging from racial slurs in a gang bar to coke snorting all the way to sex in public. This time, with said robot heart dependent on an electrical charge every... let's say five minutes (as it were in the movie, at least) this allows for even more absurd behavior, ranging from (but not limited to) jumper-cables on the nipple and tongue (see complementary poster above...) tazers, car cigarette lighters and yet another foray into PDA.

So far, the Crank series is the stupidest set of movies I'm not afraid to admit I absolutely love. It's probably because the movie is operating on a level of self-awareness that most actioneers should be striving for (take notes Michael Bay...) Crank 2 doesn't just wink at the camera, it laughs at it and outright gives it the finger (literally.) Most of what goes on in Crank 2 happens, quite simply, because it can. Godzilla homage? Sure. Genital mutilation? Why not.

Predecessor alums Amy Smart, Dwight Yoakam and Efren Ramirez return for the craziness (and honestly, who wouldn't?) while adding some new (yet familiar) faces including Clifton Collins Jr. (Capote,) Corey Haim (rehab), and Bai Ling (who is eccentric enough as it is, when added to the Crank recipe, is all but unbearably obnoxious.) Not to mention a slew of pseudo-celebrity cameos (David Carradine, Geri Halliwell and Lloyd Kaufman among others) that you'll likely not even notice unless you scour the page.

Though, for me, one of the higher points of praise for Crank: High Voltage was the score by none other than alternative-noise rock-savant, Mike Patton. Less influenced by his tenure in Faith No More and more by projects like Mr. Bungle and his solo material, the accompanying soundtrack compliments the frenetic attitude the film sets out on within the first 10 seconds. What ensues is the audible equivilent of a schizophrenic's crack nightmare that takes place at a circus freakshow from hell. You'll know what I'm talking about when you hear it.

Crank: High Voltage is not to be taken seriously. It exists simply because it can and succeeds at pushing the envelope as far as it can go, and then gives it one last shove off the cliff (or out of the plane, if we're taking the first film into consideration.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Let the Right One In

From every critic and friend I know that's seen this movie, they've all said about the same thing. "This is probably the best horror movie I've seen this year." Whether they're referring to 2008 or 2009, it's still a valid statement. And, yes, it was unnecessarily cock-blocked for a nomination in Best Foreign Film by the Academy. It's movies like this and The Strangers that remind me what it is I love about horror movies. You can assault my visual senses with gore and violence all you want, but you'll be hard pressed to actually scare me with any of it. The creepy-factor comes from atmosphere and tone (see also, The Strangers, Session 9, Jacob's Ladder, etc.) Something that makes me feel as uncomfortable as the characters do.

Let the Right One In is a Swedish film based on a book of the same nationality and title (soon to be remade here in the states, and we all know how those end up, so don't get me started...) With the unfortunate timing to be released the same year as the trainwreck of a blockbuster Twilight, Let the Right One In almost serves as the soon-to-be franchises evil (read: cooler) twin. Both involve vampires (Twilight uses the term vampire as loosely as can allow,) a feeling of loneliness and a forbidden love. The major difference is that the latter of the two actually manages to succeed at all three. So let's just forget that Twilight doesn't exist for the duration of the review, shall we?

The subtlety of Let the Right One In is what makes it effectively scary. A major sin in the American horror industry is that spectacles of violence and gore are amped up and overblown with flashy close ups and anticipatory swells in the accompanying musical score. LtROI doesn't rely on such visual trickery to be effective. The fact that the despicable acts are treated as equally to the rest of the film (and at times underplayed) make them harder to stomach, comparatively. The gore and violence is far from excessive, which actually makes it feel that much more disturbing when it does come up.

Almost immediately after the DVD release, there were complaints and rants circulating the internet regarding the English subtitles for the US release being abbreviated and "dumbed down." I've seen the comparisons and there is a substantial chunk that was omitted (for no other reason, assuming, than to cater to a DVD audience that doesn't like reading,) though having seen the edited subs, it really doesn't affect the overall experience of the film. While the dialog IS an important aspect of any movie, Let the Right One In relies more on tone in the end.

Sadly, with any successful overseas genre piece, Hollywood has already bought the rights to the source material (novel) and greenlit the American remake, which will no doubt age the characters up to acceptable social standards and spell out every implied nuance in the story. Before this (expected) attrocity hits the theaters (in a wider release than it's predecessor,) do yourself a favor and see the Swedish version.