Monday, January 19, 2009

Film Review - THE WRESTLER: A Gripping Grappler Drama.

While very few memories of my early childhood still remain present in my increasingly over-taxed frontal lobes, I still hold preciously vivid memories of attending the WWF spectacular at the PNE Coliseum in the now distant year of 1986. Over the course of an enchanting evening, which surely put my mom’s infinite patience to the test, the audience was treated to a litany of unforgettable sights such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart, in his ever-present hot pink tank top, sneering and spitting on a rowdily appreciative crowd, as well as Jake “The Snake” Roberts lugging his trademark python around the ring to mass applause and adoration.

While silly in retrospect, those unforgettable sights over-powered my 6-year-old imagination like a Flux Capacitor on a DeLorean, and as I’ve grown older they’ve remained encapsulated in a hazy golden glow of nostalgia. Yet, watching Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Wrestler, which arrives on a tidal wave of goodwill for newly resurrected comeback kid Mickey Rourke, I found those wistful childhood memories frequently dragged kicking and screaming into the present.

Playing Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a once great superstar in the WWF tradition, who is now a lonely trailer-park denizen with bad knees, a hearing aid and an over-reliance on prescription medication, Rourke disappears under a cloak of physical and emotional pain. As he travels to beat-up gyms and dingy community centres to perform in violent low-level wrestling matches for cash and perhaps one last chance for glory, Randy’s disappointment and understanding of his rapidly dwindling celebrity is reflected through the battered eyes of Rourke, a once-great talent also very familiar with lost potential.

For all his flaws, injuries and emotional shortcomings however, Randy remains a sadly loving individual who yearns to connect with those around him. Between visits to a scuzzy local strip club, where he pines for a middle-aged pole dancer named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), he clumsily attempts to repair his broken relationship with his rightfully resentful daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Captured with near-documentary precision by Aronofsky and cinematographer Maryse Alberti, these relationships and affecting encounters, as well as Randy’s quest for relevance, form the central narrative of The Wrestler, a film which eschews typical Hollywood story-telling in favour of in-depth character study and profound emotional truths.

With his long, tacky bleached blonde hair, as well as an imposing stature and craggy features which bring to mind Marvel Comic’s The Thing, it’s amazing how winning Rourke comes across, and how he manages to convey the experience of living within Randy’s skin to the audience. From the exhilaration of standing in front of a crowd of enthusiastic screaming fans, to the humiliation of being forced to work for low wages at a measly deli counter job, there is an uncanny sense of transference at work, washing Randy’s joys and sorrows over us in unstoppable waves. To call the performance a masterwork is to sell it short; Rourke is the pulsating exposed heart of The Wrestler, delivering a performance so steeped in reality that it’s often difficult to separate the creator from the creation.

Rourke’s co-stars prove to be equally up to the daunting challenge of matching his go-for-broke portrayal. Tomei, an actress who seems to be hitting her professional stride in recent years, is a fine counterpart to the commanding star. A mirror reflection of Randy’s own battle to remain viable in a youth-driven field, her stripper character walks a fine line between loving and distant. She recognizes as much good in him as bad, and Tomei’s brave performance allows us to sympathize with her at the same time we crave for a solution to Randy’s crippling loneliness. Similarly Evan Rachel Wood creates an honest and gripping three-dimensional portrait of bare childhood wounds in just a few short but invaluable scenes.

The performances would be for nought though, if it weren’t for Aronofsky’s steady directorial hand, unobtrusively revealing the layers of Randy’s world and allowing his actors supportive free reign over their environment and performances. There isn’t a single clumsy moment or false sentiment in The Wrestler, and Aronofsky’s effortless mastery over the film’s key scenes, such as Randy’s heartbreaking beach-side walk with his daughter or a gruesome extreme wrestling match featuring staple-guns and barb wire, further solidifies him as one of our most important of new directors.

For all of his dreams, virtues and faults, Randy “The Ram” Robinson goes on the short-list of the greatest of modern film characters, an individual who I felt strangely richer for having been able to be introduced to. The Wrestler is a stirring exploration of the human spirit, as well as a painful reminder of one of life’s many tragedies: that our heroes, no matter how romanticized or forgotten, are ultimately destined to grow old along with us.

5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Jan. 19th, 2009.

Film Review - THE UNBORN: Kill It! Kill It!

When reviewing a truly stupid and clunky film, it’s often tempting to avoid critical thought and instead simply hurl an endless assortment of pithy puns and one-liners in a self-conscious attempt to feel superior to the lame subject at hand. For example, in dealing with the Michael Bay-produced The Unborn I could simply snidely refer to it as being “poorly conceived”, “labourously delivered” or, perhaps more crudely, “a messy afterbirth”. But I shan’t let these alluring temptations sway my course in properly informing you of how truly pitiful and dunderheaded The Unborn truly is.

Set in a very murky looking Chicago, The Unborn opens with that most treasured standby of hacky horror scribes: the surreal dream sequence. In this particular nightmarish-reverie, young Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman – last seen playing monster fodder in Cloverfield) strolls uneasily through a lonely, foreboding suburban street where she encounters a paper-masked dog and a blue-eyed demon-child. Despite her friends’ and families’ dismissive attitudes toward these nocturnal terrors (not to mention her sudden change in eye colour), it becomes swiftly apparent during a particularly hellish babysitting gig that otherworldly forces are at fiendish play.

With a little light research, Casey discovers two vitally important facts: that she is of Jewish ancestry, with familial ties to Nazi concentration camps and experimentation, and more importantly, that she once had a twin brother who died while still in utero. In bringing these shocking revelations to light, our intrepid heroine learns that she is being supernaturally hounded by a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit famed in Jewish folklore, who yearns to enter into our world through her. With the aid of slumming special guest star Gary Oldman, playing a friendly neighbourhood rabbi, young Casey must valiantly attempt to exorcise the pesky demonic nuisance and forever close the book on her family’s own frighteningly tumultuous past.

Now, in theory, the concept of a Jewish variation on The Exorcist is a great idea. Why should the Catholics have all the fun in banishing paranormal trouble-makers and kicking undead ass? Unfortunately though, writer/director David S. Goyer (the screenwriting guiding force behind Wesley Snipes’ Blade trilogy, who also acted as a collaborator of increasingly dubious importance on the recent Batman films) is unquestionably not the man to accomplish so noble a task.

From the outset, in failing to establish a compelling canvas for his characters, Goyer bungles the whole project. The best atmospheric horror flicks, like The Shining or Poltergeist, depend on well-established relatable characters who involve us in their day-to-day lives, drawing us into a false sense of comfort before the screaming starts. The Unborn, unfortunately, ditches this philosophy and utilizes the Slasher film motif, which calls for one-dimensional Calvin Klein models who speak solely in the robotic type of teen-speak best known by forty-year-old Hollywood writers.

In addition, Goyer fails to create an interesting environment or back-story for Casey, his bland heroine. It’s hard to feel much empathy or fright when we’re asked to spend 87 minutes with frequently underwear-clad nonentity. Yustman, a pleasant Megan Fox lookalike, may possess talent but, judging from her often laughably overly sincere performance, lacks the charisma and skill to carry a film. (Yes, even this one!) Her limited range is especially apparent when acting opposite Gary Oldman, a pro even under the direst of circumstances, who understands the importance in adding dimension and idiosyncratic flair to tone-deaf dialogue and flat characterizations.

While Goyer fills his oddly self-important horror show with some creepy visuals, such as a dog with an upside down head and a freaky twisted-up old man who walks like a crab, he too often relies on annoying shots of his generic evil child antagonist shrieking. At this point, after sitting through umpteen Ring and Grudge clones, the days of finding well-dressed demonic children frightening are well behind me, not to mention endless chase scenes through moonlit abandoned gothic sets.

The fact that The Unborn is so cheerlessly dreary and persistently dull makes it almost impossible to really fire up much critical wrath over it. This is the type of artless quick-buck scary movie created to win a slow box-office weekend before vanishing into the nether realms of your local video store’s dusty horror section. You could almost pronounce it “stillborn” upon arrival... Not that I ever would, of course.

1 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Jan. 19th, 2009