January 10, 2009

The Wrestler (01/10/09)

Lettergrade: A-

I was in college when I saw an excellent documentary called Beyond The Mat, which followed three guys at various stages of their career in the world of professional wrestling: An older guy who refuses to stop, despite the pleas of his family. An icon of the 80s (Jake "The Snake" Roberts), who has really fallen on hard times, completely estranged from his family and fighting off drug problems. And a younger wrestler on the rise, Mick Foley (aka Mankind, aka Cactus Jack), who gets the crap beaten out of him in match after match while trying to be a responsible father and husband.

The Wrestler was written by Robert Siegel, who was once the editor-in-chief of The Onion. He must have seen that movie back in the day and liked it as well. His lead, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (played by Mickey Rourke) contains a bit of all three guys profiled in Beyond The Mat. It's debatable whether Rourke had to stretch all that much to play Randy The Ram, but regardless the result is mesmerizing, and one of the very best movies of the year for me.

One last thing... the picture was directed by Darren Aranofsky, whom I normally find to be a self-important dickhead. Give it a chance anyway, though. It's actually pretty good.

January 4, 2009

The Reader (01/04/09)

Lettergrade: D

After 40 minutes which contain enough Kate Winslet nudity to keep the editors of MrSkin.com busy for a solid week, The Reader really bottoms out fast. Around the 90 minute mark, I found myself struggling to keep from laughing: It's almost like a conglomerated parody of For-Your-Consideration movies rather than something that's making an honest attempt for an award or two itself. It's not that movies shouldn't try to deal with important historical events or matters of sexual awakening, intimacy and self-betterment, but this movie kind of puts several of those concepts in a blender together, and the result is that the whole thing just gets silly fast.

The picture starts in post WWII Germany, where 15 year-old Michael Berg strikes up a sexual relationship with an emotionally distant bus-worker played by Winslet, who is nearly twice his age. Each time before they do the nasty, she asks him to read to her, which of course he does. All throughout history, even in 1945 Deutschland, the prospect of sex is a powerful motivator.

Years later, long after the affair has come to an abrupt and mysterious end, Berg's law class attends a Nazi war-crimes trial where it is alleged that Winslet committed horrible acts while working as an S.S. officer before they met. A key claim is that Winslet falsified certain documents, but Berg quickly reviews a series of flashbacks from earlier in the movie and comes to the realization that it cannot be true as she is unable to read or write! Normally, I'd feel bad giving that away, but the film's early scenes hint at her illiteracy with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to a watermelon, and there's no way that even the most casual of viewers can miss it. Will he reveal to Winslet that he's been at the trial the whole time and/or tell the court her vindicating secret? No, he choses to do nothing, and she goes to the slammer.

Only a few years after that, Michael inexplicably goes from being played by David Kross (who greatly resembles a young Yakov Smirnoff) to Ralph Fiennes, who is gradually looking more and more like Voldemort, even when not appearing in Harry Potter movies. Consumed by complex feelings and unable to truly love as an adult, he starts sending Winslet recordings of himself reading various books. No letters or explanations, nor does he go to visit... just crude home-made versions of books-on-tape -- lots of them.

Although the movie had already started to fizzle at this point, the cheese of credulity truly slid off the cracker of reality for me during an elaborate sequence where the imprisoned Winslet, now in goofy old-age make-up, begins to teach herself to read using Michael's recordings and books from the prison library. Suddenly, I found myself seriously contemplating what the hell this movie was supposed to be about. There's maybe a less ridiculous scenario that can be made from these plot elements, but I don't know what it is and director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliott) sure doesn't either.

I think my big problem, though, is that the movie is very heavy on inaction. She's on trial... he could go visit her, but he doesn't. She's about to be sentenced... he could give his vital information to the court, but he doesn't. She's in the joint... might he go visit so they can talk about what's going through his mind? Nope, he doesn't. What the hell? Why does he even need to be in the second half of the movie? The wrongness of their age difference, and the fucked-up'dness of her having worked in the concentration camps is never really addressed either. In fact, their sexual relationship seems to have been largely pleasant and mutually beneficial. So ultimately, I guess his deal is that he never got over his first girlfriend, who years later turned out to be a sadistic, pedophiliac Nazi who wrestled with illiteracy. That's too bad, but movie doesn't seem to have much else up its sleeve.

I know I should be grateful that it's awards season - meaning it's the time of year where movies are less about stuff blowing up and more about characters. Nevertheless, I gotta label The Reader as a big chunk of Oscar-needy shit.

January 1, 2009

Marley & Me (1/1/09)

Lettergrade: B

The "me" half of Marley & Me is played by Owen Wilson. The ads kinda downplay that, hinting instead that the other half of the title refers to the ever-stunning Jennifer Aniston. It doesn't, but it's a very good movie nevertheless.

This flick was made by David Frankel, who also directed The Devil Wears Prada in 2007. Like that movie, this was one that I wasn't especially excited to see, although once I was in the theater, I was surprised by the maturity and thoughtfulness of the filmmaking. He doesn't exactly light the screen aflame with his camera set-ups or his staging (which tend to show his TV roots, I think), but he's really good at getting the characters to feel real and making the story connect, two traits which are arguably much more important anyway.

Minor complaints are that the movie feels a little episodic at times, especially when Marley is running amok and causing havoc at special occasions, but it's not as cloying or as painful as a single frame from any Beethoven movie you can name, by comparison.

A word of caution, however: This is a family dog movie, and in the history of family dog literature, TV specials, and cinematic endeavors, the dog always winds up in the exact same condition by the end of the flick. As "dead dog movies" go, this one is especially drawn out and painful: practically the Green Mile of family pet flicks. It's shameless, yes, but I challenge even the most stone-hearted of critics to hold back the tears by the end.