Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes



DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, directed by Matt Reeves (130 min.)

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is not only a sequel that enhances and improves upon the origin story from 2011, it is one of the best films of 2014.  That seems silly to say about a film revolving around CGI Simians and their fight against desperate humans, and it very well could have been that way.  That is the magic of the film, the way it manages to counter what could be a campy premise and could easily devolve into corny farce with real, raw emotion, great performances (both human and ape, though the latter dominates here), compelling narrative threads, and thrilling action in perfect harmony with moments of important and patient development.  I was blown away.

The “first” film in this series, Rise of The Planet of The Apes, was a prequel set up to bridge the gap between what happened in the present day and what Charlton Heston found in the true first film in the franchise, the 1968 classic.  The success and quality of that picture leads us to Dawn, and ten years after the apes stormed the Golden Gate Bridge and disappeared into the forests of Northern California.  In this near future, a virus – labeled the “Simian Flu” – has spread among the humans, nearly wiping them off the planet except for a few pockets of desperate survivors immune to the disease.  Meanwhile, the ape society that fled into the Redwoods has evolved even further, speaking more, thinking more, developing into a primitive tribal society in the foothills of the region.  They have a caste system reminiscent of the original Planet of The Apes where the Gorillas are the muscle, the chimpanzees common society, and the Orangutans the educators and philosophers. 

This raw societal dynamic is still led by Caesar, the focal point of the first film who has grown into a strong and respected leader of the apes.  Caesar is, by virtue of the testing from Rise, the most evolved and thoughtful of the apes and is also a family man with a… wife?... a young impressionable son and a new baby boy.  Caesar still has some fond memories of the humans while his second in command, the scarred and bitter Koba, holds nothing but hatred.  None of these apes, who communicate through sign language and sparse dialogue, have seen a human in two years.  So when a ragtag group of explorers pop up on the outskirts of their village, the society is upset and becomes somewhat divided.


The humans come from downtown San Francisco where a few hundred survivors have collected.  This broken society is led by Dreyfus, played sparingly by Gary Oldman.  The explorers who stumble upon the ape village are simply trying to get to a nearby dam to see if they can use its power to restore downtown Frisco.  The de facto leader of this group is Malcolm, played with fantastic gravitas by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke.  He, along with his son and his girlfriend (both lost their significant others in the plague), Ellie (Keri Russell),  and a few more humans must talk their way through Caesar’s society in order to get the power they need.  The relationship works, tentatively, at first.  Caesar and Malcolm develop trust with one another, and learn about each other.  But there is distrust and dissention among the ranks in both the human and Simian camp, and soon a double cross leads to an all out war between the two sides.

It is amazing to me the way director Matt Reeves and the screenwriters and effects crew are able to construct this film to work on so many levels.  Not once are the apes farcical or goofy, they are completely believable.  And not only that, even though the human actors are wonderful in their roles, there is an honest and undeniable emotional attachment to these apes.  Caesar and his family are paramount to this incredibly engaging journey.  There are deep philosophical elements to the story about trust and even xenophobia, and stories about friendship and what it means to lead.  The action is paced perfectly, with enough time in between the big set pieces and shootouts to truly engage with characters both human and CGI.  There are moments here, and shots from cinematographer Michael Seresin, which invoke the awe and wonder of early Spielberg fantasy films, especially a lovely musical moment in the forest at an abandoned gas station lit up among the greenery.

As good as Rise of The Planet of The Apes was, Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is that much better, in virtually every way.  The characters are smart and soulful, and there are sequences that engage us more than any summer blockbuster should do.  This is an example of perfect balance in a film that is bigger than most, and could have suffered from the bloat and noise and annoyances of a certain robot franchise.  Naturally these prequel films will be, at the least, a trilogy, and the set up is in place for a third entry.  Bring on Battle of The Planet of The Apes.

A    

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Snowpiercer


SNOWPIERCER: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, directed by Joon-ho Bong (126 min.)

Just when the postapocalyptic sci-fi landscape in film has started showing rust and staleness, along comes Snowpiercer, a wild and unhinged action thriller with a crazy setting and even crazier characters filling the screen.  The premise is intriguing, if not a little silly when you sit and think about it.  But that's the thing, don't think about it.  Director Joon-ho Bong has achieved what many sic-fi directors cannot these days: he has created a world so unique and so Gonzo that one cannot help get caught up in the plight of these characters, no matter how much reality eludes the story.  Snowpiercer is a one of a kind film I did not expect to see when the lights went down.

The setting is 2031 seventeen years after the world, for all intents and purposes, has ended.  In 2014 the governments of the world, in an attempt to bring down the planet's temperature, released a chemical compound into the atmosphere.  This never goes well.  In no short time the temperature of the planet falls through the floor and the world is frozen solid.  Nearly everything and everyone dies, except those lucky (or unlucky) enough to board a train which rockets around the earth on a vast track crossing all continents.  The train is long and whisks over the tracks and through the frozen landscape, run by a never-ending mysterious engine invented by the leader, or God, of the new world, Wilford (Ed Harris).  For seventeen years this train has been circling the earth, and the path takes a calendar year which is a handy tool to mark off time.

Within the train, a harsh class system has evolved between the haves and the have nots.  Those kept in the tail of the train are poor and crowded, dirty and disheveled, fed only gelatin-like protein bars for every meal.  This lower class are guarded heavily from getting to the front of the train, where the rich live in lush cabins and spend their time drinking and dining and enjoying nightclubs and free dental work.  Occasionally, Mason (Tilda Swinton) makes a trip to the impoverished to dole out disturbing and creative punishment and set the rules straight once again.  Swinton wonderfully chews scenery like she never has before, embellishing some nice idiosyncrasies in the Mason character which would fit well in a Terry Gilliam movie.   This very divided system is the New World, but of course with such a divided system, revolution is never far away.

The de-facto leader of the tail society is Curtis, played by Chris Evans in a brilliant performance.  Curtis has a plan to move his people through the security and fight through the guards to get to the front.  With the help of his sidekick, Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the wisdom of the old man, Gilliam (the great John Hurt), Curtis scratches and claws his way through the security and the journey begins to reach the upper crust and confront Wilford.  But this is a long train with many important life-sustaining cars, and there are several stops and detours for our hero along the way, including picking up a couple of interesting prisoners to assist the efforts.  I could go on, but let's keep the plot specifics a secret because the things which unfold I never expected.

No matter how bizarre or violent Snowpiercer gets, it never dumbs itself down to appease audiences.  Things are unclear for a long time, explained only as they would organically happen in conversation.  There is no outsider standing in for the audience to get the whole story, so attention is necessary.  And this world aboard the train and the increasingly wacky circumstances and situations build and build and deepen the film with every car.  There are clever and electric action sequences, but I found myself more involved with the kooky story between these violent outbursts.  These characters grow more important the closer they get to their goal, and each and every member aboard this train is compelling in their own right.

The supporting cast of Harris, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt are wonderful.  Kang-ho Song as a drug addled prisoner who also happens to be a former security engineer is intense and soulful, perhaps the second most important character in the core.  But this is a Chris Evans film, and there are moments from him that help support a little theory I have been rattling around in my own head for a while.  There is something more to Chris Evans than meets the eye.  He deserves all the credit in the world for turning Captain America into one of the better superhero franchises to date, but here Evans is given more opportunity to show range I have seen only in glimpses in lesser films.  There is a confession from Curtis near the end of the film that is the pinnacle of Evans' acting career to this point.  He is brilliant.

Snowpiercer is not a film for everyone, only a certain faction of sci-fi fans looking for a fresh take on a stale premise.  I wasn't sure what to expect going into the picture, but what I saw was most certainly not on my radar.  It is a pleasant surprise in every weird and oddball way imaginable.

A

Friday, June 27, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction


TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, directed by Michael Bay (157 min.)

Here we go again.  Michael Bay lives in a world of adolescence, making movies for teenagers, but does that mean he has to make them unwatchable?  I am all for popcorn flicks with big action and CGI, they surely have a place in this world.  What I am not a fan of is overt sexism, ignorant racism, one-dimensional characters due to pure laziness, action scenes that don't know when to quit, and unnecessary excess upon excess.  Transformers: Age of Extinction is more of the same, a lot more, too much more in almost every way.  It's all the same stuff we have all seen in the first three Transformers films, only this one clocks in at over two and a half hours, the longest of the series.  Despite it being about thirty minutes too long, not that trimming this down would make things better.  It would have just made the overall experience less arduous.

At least we don't have Shia LeBeouf to deal with this time.  It is Mark Wahlberg, who plays Cade Yaeger, an amateur inventor in rural Texas whose inventions never seem to work out.  He is a single father to Tessa (Nicola Peltz), an under-dressed, oversexed teenage daughter who does nothing more than pose in skimpy outfits for Bay.  But, of course, Cade is overprotective of his sexy daughter to the point that the conversations about her not kissing boys or dating boys or looking at boys is literally the only conversations they have the entire film.  Nearly three hours of Cade making empty threats is tiresome, especially when Tessa's boyfriend, Shane, pops onto the scene to help save the day.  Luckily, Shane is a Rally Car racer with corporate sponsorship and everything.  Who isn't?  And lest we forget a stock character, T,J. Miller fills the role of wisecracking sidekick Lucas, a surfer dude who, no matter how intense the situation, has time to add snarky sarcasm.

The time is five years after the destruction of Chicago in the previous film, and all transformers are being rounded up and wiped out by shady government operatives, led by Kelsey Grammer's stereotypically wicked Harold Attinger.  Turns out, however, Attinger is working in concert with the Decepticons, the bad ones, and a bounty hunter transformer we've never seen before.  There is an entire subplot involving a big corporation in Chicago led by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) who is creating his own transformers with their technology, but it doesn't matter.

Cade stumbles upon an old truck that turns out to be Optimus Prime, and one acton scene leads to another, and another, and another, and even one more, but then one more.  Then, maybe one or two or ten more, and they're all the same.  The bad guys come after the good guys, and one precarious situation unfolds after another.  Perhaps they all make sense in the teenage mind of Michael Bay, but the plot points are brushed past at such a rapid pace in order to get to the next loud action sequence, none of it has any real consequence.  The action takes us to Chicago which is mildly destroyed now, about $400 million I suppose.  Then we go to Beijing, where a bomb is going to be detonated to do some stuff and some things.  Who cares?!  Let's get to the CGI!

Look, I completely understand what is going on here, and I know what to expect with a Michael Bay film.  But does that mean the film itself has to be complete garbage?  Remember way back six years ago when the origin Transformers came out, and was an entertaining summer action flick for the most part.  We have come a long way from there, and gone way down on the quality scale.  Make big loud action films, fine, but at least make them worth seeing.  Bay's typical sexism is on display, with every woman used merely as an object.  And the racism is in tact as well; the only black character is a big, loud, sassy black woman with attitude.  He can get away with making trash movies, but how does Bay get by with such overt sexism and racism time and time again.

Transformers 4 is an assault on the senses and sensibilities.  The film goes on and on to the point where I started thinking about other things.  The loud metal-on-metal destruction blurs into white noise, and after two hours and ten… fifteen… twenty… I was leaning forward in my seat ready to bolt.  By the time the Dinobots, dinosaur transformers, finally appeared out of seemingly nowhere, I was spent.  The actors are barely acting.  Wahlberg has done better, not in a while, but what about Tucci?  His performance is brutal and uneven as he hops from stoic and stern to what amounts to a nervous breakdown of silliness and wacky one liners.  The snark is lazy and the script is everywhere.  My message to everyone is to skip this one, and skip the next one, and maybe we will finally be finished with this Bay franchise.

F

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Rover


THE ROVER: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, directed by David Michod (103 min.)

There is nothing cheery about The Rover, director David Michod's follow up to his searing Aussie crime drama Animal KingdomThe Rover is bleak, depressing, violent, and altogether captivating thanks to two intensely focused performances from Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.  Australian crime thrillers like The Rover rarely come with brightness or hope, and this picture carries misery in spades.  This may not be the most glowing picture to paint for a film, as most of us go to be entertained and enjoy escapist thrills, but there is a place for the dark and dreary in cinema.  For those able to find enjoyment in morally desolate filmmaking, here is a film that captivates.

As the title card explains at the outset, The Rover takes place in Australia ten years after "the collapse."  Society has crumbled to a point of barely hanging on, at least in the Outback where things surely weren't bustling beforehand.  This may be somewhere around 2030, but it may as well be the Old West.  Eric (Pearce) is a hardened loner, a personification of the harsh landscape surrounding him.  Disheveled, bearded and dirty, Eric wants no company, has no friends, desires almost nothing.  But his car is stolen by three ne'er do wells who crash their own truck outside a dilapidated bar where he is having a drink.  The three men are fleeing the scene of a shootout, or something along those lines, none of which is fully explained.  Eric manages to get their truck up and running and pursues the men.  All he wants is his car back, but the trio refuse to return it.  They knock him out cold and leave him on the side of the road, but Eric will not stop until his car is returned and vengeance is taken.

Along his pursuit, Eric runs into Rey (Pattinson), a dim-witted American who is brothers with one of the three men and was shot and left for dead in the unexplained altercation.  Eric gets Rey to a doctor so he can have his wound cleaned and dressed, but not because he cares at all for Rey.  He simply needs Rey to take him to his brother.  The rest of the film is the journey of these two men, where horrible things unfold and very little is made in the way of forward progress regarding their relationship.  Eric is practically soulless, his eyes containing nothing more than rage and sadness, and no matter how much Rey tries to create companionship between them in his simple-minded conversations, Eric refuses to succumb. 

The plot is thin and nothing more than a device to showcase two more important aspects of the film: The World and the performances.  This universe of societal collapse is unsettling, and the people who God has left behind here seem to have let the despair get the better of them.  There is a distinct Asian influence to the population. In the search for his car, Eric also runs across a strange and disturbing house where an old woman speaks obtusely while offering up young boys to Eric.  The ruin of the world has subsequently ruined the minds and hearts of the people remaining. 

Guy Pearce's performance is spare and captivating, a work more of eyes and cold stares than words.  His single-minded determination is the dark, polar opposite to Pattinson's simplistic and warm characterization of Rey.  I have enjoyed watching Robert Pattinson continue to shed his glamour doll image form the Twilight films by tackling roles in films like this.  He is a talented actor and his role his is unlike anything I have seen from him thus far. 

The Rover is also shockingly violent at times to match the bleak nature of the landscape, but for the right audience there is plenty to enjoy here.  It isn't for everyone, but it is most certainly a captivating picture rife with performances that create tension and make for a harrowing story.

B+

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Edge Of Tomorrow



EDGE OF TOMORROW: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, directed by Doug Liman (113 min.)

Edge of Tomorrow is a furiously energetic and thrilling summer action spectacle.  From the very beginning it pushes the pedal to the floor and it never lets up.  And even though most elements of the sci-fi story are familiar at their core, this is a truly original, inventive film.  There is also quite a bit of humor and a connection with the characters that keep the story engaging, mostly due to the dedication of its leads, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.  The mechanics of the plot may outsmart the film in the end, but by the time the climax rolled around I was too busy catching my breath to nitpick what was an enjoyable and fresh experience.

The set up for Edge of Tomorrow takes place in a media montage to open the film.  Alien organisms have invaded Europe and are quickly making work of our forces and annihilating the human race.  Eventually, military minds create metal frame contraptions to fit around soldiers and the playing field evens.  The human race's military efforts appear to be making a dent in the alien assault, and an assault on a stronghold in France is planned.  Enter William Cage, a talking head representing the military in soundbites on CNN, discussing the prowess of these new machines and also talking up the growing legend of Rita.  Played by Emily Blunt, Rita is a super soldier leading the charge against these aliens, Mimics as they are called.  Rita is the poster girl for the human effort; Cage, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with military action, hates the sight of blood, and when he is forced into frontline action by a stubborn General (Brendan Gleeson) he tries his damnedest to get out of it.  It is refreshing to see Tom Cruise eschewing his typical Cruise character who is awesome at everything.  This time around, his character starts off as a coward.

Cage is thrown into action in one of these metal suits and, in a panic, kills one of the Mimics before it eventually kills him.  And just like that, he wakes up back at the military base, starting the entire day over again, thoroughly confused. Despite his confusion and his attempts at an explanation, Cage is thrown back into the fray, is killed, and starts the day over yet again.  This pattern continues until he gets a little better each day.  Then during one of these trips into battle he meets Rita on the beach and walks her through a few daring misses.  Rita seems confused by Cage's psychic abilities, but it turns out she knows what is happening to him.

I won't say more about the why or how of Cage's condition because anything can spoil the clever twists and turns.  Cage repeats the day and the battle, employing Rita's help and the duo get a little further towards their ultimate goal each time around.  Director Doug Liman is having fun with this Groundhog Day structure, as Cage trains every day and when he breaks a bone, Rita shoots him and they start the day over.  There is some real humor from Cruise in this second act until the plot gets ramped up and the stakes get pushed higher.  The action in Edge of Tomorrow is breathtaking, and it gets better with each restarted day.  There is quite a bit of CGI necessary to make the suits and the aliens function properly, but it is seamless and never distracting.  The opening scenes, where Bill Paxton - playing an Army Sergeant - does that Bill Paxton thing and chews scenery like a champ, sets a classic, militant tone in a futuristic world.  I can't imagine invading a beach in France was a coincidence.

It is refreshing to see Cruise play basically the opposite of his typical character, and Emily Blunt has really found a niche playing headstrong and athletic women in sic-fi films.  And just when the repeated days might get redundant, Liman and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (along with a team of writers) mix up the action with some car chases and scenery switches at just the right time.  The balance of the action is key in the film functioning from start to finish.  And as I said earlier, maybe the mechanics of the plot, in the end, outsmart the finale.  I can't quite make sense of the way things ended up in those final moments, but honestly it didn't detract from my nearly euphoric enjoyment.

A-

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla


GODZILLA:  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olson, Ken Watanabe, directed by Gareth Edwards (123 min.)

It's hard to believe a summer blockbuster could pull off what the new Godzilla pulls off.  Here is a large summer monster movie that is surprising from start to finish in so many ways, that is patient, that is slow burning, and an action tentpole picture that earns its thrills when they do come.  It is too easy to throw scene after scene of destruction on the screen and assault audiences with noise and fireballs, and director Gareth Edwards had the perfect vehicle for such a noisy barrage.  However, Edwards, along with screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, decided restraint was the proper way to approach this rebirth of the King of Monsters.  The result of their calm, calculated re-imagining is a breath of fresh air.

2014 is the sixtieth birthday of Godzilla, and his makeover comes with a new story and new life.  The film opens in the Phillipines in 1999 where a mining dig has uncovered strange fossils.  Something has escaped, crossed the island, and disappeared into the sea.  This all much to the chagrin of Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe).  Meanwhile, in a small Japanese village surrounding a nuclear power plant, we meet Joe and Sandra Brody, married scientists played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.  Joe and Sandra live near the plant with their young son, Ford, and there seems to be some dangerous tremors causing a disturbance at the plant.  There is a horrible tragedy, and the film jumps forward to the present day.

The Japanese village has been shut off, quarantined, deemed uninhabitable due to the radiation from the disaster.  Ford has grown up to be a Naval Officer and is married to Elle (Elizabeth Olson).  Meanwhile, Joe Brody has never been able to move past the disaster in 1999 and swears government conspiracy.  Ford gets a call at his home in San Francisco informing him that Joe has been arrested sneaking back into the Japanese village to try and get some important disks from his old home.  Reluctantly, Ford flies to Japan to free his dad and is subsequently pulled headfirst into the plot, which unfolds at a deliberate pace.  Joe's cries for justice reach the ears of Dr. Serizawa, who believes Joe might have some important information about what actually destroyed the power plant in '99.  Turns out, as well all knew, Joe's conspiracies were correct.  The disaster wasn't an earthquake, but it wasn't Godzilla either.

I won't spoil any more plot points but I will say Godzilla is a surprising thriller in several areas.  The appearance of the King of Monsters is more than an hour into this two-hour film, but the anticipation has been earned.  There is mystery at the core of the picture, and it builds upon dread and impending doom so that when we first see Godzilla it is not just another CGI money shot, but a well-earned, awe-inspiring moment.  Edwards understands the effectiveness of patience and the power of making audiences wait to see what they've come to see.  He is borrowing straight from the Jaws playbook, and it works.  Even when Godzilla flashes his destructive brilliance in Frisco - in surprising ways - the battle scenes are not long and loud and they don't move a million miles per hour.  They are all encompassing, but brief, and this addition by subtraction makes the whole thing feel satisfying.  These scenes in the film's climax, where we really get the first extended looks at Godzilla, are the antithesis of the climactic moments in Man of Steel.

The performances here all feel like performances that don't belong in a Godzilla film, where hokey dialogue and bad acting became status quo.  Cranston delivers a dedicated, weighty performance as Joe, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's stiffness seems to work well with his Ford character.  Olsen and Watanabe serve their purpose to the picture, but Godzilla revolves around the work of father and son.  Godzilla is a solid summer blockbuster, but not really in any ways I expected.  The cinematography is elegant, the screenplay is smart, the direction sound, and the monster himself is given a fresh rebirth on his sixtieth birthday.

A-

    

Friday, May 9, 2014

Neighbors



NEIGHBORS: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, directed by Nicholas Stoller (96 min.) 

Neighbors is utterly preposterous, but it is still a raucous comedy and a lot of fun.  Not only is it raunchy and out of control, it is also an absurd satire on the transition from college life and non stop partying into the mundane world of adulthood, parenthood, and responsibility.  Most of us men are never quite ready for such a switch, and many women are right alongside us.  Such is the case with Mac and Kelly, new parents played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne.  Mac is slowly trying to shift into a businessman, and the shift is painful to his youthful drive.  Kelly is a stay-at-home mom who tries to hide her daily boredom.  Of course Mac and Kelly love each other, they have a nice home, and they adore their beautiful baby girl, Stella, but the switch is still a rough road.  So when a fraternity moves into the house next door, the parents find themselves torn between trying to remain relevant and young, and asking their new neighbors - in the coolest way possible - to keep it down a tad.

The president of the fraternity is Teddy, played by a sculpted and cocky Zac Efron.  Teddy has more aspirations for becoming a legend in his own fraternity than he is with attending class, and he has more muscles than brain cells, although that aspect isn't played up as much as it should have been.  He has a dream that involves the biggest baddest party at the end of the semester, but of course practice parties must get underway immediately.  Teddy's right-hand man is Pete, played by James Franco's younger brother Dave, and he seems to have gotten the lion's share of IQ points.

Mac and Kelly attempt to make friends with Teddy and his brothers on the outset, sharing weed with them as a peace offering. They end up staying all night and partying because, well, they have the baby monitor so its fine to leave your four-month old at home alone.  Bonds seem to have been forged and friends made, but pretty soon Teddy doesn't listen to their pleas to keep things down, the cops are called, and Mac and Teddy begin a war of pranks and underhanded schemes against one another that run the length of the film.  The sabotages escalate in some funny scenes, some not quite as funny, but all with a great deal of energy and conviction from the actors.

The attempts from Mac and Kelly get elaborate.  They try and sabotage the house by flooding the basement because college kids don't have money to fix things like that.  But the fraternity brothers raise money by making some plastic molds of certain body parts in a sequence that feels forced and isn't as funny as it might have been on paper.  Then they decide to try and turn Teddy and Pete against each other which works, but then it doesn't work or it doesn't really have much of an effect.  Mac and Kelly employ their two friends, the main one being Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz), to help take down the fraternity and, naturally, chaos ensues.  Jimmy does what any self-respecting idiot sidekick friend should do, and that is get the elephant's share of laughs.

Some things really work in Neighbors, other things are just a little too clumsy or they miss the mark in the humor department.  Efron is solid, and even a little sinister as Teddy.  And in a nice ironic twist, or perhaps just a sign of the times and the natural progression of age, it is funny to see Seth Rogen struggling to be the responsible adult in a film like this.  Rose Byrne has her moments too, although one scene involving her breast milk in the middle of the picture is one of those aforementioned moments that don't really induce laughs so much as unease.  That is the gist of Neighbors, which is laugh out loud hilarious when it is focused, but head scratching from time to time.  Fortunately, the hits manage to outweigh the misses in the end.

B
   

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, directed by Marc Webb (142 min.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffers an identity crisis almost from the get go, undermining any good work the film manages to do with the character.  There are strong elements here, and there is some fantastic action, but there are also too many plates in the air and too much confusion for a superhero movie.  Spider-Man 3 suffered this disease but to a much greater extent.  This is no where near the disastrous mess that final Raimi/Maguire picture turned out to be.  There are things to enjoy here, and director Marc Webb captures the essence of Spidey with great humor and agility.  I only wish they would have simplified where they decided to complicate.

Andrew Garfield is back and even more comfortable in the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.  Garfield handles the whimsy and cheesy humor of the character to perfection in the early action scenes.  Parker is graduating high school along with his crush, Gwen Stacy, in a role reprised once again by Emma Stone.  A great deal of the film covers the relationship between Peter and Gwen, as they struggle to find a way to have a relationship.  Peter loves Gwen, and vice versa, but the words of Gwen's departed police-chief father (Denis Leary) linger in his mind.  Being with Gwen puts her in danger, and this becomes the main conflict in their affair.  And later on, when she is accepted to Oxford, things grow even more difficult between them.  There is a great deal of time spent on the relationship between Gwen and Peter, too much if you ask me.

While Peter struggles to find common ground with his lady, villains are forming all over New York City.  The central villain, and the most interesting, is Max Dillon, played by Jamie Foxx.  Max, after falling into a vat of electric eels in a typical super-villain genesis narrative, becomes Electro, glowing neon blue and feeding off electrical energy to gain power.  The film does a good job early of creating empathy for Max, who was a nobody doing grunt work for Oscorp.  But once Max/Electro turns on Spider-Man in a rather abrupt scene, he becomes nothing more than a special effects prop.  There is also Harry Osborne, the spoiled rich kid played by young Dicaprio clone Dane DeHaan.  His rise and fall takes about ten minutes it seems, as he becomes the new Green Goblin and is swiftly dispensed in the third act.  Oh yeah, and there is also Paul Giamatti, getting about three minutes of screen time as Rhino in a completely wasted role.  Too many plates in the air.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has moments of joy for the audience, mainly in the opening scenes where we ride along with Spidey shooting webs across the city.  But before long the entire focus of the film shoots off in more directions than a web.  We are here, then there, then we get long moments of exposition that don't truly explain anything.  There is a good 45-minute stretch in the middle of the picture where we don't see Spider-Man at all.  I am all for development and attention to character, but not dialogue simply for dialogue's sake.  Garfield and Stone have obvious chemistry, and Foxx is interesting for a spell as Electro, but the entire thing just ends up messy and confusing, and twenty minutes too long to care.

C
   

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Blue Ruin



BLUE RUIN: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, directed by Jeremy Saulnier (90 min.)

From the outset it is clear Dwight's appearance doesn't match the intensity in his eyes.  He is hidden beneath dirty long hair and a full beard that covers nearly all of his face.  This makes us focus on his eyes, and they are burning with desire.  For what, we aren't sure yet.  Dwight is homeless, a drifter, with only a dilapidated blue car to his name, but as I mentioned his disposition doesn't fit that of a homeless man.  He doesn't drink or act sickly or shuffle through the streets with a shopping cart.  He sneaks into homes to bathe himself and collects meals from trashcans, then eats while reading in his car.  In the morning, Dwight is brought in by a police officer, but even this seems out of place.  She is not there to put him behind bars, but she wants him to be in a safe place to tell him some bad news, news that sets the plot of Blue Ruin in motion.

Blue Ruin is a straight revenge thriller, simple and to the point, but one with enough inventiveness and twists in the story to keep the proceedings incredibly tense.  And despite its simplicity it is a strange and often fascinating thriller where nothing is fully explained, only shown.  The curiosity of these characters drives the momentum of the film to its messy conclusion that may seem too abrupt for many.  I found it fitting.

Dwight (Macon Blair) is told by the officer that a certain man is being released from prison.  Despite his lifeless body language, Dwight shows his emotions through his eyes and regardless of how much the officer pleas with Dwight to not do anything, she must understand what is going to happen.  Because we see his eyes, and we know.  Just like that, Dwight begins planning his revenge against this man, whose crime is clearly responsible for Dwight's current psychological and physical state.  He gets his car running and tries to steal a gun, which doesn't quite work so he takes a different route.  The man is released form prison and Dwight, waiting outside the prison behind the limo picking him up, follows the man to a bar.

I don't want to spoil the events which transpire because it will inadvertently spoil everything afterwards.  Dwight begins to exact his revenge, but the target shifts and changes and the scope broadens.  He sneaks into another home and cuts his hair and shaves his beard and it's as if we are given a new character in the film.  Seeing Dwight clean shaven seems to open up the picture on a visual level.  He visits his sister, who may be in danger, and the plot moves forward even more.  Dwight seeks out a high school friend, Ben (Devin Ratray), who supplies him with guns and teaches him how to handle himself.  Again, I don't want to say any more because watching the revenge plot unfold is the entirety of the film.

Blue Ruin is quiet and terse throughout with bursts of shocking violence along the way.  Macon Blair is captivating as Dwight, as he explains what it is he is doing and must do in a flat, detached voice that adds a certain chill tot he dialogue.  Everyone else in the film has only a handful of scenes along the way, it is Blair's film and he handles it well.  Director Jeremy Saulnier makes sure to keep the color blue in a majority of the scenes, and allows the film to happen rather than forcing any of the action.  The climax is a bit of a mess the way it unfolds, but it is brief and appropriate when all is said and done.  There is nothing earth shattering in the picture, but nothing is intended to be.  As a revenge film, Blue Ruin is a nice addition to the genre and a sign of great things to come from its director and star, who are both worth the price of admission.

B+    

Friday, April 18, 2014

Transcendence


TRANSCENDENCE: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, directed by Wally Pfister (119 min.)

Transcendence is a confused and muddled film with big ideas at the beginning, big ideas which are systematically taken apart step by step thanks to a weak script and illogical behavior from central characters.  This ultimately derails everything.  The actors involved give it their all, I suppose, but the screenplay pours water all over their performances.  Here is a sci-fi thriller with no faith in its own ideas and no energy.  At the heart of everything lies an interesting premise: what happens when technology and humanity ultimately meld together?  What would be the implications of such a thing, where self awareness was not a mutually exclusive idea to the human race, and computers and the internet were able to achieve self awareness?  In the hands of a competent film, these ideas with this plot could go places.  But, alas, we are not given the tools to carry these theories anywhere interesting.

Johnny Depp is the star I suppose, although he spends the majority of the picture inside a computer and on a screen.  He is Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist, and he is working on a supercomputer that is dangerously close to becoming self aware, the one element of human consciousness which separates us from everything else.  His wife, Evelyn, is played by Rebecca Hall.  Evelyn is brilliant in her own right, and believes in Will's work.  The opening act features Will giving a speech at a California science convention where he discusses artificial intelligence in some droning and uninteresting dialogue that seems cobbled together from other movies.  After the speech, Will is shot in the lobby at the same time computer labs across the country are blown up.  While the bullet does so little damage that Will is able to get out of the hospital and walk into his office hours later, it turns out that the bullet is laced with radiation which begins poisoning Will and will soon kill him.

The bullet was fired by a member of R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a rogue group of militant anti-tech people, led by Bree (Kate Mara).  Well, Bree seems to be the only one we get to know, so I suppose she's a leader of some sorts.  This sure seems like a ragtag unit, which leads me to their assault on computer labs across the country… how?  They can't even manage to have a proper secret hiding place throughout the film, yet they can simultaneously infiltrate secure laboratories and blow them up?  I am digressing into the illogical aspects of the picture, and if I do that we will be here all night.  So let's move on.

Evelyn has a great idea.  She plans to upload Will into his own supercomputer and put him online so he can live after his body dies.  The plan is so hair brained that I can't imagine even the most layman individual thinking it is a good idea, regardless of the emotional connection.  Evelyn and Will's friend, Max, played by the always milquetoast Paul Bettany, realizes the implications of such an endeavor.  But here is this brilliant scientist, risking the fate of humanity on uploading her husband to a computer so she can hang out with him forever.  Either way it happens, and Will is uploaded to the internet, so his mind apparently encompasses everything.  Literally, everything, so that alone should end the film.  But no, Will has Evelyn move out to a dying desert town where they build an expansive field of solar panels and an underground computer lab.  That's right…

In this underground lab, Will - or the computer version of Will - figures out how to restore plants and cure broken bones and illnesses, with a catch.  All of the people he ends up healing are linked into his brain and… forget it.  The FBI, represented by Cillian Murphy in a wasted role, and another scientist, played by Morgan Freeman in a role that didn't even need to exist, employ the military to come out and stop Will and his healing and creation of a new God, or whatever.  What Will is doing with this ethnology seems harmless and, to be honest, helpful to humanity.  But it doesn't really matter because the logic in the story is absent.  The clear dangers of this whole undertaking are completely obvious to everyone except Rebecca Hall's Evelyn.  And then, the ultimate answer to curing everything is to basically end humanity?  By this time I had stopped caring.

In my opinion, there are two very important elements to a successful sic-fi film.  1) Believe in the idea, and 2) make certain the characters act logically in the face of the illogical.  Most sic-fi films dip their toe in the illogical, and as long as the characters in the story handle this lack of sense with a very firm conviction and dedication to the logical, the picture works.  Transcendence has neither of these things.  Logic abandons the thesis of the picture for sure, but it even leaves very basic, very simple moments in the film.  The whole thing unravels from one scene to the next, and the weak screenplay falls apart at the seams with every word.  Wally Pfister, who is a fantastic cinematographer, loses sight of anything interesting or worth our time in his debut directorial feature.  What a wasted opportunity, and what a waste of two hours in the theater.

F

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Under The Radar Films: Disconnect

With so many ways to consumer films both old and new these days, it isn't uncommon for some worthy movies to slip under the radar.  Whether they are released in limited theaters, on demand, or both, it is much easier these days to miss out on some impacting pictures.  Such is the case with Disconnect, a small film with large aspirations and a story that is tragically timely.  In the same vein as films like Crash, Disconnect deals with multiple narratives weaving their way into one another, however casually, while shining a spotlight on the very real and very damaging issue of internet bullying and exploitation.  I didn't expect much going into the film, but was blown away by the raw emotion on display, the performances, and the willingness of the film to not take the easy way out of situations that could most certainly fall into the routine.

The central story of Disconnect focuses on a seemingly normal family with all of the distractions of work and technology we all have in our lives.  The father, Rich (Jason Bateman, an underrated dramatic actor), is a busy lawyer who loves his kids but allows his work to stay in the way.  His wife, Lydia, is played sparingly by Hope Davis.  They have two children, a teenage daughter and a younger teen son, Ben (Jonah Bobo) who becomes the focus of this tragic tale.  Ben is like many teenage boys, awkward and quiet, consumed by his music and a loner in the halls of his school.  Naturally, Ben's "different-ness" catches the eye of two hateful boys in his class.  But instead of bullying him in the halls the two boys take a route of bullying and cruelty all too familiar these days; they go to the internet.  They use Facebook to create a fake account of a young girl and begin flirting and luring Ben into a trap.


Our second narrative revolves around a reporter, Nina Dunham, played by Andrea Riseborough.  Nina is an investigative journalist who catches sight of an online sex website where young men perform favors on camera for those willing to pay on the other end.  She meets and reaches out to Kyle, one of the young men, and urges him to tell his story on a special report with his identity kept secret.  He agrees, and his report begins to upset things within his group and draws the attention of the FBI.  All the while, an odd flirtation grows between Nina and Kyle.

The third story involves Derek and Cindy Hull, played by Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton, as a married couple dealing in their own individual ways with the death of their young son.  Cindy reaches out to people in a chat group online, developing a relationship with one man in particular, while Derek's grief sinks inward and he disappears from Cindy in life.  Derek is struggling at work and Cindy is lost at home, so when their identity is stolen and their bank accounts hacked, the devastation cripples their lives.  They hire a private investigator, Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo) to find out who did this.  Mike also happens to be the father of one of the boys responsible for bullying young Ben, and causing a tragic event that unravels the family in our central story.

All of these stories are given their own time and focus, and the balancing act by director Henry Alex Rubin and writer Andrew Stern keeps things afloat.  While the story of the Ben and his family takes center stage, the narrative finds easy and unforced ways of weaving these tales together.  As I mentioned there is a tragedy that is the focus of the picture, but in each of these stories there is tragedy and misfortune.  What weaves these stories together even more than characters and situations is the human condition and the way we retreat into the internet to find help.  As the title suggests, there is a disconnect between us all these days, and that is the thesis of the screenplay.  More often than not, there are people around us we can go to, but perhaps not as easily as we can find chat rooms and online relationships.

All of the performances are compelling in their own right, no matter how big or small.  Jonah Bobo is compelling and painfully lost as Ben, and as his father Bateman's obsessive search for what happened to his son takes him into deep, dark emotional places.  This is a film which feels important, something to show teenagers these days so they might be able to understand the damage they can cause from a distance.   There are interesting twists and turns in the story, and not everything ends as one would expect from films of this ilk.  Too often, these films with large casts of interwoven stories crumble under the weight of derivative narration and easy ways out.  Look no further than Crash, the Paul Haggis Oscar winner that has aged poorly with its stereotypes and cliches.  Disconnect is fresh and inventive and timely, which isn't necessarily a good thing when you consider the story.

A

Friday, March 28, 2014

Noah



NOAH: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, directed by Darren Aronofsky (137 min.)

I admire many things about the work of Darren Aronofsky, but what I love the most is his ambition, and the passion in each and every moment in all of his films.  You can feel his heart and soul being poured into his pictures, regardless of the scope of his story.  And now, after the success of Black Swan, Aronofsky was given $130 million, an all-star cast, and The Old Testament in order to make his first epic.  Noah is a wildly ambitious, inventive take on a biblical legend, and a story that will certainly ruffle the feathers of a few purists along the way.  But Aronofsky clearly set out to challenge his audience, and challenge he does.  This is a robust film, one deep with ideas, powerful in imagery, and moving in performances.

Everyone knows the story of Noah, the man whom God sought out to build an ark and safe all species of life on Earth before he wiped out the wicked.  But this is not your father's Noah.  This version, played by Russell Crowe in some of his best work in over a decade, is an environmentalist at heart who uses the land only as he needs to.  This version of the planet is nearing armageddon as it has been overrun by the wicked descendants of Cain, the first murderer, armies of rapers and pillagers who devour meat because they think it gives them strength.  In their minds, "The Creator" as he is called in the film, has turned his back on man.  Noah lives away from the evil hoards with his family, his dutiful wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and his three sons.  His family also takes in an orphan girl named Ila, who as an adult is played wonderfully by Emma Watson.

The Creator reaches out to Noah in a number of ways early on, most notably in some hallucinatory dreams where Noah is shown the destruction of the world.  He seeks out advice from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who assumes fire with cover the planet.  "Not fire," Noah informs him.  "This is death by water."  He figures out his mission: build an ark for The Creator's animals and Noah's family, and survive the annihilation.  This is the basic story as told through time, but what is not covered on a regular basis is the impending hoard of wicked men, led by Tubalcain (Ray Winstone),  direct defendant of Cain himself.  What is also left out of most retellings are The Watchers, fallen angels who have been encased in gangly rock and lava bodies for eternity.  These Watchers, with the gravelly voices of Nick note and Frank Langella, protect Noah on his quest and help him construct the ark.

The ark was actually built in New York State, and is an impressive set piece.  The animals traveling toward the ark in two-by-two formation is some effective CGI, and the flood itself is more furious than the stories may have ever described before.  What I found so fascinating about Noah is the fact that the ark is built, the flood occurs, and the family is set adrift merely an hour into the film.  What happens next in the narrative is an unexpected dose of psychological turmoil within Noah, and a family drama unfolding with wonderful tension and emotion.  Noah becomes conflicted about what The Creator has told him, whether or not he and his family are part of the plan moving forward, and his decision on this matter upends the passengers.  Connelly as the hard-working supportive wife, has a scene where she confronts Noah and his decision that is among the most intensely powerful moments in her career.  And Watson digs deep in her role as Ila, finding new levels as an actress.  The three central characters are fantastic, and Winstone the perfect antagonist.

One of my main concerns going into Noah was the fear that a big studio and a big budget would neuter Darren Aronofsky.  More meddling compromises auteurs like Aronofsky who consistently challenge their audience.  Fortunately, the picture is not compromised in that way, never homogenized, and I cannot imagine it pleasing Christians across the board.  What keeps the sharp Aronofsky "feel" of the picture is the fact he was able to team up with two very important people who have collaborated with him throughout his career: cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who does masterful work once again, and composer Clint Mansel, who strikes all the right chords of love, despair, and action in a score much broader than anything he has done.  This team, sharpened by Aronofsky's desire to tell his own biblical tale, keeps Noah moving and active just as much in ideas as it does in action.

There are so many timeless ideas, and criticisms on modern culture.  Man is to blame for the destruction of the world in the film, Noah is a staunch environmentalist and vegan, certain aspects of modern culture that fit seamlessly into a story older than time.  Is the film itself something great?  I don't quite know.  It's hard to say here on opening day.  What I do know is it is a busy film that somehow never feels crammed full or rushed, a picture that is always moving forward while taking time to breathe.  Noah is a picture that will take time to properly judge.  That doesn't mean it will weaken over the years, that is merely speculation as to how brilliant it may seem a decade down the road.

A-

ARONOFSKY WEEK: Black Swan, My Review From December 2010

The following review is from Black Swan's initial release in 2010…

BLACK SWAN: Natalie PortmanMila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey (110 min.)

I am glad I took the time to absorb Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan before writing a single word about what I had seen. There is no way I could have walked, or staggered (at least mentally) out of the theater, sat down, and written a single coherent thing concerning the film. Black Swan is something that must first be observed, then digested, then reconsidered. Even now I feel like I haven’t fully seen this film, that only after a second and a third viewing will I be able to fully comprehend and dissect this fantastic spectacle. My initial reaction, mere seconds after leaving the theater, was a mix of enjoyment and a little confusion and some concern that maybe he had missed the mark in a few spots, that the camp and dark humor permeating the goings on in this story of rival ballerinas was unintentional. But after quite some thought and a little fresh perspective of my own, I feel like every move, every shot, every manipulation of the audience was fully intentional on Aronofsky’s part. There is nothing, I am now convinced, that Aronofksy will do or has done in any of his pictures that does not strike the nerve it intended to strike.

Natalie Portman, with her skin and muscles wound as tight as a drum, plays Nina Sayers, a technically sound, almost flawless ballet dancer at a local New York company. Nina desperately wants the lead in the new production of Swan Lake, playing both the white and black swan. The company director, Thomas (pronounced Toe-Ma), played by Vincent Cassel, is certain she has the technical prowess and innocence to portray the white swan. Only she does not have the sexual freedom and daringness it takes to play his black swan. Thomas is an egomaniac who preys on his ballerinas, having recently dismissed the aging star (a delightfully wicked Winona Ryder) so that he may move on to a younger love interest. He lusts after Nina, but Nina does not oblige. Not only is she being manipulated by Thomas, she is being controlled by her mother.

Nina’s mother, Erica, is played by Barbara Hershey, and is perhaps one step down from Carrie’s mother. Erica was once a dancer, but never made it big, and through her shortcomings she has practically created Nina. She guards Nina like a prison warden, keeps her bedroom pink and full of stuffed animals as if she was still a child, and has a strange habit of painting endless portraits of Nina that play a bigger part than one might imagine. Hershey undergoes her own transformation for the audience, although her outbursts towards Nina feel like moments she has suffered in the past. Nina is being pulled and shaped and manipulated in so many ways, that when a young ballerina named Lily (Mila Kunis, fantastic here) arrives at the company, showing the sexual prowess and free-wheeling attitude that Nina needs in order to become the part, her dedication becomes an obsession.
Lily serves as the photographic negative of Nina. Nina practices, is obsessive, has no life outside of the company and her home. Lily is a free spirit who smokes, parties, eats cheeseburgers instead of lettuce wraps, and doesn’t take herself seriously. She is everything Nina needs to embody the black swan for her role. Naturally, as Nina begins to spiral out of control, her obsession taking some frightening turns, she becomes wrapped up in Lily’s world and her sexual repressions manifest themselves in the film’s most discussed sequence between the two actresses. Nina’s nervous breakdown is the arc of suspense in the film, and the third act spins out of control just as Nina is unraveling under the pressure of opening night. The stress of Nina's world does not hide in subtle moments of introspection, but screams loudly through great moments of hallucinatory breakdowns and paranoia so intense, the film and the player begins to unravel in fascinating ways.

Aronofsky is not subtle in Black Swan, using a stark color palette to indicate the duality of the proceedings. Almost everything in the studio, be it the office of Thomas, the studio itself, or the dressing rooms, are black and white. And in every scene there is some sort of mirror, often times showing Nina to the audience with a reflection before she really enters the frame. Such techniques may seem elementary, or obvious, for a director like Aronofsky, but that is the idea. Aronofsky is not going for undertones, he is taking the film over the top and beyond, and he signifies this by showing us the obvious motifs and designed shots.

Much has been made about the dark comedy of Black Swan, and the way the proceedings explode into an almost campy excess. It may rub some the wrong way, but again, this is the direction Aronofsky had for the picture the entire time in my opinion. Ballet is a high-concept art, the cousin of opera if you will, and the lavish excess of such a profession lends itself to melodramatic, bombastic situations. Portman is, in my opinion, the frontrunner for Best Actress. Her performance, a physically demanding characterization of a poor girl wound so tight and driven so mad by the pursuit of perfection, is simply stunning. Portman is in every scene, and her madness is so boisterous and amplified throughout that the performance must be captivating in order for the film to succeed, and captivating it is. And Mila Kunis should not be overlooked either. She is perfect as a doppelganger for Nina. She exudes sex appeal, the thing that Portman has masked in her character by her rigid physique and a disposition and physical appearance that makes it seem like her skin is going to split open.

I wondered, after leaving the theater, if the laughter from the audience was an unintentional mistake by Aronofsky, but I don’t think so. Aronofsky has made an excessive, energetic, high-concept horror film rife with darkly comedic moments, melodrama, and camp necessary to emphasize the actions of these characters who exist in the overly theatrical world of the New York ballet scene. What a mesmerizing piece of work, a marvelous shot taken by Aronofsky, and a bold picture that relishes in its overindulgence. I was not particularly fond of The Wrestler, not as much as some, but I grew more and more adoring of Black Swan mere hours after leaving the theater. High camp? Indeed it is. It is also beautiful, horrifying, savagely amusing, and a brave film from a visionary filmmaker willing to take risks. What else would you expect from a film about insanity in the ballet world aside from melodramatic excess? I, personally, would not have wanted it any other way.

A

Thursday, March 27, 2014

ARONOFSKY WEEK - The Wrestler, and A Different Obsession

All of Darren Aronofsky's films deal with a characters' obsession and their addiction, be it drugs, or numerology, or the quest for eternity.  Of all his films, however, Aronofsky's The Wrestler is the outlier, as the obsession here is not external influence, but an internal longing.  Mickey Rourke plays the title role, Randy"The Ram" Robinson, and his addiction is the image of his former self.  Randy is a washed-up former superstar wrestler, working in low-rent wrestling circuits in recreation centers, a shell of his former self hanging on to a dream.  Randy hasn't been kind to his body, a meld of muscular scar tissue and blond hair dye, and his careless youth has caught up with him.  So here he is in rec centers, taking real staples in the face and actual metal chairs across the back.  The Ram will do anything to hold on to the 80s version of himself, no matter how far gone it may actually be at this stage.  His nostalgia is the addiction in The Wrestler, and in many ways is the most tragic and sad of Aronofsky's characters.

The Ram lives in a mobile home, alone, having lost all the fortune and fame of his late 80s wrestling superstardom.  He plays a wrestling video game, one with his likeness, with the neighborhood kids on an original Nintendo.  His van, complete with a Ram action figure stuck to the dash, gets him from match to match as he blasts Motley Crue and The Scorpions.  The wrestling spectators are few and far between, and thirsty for blood from the performers who work out the result of the matches ahead of time back stage.  There are autograph sessions at YMCAs that attract maybe a dozen fans.  The popularity of wrestling has clearly waned since the 80s, and former stars like The Ram are paying for their hedonism with a world that doesn't want them anymore.  His life is a sad state.

Randy struggles to repair a long-broken relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who mostly rejects his newfound sincerity.  He works to build a personal relationship with Cassidy, a stripper played by Marisa Tomei in a wonderful performance.  Cassidy is a broken person, maybe equally as alone as Randy, and they find each other to an extent the way people who fight the same demons tend to do.  Perhaps that leads Randy into another form of obsession or addiction, the longing and desire to reconnect with humanity in any way possible.  Having burned bridges his entire life, Randy is now trying to repair an old one with his daughter and build a new one to Cassidy, regardless of how much Cassidy may reciprocate.

The Wrestler finds Aronofsky with a shift in styles from his previous, earlier pictures.  Here, his camera is less flashy until the moment calls for embellishments.  His camera follows Randy from behind a majority of the time, and stays omnipresent rather than calling attention to itself to give the film a documentary feel.  The behind the scenes of these bargain basement wrestling matches is fascinating as these former arena-filling monsters discuss who will put who in a choke hold and who might win that night.  But it all depends on the crowd and who they're pulling for that night, because more than they are athletes these broken men are entertainers.

A central match, a brutal and gruesome match where Randy is beaten savagely for the sake of cheers from the masses, puts Randy in the hospital.  He discovers he has a heart condition and if he carries on wrestling he will certainly die.  He tries to get a straight job, but fails for a number of reasons, the least of which is not the addiction to screaming fans.  His addiction to the scene is more powerful than the fear of death.  This is Mickey Rourke's finest work as an actor, both physically and emotionally, perhaps because the idea of a successful career gone awry hits close to home for him.  The Wrestler stands out from Aronofsky's pictures in its simplicity and the lack of cinematic flourish.  This isn't a knock on the film, or Aronofsky's other films because I think there are two better ones in his portfolio.  It is simply an observation that since the obsession with his character went inward, so did his camera.