Monday, December 29, 2008

"The Wrestler": Believe the Hype

“The Wrestler”: Believe the Hype

The hype surrounding “The Wrestler” was enough to kill any film; “Mickey is back!” “The best-actor Oscar!” Yet in all honesty, without the hype I would not have paid the admission to watch men in tights and wigs smash each other to a pulp. In fact as a bourgeois ABD yogini female the WWF is something I have carefully avoided my entire life. But on that note, the film is an insightful commentary on the male population who seek such entertainment, on class and education boundaries that promote it, and on the effects such “sports” have on their labor. One should be forewarned, according to the film’s gripping realism, professional wrestlers do not fake all of the blood and back breaking, (or rather some of the faking is actually done with razors.)

For this reason the film is ingenious and difficult to watch. In the film’s first half, the audience intimately witnesses the wreckage done to “Randy the Ram” (Mickey Rourke.) His tightly framed face screams agony and repression louder than the referee’s megaphone. Close-ups of his limbs twisting and then pounding down (the sound design is grueling) left me squirming with sympathy in my seat. To this extent Aronofsky has surpassed and banalized violence in cinema; for rather than presenting us with the realism of violence in war, "The Wrestler" presents us with the realism of violence in performance— within a performance.

The casting of Mickey Rourke as Randy makes the paradigm complete. Rourke like Randy enjoyed considerable success in the 80s as a bad boy. In addition, though Rourke never wrestled, he enjoyed another concussion inducing sport, boxing, and did brutal damage to his brain and face. Although the basic storyline is often trite, (an overacted angry daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) emerges almost as an afterthought,) Rourke is so compelling in this role that the camera and the audience can scarcely focus on secondary matters. Therefore, there is barely enough space to contemplate another age-limited industry, stripping, though Pam (Marisa Tomei) skillfully demonstrates the other sex’s more typical compromise. If you are one for 80s nostalgia, you will enjoy all the hair-metal hits that might have been played at wrestling events, as well as the superb score co-written by Slash. The film closes with an almost too appropriate Bruce Springsteen song “One-trick pony” providing the perfect finale to a picture about an underclass of the entertainment industry. To this extent "The Wrestler" can be compared not only to "Rocky", and "Raging Bull" but to "Boogie Nights."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Doubt" now an Oscar nominated play...

"Doubt" now an Oscar nominated play...

We are a media obsessed nation that has created a media obsessed world. No matter how many Tonies a play wins, it will gross only a fraction of an Oscar-winning film. Therefore, the marketing trick for John Patrick Shanley was to make “Doubt” his Tony award winning play, into a Hollywood vehicle that would ensure Oscars, thus $$$. To guarantee this success Oscar favorites Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were cast as clergy and Howard Shore composed an appropriate if typical score. The plot follows a battle for power that ignites when a catholic school’s principle, Sister Beauvier (Streep) accuses the priest, Father Brendan Flynt (Hoffman), of molesting the school’s only black student. Though the story is simple and timely, it takes place in the pre-sex scandal days of 1964, which makes the reproach and the surrounding secrecy all the more compelling.

Sarcasm aside, no two screen actors could proffer as much anticipation of genius acting as the Streep/Hoffman duo. Both deliver their usual great performances, though Streep’s characterization as a militant nun is especially convincing. Each of her gestures depicts the restraint of her service, and the emotions dwelling beneath. Gendered behaviors are perhaps exaggerated for symbolism, and just as Sister Beauvier keeps a tense face and controlled attitude, Hoffman as Father Flynt, appears relaxed and jolly (that is before the insinuations begin.)

Though the script is as open and ambiguous as the title suggests, the audience cannot help but search desperately for Father Flynt’s truth, (debates between audience members will ensue as the credits roll.) Cameras offer tight cantered close-ups of the expert actors that reveal mystery and depths of emotion. Even so, "Doubt" seems to favor a theatrical setting, the mysterious dialogue cannot be improved with camera angles and the symbolism is at moments too overt for cinematic realism.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Class, What Takes Place Between Parisian Classroom Walls

Although the English title of Laurent Cantet’s seventh film The Class explicates the film’s subject, a 9th grade school class, it lacks the greater symbolism of the original title Entre les Murs (literally “between the walls” in English.) This spatial reference, lost in translation, indicates the importance of the actual classroom that houses all the frustration and wonder of the fourteen year-olds who study French with Mr. Bégaudeau. (In fact, only three scenes of the film take place outside the classroom and they are still within the confines of the high school.) In this way the film maintains its focus on the school environment and how the structure affects the teens and their teachers, and only rarely alludes to what might occur outside of school walls.
If you did not know, you would probably believe that The Class was a documentary. The students are expertly photographed, usually with a hand-held camera. But unlike Rachel’s Getting Married which desperately attempted realism with a whip-cam and shaky shooting, the camera floats and effortlessly focuses on acne-faced, braces-wearing, rebellious teens who appear so typically proud and confused, that the line between fiction and documentary disappears. Though neo-realist films have often cast non-professional actors, an entire cast of fourteen year-old non-professionals playing themselves in high school, trumps any realism an older person off the street might offer. In addition, the principal teacher is played by the film’s screenwriter, a real teacher who taught in Paris and penned a best selling novel about the experience before making it into a script. So François Bégaudeau, like most of his students, shares his name with his character, and performs with all the honesty this suggests.
It is astonishing that one feature film about a high school class in Paris can address so many of France’s contemporary problems in less than two hours; the French identity struggles to be defined by kids whose relationship to France is complicated by immigration, community, and a non-ethnic authority figure. Although Mr. Bégaudeau’s class is relaxed, violence ensues when one student refuses to use the polite address of “vous” with his teacher, demonstrating the importance of language in maintaining order. Of course language is central in a French class – Mr. Bégaudeau’s challenge is to make proper French relevant to kids who do not hear French spoken “correctly” outside of the classroom.
Never fear that The Class is reminiscent of Hollywood white teacher in a rough neighborhood films Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. There is no happy ending where the children realize their worth and set goals, and there is no sad ending where the students despair in self-destructive activities. The film simply presents a year of high school existence and allows the audience to analyze this chapter’s greater significance. The last shot of the film leaves the audience with a chill, the classroom where the children and teacher have exchanged knowledge and emotions is for the first time in the film empty; the space swells and reverberates with the transient meaning of all that has taken place between the walls.
Synecdoche, New York: Kaufman left to his own devices
Anyone who saw the preview for Synecdoche, New York anxiously awaited what promised to be the king of Kaufman films. The trailer guaranteed all the confusion of time and space that has become Kaufman’s signature with a bewilderment bonus in the credits, this time Kaufman would direct! In the past screenwriter Charlie Kaufman enhanced the surreality of his scripts with the creativity of music-video directors Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich,) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Human Nature.) However, in Synecdoche, New York Kaufman is left to his own devices to either soar in amnesia or drown in self-pity. He decidedly does both.
Synecdoche, NY is the most ambitious of Kaufman’s work, perhaps because it is the most self-referential. Therefore one imagines that Kaufman carefully considered our nation’s finest actors before choosing Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who won an Oscar for Capote) to play the agonizing hypochondriac. Although Hoffman’s ability and range cannot be denied, his talents seem lost in the circular world of Kaufman. Where Truman Capote went from a witty and gay best-selling author to a morbidly intoxicated loner, Caton of Synecdoche, NY changes more through age-altering make-up than through character development. We know that Caton is a talented artist because he wins a prestigious grant to write and direct a play, yet no statements or actions worthy of such awards are apparent. Moreover, one assumes that despite his gut and negativity, Caton attracts beautiful women (Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis) because of his artistic genius; on closer examination the women’s enchantment with Caton appears only as the icing of a generally dystopic, but fully hetero, male fantasy.

In short, this is a study of one (white male) artist’s consciousness, of his internal fears, failures and desires-- a fact which could improve or ruin the film for you depending on how much you identify with Caton. Obviously Kaufman identifies with the director of his creation, and in fact the director/character relationship is not dissimilar to that of Fellini and his alter ego Guido in 8 1/2. In both films macro- and microcosms blur while exploring the interior world of a creative mastermind, (a man whose imagination is really none other than that of the film’s director.) And although casting the overweight Hoffman as oneself is much more self-deprecating than casting pretty boy Mastroianni, it is fully appropriate in a pessimistic film with a depressive perspective.
Yet where Guido’s failure ultimately becomes a triumph in 8 1/2, Synecdoche, NY ends as a post 9/11 failure. The world Caton attempts to recreate in a warehouse swings out of proportion until Caton is left wandering through the remnants of a war-ravaged industrial city. The last 30 minutes, which drag steadily closer to Caton’s demise, simulate his fatigue and despair leaving the audience equally exhausted. This oversight in editing overshadows Kaufman’s circular mirroring twists which kept the script alive in the film’s first half; eventually what was as grotesque and haunting as a Francis Bacon self portrait, becomes tired, dull, and repetitive. Yet this might be precisely the view of life Kaufman wanted to suggest.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Battle In Seattle" is not "Medium Cool"

"Battle in Seattle" has gained more press exposure than the average
independent film due to its controversial setting, the riots and
demonstrations attended by over 50,000 at the WTO conference in
Seattle, Washington of 1999, as well as its talk show hopping
Hollywood star; Cherlize Theron. Yes, the talented actress who
surpassed expectations when playing an overweight killer in "Monster"
(2003) is presently melting her Oscar for an engagement ring by
starring in her Irish fiancé's directorial debut. In truth "Battle in
Seattle" follows so many narratives, it is difficult to say that
Theron is the star, even if her name is its publicized feature; by
following the trials and tribulations of four racially diverse young
hetero-activists, and in addition a television reporter, a cop, his
pregnant wife, and the mayor of Seattle, the narrative strives to be
Altmanesque, but results in a collage of under-developed stereo-types.
In truth, though the film's production company, "Insight" is
independent, "Battle in Seattle" does not appear to subscribe to the
rules of such categorization; the film takes no risks in casting
unknowns (and instead casts many minor players of the major world) and
its plot follows the classical Hollywood paradigme complete with an
emotional score and a happy ending.
Yet the film's influences prove its espoir to higher filmmaking. As
already stated Townsend nods to Altman, but his primary inspiration is
another political film of a protest turned riot, Haskell Wexler's
"Medium Cool" (1969). "Medium Cool" follows the story of a television
journalist obsessed with capturing the real story of change in Chicago
despite being dismissed by his station. Only weeks before the DNC he
develops a relationship with a West Virginian mother and her
12-year-old son. The narrative thus comments on the state of media and
the interdependent web of the personal and political, while its
editing and cinematography further blur documentary and fiction. This
attempt at transgressing fiction and non-fiction is Townsend's most
overt reference to "Medium Cool"; actors are placed within the riots
by splicing documentary news footage when an establishing shot is
needed. This is seemingly infantile when compared with Wexler's
approach, for rather than researching footage of police brutality at
the DNC in '68, Wexler anticipated the protests and wrote his script
to include it. By physically placing his fictional characters within
the unrest, Wexler questioned the nature of cinema. Townsend rather
questions the nature of originality, or lack there of, while
celebrating predictability. While Wexler captures the beat of 1968 in
the year itself, Townsend reconstructs what he only witnessed via the
web, almost a decade later. Hence, though Townsend is emulating the
immediacy and realism of "Medium Cool," the montage looks as if he
badly cut and pasted videos. Furthermore, the artificial dialogue and
the flat characters contrast greatly with the actual footage of the
riot. Thus the film's Hollywood tendencies are enhanced and the
realism of "Medium Cool" or "La Battaglia di Algeri" is never
Though no slight reference is made to the political circumstances of
2008, the film premieres roughly a month after the RNC where police
again used teargas on peaceful protestors. Similarities between the
need for action in 1999 and 2008 abound and one might assume that
Townsend hopes to inspire current activism with the stories of
fictional scruffy jeans and tee-shirt heroes. Jay (Martin Henderson)
is the most post-hippie looking with a beard and a scarf, and thus
deserves as the white male protagonist to be cast as the mastermind
behind all of the protest organization. His blossoming romance with
Lou (Michèle Rodriguez) struggles to keep our attention, and almost
wins through the sheer humor of trite sexist dialogue. Rodriguez who
started her career as almost butch in "Girlfight" (2000), continues to
play feisty and tough, though now with a sweet loving feminine touch.
She relaxes her fist throwing anarchist tendencies when sobbing in her
jail cell, and then holding hands through the bars with Jay as he
tells her to "stop crying like a girl." (How serendipitous that within
all the chaos of the 1999 Seattle WTO shut down, our lovers' would
land next to each other in the jailhouse!) Unfortunately, if Jay and
Lou do inspire you to activism, it will not be in hopes of romance.
The romance plot does not even seem to interest the actors, and adds
nothing to their "Let's go out and get those motherfuckers! (direct
quote)" ideology.
The other activist to note is the African-American one, Django
(Outkast's André 3000). Django is like most black supporting roles,
and most are supporting (and most are played by rap artists), he
offers comic relief and optimism for the white characters and
audience. Django can be facing the teargas, at the end of a police
baton, with others bleeding in jail, but will always, as a good
performer, wear a big smile. Although Jay's back story is the death of
his activist brother who was chained to tree and then cut down, and
beforehand Lou became a wanted criminal when she incinerated her
father's animal testing lab, Django's past is only referred to when he
recounts a bedtime story his grandpa told him about turtles. One must
suppose that this sweet story is what inspired Django's love of
turtles and subsequent fierce opposition against the turtle-killing
fishing industry. Although Outkast deemed "Scooby-Doo" the non-cartoon
2002 feature, worthy of a soundtrack song, the only hint of André's
musicality in "Battle in Seattle" is a acapella rendition of Bobby
McFerrin's "Don't worry be happy" completing his feeble part with yet
more black entertainment.
If the actors appear as cardboard cutouts of radicals and anarchists,
one should note that Townsend in a search for accuracy did consult
David Solnit, a real Direct Action Network organizer who was part of
the WTO protests in 1999. Solnit tried to correct the script, and
evidently did alter large sections despite the director's resistance.
He explains in Yes Magazine, that he with other activists succeeded
with a pressure campaign, "applying tactics (they) often used in
anti-corporate campaigns," but were consulted "too late to change the
film's basic narrative." Alas, one may hope that perhaps with more
time, Solnit and friends could have corrected not only the stereotypes
of activists but also the consistently banal dialogue, and what
becomes an obstacle course of characters. Other veteran WTO-protest
participants who do not agree with the film's portrayal of Seattle in
1999 have bonded together on a website,,
which follows Solnit's conclusion to settle for the mediocre. Their
website statement: "It's a huge improvement over corporate media lies,
but won't tell the motives or thinking of the people who shutdown the
WTO." Although, one can easily agree that the Direct Action Network
characters are superficial constructions, the film primarily affronts
the activist community with its weak script piped full of lofty
meaningless inspirational statements and a badly directed cast that
was then later, badly edited.
Although the film inserts footage of the violence committed to
protesters by cops, police are in no way demonized. In fact Dale,
(Woody Harrelson), a low level mob-control cop might be the most fully
developed character. Dale's pregnant wife, Ella (Charlize Theron), is
beaten and miscarries when she passes through an unavoidable riot on
her way home. Dale's sadness turns to rage when he is forced to return
to work after learning the unfortunate news, and this fuels his
violent attack on our peaceful protagonist, Jay. Dale alone chases Jay
through Seattle's side streets and beats him to a pulp at a church
before he handcuffs his narrow wrists. But because this climatic
confrontation between antagonist (cop-bad guy) and protagonist
(Jay-organizer-good-guy) must be resolved, the film allows for major
character development in a jail make-up chat where Dale visits Jay and
says that he is sorry several times. Jay then tells him that it is
okay, "You were just doing your job." This is a surprising turn around
for the audience who has only twenty minutes before watched the two
characters thrash violently at one another with objects.
Theoretically, the miscarriage of Dale's wife and his apology would
allow the audience to sympathize with his character despite his crime.
Yet the opacity of Dale's attack and the apology leave the viewer
apathetic. This is part of larger general disinterest, for the
audience cannot relate to any of the stereotypes presented in "Battle
at Seattle," whether it be a cop or a radical.
First time Irish director Stuart Townsend (whose career highlights
include a guest role as a pastry chef on "Will and Grace") filmed with
a didactic purpose for those who might have forgotten this historic
clash between activists and police, vandalism and media. He thus
begins and ends "Battle in Seattle" as a very expensive power-point
presentation, with charts dissolving into more charts, arrows pointing
to dates, and photos cut into smaller photos. Despite Townsend's aim
to win a place in classrooms, his over-wrought style becomes less
educational than clunky and confusing, and though the film aims to be
objective in capturing both the activist and the cop perspective, the
bookends of data wash the film in a liberal preachy-ness. If you do
consider yourself to be politically liberal, "Battle in Seattle" is
another film that will shame you, by painting left politics as the
simplistic wet dreams of the Hollywood industry. Indeed in an act of
self-respect one is tempted to deny affiliation with the
fatigue-jacket backpack crew already described. If this situation
befalls you, I recommend returning to earlier times of American
activism by rediscovering "Medium Cool," a film that is
ground-breaking and relevant forty years after its release. The riots
of "Medium Cool" are frightening in their violence, and compelling in
their place within a fiction narrative; "Battle in Seattle" is at its
best a watered-down tribute to this film of '69 that still exposes the
reality of protest and media in the United States.