Monday, December 22, 2008

Mickey Rourke wrestles his past

Thanks to the Melbourne Film festival and Hopscotch Films we attended a preview screening of The Wrestler in Melbourne. It opens nationally in Australia on 15 January 2009.

‘Bout The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film takes us into a world where suspending disbelief is the core element. Wrestling culture, though superficially like boxing, is more like the circus. A strange mixture of comedy, farce and sometimes tragedy. The Wrestler is all of these and more. Portrayed as a macho world, it has always had plenty of female fans. Just as Mickey Rourke had in his younger days and will doubtless have again with the release of this touching story.

The director has made this Rourke’s film. He is in virtually every scene. The camera explores his body in intimate detail. If his scars and breaks seem too real, perhaps many of them are a legacy of Mickey’s pro boxing career in the early 1990s during a movie hiatus. It isn’t quite type-casting but becomes clear why Aronofsky was so keen to get him for this part.

He isn’t the early sex symbol of 9½ Weeks or the brutal Marv of Sin City. For ageing Randy "The Ram" Robinson is more gentleman than stud despite the expectations of some of his female admirers. There is no doubt that Rouke’s reputation as a bad boy and loose cannon on the set adds a special dimension to his performance. We sense from the beginning that there will be explosions.

If you’re expecting a wrestling version of Rocky, forget it. This is not about underdogs or champions. Randy is fighting his own demons more than his opponents in the ring. Too old and too sick to continue his chosen career, he is just trying to maintain some sense of personal and social identity. As an unskilled worker, he struggles to find other employment.

Through his relationship with Pam, a bar dancer aka Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), he makes one more attempt to re-establish contact with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Somehow we know that he promises her too much and that his self-destructive side will see him crashing his own skull into a turnbuckle or two.

The fight scenes are spectacular but gruesome. Knowing that the wrestling is scripted and that we are watching actors doesn’t minimise their impact. Shades of the real thing! For all the pretence, the crowd and the movie audience must have blood and there is plenty of it.

It’s a world of good guys and bad guys. The plot centres on a rematch with his nemesis from the eighties, The Ayotollah, who waves an Iraqi flag as he enters the ring. Young Cassius Clay taunting Sonny Liston and Ali rumbling in the jungle with George Foreman would have loved the showmanship and histrionics.

Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay milks the visual elements. Two scenes stand out:

Washed up and retired heroes of times passed sit at tables in an American Legion hall. They are selling memorabilia, signing autographs and posing for photographs with fans and their children. With their wounds barely hidden, they look more like civil war veterans.

The Ram walks through corridors and down the stairs of a supermarket on his way to serve at the deli counter. His bleached shoulder length locks are covered by a hairnet. His shame badge sports his real name ‘Robin’. Aronofsky lays the stadium imagery on thick. We laugh or cry or do both.

The director clearly established strong rapport with his female leads. Marisa Tomei doesn’t miss a beat as her character’s attempts to build a solid life for herself and her son are complicated by Randy’s attentions. Evan Rachel Wood’s brooding performance as his estranged daughter symbolises the Ram’s wasted years and wasted opportunities.

Their dysfunctional relationship is juxtaposed with his affection for and genuine interactions with the children of his trailer park. They clearly admire and respect this old warrior.

The Wrestler will appeal across generations. This is a movie for baby boomers who grew up on a weekly diet of world championship wrestling as their virtual reality television. It is also tailor-made for Gen X who loved Fight Club and Gen Y who love disgraced celebrities on the comeback trail. The advertising poster proclaims, “Witness the Resurrection of Mickey Rourke”. A clever marketing ploy but the film stands up without this inevitable, forced metaphor. Mickey was neither washed up or dead as his filmography clearly shows. Not Lazarus, just a naughty boy!

It won the Golden Lion at the 2008 Venice Film Festival. The Wrestler is a certainty for academy award nominations. It’s straight out of Million Dollar Baby territory; the kind of stuff Planet Hollywood loves. It’s very sentimental and very good. Like Bruce Springsteen’s song “The Wrestler” which closes the film.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fugitive Pieces: Laying the Ground Work

A warning to those given to feelings of depression. The slow, bleak, heart rending journey of Fugitive Pieces to its uplifting finish may not seem worth the effort at times. Jakob Beer (Robby Kay), a seven year old Polish Jew, loses his family at the hands of Nazi troops. He is spirited away by a Greek archaeologist Athos Roussos (Rade Šerbedžija), first to Greece where he is house-bound hiding from the Germans and then to post war Canada. The adult Jakob (Stephen Dillane) continues to be haunted by this experience, with nightmares filled by memories of his sister Bella (Nina Dobrev).

He combats the dark side by writing. The path takes him from private journal to successful author of his autobiographical Ground Work. Jakob's Toronto Jewish neighbours mirror his struggle with the legacy of the holocaust, in particular their son Ben (Ed Stoppard).

Jeremy Podeswa was both screenwriter and director. The script is based on Canadian poet Anne Michaels’ novel of the same name. His use of flashbacks is well controlled, as Jakob relives the war years and different periods of his later life in Canada and Greece.

This is another multi-lingual film. English is the main language but Polish, Yiddish and Greek are used extensively with sub-titles. The sombre music by Nikos Kypourgos underlines the gloomy tones of Fugitive Pieces.

Stephen Dillane, known for his roles in Welcome to Sarajevo and The Hours, gives a very severe performance. Rosamund Pike as Alex and Ayelet Zurer as Michaela are the two serious attempts by Jakob to sustain a stable relationship. Their bright portrayals help to moderate this severity.

Fugitive Pieces is worth the effort but go prepared for an intense exploration of the depths of human experience.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hunger: For a cause

Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger, is a very powerful but draining telling of a sad moment in an even sadder history of Northern Ireland. Our initiation to the conflict starts with prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) checking his battered knuckles and his car for an IRA bomb. We are quickly introduced to the pattern of passive resistance and systemic violence when novice inmate, newly convicted paramilitary Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), joins Gerry (Liam McMahon) in a cell totally decorated with faeces.

We see the personal horror of both captive and gaoler in their eyes. This historical drama is a story told visually with little dialogue used to further the tension.

The exception is a remarkable 22-minute exchange between protagonist IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Catholic priest Fr Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). For most of the scene the camera does not move, as Bobby defends his decision to organise a hunger strike to the death.

Some understanding of the historical context certainly helps but it is strong enough to reach out to an audience without that background. The time: 1981. The place: Maze prison, outside Belfast. The action: the protest against wearing prison uniforms as part of the Provisional IRA’s campaign to achieve political status for its incarcerated members. The theme: violence against and by the State; political terror and the ugly responses to it.

This is not a pretty picture. Blood, excrement and urine flow freely. Violence and murder are presented graphically and unsentimentally. There are no good guys. This is not In the Name of the Father. There are no innocents. There is no redemption. This is the dark side writ large. Hate seems to be the main driving force for both sides.

It is easy to react to this film in terms of modern politics. The Independent’s film review saw it in these terms:
This enthralling account of Sands' 66 days on hunger strike to try to get better conditions for IRA prisoners, seems especially pertinent at a time when the atrocities of Abu Ghraib remain vivid.
However, if you're looking for a partisan political message this is the wrong place.

It would also be easy to blame religion, history, or politicians for all the inhumanity of the “troubles”. This film tries to tell what happened without judgment. Yet it leaves the film goer feeling as battered as the inmates after running the gauntlet.

Hunger is not a particularly sympathetic portrayal of Bobby Sands or his cause. The exception comes in the flashbacks as he waits to die. We meet Bobby as a boy, the young cross-country runner who stands up for what he thinks is right. It is the single-mindedness of a martyr but Hunger is not really about heroism and martyrdom. They are all victims.

McQueen, who is also co-writer, told Timeout:
‘I’m not concerned with balance,’ he says. ‘I don’t think people are bad in general, but circumstances make them do what they have to.’
Director interview: Steve McQueen
The opening credits reverberate as metal rubbish bin lids are hammered onto the road. This was a signal used in Belfast communities to warn locals that British military or police were prowling republican areas. Later, riot squad police echo this siren when they beat batons onto shields in unison, before using them on the prisoners. A younger member of their cohort hides during the slaughter, a solitary objector to the madness all around.

Hunger is a brutal experience. Do not go expecting some triumph of the human spirit. In this case the clichés mostly belong to the reviews.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Grocer’s Son: the way we were

The Grocer’s Son/Le Fils de l'épicier

Director Eric Guirado has given us a slow-paced film. Slow like life in rural France where it takes place. Slow like the developing romance at its centre. Slow like the rebuilding of the family's relationships. Slow like the emerging self-discovery of its main characters. Slow like the growing bonds between the stand-in mobile grocer and his customers.

Antoine Sforza (Nicolas Cazalé) has been sacked from his waiter’s job. When his father is hospitalised, he returns to help in his family grocery in a rural French hamlet. He brings his friend Claire (Clotilde Hesme) with him, hoping to establish a sexual relationship.

He's not a a prime catch. The men in Antoine’s family are all dysfunctional. His bitter, misanthropic father (Daniel Duval) wants nothing to do with him. His brother François (Stéphan Guérin-Tillié), who is a local hairdresser, blames Antoine for deserting the family. Antoine is disorganised, unmotivated and a poor communicator with atrocious inter-personal skills.

The village is a dying community in many ways. The grocery and a motor mechanic’s workshop are the only remaining businesses. Most of the customers of the mobile grocery service seem to be octogenarians. Yet it’s the elderly who breathe life into Antoine, with a lot of help from Claire. Clement (Paul Crauchet), an elderly farmer, and the highly eccentric Lucienne (Liliane Rovère) reawaken his humanity and his good humour. It was refreshing to see a movie that did not involve old people either in or on the way to a nursing home. The recent baby-boomers' flick, The Savages, came to mind immediately.

Before the inevitable crisis in their romance, Claire joins Antoine on his truck rounds and teaches him how to interact with people. She also helps to turn on his tap of self-reflection.

Unhappy marriages are the order of the day. Antoine’s mother (Jeanne Goupil) has been long-suffering support for her hostile, combative husband. Claire had four years of unhappy marriage before a new start as a student. François is in denial, hiding the fact that his wife has left him. He suffers severe depression, which seems to be both a cause and a result of his marriage breakdown.

The Grocer’s Son is very predictable in many ways. It moves inexorably towards a happy ending for most of its main characters. However, this didn’t seem to spoil the experience as the story is about personal discovery. It finishes on a strong note of hope. It is a pity that this happens in a part of society that is fast disappearing even in France. This is not the world of unbridled consumption or conspicuous wealth. It’s the world of 19th Century romanticism. If it still exists somewhere, then let’s hope they can keep it secret.

Another foreign language film that’s worth a visit to the cinema, if you can find it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Man on Wire: Twin Towers Tightrope

Frenchman Philippe Petit walked between the World Trade Center twin towers in August 1974. He had not asked permission of course. He was arrested and handcuffed. The authorities wanted to know why he did it and sent him for a psychiatric assessment. Watch this documentary in a cinema if possible. It's the last question you'll ask yourself.

Philippe had practiced between the pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

It was one small step...

One Saturday morning in August 1980 I took these photos from the second top floor of one of the towers. I was visiting Bill Gates, a teacher mate from Up-State New York. We stayed at a Manhattan apartment of one of his friends whose husband worked on that floor. It was a long weekend so we had the place to ourselves. We were parked on the street opposite the buildings in the first picture. While we enjoyed the view, someone stole the car radio. I dragged out the old photos because the Statue of Liberty resonated so strongly with ones from the film.

I'll spare you our tourist snaps from the top of the bridge and the cathedral.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Burn After Reading: Forget After Viewing?

We are great fans of the Coen brothers and enjoyed Burn After Reading a lot. Hard to say whether it’s a spy thriller or a lifestyle comedy. Let’s settle for social satire.

The film has a stellar cast. The actors walk through their roles with ease, with few surprises.

George Clooney amply fits his public persona - sex addict and loving it.

Joel Coen’s partner, Frances McDormand, has her customary touch of zany obsessiveness. This is her sixth movie with the brothers, including her Oscar winning role in Fargo and the very special Raising Arizona. She holds this film together.

John Malkovich does what he is best at – the nasty, manic, egoistical elitist.

Richard Jenkins does victim so well. He is an even more sensitive and gentle male than his character in The Visitor, and more naïve.

Tilda Swinton and Elizabeth Marvell as the not-so-innocent wives give very convincing performances.

The only exception is Brad Pitt whose comedy role is very funny and unexpectedly so. His almost slapstick performance embellishes his failed-man-of-action character. The film's long title of “Intelligence is Relative” could well be applied to his character's I.Q. He’s certainly no match for the CIA and that’s no mean feat in this movie. George Clooney’s dildo humour doesn’t live up to Brad’s visual gymnastics. I couldn’t decide if it was locker-room stuff or a send-up of it.

The minor characters are Hollywood stereotypes: unethical lawyers and the inevitable intelligence-challenged secret agents.

Unfortunately the plot is not as strong as Brad’s acting. But the film’s mixture of soft satire and increasing violence help to bring about the required suspension of disbelief and engagement with the story. At least until you leave the theatre wondering where the Coen Brothers are heading. It’s very mainstream Hollywood in too many ways. Tarantino meets Ridley Scott, but without many original insights or filmic techniques.

It’s not a deep experience but it pokes fun at modern America in a range of winning ways. The body obsession: makeovers, cosmetic surgery, the gym culture (even Malkovich works out towards the end). Conspicuous wealth and consumption. The jogging and divorce circuits. Online dating is important for these people who are so self-obsessed that they can't connect in person.

Central to the plot is the new media focus – the memoir. Where would Oprah and talk radio be without the true confessions of former spies, diet freaks, reformed addicts, and self-improvers? If you haven’t written a book, you’re nobody.

Like many of the characters, the film is hyper-active. It packs a lot into 96 minutes, with George and Brad spending a lot of the time running.

Haven’t seen Body of Lies yet but the shorts indicate that the title could be swapped with Burn After Reading. My greatest disappointment was that it was so lightweight. It could be a case of Forget After Viewing.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Lemon Tree: a bitter sweet film

Lemon Tree is another foreign languages film which is well worth the cinema trip.

According to Eran Riklis, the Israeli director,
Lemon Tree is a simple story about people who find themselves fighting over matters that could have been resolved quite easily if they would just listen to each other.

...this is really a film about solitude as it is reflected in the lives of two women ...
Hiam Abbass plays Salma Zidane, a Palestinian woman who fights to keep her lemon grove from destruction by Israeli security because it is next to the Defence Minister's house. Her performance is even stronger than her role in The Visitor. Rona Lipaz gives an equally sensitive performance as the Minister's alienated wife Mira Navon. Both neighbours have children in the United States, one at Georgetown University and the other is a kitchen-hand planning to study IT. Not hard to guess which is which.

The film has its male villains, represented by the politician Israel Navon (Doron Tovory) and the local Palestinian power-broker Abu Camal (Makram Khoury). However, there are several sensitive male charactisations: the lawyer Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), Salma's surrogate uncle and fellow lemon cultivator (Tarik Copty) and the Israeli guard Quickie (Danny Leshman).

The film is about the things that unite as well as those which have created walls, both literal and figurative, in the Middle East. Make sure you see Lemon Tree if you possibly can.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reflections on the Bill Henson witch-hunt

In 2006 part of my teaching job at Maningrida Community Education Centre was as Careers teacher. During the year a poster was circulated by a casting agency for the upcoming Baz Luhrmann film, Australia. They were looking for indigenous children and were hoping for assistance from schools in identifying prospective "child" actors, both Primary school age and adolescents. As part of this process, I helped one of our Year 12 students to make an audition tape which was unsuccessful.

I have no criticism of anyone involved in this search for talent. All the protocols about gaining permission from parents were followed as far as I know. No one came into our school, possibly because of its remoteness.

The photo above is from the film's official website. This story reminded me of another Arnhem youth who went to school in Maningrida, David Gulpulil. He first appeared in the 1971 film Walkabout. The film was controversial partly because of the nudity of both 15 year old Gulpilil and 16 year old co-star Jenny Agutter.

It is doubtful whether Walkabout would have screened uncut if it was released in today's current child-protection climate. Apparently the film was only available in a censored version for many years.

Many issues have been raised by the controversy surrounding Bill Henson's photography of children and his search for talent at St.Kilda Primary School. They warrant a detailed, dispassionate discussion such as David Marr's attempts to put this into some kind of context. I doubt anything approaching a mature dialogue is possible after the emotive outbursts we have experienced so far.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Waltz with Bashir: dance with death

Waltz with Bashir is an animation with a difference: a personal, political, psychological documentary about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel and the massacre of Palestinians refugees by local militia.

The story is based on writer/director Ari Folman’s experiences as an Israeli soldier in Lebanon. It explores the recollections of other soldiers in an attempt to resolve his own blocked memories. These relate in particular to the massacres of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangist militia.

The Israeli army were unwitting participants at best, as they guarded the perimeter of the camps and provided flares to light the phalangist attacks. Ariel Sharon who later became Prime Minister was held personally responsible and sacked as Israeli Defence Minister.

The power of our minds to dim or completely remove real memories or to create others which are false is a central theme.

The title ‘Waltz with Bashir’ refers to one soldier’s bizarre dance with death under sniper fire. Behind him is a large poster of Bashir Gemayel. He was a senior commander of the Phalangists militia who became President of Lebanon. His assassination was a catalyst for the massacres.

The director of animation Yoni Goodman has created a unique atmosphere, with dream-like motion at times. The animators used illustrations hand-drawn from video. The official website explains the process used in detail. It took 4 years to complete.

The original music by Max Richter reinforces the dark, disturbing tones of the animation.

The final scenes, which use actual footage, are horrific in the extreme. Not only does the film leave us with more questions about war and the dark side of humanity. It places the rise of Hizbollah, the 2006 Israeli/Lebanon conflict and the continuing violent internal Lebanese politics in context. One that is not likely to change while hate rules the heart.

For the At the Movies interview with Ari Folman and their film review, please visit their website.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Visitor: We are not helpless children!

The Visitor is a film you shouldn't miss.

"We are not helpless children!"

Richard Jenkins is Walter Vale, a Connecticut Economics professor struggling, through music, to find some meaning in his life without his wife. "Tarek is teaching me the drum. I sound a lot better when he is playing with me."

Haaz Sleiman is Tarek, a gentle but passionate professional drummer from Syria who faces deportation from the U.S. as an illegal alien. "I just want to live my life and play my music. What's so wrong about that."

Danai Gurira plays Zainab, Tarek's Senegalese partner. She works as a jewellery-maker living each day in fear of deportation. "Sometimes Tarek would point at the Statue and jump up and down like we are arriving in New York for the first time."

Hiam Abbass, is Mouna, Tarek's mother, trying to protect her son from the fate which killed her husband.

Tom McCarthy's direction is both understated and in-your-face. It is hard not to be touched by each of the main characters and their troubled lives. They are finely drawn without resorting to stereotypes.

On the other hand he is not afraid to make his political points without subtlety. The clichéd symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, both in its real form and as a mural in the detention centre, is only trumped by seemingly innocent references to the Twin Towers and Ellis Island.

You don't have to be deeply interested in issues related to refugees, asylum seekers or 21st Century xenophobia to enjoy this film. In fact it might help. It was the personal rather than the political level that made The Visitor the best U.S. movie I've seen for ages.