Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The View from the Tank: Costco Edition

In this review: The Wrestler, Wendy & Lucy, Frost/Nixon, Rachel Getting Married

The Wrestler (2008)

A very European movie, but with a Bruce Springsteen theme. European in that it was a very focused character study, with not too much going on. Well, besides the staples being shot into Mickey Rourke's body with a staple gun, the suplexes, and the pile drivers. Mickey Rourke is excellent, as everyone is saying. His devastated face, ravaged by plastic surgery and years in Hollywood wilderness, is perfect for this character, a faded wrestling star trying to learn to leave the ring. Marisa Tomei gets naked again (see also Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) as the stripper with a heart of gold, and is also fantastic.

There's something mildly interesting going on in this movie with identities and names. The main character, "Randy the Ram" is known as the Ram among his fellow wrestlers and his diehard fans from the 80's. After he's forced to take a humiliating job at a supermarket deli counter, he's forced to wear a name tag with his real name: "Robin". His love interest is a mostly washed-up stripper (Tomei), whose stripping name is Cassidy; her real name is Pam. Randy cannot accept life as "Robin", though that's the only way he could have Pam -- as opposed to the purchased artifice of "Cassidy".

The scenes with Randy's daughter felt a little out of place to me -- especially the sudden dancing in an abandoned hall. And the ending felt a little abrupt. The extended fade to black seemed to have been a choice the director made in recognition of the suddenness of the ending. I guess there was no other way to close out the film. Three and a half tentacles (out of five).

Wendy & Lucy (2008)

This felt like a trip back to the mid-90's: you know, Slacker had just been released, people were wearing thin plaid shirts from Goodwill, Austin seemed like a cool place, everyone was talking about video, and Don Delillo and the JFK assassination were really in. Anyhow, this film, the story of a young woman and her dog, on a long trip to Alaska in a 1988 Honda to look for work in a cannery, finding themselves broken down and stuck in a depressed post-industrial Oregon mill town, felt very sketched out, and empty. Much of the film was taken up with shots of Wendy (Michelle Williams) walking, waiting, looking -- at first with her dog Lucy, and later, without.

The film gives us nearly nothing about Wendy's background, why she's so desperate to get to Alaska, why she has nowhere else to go. I found it hard to truly care that much about Wendy, when I was given so little to care about. Wendy says nearly nothing in the movie, and her face gives us only resignation and stiff resolve -- with only one break into despair. I can appreciate a film like this being made, and its emphasis on the desperation of those Americans who are scraping by on the edge of oblivion is necessary and welcome. However, the film left me a little cold, despite the cute dog. The tune Wendy hums through the film is a lullaby of sorts to herself and Lucy, helping herself to believe that things will work out, even as they clearly won't. Two and a half tentacles.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

A perfectly satisfactory movie. At first Frank Langella seems a little wrong for Nixon -- his face too long, his voice not quite right, but then, during the course of the movie, Langella steadily, magically, in fact becomes Nixon. His face takes on the deep, hound-dog leathery folds of late Nixon, his voice takes on the deep growl of animal menace and hurt. Langella captures Nixon's bizarre charm, his infinite capacity for self-pity, and his perpetually nursed sense of inferiority and resentment. The rest of the cast is also quite good.

The film shows much more thought than the standard mid-level Hollywood Oscar Product -- that's likely because this was a highly successful stage production before being brought to the screen. Three tentacles.

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

I've thought about it for a day now, and I have come to terms with the fact that I loved this movie. I really wasn't expecting to like this. The story was compelling and moving, especially the sibling issues between Rachel and Kym (Anne Hathaway) and the background of family tragedy. As much as I am surprised to be saying this, Anne Hathaway was incredible in this role. She deserves an Oscar for this performance.

The casting was excellent; and the acting was fantastic all around. Debra Winger, though playing a small part, was very powerful.

The movie did present a somewhat utopian vision of an interracial marriage in which race just didn't matter, or was beside the point. Everyone had more pressing issues to worry about. Many critics appear to have been turned off by the "smug PCness" of the family and the wedding party -- but those critics seem to be missing the point: the whole Benetton feel of the wedding (which managed to feature jazz, hip hop, reggae, indy rock, and guests of all colors) was really secondary to the main issues in the film. The movie didn't have to spend a lot of time preaching about -- or even mentioning -- diversity or tolerance, because everyone in the movie was too busy dealing with the more pressing issues of keeping the family together through the pre-wedding crisis, managing Kym, dealing with the past family tragedy. (When crazy shit is going down, there's no time or energy left to be hung up on race -- it's the last thing on our minds. Draw whatever parallels you will to the election of our 44th president.)

As utopian as the image presented was, it was, to me, utterly believable, and felt like a mirror of the ways Americans really are learning to get beyond some of our racial hangups. (I thought Gran Torino made a similar point, through a much different approach.)

The main flaw in the film was an excess of dancing and music footage from the party itself -- a lot of that seemed like indulgent fluff, and could have been trimmed. The film's flab may be an inevitable byproduct of the director's stated intent to create a "home movie" of sorts; at times it felt a bit like some of the more tedious excesses of the Dogma 95 movement.

I may have reacted so positively to the film because I absolutely love wedding speeches of any kind -- especially the ones that break down into cringe-worthy self-absorbed free association. And I might have liked it for the wonderful image it presented (in most part) of my home state: my favorite line was probably "Welcome to Connecticut and our complicated tax structure."

I'm giving this four and a half tentacles our of five.


kris said...

Great reviews as usual OG. Having not seen any of these, I'm surprised Rachel Getting Married received the highest rating. I think it would be the last on my list among these to go see. I do want to see The Wrestler (Caeli and I are in the audience during the final wrestling match). And I'd like to see Wendy and Lucy (although I don't quite understand all the hype for Kelly Reichardt and her last film, Old Joy). She seems to be good at establishing mood, which goes a long way I guess.

Octopus Grigori said...

Thanks, Kris. That's awesome that you guys were in the audience for that last wrestling scene. How did that happen? Was it in Jersey?

As to Rachel Getting Married -- I totally did not expect to like the movie. All I knew about Hathaway before this film was her crappy role in The Devil Wears Prada, seeing her in the Get Smart trailers, and hearing something about an Italian boyfriend and fraud or whatever. I was highly dubious about all of the praise people were heaping on her for this role. But all the praise is warranted: Hathaway won me over. Who knew?

RGM is probably Jonathan Demme's best work since Silence of the Lambs.

kris said...

Caeli's brother was Mickey's assistant at the time -- so he got us in. They shot it during the course of an actual wrestling event, so we got to watch a bunch of "real" matches too. It was super bizarre. It was in an old theater in a little NJ town. I'm adding RGM to the Netflix queue.