Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Wrestler

It seems appropriate that Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for the end credits of The Wrestler, since the entire movie feels like a Nebraska era Springsteen song come to life.  The entire movie is drenched in sorrow and defeat, and you squirm in your seat as you watch characters that have no hope of ever getting out of the swamp that is their life.  The town is bleak, and so is the outlook.  It’s about as sunny and cheerful as Darren Aronofsky’s earlier smile-fest, Requiem for a Dream.  Thanks for the pick me up, Darren, I’m going to go kill myself now, but kill myself in the best possible way.

Mickey Rourke is a grizzled train wreck of a human being.  Holy shit he looks grim.  I guess having your face caved in during an ill-fated, ill-advised professional boxing career will do that to a guy.  Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, nee Robin Ramzinski, a Rowdy Roddy Piper-esque professional wrestler who was once popular enough to sell out Madison Square Garden for his legendary, and career defining match against “The Ayatollah.”  His signature move, by the way, is amazingly called the “Ram Jam.”  I just thought you would like to know.

Predictably, the “Ram” has fallen on hard times.  He works part time moving boxes at a local grocery store where the boss gives him a rash of shit, and on the weekends he travels around the New Jersey area plying his trade in small shows at high school gyms and such, dreaming of making it back to the big time, but just barely getting by on the few dedicated fans who actually remember his name.  It just doesn’t pay to have dreams in a movie like this; it is only going to get you in trouble.  In his spare time, Randy gets locked out of his trailer, sleeps in his van, and pines for Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper at a local titty bar called “Cheeques.”  I think Marisa Tomei was put on this earth to play the role of an aging stripper that loves eighties buttrock.

Randy has a hardcore match with the “Necro Butcher,” that involves a barbwire wrapped crutch, lots of broken glass, thumb tacks, a prosthetic leg, and a ladder.  Did I mention the staple gun?  Yeah, there is a staple gun.  Necro Butcher ends up with a five-dollar bill stapled to his face.  The fight scene plays out mixed with a doctor digging various detritus out of Randy’s flesh after the match.  The scene is incredible, and effective, and also inexplicably gory.  It isn’t horror movie, arm getting hacked off with a chainsaw gore; it is very real and uncomfortable gore, the kind of gore that makes you cringe.  The couple directly in front of me in the theater got up and walked out during this scene.

After he has been thoroughly cleaned out, the Ram goes to take a shower, only to have a heart attack on the way.  The years of hard living and steroid abuse have taken their toll on Randy, and the doctor tells him that being a professional wrestler is no longer a good idea.  With barely a whimper, the wrestling career of Randy “The Ram” Robinson comes to an unceremonious end.

Having lost the only thing he knows, not sure of what to do, or where to go, Randy goes to Cassidy, the only person who is ever nice to him.  She tells him that at times like these you need to be around family.  He tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  It seems to go well for a minute, but then he inevitably screws the pooch.  At one point, broken down and in tears, Stephanie tells him that he is “a living, breathing, fuck-up.”  That pretty much sums it up.

At a show, as a spectator, Randy finds some of the love that he is unable to attain from either Cassidy or his daughter, and decides that the only place he ever has, or ever will belong, is in squared circle, under the bright lights, in front of an adoring crowd of drunken wrestling fans.  They are the only family he has ever had.  They are the only ones who have ever truly loved him.  He then makes the generally reckless decision to participate in a match that celebrates the twentieth anniversary of his legendary duel with the Ayatollah (played by professional wrestler Ernest “the Cat” Miller), who now owns a car dealership in Arizona.

Cassidy finally accepts the love Randy tries to give her.  She tells him as he is about to walk through the curtain into the spotlight.  It is, of course, too late.  He has to go to his people, to the one place that he has never been hurt.  She is unable to watch.

Randy gives a stirring speech to the packed auditorium, and despite the obvious troubles with his heart, the match goes on.  He climbs to the top of the turnbuckle, salutes the crowd, and leaps into the air, delivering one final “Ram Jam.”

Mickey Rourke is perfect.  This is one of those roles that couldn’t have been anyone else.  He essentially lived this life, and it translates to the screen like nothing else he’s ever done.  There aren’t any of the visual gimmicks that abound in Aronofsky’s other films.  He took the script from Robert D. Siegel (former editor of The Onion, oddly enough), and told a straight forward, gritty, and powerful story about people searching for love and belonging, only to be swept out to sea by the inevitable, inescapable current. 

One side note, the music is awesome.  There are songs from Accept, Quiet Riot, Slaughter, Cinderella, and Ratt, among others.  Axl Rose even did something cool for once in his shit eating life.  He gave the filmmakers the rights to use “Sweet Child o’ Mine” for free, because they didn’t have the budget for it.  See, even Axl Rose is redeemable.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Host

I want to hug Korea. There are a couple of reasons for this uncharacteristic burst of touchy-feelyness, but today I specifically want to wrap my arms around them and squeeze because of The Host.

The Host is one of the two or three best monster movies of the past decade, maybe longer. The only thing I’ve seen recently that compares is Black Sheep, and no I don’t mean the Chris Farley/David Spade crapfest, so don’t even think that question.

Like a godsend, it doesn’t fall into the trap of relying too heavily on CGI. They use it when they must, but it isn’t a crutch. The Weta Workshop (who also did Black Sheep, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and pretty much everything else Peter Jackson has ever done) creature looks great, and is even fully visible for long stretches of time in the broad daylight, and still looks awesome. Was anyone else unfortunate enough to see I am Legend, and those atrocious CGI whatever the fuck they were supposed to be creatures? Yuck.

The movie starts off in 2000, where an American military scientist of some sort orders his reluctant Korean assistant to dump like a thousand bottles of a weird formaldehyde concoction down the drain, directly into the Han River. This is based on a real incident, and the first of many comments on America’s unwelcome intrusions and influence around the world, and their lack of concern for the locals. Over a period of years, there are sightings of something strange in the river, beginning with a cup sized amphibious mutant two fishermen stumble across then lose, and the looming shape a suicidal businessman sees in the water he is about to jump into a few years later.

In the present we meet the Park family. Father, Park Hee-bong (Byeon Hie-bong), owns a food stand on the banks of the Han River. His oldest child, the slow-witted son, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), helps him run it in between naps. Gang-du has a spunky thirteen year old daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), an Olympic caliber archer sister with a tendency towards indecisiveness, Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), and an alcoholic, unemployed, ex-activist brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il).

While delivering a meal to some douche on a blanket that cares that his barbequed squid has the proper amount of legs, Gang-du and rest of the shoreline crowd spy something hanging from the bottom of the nearby bridge. It drops into the water, and then all sorts of hell breaks loose. The creature, now all growed up to full-sized pick-up truck stature, bursts out of the water and proceeds to chase, devour, and generally wreak all sorts of havoc in one of the best scenes ever put to film. Gang-du and a US military man are the only ones who put up a fight, rescuing a trailer full of trapped fish-bait, and clubbing the damn thing over the head a couple of times with a street sign. It just goes to show that not all Americans are total shitbags. As the creature retreats, it grabs Hyun-seo and swims off, much to Gang-du’s fatherly dismay.

After the attack, the entire family is in shock, and everyone who had any contact with the creature is put in quarantine. The American doctors insist there is some sort of mystery virus, that may or may not exist, transmitted by the creature. It is mostly their excuse to unleash a wave of “Agent Yellow,” a new chemical designed to combat biological weapons. I wonder where they got the idea for that one. While in isolation, Gang-du gets a call from Hyun-seo’s weak ass cell phone. It turns out she has been regurgitated in some mystery sewer with a bunch of corpses to be eaten at some later date, but the battery on her phone dies before they can figure out where. Of course the authorities don’t believe this bat-shit crazy story from an emotionally distraught father who just exchanged fisticuffs with a giant monster. The remainder of the movie is the family dealing with asinine bureaucracy and corruption, escaping confinement, battling a giant mutant fish thing, and their own individual shortcomings, in order to rescue Hyun-seo, who, at thirteen, seems to be the only one in the family who really has her shit together.

The Host does everything a monster movie should do in my opinion, and it does all of it well. Beyond the monster actually looking good and rampaging across the screen causing a ruckus on a regular basis, it manages to be funny as shit, almost tearfully dramatic, and carry a serious political undertone as well.

Director Bong Joon-ho, who co-wrote the script with Baek Chul-hyun, isn’t afraid to kill off a main character, even an adorable child, poke at self-righteous student demonstrators, or shy away from calling out the government, both foreign and domestic, on their bullshit.

Go Korea, for today at least, you have managed to maintain my faith in monster movies.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Taken

As someone with an undying love and devotion to the cinema of ass kicking, I have a rather large problem with so many of the new jack action movies hitting the multi-plex. Here is my issue, at no point through the entire length of these films does the audience ever for a single moment think that the protagonist is in any danger whatsoever, nor is there ever a question that he will reach his goal and save the day. There is no tension, none. I loved Casino Royale, but Daniel Craig’s second turn as Bond, Quantum of Solace, bored the living shit out of me.

Taken, from writer Luc Besson, and Besson prodigy, Pierre Morel, is a prime example of my point. It has all the bells and whistles—minimal character development, a flimsy premise with any number of glaring coincidences, the obligatory driving down the wrong side of the road car chase, and fight scenes inspired by Israeli military martial arts techniques—but it still falls flat. There is only one guy who even puts up a fight against Liam Neeson, and that’s the last guy he fights, some nonspecific Arab gentleman with eyeliner.

Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former ‘preventer’ for the US military. He left the game to try to try to repair the relationship with his estranged daughter, only to be stifled at every turn by his ex, played by a pointless Famke Janssen. Against his wishes, the daughter and a friend take off on a trip to Paris to follow U2 on tour (yup). Well I’ll be dammed, within five minutes of landing on French soil the two obnoxious Americans get kidnapped by an Albanian girl-selling ring. Who saw that coming? I thought the skeevy guy at the airport was going to befriend them and show them the sights.

From there you can imagine the sequence of events that follow. Sufficed to say, running and jumping and tense stare downs abound. There are even multiple scenes of Mills madly opening one door after another, only to be disappointed that the heroin-saturated girl being sexually assaulted in the room is not his daughter, hence he is completely indifferent to her plight.

The daughter is of course a na├»ve virgin, who didn’t know what she was getting into, and really, it is all her slutty friends fault that they get kidnapped anyway. Mills of course has to find her before she can actually be addicted to heroin and sold as a sex slave; because, we just couldn’t have anything bad happen to an adorable little American girl. Everyone else is pretty much fucked, but as long as he saves her, everything is fine. He reminds me a little of John Wayne in The Searchers, he can’t stomach the idea of his little girl losing her virtue, even if it is against her will. I imagine that if she were actually forced to participate in some sort of sexual act, she would probably have to die for the vilification of the audience. Luckily, daddy is able to save the day, and at the end the daughter even gets a chance to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a singer, thanks to the bleach blond pop star Liam saves in the first act. Yeah, it’s not enough that he just saves her from a sordid life drug addiction and rape, she has to become the next Brittney Spears, too. (Slutty friend is not so lucky; she dies of a drug overdose in the backroom of an Albanian run French brothel)

This is not to say that this movie is completely without redemption. Despite having little to work with, Neeson’s character is pretty badass. There is one thing driving him, and that one thing is the only thing. There is an abundance of remorseless killing without even the slightest hesitation. At one point he uses electricity to torture information out of a bad guy, and once he knows everything he wants to know, he leaves the juice flowing and walks out of the room. He even shoots the wife of an old contact/buddy in the arm when he doesn’t get a timely answer to his question. And if you’re an annoying American teen there is an especially important underlying message for you—the rest of the world hates you because you’re fucking obnoxious. I guess this message actually applies to pretty much every American traveling abroad, not just the kids. But seriously, fuck the kids.

Even as jaded and bitter as I am, there are still good action movies being produced that actually get an onscreen release. The Bourne movies are pretty good. Unfortunately, the gems are few and far between, and in the interim we are bombarded with crap like the latest Indiana Jones movie, Transfomers, shitty remakes of great horror movies, and things that didn’t really need to happen, like Crank 2:High Voltage.