The Wrestler


Darren Aronofsky’s films (Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain) have thus far left people divided in their love for him. He makes those love ’em or hate ’em kind of movies. I have a feeling that Aronofsky’s newest, The Wrestler, might change all of that. It’s not nearly as wacky, confusing, or headache inducing as his others and has a touching story that a lot of people can probably connect with.

The Wrestler stars Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging wrestler who is coming to terms with the reality of his life. He’s getting too old to wrestle, his family is gone, and he has no real friends. The closest friends he has are his much younger co-wrestlers, his pre-teen neighbors, and a stripper he maybe-kinda-sorta has a thing for (played by Marisa Tomei), none of whom he’s actually very close with.

Aronofsky has a running theme in his movies where he tries to make the audience feel as depressed and defeated as possible. He hasn’t made anything that would be considered a “feel good film” and The Wrestler is no different. We follow Randy through the depths of his tragic life and it’s filmed in such a realistic and intimate way that it almost feel like we’re watching a documentary.

The Academy gave The Wrestler a couple of nominations (Best Actor & Best Supporting Actress) and had this past year not already been filled to the brim with absolutely outstanding movies, I’d have expected this to receive a Best Picture nomination as well (and perhaps even win the award). The Wrestler is simply fantastic and it can still be appreciated even if you’re not a fan of wrestling or Darren Aronofsky.

Let the Right One In

Eli, the vampire next door

Eli, the vampire next door

Let the Right One In is not a horror film. It really isn’t. Sure, there’s a vampire. You’ve got me there. And people get killed. And it isn’t pretty. Still. Let the Right One In is less about horror, and more about finding someone who will stick by you. No matter what. It’s about connections between people that transcend everything.

Let the Right One In is a Swedish film based on a 2004 novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist and centers around the budding friendship between Oskar, a bullied twelve year old, and Eli, the vampire who moves in next door. The film is shot on a stark, snowy Swedish landscape, creating a heightened sense of isolation throughout.

I’ve heard a lot of folks say that Let the Right One In is what Twilight should have been. That’s pretty much bulls**t. Twilight is what it is–a teen romance starring sexy, romanticized vampires. It’s a fantasy. And it’s pretty damn good fantasy at that.

Oskar considers the school bully.

Oskar considers the school bully.

Let the Right One In is something else completely. Sure there’s a vampire. That’s about where the similarities end. The relationship that forms between Eli and Oskar is not idealized. It is not romanticized. It is not sexy. I can’t even say for sure that it’s beautiful. But it is real. And it is honest. And for that reason, the film transcends the trappings of the vampire genre. You don’t have to be into vampires or horror to love this movie. And the cinematography and score alone are enough to make any film lover drool. Combined with a fantastic script, and brilliant acting from the two leads, and it all adds up to something quite special.

Let the Right One In is playing in the CinemaSalem screening room starting March 27th.


Watchmen - Carla Gugino, Malin Akerman - 49x HQ (14) by gr8tfate.

I should start by saying this: Before the release of the trailor for the film, I had never even heard of “Watchmen” (I know: Judge me). Despite my minimal knowledge of this apparently well loved comic series, I joined my CinemaSalem compadres at the IMAX midnight premiere. As I looked around at the long line swerving around the lobby full of fans hoping to get their ideal viewing points (our goal was “middle middle”), noted their t-shirts and complex conversations about character motivations and current day correlations, I realized that not only have many people heard of “Watchmen”, but many people LOVE “Watchmen”. When cinema employees passed the time by asking trivia questions about the comic, I felt like I was at a taping of ‘The Price is Right’ as hundreds of fans debated over how many Nite Owls there had been while holding up fingers and screaming to the emcee. With each questions asked, dozens of copies of the novel would fly out of bags and backpacks for reference and hands would zoom in the air, each person desperate to prove his or her own devotion. This is not a world I am a part of and I realize that alone is reason why I have no business critiquing “Watchmen” as a story or idea. Without having read the graphic novel first, I don’t feel that I can comment on the film’s content. Out of respect for all of the devotees I joined at the midnight premeire, I couldn’t do that. I do, however, have a few cinematic based critiques of the film that I feel are well within my territory as an overall “Watchmen” outsider.

My overall opinion of the film? Gratuitous. Everything about it. It was just excessive. Too much violence. Too much blood. Too many naked scenes (particularly of men, but more on that later). I’m not a prude, but my issue in this particular instance is that I felt the focus of the film overall was on the visual aspects instead of characterization and content. We all know Zack Snyder can make film that looks awesome, but at least “300” was a straightforward story. The concept behind “300” was simple enough to have a basically visual focus. From what I can tell from “Watchmen”, however, the story seems too dense to share the stage with Snyder’s exessive visual bits. The visual and cerebral were in competition for me, and more often than not, the visual won. I know that, as someone unfamiliar with the story, there were things that went over my head and I felt like Synder didn’t let anything process with the audience before jumping to the next visual circus to completely distract us. I’m sure he was doing his best to fit as much information into the film as a whole, but cutting out even half the times we were watching three characters just be naked would have given him at least 10 minutes for a little more story.

While we’re on the subject of nudity, I have to say Synder’s depiction of gender relations and women is pretty disappointing to me. Yes, in both “300” and “Watchmen” there is a long (probably too long) “love” scene where both couples seem to share a respectful relationship. But, in both films there are also incredibly unsettling rape scenes that completely demean women. The female characters in both of these films are very strong and authoritative in pretty extreme ways–one is a queen and one is a superhero, for crying out loud! Doesn’t get much stronger than that. Yet not even these women can conquer the almighty male’s dominating presence. It seems Snyder himself takes issue with the idea that women are just as powerful as men, and likes to remind his audience of where his particular gender preferences lie by not only beating and raping the women, but buy glorifying and perfecting the male form by way of super-jacked Spartans and giant blue genitals. He’s giving the impression that he thinks men are way better than women as a gender. The contrasting sex scenes present in both movies seem to say, “I love how sexy women are! I just don’t like when they think they’re as good at everything as I am”. And that’s a really lame impression to be giving off.

As far as acting goes, I felt that everyone pretty much pulled their own weight in the film. Everyone seemed to pull off their roles well (again, with my elementary knowledge of these characters) and there was nobody that really felt out of place or lagged behind. In my opinion, Billy Crudup, Carla Gugino, and Jackie Earle Haley were the standouts in an all around strong cast.

I simply cannot write a review of this film without mentioning my utter disgust at the poor taste Snyder displayed during the film’s introduction. I, and America, who has just welcomed a new President who will infuse hope, respectability, and change in this pretty damaged country, did NOT need to see Kennedy’s face get blown off. This, I feel, was Snyder simply showing off. As if the audiences are going to say, “Wow! Look how great those special effects are! You can actually see the brains flying out of one of our most beloved president’s head!  Awesome!” I found it completely inappropriate, disrespectful and unneccesary. It’s one thing to feature excessive violence using fictional characters; it is quite another thing entirely to gorify one of the most horrific events in America’s political history. For shame.

As someone unfamiliar with the story, I had a lot of questions. Why were the superheros outlawed? And, if they were outlawed, why was Dr. Manhattan an exception? Where did these characters come from? If these “superheros” were really just regular people, why did they have superhuman strength? Were these characters good guys or bad guys? Even the otherwise all-around good Nite Owl and Silk Spectre unnecessarily mutilated a group of muggers for no other apparent reason than they could. All of my unanswered questions frustrated me, and left me with the feeling that this movie is only meant for people who already know all the answers and is not trying to seek out new fans, of which I was hoping to be.

Gran Torino (this post contains PG-13 language)

Vintage car. Vintage Eastwood. Go see it. gran-torino

Let me start out by saying I loved this film. I really did. Now that I have that out of the way.

This film is not perfect. In fact, it has some fairly irritating flaws, flowing mostly from a script that could’ve used another round of revisions. Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is a grizzled, old, racist, Korean War vet with about the crappiest family on the planet. They’re over the top stereotypical, overindulged, self-centered  middle class jack asses–completely one-dimensional without any hint that they’re anything more than a plot device. Clunky as hell.

Then there’s this big info dump in which one of the Hmong characters, Sue, explains to Walt, and the audience who the Hmong are. I get that most people probably don’t know, so some info along those lines is necessary, but the script dumps in all in one place–an annoying piece of exposition in the middle of an otherwise well-paced story. A nit pick I suppose, but it ripped me right out of the movie.  The script just can’t keep from getting in the way of itself. It seems to allow for complexity of character in some places, and then falls flat by reverting to one-dimensional caricatures in others. It’s fairly uneven, and helmed by a less skilled director/lead actor, I think this film falls flat on its face.

But on to the good lest you forget I actually liked this movie: Eastwood is brilliant both in front of and behind the camera. Behind the camera, he gets fine performances from his Hmong cast members, many of whom had never been in a film before. They’re not awesome performances, but they’re pretty solid. I really liked Sue, portrayed by Ahney Her. Her performance was a little wooden in parts, but she managed to be endearing, and extremely likeable as she treated Walt  like a person rather than treating him like a category of person. Bee Vang, portraying Sue’s brother Thao, also performs admirably, suitably capturing the awkward teenager who doesn’t fit. He actually manages a steady evolution throughout the film that can be tracked through his body language alone. If you watched the movie without the dialogue, it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out what was going on with this kid.

Eastwood himself is fantastic. His character isn’t likeable at all. He’s a shit. But Eastwood makes you care about what happens to him anyway. Even from very early on, when all evidence of redeeming qualities is lacking. Walt Kowalski is a guy with baggage. A guy with a past. And the gravity of it is everywhere. It’s there when he does something as simple as spit tobacco juice on the sidewalk, or growl when he finds his beer cooler empty. And sure, he’s channeling Dirty Harry here to a degree, but I would be a touch surprised if he wasn’t nominated for best actor for this role.

One other thing I appreciated about this film was that even though it’s clearly a serious drama, there were quite a few laugh out loud moments mostly stemming from some of the appalling insults Walt dreams up for the other characters in the film. You never know exactly what’s going to come out of that guy’s mouth. Good stuff.

I did trash the script earlier–it could be a lot better. But one thing it does well is depict the glue that binds people together. I don’t want to describe the glue–that would give away some of the best parts of the movie away. But I think Gran Torino will make attentive viewers ponder what sort of people they are and whether or not they have that gluey quality.

Finally the car. The car is a character too. It, like Eastwood’s character is an artifact from another era–a surviving piece of a past that seems long gone and altered to the point of being unrecognizable. And Walt couldn’t make his Gran Torino get 30mpg if he tried. It’s a gas guzzling heap of solid metal without automatic locks or windows, sans air bags, missing a fancy alarm system. There’s nothing safe about it. It is what it is. And so is Walt. He is what he is and he doesn’t apologize for it. When he finally embraces his Hmong neighbors, he’s still a cranky, old racist, who honestly doesn’t seem to learn a thing about acceptance from his neighbors even though he becomes intensely loyal to them and protective of them. But I don’t think Walt’s meant to be the guy who learns something. We are. And as problematic as the script is, Clint Eastwood, both behind and in front of the camera, makes it work.

Gran Torino is rated R for violence, smoking, and naughtly language, which includes swear words, uncivilized terms for human body parts, and a cornucopia of racial epithets.

Changeling (aka Law and Order starring Angelina Jolie)

changelingOkay. Changeling hasn’t gotten universally positive reviews. And even though I thought the film was riveting, I can kind of see why. Here’s a film that was marketed as this dark mystery. Well there are certainly mysterious things that happen in the film that make the viewer think, “Hmm. What’s up with that?” and “I wonder how that’s going to turn out.” But the film focuses on an actual kidnapping case that is more or less solved with a lot of the film remaining. If one expects what the trailers promise–a taut thriller–one will be disappointed. Changeling more or less follows the structure of Law and Order: the crime is solved, and then we move to the courts where everything is resolved one way or another.

If, however, one goes into the film expecting a dramatization of the real life kidnapping of Walter Collins, one will be delighted. And here’s why. Clint Eastwood made a damn fine film. The real life story is so incredibly appalling, and takes so many bizarre twists and turns, that a film based on it, almost necessarily, seems to go in too many different directions. In fact, if the story didn’t have basis in reality, it would almost be unbelievable.  But knowing that this stuff (more or less) really happened, it’s fairly appalling, and it’s pretty tough to look away.

It’s also pretty tough to look. I’m glad I saw it. But I won’t ever watch it again–not because it’s bad, but because it makes me feel uncomfortable in the same way that Sherry Baby and Monster did. Along with those two films, Changeling left me wondering exactly what kind of crap world we live in, Monster and Changeling especially, because they’re both based on real events.

And Angelina Jolie is the reason this film is so hard to watch. A viewer could walk into this film having never thought about what it would feel like to lose a child, but it would be pretty hard to walk out without having gleaned the horror of it from Jolie’s performance. She’s angry, helpless, frantic, and completely bared and vulnerable. As her deep frustration grows, so did mine. It’s difficult not to go through this ordeal alongside her. Director Clint Eastwood deserves some of the credit of course, but Jolie once again proves that she’s far more than a pretty face.

I have two gripes with the film. The first is with LAPD Captain JJ Jones, played by Jeffrey Donovan. My gripe is on two levels. First, I don’t think the guy is a very talented actor. I watch his show Burn Notice, but more for the ancillary characters played by Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar, and Sharon Gless. In fact, the first few episodes I watched, I fairly well hated the wooden Donovan. He’s grown on me in the context of the show. But in this film, he has this wildly vacillating Irish accent (well Irish is my best guess) and he’s stiff as a board. Which I might buy if I hadn’t seen him already playing stiff board in something else. But in addition to Donovan’s annoying performance, the character of the Captain is fairly one-dimensional as well. It’s difficult to beleive the real life guy was as much of a complete slime as this film suggests. Perhaps he was. I’m not going to say it’s impossible. But just one small indicator that this character has some small vestige of a soul would have been nice.

The second is that you’ll leave the film questioning the motives of some of the key players and wondering what exactly happened. The film doesn’t tell you. And there are plenty of possibilities to mull over.  The curious can easily discover what happened, but that’s extra work, and I already paid nine bucks and spent two and a half hours watching this thing. I don’t think I should have homework.

But, gripes aside, I highly recommend Changeling. In addition to the kidnapping plot, it shines a light on LAPD corruption, along with some of the indignities faced by women early in the last century.  Superior supporting performances by Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner, and Michael Kelley round out this compelling historical drama. Don’t miss it!



Australia is Baz Luhrmann’s new opus featuring his muse, Nicole Kidman, alongside Hugh Jackman. You might remember Luhrmann from his super stylized films Moulin Rouge! and Romeo & Juliet. And if you’re expecting such over the top and over saturated eye candy in Australia, you’ll be pretty disappointed.

Luhrmann has been criticized for his “gimmicky” visuals used in previous movies. I believe he’s turned some people off with his signature style, of which I’m a big fan, and I think it’s those people that will appreciate Australia more than his usual devoted followers.

When watching Australia, the only thing that was giving me signs that is was a Luhrmann film was just how epic it was. He’s known for interpreting majestic stories and Australia is no different. It’s an epic tale, yes, but also epic in length. Preparing yourself to sit down for almost 3 hours straight is a pretty daunting task.

And that’s my major problem with Australia. Unlike a monumental book where you can spend months reading it, digesting it in small bites, this movie has to be taken all at once. If you were to adapt War & Peace or The Epic Of Gilgamesh into a film, you’d inevitably have to cut some pieces out. Tales that long don’t work as one single movie unless it’s abridged.

Obviously, these are my opinions. I don’t have the best attention span and extravagantly long movies such as Australia are difficult for me to watch in the theaters. If I was able to watch it at home, pause it, grab a snack, or do whatever, I’d probably be less harsh on it’s running time. But I know there are those of you who wait with baited breath for those movies that break the 140 minute mark. I mean, it’s not every year that we get a Titanic or Return Of The King. So if you’re not a fan of “comic book” movies like The Dark Knight, then here’s the one you’ve been waiting for.

Slumdog Millionaire

slumdog-millionaire-fl-01Slumdog Millionaire, co-directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine) and first-time Indian director Loveleen Tandan is a touching, sometimes brutal tales of love, family, and destiny that takes place in modern day India.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Jamal Malik is a young man who has been a slumdog all of his life – living off next to nothing, never really having his own home and constantly traveling the country chasing after his one true love. Jamal appears on the Indian version of the poplar game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire , and using past life experiences is easily able to answer the questions he is given. Of course, being that he is from the slums he is not supposed to know the answers to the questions. Before long he is taken into police custody on suspicion of cheating. The film is much deeper and complex than that, delving into family conflict, gang crime, and race and religious conflicts.

Slumdog Millionaire is, hands down, the best film I’ve seen this year. I will even go as far as to say it’s the best film I’ve seen in the last few years. Boyle is a brilliant director, working with a bunch of no-name and child actors and getting Oscar worthy performances out of them. Boyle and Tandan craft a beautiful epic that is equal parts suspenseful, harrowing and tear-jerking touching. The beautiful cinematography coupled with excellent choices in music really bring the story to life and help the viewer to really connect with the characters and understand what they’re going through. Danny Boyle, an English director exquisitely captures the heart of India and reels you in. Danny Boyle, while always a good director, has really stepped up his game with this film and proven that he really can make any kind of film and work in almost any genre.

I honestly can’t recommend this film enough and I urge everyone to see it, even if the premise doesn’t interest you. Slumdog Millionaire is an almost perfectly crafted film and one that will stay with you for a long time.