Monday, February 23, 2009

The 81st Academy Awards

There are 3 types of Oscars. Those that Slumdog Millionaire (2008) should have won (and did win), those that Slumdog Millionaire should not have won (but did anyway) and Best Supporting Actor. OK, there might have been a few other notable categories stuck in between all of that, but for all practical purposes, that was it last night at the 81st Annual Academy Awards. Danny Boyle's critically acclaimed and universally adored Slumdog Millionaire took home 8 statues while top nominee The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) left with only 3 awards. Heath Ledger was posthumously recognized for his supporting role in The Dark Knight (2008) which was a surprise to no one.

There were a few surprises in the awards categories, namely for Best Foreign Language Film (Departures), and possibly Kate Winslet for her leading role in The Reader (2008). Since Waltz with Bashir (2008) and The Class (2008) were the only Best Foreign Language Film nominees being marketed to American audiences, I assumed it would be one of those that won the award. It also seems odd that Kate Winslet could win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her work in The Reader and still win the Oscar for Best Actress for the same role. Meryl Streep should have won for Doubt (2008) but apparently the Academy feels that she has been recognized enough for her work already (she has been nominated for 15 Oscars).

I'm not the kind of guy that likes to yell, "Snub!" everytime his favorite movie isn't nominated for a category. However, I don't feel that Slumdog Millionaire should have won Best Cinematography or Best Film Editing. Looking at the other nominees, it is clear why it won both of those awards. The Wrestler (2008), however, had better editing than Slumdog Millionaire, yet it wasn't even nominated. Perhaps this is becuase of the film's low-brow main character: a professional wrestler. Hmm...

That said, who won the awards didn't really matter. The real "star" was Hugh Jackman. He was simultaneously able to torture the audience with his singing and dancing and bore us with his humorless jokes. The most interesting part of the Oscars, however, was the new presentation format. For the acting awards, a montage of past winners for that award was shown and 5 of them actually presented the nominees. It was very touching and nostalgic. For awards of the same category, the same presenters were used. This helped speed up the show and kept it moving along quite well. One thing I didn't care for was the tacky design of the proscenium arch; it looked as if a 70s hippy was allowed an unlimited budget for bead curtains.

The true highlight of the night was Dustin Lance Black's moving acceptance speech after he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for writing Milk (2008). I'll let him do the talking:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

Darren Aronofsky’s latest offering, The Wrestler, is a departure from his previous films in style and subject but not in emotion. To those who have seen his previous films, this is no surprise. Requiem for a Dream is a slick, fast-paced movie about the consequences of drug use, while Pi is a gritty black-and-white film about hidden codes and mathematical equations. And The Fountain is a sort of sci-fi chronofuck (to coin a phrase) with megastars Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman. The Wrestler, on the other hand, is a heavy-hitting, hard-rocking, down-to-earth, yet larger-than-life tour de force. (If you are counting hyphens, that’s 10 so far).

The Wrestler follows the legendary, yet aging, pro-wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) on what originally seems to be his quest to reclaim his position at the top of the pro-wrestling world. His true quest, however, is a little more complicated. The Ram appears to continue to wrestle because he needs the money, as he is living in a trailer park. However, his entire life falls apart when he has a heart attack following a match. The doctors of course tell him that if he wrestles again, he will most likely die. Realizing his own mortality, The Ram feels like it is as good of a time as any to try to reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Side note: during a scene of the two of them arguing, a man in the audience yelled, “YOU ONLY HAVE ONE DAD, BITCH!” It was awkward.

Eventually, The Ram realizes that he can’t be happy unless he is wrestling. Artists paint, rock stars sing, and The Ram wrestles. It is what he does. Despite the warnings, he agrees to one final match, a 20th anniversary rematch of one of his biggest fights.

The first thing that pops out of any Aronofsky film is the usually lush electrorock score composed by his friend, Clint Mansell. In The Wrestler, however, Mansell’s influence is barely noticeable beneath the 80s metal that dominates the soundtrack. I’m not saying this in a bad way, it is just an artistic decision, a decision that demonstrates one of the main themes of the film: longing for the past. Both The Ram and his exotic dancer friend, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) proclaim, “[the] 90s fuckin’ sucked” and obviously yearn for the good ol’ days when The Ram was at the top of the wrestling circuit and Cassidy was the top dancer at her club.

Perhaps to add to the realism, much of The Wrestler is shot like a documentary. Aronofsky uses handheld cameras and follows Rourke’s character around giving the movie a Gus Van Sant-on-crack feel. The viewer experiences the movie alongside The Ram, not as him or as an innocent bystander. This also serves to present The Ram as a larger-than-life character; the viewer rarely sees his face in these scenes, The Ram seems like an inaccessible celebrity. In other scenes, however, his face is shown, and Rourke charms the audience, not an easy feat.

Mickey Rourke deserves all of the hoopla surrounding his performance. He was able to portray such a complex character: a tough, badass, sensitive, nostalgic, pro-wrestler. Rourke takes all of this and roll it together and came out with a believable Randy “The Ram” Robinson. His supporting cast, however, was a great disappointment. Evan Rachel Wood was so terrible that I almost started yelling profanities at her à la the classy, classy gentlemen mentioned above. Tomei was mediocre at best, but she at least fit the part well and was not afraid to show off her body in such an unflattering way.

The truth is that Aronofsky could have made this film about a character from any walk of life. It just seems that he wanted to challenge himself, the actors, and his crew (including Mansell) by making an emotionally compelling film about a pro-wrestler. While some might not be able to see past The Ram’s tights-wearing, head-banging exterior, and some might watch the film solely for the wrestling aspect, I on the other hand, was moved by the emotion in this film. Aronofsky (and Rourke) strike again.

Total hyphens: 21
Grade: Between B+ and A-