Monday, January 5, 2009

Film Snapshots: Redbelt, The Wrestler, Shotgun Stories

I've knocked three more films off my year-end to-do list (all three were wonderful movie experiences), but sadly I just don't have the time to give them proper full length reviews. I'll make sure I give the good ones justice in my 2008 best of list at the end of this month. Next on the list I'm going all foreign with the following films: The Edge of Heaven, Tell No One, and Let the Right One In. Onto the movies!


David Mamet's most simplistic con to date; which is not to say the film is simplistic or dull. Redbelt is easily the most accessible Mamet film, and really it's nothing more than a art house version of a Rocky type film. But, I was completely sucked into the story, and I love it when a movie shows me a world I know nothing about. Unlike The Wrestler (which is great, but I'll get to that in a moment), where nothing really surprised me because I am such a fan of professional wrestling, Redbelt shows me a world of martial arts, the philosophies within that discipline, and the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). All of the acting is great here as the actors show they are more than up to the task in handling Mamet's rapid stop-start dialogue, but it's really the performance of lead man Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, the man who gets deep into it when all of the noir trappings come into play (mysterious woman walks into business, over-friendly strangers, etc.); his performance makes you care about it all. It's why I loved the film so much. Sure the ending is a little 'meh', but I was glad Mamet stripped away some of the more confusing elements to his con films (like say The Spanish Prisoner) and made this film more in the vein of his previous work Spartan, which I also loved. I think it's one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

The Wrestler

Where Mamet's Redbelt showed me the behind the scenes of a world I didn't really know much about, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler seems old hat to me. However, I'm not saying that the movie isn't extremely entertaining, involving, and boasts one of the years finest performances. The story has been told a million times, but here we get it in the arena of professional wrestling. I can see where some people, who know nothing about the faux sport, would be a little shocked that some of the 'bumps' are real or that these performers know their roles (heels or faces) and the outcome of their matches (scripted pre-bout and all) before they even step into the ring. I can also see where some people will think it shocking that these guys really do hurt and bleed. There is a wonderful moment in the movie where Randy "The Ram" (Mickey Rourke) is preparing a razor blade and taping it to his wrist so that when he gets his in the head, he can do what is called "blading", where the wrestlers make it look like they really did get busted open, but in reality it's more of a 'controlled' cut designed to be busted open further by the ensuing punches to the head. I liked all this insider stuff, but I already knew a lot about so I was really relying on the characters to be interesting and sympathetic.

Marisa Tomei plays a stripper named 'Cassidy', she never reveals her first name and the I liked the relationship between her and Randy; two performers who are past their prime and only performing for a niche audience. In Randy's case it's the school gyms and dance halls for older fans still holding onto that bit of nostalgia, the wrestling of yesteryear that makes them feel young again. And for Cassidy, well there is an early scene that establishes she is really on there to perform for Randy, and men of his ilk. I like the correlation Arronofsky draws between these two performers and the fact that Tomei's character is a little more at peace with where her life is leading her. She's ready to move on (she has a kid) and live a real life, Randy still wants to perform. Even when Randy 'retires' (which is what most of these wrestlers do, they retire only to be sucked back into this profession of pain because they need the money so badly) he still performs as a wrestler would when he takes on a job at the local deli counter. In a great scene that mirrors his entrance to the wrestling ring, Arronfsky's camera follows Randy through the halls and stock rooms of the grocery store until he parts the rubber curtains to the deli counter and begins his new persona.

I had some problems with what seemed like a tacked on sub plot with Randy trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but I guess it was needed because so many of these guys do abandon their family because if they are any good at what they do, the promoters want them on the road 360 days a year. It's a ridiculous commitment and sacrifice that these guys make, and it's no wonder that most of them can't have a family and stay off of pain pills or stay away from performance enhancing drugs, because so much is asked of them. The familial metaphor is strong in the film as Aronofsky seems as surprised as anyone that these guys who beat each other up in front of the camera, are the only real family any of them have when they get back stage.

Randy makes a crucial choice at the end of the picture, and it wasn't all that surprising to me, but I could see where those who know little to nothing about the men of professional wrestling (and how shallow most of them are) might see Randy's final decision as some sort of surprise. It's dramatic, but it's far from surprising, and I think that's what soured me on it just a tad. However, with all of that said, I really loved this film. Nothing would make me happier than to see Micky Rourke up there winning an Oscar for the role of his career.

Shotgun Stories

Writer/Director Jeff Nichols has created a Southern Gothic, family tragedy on par with David Gordon Green or his master, Terrence Mallick. Shotgun Stories has the same feel, the same look, and the same ear for the nuances that make these stories about "dead ass towns" so appealing; stories that David Gordon Green has used to make some of the most beautiful visual poetry I've ever seen in movies. Nichols doesn't quite capture the visual poetry part down (although there are many beautiful shots in the film) but he does have the distinct locations and all-too-real dialogue down. The film plays like a revenge picture throughout, but it has unpredictable and unconventional outcomes. The story is about three brothers Son, Kid, and Boy (named by an alcoholic father) who learn of their fathers death. They show up at the funeral, Son says some unkind words, and a fight almost breaks out at the funeral; a fight that has something deep to it, something underneath the surface that finds its way into every scene. It's amazing the amount of tension in the film where convention says there isn't really anything 'happening' on screen (again reminding me of Green).

When their father died he became a born-again Christian and started a new family. That set of brothers have always hated Son, Kid, and Boy, and the feeling is mutual. This is the basic premise for Shotgun Stories which is anything but a basic film. It's astonishing that this is Nichols' first film, and even more astonishing is how close it comes to falling into overblown melodrama, but his characters act as real people would act, not as if they were the design of a conventional movie script. Consider the exchange when Son's mother comes to his door to tell him about his fathers death, when asked when the funeral is she flippantly states: "you can find out in the newspaper." There is something so deep and bruised with that relationship I am so thankful that Nichols doesn't explore it in some awful, conventional, manipulative Hollywood manner. When tragedy strikes the family again, Son goes to visit his mother this time to tell her the news, she just turns and stares at him and goes back to her gardening. If this were in the hands of a mainstream studio there either would have been major over emoting going on, or a schmaltzy reconciliation scene; instead the viewer is dealt with the cold truths of reality.

I stated earlier that I like when I am invited to a place I've never been to before in the movies. Shotgun Stories supplies that place. A place where button up shirts are fancy, taking your girlfriend to the buffet is a big deal, and where blood feuds are serious business. There are choices made at the end of the film that make the whole tense ordeal worth while, and I'm glad because I cared about these brothers so much that when tragedy seemed imminent, I was glad to be proven wrong.

I want to say one more thing about actor Michael Shannon (he was in one of my favorite movies last year, Bug): his portrayal of Son is one of the best of the year. Here's an actor who is a unique dramatic force and presence on screen, and I can't wait to see what his future in film holds because he looks to be one of the best young actors working today. Kudos to him on a phenomenal performance that relied heavily on the viewer being able to come to conclusions by reading his face.


Post a Comment