The Wrestler

The Wrestler (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Darren Aronofsky
viewed: 12/29/08 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX, SF, CA

Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and the godforsaken The Fountain (2006), delivers, like a metal chair crashing on your skull, a brutal, painful, amazing film, with a tremendous performance by Mickey Rourke as the titular wrestler.  It’s harsh and beautiful, and it really hits you like a ton of bricks.

This film has a viscerality and a naturalism, shot often with hand-held cameras, occasionally grainy, somewhat verite in style.  For Aronofsky, the film is more like his Requiem for a Dream than his other films, though hingeing less on stylized camera-work, and relying heavily on the actors and their performances.  Which works because they are all quite strong.  Rourke is amazing.  Marisa Tomei (who is very beautiful) is good, and Evan Rachel Wood is very strong as his estranged daughter.  The film is about the body, about physicality, and mortality.

Rourke’s body and face are the landscape of the film.  Puffy, over-built, over-tanned, and riddled with scars, he is a pug of sorts, yet also an aging semi-superstar.  He has relied on his body all his life for his survival but has brutalized it in the wrestling ring, with drugs and steroids and hard living.  And it’s all he has, his body is his life, and when his heart goes out on him, he begins to realize how he really has nothing else.

Marisa Tomei is a stripper, who Rourke’s Randy the Ram is quite friendly with.  She is an apt counterpart, as she too has used her body for her sustenance, and she is aging also, with the young men in the strip club shunning her for her age.  She looks terrific, and Randy still appreciates her, but she too is on the brink of the end of the body’s power to bring in money.  Her body has been less brutalized, she has a son, and she, too, keeps other life out at arm’s reach, limiting her friendship.  So when Randy approaches her, sharing his dilemma and feeling her a kindred spirit, she does react, but not enough.

Randy’s daughter is a grown young woman who has been disappointed by her father to the point of excising him completely.  Randy also comes to her, to share his sense of his mortality and to apologize and attempt to rejoin her life.  When he screws it up, she kicks him out, forever.

Rourke’s body is seen throughout the film, shooting steroids into his butt, pulling staples from his back, slitting his forehead with a razor blade.  Even in the fakery of Wrestling, there is an intense level of brutality, which all of the wrestlers submit to.  It is their profession and art and their is a heart-warming comeraderie among them.  The violence wreaks itself upon their huge, muscled, physiques, and it is hard to watch.  The squeamish will not like it.  But it too is the metaphor for Randy’s life.  He’s abused himself and allowed himself to be abused because he had great strength and character, but the whole has beaten him down, he will not last forever, and what else is left is brutalized too.

When I first heard of this movie, it sounded almost like a cliche to an extent, but I’d read a lot about Rourke’s performance, which is truly profound and moving.  But Aronofsky makes it more, much more than a cliche, he imbues an emotional realism that is reflected in the cinematography and the performances.  The movie hits hard.  And yet is also at times very tender.  Really, quite something.  Certainly Aronofsky’s best.  And many will say the same of Mickey Rourke.

Night Nurse

Night Nurse (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. William A. Wellman
viewed: 12/27/08

I’ve been digging on the “pre-code” era of Hollywood of late, so I queued up Night Nurse, a Barbara Stanwyck film about a girl who ends up training as a nurse, and finds herself in over her head with a couple who are trying to starve two little girls to death for their trust fund.  The movie has a mixed vibe.  At first its snappy patter and situational humor make it seem like a comedy, but the film does move over into the crime and violence direction in the last part.  It has a lot of fun stuff in it.

Mostly, I enjoyed the dialogue, the humorous expressions and language of the day.  And the film does show some seamy stuff, such as the drunken good-for-nothing mother, the bootlegger boyfriend, Clark Gable as the heavy punching Stanwyck in the mouth, and the suffering of child abuse.  It’s got a lot of that stuff that is pretty racy for the time.

There seems to be quite a lot of opportunity for Stanwyck to change clothes and spend some scenes mostly in her undergarments (That’s the gratuitious nudity of the day).  And she’s great, either in the snappy back-and-forth or in the more dramatic telling off of Gable for his crime of murder.

By far the most unusual thing is the ending, in which comeuppance comes in the form of a body bag, and the good guys basically murder the bad guy, smiling about it as they ride off “into the sunset” as it were.  It is the odd thing about the pre-code period, this mixture of racy topics and seamy stories with tacked-on morality often in contrast to the darker stuff.  There was actually a decent documentary on the disc as well about the period, giving more context to the “why” this period was the way it was and what all brought it to an end.

Still, a pretty fun flick.

The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) movie poster

(1924) dir. Raoul Walsh
viewed: 12/26/08

My latest effort in my exposing my kids to silent films was the epic fantasy The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks.  I hadn’t seen it myself, so the level of risking their interest was higher perhaps than with one of the comedies of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, which has been their primary exposure to the period.

But this film held up quite well for them, too.  The special effects that come into play in earnest in the latter part of the film are really quite striking in many ways, even now.  One can only imagine how fantastic they must have seemed in their day.  The flying horse, the flying carpet scenes, and the stunts were quite good, too.

The thief (Fairbanks) is a wild, carefree pickpocket, living the high lowlife in Bagdad.  When he fancies the princess, he decides to kidnap her, pretending to be a prince vying for her hand in marriage in competition with three others.  But when he meets her, they fall in love and he admits his scheme.

The princess does not want to wed any of the other three, though her father commands it.  She sends them out to find the greatest treasures of the world, saying that the one who brings the rarest of treasures will have her hand in marriage.

The prince of the Mongols is the sinister one, who slyly places members of his army within the walls of Bagdad, while he sneaks off to find the treasure of treasures.

Ahmed, the thief, is redeemed by religion (Islam is good!) and sets off on the most arduous of journeys for a treasure greater than others, forcing him through many harrowing places.

It’s excellent through and through.  The largely bare-chested Fairbanks is an energetic and physical hero, doing some stunts that would give Keaton a run for his money.  The sets are hard to fathom, they are so massive and ornate.  True fantasy filmmaking, the type that no doubt influenced generations of filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas and who knows what else.

And the kids did enjoy it.  Samantha turned to me during one part and said, “This is awesome.”  And while I know that they prefer comedies for the most part, this film was well-liked.  And even though Clara got a little bored (the movie is more than 2 hours long), she said she liked it well, too.

I love the experience of watching the films with them, reading the intertitles, explaining some of the narrative points, anachronisms, and just cuddling on the couch.  That is my favorite thing.

 

White Dog

White Dog (1982) movie poster

(1982) dir. Samuel Fuller
viewed: 12/23/08

Some people watch White Christmas (1954) as holiday mood inspiration, me, apparently I watch White Dog, Samuel Fuller’s film about a racist, killer canine.  Doesn’t that just set the mood?

Actually, I’d seen White Dog back more than ten years ago on a bootleg video from Le Video, San Francisco’s one awesome video store.  I’d taken an interest in Fuller when I’d been living in England, seeing The Naked Kiss (1964) and then later Shock Corridor (1963), two of his most radical and outrageous films.  I’ve actually been catching up on Fuller on my own since then, seeing The Big Red One (1980), Pickup on South Street (1953), and I Shot Jesse James (1949).  Also, back in the day, I’d seen an interesting documentary about Fuller called Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994) directed by Mika Kaurismäki and also featuring Jim Jarmusch in a journey with Fuller back to the Amazon recalling a film that failed to complete.  So, I’ve done my Fuller research relatively speaking.

But I didn’t like White Dog when I’d rented it before.  It stars Kristy McNichol as a young actress living in the Los Angeles hills who hits a white German shepherd with her car and takes it in to care for it.  The dog turns out to be a “white dog”, a dog trained by racist owners through abuse and brainwashing to attack black people on sight.  She takes it to an animal care shelter where Paul Winfield and Burl Ives work, treating abused animals.  Winfield makes it his personal goal to break the dog of its racism.

While the idea is quite charged and interesting, the film itself is kind of a hack job.  The reason that I rented it just now was that it just got a re-release on DVD on the Criterion Collection, which is usually a pretty good sign for a film.  The film was never theatrically released in the states, partially because of marketing concerns and potential misunderstanding that the film itself was racist.  The film is a strong critique of racism, how it is not natural, that it is taught, and that even a beautiful, innocent animal, “man’s best friend”, can be polluted and corrupted by it.

McNichol is a very drab lead.  She was such an “It girl” of her time, and I remember thinking she was cute myself, but she’s not much of a presence and she gets to wear some really horrible 1980’s outfits.  Beyond her, the film is sloppy, lacking cinematic power.  I know that the film actually got good reviews from a lot of significant publications, but I just don’t concur.  The film is interesting, very much so, but it’s not a good film, in my opinion.  Co-written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson from a story by Romain Gary, it’s not even really the script that is bad.  It’s the film that is shoddy.

I remember years ago, I went with some friends to see Samuel Fuller’s final feature film at the Roxie cinema in the Mission.  It was Street of No Return (1989), an adaptation of a great David Goodis novel.  It seemed like a great match, Fuller and Goodis, but that film was beyond awful.  My friend who had invited me walked out on it.  I suffered through.  Even great filmmakers make rotten films.  And White Dog is no Street of No Return; it’s not awful.  It’s just not good.  Even though it is interesting, has a fascinating concept, and yearns to offer a meaningful message.  It’s just not all that good.

 

The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) movie poster

(1961) dir. Robert Rossen
viewed: 12/22/08

Having accelerated pool playing from an occasional pasttime to a more substantial practice, I felt it behooved me to revisit the uber-classic pool movie, 1961’s Paul Newman/Jackie Gleason film, The Hustler.  I had seen it years ago, and I do mean years.  And in the 1980’s I did see The Color of Money (1986), the Martin Scorsese sequel with Tom Cruise.  But it had been years, though the iconic images hang in almost every pool hall of both Gleason and Newman, Minnesota Fats and “Fast Eddie” Felson respectively.  The iconic quality of this film is hard to completely fathom.

Even the most hardcore of pool players deem this film as very “true” to the world of pool halls, rules, character types, the entire milieu.  And it’s interesting, here, almost 50 years later to see how many of the practices, vocabulary, and etiquite still exist.  Who knows how much of it is from the evolution (or lack of evolution) or simply embued by the film itself.  I mean, I doubt there are many hardcore pool players who have not seen The Hustler.  And not only does it capture the culture and sensibility, it does it with wonderfully realized visual flair.  The movie looks great.

The interesting thing is how much this film is about the characters outside of the pool hall.  The film opens quickly into the first showdown between Felson and Fats, a dramatic battle on the table that lasts for over 24 hours, which leaves Felson spent and broke.  But then the film moves into the drama, the drunken world of “Fast Eddie” and his crippled alcoholic moll, Sarah, tragic and very well-realized by Piper Laurie.  The human side of the story is not a happy one.  Felson, who begins the film as a cocky gunslinger, finds that his critics are right, that outside of his stroke and his cue, he is a shell of a man.

When George C. Scott, Bert Gordon, steps in as his manager, the pact with the devil is made, and everyone’s fate is sealed.

What is amazing is that how little Gleason is actually in the film, but he makes such an impression that he dominates almost as much as Newman, who is there all the way.  I’m not familiar with Robert Rossen or his other films, but this is a polished gem of a film, a very slick and quite moving story from the gutter and the poolhall.  It’s not hard to see why it’s considered a classic.

Sally of the Sawdust

 

Sally of the Sawdust (1925) movie poster

(1925) dir. D.W. Griffith
viewed: 12/19/08

Of my foray into silent film, I have only watched just one D.W. Griffith film, his notorious epic The Birth of a Nation (1915).  As for Sally of the Sawdust, it’s not among his better-known films, in fact, it still lacks its own Wikipedia page (for what that tells you).  I guess I liked the name.

While nothing as reaching as The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance (1916), Sally of the Sawdust is a more sort of popular tale of the times.  When Sally’s mother falls in love with a circus performer, her father disowns her.  Five years later, Sally is orphaned, left in the care of Professor Eustance McGargle, the fantastic W.C. Fields, manager of the circus, character extroirdinaire, who is not above running the classic “shell game”, which he amusingly refers to as not gambling, but an old army game of skill.

McGargle raises Sally among the sawdust, the acrobats, the elephants, lions, and other ilk, a tomboyish gal who loves the man she calls her “pop”.  Sally is played by Carol Dempster, who I thought was quite hilarious as Sally, imbuing her with spunk and whimsy, frisky and gangly, with a great physical humor, whether dancing, climbing walls, or just gesticulating with an extended finger.  She’s a great character, one who I can imagine many a friend loving and enjoying her feisty goodness.

When the circus peters out, McGargle and Sally ride the rails back to Connecticut, where McGargle intends to see what Sally’s true family is like.  McGargle has informed them of their daughter’s death, but not of Sally’s birth or existence.

Sally’s grandfather, the austere judge, still loaths “show people” and even when hosting a fair to raise money for homeless orphans, disdains those who he sees as worse than vagrants.  Well, the story turns on some typical comic melodrama, and while the story doesn’t particularly sound all that inventive, the film is actually quite a lark.  Fields and Dempster are a lot of fun, good-hearted and dedicated to one another, they make for a lot of entertainment.

I actually really enjoyed this film.  I don’t know why it’s not more well-known, frankly.  It’s a heck of a fun ride.

Mouse Hunt

Mouse Hunt (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Gore Verbinski
viewed: 12/19/08

I see so few films on VHS anymore, and it’s really a factor of letter-boxing vs. non-letter-boxing (call me a snob, rightly or wrongly).  But in trying to come up with some films that might cater to my kids’ particular interests, I recalled this film about a mouse outwitting humans as a potentially fun flick for my son who has a particular appreciation for the world of rodentia, especially when the rodents are the clever and winning ones.

I hadn’t actually seen this film, more than perhaps pieces of it on cable or something at most.  I mean, 11 years ago I did not have kids and already had a rather low tolerance for Nathan Lane, which has only gotten lower and lower.  Though I don’t have a lot of experience with him, Lee Evans I at least found amusing.  And then the inimitiable Christopher Walken shows up as an exterminator (can’t discount Christopher Walken).  And the whole thing was directed by a then less experienced Gore Verbinski who would later go on to film the American remake of The Ring (2002) and the entire Pirates of the Caribbean series, not that that something of significant cinematic note.

Verbinski does show his ability to shoot action and comedy, at a comprehensible and entertaining level.  And Lane and Evans do their level best as two brothers, on the down and out for varying reasons, who inherit their father’s string factory and mouse-inhabited house, who end up trying to kill the world’s smartest rodent in a somewhat classically Warner Brothers cartoon fashion.

It is what it is.  And while it’s hardly particularly interesting, it does manage to accomplish what it sets out to: it entertains on the level it is attempting.  And believe me, there are many films that fail to deliver on this.

One of my measuring sticks for these films is not just whether I liked it or not, not even the varying levels of that assessment, but it’s also what Felix and Clara thought of it.  And while Victoria, the least discerning of our regular child viewing group (or perhaps not least discerning but rather least tolerant of viewers, walked out when things got a little too scary, also she prefers “cartoons”), my kids did enjoy it on the whole.

Hey.  It’s fucking Mouse Hunt.  What are you expecting?  It’s the first film I’ve seen on VHS all year and doubtlessly the last.

The Misfits

The Misfits (1961) movie poster

(1961) dir. John Huston
viewed: 12/19/08

Among many other tropes this year, I’ve been watching/rediscovering/discovering for real the first time director John Huston.  For some time I’d had interest in seeing The Misfits, both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe’s final film.  As with many things, I let the conversion of many tropes and interests meet and give opportunity where no opportunity had yet arisen in my life to see this film, and here we had it: The Misfits.

It’s kind of funny, but watching an actress like Marilyn Monroe is always a sort of multi-layered event in the present day and age.  Who doesn’t see her first and foremost as “Marilyn Monroe” and who could not be effected knowing that she would be dead within a year of this film?  It’s a meta-experience, if you have any sense of history or cinema or anything.  And while I grew up with Monroe in films like Monkey Business (1952) and Some Like it Hot (1959), I hadn’t seen all of her films, nor did I have a complete history of her.

She’s very good in this film, in a way that is different from her comedic roles, ones which seem predicated on her persona as much as her “character”.  Written by her husband Arthur Miller, the script of The Misfits, reeks of theater, of the stagey dramatic moments of dialogue and the way that emotional action takes place within a “scene”.  But at the same time, the film is very cinematic.  And Monroe’s character, a blonde, easily read as cheap and relatively ignorant, certainly carries more emotional depth and realism.

Gable is also excellent in this film.  I’d only seen him before in It Happened One Night (1934) and Gone With the Wind (1939), and I didn’t really have a full perception of how he could be as an actor.  His tough, manly, earnest yet limited cowboy Gay in The Misfits feels like a very real, believable character, more so than anything I’d seen him in before.

The casting is amazing.  With Monroe and Gable, you’ve got Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter as the primaries and secondaries in the cast.  Ritter gets a lot of the best lines as the wisened divorcee who seems to have assessed Reno and the world in a way that the other characters can only hope to achieve in later life.  And then with only half of the pithy-ness.

The film is a study of divorce, of the diminishing role of the American cowboy, American manliness, of America’s wild, true being, as so obviously represented in the wild mustangs that Gable and company head out to trap and sell for dog meat.  What once was a symbol of grace, majesty, power, and independence has been subjugated to that of fodder for machinery and grist of heartless mills.  The pride and power and energy of the men who once forced themselves and their wills on the American landscape are not lost flailing meaninglessly against a dying landscape, a way of life already dead, without having realized it.

Huston crafts an excellent film from this, with some tremendous scenes, like the one in which the partying crew heads into a Reno bar after a rodeo in which a drunken crowd becomes enthused by Monroe’s gyrating derriere as she proves her mettle on a paddle ball, showing how even good fun is readily turned into exploitation by the curdling masses.

It’s a sad film, though hopeful, as many films would have been at this time, even with their more pointed social critiques in Hollywood.  It’s a powerful thing, in knowing with the conversations about death and the significance of being alive that are passed so unwittingly of the coming deaths, so untimely of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.  And yet, as a final performance, both leave perhaps some of their most moving and interesting dramatic work.  No doubt why this film is well-known and appreciated.

Zardoz

Zardoz (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. John Boorman
viewed: 12/16/08

Wow and wow, again.  Very likely one of the worst films ever made.

Somehow, this cult Sci-Fi flick from 1974, starring Sean Connery and directed, written and produced by John Boorman, had slipped by me all these years.  A “friend” (if I can still call him that) “recommended” the film to me a while back, citing its high hilarity and bizarreness.  Well, he got that right.

The film is set in the far distant future, in which man has become either agrarian breeders or assassins set to kill all of the unwashed masses, all directed to do so by a giant flying head.  When Zed (Connery), one of the leaders of the assassins, breaks into the head and flies back to the hermitage or whatever they called it, it turns out that there is a more “evolved” and intelligent group who have become bored immortals who have shunned sex (and feminized their men) and can age each other by sticking their arms out.

There is a lot more.  Connery’s costume, a red-colored loincloth-like pair of shorts and an occasional vest of bullets, along with a long ponytail, is emblematic of the beyond bad qualities of the film.  There are all kinds of non-sensical elements with tropes about knowledge and savagry, sex and manliness, the intellect versus the flesh.  It’s intensely awful.  Painfully awful.  Truly awful.  But the flying head is actually pretty good.

This is a film that well-earns its reputation among the worst films ever made.  And it’s strange, a bit, because John Boorman made a number of good films, both before and after this one: the excellent Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin, the highly iconic (though I can’t say how good or bad) Deliverance (1972), Hope and Glory (1987) which I remember liking, and The General (1998) which was also good.  His record isn’t spotless, but this level of badness is something just short of miraculous.  To enjoy it, you have to have a high level of tolerance for the Bad.  The very bad.

Baby Face

Baby Face (1933) movie poster

(1933) dir. Alfred E. Green
viewed: 12/15/08

Baby Face is considered one of the best of the Pre-Code Hollywood films, featuring an amazing performance by lead Barbara Stanwyck.  The sexuality in the film is not just innuendo, but Lily’s (Stanwyck) story is one of sexual power, Nietzsche-inspired Will to Power, and the climb of the corporate ladder.  Lily starts at rock bottom and learns to sleep her way, quite literally “to the top” of a bank in New York, riding a perverse version of the American success story, yet not harshly condemned for behavior that would be judged harshly in many times in the world.

Lily starts out in a cheap speakeasy, run by her father who put her into prostitution at the age of 14.  Pawed at by the clientele, pimped out by her father, Lily is tutored by one gentleman who gives her books by Friedrich Nietzsche, encouraging her to exploit her feminine wiles and body, use them to use men, take control of her life and never look back.  And with that, she’s off to New York to do just that.

She lands in front of a bank and sleeps her way into a position, each time moving up the building flight by flight, department by department, until she pretty much reaches the top.  Her role is tough, vixen-like, yet sympathetic.  There is only one shot that I recall where she seems to bask in the mayhem that she creates.  Having tricked one beau into kissing her in the office only to have his fiancee show up, she settles on his desk, calmly takes out a cigarette and puffs smoke in a lingering pose.

But her ruthlessness is one for surivival, not pure spite nor meanness.  The men she dupes would just as easily use her.  She’s empowered by the use of her looks and body and intellect.  It’s an interesting portrait and Stanwyck is awesome.  Such a unique character is Lily, not quite like anything you can imagine.

The film was scandalous in its time, censored and banned.  It’s racy, but beyond that it’s quite profound.  I can easily imagine critical studies projects on the film regarding sexuality and feminism.  An excellent film.  Well worth seeing.