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The Wrestler (2009) Director Darren Aronofsky 28 January 2009

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The Wrestler, thank God is not the WWE film we were all dreading but in fact one of the most intelligent and heartfelt sports movies made since the first Rocky. The story is relatively straight forward washed up wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is in the death throes of his career, a physical wreck but getting by on sheer determination and the admiration of fans who remember him from his late ’80s heyday. After a particularly brutal match however Randy suffers a heart attack and is told by doctors that he will have to give up his job or risk another, almost certainly fatal, attack. Randy uses the time to put in extra hours on his demeaning daytime job behind a supermarket deli counter and to try and reconcile years of neglect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachael Wood).

So far so Rocky but what makes the Wrestler so unique is Randy’s relationship with stripper Cassidy (Marissa Tomei). The parrallel is obvious, both put their bodies on display for the entertainment of others but whereas Cassidy is able to distinguish between herself in and out of the stripclub Randy doesn’t have the same luxury making his utter failure in every other part of his life outside the ring even more unbearable for the once famous figure. Randy’s relationship with Cassidy is where the heart of the movie lies (even more so than with his daughter) and is the catalyst for the film’s numerous heart breaking soliloquoys.

Rourke has been given the role of a lifetime as Randy ‘The Ram’. The parrallels between the washed up career of the wrestler and Rourke himself is impossible to ignore. After showing huge amounts of promise in early performances like Rumble Fish and Diner Rourke (to cut a long story short) went off the rails, embarking on a professional boxing career (the cause of the loss of his once youthful good looks) as the roles dried up. Since the early 2000s however Rourke’s career has had a bit of a resurgence with his marvellous turn in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City a high point until now. You could say Randy is the role Rourke was born to play. He has seriously bulked up for the part (reportedly using the same steroid aided methods that professional wrestlers use) and embodies the Ram heart, body and soul. We feel nothing but sympathy for this washed up shell of a man as he tries to cope with facing the end of his life both in and out of the ring.

Tomei impresses just as much as Rourke. She spends a great deal of the movie wearing very little (and looks unbelievably good for 45) but never once do we feel the need to pity her. She is clearly a much stronger person than Randy, maybe not physically but emotionally and mentally. It is her role that makes Rourke’s work, without Cassidy The Wrestler would be little more than a sob story about a washed up sports star.

A huge amount of credit for the success of the film must also go to director Darren Aronofsky. Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain are two of my favourite films of all time (the latter especially was criminally underrated by critics and largely ignored by the public) and with The Wrestler Aronofsky brilliantly captures both the intensity of the action inside and outside the squared circle, employing a documentary/handheld style for the bulk of the films action. The film feels grungy and real. Frequent collaborator Clint Mansell also impresses with a score that relies heavily on the metal antics of guitar bands like AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses before swelling to an orchestral conclusion which manages to live up to his beautiful work in both Requiem and The Fountain.

I found The Wrestler to be one, if the not the, best film of the past year and it almost pains me to see both the film and Aronofsky ignored by the Oscars. Rourke and Tomei have rightly picked up nods but it’s a shame not to see Aronofsky and his work recognised. Poignant, intelligent and emotionally devastating The Wrestler is an astounding piece of work supported by two of the strongest performances onscreen this year.


Seven Pounds (2009) Director Gabriele Muccino 26 January 2009

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Seven Pounds is a truly terrible film, a pretentious, overlong and worst of all dull story about a man atoning for his sins. Will Smith plays the man in question Ben Smith, an IRS auditor who seems to be on the lookout for people to help although it isn’t explained until very late in the day exactly what it is that Ben is really up to, though anyone with half a brain cell who has paid attention to the opening half and hour or so will be able to easily work out exactly where this pointless tale is heading.

Will is OK in the lead, though his permanent frown was a distraction more than anything, while the rest of the cast offer little to enthuse about. Muccino, director of Smiths previous soppy effort The Pursuit of Happyness, knows how to shoot a film but he really has to start working with better scripts. The whole film is entirely ill conceived. It all rests on a “big twist” at the end which manages to be both entirely underwhelming and infuriatingly obvious (though admittedly the Jellyfish had me stumped for a while) and as a result we are never given any motive behind Ben’s attitude or his actions and without understanding his motive we are given no way to empathise with the character.

The music is also truly horrible. I’m no musician but the theme which runs through the final moments of Will’s relationship with Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) clearly has one note off key and it’s horribly jarring. Undoubtedly an intentional inclusion by the composer but a crap one nonetheless.

I can’t really stress this enough, don’t waste your money on Seven Pounds. If you really must know how it ends just find out on IMDB and save yourself the money. A massive let down in every sense, Will find yourself a better director and choose your scripts more carefully, you might be the only Hollywood star left who can open a movie with his name alone but based on the quality of your last few movies you might not enjoy that privilege for much longer.

Defiance (2009) Director Edward Zwick 25 January 2009

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Defiance, like most of Zwicks other efforts like The Last Samurai and Glory is a Hollywood blockbuster with a message. Zwick is clearly an intelligent filmmaker and appreciates that perhaps the best way for a story as important as this to reach a mass audience is in the slightly dumbed down guise of the action flick, but thankfully Defiance retains enough integrity to be a more than worthy vehicle for the tale of the Bielski Ostriad.

It is an amazing story which I feel almost ashamed for not knowing. A community of Jewish citizens managed to hide and survive in the forests of Belarussia thanks to the efforts of the four Bielski brothers, in particular Tuvia (Daniel Craig) who takes on the role of leader of the small community. The Ostriad as they become known start off by levying food off locals peacefully in order to survive but before long they find themselves attacking small groups of German soldiers and allying themselves with the Russian forces also holed up in the forest. Middle brother Zus (Liev Schrieber) however is dissatisfied with the way the Ostriad is being run, too much running and too little fighting for his liking so after a particularly nasty exchange with brother Tuvia Zus joins the Russian reserves.

The rest of the film plays out pretty much as a story of survival not only survival of the inevitable German attack but survival from dissent within the community itself. Events play out pretty much as you will probably expect but there are some quite surprising moments thrown in (in particular the uncompromising actions of Tuvia at times) that remind you this isn’t an entirely stupid Hollywood effort.

Craig, Schrieber and Jamie Bell are all serviceable in their roles. None of them really shine (though kudos has to go to Schrieber for his excellent and extensive use of Russian throughout the film) but there are some supporting roles which deserve a mention such as
Mark Feuerstein’s Isaac Malbin, an intellectual who is always there for Tuvia.

The film is well made, the music stirring where necessary but the best thing about Defiance is its story. As unremarkable as the plot developments within the film are the story of the Bielski Ostiad is one everyone should hear, a story of real heroism in the face of almost certain death. Sometimes Hollywood can serve history it seems.

Slumdog Millionaire (2009) Director Danny Boyle 24 January 2009

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Slumdog Millionaire is the British Oscar underdog of 2009, a film horribly mis-marketed as a ‘feel-good’ hit (undoubtedly because Mama Mia! was so big on these shores) but a film undeniably powerful and affecting.

Dev Patel (from the first two series of E4’s Skins) plays Jamal Malik a teenage ‘slumdog‘ (having grown up in the slums of Mumbai) and chai wallah (tea boy for an Indian ousourcing centre) who finds himself on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and just one question away from the top prize when he is taken away by police and accused of cheating. How is it possible that an ignorant slumdog knows the answers where scientists and doctors have got no further than the first few questions asks Jamal’s interrogator. Simple: it is written.

Through flashback we learn how Jamal is able to answer all these questions as key events in his rich, but short life happen to inform him in all the right areas. For example in the very first flashback we are treated to a very young Jamal’s disgusting plunge into one of Mumbai’s open toilets to meet his idol Amitabh Bachchan, India’s biggest film star and the answer to an early question. The flashbacks depict the complex relationship Jamal has with his wayward older brother Salim and the love of his life Latika.

Far from a feelgood film Slumdog Millionaire can be very difficult to watch at times with some genuinely horrifying events portrayed on screen in the first half (the film opens with a surprisingly brutal torture scene for example). You have to go through a lot of Slumdog to get to the Millionaire but there is a sense of joy and fun which runs throughout the whole film.

Directed by Danny Boyle, one of Britatin’s finest filmmakers, Slumdog retains the rough edge many of Boyle’s best films (like Trainspotting and Shallow Grave) are known for but transposes it into a bollywoodesque fable. The film is beautiful though unlike with Australia it isn’t just the case in Mumbai that wherever you point camera will be instantly cinematic. Boyle even manages to make the slums look amazing so imagine what he can achieve with the Taj Mahal. However I was disappointed by his decision to use poor mans slow motion (you’ll know it when you see it, it looks awful) in some of the most powerful scenes. This technique should be banned from all films.

While I enjoyed Slumdog a great deal I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed when the credits rolled. The first half is much better than the second and perhaps that was my main problem. The film was a tough drama about the harsh (cinematic) realities of growing up in the Indian slums but the second was and unapologetic fairy tale, a tense and engaging one but a fairy tale nonetheless. I wouldn’t change a thing about the film but I do have my reservations about it. Over hyping a film is usually a very bad mistake.

Top Ten Films of 2008 18 January 2009

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Well it’s that time of year again, the awards season is in full swing and today I’ve decided to let you all in on the pick of the best films I saw released in 2008. There are a few guilty pleasures on there but overall I think it’s a pretty respectable list!

10. Cloverfield
A guilty pleasure this one. The film was over-hyped no ends but in my opinion actually managed to deliver on its promise. The hand held style is used brilliantly here again, as in [Rec.], and at a pretty lean hour and a quarter the film rarely lets up once the action gets going. The opening ‘getting to know the characters’ scenes are a little bit dull but necessary while the trick of holding off the reveal of the monster works brilliantly and surprisingly what they managed to come up with didn’t disappoint. The best scene is a tense and claustrophobic journey down an abandoned subway but the film has so many stand out moments it’s hard to pick one. Plus points must also go to the film for not revealing all the secrets about the creatures origins ([Rec.] I’m looking at you).

9. Changeling
The most recent release on this list and mentioned briefly in most second round up of reviews. It didn’t last long in the top ten and it looks unlikely now that Jolie is going to get that Oscar if Kate Winslet’s double Golden Globe win is any indication but the film is still remarkable and tells a tall you would refuse to believe if you didn’t know it to be based on real events.

8. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
This Romanian abortion drama certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes but it is an undeniably tense and powerful piece of cinema. Following two students as they embark on a clandestine abortion in a country where the act is illegal. The film shows the details of the entire day in almost monotonous detail in the first half but when the deed has been done so to speak and Otilia is forced to leave her friend Gabita while she waits for the foetus to literally fall out of her every footstep away from that hotel room feels like agony for the viewer. Not an easy watch but well worth the effort.

7. Gone Baby Gone
Who’d have though Ben Affleck would finally find his calling in film? The actor with the most annoying smile in Hollywood finally found his place behind the camera with this tense and intelligent thriller based on a novel from the author of Mystic River. Little Brother Casey goes from strength to strength after his marvellous performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the rest of the cast offer suitable support (though Morgan Freeman is a little wasted). The plot is remarkable and asks some pretty tough moral questions but the biggest surprise of all is that Affleck managed to keep it all under control so well, I find myself in the odd position of actually looking forward to the next Ben Affleck picture.

6. [Rec.]
Spanish horror film shot Blair Witch style following a TV news reporter as she spends the night following a team of fire fighters as they are called to an apartment building which it turns out is overrun with infected kill crazy residents. One of the few truly scary films I have seen in a very long time. It uses the handheld technique in a much better way than George A. Romero’s disappointing Diary of the Dead and has another ending to die for. Very creepy and unexpected it’s just a shame they feel a need to shoe horn in an explanation for it all in the final five minutes. I haven’t seen the US re-make Quarantine yet but my hopes are not high.

5. There Will Be Blood
I almost forgot Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece was released in 2008, it seems like so long ago doesn’t it? Day Lewis’ performance is a tour-de-force in a career of tour-de-force’s a frighteningly authentic portrayal of a truly despicable man and up there with Anton Chigurh and The Joker as the best villains of the year. The film defies any straight forward narrative structure, the soundtrack was easily the best of the year (but was criminally robbed of an Oscar, being ineligible because certain elements of it weren’t entirely original) and the ending is so bizarre and brilliant it completely reshapes your view on everything before it.

4. Hunger
I already reviewed Hunger upon its theatrical release earlier in the year and needless to say I still have an extremely high opinion of Steve McQueen’s directorial debut. My overriding memory of the film is of Sands’ horrific deterioration after committing to his hunger strike and the wonderful 10 minute plus dialogue scene between Sands and a priest. Still not sure if I’ll ever have the stomach to watch it again though (sorry, horrible pun!)

3. Wall-E
Are Pixar ever going to put a foot wrong? Every time a new Pixar production comes out I expect it to be the one where they finally slip up but with Wall-E I think Pixar have managed to create their best film since Toy Story 2. Wall-E himself is one of the best realised CGI characters of all time despite the fact he doesn’t utter a single word for the duration. The relationship between Wall-E and EVE (particularly in the first half) is heart warming and entirely believable. While the film does go a little down hill once the action moves into space (a little too much kid friendly slapstick for my liking) the film as a whole is so remarkable its hard to fault this logical progression in narrative.

2. The Mist
Criminally ignored by most The Mist is the best US horror film in an age and has one of the greatest endings in cinema history. Tom Jane and the inhabitants of a mid-western town hole up in a supermarket as a mysterious mist descends around them. It’s revealed pretty early on that there’s something not of this world residing in the mist but the real horror comes from the religious extremists in the store, getting stronger and stronger as their situation gets bleaker and bleaker. The creature attacks when they do come are genuinely horrific, the creatures themselves are brilliantly designed and that ending, absolutely unforgettable. Seeing this late one night in Manchester with just a group of lads in the row behind me just as responsive to the film as I was was probably the best cinema going experience of my life.

1. The Dark Knight
With Batman Begins Christopher Nolan created the first comic book movie I ever thought was more intelligent than I was. While on reflection I don’t think this sequel is quite as good as the near flawless original Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance means this film will have a permanent place in film history (along with the fact it is currently the second highest grossing film of all time). I can’t remember the last time I got so excited about the release of a film (Episode 3 probably), and for my money it was one of only two good trailers this year (along with Max Payne thanks to its brilliant Marilyn Manson song). I do have some niggles with the film mainly the throwaway inclusion of the scarecrow at the beginning, the slightly dodgy two-face CGI and the ridiculous mobile phone/radar technology but these are easy to overlook in a film of such undeniably high quality.