Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Wrestler (2009)



Plot Summary: A drama centred on retired professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson as he makes his way through the independent circuit, trying to get back in the game for one final showdown with his former rival.

Until its surprising win at the Venice Film Festival relatively little was given away about The Wrestler. The premise was vague and there had only been a few amateur YouTube clips and set pictures floating around. Rumours started to circulate that Aronofsky had ditched his trademark stylistic approach and worry began to grow amongst fans as promotional material failed to surface. Having now been released worldwide it becomes clear that although the film restrains itself from the use of such striking film techniques which typified his previous work, the film nevertheless constitutes a considerable and memorable triumph in cinematic storytelling.

Far more than a vehicle for Mickey Rourke to merely flex his acting muscles the film turns out to be a sombre and slow chronicle of a desperate and lonely man in which I found myself entirely captivated with from start to finish. Rourke does do an incredible job, seemingly reliving past experiences as much as he is acting fictional ones. Much talk has been made of the parable one can read between Randy’s story arc and that of Rourke’s life, while making the role even more believable for fans does not detract anything for audiences unfamiliar with the actor also. He pours every inch of himself physically and mentally into the character and it shows. Rourke manages to make a potentially detestable man (letting his family down, lying to friends and thoroughly self-destructive behaviour) a utterly loveable one due to his honest and often amusing portrayal of a man trying to better himself.

The film was shot in winter and as such the film is full of grey skies and strong winds which perfectly compliment the contemplative atmosphere of the film. As mentioned the film is far less stylistic than say Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain and instead attempts to capture a more realistic, almost documentary feel with its numerous long takes and hand-held tracking shots. This held back approach arguably draws the audience in even further to the world of the film and showcases Aronofsky’s ability to connote emotion without relying on fancy camera work or visuals. There are, however, one or two stylistic flourishes such as the first entrance to the deli in which the sound of cheers can be heard, echoing the previous wrestling entrance scenes, enhancing our understanding of the character and his motivation (or lack of).

The soundtrack is half diagetic 1980s metal songs and half Clint Mansell’s touching score which at once demonstrates Randy’s image and taste but also portrayes his emotional plight extremely effectively. It is also worth mentioning that the fight scenes, although not the focus of the plot do feature often and are very well choreographed. The ensuing wounds the wrestlers suffer are also very authentic thanks to some impressive prophetic effects and really had me feeling their pain. The cliff-hanger ending and unresolved plot strands were particularly brave and much more realistic than seen in similar films. We don’t get closure; everything does not get better and everyone does not make-up in the end. The film leaves these questions open and for the audience to interpret themselves which is at once frustrating but also highly intellectually rewarding. The Wrestler is one of the lesser known films in the ongoing Oscar race but I urge everyone to not let the wrestling context put them off and to watch this extremely emotionally engaging piece of filmmaking as soon as they get the chance.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)



Plot Summary: The story of the life of an impoverished Indian teen Jamal Malik, who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" wins, and is then suspected of cheating.

Danny Boyle is responsible for one of my favourite films of all time; Trainspotting. Since its release in 1996 he has had a respectable career including several genre pieces such as 28 Days Later and Sunshine combined with the occasional quieter piece such as the enjoyable but severely overlooked Millions. However he has never since reached the dizzying heights of Scottish heroin addicts diving into toilet bowls in search for the next hit. Despite the slew of accolades and rave reviews being thrown at it Slumdog Millionaire is no different and is perhaps the director’s worst picture since the mind-numbingly awful farce that was The Beach.

That’s not to the say that this is a bad film because that simply isn’t true. When focusing on Jamal and his brother growing up in an impoverished Mumbai the film works as India’s answer to City of God. It’s gripping, realistically harsh and occasionally humorous depiction of orphans fending for themselves in a city that is as much of a character as anyone in the cast is as satisfying as any other film released in 2008. The films central love story is also hard not to embrace and endures enough twists and turns to warrant its upbeat conclusion. Meanwhile the soundtrack pulses along with a convincing blend of old and new Indian sounds with the occasional track by female artist MIA standing out particularly well.

Unfortunately when the film chooses to focus on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire plot-strand it commits every Hollywood cliché under the sun and suffers heavily for it. The logic to explain Jamal’s considerable intellect is thus; all the questions in the quiz somehow recall his most painful memories growing up as an orphan and as such the answers are forever ingrained in his memory. How is it that these questions are the one’s to be asked of him? The films answer is simple; fate. This plot device is at once a cop-out in order for Jamal to be reunited with his love interest (and the eventual, crowd pleasing happy ending) but also illustrates the films cheesy message; even though people are subjected to horrible events throughout their lives it only serves to better them and in the end, they’ll be rewarded.

This Hollywood melodrama gets worse as the film goes along. During the final moments of the film as we’ve subjected to hoards of the public huddled around electronics shops cheering for Jamal, gangster siblings staging shoot-outs in baths of money and an over-the-top Bollywood inspired dance sequence which runs over the credits. Another problem I had with the film was its use of over-stylised camera work and editing. Boyle insists on using a jerky slow-motion technique during some of the flashback scenes and instead of creating a gritty or realistic atmosphere just looked cheap and awkward. The way the film was edited was also questionable as flashbacks and forwards were blended together in an altogether unconvincing and confusing manner, not to mention several needless jump-cuts utilised.

Melodrama and sentimentalism are things to be appreciated, but they have their place (and indeed limits). Likewise unique and stylised cinema work is something to be praised but in this instance felt cheap and without worth. Perhaps the reason for the film’s success is the current economic climate and maybe people need this type of feel-good film at the moment. Slumdog Millionaire is far from the worst film of the year (that award probably goes to The Hottie & the Nottie) but is also far from the best of year and is somewhat of a missed opportunity from director Danny Boyle.

Final Verdict: 6/10