Monthly Archives: December 2009

Movie Review The Wrestler (2008)

Writer and director Darren Aronofsky made a big impression and made it fast, first with his heady nightmare Pi in 1998, and then with a blistering adaptation of Requiem For A Dream two years later. The man has a gift for telling stylish, weird, bleak stories.

Following this double sucker punch, he drifted out of the mainstream for a few years, notwithstanding his rumored involvement with the new Batman franchise that ultimately went to Christopher Nolan.

Then, all of a sudden, comes The Wrestler. It’s not an allegory, or a surreal metaphor, but in fact a movie about a wrestler. And behold, it stars the much-missed Mickey Rourke. You might not recognize him, you might not believe what he looks like now, but whatever the man had back in the day, he has still got it.

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Movie Review: Wolf Creek (2004)

If this were a more favorable review, I would say, with a nervous little smile, “not a date movie.” And yes, I found that out the hard way. In fact, there is a simpler way to advise people about seeing this movie: Don’t bother.

Wolf Creek falls under that worst of movie trends, being vile for its own sake, draining what enjoyment audiences should get from a well-crafted horror movie by putting them off as much as possible with torture and sexual violence. The frank truth is that any idiot can upset people by putting that on film, so why keep showing off?

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Movie Review: Transsiberian (2008)

Transsiberian has gathered good press since its Sundance premiere, and the praise is well-earned. This new project by Brad Anderson is a large-scale, high-impact story about how chance encounters can reveal the dark and secret sides of the human heart. This hard lesson revolves around Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a young wife and would-be photographer who finds that settling down has not banished the inner demons left over from her wilder days. Woody Harrelson puts in a superior performance as her amiable and unworldly husband. Known for his more eccentric characters, it is nice to see Harrelson flex some different muscles as a decent, guileless, and honest middle-American Joe. The two of them are traveling from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway, following a church trip to China. As we later learn, husband wishes to prove to wife he is game for an adventure, and also to indulge his passion for trainspotting.

Another notable appearance is by Ben Kingsley, as an eerily collected Russian federal agent. As we know, given good material he seldom disappoints, and though Anderson’s film does not allow him the dynamic range of, say, his hair-raising work in Sexy Beast, he makes the most of limited screen time.

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Movie Review: Traitor (2008)

Writer and director Jeffrey Nachmanoff expertly walks a razor-fine line with this powerful thriller. Don Cheadle plays Samir, a Sudan-born weapons dealer who, as we are first led to believe, sells his loyalty to the highest bidder. Then, as he drifts from prison to freedom to terrorist cells in Europe and America, we discover that he is in truth much more than he seems. A devout Muslim, formerly of the U. S. Special Forces, who may also be working with the FBI, or may be their number one target for orchestrating a devastating attack on America.

We quickly learn that Samir is, above all things, a deeply religious man whose chief goal is to live according to the will of God. However, just what he considers the will of God, and whom he consequently serves, is the mystery surrounding his journey deep within the twists and turns of divided loyalty. We know he must be a traitor to something or someone, but what exactly?

Don Cheadle puts in an expert performance as a man whose insistence on living by profound religious conviction puts his life and loved ones at risk. He carries the weight of his personal holy war, though his frequent conversations with extremist and more liberal Muslims alike cast grave doubt over where his true conviction lies. Whether Samir’s goal is to spread terror in the name of Islam or undermine those who would do so is the big question, for which the story saves a definite answer until the final minutes.

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Movie Review: Rocky Balboa (2006)

If you have already seen the review for Rambo on this site, you may find this article a bit redundant. However, they are undeniably of a piece, and despite their more or less polar themes they happen to share many of the same virtues. The obvious explanation is the presence, in both cases, of Sylvester Stallone in the roles of writer, director, and star, treading ground he knows as well as a filmmaker can know a character and the world he inhabits.

Rambo was the darker and bolder piece, painfully peeling back a few layers to expose a deeper skin in the character’s universe, and bringing it back from the excess of the first two sequels to its bleak and compelling roots. Rocky Balboa serves a similar function, but embodies warmth and heart where its darker cousin went, quite literally, for the jugular.

We have seen Rocky rise and fall many a time, and we know the struggles at the top can cost as much as those on the bottom. His perennial secret weapons are the heart of a champion and the love of a good woman. Now we see him living with one but not the other. The structure of the film echoes the original Rocky, almost exactly in places, to show us that after all has been said and done not much has changed for ol’ Rock. Under that same old slouch hat we see not an ambitious young optimist, but a weary, widowed, and world-beaten man who cannot bring himself to lay the past to rest.

This is our jumping off point, and the story unfolds with supreme consideration for the original values that made us first cheer for Rocky all those years ago. Where the first film offered an inspiring look at a downtrodden, good-hearted soul who got his shot at being somebody, this is a touching parallel yarn about the man who has been through it all going the distance one more time for the legacy he deserves, on his own terms.

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Movie Review: Rambo (2008)

Sylvester Stallone is his own breed of populist auteur, who managed not once but twice to create a character whose likeness and exploits have become icons in the history of making movies. Rocky Balboa and John Rambo are household names, even to those without the slightest interest in the films themselves. Sadly, the two franchises are so wrapped up in parody and secondhand legend that relatively few have seen or remember the impact of the original films.

The latest installment of Rambo is a bleak little number indeed, cutting through all the overblown mayhem of the previous sequels, which are primarily responsible for the wholesale dismissal of Rambo as the same kind of 1980s action-junk as its many imitators and contemporaries. That is not to say Stallone did not have his hand in a fair share of those clunkers as well, but the Rambo saga deserves a great deal more credit, above all for the consistent strength of the actor’s character work despite the escalating craziness of parts two and three.

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Movie Review: No Country For Old Men (2007)

No Country For Old Men immediately drew comparisons to that now-infamous debut hit by the Coen Brothers, Blood Simple. At first look the similarities are plain. They are both edgy, violent dramas. They both involve weird characters out to get one another. They are both set in Texas. However, a number of key differences make them about as different as night and day in the same twisted world.

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Movie Review: The Mist (2007)

Frank Darabont has proven once again that he is one of the few filmmakers who can translate Stephen King’s work to film without reforging the stories on his own terms. The mass of King adaptations are either faithful failures or successes bearing little resemblance to the original tone. Not so for Darabont, who proves he can work the bleak and icky with the same deft hand that gave us the uplifting Shawshank Redemption.

The story is simple enough, and not even drawn from one of King’s most polished. A thick mist blows into town, transforming the world into a white, billowing void. From this mist emerge a stunning variety of Lovecraft-style bugs and other nasties, all with an appetite for human blood. Most of the action unfolds in the local grocery, where many of the town’s citizens find themselves under siege without means of escape.

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Movie Review: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives Of Others, 2006)

This is a fine feature debut for German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, concerning high-stakes intrigue and a crisis of humanity in the East German Secret Police (Stasi) of the 1980s.

An ambitious member of the agency, Captain Wiesler, accepts an assignment to spy on a local artist and suspected political dissident. Expecting a routine investigation and subsequent arrest to further his own career, he becomes drawn into the personal life of his target, finding him to be a true patriot and a generally admirable person.

Growing respect for his subject complicates Wiesler’s own situation, pressured as he is to find dirt by his superiors, who may have personal reasons of their own for wanting this case to lead somewhere. In the end, he must put his reputation, career, and life on the line as he chooses whether to make the smart move or the right one.

The performances are expert, the cast well-matched, and the story manages both suspense and deeply moving drama. This movie opened in North America to strong praise, and rightly so. We will almost surely be hearing more from this group of moviemakers.

Movie Review: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006)

Guillermo del Toro has a gift all too rare in movies today – a terrific imagination. Like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam before him, he sometimes gets a little too mired in imagery to pay attention to the rest of the movie, but given the right story he can craft a thing of true beauty.

El Laberinto Del Fauno has had words like “parable,” “fable,” and “fairytale” hung upon it, and it has the right ingredients to be all of these successfully. Its simple and moving story about the power of imagination and spiritual purity over real-world oppression blossoms with both gorgeous and grotesque images. A young girl, caught up in the turbulent fallout of the Spanish Civil War, discovers her link to a magical world away from all the struggle and strife.

Charged with a number of hair-raising quests, she fights not only to save herself but also her mother and unborn brother, living under the thumb of her cruel military stepfather.

This movie hits a lot of high and low notes, and Del Toro’s airtight sense of style transports us seamlessly back and forth from the heartbreaks of everyday life to the fantastic places hidden carefully in the seams of our world.

Fairy tale though it may be, this movie is no lightweight affair. The “real” world of the film is a violent and oppressive place, and the world of the fantastic offers many horrors as well. There is enough of the gruesome and brutal to help us understand how beautiful and essential the alternatives are, especially with lives and souls on the line.