Monday, August 17, 2009

Film Review: Away We Go

Away We Go (A-)

I imagine the new film Away We Go to be different films to different people at different times in their lives (although I’m sure sections of it ring true no matter one’s age). I found Sam Mendes’s new film, about a 34 year old man and his pregnant wife traveling from city to city in the hopes of finding a suitable place to settle down and begin their new life with child, a truly wonderful film about the intimacy of life that makes life feel so much more epic. In short, I found Away We Go to be one of the best films of the year.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are both in their mid-thirties; she’s six-months pregnant with their first child. After his parents decide their moving to Belgium, leaving the couple without any family nearby, Burt and Verona decide to pack up and check out America (with a stop-over in Montreal) in the hopes of finding a suitable place to settle down. They choose Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, and Miami, and their journey begins.

I’ve read several reviews that have reflected upon the film in a negative manner. Most of the criticism revolves around the main couple and how they project a smug superiority over all of the individuals they encounter on their journey. How many of the characters such as Allison Janney’s and Maggie Gyllenhall’s are mere gross caricatures used for cheap laughs and manipulative end means, so by the time the film concludes, you can’t help but identify with Burt and Verona as the only two sane people in the crazy universe put on display. These critics seem to believe the writers of the picture, authors Vendela Vida and David Eggers, project a series of stereotypes as grotesques in order to feel far, far beyond the reproach of these creations with the exception Burt and Verona, whose mindsets are obvious stand-ins for the screenwriters.

Since when hasn’t a person felt superior to another? Since when hasn’t an individual listened to another’s point of view or simply judged another on appearance before thinking to him or herself, “This person is a fucking idiot.” Is it wrong to be honest even if that honesty reveals something less than pleasant? To me, Vida and Eggers have not created these characters to ridicule a segment of society, but to reflect it. People like the characters presented here in this film are real. Hurtful? Maybe. Mean? Possibly. Truthful? Yes. Besides, it’s poor viewing to call all of the characters Burt and Verona encounter “cartoonish losers.” One of the strongest scenes in recent cinema revolves around a monologue given by Chris Messina as the couple’s friend, Tom; he tells Burt how his wife has miscarried for the fifth time. How Tom and his wife attempt to fill the emotional holes each miscarriage creates provides for terrible sadness, but also amazement at the resiliency of some people. “You have to be so much better than you ever thought you could be,” says Munch (Melanie Lynskey), Tom’s wife. This scene and others reflect a common decency in people not mentioned in the negative reviews.

Also, I don’t believe Burt and Verona believe themselves to be better than the family/friends/associates they encounter; I believe them to all be part of a cultural landscape filled with all types. Early in the film, Verona asks the question, “Are we fuck-ups?” and the question is valid, truthful, and sharp. No matter one’s age, I believe a strong signal of disappointment pulses in everyone when chronicling the choices made/not made in life. I often ask myself this question and my answer inevitably sways towards a “Yes.” But this disappointment doesn’t sink either Burt and Verona nor should it disappoint anyone who answers in the affirmative. Instead, such an admission should further stoke individuals to constantly strive to do better. Failure isn’t the end of the world; it’s simply a word that’s been used to have a negative connotation over the years to pull people down instead of lifting people up. Yes, Burt and Verona are fuck-ups, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Self-realization can be used for individuals to re-examine their lives, their perspectives, their morals, their biases. Nothing wrong with that even if the film doesn’t necessarily delve deeply into either Burt or Verona’s psyche.

Away We Go isn’t without flaws. The simple fact Burt and Verona embark on this odyssey seems a little inauthentic; most people, even people like Burt and Verona who do not seem especially wealthy, cannot simply pick up and fly around the country just because they feel like it. People who find themselves in the predicament the main characters find themselves in are not allowed the luxury to move around; socio-economic factors often limit people and keep them within certain boundaries, physical and mental. But the emotional journey Burt and Verona undertake does seem authentic. Krasinski and especially Rudolph are both outstanding. And by the end of their journey, I felt their decision to isolate themselves by embracing a part of Verona’s past reflected a true declaration common in life: you can go home again, you just need to make it your own.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Father's Eulogy

Your smile and laughter shattered atoms and charged the particles of life/So negatives became positives/Positives became nirvanas/And nirvanas became the building blocks of our lives/Something worth living for/Even if perfection has a price because it’s worth the cost

You meant more to me than any single moment/Any single conversation/Any singular single blip of mind matter that matters within my myopic mind/Without you, a part of my heart has gone missing/As my world dissolves beyond the horizon, my own self going blind/And Timex doesn’t foretell the time with which one lives or dies/One succumbs or survives/Because the infinity of space before and beyond holds only the point which I hold onto you/The coalescence of both our lives/Even if I can never be so generous of heart

You were always a mountain of a man/An Everest of heart and mind/Who reflected a landscape at once intimidating and inviting/Heights worth ascending even if sharp edges and canted angles proved imposing/No matter – my sister and brother and I would softly slide down the surfaces grasping at what felt insurmountable/A slipping down life/But you’d always welcome us to traverse the tough terrain, a trek towards the heavens that perpetrated that which was honest and true/Self-growth in the knowledge of things

My father cannot be manufactured nor cloned/He can never be duplicated nor replicated/Never carbon-copied like an inferior version and then just dated/My father has no expiration date

Now you yourself have ascended to a place beyond man-made structures/Beyond nature’s handiwork/Beyond space’s infinity/Carried on the gossamer feathers of some angels’ wings/Carried by the explosion of emotion given weight by the griots’ words as they sing/Carried by your legion of family and friends and the infinite love that they bring/And you will never fall

My father was my father/I love him/I miss him/I want him back/That is all

- Brendan Jude Liszanckie

Monday, June 22, 2009

Poem: "Capoeira Bachizado, June 20, 2009"

I wrote this poem for the students of King Chavez Preparatory Academy, many of whom I had the honor to teach this past year.

"Capoeira Bachizado, June 20, 2009"

Leaping, twirling, spinning
Their bodies hovering between the heavens and the mortal ground
Taking lift even if only for the briefest glimpse of endless possibilities offered elsewhere
Communal spirit mirroring an alternate reality not often found
On the unforgiving blacktops or the condensed streets offering up dead ends
No, here they pray together and their bodies become the Holy Spirit
Portals of possibility
Their smiles should be stitched on their faces
Tattooed to forever remind them childhood should be a place of dreams, not nightmares
Their instructors the melting pot,
Their joy infiltrating the souls of their students
I see before my eyes children unafraid
What a nice thing to glimpse
They clap and frighten away their fear
They send it fleeing
No more, they exclaim, shall I not stand tall
Shirts soaked in the sweat spilt from their spirits screams
While they chant for freedom
And find it within themselves

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Poem: “We, the People, in Order to . . .?”

“We, the People, in Order to . . .?”

I checked the cell to your desire
To see for myself if that which had burned to ashes left any remnants, a trace
Of the eternal foot race from Marathon to Athens
To defend a democracy of ideas and fragments from exploded cranium outbursts
Blazing out on cerebral superhighways, Patty Hearst
Liberation by way of polemical castration had been dispersed
Because the tele ain’t telling me anything
But the “pop” of guns that go agitprop
And the Charlie Brown squabble of artful unintelligence that likes to squawk and hear itself talk
And mutter specific generalities like “Mission Accomplished”

And they think decapitated babies and wailing mothers,
Suicidal sisters longing for lost brothers
Will end one totalitarianship, but couldn’t it bring about another?
Why do the words that are our weapons deserve to be smothered?
That which was produced free of charge does not deserve to be taken off the product line
Replaced by the inferior product of crass commercialism meant to be eaten up and swallowed for mass consumption
But be careful what you wish for
Because before you know it, the beautiful carriage will turn back into a pumpkin
And do we really want to be the schoolyard bully when the tormented eventually join together to say “Fuck Him!”?
And the stillness of the air force strike will be upon us and not them, then?

Schools teach us to not forget the past or you’re deemed to repeat it if you do
So get ready for another bomb blast and remember this one’s heading straight for you
Hiroshima History 101
It matters who’s right or wrong even when what’s done is done
Lives are at stake
NASDAQ, Dow, percentages, ratios, the soiled victory they hunger for and forcefully take matter little in this race
The faceless have faces like yours and mine
It doesn’t matter if they’re from Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other “other” place
Just don’t think you can Etch-a-Sketch a life and wipe it away without a trace

Bodies and riches, the spoils of war
And while citizens stoically stagger the streets wondering what we’re here for
Others stare at the dusty rubble where there used to be a door
Holding hands, all three of them, when just yesterday there were four
A single tear is worth as much as a flood
A single life lost is worth as much as a stack of bodies drowning in blood
And a single country’s gain does not wash away the pain
And if the best we can do is attempt to explain rather than help start anew to give others dreams they can attain
Then I will not refrain from voicing a call that has pierced the heart of our existence
And driven us to undergo an immoral race
Parts disassembled to resemble nothing more so much as what gave us shape, and voice, in the first place

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Film Review: Gomorra

Grade: B-

Gomorra is one of those films that comes armed with critics’ praises and festival laurels (Cannes Film Festival 2008), but I felt the film somehow lacked a certain energy required to really propel the (bare-bones) story forward. I don’t mean the film needed an infusion of MTV-style bombast ala City of God; in fact, the subject matter is presented in such an antithetical, deliberately realist manner that the moronic label of poverty-porn shouldn’t surface anywhere near this saga concerning various criminal activity in Naples, Italy. Nor do I believe the various threads of narrative should have taken on the fashionable, often hollow, thrill of eventually intertwining so as to present some larger cosmic statement about the interconnectedness of the universe (1). But the film is all pieces and no whole. This might have been acceptable, but at the end of the film, the filmmakers resort to using some closing end notes. These cards quickly inundate the viewer with pertinent information that nonetheless seems a cheap way of making a statement much, much larger than the previous two plus hours of vignettes had dared suggest. So while I appreciated the craft of the film and the filmmaker’s desire to not allow for stylistic excess to overshadow the tale, I felt a disconnect that never made the film’s world seem any more unique or newsworthy than the dozens of other mob films. Just because the film is based on fact doesn’t make it any more compelling nor should it be looked at with a less critical eye.

Truth be told, I wanted some of Scorsese’s filmic verve and joie de vivre, the kind evident in Goodfellas and Casino. Those two films were also based on fact, but Scorsese understands the adrenaline rush that accompanies such a lifestyle without shirking away from the grotesque undercurrent that eventually sucks most participants under. Gomorra's presentation by director Matteo Garrone is more matter-of-fact even if he does prove to be a gimlet-eyed talent in the distillation of apprehensive fear and terror. He follows several characters as they go about doing their business: an older man making monetary payments to individuals connected to the Camorra syndicate; a young boy enamored by a life of crime who faces a merciless decision; two teenagers reared on Al Pacino’s Scarface who abscond with some of the Camorra’s guns only to find themselves out of their element; and a tailor charged with the creation of designer dresses who foolishly decides to earn some extra money behind the backs of his employers. While nothing in the film is complex, it nonetheless bewildered me at times because Garrone chooses to drop viewers into the middle of story lines. This technique worked well sometimes and frustrated me at other points, but it’s usage provided the viewer with the grim perspective that all human life is indistinguishable pulp in this environment; if one person’s life is extinguished, another life will take its place, and the cyclical, violent nature of the whole enterprise will continue.

The best scene in the film finds the tailor, Pasquale, as he watches Scarlett Johansson (2) on a television while she parades around in a dress he helped create. The schism evident between the reality of the dress’s history and the fantasy of the starlet’s life provides a succinct and stark commentary on globalization’s nefarious grasp. This scene announced in an inferential manner what the end cards bludgeoned viewers with: scope and perspective towards humanity’s crippling desire to have its cake and eat it, too.

1 See Crash, Babel, Magnolia, the aforementioned City of God, and many others if you like this form of serendipitous storytelling. When done well, this form of narrative provides a welcome jolt and the cumulative power feels authentic. When done poorly, see Babel.

2 How the F did she become such a star? Yes, she’s voluptuous and she’s not a terrible actress, but that’s not exactly high praise. I bow my head in prayer for the number of talented unknown actresses who have yet to be discovered because of Hollywood’s recessive gene pool.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Film Snapshots: Vicky Christina Barcelona and Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and the Real Girl (A-)
Vicky Christina Barcelona (B)

Vicky Christina Barcelona - Woody Allen's latest film is intelligent and charming, but carries a faint whiff of misogyny. Penelope Cruz is terrific. Very deserving of the Best Supporting Actress Award at this year's Oscars. Nothing against her English language skills, but if you've only seen her in American films, you're doing yourself a disservice. She's a tremendously exciting actress, and while she carries a real sexual spark, it is more a feeling of electricity, or perpetual volatility and life that appears in every moment she's onscreen. Check her out when she's given the opportunity to work in her native language. Films such as Volver, All About My Mother, and other Spanish language films are best to really see her in her element.

Lars and the Real Girl - What could have been a debacle turns into an extremely touching humanistic parable. Treated with the utmost sincerity, but cognizant of the story's inherent absurdity (which allows for the humor to feel organic rather than cheap), Lars and the Real Girl is able to achieve a genuinely emotional impact. One moment that stands out to me: the Talking Heads' "This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)" playing during a party sequence. The expression on Lars' face, the joy and warmth evident in the other partygoers' willingness to treat him with compassion, the lyrics of the song, all perfectly encapsulate the main character's struggle and the town's response. Beautiful and uplifting, even if unrealistic.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Oscar Night and California Cuisine: A Restaurant Review

California Cuisine - San Diego, Hillcrest neighborhood (4.5 out of 5 stars)

California Cuisine, located on University Ave. in Hillcrest, blends in so well into its environs that I understand how it might be overlooked when it comes to dining in San Diego. But you’ve been warned-ignore this place at your own risk. A great, local fine-dining establishment, I cannot properly review the restaurant without providing a back-story.

February 22, 2009. Oscar night. My wife and I wanted to watch the Oscars, but we couldn’t at our apartment because I had not gotten a digital converter. Why’d the government have to go all elitist on us poor folk? WTF is wrong with rabbit ears? Huh? I’ll willingly admit I’m a cheap bastard who refuses to pay for cable, but I enjoyed being able to access three and half decent stations. Didn’t Thoreau write, “Simplify, simplify?" Well, I simplified my television options only to be kicked in the balls by the man. Ouch! And the city of San Diego decided to do the man one better by stomping on said balls when they moved the converter date from the month of June to the 17th of February. Double ouch! Now I had access to nada.

So we were left to scramble for an alternative. For many people, the Oscars don’t mean shit. Even for people who proclaim to love cinema, they complain about the Oscars and how they don’t accurately reflect the best films, performances, etc. Instead, the studios with the deepest pockets control the awards by throwing money into advertising campaigns for films that have been polished and gleamed to the point they resemble less an organic, artistic vision than museum artifacts cast in amber: beautiful to the eye, but devoid of life.

However, I don’t adhere to this belief. Growing up, my family and I celebrated Oscar night the way other people celebrate the Super Bowl. In recent years, though, I haven’t kept up with the Oscar tradition because I no longer live on the East Coast with the fam. It just has not felt the same since I moved to Los Angeles and now San Diego. But during this past year, I was fortunate to have seen all of the Best Picture nominees, and I watched several of them (Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) with my parents. For the first time in a long time, I felt the distinct twinge of nostalgia with regard to Hollywood’s big night, and my wife and I wanted to make a night of it.

Cut to montage of us driving around. We’d tried a couple of places we thought might be broadcasting the show in their bar area only to be rebuffed. Two-shot of us growing increasingly frustrated and bitter at wasting gas and time during our proposed “date night.” Patience has never been a strength of mine (even though I’ve heard people declare it’s a virtue). Finally, a series of smash cuts. California Cuisine’s “Oscar Night” email. Uptown magazine’s buy one, get one free coupon. Great parking directly in front of restaurant. Red carpet and golden balloons. Cordial host. Beautiful, intimate back patio. Immediate seating. Clear, crisp Oscar telecast projected against wall. Serenity now.

California Cuisine did itself proud on Oscar night. I loved how management catered to people like my wife and me. They included an Oscar themed menu that included several drinks named after the nominees not to mention patrons received an Oscar-night party pool sheet in order to select who they believed would triumph in each category. At the end of the night, results would be tallied and the winner would receive a gift certificate.

My wife and I decided to forgo the fixed-prix Oscar menu in order to utilize the coupon. We instantly settled upon our dishes: she selected the linguini with jumbo shrimp, while I chose the free-range chicken breast. We were not disappointed. The portion size for both were just right; sometimes I feel like the term “fine dining” is code for tiny portions artistically plated, but at California Cuisine, the amount of food satisfies the belly. My chicken breast was cooked to perfection; a pan jus accompanied it, and this left the meat very moist and tender. Some grilled asparagus, arugula, and smashed potatoes completed the entrĂ©e, and everything was exquisite. My wife loved her meal as well. Definitely “jumbo” shrimp-the restaurant didn’t lie. The linguini was mixed with a bit of red pepper flake, garlic, Parmesan, and bacon to create a fiery and flavorful dish.

Since I am a bread whore, I must mention that California Cuisine’s house bread is very good. A small baguette served warm, I devoured about four of them, and not once did the staff complain when I asked for more.

We also tried a dessert, some dark chocolate gateau served with a shot of chevre. The gateau tasted similar to a warm brownie; very scrumptious without making you feel guilty for having eaten it. The chevre shot was something I’d never tried, and I was a little wary of it. Mixing goat cheese, vanilla ice cream, and milk? Sounded like a recipe for disaster. But in reality, the shot was wonderfully refreshing. Creamy with just the right blended notes of cheese and vanilla, this drink was the perfect accompaniment to the chocolate.

All in all, a truly wonderful experience. Dinner was suburb. With the coupon, we only paid $38 for two fantastic dinners, a dessert, two drinks, and a sophisticated, stylish setting. To top if all off, my wife won a $20 gift certificate for her prognostication skills! Que ganga! And while the 2009 Oscars proved to be predictable, they were also perfect.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Note: I wrote this review nearly two months (12/30/08) after I viewed the film, and one day before the Oscars. It did not win Best Picture.

Grade: A-

You would not expect a film centered around one's mortality and the unforgiving gravitational pull of time to be a crowd-pleaser. Or maybe you would if you wrapped your wolf in sheep's clothing, which is what the geniuses behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have done. Saturate the market with posters of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's angelic visages (I swear to God, their faces looked like they actually glowed when I looked at them). Drum up a trailer that emphasizes the story's fantastical narrative as well as the broad gesticulations of its love story. Cue presses insatiable desire to oversell another collaboration between Pitt and director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club). Release the film on Christmas Day at the height of the holiday season when department stores and marketing departments sell you on synthetic cheer and hollow reasons to believe because 'tis the season. Watch as the public laps it up.

Maybe I'm just a cynic. But I'm also a part of the masses, and I have to say The Curious Case of Benjamin Button resonated in an emotional manner with me that I had not expected. Maybe I wasn't sold on the hyperbole, so I went into the film with lowered expectations. Maybe I adopted a cautionary, defensive stance, so I would not believe in the greatness of the film based solely on the media's hype machine. Whatever the reason, I was surprised to find myself drawn in to the film's expansive storyline and, by the end of the film, I found myself genuinely moved by the tale that had been told.

Many people know the basic skeletal structure of the story. A boy, Benjamin Button (Pitt), is born at the end of the first World War in New Orleans, but he's born with all of the qualities/infirmities of the old: arthritis, muscle deterioration, hard-of-hearing, etc. He looks and acts like a man in his eighties even though he's a new-born infant. The film traces his life story as he ages in reverse, while everyone around him ages in the traditional manner. One of those individuals is Daisy (Blanchett), whom Button meets when she's a young girl; she comes to visit her grandmother in the old folks home where Benjamin is being raised by Queenie (Tarij P. Henson), his adoptive mother (his real mother died during childbirth, and his father abandoned him out of disgust). Over the next several decades, they develop a love for one another as they drift in and out of each other's lives. For a brief while, they meet in the middle when their age and physical/emotional maturity coalesce to form the union that time has always denied them. However, their bodies continue to age in opposite directions until Daisy has grown physically old, while Benjamin's body has regressed into infancy.

The story, adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), shares similarities to Gump, especially in the story-telling structure, the decades-spanning timeline, the unrequited love for a woman, and the freak-hero protagonist used to emotionally manipulate the audience. That said, Button is a superior film, and I wish it were getting more consideration for best picture. I know it racked up thirteen Oscar nominations, but it seems unlikely to win anything other than maybe some technical awards. Maybe the backlash has now set in, and people feel like it's the Goliath amongst the Davids, ye the film itself works not only as a love story, but as a bleak and authentic portrait of deterioration due to time's single-minded relentlessness. The fact the film tells a fantastical tale does not take away from the singular realism that accompanies the emotions generated due to the film's content. And this content is held together by the eponymous man at the title of the film, played by Brad Pitt in a performance equally deserving of the accolades being showered upon Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke.

Pitt has always been a terrifically agile actor; you only need to watch True Romance, Seven, Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, and other films to witness his dexterity as a performer. He seeks out adventurous, creative directors (Fincher, Tarantino, the Coen Brothers) with proven track records, and his choices reflect a willingness to not be pigeonholed into any one kind of role. If I have any complaint to give with regard to his acting, it would be this minor critique: he constantly chooses roles that de-emphasize his natural good looks. Other than the Ocean films, I feel like he believes he needs to do work that does not play on his natural handsomeness because he does not want to appear to be coasting by on his matinee idol looks. Which is why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the perfect vehicle for Brad Pitt.

With the help of technology and prosthetics, Pitt plays Benjamin throughout the film's entire two hour and forty minute running time. This film lets Pitt indulge in his desire to disappear physically within a role, but it also puts his iconic facial features front and center, not for simplistic aesthetics's sake, but for a commentary on the fleetingness of one's looks. Pitt has long been admired and objectified for these looks (People's Sexiest Man of the Year . . . twice), and I think this role allowed him to focus on this impermanence. It places, front and center, the understanding that a life cannot be lived on vanity alone, that something more must be longed for, and in the case of Button/Pitt, this something manifests itself in the love of a woman and a family.

Some may ridicule certain shots/scenes such as Pitt looking like a J Crew model with his wind-blown golden boy hair, his aviator sunglasses, and his leather bomber jacket as he rides a motorcycle. But I didn't feel like it was self-adoration, only a natural progression of the film's themes. A scene like the one mentioned visually captures the perfection found in a moment, tempered by the reality that things must change, that time marches forward, that the body must fall apart and fail. But that doesn't mean we cannot enjoy what we have when we have it. You really feel in certain scenes (like when Benjamin sees his daughter born) that not only are we watching his character experience the joy of fatherhood, but we are allowed to see Pitt demonstrating his love for the same, actual experience. I remember two to three shots/scenes where I remember legitimately tearing up, and I appreciated the fact that I felt the emotion was earned because Pitt (and Blanchett) welcomes you into his world. At some point, Benjamin Button stops being a film about a man aging backwards and becomes a meta-movie about a movie star recognizing his mortality and accepting it, no matter the disappointment such a realization offers.

I do believe Fincher and Pitt missed out some opportunities to play up the black humor that can accompany any film concerning death. A friend mentioned he would have liked to have seen what Tim Burton could have done with this material, and I see what he means. Fincher downplays rather than ramps up the film's ghoulish comedy such as when old (but young) Benjamin loses his virginity in a brothel. And Benjamin, to be true to the story, should have come out the size of a full-grown man older man rather than an aged infant. But I appreciated Fincher's dedication to keeping the film rooted to the performances despite so many opportunities to let the episodic nature of the film bludgeon the emotions on display.

I'm not sure which film I wish to win for best picture: Slumdog Millionaire or Benjamin Button. But I do know I have a rich appreciation for Fincher and Pitt's third collaboration together. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button exists in the same league as their earlier collaborative works, only now the darkness exists below the surface, underneath the gleam, but inexorably pulling us along toward our murky futures like the waters of Katrina that submerge everything at film's coda.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Their Eyes were Watching . . . ."

Staring out at a roomful of eyes
Bored by unknown words
Minds questioning deeper things
Than parts of speech
Curious for more important matters
“What is the meaning of this?”
Questions of authentic thought
Driven by independent spirits not yet tamed
But are in the process of being broken
Like the stallion
They ran wild once
But that was before
A system designed to help
But unable to account for all the breeds
School is a rough place for boys and girls
They believe one thing
And are told another
They feel something worthwhile
And told it’s not important
Intellectual freedom does not come from the school system
It can’t be given a letter grade or assessed
What youthful energy dies in the heart
Which wild thoughts fade after a quick start
A breath shortened, a pace with lost step
Adult measures tapering off the past’s longing rep
And children dulled by inexorable science
Where once they had art

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Film Review: The Wrestler

If nothing else, The Wrestler made me want to grow my hair out, strap on some tight-ass black leather pants, and blast some serious eighties hair metal. When the title character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, declares, “Fuckin’ eighties man. Best shit ever,” I felt myself nodding in approval even though I barely remember the decade seeing as I was nine when it’s awesomeness came to a close. But all throughout high school, thanks to Jeff “The Body” Phillips, eighties music was the shit. Poison, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Cinderella, Def Leopard, LA Guns—we tried valiantly to revive the eighties during the late nineties on the suburban South Shore of Massachusetts, and we did a pretty decent job. We convinced our graduating class that our senior prom song should be “The Search is Over” by Survivor, and we performed as Poison along with two other friends during our school’s mock male beauty pageant. Jeff and I would cruise in his tomato red Honda CRX with the sunroof open, eighties music shredding it up. Now, thanks to The Wrestler, eighties music receives two hours of glorious revival.

That said, The Wrestler is a small picture about small people living in a small world who still cling to big dreams. Randy, played by Mickey Rourke in one of those performances fully deserving of its hyperbole, is a relic of the 80s, a professional wrestler who once wrestled in Madison Square Garden, but at the start of the film is relegated to a school’s gymnasium. Washed-up, beat-up, and bulked up with all sorts of roids, Randy is a pathetic creature who probably banged fine-ass bitches in his hey-day, but now needs to get off on the occasional curiosity fuck, like a woman who knows of him because her brother followed Randy’s career. Most of the film consists of director Darren Aronofsky following Randy around his depressed Jersey milieu, whether it’s the local strip joint, supermarket, trailer parks, or American legion halls where he still wrestles, clinging with every fiber in his body to the fading remnants of his past. This film is a far cry aesthetically from Aronofsky’s previous fever dream films, which were pitched at maximum volume, but Aronofsky achieves an admirable documentary verisimilitude that is well suited for this tale.

A lot of people have commented on how it’s impossible to separate the main character’s career trajectory with that of the actor playing the part, and it’s easy to see why. Rourke was a ridiculously prodigious acting talent who exploded in the eighties in films such as Body Heat, Diner, Angel Heart, Barfly. Dude was the shit. Then the nineties happened and he became a punchline. I believe it cannot be denied that Rourke’s own personal story influenced his take on this character, but I don’t want this review to turn into US Weekly. The performance speaks for itself, specifically the image of Rourke—his hearing aid, his reading glasses, his taped together vest and coat, his pitted, mashed-in face. This is a role that demands presence and Rourke has it. He doesn’t need Shakespearean dialogue to let us in on his pain, his regret, his desire to be loved. You sense it in his voice, but you bear witness to it in his actions, most vividly in the wrestling ring scenes. If Rourke equals Randy, then film equals professional wrestling: a scripted artifice that sustains a grasp on reality because of participatory individuals. No matter how fantastic or unbelievable a scenario may seem in either the film or the wrestling universe, the dependence on accepting these temporary illusions establishes an alternate reality (even if only for a couple of hours). And the characters who create these illusionary realities (film directors/actors/writers/wrestlers) are flesh and blood, so when they willingly expose themselves to us, the audience, a tacit collaboration results and fuses us together to create a symbiotic union between real and fake.

I’m happy Aronofsky, Rourke, Marissa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Woods keep the film rooted; they don’t overplay the story’s modest delights, and the actors don’t over-emote and cry out for Oscar attention (Unlike the actors in Doubt). Everything retains its simplicity, which is how it should be. The film ends on a perfect grace note—Randy/Rourke gives a speech thanking his fans for all of their support before he leaps down from the top ropes and vanishes from the frame, his disappearance the final magic trick that links the character/actor to his audience. Out of sight, never out of mind, Rourke and Aronofsky do justice to the irrefutable fact that everybody wants to have an audience, and everybody needs to be acknowledged for their being. Because even when we disappear, we’re never truly gone.

PS – Bruce Springsteen was robbed. His song, played over the closing credits, complements the film’s tale perfectly.

Film Review: Doubt

Doubt is a film that should have remained on the stage. It is not a terrible film, merely a competent one, and the move from stage to screen does nothing for the story. I remember seeing the play on Broadway three years ago, and Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne brought an immediacy to the story that manifested itself in writer John Patrick Shanley words, and the sparse stage setting created a starkness that did well to control the inherent melodrama. Unfortunately, the film adaptation does no such thing, and the histrionics are on full display when you have heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman going head to habit (too easy . . . still terrible). The setting and situations remain the same, but nearly every altercation erupts into a shouting match captured up close, whereas the theatrical experience allowed a distance that was necessary for the story’s ambiguity. The reaping of acting awards bestowed upon the film’s actors, including Amy Adams as an earnest, easily swayed nun and Viola Davis as the mother of the boy at the crux of the film’s title, are unsurprising. The academy loves this kind of emotional hijacking. Too bad none of them are deserving; Hoffman acquits himself well, but he’s done better, and Streep and Adams seem to be phoning in from some other atmosphere. Adams especially comes across as a petulant, gullible child who cannot arose an ounce of authentic thought, and she portrays the teacher as puppetry rather than an adult grappling with a morally complex issue. Shove a stick up her ass and she’ll speak. One of the many absurd nominations made by the Academy, but I digress.

Which is not to state that the film should not be viewed, only that I believe a filmed stage adaptation would have more than done justice. As a writer, Shanley created a powerful story focused on his title’s topic, a palpable one since the issue exists within the well being of every individual. I’m a firm believer that everyone suffers from doubt’s afflictions, no matter how determined a person may be to hold onto his/her beliefs nor how certain a person may be in voicing/expressing a belief system. Even the most fervent, religious-crazed zealot must have expressed doubt, internally or externally, at some point. It is inescapable, and it can creep into a life at any moment. Using the religious terrain of a 1960s Catholic school as his battleground, Shanley uses his topic to delve into child molestation, religious persecution, racial segregation/integration, and homosexuality, but he does so without wielding a Louisville Slugger to pound out his proclamations. Indeed, much of the story hinges on one’s own doubt; I’m not absolutely sure if Father Flynn sexually abused the school’s only African-American boy, Donald, although I tend to believe he did not. I’m also not sure what Sister Aloysius doubts at the end of the film: the lie she tells in order to have Father Flynn removed, her single-mindedness in attacking Father Flynn, or her own religious beliefs

The ambiguity is the film’s strong-point, but as a director, Shanley is all canted camera angles meant to visualize a world askew; all torrential downpours reflecting the shitstorm pouring forth inside; and all burned-out lightbulbs bursting to illustrate the moral black hole the characters find themselves sucked into, guided by their certainty. If anything, I would have liked to have seen what another director could have done with this film (Lars Von Trier comes to mind for some reason).

I guess I’m just underwhelmed by the whole film. It left no real impression as a movie; as a play, that’s another story. I hope Shanley goes back to the theater, and I wish the actors all the best. I’ll be happy to see them risk more than a film adaptation of a pedigreed play, where they know full well they’ll get their professional accolades. Hoffman, go back to your Synedoche, New York’s and your Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (a terrifically raw and under appreciated performance). Adams, I appreciated you trying to diversify your filmography so you won’t be pigeonholed as one of those “lovable, adorable leading ladies” who always seem to end up on women’s magazine covers, but go after something edgier. And Meryl Streep, please don’t appear in any more films for a while. I hate that your name steals Oscar nominations away from other, more deserving actresses such as Emily Mortimer in Transsibberian. Until then, pass on this film while it’s in theaters.