Wrestling With Reality – The Wrestler (2008)

5 STARS

‘The real world is faker than professional wrestling.’

These are the playful words of Mick Foley, or, as you may know him better, Mankind. A mask-wearing, sock-wielding masochist who was once infamously thrown off a 16-foot cell by The Undertaker.

Yes, it is time to talk about the zany world of wrestling, but not as many of us know it. That is because director Darren Aronofsky, in 2008, decided to point his lens at a shadowy part of this multi-billion dollar industry.

Far from the bright lights and corporate atmosphere of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), a litany of performers, from young up-and-comers to grizzled veterans, toil away on the independent wrestling scene.

Previously spotlighted in Barry Blaustein’s fascinating documentary Beyond the Mat (1999), this grittier realm is largely marked by small audiences, unreliable pay-cheques and dingy locker rooms.

That is exactly where we find broken-down star of the 80’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (played by Mickey Rourke).

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In one telling early scene, Randy hobbles and wheezes his way out of a venue, as Aronofsky’s camera pulls back to reveal his underwhelming surroundings. He is long separated from the big leagues of his chosen profession.

The Wrestler follows Randy as a heart attack forces him to reassess his reckless life – inside, outside and after the ring.

Aronofsky utilises a documentarian style with handheld cameras and natural light adding an unwavering sense of realism to the story.

He is also not afraid to lift the curtain on some of wrestling’s trade secrets. This includes Randy piecing together the details of his match backstage and preparing a ‘blade’ to draw his own blood in the ring.

For most of the film, Aronofsky’s camera trails behind Randy, as though the wrestler is constantly performing his ring walk-out. It is part of a losing battle to move away from his wrestling persona and transition him back into the ordinary world.

This struggle is brilliantly epitomised by one sequence in which Randy makes his way to work at a supermarket deli counter.

The sound of a cheering wresting crowd builds, but just as ‘The Ram’ goes through the curtain – in this instance through the PVC strips – silence prevails. Reality hits home. His days of performing for huge crowds are over.

There are also notable parallels drawn between Randy and his favourite stripper Cassidy (played by the magnificent Marisa Tomei), who is also questioning her future.

Their ageing bodies have left them on the scrap heap of their superficial professions. Where do they go next? Where indeed.

One way Randy looks to reconnect with the real world is with his estranged daughter (Westworld’s excellent Evan Rachel Wood). It is in these moments that Aronofsky finally shows an intimate close-up of Randy’s face.

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Perhaps there is life beyond his ridiculous tights and brutal headlocks.

The Wrestler is an undoubted triumph for Aronofsky. This is no better demonstrated than the rehabilitating effect the film had on Rourke. Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is a role made for a jaded star who brings his own turbulent history to the character.

Wrestling fan or not, The Wrestler is a film worth grappling with.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: James recommends: Chronicle (2012)

Grief and Isolation in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea

MTV, GTA and Britney: Nightmares of Popular Culture in Spring Breakers (2012)

The Shepherd (Film Review)

James recommends: Chronicle (2012)

5 STARS

HOW do three high schoolers react when they are gifted the heady responsibility of superhero powers?

That is the question director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis concisely pose in this engaging and bold movie.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a greasy haired, weary eyed introvert chronicling his life through a camera (yes, this is another found footage flick).

At home, his mother is bed-ridden and racking up unaffordable medical bills. His father (House of Cards’ Michael Kelly) is a retired fireman who has hit the booze and, when he has had enough of that, hits Andrew.

Unsurprisingly, the camera-wielding outcast finds no refuge at High School. The glum Seattle skies paired with the graininess of his student camera only reinforce Andrews cheerless situation.

That is until one evening when Andrew is led down a mysterious hole in the woods, along with cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and popular high schooler, Steve (Michael B Jordan).

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They emerge with newfound powers and soon begin testing them out in the trivial ways you might expect from teenage boys. Levitating legos and supermarket mischief ensues.

But, as established by an earlier reference to the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, this comedic tinge does not last long.

Trank and Landis throw an abrupt – and dark – curve in the road, which builds towards an ambitious finale.

It is all well-designed and compelling enough to see through the lean 89 minute runtime.

Trank also wisely manoeuvres around some of the found footage trappings that have made the subgenre tiresome to many. Different perspectives, including a love-interest vlogger (Ashely Hinshaw) and CCTV cameras, prevent visual stagnation from setting in.

Likewise, the casting and performances deserve recognition. In particular, Jordan, who demonstrates the likability and swagger he will knock us out with in Creed three years later.

Unfortunately for Trank, his recent chance at a big-money superhero franchise, Fantastic Four (2015), brought him back down to earth with a thud. Meanwhile, Landis’ best work since has been his brilliant YouTube short Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling.

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With hindsight, Chronicle works as an allegory for gun control in America (the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred ten months after the movie’s release).

It demonstrates the danger of allowing potentially lethal powers to fall into the hands of those who do not necessarily have the maturity, support or mental stability to handle them.

Discussion-provoking stuff. Not bad for an unashamedly low-budget pursuit (it overachieved massively at the box-office).

Chronicle is a movie well worth visiting – or revisiting – in these difficult and dangerous times.

Thanks for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: Grief and Isolation in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea

MTV, GTA and Britney: Nightmares of Popular Culture in Spring Breakers (2012)

The Shepherd (Film Review)

Falling in Love with La La Land

Chronicle – 4/5

Dire: Josh Trank

Scre: Josh Trank and Max Landis

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hindsaw

 

 

Grief and Isolation in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea

Spoiler warning. Our In-Focus series takes a look at Manchester By The Sea. 

OVER the past year American cinema has given us some beautifully tender and moving moments. The kiss in Moonlight, the planetarium dance in La La Land and the closing revelation in Arrival.

But none more heart-rending than the ‘stroller scene’ in Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent Manchester By The Sea.

A moment which brings together former husband Lee (Oscar winning Casey Affleck) and wife Randi (Michelle Williams, another Oscar winner). Two broken hearts that are stranded at different stages of an unbearable grieving process – the loss of their three children in a house fire caused by Lee’s negligence.

It is a difficult, uncomfortable and emotionally compelling scene. Three minutes of cinema that will remain ingrained in my brain forever.

Speaking at a Curzon Q&A earlier this year, Lonergan explained the thought process behind the scene. He said: ‘I said to Casey: you cannot bare to speak to her, but you also don’t want to hurt her feelings for asking. To make her feel bad for trying to speak to you. But you also have to try and get out of the conversation.

‘I said the same to Michelle: you have to reach out to him and pull him out of the hole he’s in, but you don’t want to hurt him by doing it.’

The scene arrives with Lee, still at the bottom of his irreconcilable pit of anguish, and Randi, now re-married and ready for some form of reconciliation. All the while the stroller, a signifier of Randi’s progress and her willingness to continue with life by creating another human being, sits as a silent barrier between them.

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Moving away from the stroller scene, Lonergan reinforces Lee’s self-imposed isolation with his framing.

Lee is often shunted to the side of the screen or captured slightly out of our reach. When Lonergan’s camera does get close, Lee’s eyes drift to one side or, even more evasively, to the floor.

Likewise, Lee’s posture is rigid and guarded. His shoulders are hunched in defeat and his arms rarely move from his side – unless he is ready to throw a few fists. Indeed, Lee seems willing to make any excuse to get in a fight and, better still, get beaten up.

The brawling, partially a result of his Bostonian machismo, also acts as an outlet for self-harm – in many ways a less definitive punishment than his attempted suicide in the police station.

The life Lee has set out for himself is akin to a prison life-sentence.

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His desolate mourning is only underlined by the people around him. The film opens with janitor Lee (a jack of all trades) attending to customers who have issues going on in their lives. One moment, we view a grandmother making plans to attend a Bar Mitzvah. The next, we see a flirtatious woman on the phone to her friend seemingly infatuated with Lee.

Lee, for the most part, remains emotionless or is provoked into losing his temper, triggering a rebuke from his boss. He returns to the solitude of his barren room to fall asleep while watching hockey with a beer in his hand.

But is it his relationship with nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) which make his grieving most apparent.

When the two return home from visiting Joe’s body (his brother and Patrick’s father), Patrick immediately asks if he can invite his friends over. Patrick’s friends lift his spirits with aimless chat about Star Trek, while Lee retreats, once again, to spend the evening alone in his room.

This was not always the case for Lee. Manchester By The Sea is told in a non-linear fashion, adding a sense of mystery and dread to his story.

The most tragic flashback occurs as Lee finds out he has been chosen as Patrick’s guardian. Lonergan cleverly pairs together the haunting moments which have prompted Lee’s isolation with a moment, at least intended by his brother, to help pull him out of this state. To give him responsibility and purpose – something or someone to live for.

These flashbacks also offer a window into the kind of character Lee was before the tragic incident. A warm family man with many friends. A love for fishing, booze, weed and sex with his wife.

But in the present he has stripped himself of the right to a personal life. Even when Sandy’s mum (Sandy being one of Patrick’s girlfriends) invites him in for a friendly chat, Lee cannot bring himself to muster up thirty minutes of small talk with Jill (Heather Burns). Upstairs, Patrick is trying in vain to get into Sandy’s briefs (Sandy is flirtatiously played by Anna Baryshnikov).

Patrick’s grief, more manageable because of the inevitability of his father’s passing (Joe had a long standing heart condition), does not prevent him from continuing his life. As he points out to Lee, he has a band, many friends and at least two girlfriends.

Lee, on the other hand, has become a janitor, undeserving of anything else.

The closing moments of Manchester By The Sea show Lee and Patrick fishing on the family boat. This appears to be the only place Lee truly feels at ease.

The sea offers him respite and evokes memories of a better time. It allows him to be detached from the town where his children perished and out of reach from the locals who still gossip and judge him.

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Indeed, in an earlier scene, he had even cracked a smile on board before bumping into Randi back on land – a meeting marked by the thumping halt to the upbeat and promising sounds of Ella Fitzgerald’s I’m Beginning to See the Light.

Manchester by the Sea is a magical film which has deserved all the awards that has come its way. But that stroller scene will linger long in my mind. It deserves an award in its own right.

Thanks for reading. Please like, comment and share!

Also read: “I just burst into tears” – Q&A with Manchester By The Sea director Kenneth Lonergan

MTV, GTA and Britney: Nightmares of Popular Culture in Spring Breakers (2012)

Falling in Love with La La Land

Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

 

MTV, GTA and Britney: Nightmares of Popular Culture in Spring Breakers (2012)

DO you remember a time when MTV was the edgiest – if not the coolest – channel on television?

Well those days are long gone now. Turn on MTV and you will likely be watching re-runs of Catfish or some show about teenage pregnancy.

No longer at the cutting-edge of youth culture, the channel seems content churning out relatively safe and formulaic reality shows.

But there was a time when MTV, as blogger Amanda Marcotte put it, had the power to open up ‘a whole new world of possibilities’ – particularly for those living in secluded areas where conservative values are fiercely guarded.

MTV could expose small town religious folk to cosmopolitan, inner-city progressive thinking in a fresh, youthful and vibrant manner. It pitted old against young. Teachers against television. Bible against Britney.

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This, of course, was every strict conservative parent’s worst nightmare and many fought back to censor such vulgarities.

Harmony Korine’s film, Spring Breakers, envisages a realm where these parental guidance fears and insecurities have been actualised in the most outrageous fashion. A culture of young people raised on the morals of Britney Spears, educated by the laws of Grand Theft Auto and pacified by MTV music videos.

Spring Break is all about kids in bathing suits’ – Bob Kusbit, MTV Senior Vice President of Production (1999)

The overt sexualisation of celebrities, especially in music videos, continues to be a fiercely debated subject.

Figures such Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj have come under fire for setting poor examples to their younger audiences. In Spring Breakers, Korine parades former Disney stars in bikinis as they tote guns, toke bongs and lustfully lick phallic objects.

Korine sets this tone from the opening sequence, confronting the viewer with a barrage of naked and out-of-control bodies to the equally abrasive sound of Skrillex. This sexualised imagery immediately becomes part of the aesthetic, which includes black and white camcorder shots that evoke thoughts of MTV Spring Break specials and Girls Gone Wild.

Our bikini-clad protagonists (played by Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Rachel Korine) are clearly influenced by the music videos they grew up with.

Early on in the film, they sing Nelly’s It’s Getting Hot in Here as they mess around in their underwear. The focus of Korine’s camera switches between voyeuristically distant shots and, momentary, hyper-sexual close-ups.

This connection with the music they grew up with also seeps through in more subtle ways, such as the repetitive voiceovers which keep returning, hypnotically, like the hook of a pop song. Moreover, Korine uses iconography that we might expect to see in music videos, like the lifting garage, the mopeds through the streets or the silhouetted girls standing in the pouring rain.

My loneliness is killing me (and I) I must confess, I still believe (still believe)
When I’m not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign
Hit me, baby, one more time – Britney Spears, 1998

Later on, music from the young women’s youth is more closely linked to their moral decay. They sing Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time and dance around a parking lot, at one point trying to mimic the dance moves from the music video.

Their fun peters out and they begin to recreate the earlier robbery scene. This time they make Faith (Gomez) – who was not there and represents the must innocent figure in the film – the victim.

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Korine interjects with images from the robbery, this time showing perspectives from inside the diner. The effect second time around is strikingly different and deeply unsettling. The women show an intense raw aggression – and perverse enjoyment – which clearly upsets Faith.

This detachment from their violent actions is established as the girls hype themselves up for the robbery by saying: ‘just pretend like it’s a video game.’ Certainly, the ease of at which they commit violence acts, especially in the closing scene, mirrors video games such a Grand Theft Auto.

As highlighted by the gun sound transitions Korine uses, this violence lingers unapologetically around every corner of Spring Breakers.

This one’s by a little known pop singer by the name of miss Britney Spears. One of the greatest singers of all-time, and an angel if there ever was one on this earth.” – Alien, Spring Breakers

It is no surprise that the most memorable scene of the film provides the most direct and disturbing link between their popular culture upbringings and their corrupted behaviour.

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The young women (minus Faith, who has returned home in terror) sit around a piano to hear Alien sing a cover of Britney Spears´ hit Everytime. More unnervingly, they are clutching guns and donning fluorescent balaclavas reminiscent of punk feminist protest group Pussy Riot.

Once again, Korine interjects, this time with a montage of violent robberies. It as though they are sitting around the church organ, worshipping their perverse and chilling hedonism to the sounds of their ‘angel’ Britney.

Yet when all is said and done, they return home largely unscathed and ready to sink back into the routine and conformity of their lives. The violence and the partying have all just been part of the fun – an escape from boredom so as to indulge in a culture of taboo and chaos.

Korine simply observes, sometimes too close for comfort. He does it in a way that is provocative and layered, mindless and pleasure-filled, repulsive and exploitative. It all depends on the viewer’s disposition.

Regardless, this is one hallucinogenic, stylish, neon-lit thrill-ride I recommend that you take a chance on.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read:

The Shepherd (Film Review)

THE LEVELLING – FAMILY TURMOIL AMID THE FLOODS (FILM REVIEW)

More In-Focus:

Falling in Love with La La Land

Kaufman’s Puppet Show: Alienation in Anomalisa

Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

Subversive casting: Introducing Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers