The Wrestler (2008)

Everybody loves a comeback. It's one of the enduring myths of movies and sports -- the redemptive second act, the chance to get things right, the do-over. It's a near necessity in any boxing movie (or kung fu movie, or sports movie) -- the hero is on the ropes, beaten, but then taps some hidden reserve of strength and determination to (surprise!) triumph.

We like those resurrection stories when they happen to actors too. They offer some kind of redemption both for fallen stars, and for the public that watched them fall with eager, tabloid-fueled interest. Case in point: Mickey Rourke, whose movie career peaked some time in the late 80s (although he has worked steadily since then). The telltale signs of Rourke's own hard living are all over his battered, lumpy face in
The Wrestler -- it forms an authentic backstory for his character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a hard living, has-been pro wrestler (whose career peaked some time in the 80s), now fallen on hard times.

Randy, pumped up on steroids, propped up on painkillers, continues to wrestle in a less glamorous, far less lucrative circuit. He's a former superstar on his way down, battling young wrestlers on their way up. There are early scenes in
The Wrestler that marvelously reveal the combination of performance and reality in pro wrestling. Backstage, the wrestlers form a warm, congenial, brotherhood of men who practice and choreograph their upcoming matches before beating each other up for show in the ring. The beating up part, however staged it is, involves real blood and bruises, and real pain (there's a particularly gruesome match involving barbed wire, broken glass and a staple gun). The authenticity of the performance is perhaps the reason audiences take so seriously a sport everybody knows to be fake. Authentic fakery is also a necessity in movies, isn't it? And Rourke's performance is terrific, complex, heartbreaking, and authentic -- revealing all the internal and external pain that goes along with being "The Ram," and with being a guy who took more care with his public image than with his personal life.

Randy's self-mutilation in the ring is followed by effortful physical maintenance of his broken down body -- the hair, the fake tan, the enhanced muscles. Very little about his public image is real, and for Randy, now a weekend warrior who makes ends meet with a job in a supermarket, reliving some tiny portion of his former glory is disproportionately costly to body, soul, and wallet.

Written by Robert D. Siegel,
The Wrestler trades in the kind of sweet sentimentality and hokiness one expects from a tale of redemption. There are familiar elements in The Wrestler, in Randy's hopes for a big comeback rematch with his "arch-enemy" The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), in his effort to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and to connect with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who, unlike Rourke, has obviously taken good care of herself through the ups and downs of her career). Cassidy, like Randy, is an aging performer -- if her job is less likely to get her bashed with a chair, it's every bit as difficult, and also requires her to convince her audience that she feels something she doesn't. Randy has to pretend to hate his opponents; Cassidy pretends she loves her customers. It might be Randy is one of those customers -- is it possible that the consummate performer doesn't know an act when he sees one?

The sentimentality of the story is tempered with weariness and doom, and by a focus on the bleak, behind-the-scenes realities of Randy's life. Randy's a gentle giant, graceful in the ring but clumsy in real life, who can't seem to keep from destroying everything around him, and most of all himself. He's not very smart, and he's not exactly a good guy, but he works so hard at being something better than he is that it's impossible not to root for him, and hope he can succeed. He's beaten down and on the ropes -- can he pull off a comeback?

Director Darren Aronofsky (
Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) follows Randy around with a handheld camera, using grainy film stock, through a grubby, grim New Jersey of parking lots, trailer parks and dollar stores, strip clubs and impromptu wrestling arenas. The whole movie has a weary, bleak, beleaguered look to it, and the mood is consistently downbeat instead of falsely hopeful or triumphant. Aronofsky manages, for the most part, to push through the phony stuff in The Wrestler to find a hard, battered reality.


Gran Torino (2009)

Clint Eastwood's face has a geological quality about it -- and not just because he's been around for ages and ages. His face is aging and weathering, and like a weathered piece of wood, or a rocky mesa, it's been through periods of craggy roughness, and now the hard creases seem to be flattening out, getting smoother and tighter like a mummy's face, the perpetually squinting eyes getting even narrower and squintier. It's a face with a visible history, in other words, and that's a good thing.

Eastwood's history as an actor -- the characters and types he's played -- are part of the history of Walt Kowalski, the man at the center of
Gran Torino. There's a little Dirty Harry, and Man with No Name, and Bill Munny, and Frankie Dunn in Walt Kowalski. Also, surprisingly, a little Archie Bunker.

Gran Torino begins, Walt is burying his beloved wife. He glares and growls at the people attending her funeral, including his own sons and their families. He's a cantankerous misanthrope who seems content to spend the rest of his life on his front porch, drinking Pabst and talking to his dog Daisy. The world, however, is not content to leave Walt be. There's the persistent young priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who promised Walt's wife that he'd get him to confession. There are the neighbors, a Hmong immigrant family, that Walt watches with suspicion and ire while growling racist epithets under his breath. Walt's a retired auto worker, and his home is tidy and well-kept, and in his garage is a perfectly preserved 1972 Ford Gran Torino. But he lives in a rundown, working class Detroit neighborhood, surrounded by people he views as foreigners and stereotypes.

The family next door intrudes on his property, and they're met with a shotgun. The son, Thao (Bee Vang), is harassed by Hmong gangbangers -- they think he's a sissy. Walt thinks so too, but his shotgun intervention turns him into a local hero among his Hmong neighbors. The boy's mouthy, domineering sister Sue (Ahney Her) sends him over to Walt's house to repay the debt, which is the start of an unlikely relationship, as Walt mentors the boy and attempts to "man him up." This is done with a great deal of racist insult, which, it turns out, counts as affectionate banter for Walt.

Walt is a haunted figure, and Eastwood brings his own ghosts to the role, which enriches it immensely. As a director directing himself, Eastwood is perfectly willing to take his iconic roles and reexamine them, turn them around and look at them from all sides. Eastwood's history of playing the all-American archetype -- the gun-toting man's man doing what's gotta be done -- adds depth to Kowalski, who is, quite clearly, a guy who buys into the old notion of what it means to be American, and a man, and also what it means to be an outsider. And so,
Gran Torino is partly a cross-cultural comedy about teaching an old dog new tricks, and teaching a young dog some old tricks. It's partly a drama about conflicting values, about the ways that the notion of masculinity as gun-toting manliness are reinterpreted from one generation to the next. Did Dirty Harry and the avenging gunslinger mythology of the last century morph into 21st century gang culture? Does the post-Vietnam view of America's violent interventionism inform Walt's war hero regrets?

Gran Torino is also a tragedy, and a melancholy elegy. From the cracked sidewalks to the rundown houses of Walt's decaying neighborhood, and his dying city, to the mournful symbolism of that cherry Gran Torino in his garage, that muscle car specimen of America's former automotive glory, Walt and his worldly possessions have the perfectly preserved quality of museum exhibits, anthropological evidence of a bygone era.

Gran Torino, written by newcomer Nick Schenk, is occasionally clunky in its plotting and transitions from comedy to drama to tragedy, but it also frequently surprises, and repeatedly thwarts expectations. It's a movie with a straightforward plot, but with a lot on its mind -- and that pretty much sums up the modus operandi of Eastwood as a filmmaker (and he's a really terrific filmmaker). Gran Torino also fits perfectly into this time of transition and upheaval in America, where notions of who we are and what we stand for as a people -- where what it means to be American -- are in flux. How interesting, and how like the contrary, complex Eastwood, that this apparent revenge drama, this little picture, turns out to be a prescient view of the really big picture, of the transition from an America-as-gangbanger politics built on a simplistic interpretation of the gunslinger model (which was never really that simple), to a politics built on (one hopes) a more thoughtful model that acknowledges the complexity of right and wrong, good and evil, and the difference between heroism and vengeance.


Slumdog Millionarie (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire, the exuberant, captivating, moving story of a Mumbai orphan, as told by Scottish filmmaker Danny Boyle, dazzles the senses, but also stays closely tethered to the ground. The ground, in this case, is a squalid slum of the sort that is home to millions of poor people in India. Not the Taj Mahal, by any stretch, but it's the world to Jamal and Salim, two young brothers who, after their mother is murdered by a vicious anti-Muslim mob, survive by their wits and their daring. Jamal (played by three actors at different ages: Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Chheda, and Dev Patel) winds up on a game show, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Slumdog Millionaire explains how he gets there, and also how he comes to be in police custody, with an alternately cruel and curious police detective (Irrfan Khan) who is convinced that the uneducated slumdog-turned-national-hero must be cheating.

Slumdog Millionaire zips back and forth in time between the present day and various chapters in Jamal's Dickensian childhood. He's like an Indian Oliver Twist (but also a version of an Horatio Alger hero, pulling himself up out of the filth by his bootstraps -- or he would, if he had any shoes). His childhood is beyond impoverished and brutal, filled with adults who out-Fagin Fagin in their cruelty and exploitation. His wily older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajwala, Madhur Mittal) is both a protector and an exploiter. Salim falls in with a bad crowd, as they say, while Jamal scrambles to make a more or less honest living (which is more or less honest like Robin Hood's living was more or less honest).

Jamal is motivated by more than his innate goodness and tenacity -- he's moved by what he takes to be his destiny, which is to be with Latika (Freida Pinto), the orphan girl he falls in love with when they are young children. Jamal is an idealist and optimist in the midst of just about the worst reality imaginable, and he's defiantly romantic, even though he and Latika seem to be hopelessly star-crossed. The question of destiny -- is it a given, or something we make for ourselves? -- runs throughout
Slumdog Millionaire like a glittering thread, and the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup) cleverly plays with the notion of fate while revealing how the informal, street-based education that Jamal's hardscrabble life has given him paves his path from rags to (possible) riches.

The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is vibrant and richly textured, and
Slumdog Millionaire pulsates with life and color, with sights and sounds that are exotic and vivid (and sometimes unspeakably vile). Both the editing and music are propulsive and irresistibly lively. Boyle is a thrilling stylist with a knack for inspiring the unexpected and/or inappropriate emotional response -- he made a wildly funny movie about heroin addiction (*Trainspotting*) after all. Slumdog Millionaire stirs mixed emotions, combining sociological verisimilitude and romantic idealism in a kind of brutally honest fairy tale -- it's an oddly joyful and uplifting film that is at every sweet and sour, funny and disturbing, wrenching and moving moment an unexpectedly spellbinding entertainment.


Doubt (2008)

Suspicion stalks the halls of St. Nicholas School, where a stern nun, Sister Aloysius, rules by fear. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principal, and she's distrustful -- the students are up to no good, she is sure. The year is 1964, and the world is changing fast, turning in the wrong direction (something to do with declining penmanship standards and ballpoint pens). She suspects the parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an apparently progressive, friendly man who likes to get chummy with the students, of being an agent of unwelcome change. He supports the performance of secular Christmas music, of all things.

Sister Aloysius gives Father Flynn the stink eye, and she's not alone. There's a boy, a student who recoils from Flynn, while another boy, the school's first and only black student, seems to worship the man. Before long, Sister Aloysius suspects that Father Flynn's intentions towards the latter boy are less than honorable, and downright unholy. Where others have doubts in the absence of proof, Sister Aloysius has certainty -- the certainty of her convictions, of her righteousness, and of her moral duty. Heaven help anyone who stands in her way.

Writer-director John Patrick Shanley has adapted
Doubt from his stage play -- although it is set in 1964, it has plenty to say about the world today, and it is none too subtle about saying it. There is plenty of food for thought offered up for the chewing in Doubt: intolerance, envy, racism, homophobia, sacrifice, holiness, human nature, sexism, power and politics within the Catholic Church hierarchy (and the potential of same to harbor abusive priests), moral versus religious duties, and of course, doubt versus certainty.

The early scenes in
Doubt are fascinating -- they offer a glimpse into the quiet, simple, and contemplative life of the nuns, their sisterhood, their caring for each other, which contrasts with their noisy, hectic days as teachers to rowdy, hormone-addled pre-teens. Doubt features austere nuns of the Sisters of Charity order who wear capacious black robes and tight, pleated bonnets; the priests and bishops, on the other hand, are a raucous, hard-drinking bunch who eat red meat dripping with blood. Father Flynn, for his part, is obsessed with clean fingernails -- his own are long and shiny -- and that raises more than an eyebrow on Sister Aloysius' part. Is Flynn merely eccentric, or something (what?) more sinister? Caught between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn is a young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), a tremulous, timid woman who reluctantly reports Flynn's odd behavior to Sister Aloysius. No less caught in the middle are the boy at the heart of the matter, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), and his complex and conflicted mother (Viola Davis), who both seem to view the priest as a kindly father figure.

Roger Deakins provides rich, beautiful cinematography -- of the Bronx tenements, the grey autumnal streets, the dark, worn and chipped-paint interiors of St. Nicholas School, and the splendor of the church. Shanley, as a director, favors tilted camera angles, wind, and thunderstorms as narrative devices, when his actors provide all the sturm und drang this movie needs. The movie's roots as a stage play are betrayed by the fairly obvious mise-en-scene, and its heavy reliance on dialogue and words. But the words are really terrific, and interesting, and playful -- dancing around the issues, alluding to the unspeakable, sowing paranoia both by what is said, and what is never said.

Streep isn't above chewing the scenery along with errant priests. Her Sister Aloysius is hilariously fierce and grumpy -- she literally hisses at students -- but she is also thoroughly, imperfectly human, and her ferocity is backed by a strong sense of right and wrong, and a belief that good ends justify any means. In her nun's habit, nothing of her is visible but her unadorned face and hands, and Streep makes masterful use of both to augment the screenwriter's words. Streep runs away with the movie -- and runs over Hoffman and Adams in the process -- but that's in keeping with her outsized character. Hoffman's Flynn, on the other hand, remains ambiguous, untidy -- the film pulls the viewer to and fro on the matter of Flynn's guilt or innocence. Should we believe the frowning, mistrustful nun, or the charming, smiling, but increasingly defensive priest?
Doubt is content to leave us hanging in the uneasy greyness of suspicion and indecision, in defiance of the tendency of movies generally to traffic in certainties and clarity.