The Best Movies of 2008

2008 Year in Review

2008 was a year more memorable for those who died as opposed to the movies which were released. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontrollable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will remember where they were upon learning of their deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when we got the news that Ledger died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill,” the second movie featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen at the same time.

2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which saw a wealth of great movies released. Many said this was a horrible year for movies as high expectations ruined some of the big summer tent pole franchises, and that there were too many remakes being made. The way I see it, 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good ones worth seeing at one point in this year, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for all those Oscar hopefuls released towards the year’s end, I am certain I would have come up short.

So, let us commence with this fine list, if I do say so myself, of the ten best movies of 2008:

  1. The Reader/Revolutionary Road

I had to put these two together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, these were movies with stories about relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories which were designed to be neatly wrapped up. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.

The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot bear to endure.

Speaking of escape, it is what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up yearning for, and the movie is brilliant in how it shows us characters who think they know what they want but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just beneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.

Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films with great confidence, and they don’t just get great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in perfectly. All the elements come together so strongly to where we are completely drawn in to the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either of them without being totally shaken at what we just witnessed.

 

Doubt movie poster

  1. Doubt

Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and it contains one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies the teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who, in less than 20 minutes, gives a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than the possibility of her child being molested by a priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking plays ever, and it lost none of its power in its adaptation to the silver screen.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

  1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

This is the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have gone over subjects he has long since pondered over to an exhausting extent, but this is not the case here. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderfully character driven piece filled with many great performances, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Cruz is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in a while. Just when I was ready to write Allen off completely, he comes back to surprise me with something funny, lovely and deeply moving.

One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!

 

Slumdog Millionaire poster

  1. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle, one of the most versatile film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie which dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty and desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality to where I felt like I was seeing something new and utterly original. Boyle also reminds us of how “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime-time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.

 

 

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  1. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” which dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Howard also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You may think a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they both give us one of the most exciting moments to be found in any film in 2008. Just as he did with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.

 

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

  1. Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” had a huge effect on me with its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were in the same room with all these characters. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme, from a screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, gives us a wealth of characters who are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of the family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past which has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin who is so wonderful as Kym’s father, Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway towards the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.

 

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  1. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it. While it may be best known as the movie in which Mickey Rourke gave one hell of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit its success to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky has accomplished as he surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Aronofsky’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Rourke more than deserved the Oscar for Best Actor, which in the end went to Sean Penn for “Milk.” Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Rourke’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazed and thrilled I am by it.

 

Let The Right One In movie poster

  1. Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like an average horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood in it. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let the Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which back in the early 2000’s was overflowing with too many movies. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see them separated from one another.

 

Wall E poster

  1. Wall-E

Pixar does it once again and makes another cinematic masterpiece which puts so many other movies to shame. With “Wall-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and this allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of planet Earth which has long since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod-like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie a strong sense of feeling which really draws us into the story. The fact these two are machines quickly becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship who have long since become imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.

I gave the DVD of this movie to my mom as a Christmas present, and she said you could do an entire thesis on it. Nothing could be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement which dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also with its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “Wall-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film which appeals equally to kids and adults as this is not always what Hollywood is quick to put out.

 

The Dark Knight poster

  1. The Dark Knight

The biggest movie of 2008 was also its best. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series, and this is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger whose performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to the late actor’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way no one has before.

Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one which threatened to be the most underrated of 2008. The “white knight” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge, and we come to pity him more than we despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Everyone does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.

Whereas the other “Batman” movies, the Joel Schumacher ones in particular, were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for every character here. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters which would ask such questions or be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It set the bar very high for future comic book movies, and they will need all the luck they can get to top this one.

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23 Miles in the Frigid Los Angeles Wilderness

Ben Kenber after 23 miles 2012

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: Now I usually put this update at the end of my marathon training articles, but this one goes up at the front as my fundraising deadline is coming up very soon. The coaches have put the deadline at the end of February and, after some confusion, I have officially raised $761 for The Pablove Foundation. My goal is to raise $1,500, and I could really use your help. Please donate only what you can, and hopefully a miracle will take place and we can reach this goal before the clock strikes midnight on February 28th.

PLEASE CLICK HERE TO MAKE A TAX-DECUCTIBLE DONATION TO THE PABLOVE FOUNDATION.

Pablove Foundation logo

Last week had us Pablove Foundation runners doing a recovery run of 13 miles (you read that correctly), and four of those miles were run on the track at Burbank High School as Coach James wanted us do tempo runs in an effort to improve our individual paces per mile. I ran the first four laps around that track without taking a single walk break. I was on fire that day, and it showed as I crossed the finish line back at Griffith Park. Coach James and Coach Kerry were more impressed with me than usual as I wasn’t too far behind the other runners. Yes, I am improving!

This week had us doing the longest run of the marathon training season, 23 miles. We were also going to be running this insane number of miles during one of the coldest weeks in recent Los Angeles history. Although spring is just around the corner, temperatures have threatened to reach polar depths down here in Southern California, and I kid you not. For the first time in ages, I considered wearing a sweater on a daily basis, something which previously felt completely unnecessary. We have become so used to experiencing unseasonably warm weather all year round in this part of the Golden State, so this huge drop in temperature took us all by surprise. Heck, even recent transplants from states like Maine found themselves complaining about how cold it was, and the winters in Maine are brutal!

I arrived at Griffith Park about 10 minutes before our run was scheduled to begin. With a run like this, we usually start it at 6 a.m. in order to finish it before the temperature rises to a torturous level. However, since the forecast gave Saturday a high of only 64 degrees, the coaches had us starting at our usual time of 7 a.m. Either way, we all knew we wouldn’t be finishing this run until at least noon.

As you can guess, we were all shivering like never before as Coach James told us what to expect on this run. One fellow Pablove runner remarked, “As they say in Canada, it is currently one degree Celsius.” We only have so many layers of clothing on as we expect to shed some of them before we reach our midway point, so we paid the price for a few minutes before we begin our run to where we all wonder if frost would start forming on our clothes. Believe me, this has happened before.

Pablove Runners 2018 on Feb 24

Being the slowest runner on the Pablove team, I was the first to start, and I made sure to tell everyone “see you next week” as I had no doubt none of them would be around to see me cross the finish line. This run had us doing three loops: one inside Griffith Park which had us going up that godforsaken hill, another which had us returning on the treacherous, let alone ominous, road of Forest Lawn Drive, and another which took us through Glendale and Burbank. Eager to get off to a quick start, I may have started to run a little faster than I should have, but considering how frigid the weather was, can you blame me?

I mentioned in a previous article how I am the proud owner of two 160GB iPods, one of which is dedicated solely to film scores and soundtracks. This week, I brought the other to see how the music on it would assist on this run. As I made my way up the first of several inclines, I listened to Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey,” the song which made me consciously aware of who the former lead singer of Genesis is. The start of the song always sends a shiver down my spine as it reminds me of how freaked out I was by its accompanying music video when I first watched it at the tender age of 7. For years afterwards, I had to keep changing the channel whenever it appeared on MTV. I have no problem watching it today, and I have long since become a die-hard Peter Gabriel fan, but I never forgot how the video became the stuff of nightmares for me.

If I ever felt my energy waning at any point, I was sure to put on a faster paced song on like “Kiss of Life” or “The Rhythm of the Heat,” songs you experience more than listen to. Of course, I soon had to become aware of how fast I was running as the music got me super excited to my own detriment. We were supposed to be running at a conversational pace, and I got so caught up in the music to where this slipped my mind. Then again, what do you expect when I am taking in the extended version of Gabriel’s “Big Time” as I struggle to ascend a hill even Kate Bush never sang about?

Other songs which became instrumental in helping me included the Microbots trance dance mix of Erasure’s “Always,” Everclear’s “Everything to Everyone” (something I tried too hard to be when I was a kid), The Power Station’s cover of “Get it On (Bang a Gong),” and Franz Ferdinand’s “Do You Want To” among others. Actually, this run also helped to remind me of just how much I loved listening to Phil Collins’ “12” Ers” album as it featured very kinetic remixes of his songs “Sussudio” and “Who Said I Would.” Those songs furthered my determination to finish these 23 miles sooner than later. Of course, I once again found myself running a little faster than I should have, and my walk breaks eventually began to last longer than one minute.

Even as the sun rose in the sky, we still had a strong breeze to work with as we pounded the pavement. It made me realize something, this is the kind of weather we live to run in during the LA Marathon. It’s certainly a lot more fun running in these temperatures than it is in 80 plus degree heat. Sadly, this weather will probably not be around on marathon day, so we should enjoy it while it lasts. Still, hopefully it will very overcast as wevget closer to Santa Monica.

Lays Potato Chips

Coaches James and Kerry met up with us along the route to make sure we had all the nutrition we needed. I had plenty of energy gels on me, but their helpings of cookies and bananas were especially handy as the potassium made a huge difference. The other thing which really helped were the bags of Lays potato chips. They were the normal, plain kind, but that didn’t matter because those chips still had all the salt our bodies needed to absorb the water and electrolyte drinks we couldn’t stop drinking throughout.

Salt was the one thing I needed to remember to take a lot of. Our bodies can expel it fairly quickly to where you can feel it coming out of your face. I remember running 23 miles on my own a few years back and later getting seriously dehydrated to where I couldn’t keep anything down. My dad came by a day or two later, and even he saw how I was moving around town as if I were an extra in George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” As a result, I had to go to urgent care at Kaiser Permanente where I got an IV of fluids. The truth is, I didn’t consume enough salt during the run, and my body was aching for sodium among other things…

Well, there was also the case of me celebrating too soon with an endless number of Jack and Cokes a few hours after I finished. As a result, I will never consume alcohol on the day of a run with this magnitude. Simply put, it isn’t worth the trouble.

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Towards the last half of the run, I could not escape the soreness which was enveloping my body. Those joints of mine can only take so much, but even then, I was surprised I was suffering as it felt like I handled the first part of the run much better than I anticipated. But as I went on, I decided to take one extra strength Tylenol caplet to ease the pain. I figured I would take another later on, but one seemed to be sufficient. Believe it or not, I don’t use much Tylenol or any equivalent kind of medication these days. This is probably because I almost got completely scared off of taking any kind of pain medication after witnessing the cinematic shock therapy which was Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” If you know someone who is considering experimenting with drugs, make sure they check it out.

My iPod threatened to shut down on my early on as I was listening to “Get it On (Bang a Gong).” The music suddenly stopped, and the screen said to hook it up to a power source. I was pissed because music had suddenly become a valuable tool during these training runs, and to be without it was infuriating. Fortunately, my iPod came to its senses and realized it had more power than it was letting on. Still, it decided it didn’t have enough juice to last me on the last three miles, and this was just as I began listening to the Revolting Cocks’ cover of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” Damn, and I hadn’t listened to that version in a long time!

In the past years when I trained with Team to End AIDS, the 23-mile run, which is still called the “celebration run,” we were greeted at the finish line with tremendous fanfare as the T2EA staff was there to cheer us on, and we were greeted with a feast of sandwiches to gorge on. This year, we did not have such a finish as Coach Kerry doesn’t have the same staff he used to, but this was okay because the victory of completion was something we need to acknowledge within us instead of just from others. We need to appreciate our accomplishments more than others do because, otherwise, what’s the point of running all these miles?

Following this, I drove home and crashed in bed for several hours. Despite having done this same run the last seven years, my body still takes a toll to where I can’t get myself to do much of anything else for the rest of the day. I did celebrate by having a cheeseburger at Five Guys in the evening, but my body felt better lying down on a mattress more than anything else.

Here’s to all the Pablove runners for running all 23 miles whether it was at Griffith Park on Saturday morning or elsewhere. Congratulations. Now if you will excuse me, I will be taking a much-needed break until Tuesday when I will resume my maintenance runs. I know my knees will appreciate this.

HERE ARE SOME OF THE OTHER SONGS I LISTENED TO ON THIS 23 MILE RUN.

Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ is His Biggest and Most Flawed Film So Far

Noah movie poster

Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is a movie I have conflicted feelings about. On one hand it is a deeply flawed effort with moments which belong in another movie, but on the other hand it brings up questions inspired by the actions of the characters which I found endlessly fascinating, and those same questions stayed with me long after the movie ended. With “Noah,” Aronofsky has been handed the biggest budget he has ever had to make a movie with, but what amazes me is how much of his vision ended up on the silver screen. You’d think Paramount Pictures would have the last say on final cut, but Aronofsky has managed to graduate to the big leagues without losing his unique voice as a filmmaker.

The movie gets off to a shaky start as we watch a young Noah being initiated into manhood by his father with what looks like a magical snakeskin, but then his father is brutally murdered in front of him by Tubal-Cain and Noah runs like hell to get away from him and his followers. For a moment, I thought this would turn into a revenge movie with Noah going after Tubal-Cain to where the ark becomes a secondary story. Fortunately, this was not the case.

The story then leaps forward many years later when Noah (now played by Russell Crowe) is a husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a father of three boys: Shem, Ham and Japheth. However, it’s not long until Noah begins having frightening dreams about a great flood swallowing up every living and breathing thing on earth. Eventually, he comes to discover he has been giving a mission: to build an enormous ark and fill it up with animals so that when the great flood comes to wipe out the evilness of humanity, the animals will survive to restart civilization anew.

One of the big stumbling blocks of “Noah” comes when we are introduced to fallen angels known as the “Watchers.” They are these enormous stone creatures who tower over all humans, and they kept reminding me of those tree creatures from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Furthermore, the “Watchers” almost took me out of the movie completely and had me thinking about those stone creatures William Shatner wanted to put in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” While watching “Noah,” I kept thinking about what Shatner must have been thinking when he Aronofsky’s film. Shatner was probably thinking, “Damn you Aronofsky! My film had biblical themes in it too! Why didn’t I get to put any stone creatures in my movie?”

When all those animals start making their way to the almost completed ark, you can tell they were all created using CGI effects. Then again, I can’t blame Aronofsky for going this route as directing real life animals must feel next to impossible especially in a movie like this. Plus, if he did get access to real animals, how would he have dealt with all those animal droppings the crew would have spent hours trying to clean up? Imagine the smell that would have created. Yuck!

As “Noah” continued on, the things which bothered me began to make sense, and the film really hit its stride just before the ark sets sail in the flood. I figured the movie would end there, but it goes on to look at how Noah and his family deal with issues like survivor’s guilt and questioning the motivations of “the creator” (the word God is never mentioned). Aronofsky does terrific work in giving all these characters complexities which render them far more fascinating, and the challenges they face come to define who they are. This is not a good guy vs. bad guy story as all the characters inhabit a morally grey area, and it gets to where we’re not sure who to root for.

Since his Oscar winning turn in “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe’s career has been all over the place as he has given terrific performances in “Cinderella Man” and “American Gangster” and suffered through cinematic misfires like “A Good Year” and “The Man with the Iron Fists.” As Noah, Crowe does some of the best work he’s done in a while as he humanizes a character made famous through biblical tales. When Noah threatens a course of action which may very well to his family apart, Crowe still makes us feel for him as he struggles to remain true to what is asked of him.

Jennifer Connelly also gives one of her best performances as Noah’s wife, Naameh, and no, she does not play Joan of Arc (Keanu Reeves got that wrong in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). As Naameh, she plays a character similar to the one she played in “A Beautiful Mind;” a woman very much in love with her husband and yet deeply afraid of what he is capable of doing. Connelly is no stranger to the Aronofsky universe, having given such an earth shattering performance in “Requiem for a Dream,” and she is not afraid to go to emotional extremes. Watching her trying to reach her husband, Connelly sucks you vividly into the fearful state she has been thrust into, and she makes us share in her desperation to protect what is left of humanity.

“Noah” is also well served by a strong supporting cast which includes Ray Winstone, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Emma Watson who shows there is more to her than playing Hermione in the “Harry Potter” movies. In addition, Aronofsky brings along his dedicated team of collaborators such as editor Andrew Weisblum, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell. Speaking of Mansell, he gives us yet another great film score with “Noah.” While it might not be on a par with his work on “Requiem for a Dream,” he gives the movie a great emotional power, and he continues to be one of the more unique film composers working i today.

So again, “Noah” has some glaring flaws I could have done without, but its strengths eventually outweigh its weaknesses to where the movie had a strong impact on me. I’m not sure I will ever forget hearing all those screams from people begging to be rescued while Noah and his family sail away in the ark, and Aronofsky is fearless in questioning the audience as to what they would have done were they in his position. This movie also shows how even biblical characters have dysfunctional families to deal with, so we have no business being surprised when we have to deal with the same thing in life.

When all is said and done, I’m glad that Aronofsky managed to get his vision of “Noah” to the big screen without too much studio interference. All the same, I hope he thinks twice about putting giant stone creatures in his next film.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘mother!’ Provides Audiences with a Vicious Roller Coaster Ride into Madness

mother! movie poster

After watching Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, a special behind the scenes featurette was shown where the filmmaker explained how he wanted to make a movie which would generate different reactions from its audience to where various interpretations could be formed over what they witnessed. Aronofsky has succeeded in doing exactly that as “mother!” does not have him spelling anything out for anyone, perhaps not even for the cast either. Maybe he does have an explanation for all the craziness which ensues in this, one of the freakiest psychological thrillers in some time, but he’s not about to let on what it is, and I am perfectly fine with that as to explain anything about the plot would dilute its power instantly.

The experience of seeing “mother!” was a lot like watching Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” as both movies feature a married couple who are nameless and staying in a secluded country home in the woods. Like “Antichrist,” “mother!” has polarized critics and audiences as many are desperate to discover what its director was attempting to accomplish here. The best advice I can give you is to approach Aronofsky’s film by leaving any and expectations you have for it at the door. It has been advertised as an homage to “Rosemary’s Baby,” but the only thing it has in common with Polanski’s classic is it’s also not a movie for new or expectant parents.

We meet Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) on a beautiful and sunny morning as she wakes up in the home she shares with Him (Javier Bardem), a well-regarded poet who is currently suffering from a frustrating bout of writer’s block. The two of them lead a peaceful existence in a home which has been lovingly restored after suffering much damage, but this existence is soon interrupted by an unexpected visitor (played by Ed Harris), an orthopedic surgeon who Him welcomes into their home even though Mother is perturbed that he would welcome a complete stranger in ever so easily.

Things become even more complicated when the unexpected visitor’s wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) comes by and becomes infatuated with knowing more about Mother and why she and her husband have no children of their own. Granted, this makes Lawrence’s character’s name of Mother hypocritical as she is not a mother at the movie’s start, but many surprises are in store for the characters and the audience as “mother!” takes a number of twists and turns you cannot see coming.

Revealing more about what happens would be detrimental as “mother!” is best viewed with little knowledge about it. Indeed, promoting this movie must have been a nightmare for Paramount Pictures as you can only say so much about it before you spoil everything. Then again, can you spoil this movie for others? Aronofsky has made something here which cannot be easily explained, but while this will baffle and infuriate many who sit through, it should enthrall those who are in the mood for something cinematically adventurous and a movie which forces you to think about what you just saw.

What I can tell you is things reach a frenzied fever pitch as “mother!” barrels towards a climax which comes close to equaling the frenzy of Ellen Burstyn being terrorized by her refrigerator in “Requiem for a Dream.” Aronofsky has said he applied “dream-logic” to “mother!,” and it certainly helps to know this going in as events keeping going by at a rapid pace to where you can’t help but feel like you are in a nightmare or a dream you are desperate to control, but can’t. It’s like being a car when the brakes have failed you, and the emergency brake ultimately doesn’t work either. You just keep getting thrust into a hellish realm as Lawrence and Bardem become trapped in their once peaceful home as the woods it is located in offers no escape. In fact, it all reminded me of what Charlotte Gainsbourg said in “Antichrist” at one point, “Nature is Satan’s church.” Well, Satan looks to be having even more fun here.

There are said to be a lot of biblical allegories to be discovered here, but the only one I could see was the reference to Cain and Abel as two brothers fight one another bitterly over an inheritance which benefits one more than the other. I am already very eager to see “mother!” as seeing it once is not enough to uncover all which Aronofsky wants us to discover. Now that I have experience this motion picture on an emotionally visceral level, I want to experience in a different way even though Aronofsky has warned us not to analyze “mother!” too deeply.

Jennifer Lawrence remains as luminous an actress as ever, and she looks to be put through the emotional wringer here as her character descends into a realm of inescapable madness. It turns out she even got so into character on set to where she was constantly hyperventilating and even cracked a rib, so there’s no doubt about dedication to playing a role. At this point, I am convinced Lawrence can play any role given to her, and she has this ageless quality to her appearance which matches her up perfectly with actors who are several years older.

Lawrence also shares a number of almost gleefully unsettling scenes opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress we don’t see near enough of these days. As these two circle each other like cats ready to hiss at one another while guarding their precious territory, we are reminded of how brilliant Pfeiffer can be when given material which piques her interest.

As for Javier Bardem and Ed Harris, these are two actors you can never ever go wrong with, and they infuse “mother!” with a passion for acting they have never lost sight of since the start of their careers. Bardem, in particular, gives his character a loving presence as well as an ominous one. The latter is especially the case in a scene where he stares down Lawrence, and it’s a stare which lasts for what feels like an eternity and brings back memories of his Oscar-winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” I kept waiting for him to explode as Bardem sits like a wild animal waiting to strike, and I was desperate for Lawrence not to let her guard down while in front of him.

Aronofsky continues to employ many of his regular colleagues to great effect like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, but what’s surprising is this movie’s lack of a music score. Instead of employing his longtime composer Clint Mansell, Aronofsky instead hired Johann Johannsson to come up with ominous musical themes. However, upon viewing an edit of “mother!,” they both agreed this movie didn’t need a score. It says a lot about “mother!” that it needs no music score to aid in the movie’s mission to generate almost unbearable tension. Few other filmmakers could get away with such a feat, but the intense sound design which, when viewed in the right theater, surrounds you to where you feel every bit as trapped as Lawrence is. As her predicament becomes more and more of a sonic assault, we feel her character’s agitation all too much.

In retrospect, I was tickled to death at the reactions the audience I saw “mother!” had. Several people laughed either out of derision or just plain nervousness as things went from a state of peacefulness to complete Armageddon, and others complained how this scene or another contained the only elements which made the least amount of sense to them. As I walked out of the theater, others said they couldn’t understand why people were laughing at certain moments. Many of my movie friends have said this movie is likely to end up on the lists of both the best and the worst films of 2017, and I couldn’t agree more. You will either love this motion picture, or you will hate it with a passion.

As for myself, I loved the visceral roller coaster ride “mother!” took me on. I never caught myself laughing much at what went on as I was completely gripped in Aronofsky’s vise as he continued to tighten the grip he had on me, and I was thrilled at the levels of “Requiem for a Dream” intensity he was able to generate with this one. Many will say he is simply out to torture his audience, but why can’t we have a torturous cinematic experience every once in a while, or at least one which is torturous in a good way? I show no hesitation in calling “mother!” one of the best movies I have seen so far in 2017 as it provided me with something incredibly unique in a time where the cinematic landscape is overfilled with superheroes.

Yes, the market research firm CinemaScore has given “mother!” an average grade of an F, a rare grade for movie to get from them. Then again, Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris,” William Friedkin’s “Bug” and Richard Kelly’s “The Box” also received the same grade, and those movies are much better than their reputations suggest. And keep in mind, this is the same firm which gave an A+ to Dinesh D’Souza’s infinitely patriotic but poorly made, not to mention boring, documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” so there’s no accounting for taste.

Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun taking in an audience’s reaction to a motion picture since “The Human Centipede 2.” Of course, “mother!” is much, much better than that one. When the exclamation mark appears a couple of seconds after the title does and then sticks around once the title disappears, you should know you are in for something completely different.

* * * * out of * * * *

Witness Mickey Rourke’s Career Resurrection in ‘The Wrestler’

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The Wrestler” is kind of a cross between “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” in that it deals with a man looking to continue making a name for himself long after his five minutes of fame, and who seems to be more at home in the ring than outside of it. Darren Aronofsky films this movie with a rough edge, and he doesn’t hide away from the harsh reality Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke, and the rest of the characters inhabit. It also marks another in a long line of movies with characters hanging on by a little thread to their financial existence.

After one of his more vicious fights involving staple guns and barbed wire among other things (there is no flinching on the details here), Randy suffers a serious heart attack and later finds himself waking up in a hospital bed after an emergency bypass surgery. The doctor tells him that to wrestle again will kill him, and he is forced into retirement and ends up finding work at the deli counter of a local supermarket for whatever hours he can get. Despite his fame and the attention he gets in his trailer park home from the kids who live there, Randy’s life is a lonely one, and he has practically no close personal connections to lean on.

What goes on from there might seem predictable, but this is not your typical redemption story with everything turning rosy at the end. As his mortality looms over him heavily, Randy tries to get closer to those around him with limited success. Marisa Tomei gives a great performance here as Cassidy, a stripper who is very friendly to Randy while working at her club. Like Randy, she is also past her prime in her profession, and she doesn’t draw the big numbers like she used to. The two of them are relics of the 80’s, and their happiest days have been trapped in that time which was brought to an end by the advent of Kurt Cobain and Grunge which all but vanquished the days of long haired heavy metal icons. Ironically, as perfect as they seem together, it is their individual professions which keep them apart. The rules they are sworn to follow are also the ones they struggle with, and in the end these rules define who they are.

Years after her Oscar win for “My Cousin Vinny,” Marisa Tomei remains of the more vastly underrated actresses working today. Since her win, she has given great performances in movies like “In the Bedroom” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” She continues to make leaps forward as an actress, and yet she remains at the fringes of fame. Perhaps she feels more comfortable doing independent films as they give her the best roles. All the same, part of me wishes she would get more respect because it doesn’t feel like she ever gets enough of it.

Evan Rachel Wood also co-stars as Randy’s long estranged daughter, Stephanie. They share some of the movie’s most emotionally raw and poignant moments together as Randy tries desperately to salvage any sort of connection he may have left with Stephanie. They share a nice walk together at the New Jersey shoreline where they reminisce about memories long gone, and Randy apologizes for not being there for her at all. Wood’s role is largely a reactive one, and she meets Rourke every step of the way when onscreen with him. Long after her emotionally searing performance in “Thirteen,” she is still not afraid of delving into the raw emotions held on to by the characters she plays.

Aronofsky is still best known for the mother of all anti-drug movies, “Requiem for a Dream” which was filmed with so many extreme camera moves and quick edits to where we were left with whiplash as we exited the theater. “The Wrestler,” however, does not have any of those flourishes. Instead, Aronofsky shoots the movie in a simple hand-held fashion and in 16mm to capture the rough and tumble realm these wrestlers exist in, and he makes you feel all the devastating hits, cuts and bruises these men are made to endure in the ring and when they are thrown outside of it as well. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Aronofsky makes you experience the movie instead of just watching it passively.

I also loved how Aronofsky captured the camaraderie between these fellow wrestlers when they get together. We see them sharing the moves they will use with one another, and they always have the outcome figured out long in advance. We see the doctors attend to all the inflicted, let alone self-inflicted cuts, they get in the ring, and he makes you feel all the cuts which have long since torn away at their once perfect bodies. Aronofsky has never done things the clean way, and his work in “The Wrestler” continues this tradition unapologetically.

“The Wrestler” is not Aronofsky’s best movie (“Requiem for a Dream” still holds that title), but it is further proof of how he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working in this day and age. Some may have lost sight of this with “The Fountain,” but they shouldn’t after watching this. But in the end, this movie is really all about Rourke and how he and Randy interweave with one another to where you cannot tell if he is just acting or if he is just being the character.

Rourke makes you feel his character’s pain, both physical and emotional, throughout the movie. There is never a moment in this film where he fakes an emotion, and this is a performance coming straight from the heart. With his heartbreaking confession to his daughter, he takes what could have been a clichéd scene and fills it with pure emotion. It’s almost like he the actor is apologizing for not being better as an actor, and for squandering his potential with a lot of crap movies. Rourke has earned my forgiveness ever since he played Marv in “Sin City,” and his performance in “The Wrestler” completes what is a well-deserved comeback.

For those of you who have read my review of Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” you’ll remember how I talked about how certain parts need an actor whose face and body show a rough and tumble history, and that they have suffered through life’s most intense challenges. Rourke is not the pretty boy he used to be, but this makes him perfect for this role other than the fact he can still be a brilliant actor. Rourke sells the fact his character has a massive heart attack and that his body has been badly beaten (Rourke did briefly take up boxing when his acting career was almost gone). He sells how Randy now wears a hearing aid and glasses to read most things given to him. He also sells the fact he is deserving of another chance as a lead actor, and he knows he better not screw things up this time around.

“The Wrestler” is one of the most exhilarating and exhausting character pieces I have seen in some time. The movie is nothing short of a great triumph for its lead actor and its director, and it is topped off by a great theme song from Bruce Springsteen himself (who else could have done it?). In 2008, it was hard to think of another performance which could have been even more brilliant than Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight,” but Rourke manages to top him here, and that was no easy feat.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Black Swan’ is a Tour de Force for Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman

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JESUS CHRIST!!! This was my immediate reaction after witnessing Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” A combination of “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for A Dream” with a dose of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure, it is a brilliantly over the top psychosexual thriller which continually ratchets up suspense and tension all the way to its horrifying climax. And unlike Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Natalie Portman has a really nice haircut.

Just as it was with “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” serves as an expose sorts on the athletic arena it focuses on. The backstage world of ballet dancing is highly competitive, and the career of a dancer can easily be short-lived if an unexpected injury, either a big or small one, occurs. Many view ballet as being very boring and would rather tune into Monday Night Football. Try dragging kids to a production of “The Nutcracker” and watch how they run for the hills. This is the reaction I get from most people I know, although I’m sure there are exceptions.

But don’t let any preconceptions about ballet turn you off from seeing this film. It is anything but boring, and both Aronofsky and Portman brilliantly capture the physically and psychologically draining aspects of ballet to where you feel as wiped out and crazed as they do throughout. Like any other art form, ballet demands years of training in order to reach a level of perfection few can achieve. It is also shown to be an isolating career because, with so many people going after the same lead role, making friends is a struggle as you wonder what they are saying behind your back. With the bitterness level sky high, ballet threatens to be more damaging psychologically than physically.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a member of a prominent New York City ballet company. After years of hard work, Nina gets her lucky break when she snags the lead role in “Swan Lake,” a show is as overdone as many of Neil Simon’s plays. This show has one of the most coveted roles in any show as it is incredibly challenging. Nina has to play the White Swan who is a creature of innocence, and also the Black Swan who is one of a sensual and dark nature. Basically, it is the dancer’s “Hamlet.” While her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is perfect as the White Swan, he has doubts about her ability to play the Black Swan as she is so technically precise in her movements, and the latter role requires her to lose herself in the passionately dark nature of the character.

Once we see Nina walk down the streets of New York past a woman who looks exactly like her, we are caught up in her downward spiral which she is helpless to stop. We watch as she encounters people and situations which feel real, but later turn out to be nothing more than hallucinations. There are times where she even looks like she is turning into a swan. While this may sound ridiculous on paper, it is brilliantly conceived visually from the rash on Nina’s back to those blood red eyes she develops. There are even points where she is dancing in front of a mirror, and her reflection turns around to glare at her malevolently.

The line between what is real and what is not becomes completely blurred, and neither the audience or Nina are able to tell the difference between the two. Many may be maddened at not being able to understand all of what is happening, but that’s precisely the point. Aronofsky puts you directly into Nina’s mindset, which has already proven to be an emotionally fragile place, and we are instantly caught up in her psychological disintegration. This makes “Black Swan” all the more visceral to experience. We are not just watching Nina go mad, we feel like we are going mad with her.

Portman does truly give the performance of her career here. She trained in ballet for a year or so, and her preparation really paid off. Throughout, she captures the sweet nature of Nina as well as the paranoia and resentment which overwhelms her the closer she gets to the opening performance. Watching Portman practice her dancing to no end is emotionally exhausting as it is for her physically, and she makes us feel like we are right on the edge of disaster with her. Portman has always been an amazing actress, but her work in “Black Swan” represents the culmination of a great career which is more than ready to head into adulthood.

Mila Kunis, looking even sexier here than she did in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” co-stars as another dancer, Lily. Unlike Nina, she is free with her body and mind, and what she lacks in precision she makes up for in unbridled passion. She’s at times friendly, wanting to break the ice between her and Nina, and her power of seduction is one Nina desperately wants to capture for herself. Kunis has become an increasingly fascinating actress, and seeing her go from sweet to a cold back stabber of a human being is made very believable by her work.

Oh yeah, there is a sex scene between Portman and Kunis which will have people checking out “Black Swan” for all the wrong reasons. Then again, any reason to get people to see this film might not be so bad. Furthermore, to dismiss this as a simple lesbian sex scene will only show how short sighted you are.

Aronofsky again employs his frequent collaborators to excellent effect. His director of photography, Matthew Libatique, almost makes this film look like a remake of “Suspiria” as the colors become overpowering once they become blacker and infinitely vicious. “Black Swan” is as much a sensory experience as it is a psychological one, just like “Requiem for A Dream” was. Libatique makes the special effects appear seamless in scenes where CGI is clearly utilized. As the background dancers pass by her, Nina sees her face in all of them. It’s such an eerie moment to where it doesn’t even feel like a special effect.

Then there is the fantastic Clint Mansell whose work on Aronofsky’s movies has become a main character in each of them. Mansell takes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and breathes fresh life into it which is exhilarating to take in. His score becomes as intense as the images we see on screen, and I loved how visceral and thrillingly alive it all feels.

The movie also offers great performances from actresses we don’t see as much of on the silver screen: Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey. Ryder clearly understands the frustration her character of veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre is going through, and she captures this deeply hurt and excessively bitter character perfectly. At once an empathetic and at other times a pathetic person, we see just how much Beth has lived for ballet, and now that it has been cruelly taken away from her, she has little else to devote her life to. To be placed on a pedestal so high only to be yanked from it leaves her with nothing but desperation and deep self-loathing which is hard to dig oneself out of.

As for Hershey, she remains a phenomenal actress as she has been for many years. In movies like “A World Apart” and “Portrait of a Lady,” she has created indelible female characters who are never easily forgotten. Her role in “Black Swan” is no exception as she takes the clichéd role of a stage mother and makes her a loving person as well as an overbearing one. When we come to see how her character failed at a dancing career, it becomes frighteningly clear how much of her happiness is based on how successful her daughter is at hers.

“Black Swan” once again shows how brilliant a director Aronofsky is as he mixes up different genres to create one hell of a movie going experience. Portman’s magnificent performance really is one for the ages, and few other characters have been as physically demanding for an actor as Nina is. Even as things get more and more horrifying, Aronofsky keeps your eyes focused on the screen to where looking away from it would feel like a crime. Is it more intense than “Requiem for a Dream?” No, but it sure does come close!

One thing’s for sure, this will not be a good recruiting film for dancers. They’ll want to go into accounting or dentistry after watching this one!

* * * * out of * * * *