More catching up. This week's titles will be familiar to those who caught the year-end top 10 roundup last time.
**** (out of four)
2008, Darren Aronofsky, U.S., R
I watched a movie called "91/2 Weeks" for the first time the other day. It's a "sex flick," but a great one, and a stark reminder of why I've always considered Mickey Rourke to be one of cinema's most appealing leading men, and perhaps - just perhaps - the sexist bastard to ever flash his mug on a movie screen. But that was long ago. He could have been his generation's Brando, but a string of bad choices both onand off-screen (including a brief, devastating stint as a boxer) led Rourke down a bad path that ended with him existing on the margins of the movie industry, beaten down to a pulp on the outside and scarred internally by the knowledge that all of it was nobody's fault but his own. He'll never be handsome again, but thanks to Darren Aronofsky's wholly remarkable "The Wrestler," Rourke has at least gotten one last shot at stardom. And he makes the most of the opportunity with his Oscar-worthy turn as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a big-time pro wrestler who peaked in the late 1980s but, 20 years later, finds himself broke and alone. After suffering a heart attack and being told he can't wrestle anymore, Randy decides to cling to his last joy in life and perform in one last rematch against an old nemesis before he retires for good. In a role that fits in perfectly with his own past experiences, Rourke has never been better. And as a sympathetic stripper whose plights mirror Randy's, Marisa Tomei helps to ensure that each of the film's big, emotional moments is well-earned and earnest.
"Tell No One"
2008, Guillaume Canet, France, R
Even the title is alluring, which befits this thoroughly titillating Hitchcockian thriller about a man who begins receiving ominous e-mails from his wife eight years after she was supposedly murdered by a serial killer. (Among her instructions: "Tell no one. They're watching.") The set-up is as simple as can be, but from there things get complicated pretty quickly. An hour in, the plot gets so mind-bendingly complex that it seems there couldn't possibly be a reasonable explanation for everything that the man learns as he works to unravel the mysteries behind his wife's disappearance. However, by the end of this incredibly dense, rich and amazingly literary character-based story, all loose ends are tied up without the filmmakers ever having to resort to cheap tricks (e.g., he's crazy and killed her himself; it's all a dream; etc.). The events that transpire in the film are often extraordinary, yet the movie always remains rooted in a stark realism that ups the ante for emotional investment - these are real people facing very real dangers, not Hollywood archetypes dealing with formulaic plot devices. This is how thrillers are supposed to be done, people. (Note: I put the film in the No. 5 spot of my initial year-end top 10 list, but the very act of writing these notes has caused me to further reflect on the movie and lead me to suspect that I may have under-rated it. Perhaps a third viewing tonight will tell me if I should have placed it at No. 3.)
"Standard Operating Procedure"
2008, Errol Morris, U.S., R
Errol Morris could have simply made a traditional documentary about the abuses committed by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. From the tortures and bizarre sexual exploitations to the actual killings, there are enough buried facts and outrageous testimony to make for a very compelling film. However, Morris is never satisfied with the ordinary. Being the skilled provocateur that he is, Morris instead chose to focus on a more unusual, less tangible aspect of the story: the apparent need of the perpetrators to document their crimes. The abuses were indeed terrible, and Morris does an admirable job of relating exactly how dehumanizing the situation was for everyone involved. Yet travesties like these occur in the world (and in Iraq) day in and day out; it is the photographs that made Abu Ghraib a truly, exceptionally fascinating chapter in the Big Book of American Shame. The film holds that Army Reserve Spc. Charles Graner, in his fetishistic desire to document his unspeakable "project" (for lack of a more appropriate term), led his subordinates astray. But by spreading the bulk of the blame between Graner (whom the U.S. military did not allow to be interviewed for the movie) and high-ranking government officials who gave the OK for some key abuses, the film comes across as a tad too forgiving of those lower-level service men and women who played a large part in these serious crimes.
2008, Sam Mendes, U.S., R
I'm not easily offended as a moviegoer, and when I do take great exception to a film, I usually have a pretty good reason. I certainly have just cause to judge this snide little claptrap of a movie, which fails to live up to any of its many obligations as a serious work with an "important message." Tackling the issue of marriage by relating the tragic story of 1950s suburban couple Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, in fantastic lead performances that come close to creating pathos even though they were given nothing to work with), the film puts forth the thesis that the very construct of marriage is a sort of false premise that can't possibly end well for anyone, as human beings are too screwed up and self-centered to cohabitate for any length of time with completely decimating each other's lives. Okay, fine. It's a bold, controversial statement, and one that I happen to disagree with. But that's okay, as long as the filmmakers adequately defend their stance and tell a compelling story in the process. No such luck here. By constructing their argument around characters whom we are never given any reason to care about, director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe (adapting Richard Yates' novel) never demonstrate their point in any meaningful way whatsoever. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy hates girl, girl hates boy - that's what human experiences are reduced to in this cruel, smug, falsely profound and utterly dehumanizing failure. Hot damn, did I hate this movie.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.