Rarely, if ever, have there been five movies in simultaneous release that I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone, even in the midst of the annual holiday slew of prestige Oscar hopefuls. This year is different.
This is a rare film indeed. Written by former Onion scribe Robert Siegel, the script isn't at all what you'd expect from a comic genius: in Siegel's own words, it's "20% comedy, 80% darkness." Directed by hyperkinetic auteur Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), it's an unusually restrained and naturalistic outing for a filmmaker known for quick cuts and visual tricks. The movie works on a curiously satisfying meta-narrative level that no one could've planned for, but worked out beautifully: it's the story of a washed-up professional wrestler called Randy "the Ram" Robinson, barely eking out a living 20 years after his prime, willing his body to continue taking punishment in the ring that it can no longer withstand because the ring is the only place the Ram feels like himself. In a bit of brilliant casting, the Ram is played by Mickey Rourke, himself a (formerly) washed-up actor, the conventional wisdom about whom is that he's 20 years past his prime, and who in the early 1990s quit acting to re-start an old career as a professional boxer. If Rouke doesn't look quite like he used to, well, neither does the Ram, and both of them have been hit in the face many, many times.
It's my favorite film of the year. Check out the trailer. Bruce Springsteen doesn't write an original song for just any old movie.
I saw Doubt on Broadway. It was, and still is, the best play I've ever seen; critics agreed, showering it, and its star Cherry Jones, with Tony awards. (Fun fact: when Cherry came to Los Angeles, she stayed in the apartment across the hall from me. Besides being a great actress, she's an incredibly nice person.) When I heard they were making a movie of Doubt, I was skeptical that anyone, even Meryl Streep, could fill the shoes of Cherry's role the way she did. Also, filmed adaptations of theatrical productions are full of pitfalls, the most obvious one being that people sitting in a room talking for two hours tends not to be very cinematic. Though the film wasn't quite as good as the play, in my humble estimation, it was close enough; Streep's performance is powerful, if markedly different than Cherry's, and the unfancy direction doesn't get in the way of the fantastic writing. I wish there were clips of Cherry's performance on YouTube; instead, here's the trailer for the film:
It's definitely unusual for there to be two -- good -- adaptations of Broadway productions in release at the same time. For my money, Frost/Nixon is the better of the two, largely because it retains its Broadway cast in the filmed adaptation. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella play David Frost and Richard Nixon, respectively, who met for an astounding 30 hours' worth of interviews not long after Nixon left office. It was billed as "the trial Nixon never got." Going in, I had no idea how director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan (who wrote the play as well as 2006's The Queen) were going to make a movie about two people sitting in chairs opposite one another interesting -- but it was riveting. The stakes couldn't have been higher: Nixon was defending his reputation, and Frost, a popular talk show host who had never been taken seriously in journalistic circles, staked his entire career on the gambit. The performances are amazing, the story fascinating and, always a bonus for flossy moviegoers like myself, it's all true.
A fascinating hybrid of genres and cultures, Slumdog is based on an Indian novel, directed with great flair by Englishman Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), shot in English and Hindi and set in colorful, rollicking Mumbai. It's the story of a street kid from Mumbai named Jamal who, at the beginning of the movie, is being tortured by a TV producer who suspects he cheated on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Jamal swears he hasn't cheated, and tells the amazing story of his life in flashbacks as he explains to the producer how he knew the answer to every question on the show. It's a great story with an amazing structure, executed perfectly. It'll certainly be in contention for some Oscars this year -- see it!
I think the Best Actor Oscar this year is going to be a dead heat between Mickey Rourke, for his impressive return to form in The Wrestler, and Sean Penn, for his lively, heartbreaking turn as murdered activist and politician Harvey Milk. Fans of the blog may know Harvey Milk best from his association with the notorious "Twinkie defense" -- lawyers for Milk's assassin, fellow San Fransisco Supervisor Dan White, got his sentence reduced from murder to involuntary manslaughter by noting that the normally health-conscious White had not been himself before the killings, and had taken to drinking great volumes of Coca-cola and eating junk food. Also, in another example of meta-narrative magic, Milk was released just as California's prop 8 controversy was heating up, making much of the film's 70s-era fight for gay rights seem downright contemporary.