MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

The Wrestler plus reviews of Seven Pounds, Yes Man, Frost/Nixon, Amarcord and Moscow, Belgium

The Wrestler (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Darren Aronofsky

So the French were crazy for liking Mickey Rourke, huh? Just take a look at this blast-you-to-the- walls Rourke performance, as over-the-hill pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson — one of the top acting jobs in a year that also boasts Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Frank Langella as The Old Prankster, Wicked Dickie (see below), Meryl Streep as a nun you don’t mess with and a mamma mia, and, for auld lang syne, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Clint. I‘m not sure Rourke isn’t the best of them all. Certainly he seems to be suffering the most for his art here — very convincingly, and with physical and emotional courage, giving us the very image of an over-the-hill wrestler, desperately trying to hang on and come back.

It’s a typical sort of pro-fighter-on-skids story. Even if we’d never seen the reverse ravages of Rocky Balboa (with Stallone twisting the legend), we’ve been watching other old fighters fail since Jack Palance and Tony Quinn took it on the chin as Mountain in Requiem for a Heavyweight — hell, even earlier, when Wallace Beery tried to show us and Jackie Cooper that he was still the Champ. I’ll bet there‘s a washed up boxer muttering “I coulda been a contender” somewhere in the back files of Melies, Lumiere and Edison.

But The Wrestler juices up the old plot by ushering us into the grandly, sleazily phony fight theatre of pro wrestling, where old buddies/colleagues bash and jump on each other and take a staple gun in the torso, where the stars have names like Tommy Rotten, Lex Lethal, The Ayatollah and Randy the Ram. Evan Rachel Wood plays the Ram’s alienated daughter, Marisa Tomei is right on as a world-weary stripper/working mom/squeeze, and Rourke — well he’s something else. I thought he did a great job in Sin City as the monster of vengeance. Here he’s even greater, a monster of fatherhood and loneliness. He nails this part right through your heart.


Seven Pounds (Two-and-a-Half-Stars)
U.S.; Gabriele Muccino

Will Smith somewhat redeems himself for Hancock with this classy, good-hearted, if a little shticky tearjerker about a mysterious guy named Ben Thomas who claims he’s from the I.R.S. and has turned himself into a guardian angel for Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson and other unfortunates. Smith is much better at compassion than he was at the hip nastiness they tried for in Hancock. I actually found almost each individual scene compelling and even touching — which proves that Gabriele Muccino is probably as good a director in English as he was in Italian (but that Grant Nieporte’s script might not have had enough to sustain them all). Shame. We could use a good seasonal weepie, especially after the fiasco Christmas romantic comedy of Four Christmases.


Yes Man (Two Stars)
U.S.; Peyton Reed

Jim Carrey is the best physical comedian around right now. Has been for a while. So why does he go for a high concept would-be verbal comedy like this — especially since it’s a malfunctioning concept that in this case doesn’t work right. Has he been led astray?
Say “Yes.“ Carrey plays Carl Allen, a lonely withdrawn guy avoiding life and living in video stores, whose pattern changes when a buddy drags him to guru Terrence Bundley’s psycho-babble cult, a self-help con in which you start saying Yes to everything. Neat idea. Unfortunately, Carrey is a banker, a loan guy, which means that he‘s saying “yes” to propositions that would have terrified Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac and that definitely give this movie a weird topicality now. So, is this movie less funny than the current administration?

I can think of lots of “No”-proof questions which would have been great setups for Carrey gags and humor. “Why don’t you strike a match on a cake of soap?“ “Why don’t you stick your head up your ass?“ “Why don’t you challenge Sacha Baron Cohen to a nude wrestling match?“ But nobody asked. And the movie lost me when Carrey’s Carl rode with Zooey Deschanel’s Allison on her bike and she asks him if she’s going too fast — and they didn’t make a routine out of it. (Nor did he say “Yes.”) Seemed an ideal setup for an Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?“ cross-talk routine, but the writers pass it up. I guess they said “Yes” to too many people. So did Carrey. But are most of you going to watch this movie anyway?


Frost/Nixon (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Ron Howard

Taken from Peter Morgan‘s stage play — which also starred the spot-on Frank Langella as dark, fallen Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as his breezy Brit TV interlocutor David Frost — this is an actor‘s showcase of an especially luscious kind. Langella may not smile enough, and he may be a little too secretly suave for Tricky Dick, but he does a great job anyway. The two costars relish their roles, dig playing against each her, obviously know every overtone and under-cranny of the script, and execute their parts so well that they inspire the supporting actors as well — Sam Rockwell as morose leftie James Reston Jr., Kevin Bacon as Nixon‘s glowering Jack Brennan, Rebecca Hall as Frost’s companion Caroline, and Toby Jones as Swifty Lazar — to top performances too.

My one big complaint about this show, on which Ron Howard has lavished all his gifts of technique and compassion, is that I don’t think the climax, Nixon‘s on-camera apology, is as important as Morgan seems to. What if he hadn’t said it? Would we really care? For that matter, would we give a damn if George W. Bush came forward and apologized for being such a clown? Would it mean anything? Robert Altman‘s Secret Honor, with Phil Baker Hall, remains the great Nixon movie: dark, smoldering, tragic, hilarious, a portrait of madness and power that goes, along with the Old Prankster, right over the edge.


Amarcord (Four Stars)
Italy; Federico Fellini, 1974 (Re-release)

Maestro Fellini takes us back to Rimini in the 1930s in what is, along with 8 ½, the greatest of all his memory films. Grotesque, whimsical, hilarious and beautiful: a child‘s eye view of provincial mores and misadventures. It also has another of Nino Rota’s blissfully meshing, wistful, carnivalesque, absolutely delightful scores. With Magali Noel as the town sexpot. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)


Moscow, Belgium (Three Stars)
Belgium; Christophe van Rompaey

Moscow, Belgium is no foreign film classic-to-be. But it’s the next best thing; a good, solid, very smart romantic comedy, well-made on every level, that entertains and satisfies. Yes Man should do as much.

Set in the working class sections of the Russian namesake city in Belgium, Moscow is the debut feature of director Christophe van Rompaey. He has a lively, attractive visual style, a very good script (by his producer Jean-Claude van Rijckeghen and Pat van Biers) and a knack with actors, especially the first-rate bunch he has here. His film glows with life, throbs with humanity, and doesn’t contain a boring second.

At the center of this swift, well-observed little portrait of lovers in a city — and its bustling shopping centers, high-rises, post offices, cafes and music bars — is Matty Mustard (wonderfully played by Peter Greenaway veteran Barbara Sarafian), a pretty but somewhat worn-looking 41-year old mother of three, who was dumped, a half-year ago, by her art teacher husband Werner (Johann Heldenbergh) for one of his sex-crazed students. The would-be Peter Pannish Werner, in the clutches of his living sex fantasy, hasn’t gotten around to filing the divorce papers yet, leaving his children mostly fatherless and his wife in limbo.

So, when we first see Matty, she looks bummed-out indeed, trudging though a supermarket behind a shopping cart, the camera tight on her sexy but non-made-up blond features. She doesn’t crack a smile, and she looks beaten-down and unhappy.

But something is about to happen to Matty: a collision in the shopping center parking lot that will introduce her to the mercurial, hot-tempered, but strangely loveable long-haired truck driver Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), a guy with a love for all things Italian, who blows his top, and gets Matty mad too, but then shows up later to fix the dent in her fender. A fast worker, he asks Matty out, and, catching her in a receptive mood, sleeps with her — an encounter she tries to dismiss as a one-off adventure, never to be repeated.

Johnny doesn’t agree. And his furious romantic campaign, which includes Italian shoes and a fervent karaoke to the Nat King Cole hit, Mona Lisa, eventually attracts the attention of horny intellectual Werner, who decides that sex isn’t everything and that, after all, he doesn’t want to so easily shuck off his longtime wife and favorite model. And it irritates Matty’s older daughter Vera (Anemone), embroiled in romantic quandaries of her own.

But there‘s no getting rid of Johnny — and no escaping the charms of Moscow, Belgium either. It‘ s a convincing portrait of an off-beat romance that‘s both clear-eyed and delightful. Ultimately, van Rompaey ends the film with another tight, moving camera shot on Matty’s face, this time breaking into a very different expression.

The irrepressible June-September romance and its inevitable social/familial consequences recalls Douglas Sirk’s great ’50s melodrama All That Heaven Allows. But the economic settings are lower-case and Belnaet’s Johnny is less stolid a lover than Rock Hudson; nor is Johnny as hesitant as Rock about where to put his silver-tipped spruce. The whole sprightly, gritty style and mood of Moscow recalls those blithe classic realistic romantic comedies of the ‘70s, like Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz, Mazursky‘s Blume in Love and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

Especially key here is the working class milieu of Moscow, Belgium, and the way this movie interweaves believable everyday problems with the convulsive, obsessive romantic mood created by one-track-mind Johnny. I loved Delnaet’s mix of outer toughness and inner vulnerability, and I also loved Sarafian’s stoic, grumpy front, and the way it eventually dissolved.

These two actors — and the rest of the cast as well — ably demonstrate that, however much and how loudly right wing-pundits and TV rabble-rousers like to trash Europe as a haven for elitists and snobs who eat quiche and wouldn’t vote Republican , the people there live, work, love and feel very much like us.

Moscow, Belgium won the critics’ week prize at Cannes and it suggests fine careers ahead for van Rompaey and his collaborators. It also suggests that, where romance is concerned, age doesn’t matter — and neither do fender-benders. (With English subtitles.)

Read Michael Wilmington’s DVD Reviews of the Week:
Burn After Reading , Sangre de mi Sangre and The Third Man – plus, this week’s box set picks …

– Michael Wilmington
December 19, 2008

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon