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12.15.2009

HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY

Independencia Directed by Raya Martin
Written by Raya Martin and Ramon Sarmiento



















The enchanted forest that predominates Independencia, set during the first days of the American occupation, is a spooky and exquisite fake, closer to delirium than setwork - - - pattern recognition with counterfeit rain and skies made from paint.

Into its verdant recesses repair a mother and her son bedeviled by invaders and forced to flee their home- - - Tetchie Agbayani in full-on voodoo seethe and stumblebum Sid Lucero - - - and later a young girl - - - slightly anonymous Alessandra De Rossi - - - raped by soldiers with Roosevelt handlebars, who begets a half-breed boy. The story it’s telling has the aura of vapor. A ghost story, really, like nearly everything Raya does. A story of an exile so utter, a freedom if you will, that everyone who undergoes it all but disappear completely, consumed, become like ghosts. And much as it may pulsate and tremor and eventually breach, from inside this tenuous adoptive Eden, history- - - erratic, rogue, malleable history , the conspirational lie we’re all complicit in - - - is all but rumor and smoke.

What Raya is in the middle of here is his vividly referential historical trilogy with its deceptively simple and rather elegant conceit - - - run three specific periods of our history that have been colored by struggle through past pre-eminent, almost anachronistic cinematic vocabularies. Then mine the dissonance. Ignore, then, any dismissals - - and there are quite a few floating around, you’d be surprised - - - that it looks artificial, that in parts it looks half-finished, that it’s the pitfalls of not having enough money to shoot in an actual forest. That’s a little like whining that porn has too much nudity. That’s a little like missing the point. That’s a little, like, dumb.

Form has always been crucial to his aesthetic more than you think , making it always crucial to look at form squarely in the eye. And Raya is often at his most vivid and his most alive,and really his most joyous, when he indulges his fetish for manipulating form, which tends to shift shapes from one film to the next, and with a perverse and devilish changeling glee at that, juicing up his manipulations. Not so much assimilating these archaic tropes as re-purposing them into vectors of postmodern strangeness. Like the silent film textures that blanket Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional, set during the last days of the Spanish occupation, once so quaint, now possessed of this eerie unsettling beauty, putting Raya on the map but loosing, too, a tumult of lazy if not entirely avoidable Guy Maddin parallels. And Independencia has its fairy tale soundstage of a forest, effervescent throwback to Masaki Kobayashi ,to FW Murnau, to Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies.

As taken as I am with the camcorder crudities of Now Showing and the way it evoked the fickleness and banality and warmth of nostalgia , not to mention the grimy and petrified snuff film sheen that bears out the claustrophobic nihilism of Autohystoria, the fever dream forest here has enough hallucinatory torque to thrust you whole into that immersive otherness, into that alternate reality, where tree gods bask in the rivers and you hunt for food dressed as bamboo birds and sometimes you lose your way and need to turn your shirt inside out to get back home.

Both allusion and illusion and throbbing with metatextual vigor, it could well be Raya’s most ravishing manipulation yet, and also his most disquieting, if only for how it’s both milieu and metaphor, and for its determined insistence that everything here - - - the very notion of independence alluded to in the title included - - - is nothing but a seductive, bewitching lie.

*Originally published in UNO.

11.01.2009

TENDER PREY

Kinatay (The Execution of P)
Directed by Brillante Ma. Mendoza
Written by Armando Lao














The heart of darkness Kinatay plumbs is a black hole we know, but couch in the cozy swaddle of urban legend, of things that happen to other people. Because confronting them without that measure of remove, without that deniability at arms' length, puts us too far out in harm’s way for comfort,makes us fair game.

But nearly everybody has a third person rogue cop story, or knows somebody who knows somebody who does, of men with guns and abductions in the night, of death squads and body parts in sackcloth, of devilish deeds done dirt cheap. I tend to cold sweat on impulse at the sight of checkpoints myself. I'm overreacting,sure, but none of that anxiety is mere caprice. Kinatay has night-thoughts to rummage through,alright. Enough verite to tap. Buttons to push.

But not agendas. Kinatay spews from firsthand moral outrage - - -Mendoza's, Lao's - - -but doesn't politicize nor exoticize nor even outrightly address it. It's apolitical. And amoral. And in a way that does little but thicken its soup of dread 'til we're choking on it, gasping for air. It's a closed-in half-lit morally blank world Coco Martin's rookie cop - - -and us along with him - - -is marooned in without coordinates,a world of permanent midnight and spatial displacement where malevolence is the hunch of a lieutenant's back and Hell, a nondescript spare room turned makeshift abbatoir.

And it's tone is of a chilling passivity that neither gets as nosy nor as horny as tortureporn ,which it sort of is, albeit wth the volume turned way way down, a real time abstraction if you will, a horror movie bereft not only of gory sensation - - -the controversial raping and torturing and beating and slaying and dismembering is a dimly-lit battery of master shots verging on unseeable- - - but also of ways out - - -an almost unbearable sequence during a detour to buy balut on a beer run and an even more unbearable one near the end when a cab gets a flat and the bravura van ride that knots coils in my gut still and that last shot and the harrowing pointlessness of it all. It's deadened and deadening.

The word "salvage" may have re-entered the vernacular freighted with an alarming new meaning but it's also freighted with an alarming currency that wears off the scald over time. Salvage victims are mostly nobodies anyway,other people. And who cares what perversities are visited on a haggard old whore ,moreso one who's dim enough to think she can dupe rogue cops of their drug loot? Repulsed. Desensitized. These are the emotional polarities of salvage. And these,too,are the emotional polarities of Kinatay. It can either burrow under your skin and breed cultures of unease. Or it can numb you into feeling nothing. Both, of course, is the desired effect.

10.30.2009

MOTION SICKNESS OF TIME TRAVEL

Now Showing
Directed and Written by Raya Martin



"(Nostalgia) is delicate but potent. . . in Greek, it literally means the pain from an old wound.It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone." - Don Draper, Mad Men

Lovely Rita, the girl who leaps through time here, had a movie star for a grandmother who wore a dress spun from gold, that now hangs from a nail on the door, a yellowing ghost leeched of its exuberance much like Rita herself, making the rent as a teenager from the hawking of bootleg DVDs

Coming of age stories, the sugar pill of arthouse, tend to heighten the mythic in the banal. Raya Martin’s Now Showing, ostensibly a coming of age story, taps into these banalities, rather, for the despair and beauty of impermanence. The past is a forever fragmenting thing, forever slippery, forever changing shape, making every memory implicitly flawed and implicitly precious. Retro is what nostalgia is often mistaken for. But retro's passive - - -the weak shit of the time-locked. Nostalgia has a lot more at stake - --a rescue mission but always with casualties.

Of a throb with avant-garde diary films like Khavn’s Memory of Forgetting and Jonas Mekas’ Lost Lost Lost in the way it parses for mesh in disjuncture, teasing membranes of story from random found life vignettes, it's not as if Raya is splicing together his own found life - - -he's merely co-opting the syntax. Now Showing is a triptych bookended by the two halves of Rita - - -the prepubescent trembling with wonderment and the post-teen lost in space. But it is the middle third, a re-purposing of the weathered but resplendent remains of Octavio Silos’ lost film Tunay Na Ina into what seems at first mere connective tissue, that somehow bears the ore of the whole piece - - -that is, the corrosive vagaries of time. And like his Indio Nacional and Autohystoria, this is an historical autopsy, too, notwithstanding the shift in temperature, and as bothered by the futilities of retrieving the past without having to make up the parts mislaid to the blind spots of memory.

Chris Marker, in Sans Soleil, said “Remembering is not the opposite of forgetting but rather its inner lining.We don’t so much remember as we rewrite memory.” I'm with Chris and so's Raya.Now Showing is all remembering and re-enactment, if these are his memories or if these are even memories at all , but conceived with a naturalism so immersive, the seams melt. A fake passing itself off as real passing itself off as fake until you can't tell which is which anymore. With thickly familiar pangs of mood evoking a sense of deja vu that can't be right but never leaves you anyway.

Each of the three parts it divides itself into is queasy with a specific veneer of decay - - -imperfect failing memory and the imperfect failing platforms that foolishly try to capture and preserve them - - -but the first third, a love letter to childhood that's flush and agog with tiny incident and shot as if on a lo-res camcorder, is queasiest, opaque to the point of creamy, with that vague sense of torpor that someone else's home movies have in the way the interstitial shots linger- - -on a birthday party, on kids playing patintero at night, on a young girl singing mutely to the roar of the crowd in her head, on nothing much - - -past ambient and into tedium. But not without that murmur of peril, as if some fugitive magic will be forever lost if the pause button is pressed too soon. That's the lethal poignancy of nostalgia. And it leaks like blood into what these interstices connect, throwing shadows on everything. And a swatch of hope. There is nothing mythic to heighten in the lives we lived. There is only the warmth and burnish of remembering , the flames that gnaw at the edges and the things we save from the fire.

9.02.2009

ALEXIS TIOSECO 1981-2009


I didn’t know Alexis enough to say we were close but knew him enough to feel kindred with him. And maybe that was all it took - - -the too few run-ins, the too few conversations, the too few emails, the too few fond anecdotes. Why else would there be this much shock and fear and regret and grief? Why else would all the cinema in the world suddenly feel so outmoded and impotent in the face of what happened? But let’s not put cinema down, as it was, after all, the magnet that drew us to each other - - -this mad fervid love for it that many thought almost freaky. Having declared my unwavering fealty to it even before I was in high school and knew better, I always thought my love bottomless and indomitable but the depth Alexis’ feelings ran - - -and the things it made him do - - -makes mine look like a petty crush . It put me to shame. But also had me keyed up. If there was one thing Alexis left with me, it’s knowing that there was still, and will always be, much more cinema to fall in love with.

Much as I'd like to say I was writing this as a friend, and much as I know Alexis wouldn’t mind if I did that or called him one, I feel it’s not entirely my place to do so. I’m writing this instead as a fellow lover of cinema and a fellow writer, a fellow film critic if you will. This blog was my secluded little pocket of the internet to write about something I loved. I never factored in that there would be traffic- - -the spotlight and me never really did see eye to eye, always had a touch of the hermetic, camera shyness. But the very first thing Alexis said to me when I was introduced to him was ”Hi. I like your blog”. It was immensely flattering. And it would later fuel me to not just write, but write faster, write truer, write more - - -my sloth may be my downfall but I’m getting there. But it was also immensely daunting knowing there was someone reading, let alone someone like Alexis. It was the second most frightening thing he ever said to me,really.

The most frightening thing was when he asked much later on if I really was shooting my first film. I told him sheepishly that I had shot one scene. Who knows what he would have thought of it had he lived to see it finished? Not that it would’ve mattered, I figured, long as I make it with generosity and conviction and love. That's how Alexis did his work. And that's how everyone in this ragtag so-called scene of ours sets out to do theirs, too. That's how he would've prefered it, I think - - -I don't know, I won't know. But it's all about love,in the end. The last few days I've been swimming in this warm and fraternal and almost familial inundation of community, this coming together in consensual sorrow,bonded by this shared and senseless loss and by this shared love for both cinema and for two people who gave so much for it. Too much.

Love is,as Alexis once said, the first impulse of critics. It is also the first impulse of friends.


Peace for the last time, Alexis and Nika. I hardly knew you but I'm glad I did.

5.18.2009

20-SEIKI SHONEN CHAPTER 1 ( 20TH CENTURY BOYS CHAPTER 1)

20-Seiki Shônen Chapter 1 (20th Century Boys Chapter 1)
Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Written by Yasushi Fukuda and Takashi Nagasaki and
Naoki Urasawa and Yûsuke Watanabe
From the manga by Naoki Urasawa








I've destroyed the world many times before - - - and so have you. With crayon drawings on torn notebook paper. This is what us boys would do to give vent to the berserker rages of all our boyish imaginations. Gleefully, dementedly laying waste to civilizations, perhaps in secret hope of remaking the world from the rubble but this time to our prepubescent whims. Or maybe it was merely out of how diabolically fun blowing up imaginary cities can be. Not to mention drawing all the flamboyant, impossible monsters that blew them up.

Back in the 20th century, flying a 747 into a skyscraper as a terrorist plot rang with similarly feverish delirium- - - crayon drawings on torn notebook paper. That was just nine years ago. Not that you need to be told but this is the world we woke up to after the millennium changed hands- - - boyhood annihilation fantasies as real world genocide scenarios with wackos for architects, bent on remaking the world to their whims. Fucked up doesn't quite cover it. And taken one way, Naoki Urusawa's immense manga 20th Century Boys , filtrated as it is through this grand pop sieve of weird viruses and giant robots and shadowy cults, is all about what life is like in this new world we live in, which is what life was like in the old world we lived in except it's more fitful and more rickety and more prone to toxic absurdities.

Taken another way, it's about the vagaries of obsolesence , the way those of us whose destinies have passed us by flail for some kind of bearing in a world that doesn't give a shit like it used to, if it did at all. And the possible devastations getting stuck in the past can wreak on the future. That T. Rex song - - - "I'm your toy, your 20th century boy" - - - has a riff so mighty you can believe how the kids here fell under it like a banner to signal changes. Fed by Marc Bolan's futuresexy androgyny, it was a song on the cusp of a world to come. The irony, of course, and the subtext Naoki is aiming for, is that today nothing sums someone up more as a relic of his time than calling him a 20th century boy.

Taken the same way and minus the millennial divide, this is what Stephen King's It was about, too - - - waking up in a present you didn't expect to wake up in agitated by a past that's come to collect. It's not as if it would take a genius to run them - - - the parallels between the two do glare and vibrate. There's the relentless toggling between two timelines. There's the childhood friends - - -boy dominant with a token girl - - - sputtering invisibly through a bland middle age. There's the banding together to thwart an enemy they may have unwittingly loosed. There's the epic sprawl - - -it starts in the '70s and ends in 2015. There's the turned-up volume to everything. Except it's not supernatural bunk Naoki cranks up.

He hews closer to the sort of boy detective sci-fic pop the younger Ray Bradbury and the younger Steven Spielberg proliferated but without lapsing into the dewy cloy they both tended to stoop to back then. And he's as fiendish as King is with story. It , of course, was massive, but also unwieldy and turgid and not the novel you uphold to champion King - - - omnipotent turtles and gangbangs, WTF? 20th Century Boys is even more vast but manga always gives itself the room to stretch and breathe and not hurry that Americans seem chronically allergic to, and over its 24 volumes, it moves at a clip but paces its convolutions so it never really disintegrates into the gooey mess we're left with at the end of It.

Given how Tsutsumi's spacing out all 24 volumes across three features - - - and this is merely the first - - - it's a little disingenuous to raise him up for the structural liberties he takes that makes this spry or put him down not only for how the nuances he forsakes activates a little supercompression vertigo but also for how he exaggerates the cataclysm near the cliffhanging end. He does soothe my doubts about the next two to come by tempering all the heightened arcana that comes with being a kid with all the simmering melancholia that comes with being an adult. 20th Century Boys is all about how hope and ruin intersect, potential and failure, wonderment and exhaustion. And how, to paraphrase another glam rock icon, we can all be heroes in the overlap. Trite, sure - - - but lay in a mighty guitar riff on top of it and it's a banner to fall under.

3.25.2009

THROW ME THE STATUE: OSCARS 2009








Sniff the air. Yes, it’s Oscar season. Let the rituals fire up anew. The descending wave of bootleg screener copies. The clairvoyant bloggers. The ferocious temperatures message board arguments reach. The griping of malcontents. Frankly, I couldn’t care less - - -and no, the labyrinthine, overheated Dark Knight was not robbed of anything at all, so let it go, nerds.

Nonchalant curiosity is all Oscar gets from me these days, after all the dreck it’s venerated - - - Titanic, Gladiator, Little Miss Sunshine, A Beautiful Mind, Ray ,Juno - - -and all that it’s ignored- - - Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Zodiac. I don’t take it seriously, is all. And Hollywood is a mere outer-borough in the vast land mass of world cinema. The noise that accumulates around Oscar, though, that’s more of a chore to remain oblivious to, even for me. It’s ubiquitous. It’s full-on. And I don’t even try to shut it out. Yeah, I tuned in. Starporn is a vortex of no escaping.

Oscar has long been the default code for cinema leveling up. Oscar being an ostensibly regional event, though, commemorating American cinema and little else, the leveling up is not of cinema per se. Few see it this way. There is no other cinema past the outskirts of Hollywood for many. Down here, we don’t even call Hollywood movies foreign films - - - which they are. So Oscar night gets beamed via satellite to knife across time zones. The BAFTAs don’t get beamed via satellite. Neither does Cannes. Only world events get beamed via satellite. But given how deep we are in our captive thrall to Hollywood - - - its stars if not necessarily its cinema - - - Oscar night is something of a world event. Oscar is also dogma. Founded on this perceived and counterfeit cinematic dominance on America’s part, so much so that what the Oscars uphold as its Best Pictures becomes the rest of the planet’s, too.

With my diet of American movies dwindling to near zero this year and with most of them - - - Twilight, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Sex And The City, Eagle Eye - - - stinking enough to further deepen my indifference to the trophy-bait - - - I haven’t even seen all of last year’s picks - - - it’s a staggering achievement on my part that I did see three out of five of this year’s, and one more outside the main category for good measure. Gus Van Sant and his graceful , joyous Milk should have both won, sure, but not one of the rest is at all bad. My compulsions to go watch were driven by four things: Langella, Bollywood, Van Sant, Rourke. Although why Kate Winslet in constant states of undress didn’t spur me to catch The Reader fast enough to make the piece will remain a mystery for the ages.

Frost / Nixon
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Peter Morgan


Frank Langella nails it, more ways than one. At some point, disappeared totally inside his Richard Nixon, he tells Michael Sheen, undergoing a similar inhabiting as David Frost, what all this is: a duel. Ron Howard is nobody’s go-to man for coloring outside the lines, he’s harmless, but it’s precisely that quality that makes him oddly suited for this. As it was in real life, everything here anchors itself on the parry and thrust, on the spar and volley transpiring between the gadfly showman and the political titan in all their crumble and decline. And Howard, embodying mainstream professional to the letter - - -skillful, artless, cushy, polite and utterly succumbed to serving his writer’s vision, contrivances and all
- - - doesn’t intrude. Nor digress. Nor burdens the piece with subtext. All he does is zero in. And move his camera along the contours of the performances. He does sneak in one possible flourish and it is quite the standout, too : there’s Frost, watching news footage of Nixon leaving the White House, and their eyes impossibly lock at the same brief instant that Nixon’s face grotesquely contorts, making Frost flinch. Having been born in the Third World and not having seen the Peter Morgan play either, my removal from the source material was almost a given. The original Frost/Nixon interviews were archival matter of another nation’s political history. And another generation’s Reality TV. The capacity to detonate resonances with me, and with any of us really, is palpable, pivoting as it does around a deposed president ensnared into making a public apology on national TV, albeit with catches. But until we get our own confessional breakdown in a close-up as damning as the one that did Nixon in, the only vantage points left for me here are wishful thinking and entertainment. And from at least one of these, this much under-hyped piece feeds.


Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Simon Beuafoy


Sum up Bollywood blind and the word ebullient is like your magic shotgun round, no matter how wild your aim is, you’re bound to hit something dead-on with it. Not that it would take a genius, of course. Random snatches are enough to give you emissions - - - the herky-jerky gyrations, the colors running riot, the ostentatious melodrama, the picturesque bombshells, the whole vibrant giddy. Ebullient, then, that’ll do. I am a virgin to how it all coheres, having never seen, to my utter shame, a single Bollywood movie whole, having only seen in fact random snatches, so I base all this on the Bollywood in my head, a cover version if nothing else, not utterly precise but not utterly off the mark either, and which I love with a mad vigor, in anticipation of the mad and vigorous love I will feel for the real thing.

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s soap operatic Monrak Transistor might be what Slumdog Millionaire makes me think of right off the bat, a rags-to-riches love story that convolutes across time and populist genres swaddled in magic-realist fugues, but it’s a little higher up in the ether of make-believe. And pretty much amounts to a Danny Boyle cover version of Bollywood. Meaning what is heightened - - - the herky-jerky gyrations, the colors running riot, the ostentatious melodrama, the picturesque bombshells, the whole vibrant giddy - - - gets heightened even more. And moves at a perpetual hurtle. I thoroughly despise all that crash and tumble MTV for ADD crap and I should, in principle, thoroughly despise Boyle’s pathological fondness for it and side with the amassing pack of haters now that this has taken home the gold medal - - -and both Brillante Mendoza and Fernando Meirelles did that slalom through the slums better and with cheaper, shoddier equipment in Tirador and City of God, respectively. But he’s always imbued the technique with a rigorous poetry and, brought to bear on something as sinister and opulent as the mean streets of Mumbai, it gains something approaching the buoyant abandon of a silly pop song. Take a silly pop song apart and you get something that’s fleeting and empty and impossible and has nothing new to say and nothing new to say it with either. This is all that, sure. But where’s the fun in taking a silly pop song apart, killjoy? Groove is in the heart, and on purely right-brain terms, even if it never quite crosses over from ebullience to ecstasy the way great silly pop songs often do, and I imagine the way Bollywood spectacles do, that hook is catharsis enough.

The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Robert Siegel


It beefs up as anthropology, immersing itself as it does in the freaky-obscure redneck wrestling subculture. But the comeback horse Mickey Rourke rode in on, playing has-been wrestler The Ram, bugs me as melodrama, parsing as little more than a morose Rocky Balboa - - - the obsolescence, the revolting biology, the diminishing fallback career, the emotional fallout - - - but denied the irony and the self-effacing wit and the euphoria. Uphold the indie spirit, sure. And morose is no issue. But did the weepy clichés - - - the estranged daughter who despises him for, get this, not being there for her and the stripper who empathically tells him much later that she is - - -have to pockmark it so obviously? Darren Aronofsky doesn’t let his love for the Dardenne Brothers go deeper than the ickily intimate shakycam but the barren vacuum he strips the milieu down to does give Rourke all the table he needs to work the metatextual juice up to a cranked lather. All raw uplift, Gus Van Sant's Milk was not so much polemic as about milieu, too, and had its own eerie metatextual charges, what with the looming shadow of Prop 8, and with how Harvey Milk’s shorthand- - -first openly gay elected public official - - - was freighted with the same momentous cage rattle and climate change as Barack Obama’s. Sean Penn pulling the surprise win is no rip-off, his Harvey Milk is an impeccable creation, but a creation nonetheless. Rourke’s Ram doesn’t feel like it is. The downtrodden superstar playing the downtrodden prizefighter playing the downtrodden superstar. Failings notwithstanding, Rourke colonizes the piece so thoroughly he becomes the piece. It’s a territorial pissing. An exorcism rite. And the performance of a lifetime.

* Originally published in Philippine Free Press

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT

The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Robert Siegel









Dig if you will Randy “The Ram” Robinson, this slab of macho ruin , has-been wrestling superstar and 80s holdover, scraping for rent on the amateur circuit but some nights barely eking out enough that he has to sleep in his van. It’s a pitiful figure he tends to cut, a brokedown redneck tragedy, a soldier without a war - - - those long and ratty hair-metal locks stranded between a lion’s mane and a blonde floormop, that swollen physique bearing his traumas like map points down to the last shred of scar tissue. He embodies a kind of quintessence, the brutal backfire of following your bliss,-but also a kind of bland anachronism, the sports film washout.

Dig if you will, too, Mickey Rourke , the icon in eclipse , he’s been box office poison for so long that his spurts of comeback have barely reversed his fall from grace. He’s something of an 80s holdover, too, and something of a hero of mine. Diabolical , risky and when cool needed embodying, there seemed no other. Rumblefish and Year of the Dragon and Barfly and Angel Heart and Johnny Handsome - - - that was the quantum of his streak, greased lightning. And then . . . but you all know what happened next. The brief detour into prizefighting may have been punk of him and the pet chiuaua he walked off a set for was primo nutso but he mostly embodied another bland anachronism, the haywire movie star.

Now dig if you will how both part and player blur the dichotomy between reel and real. The showbiz rise and fall. The toll of bodily abuse. The coasting on old glories. The catalogs of woe. The banalities of their turmoil. And the banalities of their pathos. The parallels are 30 feet tall and they glow in the dark - - -you can not not see it and not dig it. The craft Rourke deploys is impeccable,sure. Christian Bale in The Machinist was the last time someone threw himself at the mercy of extreme method, transforming his body into an atrocity exhibit. Rourke does little outside of a regimen and mostly he brings in his own wardrobe, so to speak, his own ossified battle scars,but the derelict physique that emerges gains the same inverted freakshow glamour. He’s this lumbering specimen of obsolescence, trapped in a world he didn’t make, visibly eroding into the margins with every shamble and groan, a grotesque Everyloser. It makes me skittish and uneasy just to watch him get from here to there.

Extract Rourke, though, and you have little left that isn’t derivative and corny and obvious and maudlin and conventional. Life’s nothing but a pileup of hackneyed clichés for this champion gone to seed, it turns out. And The Wrestler on paper is man soap succumbed to its worst tendencies. You could argue that real life’s mostly nothing but a pileup of hackneyed clichés anyway - - -and the banality of his turmoil somehow deepens the banality of his pathos by leaving him without even something to romanticize. And every hackneyed cliché the melodrama forces him to confront - - - the blue collar day job drudgery, the estranged daughter who loathes him, the single mother stripper whose heart of gold doesn’t quite beat for him, the heart attack that pretty much scrapes what residue of career he has left off his docket - - - is never really taken to the places where they become cliché. But what empowers them mostly is the palpable tingle of desperation Rourke imbues them with, this sense of something at stake, as if everything was the last straw, as if the picture was, for Rourke. And it could well be. It’s more than mere resonance. It’s thick enough to cut with a knife. And thick enough to pack a wallop. Rourke stews inside the Ram, occupying the wartorn carcass so thoroughly you can’t see the joins. And who's to say if there are any at all.

Every time someone talks about the difficulty in picturing anybody else in the part, it’s more likely these creepy double exposures they’re talking about. Aronofsky is many things to many people - - - showy , devious, beyond, wild , curious, awry, none of which scan as flaws to me - - -but he’s canny,too. He knows the whole meta throb, once it starts to woo our thrall to trainwrecks, can chew miles further than the tepid fiction he has to wring a movie from. The aesthetic gesture of feeding off the stark naturalism of Jean Luc & Pierre Dardenne stops at the way the camera prowls and with the tawdry minimalism 
- - - but that’s more out of how everything is pared down to give Rourke every square inch of room he needs. And he strides like a colossus across it. None of what he does is terrifyingly original, but all of it is terribly authentic.It really is the full circuit of a comeback. He exalts the piece and in doing so, ennobles himself. The Wrestler is piffle but Rourke’s a hand grenade with a blast radius so immense he takes everything else with it.

* Originally published in Philippine Free Press