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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