Thursday, January 8, 2009

Film Round-Up for January

This previously appeared in the January issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission.

In the latest edition of the Film Round-Up: Thompson and Hoffman charm; Rourke makes a strong case for the Oscar (while Marisa Tomei is still de lovely), Danny Boyle gets it right, and a big festival winner is worth the hype.

The Wrestler (Dir: Darren Aronofsky). Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Barry, Judah Friedlander. Former star wrestler Randy "the Ram" Robinson, now reduced to reliving his glory days in school gymnasiums and American Legion halls throughout New Jersey, gets one last shot to partially recapture his 1980s heyday--but his poor health and the pull of real-world stability in the form of an estranged daughter (Wood) and a single mom/stripper crush (Tomei) contribute to a fierce internal battle. Believe the Oscar buzz for Rourke, who is absolutely fantastic. Not only does he look the part with his craggy façade and stringy hair, he fully brings to life every facet of the Ram's loser ways without resorting to depressed theatrics or hurling pity at the audience. It's an achingly human performance. Tomei and Wood are both first-rate, fleshing out their characters to show the substance and small progress of Ram's stagnant, self-destructive life. Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), to his credit, stands back and lets the details tell the story--the duct tape on Ram's jacket, his daughter clutching his arm, and his best girl's last look before he faces his fate. One of 2008's best was written by Robert D. Siegel, the former editor-in-chief of The Onion. R ****

The Class (Dir: Laurent Cantet). Starring: François Bégaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Laura Baquela, Cherif Bounaïdja Rachedi, Juliette Demaille. Winner of the prestigious Palme d' Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Cantet (Time Out) examines the working year of a French high school teacher and his two dozen students. We see the kids bicker with each other, work on assignments, and how the teacher (author Bégaudeau, who taught high school at one point) deals with it all. Despite the lack of apparent activity, this largely improvisational film is compelling as we see power and class struggles unfold among people confined to one place. The teacher is far from an authority figure, but a fallible human being trying to keep up with 24 restless, inquisitive souls of various ethnicities. Cantet refuses to assign blame or heap superlatives on any character, opting for a documentary-like style that gives credibility and honesty to what happens onscreen. Some may call the movie a parable for world politics, but it's terrific at face value, an example of real-life, understated filmmaking gone right. R ***

Last Chance Harvey (Dir: Joel Hopkins). Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, Eileen Atkins, Liane Balaban, Richard Schiff, James Brolin. His career hanging by a thread, sad-sack American jingle writer Harvey Shine (Hoffman) travels abroad for his estranged daughter's wedding. He should have stayed home. Humiliated by his happily remarried ex-wife (Baker) and shunned by the bride-to-be (Balaban), Harvey then gets stuck at Heathrow. Oh, and he loses his job. Desperate for a friendly ear, he starts chatting with a lovelorn airport worker/aspiring writer (Thompson) who's also at the end of her rope. The two hit it off and wind up spending an impromptu and redemptive night together in London. Yes, the story is slight and is pretty much an AARP version of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but the two leads' bottomless charm allows you to overlook the weaknesses while celebrating their characters' second chance. Schmaltzy and predictable, but Hoffman and Thompson's splendid performances make it impossible to resist. A lightning-quick running time also helps. Director Hopkins also wrote the script. PG-13 ***

Slumdog Millionaire (Dir: Danny Boyle). Starring: Dev Patel, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Hemant Chheda, Madhur Mittal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor. While competing on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, 20-year-old street kid Jamal Malik (Patel) goes on an unprecedented hot streak. The key to his success isn't that he's a genius or even an avid reader--he just answers the increasingly tough questions by recalling the arduous, sometimes horrific, events of his young, vagabond life (with Chheda and Mittal playing Jamal as a boy and teenager in flashbacks.) At the center of Jamal's remembrances, and his appearance on the hit show, is the search for his true love (Pinto). Relentlessly entertaining and full of moments both heartbreaking and triumphant, Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) never takes his foot off the gas, but the characters always remain painfully flesh and blood. That Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy balance a breakneck, gritty story and a storybook romance, without compromising either, constitutes a minor miracle. Among a great cast, Kapoor nearly steals the film as the manipulative game show host with zero sympathy for Jamal's hard-luck past. R ****

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