The Film:

Oddly, even though this film has already hit our DVD shelves, it has yet to make its debut even on the big screen in America. For the time being here in good ole Blighty, you can rent it on DVD or Blu Ray exclusively at y’r friendly neighbourhood Blockbuster.

If you’ve ever seen its fish-hook trailer, you’ll know the basic set-up. Neeson plays an ex-CIA agent who has given up his career to try and be a better father to his spoiled 17-year-old brat of a daughter, Kim. She goes on holiday to Paris, rings him up when she gets there and is promptly kidnapped, which he hears over the phone. He swears to her kidnappers that he will hunt them down and kill them. Which is exactly what he does.

The appeal of the film turns entirely on Neeson’s performance during this key scene. The pain, rage and hard-eyed determination which flash across his face as he hears her kidnap, is an exemplary piece of acting and draws the viewer wholly into his world. At least for a while.

So, it’s a fantasy. A rescue fantasy. Every daughter’s dream of the perfect dad, who will stop at nothing to save her if she’s in trouble. Accordingly, once he arrives in Paris, he pretty-much Jack Bauers everyone who gets in his way. However, the world his investigations lead him into is a dank, dark, disturbing vision of a man-made Hell … the sex slave trade, depicted in a way which, almost accidentally, makes you as uncomfortable in your complacency as Joel Schumacher’s much under-rated 8MM did deliberately back in 1999.

And there-in lies the film’s problem, for me. If Kim had been kidnapped by one of her dad’s old enemies bent on revenge, or as part of a government conspiracy, or by a camp French archaeologist who wanted to put her in a dress, or in any way befitting a rescue fantasy, then this film could have emerged as a kinetic, powerful, brilliantly executed entry into the action genre.

But, instead, we have these superhero fight scenes and James Bond chases set against a background which depicts, in chilling, disturbing detail, one of the greatest evils in the real world.

The background and the foreground just don’t go together. They don’t belong in the same diegesis.

The world of pale, emaciated, near-corpses chained to beds, drugged into incoherence and raped every few minutes until they eventually die is portrayed so convincingly, you just can’t believe in the heroics of Super Dad. You wonder about the girls he leaves behind, still chained-up. You think about their families. You become sadly aware that any world which could invent such atrocity and suffer it to exist, has no room for such super-heroics.

After which, the dénouement becomes inevitable and irrelevant and, I have to say, more than a little ridiculous.

I can’t imagine this film will do any favours for the French tourist industry as it portrays Paris as an open sore, in which nasty and conspicuously foreign bad-guys thrive. The French writer and director take pains to cut their villains from stereotypically racist Eastern cloth, which allows them to wash their hands of any responsibility for this simplistic, highly-polished but ultimately distasteful attempt to exploit the international sex-trade by making an action-movie out of it.

The Disc:

I watched this on Blu-Ray. The sound is awe-inspiring, with bass notes which verge on the seismic. As for the extras, they aren’t very special. A standard-issue making-of is only interesting because it reveals that director, Morel, adopts the Robert Rodriguez method of film-making, by directing with the camera on his shoulder. He apparently shot every foot of this film himself.

There is also a pointless little five-minute package from the French premier of the movie followed by about twelve minutes of alternate camera-angles on the stunt scenes we’ve already seen.

The oddest and, given the text of the film, most distasteful extra is the Real Time Mission Intelligence feature, which allows you to keep a running count of all the people Neeson has killed and injured in the film (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s lots) interspersed with the occasional satellite map so you know just where in the world he is. That’s in case all the shots of Paris don’t give you sufficient clues, I guess.
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Written by: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Framke Janssen, Arben Bajraktaraj
Cert 15
93 mins


image © 20 Century Fox



Well, who’d’a’thunk it, the Imagine logo at the beginning of serious, intense little political movie!? You have to credit Ron Howard with being brave enough to try his hand at something new. Very much like his mentor and obvious role-model, Steven Spielberg, after frittering away his best years re-making the same tired crowd-pleasers, he’s achieved the status of ‘elder statesman’ and this seems to have inspired him to take a few trips outside his DMZ (Directing for Money Zone). Yes, he’ll aim at stationary targets like EdTV (1999), The Grinch (2000) and Cinderella Man (2005) but, every now and then, he’ll take pot-shots at films like Ransom (1996) and The Missing (2003).

This is his most grown-up film (not before time, he is now in his mid-fifties) and his most focussed. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella share top billing which, whilst The Screen Actor’s Guild might not approve, is only right as they share much of the screen time and all of the responsibility for the film's success or failure.

Sheen, as we have come to expect, gives us an uncannily precise impersonation of David Frost yet, and once again this is very much as usual for Sheen, he manages to project a real, fully-rounded person through the impersonation. His Frost is a vain, ferociously ambitious, morally dubious and internally quite hollow man. Langella, although he lacks Sheen’s physical similarity to his character, very much has the bearing and the manner of the disgraced ex-president. His Nixon is a shameless game-player, with a somewhat-misunderstood dry-as-bone sense of humour, always attempting to project whatever image he feels is in his best interest: shuffling somewhat clumsily from avuncular grand-father figure to wounded lion as the occasion demands. He oozes the caustic confidence which clearly makes him dangerous to those who cross his path.

Frost/Nixon's opening scenes are essentially a montage of interviews with the supporting players, cut together in a manner deeply reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), not least because of the presence of Kevin Bacon (who is in both films). These quotes lay the groundwork for what we are about to see, informing those who never knew, reminding those who’ve had time to forget, of just what the mood was like in America when Nixon committed crimes in The White House and was then exonerated by Gerald Ford, his successor. The American people felt they had been cheated out of a trial and an apology. Sam Rockwell’s character, James Reston, sums this all up with the great line: “He devalued the Presidency and he left the country that elected him in trauma!” Suddenly one becomes aware of the reasons original-playwright-and-now-scriptwriter, Peter Morgan felt the need to tell this particular political tale at this particular time. It is partly good fortune and partly good timing that this film was released in the UK the week our generation’s Commander-in-Thief took a step into long-overdue retirement.

The remainder of the first half of the film concerns itself with the preparations for the interviews; an absolutely fascinating insight into the wheeling and dealing which managed to get Frost, perceived then as merely a chat-show host and something of a has-been (the glory of TW3 very-much in his past, the dire misery of Through The Keyhole very-much still in his future). His ace in the hole throughout this is his friend the BBC producer, John Birt, played with typical pinch-faced solemnity by Matthew MacFadyen. I was working at the BBC in the early nineties during Birt’s frostily puritanical reign as DG and only now, finally, do I understand why such a dull, listless, paper-clip-counter of a man rose to wield supreme executive power. It wasn’t because he’d been separated at birth from the then-Prime Minister, John Major, but because he was trading on the reputation he’d built-up as the producer of The Nixon Interviews.

The BBC Four biopics which have been surfacing on our Freeview screens over the last couple of years (including, of course Fantabulosa! starring Mr. Sheen as Kenneth Williams) may be heavy on the insight and the acting, but they’re light on kinetic energy. To enliven things here and help the film break-away from its stage-bound roots, Howard has borrowed a few tools out of Paul Greengrass’ box. We get whippy editing, we get harsh, cold colours and we get the wobbly, tight-focussed close-ups with the fuzzy objects in the fore-ground that help make essentially dull images of people sitting talking look more interesting.

The period details are deftly woven into the fabric of the film without intruding too much and they are shot so skilfully by Howard’s regular DP, Salvatore Totino, that they make the mid-seventies seem exotic and stylish. Well, I was only a scrap of a lad, but I was there and I don’t remember it being all that glamorous.

As we get into their four extended interviews (there were actually twelve, but this is a movie not a mini-series) we learn more and more about the two men and find that they are, essentially the same. What Morgan realised, and employed as the heart of this drama, is that Frost and Nixon needed each other. Both see the interview as their chance to return to the Big Time. Frost wants fame in America and a red carpet in Hollywood, Nixon wants to talk his way back into Washington. Like Bush, Nixon’s Presidency was under the glare of a microscope which magnified and dramaticised both his strengths and his failings. Of the two, Morgan is probably kinder to Nixon, seeing in him a figure of Shakespearean tragic proportions

Ultimately, the film is about the clash of these two immovable, irresistible personalities and this conflict makes the film’s latter scenes riveting. It’s wonderful watching Langella/Nixon do what politicians do best: avoid answering a direct question at considerable length whilst, like any good orator - Kennedy (John F. not Nigel) , Clinton (Bill, not George) and Blair (Tony, not Lionel) spring to mind – spinning the facts into a great fairy-tale which manipulate the emotions and turn the tables. Watching Frost and Nixon jousting is very much like watching a Rocky film. Nixon wins the first rounds. By knockout. Frost is very much on the ropes, his reputation is entirely on-the-line, the financial burden he personally faces is crippling, meanwhile Nixon is on the crest of a wave of renewed vigour and confidence; then they come to the all-important fourth and final interview …

Inevitably, the weight of the whole production rests equally on the shoulders of Langella and Sheen and it is to the credit of both that they excel under the pressure. Of course, they’d both played these characters on stage in the West End and Broadway so knew them inside out, but that doesn’t make the achievement any less impressive, quite the opposite. While I think it’s understandable that the Oscar Academy have singled out Langella for a nomination instead of Sheen (because they are mostly Americans and therefore have not the faintest idea who David Frost is, so don’t know how fantastically good Sheen’s channelling of him is); I think it’s a shame and simply unfair that the BAFTAs have similarly ignored Sheen’s achievement. It seems that he, like Frost back in the seventies, is criminally underestimated.

Addendum: Not at all as part of the marketing for this movie but purely by co-incidence (!) The Independent on Sunday chose the week of the film’s release to give away a free DVD containing about 70 minutes of edited highlights of the real Frost/Nixon interviews, with about twenty minutes of commentary from Sir Frost himself. These make for a fascinating companion-piece and I hope, when the DVD emerges, it has something similar as an extra so people can compare and contrast the reality to the dramatisation.

The first significant difference is purely an aesthetic one, where the film uses stark side and edge lighting, the TV picture uses flat but far less dynamic studio lights, necessary in the 1970s so the video camera could pick up all the details of Tricky Dicky’s face.

It is actually quite moving to see the real Nixon visibly torn by his dilemma, then deciding to cross the Rubicon, commenting that it was “ … one of those times when you’re not thinking, when you say what’s really in your heart … when you’re not reading a prepared statement.” The real apology is less eloquent and considerably more rambling than that in the dramaticised version, but that’s because he’s off-script, a politician doing what really doesn’t come naturally: speaking openly and honestly, not reciting rehearsed dogma. He admits crying and his voice even cracks slightly when he says “Sorry”. And there it is, the moment when the immovable object was cracked open by the irresistible force.

As for Frost’s modern-day contribution, it’s amusing how much he, now aged 70, looks like Nixon did then at age 74, but his comments do throw some interesting nuggets of information into the mix: Such as the fact that he had grilled Nixon previously, in 1968 and 1970. The film clearly shows that their meeting in preparation for this interview was their first meeting and establishes (for the purposes of creating David and Goliath suspense) that Frost was simply a chat-show host with delusions of grandeur.

So, our generation can only await with bated breath for history to repeat itself … and for Graham Norton to mercilessly bring George W. to his knees on live TV.

Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Peter Morgan
Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Matthew MacFadyen.
Cert 15
Dur: 122 mins

image © Universal Pictures in the UK


This is a big, thoughtful and significant film and, as such, I think it deserves some thoughtful and significant column inches here. As do the one or two matters arising, which I’ll deal with after I look at the film itself.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starts playfully – with a cascade of buttons forming the studio logo like a mosaic, which is not inappropriate since this film is essentially one long, luxurious mosaic of roughly connected scenes which combine to create a portrait of a man who is born very old and lives his whole life gradually getting younger.

It begins in New Orleans in 2005, on the eve of Hurricane Katrina when the historic, mysterious old city is on the cusp of being swept away. Storms run as a motif throughout the film, both natural and literal – like Katrina – or man-made and metaphorical – like World War.

The story then looks back through the previous ninety-odd years. It doesn’t restrict itself solely to New Orleans but, when it does wander away for the occasional protracted aside, it eventually returns loyally home as we all, eventually, return to that from which we reputedly came.

The framing narrative concerns the last few hours on this Earth of Daisy Fuller, explaining her life to her daughter, Caroline, before it’s entirely too late. She begins with an apocryphal tale about Monsieur Gateaux, a blind clock-maker who, during the First World War, builds a clock for the local railway station – a clock which runs backwards. This is his commemoration to his son who, like so many millions of others, was cast away needlessly on the battlefields of France and Belgium. This then offers up a wonderfully-executed visual moment where the film runs backwards, shells unexplode and innocent soldiers undie. This tells us that the nature of the whole film is that of fable and a wistful acceptance of the passage of time. It also shows us that we are going to see some skilfully executed visual audacity over the next 2¾ hours.

Seemingly Daisy’s only possession is a diary, that of one Benjamin Button, from which Caroline, sitting at her mother’s bedside, reads in a motif which bears more than a passing resemblance to The English Patient (1996). With this film as with that, the diary then occupies us for the remainder of the film.

Benjamin was born on the day the first war ended and, in careful observation of Joseph Campbell’s rules, as subscribed-to by most every Hollywood script-writing course this side of Star Wars, his mother dies and his father rejects him, leaving him an orphan abandoned on the steps of an old-folk’s home. Here he is rescued from the bull-rushes (as it were) by Queenie, the young black servant of the house, who instantly takes pity on the old-born.

The boy was born shrivelled and twisted and ancient, riddled with arthritis and given just days to live. But days turn to months which turn to years in the old folk’s home, surrounded by people who are both vastly older and slightly younger than he. The film makes the point that the very young and the institutionalised ancient have much in common.

When Benjamin (now the equivalent of a toddler) starts exploring the home in his wheel-chair, the shrivelled and shrunken enfant terrible becomes something of a surreal creation, drawn at a different scale to the people around him and, of course, heading in a different direction. His huge head wobbling on his tiny frail form, he looks like something out of Chris Cunningham nightmare. Brad Pitt is all-but unrecognisable under the layers of prosthetic and CGI and, presumably, we won’t know quite what is and isn’t him until we get to watch the making-of documentaries on the three-disc Blu-Ray version which will, no doubt, come out in time for Christmas.

These early/late years are dealt with in lavish detail, giving us time to absorb the odd, faintly hallucinogenic air of the film. The other end of his life, mind, is dealt with in little more than a handful of snapshot moments as we head towards the tale’s inevitable denouement, like a car rolling uncontrollably down a hill. Fincher affords Benjamin the consideration he has extended to his other characters by giving the screen-time to his life, rather than his death.

There is what, at first, seems to be a castaway attitude towards death herein. Apart from Daisy herself, the other characters Benjamin meets who die generally do so suddenly. However, alongside this unemotional acceptance of death, comes a celebration of life.

Eventually a teenage/mid-sixties Benjamin cuts the ties and heads off to sea to see the world alongside Captain Mike Clock in his valiant little tug-boat. And so, as the innocent goes abroad, we are reminded almost inescapably of Forrest Gump – another simple man wandering through a colourful world. Fincher would seem to have taken Zemeckis’ crown as the director who is master of sewing extraordinarily complex special effects invisible into the fabric of his films to create a heightened, magic realism. He’s certainly taken his script-writer, since Eric Roth wrote both films (although, it’s worth pointing out, he’s written a wide range of other movies in-between).

Like Mr. Roth, everyone Benjamin meets has a story to tell from which he is, presumably expected to derive a life lesson. In a ram-shackle hotel called The Winter Palace in a suitably snow-bound Russia, Benjamin falls in love for the first time but, in-keeping with the trajectory of his life, this relationship, with a frostier-than-usual Tilda Swinton, takes place entirely during the night-shift, when they are the only two awake in the building.

This is a mature work for Fincher, whose technical abilities have progressively been matched by his creative ambition and his narrative skills since he really started to get it all together with Fight Club some ten years ago. Since this film was quicker to make than Zodiac (2007), it would seem that this tale came to him more easily, yet his lightness of touch is admirable. There is a butterfly-effect-type scene where one event leads to another and so on through several iterations, all making the point, which I’m sure we’ve all mulled-over at one-time-or-another: What if I’d got up late and missed that train or turned that corner and never met that person … how different would my life be?

The special effects are not used to create spectacular set-pieces or toy-manufacturing opportunities, but to paint in the details of a world-spanning, century-encompassing tale with beautifully-rendered detail.

I was particularly taken with the scenes featuring Benjamin in his sixties / twenties where we are presented with the Brad Pitt we remember from Thelma and Louise (1991) and A River Runs Through It (1992). Throughout these brief scenes Brad the-most-beautiful-man-in-the-world ™ Pitt is seen in shadow … not because Fincher couldn’t have CGI’d him up a storm but more, I suspect, to reflect the fact that, even as life’s wear-and-tear falls away from him, he is accelerating towards a point when he will no longer even be an adult, something which Benjamin himself is all-too aware of in the final chapters of the tale.

Clearly this film is a celebration of life, all life, however brief and complicated and abnormal it may appear. I think, if one could boil-down the meaning of this movie into one pocket-size aphorism, it would be the line from the character who repeatedly tells Benjamin: “I ever tell you I been hit by lightnin’ seven times?” On the final announcement of this, he adds, thoughtfully: “ S’God’s way o’ tellin’ me I’m lucky to be alive!” There’s a line that would not have seemed amiss coming out of the mouth of Red in the exercise yard of Shawshank prison. I can think of no greater complement.
Directed by: David Fincher.
Written by: Eric Roth.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton and Jason Flemyng.
Cert: 12A
Dur: 165 mins
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1921)

Having looked at the movie, I thought it worth-while going back to look at the source material of which, I confess, I’d previously never even heard. Since it’s only a short story, it’s a relatively brief read, but offered up these thoughts:

It has often been said that short stories are a better root-source of movie scripts than entire novels, because developing a short subject into a feature-length piece gives you room to add … while converting a full novel is more a matter of removal. Well, with Benjamin Button, much has been added and removed.

The film bears a resemblance to the original story which follows the same trajectory and, indeed, clocks up many of the life experiences just, inevitably, in less detail. There is a mischievous, one could almost say cruel humour about the story’s early chapters, which is not really reflected in the film, but the middle and later years very much follow the tone of the story, building on the air of sadness and the juxtaposition of the long-sought-for youth and the jarring knowledge of its temporariness. Children should be confident and carefree, it is, after all, the only chance they’ll have to be so. But Benjamin’s childhood is tinged with regrets and nostalgias that ruin it for him.
Something else the short story deals with in a very different way is in the way those around Benjamin relate to him. In the film he is rejected outright, then grows in people’s affections. In the story, Benjamin’s father stands by his son and, gradually, all are won over by the perky old man. Although his circle changes as he goes through the chapters of his life, he adapts, but he is unable to remain in anyone’s company for long because the change is too much. His wife and he become estranged when he cannot accept the age difference between them. Revealingly, she is attracted to him as an older man yet when she is the older woman he is repelled by her. His own son becomes increasingly embarrassed and enraged by him, especially when he gets to the point that his father is younger than him. And there is a tragic lack of understanding amongst those who are nearest and supposedly dearest to him … they all think he is aging in reverse deliberately just to be awkward and thusly have no sympathy. None of this is reflected in the film. Indeed, the film’s Benjamin avoids being a parent for this very reason.

The closing bars of the story are no less affecting than those of the movie; We accompany Benjamin as he fades into dementia and his achievements disappear even from his own mind, leaving him alone and unloved yet utterly unaware. Almost a century after the story was penned, this is a fate all too common for those who genuinely have lived a full life.
Read the full story here:

Youth Without Youth (2007)

Further, as I watched Benjamin Button, it scratched away at me that it reminded me of something … Forrest Gump, yes, I’d clocked that, but there was something else. Then, as I wrote up my notes – it dawned on me: Youth Without Youth.

Francis Ford Coppola’s return to the director’s chair after an eleven-year absence, shares many themes with Benjamin Button, but its tone is markedly different. It contemplates life in a colder, more analytical way than BB. This film is not shot through with honeyed sepia tones, its palette is more cold greys and blood reds.

Like BB, Youth Without Youth begins with a clock running backwards and we are introduced to Tim Roth’s aged scientist, Dominic, a man whose greatest regret is that he is too old and frail to complete his life’s work: Of finding the root-source of language. Then, in a moment mirrored almost exactly in BB, he is struck by lightening and he really is lucky to be alive! He is covered from head to foot in burns. But, miraculously, the scar-tissue forms a scab cocoon over him and, when he emerges, he is a young man again (well, younger at any rate – Roth cleverly maintains the gait an demeanour of an octogenarian even when playing youthful).

As with BB, the tale begins at a time of war, which Dominic (like Benjamin) is briefly entangled with and, like BB, this can be seen as one of many storms which punctuate the narrative – one of which results in Veronica, his obsession, being likewise hit by lightening and likewise becoming chronologically charged. Although, in her case, the lightning strike allows her to ‘channel’ an ancient princess who speaks Sanskrit.

Weaving in the philosophy of comparative religions, the power of language, the psychology of the human mind under duress and science-fiction elements concerning the Tesla-esque notion of the transformative power of electricity (also touched upon in The Prestige, 2006) this is a cerebral rather melodramatic film.

Less driven by conventional narrative beats than BB, it does tend to wander and you are left wondering exactly what the 69-year-old Coppola is trying to say about a life’s work. Is it, as one suspects, him looking back over his own career and wishing he’d done more?

Maybe, if he feels that his later work has been disappointing compared to the massive artistic and commercial achievements of The Godfathers and Apocalypse Now, if he feels that his life has been anti-climactic, maybe he should glance at the career of Orson Welles, an equally prodigious, equally significant film maker whose early success and subsequent failure is significantly more marked than Coppola’s own.

Surely Francis can take solace from the fact that he isn’t earning a living in his latter years as a voice-over for frozen pea commercials?

Image © Warner Brothers in the UK.


“And by his wounds we were healed!”

. - Pam (Marisa Tomei), quoting The Passion of the Christ, not Isaiah 53:5.

Darren Aronofsky is a director who doesn’t seem to worry about money matters. The budget for his last film, The Fountain (2006), dried-up when Brad Pitt decided to take an early shower. Hugh Jackman (sans Adamantium claws) is not, it seems, felt to be as much of a box-office magnet as Mr. Pitt. Consequently, the film had to be re-worked and made cheaply on, reputedly, half the original $70 million budget. Yes, $35 million is a cheap movie by Hollywood studio standards!

Aronofsky feels that this, ultimately, was to the films betterment (see the interview in Sight and Sound, Feb 2009) so, following this less-is-more principal, he approached his next project with a deliberate intent to spend considerably less. The budget for The Wrestler was reputedly $6 million.

Consequently, the aesthetic of The Wrestler is that of the cinema verité documentary, all hand-held-cameras and available-light in existing locations rather than beautifully-lit custom-built sets. The set-piece scenes seem thrown hap-hazardly together as though the film were being assembled on the fly. Clearly a lot of thought went in to making it all look so spontaneous.

We spend an inordinate amount of time behind Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke, on career-best form) as he stomps, huffing and puffing down poorly lit corridors. We see his grimy, cluttered world over his shoulder and are given ample time to note, in graphic, greasy detail, his straggly suicide-blonde tangle of hair. When he does talk, his expressions range from pained to confused to just plain depressed and he genuinely seems to have no idea what he’s going to say next, which is, let’s face it, the defining characteristic of anyone not reading from a script. In fact, the only thing that this film lacks to make it a real documentary bio-pic is Nick Bloomfield deliberately getting himself in shot as much as possible.

No, unlike Mr Bloomfield’s projects, both Aronofsky and Rourke demonstrate an almost painful lack of vanity in this project. In Rourke’s case, he seems determined to publicly immolate himself on the barbs of his youthful foolishness, as though genuinely humbled by the facial surgery he has undergone to reputedly correct damage that was done to him in the early nineties, when he effectively threw-away his A-List Hollywood-Movie-Star career to become a boxer. He seems to be aware of how monstrous he must seem – especially to his former colleagues in Hollywood, the capitol city of hollow outer beauty.

When Ram tells his daughter “I'm an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me”, tears roll down his rough red-raw cheeks and you feel as though it is Rourke himself speaking to us, the viewers, from the heart. Similarly, looking back at his career, it is easy to hear Ram’s mantra “I hated the fucking nineties” as Rourke’s own! He has reached a point of self-analysis that only those who have aged to out-live their youthful beauty ever need address. When young and desired, he played cruel, careless characters but now, as an older, seemingly humbler man, he tries to imbue his monstrous creations with an inner humanity to contrast the outer dereliction. This role could be seen as Rourke’s shot at creating Hunchback of Notre Dame-type pathos. Well I, for one, fell for it.

Even though this classic come-back tale is almost painfully clichéd in its faithful adherence to the path laid down by Sylvester Stallone (who must have trodden these boards four [or is it five?] times before), you look beyond this to the heart of the movie. Because, by casting Rourke, Aronofsky has elevated these familiar tropes to the level of scarifying confessional and the lengths to which both the actor and the character push themselves, to simply be allowed to entertain us in the only way they know how, are genuinely moving.

Rourke is an actor who has been earnestly trying to earn a place back on the top table for some years now beginning, I feel, with his small but mould-breaking turn as the sympathetic cross-dresser, Jan, in Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory (2000). He followed this with the eerie drug-pusher, The Cook, in Spun (2002) and, eventually, his powerhouse performance as Marv in Sin City (2005), a character Rourke maybe identified with more than we suspected at the time. In Frank Miller’s original comic, Marv describes himself as “The monster in the mirror” and confesses to Wendy “I wasn’t never even able to buy a woman, the way I look”. Neither of these comments is designed to illicit sympathy as Marv, like Ram, believes he deserves his fate.

Then we come to the careworn flower of Cassidy, as played by Marisa Tomei. The Oscar Academy mystified the world in 1992 by awarding Tomei the Oscar for Best Actress for a frankly indifferent performance in an, in all honesty, indifferent movie: My Cousin Vinny. Of course, she was the only American in the running that year, but far be it from me to suggest that this had any bearing on her unfathomable win. Anyway, sixteen years and a respectable if unspectacular body of work later, her career (which, let us not forget, started in 1984 with The Toxic Avenger) has come a long way; culminating in her starring alongside a deserving-Oscar-winner like Philip Seymour Hoffman and taking her clothes off for legendary director Sidney Lumet. This willingness to shed her clothing (if the role demands it, obviously) seems to have brought her to Aronofsky’s attention.

He needed a woman to play the pole-dancer Cassidy in a way that could mirror Randy’s dilemma. She, like him, takes her clothes off to entertain others. She, like him, performs under a pseudonym … which leads to a further, albeit tenuous, connection: her real name is Pam, while his stage name is Ram. Their key connection is that they have both seen better days. The crucial difference between them is that she has a child and this motivates her to get out while she still can, before she gets drawn inescapably deeper into the sex industry. Randy has already reached the bottom before he is forced to get out and, by then, it is too late for him.

What Tomei brings to the role is a strength. She has clearly dealt with disappointments in her life and, of late, has had to confront the greatest challenge any Hollywood actress can ever face … turning forty. She understands Pam inside and out, she understands how hard one has to work to appear younger than one is, and how soul-destroying that effort can be. She projects an air of warmth-in-the-face-of-adversity and brings a level of believable naturalism to the role which perfectly complements that of Rourke. She, like he, is perfectly cast. These are roles which have been waiting for these performers to reach the point in their lives when they were ready for them, which helps you see through the clichéd nature of their roles because, after all, clichés are clichés for a reason … mostly because they are recognisable as truth!

Hang about, you may be thinking, a wrestling movie with a burnt-out old fighter and (almost) a hooker with the heart of gold ... this rings a bell!! Indeed it does. Back in 1991 The Brothers Coen had studio head Jack Lipnick telling their titular hero Barton Fink all about the ingredients of the perfect wrestling movie. Start with an out-of-date movie star known for boxing rather than wrestling (in their case, Wallace Beery) then: “ … I wanna know his hopes, his dreams. Naturally, he'll have to get mixed up with a bad element. And a romantic interest. You know the drill. Romantic interest, or else a young kid. An orphan.” (Barton Fink, by Joel and Ethan Coen, script published by Faber and Faber) Where, in The Wrestler, you may be wondering, is the orphan?

Cue Adam. He’s not really an orphan; he’s just the kid who lives in the next trailer along in the trailer-park that Ram calls home (when he can pay his rent and actually get into the place, that is). During one delightfully pathetic scene, Ram invites Adam in to play on his twenty-year-old Nintendo 64, because the high-point in his career was his fight with ‘The Ayatollah’, which made both combatants famous enough to have a game developed for them.

Moments like this shine through as gems in this grimy, rough tale. Whilst it seems underplayed and seemingly lacking narrative drive it wanders, like Randy, through a derelict, dirty, downtrodden world, looking for a ray of sunshine to knife through the lifeless slate-grey skies. Inevitably, the tempting glimpse of a ‘re-match’ seems to be that light but, on its way down this tried-and-trusted narrative track, the film takes some memorable detours. There’s the scene where Ram sits in a signing session and looks around at the other wrestling legends in the hall, with their grey hair, walking sticks and wheel-chairs, and clearly thinks about his own future; or the sweet sequence where he takes Cassidy to a bar and dances for her a change; whilst my personal favourite is the easy-to-miss moment when Ram is walking down another of those long, winding corridors, wearing a white-coat and a hair-net, ready to face the ignominy of working on a deli counter just to make ends meat (!) … While in his head he can hear the crowd chanting for him, waiting for him to emerge into a very different arena.

All of which brings us to the fight scenes themselves. We see these being loosely rehearsed in the locker-rooms back-stage by men who know full-well they are there to entertain a crowd by seeming to hurt each other without actually doing so. These scenes are made all the more convincing by the simple expedient of having the wrestlers played by real wrestlers, who also presumably worked as technical advisors on the film, to ensure its obvious accuracy.

These scenes are clearly hard work for Rourke (who is now well into his fifties, let us not forget) but then that just adds to our empathy with the suffering of Ram. But the film isn’t about the fighting, it’s about the fighters; which is why – in a real deviation form the Rocky Balboa path - The Wrestler doesn’t save it’s big fight till the finale but instead plonks it at the end of the first act. This is what I believe is referred-to as ‘a Hardcore Deathmatch’, where the combatants hit each-other with furniture and various house-hold implements, most of which are wrapped in barbed–wire. There is also, most disturbingly, an industrial stapler with which they punch repeated holes in each-other’s skin.

This sequence is quite shockingly brutal. There is considerable bloodletting, reminding us of the visual and metaphorical similarity between fighters and raw-meat. What we have is the reality of the WWE-type pantomime we happily let our kids watch on TV. This is the brutality that exists one-step away from the TV cameras. These are the gladiators who are, quite literally, being sacrificed for our entertainment.

This Deathmatch sequence is genuinely hard to watch, in the way that Jennifer Connolly’s degradation at the end of Aronofsky’s own Requiem For a Dream (2000) also made you want to look away whilst, of course, leaving you entirely unable to do so. I think the fight here is all the harder to watch because Ram seems so unprepared for it. He goes into the ring willingly because, by his very nature, he won’t back down, but he has no idea quite what he is letting himself in for. Neither did I.

I wonder, when he signed on the line, if Mickey Rourke knew quite what he was letting himself in for. Simply another step along the comeback trail? Another chance to beat himself up on film (metaphorically, at least, since other wrestlers were hired to do that literally)? Did he, quietly, in his heart, think this was his big shot at an Oscar? Well, we shall see if it is. But, what is undeniable, is that his stock is now definitely in the ascendant and he’ll be able to name his own price from now on. If nothing else, The Wrestler has offered Mickey Rourke the chance to successfully demonstrate to a cynical world that he really is the fighter he has always believed himself to be.
If he never made another film, this would be as appropriate, elegant and elegiac an achievement as any actor could wish for. Whether he wins or loses on Oscar night, you have to admire him for having the strength and determination to get back in the ring.

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Robert Siegel.
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and John D’Leo.
Cert: 15
Dur: 109 mins

Image © Optimum Releasing in the UK.


Let me introduce myself, I'm a man of worthless taste.

In a previous life, I wrote hundreds of magazine articles for dozens of magazines, reviewed over a thousand films on various BBC wireless stations and wrote a slack handful of books on the works of various directors.

Then I ... well ... I pretty much decided I'd done enough of that. I'd scratched that particular itch.

I had a stab at running an art-house cinema for a couple of years. This was an horizon-expanding experience but, regrettably, the job had very little to do with the actual films and much more to do with being a grown-up. The shirt and tie never suited me.

I went off and taught Film Studies instead. Made it fun. Took diabolical liberties with the syllabus. Failed to do any of the paperwork that mounds up around teachers and stops them seeing the point of teaching anymore. Never had a student fail.

I learned a lot from those seventeen and eighteen year-old sages. They reminded me about how movies looked to me when I was their age, in the early eighties, falling in love with my first movie mistresses.

It's important to remember why you love something ... especially when it is something as mercurial and evolutionary as movies. Or film. Either will do.

That's why, as I begin the inevitable process of buying all my favourite films AGAIN, this time on Blu-Ray, I begin to evaluate exactly why I love them and why I feel the irresistible urge to pay money for them for the third, fourth or umpty-tumpth time. Along with this rumination comes that old familiar feeling. That itch that I haven't felt for the thick end of a decade.

And so, now we're at the thin end of 'the noughties', within sight of another of those science-fiction dates - 2010 - I've decided to scratch that itch once again, right here ... By unfurling my worthless opinions through the medium of 'blog.

If you feel a burning desire to take my tirades to task, please bear in mind two things: Firstly, the name 'Cellulord' is meant to be sardonic rather than dogmatic, I'm not lord of anything really; and secondly ... something that I always try to remember:

" ... Opinions are like assholes, honey. Everybody's got one and everybody thinks everybody else's stinks."

(Charles Durning, 'Home For The Holidays', 1995)

That being so, this 'blog is consequently like my asshole.

Sorry, but there it is.