by Brett Parker
Last year, as I presented my list of the best films of 2007, I couldn’t help but note what a “gloomy” year it had been at the box office. Of the films I singled out, I wrote how they were “skilled and wonderful films that showcase rather dark and bleak aspects of humanity and society…it seemed mostly cloudy with very little sunshine…these darker times produced darker films.” If 2007 was a negative low point for America, then the films of that year couldn’t help but be a reflection of that.
As I looked over the films from 2008, I noticed a curious theme running throughout them: redemption. As America tried to pull itself out of the darkness and towards a new era of hope, it seems that cinematic characters were also trying to fight there way out of an unfortunate situation towards a new ray of sunshine. If you watch the films on this list, you’ll notice a careless war profiteer who decides to save the world from his own mistakes, a washed-up wrestler trying to create a decent, respectable life for himself, and narcissistic actors banding together in a jungle and looking out for each other. People want to pull themselves out of the wreckage and towards a healthier way of life and these film characters with the same ambition truly helped to inspire us in that goal.
If that wasn’t enough, this also seemed like a year in which most genres of film got a lot of things right and reached new, exciting heights. Of course, the dramas were splendid as always, but the superhero movies were more thoughtful than usual, the summer blockbusters were actually exciting, and, get this, comedies were actually funny this year! I can’t remember the last time I laughed at so many movies in just one year! So as 2008 descends into our memories and we march on through the awards season, I’d like to take some time to celebrate my favorite films of 2008:
1) Iron Man
In my original review of Iron Man, I wrote that “when it comes to great superhero movies, Batman Begins and Superman Returns are still the ones to beat.” I posted my review then I went to see the film again. And again. And that’s when I realized that Iron Man clobbers those two films to become the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen. It shows dramatic depths we never really sensed in this genre before yet it still knows how to have action-packed fun without insulting our intelligence. The bruised heart of the film lies within the fantastic performance from Robert Downey, JR. as Tony Stark, the hard-partying weapons billionaire who does serious soul searching after escaping from Afghanistan terrorists and decides to right all the wrongs he unleashed on the world. The performance is both hilarious and heartfelt at the same time and is a true triumph for Downey. I guess sometimes you have to see a movie multiple times to soak in how special it really is, and that certainly is the case with Iron Man. It’s a display of numerous things I go nuts for at the movies, and while everyone is on The Dark Knight bandwagon, I’ll take Tony Stark’s swagger over Bruce Wayne’s frowning any day of the week. I place Iron Man at the top of my list because, as Stark himself tearfully stated, “I know in my heart that its right.”
2) Cassandra’s Dream
While exploring his usual themes of morals, murder, and class, Woody Allen has crafted one of his most compelling and entertaining pictures ever. In telling the story of two London brothers who resort to murder in order to fix their financial woes, Allen explores territory he already covered in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, yet this time there’s more complicated weight and raw emotions involved. As the two brothers, Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell display some of their best work; reminding us what talented actors they are in the firs place. Most critics weren’t very kind to this film, but I was absorbed into this drama from start to finish and I honestly didn’t know where the film was going to take me as it unfolded. It’s a superb example of Woody Allen doing what Woody Allen does best.
3) Shine A Light
What happens when the coolest rock band alive and the coolest filmmaker in America team up to make a concert film? You get Shine A Light, the best-looking concert film ever made! The legendary Martin Scorsese assembled a team of top-notch cinematographers (John Toll, Robert Richardson, Andrew Lesnie) to capture an electrifying performance of the Rolling Stones at the Beacon theatre in New York. The result is spell-binding. Scorsese wisely avoids interviews and commentary to highlight the band’s significance, letting the music (and wonderful archival footage) speak for itself. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of the Stones and the visual mastery of Scorsese. Leaving the theatre, I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a filmmaker or a rock star! It’s only rock and roll, but I like it…a lot!
4) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Critics have knocked this flick for being nothing but a mindless effects romp that doesn’t live up to the sequels. I think those cats need to get over themselves and realize how special it is that Harrison Ford can still rock the fedora and the whip while Spielberg can still bang out a blockbuster thrill-ride like the old days! After years of imitators and wannabes, the man in the hat still manages to keep things fresh and exciting. As an aging Jones battles to restore an ancient artifact to an Amazon kingdom, the filmmakers try new things yet still honor the Indy formula we’ve come to know and love. The action scenes are pulse-pounding, the addition of young buck Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) is super cool, and I loved the film’s play on 1950s B-Movie formulas. The hacks and haters need to stop knocking escapist fun and realize that Crystal Skull truly is the return of the great adventure!
5) The Dark Knight
The Empire Strikes Back of superhero films, Christopher Nolan’s epic takes the superhero genre into morally complex and darkly dramatic territory we never dreamed possible. As Batman wrestles with personal demons while waging war on a crazed anarchist named the Joker, Nolan has crafted a rich and relevant tale that transcends comic pop towards human tragedy. We get the usual action thrills (filmed to perfection) familiar of this genre but get blindsided by startling drama that shows Batman wrestling with moral dilemmas as he may in fact be crossing the blurred line between right and wrong. And of course, there’s the now-legendary performance by the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, taking the famous pop villain to new and terrifying heights. Ledger perfectly captures the character’s calculating madness and criminal genius, creating a tour de force performance that represents the nightmarish center of this fascinating new superhero world.
6) Role Models
So we’ve all heard the age-old argument that good comedy is considerably harder to pull off than good drama, yet good drama is always getting praise and awards while good comedy gets taken for granted (Patrick Goldstein shed wonderful light on this in his article, “Why are the Oscars a comedy-free zone?”). With that in mind, I decided to reserve a spot on my list for the funniest comedy I’ve seen all year. That honor goes to Role Models, a laugh-a-minute work of hilarity that is damn near comic perfection. This story of two lost grown-ups forced into mentoring wacky misfits in a Big Brother-type program may look and feel like a sitcom, but its one of the funniest sitcoms in recent memory. The casting is perfect, the one liners are gold, and the laughs keep coming in waves from start to finish. The most surprising thing about the film is how touching it actually turns out to be. I was genuinely leveled by the moment Paul Rudd tells his little’s parents that “I’d be psyched if he was my kid.” I also can’t remember the last time a comedy started off like Big Daddy and ended up like Lord of the Rings. I hope David Wain and his Statesmen have ten more comedies in them!
7) The Wackness
The Wackness is a highly enjoyable and realistic teen dramedy that wonderfully captures the good, the bad, and the hilarious when it comes to teenage angst. The film is a funny and vivid look at a New York teenager named Josh who deals pot to pay the bills, hangs out with his depressed psychiatrist suffering from mid-life crisis, and begins an innocent romance with that same psychiatrist’s daughter. In depicting a teen romance, the film is more observant and sincere than we’re used to, but it’s in the plot’s views of male bonding where things grow truly special. As Josh ponders life’s mysteries and anxieties with his wacky shrink, Dr. Squires (a work of skilled goofiness from Ben Kingsley), it becomes touching how these two lost souls look out for each other and try their best to show encouragement all while battling endlessly with their own angst. All of this is done to the most wonderful hip-hop soundtrack that beautifully captures the 1994 period in which the film is set. The Wackness may tread familiar territory, but we can’t remember the last time a film like this was filled with such honesty, wisdom, and hilarity.
8) The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke is an actor who started off his career with promising glory then irresponsibly let it squander, finding himself taking work in low-level dreck on the outskirts of Hollywood. The Wrestler marks Rourke’s glorious comeback, bringing heartache, longing, and sincerity to the role of washed-up wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a character so close to Rourke himself that the film can be viewed as a metaphor for his own career. Rourke brings such starling identification and genuine anguish to the role that it achieves a vivid cinematic honesty worthy of Brando and Mastroianni. Aside from Rourke’s amazing performance, Director Darren Aronofsky uses a shoe-string indie style to brilliantly capture the behind-the-scenes workings of professional wrestling that has never been captured before in a fictional film. The film may not be as visually dazzling as his previous works, but it’s just as gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. Yet this is Rourke’s show, crafting a powerhouse performance I really hope wins him the Best Actor Oscar.
9) Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a rich, vibrant film that can be called many things: an energetic adventure, a unique exploration of the mythic Indian landscape, a colorful tale straight out of Dickens, a rag-to-riches underdog tale. But it’s ultimately a love story of longing and sincerity that penetrates the grinchy walls over our souls and punches us straight in the heart. I can’t remember the last time a cinematic romance got to me this good. Like Oliver Twist or Huckleberry Finn, this is a grand canvas tale pieced together by fascinating episodes that build towards an enormously appealing adventure. Boyle, with co-director Loveleen Tanden, has a colorful eye for the Indian landscape and knows how to make this material spring straight from the heart and avoid being cute and convenient. And just try and resist the Bollywood dance number at the very end!
10) Tropic Thunder
Ben Stiller’s epic comedy is a manic and energetic clash between the formalities of Hollywood filmmaking and Stiller’s unique brand of insane silliness. The film is a brutally honest send-up of all things Hollywood, with everything from movie trailers, method acting, to studio heads getting targeted by Stiller and basked in his relentless goofiness. The film is more crazy than funny and we’re in awe of the film’s audacity for going over-the-top. This feeling is jaw-droppingly captured in a supporting turn from Robert Downey, JR. as an Australian actor who has his skin dyed black to play an African-American Vietnam soldier (there’s a certain irony in Downey being nominated for an Oscar for playing an Oscar-hungry lunatic). And nothing can prepare you for Tom Cruise as a fat, bald, foul-mouthed, ghetto dancing studio head that damn near steals the show. Tropic Thunder is all the loony fun you could ask out of a Ben Stiller opus, this time elevated by its accurate Hollywood observations.
-Rachel Getting Married
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
Defiance is the kind of movie we’ve been waiting for Edward Zwick to make for years. Zwick has spent his filmmaking career telling strong tales of ethnic or minority struggles (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) through the eyes of Caucasian protagonists. In telling the story of Jewish outcasts who fought back against the Nazis, Zwick finally places a minority group in the forefront and makes them heroic and inspiring characters. Of course, there was really no other way to tell this story, but at least it shows a change in his method.
The film depicts the remarkably true yet surprisingly under-documented story of the Bielski brothers, Jewish brothers who resisted and fought back against the Nazis during World War II. As the Nazis carry out their occupation of Poland during the 1940s, countless Jews are imprisoned or slaughtered. This includes the family and loved ones of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber), and Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell). Angry and terrified, the brothers decide to flee into the forests surrounding their town and plot revenge as they hide out. The Bielski brothers are too strong-willed to just sit back and let the Nazis destroy their lives. They decide to take matters into their own hands by forming a makeshift guerilla militia that rolls down into the towns at night and executes Nazi officials and all who assists them. By day, they try to create an environment in the forest in which they can live peacefully.
Word of the Bielski brothers actions spread throughout the groups of Jewish refugees scattered about and soon enough, countless amounts of survivors find their way to the Bielski’s section of the forest and they too want to hide out and live in this new community. With assistance from Russian Partisans also hiding out in the forest, the Bielski’s attempt to build a new functioning society in which these Jews can live comfortably in the woods by building their own shelters and finding their own food. However, this proves taxing to do as food is not the easiest to gather for hundreds of people and the cold weather causes sickness to spread amongst the camp. As the Nazi threat draws closer to their environment and the difficulties of a forest life begins threatening their lives, can the Bielskis keep up their protection and hope?
Zwick is no stranger to honestly depicting the struggles of a minority group in a hostile environment. Throughout his filmography, he has depicted blacks struggling with racism, samurai fighting for independence from imperialism, and Africans trying to survive the diamond conflict. While he tells these stories with tact and honesty, he is heavily criticized for telling these stories from the point-of-view of a conflicted white character. His films feature cream-of-the-crop leading white men (Matthew Broderick, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio) whose character’s struggles and heroics threaten to steal thunder from the minority struggles at hand. If these white characters were completely scrapped from the spotlight and these stories were told completely from the perspective of the struggling ethnic groups, we’d have versions of these films that are considerably more powerful than Zwick’s “white man” interpretations. Wouldn’t Glory be more intriguing from Denzel Washington’s perspective? Wouldn’t Blood Diamond be more gut-wrenching if Djimon Hounsou were the main hero?
Of course, Zwick has his reasons for this. In a thick-headed Hollywood landscape that cares only about box office grosses, it is unfortunately easier for minority tales to get greenlit if a glamorous white movie star is attached to the lead. This may not be an entirely negative ideal, for having a big star in a big budget Hollywood film may be an effective way to bring awareness of important ethnic struggles to a mainstream moviegoing public. Zwick is no idiot. It also sense the more you think about it that a white filmmaker trying to make sense of a minority story would have a white protagonist in the lead trying to do the same thing. Filmmakers often project their own ideals and personality into their main characters and perhaps Zwick uses his white characters to project his own hopes and curiosities with these stories.
Now comes Defiance, a story that can only be told properly from the perspective of the Jewish people struggling their way through Nazi-occupied territory. It’s thrilling to see these characters get the heroic depths and dramatics usually reserved for Zwick’s Caucasian leads. I remember an interview with Harvey Weinstein where he spoke of how Exodus was one of his favorite movies growing up. As a Jewish youngster, he was thrilled to see such a glamorous and powerful movie star like Paul Newman play a Jewish hero. I can imagine Jewish people feeling a similar joy at watching Daniel Craig, James Bond himself, play a glorious Jewish action hero, white horse and all! Craig is such a nuanced actor that he nails all the dramatic complexities the role requires, but when its time to turn on the action hero within, he is, off course, a thrilling sight to behold.
When it comes to the film’s action, we can imagine certain sections of this true story being pumped up to please an action junkie crowd. We invite it, though, because very rarely have we seen Jews battle back with full force against Nazi forces (I’m sure Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Inglorious Bastards is going to take that concept to pretty extreme heights!). Defiance suffers a little from lacking the scope and grand perspective of holocaust films such as Schindler’s List, but in its self-contained story, the actors and the filmmakers truly capture these particular Jews as they struggle to regain hope and civility in such a chaotic and tragic section of history. We can see exactly why this story needed to be told and this film needed to be made and great dignity and justice is served to this tale.
It’s also very exciting to see Zwick grow as a filmmaker. With Defiance, he is no longer shy about placing a struggling ethnic group in the heroic forefront. He has abandoned slick and polished camera work to bring a more intimate and gritty view on such an intimate and gritty tale. I hope this film is a sign of a new direction Zwick is pushing towards. If so, he is really onto something special here.
by Brett Parker
Musical biopics over the years have displayed just about every kind of musician there is to talk about. We’ve seen rock legends like Jim Morrison, punk icons like Sid Vicious, and soul pioneers like Ray Charles all get the big screen treatment. However, there really hasn’t been a biopic that focuses on an important hip-hop icon. This is curious, considering how influential and popular this genre of music is. Well look no further, Notorious has arrived and couldn’t have picked a bigger rap legend to take on: the Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls, the man who most consider to be the greatest rapper of all time. I’m very happy to report that the film gets a lot of things right, especially finding the right actor to take on such a hip-hop giant.
The film follows the life of Biggie from his early days in Brooklyn when he was simply Christopher Wallace (Jamal Woodard), a sweet-hearted mama’s boy. Christopher is a good-natured student who quickly gets seduced by the money and hood respect of street hustling and drug dealing. As Christopher develops his hustling skills, he also begins to perfect his freestyle rapping skills. He defeats local rappers in rhyming battles and his book of rhymes makes for genius lyrics. As the drug game grows more dangerous and taxing, Christopher realizes that rapping may provide a more prosperous future. With the help of his clique, the Junior M.A.F.I.A., Christopher records a promising demo tape that he puts in the hands of Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), a producer who decides to make Biggie the face of his up-and-coming label, Bad Boy Records.
Any filmmaker who attempts to film Biggie’s life certainly has their work cut out for them. In order to give full justice to the man, the early street life, the beauty of his music, his relationships with other hip-hop legends, and the full weight of the Coastal feud must all be given equal cinematic attention in order to work. George Tillman, JR. (Soul Food, Men of Honor) attempts to show all this in under two hours and it’s certainly a watchable package. Part of me had reservations with the film’s pacing, which zips by certain passages with the speed of a made-for-TV movie. I wish the camera was more patient and atmospheric with the material in the vein of 8 Mile, another vivid look at the hip-hop world. I’m sure there’s a more dramatic way to present this material, but I’m not sure if it would be just as entertaining and likeable. With Notorious, you certainly get your moneys worth.
The film is at its best when it stays close to Biggie as a person. The major theme within the film is what it takes for Christopher Wallace to be a man. At first he thinks its being a street hustler, which provides money, then he thinks it’s his ghetto fabulous celebrity image, which provides respect and a sense of grand accomplishment. However, it’s through fatherhood, marriage, and social responsibility in which Biggie realizes that being a man means honoring your commitments and being a positive role model. I loved the moment where Biggie is in the studio and smiling over the final cut of his song “Sky’s the Limit.” He realizes he is putting out music that is more mature and thoughtful than anything he’s ever done, and he’s delighted by his growth as an artist, as well as a human being.
The film’s performances wonderfully bring to life the hip-hop personas in Biggie’s world and the myths that surround them. Derek Luke skillfully embodies Combs’ energy and swagger, Naturi Naughton displays the exact sass and sexiness we expect from Lil Kim, and Antonique Smith is a true beauty to die for in her portrayal of Evans. Anthony Mackie is so good as portraying Tupac’s fire and charisma that we wish the film developed his side of the story more. Tupac was Biggie’s equal force in the rap world and here he feels more like a supporting player. Of course, this is Biggie’s movie, but if one wants to accurately convey the weight of the East Coast-West Coast saga, it’s important to establish the full presence of Tupac’s legend. We feel like we’re only getting half the story here. I’d like to see a biopic about Shakur one day.
Now I must weigh in on the man himself: Jamal Woodard, the man with the ever-daunting task of not only nailing Biggie’s mannerisms, presence, and rhyming, but making him a likeable and compelling movie character in the process. No worries here, Woolard nails the role to absolute perfection. He embodies the rap legend so seamlessly that we forget we’re staring at an actor and we buy him as Biggie outright. He bears the overweight swagger, hidden sweetness, and pondering thoughtfulness we’ve always suspected in the man. His portrayal is one of a man who is both a smooth operator and vulnerable child occupying the same body. It’s a true acting miracle.
As a great lover of hip-hop, not only was I thrilled about a Biggie Biopic but I was extremely satisfied that it didn’t disappoint. Biggie’s music played an important part in the soundtrack of my life. I remember when his music was being blared from my high school weight room, when I first saw his “Big Poppa” video on MTV, the disbelief over the report of his murder, or when I bought the CD single for “Sky’s the Limit” and knew I just heard one of my favorite songs. I know many people of my generation who feel the same way about the man and they’ll truly be thrilled out of their mind with this film (especially the scene where Biggie composes “Juicy” for the first time). Notorious does an effective job of capturing a musical legend and the era he occupied, bringing the man himself justice and his fans a great satisfaction. Countless rock legends have had their fun on the silver screen. It’s time for more hip-hop legends to get up there and play.
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
One of the most abused terms in film criticism is when an actor is labeled “the next Marlon Brando.” Usually when a ruggedly handsome actor displays an electrifying mix of vulnerability and intensity, the title is thrown at them like candy. If ever there was an actor who truly deserved this grand title, it was the young Mickey Rourke. Rourke had the exterior of the quintessential tough guy yet had a disarming tenderness and sensitivity embedded into his personality. He spoke in subtle tones, was articulate with his gestures, and when it was time to turn on the intensity, he could make the earth shake. His talents were in full, fascinating force in The Pope of Greenwich Village and Angel Heart, and performances don’t get much cooler than his portrayal of The Motorcycle Boy in Francis Ford Coppola’s grossly underrated Rumble Fish.
I say the young Mickey Rourke because almost everyone knows the unfortunate turn of events the older Mickey Rourke’s career took. As his career was beginning to blossom, so was his arrogance. Rourke’s sense of preparation and professionalism began to deteriorate while his ego inflated to damaging lengths. This reputation exiled him from major Hollywood pictures and into irrelevant dreck such as Double Team and They Crawl. It didn’t help matters that Rourke’s movie star looks began to crumble away due to a short stint in the world of boxing. Although he was washed up and banished to the outskirts, Rourke kept finding work wherever he could, because he was simply and inescapably an actor.
That makes The Wrestler, then, some kind of miracle. The film contains what could in fact be the performance of his career, one that dazzles us with the wonderful talents he displayed in his early career. Rourke fills his character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, with such heartache, sincerity, and longing that his performance holds a brutal honesty rarely seen in today’s cinema. Indeed, there are so many parallels between the actor and the character that the film can almost be seen as a metaphor for Rourke’s own career.
Randy “The Ram” Robinson was once a giant in the world of professional wrestling. He was a championship wrestler whose pay-per-view match with The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller) broke records and became a thing of wrestling legend. However, aging and carelessness caused Randy to fall out of superstardom and he now lives out his career in an amateur wrestling league that occupies small venues. Night after night, Randy throws his battered body around a ring, taking staged beatings from his opponents and even participating in extreme hardcore matches. One night, Randy suffers a major heart attack that almost kills him. A doctor explains to him that if he attempts to wrestle again, he could in fact die.
After his brush with death, Randy tosses away his wrestling tights and makes an attempt at a normal life. He holds down a job serving meat at a deli counter. He tries to create an affectionate relationship with a sweet stripper named Pam (Marisa Tomei), yet she treats Randy more like a paying customer than someone she cares about. He tries to re-enter the life of his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), yet she is furious with his absence from her life. Randy has a disastrous time finding success with a newfound life and decides to get back into the ring for one last match. A reunion match between Randy and The Ayatollah is arranged in New York and Randy cannot resist the glory of it, no matter what the consequences.
It’s truly hard to watch this film without noting the parallels between Rourke and his character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Both are washed up celebrities continuing their craft in the lower ranks of their business. Both men are walking 80s relics past their prime and yearning for the glory days, before things got messed up. There’s a certain irony when Randy speaks of how the 90s sucked. When Randy gives his final speech to a crowd of fans before his final match, the speech nearly breaks the fabric of the film and appears to be addressing the film audience directly. As Randy speaks of being “washed up” and “doing his thing” despite losing “everything you love,” we feel this is truly Rourke emptying his soul on the silver screen. Rourke and Randy are so aligned with each other that this moment, along with many other ones throughout the film, make it hard to distinguish actor from character.
That’s what makes the performance so great. Who else could’ve made Randy such a realistic force of human emotions? Nicolas Cage was the original choice to play Randy, yet Cage’s performance would’ve lacked the startling identification and genuine anguish Rourke brings to the role. I’ve always been a big fan of Rourke and I really hope he wins the Oscar for this performance, the nomination at this point seeming inevitable. Sure, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt are strong in their flashy Oscar-bait performances, yet Rourke has crafted a rare performance of human honesty worthy of Brando and Mastroianni. This is the stuff cinematic legends are made of.
It would be more than enough if The Wrestler was just a showcase of Rourke’s performance, but the film strives beyond that to also be a revealing look at the world of wrestling. The script by Robert D. Siegel gives us a backstage look at the mechanisms of how a wrestling show is created and performed and how the performers interact with each other. We see Randy and his comrades verbally planning their moves and maneuvers, trying out various props, and trading “medications” with each other. Although wrestling is staged entertainment, the smacks and falls are real thuds to the body that make wrestling a brutal form of sports entertainment. This is strongly felt in a sequence in which an extreme hardcore match is meticulously deconstructed, one in which Randy and his opponent beat each other mercilessly with chairs, staple guns, garbage cans, nails, damn near anything that can cause serious damage. It’s a cringe-inducing sequence, one in which the brutality and pain of the sport can be strongly sensed by every member of the audience. Never before has a fictional film captured the world of wrestling so greatly and accurately as it does here.
The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky and is visually different than anything he’s ever done before. Aronofsky’s films (Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain) are known for pushing the creative limits of visual cinematic language, usually presented in kinetic editing rhythms. Here he keeps thing surprisingly stripped down and subtle. The film was done on a very small budget (because no major studio wanted to finance a film starring Mickey Rourke) and is shot in a grainy, shaky cam style commonplace with most shoestring indies. Yet this isn’t just a simple minded indie job, Aronofsky is too sophisticated for that. He actually creates an interesting visual scheme by always having the camera follow directly behind Randy, as if stalking a mythic figure. It’s a neat technique; we get to witness everything Randy is experiencing firsthand while always having him in our view.
Asides from his visual creativity, Aronofsky is a director also known for being unflinching and uncompromising in searching for devastating human emotions. He never makes things easy for his characters, or his audience, and isn’t afraid to break both parties’ hearts. Randy isn’t seen as a saint nor is his life the portrait of uplifting inspiration we’d expect it to be. The foundation of the film’s story has drawn comparisons to Rocky, yet Randy is more flawed and lonely than the Italian Stallion; he lacks a chorus line of encouraging friends and, in the end, there is no Adrian waiting in the wings. While Rocky is an underachiever who gets a miraculous shot at the big time, Randy is a burnout heading for a final and deadly blaze of glory.
In the film’s final scene, as Randy stands atop the ropes and prepares his final leap onto the mat, Aronofsky denies us the final outcome of the match. It’s a wise directorial decision, for the point is not Randy’s destination but the fact that in spite of age, relevance, and even mortality, Randy still battles on. The same can be said of Rourke, and it’s supremely satisfying to see that his battles in the acting world have led him to such a glorious performance. While we don’t know where Randy’s great leap takes him, we hope Rourke’s great leap brings him all the way to that stage on Oscar night.