Saturday, January 24, 2009

Movie Review: "The Wrestler" Is Simply Powerful

by Clarence Yu
The Wrestler tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a professional wrestler 20 years from the peak of his career in the 1980s. Once famous the world over (think Hulk Hogan), he is now reduced to participating in independently staged matches and holding a part-time job to eke out a living.

He is estranged from his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and the only person he can confide in is an aging stripper named Cassidy (Oscar winner Marisa Tomei) who is also past her prime. Unlike Randy, who is living in the past, Cassidy has a firmer grip on reality and is looking to finish her career as she realizes that she cannot sustain her job on her fading looks. Randy, however, is stuck in the past, reliving his glory days by taking steroids to sustain his aging body, and following a regimen that includes pumping iron and tanning himself in a salon to keep up appearances.

A shot at his former glory, a re-match with his former nemesis "The Ayatollah," is derailed by a heart attack, forcing Randy to stop wrestling, instead taking up a full-time job at a deli counter. He faces issues of his own mortality and tries to patch things up with his daughter while attempting to pursue a romance with Cassidy. Things not being so perfect for him, he defies all logic and resumes his match with his former rival in the face of tremendous risk.
Mickey Rourke delivers a powerful performance as "The Ram" — his Frankenstein-like appearance and over-muscled physique belies the childlike tenderness and warmth of the character; the dreary world-weariness, confusion, and emotional pain he projects on screen is so real that it almost seems that he has lived the role. Best known for his role in the erotic drama 9½ Weeks and his critical acclaim as a cool, suave leading man in the 1980s, he completely disappeared from public view to pursue a career in boxing. The last time I saw him in a movie was opposite Don Johnson in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (which despite its tackiness was still entertaining). In playing "The Ram," a role completely against his conventional eccentric type, many have proclaimed this to be Mickey Rourke's comeback, and I definitely agree with this view.

There are just so many good things to say about this film that it completely outweighs its relatively few faults. While the plot is quite simple and has its share of loopholes (there is no emotional closure for the Wood and Tomei characters), the performances by Rourke and Tomei put the movie past this hurdle and keep the viewers glued throughout. Director Darren Aronofsky employs visual surprise to set the tone and pace of the movie. The physicality of Rourke and Tomei is such a sight to see. Tomei lives up to her Oscar-caliber acting (My Cousin Vinny) in her portrayal of Cassidy — go to any sleazy strip club and you will know what I mean by this. Superb cut and paste frame editing, and close, tight camera shots give the movie a semi-documentary feel, making the fine performances seem even more real. Some might expect a Rocky-esque ending, but simply put, there is no hook in this film.

Fans of wrestling will find delight here as the bloodsport aspect of wrestling is revealed with such realism. Those not familiar with wrestling culture will be thoroughly educated. Add to this a stellar soundtrack consisting of classic '80s glam rock gems and an original song by Bruce Springsteen and you've got one hell of a rough and touching movie. This is one you should not miss.

Movie Review: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttom" Has No Merit At All

by Clarence Yu

From my personal notes:

Director David Fincher re-teams with Brad Pitt, who re-teams with Julia Ormond and Cate Blanchett, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Brad Pitt should have won an Oscar a long time ago for his role in Legends of the Fall, when he was still a young actor full of raw emotion. This attempt at redeeming that lost award is obviously framed at capitalizing on Pitt's current super, uber-celebrity status.

To see a movie where Angelina Jolie's hunky, chunky husband is portraying an old man who ages into youth is exactly the kind of clichéd fluff that will capture the hearts of the multitude of viewers that flocked to see Titanic, and will try to capture the minds of those who awarded Forrest Gump.

The premise of the movie is nowhere near the story of the original 1922 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's merely an excuse to create a movie that tries to combine elements of fantasy, a sense of the epic, drama, humor, and love. The result is one big mess of splattered bird droppings, salvaged by excellent make-up and special effects.

Cate Blanchett lays her acting credibility to waste here in a role that would have been more suitable for Lindsay Lohan or Emma Thompson. Brad Pitt tries to channel Val Kilmer, James Dean, finally, himself, but fails miserably. Memo to Mr. Pitt: you will be better off sticking to pretty boy roles (Ocean's Eleven, Thelma and Louise) if you want to win an award. Your asset is your charm and movie star charisma, not this 180-degree turnaround against type. If you do happen to win, I'll quit watching your movies forever.

Why is Hurricane Katrina involved, and what's with the insulting and highly irritating New Orleans-Creole accented narration that you hear throughout the movie? Beats me. Again, a wild guess: Titanic and Forrest Gump.

I'm slowly losing my mental acuity and developing a curious case of narcolepsy in the middle of this long, long movie. I'm half-considering leaving the theater to buy the Back to the Future trilogy DVD to get my senses back to life. But I'm still waiting to see Blonde Brad as he ages into his present state, the way I see him on the front pages of every tabloid publication nowadays.
I'm curiously reminded, out of the blue, of a techniqu used in recording music called backmasking. I wonder what we will see if this movie is played backwards. Does it become a watchable movie at all?

The wretched gift this film gives is its interesting title, which will surely remind me of this unpleasant experience till the end of my days.

For the Academy's consideration: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Case dismissed, no contest.

Book Review: Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas

by Clarence Yu

Any discussion of Barack Obama's message of hope would not be complete without the inclusion of Robert Kennedy, whose life was cut short by an assassin's bullet on June 5, 1968 at the age of 42. Award-winning journalist and Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas chronicles the life of this peculiar man who lives on in contemporary mythology as a figure of tragedy and a symbol of unfulfilled greatness. Drawing on unprecedented access to Robert Kennedy's personal papers, Thomas (who shares the same alma mater as his subject, University of Virginia School of Law), creates the most definitive biography of RFK since Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Robert Kennedy and His Times.

Thomas details Kennedy’s life from his unpromising beginnings as the third son of former Ambassador to England and businessman Joe Kennedy; his rise to power as Attorney General to his brother President John F. Kennedy; his fall from grace following his brother’s death in 1963; his career as a US Senator; and finally, his entrance into the 1968 presidential race under the banner of the Democratic Party.

Insightfully, Thomas examines the transformation of Kennedy through various stages of his life. Kennedy was not a perfect man by any measure, but the circumstances surrounding his life brought out the one thing he was least prepared for: direct leadership. Thomas cites that most of RFK's life had been in the shadows, operating behind-the-scenes, and staying out the limelight in favor of his brother's political ambitions. When the President was dead, Kennedy had two choices: to withdraw from political life, or to capitalize on his dead brother's martyrdom.
He opted, albeit subconsciously, for a third alternative, borne out of an existentialist nature: he suffered, experienced much about loss, and ultimately, in his pain, connected with the American people and much of the world in a way that few other politicians ever could. Thomas' excellent perspective on the matured Kennedy's multi-faceted, often self-contradicting personality gives the reader a closer look at the man who could have been a great President. In this sense, His Life reads like a classical Greek tragedy, like the many that Robert Kennedy himself carried around for inspiration.

Relevant now more than ever, His Life gives readers a profound glimpse into a man who really promised hope in the turbulent world he lived in, but who never had a chance to carry his message into action. To fully appreciate the meaning of hope and change, read and re-read this excellent book.

Movie Review: Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" Rides Like a Charm

Clint Eastwood proves that he is at the top of his game with his latest effort, Gran Torino. Revolving around the story of Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a retired Ford employee and decorated Korean War vet, the movie explores themes of loss, coming to terms, friendship, and ultimately, sacrifice and redemption.

Set in the present day, the film begins with Walt burying his wife of many years. His grown-up children have strained relations with him, and he sets to living out the rest of his years wandering about in his home, tinkering around in his garden, sitting on his porch drinking beer and taking care of his prized possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino. He refuses to fulfill his wife’s dying wish, to confess to a "27-year-old, over-educated, virgin priest."

He is bitter about many things, mainly about how the world has changed from his viewpoint, and how his neighborhood has slowly been encroached upon by a group of Asians known as Hmongs. He has a fast and dirty mouth, and isn’t the type of guy who would waste a second of his remaining days on anything sentimental.

The gangs that roam his neighborhood force Kowalski out of his self-imposed exile. In a twist of fate, the only piece of property that is valuable to him (his Gran Torino) sets the stage for a series of events that chip away at Walt’s hard exterior, ultimately leading up to the most climactic ending that I’ve seen in recent years.

Based on a story written by first-timer Nick Schenk, Eastwood makes the film work mainly on the basis of his screen image. He summons shades of every major character he has played: the tough Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, the jaded, disgruntled cop in Dirty Harry, the widowed avenger in The Outlaw Josey Wales, the terminally ill singer-drifter in Honkytonk Man, the avenging preacher in Pale Rider, the foul-mouthed drill sergeant Thomas Highway in Heartbreak Ridge, and the retired assassin Will Munny called back into action one more time in Unforgiven. The only significant difference in Gran Torino is that the gun that he has held in his hand for so many years has been replaced by, among other things, a finger and a lighter, which plays a major role in the heart-wrenching climax.

Those who are not familiar with Eastwood’s previous work may find this movie bland and politically incorrect, as Walt Kowalski growls and grunts throughout the film, calling out every available racial epithet one can think of. I would then suggest going back and checking out his previous films to get in context with Torino. It is all at the same time dramatic, dark, suspenseful, and surprisingly humorous. But without over-analyzing, the film is simply about one man’s initial refusal to accept change; as he slowly yields, he finds his own redemption.

There are moments in the film that are quite comical, mostly involving Kowalski’s “mentoring” the young Thao (played by Bee Vang), but it is always balanced out mainly by the presence of the other essential characters: the young pragmatic priest (Christopher Carley) who continually hounds Kowalski to confess his sins, and Thao’s older sister Sue (Ahney Her), who introduces Walt to the Hmongs and eventually serves as Walt’s trigger to play out his final act.
Much has been said about Gran Torino being Eastwood’s last acting role. Having watched the film, I wish it isn’t. At 78, he anchors the film with his larger than life presence, displaying blatant machismo, shades of classic humor, and quiet sensitivity, in a role that demands Academy Award recognition. He plays it as he sees it, both as actor and director; you will not find over-the-top, method acting here. Essentially, it is Eastwood playing Eastwood directed by Eastwood, and, all things considered, it is probably one the finest acting jobs he has done thus far. Compared to today’s fast-paced, effects-ridden contemporary films, this movie comes out of nowhere to remind of you of life’s basic mores and values by none other than the anti-hero himself. It is also difficult to find a role befitting a man of his age and stature, so much can be said about Eastwood's nose for the good story by Schenk.

Words like “masterpiece” or phrases like “tour de force” seem clichéd and misleading, so it is hard to summon up a definitive word to describe the themes and feelings that Gran Torino evokes, but there is a piece of dialogue in the movie that mentions the word “bittersweet.” It goes something like this: “It’s bitter because of the pain, but sweet because you’re at peace.” Rest in peace, Clint. But only for a while, because knowing the way you work, you won’t stop.

Movie Review: "Milk" Is Lukewarm

Written by Clarence Yu

Milk tells the real-life story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man ever elected to public office. Based on actual events, the premise of the movie seems inspiring: the struggle of a man representing a hated, minority community who overcomes all obstacles to win representation in government.

Looks can be deceiving, however. The movie's running time just doesn't give enough to build on Harvey Milk's character, aptly portrayed by Sean Penn in a fine performance.

The film, directed by Gus Van Sant, covers Milk's life from 1970 to 1978, the time in which he begins his rapid ascent from a down and out, 40-year-old insurance executive to his final years as a gay/civil rights activist and eventually, an elected public official, serving as a City Supervisor of San Francisco.

While the film enlightens viewers on the career of Harvey Milk, it lacks a certain sort of dynamic tension needed to justify the climax; there are scenes that show a promise of build-up, but then it just veers off into various sub-plots that tend to irritate rather than to punctuate. You just don't get that feeling of victory as the movie ends.

What is good about Milk is its feel for the time and the superb acting by Penn, James Franco, and Josh Brolin. You don't expect an actor like Penn to take on a role like this, so apart from his superb performance, it is a brave one as well. He is consistently sweet and amiable throughout without any of the fits of rage or anger that characterize his previous work. Josh Brolin proves he has the acting mettle to match Penn as he takes on the pivotal role of Dan White. Brolin captures the frustration and mild insanity that the role demands.

With all the hype surrounding Milk, many will expect it to be cheesy in a good way, but get set for a mild disappointment. The film is certainly entertaining, but the scenes could have been woven tighter in a way that would have made the actors' performances really shine. The movie tells the story of an extraordinary man, but there is nothing extraordinary in its telling.

Music Review: Joe Perry - "Run Rudolph Run"

by Clarence Yu
article also available at

Aerosmith’s Joe Perry pays homage to his idol Chuck Berry with his own recording of "Run Rudolph Run", and it’s about time.
According to Aerosmith’s official fan website, AeroForceOne, "Joe has always loved Chuck Berry’s and Keith Richards’ version of this song and has wanted to record it for years now. He also wants to share it with all the fans right here at AF1."
A diverse list of artists who have covered the song include Bryan Adams, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Grateful Dead and Billy Idol, a testament to the long lasting recognition of the song first made popular by Chuck Berry in 1958.
Perry is reputed to be an ardent admirer of Berry, and it shows in his previous guitar work on songs like "My Girl" off Aerosmith’s Pump (1990) and the axeman often employs Berry’s trademark double-stop licks on his own guitar solos.
The recording, available for free download at AeroForceOne, follows the tradition of a swinging, rockabilly beat as previously recorded by Keith Richards. Perry’s voice is ice cool in its lack of emotion, and it is obvious that the recording was engineered to sound like a classic ‘50’s rock and roll song: high on the reverb, with a lot of bar chords, heavy on the crash drum cymbal, with bits of piano flourishes.
Perry adds his own mark on the song with his signature buzz sounding solos throughout the song. An accompanying video recorded for the song can be viewed at youtube.
While the song may only be of interest to die-hard Perry and Aerosmith fans, much can be said about Perry’s gesture of making the song free for download. The legendary guitarist has nothing more to prove, and in making this his gift to his fans, it shows a tender side of Perry that he rarely reveals in the rock arena. It can be viewed then as a simple gift from a human being using his God-given talent. Which is, in essence, part of the true spirit of Christmas. Download it now.