Thursday, April 30, 2009

Spartacus (1960)

Most people know the name Spartacus even if they’ve never seen the movie, or the famous “I am Spartacus” scene it’s most identified with. It now stands as a prime example of the epic film, though a flawed one which shows the strain of contradictory aims. It is also a relatively early Stanley Kubrick film, though it shows less of his influence than he would later be able to assert on his work.

The basic storyline, that of rebelling slaves (starting with gladiators-in-training, but swelling from there), is fairly obviously treated by Dalton Trumbo and by the editing of the film itself, and therein lies one of the biggest problems. The rebellion is boring. We are treated to endless montages of poor faces in the crowd, spread liberally through the film whenever there is space for them, and after the first few the audience should be fairly well aware that slavery is bad and that their rebellion is just. What’s unfortunate to the “cause” is that the Roman “bad guys”—Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov—are far more interesting and entertaining than the too-modern and rather pedestrian Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. The best parts of the film are the conversations between Ustinov and Laughton (supposedly scripted by Ustinov himself) whose easygoing hedonism seems genial and harmless. Of course it isn’t, but it’s far more entertaining than Douglas preaching about rights with stilted language and heroically unrealistic lighting.

Likewise the subtleties of Olivier’s performance—scenes of which were famously cut out at the behest of the MPAA because they suggested bisexuality—are far more interesting than the straightforwardness of the Americans. While no one would argue about who ought to have won, there is a problem when the viewer cannot wait to leave the rebel camp and go back to decadent Rome. Though of course the attraction of the ambiguously villainous over the stolidly heroic is not isolated to this movie, and the work that focuses on a “social problem” (and it seems clear to me that Trumbo meant to evoke some time period more contemporary than ancient Rome) is often preachy and dull.

That said, aside from a few modernisms of speech and a dreadfully dated score, the film remains an enjoyable and thoughtful alternative to the big budget action films of the present to which it is related. Looking back, it definitely shows the strain between writer, director, studio, and censor, and is not quite as “tight” and efficient as perhaps it should be. For myself, all of that is entirely overshadowed by Olivier, Laughton and especially Ustinov, whom I fell in love with from his first scene. While this makes it a very enjoyable film, the fact I can so easily take the perverse view indicates that it does not achieve what it was supposed to, at least for this viewer, and if it is a masterpiece it is a decidedly flawed one. Read more!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

There's something to be said for the pleasure of being surprised by a film, or a book, or even a discussion, about a topic you're not that interested in. It means that the treatment of it, the thought put into it, or the human drama of the situation transcends your own personal likes and dislikes and I, for one, enjoy that sort of surprise. When a film does it with a quiet sort of grace, it's even better.

The Wrestler is Darren Aronofsky's fourth feature film and it achieves the above with simplicity above all else. Just look at the title. A description of the plot doesn't really get across what this movie is about: a pro-wrestler, now fallen on hard times, plots a comeback, befriends a stripper, attempts to get in touch with his adult daughter, and faces the medical consequences of his lifestyle. But that's not the point, because what this movie is about is watching him interact with his world. It doesn't matter what you think about wrestling, because especially in the hands of Mickey Rourke Randy "The Ram" Robinson (not his real name) has an interesting story, worth watching.

It seems to me that Aronofky's chief move here was to direct a movie he hadn't written. While I enjoyed Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, for different reasons, I sense that in his own hands this story (had he chosen to tell it) would have included far too much explanation and imposed meaning. We would have had to know how Randy got to this point, how he lost his daughter, and what it all amounts to in the grand scheme. Instead, we are only shown these things, and left to figure them out on our own. Parallels between the wrestling ring, the topless bar and the deli counter are there, and unmissable, but no conclusions are drawn for the viewer. Likewise, the film maintains a careful balance between showing the artificiality of wrestling along with the severe physical toll it takes. "Wrestling is fake" is a common refrain, but only half the story. And rarely have I seen violence--the relatively "minor" violence of the "fake" wrestling ring--portrayed with so little glorification and, at the same time, so little exaggeration. Again, nothing is shoved in your face, but it's difficult to watch anyway because it's too simply real.

The one misstep I perceived was in the music, which got too saccharine and manipulative here and there for my taste. This movie is so naturalistic and low key that a swelling score (even if there are electric guitars in there) is overkill. The cinematography walked the line between arty pseudo-documentary and hanging back to let the film tell itself, and I thought it worked well. The acting, too, was good without being showy, and Rourke was perfect.

Though this film didn't necessarily touch me deeply (at the time--I think it will linger, and the more I think about it the more effective it is), I wish there were more like it, with this combination of skill, restraint, and trust in its audience. That trust paid off, if the film's reputation is any indicator, and we could use more well-made, quiet, thoughtful films about pretty much anything. Read more!