FILM of the week and other new releases
THE WRESTLER (15) ****
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Running time: 109 minutes
YOU don't see Mickey Rourke's face at first, as if director Darren Aronofsky wants to spare us an ugly truth. But as it turns out, The Wrestler becomes a film that puts both a life and a body out for close inspection. When Mickey Rourke's down-on-his-luck fighter calls himself a "broken-down piece of meat" we can see what he means from the first close-up. He's a professional performer who is 20 years past his peak with heavy metal hair, a face like a bashed orange, reading glasses and a hearing aid. His workout involves visits to the tanning shop, taping up aching body parts and injections of painkillers and muscle growth hormones.
Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is a sob story on steroids. In the Eighties he was a big deal, a golden-god gladiator with his own action figure and video game. Now he lives in a trailer and enjoys playing Nintendo with the local kids, scrabbles for dead-end jobs, and at weekends fights for small change in New Jersey gyms or sits at a table with a sad little stack of VHS cassettes at a sparsely attended event for fans with long memories.
The girl he has a crush on is a stripper (Marisa Tomei), who is almost at the end of her own tether and makes him pay for their time together. His daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) refuses to speak to him. A dodgy ticker forces him to take stock of his life – but when he needs to pull it all together for a big rematch with his arch rival, he may still have a few body slams left in him.
For Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler is practically a homecoming. Here's an actor who has seemed a bit strange in any cinematic setting for at least 10 years because, after a stint as a boxer, his face is somewhat the worse for wear. In his own Eighties heyday he was a rather pretty, fine-boned matinee idol, but now corrective surgery has made his features look like his face has been only partially downloaded. Or like something left too long in the oven. Or as if the cat's had a go at him. Yet in this film, everything that is skewed about Rourke becomes a virtue.
The highlight is a little monologue in which the Ram tells how much he's given the sport and how much the sport has taken from him in return. How people said he was all washed up and treated him with contempt. Rourke brings a world of pain to the speech which blurs the line between Ram and Rourke. If there was ever any doubt, this is an actor.
He's equally deft when Randy is forced to take a job working at a supermarket deli counter with his Sammy Hagar mane bundled into a hair net. At first he's embarrassed, but gradually can't resist putting on a show: "Whaddya havin', good-lookin'?" he says to a startled, rumpled male customer, and makes him stand back to catch his rugby pass order of egg salad.
Part of me wanted to resist The Wrestler because it could easily be described as an arthouse Rocky or yet another of those thinly disguised allegories about how awful it is to be in showbiz after the spotlight has moved on to other, younger, prettier talents. But even though the origins are not inspired, it is accomplished, observant and compassionate about a man pinned on the mat by his own poor choices. The Ram may have a duff heart but this film does not. Acknowledging that the bone-crunching fights may be fake, Aronofsky still persuades us that these bouts are gruelling for the participants. There's blood and guts and little glory when Randy gets lacerated by barbed wire and a staple gun, or slices his forehead open with a razor's edge to make sure he's putting on a gory good show for the crowd. In Oscar season, there are a lot of overblown, portentous films floating around, and a few more deeply felt character pieces. The upcoming Milk is one, and The Wrestler is another: it grabs you in a headlock and doesn't let go.
The Wrestler is released on Friday
SEVEN POUNDS (12A) **
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Running time: 118 minutes
SEVEN Pounds is the latest in Will Smith's series of films where he tries to save us. In I Am Legend he was the last man on earth, prepared to sacrifice himself to zombies in order to reboot civilisation. In Hancock, he's a cranky superhero who stops boozing in-flight because he can fight crime more effectively and help more people. But I'm not sure he can save Seven Pounds, a dreich, perplexing piece that starts with trying to sell us the idea of a do-gooding taxman with a poisonous jellyfish for a pet and continues to stretch our credulity until it snaps like knicker elastic.
It begins with anguished Ben (Smith) calling the emergency services to report a suicide: his own. But if this is the end of his agony, it's just the start for the rest of us as the film flashes back to Ben receiving a mysterious list of "suitable candidates" so that he can start stalking a group of people with a range of medical problems.
Among others there's a gorgeous woman (Rosario Dawson) with a heart problem, a hospital worker in need of a bone-marrow transplant, and a battered housewife in need of an escape from her thuggish husband.
I think I felt most sorry for Woody Harrelson as a blind musician in a terrible wig, although these two facts are not related. Each encounter with Ben is supposed to be intriguing and mysterious, although in reality you would be pressing the special "nutter" button under the desk, not inviting him out for romantic dinners and letting him weed your garden, as Rosario Dawson does. I can't reveal where Seven Pounds is going, but one thing I can mention is that Ben gives away his palatial house to the poor battered housewife, although neither Smith's taxman nor the grateful new homeowner seem to have factored in the impossibility of paying her council tax bill next year.
A couple of years ago, Will Smith and his Italian director Gabriele Muccino released The Pursuit Of Happyness, where Smith played an Eighties salesman and single father reduced to living on the streets while trying to win a high-powered job working on the stock market. Given the terrifying state of our economy, I'm not sure I can bring myself to watch it again, but I'm baffled why they reunited in order to make this Pursuit Of Misery. Seven Pounds is morbid sentiment in concrete boots, a lachrymose production that is too grotesque to be moving even when Hollywood's most bankable leading man is involved. Just as the Eskimos have about 50 words for snow, Smith seems to be trying for 50 ways of expressing pained suffering, most of them involving cryptic looks just past the camera lens.
Smith's charm has lifted other undeserving films, but in Seven Pounds he seems to be playing around with fate and karma as if this was the slowest, dullest, longest episode of My Name Is Earl ever made. Christ-like though his suffering may be, I suffered more.
On general release from Friday
BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA (U) **
This kids' film ends with a brief admonition that adopting a pet is a serious responsibility. It's a rare moment of maturity in an excruciatingly cute dog-out-of-water flick in which a pampered pooch (voiced by Drew Barrymore) has to survive on the streets of Mexico after she is kidnapped by a dog-fighting ring. It's up to grizzled Mexican German shepherd Delgado (Andy Garcia), lovelorn lower-class chihuahua Papi (George Lopez) and the daughter of Chloe's owner, Rachel (Piper Perabo, below), to find and rescue her. A talking iguana, a talking rat and even opera star Placido Domingo are tossed into the mix, but the plot is dry dog food and the jokes suggest few real wags were employed behind the scenes.
Yappy and annoying even at 86 minutes, cat lovers and anyone older than 12 might prefer to imagine an alternative feature: Beverly Hills Cujo.
On general release from Friday
MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (18) **
In this tight economy, studios have been raiding their archives for old, cheapie slasher flicks, and the latest is a remake of the 1981 bloodbath My Bloody Valentine, with Jensen Ackles, right, returning to his hometown 10 years after a Valentine's night massacre that claimed the lives of 22 people. But the plot need not detain us long, since it's purely a belt-and-braces arrangement to facilitate sequences where brains, guts, jaws, blood and pointy things can hurtle towards us in 3D. Possibly a useful escape from the current clutter of films about aliens, talking animals and Nazis, or maybe just a funfair novelty that wants nothing more than to goose you into spilling your soft drink.
On general release from Friday
A CHRISTMAS TALE (15) ***
One of those ensemble films where an entire family hauls its emotional baggage home for the holidays and unwraps it, A Christmas Tale is a vinegary antidote to the season of goodwill from French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin. Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Roussillon are the semi-detached parents who head up the chaotic, exasperating, tragic Vuillard clan. When the news comes through that Deneuve is ailing, the extended kin come home en masse for a holiday full of shouting, food and bed-hopping. A useful potted family history is provided by shadow puppets, while recent Bond villain Mathieu Amalric does a far more intriguing turn as the black-sheep son. It all adds up to a Christmas that may not be exactly merry, but is at least very French.
On release from Friday
CLUBBED (18) *
Based on a memoir by ex-boxer Geoff Thompson, Clubbed gives us a downtrodden factory worker (Mel Raido) who rediscovers his self-respect by becoming a bouncer under the tutelage of Colin Salmon. There's no such redemption for those involved with Clubbed, however. Of course underworld films are supposed to make the mean streets look hellish, but Clubbed makes the whole world purgatorial. Blundering, leaden and utterly unconvincing; it's the kind of badly conceived, tattily executed drama British cinema could do without.
On release from Friday
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