Wednesday, 28 January 2009

There's Life in the Old Dog Yet: Hollywood's New Bruised and Battered Heroes

It’s the comeback that nobody could have anticipated. After 15 years of near-unemployment, Mickey Rourke is a Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated success story for his performance in The Wrestler. The film has already scooped the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and Sight & Sound branded it 'the comeback performance of the year.'

Not only does The Wrestler provide the most unlikely of returns to the big screen (Rourke’s erratic behaviour in the last two decades left few directors willing to work with him), it also heralds an unlikely new genre of Hollywood hero.

Rourke plays ex-pro wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. His former glories far behind him, Randy lives in a trailer, scraping a living by fighting in town halls and working in a supermarket. His body - ravaged by steroids, surgery and sun beds - is starting to give up on him. He wears a hearing-aid and, after suffering a heart attack, has been told never to wrestle again. But it’s all he knows. He’s got issues, and has made mistakes in the past that have rendered him friendless and with a daughter who hates him (Evan Rachel Wood). The only person he feels he can talk to is an ageing lap dancer (a still-foxy Marisa Tomei, who invests her character with a warmth and sincerity that lifts her above the usual ‘tart with a heart’ cliché).

Randy is devastatingly flawed, and that’s why we love him. There isn’t a dry eye in the house when he tells his daughter: ‘I’m an old broken-down piece of meat, and I deserve to be all alone.’ He personifies the type of imperfect male lead that a world bombarded with headlines of war and recession can relate to.

Some critics found it hard to sympathise with the character of Randy. There’s a reason his daughter hates him: he has let her down repeatedly throughout her life and, despite claiming to be reformed, does so again in the film. Why should she give him another chance? The fact is, he doesn’t deserve one. But this is exactly why his character is so identifiable to anyone with regrets in their life.

The other Golden Globe picked up by The Wrestler went to Bruce Springsteen for Best Original Song. In his acceptance speech, he told how Rourke had explained the character of Randy thus: ‘Some people invest themselves in their pain. They turn away from love and things that strengthen and nurture their lives. This was a guy that hadn’t figured that out.’ Springsteen added, ‘I know a couple of those guys.’

This is not the time for men who moisturise, or personality-free heartthrobs like Orlando Bloom or Zac Efron. Handsome, one-dimensional leading men are nowhere to be seen on the film release schedules for 2009. Nor are self-satisfied heroes who always get the girl. They just don’t fit in with the current mood.

And it’s not only in fiction that this development is apparent. One of the biggest hits of last year’s festival circuit – and getting its UK release next month – is Sacha Gervasi’s documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. The film follows obscure heavy metal act Anvil as they attempt to resurrect the glory days of their music career. When we first meet lead singer Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow, he’s working for a catering company in scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wrestler. He’s at his lowest ebb, but is determined not to give up on his dream, even when he has to hide his flowing rocker’s hair under a regulation hairnet, just as Mickey Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ has to when working on a supermarket deli counter.

Documentaries with flawed heroes – like Anvil and the forthcoming Tyson (although, as a convicted rapist, Mike Tyson is certainly more flawed than heroic) – are potentially more powerful than fictional tales, as they have a real struggle at their heart. However, in The Wrestler, the viewer gets the sense that Randy’s story somewhat echoes Rourke’s.

Indeed, after the success of films such as Nine 1/2 Weeks and Angel Heart in the ‘80s, Rourke renounced acting to become a professional boxer in 1991. Three years later he announced he wanted a 'second chance' from Hollywood, but that chance failed to materialise, perhaps because of his difficult reputation. ‘Working with Mickey is a nightmare,’ said Angel Heart director Alan Parker at the time. ‘He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do.’ Apart from a small role in 2005's Sin City, it seemed that, much like Randy himself, Rourke was all washed up. But now his been-there-done-that face is the face that fits. Rourke has said that he could relate to the 'shame and disgrace' of Randy's life. When accepting his Golden Globe, he described the struggle of bringing the film to the big screen: how director Darren Aronofsky couldn’t get financing with such an unbankable lead, how Axl Rose let them use Sweet Child of Mine for free and how they didn’t even have a distributor when they turned up to the Venice Film Festival last year. He rounded off his speech by thanking ‘my dogs’ because ‘sometimes, when a man’s alone, all you’ve got is your dogs.’

The ultimate rough-around-the-edges actor (and Oscar stalwart who, surprisingly, isn’t nominated this year) Clint Eastwood is back next month with Gran Torino. He directs and stars as Walt Kowalski, a miserable, racist old Korean War veteran. Like Randy, Walt has made mistakes and is living with the consequences: a lonely existence, estranged from a family who can’t bear him. His only company is his dog, Daisy.

The film has received such a warm reception in the US that it has given Eastwood his biggest-ever opening weekend. Like Randy, Walt is a perfect icon for an audience worried and exhausted by a steady stream of bad news. And, with the world in the state it’s in, it looks as though these redefined cinematic models of masculinity are here to stay.

While there may not be many upsides to the worldwide recession, at least it’s providing us with some remarkable and complicated heroes.

Rosamund Witcher

Friday, 23 January 2009

‘The Macabre and the Monotonous': Joel & Ethan Coen’s Fargo revisited

You know those moments in life when tragedy has a cruel humour to it? Don’t you find it hard to stop your lips curling into a smile at such times – even though it’s awful and you know you shouldn’t? Nobody would want their life reduced to a cruel joke, but it happens.

Released in 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo explores this comedy of cruelty. The film deals with a horrific series of events surrounding Jerry Lundegard’s (William H. Macy) hair-brained scheme to have his wife kidnapped and acquire the ransom money. Almost immediately, and in true Coen style, this scheme spirals out of control. We know it will from the start and can predict the inevitable and violent catastrophe from the moment we first meet the protagonists. The kidnappers for hire (Steve Buschemi and Peter Stormare) seem blasé and distracted, with little regard for the lives of others and Jerry is an idiot for trusting these men. Jerry himself is a walking disaster who’s spiraling coil of lies lays the foundations of his ultimate downfall.

The sea of calm throughout Fargo is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a heavily pregnant local sheriff who becomes involved when the two kidnappers end up shooting a local lawman. Amid all the bleak horrors of the film Marge remains at ease and unaffected, able to treat the murder case with the same degree of level-headedness and reassurance that she applies to her husband’s worries over the local stamp art competition. Without Marge the film’s nasty events would become overblown, but the intermittant snapshots of domestic life with husband Norm, and their encapsulation of an idealised American existence gives the film its wry edge and provides a safe haven and anchor to the madness that swirls elsewhere in the story.

As terrible events unfold with appalling inevitability and the body count of innocents rises, the Coen brothers continually make evident the desperately funny side of things. As in life, dramatic incidents take place alongside the mundane and everyday. This contrast has been illustrated in films before, though none have portrayed the ridiculous absurdities of the world we live in as brilliantly and brutally as Fargo.

For example the scene in which Jerry’s wife, Jeannie (Kristin Rudrüd), is kidnapped develops into bizarre and disturbing slapstick. Trying to escape her kidnappers, she runs about with a shower curtain wrapped around her like a headless chicken, and, terrible though her fate is, we cannot help but find the scene darkly amusing. This is echoed later when, taken from a car, she again tries to escape. Her hands are tied, she is hooded and has no idea where she is, yet still she runs about frantically in the snow before collapsing in an exhausted heap. Put in a situation so far removed from anything she has experienced, Jeannie cannot cope. This illustrates the main conceit of the film: the juxtaposition of Jeannie’s apple pie and white picket fence existence with that of the ruthless and violent social underbelly the kidnappers inhabit.

Through this juxtaposition Jerry is consistently mocked by the Coen’s; at one point, after a meeting with Jeanie’s father about the situation, which leaves Jerry bleak and desperate, a waitress, wearing her sweetest, fake smile, asks, ‘And how is everything today?’ Which, of course, only serves to sharpen the appalling nature of Jerry’s predicament.
Instances like this create an often-hilarious counterpoint to the more action based narrative of the film. The audience is shown Jerry’s agreeable ‘home grown’ persona in the company photo that hangs on his office wall; he is strong, confident, ‘going places’. This impression, however, is immediately subverted by the reality, which, of course, is just the opposite; he is a nervous, inept dunderhead who’s self-esteem is rapidly crumbling beneath a fragile façade. (best observed through the relationship with his wife’s successful father Wade (Harve Presnell) – whom he clearly both hates yet seeks approval from and who continually undermines and humiliates him.)

An image we return to throughout the film is the imposing shot of the slightly ridiculous Paul Bunyan statue (shown soon after Jeannie has been kidnapped) which again is a comical play on the seriousness of all that is happening – austere and unmoved as the cruel ironies of life unfold around it. Life goes on – awful things happen; violence, death, betrayal, corruption – but ultimately the world is indifferent. Set against the bleak, harsh backdrop of a frosty North American landscape, Perhaps Fargo is essentially a film about survival – each character simply trying to stay afloat as life and circumstances slowly drags them down.

Fargo’s most revealing moment lies in the scene where Marge goes to lunch with an old classmate, Mike (Steve Park). The scene is apparently extraneous to the main narrative yet the Coens place it right in the centre of the film. Why? Because this scene is the key.

Mike is a rather pathetic character, who relates to Marge how his wife has died and life has seemingly taken a downturn. We soon discover, however, that Mike’s story is a lie; he has never had a wife, and as he crumbles and begins to cry, he reveals a life of lonely desperation. The truth is, that he loves Marge – ‘such a superlady’ – and perhaps has done, ever since they were classmates. Marge, who copes with unruffled aplomb to all the horrors encountered in her job, is dumbfounded, and can’t quite cope with this situation; a cry for help from a fellow human being. The scene is simultaneously tragic, awkward and hilarious - the essence of the film in a nutshell: Shit happens, life is brutal and harsh, but ultimately we are all on our own.

In a world where people increasingly want life to be like ‘in the movies,’ it’s refreshing to see a film taking life’s more ambiguous and tragic events and putting them front and centre.

Jack Wormell

Friday, 16 January 2009

The Controversial World of a Man in Tights

The world of the superhero/crime fighter is one that, by definition “is one of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest”. These stirring words would bring a smile to any superhero ironing their tights in preparation for a night of crime fighting, but the storm that has surrounded the superhero of modern times is enough to make the best of us climb the wall in despair (with or without a cape). Controversy has been the sand in the underpants of Batman ever since he decided to have a Boy Wonder, – the Fredric Wertham book 'Seduction of the Innocent' targeting Batman’s sexual orientation with outrage in the 1950s. Before Batman could say “Holy Slander!” he was soon repackaged, still with Robin, but now with a Bat Woman to restore the masculine image - the heterosexual citizens of Gotham City resting safely in their beds. Batman’s macho image would take a further knock when Adam West slid down the bat pole; his version of the crime stopper was more camp than a field full of tents. But when the series was cancelled, West was forced into typecast Hell, having to learn to embrace the character many years later by lampooning it.

Over in Metropolis, Superman was a Man of Steel who could jump tall buildings in a single bound (others had to take a run at them). He was also faster than a speeding bullet, but for the actors that played him, life was anything but Super. Kirk Alyn found that playing Superman led to the previously successful actor being typecast and left without any identity, bar the one of the man in the red boots. Alyn later died, almost forgotten by Hollywood. George Reeves was a talented actor who had a role in Gone with the Wind, but following his starring role as The Man of Steel found his career had blown away too. Depressed and bitter, Reeves was found dead with a bullet in his head. The police ruled it a suicide, but conspiracy claims still abound. While many would put the misfortune of the Superman actors down to bad luck, for the next incarnation, several actors associated with Superman would also experience tragedy.

Christopher Reeve played the man in tights in the 1978 blockbuster Superman, but soon he and the cast and crew found themselves the victims of circumstance and misfortune. Margot Kidder, who played the feisty Lois Lane, would develop mental health issues. Richard Pryor, who played Gus in Superman 3 would soon develop MS, while Christopher Reeve was the victim of a tragic horse riding accident, leaving him paralysed from the neck down. Mark Pillow, who played Nuclear Man in Superman 4: The Quest for Peace never worked again (although to be fair, not many people in that film did). The curse even stretched to Marlon Brando, who played Jor- El in Superman. His family life fell apart after the film, his son killing his daughter’s boyfriend, and Brando become a sad shadow of his former self. These events further strengthened the Superman Curse myth, and legend had it that Dean Cain (the Superman with a desperate housewife) would not even be fitted with a cape without some serious insurance guarantees (and no kryptonite on set. OK, I made that last bit up).

With the superhero franchise becoming a money making spinner in the form of Toby Maguire getting everyone tangled in his web, things seemed better for the superhero. Three films on and Spidey seemed to swing clear of any controversy, but there was one man who felt cheated. Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, The Hulk, Iron Man, X Men and more, was fighting Marvel for 10% of the profits from the films and merchandising. Lee eventually won, but once more a financial hurricane immersed the superhero world. It seemed the comic book empire was still shutting out its creators from fair recognition and payment. Such a legal battle would mirror Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's fight for recognition and financial retribution for The Man of Steel over forty years earlier.

Back in the dark world of Batman, the man with a bat cave for a postal address had gone from the campy days of Adam West to the darker incarnations of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. The film series was successful but poor with the critics. And so before you could say “Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed”, another actor was handed the keys to the bat mobile.

When Christian Bale took over in Batman Begins, the bat tale took fans into a whole new realm of excitement. However, for the films sequel, The Dark Knight, controversy and tragedy once more rained down on Gotham’s sky when Heath Ledger was found dead. The official verdict was an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, and the whole world mourned the death of its young star. After previews for The Dark Knight, many have whispered of a posthumous Oscar for Ledger’s stunning portrayal of the Joker. But just as the Batman franchise was beginning to recover from the demise of its star, Christian Bale would soon find himself being interviewed by Scotland Yard. The allegation was that the actor had assaulted his mother and sister the day before the British Premiere. This news that the man in black had been arrested by the boys in blue set the tabloids alight with headlines such as 'Batman Arrested!' and 'Holy Stitch Up!' Even if the allegations were true or not, the publicity was about as welcome as a spot of rust on Iron Man’s crotch, and the film went into PR overdrive.

Now in 2009, Heath Ledger has won the best supporting actor at the Golden Globes for his portrayal of the Joker, with many predicting a repeat at The Oscars in March. But although he has been honoured for his work, the character of the Joker, along with so many of the comic book superheroes, will find that their enemies are not each other, but the controversy that envelops them.

Ben Gavan