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Monday, January 26, 2009

Movie Review: Aronofsky's The Wrestler Grapples with Rourke's Past

Mickey Rourke's face - puffed, spongy, semi-mobile, is like a relief map of failure in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, a sports drama that struggles semi-successfully to transcend it's genre. To the degree that it succeeds Rourke, Marisa Tomei, and Aronofsky deserve the credit for sharply grounding the film in reality. Likewise, it's shortcomings are again Aronofsky's - who sometimes uses a staple gun when a thumbtack would do (quite literally) and screenwriter Robert Siegel who sometimes flounders against the mechanics of his plot and some clunky dialogue.

Aronofsky tones down the lyrical visual flourishes of The Fountain to shoot in a spare, hand-held fashion. There are some nice flourishes, the best of which is the constant soundtrack of 80s hair metal. When Rourke laments the rise of Kurt Cobain and the 90s, its the sweeping away of his dreams and his status as a cultural force he is railing against. It's heavy meta, if you will.

Early on Tomei recommends Scorsese's The Passion of The Christ to Rourke, jokingly calling his character "The sacrificial Ram." Not surprisingly that's exactly what he is, a piece of meat thrown into a ring as a lightning rod for his fans hopes and rage and passion - even as he slides down the ladder of his chosen profession.

Tomei, is his spiritual doppelganger, a stripper who equals him in bare chested and buttocked screen time. It's a measure of how far she's come that her high school drama class Brooklynese that inexplicable netted an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny is replaced here by an utterly believable Jersey girl. These are both sweet characters who absorb the blows of the world around them and find their power in the spotlight of the stage even as their bodies begin to betray them.

The real pleasure of this film lie in the backstage sequences - seeing the way younger wrestlers respond to Rourke's Randy the Ram, the business of plotting out the rough action that will occur in the ring, the subtle signals the wrestlers give to each other while grappling, all speak to the film's verisimilitude.

Less real are the scenes with Ram's estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood. They both come across fine but the scenes feel sketched out rather than fully fleshed. This is true too of the climax which is designed to place Ram on his metaphorical cross. It feels like a bit too much in a film full of surprising subtlety.

Let me know what you think here, or on Twitter at @nmallin .

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Car Design: NAIAS 2009 Roundup

This year's Detroit auto show was shaping up to be a giant gloomfest but the actual metal on the ground held some reason for hope, even if a number of big manufacturers like Nissan decided to take a pass entirely. Here were some of the highlights from the new introductions.

Ford Taurus (Production)

Ford is touting their new 2010 Taurus as the reincarnation of the 1986 Taurus that helped save the company and lead it to the top of the American car industry for several years. The comparison is overblown as the '86 model was a design breakthrough for a mainstream American sedan - the '10 is quite handsome but is no trendsetter.

The sculpted hood and fenders, thoughtful headlight styling, and strong side surfacing all give a look of quality and class. All of the detailing is meticulous in a way that often escapes American cars. The rear end is among the car's best aspects with a playful slash on the rear fenders suggesting a continuation of the strong fold in the doors and a sweeping downward accent that's echoed in the angle of the bumper seam and the taillights as well as the roof and window lines. The taillights themselves echo Ford's earlier Interceptor concept and are the signature filigree on this car.

The only real bum notes, and they are minor, are the fussy side window treatment that sees an awful lot of blacked-out space in the rear quarter window that leads to the leading edge of the chrome accent. If you squint it can nearly give a fastback cant to the roofline but that serves to make the front doors seem unusually small. The other is the grille - Ford deserves kudos for not doing a uniform approach to it's three-bar grille motif - this has a distinctive look separate from the newly upgraded Fusion. On the other hand there is an unmistakable echo of Subaru's Legacy in the grille forms and headlight relationship.

Though not drop-dead gorgeous (Chevy's year-old Malibu is still more arresting) this is a worthy entry into the competitive sedan market.

Chrysler 200C (Concept)
The whiff of desperation hangs heavy over Chrysler and their hodgepodge of jerry-rigged electric models on display were rather pathetic. And yet, this unexpected surprise was both welcome and poignant. Based on a cut-down 300C chassis, the 200C is the rear-wheel drive midsized car the awful Sebring should have been. Newly promoted chief designer Ralph Gillies has his imprint all over this car. Had this been a production model rather than a concept the hosannas would have been ringing loud and clear across Cobo Hall.

Unfortunately the situation is so dire that it's unlikely Chrysler will survive to even get this to the New York Auto Show, let alone production. Sadly, the tight fists at Chrysler's owner Cerberus, run by Bush Treasury Secretary John Snow, know next to nothing about the car industry and installed a guy at the head of Chrysler, Bob Nardelli, who knows even less. Of course why would Snow know anything about what makes for successful leadership? In the car world, it's about product, guys.

As for design the 200C is voluptuous, with rounded generous forms that never cross the line into flabby. The front wisely moves the Chrysler grille away from art deco and into the future, framing it with carved headlight cutouts that flow from the aggressive flared wheel openings.
The roofline is triumphant, echoing the gangster-like 300C but putting a completely different spin on it with a more distinct flow into the rear window and into the finely formed shoulder-line. That shoulder-line becomes a lip that runs through the taillights around the rear deck, which also gets a pinched spoiler that visually emerges from the bumper seam. Chrysler has said that they might be able to put this body on a front wheel drive platform, perhaps Nissan's Altima structure if rumor is to be believed. Let's hope they can pull it off.

Cadillac Converj (Concept)

Running on the plug-in electric underpinnings of the upcoming Chevy Volt, the atrociously spelled Converj suggests another way to find some profit in green technology. A luxury version of the platform could help offset the expense of building these hightech new cars.

From a design standpoint this is a further evolution of Cadillac's current language but for all the swoopiness and angular stance there is an anodyne quality to the exercise that makes it unexciting. The various tucked in slots at the front, rear, and sides feel a bit contrived, as does the exceptionally wide shoulderlines. The head and taillight treatments are very well done as is the shape of the side window glass. Expect a lot of changes if this gets the greenlight for production.

Audi Sportback (Concept)

The one new design that inspired outright lust at the Detroit show, Audi's Sportback concept previews an upcoming production model. In the name of all that is right in the world, Audi ought not to change a single centimeter of this entrant in the burgeoning 4-door coupe field.

It starts with Audi's signature brilliant headlamps flanking a superbly reformed version of their grille with radical inset vents that define the front bumper forms. Crisply folded forms travel over the sides, the lower one rising, the upper one undulating into the roofline and rear decklid.
The flow of rear window into trunklid is reminiscent of Aston-Martin but the kicked-up quarter windows and inset taillamps give the car a distinctive stance. In fact, only Aston's upcoming Rapide seems set to rival the Audi for looks in this class, and the Audi is likely to cost many thousands less. It's good to see Audi design back on track.

Lincoln Concept C (Concept)

Lincoln's Concept C is a fascinating look at how Lincoln design cues could play out on a car based on the small Ford Focus platform. The car is defined by it's sharp form separation into upper and lower body areas, emphasizing the unusual width. The clean simple detailing allows for a muscular and luxurious feel.
A third break is made by the color change of the roof panel, beginning at the pillars. This is one of the best examples of Lincoln's new front end look, which can look awkward in other applications. Now that Lincoln and Volvo (for now) are Ford's only premium players, could Lincoln be tapped to take on BMW's very successful Mini?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Movie Review: Milk Does a Biopic Good

At the screening of Milk I attended a number of people walked out during scenes in which Sean Penn and James Franco were kissing. I had to wonder whether these folks thought they were going to see a film about beverage consumption. Did they not know this was a film about a gay man?

On reflection though I suspect what really bothered these patrons was the nature of the scenes. My wife pointed out that they weren’t as “explicit” as Brokeback Mountain which, in its way, was rather chaste (at least with the two male characters). I think the difference is that much of what happened between the lovers in Brokeback was furtive, whereas Milk depicts a relationship between two men that is sensual, passionate, and clearly enjoyable to both.

The fact that Sean Penn is playing someone onscreen who is capable of the joy that Harvey Milk revels in – of being alive, of being in love, of breaking barriers, of being an activist – is one of the sweetest revelations of the film. More bittersweet are the inescapable parallels between the election season just passed. Like someone else I can think of, Harvey Milk is a canny politician who calls on people’s sense of hope and desire for change. He has a social agenda that is specific but he also knows how to broaden his base and take in broader issues to bring others on board. Hopefully the tragic ending of Milk’s life will not find it’s repetition in real life.

On the other hand there is the state ballot proposition that is a major focus of Milk’s organizational efforts. This film stands as a pretty good rebuke to both sides of Prop 8 – the religious zealots and frightened conservatives who oppose gay marriage and the lackluster organizers who failed to see how badly they would get trounced in their efforts to keep gay marriage legal in California.

Milk is very much a conventional biopic, and that’s not a bad thing. It compares well to two of the best in the genre, David Lean’s Ghandi and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. In itself this is a major achievement for director Gus Van Sant, who has shuttled between pretentious twaddle like Gerry and just plain old twaddle like Finding Forrester. For me, this is his best film since Drugstore Cowboy. All of his experimental trickery is channeled into storytelling – with some brilliant sequences of montage and clever use of archival footage.

The actors help ground this a great deal. Penn is at his best here. He’s been playing bottled up white guys for so long that just seeing him smile radiantly takes him to a different performance level. He effortlessly becomes Milk, eyes dancing with glee at every chance to play and win the political game and to simply get someone to believe in the power of change. James Franco turns in another great, centered performance as Milk’s longtime partner Scott Smith – from frivolous in the opening scenes to weary and wary – but always warm. Emile Hirsch is sharp and sarcastic as Cleve Jones, mostly winning a fight against his huge prop glasses. Finally the amazing Josh Brolin is stunning as Milk’s assassin Dan White – with Blogojevich hair and a screw loose – or perhaps repressed.

Coming off less well is moony-eyed Diego Luna as Milk’s later love interest Jack Lira. It’s the typical biopic role of the companion whose smothering idea of love holds our hero back from accomplishing what they need to do – often through whining and cajoling (see Ginnifer Goodwin in Walk the Line). Luna takes an underwritten part and makes the worst of it. I understand that Milk’s friends find this guy irritating but must we as the audience want to strangle him as well? It leads to a bit of a false note being struck as his eventual exit is meant to be sad and profound. It comes more as a relief.

What this pulls focus from is the core of the film – a sheer unadulterated paean to activism and political engagement that will ring true to anyone who spent the last year chanting “Yes we can!” Milk is portrayed as both an idealist and a crafty politician – an honest portrayal and a fitting one for our times.