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Monday, January 19, 2009

A Set Movie Reviews

Gomorra
****


Based on the bestselling novel about the day to day life of the mob in Naples, Italy which resulted in its author being sent into police protection, Gomorra is the most unflinching look at the mafia put on film. From its first scene, a group of overweight men at a cheap day spa lying in tanning beds and getting manicures, to its last, an unforgettably bleak long shot, Gomorra sets out to remove the romantic sheen that previous films have attached to the mafia.
This is the anti-Goodfellas, in just about every way. There is no musical score, other than superficial European techno that blasts from diagetic radios. The shots are long, distanced, and the edits few and far between. Director, Matteo Garrone, makes sure we realize that all of this is intentional, as one of the plot lines concerns a pair of boys trying to make a name for themselves in the mob world, one of which idolizes Tony Montana from Scarface, that he may be losing his grip on reality.
The film is structured much like Syrianna. And like Syrianna this is a film about the people stuck at the periphery of a larger, more complex social problem. It follows a grocery delivery boy who is used for far more sinister purposes once his best friend betrays his family, the man who has the unenviable task of distributing the mob’s money, a fashion designer who must make a dangerous deal in order to finish a contract on time, and a recent college grad and mob boss in training who’s taken around by a family head trying to maximize their various waste dump sites.
The actors, many non-professional (this film bears a lot of the Italian neo-realistic tradition as well as some of Passolini's more provocative naturalism), some of which turned out to be connected to the Comorra, one of the Neapolitan mafia families responsible for nearly 4,000 deaths in the past quarter century, all are compelling. The film is a long, ugly look into a way of life where violence comes from every direction, without warning, without making much sense, and the way Garrone blocks the film, any attempt to try and figure out who’s with who, is made useless; ideas of loyalty, and honor, the idea of a honor among thieves, are all just absurd phrases used by rich old men to get young angry men to do their dirty work.
The film is long, hard to follow, and difficult. And while its ending is quite hopeless, there is a quality of mercy given to the few characters who make the right decisions in the end, made more poignant in the face of such corruption, decadence, and violence.

The Wrestler
***



The Wrestler is both a beautiful and troubling film which didn’t mean to be as troubling as it turned out. When the film focuses on Mickey Rourke as the washed up Randy “The Ram” it’s an incredibly adept humanistic portrait of perseverance. When the film follows the sport-comeback plot it turns into a set of conventions which seem to equate brutality with beauty.
The same can be said of Rourke’s performance. At time’s he’s incredible with interpersonal encounters. A highlight is as he makes the best of working the deli counter at a grocery store winning over the costumers. At the same time seeing him put his body through a bloody beating, made me question the ethics of the award season’s fascination with rewarding actors who put themselves through physical harm by gaining or losing dangerous amounts of weight, or here being cut, beat, and bloodied. When the film is about Randy, it’s essentially about Rourke. Nobody else could have played that part, and his presence gives the authenticity which makes it feel real, immediate, and necessary. The contrived plot, on the other hand, seems disingenuous, manipulative, and unwarranted. These two elements of the film wrestle each other throughout the film, with the later eventually putting a choke hold over the hole thing in the end.

Shotgun Stories
***1/2



Made mostly in 2004, and resurrected through various festival circuits, Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories is one of the best film debuts of the past decade. It’s a bittersweet look at rural America in the same vein as David Gordon Green, one of the films’ producers. However, Nichols’ ability at handling his characters, especially their dialogue may be more naturally strong than Green’s. It doesn’t help to have a great cast, and some great cinematography. The music by Pyramid is also a highlight.
This is a small film, telling a small and tragic story, but like a great Steinbeck novel, it manages to elevate its story to near mythical levels. When a father dies, he leaves behind two sets of sons. On one side, the family he left as a violent alcoholic. The other, as a devout born-again Christian and family man. The two groups of half-brothers, one convinced he’s a saint, the other content to spit on his grave, engage in a series of escalating encounters and arguments, which lead to a tragic end. Except that someone makes the decision to finally stop the cycle once and for all.
This is an uneven film. The tone would be difficult for any director, let alone a first-timer. However, the characters are so real (I know guys like these) and sympathetic that a few moments in the film’s progression can be forgiven.

1 comment:

Parker said...

Great reviews. I kinda agree about The Wrestler, in that I loved Rourke's performance, but was often bothered by the Rocky Balboa-esque storyline. But, by the film's end, I was completely caught up in it. I've also wanted to see Gomorra, but I may hold off for a while; I don't think now is a good time for me to watch hopeless cinema...