NYFF 2008: “The Wrestler.”

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10082008_thewrestler.jpgMickey Rourke is one magnificent wreck. “The Wrestler” holds off from giving you the full-frontal of his face for a while, as if he were the monster in a low-budget horror flick. When it does finally creep around, you see misplaced tautness, semi-mobile features, starlet lips, an overall impression of carved putty. One of the film’s visual jokes is that Rourke’s character, faded pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, is a shambling but still formidable hunk of meat, but he’s aging in the style of a South Beach matron. It’s not just the too often overhauled mug — we follow as he gets the roots of his long, brittle hair (which he often keeps in a bun) bleached to cover the grey, as he bronzes himself against the colorless New Jersey winter in a tanning bed, as he puts on a pair of prim wire-frame glasses in order to read. Then he buys several hundred bucks worth of steroids and growth hormones from an amiable locker room dealer who he tells, with a wrenching capacity for denial, about his plans to “get big and strong.” Randy has only a rocky downhill slope ahead of him, but no one would ever tell him that — the guy’s got nothing but his past, a few lingering die-hard fans, and a friendship with a similarly past-her-prime stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), the only one to whom he can tell his only half-believed tales about how he’ll clamber back to the big leagues.

It’s a fantastic performance from Rourke, even as it’s all tangled up with everything we know about his own life and career. But it’s an even better performance from director Darren Aronofsky, who turns from “The Fountain,” a film I’d be the first to defend, but that feels like it was created in the isolation of the space bubble in which Future Hugh Jackman spent so much time meditating, to something unexpectedly funny, ready and rough and tumble that runs at a dozen clichés and tosses them over the ropes. Exotic dancer with a secret kid and a heart of gold? Estranged, embittered offspring? Down-on-his-luck athlete/entertainer with one last shot at grander things? Check, check and check, and “The Wrestler” reinvents these characters from scratch. Cassidy, whose name in the light of day is the more mundane Pam, turns out to be the perfect parallel to Randy, two decades past the average age for her own profession, and keeping him, her lone regular, at arm’s length out of habit and because she’s worried he’ll been turned off by the ordinariness of her life once she breaks character. Evan Rachel Wood is Stephanie, Randy’s grown-up, gothy daughter, who has plenty of justifications for wanting him out of her life, but who hasn’t quite sealed off the chinks in her armor.

And there’s Randy himself, plodding from his rented singlewide to his grocery store job to whatever community center or American Legion hall is host to that weekend’s bottom-tier wrestling event, the camera often bobbing a few feet behind his heavy shoulders in its semi-naturalistic way as he continues along in a lifestyle that’s killing him. It’s not that Randy doesn’t understand that his time has passed — he’s just refused to contemplate a life that doesn’t revolve around wrestling, though the places at which he does it keep getting smaller and shabbier, and fewer and fewer people show up. He’s still a big deal among the aspiring wrestling community, which “The Wrestler” treats with greatest affection — massive men in spandex, tattoos and piercings slapping each other on the back backstage, discussing in detail how to put on the best show (“Don’t work his head, man, everybody does that!”), applauding performances and commiserating over injuries. They’re all crowd-pleasers, heroic faces and glowering heels hamming it up, grappling, taking stage punches, throwing themselves onto the mat and leaping from the top ropes in mock battles of good and evil. And Randy’s willingness to keep suffering for his audience — beyond the wear and tear of the years, in one early match he deliberately cuts himself for dramatic effect, and in a later, more sadistic one, takes on an opponent who makes use of a staple gun, barbed wire and a broken sheet of glass — starts to seem like something noble. “The Wrestler”‘s greatest trick is that it’s not the story of redemption you thought it was at all, but rather one of a man embracing the lot he’s chosen, and insisting on performing his signature finishing move. It’s called the Ram Jam, and it, like this film, is something to see.

“The Wrestler” will open on December 19th. For more coverage of the New York Film Festival, click here.

[Photo: “The Wrestler,” Fox Searchlight, 2008]

+ “The Wrestler” (NYFF)
+ “The Wrestler” (Fox Searchlight)

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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