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by Jason Gross

11 Sep 2008

Admittedly, he has his own vested interest in the topic but MP3Tunes honcho Michael Robertson has an interesting perspective about why label-approved digital music services fail in this article from the Register.  The problem he sees is that the labels make such high financial demands that it’s almost impossible for any music service to recoup enough money to stay in service.  He’s got a good point there.  Even though iTunes is the number one music retailer out there (for the U.S.), Apple makes its money from selling iPods, not from the thin profits they get from selling songs (that’s part of the reason that they don’t want to unlock those little gadgets and give other players/manufacturers the chance to hone in on their biz).  Similarly, big box retailers like Best Buy can deep discount their CD’s and put them in the back of the store because they also are trying to get you to buy more expensive items once you walk into their store (i.e. stereos, TVs, fridges).

What Robertson misses as part of the argument is that the labels aren’t the only players in this game, as he should well know.  For a digi service to offer up music, they need also need the consent of the publishing companies and artists (assuming they have contracts to cover this).  After they all take their share, the services offering up music have even less money coming in from music sales.

Robertson goes on to say that the remedy for the problem of starting a legit digi music business is the courts- once they provide guidance and set precedent, everything will be peachy-creamy.  Obviously, that’s not gonna cut it.  It’ll take years for the courts to sort things out and it’s far from guaranteed that they’ll come up with anything final, much less come to a decision that’s totally beneficial to digi services.

Instead what has to happen is that digi services have to take initiative and negotiate contracts with labels/publishers/artists where all involved can survive financially.  And what would that include?  As they say, if I had the answer, I’d be a rich guy by now.  But… we can still guess at what needs to be done.  Most importantly, the digi biz would have to get a bigger piece of the pie (aka music sales) to survive.  Obviously, the other labels/publishers/artists (aka LPA) wouldn’t be thrilled with this.  They’d point out that they’re doing much better with other digi-biz’s so why should they take less money?  The brash new digi-biz would need to have a convincing answer for this.  If they can’t offer as much dough, maybe they could offer… stock options, some ad revenue?

Another way that this imaginary brash, bold digi-biz could rake in enough dough to survive would be to pick up ideas from other services as they attract consumers (and eventually money) other ways.  As with publications, ad money is important and the digi-biz would have to be creative about the packages that they’ve offer to be attractive.  Also, offering some music, video and interview exclusives would draw in users and with higher web traffic, the digi-biz can wave this in front of advertisers and try to turn that into revenue.

Mind you this is coming from a non-MBA but you get the point.  The digi-biz’s are gonna have to get creative and strike up deals that are more beneficial to them.  If anything I said does help our your biz and provide beneficial, don’t feel embarrassed to give me a gratis account to your wonderful new music service…

by Bill Gibron

10 Sep 2008

There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.

In all honesty, there is nothing new about this Arab-angled coming of age saga. When she is caught having her pubic hair shaved by her mother’s boyfriend, 13 year old Jasira is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father in Texas. Preferring the suburbs because they are safer, Rifat works for NASA, and while putting on airs of sophistication and patriotism, he burns with a chauvinistic and racist fire. While under his emotional and physically abusive care, Jasira learns about her period, about tampons, about dirty magazines, about masturbation, and about the predatory habits of two new male influences in her life. One is fellow middle schooler Thomas. The other is the family’s next door neighbor - a bigoted reservist with an unhealthy eye on Jasira’s budding sexuality. 

Ball clearly wants to redefine the maturation experience for kids circa the new millennium. He wants to break down barriers, tackle taboos, and in general toss out into the open the private topics and traumas that every young girl faces. It’s the kind of thematic universality that drives both the movie and the semi-autobiographical novel (by Alicia Erian) upon which it is based. There is no real discussion of religion (“we’re Christians, just like everyone in Texas” Jasira chides to a clueless kid) and for a film founded in the first Gulf War, there is precious little politics. No, Towelhead revolves exclusively around sex - menstruation, orgasms, molestation, virginity, blood, condoms, lies, seduction, underage nudity, and the adult manipulations and misunderstandings that occur because of same.

When Larry Clark does it, critics complain. Movies like Kids and Ken Park have been labeled pornographic and offensive, treating the teenage years of its characters like a visit to Caligula’s falling Rome. Towelhead is not that bad. In fact, it’s worse. Clark doesn’t dress up his portrayals in symbolist bullshit, nor does he try to apologize for his film’s hedonistic tone. In his mind, he is telling the world about the reality of youth culture - it’s emphasis on drugs, debauchery, and the decision to overindulge in both. Ball doesn’t dare bring this angle to Towelhead, perhaps because the book doesn’t lend itself to said approach. But when dealing with the horrific consequences of abuse - sexual or physical - it seems disingenuous to spin it within a slick suburban pseudo-satire.

Towelhead never tells us what to think. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder what the point is. Can Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Something similar happens when the filmmaker focuses on Jasira’s discovery of masturbation. We see her scissor legs strategy in class, while babysitting, in the school cafeteria. It’s not really a question of inappropriateness. It’s an issue of purpose. 

As stated before, this is the kind of film that embraces its own sense of fearlessness, that focuses almost exclusively on how much it can get away with in the name of 2007 social malaise. When Jasira’s father smacks her square in the face, when he bruises her leg and spits on her, we never get the required retort. He’s just a mixed up MAN from the Middle East, that’s all. Similarly, our military pedophile, drooling over Jasira the minute he sees her, gets a last act slice of redemption that’s supposed to soften the blow of his battery. Yet Ball can’t manufacture the necessary outrage or criminal context. Even as Aaron Eckhart is faux fingering 18 year old actress Summer Bashil, it’s like the writer/director never saw There’s Something About Amelia.

Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors. Perhaps Ball thought that he was creating the ultimate adult nightmare, an experience in which everything you suspected about your barely tween son or daughter was disturbingly true. For a seminar of sociologists, maybe but not for a crowd just coming down from Summer’s popcorn swelter. It’s hard to imagine adolescents flocking to this film, especially given the sheepish, almost consensual way Jasira treats her ordeal. Dad beats her? She simply bows her head. Mom lays into her about any and every thing? She’s apologetic. Classmates call her all manner of racial epithets? She finally gets up the nerve to hit a neighbor in the arm. That’s courage.

Maybe they are counting on the carnal curiosity factor. After all, a review like this could easily spark the imagination of the more sleaze minded moviegoers in the demo. One can just see a certain kind of teen boy giggling in the back row, digital camera capturing the few brief glimpses of Bashil sans skivvies (she is never shown full on naked)…and let’s not even mention the adults who are titillated by this kind of content. Naturally, there will be apologists, people who can easily overlook elements like age, age, and age to suggest that Ball has tapped into the harsh realities of growing up. Right…and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a mere lesson in making better guardianship arrangements.

It’s not just that Towelhead is tawdry and tasteless. It’s not the oppressive unrelenting focus on Jasira’s warp speed hormones. It’s not even the notion that someone without a clear frame of reference can proclaim to understand the teen girl experience from the inside out. No, what Ball does here is something similar to an old ‘60s parental caveat - i.e. some things shouldn’t be aired in public. In book form - and especially considering the potential for authenticity from an experienced author’s standpoint - this material may work. Most literature can manage this kind of material because the theater of the mind is so selective and personal. But when given a concrete depiction, the surrounding social/legal/public facets fill in gaps that some of us may not want to see.

In many ways, Towelhead is like Funny Games without the snooty Euro-centric sneer. Ball isn’t out to rub our nose into the notion of middle schoolers gone wild, and the appearance of a hippy dippy couple as cultural conscience toward the end seems to suggest a kind of metaphysical mea culpa. Indeed, the film takes us through some horrifically uncomfortable material only to attempt to make it all better in the end. As the movie moves along, you can literally feel the shift - Eckhart’s sex scene with Bashil is all suggestion, unlike the similarly styled moment between Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in Beauty. But that doesn’t excuse the underage aspect, or the clear come-on/tease element inferred. On some level, Ball appears to suggest Jasira deserves what happens to her. Open up the personal Pandora’s ‘box’ and…

It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Critics are allowed to like or loathe anything that falls into their professional lap. But as with the aforementioned affront by Michael Haneke, Towelhead is provocation for the sake of being sensational. We don’t feel any empathy or come to any clear conclusions. Instead, we spend nearly two hours in voyeuristic disgust as a young girl is ground up like grist for a lax media mill. There is no denying that there is honesty here. But it is buried in a sloppy cinematic strategy that can’t stop fixating on the physicality of its lead. Everything here - from the Busby Berkeley inspired Playboy centerfold photo shoot fantasies to Jasira’s asexual striptease - is meant as nothing more than confrontation. After a while, we simply grow tired of the assault. Too bad Ball and his characters don’t feel the same.

by Rob Horning

10 Sep 2008

Google’s apparent control over the information society in which we live (no, not that information society) has been a robust topic lately, with much fretting over whether search engines have permanently damaged the depth and persistence of our thinking. 3 Quarks Daily linked to this article by Geert Lovink about Google’s having moved us from the society of the spectacle described by DeBord to a “society of the query.” The essay seems to have been dubiously translated into English from another language; otherwise I don’t know how anyone familiar with the subject would report Google’s motto as “Don’t do evil.” Anyway, drawing on computer critic Joseph Weitzenbaum, Lovink notes that the advent of a huge information repository requires

the acquisition of a proper education in order to formulate the right query. It’s all about how one gets to pose the right question. For this one needs education and expertise. Higher standards of education are not attained by making it easier to publish. Weizenbaum: “The fact that anyone can put anything online does not mean a great deal. Randomly throwing something in achieves just as little as randomly fishing something out.” Communication alone will not lead to useful and sustainable knowledge.

But people aren’t “throwing” material online “randomly.” Such a conception betrays the off-hand elitism of much of this sort of criticism, which detests “amateur” contributions mingling with material made by professionals—held accountable by the need to make a living—or some other sort of official who is accountable to the state. In the past, those forms of accountability seemed sufficient to establish “truth”, but of course, that truth was merely a matter of convenience and no guarantee of the Truth. The truth conveyed therein simply aligned automatically with the version the state and other powerful institutions wanted to propagate. Now, in post-modernity, such guarantors of truth are distrusted in part because of all the other contesting voices able to publish their versions. This cacophony leaves some nostalgic for the the days when truth could be force-fed to us.

So naturally, “critical thinking” needs to be taught more effectively to teach us how to process all the information of varying levels of quality, and how to frame queries so the information returned to us is useful to us. Knowing how to search effectively is becoming an important component of our human capital, along with the other intangible aspects of the habitus that facilitate success. But in order for critical thinking to develop, there needs to be a space in which it can be exercised—something akin to a Habermasian public sphere where critical insights can be voiced and tested and, well, critiqued.

The capacity of capitalism to absorb its adversaries is such that, unless all private telephone conversations and Internet traffic became were to become publicly available, it is next to impossible to argue why we still need criticism – in this case of the Internet. Even then, critique would resemble “shareholder democracy” in action. The sensitive issue of privacy would indeed become the catalyst for a wider consciousness about corporate interests, but its participants would be carefully segregated: entry to the shareholding masses is restricted to the middle-classes and above. This only amplifies the need for a lively and diverse public domain in which neither state surveillance nor market interests have a vital say.

The internet is precisely not that. Though anonymous browsing is become more user-friendly, the default mode of internet presence—it many ways its raison d’etre—is to have everything we do logged and publicized. And our primary way of navigating is through shallow searching and sorting rather than through deliberate, exhaustive moves prompted by careful critical thought.

Why? Because of the time crunch brought on by so much accessible culture. Digitization, fomented “cynically” by Google’s various scanning programs, transforms culture into data, which reduces it to its instrumental value in generating profit. A consequence of the accessibility of all this digital stuff is to pressure us into valuing novelty and making efforts to speed up our consumption (which I try to argue here among other posts). Keeping up with culture becomes a matter of opportunity costs; marketers tout novelty to glamorize and boost consumerism and technology facilitates our quick flitting around from subject to subject, which makes us believe we derive more utility from the practice than from slow reading. It becomes easier and easier to spiral into dilettantism.

So the war against Google is war over time. As Lovink puts it:

What is necessary is a reappropriation of time. At the moment there is simply not enough of it to stroll around like a flaneur. All information, any object or experience has to be instantaneously at hand. Our techno-cultural default is one of temporal intolerance. Our machines register software redundancy with increasing impatience, demanding that we install the update. And we are all too willing to oblige, mobilized by the fear of slower performance. Usability experts measure the fractions of a second in which we decide whether the information on the screen is what we are looking for. If we’re dissatisfied, we click further. Serendipity requires a lot of time.

I wonder if that’s true though—sometimes serendipity happens in an instant, particularly when we don’t know what we are looking for and might view anything that’s kind of cool as destiny. But it does seem to me that reducing our temporal intolerance—ridding ourselves of data rage—is key, though it’s basically counter to every trend in our culture, all of which encourage convenience and rapid consumption.

Lovint argues that we should stop fighting the inevitable:

Rather than trying to defend ourselves against “information glut”, we can approach this situation creatively as the opportunity to invent new forms appropriate for our information-rich world.

But in this article, there are no hints as to what those new forms would be. The only thing that comes to mind is the intellectual equivalent of mashups—link-saturated blog posts like this one, I guess.

by Jason Gross

10 Sep 2008

After demanding standard pricing for their music and TV offerings, Apple finally blinked to bring NBC back to their fold.  As this CNET story reports, this might mean that music labels might make similar demands about flexible pricing, seeing that Apple is willing to bend if it means losing a huge chunk of high profit content.  In the case of NBC, they demanded that some of their TV shows not be sold at iTunes for standard $1.99 price.  Instead, some of their shows will be offered up for 99 cents.  Similarly, record labels have pushed for the option for raising or lowering prices- recent hits would be priced above the standard 99 cent charge for songs while some oldies would be discounted below that.  Apple’s believed that they found the sweet spot for digital sales by keeping the price uniform and point to the fact that they’ve passed Walmart as the biggest music retailer out there now.  It’s hard to argue with success but the reason that Apple’s on top now is that they have the goods, courtesy of the major labels who offer up their songs there.  Apple’s gamble has been that they can call the shots because they think that the labels won’t pull out their goods from iTunes and risk losing an increasing source of revenue in a biz that’s sinking otherwise.  The NBC decision might give the labels some leverage in this battle and get Apple to back down with them also.  The question now is how far entrenched each side is in this battle and how much they’re willing to give up. It’ll be an interesting confrontation to say the least…

by Matt Mazur

10 Sep 2008

A few really big exceptions aside, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is fairly tame. The big guns are shelved for now, and the programmers have instead turned their spotlight onto some more intimately-scaled little pictures that need distribution, films that will be out in theaters within the next month and international releases you and I will not likely see in our local cineplexes. Where oh where are the big Oscar movies of years past? They’re definitely not here.

Sugar (dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2007, USA)

I stumbled, quite by accident, wanting to kill time, into Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s surprising Sugar. Boden and Fleck co- wrote and directed the modest breakout hit Half Nelson, which netted star Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and here they couldn’t be more far removed from Nelson’s inner-city, drug-dealing turmoil, but those two elements do play a small role in Sugar.

When the projector began cranking, and the film opened with a shot of men playing baseball, in the Dominican Republic, I wanted to get up and leave immediately. A sports movie, in another language, about men, is really not my usual cup of tea. So, I sort of forced myself through the first few standard minutes, and am glad I did: Sugar is not a baseball movie, nor is it a simple “coming to America” story—it possesses a life and vitality that is singular.

All of the players in the Dominican Republic desire the same outcome: they want to play ball in America so they can send money back to their deprived families who spend their days working in t-shirt factories. For these young me, particularly the lead character “Sugar” (the excellent Algenis Perez Soto), it is more than just a dream of providing and chasing some American ideal—it’s a way to break the poverty cycle in their home country and to not live idle lives. “Life gives you many opportunities,” says Sugar’s uncle, himself a former player in the states, now a cell phone salesman. “Baseball only gives you one.”

The film is a rich exploration of the exploitation faced by Latin American men who are sent out to play here, and it’s a world I had no idea even existed. Sugar is an unusual story that’s definitely never been told before, which is a credit to these two fledgling directors, who seem to have found a particularly alchemic cinematic grace in working with one another, rather than alone. As writers seeking out completely original subject matter, they should be applauded for versatility.

Once “Sugar” lands in the States, he is caught up in a whirlwind frenzy of pre-season training and practice. In these scenes, rather than over-loading the film with the traditional montages that plague the sports film genre, Boden and Fleck instead go for introspection as their lead character, and those who have accompanied him from the Dominican league, begin to see just how isolated one can be when placed in unfamiliar surroundings, where they don’t speak more than ten words of the language. This feeling of not being able to fully communicate makes “Sugar” try even harder to learn, and makes him even more focused on the game.

And rather than staging the scenes in Iowa with overt racism or hatred (though there is a little implicit racism in the script), the directors wisely turn away from the “bad American” clichés, and show scenes of good people genuinely helping “Sugar”. Particularly effective are the scenes where the guys head out to the only diner they know, to order the only food they know how (“French toast!” they all yell in unison). They have to, like many people who are new to the country and to the language, work harder, practice more, and be better than everyone. Not to mention, they have to rely an awful lot on the kindness of strangers. As macho ballplayers, that can be a humbling experience, and those detail peppered throughout are very moving without being coy.

This film is packed with detail, the directors have a meticulous eye for it: in one scene, for a brief second (and without being preachy whatsoever) we notice “Sugar” looking at t-shirts in a discount department store, when he reads the label, it says “made in the Dominican Republic” and his face just collapses. Also a great detail is the exploration of baseball and sports fan subculture and the hierarchies of the sport, focusing on the enthusiasts who go to every high school game, every college game, and every minor league game. They have their fingers in every baseball pie, so to speak. When “Sugar” is dropped off in the corn fields of Iowa with a religious, elderly couple who speak no Spanish, he learns about, it is a funny fish-out-of-water moment, but also a learning experience for him and for the audience.

The film hinges on the performance of Perez Soto, and the audience’s empathy for him as he goes from Dominican dreamer, to Iowan farm teammate, to New Yorker on the lam. Boden and Fleck show, again, that working with an untrained young actor, as they did with the glorious newcomer Shareeka Epps in Nelson is one of their fortes. Perez Soto, for his part, does a nice job of showing the immigrant’s point of view, and highlights for the audience what is good, bad, and implausible about the American Dream.

All of the odds are against them, and so are most of the American players. The Dominican players, if they even hint at a loss of skill level, are sent home, while the Americans get chance after chance. “Sugar” is lucky he is more talented than most players on the team, but eventually, his arrogance gets the better of him. He has only that one shot that his uncle told him about and his entire life is riding on it.

His journey takes him far away from home, to unexpected little corners of the country, and makes for one cool little movie about how people from other cultures find their way on their own. It’s definitely not about baseball, in the broadest sense. For someone like me, who know positively zilch about sports in general, it’s an easy lesson and a informative primer on the fanaticism that surrounds the sport, even on the minute level, and it’s all told on a relatable, approachable point of view, with an entry point that is universal. Anyone who has ever felt alone, anyone who has ever experienced being taken out of their comfort zone, and who has been dropped into a situation where they had to fight for something the want more than anything, will be able to get on board with this lovely movie.

Che (dir. Stephen Soderbergh, 2008, USA/Spain/France)

Buckle up! Che, the newest offering from director Stephen Soderbergh that details the life of Che Guevara, is a whopping four and a half hours long.

I was among a group who was able to see the entire epic, split up only by a fifteen minute intermission, yesterday morning, the way the director has announced he intends everyone to see it; a “road-show” full cut of the film will be screened around the country (in approximately 20 markets) to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and the eightieth anniversary of his birth. Then, as planned, the vast Che, which features a gorgeously interior performance by Benecio Del Toro as the now-iconic revolutionary, will be split into two parts, The Argentinean and Guerilla.

When it first played at Cannes in May, all signs pointed to Che as being a hard sell. The length alone was its most daunting feature, not to mention it is essentially a four and a half hour Latin American history lesson, mostly told in Spanish. So, the chances of its success competing in the United States market, where you’re only considered a hit if you make over 100 million anymore, were rather bleak.

I’m happy to report, though, that as a far-reaching artistic endeavor and a more meditative alternative to the usual bio-pic fare, Che is a mild success, but more importantly, it’s a major turning point for Soderbergh as a director. This is his most ambitious film to date: a mainly Spanish-language mega epic of a revolutionary who has become appropriated by the entire world as a symbol of freedom and rebellion. I’m sure you’ve seen the t-shirts.

He opens chapter one like a book, with a golden-hued map of Cuba, all set to a pulsing score. We are given a cursory lesson in Cuban geography (probably much-needed for most viewers). This is a necessary feature to orient the viewers into the world of the Marxist guerillas’ plans. Immediately, we are plunged into New York, 1964, where Che is being interviewed in a black and white, grainy sequence that shows only his eyes furiously moving; these black and white bits are interspersed into the main attraction: the saturated world of color in Mexico City of 1955, where the story really begins after two seeming starts. Stylistically, Soderbergh goes for a scaled-back, less-is-more approach and lets the natural features take over the story’s art direction, rightfully. This may not be as flashy as the director’s other films, but the vistas are stunning.

The film cuts back and forth between the two formats. At the United Nations in 1964 NYC, Che, an Argentine who became a Cuban citizen, is greeted by shouts of “murderer” and “assassin”. He is Fidel Castro’s highest ranking lieutenant, the Marxist brains of the entire Cuban operation and a master at combat and warfare. We then are transported back to Mexico to begin the journey with Che to Cuba for the first time. It is a little bit confusing at the beginning, to get one’s bearings, but once Soderbergh gets a feeling for the complicated rhythms, so do the viewers. Once it hits its stride, it’s hard to stop watching.

Part one is well-shot, if fairly standard bio-flick material that charts the man’s journey from being a doctor to fighting in the jungles to becoming a sort of pseudo-celebrity asking to be powdered before an American television appearance. Del Toro’s versatile, stately performance covers a lot of ground, spans Che’s entire life, and proves a task the actor is more than up to. Che’s ability to be an orator, a fighter and an all around charismatic force of nature jumps to life thanks to Del Toro’s gift of being able to tap into his powerful, specific instrument. He is likely the only possible recognizable, working actor that could have pulled this off, exuding a dangerous charm, gravitas and presence every second he is onscreen.

He loves his soldiers (men and women) and knows all of their names. His idea of successful warfare is smart warfare and he only takes soldiers who can read or write; the ones who can’t, he makes sure to teach. He sees what he is doing as enriching the lives of these peasants who have long been taken advantage of. He wants to save each Latin American country, person by person.

Part one ends with the rebels winning the war, and according to Che, this is where the real revolution begins.

The first image of part two is another bit of Soderberghian cartography, only this time, we get our lesson in South American geography (and I was hugely embarrassed that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about the continent). The action will take place in Bolivia, where, funded by Castro (even after he renounced his Cuban citizenship), Che has sworn to bring the revolution to all of Latin America, much to the consternation of the country’s leaders.

One year later, Che is disguised as an old man with glasses, sneaking into Bolivia to train a new army of rebels in secret. By now, he has become a worldwide legend and has left his wife Aledia (Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) behind. Obviously, “Che” is going to dominate a story called Che, but Moreno is barely there, and the same goes for Lou Diamond Phillips, Franka Potente, Julia Ormond and countless others—a cheeky trademark of the director’s that has become slightly irksome. His affinity for stunt casting known faces in cameos speaks to his directorial sway and the love for the project, but it is as distracting here as it is in Traffic or the Ocean movies.
But fortunately, the main character’s commitment, body and soul, to his cause, is mirrored in Del Toro’s physical commitment to playing him—in part two, it is as though he is playing two men wildly different than his character in part one.

Both parts of the film highlight that the best way to bring about change is with your own two hands, hard work, and, as Che says, with “love” for whatever it is you’re doing. For the director, this is an obvious labor of love, but at points watching lingering scenes of nature at a very deliberate pace can get tedious. As bloated as it is brave, I can see why Soderbergh thought it would be advantageous and respectful to do it in this style, but this will be slightly too much for most to handle in one sitting. In shorter chapters, it could have worked in a way that something like HBO’s recent John Adams mini-series did and turn a history lesson into something a bit more gripping. Yet, there is still something stolidly fascinating about this lesson in cinematic endurance that seems as equally influenced by Marxism and pop culture as it is by Terrence Malick in the many scenes featuring a cool and meditative showcasing of the geography as the story.

The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2008, USA)

Practically everyone in Toronto was buzzing about Darren Aronofsky’s newest offering The Wrestler. Following up the love it or hate it mess of The Fountain, The Wrestler was shown to a capacity press and industry only crowd in a completely packed theater of nearly 600—there were no empty seats. This is the first time I had seen that happen. In the same theater, for Che’s screening immediately before, roughly a third of those seats were filled.

Riding high on mega-buzz, the film, which just days ago won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, announced to the world that star Mickey Rourke is, and I am not being cheeky, a top possibility for a Best Actor nomination come early 2009; if not the win. That the director had the foresight to cast the downtrodden, eccentric actor who most people expected to go the way of Gary Busey, in the role of washed up former professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a right miracle and one of those rare instances where a performer can take every element of his past and his physical being, and use them to their fullest potential. Possessed of a weathered face that has been changed by cosmetic surgery to a very extensive degree, Rourke is able to even use that to his advantage in creating this once in a lifetime character.

When the film opens to the strains of Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head” (Ram’s theme song), we don’t see him right away, we just see press clippings, posters, and other tchotchkes and assorted ephemera from his past. It is all we need to get a sense of what he has become and that only takes Aronofsky seconds. The Ram is way past his prime, living in a filthy, pad-locked trailer in Jersey (he didn’t pay his rent again), and wounded beyond belief. When the camera finally settles onto Rourke’s face, it is jarring to meet him head on.

Broken, and taped-up within an inch of his life, The Ram ekes out a miserable existence working the most low-level amateur circuits he can find to make a buck, where the mats are sprayed with blood and not cleaned up in between battles. He also works doing stock at a grocery store. He is strung out on pills, drinks a lot, and is reeling from a life spent being beaten and abused, of his own choosing. A far cry from his former glories. Within these first few minutes, it is clear that Rourke was the only person who could play this part, much as Del Toro was the only actor who could play Che

The Ram frequents a dive of a strip club (he hooks the doorman up with pills), where Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) is also eking out a meager existence. Tomei has always been a hard actress to cast, but when she’s good, she’s on fire—her scene where she talks about The Passion of the Christ is her most brilliantly funny moment since winning the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny. Cassidy is The Ram’s only “friend”, a relationship for which she is paid by the shimmy, but not a responsibility she takes lightly: when The Ram needs sound advice about his estranged daughter Stephanie (an excellent Evan Rachel Wood), Cassidy is the go-to girl for him.

It’s only fair, if one is to discuss the sheer physicality of Rourke’s performance as a wrestler, to then also discuss the sensual physicality employed by Tomei in her free scenes of seductive dancing and stripping. Last year in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, she was frequently, shockingly, naked. And she looked amazing. Last year, in her mid-40s, she fearlessly took it all off to reinvent herself, and it seems that that work could be viewed as a primer for the even more brave physical and emotional nakedness she brings to her career-best character here: a single mother busting her ass to feed her kid and move into a condo, thus leaving her lap-dancing days, and clients like The Ram, behind.

In between juicing and working out, The Ram spends his days prepping for his big battles, getting his hair perfectly highlighted at the salon, and going tanning. It is implied that the preparation for The Ram probably isn’t much different from what Cassidy does to get ready for work—they’re both putting on a show, after all, and shows require a certain image. The big difference, though, is that The Ram, when performing, beats opponents with barbed wire clubs, artificial limbs and gets stapled by a staple-gun wielding maniac; all in the name of show and money. He is mutilated in various extreme ways to please a bloodthirsty, raging crowd that chants at him while he’s down: “you still suck!”

These intense scenes are, well, crazy, but also wickedly funny and incisive. Aronofsky is able to show the kind of damage these athlete/performers endure to make a living. Rourke is beyond brilliant in these wrestling scenes, and shows a heretofore unknown comedic diligence in the funny moments (“do your push-ups brother,” he barks at a neighbor kid). Yet nothing will prepare you for the unexpected fragility in the poignant moments of sharply-drawn drama as his life begins to fall apart and his years of self-abuse begin to catch up to him. It’s absolutely thrilling to watch him.

After a heart attack and a bypass, The Ram tries to make a go of it in the real world. He goes to Stephanie to patch up their broken, distant relationship. He tells Cassidy that “she doesn’t really like me very much”, and that’s putting it mildly. He was not present for her as a child and in trying to reconnect; he hits many obstacles tougher than a metal folding chair to the face.

He tries to make a break from this world, even going so far as to work the deli counter at his supermarket to earn more money (one of the film’s absolute delights), but ultimately, he’s alone, and needs the adoration and the energy of the fans to buoy him, to keep him alive. This is Aronofsky’s most accomplished film thus far, devoid of the gimmicky camera angles and fish-eye lenses that permeate his other films, Pi, and Requiem for a Dream. It is a more straight-forward narrative, with a more straight-forward, audience-friendly structure. While The Wrestler does have moments of sentimentality, it is never out of place, never obnoxious. The ending is a brilliant culmination of suspense, fury, great story-telling and acting, and it will leave audiences high on their own adrenaline.

//Mixed media

Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - "Ooh La La"

// Sound Affects

"Lifestyle's penultimate track eases the pace and finds fresh nuance and depth in a rock classic, as Silkworm offer their take on the Faces' "Ooh La La".

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