Sunday, January 04, 2009

A New York five minutes or so: The three winners

This is, of course, supposed to be all about movies, but if you'll indulge me for a second I just have to say goodbye to one of my favorite New York night clubs, which I thought would never die.

When my brother and I were planning our musical nights out, I picked the "End of the Weak" hip-hop showcase at the Pyramid club (a very fun way to kill a few hours if you like rap music, which I do), and he picked the "Three Floors of Ska" night at the Knitting Factory. I love ska too, so I was certainly down with that.

Throughout the night, the bands (the best of which was easily New Jersey's Hub City Stompers) kept lamenting the fact that this would be the last "Three Floors of Ska" event at the Knitting Factory. We just assumed the event was simply moving to another venue, but the truth was much worse: The Knitting Factory is closing its Tribeca spot and moving to a much smaller space in Brooklyn.

Now, this obviously means nothing to you if you've never been there, but as much as I love New York (and I really, really do), the gentrification of neighborhoods can just be sickening. I wish the Knitting Factory the best of luck in its new home, and sincerely hope the club keeps bringing its eclectic mix of music to Brooklyn until it inevitably wears out its welcome there too.

OK, enough bile for now. It is indeed all about movies from here on out, and specifically the best three (out of a fairly amazing seven) I saw while I was there. So here goes:

Although I won't unveil my top 10 for the year until tomorrow morning (so please check back!), I can safely say now that this gem from Gus Van Sant is my favorite movie of 2008. It's so clearly a labor of love for Van Sant, and even though this looks nothing like his recent output ("Elephant" being my favorite of those uniformly dark flicks), you can tell it's the movie he was meant to make (though there will hopefully be many more.)

It's anchored, of course, by Sean Penn's performance as the slain San Francisco pol Harvey Milk (I assume I'm not really giving away too much there), and even if you don't normally like Sean Penn, don't let that scare you. He plays Milk as a driven pol, but also an impish character with a wicked sense of humor, and his scenes with James Franco and Emile Hirsch give the movie such a feeling of joy that it makes the end we know is coming all that much more stunning.

The biggest accomplishment of "Milk" is that it leaves unstated but perfectly implied the greater tragedy of Milk's life: That even as he won his biggest victory for gay rights in California, AIDS was only a few years away to bring it crashing down. And if you simply can't bring yourself to watch two men kissing, I would indeed stay away from this one (and, frankly, please keep it to yourself.)

"The Wrestler"
Given both the subject matter and the fact that "Milk" is simply a sensational film guarantees that Penn will win the Oscar for Best Actor this year, but if I had a vote it would go without question to Mickey Rourke.

For me, it's a simple test: When you see someone in a role, do they play it so well that they disappear into it, to the point that you couldn't possibly see any other actor or actress playing that part? Rourke certainly does that here in Darren Aronofsky's flick, in his perfect portrayal of a "professional" (in as much as that's his only paying job, at least) wrestler who is consumed by vanity even as his career is clearly coming to an end.

But that's only one level on which Aronofsky's movie excels. As a glimpse into the sordid world of semi-pro wrestling, not a place you want to be for too long, it's achingly funny, especially when a staple gun gets involved (I won't spoil it for you any more than that.) The humor, strongest between Rourke and Marisa Tomei as a stripper who befriends him (as a paying client, of course), was the real surprise here. I won't spoil too much, but the line about how his daughter's personal life might influence her choice in clothes is priceless. And, just to put it on the completely piggish level of pro wrestling, this second consecutive flick in which Marisa Tomei spends much of the proceedings topless is much better than the last one, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

One last word of praise for Aronofsky to wrap it up (hopefully as well as he did.) It seems like very few directors have any idea how to end a movie any more. Unable or unwilling to simply choose one ending, they throw four or five at us, and can spend up to 20 minutes doing it. The final shot of "The Wrestler" is a simple but iconic one, and just wraps up the movie's spirit perfectly. I was pleasantly surprised to see the trailer for this great flick Friday afternoon in Macon, so hopefully it's finally going to play everywhere - as it certainly should - very soon.

"Happy Go Lucky"
It came as no surprise at all that Mike Leigh's flick was the oddest one I saw this week, but also one of the best. A word of warning before you enter: Even if you think you have a sunny disposition, prepare to be thoroughly annoyed by Poppy, the central character brought to all-too-cheerful life by Sally Hawkins, who I couldn't remember ever having seen on the big screen before.

She will, at at least one point, make you want to reach out and choke her, but that's clearly Leigh's point here. To give you a sample of what I mean, she's the kind of person who has to answer every thing she hears around her. For example (as my dad explained it to my mom, who didn't come with us to this one), if you say "the door is open," she'll have to say "come in" even if no one is there or repeat several times what you just said. All, of course, with an ever-present smile.

It's when Poppy begins to see the effect she has on the people around her that Leigh's movie really gets interesting. And again, if I had an Academy vote, I might give the Supporting Actor nod to the late Heath Ledger for his unforgettable turn as The Joker, but Eddie Marsan's performance as Poppy's driving instructor here would probably edge him out. He perfectly plays a character just consumed with inner and outer rage, and when the two of them come together in that tight space it's very funny until it's not, at which point it takes a truly terrifying turn.

Leigh's movie isn't perfect (there's a completely nonsensical scene between Poppy and a homeless man that just goes on way too long), but it is - as his movies almost always are - like nothing else you can see on the big screen. He specializes in truths that can make you laugh until they turn into a dagger, and the scene in "Happy Go Lucky" when Poppy and her friends go to visit her supposedly happily married sister is just perfectly uncomfortable. See this one if you can.

And there you have it. Just for the record, along with those three great flicks, I also saw three good ones - "Synecdoche, NY," "Waltz with Bashir" and "Gran Torino" - but I'll have to beg out of reviewing them at least for now because I am very sick (just a sore throat and runny nose, actually, but still none too pleasant.)

Starting Monday I will roll out my best of 2008 set, which will be incomplete since I have yet to see "Frost/Nixon" or "Frozen River," but it seems the time is as right as it's ever gonna be (and just as a teaser, it will contain at least two comedies, one French flick and one Swedish one.) Monday will feature the top 10 (or more if I can't make up my mind) movies of 2008, Tuesday will feature the best female performances of the year and Wednesday the men will get their turn. On Thursday, if you care to come back, I plan to tear into Steven Soderbergh's thoroughly tedious "Che" (whenever I think of the word "overkill," which this clearly is by at least half, I always think of that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" joke, "no, it's just enough kill." Not the case here, but still one of my very favorite Buffy lines.) If you have any suggestions for other best of categories I should dig into, please feel free to let me know, and I'll certainly consider them, since that's what I love to do. Peace out.


Bob said...

Thanks for the reviews. I didn't know much about "Happy Go Lucky" but it sounds very interesting. I liked "Gran Torino" a lot too and I'm looking forward to "The Wrestler." Seattle gets it this coming Friday.
I'm going to post my reviews of "Valkyrie," "Gran Torino," and "Revolutionary Road" shortly.
Also, for best of the year categories, I'm big on screenplay!

Reel Fanatic said...

That's a good idea indeed, Bob ... I don't think I'll bother to break it down into original and adapted, but the screenplay categories are my favorites on Oscar night, so I think I will indeed do that to round out the week. ... I'll have to stop by and see what you had to say about Revolutionary Road ... I could have seen that in New York, I think, but just had to say no because I get enough suburban angst - probably done much better - on "Mad Men"

Bob said...

Ahhh, "Mad Men." Season 3 cannot come soon enough.