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By Tony Sheppard

The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Probably the last of the big "award season" releases, "The Wrestler" was worth waiting for. It's also about as different as possible from Aronofsky's last outing, "The Fountain" (2006). Where "The Fountain" was all glossy presentation with a three-card monte set of flip-flopping storylines that hid the fact that there was nothing really worth finding at its core, "The Wrestler" is gritty, entirely linear, and compelling in its raw, brutal honesty.

Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a professional wrestler, holding on to the thrill of the ring and the audience adoration, despite being 20 years of aging, injury and heartbreak past his prime. His life is a series of casual jobs, underpaid fights that barely raise enough money to pay for the drugs he needs to keep fighting, and equally tenuous relationships. This is a career-comeback of the highest order for Mickey Rourke, in one of those harsh roles that is so lacking in glamour that it's entirely anti-glamorous. At some level, watching Randy and watching Mickey is like watching the same story play out on and off screen, as once heralded careers have the jumper cables applied.

This is award worthy acting, as is the supporting performance from Marisa Tomei. And it's worth noting that Rourke joins Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) in the best acting performances of the year, all of which depict men who are past their prime and seeking connections and/or vindication later in life.
"The Wrestler" is not an easy movie to watch for the squeamish, with scenes that are in their own way more violent than far more overtly action movies. It's also somewhat predictable in its narrative development. But this is a movie that soars on the back of its lead performance. It's well worth catching, especially if you like to put the award shows in context.

Notorious
Directed by George Tillman Jr.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed "Notorious." I'll be honest – I'm not a big fan of rap and hip-hop, and I knew very little about the back story of the characters in this "based on real life" story. If anybody had pressed me on it, I might not even have been able to confirm that Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G., and Biggie Smalls were all the same person (and he had more names than that!). I remember the death of Tupac Shakur, and I vaguely knew of the West Coast/East Coast hip-hop rivalries from the magazine covers of the time (as the movie references), but that was about the extent of my knowledge going in.

"Notorious" is like this year's "Hustle and Flow," the story of the rise of a musical talent in the face of the adversity of circumstance. Quite conventional in nature, it is also reminiscent of other music biopics and could carry a title like "Walk the Rhyme." I enjoyed the performances and also appreciated the music industry history lessons as you also see the birth of the careers of such celebrities and performers as Sean "Puffy" Combs and Lil' Kim.

But it's hard to watch "Notorious" without being aware that you are watching only one side of a complex story. Kim, for example, has already expressed her dislike of the way she is depicted. And one can only assume that key plot points would probably be told quite differently if authored by folks with a different perspective on certain events. That said, as the movie that it is, as written, it is entertaining and engaging even for those (like me) who couldn't have identified a single track of Wallace's prior to seeing the film.

A moviebrief recommendation for families:

Hotel For Dogs
Directed by Thor Freudenthal

If you have kids with single-digit ages, or so, and you're looking for a safe, inoffensive afternoon of entertainment, "Hotel For Dogs" may be it. Like the kids' movies many of us grew up on, this is one that works as long as the kids involved haven't reached that moderately cynical "That would never happen!" or "Why isn't that fully-furnished abandoned hotel being lived in by homeless people?" stage. With a few recognizable faces (Don Cheadle, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Dillon) to keep the adults happy, the only real downside might be the eager requests to go home via the city animal shelter.

And a last stray thought on film and politics:

A few weeks ago, Malcolm and I pondered the outcome of Proposition 8 and whether or not it might have been affected by an earlier release of the movie "Milk." Over the weekend as the inauguration approached, I started to wonder whether the outcome of the general election, especially the fortunes of John McCain, might have been affected by an earlier release of "Gran Torino." After all it's the story of an elderly war veteran with anger issues who proves he's still capable of taking on youngsters and benefitting his community…even if he's sometimes prone to saying "Get off my lawn!"


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