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Movie review: ‘The Wrestler’

Masterful struggle: From its star to its surroundings, ‘Wrestler’ keeps it raw and real

Jan. 9, 2009, Austin American-Statesman

Mickey Rourke, bless his heart, looks like a big basted bird in “The Wrestler,” a wincing character study of a macho man whose life’s passion has skidded to its expiration date. Rourke’s professional wrestler — a tights-and-tattoos brand of brawler — isn’t going down easily, though, and it’s this internal battle, not the cringingly theatrical ones in the smack-thud ring, that Darren Aronofsky’s brutal yet remarkably sensitive character study is about.

Rourke gleams with blood and sweat through much of the movie, and he radiates a bizarre, battered physicality that almost seems fabricated from old rubber. He’s Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a wrestling icon coming off the high of his glory years in the 1980s, when he was a superstar bone-cruncher, vanquishing the likes of the Ayatollah and other garishly named combatants. Bronzed and bulging on steroids, with a puffy, engorged face, Rourke’s Ram looks chiseled from red clay, like the less sunburned brother of Hellboy.

The film opens in a blast of hard-rock nostalgia, with vintage posters of the Ram’s classic bouts streaming by to the throb of Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head).” Then it goes dark and the screen portentously reads: “Twenty years later.”

Before it lights up again, you hear a wheezy, phlegm-larded cough, the requiem for a beaten and lonely man. The camera pans in on Rourke, sitting sweaty, head down, in an empty locker room. He’s just finished a bout, which has taken all he has. He’s the pugilist at rest, a self-styled warrior who has endured a life of blows and bloodletting in the name of gladiatorial entertainment.

The shot shimmers with melancholy beauty, bathed in fluorescent lights and cementing right there the movie’s soul-stripping concerns.

So much of Rourke’s resigned and furrowed performance, heralded as the actor’s unlikely comeback, emanates from his flamboyant appearance. His look reveals volumes about the character: the paid-for tan and spangly spandex pants; the steroidal heft and the peroxided, Portuguese man-of-war hair cascading down his back. These are the trappings of showbiz, choreographed wrestling included, and the traps of maintaining high-voltage vanity. (The Ram even drives an old Dodge Ram van. He clings to that kind of chintzy pride.)

But vanity’s a dicey addiction for a guy in his mid-50s who uses his body as a weapon. He’s dented, perforated and creaky. His ticker is on the blink. He wears a chunky yellow hearing aid, an exquisite touch by the filmmakers that telegraphs a violent past and a compromised present. Continue reading

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Interview: David Carradine

Enter the caveman, David Carradine: He’s been a cowboy, a kung fu artist, a folk artist. Now he takes on Austin-shot ‘Homo Erectus’

Dec. 2, 2005, Austin American-Statesman

David Carradine has long skinny legs that are stretched out like bamboo poles, naked, knobby, porpoise-smooth. They are exposed from the ankle to way up the thigh, several unsettling inches past the tan line to scary areas that make one’s eyes avert in a violent spasm. He looks supremely relaxed and casual, sunk deep in a chair with those bare legs leveled at the floor, elbow propped on an arm rest to keep the cigarette in his fingers close to his faintly duckish lips.

Carradine is dressed as a caveman. Cave-people, according to the Discovery Channel, didn’t wear much apparel. Innocent of vanity, they sported spots and dashes of clothing — loin cloths, tattered shorts, shredded bikini tops, sometimes nothing at all. And so Carradine, former star of the indelible television series “Kung Fu,” in which he sometimes wore little more than a monk robe, is sparsely draped in the rags of primitive man. His shoes are ratty moccasins, his shirt random scraps of earth-tone felt. His pants: nonexistent.

“This is only half of it,” Carradine says with a swell of pride. “I throw fur on top of it all.”

He points to a heap of fake black fur on the floor of his actor’s trailer, which rests on the magnificently dusty moonscape of a limestone quarry in North Austin. Scenes from the movie “Homo Erectus” are being shot here, one of the film’s many locations, including Hamilton Pool and Enchanted Rock, that suggests prehistoric landscapes. (A limestone quarry? How very “Flintstones.”)

“And in the movie my hair is sticking straight up like this,” says Carradine, teasing out long, wild gray-blond strands to make a static-electric blast. “Out to here.”

What are you going to do when playing a caveman but go with it? Carradine seems to be having fun with the role of Mookoo, the blustering chief of his cave tribe. His son Ishbo, who is goading his species to evolve, is played by a Woody Allenish Adam Rifkin, the film’s writer and director. Talia Shire plays Carradine’s cave-wife and Ali Larter (“Legally Blonde”) plays Rifkin’s elusive dream girl. “Homo Erectus” is the third low-budget feature produced by the University of Texas Film Institute and its for-profit arm, Burnt Orange Productions.

Carradine’s last major role was the title villain in Quentin Tarantino’s martial-arts revenge opus “Kill Bill,” the success of which hurled the actor back into public view after a disappearance that seemed to have lasted decades. Actually, it did last decades. His most recent watchable film before “Kill Bill” was the Jesse James western “The Long Riders,” co-starring his brothers Keith and Robert. That was 1980.

“Playing in ‘Kill Bill’ helped,” Carradine says. “Up until then everyone was saying ‘Grasshopper.’ Now everyone says ‘Bill.'”

Climbing into Carradine’s trailer, one is swallowed in a rich fog from his English Ovals, fancy, filterless cigarettes he lights the way some people pop peanuts. He has the grainy rasp and paper-bag flesh of a smoker and the gruff pluck of someone turning 69 on Thursday.

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Movie review: ‘Spellbound’

June 13, 2003, Austin American-Statesman

A wonderfully bizarre transformation occurs in Harry Altman when the rubbery 12-year-old is stumped by a word during the National Spelling Bee: He turns into Jim Carrey.

In the documentary “Spellbound,” Harry stands at the microphone and is lobbed the word “banns,” a seemingly slayable little noun that wraps its tentacles around Harry’s brain and squeezes tight.

The boy chokes, and the struggle within his head is displayed in an anarchy of facial contortions that would make Tex Avery blush. His face resembles a wrestling match under a sheet, twisting this way and that, stretching, crinkling, tongue flailing, eyes bulging.

Looking as if he sipped strychnine, not so much stalling as trying to shake free the proper letters, Harry is told by the judges to get a move on. We worry about the child.

“Spellbound” works on us like that. We start to worry about the eight children who are its subjects as we follow them from home and school to the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., the Olympiad of word nerds. We want the lot of them to win, vanquishing gnarly, polysyllabic octopi like “cephalagia” with hand-on-hip aplomb.

But of course not all triumph, and the tension that mounts as the kids painstakingly excavate letters from their heads like paleoanthropic bones — epochs seem to pass between each halting D and Y — is as gripping as anything in theaters right now. (That includes “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which seems to have spelling difficulties of its own.)

The thrills and misspells in director Jeff Blitz’s remarkable debut — it was nominated at this year’s Oscars and won the jury award for best documentary at South by Southwest in 2002 — spring from a gently probing narrative about those kids in school you either haughtily ignored or on whom you inflicted industrial-strength wedgies. Unless, um, you were one of them.

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Coffee with Luke and Andrew Wilson

A Coffee With … Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson: Brothers at home in laid-back Austin

May 17, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

Coffee, now.

The two men, more like really hairy boys, arrive pouchy-faced, rumpled, enveloped in the whiskers of Alaskan moose hunters. The fussy publicist says no photos will be allowed, that Luke and Andrew are in a “just out of bed” mode. It’s 30 minutes past noon in a sunny suite at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Coffee — a fine idea.

Luke, Andrew and Owen — the adorable, scampish Wilson brothers — are in Austin again, this time for duty. But fun, always, is also on the itinerary. Austin is a second hometown for the Dallas natives.

The Wilsons’ new comedy, “The Wendell Baker Story,” enjoyed a red-carpet preview the night before at the Alamo South. Luke wrote it, he and older brother Andrew directed, and Luke and Owen co-star with film warhorses Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton and Seymour Cassel. Made in Austin in 2003, the movie received its world premiere during South by Southwest in 2005. It’s taken a while to secure distribution, but the movie finally opens Friday.

Owen, Hollywood bigshot, ducks today’s press obligations. He’s probably still in bed.

Luke wears the same charcoal cords and button-up black shirt he wore to the previous night’s screening and after-party, which took place at the Wilson brothers’ favorite Austin bar, Club DeVille, where they are routinely spotted.

Andrew, in T-shirt and New Balance sneakers, is the gregarious, big-smile, firm-handshake Wilson brother. Luke, sporting designer sunglasses indoors, is the mumbly, taciturn, reluctant Wilson brother. (Owen is the invisible, bent-nose Wilson brother. “Does Owen even exist?” Andrew wonders aloud.)

Pressed on whether they just fell out of bed, the brothers deny it, but their laughter betrays them.

“Luke ran the lake a couple of times,” Andrew says.

“We did a kick-boxing class,” says Luke.

“We did an urban Pilates class,” Andrew adds.

The sunglasses do not promote their case.

“My eyeballs hurt,” Luke mutters. Andrew laughs.

Still no coffee.

Andrew’s effortless nice-guyness prompts him to snatch the reporter’s tape recorder off the table and hold it up between him and Luke for maximum voice absorption. It’s a heroic gesture. Luke grips a hardback of the new Warren Zevon biography and, for some reason, a pen. The brothers sound alike. It’s a laid-back, adenoidal voice, laced with a curl of Texas drawl.

Dump the bats. The Wilsons should be Austin’s mascot, its scruffy, heart-robbing poster boys. They embody the slightly dazed, out-late, up-late energy of South Austin, the unpressed stylishness of a hip city utterly comfortable with itself.

“When you come down here from Dallas, it’s pretty apparent Austin’s more our speed,” Andrew says. “It’s by far the best town in Texas, and maybe the best town in the country.”

“Our favorite town is El Paso,” Luke deadpans.

Hotel San Jose, Jo’s Coffee, Güero’s, Hula Hut (Andrew’s favorite Austin spot), the Austin Golf Club — these are the brothers’ hangouts.

“I just like driving around in Austin,” Luke says. “I always feel like a cop” — he mimes one hand on the steering wheel, nodding coolly — “just cruisin’ around.”

Funny, they don’t mention any local music venues.

“The thing about Andrew is he hates live music,” Luke says. “I actually do, too.”

“How can you say that in Austin?” says Andrew.

“It’s (expletive),” Luke says. “They play too loud.”

“That’s blasphemy in Austin! Don’t you understand that? Saying I hate live music is like saying I don’t like being from Texas,” says Andrew before he confesses, “I’m kind of an old fuddy-duddy. Sometimes it’s just too dang loud for me.”

The coffee remains undelivered.

To galvanize a caffeine-deprived conversation, Andrew suddenly looks at Luke and asks, “Do you have a place here? That’s what people want to know.”

“Are you actually asking me that?”

“There’s a rumor that you have a place here.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You don’t have a place here. Huh.”

“I’m looking for a place.”

“Where are you looking?” Andrew persists.

“East side,” Luke says. “My friend, Liz Lambert, who runs the Hotel San Jose, just bought some land on the east side.”

We ask whether he’s going to build his own home.

“I think I’d just do one of those — what do you call those things?” Luke says.

“A yurt?” offers Andrew.

“A what?”

“It’s like a teepee.”

“No.”

“A geodesic dome?”

Luke laughs.

“Igloo? Come on, man.” Andrew says.

“No, what are those things called? They’re little modern places that you just buy and set up.”

“Pre-fab.”

“Yes!”

Ta-da. Two big green mugs of coffee are carried in for Luke and Andrew.

Luke takes a sip. “It tastes like Starbucks.”

“Hold on, I’ll be able to tell you,” Andrew says. “I’m like a connoisseur.”

He sips, then coughs loudly, wearing a grimace. “That’s Starbucks.” He picks up six packets of real and artificial sugar and shakes them as if he’s going to use them all in one cup.

Luke protests. “I’m all for Starbucks. Just because it’s successful I’m not supposed to go there?”

“God, man!” says Andrew. “Remember to keep Austin weird.”

“Pardon?” says Luke, as if he can’t believe his brother just said that.

“You heard me.”

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The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane

Thumbs-up, thumbs-down? Hardly. Writing about movies is an art, and no one’s better than the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane.
A critic’s command performance

Nov. 3, 2002, Austin American-Statesman

For the poor newspaper critic, sandwiched between the twin tyrannies of limited space and lightning turn-around, there is no soul luckier than a critic at the New Yorker.

Each week, we flip to the back of the magazine to consume the latest feast of erudition, savoring the gourmet prose, swishing succulent epiphanies and cracking teeth on bones of contention. We envy the elegant typeface, marvel at the breadth of brain-power lent to the task.

Most of all, we swoon over the space. Newspaper folk write in inches. New Yorker scribes write in acres. Their minds are granted fenceless fields in which to gambol and cartwheel, run far and wide and swing from tree branches. They can digress and allude and seemingly take all day.

The extravagant space is one reason why the magazine’s second-string film critic Anthony Lane (David Denby is its chief film critic) has become a New Yorker star. On the page and in person (or at least during a recent phone interview), Lane is irrepressibly verbose. Words disgorge in precise eruptions, flittery but finely thought-out, crisp, lyrical and witty. But, still, copious.

Lane needs the magazine’s roominess to do what he does: write possibly the funniest, smartest and most urbane film musings in the nation. His expansive, riffing prose is allowed to roam and breathe. Filmmakers adore his words as much as readers. Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg are a few directors who have called or written Lane with praise.

Lane recently turned 40 and has just released his first collection of journalism, “Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker,” a 753-page tree stump engorged with roughly 100 movie reviews, a dozen excellent literary critiques and 20 or so profiles on everyone from astronauts to Julia Roberts.

Both exhilarating and exhausting — its sheer volume of distilled dazzle winds you — the anthology indeed goes to show that nobody’s perfect, not even Lane. This is not a swipe; no writer or performer (Lane is both) is flawless. Often you can sense Lane sweating for laughs, winding up for the big guffaw that turns out a groan. His clamoring need to entertain distracts from his spotty film knowledge, which he convincingly caulks with learned intuition and cultural acumen.

Lane is naturally being looked upon as heir to the late Pauline Kael, who perked up and aerated the dowdy vocabulary of criticism for three decades in The New Yorker. But the two are very different critics. Where Kael was harsh and decisive and rarely gallant, Lane is dapper and polite, with a gossamer touch and jolly countenance. Lane critiques with skipping insights, not spike-shoed stomps.

Irony is a way of being mean without looking your subject in the eye, and it is Lane’s handiest weapon. But occasionally the Briton peels off his white gloves: ” ‘Meet Joe Black’ is endless, bewildering, starved of logic, and, if you stand back from it, something of a joke. In short, it feels like death.” He chops down “The Phantom Menace” to a single epithet: “crap.” Continue reading

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Movie review: ‘Greenberg’

March 26, 2010, Austin American-Statesman

Ben Stiller looks gaunt and shrunken in “Greenberg,” Noah Baumbach’s bilious comedy of discomfort that isn’t afraid to let its tender side show, if only in stingy glances. Stiller isn’t a tall man to begin with, but his physical presence here is rumpled, crumpled, matching his character’s interior life, that of a guy hitting his 40s with rancor and confusion. He’s in a stunted state. Even next to the movie’s German shepherd he looks small.

This is Stiller stripped down and vulnerable, his jester’s suit swapped for an outdated sweater that screams — no, mumbles — inertia. Stiller’s darker side, hinted at in some of his sad-sack comic roles (“Flirting with Disaster,” “The Heartbreak Kid”), emerges ready to rumble, snipping and gnashing at the world like a less smug Larry David. It’s as funny as it is pathetic, a portrait of a guy who’s barely tolerated because he can barely tolerate himself.

Stiller plays Roger Greenberg in “Greenberg,” Baumbach’s alert and wise meditation on early-midlife disappointment and the drawbacks of being a jerk. The movie’s squirmy accuracy bears the pained specificity of autobiography, like the writer-director’s coming-of-age saga “The Squid and the Whale” and indulgently dysfunctional “Margot at the Wedding,” tragicomedies whose emotional violence is slightly offset by the ouchy humor mined from neurotic extremes.

Fresh off a nervous breakdown in New York, like an aging Holden Caulfield, Roger has come to his rich brother’s home in Los Angeles to house-sit while the family is on vacation. His goal is to actively “do nothing” except catch up with friends (the great Rhys Ifans is one of them) and an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the story with Baumbach), none of whom especially wants to catch up with Roger after some bitter fallouts in the past.

Roger makes a reluctant connection with his brother’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a frowzy yet comely young woman who comes to the house to feed the dog. It seems unlikely she would fall for the prickly, off-putting Roger, who is almost 20 years her senior. But Florence is herself a damaged flower. She moves with an irresistible gawkiness, a kind of fatigued self-awareness, and speaks in a voice of breathy boredom.

Like many heartbreakers, Florence doesn’t realize what a knock-out she is. Her beauty is a mystery to her, and she doesn’t know how to present it. When Roger and she hook up for the first time — a cover-your-eyes comedy of errors — Florence apologizes. “I get kind of nerdy” during sex, she says.

This is Gerwig’s first major role after a series of micro-budget mumblecore movies (“Baghead,” “Hannah Takes the Stairs”), and she’s terrific — affectless and luminous, acutely attuned to how Florence’s insecurities inform her speech, mannerisms and movement.

She’s the optimistic heart of the story to Stiller’s gloomy soul. His existential crisis is about worthlessness, whacking that midlife wall of diminished ambition and shriveled hope and walking about dazed. He’s a human bruise in a constant wince. He pushes Florence away.

“I should be with a divorced 38-year-old with teenage kids and low expectations in life,” he tells her. (“Normal stuff is really hard for him,” she tells her friends.) Theirs, at best, is a fretful romance, and it’s fascinating.

The later films of Baumbach, including the poignant, almost perfect “Greenberg,” are told with the granular realism of a short story in The New Yorker. They’re hermetic, mercilessly personal, savagely honest, all of which passes as a type of morose sophistication. They feel messy and rich.

Baumbach, also in his early 40s, shoots with a homely naturalism that’s both shaggy and invisibly fussy. He’s a hip humanist with a taste for bile and an eye and ear for people not getting along. Yet he wants things to work out. That takes work, brute emotional toil between bodies. His movies are sincere and never jokey. The uncomfortable laughter they generate can seem like snark, but actually it’s high drama.

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Interview: David Mamet

Want to make movie magic? It’s not taught in school, Mamet says
Playwright and filmmaker says ultimately, writers are their own best teachers

Feb. 17, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

“Hello, I’m David Mamet.”

Mamet, playwright and filmmaker, enters an Austin restaurant with let’s-do-this punctuality, upon a gust of finger-snapping velocity. He doesn’t know who he’s addressing. There are two of us sitting in the small room. He looks right between us, betting one of us is his interview date. Here I am. Come on.

Mamet’s built like a tree stump. His hair matches his beard, a silver frost of buzzed stubble. He wears owlish glasses, a white polo shirt tucked into loose jeans without a belt and suede mountain boots. During a 45-minute conversation, he sips decaf coffee and talks in a chunky Chicago accent that’s so thick it borders on Bronxian.

It’s 9 a.m. He’s been up for hours writing in his hotel room. (Later we learn he borrowed a manual typewriter from the hotel.)

Is he working on a screenplay? “I don’t know. I might be,” Mamet, 60, says.

He’s like that. Alternately glib and evasive, thorny and direct, reflective and expansive. He’s soft-spoken and extremely polite. (And generous. He leaves a $20 tip for a free cup of coffee.)

With dozens of plays — including “American Buffalo” and the Pulitzer-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross” — as many screenplays, several books of essays and a few novels, Mamet is a writer’s writer, a brusque man with a formidable work ethic. He admits he writes with unquenchable fecundity, even, perhaps, “too much.”

How much does he write each day? “No idea,” he says.

Does he write every day? “Probably.”

Last year the Ransom Center acquired more than 100 boxes of Mamet’s manuscripts, journals, sketches and letters. As part of the deal, Mamet agreed to a series of short residencies at the University of Texas. Earlier this month, Mamet spent three days speaking to several UT classes.

Ironically, pushing teachers out of the way is the linchpin of his advice. “Listen,” he says, “anybody who is going to learn how to write is going to teach himself how to do it.”

Mamet finds it “impious” to think too much about his own work and processes. He once told an interviewer that he paces a lot when he gets stuck writing. He told me that he “shoots a couple hundred rounds from a .22” outside his rural home in Vermont. (He splits his time between there and Los Angeles.)

Does gunfire clear the mind?

“No, it’s great for making things go ‘bang,'” Mamet says.

American-Statesman: Why is it important that a university archive acquire and take care of your life’s work — writings, drafts, journals?

David Mamet: We all like to flatter ourselves that when we’re dead and gone that someone will find some hidden meaning in what we’ve done. What someone might find interesting are the different stages a work goes through. I don’t think there’s any social value in it. Some hobbyist might get a kick out of it someday.

And students might find it instructive.

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think one can teach writing. And I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt to prove that.

You’re rather an autodidact in that sense.

I think all writers are. Everybody who I was ever interested in was.

Like who?

Tolstoy never went to writing school. Willa Cather never went to school. Hemingway never went to school.

So I assume you don’t believe in prestigious writing incubators like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

I don’t know what they’re doing there. They may be doing good stuff. But if someone came to me and said, “I want to be a writer,” I’d tell him what Hemingway said: “What’s stopping you?” Continue reading

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