Mickey Rourke in The WrestlerTHE WRESTLER

Sure, lots of people love Mickey Rourke now. But if you're among those of us who were in thrall to the recent Oscar nominee's talent and charisma during the '80s glory days of Body Heat and Diner, and who followed him happily through the lurid thrills of Angel Heart and Barfly, and who despaired during his career debacles in the '90s, and who rejoiced whenever he managed to pop up again in the rare good movie, his greatness in director Darren Aronofsy's The Wrestler is likely to produce feelings of enormous gratitude - coupled, that is, with an almost inexpressible sadness, which comes from realizing what Rourke, and his fans, have lost over the past three decades.

Watching the actor in his role as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a fading wrestling legend seeking a comeback after a series of personal travails, we can't help but miss his previously slender grace and soft, lightly ironic deliveries; with his steroid-enhanced frame and sandpaper-rough voice, the man who stars in The Wrestler is barely recognizable from the Mickey Rourke of old. Yet thankfully, and somewhat amazingly, he's still there. He's there in Randy's kindness and geniality and determination, and in his heartbroken misery with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and in his imploring sweetness with his only friend (a beguilingly matter-of-fact Marisa Tomei). He's there in Rourke's eyes. The body may be bruised, and the voice may be trashed, but the big-hearted spirit and electrifying focus - the presence - of Rourke is intact, and, as The Wrestler suggests, perhaps grander than ever. Aronofsky's film, with its smart, expectation-reversing script by Robert D. Siegel, finds a simple story given commendably understated presentation; it's an inspiring, first-rate melodrama. It's Rourke - in one of movies' most stirring, fitting, and deserved returns to form ever - who nudges The Wrestler somewhere closer to art.


Sean Penn in MilkMILK

To answer a not-uncommon question, I don't write notes while watching movies, but whenever the situation allows, I will mutter occasional observations into a hand-held recorder. I opted against verbal note-taking when I first saw director Gus Van Sant's Milk in November, but the following are my recordings, in their entirety, from my second viewing this past weekend:

"Milk wears white socks with his suits."

Not the pithiest of remarks, to be sure. But in truth, the rest of the time I all but totally forgot about the recorder; Milk is such a marvelously compelling, richly entertaining piece of work that I had no desire to analyze it or comment on it - I just wanted to experience it. Bolstered by Sean Penn's gloriously happy and humane performance, and the elegantly witty and incisive script by Dustin Lance Black, Van Sant's elegy for the slain politico and gay-rights activist is astonishing for being so clear-eyed and unsentimental, and while its story is steeped in sadness, the movie itself is spectacularly hopeful; you leave not feeling regret and shame about the past, but intense optimism about the future. As biographical dramas go, it's an uncommonly lively, frisky endeavor with an uncommonly fine cast - a second viewing gave me a deeper appreciation for Josh Brolin's rather stunningly complex portrayal - and while I'm not generally one to equate a film's quality with its number of Oscars nominations (see Benjamin Button ... or, y'know, don't ... ), the Academy did right with its eight nods for Milk; the film is a profoundly exhilarating joy.


Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWittRACHEL GETTING MARRIED

By way of explaining the appeal, and the brilliance, of Rachel Getting Married, let me cite one specific sequence. In it, groom-to-be Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) is loading the dishwasher. His future father-in-law, Paul (Bill Irwin), teasingly chides him for his slowness and poor dish-stacking sense. Oh yeah?, says Sidney. He proceeds to load the dishwasher at a breakneck pace, causing numerous family members and friends - who sense a competition brewing - to enter the kitchen and root Sidney on.

Sidney finishes the task amidst roars of approval, and Paul demands that the dishwasher be unloaded - it's his turn. With greater speed and artfulness, Paul performs a wizardly dish-loading exhibition that gets the gathered clan cheering, and amidst his orders for more and more dishes, his daughter, Kym (Anne Hathaway) - a recovering drug addict whose every action and utterance thus far has been cause for nervous concern - joins the exuberant fray and hands him a cup ... the one belonging to her little brother, who was accidentally killed while in Kym's care. Holding the cup while fighting back tears, Paul quietly sets the it down and leaves the room, the previously ecstatic guests make embarrassed exits, and Kym realizes that once again - and again without meaning to - she's ruined everything.

With one scene, director Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Jenny Lumet, Hathaway (Oscar-nominated as Best Actress), and an extraordinary supporting ensemble deliver comedy, tragedy, joy, tension, and an unerring sense of true family dynamics, and somehow manage to do so in about three dozen other scenes, as well. Heartbreaking yet divinely rewarding, Rachel Getting Married quietly snuck into Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas over the weekend. Don't let it quietly sneak out.

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