Friday, September 17, 2010

Movie Review: Passion Play (2010)

Directed by Mitchell Glazer

Most of us don't realize it, but our brains do not register concepts or ideas. They don't store information like a computer either, in ones and zeros. Rather, it does all that needs to be done, the sorting and predicting and shuffling through the endless torrent of stimuli, with pictures and emotions. From the most abstract concepts of math and physics to the most widely known, such as love, our brain works only with pictures and emotions. That makes a visual medium such as film an ideal place to explore simple concepts in new and profound ways. Perhaps new is the wrong word, as some film goers immediately sense that you are talking about some new film maker that artistes consider brilliant but that most of us can't follow because the story itself is abstract. Sometimes simple is better. Sometimes smaller is better. And sometimes it takes a single frame, a single illustration to remind us again why film is the single most powerful and prolific story telling tool we have. That is, when it's done well. And in Passion Play, it's done very well indeed.

Mickey Rourke stars as Nate Poole, a washed up, former jazz star in Mitchell Glazer's new film Passion Play. Rourke revitalized his career with a tremendous performance in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler two years ago, which earned him an Academy Award nomination, and apparently some good scripts from which to choose. Once again, he has chosen well. Rourke is 58 now, so unless you're of a certain age, you won't recall how Rourke, always a physical specimen, was a rising screen star in the 1980's, perhaps culminating in his performance with Kim Basinger in the erotic drama 9 1/2 weeks. His life then became a cautionary Hollywood tale of hard living and bad choices, not the least of which was his decision to go back to professional boxing, and the subsequent plastic surgery needed restore some of the damage the boxing had done, which only made it worse. These days, the looks are gone, but the presence remains. If anything, as he showed in The Wrestler, and even further here, the once vaunted physicality has been whittled around the edges, like a smooth piece of driftwood, and so there is little about him that isn't natural. In Passion Play, the raging emotions and energy crackle to life in his character, Nate Poole, but not often. Nate has been beaten down, buried under a sea of politics and passions and excuses every drug user knows, managing to survive, but only just. From the world of excess and celebrity, he has found an existence crawling amidst the night dwellers and dealers, the brokers of cheap rent and rummaged lives. There is something still alive in Nate, you can hear it in his music, but it no longer finds its way to the surface. But then, why would it? What good is strength and hope when you realize that those things belong only to the people who have chosen pragmatism, for people who dwell in the normative and who have controlled their emotions and affections for a life more stable? For someone like Nate, the world makes little sense outside of the clear, soft jazz of his trumpet. It probably never will. Who do you trust when you no longer even trust yourself?

There's been a lot written about Megan Fox, who became a star after her performance in Transformers. Unfortunately, when you watch Michael Bay's camera linger on her smooth stomach in that movie and listen to the playboy director discuss his casting decision, you understand the reasons behind the talk. Add to it some other wooden performances and her first leading role, in Jennifer's Body, that only reminded most critics of the decision behind her role in Transformers, and you understand why there was so little to expect from her here, even alongside Rourke. In Passion Play however, Fox gives a performance that should end the discussion about whether or not she can act. Yes, there are moments when you feel her shifting to Soap Opera emoting, the standard for beautiful young Hollywood actresses, but whether it's Glazer's direction or the strong script or the role that calls for something new, those moments are rare. For most of the film, she's actually something of a revelation. She plays against her type, and while certainly the camera and story frame her beauty, it does so in a way you do not expect. As the film progresses, you forget that she is "The Megan Fox", the one criticized and posterized for everything from her previous roles to her plastic surgery to her private life. Instead, it feels as though she is discovering new things through her character, new things about who she is and who she chooses to be, and she shyly invites us all along for a glimpse into her journey.

More than anything else, Passion Play is a look into the lives of people who have been broken, but deep inside still hold out for the faint hope of something more. Of something greater than the numbers, the ones and zeros that too often characterize our daily existence. Throughout the film, Glazer never cheats, never reaches beyond the characters, until one soaring moment when the simple but abstract idea that drives the movie reveals itself in a frame where picture and emotion finally meet onscreen. And when they do, we are lifted along with the characters, through our own remembrances of journeys past and journeys lost, washed away, for a while at least, in the hope of something greater.

****1/2 stars (out of five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010