27 November 2009

Best and Brightest

Because I lack the capacity for independent thought, I usually see the (non-Spielberg, non-Eastwood) films with high cumulative Metacritic scores. This fall, that brought me to Bright Star and An Education.

My first and most lasting takeaway from An Education is that our star, Carey Mulligan, looks like an exact cross between Michelle Williams and Katie Holmes.

The character's name is almost Jen Potter, so I'll just call her that. One of the big problems with the film is that we don't get far enough away from Dawson's Creek plotting and visuals. One of the (theoretical) advantages of cinema is that it can take you to open places, widen the scope of television. Instead, An Education gives us the same sets and situations repeatedly: the schoolroom, the dining room table, the "French" cafe, the bachelor pad. And when Jen finally gets to Paris, it's three minutes of amateurish, fast-motion footage of landmarks.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before getting to Paris, Jen's walking home in the rain with her cello when an extremely creepy man twice her age begins flirting with her. This is David (played by a not-really-that-handsome Peter Sarsgaard). Jen starts palling around with him and his friends, Danny and Helen, who are, I think, supposed to be fun but stupid (as a point of reference, Helen is definitely the Busy Phillips of the movie).

Reviews of An Education hype the supporting actresses Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams as educators/foils for Jen. But mostly they just blink and absorb Jen's perfectly written and entirely unbelievable speeches. We hear a lot about Jen's brilliance but see no substantial examples of it. Look--her Jane Eyre paper got an A+ with red exclamation marks next to it! She loves French film but we don't get the name of a single one.

The emotional climax of the film is silly. The foreshadowing is so heavy-handed there might as well have been a scroll across the bottom of the screen:


I was hoping she'd come out with a slick handful of aborted fetuses, but it was only some letters to David's wife. Yes, it turns out that this charming playboy with a murky personal life actually has a wife! That the scene takes place at an Esso Station, which is so much more evocative at the end of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, only makes An Education feel more banal. Then there's David's car rolling away from Jen over the cobblestones (hello Washington Square) and an actual montage of the seasons changing and Jen studying Latin until--ta da--she gets into Oxford after all. Or was it Cambridge? Who cares.

We know exactly where we are in Bright Star: a place and time where Paul Schneider's Charles Brown was allowed (encouraged even) to wear these pants:

Hampstead Heath, 1818. John Keats (Ben Whishaw) is a young writer being attacked physically by tuberculosis and intellectually by the 19th century equivalent of angry poetry bloggers. Abbie Cornish is Keats' love interest Fanny Brawne, who, to be fair, also kind of looks like Katie Holmes.

But what makes Fanny so much more watchable than Jen is that she makes things. She dresses in elaborate costumes of her own design. She stays up all night embroidering a heartrending image of a tree for Keats' dead brother. We admire her because she has an eye for beauty the same way Keats does.

In patient tracking shots, Jane Campion ties the couple to the countryside, seen in strolls through grass and lakeside picnics. My favorite scene happens after Keats finds a valentine from Brown to Fanny, becomes upset and sparks a tripartite run through the soggy woods. There is no petty argument over a perceived infidelity; there's a much more interesting, passionate conversation on what a valentine (what love) means. Of course, Fanny and Keats come to an accord, while Brown goes down a different avenue (there's a great, completely telling moment when, after polishing off a scone, Brown wipes the crumbs off on the maid's apron).

I also appreciate Bright Star for presenting a realistic view of the poem writing process. There are high points.

But Bright Star shows many more scenes of the men sitting around in darkened rooms for hours on end, then acting surly whenever they're interrupted. Brown is hilariously snarky after a long day at the inkpot while Keats is more philosophical: "It ought to come like leaves to a tree, or it better not come at all." If only...

If I had any critique it would be that the endgame is predictable with Italy in long shot and "Ode to a Nightingale" in voiceover but, before that, the film is full of surprises, like butterflies flitting about quiet white rooms. I use that metaphor because it takes a special kind of film to pull off, as Bright Star does, a long sequence of butterflies living, and dying, in an English country house.

03 August 2009

"I’m here to make some solemn declarations"

Sometimes it is hard to approach a masterpiece. How do you describe what makes it so masterpiece-y? I’ve spent some time with Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings & Queen trying to figure out how to commemorate its greatness. Watching the DVD extras really helped with this endeavor—Desplechin, adorably soft-spoken, says that he tries to put “at least five ideas” into every minute of film. His willingness to put in so many ideas, some unified, some disparate, jams every sequence in the film with an intimidating amount of detail. The quality from shot to shot is so unflagging I was reminded most of The Godfather, another family epic.

Pleasurably, the families in Kings & Queen are composed of artists rather than mobsters. The two central figures are Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), an art dealer with a 10-year-old son and her estranged, bipolar, second husband, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a renowned violist. As her father (who looks like a more interesting John Updike) is dying, Nora attempts to reconnect with Ismael so that he might adopt her son before her third marriage (to a man who actually seems more like a character in The Godfather). The difficulty is that Ismael has been committed to a psychiatric ward (headed by an icy Catherine Denueve) after nurses discovered him in his apartment, whose main furnishing was a noose hung above a stool.

I feel silly discussing plot matters when the true gift of this film is Desplechin’s writing—every character, no matter how minor, shines with originality and purpose. Take Ismael’s lawyer, a Hunter S. Thompson figure that, in maybe 15 minutes of screen time, betrays Ismael, steals pharmaceuticals, seduces Denueve, saves Ismael, provides sage advice and departs.

In his half of the film, Ismael reveals himself as one of the most fascinating characters in recent memory (and puts Amalric near the top of my best living actor list). All of the large and small details of his life are captivating. He is a wreck—he’s kicked out of his quartet, his own sister is filled with contempt for him, he bails out on women as fast as possible (claiming they have no souls). But then. He is a jaw-dropping as a break dancer in the hospital’s music therapy room. He makes every person he meets laugh in one way or another. He gives is sort-of-son a moving, ten minute lecture on the nature of parents and life. On a smaller scale, he gives his sister a blank Christmas card folded in quarters in August. He plays an invisible violin for a fellow inmate who’s feeling sorry for herself (this is especially funny because he is without his viola for most of the film). He gently neatens a pile of corn flakes that have been spread all over the floor during a shootout at his father’s grocery (yes, there is even a grocery store shootout in this film). He sometimes wears a musketeer doublet in public. For all these idiosyncrasies, you know Ismael, you are infuriated by his childishness, you are shocked at his generosity, you are, yes, moved by his humanity.

And Nora might be better! Devos’ role is more difficult—she has to play off of not only Ismael but her deceased first husband (the father of her child), her third husband, her business manager, her wayward sister, her son and, crucially, her father. She is the Queen. She barely sleeps for the whole film and when she does she is exhausted by the ghosts that visit her. She, consciously or unconsciously, makes the same arms-out albatross gesture that she did as a kid, posing for a picture with her sister. She talks to her son like he's another of her lovers. She reads Dickinson.

I can recall only a few scenes in cinema that are truly breath-taking and one is in Kings & Queen, when Nora reads a letter from her father after he's died. Not only do we hear his voice, we get a grainy, low-contrast documentary-style shot of him reciting its contents into our ears. It is shocking and wonderful because we think they have a good relationship (the film opens with Nora giving him a rare print of Leda and the Swan) but quickly find out otherwise. A few excerpts: "Your egoism has been monstrous...I burn with anger...you're delighted because pride makes you weak...I fear you, I hate you...I find it unfair that I should die while you live..." It's a poisonous bouquet of daggers--my hair stood on end. I felt relief when the scene flickered out because the image and voice had become my father's, the rage something incomprehensible and familiar.

It's a sequence so good it restores your faith in the art.

I also applaud Desplechin's willingness to make a literary film. In the DVD interview, he talks about how he wanted Kings & Queen to join the pantheon of stories where a powerful woman picks from an array of suitors. On screen, he is able to blend the opposing genres of melodrama and burlesque into a cohesive whole--it doesn't seem overly experimental thanks to his skill as a director. Many times, a cut from the hyperactive Ismael leads to a still Nora, giving the production a sense of balance. The camera is a benevolent, omniscient narrator allowing all characters their space.

So Kings & Queen is there in the 00’s film pantheon, rubbing shoulders with No Country for Old Men, 2046, Lost in Translation...and, of course, Redbelt.

13 July 2009

Transforming Poetry

I was so excited after watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that I composed this poem:

Bay’s Movies

A movie of Michael
Bay’s showed an Autobot,
at evening in Los Angeles,
battling a Decepticon, watched

by two young, seemingly
hot people, on a sound stage adjacent,
the classic boy and girl
of the story, any one

one cares to tell. So
years pass, of course, but
I identified with the young,
embittered Shia LaBeouf,

knew his almost complacent
banality and the distance
he felt from Megan Fox.
Yet another film

of Bay’s has the
aging Optimus Prime with his
awkward armor standing
in a CGI desert, of ruined pyramids,

dazed, bleeding, both he
and LaBeouf are,
trying to get back to
the Princeton dorm room, itself of

no great size. It
moved me, that
life was after all
like that. You are

in love. You stand
in the CGI desert, with
an Autobot, bleeding.
The story is true.


(Tip of the cap to Roberts Bresson and Creeley...I'm sure they would have wanted it this way.)

05 July 2009

Not Done with 2008 Quite Yet

WTT more or less dismissed 2008 as a terrible year in film but I have just seen a film, Tarsem's The Fall, that is, shall we say, a piece of candlelight guttering in the wind. Or, to borrow an image from the film, an elephant swimming through a tropical reef. So what if the film was made in 2006, it came out in 2008 damn it. If nothing else, Tarsem proves himself superior to McG in the one-named music video and commercial director category.

I have to take a moment to wander into autobiography and consider Tarsem's only other film, The Cell. When it released I had no clue who Tarsem was but I knew exactly who Jennifer Lopez was--2001 was the apex of my Jennifer Lopez affection. The Cell became the most hotly anticipated release in my 16 year old life because it was rated R and I would have to sneak past the authorities to get in. And I had been stopped before (note: at 16 I probably looked the same way that McLovin looked at age 12). Somehow, possibly because I looked older in my clever brim-low baseball hat disguise, or maybe because the guy selling tickets was 16 himself, I got in. And then The Cell! About which I remember exactly one scene, the one where the horse gets chopped up...

(And not even a good J Lo outfit...)

It is possible that I've forgotten the other great shots from The Cell and will similarly lose track of the tremendous visuals in The Fall. But I doubt it. The film was made over four years and shot in 18 countries, a Wong Kar Wai pace to movie making that I admire. While I wouldn't compare Tarsem to Kar Wai, it's obvious that both put a premium on unforgettable images.

In addition to the parade of lush shots, The Fall has two titanic dissolves that deserve special mention. Early in the film we are introduced to our four heroes, who are stranded on a tiny island, united in their hatred of Governor Odious. One of them, a naturalist named Charles Darwin, describes a rare specimen of butterfly that Odious killed and sent to him. We get a shot of the gorgeous blue and green butterfly fluttering then a dissolve back into an extreme long shot of the island, which turns out to be butterfly shaped. I should note that I think the film is worthwhile on the strength of Darwin's flamingo coat alone:

The other dissolve is more surprising. A close up of a priest's stony face at a wedding turns into black rock strewn steppe where the heroes are tethered and left to die. It actually takes a few moments to parse what's happened, as the temporal shift is so pronounced. Many other great visual concepts are well-executed. How about a burned man born from a tree?

Or how about a massive castle surrounded by a blue moat of houses?

On it's glittering surface, The Fall is reminiscent of Pan's Labyrinth, which I loathed. There's a girl being told and then participating in a fantastical story.

Young Alexandria bests Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth for cuteness and humorousness, and The Fall is able to enter a world of pure fantasy without overdone metaphors about Justice and War. Where the ending of Pan's Labyrinth is inevitable and dull, there is actually a good deal of drama in The Fall as fallibility of Roy, the man telling the tale to Alexandria, intercedes in and complicates the narrative. Emotions ran so hard that I had the idea that I could possibly, maybe, even shed a tear.

A good counterpoint to The Fall is Jesse Ball's 2009 novel, The Way through Doors, which is itself a sort of variation on the classic Scheherezade situation. The book's looping narrative and syntactical inventiveness mirrors the recursive imagery (of horses, boxes, water and much more) in The Fall. We tell each other stories in order to live and Tarsem has made an indelible moving picture of one such story.


Public Enemies was on the top of my list this summer. It's Michael Mann's follow up to Miami Vice, about which I still need to write a long, meandering paean of praise. Enemies arrived buzzingly, without the baggage of Vice, presumably because critics have inflexibly decided that Johnny Depp is a good actor and Colin Farrell is a bad one. Regardless, the promise of a Mannian shootout will get me into the theatre.

And Depp's Dillinger does deliver. I loved his little sideways smiles bridging the gap between Gilbert Grape's cuteness and this character's murderousness. And it's important that Depp be so charming--Enemies is more or less a series of repetitive shootouts interrupted with underdeveloped subplots. It's tough. My main criticism of Heat (which Enemies mirrors in many ways) is that the subplots get too much attention and are too cliched but here there are not enough secondary relationships. I'm particularly disappointed because Mann is weak at writing women but strong at writing men and here is (theoretically) a great collection of colorful male characters to play with. Opportunity lost.

Dillinger's counterpoint is Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis, J. Edgar Hoover's new face for the FBI. Bale does a fine job--confident in himself, with the same whiff of douchebaggery he brings to Bruce Wayne. But he doesn't have the operatic antagonism of Al Pacino in Heat. This is a place in the film where Mann could have added some more spice--I just needed one shot of Purvis checking out Hoover in some ladies undergarments (J. Edgar supposedly had a thing for dressing up in silk and lace).

Is the above image in the film? That necklace looks amazing...

Anyway, Marion Cotillard and her awesome accent are a highlight of Public Enemies. Her character is better developed than most of Mann's women--she actually has agency in some scenes!--and Depp's mixture of harshness and tenderness with her is superb. I'm sure young men across the globe are rolling out variations of his "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars... and you. What else you need to know?" pick up line as we speak. And though she doesn't say "time is luck," we know it is always on the tip of her tongue. When Billie breaks down at the end of the film, she's earned it much more than Ashley Judd in Heat.

The principles are surrounded by what I'm sure was an outstanding supporting cast. I recognized nearly all of the assorted gangsters from other movies but didn't get to know them. Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson...all these beautiful names stay names. Maybe if I knew more about weaponry I could deduce their characters from how they shot Tommy guns. I guess Nelson screamed while shooting more than most, revealing his undisciplined persona. But there's nothing close to the memorable work done by Luis Tosar and John Ortiz in Vice or Tom Sizemore and Val Kilmer in Heat or Wes Studi in Last of the Mohicans, etc. etc. Dark-lensed Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) was the most gripping Enemies bit player, perhaps because Mann originally wanted to make a movie based on his life (this is probably the film Mann should have made).

The savior for Enemies, the factor that still allows me to award it a passing grade, is the extraordinary camera work. I can't recall more stylistically inclusive shotmaking. Scene to scene we go from a Robert Altman style (the constantly moving, smooth fluidity of the first Dillinger heist, for example) to a Paul Greengrass style (the handheld juggle in even intimate scenes, like Billie and Dillinger's last car ride) and many more. There are extreme long shots and gripping close ups. Even as the characterization and plotline failed me, the cinematography kept me very attentive to the screen. Mann's move to digital film has been a boon--the video quality is so high I found myself watching in awe individual shards of glass spray out before bullets.

I had to appreciate the smaller pleasures of Public Enemies, like how it proves true two things that I have long suspected. When Dillinger is arrested and told he will be extradited to Indiana, he says, "There's absolutely nothing I want to do in Indiana," thus voicing the opinion of any sentient being forced to enter the Hoosier State before or since. Dillinger also unlocks an important truth when he walks through the Dillinger squadroom of the Chicago Police Department, only to find the officers crowded around a baseball broadcast on the radio: All Cubs fans are idiots.

17 June 2009

Westerns Better Than Unforgiven #1 (Appaloosa)

So, the first part of Appaloosa is boring. Cole (Ed Harris. less wild-eyed than Walker) and Hitch (Viggo Mortensen, borrowing Doc Holiday’s facial hair) are the good guys, Bragg (Jeremy Irons) is the bad guy, Ms. French (Renee Zellweger) is the “widow.” Normal cowboy movie things happen.

Cole says stoic cowboy things to the bad guys and (almost) tender things to good girl Ms. French. The town of Appaloosa is every Western town (there isn’t even a preponderance of appaloosas). Bragg is brought to justice surprisingly early in the film, and on the train to his hanging we want to know what is going to fill the next hour. On a cliff overlooking the train tracks, a puma appears and brings with it the wildness the film needs.

A pair of hombres damn near as tough as Cole and Hitch have abducted Ms. French and, of course, then want Bragg in exchange for her life. We know she’s not worth it. She kissed Hitch behind Cole’s back. But Cole agrees to free Bragg and is next seen sitting with his boots off before a lovely, trickling creek—he has ceded authority. But Hitch revives him and they go chase down Bragg and Ms. French and the hombres.

When the good guys catch up to them, they spy Ms. French acting over-friendly with Bragg in a riverbed. There are grimaces and, crucially, some Apaches come from nowhere and intercede—the power dynamics shift again. Hitch shares an interesting bit of pre-feminist philosophy when he explains that Ms. French always needs to be with “the top hand,” thus explaining her cavorting with Bragg. The triangulation of Hitch, Cole, and Ms. French in physical and psychological space is fascinating, and here I would agree with A.O. Scott who admired many of the ideas in Appaloosa but wishes Harris had pushed things further. Hitch and Ms. French both love Cole but must also wander off and come back to him. It is this undercurrent that makes the subplot perhaps more gripping than the standard cowboy narrative over top it.

All of this happens in beautifully photographed New Mexico. The camera emphasizes bright sunlight on tree, sand and rock as well as moonlight that dramatically edges the characters at night. A climax of sorts happens at the Mexican border town of Rio Seco, a place where you might expect to find the Wild Bunch: white washed, dusty and quiet except for the invisible tolling of church bells.

Some criticism of the film talked about the length of many shots, and this is certainly a lingering movie. But I’m a fan of the lingering Western, having a particular affinity for the fabled four hour cut of All the Pretty Horses. Some of Cole and Hitch’s chats border on banal (I blame their subject matter, Thoreau and Emerson, for some of the boredom), but it probably got pretty damn boring when you were out on the range waiting for people to come shoot at you.

And the shootouts in Appaloosa, from the first scene to the last, are quick affairs. Cole addresses this phenomenon in my favorite line of the film. Lying on the ground, wounded, Hitch says, “that was quick,” to which Cole, also lying on the ground, also wounded, replies, “yeah, everybody could shoot.” The violence is short and loud the days are long and quiet.

Somehow, Bragg rides out the Rio Seco shootout and lands on his feet back in town, having received a dubious pardon from President Chet Arthur. So we move into a most unusual end for a Western. Hitch and Cole are forced to deal with a rehabilitated Bragg (who places his hand oh-so-subtly on the back of the new piano player at his hotel, Ms. French). Hitch wants out, Cole (perhaps feeling his age for the first time) won’t be run off. This falling action is the most obvious comment on our times: we're inextricably drawn into collusion with government-backed criminals for the continuing assurance of our money and comfort.

Hitch swiftly scratches his itch and hustles West, towards the sun still setting.

I credit Harris the director for giving us a Western milieu as tangible as the action painting in his other feature, Pollock. The setting and story feel true and even though there is no Wayne and Mitchum/Martin/Clift, Harris and Mortensen are engaging all the way through. And, let it be known, that Appaloosa is much better than Open Range to which it is compared, I suppose, because they both came out in the last six years.

28 May 2009

Have You Seen...? #2 (The Big Steal)

I’m an inveterate Robert Mitchum fan, sharing David Thomson’s opinion that he is “untouchable” in the history of the cinema. So when I discovered that he re-teamed with his Out of the Past co-star Jane Greer in The Big Steal, I jumped all over it. I was not disappointed.

Mitchum (playing Army Lt. Duke Halliday) and Greer (playing tougher-than-she-looks Joan, quickly nicknamed Chiquita by Halliday) get their rapid-fire banter started early when Halliday tries to shake her down in the bathroom:

Joan:“You might be accustomed to taking group showers, but I’m not.”
Halliday: “Where’s Fiske?”
Joan: “Taking the parrot for a walk.”

The humor is strong throughout—I enjoyed this classic Mitchum line, out of the side of his mouth as he regards a priceless stone artifact: “Looks like something you get for knocking down a milk bottle.”

The early action takes place in a little town quite reminiscent of Tampico in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. There's a heady mix of possible good guys and grifters in the hot sun as Chiquita and Halliday are joined by the pencil-moustached hustler Fiske and Army Captain Blake in pursuit of a suitcase full of money. Mitchum is in cantinas again, looking over his shoulder against that long nose. Even though there's nothing quite as memorable as Greer's arrival out of the light in Out of the Past, the first act bustles right along.

The Big Steal comes into focus as the shadow of a ceiling fan stirs the hot air of a police station. Halliday is trying to convince the authorities that the money has been stolen from him. The Mexican police speak excellent English of course, one even an “alumnus” of the University of California system (the Lieutenant and the Inspector debate singular versus plural in Latinate words amongst other grammatical pickles). Their banter is a wily way of obscuring the Inspector's sharp intuition--he knows what the gringos will do before they know themselves. In a later scene, Fiske, Halliday and Chiquita are all nervously drinking coconuts with the Inspector and all changing their minds at the same time. He plays the role of the cat playing with the mice who thinks they are cats. The Inspector, and by extension Mexico, is always there, abiding.

The central motif of The Big Steal is a contrast between the impatience of the gringos and the serenity of the natives. One running gag, established early in the film, has Halliday repeatedly dashing out of the barbershop before getting his shave (though he takes the time to toss a coin over his shoulder for the service almost rendered—he’s a good American after all). Donkeys and cows in the street are always moving exactly as fast as they want to, slowing down frustrated Americans behind the wheel. Part of the reason Halliday wins out in the end is his acclimation to the Mexican pace of life (which dovetails nicely with Mitchum’s famous lassitude). At the end of a long car chase, Halliday and Chiquita elude their pursuer not by outracing him, but by setting a stream of goats loose across the road. This gives us what I imagine to be our only filmic image of Mitchum the Goatherd.

I also want to call out a particular cut. There’s a lovely fade from a group moving through a hotel archway to a woman rowing a boat filled with flowers. Just as the characters presumably scatter to different rooms once inside the hotel, the flower lady throws white blooms in every direction. It’s stunning high art in an otherwise no-frills 77 minute sprint.

Of course, after the climax (which is brilliantly foreshadowed, by the way), one wants to know if Halliday and Chiquita will stay together. They have a discussion in the park and, suffice to say, they come to an accord. If you can imagine an ending less subtle than the train entering the tunnel in North by Northwest, this is it.

21 May 2009


I watched On the Waterfront because it was a classic I'd never seen, an eruption of Marlon Brando, a famous monologue. When the film ended, I immediately wondered how such a well-regarded film could be so thin.

Terry Malloy's romance with Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is fairly preposterous. Who really buys her affection for the man who precipitated her brother's death? She has no qualms about Terry subsequently taking over her brother's pigeons--she seems more attracted to him because of it.

Supporting actors Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden are strenuous as the opposing forces of mob boss and priest. They would be better off if they went fully in to caricature, though Cobb’s over the top monologues are subtle next to Malden’s repeated preaching about Jesus on the Cross on the Docks on the Waterfront. From the cargo hold of a ship carrying Irish whiskey, we even the see the ascension on an empty pallet.

The cinematography is widely praised; I see lots of fences and chicken wire but not much sense of a city or busy shipyard. I mean, I'd like to see what Hoboken, New Jersey looked like 55 years ago but the film might as well have been shot on a backlot.

Furthermore, the climax of On the Waterfront is unmotivated. There’s no reason for Charley Malloy’s murder. Not only is he "the brains" of the operation, you need him alive to ensure Terry's cooperation. Killing a guy's brother can only push him into the arms of the police. I think it was more important to the filmmakers to obviate the symbolism of the hook and make Brando wail (something at which he does excel).

I'm more interested in off screen realities when it comes to On the Waterfront. Director Elia Kazan made a movie about the virtue of informing on friends for the greater good after he gave the HUAC names of communists in the film industry. That leaves a sour taste in one's mouth. But! It is one of the Vatican's top 45 films of all time. And I can't take that away.

I saw Tyson as soon as I got the chance--it's nothing but the man himself and more powerful for it. In the style of The Kid Stays in the Picture, James Toback lets Tyson pump himself up and then try to explain his excruciating fall. I'm a big believer in the documentary with minimal narration. A film like Tarnation is a great example of how over-explanation can poison narrative momentum. Jonathan Caouette had tremendous, gripping footage but his need to make sure everyone "got it" bogged down what could have been a classic.

Tyson spits out many great lines and I can only remember a fraction--one that I liked particularly was (approximately), “I am an extremist. People hate me because they can’t understand me.” This is insightful commentary on why people hate all sorts of people, not just Mike Tyson.

My favorite sequences centered around Evander Holyfield and Robin Givens, two very different nemeses. Tyson's take on the two more-or-less career-ending Holyfield fights focus on the alleged headbutting by the guy who has even more children and brain damage than Mike. The replays are selective, but it sure looks like the "Real Deal" tries to open those cuts by any means necessary. Some of my earliest SportsCenter memories are from that Sunday morning where we heard nothing but anchors shrieking about Tyson biting off Holyfield's ear. It's revealing to learn how Tyson felt he was really trying to save his life in those moments. Somehow, I had never seen Robin Givens complete psychological dismantling of Tyson on Barbara Walters (Bawbwa's fearful glances at Tyson throughout are priceless). It turns out that you could subdue the baddest man alive by calling him an abusive manic depressive on national television.

And the film is worth seeing just for the big screen archival footage of young Tyson. His electric speed and power is one thing, but it is the look of fear—however brief—in his opponents’ eyes that I can’t get over. These are men who have fought all their lives and Tyson still had them beat before the bout even started.

(Down goes Berbick, in a sheer panic, months after beating Muhammad Ali.)

A little more detail on exactly how the money went away (though a line about Tyson's settlement with Don King was telling, something like, “I got nothing, twenty or thirty million”) would have been useful. I remember reading once about six figure monthly expenditures for upkeep of his lions, tigers and parrots.

So I’m left asking why it turned out the way it did even after watching 90 minutes of Tyson. But now I know he is asking the same thing.

And here's one thing I can say about On the Waterfront: Brando's eyes look right.

20 May 2009


Maybe Japan is a country for old men. At least for old, American men who happen to be film actors. The most obvious example is Bill Murray finding (and whispering to Scarlett Johansson) some secret of life in Lost in Translation. But my two favorite actors, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum also had late career successes in Tokyo. I’ve heard many bad things about Walk, Don’t Run but there are many funny moments and nothing disrupts the understanding that Grant is still infinitely charming at any age. And the Tokyo Olympic bustle behind him adds buoyancy to a part that might otherwise be mundane.

The Yakuza is the most transparently covetous of “East meets West” moments but I think Paul Schrader and Robert Towne provide a worthwhile screenplay. Mitchum is Harry Kilmer (did they give his name the r’s and the l to make its frequent pronunciation by the Japanese more humorous?), a rheumy-eyed who looks even more like a whiskey advertisement than Bill Murray.

Kilmer’s noir cowboy would be much more drab if not backgrounded by the primary color yakuza territory (rooms are painted deep blue, men have red spiders tattooed on their heads, etc.). Out of the three films mentioned, The Yakuza was shot in the middle period for Tokyo’s neon extravaganza, and I have to say I like it the most. It has variety and movement in color without the frighteningly lifelike dinosaurs.

Sure Kilmer “learns” things from his Japanese friends, but mainly confirms for himself that he is still a badass, blowing away gangsters with a shotgun (you know how casually he swings it from El Dorado, Rio Bravo, et al) while his partner Tanaka-Ken slices up enemies with a samurai sword.

The Yakuza has one perfect scene. Harry and his long-haired American apprentice recline in some kind of hip hot spring pool, distracted by scantily-clad women behind frosted glass. The architectural highlight is an aquarium full of koi fish built into a pillar just behind them. As the heroes enjoy themselves, an assassin slips underwater and swims towards them. His slither and full-back yakuza tattoo make him very koi-like. Of course, Kilmer sniffs out the ruse and stabs the man with his own knife. The resulting red-orange blood clouds a circular pool light, conjuring a murky approximation of the rising sun flag, a clunky bit of symbolism I couldn’t help loving.

The film ends with an unnecessary frenzy of sharp knives and pinky fingers in handkerchiefs but I can’t really fault it. Kilmer is honoring the yakuza, thanking them for giving him a way to feel alive again. The Yakuza and Lost in Translation come back to an essential question: which is more invigorating, killing dozens of Japanese heavies or spending a few days with Scarlett Johansson?