Sunday, February 9, 2014
At the start of 25th Hour, near the site where today the near-complete Freedom Tower stretches 1,776 feet into the sky, spotlights beam in memoriam for the World Trade Center towers that stood there before, dominating the downtown portion of Manhattan's skyline for 30 years. 25th Hour was released in January 2003, just 16 months after the towers fell, and it was the first movie to stare 9/11 directly in the eye. (Movies like United 93 and World Trade Center were still years away.) Working from a novel published before the attacks, Spike Lee didn't have to "go there" to stay faithful to David Benioff's original text but he seemed autobiographically compelled, as if the famously proud New Yorker who had tapped into the spirit of the city in previous films was incapable of shooting a movie in this new New York without confronting how it had changed.
Perhaps Lee also took into account that his early-2003 audience was equally incapable of looking at New York without thinking about what was missing. Thus, he traded background whispers for foreground shouts. As the opening titles appear, Lee offers a montage of the searchlights shining heavenward in tribute from a city still in mourning. Coupled with Terence Blanchard's midnight-blue score, it made for a powerful image, and also a distracting one. Those spotlights might as well have been pointed directly into the camera. With 9/11 still dominating our worldview, Lee's 9/11 references dominated the view of 25th Hour. At least from where I was standing.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Before she became a villain in one of sports' weirdest scandals, Tonya Harding was figure skating's ugly duckling. Raised in Oregon by a physically and emotionally abusive mother, she was a skater who came from modest means and looked like it. Acted like it, too. Competing in a sport that celebrates elegance and finesse, Harding was rough and tumble. In The Price of Gold, the latest in ESPN Films' "30 for 30" series, Harding is described as coming from the "gutter." She's compared to an "alley cat" and called a "trailer trash ignoramus." Eventually, even Harding gets in on it, noting that the media portrayed her as a "piece of crap" juxtaposed against skating's "princess," Nancy Kerrigan. If life were a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Harding would have gone to the Olympics in Lillehammer, skated up to her incredible potential, won gold and transformed into a swan in front of our eyes. And maybe then Harding would have liked the sight of her own reflection. Alas, Harding's fairy tale was destined to be Grimm. So instead, the ugly duckling got together with some loons and decided to disfigure the prettiest swan on the pond.
Even in retrospect the Harding-Kerrigan melodrama is stranger than fiction, except that all the players seemed straight out of central casting. The tomboyish, insecure blonde who honed her skills at a shopping mall skating rink. The pretty, poised brunette with the endorsement deals and the (misleading) air of privilege. The scheming husband, with the dark eyes and the mustache almost long enough to twirl. The goon accomplices who looked like they could get lost in a phone booth, assuming they could figure out how to get inside one. All of them came together under the bright spotlight of the pre-Internet Era Winter Olympics. Director Nanette Burstein (American Teen) recounts the events of 1994 with impressive clarity and pace, chronicling not just what happened but the media's frenzied reaction to it, because indeed that was a distinct element of this tabloid-worthy scandal right from the start. Those too young to remember the whack heard round the world will come away with a clear understanding of how it all unfolded. But what's most impressive about The Price of Gold is that it's more than a transcript. It looks beyond the highlights and lowlights to try to understand why.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Roberto Duran stunned boxing fans when he put a beating on then welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard in their first meeting, "The Brawl in Montreal," June 20, 1980. But that was nothing compared to the shock he provided in their second meeting five months later. In the eighth round, after exchanging a few blows with Leonard, Duran traded hooks and jabs for a move that most in boxing had never seen before: he waved his right glove in surrender. "No mas," he said. No more. One of the most ferocious fighters the sport had ever seen — Joe Frazier said Duran reminded him of Charles Manson — up and quit. The crowd at the Superdome in New Orleans and those watching live on TVs around the world were flabbergasted. From his ringside microphone, legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell summed it up as it unfolded, calling it "the most inexplicable thing I have ever seen in the ring."
The "No Mas" fight transcended sports and instantly became part of the pop culture. (You didn't need to be able to pick Roberto Duran out of a lineup in order to understand a "no mas" joke.) The TV footage was boxing's version of the Zapruder film, with the outcome unmistakable and the cause shrouded in mystery. Why did Duran quit? Did he have stomach cramps, as he insisted after the fight but showed no signs of up until his surrender? Was he out of shape? Had he simply had enough of Leonard's showboating antics? These questions have never been satisfactorily answered. And for all of these reasons, the "No Mas" fight is perfect fodder for ESPN Films' "30 for 30" franchise. But like many boxing bouts, No Mas fails to live up to its self-created hype.
Sunday, January 5, 2014
In what is already the iconic shot of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) digs his toes into the muddy ground his heels can't quite reach in order to avoid being choked to death by the noose around his neck. It's a gruesome yet painterly image, which makes it quintessential Steve McQueen. And as the director is wont to do, he holds this wordless shot for well over a minute so that we might feel Solomon's struggle and notice the nonchalance with which the slaves behind him return to their chores, either disinterested in his fate or painfully aware that they are powerless to intervene. In any movie about any man, this near hanging would make for a striking image, but here, of course, it takes on added meaning because of the significance of the subject matter. In this one shot, McQueen does much to sum up the entire American slave experience in which life was little more than trying to avoid slipping into death.
But after watching 12 Years a Slave for a second time, I wonder if a more significant shot might happen a little later in the sequence — after a fellow slave dares to bring water to Solomon, after the plantation overseer is seen pacing on the nearby veranda, waiting for his boss and Solomon's owner (Benedict Cumberbatch's William Ford) to return to determine Solomon's fate, and after a few slave children are spotted playing in the field behind Solomon, laughing obliviously. It's a shot of the mistress of the house (Liza J. Bennett) standing at the railing of her mansion balcony calmly observing Solomon, whose shoulders and rope-bound neck are out of focus in the foreground. In this one image, only a few seconds long, McQueen does much to sum up the institutionalized indifference that's core to not only America's shameful slave history but to any instance in which human suffering or inequality is allowed to persist in plain view.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
2013 was the year that this blog gathered dust. Statistically speaking, I posted nine times, but even that sad number is misleading: three of those posts pertained to 2012 releases, one was my annual Eyes of March celebration and one was my reflection on Roger Ebert upon his death in April. Alas, the only 2013 theatrical release that I reviewed in this space was To the Wonder — the movie the showed me what it feels like to not fall under the spell of a Terrence Malick movie.
This wasn't by design. That is, mentally speaking, I didn't disassemble this blog, put it back in its box and stick it up in the attic for storage, although doing so would have eliminated some clutter in my mental living space. No, rather the blog was always there, never totally out of view, like a piece of exercise equipment once used regularly but now only functional for the purposes of air-drying delicates — a fitting analogy, actually, because on many occasions last year when I thought I was ready to start blogging again I was amazed at how quickly and completely my writing muscles had atrophied.
I won't bore you with the reasons for this hiatus except to say that there were several factors, personally and professionally, that demanded my attention and energies elsewhere. I guess that's my way of saying that it didn't feel like much of a choice. And I mention that now because I can't say I know if 2014 will be a return to earlier years of production or more of the recent trend. I certainly have a desire — and, to a degree, even a plan — for writing more moving forward, because I miss it. Oh, how I miss it. But until things actually change, it's just a fantasy.