March 19, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: Ali

Will Smith stars as Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) celebrates after a surprise victory in Michael Mann's incredible film.

There are few straight-up crowd pleasers in Michael Mann’s career, especially in his later films. I’m an serious fan of his movies, but it’s easy to see why reactions to Miami Vice and Public Enemies were divided. The trickier one for me is Ali, his 2001 biopic of the legendary boxer. It’s an intriguing story of a well-known figure and has a huge star in the title role. Despite those benefits, the response from audiences and critics was mixed. It wasn’t a financial disaster but didn’t recoup its sizable budget. Roger Ebert called ita movie that was never properly prepared and mounted, that got away from its makers in the filming, that has been released without being completed.

That reaction is surprising because I’d place Ali among Mann’s most convincing films. His confidence in this era shines through from the start. The story doesn’t rush to hit every beat, and that allows for better understanding of the real man behind the persona. Smith plays the big moments well yet also finds the inner strength lurking beneath the bluster. Shots with Ali training in Zaire or riding quietly in a car succeed because we’re able to see the emotions in Smith’s face. Depicting the fights well is impressive; what really sells this film are the scenes around the famous battles.

Sam Cooke performs in Michael Mann's Ali.
A Sam Cooke performance vitalizes a stunning 10-minute sequence to open the movie.

How to Open a Period Piece

The first 10 minutes of Ali are a master class from Mann on how to introduce a place and time. There’s little dialogue or obvious exposition, but he gives so many important details. It’s February 1964, and Ali (still known as Cassius Clay) trains for his first fight with Sonny Liston. His run down a quiet street is intercut with a lively Sam Cooke performance to an adoring crowd. The outdoor shots are grainy and contrast sharply with the bright lights of the concert. We also catch glimpses of Ali’s childhood as he watches his dad painting Jesus and sees a photo of a lynched man in the newspaper. These quick moments reveal hints at what created Ali’s worldview as an adult.

Mann also introduces us to Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and mentor Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) during this sequence. Ali’s relationship with Malcolm is a key part of his personal life, and the others provide imporant support for the fights. With each new scene, the momentum builds towards Cooke’s final performance of “Bring It on Home to Me”. The incredible part is how seamless the complex introduction feels; there’s no weight to the exposition. Mann shows us the forces around Ali and ramps up the energy towards the Liston fight. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) sets just the right mood and is an early example of remarkable digital cinema. By the time Ali hits the door for the weigh-in, we’re ready to rumble young man rumble.

Will Smith's Ali battles Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.
The fight sequences in Ali are some of the best ever made, particularly the first Liston fight.

Fighting the Big Ugly Bear

I’ve yet to see more convincing fight scenes than what’s in this film. Mann lets the fights breathe, particularly the two that bookend the story. It feels like a different sport than what’s depicted in the Rocky films. The fighters often miss, and we see the exertion from each round. The punches also make an impact since the actors are actually hitting each other. The first Liston fight is fascinating because the stakes are so high. This is Ali’s shot to take down the champ, and he may not get another. The camera lingers behind the boxers’ shoulders and drops us into the environment. With lights shining everywhere, there’s an otherworldly atmosphere as the camera tilts inside the ring. Mann also incorporates long and medium shots to ensure we aren’t disoriented by the action. The music picks up when the tide shifts to Ali’s side, and it creates a feeling that something amazing is about to happen.

Smith trained for a year to develop the physique and skills for the role, and he never resembles an actor mimicking a boxer. When the camera zooms in on his happy feet, it’s easy to believe those come from the same guy. Smith’s charisma shines at the weigh-in. Joined by Bundini, he announces his presence to the reporters on hand. The contrast with Liston is never sharper than during this moment. Ali uses wit to ridicule Liston, who can only reply with “I’m gonna fuck you up!”. Liston doesn't have the same way with words and is more of a bruiser. The quiet time before the fight reminds us that Ali’s a showman but hardly a fool. He may play the clown for the press, but he’s a smart guy who understands the importance of this opportunity. The thoughtful man who greets Malcolm in the locker room is quieter and reveals a more complex individual.

The fight covers 10 minutes of screen time, but it feels much longer. When Ali claims “I’m the greatest thing that ever happened to boxing!” after winning the title, it's arrogant yet may not be far-fetched. The scenes following the win are more deliberate but equally intriguing. Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall) recognizes an opportunity with the young Cassius and becomes closely involved, and that creates an internal conflict when Malcolm becomes estranged. It’s interesting that Albert Hall is now playing the Elijah Muhammad after portraying his associate in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. He has limited screen time but is convincing. The attention spent on Ali’s relationship to Malcolm and the Nation of Islam reminds us this isn’t just a boxing movie. Shots with U.S. agents tailing Malcolm (especially in the Director’s Cut) hint at a larger story to explore. These brief interludes add depth by looking beyond Ali.

Will Smith gives his best performance in Ali, directed by Michael Mann.
A somber Ali watches the city burn following the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.

The Thrill is Gone

The tone of the second act is much different from the joy when Ali gained the title. He splits with Malcolm out of loyalty to the Nation of Islam and is shattered by the assassination. The expressionless look on Ali’s face betrays no emotion, but it’s clear that he’s dying inside. When he takes down Liston in the first round of their rematch, the excitement is nonexistent. Ali’s angry about Malcolm’s death, issues with his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), and a racist world. He’s all business and has no time for boxing. Questions remain on whether Liston threw the fight, but that wouldn’t fit within this narrative. A later fight with Ernie Terrell was even nastier after the opponent called Ali “Clay” before the contest. Ali toys with the guy and institutes a vicious beating. Smith effectively conveys the anger boiling up inside Ali that comes out with serious ferocity towards the helpless Terrell.

The focus during the middle hour is Ali’s refusal of the induction order into the U.S. military. Instead of making a compromise and taking the safe route, he steps up and nearly loses everything. Smith doesn’t overplay these moments, especially the famous line “A’int no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” The stunned expression from his photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright) says it all. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Ali watches a city burn and rides a train in silence. The forces that want to maintain the status quo are strong; what chance does he have? When Ali finally returns to the ring, he isn’t the same guy and has lost years off his prime. He doesn’t have that edge to take down a force like Joe Frazier. Even a superstar like Ali has limits, and Smith reveals that vulnerability.

Jon Voight's work as Howard Cosell earned an Oscar nomination.
The Ali/Cosell relationship stands out because of the chemistry between Smith and Voight.

Ali and Cosell

The most convincing relationship is between Ali and Howard Cosell, played with fitting quirkiness by Jon Voight. The make-up to help him resemble Cosell is remarkable, but it’s Voight that makes the character spring to life. During Ali’s lowest points, it’s conversations with Cosell that energize him. We catch shades of the outgoing younger guy as he describes a fantasy of defeating Joe Frazier. What lifts this relationship beyond the public sparring is the warmth behind the scenes. There’s no BS from Cosell when he’s talking to his friend off camera. Ali talks to the broadcaster like a mentor and respects his opinion. That’s rare for a guy who’s been taught not to trust people, even those close to him. Cosell’s phone call to Ali from the studio giving him the news of his win at the Supreme Court seems fitting given their connection.

Less engaging are depictions of Ali’s relationships with three women during the film’s 10-year time period. Each actress brings something interesting to the part, but they receive limited attention in the script. The introductions are fun, especially the dance scene with Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith). Their relationship goes downhill quickly and gives her little to do after the first scene. More impactful is Belinda (Nona Gaye), but even that marriage eventually grows sour. Ali’s infidelity is addressed but not dwelled on, and it isn’t clear why he can’t be a good husband. It’s clear that he wants to run the show, and Belinda’s concerns about the Nation of Islam and Don King (both correct) don’t sit well. Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele) arrives during the final act and sets up an unseen chapter after the credits. It’s difficult to fit everything in a biopic, and it’s unfortunate that the women receive less attention.

Ali trains in Zaire before the Rumble in the Jungle fight in Ali.
Ali jogs on the edge of the frame while the Zaire people ardently support him.

The Rumble in the Jungle

The definitive chronicle of Ali’s fight with George Foreman in Zaire is Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. Mann can't match it. What he does instead is build an emotional climax following the somber middle act. Even before the fight, Ali’s left speechless by the feverish support from the African people. Arriving to the famous chant of “Ali bomaye!” (Ali kill him!), he once again becomes the people’s champ far away from home. There are lengthy shots of Ali running through the streets with crowds following him everywhere. This sequence might feel tedious in lesser hands, but it brings resonance to the closing fight beyond the professional stakes.

Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy is famous; Stallone even copied it in Rocky III. What keeps the fight interesting is the danger that emanates from Foreman. Few believe that Ali can win, even some in his inner circle. Charles Shufford’s quiet and imposing work as the massive Foreman keeps the fight intriguing even when the final outcome is known. Following Ali’s victory, the look on Smith’s face as he celebrates before the crowd hits just the right notes. He’s faced possible death and achieved the impossible, and the victory feels earned after all the struggle. This isn’t the last act of Ali’s life, but it’s the right place to close this epic film. By narrowing the scope, Mann provides more depth and a real sense of what drove the man. Ali transcends the normal biopic and is captivating right to the end.

March 9, 2015

Big Eyes and the Clash of Art and Commerce

Amy Adams stars as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes.

A frequent topic in film circles is the role of criticism in a changing online world. It’s become a challenging profession with limited full-time positions, but many are still interested in the craft. Meanwhile, movies like Birdman depict a critic as a powerful villain who cares little for art. The argument that critics are failed artists remains prevalent despite having little connection to reality. This idea comes directly from the mouth of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. When the art writer John Canaday (Terence Stamp) questions Keane about the value of his paintings, he gets overly defensive and spouts the familiar rhetoric. Of course, this situation is very different. Keane is a fraud who’s taking credit for his wife Margaret’s (Amy Adams) paintings and earning a fortune. Hearing this line from a masterful liar complicates its meaning from the usual attacks that filmmakers take at critics. Canaday is a snob with traditional ideas about what constitutes art. On the other hand, he recognizes something fake in Keane beyond not having the keys to the right social club.

Canaday plays a small part in Big Eyes, but his presence connects to the idea of art reaching a new stage of existence. Keane was a fraud yet knew how to sell Margaret’s work to huge crowds. Instead of letting it hang in art galleries for a select few, he sold her paintings in grocery stores and gas stations. That conflict between art and commerce is still present in our modern film culture. The Oscars claim to represent the greatest achievements in movies, but they’re really a commercial venture bought through expensive marketing campaigns. Rotten Tomatoes numbers are presented like sports scores and often lose sight of the words behind them. Gatekeepers at studios are still looking for the biggest commercial hits, regardless of the artistic merit. This is old news. Keane is a marketing superstar who could find a job at any wealthy corporation; he just happens to be selling his wife’s art. The fact that he’s taken ownership of the material is a vain way to sell his self-importance. Keane isn’t content to be the man who discovered a new way to get rich with art. His goal is being recognized as one of the greats.

Christoph Waltz is Walter Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes.

The interesting part is that Burton doesn’t seem that engaged by the themes I’ve just described. The ideas are present in the story of Walter and Margaret, but Burton prefers to tell a more personal tale. Margaret’s struggle to overcome her domineering husband and escape is the driving force. It’s a well-paced and lavish period piece that works because we’re invested in her success. The main reason is the fine work of Amy Adams, who injects so much heart into the timid character. She makes us desperate to see Keane get his comeuppance, and the reward is worth the wait. Adams finds soul in a character that could be frustrating. Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also worked with Burton on Ed Wood, and they ensure that we never stray from Margaret’s side. When she finally gets the chance to show her worth, it’s a well-earned victory against an evil clown. Waltz plays Keane as a man so committed to the lie that he seems to convince himself it’s the truth. He raises his voice and yells fiercely when questioned to ensure people won’t consider alternatives.

Despite passionate work from Waltz, there’s a risk this villain could become a cartoon. When he terrorizes Margaret and her daughter Jane (Madeleine Arthur) in a drunken rage, the performance nearly goes too far. His drunken stupor channels Robert Stack in Written on the Wind, and this isn’t really a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Another challenge is the possible sitcom plot device of supporting characters venturing close to discovering the truth but never quite getting there. One scene with a suspicious friend DeAnn (Krysten Ritter) becomes silly as Keane appears out of nowhere to angrily sell the charade. Adams’ genuine presence keeps us on board, however. The questions never become too strong because she sells Margaret’s humanity. Waltz also finds clever ways to reveal the subtle manipulation from Keane, particularly in the early scenes. When he learns that Margaret has never been on a plane, he whisks her off to Hawaii and tries to make everything perfect. Once the trap is strung, it will take years before she’s willing to give up on the relationship.

Amy Adams and the real Margaret Keane.

Big Eyes is a surprisingly direct movie for Burton, who rarely takes a straightforward approach to any story. He’s surely faced the challenges of creating art in a commercial marketplace during his long career. It’s easy to identify with Margaret, who's betrayed in the most personal way imaginable by her own husband. He makes her complicit in the lie and sets up a scenario where coming clean isn’t easy. Their expensive home becomes her prison while he cavorts with stars and becomes a celebrity. The shot of Jane discovering Margaret passed out on the floor beneath a giant painting says plenty about her situation. Her creative outlet is now a vice that keeps squeezing with every new scheme from her husband. Burton gives Adams room to shine and creates his most engaging movie in a long time. I knew little about Margaret’s real-life story before seeing this movie and am intrigued to learn more. She’s alive and well at 87, and this film presents her great triumph with charm and grace.

March 3, 2015

Film Criticism: Where My Journey Began

Orson Welles stars in Citizen Kane, released in 1941.

What has to happen in a person's life to become a critic anyway?” – Riggan (Michael Keaton) in Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about what motivates me to write about movies. While I wouldn’t label myself a film critic, the act of writing criticism is still attractive. A recent viewing of Birdman revealed an unflattering portrayal of a theater critic with a different agenda than discussing the art. While the argument between her and Riggan is heavy-handed and obvious, it got me thinking about how I started down this path. Peter Labuza’s The Cinephiliacs podcast frequently covers this topic with critics, and there’s no standard route. My road began in 1993 with a choice between two classes during my senior year in high school. My options for an art elective were music or an introduction to film. I’m not sure why I picked the latter choice. I enjoyed movies but mostly as casual entertainment before that point. This decision would completely change my outlook on cinema.

In the fall of 1993, the rise of DVDs and the Internet was still years away. Laserdiscs were available, but most viewings for me came via movie theaters and VHS. I’d watched some older films, but the idea of digging into the themes within the content was non-existent. When I stepped into my first film class, I had no idea of how much it would shatter the way that I viewed films. The teacher was an oddball with a giant mustache and beard who would chain smoke between classes. This was a private Catholic high school, so he wasn’t your normal instructor there. The guy was hyper-enthusiastic about movies, and that excitement was infectious to a certain type of student. I had done well in school but was never obsessive about studying. Most work came pretty easily, and a lot of it was boring. This class was something different. I looked forward to it and didn’t find the academic approach to movies dull at all. In fact, it was the most thrilling part of each day.

To provide some context, my senior year also included calculus, theology, and physics. Having the chance to watch movies and write about them was amazing. Our textbook was an introduction to film genres, and the syllabus progressed through each major segment. We screened Stagecoach for westerns, Double Indemnity for film noir, and The Bride of Frankenstein for horror. This was my first experience with all of these titles. We also spent a lot of time discussing Citizen Kane. More recent pictures like Bonnie and Clyde and Unforgiven also were a revelation. I can’t think of a better way to gain a film education. I might have caught all of these movies on my own, but the push within school brought them to the forefront through conversations on their impact and meaning.

Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta in Goodfellas

Beyond just seeing these great movies, this experience caused me to see them differently. I spent classes scribbling countless pages of mostly illegible notes, which made me look a little crazy to other students. I couldn’t help myself! An invaluable resource like IMDB did not exist. I tried to capture everything and ensure that I could explain my thinking. I also loved doing it. When our teacher assigned us papers on modern films, I wrote long essays about Goodfellas and Aliens. The writing was terrible, but the important part was considering the movies beyond their basic text. The idea that an action thriller like Aliens was really about corporate greed was mind-blowing to a 17-year-old. Scorsese’s use of music and editing in Goodfellas was like nothing I’d seen. I wanted to decipher more than the plots, and I haven't been able to turn off that side of my brain for more than 21 years.

For the spring semester that followed, the same instructor taught a Modern American Literature classthat focused on movies for about half the time. There was no doubt that I had to take this course. He considered films as literature and screened The Godfather, The Searchers, and others during class. It built on my enjoyment of the previous course and ensured that I wouldn’t stray from becoming obsessed with movies. I studied Journalism and English in college and used electives for additional film classes, including one on German film. That class included a completely silent and sleep-inducing viewing of Faust plus the great work of Wenders and Fassbinder. I wasn’t sure where all this time would lead, but I had no choice. Part of me wishes that I’d majored in film studies, though burnout would have been more likely. Taking a smaller group of classes kept the studies enjoyable while still providing a diverse look at the medium’s history.

Film criticism has evolved considerably since it piqued my interest more than 20 years ago. There are so many online bloggers and podcasters that are trying to build an audience. It’s difficult to stand out, and putting yourself out there is difficult. How does anyone find a unique voice within so much chatter? I’ve considered stopping the blog and writing much less, but each time the drive that inspired me back in high school returns. When you’re drawn to any artistic pursuit, the goal is rarely just finding readers. The question is whether the passion for film criticism is enough to keep going. I’m unsure of where this site will go down the road, and changes will likely occur. Maintaining the excitement along with all the other aspects of life is a major challenge. For the moment, I’m just taking a minute to remember where the fun began. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess.

March 1, 2015

Agent Carter and the Joys of the Short Season

Marvel's Agent Carter aired on ABC in January and February.

It’s easy to become cynical about the calculated way that Disney and Marvel have built their cinematic universe. The idea that everything ties together is intriguing, but it doesn’t always lead to better movies. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was their first step into the TV realm, and it took a while before it really found its footing. One of the challenges was the 22-episode season, which slowed down the pace and led to a more episodic structure. The stakes felt too low in the early going, and the show didn’t find its groove until a last-season run. Agent Carter wouldn’t have the same luxury. The eight-episode season premiered in January and had limited time to make an impression. The thrilling part of that approach was the chance to tell a lean and focused story. Co-creators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (the Captain America films, Thor: The Dark World) didn’t need to add filler. The result was refreshing and didn't overstay its welcome. To put it simply, it was awesome.

A key reason for the success is having a single lead character at the center of the action. There isn’t a need to spend time digging into the supporting players's backgrounds, and we learn about them organically. This approach only works with a dynamic figure at the front, and Hayley Atwell brings so much to Peggy Carter. She was one the highlights of Captain America: The First Avenger, so it's easy to root for her in this more prominent role. Carter is a capable spy who’s smarter than most of the guys, but she isn’t a superhero. She makes mistakes and fails, yet her heart is always in the right place. Atwell convinces us of both her physical skills and intelligence without going too far over the top. She isn’t performing the high-flying acrobatics of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Carter’s grief over the death of Captain America is present but not overstated within the series. It isn’t a crutch and motivates her to do something valuable at the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR).

Hayley Atwell stars in Agent Carter.
Hayley Atwell brings such charm and intelligence to the title role in Agent Carter

The story takes place in the New York City of 1946 with Carter working at the SSR as the only female agent. She fought alongside Captain America in World War II but is reduced to taking lunch orders. Dropping a character with a modern sensibility into a male-dominated environment is tricky. The other guys can’t be total buffoons if we’re going to care about what happens to them. The sexism is more prominent at the start and feels a bit simple, but her co-workers at the SSR show more complexity by the end. Chief Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) can’t accept the idea that Carter might die under his watch. His top agent Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) seems arrogant but is hiding a distressing secret about his status as a war hero. Their changed views toward Carter are gradual and feel natural to the story. Murray is the right guy to play the golden boy, while Whigham finds nuance in a possibly one-note character. When they join up with Carter to fight the bad guys, the moment feels earned because of the obstacles.

Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) stash of dangerous inventions has been stolen, and he asks Carter to find the culprit. The challenge is that Stark is the SSR's number one target. This investigation plays out effectively over the short season and concludes at the right time. The episodes don’t waste time setting up future arcs, which is usually necessary with a longer run. They also don’t feel rushed, and it’s a tricky balance to tell an intricate story without piling on the plot. Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) discovers Carter’s involvement with Stark at the end of one episode, and she’s captured in the next one. A lesser show could easily drag out the reveal for a much longer time. There’s an understanding of pacing from the writers that pays major dividends. It’s a fairly small-scale conflict by Marvel standards, but the stakes feel huge because of the quick movement.

Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper star in Agent Carter.
It's refreshing that Carter doesn't become romantically involved with guys like Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper).

The ABC commercials prior to Agent Carter’s premiere made me nervous. They focused on Atwell’s looks and used the cringe-inducing line “sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.” She’s obviously attractive, but I hoped for more in a rare action series with a female lead. Thankfully, the show is a lot smarter than the network marketing team. Atwell channels Jennifer Garner’s Alias in the pilot and infiltrates a night club in a stunning dress, but that isn’t the typical episode. What’s also refreshing is her relationship with Angie Martinelli (Lyndsey Fonseca), a waitress not involved in the main plot. Their friendship isn’t about men and seems genuine because it’s separate from the job. In a more predictable show, Martinelli would be the surprise villain. Instead, the revelation of the killer feels out of left field yet creates glee because it’s so random. The enemies aren’t your typical super villains yet are still very dangerous.

There are connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Agent Carter, but they don’t take you out of the story. Viewers unfamiliar with the Red Room or the Black Widow program aren't left confused. That fact is extremely important for a network series hoping to attract a larger audience. The response has been largely positive, and I’m hoping for a second season next winter. This season doesn’t leave a cliffhanger, but there are enough strands to weave into future installments. Carter hasn’t become involved with the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet, and that story might connect with the other properties in an interesting way. Atwell is a rising star, and ABC would be wise to stay on board with Marvel. It’s an easy sell. My hope is for a brief season of similar length to this one. There’s great potential for another exciting story, and it won’t be easy to top such an engaging start.