Archive for April 2009


April 26, 2009

b9vfl4b63kwezuou41rpknito1_500The writer/director James Toback is clearly mesmerized by powerful, dangerous black men and the sexual mystique they supposedly pack. In 1971, Toback expanded an Esquire article into a book about football star Jim Brown; seven years later, he cast Brown in Fingers as a pimp who memorably slaps two women’s heads together. Toback’s interest eventually turned to Mike Tyson, who has appeared as himself in two Toback efforts (1999’s Black and White, wherein he bitch-slapped Robert Downey Jr., and 2002’s When Will I Be Loved). Toback’s new documentary Tyson, which has just opened in New York and L.A. before it expands to other cities, completes the trilogy. Tyson, who obviously trusts Toback, sits for his camera and tells his story. We’re never sure how much of it to believe, but the way Tyson tells it is in itself revealing.¹

Convicted rapist, ear-biter, self-proclaimed animal: Tyson couldn’t be a more fitting tormented anti-hero for a Toback film if Toback had created Tyson himself. Forty when the film was shot, and looking puffier and mellower, Tyson takes us through the narrative of his life, which offers more redemptions and falls and redemptions and falls than any six novels. The fat, lisping kid from Brooklyn grew up, with the help of trainer Cus D’Amato, into a feared ring assassin, a boxer who gained a rep (like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter) for decimating his opponents in the first round. (In the most hyperbolic example of this, he sat Michael Spinks down in 91 seconds.)

As anyone who’s seen Raging Bull knows, the great boxer is not always — maybe even not usually — a great human being. Tyson, however, seemed almost hell-bent on living up to the tabloids’ bad-boy image. In the film, Tyson is generously dismissive of his tumultuous eight-month marriage to Robin Givens (“We were just kids”) but reserves his wrath for Don King, who he says stole his money, and Desiree Washington, whose 1991 encounter with Tyson led to his six-year sentence for rape (of which he served three). Significantly, Tyson allows that he might have taken advantage of other women, but not her. So either he was caught this time, or was innocent in this case but never got caught those other times.

Toback doesn’t question or judge; he just lets Tyson have his say. Over and over again, the older Tyson says “I can’t blame anyone but myself.” There’s no equivocation in his language; his version of events may be debatable, but his sincerity isn’t — he says what he believes, and he believes what he says. Toback doesn’t need to provide counterargument; we’re doing that ourselves. By the time the film gets to Tyson’s infamous 1997 rematch with Evander Holyfield, which left a chunk of Holyfield’s right ear on the ring floor, the titan’s fall seems complete. The movie doesn’t get into Tyson’s subsequent legal woes, gliding ahead into a portrait of Tyson as proud daddy (by several different women) and wannabe grandfather. He’s frequently photographed staring off into the ocean at sunset, like a beached sea monster who’s lost his home. Tyson doesn’t pretend to be a balanced picture, but it’s a fascinating peek into a teeming, demon-filled brain that isn’t like anyone else’s.

¹For instance, describing a quick tryst with an anonymous woman in some bathroom, Tyson says that he performed “fellatio” on her. Either he truly isn’t aware of the proper term “cunnilingus,” or this is the biggest Freudian slip in the history of documentaries. That Toback (a) didn’t correct Tyson and (b) left it in the film says something, though I’m not sure what.

Grey Gardens (2009)

April 19, 2009

grey-gardens-poster-1“You’re an acquired taste,” says Big Edie (Jessica Lange) to Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) in HBO’s Grey Gardens. A lot of people have acquired that taste in the years since the first Grey Gardens (1975), a documentary by Albert and David Maysles about the Edies, who were related to Jacqueline Bouvier.

Little Edie became something of a camp/cult anti-celebrity, an eccentric still dreaming of stardom well into her fifties. She got stardom, all right. Grey Gardens, an odd and depressing portrait, eventually inspired a Broadway musical in 2006, and now it has become a docudrama that intersperses ‘70s-era scenes familiar from the documentary with flashbacks to Big and Little Edie’s younger days.

It’s safe to say that this is a game-changing performance by Drew Barrymore. She has certainly been appealing and entertaining in other roles, but her embodiment of Little Edie — especially if you’ve seen the original — exists on a new level that goes beyond mimicry. Barrymore is Little Edie, only with an actress’ sense of how Little Edie’s life ties together. The younger, more eager Little Edie matches up perfectly with the older, restless one. Little Edie has personality and ambition; what she doesn’t have is common sense. She gets involved with a married man, effectively ending her Hollywood dreams when her forbidding father (Ken Howard) finds out about the affair.

Little Edie and Big Edie were blessed with an independent spirit but cursed to live in a time that offered no way to use it. In all its incarnations, Grey Gardens is about being trapped. Little Edie feels confined at home in the increasingly dilapidated Grey Gardens with her mother. Big Edie’s self-made prison is her own stubbornness — she won’t sell or leave Grey Gardens even when feral cats and raccoons have the run of the place. It takes media attention to shame Jackie Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) into paying for repairs and cleaning before the house gets condemned. Jackie, too, feels trapped: in this telling, she never really wanted to be a public figure, and sighs that she would’ve traded places with Little Edie.

Directed by Michael Sucsy (a first-timer) from a teleplay he wrote with filmmaker Patricia Rozema, Grey Gardens treats the Edies more gently than the Maysles did. In the Maysles film, the camera just stares at Little Edie’s antics and her bickering with Big Edie; it’s pretty much an unfeeling film. (In the new film, the deluded Little Edie watches the Maysles’ footage and feels validated; Big Edie seems disgusted.) At the very end, Sucsy shows us Little Edie performing a cabaret number in New York, and it’s highly ambiguous. Her audience is probably appreciating her ironically — they came to see the famous train wreck. Little Edie, though, is lost in her dream; irony isn’t on her radar. All she knows is that people came out to see her sing and dance — she finally got what she always wanted.

Grey Gardens is substantially less dispiriting than the original film, mainly because of the dead-on performances (let’s not neglect Jessica Lange’s tragic turn, shading from hope to disappointment to resignation) and the structure that treats these women not as a freak show for hipsters but as living, breathing people who have a lot more in common with us than we might like to admit.

Observe and Report

April 13, 2009


During the opening credits of Observe and Report, we see various mall shoppers indulging in all the deadly sins, either obvious (gluttony, sloth) or subtle (pride and envy are covered in one shot of an employee waxing a raffle car while passersby gaze upon its splendor). Watching over all this is Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), unhinged head of mall security. Ronnie sees these sins of consumerism every day. He sees himself as the thin (or thick) blue line between order and chaos, though the same line in his own head is blurred. Observe and Report, as you may have heard, is far darker stuff than you’d expect of a Seth Rogen comedy. But consider this actor’s recent movies: he has now completed the transgressive trifecta — sex (Zack and Miri Make a Porno), drugs (Pineapple Express), and now violence — all in less than a year’s time.

Rogen brings his usual affable bearishness to Ronnie, but this time the buck-toothed chortle tapers off into discomfiting silence, or the regular-guy enthusiasm tips over a little too readily into places where we can’t really follow him. Rogen’s happily appetitive persona morphs into that of a devourer, in a self-annihilating binge-and-purge sense as well as a destructive one. Thirteen years ago, Jim Carrey took a similar risk in The Cable Guy, using his own specific brand of comedy to disturb more than to amuse. That movie flopped, and this one isn’t faring much better, though I predict Observe and Report will someday amble alongside The Big Lebowski and other off-center comedies that became cult favorites later. The movie summons moods and thoughts it can’t quite structurally deal with, but it struggles to do so, and that struggle essentially is the movie.

Ronnie becomes obsessed with busting a flasher who’s been terrorizing the female clientele and staff. The flasher is a pervert, but at least he’s honest about what he is and what he wants, unlike Ronnie, who cloaks his base desires in “noble” rhetoric. Ronnie takes this opportunity to play Galahad to Brandi (Anna Faris), a toxic and oblivious makeup-counter girl, whom Ronnie loves and means to “protect” from the mad flasher. Who’ll protect her from Ronnie, though? In an already notorious scene, Ronnie climbs atop a drunken, drugged, barely conscious Brandi. It may or may not be date rape, but it absolutely points up the pathetic qualities of both characters and up-ends their callow fantasies (about being swept off one’s feet by a hero and knowing the touch of the princess, respectively).

Ronnie says the flasher’s emergence may be the best thing that ever happened to him; it reminded me of Frank Sinatra’s supposedly telling a friend, “I just wish someone would try to hurt you so I could kill them for you.” That line — so quintessentially, pugnaciously American — could’ve been the film’s tag line. Driven by bizarre dreams of righteousness (emptying his shotgun into a “black cloud of cancer and pus”), Ronnie yearns to become a real cop. The real cops, personified by Ray Liotta in a classic hostile turn, know what Ronnie is at a glance — a delusional, probably dangerous blowhard, who is nevertheless a crack shot and more than able to hold his own in a fight.

Well-fed on fantasies of cancerous glory, Ronnie is an ironic hero for our times the way Travis Bickle was for the bicentennial. His thought processes don’t go much beyond “I’m right, everyone else is wrong.” Viewers who wrongly think Ronnie is being held up as an actual hero — as well as those expecting a rollicking Seth Rogen: Mall Cop — will loathe Observe and Report, but like many comedies, it manages to say more and cut deeper about where we are now than many an Oscar-nominated epic. It is also brutally, demonically funny, particularly in a sequence that manages to nod to Flash Gordon and A Clockwork Orange. If that’s the sort of mix that strikes you as insanely inspired, Observe and Report is your brand of weirdness.


April 6, 2009

adventureland_posterThe folks in the marketing department at Miramax have a job to do, I realize, but what they’ve done with Adventureland is one of the most extreme bait-and-switch jobs I’ve ever seen. The trailer sells a quirky comedy about kids working in an amusement park. The actual film is a rather dreary coming-of-age drama with some witty dialogue and too-broad performances. Director Greg Mottola, who had a hit two summers ago with Superbad, has cashed in his success to make an autobiographical indie film based on his own experiences working at Adventureland in the late ‘80s, but the era isn’t evoked with any particular flavor or skill — it could as easily unfold in 2007 as 1987.

Mottola’s onscreen avatar is James (Jesse Eisenberg), who finds out he isn’t going backpacking in Europe for his post-college summer — his parents have had a financial setback. So if James expects to save up any money for grad school, he’d better find a job, and the best he can find is working the game booths at Adventureland. There he meets various stock characters indifferently sketched in, including the laid-back but troubled Em (Kristen Stewart), with whom he falls in love. Why? Because she’s there, I guess; Mottola’s script offers little other reason. James is a virgin, saving himself for the right girl; his choice in this movie is between the serenely dull Em and the more flashily dull Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), who is always spoken of by the park’s young men in the same awed tone: “Lisa P is back!” Lisa P may be an airhead, but she’s alive, and Margarita Levieva turns in the most enjoyable performance without making Lisa P an annoying or pitiable stereotype.

Everyone else in Adventureland seems to move underwater, in the depths of self-loathing. Even the standard I-love-the-’80s soundtrack, particularly Falco’s admittedly noxious “Rock Me Amadeus,” is used not for nostalgia or to set the scene but to oppress and depress the characters. (An exception: Crowded House’s always-welcome “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”) Life in 1987, according to Mottola, was a cultural wasteland with bad haircuts (Kristen Stewart is notably spared) and Reagan honking away on the tube while your dad snores in the living room. The adults are as disappointing as in any John Hughes flick; your dad will marry a badly wigged status-seeker a year after your mom dies, your husband will carry on affairs in his mother’s basement. There’s no satirical charge to any of this; the movie simply has no life.

In Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater looked back fondly on 1976 and the kids he knew back then. Mottola looks back on 1987 coldly, with no sense that the kids he knew were worth getting to know in the first place. (James’ oldest friend routinely punches him in the balls, and a newer acquaintance, played by Martin Starr as a pee-wee saturnine intellectual, doesn’t act as if he’d miss James were he to fall off the planet tomorrow.) Adventureland seems only to have been made because Mottola had the power to make it; he has nothing fresh to say about young love or jobs from hell, though I did enjoy hearing the skinny on various amusement-park scams. There is an actual Adventureland, on Long Island, and I can’t help noticing that the park Mottola worked at and remembers so disdainfully makes no mention of his film on its website ( I also notice they’re hiring. Mottola probably shouldn’t bother applying.