Rightwing Film Geek

Bonus coverage of TCM from my hotel room

SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (Robert Wise, USA, 1956) — 8

Just looked at my Past Top 10s, and I can’t imagine why this film isn’t in the Top 10 for 1956 (nor can I quickly find my earlier grade … this was a total impulse watch in “morning hotel room” mode). After all, it’s not as though I’m exactly shy about loving certain films more than I “should,” or about the fact I’m a huge real-boxing fan and will watch boxing films even when they’re not good. But this film actually is very good, practically the Platonic form Boxing Biopic.

I know when I saw this movie the first time (this is about my 4th viewing), I was resistant to Paul Newman’s performance, thinking of it as a mannered caricature of a lower-class “guido” from someone who I knew from his life and later icongraphy was the very opposite and also didn’t look terribly like Graziano.

Over the years, I have softened my opinion about Newman’s performance and now pretty much treasure it — from seeing other boxing movies, from seeing other celebrity biopics, and from seeing the real-life Rocky Graziano in the ring and out of it. It’s more complicated than “but Graziano was a ‘guido’,” because Newman does not and does not try to look like him. It’s that I’ve now seen enough mimicry masquerading as acting to respect Newman’s efforts to act like a working-class Italian tough guy without specifically aping a particular one. And having a genuinely great actor like Newman, in his youth no less, helps greatly in the nonfight scenes. For example, in the proposal scene outside the courthouse with Pier Angeli, Newman’s body language and Method-inspired mumbling speech (it does SOMETIMES work) creates Rocky as a guy too shy to admit he’s in love, and who has to come with some excuse, ANY excuse, no matter how lame (“I don’t like courthouses”).

Seeing the real-life Graziano’s fights also gave me a greater appreciation of how Newman was actually able to fight like Graziano fought (a tougher achievement than it looks), though I acknowledge it helps that Graziano wasn’t a “cutie” or a counterpuncher — he fought swinging for the fences. It also helps that the Zale trilogy is not merely the greatest of its kind in boxing history but was tailor-made for the movies. All three fights were short, ultra-violent and back-and-forth, as Hollywood likes them but as very few real-life fights are. SOMEBODY only *shows* the second Zale fight, the one Rocky won — the women at the home front listen to the radio broadcast of Rocky getting KO’d in first fight; and the movie ends before Zale wins the rubber match. But that scene is one of the great achievements in sports-movie history, both convincingly choreographed and “you’re in the middle of the ring”-intense — two virtues often in competition.

I also appreciated a lot this time the way Wise inverts the convention of the “rise-to-the-top montage” from a million fight films. He does some of that with early fights, but when Graziano is making his way through the top contenders (i.e., the fighters good enough that you have to take a beating yourself to win), we see a montage of Rocky’s first-born growing up and reacting badly to seeing Daddy come home with a varyingly mangled face. And it’s got a good … ahem … punch line.

SOMEBODY also avoids the shapelessness that often haunts the biopic. The film is based on Rocky’s autobiography and while we all tend to narrativize or teleologize our lives, Graziano’s life was like a three-act drama (or close enough to provide a clear dramatic throughline with no liberties). He’s a tough thug who could do nothing but wrong in a bad environment (Graziano apparently knew in real-life boys who grew up to be men who sat in the electric chair) but who found redemption in the ring and with a woman. And his past sins (desertion, blackmail and fight-fix threats) play a role later on, in his boxing career, meaning there’s actually a dramatic “payoff” reason for all the events early on. But redemption doesn’t happen in a pat and easy way. A hack 50s screenwriter, for example, would have had the Army stint force Rocky to learn discipline. In SOMEBODY, it doesn’t of course, in large part because it didn’t in real life. But happily what really did happen is dramatically more interesting.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Robert Wise | Leave a comment

More shameless self-promotion

I didn’t exactly plan it this way — news pegs happen when they happen. But this morning, my second piece for Big Hollywood was published, about the furor at TIFF about this year’s Istanbul City-to-City program. Or rather the lack thereof. Last year, writing if the Tel Aviv furor, I fearlessly predicted the following:

I guarantee you that if there is a C-to-C program next year, there will be no furor, regardless of that city’s past. If it’s Moscow, there will be no calls for inclusion of perspectives from Budapest, Prague or Tbilisi, to name cities in countries invaded by Russia more recently than the establishment of Israel.

I guessed the wrong city, but sure enough, no calls for counter voices from Yerevan, Diyarbakir, Nicosia, or Athens.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 1

SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL (Michael McGowan, Canada, 7)

Perhaps this might not have been as much fun seen under any circumstances other than Opening Night at TIFF, after waiting in the Rush Line and having a woman just give away her ticket and not even accepting payment. Or maybe I’m just laughing AT this film’s many amateurishnesses and absurdities in that snobby hipster way.

Certainly I can say I’m embarrassed by how much I enjoyed SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL, which is not an objectively good musical and made my heart sink early, but quickly won me over, as a kind of self-referential comedy. The music is generic bubble-gum pop without soul, and the songs are more like recitatives than arias: they always advance plot, are usually castwide, and are absurdly (to the point of comically) “overwritten,” always trying to get in an extra few words, polysyllabic preferred, at the end. And only Olivia Newton-John (obviously) has any voice. But how can you not laugh at hockey players dancing in the locker room, choreographed fights, and lyrics like “hockey without violence is like macaroni without cheese / it’s still pasta but it don’t aim to please.” Or a Dan Hill ballad being sung without irony (though with knowingness).

The plot centers on the son of hippy parents who’s the greatest hockey talent ever, but he doesn’t fit into hockey’s he-man ethos. Maybe it was how SCORE embraced its amateurishnesses, or maybe it was some quick punchline-flashbacks that showed me both that, title aside, SCORE is a comedy first and that the director has chops. And the male-bonding scenes and montages and the sports-marketing scenes are no-excuses-needed hilarious. So somehow all these musical shortcomings pay off because the film is essentially a self-reflexive comedy about being a “Canadian” musical, an emblem of a country where self-deprecating amateurish inferiority is part of the national psyche. (A contest to fill in “as Canadian as ——,” the winner was “as possible under the circumstances.”)

The plot wrestles, really unconvincingly in the resolution, with the central paradox of Canada’s self-image. The country is obsessed with the most honor-based, hypoer-masculine violent sport in the world (besides actual combat sports). For example, when programmer Cameron Bailey mentioned how “we” won the Olympic gold medal, the Elgin Theater erupted in applause. Meanwhile, Canada’s political mythos is that we’re the peaceful caring polite country, unlike The Big You Know Who. So yes, Noel, the film relies on stereotypes, but that’s how this kind of humor works — think also de Sica’s and Germi’s 60s “Italian” comedies with Sophia Loren and/or Marcello Mastroianni. SCORE is, and quite deliberately like Canada itself — small, plucky, innocent, knowing and enjoyable in its inferiorities to the colossus films of US Hollywood. And I largely wrote this review sitting at a Tim Horton’s.

THE RETURN OF THE FIST (Andrew Lau, Hong Kong, 3)

A film has to first achieve a certain level of coherence before you can even explain clearly why it’s incoherent. RETURN OF THE FIST doesn’t even achieve that — I have no more idea of what “happens” than I got from reading the Guidebook. I couldn’t follow this movie one lick after its terrific opening scene.

In that scene, a sign of the movie that might have been, a handful of WW1 Chinese laborers with only a few knives defeat a whole battalion of faceless Germans with rifles and machine guns. The stuntwork-choreography, where the sets miraculously fall into place, is breathtaking. My favorite moment is when a wrestling-pinned German gets the familiar 20-lightning-punches-in-3-seconds treatment, only the Chinese guy is using knives rather than his fists. The film then flashes forward to 30s Shanghai and there’s elements of a great movie there — stylized over-opulent obviously-sets sets, musical acts and ridiculously glamorous folk. A nightclub called “Casablanca” promises shifting-loyalties-in-an-uncertain-zone war intrigue, and there’s triads and Westerners and Chinese generals and etc.

But for all his action chops, which come out again for scenes involving a masked superhero (don’t ask), Lau is lausy at exposition and tries for way too many characters and subplots and intrigue. Maybe this is cultural mother’s milk to the Chinese — certainly there’s enough Chinese flag-waving and flamboyantly evil “Japs” to make me think Lau is going for the home audience. And the “RETURN OF” title tells me there’s at least cultural antecedents, if not actual movies, to this story. But to this bakgwei, RETURN OF THE FIST simply doesn’t delineate and differentiate the characters enough to make sense.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Andrew Lau, Michael McGowan, TIFF 2010 | Leave a comment