Book Review: ‘Undisputed Truth’ by Mike Tyson

September 19, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Boxing, Reviews, Sport

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Love him or loathe him, Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth is not just one of the best sports-themed books I’ve ever read. It’s not even just one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, period.

That’s a big call for a book written by a convicted rapist, notorious ear-biter and school drop-out with arguably the most renowned lisp in the world, but I’m sticking with it. Undisputed Truth is fascinating, it’s explosive, it’s horrifying and it’s downright hilarious. In fact, I’m fairly certain I have laughed out loud from reading this book more times than any other book I’ve ever read.

I don’t know if this is a comparison anyone has made, but Undisputed Truth reminds me of another one of my favourite books, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. Both are about the real-life wild and wacky adventures of athletes who love girls and drugs, told with an unflinching honesty and often veering into extremely dark territory.

However, while The Basketball Diaries is a short book traverses only a portion of Carroll’s adolescence, Undisputed Truth is a monster (but swift) 592 pages covering Tyson’s entire life up to last year. And while Carroll was a pretty good basketball player and womanizer, he was never the “baddest man alive” or a world class sex machine like Tyson (who would have given Wilt Chamberlain a run for his money as he was notoriously undiscriminating when it came to his partners).

So what makes Undisputed Truth an all-time read? Well for starters, Tyson does not hold back at all. He absolutely pours his heart out, infusing every page with his damaged soul. The unique voice is pure raw emotion and distinctively Tyson, and you can almost picture Tyson spewing the words out as they are recorded by his co-writer Larry Sloman (best known for Howard Stern’s Private Parts). The narrative is fluid, albeit occasionally rambling and often contradictory (for instance, Tyson goes on about turning into a devout Muslim, only to say on the next page that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife), but at the same time it is always coherent and sharp. Besides, Tyson is so messed up, even right now, that a little craziness is expected.

I don’t want to give away too many golden nuggets from the book, so I’ll just give a very brief overview to provide an idea of what’s in store. The autobiography begins with an introduction that describes one of the most pivotal moments in Tyson’s life — the sentencing for his rape charge — before taking readers right back to the beginning of his troubled and dysfunctional childhood in Brownsville, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the Bronx. And it’s an unimaginable childhood for most of us, one completely devoid of love and hope. Those early portions of the book are difficult to swallow, but they are also essential to understanding the man Tyson would become.

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Tyson and the man who changed his life, Cus D’Amato

Tyson’s life makes a dramatic turn when he meets Cus D’Amato, the hard-nosed trainer who would transform Tyson from a scared little punk kid into the heavyweight champion of the world. Cus was far from perfect, but Tyson loved him unlike anyone else he has loved in his entire life, and you can truly feel that love flow through the pages as Tyson describes their relationship and what the old man means to him. One can only imagine how Mike Tyson’s legacy would have turned out — both in and out of the ring — had D’Amato not died as Tyson zoned in on the heavyweight title.

Tyson’s rise through the ranks, from amateur to professional, is one of the most exciting aspects of the book. People tend to take his success for granted and attribute it to his natural gifts, but Tyson was one of the hardest, most obsessive workers I have ever seen in any sport, shadowboxing literally for hours, devouring classic fight tapes and reading everything he could get his hands on about the all-time greats.

I had not expected this, but Tyson literally describes every single one of his professional bouts (and many of his key amateur bouts too), including the lead-up, the fight itself and how it ended — and what was going through his mind the whole time. I loved this about the book and the insights it provided into the psyche of a Hall-of-Fame boxer, and it also shed light on a lot of Tyson’s performances because he admittedly wasn’t in shape or motivated for many of them, especially later in his career when all he wanted was another paycheck. For me, the best part about his detailed analysis of the bouts is being able to go straight to YouTube to watch the spectacular fights right after reading his take on them.

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Mike Tyson with Evander Holyfield, back in the day when both ears were in tact

Tyson’s later decline and bad losses may tarnish his legacy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was unbeatable in his prime if he was motivated and had his head on straight (two very big IFs). He was just so ferocious, so quick and so powerful that he often beat opponents psychologically even before stepping into the ring. But the loss of Cus to keep him in line and the introduction of Don King to his life, not to mention all the money and the women and the drugs, eventually took their toll on his mind and body, and he was simply never the same again.

It would be wrong, however, to be under the impression that Undisputed Truth is only about boxing. Many of my favourite parts of the book are about Tyson’s life outside of the ring. He was just an insane spender who had no idea what to do with the millions and millions of dollars he was raking in (and this excludes the millions and millions others ripped off  him without his knowledge). The fleets of luxury cars, sports cars, the custom-made bling and outfits, the entire house adorned with Versace, and even keeping real tigers as pets. He was literally giving away money to poor people left and right, and that’s not even taking into account all the real and bogus legal claims he has had to settle (often just random strangers coming up to his house with fake injuries or people off the street trying to bait him into a fight) and the millions he has spent on lawyer fees. It’s no surprise that despite all the money he has made in his career, Tyson still ended up being dead broke.

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson’s brushes with celebrities are also a highlight of the book. There are so many priceless celebrity anecdotes littered throughout the book, including classic stories about Naomi Campbell, Prince and Eddie Murphy as well as crazy brushes with guys like Rick James, Wesley Snipes, and of course, the infamous encounter with Brad Pitt. They tend to be short, but they are always pure gold, and reminds us just how famous Tyson was back in his heyday, and that shockingly, it wasn’t until his cameo in The Hangover that completely turned his life around. Funnily enough, despite working with a convicted rapist like Tyson, the cast and crew of the sequel collectively vetoed the decision to do the same with anti-Semite Mel Gibson.

Another inescapable part of Tyson’s life was the women. My god, the women. After not knowing how to even approach a girl as a teen, Tyson was propositioned by thousands and thousands of women after becoming rich and famous, and he never quite figured out how to say no. A lot of this stuff is extremely crude, but it’s also extremely funny because of how low Tyson would stoop. Oldies, fatties, uglies — it didn’t matter to him. He speaks of those days of debauchery with shame — including all the STDs he picked up along the way – but the way he describes his way of thinking and his actions at the time is gut-bustingly funny stuff. At one stage he even apologizes to his readers for having to put up with his antics.

When it comes to women and Tyson, however, it’s impossible not to mention two names — his first wife Robin Givens, who accused him of domestic violence, and beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, whose allegations of rape sent Tyson to prison for three years. Tyson is a little coy when it comes to Givens, the actress he says he fell head over heels for but believed she was a manipulative gold digger along with her mother Ruth, whom he affectionately calls “Ruthless”. He never directly denies the domestic violence allegations but says multiple times that her claims are all BS. 

As for Washington, Tyson says he is prohibited from discussing his case in detail due to British laws, though he strongly insinuates that he is innocent and insists that he will maintain his innocence to his grave. Everyone will have their own views on this case, but based on my readings of Undisputed Truth and other sources I followed up on, I think there is no doubt Tyson got screwed in court.

Now, I’m not saying for one second that I believe Tyson is innocent — only he and Washington know what happened — but I do find it shocking that he was convicted based on the lacklustre evidence that was available and adduced at court. The truth is, if the accused was not someone as universally loathed as Mike Tyson, he probably would have walked away. But all the stars aligned at the wrong time for him: (1) Don King used his prudish tax lawyer to represent Tyson in a rape case, and the dimwit probably did the worst job imaginable, including not using the lack of physical evidence to their advantage; (2)  an admitted Tyson-hater somehow slipped through the cracks to not only get on the jury, but become the jury foreman; (3) rape shield laws prevented evidence of Washington’s earlier false rape allegation made against a former boyfriend and witnesses who could have shattered the innocent and naive image she created by detailing her sordid sexual past; and (4) the fact that she signed secret book and movie deals around the same time she made her accusations public was not enough to earn Tyson an appeal.

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Having said all that, my personal guess is that Tyson probably was guilty under the legal definition of rape, because no matter how much Washington pursued Tyson and bragged about spending his money as “Mrs Tyson”, all she had to do was say “No” at any time during the ordeal for consent to be taken away. It didn’t matter that she obviously lied about having no idea that Tyson wanted sex when he invited her up to his room in the middle of the night, or that she curiously went into the bathroom to remove a liner from her underwear before the incident took place. She may have initially wanted to go through with it and changed her mind at the last moment, but Tyson was too much of a reckless animal to hear or sense her terrified opposition.

If she did falsely accuse him, I believe the intent came not before but after, when she furiously realized that she was just another piece of meat that Tyson was tossing away after he was done with it. That’s why I also don’t doubt at all that Tyson honestly believes he is innocent, which is why he turned down an opportunity at an early release because he simply refused to apologize to her — just an apology, not even an admission of guilt. In any case, the rape case is a fascinating part of the book, and I would recommend everyone to read up about it as much as they can before making their own judgment.

That was heavy.

The book slows down towards the end and becomes more contemplative, as Tyson’s drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction, accumulated boxing injuries and uncontrollable fury prevent him from having any semblance of a real life. In the end, it’s his love for his current wife and the loss of one of his children in a tragic accident that keep him from completely falling off the wagon, though as he concedes in the book’s postscript it’s still an ongoing battle he’s taking one day at a time. Just as I was finishing the book I read elsewhere about Tyson’s latest implosion on Canadian television during an interview, confirming that no matter how much therapy he receives his demons will likely follow him until the day he dies.

It’s strange, because despite wasting all his talent and hard work and throwing away all the fruits of his success, I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. On the other hand, even Tyson’s staunchest defenders would concede that he is a destructive individual with loathsome qualities — and that’s even if you believe he is innocent of rape. You can defend his actions to some extent because of his horrific upbringing, the toxic environment and people he grew up with, and the constant bullying and abuse he suffered as a child, but apologizing for Mike Tyson can only go so far because there are some things he has done — things he readily admits to in the book — that are simply inexcusable at any level of human decency.

Tyson understands this himself and appears genuinely remorseful at times (though at other times he remains defensive), attributing his insanity to the combustible combination of a massive ego and extremely low self-esteem. He was born in the gutter, and no matter how much success and money he achieved throughout his career, he still believed that he belonged in the gutter, which is why he could never put an end to his self-destructive tendencies.

That’s why I say you cannot treat Tyson like a real person if you want to truly enjoy this book. It’s a strange comparison, but I like to think of him as Homer Simpson — a character you find endearing in spite of, and maybe even because of, his anti-social qualities, but would hate if you knew such a person in real life. Everyone probably has an opinion on Tyson, both as a boxer and as a man, and neither might be flattering. But don’t let your prejudices get in the way of one of the best books you might ever read.

5/5

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

January 25, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Of all the 2013 films I have watched and will watch, I doubt there is one that will leave a greater lasting impression than 12 Years a Slave, the remarkable, and apparently very accurate true story of a free black man kidnapped into slavery (no prizes for guessing how long). It’s one of the most brutal and uncomfortable movies I’ve ever had to sit through, but thanks to the brilliant direction of Steve McQueen (Shame), I don’t feel as though I’ve been manipulated at all. 12 Years a Slave is simply an unflinchingly honest, harrowing, raw and emotional motion picture about one of the darkest eras of American history — and it’s interesting that it took a British director to make a defining film about it.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man during the 1840s making a living as a musician with his wife and two children. Following a horrible stroke of misfortune he ends up being renamed to Platt and is shipped off to New Orleans where he sold by a slave trader to a plantation owner. There is a lot more to the story, but I will just keep it at that to prevent divulging any potential spoilers.

This is a confronting film, a grotesquely violent film; a film that tears at your heart. The excellent adapted screenplay by John Ridley (Three Kings) does not hold back in showing us what slavery was like back in those days, and neither does the direction of McQueen. The cruelty, the frightening beatings, the habitual physical and mental abuse, and the helplessness and depression — it’s all inescapably there. And according to scholars and experts who have seen the film, it is the most accurate on-screen depiction of slavery they’ve ever seen.

The thing that impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave, however, is how McQueen just tells Northup’s story the way it is. This is not some Hollywood story of triumph or some warm fluff touting the beauty of the human spirit. It’s just a man who loses everything trying to survive under extremely trying circumstances. It could have been so easy for this film to spiral into an exploitative, manipulative, melodramatic mess, but the approach is subtle yet direct, presenting audiences the story as is, and giving us the room to interpret the hints and emotions for ourselves. I felt the injustice and outrage as designed by McQueen, but I didn’t feel like any of it was being shoved in my face, even when I was watching the torture taking place right in front of me. That’s what I call masterful filmmaking.

Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves an Oscar for the defining performance of his career as the stoic Northup. It’s such a difficult role, not just because of the physical aspects of it, but because of the layers required to play an educated man pretending to be an uneducated slave. He is no saint. He didn’t care about the plight of the slaves before he became one, and once he did, he did what he could to survive, putting himself first as most people would. Ejiofor’s ability to capture every side of his character is what allows us to feel his fear, his desperation, his pain. And it’s not like he’s running around gunning people down like Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained or giving out motivational speeches like Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln — everything we get from the character comes from Ejiofor’s understated expressions, the restraint in his voice, the sorrow in his eyes.

The supporting cast features a list of well known names, from Paul Giamatti as a slave trader to Paul Dano’s racist carpenter and Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender (third collaboration with McQueen after Hunger and Shame) as Northup’s two very different masters. Fassbender, in particular, steals the show somewhat as a religious nut and the primary antagonist in the film, though Cumberbatch’s more reserved performance as a fairly decent but complicated man provides a nice contrast while also reminding us that not all slave owners were sadistic.

I thought the appearance of Brad Pitt towards the end of the film was a little jarring, but apart from that I though they all made their characters three-dimensional and memorable in their own way. However, the lesser-known supporting cast also deserve a lot of praise, in particular Lupita Nyong’o, which has been nominated for best supporting actress as a tormented slave lusted after by Fassbender, and American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s icy psycho wife.

There are other aspects of the film which I usually don’t talk about but feel like I should point out here. I really liked the visual style McQueen employed for the movie, with a gritty documentary-esque look and a colour scheme that accentuated the realism and brought out the heat down in New Orleans. The music score by Hans Zimmer was also fitting for the period and helped add another dimension to the on screen drama.

12 Years a Slave is not easy viewing, nor is it intended to be. But it is a rare motion picture, the kind that doesn’t come around very often, where the story is compelling and the direction, script and acting are all top notch. And when all is said and done, it could end up being the movie that resonates more than any other released in 2013. Having said all that, it’s hard to give 5 stars to a film that’s almost impossible to enjoy.

4.5 stars out of 5.

PS: 12 Years a Slave is not without critics. There are some who say the film was made just to make white people feel bad about what happened. There are others who criticised the decision to focus on an educated man, someone who wasn’t a real slave, rather than one of the millions born into slavery and never knew any better, just so audiences can connect with the protagonist. None of these are valid criticisms. First of all, everyone, regardless of who you are, should feel bad watching human beings abusing other human beings. Secondly, no one makes a movie just to make people feel bad about themselves. Thirdly, why not pick a protagonist who can connect with audiences? This is a great story, a true story that deserves to be told — why shouldn’t it be?

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 12

September 17, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Yes, there are still movies from 2012 that I have not yet finished reviewing or watching. But I am getting there. I swear. Here are four more film reviews.

Byzantium (2012)

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This was one I had been really forward to because it’s directed by Neil Jordan, and I really needed Saoirse Ronan to redeem herself in my mind after the disaster that was The Host. I’m still not 100% sure what to make of Byzantium, which is an interesting twist on the vampire genre and relies a lot on its brooding and melancholic atmosphere as opposed to cheap scares — though I wish I could have found it more engaging and frightening.

Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are a mother and daughter vampire pair who have been around for a few hundred years by surviving on human blood. The story is dominated by a back story dating back to the Napoleonic Wars of how they became who they are, interspersed with their modern day exploits and typical (or not so typical) mother-daughter tensions. And of course, there are mysterious people hunting them down.

It’s a very dark (literally — the film is almost always poorly lit), bloody and violent film that provides a welcome escape from all the vampire lover fantasies we’ve had in recent years. I also loved the whole concept of how they are made into vampires and the way they transform when they feed. It’s different and haunting, driven by two very strong performances from Arterton and Ronan.

On the other hand, the dreariness got to me a little as the film progressed, and I yearned for less melodrama and more excitement. The back story, to be brutally honest, was somewhat predictable and stale, and I think that is what dragged the film down and prevented it from being an exceptional vampire flick. A minor disappointment because of high expectations, but not a bad film to catch on DVD on a rainy night.

3.25 stars out of 5

Cosmopolis (2012)

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So I keep hearing about what a great American writer Don DeLillo is, and Cosmopolis is based on one of his novels. And it’s directed by David Cronenberg (who gave us the magnificent A History of Violence and Eastern Promises in the last few years). Sure, it starred Shovelface, aka Robert Pattinson, but Cosmopolis was definitely high on my list of most anticipated movies of the year.

What’s it about? That’s hard to describe, but essentially it’s about a young billionaire (Shovelface) trying to head to his barber in a limo and gets sidetracked. He meets a bunch of people (from his wife to an assortment of mistresses) and things suddenly start to spiral out of control. Just 109 minutes of people saying and doing strange, random, confusing things.

The film has gotten mixed reviews and two minutes in I could see why. Cosmopolis seems like a great story on the paper, but adapted to the screen and it just feels all wrong. Every scene and conversation feels painfully contrived, like they are trying to sound mysterious and befuddling. No one on the history of the planet has ever spoken like the characters in this film, and yet everyone in it speaks in the same way.

I like the feeling of not knowing what is going on as things are slowly revealed to me throughout the film, but this film tries way too hard to mess with the audience’s mind and challenges them to look for deeper meaning (the follies of capitalism and materialism, perhaps?) when there isn’t really anything to look for. At least it feels that way anyway.

Cronenberg’s direction is stylish and the film is atmospheric, and the performances are strong, though that doesn’t make up for all its faults. It’s disappointing because there was definitely potential here, but instead all Cosmopolis did for me was bore and frustrate.

1.5 stars out of 5

Killing Them Softly (2012)

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I was warned about Killing Them Softly, which received praise from critics but was panned by many regular people who watched it. In fact, I was warned by an aunt to avoid it at all costs because it might bore me to death. Being the sucker for punishment that I am, I braced myself and watched it anyway, and to be honest I just thought it was OK — not boring, not great. Just OK.

The premise is simple. Ray Liotta runs an underground gambling ring for mafia types and once held up his own den to steal money off his patrons. Armed with the knowledge if that it happened again that people would automatically point the finger at Ray, a couple of goons (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy) are hired to rob the place. In the aftermath, a hitman played by Brad Pitt, who likes to “kill them softly” (ie, quick and relatively painless) is assigned to…sort things out.

This is one of those movies I probably would have fallen asleep in a few years ago, but nowadays I have come to appreciate the art of “slow storytelling” and have come to understand why certain films are paced in a certain way. Killing Me Softly is undeniably slow, with lots of well-crafted dialogue and pauses. But the dark and bleak noir atmosphere is definitely intriguing, and when the violence hits it is brutal and uncompromising.

Having said all that, there’s not a lot about the movie that makes it something I would want to recommend to others. It’s simply a well-made movie that is slow and gritty, with big name stars delivering the expected strong performances. I wouldn’t call it boring, though it’s not exactly entertaining either.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Expatriate (2012)

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Known as Erased in the US, The Expatriate is a bit of a “meh” film in the sense that it’s perfectly adequate but does little to suggest that it should be anything other than a straight-to-DVD film, which is is.

Aaron Eckhart is a former CIA agent (kinda like Liam Neeson in Taken) who is living with his daughter in Brussels while working as a security expert. One day he suddenly discovers that all traces of his existence have been “erased”, so to speak, forcing him on the run as his ex-colleagues all start dropping dead. So essentially the whole movie is about him trying to survive while figuring out what big conspiracy he has been dragged into.

It’s not the most original premise, but there are elements of the film that work effectively for this to be an above average thriller. But when you have movies like Taken and those from the Bourne franchise (which this film borrows from liberally), a movie like The Expatriate pales in comparison and feels almost redundant.

I’m a fan of Aaron Eckhart and I think he does a great job in it, but it’s hard to like a movie when you feel like you’ve pretty much seen everything before, except done better.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: World War Z (2013) (2D)

June 25, 2013 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m just going to come out and say it: World War Z is possibly the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen.

To be fair, I can’t recall many worthy zombie movies off the top of my head. I haven’t seen the George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, widely regarded as the GOAT. 28 Days Later was very good. Shaun of the Dead is very funny. I Am Legend had its moments. Resident Evil is a guilty pleasure. REC is terrifying. But as of now, I’d still rank World War Z on top.

Why? Well for starters, while it is one of the most intense cinematic experiences I’ve had with a “zombie film”, World War Z doesn’t feel like your conventional zombie flick. Yes, there are loads of zombies, carnage and people fighting for survival, but the mood of it feels…different. Perhaps because it is less camp, the tone feels more like a plague film, say like Outbreak, the 1995 Dustin Hoffman movie, or the more recent Contagion, made in 2011. Throughout the 116-minute running time I never got the sense that I had “seen it all before” and never felt like I knew where the story was heading.

There are also heavier political elements in World War Z than typical zombie movies, though I don’t want to say much more than that because of potential spoilers.

The film centers on Brad Pitt, who plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations employee, and his family (wife played by Mireille Enos, whom I am unfamiliar with), as the zombies start to take over the world. Using his connections, Lane is able to get to safety, but his skills are needed to help find out the cause of the outbreak so scientists can develop a cure or vaccine. Lane travels to several locations around the world in search of an answer, battling hoards of zombies and scraping through extremely close calls along the way. A few of the particularly pivotal scenes are still vividly floating around in my mind, a sign that director Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace, The Kite Runner) really got them right. They were intense without overdoing the whole crazy-mutilated-zombies-jump-out-of-nowhere routine we’re so accustomed to seeing in these types of movies.

The second half of World War Z is not quite as good as the first half, and unfortunately the ending, after a stellar finale, was quite disappointing. The special effects were better than the trailer suggested (I initially thought they looked terrible) but some of the scenes with masses of zombies still looked a little too CGI. But these are my only complaints.

I would compare World War Z to my favourite film from a couple of years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Sure, there are lots of flaws and holes, but it’s one of those rare films that kept me engrossed from start to finish, and at one stage during the movie made me want to say out loud — “this movie is freaking awesome!” It’s intense, exciting, entertaining and clever without trying to be too clever for what is, after all, still a zombie movie. I can’t wait for the planned sequel(s).

4.5 stars out of 5!

PS: I have not read the 2006 horror novel of the same name by Max Brooks upon which the film is based. Apparently it is completely different.

Battle of the Polarizing Films: Drive (2011) vs The Tree of Life (2011)

November 13, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

It’s November and I still haven’t finished reviewing my list of 2011 films. So here’s another film battle — this time,  between two of the most polarizing films of last year – Drive and The Tree of Life. I thought one of these films was amazing, and the other boring and pretentious — but can you guess which is which?

Drive (2011)

I had heard some mixed reviews of this Ryan Gosling neo-noir crime drama. Some said it was slow and boring and too violent for its own good. Others said it was one of the best films of the year.

The story follows Gosling’s unnamed lead character, who works as a mechanic by day and a getaway driver for criminals at night. You don’t know much about his past or background, but all you know is that he is one heck of a driver who can stay calm under the tensest of situations and a badass you wouldn’t want to mess with. He befriends a neighbour, played by Carey Mulligan, and her young son, whose father is in prison and owes protection money to the mob.

It’s a simple story driven by a fascinating character and a sublime performance from Gosling, who seems to be unable to do anything wrong these days. It’s also boosted by a superb all-star cast, including the omnipresent Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks.

With the exception of Mulligan, who gives a good performance but feels miscast in the role, I loved everything about this riveting film, which had been hooked and on the edge of my seat from the opening sequence — which is, might I add, one of the best of any movie ever. I loved the tension and I loved the mystery of Gosling’s character — the calmer he was the more nervous I got. And I don’t often notice the soundtrack but this one’s was rocking — the ethereal-electronic-pop-dominated score was perfect for the look, style and feel of the film. (For some reason it reminded me a little of the video game Grand Theft Auto!)

As for the violence, yeah, it might have been a little excessive (elevator scene, anyone?) but I thought it fit in well with the overall tone and added an edge to the tension. I’ve always been a fan of well-executed violence (thanks, Tarantino), and I suppose this is a great example of it.

One of the best, and potentially one of the most memorable, films of the year for me.

5 stars out of 5

The Tree of Life (2011)

The buzz around The Tree of Life before I watched it was that it is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking that cements his place in cinematic history as one of the best directors of all time. But word of mouth from relatives was that it was so confusing and boring that walking out would have been a better option than staying until the end.

My previous experiences when it comes to Terrence Malick have not been positive. I remember when people were calling The Thin Red Line a vastly superior film to Saving Private Ryan and decided to check it out, but had too much trouble trying to decipher all of Nick Nolte’s mumbling to really understand what the fuss was all about. Then I watched his next effort, The New World with Colin Farrell, but I gave up on it about 20 minutes in after, again, failing to get through all the mumbling voice-overs. What’s this guy’s deal with incomprehensible philosophical mumblings?

Anyway, I thought as a more mature movie viewer, I would now be more capable of appreciating Malick’s art. But in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. The Tree of Life had its fair share of mumblings as well, but that wasn’t its problem. Its problem was trying too hard to be “profound”, to be “different”, to be a “masterpiece.”

Essentially, this “experimental” film follows a middle-aged man’s (Sean Penn) memories of his childhood in Texas in the 1950s with his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), but at the same time it is also supposed to be some chronicle of the history of the universe that explores the meaning of life.

I don’t have a problem with ambitious projects, which this clearly is, but I suppose you need to be in the right kind of mood to enjoy The Tree of Life (ie, high on LSD or something). If you’re expecting a linear narrative with a clear story to tell, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But if you’re expecting a movie to suddenly turn into the National Geographic channel and show the images cosmos and dinosaurs and asteroids, and feel that it explains what life is all about, then you’ll probably love The Tree of Life.

I do appreciate the artistic merits of the film to some extent, as well as the beautiful images of nature that Malick projects onto the screen. The scenes depicting the children and their relationship with their father are also done well and occasionally stirring. In that sense I guess I don’t despise The Tree of Life like some others do, but at almost 140-minutes it was just too much to take and digest. Frankly, I was often bored and frustrated.

Maybe I’ll have more luck with Malick’s next film, To the Wonder, a romantic drama starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. I heard people booed laughed at it during the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.

2 stars out of 5!

 
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