Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Game 6

At one point in Game 6 (2005), during a critical moment of the 1986 World Series, a taxi driver accuses the protagonist, Nicky Rogan (played by Michael Keaton) of always wanting to take the easy way out because "Losing is easy." Nicky replies, "No, winning is easy. Losing is complicated. Losing's a lifetime work."  That sounds like he speaks from experience.

Game 6 chronicles what might be the most important day in the life of Nicky, a New York City playwright and a Boston Red Sox fan. That day is Oct. 25, 1986, the day for both the opening of Nick's newest play and game six of the World Series between the Red Sox and the Mets. Meanwhile, his daughter Laurel (Ari Graynor) informs Nick her mother (Catherine O'Hara) is talking to a "prominent" divorce lawyer. How prominent? "He has his own submarine."

This news doesn't stop Nicky from having a tryst with one of his play's backers, who informs him that the lead actor (Harris Yulin) has a brain parasite preventing him from remembering his lines. Nicky also  runs into friend and fellow writer Elliot Litvank (Griffin Dunne), whose confidence was shattered by a scathing review by Steven Schwimmer (Robert Downey Jr.), an eccentric drama critic who is readying his pen for Nicky's play. How eccentric? "Steven not only wears disguises. He goes to the theater armed," says one who knows him.

The movie strikes a balance somewhere between witty comedy and post-modern tragedy, although it leans more toward the former. As the narrative progresses closer to both the game and play, Nicky becomes convinced that a) the Red Sox will lose and b) Schwimmer is going to destroy the play. Nicky is a man who is never short of words, quips, or even makeshift monologues, but at certain points throughout, one begins to question his mental and emotional stability, especially in the deciding moments of the game 6, involving Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner; in a sense, Nicky sees what he wants to see and arguing this point, contrary to reality, in a bar bathroom gets him beat up by a couple of Mets fans.

"You know what Mother said to me?" Laurel asks her father in their first meeting. "That Daddy's demons are so intense, he doesn't even know when he's lying."

That's a dose of harsh truth. So is Nicky's bit about how the Red Sox are always winning until they lose and his little speech about losing, but it's laced with a self-depricating sense of humor. "When the Mets lose, they just lose. It's a flat feeling; there's nothing there. Now the Red Sox, now, here, we have a rich history of really fascinating ways to lose a crucial game. You know what I mean? Defeats that just keep you awake at night. They pound in your head like the hammer of fate. Yeah, you can analyze a Red Sox game day and night for a month and still uncover really complex layers of feelings. Feelings you didn't even know you were capable of having. Yeah. That kind of pain has a memory all of its own."

Directed by Michael Hoffman and written by Don DeLillo, Game 6 shows us a quirky writer and baseball fan and the assorted kooks who are a part of his life, including his family. Certain aspects threaten to go over into farce, but the proceedings are more or less presented as believable, although some aspects strain credibility. I'm tempted to call it an outrageous comedy that's grounded in reality, but I'm not sure that accurately conveys the tone of the movie. I called the critic an eccentric, but pretty much every character is an eccentric, even all the different taxi drivers Nicky gets rides from. 

I could see see this working as a play since it's built on characterization, performances, and dialogue, but even after the movie's over, I'm still not sure how I feel about it. There's a lot to admire about the film, including the performances, but I'm not wildly enthused about it, and I can't really figure out why. Maybe it's because I already knew the Mets would win the '86 series. Maybe I didn't quite buy Nicky stealing a gun from his barber with the intent to shoot Schwimmer. Maybe there was too much time in the cabs that I really didn't find particularly funny or believable, even after one cabbie mistakes Nicky for an infamous mobster. Maybe I found Nicky to be too much of a jerk.

Or maybe it's because I'm from Cleveland.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Year of the Dragon

According to's description of the Chinese Zodiac, the Dragon enjoys a high reputation as the token of authority, dignity, honor, and success. People born under the sign of the Dragon are said to be "lively, intellectual, energetic, and excitable. They often can be leaders and try to go for perfection. When they meet with difficulties, they are not discouraged. They are magnanimous, romantic, and sensitive about their reputation. They usually have great ambition and an ingenuous personality. They hate hypocrisy, gossip, and slander. They are not afraid of difficulties but hate to be used or controlled by others."

By that same token, they can also be "arrogant and impatient ... Sometimes, 'dragons' are unable to control their moods very well due to being eccentric, tactless, fiery, intolerant, and unrealistic. They may feel blank about the future. There is no lack of romance in their life over all, but they seldom give true love." I don't know how true this applies in real life, but in Year of the Dragon (1985), those characteristics perfectly describe not one but two central characters whose conflict defines the film: police captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) and Chinese mafioso Joey Tai (John Lone). 

Following an assassination during a parade and other escalating incidents of violence in New York's Chinatown, White is appointed the head of that precinct to bring it under control while Tai, who has been orchestrating the violence, climbs to the head of the Chinese mafia in New York. At the same time White begins cracking down on all the illegal activity in Chinatown, Tai begins expanding his power and influence, and these two very similar men are brought into conflict with each other. Things get dicier when White gets romantically involved with a Chinese-American television reporter (Ariane), using her to bring public pressure on the mafia, and the war between cop and criminal grows dangerously personal.

Year of the Dragon is at its most fascinating when it details the parallels between White and Tai. White, in a gruff, intense performance by Roarke, is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and when he takes over the precinct, his superiors expect him to maintain what they consider an imperfect but necessary truce with the older Chinese establishment in Chinatown. White, demanding they start acting like cops again, instead declares there's a "new marshal" in town; he refuses orders and requests to ease up and even turns down bribes; he has his officers raid gambling houses and sweat shops and goes after anyone he can. He's also a racist, he drives away his wife Connie (Caroline Kava) with his behavior, and he punches out his superior (Ray Barry).

Similarly, Tai, who is played by Lone as smooth, cool, and sophisticated, pushes out the mafia's leader, arguing for the need for someone more aggressive, who's willing to take risks for bigger rewards. He begins pushing back against the Italian mob, refusing to give them a cut of the Chinese profits, and he makes plans to expand the drug trade, going all the way to Thailand to make a deal. And like White, he also runs into problems with the establishment on his end when his bosses say they miss the old, peaceful days and desire a return to the way things used to be done. Tai also has people killed, including allies, when it suits his purpose.

Based on a novel of the same name by Robert Daley and directed by Michael Cimino (who co-wrote the script with Oliver Stone), Year of the Dragon shows the grittier side of Chinatown: the sweatshops where illegal immigrants slave away, the crowded gambling houses that descend into panic when a cop unexpectedly burst in, the seedy apartment where a youth gang hangs out while their gunshot buddies bleed in the next room, and the underground waste pool where a pair of corpses are a found. The movie opens with a Chinese New Year's parade where a hitman uses the festivities as cover to commit murder, leading to the first of three funerals, funerals which are guarded and attended by police and hounded by the opportunistic media. The few places that aren't inherently filthy - such as Harry Yung's (Victor Wong) fancy restaurant and Tracy's chic apartment - become despoiled places, whether by violent thugs with machine guns, police, or both.

Most of the material of Year of the Dragon has been done before - cop on the edge goes after crime boss - but Cimino and Stone pepper the movie with rich detail and depth. For example, White utilizes the services of nuns who can translate Chinese to wiretap on Tai, and the police cadet (Dennis Dun) has a moment of crisis before being sent to work undercover, although his and a few other subplots feel truncated; many of the supporting characters disappear for long stretches but are accounted for by the end. 

The movie is also hit or miss with dialogue. Some of it is inspired and hardboiled ("A fish stinks from the head down." "The Chinese eat the head."), but too much of is exposition or thematic dissertation, particularly from Tracy, who is less of a journalist and more of an obvious chorus who just happens to have an affair with the hero. Sometimes, the movie tells too much instead of just showing.

Still for all its flaws, the film proves a riveting and exciting piece. When you get down its essence, its about two dragons, one a cop and the other a criminal, vying for control and testing each other's power. Neither will back down, driving each other to the brink of destruction.