TV Party is a Friday feature in which Film Editors Dominick Mayer and Justin Gerber, alongside Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, suggest one movie apiece to enjoy over the weekend. Joining them each week will be two rotating film staff writers to help round out the selections. Seek out any of the films via Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, Hulu, OnDemand, or abandoned Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores — however you crazy kids watch movies these days! Enjoy ’em for the first time, a second, or maybe a redemptive third.
*punch* “Welcome to Earth.”
It’s strange how, over time, so many people have come to associate Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day with that moment, the one in the picture above. It’s more or less a throwaway and comes into the film at roughly the halfway point, after the Earth has been decimated by a series of coordinated tasks by a hyper-advanced alien race that ends up being too advanced to fear or prepare for our indomitable MS-DOS technologies. But I digress. Independence Day is one of the definitive American summer movies, and it was a vehicle perfectly tailored to mid-‘90s Smith, the film that catapulted him to indisputable, film-opening leading man status.
It’s also a ridiculous amount of fun if you can swallow a fair deal of affectionate jingoism in your action movies. (Then again, how many modern disaster films, or any films, have attempted to envision a world in which absolute political unity is achieved as the result of Randy Quaid making the ultimate sacrifice in service of his country?) It’s loud, it’s played out on the most colossal scale imaginable, and if Smith’s star-making, endlessly charismatic performance as a frustrated would-be astronaut doesn’t sell you, then I’ll end with this hard sell: Jeff Goldblum.
The most perilous decade of Muhammad Ali’s boxing career is on full display. After winning the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, the outspoken athlete goes toe-to-toe against the United States government, the Nation of Islam, and succeeding heavyweight champions Joe Frazier and George Foreman, all amidst the Vietnam War and the escalating Civil Rights Movement.
Unlike the majority of Mann’s leading men, Ali isn’t exactly alone in his troubles. He’s ably surrounded by his lovers, his colleagues, and his family and crew. And it’s in these interactions that we see the Ali we’ve known about for years; he’s charming, hilarious, and overtly prideful. However, there’s an unshakeable pathos to this character that surfaces in the quieter moments, whether he’s jogging through the streets of wintry Chicago or showering alone before a fight. In these little snapshots, the humanity of Ali peeks its head out, enabling the viewer to understand that behind the myth and the legend, he’s still flesh and blood like us all.
One of the more emotional scenes surfaces earlier in the film, when Ali is driving and hears about the death of his close friend Malcolm X. Smith slowly lets his reaction bleed through, and it’s so organic yet also very jarring. Up until this point, we’ve only witnessed the Ali everyone knows about from the documentaries, the headlines, and the history books. So, to see the hulking Champ breakdown like this feels quite rare — and it is. Mann exhibits dubious restraint in keeping these moments of tranquility to short gasps, but to his credit, Smith capitalizes on these subtleties and they stick with the character in much of his body language.
In fact, when he’s not shooting the shit with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, in a fantastic performance) or mouthing off to the press with a volley of jokes or a brick of statements, Smith exudes an understated fear and a resilient anger that only the viewers can see; it’s in his eyes, his lips, or his jawline. Both Mann and Smith work off this mutual understanding with the audience that goes beyond dialogue and relies more on intimate shots, calculated angles, and even particular lighting. This is a style that Mann’s admittedly applied for years, though each sequential film post-Ali — with the exception of 2004’s incredibly vocal Collateral — has placed a stronger emphasis on this polarizing medium.
The problem with the film is the same conundrum that every biopic encounters: scope. There’s just not enough time for any feature-length film to encapsulate all of the struggles and details paramount to a luminary as magnificent and vast as Ali. But Ali isn’t at all interested in any part of the boxer’s life outside of what happened between 1964 and 1974, and to that effect, the film succeeds. Partly because the production isn’t just about its titular character, but the idea of perseverance and how a figure like Ali could rise above any challenge and inspire the entire world to do the same. By that accord, Mann knocked out audiences with two fists in the air.
(Originally published in our dissection and ranking of Michael Mann’s filmography. Read here.)
Six Degrees of Separation
Before young Jaden was but a twinkle in his eye, Will Smith starred in a film adaptation of John Guare’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Six Degrees of Separation. And when I say “starred,” I don’t mean “supported.” Paul, the eloquent, yet untrustworthy hustler Smith plays, anchors this story. Both the film and play hinge on a long, loquacious scene wherein Paul woos a cabal of elegant socialites with a complex web of lies, spun over the course of several gorgeously written monologues. How Smith got such a dense, meaty part on the strength of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, his rapping career, and a supporting role in Made in America I’ll never know. But the kid had presence, and charisma’s what this part calls for. He nails it.
Six Degrees of Separation, and the character of Paul, was inspired by the life of David Hampton, a con artist in the 1980s who won people’s trust by convincing them he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. The story explores the effect of such a con on Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, two aging, affluent New Yorkers. Once Paul’s plan is revealed, the Kittredges attempt to toss off the experience as nothing more than a story to be told at cocktail parties. But the thrill and spontaneity of Paul’s presence perseveres, especially with Ouisa.
Director Fred Schepisi rounds out the cast with industry veterans: Donald Sutherland, Bruce Davison, Mary Beth Hurt, Ian McKellen, and Stockard Channing, whose intensely vulnerable performance was nominated for an Oscar. I can’t even fathom how intimidating that must’ve been for Smith, who, at the time, was probably best known for singing “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
One final piece of trivia: in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it role is an impossibly young Jeffrey Abrams. Or, as you probably know him, J.J.
The Legend of Bagger Vance
“There’s a perfect shot out there trying to find each and every one of us, all we gotta do is get ourselves out of its way, let it choose us,” says Smith’s Bagger Vance to Rannulph Junnuh (Matt Damon) as he competes against two of the best golfers in the world.
I have never felt particularly interested in the game of golf, but The Legend of Bagger Vance skillfully pulled me in. In this Robert Redford film, Smith plays Bagger Vance, a caddy who speaks in metaphors, and always seems to be talking about something much bigger than the game itself. Emerging from the dark of an empty field, Bagger meets Junnuh, the once pride and joy of Savannah, Georgia. Junnuh struggles to find his swing after years in WWI, and, sensing something broken, Bagger takes him under his wing. At once, we see Bagger as a charming but enigmatic figure — his entrance alone resembling something of myth.
The film doesn’t feel like your typical underdog sports flick, but rather, a meditative story of facing adversity, carrying a keen sense of self-awareness. With a cast of Hollywood darlings like Damon, and Charlize Theron, Smith almost outshines his peers, acting continuously as the glue of the story. It’s hard not to feel enchanted by him as the moral center of the film. His spiritual notion of the game makes golf seem poetic, while his unyielding charisma makes him endlessly enjoyable to watch. Yet all of his moments, comedic or not, are cloaked in an antiquated wisdom. Bagger’s often vague and open-ended statements could’ve been infuriating if played by an actor lacking the subtlety required by the role. Smith seems to understand Bagger Vance in all his mysticism and nails the role perfectly.
I Am Legend
Will Smith has built and bolstered his career with characters who are the best talkers, quickest mouths, and have an endless ability to goof on anyone in the scene; Fresh Prince to Bad Boys to Men in Black, the man was Ali.
This is what makes the air of solemnity in I Am Legend enthralling. As Lt. Col. Robert Neville, Army virologist and seemingly the only human left in New York, Smith coils solitude into tight and illuminating empathy. We laugh along with his one-sided conversations at his German Shepherd, we miss the mundane comfort of purely seeing people as he arranges mannequins as video store patrons, we know his fear of the night when unseen violence rocks the heavy shutters of his home; we understand the feeling of being bound, responsible for a cure to a problem potentially caused by his desire for public good.
Smith becomes noble, lonesome, unhinged in 100 minutes. He does it largely on his own, not simply as a display of prowess, but in a workmanlike fashion. Harmonizing with this is a lush and decaying New York, and call me old-fashioned, but I refuse to believe anyone dislikes some good, urban apocalypse shots.
Yes, the ending is a bit of a bust. There’s a reliance on action sequences and CGI baddies over morally substantive questions; it’s not the greatest outing, but it’s a little fun with some smarts to it. I understand Comedic Action Suave Smith will be his legacy, but I have a place in my heart for Unexpected Pathos Smith.