Saturday, September 4, 2010

Managing The Muscle

All  you have to do is watch Levi Johnston formulating one of his monosyllabic responses to a question to realize that, without someone else pulling strings for him, this young man would never be able to build a media career on his own. Whether in the form of a press agent, a manager, or a combination thereof, few celebrities get where they are without someone else doing a lot of grunt work.

Boxing films such as RockyMillion Dollar Baby, and The Great White Hope clearly demonstrate that there is a big difference between the the pugilist (brawn) and the publicist (brains). In 2004, Herbert Breslin (who, for many years, managed Luciano Pavarotti's career) published an autobiography entitled The King & I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti's Rise to Fame by His Manager, Friend, and Sometimes Adversary that laid bare some less-than-pleasant truths about the beloved operatic superstar.

There's no doubt that muscle pudding has a powerful allure. But while the sportsman or bodybuilder must work to shape and tone his muscles, it is the trainer, the manager, and the publicist who transform a professional athlete into a marketable commodity. Often, this is necessitated by the fact that the personality being shaped by others might not be particularly mature, business savvy or, for that matter, intelligent.

Sometimes help comes from the strangest quarters. Sometimes the people who profess to be your friends turn out to be your enemies. Sometimes things get completely out of control.

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One of the unexpected pleasures of the recent 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a screening of  The Shakedown, a 1929 film directed by the 27-year-old William Wyler in which John Huston appeared as an extra. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano, this was one of the earlier films in which a precocious young brat and an unsuccessful boxer develop a bond and help each other.

Dave Roberts (James Murray) is an itinerant boxer/con man who travels from town to town picking fights with the locals in order to drum up business for his boss (Wheeler Oakman), who will soon be bringing a "real" fighter to town. Roberts is the pugilist who gets paid to throw the fight so that all bets pay off in the right direction.

A scene from The Shakedown

Soon after his arrival in Boonton, he takes a job in the local oil field and starts to charm Marjorie (Barbara Kent), who bakes delicious pies for a small cafe. He also crosses paths with an obnoxious young orphan named Clem (Jack Hanlon), who has just stolen a pie that was set out on the windowsill to cool. As an unusual  friendship starts to build between Dave and Clem, it becomes obvious that Clem has plenty of street smarts (as well as a knack for getting into trouble).

By the time the staged boxing match occurs, Clem has taken over as Dave's new trainer and has no intention of throwing the match. Perhaps softened by the boy's devotion (and Marjorie's concern), Dave manages to triumph in the ring.

Dave Roberts (James  Murray) and Clem (Jack Hanlon)
in a scene from The Shakedown

The Shakedown proved to be surprisingly full of suspense, action, and charm. The footage of the boxing match was genuinely electrifying. A most satisfying experience!

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I wish I could say the same for Soul Kitchen, a new film written and directed by Fatih Akin. Set in a seedy part of Hamburg, the story's protagonists include:
  • Shayn Weiss (Birol Unel) is a prima donna restaurant chef who does not handle criticism well. Known for his haute cuisine, he goes into a knife-throwing rage when a customer orders gazpacho (a chilled Spanish tomato soup) and insists that it be served hot. After being fired from a high-profile job in a trendy upscale restaurant, he accepts a job offer from Zinos.
  • Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos ) is a young German of Greek descent who owns a restaurant that specializes in traditional fare such as schnitzel and currywurst.Although the Soul Kitchen has a devoted following that loves their German comfort food, his clientele slowly starts to adjust to Shayn's more sophisticated menu. Unfortunately, Zinos has fallen behind on his bills. Without any medical insurance, he is in intense physical pain from a slipped disc as well as emotional pain from breaking up with his girlfriend, Nadine (a journalist who is moving to Shanghai).
Adam Boudroukos as Zinos Kazantsakis
  • Illias Kazantsakis (Moritz Bleibtreu) is Zinos's no-good brother who is currently serving a jail sentence. Because he has some business he needs to transact outside of the jail, Illias convinces Zinos to hire him as "managing director" so that he can get a special work permit that allows him to leave the prison on a regular basis.
  • Sokrates (Demir Gokgol ) is an elderly, eccentric friend of Zinos.
  • Thomas Neumann (Wotan Wilke Mohring) is a real estate tycoon who has his eyes set on the land on which the Soul Kitchen sits. He wins the restaurant from Illias in a poker game.
  • "Bonebreaker Kemal" (Ugur Yucel) is an "alternative chiropractor" who relieves Zinos of his pain.
  • Frau Schuster vom Finanzamt (Catrin Striebeck) is a tax collector who is difficult to satisfy.
  • Anna (Dorka Gryllus) is a pretty physiotherapist with whom Zinos falls in love.
Birol Unel as the knife-throwing cook, Shayn Weiss

I didn't find Soul Kitchen quite as satisfying as some others. Some of its scenes felt a bit forced, others were too loosely strung together. Although there were some fine moments from individual actors, the film lacked cohesiveness in the strangest, laid-back kind of way. Perhaps Fatih Akin can offer a key to the problem in his director's note:
"I always had to think about my old friend  Adam Bousdoukos and his Taverna in the Ottensen quarter of Hamburg. This was more than just a restaurant for us: it was a playground for adventure, a collecting tank, a place to celebrate, a home. I wanted to capture that feeling and way of life that I so deeply connect with the Taverna, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it had I been much older. I can’t party forever or go out on the town five nights a week anymore. At some point, you start to get headaches, you find the music too loud, you can’t handle all the smoke. We’re getting older, and that’s okay, because at some point this lifestyle simply disappears. Yet, making a film about it is still valuable because in the end it’s about an existential issue. It’s about drinking, eating, partying, dancing, and about home. I wanted to make a film about home, not one that is defined by any nationality, not Germany or Turkey -- home not as a location but as a state of being and an attitude."
Soul Kitchen may lose some if its comedy in translation, but I really think something deeper is missing from the film. Here's the trailer:

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I'm not one of those people who thinks that the military is pure and noble in its thinking. Military management is filled with venal souls who know how to abuse their power. No finer example of this can be found than Amir Bar-Lev's new documentary, The Tillman Story.

As most people know, Pat Tillman was enjoying a promising career as a football player for the Arizona Cardinals. Although an aggressive athlete, he was also a promising intellectual and an atheist.

Tillman and his brother Kevin both enlisted in June of 2002. Tillman, who was part of the initial invasion phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, refused an offer from another football team which could have saved him from future combat. Instead, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire on April 22, 2004.

Corporal Pat Tillman in uniform
Because of his fame as a football hero, the military went to great lengths to cover up the true cause of Tillman's death. The Tillman Story details the family's suffering, frustration, and rage at the way they were treated by military and Bush administration officials who wanted to use their son's death as a propaganda tool. There is much in the film that, from a standpoint of military self-righteousness and fake morality, is genuinely nauseating. Although Bar-Lev's documentary is a taut and professionally-produced film, it makes one sick to think how many other families have been deceived about their child's death by the military chain of command. Here's the trailer:


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