Friday, April 29, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Fast Five, A Busy Renner, and Happy Birthday DDL

* Happy 54th birthday to Daniel Day-Lewis. Is he the greatest actor? It’s debatable, but I’d say he is pretty close.

* Liam Neeson may look more like Abraham Lincoln, and he is a fine actor himself, but Daniel Day-Lewis will bring something entirely different to the role of Lincoln.

* X-Men: First Class looks fantastic. Just fantastic. I love the Cold War backdrop for an X-Men story and the cast is stellar.

* Jeremy Renner is extremely busy right now. Aside from the Bourne franchise, appearing in The Avengers, taking over Mission: Impossible, and voicing a character in the next Ice Age movie, Renner is now taking on Steve McQueen in a new biopic. I never would have considered Renner for McQueen before now, but now it makes perfect sense.

* I do think Renner should take it easy on the action franchises. Aren’t Mission: Impossible and Bourne too similar to each other to do both? And do we need either one of them really?

* Although I’m surprised with the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Fast Five, I’m not surprised. That doesn’t make sense, I know, but neither do these movies. I still like them.

* I think what I like about the Fast and Furious movies now is the lack of CGI and green screens. It is a sort of throwback to summer action movies with some real weight and substance to their action.

* Don’t get me wrong, Tokyo Drift was terrible.

* Dylan Dog looks like the worst movie ever made. Okay, that’s an overstatement, but come on. It looks awful. Brandon Routh confuses me anyway because, even though Superman Returns had seriously crippling issues, I still see him as Christopher Reeve. The voice similarity is eerie.

* Armie Hammer will be great as the Lone Ranger if he decides to do it. I just hope the movie isn’t Disney-fied.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is a singular American film, one of the best of all films. I say this without pause now, having seen it again after many years. Sometimes movies can slip out of our consciousness until they get the proper home-video treatment. Blow Out has been released on a Criterion blu-ray that enriches each and every little detail, makes it that much more satisfying. The power of some films are their ability to speak to multiple generations and transcend the barriers of their time. But Blow Out exists in a specific time and thrives in the fact it is dated. It is a snapshot of America at a certain time, 1981, when conspiracy was on the mind of almost everyone. It is also a snapshot of Brian De Palma’s career, when his technical wizardry met his storytelling abilities perfectly. It is his best film by far.

John Travolta was one of the biggest Hollywood stars in 1981. After starring in the two most successful musicals in Saturday Night Fever and Grease his status was cemented. He was a matinee idol of sorts, and Blow Out gave him the opportunity to show his range as a dramatic actor. It is the first grown up role for Travolta, and he is marvelous. He plays Jack Terry, a sound man for a low-budget porno/slasher movie company in Philadelphia. He was once a police aide, but a tragedy involving a faulty wire for an undercover operation forced Jack to abandon that line of work and join the low-rent film company.

One night, Jack is out recording nature sounds at a bridge. He uses his extended microphone like a conductor, pointing at rustling leaves, an owl hooting, a frog clicking his throat. The squeal of tires break the serenity of nature as a car comes barreling down the bridge. There is a loud pop, the car loses control, and it plummets into the river. Jack dives in and pulls a young woman from the car; the male driver had clearly died.

At the hospital, Jack discovers the man in the car was the presidential frontrunner and nobody is ready to acknowledge the girl was ever there. Jack is convinced from the get go that there were two bangs, not one. It was not simply a blow out, but a gunshot accompanied by the tire pop. He is implored to forget this idea, to forget the girl was there and forget about any gunshot. How would any of this look to the public and to the family of the candidate? Jack reluctantly agrees at first, but his curiosity begins to consume him. There was a camera man at the bridge that night as well, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), and his rapid-fire camera caught the entire crash. Jack takes the photos and syncs it up with his audio and his original theory is validated. But the situations surrounding the shooting and the cameraman swell into a conspiracy much larger than Jack can imagine.

Jack seeks out the girl. She is Sally, a call girl who may have had ulterior motives as well. Nancy Allen plays Sally and her evolution as a character is fascinating. She begins a bit dopey, aloof, but her wit and intelligence shines through as the plot thickens. John Lithgow shows up as Burke, a crafty killer in charge of cleaning up the mess and burying any conspiracy. Lithgow plays the part as a psychotic robot, chilling and calculating as he begins to murder girls to create a false lead for the police. This is a clever subplot in the picture, one that is unclear at first but comes into focus soon enough.

Brian De Palma is a master technician and an inventive auteur who has been accused of borrowing a bit too much from Hitchcock and others before him. That may be the case sometimes, and in Blow Out there are clear allusions to Hitchcock films, and obvious parallels to Antonioni's Blow Up, but De Palma makes these moments his own by selecting the perfect shot. He employs his famous split screen in all the right places; his camera spins 360 degrees to emphasize the drama instead of draw attention to the technique itself. One such example is when Jack is feverishly searching his endless supply of tapes because the audio he had has been erased. As he pulls tapes from shelves, others fall, and he floats in and out of the frame while the camera never stops turning. The effect is brilliant, the best shot of the picture.

Blow Out was met with middling reviews and a poor box office, and is often overlooked. It seems thirty years later, time is rendering a different verdict. The conspiracy story at the heart of Blow Out combines so many conspiratorial headlines from the time and the generation leading up to 1981. References to Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick accident are evident, as are references to the Zapruder film and Watergate. It plays upon society’s unrest at the time and all weaves together to create a taut and seamless thriller. And Philadelphia is a perfect setting, with a fictional Liberty Day Celebration as the backdrop and setting for the climax. It allows De Palma to bathe the film in hues of red white and blue. Something else Blow Out does, something I feel would never pass the studio eyes of today more concerned with the bottom line that narrative authenticity, is it doesn’t give in to happiness and tie everything up with a bow. It has conviction and the courage to not go Spielberg on us in the final moments. That among other reasons is why Blow Out is, for lack of a better word, a perfect film.



Wednesday, April 27, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Somewhere

We don’t ever know much about Johnny Marco, the character played by Stephen Dorff in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. We discover he is a major Hollywood star, but it takes some time to find that out. Other than that, we know very little about this mega star who spends his days holed up in his room at the Chateau Marmot, the legendary Hollywood hideout for recluse stars. But we do, however, learn about Johnny Marco. And yes, there is a difference. We come to understand Marco and we study his every day malaise that never swells to grandiose moments of introspection. Somewhere never swells, but it sees. It is in no hurry to reach some powerful epiphany; instead, the picture sits back under the watchful eye of Coppola and observes – sometimes with subtle humor – a man deep in the throes of a depression that has reached an unheralded point of apathy and loneliness.

Johnny spends a lot of time alone at the Chateau. Whenever his grade-school friend (Chris Pontius) isn’t around and he reaches a certain point of boredom, his favorite pastime is to call up a few young ladies to dance on their portable stripper poles in his bedroom. Sometimes he stays awake, sometimes he doesn’t. Because sex doesn’t really interest him anymore. Pleasure is an expense he has tossed aside somewhere along the way. Perhaps his daughter might just be able to snap him out of his funk.

Elle Fanning plays Cleo, Johnny’s daughter. Cleo is eleven and in tune with the surroundings of the Chateau and the life Johnny inhabits more than Johnny has been in a while. One day Cleo is dropped off by her mother, because her mother has to go away. We don’t know why and we suspect she doesn’t know either. Cleo probably knows, but she doesn’t say. Instead she soaks up the time she has with her father before she has to go away to camp. Johnny tries to show her affection, but his capacity for reaching certain levels of loving attentiveness has been stunted after years of distancing himself from the world. He adores Cleo, and he tries his hardest to show her, and for that we cannot fault Johnny. He isn’t a hateful father; he’s just numb.

Sofia Coppola is a director who spent her formative years in the world of Hollywood and movie stars. She was often on the set of her father’s pictures, and Somewhere feels like it was made by a sure-handed director with an inside scoop. She has a deliberate point with Somewhere; to examine the nature of celebrity. Johnny Marco is an international superstar who is beloved by millions of people, none of who know him. Everyone who knows him, however, really doesn’t care for him except Cleo and his lifelong buddy. Johnny recoils from celebrity and fame and mobs of fans into the Chateau where he has clearly discovered he really has nobody. And that is where we pick up with him. Coppola doesn’t bother with a lot of expository narrative to tell us how famous or big time Johnny is; we find that out enough to understand the origin of his isolation. Perhaps the entire story could be summed up in the film’s opening shot, where Johnny drives his Ferrari around in a circle; fast car, lot of money, nowhere to go with it. And it occurred to me about halfway through the picture that Johnny might as well be driving a station wagon. The Ferrari means just about as much to him as the pole dancers.

Coppola said she wrote Somewhere with Stephen Dorff in mind, so the picture truly relies on him as he is in every scene. There are extended moments where the camera simply watches Johnny, watches his mind at work, and Dorff handles these scenes and the rest of the patient film perfectly. It is great to see him challenged as an actor. Fanning looks older than eleven, and she needs nothing more than a few different inflections in her facial features to convey the right emotion in her scenes. We can see her disappointment and sadness and understanding. Cleo is surprisingly well adjusted to have two flakes for parents.

Something I noticed is Coppola’s ability to construct a scene where it becomes one thing after starting as another. This is especially clear in a few scenes which begin as humorous and turn into something a great deal warmer and more important than getting a laugh. Sofia Coppola looks at the cult of personality much differently than someone might be able to who didn’t grow up in the industry. Although I don’t know that world, I have faith that Coppola knows so I know not to question her decisions. All of her films – even The Virgin Suicides, albeit on a smaller scale – have dealt with the alienation of celebrity. Somewhere is a patient film with a deliberate pace that may not be for everyone, but I found it affecting, especially the quiet moments between father and daughter. It shows us Johnny Marco and doesn’t bother explaining him to us; we will know what we need to know in good time.

A-



Tuesday, April 26, 2011

UN-TRUE ROMANCE: Was it All a Dream for Clarence Worley?

The best thing about many cult films is the depth of interpretation and detail they carry with them. Cult films yearn to be analyzed and revisited and appreciated on an entirely different level than typical features. Part of the enjoyment of Fight Club is going back to catch the clues that indicate Tyler Durden’s true identity. Considering The Big Lebowski as an allegory for the American male enriches the film even more. Deciding what is real and what is the nightmare in Eraserhead brings viewers back. True Romance is one such cult film. It is a picture I have taken as a straight narrative over the years, only recently have I considered the notion that Clarence Worley, our hero, fell asleep somewhere along the way. That his adventures with Alabama are all a dream.

Clarence is a lonely soul whose life thrives on the imaginary. He works in a comic book store, worships the aura of Elvis Presley, and lives vicariously through movies. The night he goes to see the Sonny Chiba triple feature, the night of his birthday, he meets Alabama. The two fall in love and the rest is history. A violent history with a wild ride. Over the years I have accepted the journey of Clarence and Alabama as truth in the world of True Romance. They go to California with a pimp’s suitcase full of cocaine and sell it to a big-shot movie producer, all the while outrunning the cops and the mafia. I probably still interpret the picture this way, but the great thing about a movie like True Romance is the “what if” factor. What if it was all a dream? What if Clarence fell asleep in that Sonny Chiba triple feature?

There is evidence to suggest such a thing. As the film opens Clarence is in a bar chatting up a barfly (Anna Levine), trying to coax her into a date to the movies. She declines his offer. But think about her look. She is blonde and dressed in a suggestive manner. Much like Alabama when she strolls into the theater. Of course Alabama is much more beautiful, younger, vivacious, a sort of dreamlike version of the lady at the bar. Clarence and Alabama share one silver-lined evening together before Alabama professes her love for Clarence and the two wed at the courthouse. This very idea lends itself to the dreams of any young man; but Clarence has seen too many movies, and his dream needs a little more action.

The fact that Alabama is a call girl with a vicious, murderous pimp named Drexel is the right amount of danger for Clarence. It gives him the opportunity to live out a certain fantasy. Clarence can play the hero, and he does by confronting Drexel, killing him, and winding up with a suitcase of cocaine that will spell their getaway to paradise. More than the fantastical events which transpire is the mood shift in Clarence. Before he meets Alabama Clarence is timid and uncertain. His approach to the woman in the bar is awkward. But once he and Alabama become what they become, Clarence is heroic, witty, and cocky. His entire mood shifts and he falls into the role of hero without a second thought.

And what about the conversations with Elvis? These are moments of fantasy in the film where Clarence gets his guidance. These scenes are the clearest examples of a dream. Of course there are very literal events that happen. The murder of Clarence’s father and the brutal beating of Alabama are two such instances, but both events happen while Clarence is absent from the scene.

True Romance is probably not intended to read like a dream. In fact, I am certain it is not intended that way. But that is the joy of a film rich in detail, complex in character, and creative in execution. True Romance hints at these ideas. It allows viewers to interpret certain aspects in various ways. Clarence living in a dream may not be the truth, but sometimes looking at a film like True Romance from a different angle is part of what makes it such a satisfying picture.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Water for Elephants

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz (121 min.)

The ironic thing about the circus, since its birth over a hundred years ago, is it exists to make children and families happy yet materializes with the blood, sweat, and tears of sadness. The circus exists thanks to the drifters of the depression, to the homeless masses willing to work for nothing, to the abused animals and freaks without anyone out there to love them. The circus was an especially tough sell during the depression, when day-to-day survival took priority over entertainment. That is where Water for Elephants takes place, a film that tells two stories. On the one hand we get an in-depth look at the circus and the personalities, animals, and effort it takes to sustain. On the other hand we get a love story. Fortunately, for the audience, the former is much more of a focus in the picture than the latter.

We first meet Jacob Jankowski as an old man, played by Hal Holbrook, who stumbles upon a circus one night and proceeds to tell the story of his youth, when his parents were killed in a car crash just as he was to graduate college. Alone and abandoned, Jacob sets out on the road without direction. He hops aboard a train one night, a train which happens to be a second-rate circus struggling through the Depression. He works odd jobs for a bit until he gets a chance to meet August (Christoph Waltz), the ringleader of the circus who rules with an iron fist and borders on sociopathic villainy. The only thing that keeps Jacob from being thrown from the train is the fact he went to veterinary school and would be a great help to August. So August brings Jacob in, and Jacob becomes cozy with August’s wife, Marlena, the main attraction of the circus played by Reese Witherspoon.

But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The first half of the film deals primarily with the inner workings of the circus itself, and with the friendships Jacob develops with some of the men on board, as well as the animals he cares for. As the circus fights to stay afloat, August purchases an elephant, Rosie, to be the main attraction. Jacob works with Rosie, but not fast enough for August who opts to abuse the animal to get her ready. A great bond forms between Jacob and Rosie as he trains Rosie and feels he must protect her, and protect Marlena, from the moody August. All the while, Jacob and Marlena grow closer while August grows more volatile.

Robert Pattinson plays the young Jacob, and serves the part well. He was my biggest concern going in but he seems to fit the role well enough. Witherspoon doesn’t have much to work with, only a few obligatory scenes where she lays out her back story for the audience. Otherwise she is simply acted upon by the abusive August. Waltz is, of course, the strongest of the three main characters. I am not sure Waltz will ever be able to play something other than a villain, and I am not too sure he should mind. He is delectable as a bad guy. His face is so expressive, his energy so imposing, he creates great moments of tension as August as he unleashes his wrath on those unfortunate enough to be around him.

Water for Elephants works marvelously as a story about a circus fighting to survive. The picture looks great, feels authentic. The circus is painted with rich, colorful characters filling the margins. And Waltz is perfect as a completely deplorable meanie. But where the film falters is in the romance between Jacob and Marlena. It feels forced, as if the two actors were begrudgingly following the screenplay and novel, written by Sara Gruen. There isn’t really any chemistry to speak of between Pattinson and Witherspoon, so when the romantic narrative takes center stage the story fragments and stalls. It is only when we return to the drama of the circus and the tension between August and Jacob does the picture finds its proper footing.

I would have enjoyed a film here without a romantic storyline, but I know that would be impossible. The romance is key to the tension; sadly it is not worth the time spent on it. That being said, the romantic arch is secondary to the center of Water for Elephants, where we become thoroughly involved with the people and their struggles. And we fall in love with Rosie the elephant. Running away to join the circus has been an idea romanticized throughout the years, and Water for Elephants does not allow the myth of such a thing to cloud its better portions. If only it could have had a bit more clarity and drive in the romance, it may have been nearly flawless.

B

Friday, April 22, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Green Lantern Shakiness, Re-Bourne, and Welcome Back to Reality Robert Zemeckis

* New Green Lantern TV spots have been running the last few days. I am still not sold on this one. I know they did some tweaking to the CGI on the suit and the overall look, but something still looks wrong about it. I don’t understand why a real suit couldn’t be used the majority of the time.

* Jeremy Renner has been offered the lead role in The Bourne Legacy, taking over the reins from Matt Damon. I think this is a strategy with Bourne that might work. If this is intended to be Universal’s Bond franchise, switching out actors every few years might just work.

* I can’t believe Werner Herzog once ate his own shoe to settle a bet he made. Boiled it and ate it.

* I am encouraged by the news that Robert Zemeckis is returning to the land of reality and abandoning stop-motion animation, at least for the time being. Zemeckis is scheduled to direct Flight, about a pilot who saves the day and makes an emergency landing much like Sully Sullenberger did in New York. The twist here is that the pilot has to hide the fact he was under the influence at the time. Denzel Washington has been rumored for the role. But more exciting than Washington is the fact Zemeckis is directing a live-action film again. Enough of these weird, dead-eyed cartoons Robert.

*I think I will see Thor in 2-D.

* The Fast and The Furious franchise has some sort of spell over me. I know I will be seeing this new one. But it’s 2 hours and 10 minutes?!? There is no reason for that.

* I wonder if Scream 5 and 6 will still happen after the weak response from audiences on Scream 4. I just think the demographic for these films and these characters has outgrown the material for the most part.

* These Disneynature films, like African Cats coming out this weekend, look fascinating and beautiful. I just can’t bring myself to going to see them in the theater.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Frailty (2001)

Frailty is the antithesis of the common modern horror film. It is about mood and feeling and imagination, not about bloodshed and hyperactive violence. There is a subtle, classic feel to the proceedings in Frailty, a film about psychological damage and something that, regardless of its outlandish nature, feels authentic when you read headlines about cults and people who lose their mind and blame their God.

The film opens on present day, on an appropriately dark and stormy night, where a world-weary man named Fenton Meiks walks into the office of Federal agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) with information on the serial murders across Texas. The killer has been labeled the “God’s Hand” killer because of the clues and the information left behind. But there are no real leads. Fenton, played by Matthew McConaughey through hushed tones and unsettling fatigue, tells Doyle he knows who the God’s Hand killer is, and proceeds to tell him an extended flashback serving as the majority of the story. He tells of his childhood, when things began to take a turn for the worst, when his father was visited by God.

The flashback takes us to a small Texas town in what appears to be the late sixties or early seventies. A young Fenton and his younger brother, Adam, are played by Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter. Their father is Bill Paxton. It is the three of them, as their mother passed away before our story opens. Everything seems ideal for Fenton and Adam, and their father is a loving man and a hard worker. They enjoy each other and seem content to live in this Southern version of a Normal Rockwell painting until one night when the father comes into the boys’ room and tells him he was visited by God. God has told the dad he has been given a new job; he has been ordered to destroy demons living on earth in human form. Adam is too young to know any better and he simply listens to his father, because he Adam's only guidance. Fenton is old enough to know something is amiss.

Before long, dad gets further orders and direction, he says from God, and brings home the first “demon.” He kills the person after placing his hand on them and allegedly seeing the evil things this person has done, and axes them. The axe was given to him by God, he claims. These are the devices of the plot, the reasons we need for the story, but what separates the film from a horror/slasher film is its focus. These murders happen off screen without much bloodshed throughout because that is not the important part of the murders. It is the confusion of Fenton and the blind dedication of Adam and the way these events warp and ruin the lives of these boys. But at the same time, the screenplay plants seeds of doubt. We think the father has gone insane, and Fenton swears he has, but there are small instances where we believe he may be actually doing God’s work.

Frailty is filmed in soft tones to dilute the horror of the events. There are no scenes of intense violence because it is unnecessary. What we imagine happening is more horrifying than seeing what really happens, adding to the psychological horror. Certain aesthetic elements feel fake. For example, late in the film when older Fenton is taking Doyle to the bodies his brother buried, the car ride is clearly on a stage in a car that is not moving. This is not a complaint, but it feels like a deliberately unnatural element of the picture that keeps everything just a little off balance and that much more unsettling.

Twists are important in a film like Frailty, a murder mystery and police procedural wrapped in a dark and disturbing thriller. There are elements of horror, but this film exists in the mind more than in the sensationalism of violence. And the twists are all small, quiet twists which build on top of each other and don’t stop until we reach the final frame. Frailty is a small picture, but not one of small impact. It is the only directorial effort from Bill Paxton, and looking back now that seems like a shame because the brilliance of this picture lies all at the feet of a director with a sure hand, a focused eye, and a knowledge that what is inferred will be infinitely more thrilling than what is shown.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Rabbit Hole

Grieving has to be the most unique human emotion. Laughter and anger and fright we may all share on a basic emotional level. But grieving, this is something each of us handles in different ways. This is the underlying thesis of Rabbit Hole, the tearjerker from John Cameron Mitchell now out on DVD. The film stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as Becca and Howie, a married couple in the midst of dealing with the loss of their four-year old son. He was hit by a car chasing the family dog in the street. Everything appears, on a surface level, to be quiet but comfortable. They have a nice home and friends and family for support. But inside they are as empty as their son’s room, left untouched since the accident.

Howie has work to keep him busy. Becca is left at home to live among the ghostly remnants of their son, the pictures on the refrigerator and the untouched room. She lives each day in a haze, doing the daily tasks like a shell of a human. They attend a self-help group at a local community center. This is clearly Howie’s idea as Becca meets the sessions with trepidation, cynicism, and anger. This is the running theme of Howie and Becca and how they deal with the loss. The difference between their grieving processes is fascinating in the picture. Howie embraces the reminders of their son, even watching an old video of him on his phone. Becca avoids these memories and has emotionally shut down, so much so that Howie’s attempt at a romantic night – with the help of Al Green – creates contention rather than romance. These quiet moments early bring about an interesting dynamic between Howie and Becca, that perhaps they are discovering something about each other when they thought new things to find were impossible at this stage in their lives.

Howie continues to go to the meetings without Becca and he develops a relationship with Gaby, another grieving parent at the meetings played by Sandra Oh. But Becca seeks out Jason, the teenager responsible for killing their son. At first, when Becca begins to follow Jason we are not apprised as to why. We may have an idea, but we aren’t completely sure. The reveal comes gradually in their first conversation on a park bench. Jason is genuinely sad and sorry for what he has done, even telling Becca he may have been speeding when he hit their son. “The speed limit was thirty,” he says, “I may have been going thirty-one, or maybe thirty-two.” The fact that Jason acknowledges such a menial speed discrepancy is less an admission of guilt and more an example of how the guilt has consumed this poor teenager who really did nothing wrong. The moments between Becca and Jason are some of the most affecting scenes in the picture.

Nicole Kidman was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Becca, and she is quite good. But I would argue that Aaron Eckhart has the advantage of getting the lion’s share of emotional scenes in Rabbit Hole. This is a watershed performance for Eckhart, who will have his nominations in the future. Howie is desperately trying to fix everything that is broken, and Becca will not accept his tries. When his video is erased accidentally he flies into a rage. His emotions are there, they always will be, but he is trying his damndest to move forward because he loves Becca. You can see the effort in Howie’s eyes.

Rabbit Hole is sometimes a tough film, often a calm examination into the lives of heartbroken parents, and occasionally pretty funny. But it is quietly marvelous. John Cameron Mitchell, who was given the opportunity to adapt his play into this film, keeps a very even tone throughout the film, shooting in soothing browns and blues. This allows the emotional outbursts to carry maximum impact, and those rare moments benefit from the stillness around it. This is an objective examination into the grieving process and the way these two people handle it in completely different ways. Howie and Becca thought they knew everything about each other, and when grief comes into play they discover a new facet of each other’s personality. Grieving has to be the most unique human emotion in the repertoire.

A-

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best Gangster Films

10) The Public Enemy – There was never more of a go-to guy in the business of gangster pictures than James Cagney in the middle of the twentieth century. If you see Joe Pesci, and the ferocious unpredictability of his characters in gangster films, you can trace a line directly back to Cagney. He too was a man of small stature but grand intimidation and an almost animalistic rage. In The Public Enemy, Cagney plays Tom Powers, a man we see rise through the ranks of Chicago’s underworld to become one of the power players. Cagney and actress Jean Harlow create an electric duo of lowlifes, and Cagney’s raw emotional energy is key for the film’s success. That and a certain scene where Harlow suffers a grapefruit in the face.

9) Donnie Brasco – All the glamour and the romanticism is stripped away in Mike Newell’s true account of Joseph Pistone, the Federal agent who infiltrated the New York mafia more intimately than anyone before or after him. The cast in place is solid from top to bottom, with Johnny Depp as Pistone/Donnie Brasco, Michael Madsen as the up and coming Sonny Black, and most importantly Al Pacino as Lefty Ruggerio. Lefty is Pistone’s in road to the mob, and this performance by Pacino is one of his most unique and nuanced. Rarely do we get to see Pacino in the gang world as a lovable loser, but here that is exactly the case. Lefty is low on the totem pole, overlooked and disrespected as a simple foot soldier. And the relationship between Pistone and Lefty is heartfelt and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

8) The Untouchables – Brian DePalma’s most successful film, The Untouchables, may focus more on the police work of Elliott Ness (Kevin Costner) and his posse of hard-nosed crime fighters, but the picture would not have the same impact without a powerful performance from Robert DeNiro as the infamous Al Capone. DeNiro disappears behind extra weight to embody the most famous gangster in America’s history. Even though he is on screen for brief moments, DeNiro exudes the proper amount of menace to make The Untouchables a solid cops and robbers crime drama. And the score from Enio Morricone is one of the best, most unforgettable of the last thirty years.

7) Once Upon a Time in America – This epic story of the rise of the American mafia is strangely overlooked for the most part. Perhaps it is the excessive running time and the obvious parallels to Coppola’s Godfather films. But Sergio Leone’s film is powerful in its own right. It tells the story of David Aaronson, Noodles, a Jewish gangster who returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood after 30 years. This complex narrative follows these Jewish gangsters through the prohibition era and documents their rise and fall with compelling dramatic prose. DeNiro, making his second but surely not his final appearance on this list, plays Noodles, and the reliable Joe Pesci plays Frankie Mandoli. This epic tale lends itself to the power of a sprawling narrative, and Leone is more than capable to pull of such a grandiose tale of success and failure in the American mob scene.

6) White Heat – Jimmy Cagney returns to the list, this time playing a pure psychopath who escapes from prison and leads a gang of lowlifes and hoods on a heist at a chemical plant. This of course sets up the scene we all remember from White Heat: Cagney, playing Cody Jarrett, is cornered in the chemical plant. Flames are soon to engulf him, and he shouts from the top of the plant “Madeit Ma! Top o’ the world!” This, one of the most famous lines in film history, emphasizes the tumultuous relationship and desire for attention Jarrett wanted from his mother. This underlying theme in the story adds much needed weight and pathos to the Cagney character, who would otherwise been seen simply as a madman without a soul.

5) Mean Streets – Guess who’s back? Robert DeNiro had been working for a few years as an actor before Martin Scorsese directed him in Mean Streets. But it was his dynamic role as Johnny Boy, the wiseass lowlife gangster in debt all over town, that catapulted him to the top. DeNiro is young and spry and ferocious, and a little bit stupid, as Johnny Boy, one of a wide array of small-time hoods in Mean Streets. Harvey Keitel is the defacto leader of the band of misfits, struggling with his own inner demons and the guilt of his life. Mean Streets is a gritty look at neighborhood gangsters, and although it may be rough around the edges it was an early indicator of the talent of Martin Scorsese. You can see the energy and the earnest storytelling creativity in each and every scene.

4) City of God – Many people may not consider this a gangster film, but I would argue this is as much a gangster film as any other on this list. City of God takes place in Rio de Janeiro, in a violent and poverty-stricken neighborhood run by a gang of drug dealers and murderers. The Tender Trio robs and steals from a neighborhood and teaches the youngsters of the town to do the same. The film then follows the lives of two brothers, one who becomes a photographer and the other a drug dealer. This familial strife is common in gangster films, with the crime element creating a rift between the brothers. City of God is a dynamite film, unforgettable from open to close. Directors Fernando Meirellas and Katia Lund have their finger on the pulse of this South American town and they show it with crafty camera work and some fiery storytelling.

3) The Godfather – I recently read an article where obvious comparisons were drawn between the life of the Kennedy’s, a family of privilege who made their way through illegal means in the early twentieth century, and the Corleone’s, a family consisting of three very diverse brothers who have made their way in the upper class of the American mafia in New York City. I mention this because, well, what else can you say about Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling American classic, a film steeped in Greek tragedy with a rise and fall documented over three films. This first one has a wild card too, in the form of Sonny Corleone played by James Caan. And of course Marlon Brando, creating the most iconic character in mafia film history.

2) The Godfather, Part II – This is only a handful of sequels that could arguably be considered superior to the original. Most of the time there is a significant decline between sequels, but with Coppola’s story continuation gaining even more steam, developing the familial strife even further, and telling two parallel narratives better than any other film before or since, The Godfather II transcends convention and becomes a film of its own. We truly see the darkness in Michael Corleone as he spirals further into a place of paranoia and hatred from which he can never recover. We also see the beginning of the Corleone family, and a young Vito’s (Robert DeNiro in his first Oscar-winning role) rise to power in Little Italy. The way these stories develop seamlessly, and the way they serve as polarizing stories of the same family is the biggest strength of a legendary picture.

1) Goodfellas – Not only is Goodfellas the finest, most well-tuned gangster picture of all time. It is one of the best of all films. Here is a seamless, unforgettable portrayal of the New York mafia, the inner workings of the lowest and the highest, and a story of ambition gone horribly awry by the end. Martin Scorsese’s true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and his rise through the ranks of the gangsters who controlled the city is a film which never takes its foot off the gas. Through subtle camera techniques, perfect soundtrack decisions, and fiery performances from Liotta, Joe Pesci (who would win the Oscar), and, of course, Robert DeNiro, Scorsese paints a picture that is unforgettable in every way imaginable. As it goes with a rise, there must also be a fall, and the final act of Goodfellas cements its power as Henry falls into drug addiction and petty crime to get through. Goodfellas is undoubtedly a masterpiece of modern American filmmaking.

Monday, April 18, 2011

THE DEFENSE CALLS: Days of Thunder (1990)

I was surprised to find the tomatometer at 40% for Days of Thunder, the big budget racing film from the team of Tony Scott, Simpson and Bruckheimer, and Tom Cruise, the brain trust who changed the game in 1985 with Top Gun. Not that I expected glowing reviews, but at least a bit more of a positive spin on the absurdist Nascar fable. Alas, this was a film that was not well received by the majority of critics, although the star power of Tom Cruise in 1990 was enough to carry it through a successful box-office run. “Unsatisfying” and “predictable” were common terms in the reviews of the time. And while I am not here to say Days of Thunder was shorted at Awards season that year, I would like to defend it as a quality genre exercise and a film that achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve. Consider the evidence:

EXHIBIT A – The Cruise Star in 1990: There was a time, believe it or not, when Tom Cruise wasn’t seen as a crazy, diluted scientologist and an all-around buffoon. In 1990, Cruise was the established, marketable, big-budget superstar. And there was a definite reason for that. Cruise had the grin, the looks, and the charisma to play Cole Trickle, a cocky but somewhat unsure and emotionally stunted race-car driver this picture needed. He was in the midst of a diverse career which included an Oscar nomination for Born on the Fourth of July, starring in the 1988 Best Picture winner Rain Man, and becoming a megastar in Top Gun five years earlier. The guy could do no wrong, and his magnetism was pitch perfect for a Tony Scott summer action film.

EXHIBIT B – Robert Duvall and Co.: As perfect as Tom Cruise was playing Cole Trickle, Days of Thunder needed a father figure for Cole’s rebellious nature. Enter Robert Duvall, the perfect blend of country witticisms and screen presence to balance out the young fervor of Cruise. Duvall’s career has been decidedly up and down, but the fatherly charm and easygoing weight of Harry, the pit boss who takes Cole under his wing, is key to the success of the picture’s central relationship. And aside from Duvall’s gravitas, the supporting cast is quite solid for a vehicle considered a Cruise film. A young John C. Reilly can be seen in Cole’s pit crew, the great character actor Michael Rooker plays Cole’s adversary, Carey Elwes the villain, and of course Nicole Kidman as Cole’s love interest. Randy Quaid, Fred Thompson, the ensemble of Days of Thunder keeps the hokey nature of the film away from becoming satirical.

EXHIBIT C: A Dedication to the Preposterous: Now I am not a fan of Nascar. But I would guess with quite a bit of certainty that these races do not have as much contact and collisions as they do in Days of Thunder. The drivers in the picture engage in some sort of high-stakes bumper cars at 200 plus piles per hour. Everything on these tracks is raised up to eleven and the drama is intensified. It is highly unrealistic and almost absurd in the amount of contact these cars make going at these high speeds. But do you allow the boxing in most boxing films distract you? Does the countless amounts of body blows and head shots landed in a single round in a film like Rocky take you out of the action because there has never been a bout as intense in the real world? I doubt it.

Had Days of Thunder been an accurate portrayal of a Nascar race, where cars loop around in a circle for three hours, I may have checked out before the end of the first act. Instead, the audience is treated to one hyper-stylized action set piece after another. This is not a documentary; this is a summer action film where the action is allowed to be increased to preposterous levels. Looking back on it now, and the grittiness of the film and the use of real cars and stunt drivers, I would welcome a film as raw as Days of Thunder in this world of summer CGI.

* Say what you will about the Bruckheimer we all know now, or about this current version of Tom Cruise in all of his craziness, but back in 1990 there was a place for a film like Days of Thunder. It is a slick peiece of action filmmaking that is not perfect. Had it been perfect, it would have been fairly boring in my opinion. There is a place in this world for absurd sports movies. Just ask Rocky IV.

Friday, April 15, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Lumet Trivia and Quick Hits...

* Sidney Lumet’s daughter, Jenny Lumet, has appeared in three of Lumet’s pictures including Q&A. She also wrote the screenplay for the 2008 Anne Hathaway film, Rachel Getting Married.

* Lumet’s highest grossing film was The Verdict in 1982, with a box office take of $53.9 million.

* Lumet directed a combined 17 acting Oscar nominations. The 5 for Network is still a record.

* Remember that Francis Ford Coppola directed Jack… Lumet directed The Wiz. Nobody’s perfect.

* Al Pacino talking about Sidney Lumet, from EW.com: “Sidney Lumet will be remembered for his films. He leaves a great legacy, but more than that, to the people close to him, he will remain the most civilized of humans and the kindest man I have ever known. This is a great loss.”

* As big of a disaster as The Wiz turned out to be, Lumet shows some glimpses as to why it easily became that way in "Making Movies."

* Attica.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Sidney Lumet was 82 years old when he directed his final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in 2007. Three years after receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars. Typically, as directors age, their material ages along with them. They find a place of comfort and shoot what they know, what they’re familiar with. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a film directed by a man who still had very much left to say as a director; here is a picture made by a filmmaker with a youthful mind. It is a film which stands out from the rest of Lumet’s because of its kinetic energy and pacing. But what may be most impressive about this movie is its uncanny ability to toe the line between what melodrama should be and what it too often becomes. This is a thriller set in the world of a devastating family drama, spun in a web of deception and lies that sink its teeth in relentlessly from the opening frame.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, a payroll manager for a large Manhattan firm. He is married to Gina, played by Marisa Tomei, stunningly beautiful here even more so than usual. He is successful, moderately wealthy, and from a distance appears to have his work and home life together. But that is all a mirage; Andy has an expensive heroin problem and is desperately in need of cash because he’s been skimming from work and auditors have come calling. His brother is Hank, played by Ethan Hawke. The two could not look less alike; that is the idea. Hank is a bit of a loser, in debt to his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) for child support and urgently wishing he could support his daughter and her class trip to see The Lion King. Hank isn’t as bright as Andy at a surface level, and he is – according to Andy anyway – favored by their father (Albert Finney). Hank is also sleeping with Gina.

The only thing these brothers seem to share (other than Gina) is a need for fast cash that is overwhelming everything else in their life. Andy has a plan, a fool proof plan that anyone who has ever watched a film of this kind knows isn’t fool proof. Andy will orchestrate the robbery of a jewelry store, one that is fully insured and free of any foreseeable threats. This is not just a random jewelry store, however, but I won’t get into details here. Hank will be responsible for pulling off the heist and the two will split the money. Of course, things go horribly wrong, as wrong as they could possibly go, and people end up dead. Andy and Hank are overcome with guilt and frustration, but they still need money. This predicament drives the rest of the story, but more than the mechanics of a simple thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead dives headfirst into the implications of guilt and deception until the weight of these things unravel to the point of no return.

Before the Devil holds serve in the tradition of Greek tragedy, albeit on a smaller scale. Everything works. The performances from Hoffman and Hawke are of course the most pivotal of the film. Both men are pure dynamite. And the interaction between these two suggests a family history of resentment that we become privy to through subtle moments throughout. Finney, one of the more overlooked actors of his generation, is crucial later in the film as he begins to investigate the robbery homicide on his own. He shares a scene near the middle of the picture with Andy where things are said that cannot be unsaid. This is a devastating moment, and the power of one backhanded slap carries enough with it to tell us everything we need to know about the relationship of the men in this family. And Tomei is a stunner. She may be seen casually as an object that spends the majority of her screen time topless (and, honestly, what is wrong with that in the end?), but Tomei is a fulcrum between Andy and Hank, bouncing between these two broken men like a ping pong ball until her façade cracks.

As I mentioned earlier, the energy in the filmmaking of Before the Devil is something unfamiliar in Lumet’s work of the seventies and early eighties. Lumet traditionally allows his stories to unfold almost organically, but here he wisely opts for a more fragmented style. He follows a character to a certain point in the story, then pauses, doubles back, and picks up from the beginning with a new character and a new perspective. These storylines aren’t told in a different way, but shown through a different pair of eyes with different emotional impact. This allows Lumet to get everything he can out of the events, and heightens the melodramatic tone of the film.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a gripping thriller and even more of a thrilling family drama. It is Lumet’s most stylistic, distinguishable film from his filmography, along with Network. Of course, Network is more celebrated and most would call it a better film. But I suppose that depends on who you’re talking to, because Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead isn’t far off.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best of Sidney Lumet

10) The Pawnbroker – This, one of Lumet’s earlier works, is one of his most overlooked films. It does not carry the weight or cinematic resonance of his more recognizeable classics, but The Pawnbroker is a compelling character study of a man being overwhelmed by his past experiences. Rod Steiger, plays Sol, a Jewish pawnbroker from World War II whose survival of the Holocaust has left him a bitter man who doesn’t trust many and loves even fewer. His business in Harlem is floundering and Steiger conveys the malaise of a lost man brilliantly. The mob becomes involved with Sol’s place later in the picture, and the choices Sol must make intensify. This is a younger Lumet working on his craft, and showing the promise of his later, larger New York films.

9) Murder on the Orient Express – This one is a bit more lighthearted than most of Lumet’s work, even though it involves a murder. It isn’t quite as lighthearted as something like The Wiz; then again you won’t find that Lumet misstep on this list. Murder on the Orient Express is an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, so some hullabaloo is to be expected in the structure. It also has an astoundingly large cast, including Albert Finney as Inspector Poirot, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Ingrid Bergman, and Jacqueline Bisset all as suspects in the murder. The craftiness of Lumet’s camerawork is a marvel in and of itself, especially given the fact this expansive cast interacts within the confines of train cars the entire time.

8) Prince of the City – Sidney Lumet was able to make Treat Williams a star in Prince of the City, one of his handful of gritty New York crime dramas. Lumet’s crime films all centered around loyalty, guilt, and what is the right thing to do when push comes to shove. In Prince of the City, Williams plays a cop forced by the Feds to expose the corruption of the force. The film, based on a true story much like Serpico, developed a cult following and has flown under the radar of Lumet’s portfolio. The gritty realism (an overused term, albeit one which fits here) of Prince is its most compelling visual aspect. And it shows Lumet’s dedication to substance over style.

7) Q&A – This is a tough picture to find at times. I went searching on Amazon and wound up on page 3 of my search before the DVD appeared. Consider this a companion piece to Prince of the City, only this time around our central focus might just be the criminal in the force and not the good guy. The corrupt cop in question is Nick Nolte, wearing an intense walrus moustache and coming under investigation for a shooting he manufactured to look like self defense. Timothy Hutton plays the internal affairs officer assigned to his case. Q&A delves deeper into the racial and ethnic lines set forth in this country, and more starkly in a place like New York City. This is a compelling and criminally under seen addition to Lumet’s filmography.

6) The Verdict – Lumet was always known for getting the absolute best from his stars, for being an actor’s director, allowing creative space and liberties. To say that he directed Paul Newman’s finest acting performance in The Verdict speaks volumes to Lumet’s abilities. Newman plays Frank Galvin, a name synonymous with film lawyers. Galvin is a washed up drunk and an ambulance chaser that gets one final shot at trying a real case in a real courtroom. As Galvin takes on the case, we watch Newman transform in front of our eyes. And Lumet allows the transformation to happen in the most organic way. Perhaps the onslaught of courtroom dramas that have watered down the impact of The Verdict, but none of them have Newman’s performance to stand on.

5) Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – This might be a bit controversial, placing this film so high, but I see not one problem ranking it above the others you see here. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a melodramatic Greek tragedy of the highest order, a tale of familial strife and intense mental and emotional unraveling unlike many films of this ilk. To discuss any specificities of the plot would be to cheat anyone who has yet to see the film. It is a tale of two brothers, played by Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose constant poor decision making gets them into increasingly dire straits. The structure and the energy and the way this film hooks you from start to finish is the work of a young man, although Lumet was 82 when he directed the film. And we must not forget to acknowledge the pivotal performance of Marisa Tomei, whose beauty is simply stunning here.

4) Serpico – This is the penultimate crime drama about the New York Police Department, about greed and corruption, about doing the right thing, and about a man who looked past his enemies to do what he felt he needed be done. Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico, the real life policeman who never took a bribe and paid for his honor in more ways than one. Serpico became the pariah of the force, a man with no friends and nobody on his side. Because everyone else was on the take. The pure resolve of Serpico is just as compelling as his transformative policing techniques, shedding the clean cut image that was the standard at the time to become a man of the streets and an excellent detective. This is Lumet, oonce again, allowing the naturalistic tone of the story play out on the screen.

3) 12 Angry Men – Is 12 Angry Men really a courtroom drama? There are no courtrooms. There is only one room, where a jury of middle-aged white men is left to decide the fate of a teenager accused of murdering his father. The facts seem simple and the case appears open and shut. Except Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) wants to take another look. This stirs the debate and allows the expansive cast of memorable character actors to shape their characteristics over the course of a film that never leaves the room where tension rises and the heat discomforts. Lumet discusses, in “Making Movies,” the way he manipulated the camera to narrow the lens as the debate grows more intense and tempers flair. The result is a compelling character study with an interesting framing device that never becomes gimmicky. The camera works subtly, and effectively, and the acting is marvelous from jurors 1 to 12.

2) Network – Maybe if you had to label one of Lumet’s films as his most “flashy,” then Network would hold that distinction. But Lumet still does not allow anything to get in the way of terrific acting and storytelling. This bombastic, bold, and epic examination into the nature of media and media consumption was nominated for five acting Oscars, still a record. Of course there is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a man whose nervous breakdown transforms him into the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.” But Beale’s character really supports the other characters, including Faye Dunaway as a fiery and career-obsessed producer, and William Holden as a world-weary newsman. Something amazing about Network is the way it still speaks to our place as a society, despite the fact it is twenty-five years old.

1) Dog Day Afternoon – As I said yesterday, of all Lumet’s pictures, Dog Day Afternoon was the film which caught my attention and shaped the way I considered films and filmmaking. What a brave film this is for its time, where the protagonist, a bank robber played to perfection by Al Pacino, is an incompetent homosexual robbing a bank to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation. There are powerful moments aplenty in Dog Day Afternoon, but where the film thrives is in its ability to be ordinary. This is not the Ocean’s crew knocking off a casino, nor is it Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon playing the cop. These are everyday people trying to get through a crazy day that has become a sideshow. Al Pacino, in his best role as an actor, is not Al Pacino here despite the fact he has a few moments of grandstanding in front of a crowd of crazed onlookers who love his rebellion. No, where Dog Day Afternoon lives is in its quiet moments, and Lumet knew this. And created a masterpiece.