Donnie Brasco – Al Pacino week

This week is Al Pacino week. Netflix has Donnie Brasco currently available for instant play.

Donnie Brasco

WATCH: Donnie Brasco (1997) – Netflix version shows as unrated. The theatrical version was rated R for strong graphic violence, pervasive strong language, and for brief nudity and sexuality.

“When FBI agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) goes undercover and becomes “Donnie Brasco” to infiltrate the Mob, he dangerously starts to identify more and more strongly with the made men he’s charged with taking down. Mike Newell directs this fact-based drama that explores the relationship between the hunter and the hunted — the mobster (Al Pacino) who grooms Brasco as his protégé. Anne Heche and Bruno Kirby co-star.”

“You get sent for, you go in alive, you come out dead and it’s your best friend that does it.”

Donnie Brasco is based on based on real life undercover operative Joe Pistone’s book “Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia”. The movie provides an intriguing look at mid-level mafia operations. While the operations seem very mid-level, Florida boss Santo Trafficante Jr. is mentioned several times and they show the Carmine Galante execution in a newspaper.

In an early role, Johnny Depp is marvelous as Donnie Brasco. He wisely underplays things when he is opposite Al Pacino as his mentor in crime ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero. Al Pacino turns in a really nice performance as a mafioso passed over for promotion – he is great at mixing menace, disappointment and loneliness.

The rest of the cast is good as well. Michael Madsen was made for mobster roles – here he plays the boss of the crew, Sonny Black. James Russo and Bruno Kirby put in expected performances as mobsters. Anne (I’m straight! I’m gay! Just kidding I’m straight!) Heche does a very nice job playing Depp’s long-suffering wife.

Direction is good without being flashy. The details are wonderful but, being a true story, the narrative is bit limited in scope. This is a very enjoyable slice of undercover mafia.

People Watch: Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson have small roles as FBI technicians.

88 Minutes – Al Pacino week

This week is Al Pacino week. 88 minutes is currently available on instant Netflix and it couldn’t be worse than yesterday’s Righteous Kill – or could it?

88 Minutes

AVOID: 88 Minutes (2007) – Rated R for disturbing violent content, brief nudity and language.

“Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) — a college professor and occasional forensic psychologist for the FBI — finds himself in a race against time when he receives a mysterious phone call telling him he has exactly 88 minutes left to live. Can he track down his would-be killer before the clock runs out? Amy Brenneman, Leelee Sobieski, Deborah Unger and William Forsythe co-star in this real-time thriller from director Jon Avnet.”

“Quack quack, Dr. Gramm” (Yes the scriptwriter actually wrote that)

Let’s get this travesty of a movie started right. They show us that Dr. Gramm’s (Al Pacino) ‘girlfriend’ is very flexible and much, much younger. She is played by Leah Cairns, age 33 and Al Pacino is 67. This is another example of pandering to male wish fulfillment (see yesterday’s post). I do have to note that he tells Kim (Alicia Witt) that he is too old for her and Alicia Witt is 32.

I hardly know where to begin. This movie doesn’t make any sense on any level. The killer is after Dr. Gramm because of his damaging testimony in Jon Forster’s capital murder case. The killer isn’t targeting the police who caught Forster, the victim who survived, the jury that found Forster guilty, Forster’s attorney who failed or the judge that sentenced him to death.

They make Jon Forster unbelievably erudite. He gets nationwide press conferences while on death row. The press also gives credence to the supposition that he is not guilty. He is practically a celebrity as is Dr. Gramm. When is the last time you heard about a forensic psychiatrist being the subject of headlines?

Director Jon Avnet lets Al Pacino chew the scenery here even more than he does in Righteous Kill. They also introduce about a billion suspects for us to wade through. The plot necessitates a very intimate understanding of Gramm’s life and secrets as well as other omniscient details. This film is just dreadful on all accounts.

People Watch: Look for Neal McDonough as convicted killer Jon Forster.

Righteous Kill – Al Pacino week

This is the end of Robert De Niro week. As next week is Al Pacino week, a good segue would be The Godfather: Part II. Unfortunately that film is not available on instant Netflix but Righteous Kill is currently available on instant Netflix and it’s probably just as good since it has both of them in it.

Righteous Kill

AVOID: Righteous Kill (2008) – Rated R for violence, pervasive language, some sexuality, and brief drug use.

“Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Al Pacino drive this taut thriller as New York City detectives tasked with investigating a rash of vigilante killings that are linked to an old case, suggesting they might have put an innocent man behind bars. John Leguizamo, Carla Gugino, Brian Dennehy, Donnie Wahlberg and rapper-turned-actor 50 Cent also star in director Jon Avnet’s crime drama, penned by Russel Gerwitz (Inside Man).”

“You sort of get numb to it.”

Ah if only one could get numb to this. Just because you have two Oscar-winning actors starring in your movie doesn’t automatically make it good. Even a fine supporting cast can’t save this film.

Al Pacino plays a character nicknamed Rooster. This is appropriate as he struts all over the movie. He also crows many of his lines. It really appears as though the director just told him, “go for it!” instead of actually directing. The other actors just seem to walk through their performances.

The script is dreadful. It thinks it is witty and urbane and admittedly there are a few good lines in it. Overall the script doesn’t appear to have been written as a whole. It appears to have been written as a series of “ooh that’s a good line” moments, regardless of whether it makes sense for any particular character to be delivering that particular line.

Although women don’t feature prominently in this film, the movie comes across as terribly misogynistic. This is not unusual for a cop story as it is one of the last bastions of the good ole boy network. Unfortunately here it is not an extension of the job.

The main female character, Karen (Carla Gugino), is Turk’s (Robert De Niro) girlfriend and a crime scene technician. Gugino was 37 and De Niro was 65. This is annoyingly standard for Hollywood. Yes it is a common male fantasy for older men to want a much younger woman and of course it does occur. The problem is that Hollywood portrays the old enough to be your father or even grandfather relationship as the norm.

*SPOILER*

Karen makes fun of Turk because the most violent he gets in bed is pulling her hair. She also gets very turned on by a description of Turk beating someone up. She happily puts up with sexual harassment at work. Clearly she is ‘asking for it’ so you can imagine what happens to her late in the film.

There are only two other female characters in the movie (other than sexy dancers and a nude woman in bed). The first is a completely moronic drug-using attorney who also appear to be attracted to Turk in one scene (she appears to be younger than Karen). The second is an alcoholic who provided the alibi for her boyfriend while he killed and raped a 10-year old.

Obviously I can’t recommend this film. Seriously just AVOID this piece of cinematic garbage and place the blame squarely on director Jon Avnet.

People Watch: It really says something when the most restrained performance is given by John Leguizamo.

City by the Sea – Robert De Niro week

This week we are covering films starring Robert De Niro. Netflix has City by the Sea currently available on instant play.

City by the Sea

WATCH: City by the Sea (2002) – Rated R for language, dug use, and some violence.

“Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) is an NYPD police detective whose father was executed at Sing Sing Prison in the 1950s for kidnapping and murdering a child. Now, while investigating the murder of a surfer on Long Beach, Vincent discovers that his own son, Joey (James Franco), is the primary suspect. Even as he’s grappling with the shocking news, he also must deal with the media, which quickly swoops in on the case. Frances McDormand also stars.”

The brief description of the plot would make you think that this is a mystery or police procedural but it is really a character study. All the main characters are lonely, wounded and unwilling to accept responsibility. The plot is really just a framework to hang this on.

Robert De Niro is wonderful here as a detective suffering from and continuing to make bad choices. James Franco is quite good as his estranged drug addict son. Our requisite villain/plot device, Spyder, is played to gravelly menace by William Forsythe. One of my favorite actresses, Frances McDormand is vulnerable as De Niro’s girlfriend who finds that she really doesn’t know him very well.

At one point a character comments on some cash found on a corpse. They mention the small wad consists of mostly ones and fives with a few twenties. They also mention the wad must be three or four thousand dollars. This doesn’t make any sense. In fact if it is comprised of mostly ones and fives, the wad would be lucky to break three or four hundred dollars. It’s a silly goof but it’s annoying as the cash is an important plot point.

There is a little too much deus ex machina in the third act to bring about the dramatic conclusion but the first two-thirds are believable and heartfelt. In truth they could easily have jettisoned the Spyder portions and had more time for character study. Having written that, I still recommend this as worth a watch for De Niro’s and Franco’s performances.

On a side note, one of the best movies I’ve seen on the subject of family and addiction is Requiem for a Dream and is available on disc from Netflix.

People Watch: Look for Joss Whedon regular Eliza Dushku as Gina.

Once Upon a Time in America – Robert De Niro week

This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including Once Upon a Time in America.

Once Upon a Time in America

PASS: Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, language and some drug use.

“Director Sergio Leone’s sprawling crime epic follows a group of Jewish mobsters (including Robert De Niro, James Woods and Elizabeth McGovern) who rise in the ranks of organized crime in 1920s New York. Their story unfolds in flashbacks as ringleader Noodles (De Niro) returns to Brooklyn some 30 years later to reunite and reminisce with his cohorts. Nominated for two Golden Globes, this gritty drama was Leone’s last directorial effort.”

“What have you been doing all these years?” – “I’ve been going to bed early.”

This is not the masterpiece that one would hope from Sergio Leone’s last turn as director. It is not nearly as emotionally resonant as the first two Godfather films. The action is not as exciting as Leone stages in his westerns. An endless ringing telephone and a beginning scene in an opium den set a nice surreal feel to the film that is unfortunately not followed up on.

The movie is based on Harry Grey’s semi-autobiographical novel, “The Hoods”. The major plot twist is obvious when it occurs although the reveal doesn’t happen for hours after that. Max’s (James Woods) character arc makes absolutely no sense. There are also not one but two rape scenes in the film.

Once Upon a Time in America did terribly at the box office. This was due in large part to the producing company taking the nearly four hour epic and trimming it down to less than two and a half hours. The Ladd company jettisoned the boys growing up (an integral part of the story). They also rearranged the story chronologically. If you haven’t seen this movie then imagine if the producers had taken Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and arranged it chronologically.

Ennio Morricone’s score is wonderfully haunting though not as catchy as his The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme. The cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli appears to be excellent. I say appears to be because while it is beautiful, it is not in its proper aspect ratio on instant play.

I can’t really recommend this film in this format. The acting is fine with the exception of Elizabeth McGovern but nothing particularly special. The real reasons to recommend this film are the score and the cinematography but since the cinematography can’t be properly appreciated in pan-and-scan and this is such a hefty time investment, I have to rate this a pass.

People Watch: Debbie (Elizabeth McGovern) as a teen is played by Jennifer Connelly in her film debut.

Cop Land – Robert De Niro week

This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including Cop Land.

Cop Land

WATCH: Cop Land (1997) – Rated R for adult content, brief nudity, graphic language and violence.

“When a local patrolman is implicated in a controversial shooting in a small New Jersey town, put-upon sheriff Freddy Heflin teams up with Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) to investigate a connection between the mob and the NYPD officers who live in the town. Sylvester Stallone delivers an effective dramatic performance in this arresting crime thriller as Freddy. Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta also star.”

“Being right is not a bullet-proof vest Freddy!”

Sylvester Stallone was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Rocky. His role as a down-on-his-luck boxer who gets a shot at the big time was heartwarming. After decades of action stardom, his role here is as a poor schlub, Freddy Heflin, who couldn’t achieve his dream of being a big city cop because of an injury suffered during a heroic rescue.Freddy is now a small cop-town sheriff.

Stallone does a stellar job underplaying his role here. It looks like he put on quite a bit of belly weight for the role. Depression and disappointment have beaten him down but he’s still a good if a bit obtuse man. Next to Rocky, this is probably his best role.

Stallone gets stellar support from a good cast even though it is clearly his show. Ray Liotta plays twitchy very well here. Robert De Niro is authoritative but doesn’t have much to do here as an Internal Affairs investigator. The always wonderful Harvey Keitel is the calm boss trying to keep everything from unraveling. Robert Patrick has a big cheesy mustache and hot temper so you won’t remember that he was the T-1000 terminator.

This is not a great film – there are way too many coincidences. A character whose motto seems to be – “If in doubt, rub them out” would be unlikely to hold the position that he does in this movie. Freddy finally realizes that he can’t trust the cops he has consistently palled around with and then trusts other people because the script tells him to. The painfully obvious voice-over postscript seems like beating a dead horse.

On the other hand there is much to appreciate in the script. There is a tender yet revealing moment between Freddy and Liz (Annabella Sciorra) and then a second one later in the film. Freddy makes a wonderfully human confession about his heroic deed. The climax of the film handles Freddy’s injury quite well.

People Watch: Look for Edie Falco and a serious Janeane Garofalo here in small roles.

Ronin – Robert De Niro week

This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including Ronin.

Ronin

WATCH: Ronin (1998) – Rated R for strong violence and language.

“Director John Frankenheimer helmed this action thriller at full throttle. A briefcase with undisclosed contents — sought by Irish terrorists and the Russian mob — makes its way into criminals’ hands. An Irish liaison (Natascha McElhone) assembles a squad of mercenaries, or ronin, charged with the thorny task of recovering the case. But the team, led by an ex-CIA agent (Robert De Niro), mistrusts one another. Can they accomplish their mission?”

“You’re scared!” – “Of course I’m scared. You think I’m reluctant because I’m happy?”

Wow! I’d say that they don’t make action thrillers like this any more but the French still do (Taken is marvelous). Ronin is an exceptional thriller with REAL car chases. There are two very good car chases and one AMAZING car chase (Formula 1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier was one of the drivers) in this film. No green screen, only practical effects, no spastic jump cuts, no inappropriately sped-up photography – this movie is a real throwback.

Director John Frankenheimer crafts a marvelous movie here. He strikes a good balance between action, acting and exposition. He was responsible for a slew of classic 60s and 70s thrillers including The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday, The Train and Seven Days in May. It is sad to say that he directed only one more feature film after this one – the execrable Reindeer Games.

The cast is wonderful. Robert De Niro dynamically plays an incredibly competent freelance operative and you can’t help but take him seriously through the whole film. Jean Reno does a good job of underplaying here and complements De Niro well. Natascha McElhone plays a very strong female – thankfully not your standard damsel in distress. The rest of the ensemble cast (Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgard, and Skipp Sudduth) is excellent as are Michael Lonsdale and Jonathan Pryce in smaller roles.

Ronin is excellent and I highly recommend it if you enjoy an action thriller with some intelligence, good acting and character development.

People Watch: Yes that really is Olympic star Katarina Witt as Natacha.

The Fan – Robert De Niro week

This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including The Fan.

The Fan

PASS: The Fan (1996) – Rated R for strong language throughout and some violence.

“Directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State), The Fan follows obsessive knife salesman Gil Renard (Robert De Niro), who wants to turn things around for his favorite ballplayer, a slumping, high-priced star for the San Francisco Giants, Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes). De Niro befriends Snipes, but soon after, Snipes must struggle to keep the psychotic De Niro at bay.”

Thankfully Tony Scott tones down his normal directorial flourishes here – no bleached out color, no relentless jump cuts. Unfortunately he still loves his slightly off-kilter camera angles. He also pointlessly bathes an important sauna scene in red light. A pretty night shot of downtown buildings is severely overused.

Acting is good here. Wesley Snipes is quite good at playing the egomaniacal ball player. John Leguizamo is a lot of fun as the overactive Manny. Robert De Niro plays a obsessive baseball fan who gradually comes unravelled. Robert De Niro is excellent but the character seems like a simple aging/homage/ripoff of Travis (Taxi Driver) Bickle with a baseball twist. Ellen Barkin and Benicio Del Toro are good as well but aren’t really given anything to do.

The script is what ultimately sinks this film. It is clear that the writers have a love of baseball (though not Tony Scott as there are a huge number of baseball errors in the film). Wesley Snipes’ portion of the film is based on some old Babe Ruth chestnuts with some modern baseball commentary and Robert De Niro’s portion seems based on a combination of Taxi Driver and the more recent Falling Down (1993). Even though it is derivative the first two acts aren’t bad, just somewhat disjointed.

The third act is where it all falls apart and is utterly ludicrous – all suspension of disbelief is lost during a beach sequence (I try to avoid spoilers). Everything from that moment on will have you scratching your head and thinking, “what?!??”. Even if you try to accept what happens at the beach at face value, every scene after that gets even sillier.

Despite some really nice performances, I have to rate this one a Pass.

People Watch: Look for Jack Black who shows up briefly as a technician.

Taxi Driver – Robert De Niro week

Augh! Pardon the delay in posting this as we’ve been having a few internet issues over the weekend. This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including the Martin Scorsese classic Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver

WATCH: Taxi Driver (1976) – Rated R

“Martin Scorsese crafts a violently prophetic, gripping vision of urban decay and insanity in which mentally unstable Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) drives a cab through the sleaziest streets of pregentrified New York City and befriends a child hooker (Jodie Foster). The groundbreaking film earned four Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Best Score, and for De Niro and Foster’s haunting performances.”

Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.”

Martin Scorsese’s camerawork and composition here is not as polished as most of his later works. This actually works for the film as too much trickery would have detracted from the raw power of this descent into madness. There is still some great cinematography of 1970s New York and a nice interior building 360 early on in the film.

The performances are excellent. Robert De Niro carries the film and almost every scene in the movie is centered on him. Jodie Foster’s supporting performance as the 12-year-old prostitute, Iris is superb – particularly coming from a child actor. Both were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. Cybil Shepherd is wonderful as Betsy as is Albert Brooks in a non-comedic role as her friend Tom. Harvey Keitel was offered the Albert Brooks role but turned it down in favor of the much smaller role as Sport the pimp and he is superb.

Paul Schrader’s script is wonderful and logical up until the climax. He is excellent with scripts involving the seedy side of life (Hardcore, Rolling Thunder, Light Sleeper). Scorsese changed the roles of the pimp, the hotel manager, and the Mafioso to white people. This was a very wise decision because otherwise it would have seemed that Travis was simply a racist which would have blunted the whole thrust of the film. Reportedly Travis’ famous monologue in front of the mirror was ad-libbed by De Niro.

This was brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann’s last score. It is mostly composed of soft jazz with some sad soulful saxophone mixed in. With the exception of some of the post-denouement music which is a bit too jarring, his score here is excellent (as befits an Oscar nomination). Bernard Herrmann’s first job as composer was on Citizen Kane for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He is perhaps best known for his Harryhausen and Hitchcock films. Taxi Driver was dedicated to him.

This film is an absolute classic. You can view it as a harrowing descent into madness or simply as a treatise on loneliness. If you haven’t seen it yet and want to see an actor’s showcase then by all means I highly recommend this film. As for the very odd ending – remember that the story is told from Travis Bickle’s point-of-view and that the events following the denouement may have a rather different explanation.

People Watch: Martin Scorsese has a brief  but pivotal role as a psychotic passenger. Scorsese’s parents portray Iris’ parents in a photograph.

Dark Forces – Ozploitation week

This week’s focus is films from down under. Dark Forces (aka Harlequin) is currently available on instant Netflix.

Dark Forces

PASS: Dark Forces (1980) – Rated PG

“Nick and Sandra Rast (David Hemmings and Carmen Duncan) will do anything to help their seriously ill son in this fantasy thriller. So, when faith healer Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell) arrives and starts treating the boy with his impressive powers, Sandra fully embraces him and his techniques. But complications soon arise: Nick’s Senate career may be in jeopardy because his powerful mentor, Doc Wheelan (Broderick Crawford), can’t abide Wolfe.”

The film begins with the accidental drowning/disappearance of an Australian deputy governor. This is a reference to the real life disappearance of Australia’s 17th Prime Minister, Harold Holt in 1967. After only 22 months in office, Prime Minister Holt went swimming near Portsea, Victoria and is assumed to have drowned in the rough surf.

If you haven’t picked up on it from the brief description, this is a creative retelling of the Rasputin legend. Nick, Sandra, and their sickly child Alex Rast stand in for Tsar Nicholas, Alexandria, and their hemophiliac son, Alexei. Faith healer and magician Gregory Wolfe is our Grigori Rasputin figure. Historically, Alexandria often referred to Rasputin as “our friend” and Sandra refers to Gregory as “our Gregory”. There are plenty of other Rasputin parallels as well.

The plot and ideas are fascinating. The acting is generally good though Broderick Crawford doesn’t seem to do much more than show up. Robert Powell is a bit overly flamboyant but it does seem to be what the director is going for. David Hemmings and Carmen Duncan are fine as the Rasts. Outside of the main characters the acting takes a turn for the worse though not dreadfully so.

Unfortunately the movie never seems to gel properly. The movie is more interested in showing Wolfe’s hocus-pocus than the political machinations. Many things are mentioned that should be shown and vice versa. In spite of the promise shown in the film’s plot, I have to rate this a pass.

People Watch: Mel Gibson, hot off his roles as Mad Max and Tim, auditioned unsuccessfully for the part of Gregory Wolfe.