Carlito’s Way – Brian De Palma week

Please accept my apologies for not updating over the past few days but we were part of the East Coast Blizzard. While 8-12 inches of snow won’t seem like much to Northerners, the Carolinas certainly aren’t prepared for it. There wasn’t any drama but my wife and I were trapped in house for three and a half days.

This is Brian De Palma week. Carlito’s Way is currently available on instant Netflix.

Carlito's Way

WATCH: Carlito’s Way (1993) – Rated R for strong violence, drug content, sexuality and language.

“Sprung from prison on a technicality, Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) vows to use his unexpected second chance to his best advantage. But every time he tries to get out of the rackets, the bad guys pull him back in. Director Brian De Palma stamps his signature electric visual style onto this searing drama about the challenges of trying to go straight in a crooked world. Sean Penn, Viggo Mortensen and John Leguizamo co-star.”

“A favor gonna kill you faster than a bullet”

Brian De Palma starts this film off wonderfully. The opening sequence is shot in black & white except for a color poster offering an Escape to Paradise, the treasure chest at the end of the rainbow throughout this film. The nightclub featured in the film is El Paraiso. There are many other touches of paradise being just out of reach for everyone.

De Palma is a wonderfully visual director. Watch all the wonderful touches as a simple drug deal early in the film starts to fall apart – a door is slightly ajar, some people’s reactions are just slightly off, the music on the jukebox is turned up a little louder. The suspense is palpable – most other directors would have played it as a sudden act of violence but De Palma lets you watch it unravel.

Al Pacino gives a wonderful performance here as Carlito Brigante. He manages to be almost as magnetic as he was in Scarface and yet is also restrained – something that Tony Montana could never be accused of. He also does a voice-over through much of the film that works quite well as a narrative trick.

Most of the other actors are a little over the top, especially Sean Penn, but it works for this film as De Palma draws in broad strokes. John Leguizamo is his usual flamboyant self. The usually solid Luis Guzman is the big surprise here. He wisely underplays to everyone and comes out in the end as the best of the supporting actors. If all you know of Viggo Mortensen is that he played Aragorn, you’ll be in for a shock when you see him in this film.

This is a very stylish gangster film. As with most modern gangster films, there is quite a bit of language. The F bomb is dropped 139 times according to IMDB. Violence is strong but not actually pervasive. I highly recommend this film as long as language does not offend you.

People Watch: Marc Antony aka Mr. Jennifer Lopez has a role in the Latin Band. Also Adrain Pasdar (Nathan Petrelli on Heroes) has a small role late in the film as Frankie.

Cruising – Al Pacino week

This is Al Pacino week. Cruising is currently available on Netflix instant play.

Cruising

AVOID: Cruising (1980) – Rated R

“After a serial killer brutally murders several gay men in New York’s S&M and leather districts, cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) goes undercover on the streets, where he must learn the complex rules of the underground gay subculture if he’s to catch the psycho. Karen Allen co-stars as Burns’s girlfriend in this gritty 1980 thriller, which sparked protests from gay rights groups at the time of its release but has since developed a minor cult status.”

“Hips or lips?”

Wow! The minor cult status mentioned at the end of the Netflix description must be the sort that is accorded Showgirls. The film begins with a caveat that it is not representative of homosexuality in general (Duh!). The notice detracts somewhat from the campy vibe this movie gives out.

It is hard to believe that William Friedkin wrote and directed this film. He won a Best Director Oscar for The French Connection in 1972 and was nominated again for The Exorcist in 1974. He specializes in and has an affinity for gritty material. That would seem to make this right up his alley.

It appears as though he wanted to direct an exploitation movie. Sadly it doesn’t revel in the exploitative portions of this topic – at least that could have been entertaining. Either William Friedkin showed a lot of restraint or the film was heavily trimmed to get its ‘R’ rating. The police portions of the movie are given short shrift as well. This has to be the most boring undercover movie ever.

There is no life in any of the performances. All the actors including Al Pacino appear to be on Ritalin. Even the victims as they are being killed seem somewhat bored. For a film that should have been about lust and passion, there sure isn’t any shown on the screen. Al Pacino’s undercover cop starts having problems at home and both parties react with ‘meh’.

Unfortunately I can’t recommend this even on a campy level. Once I realized that it was going to be awful, my hope was that it would be so awful that it was fun to watch. Sadly this was not the case.

Pacino’s movies are strangely polarizing. So far they seem to be either classics or total garbage. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s movie is one of the former.

People Watch: Look for Powers Boothe as, not kidding, ‘Hankie Salesman’. His very brief role is probably the highlight of the movie.

…And Justice for All – Al Pacino week

This is Al Pacino week. …And Justice for All is currently available on instant Netflix.

And Justice for All

WATCH: …And Justice for All (1979) – Rated R

“America’s justice system comes under indictment in director Norman Jewison’s trenchant film starring Al Pacino as upstanding attorney Arthur Kirkland. A hard-line — and tainted — judge (John Forsythe) stands accused of rape, and Kirkland (Al Pacino) has to defend him. Kirkland has a history with the judge, who jailed one of the lawyer’s clients on a technicality. When the judge confesses his guilt, Kirkland faces an ethical and legal quandary.”

“I have a client in jail for a busted tail light and I can’t get him out.”

The above quote sums up much of the movie. Norman Jewison made this stinging indictment of the legal system in 1979 but it plays pretty fresh today. It is much like a Catch-22 for the courts. There are a number of travesties of justice across several cases before Pacino’s oft-quoted Network-style rant.

While it is somewhat heavy-handed, the miscarriages are quite believable. I’m glad the story was about how the legal system is a game instead of how it is slanted liberal or conservative. There are innocent people here who are punished as well as guilty ones that are not punished.

Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson’s script was nominated for Best Screenplay. It’s gratifying and disconcerting how they are able to keep a somewhat light tone even with all the dreadful things occurring in this film. I mentioned Catch-22 and Network earlier but the film this most reminds me of is George C. Scott’s The Hospital.

Al Pacino is wonderful again in this and was nominated for an Oscar. I’m glad to have a chance to go back and look at some of his early roles this week. His most recent work is simply awful (88 Minutes and Righteous Kill). His histrionics in his early work (Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice for All) comes off as intensity. Later (the aforementioned 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill) it comes off as self-caricature.

There are some scenes that if replaced would have made this a much stronger film (the helicopter sequence, any part of the unconvincing and unnecessary romance). The themes are nice but there are so many individual cases that none of them are given enough depth to make this a drama. I think this and a need to balance out the bleak outcomes is why they went with a more lighthearted tone.

I recommend this film though yesterday’s Dog Day Afternoon is better.

People Watch: Look for a young ‘Coach’, Craig T. Nelson, as Frank Bowers and Method acting coach Lee Strasberg as Kirkland’s grandfather.

Dog Day Afternoon – Al Pacino week

This is Al Pacino week. Dog Day Afternoon is currently available on instant Netflix.

Dog Day Afternoon

WATCH: Dog Day Afternoon (1975) – Rated R

“To get money for his gay lover’s sex-change operation, Sonny (Al Pacino) — who’s married with kids — teams up with Sal (John Cazale) to rob a New York bank on a scorching-hot summer day. The stickup goes awry when the press gets wind of the circus sideshow-esque story. Chris Sarandon, Charles Durning and James Broderick co-star in this classic Sidney Lumet-directed film based on an actual event from the 1970s.”

As with all Sidney Lumet films, this is more of a character study than an action or crime film. As mentioned at the opening of the film, this is based on an actual event that occurred on August 22, 1972. The plot follows the incident fairly closely with the major exception that the real bank haul was $213,000.

Lumet does a fantastic job of staging the movie in a naturalistic fashion. He eschews the use of a musical score. There is almost no makeup apart from omnipresent sweat. You can see lots of people eating in the background as the siege drags on. There are no flashy camera tricks, stunts or special effects and extremely little gunfire.

The acting is wonderful – Lumet really knows how to get performances from his actors. Al Pacino is incredible and was nominated for Best Actor. While the vast majority of screen time belongs to Pacino, three of the supporting actors give riveting performances. Chris Sarandon does not smirk at all during the film (a later trademark of his) and gives his best ever performance. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. John Cazale is just as good and deserved a nomination as well. Charles Durning is great but his character arc doesn’t have enough meat to be as good as Sarandon and Cazale.

In a terrible moment of irony, Sal (John Cazale) mentions that the one thing he is afraid of is cancer. John Cazale died three years later of bone cancer at the age of 42. He only made 5 films in his career – most notably assaying the role of Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. All 5 films that he starred in were nominated for Best Picture Oscars. At the time of his death, he was engaged to be married to the divine Meryl Streep.

I very highly recommend this film. The first few minutes, you’ll be thinking “what a bunch of idiots” and not think much of the film. As the situation degenerates, the film quickly ratchets up in intensity. This is definitely one of Al Pacino’s best performances even if Michael Corleone and Tony Montana are more iconic.

People Watch: Look for a young Lance Henriksen briefly as Murphy.

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.