Saturday, October 31, 2009

1996: Lone Star (John Sayles)

Released: June 21, 1996 (United States)

Director: John Sayles; Screenplay: John Sayles; Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh; Studio: Columbia TriStar; Producers: R. Paul Miller and Maggie Renzi

Cast: Chris Cooper (Sheriff Sam Deeds), Matthew McConaughey (Buddy Deeds), Kris Kristofferson (Sheriff Charlie Wade), Elizabeth Pena (Pilar Cruz), Stephen Mendillo (Sgt. Cliff), Joe Morton (Colonel Delmore Payne), Ron Canada (Otis Payne), Jesse Borrego (Danny), Tony Plana (Ray), Frances McDormand (Bunny), Oni Faida Lampley (Celie), Eleese Lester (Molly), Clifton James (Mayor Hollis Pogue), Tony Frank (Fenton), Miriam Colon (Mercedes Cruz)

In the border town of Frontera, Texas, a pair of off-duty soldiers scavenging on an Army firing range stumble upon an interesting discovery. While the three items discovered might at first seem unrelated – a skull, a sheriff’s badge and a Masonic ring – they become the genesis of an investigation by Sheriff Sam Deeds into the most well-kept secret of his hometown. It is a secret that not only affects him personally, but also the reputation of his legendary lawman father, and the very fabric of the city of Frontera.

What transpires from this simple jumping off point is a sprawling, mysterious tale that demonstrated to me that John Sayles at his best is among the finest writer-directors working. Just watching the story unfold, understanding how effortlessly Sayles is able to take the audience exactly where he wants them to go, it is a movie that at the very least is impressive in its execution. I know some folks that have been turned off by the messages they perceived are being thrust upon them, but from the standpoint of moviemaking and good old fashioned storytelling, Lone Star is riveting stuff.

Sayles has a reputation for writing screenplays infused with large doses of social commentary. This is a trait that, in my opinion, can be disastrous for most films, as they invariably come off as preaching and moralizing to the audience – like the writer has a hammer and is intent on pounding a message into the head of everyone watching. One need only look at a movie like 2004’s Crash to know exactly what I am talking about. Fortunately, Sayles is talented enough not to fall into this trap. Does he want to get certain messages explicitly across to the audience? Perhaps, but he never insults them in the process. Instead he crafts tales that allow the viewer to be drawn into a story, be shown whatever it is that Sayles wants to display as a director, and make sense of it individually.

He does this in Lone Star quite cleverly, using the investigation of a decades-old disappearance turned homicide investigation to take the audience on a trip through the social life and politics of a Texas border town. And we see a lot. On the surface this is an idyllic southern hamlet, with small town values and an easygoing atmosphere. But there is tension at every turn, with relations between all the segments of the population. The blacks remain relegated to the outskirts of the town, while the large Mexican population fights for the right to have their own history taught to the children in the public schools. The long-reigning whites, meanwhile, come across as clinging onto the good ol’ boys system that they have benefited from for years. Thrust into the center of all this is Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), a man who appears to get along with each of these segments, yet never feels truly at ease in any of single one.

Sam and his struggle to live in the shadow of his legendary sheriff father Buddy Deeds is at the center of everything. Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) is a hero and his reputation remains a towering presence in the city of Frontera. Those in the town are shocked to see his son take the position of Sheriff of Rio County, as it leads to his continually being compared to his father. While this would not be uncommon in most situations, in this case it is bizarre because it was well known to all that Sam and his father did not get along. In Sam’s teen years, when Buddy refused to allow him to see his childhood sweetheart Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), the father-son relationship was destroyed. In investigation of the evidence found on the firing range, Sam begins to unravel a mystery that deals not only with an unsolved murder but also reveals why his father responded the way that he did to the relationship with Pilar.

The murder mystery centers around the disappearance of longtime sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), the man who held the job before Buddy Deeds took over. It turns out that the skull and badge found on the range are those of Wade, a man who had disappeared decades before and was thought to have run off with civic money. Now realizing that the sheriff was actually murdered, Sam decides to fully investigate the circumstances. Longtime residents of the town and friends of his father warn Sam not to become involved, but he is determined to discover the truth. What he soon begins to uncover shocks him. Buddy Deeds served as a deputy to Wade in the 1950s, when Wade ruled like a king in shaking down local businessmen and dispensing justice as he personally saw fit. What this meant was that Wade took care of his friends and treated the non-whites of Frontera horribly. But when Buddy stood up to Charlie one night in a saloon, and the rivalry between the two was coming to a head, Charlie then simply disappeared. Since money disappeared with him, it was assumed that he was on the run. What Sam begins to discover is that his father may actually have been involved in the disappearance.

It might seem like I am giving a short shrift to the social aspects of the film, but to me these are just window dressing. These subplots are important, particularly the relationship between Sam and Pilar. Also compelling is the tale of black roadhouse saloon owner Otis Payne (Ron Canada) and how he tries to reconnect with the son he never knew (Joe Morton). I am sure that these were important additions by Sayles, and their inclusion gives the entire film the sprawling feel of a well-developed and nuanced novel. But the thing that makes Lone Star so enthralling for me is watching Sam dig deeper into the psyche and actions of a father that he never felt a connection with. The closer he gets to understanding him, he begins to see that he might have been at least partially right – his father could be a cruel, vindictive man. But at the same time, he can see a more complicated person and one that was actually looking out for his son as he thought best.

While much of my praise toward Sayles concerns his screenplay, it is also evident that he is confident in the director’s chair as well. The camera work and use of flashbacks is as good as you’ll ever see. In fact, “flashback” might actually be too harsh of a term to describe how he moves between time periods. It sounds like harsh jumps from one setting to another, but in this case they flow together. The jumps are smooth and subtle, yet obvious enough to make it apparent that the narrative has moved to a different time period. As Sam interviews people in his investigation of the Charlie Wade murder, Sayles shows the events unfolding as the old acquaintances recount the events to Sam. So in one instance Sam could be talking to Big Otis in the bar and as Otis relates a story to him, the camera will simply pan to a different area of the bar and in the process take us back forty years to watch the story unfold. Although the story is literally set in the 1990s, these flashback scenes to the 1950s are probably the most impressive in the film. Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey serve as perfect foils and the scene in which they have their final showdown is intense. Chris Cooper also shines in his role – but then again, when does Chris Cooper not shine? He is another person who has what I call the “Robert Duvall quality” of being able to excel in any role in any type of film.

This is another selection that is not completely without fault. For detractors of the film, the main complaint is that the screenplay could have been trimmed and that the movie could have been a good deal shorter. I disagree with significantly cutting the running time and don’t think that it ever drags. But as great as I think the Sayles screenplay is, there are certain small edits that could have been made to pick things up even more. In particular, I am thinking of the inclusion of Sam’s ex-wife (Frances McDormand), a football-crazed middle-aged woman with mental problems. It is a minor issue, as she is not on-screen for very long, but it still felt very awkward. Also, at times, I think that some of the racial issues are somewhat played up or stereotypical, such as some of the comments from Pilar’s mother toward newly arriving Mexican immigrants.

Still, minor quibbles when it comes down to it. When this movie is going full-bore and focusing on the whodunit aspect of the story, it’s an absolute master class of filmmaking. John Sayles has made a number of excellent films, Matewan being another that stands out to me, but I easily place Lone Star at the top of his list of credits. The success of the film is a simple formula if you think about – write a great script, find great actors, and get a little creative in how you tell the story. But we all know it’s not that simple, which makes Sayles’ accomplishment all the more impressive when we see him do it with such ease.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1996:
I now realize that I actually haven’t seen as many films from 1996 as others years in this decade. Of what I have seen, not many really challenged Lone Star, but other favorites would be: Fargo (Coen Brothers), Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh), Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe), and Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

1995: Heat (Michael Mann)

Released: December 15, 1995

Director: Michael Mann; Screenplay: Michael Mann; Cinematography: Dante Spinotti; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producers: Michael Mann and Art Linson

Cast: Al Pacino (Lt. Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Jon Voight (Nate), Tom Sizemore (Tom Cheritto), Danny Trejo (Trejo), Diane Venora (Justine Hanna), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Ashley Judd (Charlene Shiherlis), Mykelti Williamson (Sgt. Drucker), Wes Studi (Det. Casals), Ted Levine (Det. Bosko), Dennis Hasybert (Donald Breedan), William Fitchtner (Roger Van Zant), Natalie Portman (Lauren Gustafson), Tom Noonan (Kelso), Kevin Gage (Waingro), Hank Azaria (Alan Marciano), Henry Rollins (Hugh Benny), Tone Loc (Richard Torena)

- “You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we've been face to face, if I'm there and I gotta put you away, I won't like it. But I tell you, if it's between you and some poor bastard whose wife you're gonna turn into a widow… brother, you are going down.”

When the publicity machine was in full bore for the release of last year’s Righteous Kill, I was puzzled. Every commercial for it would play up the hype of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally working together, as if it was some revolutionary proposition. I could never figure out how the novelty of the duo could be expected to work so well when they had already gone “toe to toe” on-screen in Michael Mann’s Heat, and done so with spectacular results. The difference in the two efforts is like night and day. Righteous Kill saw the two icons recycling the same roles they had been picking up for over a decade, depending on their reputations to try and carry a subpar screenplay and film. Heat, on the other hand, shows two legends with the ability to take terrific writing and elevate it to another level.

There is sure to be debate on whether Heat qualifies as a crime masterpiece or just another run of the mill cops and robbers drama. Judging where I stand on the question is obvious considering that I have chosen it as the top film of 1995. That being said, I don’t deny that there are moments in Michael Mann’s otherwise solid screenplay that trade on tried and true clichés of the genre. But when the movie is good, it’s damn good, and the cast involved – not just Pacino and De Niro, but also Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd – give outstanding performances throughout.

Michael Mann had been battling for some time just to get Heat made. He used the general storyline of a cop and a professional thief meeting and declaring that they intended to the play the game out in their own way as the centerpiece of a screenplay he penned in the early 1980s. After not initially garnering much in the way of interest for a major motion picture, he instead reworked and shortened the script in order to use it for the 1989 TV movie entitled L.A. Takedown. Focusing only on the central story of the cat and mouse game between the cop and the thief, the story is like a barebones version of what he would eventually direct in 1995. Because of time constraints – the entire period allowed for pre-production and shooting was about a month – L.A. Takedown is half the length of Heat and includes none of the various subplots that are woven into the later film. After the success of 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, Mann decided to revisit the original screenplay he had authored in the early 80s, before he cut it down to fit the TV format. With a major budget and full shooting schedule, Mann was able to produce the film he had originally intended.

Pacino and De Niro are ideal choices as the two principals, playing a cop and a robber, both of whom are considered the best in their respective fields. De Niro is Neil McCauley, a world class thief who oversees a crew of crooks that make their living by pulling off major heists. These are not men who deal in petty cash and scores of swag. They deal in securities, jewelry, substantial sums of money. McCauley is fanatically committed to his work, leading a solitary life and living by this simple motto: “Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” His crew is also tight, with men like explosives expert and gunman Chris (Val Kilmer), wheelman Trejo (Danny Trejo) and loyal companion Tom Cheritto (Tom Sizemore). They work together, they hang together, they stick together. Things get complicated when they use an outsider on an armored truck heist. The man, Waingro (Kevin Gage), is a renegade who inexplicably begins gunning down workers on the truck rather than simply holding them at bay. When McCauley tries to take care of Waingro afterward, he manages to escape, leaving a major liability to the entire crew on the run.

Enter Pacino as Vincent Hanna, a lieutenant from the Robbery-Homicide Division of the LAPD. He is as fanatically devoted to his role as an officer as McCauley is to his line of work. Although not as solitary as McCauley, Hanna also leads a lonely existence as his work is his only true passion. After two failed marriages, he is giving it a go for a third time but his work habits create friction on the home front with his wife Justine (Diane Venora). Hanna takes over the case of the armored truck robbery, slowly inching his way closer to the previously unidentified group of thieves. As he begins uncovers information, a respect begins to develop between Hanna and McCauley. The surveillance and counter-surveillance performed by both cops and criminals becomes a game of each faction trying to one-up the other. When McCauley takes one final lucrative job, after which he plans to retire and run away with his new girlfriend Eady (Amy Brenneman), Hanna scrambles to make sure that his men are there to catch the crew in the act.

At three hours in length, there are a variety of supplementary characters and subplots. The relationship between Chris and his domineering wife Charlene (Ashley Judd) is always tumultuous due to Chris' gambling problem. Jon Voight and Tom Noonan play calculating professional underworld brokers. There are negotiations over stolen bonds between the McCauley crew and the original owner of the bonds, Roger Van Zant (William Fitchtner). A recently released ex-con (Dennis Haysbert) tries unsuccessfully to hold a steady job and lead a normal life, but is instead coaxed by McCauley into being the wheelman on the final job. There are many such ancillary plotlines, but the main focus of everything that happens is the back and forth between Hanna and McCauley, which in turn means a clash of the titans between the two most legendary actors of their era.

The diner scene, from which the quote at the beginning of this post comes, is a brilliantly intense event. Hanna invites McCauley to have a cop of coffee with him and the two sit down like old chums. They take innocent swipes at each other, pawing around the central issue of knowing that eventually the endgame of their entire relationship is likely to end in a shootout. The respect between the two professionals is obvious, but both have too much of an ego to allow the other to gain an upper hand. The speech between them is sharp, and both make it clear to the other that when push comes to shove, they will not hesitate to kill the other. Mann shot the scene by having one camera across the table from each actor and kept each camera on them the entire time. Pacino would reveal in later interviews that, as is usual with Michael Mann, they did countless number of takes, which is surprising considering how laid back and natural the entire scene feels. If this was the only moment in film history that the two ever appeared on screen together, I would be happy. It is like a perfect cap to their work together, which is all the more reason that I wish Righteous Kill had never been made - I just want to remember this as their final collaborative statement.

As has come to be expected of Mann, the movie contains some impeccable action sequences. Working with cinematographer Dante Spinotti – who, as a side note, has a surprisingly impressive list of films to his credit – there are quite a few scenes that are among the best you’ll find in crime films. The opening armored truck heist is great. So too is when Hanna and his cops believe that they are spying on a secret meeting of the crew, only to find out that McCauley is actually manipulating them out into the open so that he can get pictures of them for himself. And the shootout during the final robbery, with Val Kilmer calmly walking out of a Los Angeles bank with an automatic rifle and spotting the cops, is exhilarating.

I said earlier that the movie was not without its faults, so it’s only fair that I point out some of the minor things that have always bothered me. There are some crime caper clichés, such as the ex-con that is trying to go good but is forced back into crime by an overbearing boss. Things like that just seem too pat, but fortunately they are minor factors in the overall story. Likewise, the angle concerning McCauley and his new girlfriend Eady can come across as very forced. I understand why the inclusion of such a relationship is necessary – the idea of being able to walk away from anything as soon as you feel the heat is central to the entire story. It’s just that there are times when the dynamic between the two just doesn’t feel very believable. And in all honesty, even I am sometimes annoyed at the antics of Pacino as Hanna. Perhaps that is what the character calls for, but it can be a bit too much.

In the end, considering my tastes, perhaps this is a movie that was simply tailor-made for someone like me. I’ll definitely be interested to see how others rate it. At its finest moments, I think it’s as good as anything done in crime movies in quite some time. And while it might not quite be my favorite Michael Mann film (that honor actually belongs to The Last of the Mohicans), it is quite easily my #1 of 1995.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1995:
This is another year that for me has a lot of very good films, but lacks the great films that are found throughout so many other years of the 1990s. All of my nearlies are ones I really enjoy, but none that I would likely consider the best of any year. The closest of the bunch is probably Jim Jarmusch’s unique western Dead Man. It’s an always fascinating take on the genre and a movie that keeps you thinking long after it ends. I also really like Martin Scorsese’s Casino, but don’t think it’s near the level of Scorsese’s true gangster masterpiece Goodfellas. Oliver Stone’s Nixon doesn’t approach the same power as JFK, but it’s still an interesting mix of politics and mystery. Others that I like: Se7en (David Fincher), Braveheart (Mel Gibson), Le Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol), and Apollo 13 (Ron Howard).

One movie that I am surprisingly not a big fan of, but that most would expect me to like, is Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. It has never really worked for me.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

1994: Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)

Released: May 1994 (Cannes Film Festival)

Quentin Tarantino; Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary; Cinematography: Andrzej Sekula; Studio: Miramax Films; Producer: Lawrence Bender

Cast: John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winfield), Tim Roth (Ringo), Amanda Plummer (Yolanda), Eric Stoltz (Lance), Bruce Willis (Butch Coolidge), Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Phil LaMarr (Marvin), Maria de Medeiros (Fabienne), Rosanna Arquette (Jody), Peter Greene (Zed), Duane Whitaker (Maynard), Paul Calderon (Paul), Frank Whaley (Brett), Burr Steers (Roger), Bronagh Gallagher (Trudi), Steve Buscemi (Buddy Holly), Christopher Walken (Captain Koons), Julia Sweeney (Raquel), Quentin Tarantino (Jimmie Dimmick), Harvey Keitel (The Wolf)

Realizing just how predictable and cliché a pick this is for 1994, I honestly made sure that I did due diligence and searched high and low for a film that could supplant it from the top spot. I got around to watching excellent movies from the likes of Kieslowski, Mikhalkov, and Yimou that I had not seen until getting them in specifically for the countdown. I revisited movies from Stone, Darabont, and Jackson that I always recognized as being outstanding films. I did my absolute best to see if I could avoid being as predictable as everyone following the countdown felt I would be… and I couldn’t. No matter what I watched, there was no getting around the fact that Pulp Fiction remains the best movie of 1994 that I have seen.

Although I was young when Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene, I actually saw my Tarantino films in order. Having an older brother who adored Reservoir Dogs, I saw it while in middle school and was instantly a fan. But my love of that film sprung more from being intrigued by well made crime capers, not so much the writing and style of Tarantino. I just thought it played like a good thriller and left it at that. When I came to Pulp Fiction shortly after seeing Reservoir Dogs, I now realize that I was not in the least bit prepared for what I was about to watch. I was far from the film fanatic that I would become. I was completely confused and remember thinking, “what the hell is going on?” I don’t even know if I finished it that first time. So I returned to friends and acquaintances that had told me that Pulp Fiction was vastly superior to Reservoir Dogs and promptly informed them that they were delusional.

Something obviously must have happened between that moment over a decade ago and now, when I am choosing Pulp Fiction as my favorite film of the year. What was it that so radically altered my view? Honestly, I don’t know that I can pinpoint a single factor. I just know that there came a time a few years ago when I watched Pulp Fiction and everything just clicked. I realized that trying to follow it as a coherent crime drama was unimportant. I completely resisted the urge to try and read any meaning into the proceedings and simply laughed and enjoyed what I was watching. And most importantly, I think that by that time I had begun to develop into a “serious” movie fan. I was into many of the directors that influenced Tarantino, knew where he was getting many of his ideas and inspirations, and could appreciate this stylish homage that he created in riffing on the films that he loved.

To attempt a full plot synopsis for a movie like this would be an exercise in futility. It’s told in non-linear fashion, with multiple plot lines weaved together and jumps both forward and backward in time at seemingly random moments. Completely guiding someone through the story in writing would probably be nothing but confusing. We simultaneously follow a duo of low-level gangsters, Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules, on a mission to recover a mysterious glowing suitcase; a fading boxer (Bruce Willis) who appears to be taking a dive in his final fight; a crime boss (Ving Rhames) gets double-crossed; the boss’s wife and her drug overdose, and many more. The situations that these characters are in are too much to believe can happen in such a short time span. But for me, the situations themselves are almost secondary. What carries the entire movie is the characters – they way they talk, how they interact with each other, how the audience seems to know so much about them even when not explicitly told every detail.

Evaluating Tarantino as a director isn’t something I usually engage in. He never gets in the way, so my focus is never on his work behind the camera. It’s his writing that I am always the most fascinated by and Tarantino deserves the credit for creating such memorable characters. This one is talky – the dialogue drives everything, but the speech is so fascinating that it’s the real appeal of the movie. The only way to describe the dialogue Tarantino writes is to look at it as an updated version of the hardboiled dialogue of noir masters like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It is cynical, biting, with one-liners and punch lines coming one on top of another. It is also raunchy, vulgar, and likely to insult every type of viewer at some point during the movie. But it’s Tarantino’s skill as a writer to make people feel comfortable in laughing at such offensive situations. Few people have the ability to make discussions of foot massages, being asked to take out the boss’s wife, the merits of pork products, or the cleaning of brain matter from the upholstery of a car seem so natural and important. It seems so normal for Jules and Vincent to be engrossed in a seemingly deep conversation over what they call the Big Mac in France. These feats are still impressive to me, after untold viewings. Akin to the flowing nature of the dialogue in Sweet Smell of Success, albeit in an R-rated version, this is one of those movies where you can simply close your eyes and listen to it. The speech is that entertaining.

The most important thing that Tarantino ensures is that his dialogue fleshes out the personalities of all of his characters. We learn more about characters based upon what is discussed by other characters than what we are actually shown firsthand. Early in the film, just through the interaction of Jules and Vincent, the viewer quickly becomes familiar with Marsellus. We learn about Mia and the perils involved with interacting with her. Is all of the information true or necessarily correct? No, but that’s part of the appeal. The title is Pulp Fiction after all. This means that the viewer is bombarded with rumors, innuendo, street-level myths and variety of other stories and must try to make sense of it all.

And while I have never been one that tries to read a lot of meaning into Pulp Fiction, because I think such analysis often goes overboard, I don’t think that it is a movie without a statement. To be completely honest, my main point in watching Pulp Fiction is always just to enjoy it, similar to how I expressed my love of a so-called “mindless” movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I don’t know how you can watch Pulp Fiction and deny that how significant the idea of redemption is. It’s the one theme that I know fits in interpreting the movie. Whether it is Jules and the self-proclaimed miracle that takes place at the apartment or Ringo and Yolanda after Jules decides to take pity on them and give them a new start. Or, even Butch who is trying to end his life as a fighter and wannabe knockaround guy. Heck, if you want to stretch it even further, how about the ruthless crime boss Marsellus acknowledging the favor that Butch does for him in saving him from Maynard and Zed? In the words of Jules himself, there are a number of characters going through a “transitional period” throughout the film.

I also have to acknowledge that the overriding factor in my high opinion of the movie rests squarely on the performances of Travolta and Jackson as Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield. The other storylines are fascinating and at times provide some truly hilarious moments, but it is the travails of the two longtime partners that is the most appealing to me. This remains the measuring stick for all other Samuel L. Jackson performances and rightfully so. He manages to take a caricature of a hitman and turn him into a character that can be identified with. Perhaps one can’t identify with the line of work, but it’s easy to relate to one man who decides to make a complete about-face in the way that he is living his life. He and Travolta are like the Odd Couple, guys who will start arguing at the slightest provocation, but will always have the other's back.

This is routinely cited as being the most influential film of the decade, and for better or worse I tend to agree. It has spawned far too many imitators, with writers who do not have nearly strong enough skills to carry a film with dialogue the way that Tarantino seems to be able to do with ease. Many have tried to create the same mix of one-liners, pop culture references, drug culture and violence that is contained here, but in nearly every case it simply comes across as the work of teenagers that never grew up. Perhaps that description does fit Tarantino personally, but his film remains a mature, vibrant piece of filmmaking. It’s obvious whenever I watch it that I am viewing the work of a man who truly enjoys what he is doing and has a passion for making films. And it’s hard not to at least respect that kind of passion.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1994: A number of solid films, but as I said, I found nothing that seriously threatened to knock Pulp Fiction from the top spot. There was a time when I would have easily cited Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, and while I still find it to be a great film, it has lost some of its appeal to me. I also think that both of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films of this year, White and Red, are quite good, although I do feel that Blue remains the best of the Three Colors trilogy. I recently saw Zhang Yimou’s To Live for the first time and think it is worth noting. This also goes for Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun, which approaches that bittersweet label of “devastating.” And for all of its faults, I have always enjoyed Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump.

One highly touted film from this year that I have never been a fan of is Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. I remain baffled by it and remain completely uninterested whenever I try to revisit it and see what I am missing.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

1993: The Remains of the Day (James Ivory)

Released: November 5, 1993

James Ivory: Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala based on the novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro; Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts; Studio: Columbia Pictures; Producer: Ismail Merchant; Music: Richard Robbins

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Mr. Stevens), Emma Thompson (Miss Kenton), James Fox (Lord Darlington), Christopher Reeve (Congressman Trent Lewis), Peter Vaughan (Mr. Stevens, Sr.), Hugh Grant (Cardinal), Ben Chaplin (Charlie), Lena Headey (Lizzie)

And we come to another wonderful instance where the countdown forces me to finally watch movies that I have been meaning to get to for some time but for whatever reason still had not seen. In fact, there were some key films that I had to “catch up” on in order to make a selection for 1993 that had any validity. Primarily there were two titles that had been recommended to me repeatedly and that are routinely cited as being among the best of this year. And after finally having the opportunity to see Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue and James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, I realized that my initial impression of 1993 being an automatic slam dunk for Schindler’s List was completely off-base.

Blue is an incredibly well-made drama and I am fascinated by how it manages to make such a basic story play like a thriller. But it was The Remains of the Day that made the greatest impression on me. Truth be told, I think that this is the only Merchant-Ivory film that I have ever seen. I know very little about them aside from this movie. I do know that there were a few mentions of the previous year’s Howard’s End in this very countdown – Sam even selected it as his #1 film of 1992 – but I have to admit to being unfamiliar with it. So seeing this one before I made a selection was a must… and it destroyed any expectations I had going into it.

Of course, if emotional impact in the main criteria for making a selection, it still is near impossible to supplant Schindler’s List. For all of the flack that Spielberg receives from some circles for being too manipulative, the sentiment created by its touching story is real and undeniable. But it is a different kind of emotion than what is experienced in Ivory’s film. Whereas Schindler’s List plays out on the grand scale of World War II and the Holocaust, The Remains of the Day operates at a very basic level and focuses on the interactions of a few select people. The film does not ignore the historical context of the story, but the central drama comes from relationships at the most personal level.

This is one of the qualities that stuck out most. There are two storylines that manage to be both independent of each other and intertwined. I know that statement probably makes no sense, but what I mean is that each of the two plots is able to stand on its own, but there is no denying that they need to be understood in the context of what else is going on at Darlington Hall. The primary focus is on Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the longtime head butler and loyal servant to Lord Darlington. Stevens’ entire life is devoted to the service, committing himself fully to seeing that the house and affairs of his master are kept in order. The majority of the story is actually told in flashbacks, taking place in 1958 as the aging Mr. Stevens looks back on the events taking place at Darlington in the 1930s. He reminisces primarily about the hiring of Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) and the unique relationship that developed between them over the course of their tenure together. It is an interesting pairing, with Stevens as the always-proper servant and Miss Kenton possessing a more cheerful manner. Even though Mr. Stevens seems to keep everyone at arm’s length, always keeping interaction very official, an attraction obviously begins to develop between the two. Nothing is ever said about it, and neither of them seem to ever openly acknowledge it to the other, but the chemistry between them is palpable. But when a former co-worker suddenly asks Miss Kenton to marry him and start a business together she decides to leave the service and begin a new life. Stevens lets her go, without voicing a word of protest – a decision that haunts him for years.

All of this is taking place again the backdrop of looming war in Europe. Hitler has come to power in Germany and as he begins to show aggression toward areas like Czechoslovakia and Poland, the British nobility are in a panic over what should be done. Lord Darlington (James Fox) increasingly begins to show pro-German tendencies, convinced that war can be averted and that the Nazis can be negotiated into peace. Meetings of powerful diplomats from around Europe are held on the estate at Darlington moves even closer to the delegates from Germany. The result of such an appeasement approach is known to anyone with knowledge of history and it results in the ruin of Lord Darlington.

As I said, what I love is how separate yet connected these two strands of the story are. The drama in the relationship of Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton would be intriguing without it, but realizing that it is taking place in such an historical context only adds to the tension of their interaction. It gives the movie appeal on a number of levels. The historical fiction aspect is obvious, as through the eyes of the servants of Darlington we see power politics being practiced in the high European style. At least to me, it’s fascinating to see the diplomats from around Europe coming together in regal style, practicing what the visiting American Congressman Trent Lewis (Christopher Reeve) calls “amateur politics.” And the romance aspect of the film is unparalleled. As amazing as it seems, even though there is not a single moment of sex in the entire movie, the underlying passion that exists between Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton is incredible. The two never so much as hug or kiss, or even actually tell each other how they feel, and yet it’s obvious as you watch that such a fondness exists.

That is what sticks with me the most from the entire film – the many moments throughout where Stevens and Kenton seem right on the verge of declaring their true feelings to the other, but neither can ever bring themselves to do it. There are times where it seems like it just _has_ to happen, that the façade of an only officially relationship cannot be maintained any longer. At times, I know that I just wanted to scream “Tell her!” at Mr. Stevens a number of times, particularly at the closing section of the film. I’m not sure that I have an answer as to exactly why neither ever openly says anything to the other. Is it Mr. Stevens’ inability to break away from the proper decorum that has dominated his life for years? Is Miss Kenton hesitant to bare herself to Mr. Stevens out of a fear that he would not return the sentiments? I honestly don’t know, but the result is – dare I say – devastating. There is something haunting about such obviously strong feelings going completely unspoken. By the poignant conclusion it is obvious that the other is able to figure out how the other feels, but it still seems like not enough was done on the part of either person.

Anthony Hopkins delivers one of his finest performances as Mr. Stevens. It is easy to assume that his role as Hannibal Lecter is the best work of his career. His performance here is equally as remarkable and shows the versatility Hopkins possesses. It is impressive to think that in three years he was able to shine in roles as radically different as the psychotic killer Lecter and the refined Mr. Stevens. The entire Merchant-Ivory system drives home the point that I need to make it a point to become familiar with more of their films. Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was a longtime collaborator and pens a screenplay that never wastes a moment. While I have not read Ishiguro’s novel, I have seen it referred to as a story that was thought to be “unfilmable.” In the director’s chair, Ivory shines, constructing an authentic atmosphere of the time. There are beautiful outdoor scenes of the countryside around the estate, and also a world of its own created in the workings of the help at Darlington. Also, the original score from Merchant-Ivory regular Richard Robbins is always fitting. Robbins was nominated for an Academy Award for his work, but was defeated by the equally-impressive John Williams score for Schindler’s List.

I know that a lot of people have already seen this and that I’m just late to the party on it, but I will just add another prod to those that haven’t. Anyone who has hesitated to watch based upon the description or from a lack of interest in “romance films” should cast any such doubts aside. This is a great movie and I am now determined to become more familiar with the catalog of Merchant-Ivory.

Rating: 9/10 (I’m tempted to go 10/10, but I stop just short)

Other Contenders for 1993: I’ve already mentioned the two closest contenders. I watched Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List again recently because it had been a while since I had last seen it. It’s still a powerful film and the one thing that struck me in this viewing was how stunning the black and white cinematography is. This is something that I was always aware of, but for whatever reason, in this case the photograph was what most caught my attention. Kieslowski’s Blue is the other close contender, but in all honestly I place The Remains of the Day and Schindler’s List on their own level. I also think that Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence is underrated.

My other favorites from this year are more personal and not likely ones that I would put forth in a countdown like this. These are movies that I find very entertaining: Tombstone (George Cosmatos) for the amazing performance by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Gettysburg (Ronald F. Maxwell), Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma), and True Romance (Tony Scott). I also have fond memories of being a kid waiting in extremely long lines to get into a matinee showing of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. This movie is the epitome of popcorn entertainment, but I’ll never be able to separate myself from those memories and still am a fan of the movie.

Friday, October 23, 2009

1992: Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)

Released: August 7, 1992

Director: Clint Eastwood; Screenplay: David Webb Peoples; Cinematography: Jack N. Green; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (Will Munny), Gene Hackman (Little Bill Daggett), Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan), Richard Harris (English Bob), Jaimz Woolvett (The Schofield Kid), Saul Rubinek (W.W. Beauchamp), Frances Fisher (Strawberry Alice), Anna Levine (Delilah Fitzgerald), David Mucci (Quick Mike), Rob Campbell (Davey Bunting), Anthony James (Skinny Dubois)

- “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it…”

Back at 1959 in this countdown when I selected Rio Bravo as my top choice, I said that great Howard Hawks film was one of the two finest westerns that I had ever seen. I resisted the urge to give away what I thought the other one might be, but it should be no mystery at this point. Clint Eastwood played key roles in a number of classic westerns, but I don’t think that he ever starred in or directed a greater movie than Unforgiven. It is an almost formulaic analysis of this 1992 Best Picture winner to declare it to be a deconstruction of the myths surrounding the western in general and the persona of Eastwood in particular. But I think it still holds true, making it a fascinating document for that reason alone. There are not many instances that I know of where a director or artist directly addresses the persona that has been created around him and then summarily dismantled it.

It is necessary to have an understanding of the arc of Clint Eastwood’s career, which due to his iconic status is something that everyone is at least reasonably familiar with. This is a man whose reputation was built on ultimate tough guy roles – The Man With No Name in the trilogy by Sergio Leone and as the definitive hardened cop Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry series. These are characters known for their bravado, for a shoot first ask questions later attitude, that live by the belief that there is never a problem that violence cannot solve. Both Blondie and Dirty Harry personify the image of a good guy who does not hesitate to use violence when they – and they alone – deem it necessary to accomplish something. Similar such conventions long reigned in the entire western genre. This is a world where there are clearly defined heroes and villains. The good guys operate in a world of fair fights and showdowns, never shirking from violence when it is necessary to take down the repulsive bad guys. The bad guys are obvious, with no question as to their evil motives or reprehensible actions.

Unforgiven upends such mythology by showing that never are (and never were) things as cut and dry as Hollywood has traditionally tried to make them.

Eastwood stars as William Munny, a former outlaw who fell in love with a woman who steered him toward the straight and narrow. Leaving his life as a gunslinger, Munny retires to his own land where he tries to make an honest living as a hog farmer. Tragedy strikes soon after they have two children as his wife dies from disease and Munny quickly discovers that he is not suited to be a farmer. He soldiers on, squeezing out a meager living, while trying to forget his past as the country’s most feared badman. This new persona is upset when a young man calling himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) rides to his farm and asks him for help on a bounty. In the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, there is a $1,000 reward for anyone that kills two men who cut up an innocent prostitute. Having had Munny’s reputation recited to him by an uncle, The Kid approaches William and proposes a fifty-fifty split of the reward for his help. Having been away from such ways for so long, Munny initially declines. But after realizing that the lives of his children are not going to improve as long as he remains a farmer, he ultimately decides to join The Kid. In the process, he enlists the help of his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), who also had been a retired farmer for a number of years.

What they are unaware of is what is waiting for them in Big Whiskey. The sheriff of the town, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), is the ultimate law and order officer. There is no gray area for him – the law is meant to be followed no matter what and his job is to ensure that such compliance is enforced. Little Bill quickly learns of the bounty that has been raised by a number of the town’s prostitutes and decides that he’ll have to take care of whatever cowboys and bounty hunters try to come and claim it. He has no intention of allowing such lawlessness to take place on his watch. Not realizing this to be the case, Will, Ned and the Schofield Kid casually ride into town and come into immediate conflict with Little Bill.

Traditional western conventions are not simply upended throughout the film, but are completely obliterated. As much as credit should go to Eastwood and his direction, much praise also has to be given to writer David Webb Peoples. He created a story in which precisely distinguishing the bad guys from the good can be quite complicated. Little Bill, our nominal villain, at the basest level is a sheriff who is extremely committed to see his job carried out properly. Eventually his methods certainly become questionable – and he lives up to the moniker of “villain” – but initially his intention is actually what one would want from an officer of the law. Because the viewer follows the story from the perspective of Will – meaning of course, following the iconic Eastwood – it becomes easy to side with Munny and his compatriots as those to root for. As the story progresses, though, it is gradually revealed that the history of the life of William Munny is nothing short of repugnant. He was a womanizer and alcoholic. He is routinely referred to as a “killer of women and children” and someone who never hesitated to shoot someone for the slightest offense – and do so from behind if necessary. For the majority of his life, Munny has been a horrible, horrible person.

What becomes so endearing about the William Munny character is his ability to recognize these facts. He knows that for most of his life he has been a desperado and seems to genuinely wish to put these terrible episodes behind him. This is what he was attempting to do in transforming himself into a farmer – he wanted to become a respectable human being. But it becomes impossible for him to escape his past. All the years of lawlessness, of robberies, of killings, cannot be buried no matter how far away he distances himself. The violence is inescapable.

And it is here that Eastwood completely dismantles the persona of the characters that made him famous. In those cases, the men rode into town and did what they needed to do, shot who they needed to shoot, killed who they needed to kill and then turned and rode into the sunset. Eastwood uses Will Munny to show that this is impossible. No one participates in violence like this and turns to ride away completely unscathed. Munny is the ultimate example of the fact that there is always a cost to such violence. When he is forced to revert to his old ways in order to finish his job and stand up to Little Bill, there is not the same triumphant feeling that is commonly found in the climaxes of John Ford or other classic westerns. Instead, there is an overriding sense of sadness. The sadness comes from realizing that in transforming himself back into the gunslinger of his past, Munny is giving up all the personal progress that he hoped for. The violence may serve him in this instance, but it cements the fact that his dream of being a peaceful father and farmer will never happen. His past is simply too much to overcome, the brutality and callousness that made him the most feared outlaw of his day is too much an integral part of who he is.

The interesting thing about the commentary on violence is the double-edge of such an analysis. This is because it’s impossible to deny the fact that Will’s use of violence ultimately gets what he set out for – he collects the reward and turns to ride home and also sees revenge carried out on Little Bill. So I don’t think that the message is intended to be that violence does not accomplish anything, as it clearly does. Or that violence should never, ever be utilized, because if ever there were circumstances where it would be understandable to lash out it would be after seeing your best friend tortured and killed and then hung in a storefront. What I take from it is this: that there is absolutely nothing romantic about the use of violence and if one does resort to it, be prepared to pay a heavy price in the process regardless of the result. I am always struck by how sad it is when the trio finally catches up with Davey (Rob Campbell) and gun him down, seeing the anguish of both Ned and Will.

I’ve spent little time on applauding individual performances or technical achievements and instead focused on themes and analysis, but I don’t know what I can say beyond what is routinely repeated about the performances. They are all-around exemplary. Gene Hackman deservedly took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Morgan Freeman is the consummate pro, proving once again that he has that Robert Duvall-like quality of being able to play any character in any type of film. Eastwood is outstanding as Will Munny, but probably deserves more recognition for his role as the director. The soundtrack from Lennie Niehaus is at times sparse, but perfectly fits the mood of the story. Typing this now I can picture the beautiful opening theme being played as Will, Ned and the Schofield Kid ride across the country. The amazing thing is that the movie manages to be greater even than these outstanding individual parts.

I also cannot end this without at least mentioning how incredible I think that the final shootout scene at the saloon is. I know of no other scene that is able to combine two such antithetical reactions. On one hand it plays on the traditional western idea of nothing being more cool – or dare I say badass – than someone walking into a gunfight horribly outnumbered and dropping everyone who opposes him. Even I fall for it every time, smirking whenever Eastwood delivers blunt lines like “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.” At the same time, the entire sequence breaks my heart as I realize what all of this means to Will Munny the man and am reminded of what he is losing. It’s a powerful scene however you look at it.

I love this movie… I don’t know what else I can say about it. Perhaps I’m gushing, but this is a movie that had an impact on me similar to Goodfellas. It’s one of those “signpost” films that have contributed significantly to who I am as a movie fan. This is the measuring stick I use to judge all contemporary westerns against and I’ve only seen one since Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – meaning between 1974 and the present – that has even come close to the level of Unforgiven. That’s how highly I think of it.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1992:
Another great year in the early 90s. There are a few films in 1992 that I would like to circle back to and write about after the countdown concludes. My favorite Michael Mann film is The Last of the Mohicans, another movie that has an exquisitely executed climax. While I don’t enjoy it as much as I did when I first saw it, I still think that Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs is entertaining throughout and is one of the most influential films of the decade. Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley) contains another amazing performance from Jack Lemmon and the best of the writing of David Mamet. I have always felt that Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is atmospheric and aside from a few casting missteps is very well done. John Woo made an outstanding if over the top action film in Hard Boiled. Robert Altman’s The Player is a funny, mysterious drama. And a personal favorite, while maybe not in the same artistic category as the other films mentioned, is My Cousin Vinny (Jonathan Lynn). It’s hilarious.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

1991: JFK (Oliver Stone)

Released: December 20, 1991

Director: Oliver Stone; Screenplay: Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar based on the books “On the Trail of the Assassins” by Jim Garrison and “Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy” by Jim Marrs; Cinematography: Robert Richardson; Studio: Regency Enterprises, Warner Bros; Producers: A. Kitman Ho and Oliver Stone

Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Ed Asner (Guy Bannister), Walter Matthau (Senator Russell B. Long), Donald Sutherland (Mr. X), Brian Doyle-Murray (Jack Ruby), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivon), Michael Rooker (Bill Brussard), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Gary Grubbs (Al Oser), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel)

- “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Let’s get something out of the way right up front: I feel fairly certain that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President John F. Kennedy. The multitude of conspiracy theories that try to attribute the assassination to various shady characters simply don’t hold up to scrutiny. A lot of conspiracy theorists assume that it is the job of others to prove that there was _not_ a conspiracy, raising relatively minor details to inflated importance simply because they cannot be explained with one-hundred percent certainty. Believe me, I’ve been sucked into the black hole that is JFK assassination research – it’s a never-ending cycle, where after long bouts of research and learning, you feel no more certain of the truth than when you knew absolutely nothing. At the end of the day, there is no infallible theory concerning the crazy events related to the assassination, whether pro or anti conspiracy. None of them are without holes or doubts. It’s just that the most solid theory I’ve yet to see is actually the most boring: that Lee Harvey Oswald likely was the lone nut he was originally thought to be.


As I said, there are still unanswered questions. Certain inconsistencies, or lack of proper investigation, in the official version of events that have never been satisfactorily answered. I don’t feel like these minor mysteries necessarily affect the final conclusion, but the enigmatic and secretive nature of the entire affair means that examining everything remains eternally interesting.

To be certain, many respected, educated folks genuinely believe that there was a conspiracy and that the Warren Commission was nothing but a whitewash. Olive Stone is one of them, feeling that the official inquiry was nothing but a government-endorsed myth. What Stone intended to do was to create what he called a “countermyth.” And this is why this masterpiece of a film is often misunderstood. People assume that what Stone offers in this film is his complete theory of what actually transpired and who initiated the conspiracy to murder the president. This is completely off-base. What Stone wanted to do – and what he reiterated many, many times – is to take all of the popular conspiracy theories, mix and match between them, and create a kind of collage of “what might have happened” or bring light to inconsistencies that he thinks need to be answered. Many people went into the movie expecting one completely cohesive theory and left feeling like they were just fed a load of bunk. In that sense, I suppose they were. But put into its proper context, the film works incredibly well. Rather than looking for one consistent theory, I think it’s necessary to view the tons of information and theories thrown at the audience as being used to create a genuine political mystery. It’s like an old-fashioned detective story, with all of the potential suspects and evidence laid out on the table. Most of the evidence isn’t even true, but it’s the process of wading through it to try and make some sense of it all that is the adventure.

To attempt a full plot synopsis would be impossible for a movie like this. The plot follows the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the only man to ever bring a case to trial in the assassination of the president. Garrison becomes completely obsessed with uncovering exactly what happened on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. Soon he is on the trail of what he believes to have been a massive right wing conspiracy centered in New Orleans. He believes that it was led by rabid anti-Castro Cubans and their American intelligence handlers, and that it was supported by the United States military. Garrison’s office begins in-depth investigations into the life of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) and come into contact with an incredible cast of characters: David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), a bizarre looking man who fancies himself a paramilitary leader; Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), a male prostitute who unwittingly meets many of the principals in Garrison’s conspiracy; Guy Banister (Ed Asner), a former FBI chief who is a staunch anti-communist; and countless numbers of Cuban refugees who want to kill Castro immediately. Eventually, Garrison brings charges against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a well-respected Louisiana businessman who is suspected of being a CIA operative.

If it sounds ridiculously convoluted and crazy, it is, and that’s precisely the point. Stone’s intention was to make everything complex, to recreate the vortex of events and political machinations that were taking place in the Cold War atmosphere of Kennedy’s presidency. The style of production is geared specifically toward this purpose and I think that Stone and others working behind the camera are the true stars of the film. It’s like an oxymoron to refer to a 3.5 hour plus screenplay as tight, but this screenplay from Stone and co-writer Zachary Sklar is quite the achievement. They throw ungodly amounts of information at the audience, but keep things moving at such a brisk pace that they never allow anyone to stop and dwell on minor or unimportant details. The points that they want to make are stressed and then the story is propelled forward once again. And their ability to create tension is incredible. The movie may be about politics, but it plays like a pure thriller.

Even more impressive is the editing. Put simply, it’s amazing. The ability to intersperse actual newsreel and documentary footage with scenes recreated by Stone with his cast is a marvel to watch. The transitions from one to the other are seamless. The editing is also done at a furious pace, with quick, sharp cuts from one scene to another and even from one time frame to another. Flashbacks are used extensively, particularly as Garrison and company approach potential witnesses and have them recount their experiences in the conspiracy. Joe Hushting and Pietro Scalia were deservedly awarded Academy Awards for their editing duties. The flashbacks are also done in the gorgeous black-and-white photography of cinematographer Robert Richardson. Everything taking place in the present is in color and Richardson creates very realistic shades of colors in this environment. But it is in the flashbacks that he shines. Richardson also won an Academy Award for his cinematography, which perfectly compliments the virtuoso performances of the editors. I really don’t know if my writing here even does justice to how impressive the editing is. It’s no coincidence that I rarely mention editing in my reviews, yet am completely gushing over it in this case. It’s that good and truly does make all the difference.

Famed film composer John Williams also contributes an incredibly varied soundtrack that is adjusted to fit the moods of the various segments of the story. The music moves from everything from the triumphant to the ominous, such as the military drum march that leads up to the assassination. This might not be Williams’ greatest work, but he too deserves recognition.

If the true stars of the movie are those behind the screen, there are still plenty of performances on the celluloid that elevate the film still further. Costner is solid, if not overly spectacular as the eccentric Garrison. Tommy Lee Jones as the conniving Clay Shaw is the consummate pro. Gary Oldman is truly great as Lee Harvey Oswald. Aside from actually bearing a physical resemblance to real-life Oswald, Oldman plays the man as the enigma that he remains to this day. It’s never possible to get a handle on his true intentions. And in continuing my praise of Joe Pesci at his best, his turn here as David Ferrie is incredible. He's actually not on-screen all that much, but those instances are short bouts of brilliance. It can’t be easy playing a gay ex-Catholic seminary student who suffers from alopecia, but Pesci makes it work. The man is on edge at all times, jumping around and talking a thousand words a minute. Pesci is able to play a role like this as naturally as the gangsters he does so well. In one scene in particular – when Ferrie is taken to a hotel by Garrison in order to protect him – Pesci delivers one of the three or four best performances in a single scene that I have ever witnessed. The tension is thick beyond belief when Ferrie is asked by Garrison who killed Kennedy and he responds with this sudden outburst: “Oh man, why don't you fuckin' stop it? Shit, this is too fuckin' big for you, you know that? Who did the president, who killed Kennedy... fuck man! It's a mystery! It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma! The fuckin' shooters don't even know! Don't you get it?” Sorry for the profanity, but I just had to include what is one of my favorite cinematic moments.

The other interesting thing regarding performances is the number of big-name actors who shine in what would otherwise be bit parts. John Candy as Dean Andrews is on-screen for less than 10 total minutes, but he is spectacular as the flashy New Orleans defense attorney. The same is true of Ed Asner’s Guy Bannister, Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin, Kevin Bacon as Willie O’Keefe. These supporting performances give the impression of each person taking the small amount of time that they are on screen and trying to one-up all of the others.

This is a divisive film and one that can split otherwise likeminded movie fans. Those likely to be offended by filmmakers taking liberties with facts and massaging events are likely to seriously be turned off by it. In the end, I’ll echo what Roger Ebert said in his assessment of this masterpiece: “Fact belongs in print, films are about emotion.” In JFK, Stone creates an emotional, stirring political thriller that fascinates me to this day after countless viewings. This is one the films that could, depending on when you ask me, be cited as my all-time favorite film. And yet, I still don’t believe most of the theories proposed by it. Strange, isn’t it?

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1991: Another outstanding year in film. It might have become cliché to cite Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs as a great film, but I’ve never shied away from popular sentiment. The performances by Jodie Foster and particularly Anthony Hopkins are too much to deny. It’s a wonderful thriller. Another close runner-up is Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, which is the story about a Jesuit missionary in New France who travels among the local Algonquin population. It’s a horrifyingly beautiful film. The Coen Brothers’s Barton Fink is one of my favorites in their entire body of work. It is quirky, funny, and at times very mysterious.

Some other films from this year that I quite like: Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou Zhang), Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton), Bugsy (Barry Levinson), Beauty and the Beast (Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale).

Monday, October 19, 2009

1990: Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)

Released: September 21, 1990

Director: Martin Scorsese; Screenplay: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi; Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Irwin Winkler

Cast: Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Robert De Niro (Jimmy Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), Chuck Low (Morrie Kessler), Frank DiLeo (Tuddy Cicero), Frank Sivero (Frank Carbone), Johnny Williams (Johnny Roastbeef), Mike Starr (Frenchy), Frank Vincent (Billy Batts), Jim Colella (Jim Colella), Samuel L. Jackson (Stacks Edwards), Frank Adonis (Anthony Stabile), Catherine Scorsese (Tommy DeVito’s Mother), Gina Mastrogiacomo (Janice Rossi), Julie Garfield (Mickey Conway), Debi Mazar (Sandy), Michael Imperioli (Spider), Christopher Serrone (Young Henry Hill)

- “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

A shocker, I’m sure, considering the name of this blog. There’s simply no getting around the impact that this film has had on me as a movie fan and it’s one of the rare instances where I am almost hesitant to even try and evaluate why. I don’t want to spoil anything by overanalyzing. I think it’s an undeniable masterpiece and serves as the perfect foil to the equally brilliant Godfather trilogy, giving a nice counterpoint to the romanticized view of organized crime that is often interpreted in Coppola’s films. If The Godfather is the romanticized view of organized crime, depicting regal mafia dons who rule as something akin to benevolent monarchs, then Goodfellas is the gritty rebuttal, portraying the actual crooks and soldiers who populate the underworld and the precariousness of their very existences.

This is not to say that I prefer one over the other – that’s an argument I can’t even reconcile in my own mind. But I do approach them differently and think that each gives a different picture of the same subject. Instead of seeing honorable, almost mythical men like Don Corleone, a man who deplores drug dealing and is portrayed as something of a conservative, in Goodfellas we are made to see what it is like for those just trying to survive in the underworld. We see the robberies, the beatings, the drug dealing, the completely senseless violence. And I suppose that the argument can be made that with the popularity of the film that it is somehow glorifying the violence, but I disagree. In the end, I think Scorsese makes it perfectly clear that this is not a glamorous lifestyle – things end well for no one.

The story is based on journalist Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, which is an account of the life of gangster turned informant Henry Hill. Hill, a half-Irish half-Sicilian growing up in Brooklyn, from a young age idolizes the Lucchese crime family gangsters that live and work across the street from his apartment. Seeing them coming and going as they please, doing whatever they like, Hill becomes determined to be one of them. This leads him to a job at the nearby cabstand run by Tuddy (Frank DiLeo), whose brother Paul (Paul Sorvino) is the neighborhood boss. Ignoring the pleas (and sometimes beatings) from his family trying to keep him away from the gangsters, the young Henry (Christopher Serrone) decides that this is the life he will lead. He no longer has any need for school, work, or other common adolescent pursuits. He just wants to learn how to make scores – as he says, a dollar here, a dollar there.

The story then progress as Henry (Ray Liotta) grows up, joining forces with lifelong compatriots Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). In Jimmy, Henry finds his mentor. A savvy criminal and a man who genuinely enjoys the crime and politics of the underworld. Since he is Irish, Conway can never be an officially made man. But he essentially functions with the same power as one, working for Paulie and overseeing the various schemes of Henry and Tommy. Tommy DeVito is the loose cannon of the crew, a sociopath who routinely flies into murderous rages. At the same time, he is a loyal friend and somebody who is capable of moments of hilarity. We see them pulling off all variety of heists – from simple stick-ups and truck hijackings to intricately devised airport thefts. And we also see the endless double-dealing and backstabbing that is routine in a world where your best friend could be your executioner. After stints in prison and movement into the world of drug trafficking, we see the lives of all the principals begin to unravel, leaving Henry to make a monumental choice: risk survival on the street or testify against his lifelong friends.

For a movie that is two and a half hours long, it moves at a breakneck pace, which was apparently Scorsese’s goal. He would later state that he wanted the movie to start like a gunshot and just pick up steam from there, ultimately reaching the point where things would be so out of control that they would have to unravel. Scorsese accomplishes precisely this and it is an example of how in control he was throughout the entire making of this film. Every time that I watch, it is glaringly obvious that you are witnessing a director who is confident to do whatever he wants on the screen. This is the film I turn to whenever I think of Scorsese’s technical virtuosity. There are sequences in this film that are just brilliant and show that Scorsese can match technical chops with anyone. The two famous tracking shots are sublime. The first is the introductions of all of Henry’s various compatriots in Paulie’s crew, with the camera gliding through a nightclub as Henry introduces each of them. Even more spectacular is the entrance of Henry and his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through the rear entrance of the Copacabana. It is virtuoso directing, and the performances play it perfectly – I’m always struck by Liotta bumping into a table in the process and always think that most directors would have edited out such a misstep. It’s left in here and it feels so natural. Or how about when the bodies of members of the Lufthansa heist crew begin turning up throughout the city. The camera moves so gracefully in revealing bodies in Cadillacs or hung in meat freezers, with the strains of the piano exit from the classic song “Layla” played in the background. Scorsese evidently had “Layla” played live on the set while shooting this sequence.

Most impressive of all for me is the chapter near the end of the film that is referred to as “Last Day as a Wiseguy.” By this point in the film, Henry’s life is spiraling completely out of control. He knows that he is in hot water with Jimmy and Paulie and is relying more and more on cocaine as his only steady income. In the process, both he and Karen have developed significant personal cocaine habits. On this day, Henry is trying to juggle various tasks – delivering silencers to Jimmy, meeting his cocaine connection, picking up his brother, organizing the next smuggling trip for a girl – and is stressed beyond his limit. Putting him even more on edge is the fact that he is certain that there is a helicopter following him everywhere he goes. Scorsese is able to visually portray this sense of paranoia and stress in the way that he films and cuts the footage. Teaming with longtime collaborator and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, they utilize quick jump cuts to show the frenetic pace at which Henry’s coked out mind is moving. It really does convey the fact that this man’s life is at the breaking point and that he could snap at any moment. Plus, the soundtrack to this entire sequence is just about perfect, jumping between styles and moods – Tripping Daisy’s “Jump Into the Fire,” “Monkey Man” by The Rolling Stones, “What Is Life” by George Harrison, Muddy Waters’ “Manish Boy.” It is wildly paced, as it should be.

The strong ensemble cast once again proves the fact that Scorsese has a knack for extracting top-notch performances from everyone in his films. I can’t think of any other performance in the career of Ray Liotta that stands out to me, but he shines as Henry Hill. In my mind, he’ll always be Henry. Robert De Niro certainly had better performances while working with Scorsese, but he plays Jimmy the Gent with the calculative and callous nature necessary for the character. Paul Sorvino as old-school boss Paulie Cicero is brooding and believable. Lorraine Bracco also deserves recognition for her portrayal of Karen Hill, Henry’s feisty wife who is eventually consumed by the gangster lifestyle as well. It is interesting to watch her progression from naïve housewife to basically a co-conspirator in her husband’s drug operations.

But the award winner of the bunch, and the tour de force of the film, is Joe Pesci. I said it a few weeks back in my review of Raging Bull, but I’ll go ahead and repeat myself. Seeing some of the more frivolous roles of his career – things like Jimmy Hollywood, Gone Fishin’, and The Super – makes it easy to lose sight of what an incredible actor Pesci can be. His role as Joey LaMotta is still probably his best, but his portrayal of Tommy DeVito is very close. He is the modern-day version of characters like Tom Powers or Cody Jarrett from the golden days of Hollywood. The man is a psychopath and his sudden, unexpected outbursts of violence truly are startling. Instances like his killing of the young kid Spider (Michael Imperioli) for failing to bring him a drink are jarring, even to someone jaded by killing in mafia movies. At the same time, Tommy is a character that can be incredibly funny. Everyone is familiar with the famed “I’m a clown?” routine between Tommy and Henry, but there are other moments that always make me laugh as well. Things like Tommy trying to convince Henry to go on a double date with him or his feigning worry when Henry predictably stands Karen up on the second date. Or after he shoots Spider and Henry declares that the kid is dead and Tommy matter-of-factly responds, “I’m a good shot, whattya want from me?” It’s horrible to laugh at something like this, but you can’t help but laugh at how normal all of this is to these men.

I could go on for days talking about my passion for this film and I love the fact that I could use this countdown as an excuse to revisit it yet again. I’ll just close by acknowledging the fact that this is the movie that made me realize that a film could be massively popular and entertaining while at the same time attaining the artistic level of “arthouse” films. Depending on the day you ask, there’s a good chance that I would name this my favorite film of all time, so it quite easily takes the top spot of 1990.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1990: This was actually an outstanding year of favorites for me. There are four films that I consider to line up nicely behind Scorsese’s masterpiece. The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing is another gangster film that has seen its stature grow over the years. At times over the top, and always maintaining the quirkiness that is synonymous with the Coens, it ranks among my favorites in their entire body of work. Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne) is one of the few movies that has ever truly scared me and it will play with your mind long after watching. While it had no business beating out Goodfellas for Best Picture, I actually do really like Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. It is a bit too politically correct, but it’s still enjoyable. And finally, probably the most controversial of my nearlies, is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. Is it anywhere near the same level as the first two? No, and Coppola's casting of his daughter was a horrible mistake. But there are certain moments that I really like in it and I think that it is much better than generally acknowledged.