Friday, December 28, 2012

FIlm #92: Leolo (1992)

Director: Jean-Claude Lauzon

Initial Release Country: Canada

Times Previously Seen: none

Rapid-Fire Summary

In a Montreal, Quebec slum, twelve-year old Leolo Lazone is steeped in misery. His family is impoverished, and all of his relatives suffer from some form of severe limitation. His brothers and sisters are all either mentally challenged or lapse into insanity on regular bases. His loving but completely uneducated parents obsess over their children’s bowel movements, and his grandfather not only tries to kill Leolo, but is also a sexual deviant.

While there is no true physical escape for Leolo from his warped environment, he is able to escape within his mind. Through a little bit of reading and a lot of his own writing, he concocts various tales about his own origins and the people around him. Envisioning himself as the son of an unknown Italian, he constantly dreams of being on the gorgeous Italian coast with his beautiful neighbor, Bianca. It is with similar imagination that he deals with the extremely strange behavior of his family and the ways that it affects him.

Leolo in two of his refuges - the bathroom and his writing. The noose around his neck can certainly be seen as a not-too subtle symbol of his life circumstance.

Eventually, the final straw is placed. After attempting to kill his perverted and unstable grandfather and bearing witness to one too many distorted sexual acts around him, Leolo finally snaps. He becomes catatonic and is placed in a mental institution, presumably for the rest of his days.

My Take on the Film

I’ll never watch this movie again.

Don’t take that completely the wrong way. Leolo is, indeed, unique and shows a wealth of skill on the part of writer/producer Jean-Claude Lauzon. In reading a brief summary like mine above, it will seem that the movie has little more than depravity and depression to offer a viewer. This is certainly not the case, but these dour themes are what I ultimately take away from the film.

For a good part of the movie, Leolo actually keeps just to the right side of the line between darkly humorous and simply dark. During the earliest scenes, depicting a very young Leolo being forced by his delusional parents to ingest laxatives and defecate on command, one is almost overwhelmed by how repulsive, desperate, and hopeless his situation is. Yet, once he begins to twist his surroundings into his own imaginative reality, some welcome levity is added. Seeing his pathetically dull older brother go from the classic “90 pound weakling” to a muscle-bound body builder is rather amusing. Also, his regular trips to the psychiatric ward to visit his other family members as they enter and exit various stages of psychosis provide some humorous moments.

One of the somewhat lighter moments in the film - Leolo (middle) about to be hurled into the sea by his brother (left) and an accomplice, so that he can retrieve fishing hooks to be resold.

Still, by the end of the film, there is nothing left at which to laugh. Once his siblings have all gone thoroughly insane and Leolo bears witness to a wretched act of bestiality by one of his peers, the little boy joins his brothers and sisters in their inescapable states of catatonia. For me, at this point, any of the lighter moments from earlier in the film had ceased to have much meaning. While Leolo’s fertile and active mind had given some entertaining and touching attempts at escape, they are all for naught in the end.

Another lesser problem I had with the film is that it is not exactly as original as one would believe, reading many of the critical reviews. One of the more notable scenes, in which the adolescent Leolo explores his sexuality with liver (no, that is not a typo – it is just the kind of thing that this film offers), is actually ripped off from Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint. More generally, the graphic nature of the sordid, impoverished sexuality is something that I have seen in other films such as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. And so, there was not even some sense of “bravura” novelty to be taken in.

I must say that the visuals are stunning in the film. The technical merits are laudable, and there is a wealth of clever framing and shooting. The contrasts between Leolo’s stark reality and his vibrant imaginings are made very clear through the camera work and frame compositions. In many scenes, the film is pleasant to look at. However, once again, there are many scenes in which the actions taking place are repugnant enough to undermine an appreciation of the aesthetic skill.

Leolo finds warmth and refuge in this makeshift shelter with his sister. The soft glow of the candles is captured extremely well and conveys the sense of comfort.

On a final note, this film brought to mind a few other, more recent pictures – Terry Gilliam’s Tideland and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Tideland tried to pull a very similar trick, telling the story of a young girl in absolutely miserable circumstances (drug addict parents who both die of overdoses) who copes by envisioning an entire fantasy world around her. Alas, like Leolo, Gilliam failed in my mind, and the story is just far too depressing to be overcome by some bright visuals. Pan’s Labyrinth, on the other hand, actually succeeded. The overall tale is arguably just as downbeat as Leolo or Tideland, but del Toro managed to find the right balance and leave the viewer with the right amount of sweetness to accompany the bitterness.

I would only recommend Leolo to those who are not put off by extremely depressing movies. If such themes do not bother you, you may very well find this movie one of the more creative and engaging of its type. To me, though, one viewing was plenty.

That's a wrap. 92 shows down. 13 to go.

Coming Soon: Farewell, My Concubine (1993):

Don't know much about this one, except that it has the look of a rather sad tale. This will make number 2 in the "depresso 1-2-3 punch" of current films for me, preceded by Leolo and succeeded by Schindler's List. I'll be mixing in some Farrelly brothers movies, just to maintain some kind of balance here. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Film # 91: Unforgiven (1992)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: around five or six

Rapid-Fire Summary

In the small town of Big Whiskey, Montana, in 1881, a cowhand becomes enraged at a prostitute named Delilah over a minor insult and slashes her face. Despite calls from Delilah’s fellow prostitutes that the cowhand and his companion be hanged, the sheriff, “Little Bill” (Gene Hackman) merely demands that the two boys pay the proprietor of the saloon/cathouse in the form of horses. The furious prostitutes then secretly pool their money and start spreading word of a bounty for anyone who kills the two cowboys.

To the south, in Kansas, a brash young man calling himself “The Schofield Kid” finds the middle-aged farmer William Munny and asks him to partner up to kill the cowboys for the bounty. The Kid has heard from that Munny was once a fearless and vicious killer who would make a perfect partner for such a dark deed. Munny, now a widower who has forsworn his previously murderous life and with two young children to support, at first refuses The Kid. With his farm failing, though, he changes his mind. He convinces one of his old partners, Ned (Morgan Freeman), to join him on this final killing in order to have a new start for his children.

Will Munny, a brutal killer in the past, now struggles on his farm with his two your children.

Back in Big Whiskey, Little Bill has now heard of the bounty put out and brutally beats and casts out the first bounty hunter who drifts into town to inquire after it – the noted gunman “English” Bob (Richard Harris). When the Kid, Will, and Ned come into town some days after, Will is himself beaten by Little Bill, while Ned and The Kid escape. The three rally themselves and set out after the first of the two cowboys, undeterred by Little Bill’s edict against assassins. When they find the cowboy, however, Ned is unable to bring himself to kill him. Will instead takes Ned’s rifle and shoots the cowboy dead. Ned, realizing that he no longer has what it takes to kill a man, parts ways with Will and The Kid, with Will promising to bring Ned his share of the bounty after the job is finished.

Will and The Kid then find the second cowboy, who actually cut up Delilah, holed up at the ranch he works on. The Kid kills the cowboy and the two make a narrow escape. When Will and The Kid return to just outside of Big Whiskey to collect the bounty, however, they discover that Ned has been captured, tortured, and killed. Suddenly overcome by a dark cloud of vengeance, Will plies himself with alcohol and rides into town alone. Calmly walking into the saloon where Ned’s corpse is prominently displayed outside, Will coldly kills six men, including the saloon owner, four deputies, and Little Bill himself. Though plenty of the townspeople are still alive to stop Will from leaving, they are all too terrified of the killer to even make the attempt.

Will, in Skinny's saloon as he slays all those he feels are responsible for Ned's death. During these moments, all traces of the quiet, tortured farmer have been burned away.

We are told in the end that Will returned to his farm and used his bounty money to move himself and his children away, possible to California where he “prospered in dry goods.”

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing):

Unforgiven is, in my mind, the greatest Western film. There are others that are more exciting and entertaining, but this one has by far the most depth and arguably the greatest acting.

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece probably couldn’t have been made much earlier than it was. Being a deconstruction of the mythical West and Western stories, it required all of the popular lore that preceded it, both in literature and film. Eastwood set out tell a story that took a dark and realistic look into the souls of truly dangerous men in the old West, and he did it with expert precision.

At the heart of the film are all of the popular notions of the “Wild West” gunslinger. The mythology around that time and place has been the inspiration for countless tales of adventure for well over a century. The archetypal “deadly guman” has long been one of the most attractive characters in U.S. narrative. Unforgiven gives voice to this attraction through the character Beauchamp, a bumbling fiction writer who at first is following around English Bob as his biographer. His stories of Bob cast him as a noble warrior whose skills with a pistol make him a modern-day knight. Once Bob is thrashed and imprisoned by Little Bill, however, the myth starts to fall apart.

English Bob, left, and his biographer, Beauchamp. It is initially through these two characters that the myths of honorable gunfighters are taken apart.

It is during the scenes between Little Bill and Beauchamp, with English Bob watching from his cell, that we start to get at the reality of killers. With his first-hand knowledge of Bob, Little Bill tears apart Beauchamp’s notions of his idol. We soon see that Bob, though a truly dangerous gunman, is actually a vicious murderer unworthy of any admiration.

But the deconstruction of English Bob is only a prelude. It is with the tale of Will Munny that the truly disturbing truths about gunfighters emerge. With incredible pacing, Munny’s regression from penitent farmer back to unrepentant killer is as captivating as it is terrifying. For most of the film, Munny’s murderous past is merely hinted at, through stories told by other characters such as The Schofield Kid and even Will’s riding partner, Ned. As each bloody story is revealed, Munny tries to assure Ned and himself that he, “ain’t like that no more.” Watching him cling to the new self into which his dead wife molded him is like watching a time bomb trying to diffuse itself.

During his arrival at Bog Whiskey, Munny is still tortured and ill. It's almost as if his modern, peaceful self is slowly coming apart under the burden of trying to keep his homicidal nature at bay.

Any doubt about Munny is removed about halfway through the film, upon the death of the first cowboy. When Ned is unable to pull the trigger, Munny reverts to form. Without blinking, he takes the rifle from Ned’s uncertain hands, takes aim, and kills the young man. It is now clear that, while Ned truly has left his homicidal past behind him, Munny still possesses a true murderer's instinct. As if the contrast between Ned and Munny isn’t enough, is becomes all the more clear when Munny allow The Kid, eager for a kill, to execute the second cowboy later. After the deed is done, The Kid shakily admits that, contrary to his prior boasting, it was his first kill. The Kid is all too aware of the difference between himself and Munny, stating, “I ain’t like you Will.” Will’s response is right at the heart of the film – “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.” The Kid then swears off guns and killing for the rest of his life.

It is then, in the final ten minutes of the movie, that we see the true horror of William Munny. After he is told of Ned’s death, a terrifying transformation takes place. For most of the story, Will has been the picture of anguished restraint. He has refused to take a drop of alcohol and has only killed the two cowboys condemned by the bounty. However, when he learns that his friend has been tortured, killed, and put on display, his previous decade of temperance thoroughly vanishes. A cold fire alights in his eyes, his teeth clench, and he grabs a whiskey bottle and methodically starts to drink. By the time he enters the saloon at nightfall, he is Vengeance personified. In front of the group of puzzled and uncertain deputies and other town residents, he brutally shoots the saloon owner, Skinny. Even then, the deputies are clearly too frightened to try and bring down Munny. Even when they do gather their wits and try to square off against him, Munny is too calm under fire to be brought down. By doing little more than keeping his composure, he proceeds to shoot the five men remaining with weapons in their hands. The writer Beauchamp, who has been cowering in a corner and witnesses everything, then tries to question Munny on his “strategy.” Munny debunks any notion of skill or strategy by simple saying, “I was lucky…I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks.” With this line, there is nothing left to be lauded in Munny’s actions, not even any kind of “skill.” Like English Bob, he is a mass murderer, though an uncommonly effective one.

Munny's execution of Little Bill. It may be one of the coldest, most haunting killings in all of film. 

Following the rapid departure of Beauchamp, Munny then steps up to Little Bill, who has been wounded but is not dead. Little Bill looks up at Will Munny, and instead of begging or pleading, simply says, “I don’t deserve to die like this.” Munny stares him in the face and delivers perhaps the most haunting line of the film when he proclaims, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” At this moment, Munny is no longer even a spirit of vengeance. He is death itself. Unfeeling. Unthinking. Uncaring of right or wrong.

Those final lines, and others like them in the film, are what set Unforgiven apart. The only other Western I know of that even came close to taking such a hard look at the makeup of the Western gunfighter was The Searchers, with John Wayne. However, The Searchers still had a solid dose of romantic hokum blended into it, and it’s not nearly as even in execution as Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood directed this movie as well as anything he’s ever done, encompassing all of the things that make Western films great, while adding unprecedented philosophical depth.

The story and characters are undoubtedly what make the movie great, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly mention its other merits. The cinematography is incredible, with all of the gorgeous wide-angle shots that you could hope for in a sweeping Western. Even more is the acting. Clint Eastwood does a fine enough job, and it helped that the character Will Munny didn’t call for any spectacular range of emotions (not Eastwood’s forte). The standout performances are Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman, the latter of whom justifiably raked in a ton of awards for his turn as Little Bill. But even the smaller roles are all played perfectly, from Richard Harris as English Bob right down to the lowly prostitutes and townspeople.

Little Bill, in front of the townspeople of Big Whiskey. Just as important to the tone of the movie, the smaller roles all convey very realistic reactions to violence and death - rage, frustration, and fear.

When I think about Unforgiven as a whole, one thing I often come back to is the notion of freedom. For fans of Western tales, it is often the sense of freedom that is most appealing. The wide-open spaces of the old West have always been thought of as places where a person is free from the restrictions and expectations of “civilized” society. We often assume that this is essentially a positive thing, as it allows a person to be whoever they want to be or discover who they really are. This is a beautiful idea, if you assume that the person you really are is one to be loved and admired. But what if who you really are is someone as terrifying as William Munny? What if, in spite of your every effort to escape it in the quiet, isolated, wind-swept plains of Kansas, you are something that frightens yourself to your very soul? I don’t know if this is one of the intended themes of the film, but it is one that stays with me.

Additional Note: I came across the news that there is currently under production a remake of Unforgiven, set in feudal Japan and starring Ken Watanabe as the "Will Munny" character. Normally, I would be disgusted at the thought of a remake of Unforgiven; however, I can see the potential for a samurai setting to be very successful. I hope they can pull it off.

That’s a wrap. 91 shows down, 14 to go.

Coming Soon: Leolo (1992)

Don’t know anything about this one, but I’m guessing it doesn’t involve Clint Eastwood, ruminations on murder, or and Englishman getting his ass whipped. You never know, though…

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Film #90: Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Initial Release Country: United States

Timed Previously Seen: probably around eight or nine. Maybe more. 

Rapid-Fire Summary

Goodfellas is a rather epic movie, spanning several centuries. I’ll keep my summary short, but if you want many more of the details, you can check out the synopsis here at imdb’s website. Here’s my version:

In the late 1950s in Queens, New York, young teenager Henry Hill has big dreams. He dreams of becoming a gangster, like the fellows that he sees regularly on the streets of his neighborhood. Though his parents completely disapprove, Henry gets more and more involved with the crime circuit in the area – starting with simple errand-running for book-makers, progressing to orchestrated property destruction, and advancing to the sale of stolen goods. The more he gets entrenched in the life of a criminal, the more he feels welcomed by his fellow criminals, and the more normal it all becomes for him.

This normalized life of larceny follows Henry into adult life (played by Ray Liotta), when he regularly partners with two other noted crooks – the thief and hitman, Irishman Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the volatile yet charismatic Sicilian mobster Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). These three, along with many other local hoods, spend the next few decades of their adult lives robbing, and occasionally killing, their way to lives of luxury for themselves, their wives, children, and mistresses. Though their methods of attaining wealth are highly illegal, all of them keep up the appearances of being responsible family men who are “providers” for their friends and families. This is all in keeping with the Italian mafia tenets of organized crime, to which all of these three men pay homage.

Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy taking a look at on of their many stashes of ill-gotten money.

Eventually, however, things start to crumble. Starting in the later 1970s and into the early 1980s, Henry starts to get involved in selling cocaine. Despite clear warnings from the mafia father-figure, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Henry continues to sell the highly illegal substance. His mistakes catch up to him, and he is caught by the police. Now facing the very likely prospect that he will be killed by any one of his criminal associates, in order to prevent him from informing on them, Henry and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) decide that their only recourse is to join the witness protection program. Henry testifies against all of his former friends and criminal associates, thus escaping jail time. However, he lives out the rest of his days in a sterilized suburban neighborhood, far removed from the action, money, and excitement of his former life of crime.

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing)

Goodfellas is an absolute classic, and it may be the only English-language mafia movie that can hold a candle to The Godfather, in terms of scope, technique, and revolutionizing the genre.

I first saw this movie in the theater when my mother brought me to see it. I was only fourteen or fifteen at the time, and I remember the language blowing me away. The characters drop the f-bomb like most people blink, and violence is as normal as getting a haircut. About an hour into the movie, my mother, who grew up in Queens right at the time that this movie’s events were taking place, leans over to me and says “I think I grew up with these guys.” Now, she didn’t mean that she literally grew up with Henry Hill and the gang; she just meant that she grew up with guys eerily like them. She always said that the dialogue and attitudes depicted in Goodfellas were spot-on, in terms of how the guys from those neighborhoods spoke and acted.

This authenticity has been a hallmark of Scorsece’s New York pictures right from the very beginning. While he’s certainly done other excellent movies that are not based in New York (The Departed, Kundun, et al), his street-level stories have always been his signature ones. The verbal exchanges in Goodfellas, like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, feel completely organic. Despite being so deeply rooted in a particular region, even people who have never been within a thousand miles of Long Island can sense and be hypnotized and amused by it.

Just another night of booze and poker. This is one of the many scenes in which the dialog and interactions between the New York tough guys are at their most realistic. 

But the dialogue is simply one of several triumphs of this movie. If The Godfather was the ultimate American criminal take on a classical Greek tragedy, Goodfellas is the ultimate deconstruction of the gangster myth. Based on the real story of Henry Hill, the movie depicts the ground-level thugs who made the mob go. There are no honorable Vito Corleones here. Henry Hill and his cohorts were unapologetic thieves and murderers who reveled in their power over others. One line that sums them up fairly well is when Henry Hill is describing Jimmy: “The one thing Jimmy loved to do was to steal. I mean, he actually liked it. Jimmy was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in the movies.” These guys knew they were bad, embraced it, and pummeled anyone who had a problem with it.

Tied to this is probably the element that truly sets the movie apart from other classic gangster movies. Through Henry Hill’s life story, we see the complete and utter sham that the “honor” of the mafia is. All of the seeming friendships that Henry makes are only authentic as long as they don’t threaten any of his fellow thieves’ illicit livelihoods. The moment any one of the crew is suspected of threatening others’ freedom and fortunes, that crew member is not long for this world. The camaraderie is revealed as shallow in the face of real adversity, as evidenced by the protagonist himself. After decades of thinking of his criminal associates as family, he turns on them to protect himself and sends them all to prison. Goodfellas may have been the first film to so carefully and stylishly deconstruct the myth of honor among mobster thieves.

Normally, much of the above would make for thoroughly repugnant, unwatchable characters. Yet herein lies one of the most brilliant part of this movie – at times, you forget what they are and get completely caught up with who they are. Whether it’s Tommy cracking up his fellow mobsters with hilarious stories, Jimmy railing against the stupidity of his partners in crime, or Henry trying to juggle his passionately crazy wife and mistresses, it’s simply fun to watch. Most of the time, you laugh at them, but some of the time you actually laugh with them. There are even times when you feel a twinge of sympathy, as when Henry learns that Karen has flushed their bags of cocaine, their only remaining source of revenue, down the toilet, effectively flushing his entire life down the toilet. His desperation and fear are so palpable that you might be tempted to forget, just for a few seconds, that it’s all his selfish own doing.

Karen visits Henry while he serves time. At this point, it almost seems as normal for us the viewers as it does for the troubled couple and their kids.

All of these moments come through in large part due to the acting. While De Niro rightfully got top billing for this movie and did an outstanding job as Jimmy, it was Pesci, Liotta, and the entire ensemble crew that fully rounds out the picture and makes it come to life. By using that rare combination of world-class actors with lesser known, fully capable New York regionals, not one moment of Goodfellas rings untrue. For the full two-and-a-half hours, they pull you right into a completely different world.

It goes without saying that Scorsese was arguably at his finest with this movie. The cinematography, editing, and music are all blended into a fast-paced story that hums along without missing a single beat. Of his great films (of which there are many), this one is arguably his very best, and one would be hard-pressed to find much fault with it. At this point, anyone who is into crime movies has seen and loves this film. If, by chance, you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor. As long as you are not put off by rough language and graphic violence (none of which is gratuitous, by the way – we need to see how visceral these thugs can be, lest we start to glamorize them), you need to watch this true modern masterpiece.

Henry takes one last look at us from his quaint little house, courtesy of the Witness Protection Program. While he survives, he would hardly call it a "life," as he came to know it on the streets of New York.

A side-note: Any fan of Goodfellas should watch Casino. It’s sometimes called “Goodfellas 2” with good reason. It’s certainly not a sequel, but so much of the tone and feel of it is the same, that one might feel like they’re watching the companion piece to the earlier film. Casino is a bit more sprawling, and some say bloated (I disagree), but it’s another excellent film in the same vein.

That’s a wrap. 90 shows down. 15 to go.

Coming Soon: Unforgiven (1992)

From the movie that deconstructed mafia gangsterism to the movie that deconstructed the American Western film. This is another of my absolute, hands-down, all-time favorites. I’m looking forward to watching it again and writing out my thoughts on the dark tale of Will Munny. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Film # 89: Miller's Crossing (1990)

Director: Joel Coen

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: five or six

Rapid-Fire Summary

*The plot of Miller’s Crossing is complex, indeed. I’ll keep it streamlined, but if you want a full blow-by-blow, you can check it out here at imdb.

In a Prohibition Era city (name unknown), Irish mobster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) serves as the right-hand man and consultant to mob boss, Leo (Albert Finney). Tom is highly loyal to Leo, except for the fact that he is sleeping with Leo’s special lady, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Verna is known as a con woman of highly questionably morals who is sleeping with both Leo and Tom, possibly in order to protect her brother, Bernie (John Turturro). Bernie is a fellow con artist and bookmaker who has put himself in the crosshairs of Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) by undercutting his fixed boxing matches.

Even in the tightest of situations, Tom Reagan is as cool and unflappable as they come. 

Over the course of a few days, Tom gets mixed up with Bernie and has to navigate his way between the rival mob bosses Leo and Caspar, seeming to double-cross one after the other. He uses Bernie, Verna, and whoever else he can in order to keep himself alive. After tensions rise to point of several beatings, murders, and raids on speakeasies, Tom manipulates Bernie into killing Caspar. Tom then kills Bernie, either as a final cover up or a final act of revenge. This leaves Verna, who Tom may secretly love, free to marry Leo, who is finally returned to his place of power atop the criminal underworld. At Bernie’s funeral, Tom refuses Leo’s plea to have him back as his chief lieutenant, but Tom stoically refuses. Tom then watches Leo and Verna walk away.

My Take on the Film

I didn’t even know about this movie until about seven or eight years after its big screen release. Once I did see it, though, it instantly became one of my favorites.

Even after seeing it about a half dozen times now, I still love it. There is so much skill put into how this movie is crafted that I still marvel at it. I’m an enormous fan of the Coen brothers, and I appreciate their studied approach to film making. Miller’s Crossing exhibits so many of the things that they clearly love about movies, and they blended them into a gangster tale like none other.

The story itself is actually pure noir. The plot twists, the seedier elements, the femme fatale, and the gallows humor is exactly what one can find in noir classics like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. Tom Reagan is as fatalistic and deadpan as the protagonists of the best James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammett novels. As he carefully plots his course through the maze of the deadly forces around him, he might seem devoid of any real emotion. But if you look carefully past his cold words, and you look closely enough at his actions, you can see that there is indeed a soul. The character Verna even points it out in the film when she says, “…you have a heart, Tom. Even though it’s small and feeble, and you can’t remember the last time you used it.”

Despite Tom's apathetic demeanor and biting insults, Verna sees the glimmer of a man who cares. These two corrupted souls dance with and around each other in fantastic exchanges of dialogue.

Actually, the notion of Tom’s heart is really at the center of the movie, as symbolized by his slick Fedora hat. Many of the characters are motivated by pure greed. Leo the mob boss does actually have empathy for others, and Verna seems to care for Tom, but Tom himself is an enigma in many ways. It is only during the few calm, quiet moments in the film that we can see that Tom is not purely a selfish pragmatist. The truth is that he’s clearly smarter than Leo and, if he wanted, could easily manipulate his way to usurping and eliminating Leo to take his position as the top crime lord in the city. The reason he doesn’t is loyalty. We the viewers can’t be sure until the very end, but once you know what has been guiding Tom throughout his ordeals, we can see just how steadfast and intelligent he is.

Maybe the most singular element in the film is the presence of homosexuality. It's not overt, but it is heavily implied that Bernie, Mink, and even the hard-case Eddie Dane are gay lovers. It still seems mildly out of place in what is otherwise a pure compound of the noir and gangster genres. Miller's Crossing is an unusual mob movie in many ways, but perhaps no more so than in this.

True to noir cinematic storytelling, Tom Reagan is in virtually every scene, with very few exceptions. While he certainly holds the screen, the supporting characters are equally engaging (something that is a hallmark of Coen brothers movies). From Leo to Verna, from Bernie to Johnny Caspar and Eddie Dane, and even very minor cameos like Mink (played in staccato by Steve Buscemi) or “Drop” Johnson, the characters indelibly etch themselves into your minds. A lot of this has to do with the dialogue, which has always been a Coen brothers strength. This is where they show their ability to write dialogue that can be tough, poignant, hilarious, or revealing. And in Miller’s Crossing it’s always delivered in a rapid-fire style usually reserved for screwball comedies (which I hate, but the style works brilliantly in this film).

Of course, strong dialogue alone does not a classic movie make. The acting has to be spot-on, and it certainly is in Miller’s Crossing. Gabriel Byrne is absolutely perfect as the ever-stoic, ever-cunning, morally ambiguous Irish mobster Tom Reagan. The other characters all nail their roles perfectly, and there are too many for me to give a role call. However, I will say that an often-overlooked performance is J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, the dark counterpart to Tom Reagan. Every interaction between these two arch-nemeses has a great amount of tension, as the two try to out-cool, out-stare, and out-intimidate each other.

Johnny Caspar's right-hand man, the brutal and heartless Eddie Dane. Where Tom uses his wits and tongue to maneuver in their criminal underworld, "The Dane" uses fear and raw force.

Finally, the cinematography itself. This should also come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Coen brothers’ movies, but this movie looks incredible. It’s easy to see that the sets and costumes were carefully selected to create frame compositions that are simply a pleasure to look at. On top of that, this movie features several great examples of the nearly lost art of visual storytelling, yet another film technique that the Coens have always shown affinity for. In fact, the scene in which Leo dispatches several would-be assassins with a Thompson machine gun is one of my favorite pieces of visual storytelling in any film. No dialogue for about five minutes – just “Danny Boy” playing in the background and some sound effects. I love that stuff, and very few directors have the guts or the skill to do it well.

Miller’s Crossing might not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you’re expecting a more traditional gangster movie in the vein of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The Coens imbue their pictures with more “only in the movies” style than those other, more naturalistic films do. Still, if you appreciate superb film making and a novel approach to a time-honored genre, you should give it a try. Anyone who likes the Coen brothers but has not seen this one needs to run to the video store right now and watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

That’s a wrap. 89 shows down. 16 to go.

Coming Soon: Goodfellas (1990)

This will be quite the contrast in gangster films. Miller’s Crossing uses old-school gangsterism as a backdrop for a slick noir tale. Goodfellas was really the quantum leap forward for realism in mafia films. Come on back to see how I enjoy my next viewing yet another of Scorcese’s masterworks (and enjoy it, I certainly will).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Film #88, Part 3: The Decalogue, Parts VIII to X (1988)

Note: The Decalogue was initially released as a ten-part television series, with each episode being a story in and of itself, though there is some crossover. As such, I have offered my review in 3 parts – one for the first three films, another for the middle four, and this is the third, covering the final three episodes.

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Initial Release Country: Poland

Times Previously Seen: none

Part VIII Rapid-Fire Summary

Elzbieta, a Polish-American scholar roughly in her forties comes to Warsaw to visit a professor of ethics, Zofia, who is roughly twenty years older than Elzbieta. The two are acquaintances, with Elzbieta having met Zofia and translated some of her works on ethics into English. Elzbieta sits in on one of Zofia’s ethics classes, in which various dilemmas are posed. Elzbieta brings up her own story as a child in Poland, during World War II. As a 6-year old Jewish girl fleeing the Nazis, she was refused refuge by a Polish couple, seemingly for not being willing to convert to Catholicism. In fact, Zofia was one of the two people who refused.

Elzbieta and Zofia continue to talk through their painful history together, though the decades have soothed the rawness of their emotions, and they are able to speak calmly about everything. Zofia eventually explains the real reason that she and her husband at turned away Elzbieta at the time – it was because they were part of the Polish resistance, and they had heard that there were German spies posing as Catholics to infiltrate their ranks. Zofia then tells Elzbieta where to find the man who eventually did give her safe haven as a child.

Zofia (back) and Elzbieta talk through their dark past together.

Elzbieta finds the man, still alive, working as a tailor in Warsaw. She goes to his shop and attempts to thank him and talk to him about his having saved her. The man, obviously pained and uncomfortable about his past, kindly but firmly refuses to speak about the event. Zofia, who finds Elzbieta just outside of the tailor’s shop, explains that the man had suffered greatly during and after the war, which is why he does not speak about it.

My Reaction to Part VIII

This episode was a bit of a relief, after the previous three. Just as with episode VI, about the father and daughter, this part eases up on the emotional rawness (I somehow doubt that this is a coincidence – three hard-hitting episodes, followed by one that is less intense. This is very like the first four episodes). This is not to say that it is any less deep or meaningful. In fact, it may be one of the most poignant and meaningful of the first eight. Very few of us will have experienced the marital infidelity, bizarre sexual relationships, or moral quandaries that we see in earlier episodes of The Decalogue. In this episode, though, Zofia’s sense of guilt over a past decision is easier for more of us to grasp.

There is a welcome calm to this episode that sets it apart. The two women featured are both struggling with their feelings over a single incident that has clearly affected them both as deeply as possible. Rather than there being any highly-charged emotional knock-down, drag-outs, this episode is more about quiet exploration of feelings of indebtedness, doubt, and irredeemable guilt.

At this point, it is not surprise that all of the technical elements of the film are top-notch. After seven episodes of the same, this is no longer surprising.

Part IX Rapid-Fire Summary

A surgeon, Roman, discovers that he is impotent. He tells his wife of ten years, Hanka, and he even encourages her to find a lover, should she desire to. She refuses, claiming that there are more important things in a relationship besides sex. Despite this, Hanka does secretly start an affair with a young man named Mariusz. The two have their trysts at Hanka’s mother’s apartment.

Hanka in the foreground, with Roman in the back. Her profound and graphic statement here is at the heart of this episode. In having her own purely physical affair, she both does and does not prove her own philosophy.

Roman eventually discovers Hanka’s affair, though he does not confront her about it immediately, seemingly wracked by uncertainty about what to do. After he does confront her, she soon breaks off the affair with Mariusz, who tells her that he loves her.

Several days after, Hanka goes on a skiing trip by herself. Mariusz, having secretly followed her, attempts to reignite their relationship, but to no avail. However, back in Warsaw, Roman has discovered that Mariusz and Hanka are in the same town. He draws the inaccurate conclusion that they are continuing their affair, and he tries to kill himself. He fails, however, and awakes to find Hanka by his side, assuring him that she will be there with him.

My Take on Part IX

Another episode that takes on the topic of sex, and it is another mature look at what can often be an uncomfortable topic. The one thing that stands out as interesting is the unusual gender roles at play in this story. Once the man’s sexual potency is gone, it seems that he has little in the way of emotional control, and he is unable to truly embrace what he himself suggests – that his wife find a lover. From this point, it is the woman, Hanka, who is in control of virtually every aspect. She does not abuse it in any way, and it strikes me that I haven’t seen many stories (especially not in film) in which the female was both totally in control while also being tender, caring, and loving.

In keeping with the first eight episodes, part nine is another excellent addition to the series.

Part X Rapid-Fire Summary

Two brothers, Artur and Jerzy, meet one another at their estranged father’s funeral. Neither man has seen each other in over two years, though they seem relaxed and closer than one would expect. Artur is a popular punk rock singer, while the older Jerzy has a standard white collar job, a wife and son.

Shortly after their father’s funeral, the two discover that their father had amassed a stamp collection worth a fortune. He had carefully kept it stashed in his run-down little apartment, though with many security devices to prevent thievery. Artur and Jerzy initially decide not to sell the stamps, though they accidentally let one set of valuable stamps be taken by a nefarious stamp collector in the area. They eventually get this one set back, but they unwittingly begin an unfortunate series of events.

Jerzy and Artur. Artur's words are initially spoken about the brothers' father, but the two men are soon both caught up in the same materialist obsession that turned their father into a recluse.

In the following days, the shady stamp dealer convinces the brothers to have Jerzy donate his kidney for his daughter, in return for an extremely valuable stamp that their father was looking for. However, when Jerzy is undergoing the kidney removal, the boys’ apartment is broken into and the entire stamp collection is stolen. After the discovery, each brother begins to suspect the other of the thievery, but they eventually realize that they were both conned by the shady stamp dealer himself. They actually have a final laugh over the affair, and show amusement that they each have bought an identical set of cheap stamps from the local post office.

My Take on Part X

Not what I was expecting as the end to such a long series. Still, it’s very good and I was completely engaged for the entire film.

Maybe it’s because I can understand the obsessive mind of a collector (having been a comic book collector for many years in my younger days), but the notion of a hidden treasure trove of valuables always intrigues me. But this story goes far beyond that. The crux of the story is how a dead and virtually unknown father’s obsession takes over his estranged sons. The two at first seem apathetic towards their new found fortune, and they seem to rekindle their friendship towards each other. Soon, though, the potential wealth corrupts them into making foolish decisions and behaving in conniving ways that run counter to their personalities. It’s actually rather similar to the Sam Raimi film A Simple Plan, though on a much more humanistic level.

As stated, I expected the final episode to have some massive element that perhaps tied all of the previous nine episodes together. I was a tad disappointed that this wasn’t a part of the tale, but this was still an excellent, if slightly more lighthearted, episode in the series.

Final Thoughts on The Decalogue

Firstly, I did discover that, contrary to my belief that the connection to the Ten Commandments was a very tenuous one, almost every episode is, in fact, directly inspired by one of the commandments. Here is the list, by both episode and commandment (you can go back to my other reviews to see how the story actually syncs up the with the commandment:

I.                    “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.”
II.                 “Thou shalt not worship graven images.” *
III.               “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.” *
IV.              “Honor thy father and thy mother”
V.                 “Thou shalt not kill.”
VI.              “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
VII.            “Thou shalt not steal.”
VIII.         “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
IX.              “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
X.                 “Thou shalt not covet (they neighbor’s goods).”

Really, it was only episodes II and III (marked with the asterisks above) that didn’t seem to have a direct link to the given commandment, but there are certainly other commandments at play in those episodes.

 Taken as a whole, this is arguably the greatest film series ever. You certainly don’t need to be a Christian, Jew, or Muslim to appreciate how each of the commandments is merely being used as an area of drama and pain in different people’s lives.

What sets The Decalogue series apart from other drama is the intellectual depth and the performances. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski had the soul of a classic novelist, and seemed to putting hard-hitting human drama onto the screen. He was using the tools of cinema rather than literature, but all of the human elements are there. The people are very real, if sometimes very unusual, and their reactions to the stressful situations hit some very uncomfortable areas of the human psyche.

I came across the little factoid that each 55-minute film had a budget of about $10,000. This means that the entire series, about 9 hours long, was probably done for under $100,000. It goes to show that true artistry does not require lavish sets, glamorous actors, or expensive filming equipment. With the right talent and vision, a masterpiece can shine through. The Decalogue does just that.

I would recommend that anyone and everyone watch this series. I even think it should probably be required viewing in high schools, right along with the literature reading lists that students get in their language classes. If more people watched and pondered the ethical and philosophical questions that are the lifeblood of this series, only good could come of it.

That’s a wrap. 88 shows down; 17 to go.

Coming Soon: Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 This is not only one of my all-time favorite movies, but it also kicks off my most anticipated 1-2-3 punch of this entire project: Miller’s Crossing, Goodfellas, and Unforgiven. Three hands-down modern classics that I never get tired of watching.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Film #88, Part 2: The Decalogue, Parts IV to VII (1988)

Note: The Decalogue was initially released as a ten-part television series, with each episode being a story in and of itself, though there is some crossover. As such, I will be offering my review in 3 parts – one for the first three films, another for the middle four, and a third for the final three episodes.

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Initial Release Country: Poland

Times Previously Seen: none

Part IV Rapid Fire Summary:

A widowed father and his 20-year old daughter share an apartment (in the same building as the mathematician, the doctor, and others whose tales have already been told). He is an architect who often travels, and she is studying theater. The two seem to have a rather odd relationship that is much more playful, bordering on flirtatious, than most accepted father-daughter norms.

Thus begins Part IV. This is just the first of several oddly playful interactions between the daughter and father. Things get even more tangled and strange as the story unfolds.

When the father one day leaves the country on a trip, the daughter discovers a letter from her deceased mother, one that her father has been keeping secret ever since her mother died giving birth. She struggles over whether to open it or not. When she meets her father at the airport, she tells her father that she discovered and opened the letter. She recites it, revealing that he is not her true father.

This sets off a strange sequence of emotions for them both. The daughter, feeling that her “father” is no longer that, believes that they have a deeper and more sexual attraction for one another. She makes advances on her guardian, who seems to consider his own feelings deeply, but he refuses. She then admits that she never opened the letter from her mother and she had forged the entire letter, in order to figure out just how they felt about each other.

The two decide to burn the actual letter, thus leaving the question about her parentage ever floating above them both.

My Take on Part IV

“Honor they father and thy mother”

This is my best guess as to the thematic commandment of this episode. This story is an strange one to take, though the awkwardness subsides quite a bit by the end. Quite a bit, but not wholly. Since we the viewers don’t know the true nature of the seeming father/daughter’s complicated relationship, it is queer and uncomfortable to see the way they interact. Even the way that they work towards a resolution seems bizarre and difficult to relate to.

Still, in and of itself, the story is as strong as any of the previous episodes. I realize that this is becoming a common thread between most of the stories in The Decalogue – otherwise normal people exploring one or two very singular aspects of or incidents in their lives. In Part IV, the pair’s situation is highly unusual and, emotionally, extremely complex – even stomach-churning to watch at times – but it works. Just watching the episode might make you reconsider your definitions of love and lust, and where and how these two blend into each other. Adding the layer of family into the equation makes this tale one that provides some very challenging notions to ponder.

Part V Rapid Fire Summary

A young vagrant, Jacek, around twenty years old is on the street, angry, and desperate. He wanders the streets, committing random acts of petty cruelty and vandalism. He does show occasional, brief moments of kindness, but mostly seems alone and violent.

Jacek’s violence is fully realized when, after cunning planning, he leads an unknown taxi driver, an almost equally cruel and vice-ridden man, out into the countryside. There, Jacek strangles the man, then brutally bludgeons his head with a rock to kill him. There seems to be little reason for the murder, outside of theft and Jacek’s blind need to hurt someone.

Jacek is captured by police, and, after a year in jail, has a hearing relating to his sentence of death. A young defense attorney makes a compelling case against the state’s execution of the young man, but clemency is denied. On his final day, Jacek’s lawyer stays with him before and completely through his terrifyingly cold execution by hanging.

My Take on Part V

Of the first five episodes, this one and Part I are the ones that will stay with me for a very long time. Predating the similarly-themed film Dead Man Walking, this film is a very mature, unflinching look at the brutality of murder. By showing the two murders in all of their grim detail, Kieslowski forces us viewers to give some hard thought to whether there is any real difference between a murderous act by an individual or the state. Like Part I, this one is certainly no picnic to watch, but it’s probably a film that every person should watch at least once.

One of the few moments that Jacek smiles, as he plays a little game with some young girls passing by. These small moments add humanity and tragedy to the otherwise nasty young man's story as murderer and murdered. 

As with the other episodes, visual artistry abounds. There are so many well-planned and executed moments of foreshadowing, juxtaposition, and allusion that any fan of the craft of visual storytelling can appreciate this film on many levels.

This one is a dark, captivating gem.

Part VI Rapid Fire Summary

A roughly 20-year old boy/man has a job as a quiet post office employee. He passes his free time obsessing over an older, female artist who lives in the apartment building across from him. He uses a telescope to peep on her sexual exploits, and he leaves fake money order receipts in her mail slot, so that she will come into his post office and give him a chance to interact with her. On top of this, he takes an extra job as her milk delivery boy, just to be closer to her a few more times every week.

One of the first moments when the young, obsessed man lures his neighbor to the post office where he works. Their story of idealized romanticism, lust, and seduction is a novel combination of both juvenile and mature approaches to the act of sex.

Eventually, he gives in and admits his obsession to her. Rather than completely shun this desperate young virgin, the woman engages him in odd ways. It starts with allowed voyeurism, but it escalates into virtual torment when she brings him home to debunk his immature notions about romantic, idealistic love. She seduces him so slowly and alluringly that he “releases” his pent-up desires long before the physical act ensues. Completely ashamed, he runs home and attempts suicide. The woman sees that her attempt at a hard lesson has gone totally wrong, and she grows very concerned about him.

The young man lives and, after several days of hospitalized recovery, returns to his job at the post office. The woman goes to visit, and it is clear that the young man is over his obsession of her, though it was nearly at the highest of costs.

My Take on Part VI

At this point, I am unsure that this episode (or any of them for that matter) have a clear “commandment” as its source. Still…

This one is another peculiar one, on par with episode IV (above). It features two people behaving rather outside of the norms, though the young man’s behavior falls within typical, juvenile norms. It is rather uncomfortable to watch him awkwardly peep on the object of his affection, with no real idea how to satiate his desires.

As with other episodes, this one goes far deeper than something so simple as adolescent lust. The man’s desire has clearly developed into a warped romanticism, and the woman is extremely sophisticated. As uncomfortable as it is to watch, it is intriguing to see just how she exacts her “lesson” to him. It’s not just an interesting intellectual exercise, but it’s also one of the steamier scenes you’ll ever see.

A final welcome ingredient is the humor. I know that any story containing an attempted suicide isn’t going to be a yuk-fest, but this one has plenty of funny little moments. Most of them are provided by the young man’s bumbling towards his neighbor.

Overall, a very different theme and tone than the previous “murder” episode, so this one was a welcome addition to the series.

Part VII Rapid Fire Summary

A 22-year old woman, Majka, steals her own 6-year old daughter from her own mother. Her mother has been raising the girl, telling her that she is her mother, rather than her grandmother. This was done to avoid scandal, as the girl was the result of Majka’s having slept with her teacher in high school. Now, though, Majka has grown tired of her domineering, school-mistress mother, and she threatens to take her daughter to Canada, unless her mother agrees to allow Majka to take over the primary role as the girl’s mother.

Majka brings her daughter to the house of the girls’ father, who has retired from teaching and is in business making teddy bears. Majka and the man discuss her plans, which seem half-baked, at best. When he goes out for a trip, Majka runs off with her daughter again. Eventually, Majka’s parents find her at a train station, as she awaits a train to the airport where she hopes to leave the country with her daughter.

As her mother takes her daughter from her, Majka hops onto the train and looks back at her family standing on the platform. We do not know if she will ever see them again.

The tenderness between Majka and her daughter is short-lived and often corrupted by multiple circumstances surrounding the two. Seeing Majka try to find some solace for them is not an easy watch.

My Take on Part VII

This is another one that leaves you emotionally raw, like episodes II and V. It’s simply no picnic.

More than those episodes, though, there are calmer moments when we can learn more about the characters’ relationships and what has led them to such desperation. While this is another episode that is simply too bleak to warrant repeated viewings for me, I have to say that it’s just as strong than any other episode. The trends of incredible acting and exceptionally well-defined characters easily held my attention.

This episode, as much as any of them, displays Kieslowski’s ability to imbue a short film with an amazing amount of depth. Despite economical use of dialogue, so much is conveyed about deep and complex relationships, that the characters become highly familiar by the end of each chapter. Episode VII is a perfect example of this.

That is not a wrap. Still three more episodes to watch and review, so come on back for my reviews of Parts VIII through X.