Thursday, October 30, 2014

Before I Die #522: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Original Swedish Title: Korkarlen.

Director: Victor Sjostrom

A silent film that exhibits some impressive advancements for its day. Unfortunately, its day was 94 years ago.

Actually, The Phantom Carriage was a nice change of pace from the other silent films I've watched recently, in that it tells a ghost story in the vein of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, though with a much darker tone. It follows the story of David Holm, a vicious and miserable man who lives for little more than drinking and making other people's lives as unpleasant as his own. he has abused his wife to the point that she has left him, taking their two young daughters. This has sent Holm on a prideful quest for vengeance upon his wife. Along the way, the tuberculosis-stricken man constantly tries to infect others with both his physical disease and his venomous hatred for others.

He tracks his wife to a town where a Salvation Army nurse, Maria, tries to assist him, despite his brutal rebuffs. Maria persists, though, and she does manage to reunite Holm with his wife and children. But Holm is hardly a changed man, and he soon resumes his past abusive behavior. Even worse, Maria has contracted tuberculosis herself, and her health goes into a rapid decline.

Holm's wife eventually leaves him again, and he hits the streets as a hate-filled vagabond. On New Year's Eve, his tuberculosis finally kills him, but this is hardly the end. His soul awakes to find a spectral carriage waiting for him, but not to transport him to the afterlife. As the final person to die before the new year begins, Holm is destined to take the mantle of the coachman, reaping all the dead souls for the following year. The horror-stricken man goes into a panic, and he is forced to revisit all the suffering that he has visited upon others in his life, before he takes on his new posthumous task.

The movie is one of the better ones I've watched from the silent film era, though easily one of the grimmest in overall tone. No other films that I've seen from the time period dealt so readily with spousal abuse, degenerate behavior, and widespread death in the way that The Phantom Carriage did. And the acting, while still far less organic that modern performances, is noticeably more natural than many of its contemporaries, including other classic contemporary films like Broken Blossoms or Way Down East. There are several powerfully brief and subtle facial expressions by Holm that offer the hint of the tortured human beneath the prickly exterior. These more delicate suggestions of character are some of the most engaging in the movie.

While certainly a striking effect, the film gives us overly
long sequences featuring the ghastly coachman riding along
on the phantom carriage.
The movie did, though, require a fair amount of patience on my part. Many of scenes belabor their points a tad too long. This is also true of the special effect of the titular phantom carriage itself. The ghostly appearance of the coach, achieved with double exposure, was surely an impressive and haunting effect back in 1920. The problem is that the filmmakers were all too aware of this and milked it for far too long. There are a few overly long sequences of the carriage slowly moving along different landscapes for minute after minute. The visual ingenuity was probably amazing in its day, but nearly all viewers in the 21st century are likely to find it tiresome.

The Phantom Carriage is a good silent film, but it is still not one that I would recommend to anyone but fans of silent film. Viewers with no interest in films from this era are unlikely to have the wherewithal to sit through its 104 minutes, just to enjoy a handful of transcendent moments. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

New(ish) Release: Godzilla (2014)

Director: Gareth Edwards

Pretty fun giant monster movie, though probably not one that would win over any newcomers to the genre.

This newest take on the classic kaiju, or "big monster," prototype is a solid one. It incorporates many of the elements of the original tale, while giving it a narrative and aesthetic update. Working under the idea that such massive creatures as the gargantuan saurian had lived and thrived tens of millions of years ago, the movie depicts their resurrection through human misuse of nuclear weaponry. The film doesn't get too terribly technical about the science part of this science fiction, nor should it. That's not what we're paying for.

What we are paying for is what the film gives you, though you have to be patient, and I was completely alright with this. It has often amazed me how few writers and directors realize the efficacy of the "slow reveal" approach in monster movies. Even after such great "monster" films as Jaws, Predator, Alien, and a handful of others, too few filmmakers give their audience credit enough to make a few demands of them, even if the film doesn't show its entire hand within the first 15, 30, or even 60 minutes of a movie. Godzilla has the confidence in itself that it doesn't need to show the beast in full force for most of the movie, which makes the last third of the film much more powerful.

If you are at all curious about the story of the movie, there's no real need to worry much. It's nothing that will insult your intelligence, even if it's not exactly the most creative of science fiction. Again, though, one doesn't turn to a kaiju film for thought-provoking, speculative science fiction. One turns to these movies to see awesomely huge creatures stomping through large cities and slugging it out with each other. This 2014 version of Godzilla completely delivers on this, though the aforementioned patience needs to be exercised. Once it all begins, though, it's a blast. It helps tremendously that the cinematography and effects are so well done that the viewer gets all the sense of scope and scale that is required. I can recall at least three excellent sequences, but I'd rather not detail them and spoil the surprise for anyone wishing to see the movie for the first time.

There are a few of these very well-constructed, H.R. Geiger-esque
sets. Unfortunately for me, they are hard to appreciate on a
smaller TV screen, despite the sharpness of blu-ray.
My great regret about watching this movie was that I didn't see it on the big screen. I did watch it on blu-ray, on my 45" TV, which has a nice picture, but it just didn't do the movie complete justice. Many key scenes take place at night or in dark caves, and it was difficult to make out the details of some scenes. And of course, the sheer size of the monsters is lost on a smaller screen.

If you've never had any interest in giant monster movies, this one won't make you a believer. I'm not a tremendous fan of the genre, but my casual interest is such that I enjoyed this one, just as I enjoyed Pacific Rim well enough. These two recent kaiju flicks make for a strong, modern double feature.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: The Yakuza (1975); Bound (1996); Year of the Dragon (1985)

The Yakuza (1975)

Director: Sydney Pollack

This movie is awesome, and I can't believe I'd never heard of it before.

Starring a personal favorite of mine - Robert Mitchum - The Yakuza is measured, thoughtful, and masterfully executed. Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, a former U.S. Army soldier who had spent years in post-World War II Japan during reconstruction. Two decades later, he is called upon by an old friend to pull his fat out of a fire that he has lit by getting on the wrong side of one of Japan's organized crime groups. Harry reluctantly returns to Japan, where he must reconnect with formerly close locals and attempt to negotiate on his friend's behalf. Of course, things go far from smoothly, and Harry is forced to navigate a complex web of allegiances and personal debts of honor.

I must admit that I was skeptical during the first five or so minutes of the film. The movie, filmed in eye-popping Technicolor and featuring a soundtrack fit for a cheesy TV cop drama, has a dated aesthetic in a lot of ways. Before long, though, these aspects are completely forgotten as the story and characters take over. Running deeply throughout the story is the concept of giri, or obligation to others. This concept of debt runs between many characters, and in different directions as the story progresses, and the film does a fantastic job of granting this theme all of the weight that it deserves. Robert Mitchum's stoically tough visage is the perfect one to transmit it all in a visual medium.

The movie is paced just the way I love them - the slow burn that erupts into a tense explosion. Though the action is sparse and intermittent through the first half of the film, it gradually but inevitably expands in length and intensity, while never once seeming gratuitous. The final action sequence is, to be honest, one of the most badass two-man assaults that I've ever seen. My mouth was literally hanging open during the climactic moments.

Despite a few slower moments that are, admittedly, on the hokey side, I'll gladly watch this one again.

Bound (1996)

Directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski

Another very pleasant surprise. I couldn't help but be skeptical when seeing "Jennifer Tilly" paired with "The Wachowski Brothers." Little did I know what an entertaining neo-noir crime flick this was.

If this image strikes you as a bit of overkill, then you've got
the right idea. Still. the movie's plot and execution does the
notion of "femme
noir" more than adequate justice.
Bound tells the story of Corky (Gina Gershon), an ex-con who begins doing some contracting work on a swanky condo, and soon becomes romantically involved with the sultry mafia mistress who lives next door, Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Violet soon convinces Corky to help her rob her mafioso boyfriend, Cesar (Joe Pantoliano). Of course, their initially simple plan becomes ever-more complex as various things start to go awry.

I wasn't sold for the first 15 minutes or so. Gershon and Tilly oversell their parts a bit, and the dialogue tries too hard at times to be "hard-boiled." But once the heist begins, it's a great ride. Thanks to excellent pacing, solid acting by Pantoliano and the rest of the cast, and some great set design and cinematography, the tale carried me right through to the end. It certainly helped to have the novelty of making the two protagonists lesbian lovers, which is something I hadn't come across before.

I'd recommend this one, certainly. Just be patient for it to get going, and be sure that you're not put off by some standard mafia-type bloodletting.

Sure, Tracy Tzu has better hair than
Stanley White, but she also represents
most of what was wrong with this film.
Year of the Dragon (1985)

Director: Michael Cimino

Decent, but rather uneven.The movie follows New York cop Stanley White, a Vietnam veteran who is a fantastic cop with a mammoth ego and knack for pissing off everyone around him. White has taken it upon himself to single-handedly take down the local "Triad," or Chinese mafia in New York's Chinatown, where younger gang members have been enacting public executions on unprecedented scale.

As White attempts to navigate the labyrinth that is Chinese culture and relationships with authority figures, his actions make collateral damage of every single person around him, friend and foe alike. He is not unlike Clint Eastwood's iconic Harry Callahan, whose righteous indignation provides him enough justification for any action. White bulldozes through age-old traditions of NYC police and Chinese culture in order to reach his desired ends. It is this cannonball approach of White's that provides the real strength of the film.

But there are more than a few serious weaknesses. The most obvious is the acting, which can be spotty at best. Rourke is great, as usual, but the performance of the mononomic Ariane, who plays local TV news reporter Tracy Tzu, is weak. She struck me as someone given the role strictly for her stunning good looks, rather than acting ability (as confirmation, imdb has exactly zero other roles listed on her acting resume). It's not quite as bad as Sofia Coppolla's notorious performance in The Godfather III, but it's in the same league.

Two other major issues were the inconsistency with both the tone and pacing of the story. It starts really well, with a brutal slaying in the middle of the Chinese New Year parade. And there are some powerful scenes throughout the film. But any momentum of tension is often defused by ill-placed personal scenes, often between White and his wife. These and the awkward scenes between White and Tzu were stagnant to the flow of the film.

I am, quite frankly, surprised that this was considered one of the "great gangster movies" by the authors of the book that I'm working through. Thus far, this is the first one that I've found to be a tepid work that I would neither watch again nor recommend to others. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Before I Die #521: Get Carter (1971)

Director: Mike Hodges

Great gangster flick, based on a great book.

The basic story is that Jack Carter, a "fixer" for a London-based crime syndicate, has returned to his home town in the north of England. His brother has died in a way that makes Jack very suspicious. Jack quickly begins to start shaking bushes and soon has multiple criminals swirling around, most of whom wish to do him very serious harm. Jack, not a man easily dissuaded, pursues the mystery to its very end, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.

How does one adequately describe this film, or even the book upon which it was adapted? The title character, Jack Carter, is not a nice man. He works for a sleazy and extremely powerful organized crime syndicate based in London. He kills people. He barely hesitates to exploit relatively innocent bystanders in the name of reaching his own goals. So why is it so compelling to follow him?

Jack Carter is, to me, a very dark, very English take on the classic noir protagonist of Hammett and Chandler. Jack is fully immersed in the murky waters of the English criminal underworld of the increasingly cynical post-mod era of the early 1970s. And while he's not the biggest fish in those waters, he is easily one of the deadliest. Like the classic noir "hero," he inhabits every scene, and we follow him through a complex maze of depravity and salaciousness that is frighteningly entrenched in Jack's entire world. But Jack is clearly right at home there, and his confidence is mesmerizing.

It is this confidence, along with his lethal capabilities and knack for the occasional snide one-liner, that carry us along. Don't be fooled, though. This is not Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He's not even the more jaded Tom Reagan from Miller's Crossing. He is a villain, and there are really only two things that keep him from being too repulsive to be interesting. One is that, in this tale, his targets are even more villainous that he is. The other is that he does exhibit the tiniest shred of compassion for his niece (who may actually be his daughter) as he carries out his quest for revenge. Mostly, though, he is out to avenge his brother's death. A viewer gets the sense that Jack is killing his way through adversaries out of is own pride just as much as a sense of vengeance.

Jack and his trusted weapon - the shotgun that he and his
brother saved up their money to buy as boys. Jack and the
gun get more than a little payback.
So the character and story are strong enough, but they are far from the only worthy qualities of the movie. The direction is tight and focused, and the aesthetic is just as gritty as it ought to be. This is not to say that it has a "dark" or "cheap" look based on some misguided attempt to convey some form of reality. A surprising number of scenes take place in broad daylight, where Jack and his opponents' dastardly deeds can be witnessed openly. The editing and framing are wonderfully done, which makes the viewing experience extremely dynamic during the several action sequences. But nothing feels rushed in any way. The first half of the film features many slower, meditative shots when the camera lingers on Jack's face, or the faces of others who are reacting to Jack's words or actions. There is just as much power in these moments as when the bullets are flying and the bodies are falling.

Do I really need to say anything about Michael Caine? Perhaps you are only familiar with his more recent roles, and you may be wondering if he was as strong an actor in his younger days. If so, you can stop wondering. He's incredible. If you've only seen him in roles of genteel, pleasant, and stately chaps, then you will marvel at how well he plays the coolly brutal Jack Carter.

The main caveat for those who don't know the story should be clear. There is no "good guy" here. Get Carter is about a bad man doing bad things to even worse people. But it sure is entertaining, just as any expertly-presented story about a cool customer plying his trade should be entertaining.

...And What About the Book?

I suppose a touch of disclosure is in order here. The reason I read the source novel for this is that a close friend of mine is responsible for having it published for the first time in the U.S. in four decades. I had already planned to watch the film for some time, so its reintroduction onto U.S. bookstore shelves last month was rather fortuitous for me.

Originally titled Jack's Return Home in the U.K., the book is fantastic. And the movie's director, Mike Hodges, stays extremely true to the spirit of the story and the protagonist. As expected, certain artistic license was taken, but it was done respectfully and with amazing adeptness. It is that rare adaptation that does the source novel more than enough justice while utilizing the elements that make cinema a different art form. Author Ted Lewis used terse, sparse language in this narrative. Hodges took that great narrative and translated into a ripping good film story with great camerawork, editing, and a fantastic actor.

If you have any interest in comparing the book to the film, I highly recommend reading the novel first. It's a modest 200 pages, and they turn very quickly. You can order it from a ton of places, but here's the direct link through Syndicate Books.

Movie or book, you really can't go wrong if you're into hard-boiled crime fiction. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

New(ish) Release: Neighbors (2014)

Director: Nicholas Stoller

A pretty amusing flick, with no tremendous surprises for those who know Seth Rogan.

Neighbors is about a late twenty-something couple, Max and Kelly (Rogan and Rose Byrne) who are a few months into their first parenthood. They've just moved into a typically mellow suburban neighborhood, where they plan to begin the "adult" phase of their lives while not admitting to "getting old." Soon, the house next door is sold to a full-on, Animal House-style fraternity. The frat is headed by the impossibly handsome and charismatic Teddy (Zac Efron), who quickly begins to oversee bacchanalian parties of epic scale and scope right next to Max and Kelly and their infant daughter. What commences is an ever-escalating war of one-upmanship and sabotage between the neighbors.

If you've seen anything with Seth Rogan in it in the last decade, you have a solid idea of what to expect. There's some excellent blue humor, rapid-fire extemporaneous exchanges, and use of subject matter that has often been seen as taboo (having sex in front of your infant, breast feeding, and drug use, to name a few). The shift here for Rogan is one that is obvious and almost necessary for him as an actor, as well as a character - the conflicting desire for and fear of leaving behind the irresponsible days of his youth. For the most part, he still plays the immature, foul-mouthed, yet affable teddy bear that he's always played, and he continues to do it well.

While other female characters have had some great roles in
Seth Rogen films, Rose Byrne as Kelly might be the first one
who truly stands on equal footing with the dudes in every way. 
Probably the most singular thing about Neighbors is that the the character of Kelly is just as immature, foul-mouthed, and vicious as her husband. In fact, this idea is worked into one dialogue about how there should only be one "dumb husband" (or "Kevin James," as they call it) in a marriage. I loved this idea since the tired formula of dumb, infantile husband + sexy, responsible, yet tolerant wife is so old that is became offensive long ago. It's about time that the female character enjoy the freedom of being hilariously selfish.

The other selling point of Neighbors is what we've always gotten from Rogen's films, especially those directed by Judd Apatow - the heart. Even going all the way back to Superbad and every film since then, the theme of the endearing male friendship has run throughout. And it's not so dull that I can refer to it by the term "bromance" (another concept that's explored in Neighbors), but there is a satisfying sense of reconciliation at various points in the story.

And it's that reconciliation that sets Rogen's films apart from their predecessors. Instead of following the classic formula of '70s and '80s comedy, with the dichotomy of "good" and "evil" being crystal clear, these films ultimately just want people to get along. Sure, it's a tad sentimental, but not overly so. If it were, I wouldn't keep going to see each of Rogen's new films and enjoying each one, to some degree or another.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Brother (1997); The Cooler (2003); The Freshman (1990)


Original Russian Title: Brat

Director: Aleksey Balabanov

I haven't watched a ton of Russian cinema, outside of Andrei Tarkovsky and a few others, but Brother is an excellent gangster movie.

The story follow Danila, a young man fresh out of the army, where he repeatedly states that he "sat at HQ, as a clerk." Danila leaves his hometown for St. Petersburg, where he joins his elder brother. His sibling soon gets Danila involved in his own criminal dealings, which mainly involve contract assassinations for a local mob boss. Danila proves himself a surprisingly capable and unflappable killer, raising some serious questions about his claims at being a mere clerk in the army. And he has to use these skills as it becomes more and more obvious that his brother is setting him up as a patsy to take the fall for his own double-dealings.

As far as the crime elements of the movie go, it is nothing overly novel. It's all of the other elements that make this movie unique. As effective an assassin as Danila is, he is rather childish about certain other things, such as his obsession with modern music and his almost puppy-dog loyalty to those whom he pities or with whom he feels any sort of bond. His shifts in demeanor can be disturbing at times, but oddly humanizing at others. The end result is a character that is extremely intriguing and never dull.

The movie clearly did not have much of a budget. But working with what he had, director Balabanov put together a gritty, realistic crime tale of serious merit. The aesthetic might not seem appealing (and truthfully, it's not), but if you can look past it, then you will be rewarded.

The Cooler (2003)

Director: Wayne Kramer

Perhaps calling this a "gangster" movie is a stretch, but there are a few gangster involved, and there are more than a few scenes that would have been right at home in Casino. However you want to classify it, The Cooler is a solid piece of work.

Bernie and Natalie, at the tables. With his ill-fitting suit, bad
haircut, and droopy mug, Bernie exudes waves of wretched
luck. That is, until Natalie comes into his life.
William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz - the ultimate "cooler," as they're known in old-school casino circles. A cooler is a person whose luck is so horrendous, that he is literally paid by a casino manager to sit next to players on hot streaks and allow his contagious misfortune to "cool" them off. Macy is perfect for the role, with his hangdog face and air of complete defeat.

The Cooler is rather different from its casino-set film brethren, though, in its use of the fantastic. Bernie's luck is so horrible that it is of a near-mythical quality. The magic of the movie is that we are not overwhelmed by a sense of doom, even though we perhaps should be. Bernie's life has been one of truly horrendous events: An ex-wife addicted to drugs. A shamelessly self-absorbed son. Bernie's own injury inflicted by his own "best friend" over a gambling debt. These things are not to be laughed over. And yet, by film's end, we feel safe in being amused by them.

The amusement comes from the key element in the story, provided by Maria Bello's character, Natalie. When she comes into Bernie's life, his legendary misfortune is magically reversed. He begins to win. Of course, it's not as simple as his luck changing and everything becoming hunky-dorey. Since his employer has a serious, vested interest in Bernie's bad luck, Bernie's rising fortunes become the very thing that put him in danger. The story plays with these opposing forces extremely well, bouncing Bernie back and forth in an effort to break free of the monumental forces working upon him and simply find a happy existence.

The balance between drama and comedy is near-perfect in the movie, which is impressive considering just how dark the tone gets at times. If you're not opposed to a few scenes of gangster-type violence and colorful language, then I highly recommend this one to you.

While nearly every scene is great, those between Brando
and Broderick are arguably the best. One could also
consider this role as Brando's last one of true merit.
The Freshman (1990)

Director: Andrew Bergman

Movies like this haven't been made in quite some time, and it's a shame. The Freshman showcases the playfulness, solid construction, and smarts that were hallmarks of some of the best comedies of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The movie takes, as its primary source of humor, the fact that Marlon Brando plays a New York City mafia don, Carmine "Jimmy The Toucan" Sabatini, who may or may not be the inspiration for the fictional (?) character Vito Corleone from The Godfather. One might think that such self-referential humor is a lazy crutch, but this is far from the case. The story really follows prospective NYU film school freshman Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick), who rapidly becomes wrapped up in a dizzying plot worthy of the most labyrinthine film noir.

Except that it's hilarious. Broderick plays the perfect fish out of water, who's confusion and naivete make the perfect contrast to the cool, urbane confidence of nearly everyone else in the movie. The film is replete with great vignettes, populated with weird and memorable characters who would be right at home in a Coen brothers film.

Anyone who has seen and appreciated The Godfather should watch this and get some great laughs out of it. Once could probably argue that it was the last solid role that Marlon Brando played in his life. For that, and a host of other reasons, it's one to watch. Or re-watch, as I did.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Idiot Boxing: The Sopranos, Seasons 1, 2, and 3 (1999 to 2001)

Season 1 (1999)

Meet the fellas. These four guys, as well as a host of other
relatives, friends, and rivals, will frighten and amuse you
for the foreseeable future. Problem with that?
Yes, I apparently was that one guy in the English-speaking world who had not seen the Sopranos during its original airing. I finally had some time to go back and give it a shot.

The first season is certainly good. It sets up the tone immediately, and you know you're going to be watching a show in the gangster genre that scratches every itch you have for the more sensational and entertaining elements of it. If you have the slightest appreciation for the New York mafia films of Martin Scorsese, then you know right away that you're going to like The Sopranos. From first episode to last in this inaugural season, you have the Greek-tragedy style family conflicts, acted out by narrow-minded but terrifyingly violent criminals. This, of course, is tempered by a steady dose of hilarious goombah dialogue. 

The first season basically sets the main characters into place, and it gives us the general story arc of Tony Soprano taking over the local "family," from the deceased former head. Of course, as Johnny Caspar famously said in Miller's Crossing, "Runnin' t' ain't all gravy." As he tries to juggle the many street soldiers and stresses of keeping his crime syndicate organized, Tony attempts to deal with his wildly dysfunctional family. The stresses in his life ultimately cause him to start having fainting spells brought on by panic attacks. And so, Tony starts seeing a psychiatrist. 

There's very little that's weak or boring about the first season. The only things that I found to be a drag were the three unlikable and/or vapid characters: Tony's self-absorbed sister Janice, his malevolently miserable mother Livia, and his inconceivably dull son Anthony Junior, or A.J. Whenever these characters got any sort of major screen time, I found myself hoping the scene would end as quickly as possible.

This first season was a great start to the series, ending with an assassination attempt that could only happen in the world of mafia mythology. After finishing this inaugural set of episodes, I jumped rather quickly into season 2...

Season 2 (2000)

Richie April - the signature character from the second
season. And yes, he is as psychotic as he looks. Tony refers to
his "Manson lamps" in one hilarious exchange.
Things picked up right where they left off, with absolutely no waning of entertainment value. In truth, the second season improved upon the first. The best addition is that of the character Richie April, a psychopathic ex-con who, soon after his prison release in the first episode, starts to go on various rampages throughout the Sopranos family territory. The other major story line follows one of Tony's main lieutenants, Big Pussy, who has been informing  to the F.B.I. on the family's doings for years. 

The writing in this season gets even sharper, and the confrontations between the stronger characters become more intense and compelling. And blessedly, the humor is ever-present. Whether it's Richie making a proud gift of a hideous leather jacket to Tony, Tony's bemused harangues of his deadbeat sister Janice, or Big Pussy's delusions of being a real-deal G-Man, the characters and their words offer plenty of levity to take the edge off of the brutal intensity that runs through the series.

The finale of the series is a strong one, with Big Pussy's informing ways bringing things to a serious head. It's yet another example, not unlike Henry Hill in Goodfellas, of how the delusion of friendship completely dissolves when those "friends" sense themselves or their profits threatened in any way.

Season 3 (2001)

This is probably my favorite season so far. It had very few dull moments, and some extremely tense and uncomfortable ones to boot.

This season seemed to be even darker than the first two, featuring some of the outright nastiness of organized crime. Personifying much of this is newcomer to the series Joe Pantoliano as Ralph, a loudmouth wise-ass with self control problems. Between constantly razzing other guys in the Sopranos crew and committing horrendous acts such as killing a stripper who's carrying his unborn child, Ralph is a stick of slimy dynamite rolling through the season.

For the most part, Ralph is scum. In the latter part of the
season, though, he is given a surprising touch of depth. At
least, depth in terms of a mafioso 
The series also used Meadow to explore some shadier areas. Tony's blatant racism rears its head at Meadow's first college boyfriend, a Jewish African-American who Tony physically threatens. Even more frightening is Meadow's relationship with Jackie Junior, the son of Tony's former best friend and family boss, Jackie April. Junior, however, is not his father, and his narcissism, selfishness, and misguided desire to follow in his father's footsteps spell doom for him.

The most abysmal place that this season goes to, though, is when Doctor Mefli is brutally raped by a stranger as she goes to her car in a parking garage. It seems a strange non-sequitur within the context of the show, but the episode in which it unfolds is a truly excellent one. When Tony extends an offer to help, seemingly giving a clear chance to have Mefli exact brutal revenge on her attacker, she pauses, and then coldly refuses it. This closing moment is about as impactful as any I've seen in the series so far.

This season does, as expected, continue the wonderful humor of the show. This is probably best exeplified by the now-classic episode Pine Barrens, in which Christopher and Paulie end up stuck in the Jersey pine barrens trying to track down a Russian with whom they have run afoul.

These first three seasons were strong, and I'll definitely keep watching. I am, however, a little bit Soprano'd out for the moment, so I'll take some time off to watch a few other series that I'm itching to see. More to come, though.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Trip to Italy (2014)

Director: Stephen Winterbottom

Hilarious. Though I can't say everyone would love it.

If you saw The Trip, by the same director, featuring the same pair of actors, with exactly the same premise, then you know almost exactly what you're in for. With a little role reversal and a completely new setting, you get the same semi-scripted banter that Coogan and Brydon delivered in the first one. While I thought that this recent show is actually a bit tighter and funnier, it's not markedly so. Either way, if you laughed at the first, you'll laugh at the second.

If you haven't seen the first one, here's how they both go: Well-known British funnymen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon hit the road to sample the food at several noted restaurants. While both successful comedians, their styles are rather different from one another, with Coogan seeing himself as a tad more sophisticated and Brydon sometimes aiming for a lower common denominator. They do, however, riff off of each other exceptionally well. Whether it's dreaming up and living out silly scenarios through dialogue or battling each other with dueling celebrity impersonations, their two-man improvisational skills are hard to beat.

As often as not, it's when Coogan and Brydon are kicked  back,
nattering back and forth that the film is most amusing.
Of course, this type of humor isn't for everyone. The movie has no "main story," other than Coogan and Brydon trying to live their lives as long-distance fathers, while being aging and well-known comedians. The inversion from the first film is that, while in the first it was Coogan who was portrayed as the self-absorbed, sex- and career-driven one, in Italy, Brydon seems to be going through his own mid-life crisis of self indulgence.

Interestingly, the elements of the more personal lives of the characters are perfectly balanced: they are given just enough time to add a touch of substance to the film, while never detracting from the main purpose of the film, which is to let these two guys make us laugh. No written description can do justice to the magic at play when Coogan and Brydon are in their comedic "zones," but I do offer this one clip from the first film, which I think perfectly displays their chops. For those unfamiliar, just use this as a litmus test as to whether you would care for either film.

For those who enjoyed the first and are wondering if this one hold up to it, I say unequivocally, "Yes."