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.