Thursday, March 24, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: The Killing (1956); High Sierra (1941); Mesrine (2008)

The Killing (1956)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

An uneven but fairly compelling early work from a film master, and a rather uniquely dark caper movie.

The title of the movie refers to the slang term of making a large amount of money in a short time, as well as the more literal reference to murder. Both meanings are appropriate for this film. The Killing is a caper tale centered on a group who plan to rob a horse track of two million dollars. The head of the group, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), is the only professional thief in the group. The others are racetrack employees who, for various reasons, are looking to make a lot of money quickly. Clay plots out a very thorough and meticulous plan which requires expert timing. Once the plan starts to unfold, various hiccups begin to make things even harder than they already were, with Clay doing everything he can to execute his big score.

The movie takes a hard look at the brutal and dark consequences of crime, as do all of the very best noir  movies. All but one or two of the most minor members of the thieving crew are shown to be rather selfish, callous men whose greed or general weakness leads them into ever-more-foolish decisions. Unlike lesser crime films, The Killing does nothing to glamorize the thieves or their unsavory deeds. There is the compelling nature of the plan and its execution, as with all good caper movies, but this hardly overshadows the crew's dark motivations.

The primary distraction in this movie is the dialogue. Many of the characters are constantly spouting off tough guy lines in a rushed manner that spoke to some weak acting and uninspired scripting. This was especially disappointing considering that legendary crime fiction writer Jim Thompson wrote the script. Despite this, had I been watching this movie with someone else, we almost certainly would have been having plenty of good laughs at the abundance of silly, forced lines.

A lesser but rather obvious merit of the movie is the cinematography. This might not come as a major surprise, given that Stanley Kubrick directed this movie. Still, The Killing was his first major, full-length feature film. The then-only-28-year-old Kubrick was already showing his uncanny eye for striking camera angles, lighting, and using visual grammar to tell stories. This alone makes it worth seeing, as it is a very early but major step along a genius's path towards film mastery.

High Sierra (1941)

Director: Raoul Walsh

A compelling basic story buried within some painfully dated dialogue and acting.

I love Humphrey Bogart. While I haven't seen the majority of the many films he was in, I have seen around a half dozen of his best-known and best-loved movies. From these, it's easy to see why he became and still is a movie legend. With this in mind, I was excited to watch one of his relatively early starring roles in a crime movie. I have to admit some disappointment, however.

The story is actually the stuff of very strong noir. Bogart plays Roy Earle, a bank robber who has just been released from prison and is already setting up his next major score. The hard-boiled Earle came from a small town in Indiana, and he seems to have a tiny soft spot for small-town folks. This is clear when he comes across a farming family making its way out to California, whom he helps in several ways. Outside of his tender spot for such people, Earle is a rather severe man who does not suffer fools lightly, and will not hesitate to use violence if he feels the need.

One part of the story revolves around Earle's current big score - a jewelry heist arranged through an old associate of his. His partners in the caper are a couple of young, hot-blooded hoods who Earle dislikes but tolerates. The other part of the tale relates to Earle's relationships with two women; one is a young member of the farming family, and the other is a weary and jaded former dance girl. Seeing Earle try to juggle all of these aspects of his life is the real meat of the movie, and the story takes some turns which are intriguing in their unpredictability. I admire how the movie steered clear of a nice, pat, Hollywood ending.

Unfortunately, I had to work rather hard to maintain my appreciation. Even more than the above-reviewed The Killing, the dialogue and much of the acting in High Sierra have aged horribly. While there are some memorable lines, far too much comes right from the cheap, pulp "dime store hood" handbook. Bogart was a great enough actor that he could sell some of the dialogue better than his supporting cast, but even Bogie could only do so much. Also, the storyline involving the farming family is fraught with completely inorganic and illogical jumps. I feel that this movie served as an earlier, less balanced attempt at what director Raoul Walsh would do far better eight years later with the classic White Heat. I'll watch that latter picture again any time. High Sierra, however, is not one I'll ever return to.

Mesrine (2008)

Director: Jean-Francois Richet

Absolutely brilliant, if grim, biopic of a larger-than-life arch criminal.

Mesrine is the story of real-life French criminal Jacque Mesrine (pronounced "may-reen"), one of the most irrepressible, vicious, and public felons in the 20th century. Mesrine took to crime fairly early in the 1960s, after a stint in the French Army. He quickly became a noted burglar, bank robber, and violent thug with an appetite for women and high living. Though he made attempts at leading a "straight" life, they were few and relatively short-lived. For nearly all of his adult life, Mesrine was committing serious and violent crimes, eluding capture, being captured, or escaping from prison. A fair number of his exploits played out in the public eye, thanks to an image he created of himself which appealed to certain sects of the French masses.

Prior to watching this 2-film epic, I had no idea who Mesrine was, but I was fascinated. The movie urged me to look up some facts about the man, and it would seem that the film does not embellish his wild life. His story is told with a vibrance and energy found in some of the best gangster movies, such as Goodfellas or Bonnie and Clyde. The main difference with Mesrine, though, is that there is even less whitewashing of the man's most despicable actions. While it's made clear that Mesrine possessed good looks and charisma enough to seduce women, fellow criminals, and the French public at large, it doesn't balk at showing that he was also a brutal murderer who would torture or even kill anyone who offended his massive ego. The actions which play out on screen can be terrible, but I still found them compelling, given what an outsized persona Mesrine fashioned for himself.

A classic knee-capping, true to the violent nature of the title
character. It's so brutal that you might fail to notice just how
masterful the colors and  lighting of the scene are. This is
typical in these two movies.
The technical aspects of the movie are impressive. The set design and cinematography are first-rate, casting the ugly but oft-exciting world of Jacque Mesrine's life into a palatable light. The acting is also exceptional, with Vincent Cassel turning in a phenomenal performance in the title role. Some of the transitions between time periods can feel a bit rushed, which is surprising for a movie released in two parts and adding up to over four hours. This may just be a function of the sheer quantity of curious activities in which Mesrine invovled himself. The creators could probably have justified adding a tad more to it and making it a mini-series or a trilogy, if they thought anyone could stomach another hour or two of a rather detestable figure like Mesrine.

Mesrine is one of the darker, harder-hitting gangster movies one is likely to see. For those who enjoy well-executed dramatizations of very real and very frightening criminals, though, this movie is difficult to top. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Kill the Irishman, Drunken Angel, and Animal Kingdom

Kill the Irishman (2011)

Director: Jonathan Hensleigh

It may not be a masterpiece of the gangster film genre, but this one does a lot of things well.

Kill the Irishman tells the tale of the Danny Greene, a very real Cleveland native of Irish descent who became embroiled with the Italian mafia in the 1970s, sometimes as a reluctant partner but more often as a brutally tough adversary. Greene started as a longshoreman working under a corrupt and callous union boss. Greene muscles his way into taking over the operation, as well as several other criminal activities including stealing cargo boxes and cutting the Italian mob in on the action. After a few slip-ups and stints in jail, Greene settles into steady work as a mob enforcer. That is, until he decides to take himself and his Irish comrades out from under the thumb of Italian mafiosi who answer to crime families in New York City. This set off a massive war between 1975 and 1977, which saw dozens of car bombs planted and numerous criminals killed by one another. Through much of it, Greene escaped unscathed, becoming a folk hero to the Irish community of Cleveland.

This is definitely not the typical gangster movie, which is a clear strength. While "real stories" have been told in film plenty of times, there are few real characters like Greene. The blue-collar local was, according to the movie, highly literate and exceptionally intelligent. He was also immensely tough, both physically and mentally, refusing to back down in the face of an imposing force of professional criminals and hitmen. His is a pretty gripping underdog tale, even if he's not exactly the most pleasant of fellows all of the time.

News footage of the very real and, apparently, exceedingly
tough Danny Greene. Not many of us would pull the
"shirtless TV interview" move, but Greene made no bones. 
The cast adds some serious punch. Ray Stevenson was just the man to play the larger-than-life Greene, with his massive physical frame, steely demeanor, and wicked Irish wit. The other notables include Vincent D'Onofrio, Christopher Walken, Vinnie Jones, and Val Kilmer (yes, Iceman was still acting as of 2011). On top of that, nearly every mafia member is played by actors whose faces you are likely to have seen in at least two or three other mafia movies, including Paul Sorvino. This well-seasoned crew goes about its business very well.

The movie does have a few faults. At times, especially during the first act, things seem to feel a bit rushed. For a movie that only clocks in at 107 minutes, I was surprised that some areas went under-explored. Some even result in loose plot threads, such as the conspicuous lack of retribution after Greene unceremoniously humiliates a powerful union boss and takes his job. An even larger omission is what follows Greene's agreement to turn into an informant for the FBI, which is never again raised after the bargain is initially struck. Also, a few of the characters, as well acted as they are, felt a touch incomplete. While the bond between Greene and his closest cohorts is clear, the details of their relationships are not always fleshed out. This is actually a movie that could have been better with an extra 10 or 15 extra minutes to fill in a few gaps.

I may not watch this movie again any time soon, but I would gladly recommend it to anyone looking for a solid gangster movie that falls a little outside of the familiar Godfather and Goodfellas mold.

Post Script: The documentary feature on the DVD reveals how Greene was not quite as admirable a figure as the movie suggests. He was a complex man, and he was generous to the Irish in his neighborhood, but he was certainly not above some nasty violence or even snitching to the FBI to get what he wanted. This only reinforces my belief that Greene's life had plenty to justify a longer movie.

Drunken Angel (1948)

Original Japanese Title: Yoidore tenshi

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Fascinating and atypical character study of gangsters. You just have to look past some dated acting techniques to appreciate it.

Drunken Angel focuses on Doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura), an alcoholic physician who ministers to the denizens of a post-World War II slum in Tokyo. Sanada is a blunt, temperamental, and alcoholic doctor who is brutally honest with his patients, even the yakuza-connected thugs whom he occasionally stitches up. When Sanada one night removes a bullet from the current head thug, the handsome and strutting Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), he detects early signs on tuberculosis. When Matsunaga rebuffs the doctor's suggestion that he might have the potentially fatal disease, a struggle begins between Sanada and the very psychology of the "tough guy" gangster widely found within the yakuza.

The strength of the film lies firmly in the emotional and mental struggle between the doctor and the primitive instincts of those criminals at the top of the local food chain. This is a more profound variation on the typical gangster movie, which is far more often focused on grabs for power or the dynamic personalities of charismatic or powerful criminals. The fact that Sanada is not merely a do-gooder, but rather an ornery booze bag with his own problems, suggests just how warped the morality in places such as post-WWII Japan had become. The beaten-down state of the neighborhood is as much a character of this movie, as is the will of its denizens to survive in any way they can.

I couldn't ignore a typical feature of films from this era, especially Japanese ones: much of the acting is sadly dated and better suited to the stage than cinema. The overblown physical gesticulations and overall lack of subtlety continued in film until well into the 1950s, and Drunken Angel is no exception. While Shimura and Mifune are much more naturalistic, it only serves to accentuate how clumsy the performances by the entire supporting cast look in comparison. The heavy doses of unimaginative "yakuza tough guy" dialogue does nothing to help the matter.

As with all Kurosawa movies, this is one where the basic story and overall theme is likely to stay with you long after you watch it. This is fortunate, as I am unlikely to watch it again. A true student of cinema is likely to give it repeat viewings for its masterful camera work, but I am no true student. Instead, I could appreciate the look and emotional tones of the movie, just as I think anyone could and should.

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Director: David Michod

Though one critic called it "Australia's answer to Goodfellas," I found this one more like Australia's answer to At Close Range. This is a good thing.

Focusing mostly on Joshua "Jay" Cody, the movie follows this modern Australian high schooler just after his mother dies of a heroine overdose. With nowhere else to go, he returns to living with his grandmother and three uncles, all of whom are criminals of a rather serious nature, including armed bank robbery and drug dealing. Jay doesn't seem to have much of a will of his own, so he begins getting caught up in the wild larceny of his uncles. It isn't until several of those closest to him start to die that he is truly forced to make some very hard decisions about whom he will ally himself with.

This basic premise is quite similar to the excellent based-in-fact film At Close Range, though without the strong patriarchal figure portrayed by Christopher Walken. Nearly everything else is there, though. The aimless young man. The warped family that sucks him into their twisted lifestyles. The generally grim, fatalistic tone. Like many of the best gangster and crime movies, Animal Kingdom strips away all of the glamour often layered onto such stories, leaving us with its most horrible aspects.

This description surely suggests that this is not an "entertaining" movie, and it is not. I did not, however, find it a chore to watch. The plot is unpredictable, the action is very well-paced, and the acting is outstanding (this last was a bit of a surprise, as the only actors whom I recognized were Guy Pierce and Ben Mendelsohn). Seeing just how a young man at a frightening crossroads reacts to the craziness around him makes for intense and compelling viewing.

I don't know that I'll ever need to see this one again, but it is an excellent gangster film, and one that likely flew under the radar for being foreign, relatively low budget, and lacking "name" actors. Don't let that turn you off, though. In fact, there is an upcoming TNT television series of the same name, and inspired by the original Australian movie. I don't know if I'll bother with the show, but the movie is worth seeing for anyone. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Documentary Fest!! Jaco (2015); The Great Wing Hunt (2013); King of Arcades (2014)

Jaco (2015)

Directors: Stephen Kijak and Paul Marchand

I'm always fascinated by genius in its various forms. The documentary Jaco is a very well-done study of the life of the singular musical genius John "Jaco" Pastorius, the man who many great modern musicians consider the greatest electric bass player of all time.

I had never heard of Pastorius. Fortunately, the documentary is accessible to someone like me, as it provides solid background about Jaco's early life growing up in south Florida. We get to see how he grew up around music, and how this sparked his innate facility to translate his thoughts and feelings into music. Before he was even 20 years old, Jaco was already a known and sought-after talent among jazz musicians who were morphing the style into more modern forms. The documentary includes an amazing quantity of testimonials from some of the biggest and most-respected musicians from the last 40-odd years. It's one thing to hear about a person's genius from his close friends. It's another to hear about them from John Coltrane, Sting, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Flea, Joni Mitchell, and other titans of music.

As many such stories go, Jaco's had a sad ending. He died at the tragically young age of 35 years old. While it was not the result of a malignant illness, Pastorius did suffer mental disorders that were perhaps hinted at earlier in life. Eventually, his condition became severe enough that it had drowned out his immense musical talent. It is ultimately a tale of the fine line between genius and insanity, not unlike other well-known tales like that of David Helfgott, Syd Barrett, or Brian Wilson.

This film tells Jaco's tale in a compelling way, for the most part going chronologically through his rise to and fall from prominence in the musical world. Along with the numerous interviews with Jaco's collaborators and copious concert footage, there is an amazing amount of home video. These latter portions help humanize a man who might otherwise be considered a more mythical legend, rather than a rounded person who laughed, joked, and played with his children. Such images drive home the tragedy of Pastorius's ultimate fate.

One of the great takeaways of any great music documentary is the discovery of music which you may have never heard before. This is definitely the case with my experience with Jaco. While I had heard of several of the bands and musicians in the film, I was not terribly familiar with their music. I found much of what I heard in the movie very appealing, though, and I have already started listening to some of Pastorius's solo albums and his work with The Weather Report. This documentary is already enhancing my appreciation for music which I had never before considered.

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt (2013)

Director: Matt Reynolds

I had every intention of only giving this movie about 15 minutes of my time. Imagine my surprise when I gladly watched the entire thing.

While I appreciate a good Buffalo-style chicken wing, I am far from an aficionado. Despite this, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt was great fun to watch. It follows Matt Reynolds, an American journalist with a passion for wings. Reynolds lived and worked in Slovakia, where he introduced many of his local friends to Buffalo wings. His work didn't stop there, though. Reynolds became possessed by the idea of finding the best Buffalo wings in the "Wing Belt," the area around Buffalo, New York, where many cooks take great pride in their wing recipes. Reynolds quit his writing job, rounded up several "wing experts," hired a camera crew from among his Slovakian friends, and went on a three-week marathon of wing consumption that would put most people in the hospital with congestive heart failure.

The group of wing experts is a colorful bunch, consisting of several oddballs with rather large personalities. Their enthusiasm can be a joy to watch, even for those of us who are nowhere near as picky about what amounts to cheap pub grub. The Slovakian team, while dedicated and skilled videographers, exhibit hilarious reactions to Reynolds's quirky dedication to his goal, which often confounds them. The interplay between the different groups is alone worth viewing.

This documentary is not a major commitment. In a concise 71 minutes, we get the history of the Buffalo wing, the entire journey of Reynolds's group, and their final decision on the best wing in the country. We also get Reynolds's relationship with his ever-so-patient girlfriend, who deals with the stress of going along with such a bizarre journey. All of the stories come full circle, making for a very satisfying viewing experience. Don't be surprised if you come away with a serious hankering for some good chicken wings.

King of Arcades (2014)

Director: Sean Tiedeman

Low-budget, local documentary with a fairly limited appeal.

King of Arcades is a blend of self-promotion and love letter to classic arcade games.

Produced by its subject, Richie "Knuckles", this documentary traces Richie's love of classic console arcade games, from his time as a child of the 1980s up to the current day. The documentary spends a nice amount of the first half hour or so laying out the history of arcade games. For someone like me, who has always loved such games, this was as compelling as anything else in the movie. The filmmakers did nab interviews with some of the heavy hitters in the history of arcade gaming, which makes these sections worthy entries into the documented history of this modern phenomenon of entertainment.

The rest of the documentary focuses on Knucklez himself, who is of moderate interest, but perhaps overvalues just how fascinating he is. His background as a hardcore rock singer adds a bit of spice, but is hardly the stuff of supreme curiosity. Seeing him track down and refurbish old consoles, while not exactly gripping, does illustrate his deep love and commitment to the games with which he stocks his arcade in western New Jersey.

King of Arcades is probably about 15 to 20 minutes too long, and it suffers from a touch of narcissism. Still, it's worth watching for fans of old-school arcade games. It also profiles a nice go-to arcade where they still know what old-school gamers like. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

New Release! Deadpool

Silly? Sophomoric? Sure, at times. But
there is also plenty of adult insanity in
this irreverent little treat.
Director: Tim Miller

A fun, irreverent ride through well-worn landscapes, if not exactly as great as you might be led to believe.

It's hard to dislike the general spirit of Deadpool, which is very much about sticking its tongue out and thrusting its middle finger up at the genre of superhero flicks.

Based on the character and comic of the same name, the movie traces the origin of "Deadpool", the moniker chosen by lethal mercenary Wade Wilson. Wilson is a motor-mouthed, top-notch fighter who occasionally exhibit the slightest touches of humanity, though he keeps them buried deep beneath an endless supply of filthy one-liners and string of hedonistic indulgences. Wilson eventually finds the woman of his dreams, Vanessa, a prostitute with the attitude wild enough to become Wade's soul mate. When Wilson contracts terminal cancer, he volunteers for experimental treatments which trigger his latent mutant abilities to regenerate at hyper-rapid speeds. This does allow him to easily beat the cancer; unfortunately, the process also hideously scars his entire body. Wilson also learns that he is meant to be a slave soldier sold off to the highest bidder. After escaping, Wilson adopts the name Deadpool and goes on a mission to find the twisted scientist who double-crossed him, thinking that he might be able to fix his dreadful appearance.

With an endless supply of jokes and a "f*** superheroes" philosophy, Deadpool throws everything that it has at you, from the opening scenes to the closing credits. True to the comic books, Deadpool breaks the fourth wall and frequently addresses us viewers. This might seem cheap, but it works fine if you just chalk it up to the very real possibility that Wilson has been driven insane. It's also pretty hilarious, much of the time. One of the character's other trademarks, his nonstop jokes, is on full display. Not every gag hits, to be sure, but there are so many that even when only one out of three are good, it still adds up to plenty of laughs. There is no better time like the present to make fun of superhero movies, given how ubiquitous and lucrative the genre has become in the last ten years, and Deadpool is one of the few, and certainly the gutsiest, to take the air out of the balloon.

How many superheroes would chill in a hovel with their
blind, randy roommate? I now know of one.
The other primary asset of the movie is the way it fully embraced a "hard R" rating. This movie is in no way meant for children, with language blue enough for an inmate in Ryker's solitary and violence to make Kill Bill's Bride a bit queasy. True, the violence is silly and cartoonish enough that it can hardly be taken seriously. Still, a parent would still have a lot of explaining to do if they let any kid under the age of 14 or 15 watch the gleeful brutality in Deadpool. This adult orientation is refreshing, as it allows the movie to put such ultra-violence in its proper place. That is, the world of fantasy. Even people with little stomach for violence in movies is likely to be unfazed by the utterly ridiculous carnage in Deadpool, so nonsensical is it.

I do feel that the writing could have been sharper and more clever. Still, the movie makes up for much of its lack of creativity with its strong sense of itself and ample humor. I'll definitely be returning to this one, most likely after my next binge through the Marvel Cinematic Universe or after I force myself to go hate-watch Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice next week. It'll make for a nice aperitif. Or at least a quirky, refreshing microbrew to wash out the taste of Ben Affleck's Batman.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Mr. Robot (2015); Agent Carter, season 2 (2016)

Mr. Robot (2015)

Unnerving little series from USA Network, which uses a cagey and unreliable protagonist to take on the biggest of the world's big fish.

Mr. Robot follows Elliot (Rami Malik), a brilliant but painfully awkward computer hacker who finds himself embroiled in a plot to take down a massive corporate conglomerate named Evil Corp. Elliot's day job is for a cyber security firm, but he spends much of his free time "hacking" other people, including friends, looking into their lives through their digital footprints. From the information he finds, Elliot often enacts his own sort of vigilante justice on those who harm others. When Elliot comes across a hacking crew known as "fsociety", the stakes grow to global proportions, as their target, Evil Corp, is the largest and most ubiquitous corporation the world has ever seen. Making things more complex is that Elliot suffers from anxiety disorder, and possibly delusions, which are pushing him in uncertain directions.

The show is brilliantly realized. Over the course of its ten episodes, there is a clear focus, even though there are one or two episodes which slow down the main plot just a bit. Like most great shows, Mr. Robot doesn't rely solely on its grand "good versus evil" plot for its depth, though the battle against Evil Corp is quiet intelligent and extremely timely. Just as interesting is Elliot, who is a tortured and pained genius. Watching Elliot's fight against his own fractured perceptions and social ineptitude is just as compelling as his war against Evil Corp. And lest you think that the entire show is a dark, brooding slog, there is a nice amount of humor, albeit of a rather dark variety much of the time. The very name of the enemy highlights the humorous "meta" tone in much of the show.

There are some elements which are not exactly original. However, the show is abundantly aware of when it is "borrowing" from other sources, and it even offers little tips of the cap to these inspirations. I suppose this isn't exactly an excuse for a lack of originality, but it does go some way towards excusing a few taints of plagiarism.

This initial season ended with several large questions left to be answered, but it remained contained enough to feel like a complete opening chapter to a larger work. I'll certainly be ready for season 2, which comes out in summer of 2016.

Agent Carter, season 2 (2016)

Really disappointing, which truly hurts to admit.

This is not to say that I thought season 2 was outright terrible. However, given how much I like the Peggy Carter character and how strong I found season one, this season left much to be desired. In fact, I'm willing to state that season 2 of Agent Carter is the weakest chapter to date in the eight-plus years of the MCU.

The main story is actually decent, by superhero show standards. It revolves around a substance known as "Zero Matter", which was discovered during atomic bomb tests during World War II. This amorphous, shifting liquid has mysterious properties, most alarming of which is that it seems to attract and absorb anything nearby. Several different parties have intense interest, some with public safety and others with power in mind. One one side are Agent Peggy Carter and several members of the Strategic Science Reserve branch in Los Angeles. On the other is a group of cigar-smoking, rich, white, old guys, The Council of Nine. The wildcard in this is Whitney Frost, an aging Hollywood star actress who is secretly a genius physicist with her own designs on Zero Matter. The properties of Zero Matter and the maneuvering of the different groups to get at it keeps the plot moving well enough, but I had some serious issues with this season:

Firstly, I found the tone wandering into silliness and slapstick far too frequently. While no character was immune to this, the most obvious victim was Edwin Jarvis. While Jarvis was a source of some great wry comedy in the first season, he is often portrayed as clownishly naive in the sophomore season. Jarvis aside, there were far too many moments when, in the midst of a tense and high-stakes struggle, characters would be ripping off flippant one-liners. The first season had some great lines, but they knew their place within the overall tone of each scene. This season contained a baffling number of incidents when this was not the case. Making it worse is that many of the lines themselves were duds, being overly broad or obvious.

Secondly, the actions committed by supposedly intelligent and capable characters could often only be termed as "idiotic". Why are Carter and Souza having a cute little verbal tete-a-tete in Frost's room when time is of the absolute essence? Why does nobody think to hold onto Souza's lifeline BEFORE he starts getting sucked into the Zero Matter hole? These were just from the final episode, but they were emblematic of many similarly weak plot points.

Doctor Jason Wilkes, one of several characters, both new and
old, who had plenty of potential go unfulfilled in this season.
Third, the acting and writing were often campy. The embodiment is most obviously in Joseph Manfredi, whose performance seemed like a bad impression of Robert DeNiro from Analyze This. If he had just had a few cameo appearances, this would have been tolerable, but he became a rather major presence in the final three or four episodes. Along with Manfredi was also Doctor Jason Wilkes, who had potential as a character but who was reduced to a cliched nerdy, bumbling scientist much of the time. At first, I had hoped that Wilkes, an African-American character, would have provided some smart social commentary on racial intolerance of the time, much as gender bias was part of the first season. However, this territory was explored very little. And nearly every character, including Peggy and Frost, was forced to spit out at least one or two groan-worthy bad gags. It almost seemed as if the show's energy and efforts were spent more on stylish costumes that accentuated Hayley Atwell's cleavage than on meaningful dialogue or character development.

Another element I had serious problems with was the resolution to everything. I found everything far too pat, and rather anti-climactic. All of that build up, just to have a brief showdown between Frost and the Zero Matter hole? Then the hole just sucks the matter out of Frost and closes? That's it? Really? In the end, after ten entire episodes, the only real cost to the major players is that Frost is in a mental institution and Jarvis's wife can't have children. Sad, to be sure, but not exactly the high stakes of the first season, when we saw a truly admirable and likable character like Chief Dooley die heroically, the city of New York saved from the Leviathan gas, and Peggy come to terms with her love of the believed-dead Steve Rogers.

The season was not completely without a few redeeming qualities. I thought that Dottie Underwood was brought back and utilized well, for the most part. I also enjoy how Jack Thompson continued to dwell in certain gray areas. Unfortunately, their stories comprised too little, compared to what I found weaker elements of the show.

It pains me to write it, but I would rather not see another Agent Carter season, if this is the best they can offer in the future. In looking at other sites and ratings, I appear to be in a bit of a minority with my opinions, so I fear that, should a third season be made, it is unlikely to be any better than this one. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Before I Die #563: Foolish Wives (1922)

This is the 563rd movie I've watched out of the 1,172 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Erich Von Stroheim

One of the more laborious silent films that I've watched. I can make a guess as to why it is considered a "must watch," but I had to do some mental work to arrive at this guess.

The movie follows a trio of con artists posing as Russian aristocrats in Monte Carlo during the 1920's, when the area was already a noted playground for the wealthy and "social elite." One of the thieves is an authentic Russian aristocrat, the womanizing Count Karanzim (Erich von Stroheim), but the other two are mistresses of his who are posing as his cousins. Though Karanzim is essentially broke, the three are living off counterfeit money as they hatch their newest scheme - to swindle a large amount of money from Helen Hughes - the wife of a visiting U.S. ambassador. The young and gullible Mrs. Hughes falls for Karanzim's charm, agreeing to give him the money and even falling for him romantically. Karanzim's maid, whom he has been stringing along for years, becomes jealous and attempts to burn the Count and Helen alive in their rental estate. The pair escape, but Karanzim eventually meets a brutal fate at the hands of the protective father of another of his female "conquests."

This film was a good example of why I am not a connoisseur of silent film. Like many of its peers, Foolish Wives is slow in pace and rather shallow in characters. Of course, this is an easy reaction to have when the film is seen 93 years after its release. The advances in film technique and storytelling have simply far outstripped the innovations which progressive filmmakers like Von Stroheim were employing nearly a century ago. Taken with other "classics" from the era like D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm and Broken Blossoms, Foolish Wives is part of a group of older films which were essentially simple fairy tales containing a few themes that were relatively mature for their day. Every character is a one-dimensional villain, victim, or hero, with no real attempt to explore deeper motivations or emotions. It can make for rather dull viewing, especially when the story takes nearly 150 minutes to tell.

One of countless wide shots which showed scope and
perspective that only the best-funded and well-directed
movies of the era could boast.
I can only guess that the film is considered a classic because of its technical merits. The locales, sets, and costumes are as lavish as anything you are likely to see from a film made at that time period, and I imagine that this was a further growth of the scale on which a story could be told through cinema. More impressive, though, is the camerawork and editing, which is clearly among the absolute best of the era. Viewers may have to remind themselves of the context of filmmaking's history to see it, but this film was among the first to exhibit mastery of camera techniques that have long since become standards of the art.

The only other Von Stroheim movie I've seen is his much later The Grand Illusion, which was released in 1937 and which I enjoyed far more. That later film added the sophistication of plot and character that I found sorely lacking in Foolish Wives.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Salvatore Giuliano (1960); Things Change (1988); Bugsy (1991)

Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

Director: Francesco Rosi

An interesting but dizzying tale based on real events and told with skill and some creativity.

The titular historical figure is presented as an enigma. Between roughly 1940 and 1950, Giuliano was an outlaw who fought for and against various factions, and often for himself, within a fractured Sicily. Between Italian nationalists, Sicilian separatists, aspiring communists, and the Mafia, Giuliano managed to either placate or keep all potential adversaries at bay. Through kidnapping, murder, effective guerrilla fighting tactics, and a juggling of connections, he evaded capture for an entire decade. In 1950, however, he finally met his fate.

The figure of Giuliano is curious enough, but this movie takes a very interesting approach to telling the story. Instead of presenting a sort of biopic with its infamous subject at its center, director Francesco Rosi keeps the outlaw at the periphery. In fact, aside from a few shots of Giuliano's dead body, we never see his living, breathing face in the movie. Instead, the bandit is used to probe into the social and political forces swirling around the Sicilian countryside, and how they both create, sustain, and ultimately wipe out a person of Giuliano's singular nature. It's an engaging approach which had me constantly trying to piece the puzzle together, with mostly satisfying results.

Admittedly, there are some details that I simply could not keep up with. Rosi seems to have made this movie assuming that many of its viewers would be familiar with Giuliano's story, given his infamy and the fact that his life played out only twelve years before the movie's release. Perhaps to an Italian, European, or even a some American viewers in the 1960s, the endless stream of names and factions was easier to keep straight, but such was not the case for me. This chaotic narrative structure was frustrating at times, but never so much that I lost the general thread of the tale.

The cast was apparently mostly stocked with Sicilian locals, which is always a double-edged sword. You get plenty of characters who are the genuine article, in terms of appearance, but they are often lacking in acting skills. This can be a bit distracting.

Salvatore Giuliano is a well-made film with some commendable artistry to it. It's certainly worth seeing for fans of Italian cinema and mafia movies. It makes for an interesting compliment and even prequel film to more modern, realistic takes on the subjects such as Gomorrah. I'm not likely to watch it again, though.

Things Change (1988)

Director: David Mamet

Though noticeably lighter than Mamet's other movies, Things Change is yet another of his that I find competent but far from mind-blowing.

The movie centers on two very different New Yorkers: Gino (Don Ameche) and Jerry (Joe Mantegna). Gino is an elderly shoe-shiner who hails from Italy. One day, two mafiosi approach him with a deal: take the rap and spend three years in jail for one of their associates who bears an uncanny resemblance to him, and in return their bosses will pay him handsomely. Gino accepts, and he is given over to the care of Jerry, a mafia soldier who is in the doghouse with his bosses. Jerry, seeing that the kindly and genteel Gino will be spending his next few years in prison, decides to buck his bosses' orders and fly Gino to Lake Tahoe for a good time. Once in Tahoe, however, Gino and Jerry get mixed up with local mafia members and have to dance around being discovered.

The movie is fairly light-hearted, in the way that few mafia or David Mamet movies are. There are plenty of attempts at charming humor, but I found most of them uninteresting, despite sometimes being unexpected. The bond between Gino and Jerry is a bit touching, but it does smack a bit of sentimentality and a lack of natural progression.

I've now seen about a half dozen David Mamet movies, and I am simply not much of a fan. His plots are fine, and he has a keen eye for visuals. However, his dialogue is very often overthought and has a herky-jerky feel that can feel artificial at times. And for whatever reasons, every Mamet-directed movie I've watched features at least one oddly stiff performance by actors. Things Change is no exception.

This movie wasn't a chore to watch, but it's not hard for me to see why it is currently out of print and it is never really mentioned among the best gangster movies of all time, despite solid performances by great actors like Ameche and Mantegna. Hardly a must-see for mafia movie buffs.

Bugsy (1991)

Director: Barry Levinson

A movie that has several impressive things going for it, but ultimately fails to live up to its potential.

Bugsy tells the story of infamous gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's final decade of life from 1937 to 1947. The film has three things going for it: some fascinating history of mobsters and Las Vegas, brilliant visuals, and a lot of strong acting. Without these things, the movie would be borderline awful. With them, it all rounds out to be a glamorous but highly messy film.

By all historical accounts, Siegel was a volatile mixture of charm, good looks, and unpredictable violence. Caring less about money than about grand schemes and respect, he thought and lived large. Warren Beatty does a fine job as the iconic gangster, simply oozing confidence and a hair-trigger temper. However, he is often severely let down by an uneven script, which has numerous and odd shifts in tone. Siegel's erratic mood swings rarely feel organic, just as the reactions by those around him are sometimes peculiar if not downright ridiculous. There are also several scenes which perhaps seemed like good ideas on paper but fail in the execution. Having Siegel running around his house in a goofy chef's hat while trying to juggle a child's birthday party and defend himself against his murderous mafia partners is apparently meant to be humorous. Instead, it comes off as odd and a bit tiresome, as do several other scenes. On top of this is that the pacing of the film never seems quite right, with whole months or years zipping by, often with  overly subtle or no time cues to indicate the passage. This plays havoc with the personal relationships, which are a key element to much of the movie's drama.

Despite all of these problems I had with the film, I was fascinated to keep learning a little more about how Siegel was involved in the earliest roots of turning Las Vegas into the Mecca of hedonism and wanton spending that it is today. From the moment we see him and a few friends drive out and see a lone, sad "casino" spark Siegel's ultimate vision, I had to see the movie through to the end. It didn't hurt that the movie is a pleasure to look at, in all respects.

What I had forgotten was just how much praise this movie received back in 1991. It was nominated for ten Oscars, in fact (it only won 2, for Art/Set-Direction and Costume Design). These days, though, it is not even mentioned as being in the same league as all-time great gangster movies, let alone great all-around movies. I am honestly surprised that it received all of that original acclaim, given that it came out a whole year after Goodfellas, which raised the bar so very high for such movies. Bugsy clearly has its merits, but they are equaled by its glaring faults.