Saturday, May 28, 2016

Before I Die #565: Pepe le Moko

This is the 565th of the 1,172 movies on the "Before You Die" list which I'm gradually working through.

Director: Julien Duvivier

To an average modern viewer, Pepe le Moko would be a good movie. When taken in the context of its release and the overall history of film, it's an incredible movie.

Taking place roughly around the time it was made in 1936, Pepe le Moko centers on the title character, a thief who is hiding out in the famous Casbah area of Algiers, Algeria. Pepe is, in many ways, the classic romantic rogue - handsome and charming, with just enough integrity to inspire devotion from many who meet him. However, he is also possessed of a deep sadness, and this is where the movie was well ahead of its time. While it is certainly engaging to learn about Pepe's skills as a thief and his powerful charisma, it is the deeper exploration of his psyche which made this movie so groundbreaking.

The film wears the veneer of a chase movie. The police force in Algiers have been unable to catch the elusive Pepe, and the government of France, the colonizers of Algeria, send in officials to oversee a more rigorous pursuit. Despite warnings from local officers familiar with the difficulties of the situation, the French attempt to bulldog their way into finding the notorious thief. Shifting between the center and the periphery of the investigation is Slimane, a seemingly-lazy local officer possessed of deceptive intellect, knowledge, and patience. It is the slow burn of watching Slimane work the problem of apprehending Pepe that makes this movie so far ahead of its time. Whereas nearly all films of that time (and the majority of films even today) rely on the drama of strong characters constantly duelling each other in dynamic and eye-catching ways, Pepe le Moko is more measured and assured. It is this slower pace which allows us to truly think about what motivates Pepe, and it becomes clear that it is more than simply money and women.

This still gives just a taste of how tricky the maze of the
Casbah can be, especially to those unfamiliar with its
twists, turns, and many, many dark shadows. 
Pepe le Moko is also a film about place. The locale of the Casbah is spectacular. Filmed on location, the movie depicts a neighborhood which is a fascinating labyrinth of multi-storied buildings, winding stairways, and bodies packed into the well-worn structures. It's a perfect setting for the tale of a thief who both uses the maze to retain his freedom and feels its constrictive nature. Casablanca, as great as it is, never comes close to creating the sense of locale as Pepe le Moko.

The resolution of the story is just as impressive as anything else about the movie. It avoids all of the tropes and typical cliches of weaker films. This was a great movie that I'm glad to have finally watched, after reading about it for so many years.

That's 565 films seen, only 607 more to go before I can die...

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Before I Die # 564: The Big Heat (1953)

This is the 564th movie I've seen from the 1,172 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through:

Director: Fritz Lang

Why was it that European directors were the ones to make so many of the greatest noir films - a genre distinctively American? Whatever the reason, The Big Heat provided me with my favorite moment when watching movies - discovering a great film about which I had previously known nothing.

Right from its opening, there is something unusual and captivating about this movie. We're looking over the shoulder of a man in a plush den of a comfy home. He looks at a letter which he has just sealed, and then he commits suicide. His wife runs downstairs. Instead of panicking, though, she calmly takes a moment, looks at the letter, ponders it, and then calls another man with whom she has a cryptic and sinister exchange. Within these few minutes, we get the sense that something very dark is happening here.

Once the wife does decide to call the police to report her husband's suicide, the story shifts its focus to Sergeant Dan Bannion, the detective assigned to the case . Bannion begins to unravel an unsavory chain of corruption and self-interest that tests his will and morality right to their cores. Bannion's tale becomes one of the most memorable crime tales from the classic age that I've ever seen.

The Big Heat is very often classified as noir, with good reason. While one could debate whether it satisfies all of the requirements of the varying definitions of noir, it clearly has much in common with the best of the genre. A vast, looming criminal organization and conspiracy. Not one but two femme fatales. A protagonist caught in the middle of a dangerous maze and desperately trying to solve one murder and prevent others. These can all be found in movies like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and other greats. What sets The Big Heat apart is that Bannion is not the disturbed protagonist of those other movies. He is actually a decent man who is trying desperately not to lose self control as he confronts moral corruption at every turn. As much as I love those other classic noir flicks, it was great to see a truly admirable character at the center of the proceedings.

Yes, that's a young Lee Marvin on the left. His turn as the
sadistic Vince adds a truly sinister darkness that few films
in the 1950s were willing to include.
For a film released in 1953, this one was surprisingly dark in a few ways. Whereas other noir movies tend to create their own shadowy landscapes, both visually and psychologically, The Big Heat includes elements of the post-WWII "American Dream" which you might see in a Frank Capra movie. Early on, we get glimpses of Bannion's home life, complete with a loving wife and cute little daughter. Before too long, some horrific things shatter his little slice of heaven and send him down a rather dark path. On top of that, the actions taken by a few of the criminals are especially violent and brutal by 1950s movie standards. Though not nearly as visceral as more modern films, The Big Heat still packs an emotional punch with its exploration of the darker, unsavory aspects of personal and social corruption.

This movie is one that I put, if not exactly at, then very close to the same level as the other great noir movies of the '40s and '50s. I'll certainly go back and watch this one again every few years.

That's 564 films down, only 608 to go before I can die...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

New Release! Captain America: Civil War

No Spoilers Up Here

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo

My viewing of this latest summer blockbuster was an experience quite unique for me. I can't recall ever seeing a movie in which my worst pre-conceived concern was realized, and yet its realization somehow resulted in my being more impressed with the movie.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog with any regularity knows that I am a tremendous fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I've watched each of the previous 12 movies multiple times, and I've seen every single one of the hundred-plus episodes of the MCU TV shows, many of them twice. Since the Universe expanded to unprecedented size, roughly two years ago, I've been concerned that the movies would be unable to tell their own stand-alone stories. This has actually come to pass, but Captain America: Civil War manages to handle the weight extraordinarily well.

Even a fervent fan of the MCU like me must admit that Civil War is not exactly friendly to new viewers. If someone has not seen, at the very least, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, then there are many characters and storylines which will baffle. The movie assumes that viewers are familiar with not only the title character's origins and recent film exploits, but also has knowledge of no fewer than a half dozen other characters introduced in the last few films. Without that knowledge, Civil War will just be a blur of costumed super-people debating, fighting, and firing off some decent one-liners. At this point, this is simply an unavoidable consequence of the immensity and structure of the MCU.

If, on the other hand, a viewer has at least seen the aforementioned couple of movies, then they have enough context to thoroughly enjoy what is one of the most unique films in the MCU. Like The Winter Soldier, Civil War tackles themes which are much larger and relevant to the real world than simply stopping an evil villain from blowing up cities. This movie takes on the dilemma of how much freedom the world should grant individuals or groups who are possessed of devastating power. Should a person or group with the ability to cause mass destruction be sanctioned and forced into oversight? Or should they be granted the freedom to act independently, especially when it might allow them to more effectively protect others? These questions could just as easily be applied to dominant entities like powerful countries or corporations, not merely superpowered beings in a fantasy world. Civil War doesn't take easy ways out, either. There is plenty of gray area here, and it does not leave viewers with pat answers about who is right or wrong. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that you may come away thinking that the title hero was not completely in the right, which is quite novel for an MCU film.

Along with and connected to the morally ambiguous theme of unchecked power is an adversary who is quite unique to the MCU. To remain spoiler-free, I'll leave out the details, but I can say that it is a refreshing and challenging break from the rogues gallery mostly made up of thoroughly evil and megalomaniacal villains who have served as punching bags in nearly all other MCU movies. Just as unique is that the adversary takes a virtual backseat to the ethical quandaries which the heroes are thrust into.

As with The Winter Soldier, the action and pacing are all that one could ask for. More than any other MCU directors, the Russo brothers have proven to be immensely talented at providing rollicking action sequences that revive the true thrill that should come with blockbuster popcorn movies. Without slighting quieter, more somber moments, the movie offers plenty of small- and large-scale battles that are simply a blast to take in.

One of the smaller-scale fights, but this one between Iron Man
and the duo of The Winter Soldier and Captain America is just
as intense and entertaining as any of the larger ones. 
Perhaps more important to most viewers is not just how the fights look but who is doing the fighting, am I right? Well, there are plenty of the familiar faces which we fans have come to love in these movies. Pretty much every superguy and gal from the previous two movies shows up, with only a few exceptions. As expected, the actors are all tremendous, as many of them have been playing these parts for several years now. The two new additions to the MCU roll call are outstanding (I'll spare you their actual identities, on the off chance that you've somehow avoided the millions of advertisements which tease them). One of the rookies actually is a thematic and emotional keystone through much of the film's main story, without stealing the thunder of the primary players. It was a very deftly-managed balancing act.

Several MCU posts ago, I half-joked that the MCU should stop naming these movies by their title characters and start simply calling them "MCU 13", "MCU 14", and so on, with the subtitle indicate whether one or two main characters would be featured. Civil War further supported this suggestion, as it is as dependent on previous movies, and leads into future movies, as much as any film in the MCU thus far. Regardless, it provides plenty of engaging action, fun, and deeper themes to be all of the things that a dud like Batman v. Superman tried and failed to be. I'll be going to see this one at least one more time in theaters, and I'll be just as eager to see how the Russo brothers handle the epic Infinity Gauntlet movies coming out in 2018 and 2019.

Update: I've now watched the movie for a second time, and it holds up extremely well. In fact, I enjoyed it even more. There were a few minute points in exposition which did go some way towards answering a few of my niggling little questions. It also helped that I watched the movie in standard format this time, rather than the 3D which I watched initially. For me, 3D can sometimes be a tad disorienting. Without that, I was even better able to appreciate the action choreography.

Spoiler Commentary

Just a few thoughts that may give away a few plot point to those who haven't seen the movie yet. Fair warning.

While I like that the writers are willing to have characters experience change and develop in ways that we might not expect, I'm still having a hard time completely buying where Steve Rogers and Tony Stark came down on the Sokovia Accords. Even as recently as Age of Ultron, Stark was more than willing to act alone if he thought he needed to act quickly and avoid slow bureaucracy (his rogue actions resulting in first Ultron and then Vision). And Rogers was still, even towards the end of that movie, arguing how they needed to come to consensus on certain decisions. In Civil War, though, they completely switch sides. I will say that the writers do provide some support for each character's viewpoint, but it did feel a tad forced.

It was a lot of fun seeing some more creative use and expansion of Ant-Man's powers. Seeing him short-circuit the Iron Man armor from the inside and introduce the Giant-Man mode were the kinds of things that I'll pay to see on the big screen. I hope that the makers of Ant-Man and the Wasp can be equally inspired to show us some clever uses of Scott Lang's equipment.

Tom Holland looks like he'll make a great Spider-Man. A friend of mine and fellow comic book nerd told me how he's tired of the teenage Spider-Man, after the two recent takes on him, and he was ready for an older Peter Parker who could immediately hang with the other heavy hitters in the MCU. I see his point, but Holland did such a good job in Civil War that I think next year's Homecoming could be the best Spidey movie since the second Sam Raimi one back in 2004.

Chadwick Boseman was incredible. Simple as that. His performance in Civil War was all the advertising that 2018's Black Panther will need. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Midnight Run (1988); Dinner Rush (2000); Infernal Affairs (2002)

Ah, the days when an honest bounty hunter could smoke on a
train. And Robert De Niro still starred in good movies.
Midnight Run (1988)

Director: Martin Brest

Still a great genre-blending comedy that can help remind us all of what Robert De Niro was a decade before he decided to simply parody himself for massive paychecks.

Unlike nearly all of the gangster movies which I have been blogging about here, Midnight Run was one that I had seen a few times before. However, since I hadn't seen it in over 20 years and I remember thinking it great, I wanted to see it again. It was well worth it.

Robert De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a bounty hunter who is tasked with tracking down Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a former Mafia accountant who has jumped bail. Once Walsh tracks him down, he must attempt to return the Duke to his bail bondsman while evading police, the FBI, a rival bounty hunter, and the Mafia, all of whom want the Duke either in jail or dead. As stressful as all of this is for Walsh, it sometimes pales in comparison to the ever-nagging Duke, a gentle but pestering chatterbox.

The chemistry between De Niro and Grodin is fantastic. The two actors take a decent script and turn it into gold. The exchanges between the cagey, foul-mouthed Walsh and the oddly empathetic Duke stack up with any road/buddy movie released in the 28 years since this movie hit theaters. Enhancing the entire movie is its stellar supporting cast. Made up from the likes of Joe Pantoliano, Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Farina, and other great character actors, the various pursuers of Walsh and the Duke are just as entertaining as the focal duo.

There is a brief detour into drama concerning Walsh's life as a former Chicago police officer which breaks the comedic tone of the movie a bit, but this is hardly a weakness. Midnight Run is still a great movie that I can see being just as great in another three decades. It's still just as funny and just as quotable as it was back when Robert De Niro was nearing the peak of his career's impressive second act.

Dinner Rush (2000)

Director: Bob Geralda

One of the more curiously unique gangster movies that I've watched, having more in common with a Robert Altman than a Martin Scorsese movie.

Dinner Rush takes place almost exclusively in one of Manhattan's hottest restaurants, which is owned by bookmaker Louis Cropa (Danny Aiello). Cropa's two sons work the kitchen: Udo is a brilliant but moody chef whose culinary skills have brought great acclaim to the eatery, while his brother Duncan is personable but a degenerate gambler. The three Cropas become involved in a wild maelstrom of an evening, with patrons including self-styled elite Manhattanites, a couple of mobster thugs, and a police detective, among others.

The movie combines many "New York" elements extremely well, creating a chaotic and exciting atmosphere in the restaurant that one would equate with "The City That Never Sleeps." A supremely arrogant art critic harangues the staff. A prominent food critic demands frustrating levels of attention. In the downstairs kitchen, the typical kinds of mania runs through the chefs and cooks as they try to keep up with the brisk pace of the orders. As if these typical Manhattan variables weren't enough, the various dramas in the lives of the Cropas catalyze the madness. Yes, the gangster thread is ever-present, but it is part of a larger, brilliant tapestry that could only be found in Manhattan. Director Bob Giraldi juggles everything with impressive skill over the film's tight 98 minutes.

It certainly helps that the acting and cinematography are fantastic. There are plenty of familiar faces among the cast, but also a good number of lesser-knowns who round out the ensemble. The dining area of the restaurant itself feels as warm and electric as you would hope, even amid the frantic bustling of the crowd. In contrast is the kitchen, which is given the claustrophobic and tense feel of a submarine in the middle of an attack. There is an upstairs/downstairs feel not unlike Gosford Park or similar shows.

It stands that Dinner Rush is resolved in a way atypical for a "gangster" movie, given that it is different in so many other ways. Suffice it to say that it is rather satisfying, and in keeping with the general tone of the rest of the picture. This is a somewhat hidden gem which plenty of people, not merely gangster movie fans, would appreciate.

Infernal Affairs (2002)

Directors: Wai-kung Lau and Alan Mak

An impressive Hong Kong crime movie with the primary misfortune of having a superior version made a few years later by an all-time great director.

If you've seen The Departed, then you know the tale. A young man, Lau, who is part of the local organized crime gang is planted into the police force as a recruit. Simultaneously, Chan, a police cadet-in-training is sent into the crime world as a long-term undercover operative. Years later, the two moles close in on each other as the police close in on the crime boss responsible for much of the local gang activity. Rather than taking place in Boston, as you can imagine, Infernal Affairs takes place in Hong Kong.

This original movie really is impressive. It is a great premise, carried out extremely well. The reverse, double cat-and-mouse idea was a novel one for a cop-and-robber film, and directors Lau and Mak executed it in a tight way that maximizes the tension. There are several great scenes and devices which Martin Scorsese himself directly carried over into The Departed a few years later.

Scorsese's adaptation into The Departed exhibited several characteristics typical of his gangster movies. Rather than completely focus on one or two characters, he included a larger panorama for the story, complete with engaging and entertaining characters. Infernal Affairs, in contrast, really hones in on the moles Lau and Chan. Other characters, who received much more screen time and dialogue in Scorsese's version, were either absent or greatly minimized in this original movie. Normally, this would be completely fine, but compared to the strong and often hilarious characters in The Departed, one can't help but feel like Infernal Affairs is missing out on opportunities.

How much one enjoys this movie is likely to depend on familiarity with The Departed. If you are not terribly familiar with Scorsese's movie, or maybe saw it only one time many years ago, then you're likely to love Infernal Affairs. It is far easier to appreciate the original's merits and avoid harsh comparisons. Even if, like me, you have seen The Departed several times, it is easy to appreciate what a strong film Infernal Affairs is. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

New(ish) Releases (2015): Creed & Man Up


Director: Ryan Coogler

Very well-done chapter that lives up to its classic, original forebear.

One of the reasons I enjoyed Creed so much is that I knew very little about it going in. In that spirit, I won't reveal more than the basics. Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, son of Apollo Creed, one of the greatest boxers in this fictional world, before he was killed in the ring. Adonis has rather atypical motivations for fighting, and he seeks out his father's former rival and friend, Rocky Balboa, in an attempt to find a trainer.

The story is presented and plays out with enough surprises to feel fresh. Yes, it hits many of the marks that you expect in a Rocky movie, but nothing comes off as stale. Thanks to some crisp writing and excellent direction, nothing feels overdone or sentimental. Director Ryan Coogler clearly has such a love and respect for Stallone's original film that he was able to draw inspiration from the very best parts of that iconic movie. The stakes to the title character feel very high on a personal, emotional level, and this carries through right until the end.

The fight scenes are done extremely well. In fact, I'm willing to say that they are the best of any Rocky movie, and among some of the best in boxing movie history. It's a sport that can be beautiful and brutal, in turns, and this is exhibited with great skill in the several fights carried out in the narrative.

Apparently there is a Creed 2 in the works, which might be a complete mess. Whatever happens with it, Creed is a great sports movie that I think even non-sports fans can appreciate.

Man Up

Director: Ben Palmer

Rom-coms are certainly not me genre. Man Up, however, is among the most enjoyable that I've ever seen.

This was an easier sell to me than most rom-coms, thanks to the presence of Simon Pegg and Lake Bell. Pegg is a well-known and highly respected quantity in the nerd world, where I often dwell. I also know Bell from her sly, hilarious writing and star role in 2013's In A World..., which looked at the odd and male-dominated niche world of movie trailer voice-over narrators. Man Up quickly repaid my faith, as Bell's character Nancy, a professional journalist, is very quickly established as a woman looking to overcome her reticence and skepticism to find romance. Her impish nature takes over when she decides to steal a blind date from a mildly pestering, overly cheerful young lady she meets on a train. When Nancy is mistaken for the young woman by Jack (Simon Pegg) at the train station, Nancy decides to roll with it. This is perhaps not the most imaginative of comic setups, but it more than suffices for this tale, which gets stronger as it unfolds.

As Jack starts to reveal more about his life, Nancy keeps up her charade, wavering between distaste and attraction towards Jack. Unlike most rom-coms, which tend to take place over several days, weeks, or even months, Man Up hits all of the genre's marks in an unhurried tale which covers about 4 or 5 hours. And it does it by taking some amusing left turns, as it reveals traits in both aspiring singles which are both admirable and off-putting, while sometimes quite dark. Both Nancy and Jack come off feeling more genuine than most rom-com characters I've seen, lending a mature tone I often find lacking. There is an exploration of the romantic versus the practical notions of companionship which, while not novel, is handled deftly enough to remain engaging. What I appreciated as much as as anything is that neither Jack nor Nancy is pigeonholed as "the woman" or "the man". Yes, each one exhibits a few of the traits ascribed to their sex by stereotypes, but each one also contradicts them in several ways through their words and actions.

Of course, what is a rom-com without the "com"? The humor in Man Up is steady and solid, running the gamut from effective sight gags to dry sarcasm, with a healthy dose of blue, R-rated dialogue for spice. In keeping with the theme of breaking certain stereotypes, each of the main pair give as good as they get. This is a balance that is very welcome in a class of movie which often plays things rather safe, in terms of breaking out of preexisting character types.

There is certainly not an abundance of romantic comedies which I would gladly watch again. Man Up just made that short list of mine.