Saturday, July 30, 2016

Before I Die #573: Mean Streets (1973)

This is the 573rd movie I've now seen out of the 1,177 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. 

Director: Martin Scorsese

It's not on the level of his very best movies, but this very early Scorsese feature displayed plenty of the hallmarks of his later classics. It was also one of the earliest of the gritty 1970s movies that changed the cinematic landscape forever.

The movie mostly tells the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an aspiring criminal in the lower levels of his uncle's loan-sharking enterprise. A native of Manhattan's Little Italy, Charlie is fully immersed in the harsh rhythms of the thrumming streets, including its vices and excitements. Although not averse to making money through loan-sharking and enjoying himself with booze, Charlie does have a sort of moral compass based on his Catholic upbringing. He even considers Saint Francis Assisi a hero and tries to model a bit of his own behavior after the famous saint.

While Charlie is smart enough to take care of himself, life in Little Italy is rarely lived by oneself. In Charlie's case, he feels beholden to look after his girlfriend's cousin, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Johnny Boy is a thoroughly immature and sometimes dangerous rogue who has rather sophomoric desires and a complete disregard for rules or norms, including those maintained by the dangerous criminals in the area. As Johnny Boy angers more and more local wiseguys, Charlie is harder pressed to keep him safe by vouching for him or keeping him in line. Tension mounts through the movie as Johnny Boy's behavior becomes more and more erratic, putting himself and those close to him at greater risk. The drama comes from seeing Charlie wrestle with just how and why he should protect this unhinged personality. This is the film that The Pope of Greenwich Village was really trying to be, but fell woefully short.

The movie is very much a study of a few individual characters, as well as the overall rhythms of the urban setting. Released right in between the first two Godfather films, Mean Streets was a type all its own and very fresh, despite its gritty aesthetic and subject matter. I can't think of a prior film that had dialogue and personal interactions that sounded and felt so authentic. As he would later display in Goodfellas, Scorsese made great drama out of the blue-collar gangster, as opposed to the sweeping world of powerful crime lords in Coppola's movies. You may feel the urge to take a shower afterward, the authentic grit comes through so effectively.

This movie really was a phenomenal beginning to one of the very greatest directing careers in film history. It might not have all of the polish of this later movies, but Mean Streets showed just how much brilliance the then-young Martin Scorsese had.

That's 573 films down. Only 606 to go before I can die. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Before I Die #572: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

This is the 572nd movie I've seen from the 1,177 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I am gradually working through.

Original Spanish Title: Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios

Director: Pedro Almodovar

This is the third Almodovar movie that I've watched, and I can see why some viewers tend to divide his movies into "early" and "late" periods. Women on the Verge is one of his earliest feature length movies, making it clear that he was always a film-maker with a clear vision and style, regardless of the themes and emotional tones in his stories.

In a brisk and fun 88 minutes, the movie depicts a strange and trying few days for Pepa, and actress whose married and philandering lover, Ivan, has left her for another woman. Pepa frantically tries to track down Ivan, seeking out his son and former wife, who are equally confused in their own ways. As the search continues, more people get involved, until the entire pursuit involves Pepa's anxious friend Candela, Muslim terrorists, a few police, a telephone repairman, and a few other peculiar characters thrown in.

From that short description, it shouldn't surprise you that the film has a clearly zany, comic tone. This makes it plenty of fun for its short running time. The humor nearly all revolves around the different characters coping with their romantic frustrations from unrequited or unrecognized affections. Much of the humor is sold through the excellent acting and matter-of-fact deliveries of the actors.

As with the other two Almodovar movies I've seen, the visuals are stunning. The camerawork and editing are masterful, and the sets and costumes are eye-popping in their vibrancy. And the sets are very clearly stage props, meant to drive home the point that we are in a completely fictional, almost cartoonish world. While such brightness can seem at odds with darker themes found in Almodovar movies such as Talk to Her, it fits perfectly with a more light-hearted film such as Women on the Verge. Put simply, it makes the movie eminently pleasant to watch.

I'm now completely on board Almodovar. Having seen one of his movies each from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, I think I can see the general shift in theme and presentation over the decades, and I am eager to take in as many of his other movies as I can. Fortunately, my Spanish-speaking wife is a fan who is of the same attitude, so this will be a set of films that I don't have to watch solo (just ask her about my Mad Max binge).

That's 572 movies down. Only 607 to go before I can die. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Idiot Boxing: F is for Family, season 1 (2015); Lady Dynamite, season 1 (2016)

The Murphy family - far your typical, PG-rated animated
sit-com crew.
F is for Family, season 1 (2015)

A rather different entry into the animated sit-com world, and one that shows more potential than it completely realized in its first six-episode season.

The basic template of F is for Family is abundantly familiar: a nuclear family with three children - two boys and one girl - deal with the typical stresses of daily living. The focus is mostly on the father, Frank, whose hair-trigger temper sends him into fits of aggravation and rage at nearly every turn.

The show is set in the early 1970s, complete with the shifting landscape of U.S. culture of the day, when a wild assortment of beliefs and lifestyles were evolving and colliding throughout the country. In the middle of such social upheaval, the patriarch Frank becomes a bit on an Archie Bunker, though with an infinitely shorter fuse. Understanding that many prevailing, now-ignorant viewpoints of the time by middle-class, white Americans provides humor at times, but it is sometimes merely awkward. The show sometimes displays just enough self-awareness to turn an uncomfortable situation funny, but it sometimes leaves things a bit too matter-of-course to be anything but upsetting.

This was an interesting show to start watching with my wife. We both love many things about Bill Burr's stand-up comedy. Though he can occasionally veer just a hair too far into ignorance and insensitivity, he is more often self-aware enough to admit his own shortcomings. And his storytelling abilities are on par with some of the very best comedians in the last 30 years. And yet, despite my wife's appreciation for Burr's sense of humor, she gave up on F is for Family after watching the first episode, and I understand why. It is yet another family sit-com focused almost exclusively on a frazzled dad whose own ignorance creates many of his own issues. While the show is able to add profanity and more adult themes than the animated shows on network TV, there is an unfortunate lack of examination of the other family members. Recognizing this, I stuck with the remaining five episodes, and generally enjoyed them.

Bill Murphy, suffering the post-trauma of going to a horrific
men's room at a football stadium in the 1970s. Such odd shocks
make up some of the funniest moments in this first season. 
One thing that stood out was how this was the first animated show of this type which actually had a story arc. All other such shows, from The Simpsons to The Family Guy to the plethora of others have almost exclusively stuck to single, self-contained episodes. F is for Family, however, has several plots which actually progress over its half-dozen shows. The primary one involves Frank becoming a middle manager at his airline company and trying to broker a deal between management and the workers. Others involve trying to get his older son to take school seriously and the other son to grow some form of a backbone. Eventually, Frank's wife Sue has her own story involving getting a side job selling plastic-ware. While the actual character development is minimal, it is there, and this was a nice change to the typically static worlds of animated series. It will be interesting to see just how far the writers take this sort of continuity, perhaps even having the children gradually grow older. As far as I know, this would be a first for an animated series.

Ultimately, though, the main question for any animated comedy is whether it's funny. The short answer is yes. Maybe not all of the time, and maybe not as much as the writers are hoping, but every episode had at least one hilarious moment and several others that had me grinning with amusement. No, it's never as good as the very best episodes of the best animated series like The Simpsons or even Archer, but this first short season set up some possibilities for the show to grow into something better and rather unique.

The trippy, surrealistic image from the Netflix ads gives you
some idea of the mania and oddity that you might expect
sprinkled throughout Bamford's show.
Lady Dynamite, season 1 (2016)

Maria Bamford is one of the quirkiest, most unique and talented comedians out there, though she can be a bit of an acquired taste. Her new show on Netflix is representative of her singular persona: often hilarious, with the odd dash of bizarre or simply uncomfortable.

Lady Dynamite draws from Bamford's own life as a stand-up comedian, actor, and sufferer of bipolar disorder to give us an exaggerated, fictionalized version of Maria. There's plenty of fun poked at the narcissistic and greedy mania of Hollywood showbiz culture, along with familiar relationship woes experienced by Bamford.

The structure of the show can be disorienting. The first episode features an odd "meta" moment at the end that set me wondering if much of the series would be too self aware for my tastes. Such was not the case, as the remainder of the season stayed within itself for the most part. The narrative jumps between "Past" and "Present", each signaled with a brief title card. Despite the clear marking, I found it difficult at times to keep straight what, exactly, was happening when. Often, the past was clear due to the blue sepia tones that the sequences take on to denote that Maria was back in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, where she experienced her severest bouts of depression. The rest of the show jumps, often frantically, between two different times when Maria was carving out her acting career in Hollywood. While the timeline was not always clear, the continuity is hardly the most essential part of the show.

Maria and her pugs, Blossom and Bert. Fortunately, Bamford
doesn't lean too heavily on the dogs' cuteness for cheap
amusement, but Bert certainly becomes one of the odder
elements in the series.
The comedy is what it is really all about, and Bamford is one of the most uniquely funny people out there. Thanks to the freedom that Netflix tends to give its show creators, Bamford and her writers were clearly allowed try out anything they could dream up. Some of the bits come off as simply bizarre, such as a few sequences involving Maria communicating directly with her pet pugs, but many of them hit in surprising and novel ways. Even the more traditional gags can be hilarious, thanks to Bamford's incredible physical acting and skills as a voice actress. Whether it is a fake voice or simply her facial expressions, she often completely sells what would otherwise be a merely-modestly amusing joke.

I suspect that any potential future seasons of Lady Dynamite could be even stronger, as this first season felt a bit like the show was trying to find a consistent voice and tone. As much as I enjoyed it, I feel as if it could become even better, and I certainly hope Bamford and her crew are given the chance to try. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Before I Die #571*: All About My Mother (1999)

This is the 571st movie I've watched of the 1,177 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. *After another edit, I realized that Mad Max was actually the 570th movie that I'd seen. It's tough keeping up with all of these...

Original Spanish Title: Todo sobre mi madre

Director: Pedro Almodovar

This is the second of esteemed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's movie I've seen, with the first being Talk to Her. While I found that later movie bursting with film-making skill, I found one key part of the story rather difficult to stomach. All About My Mother, while certainly challenging certain notions about gender identity and relationships, was far easier to enjoy.

Since I feel that the magic of a movie such as this depends upon the its unexpected narrative turns, I will avoid too much detail, despite the film being 17 years old. The story focuses on Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse who endures a major life tragedy and finds herself leaving Madrid and returning to Barcelona, where she hopes to find her estranged and irresponsible ex-husband, while also being drawn to a theater troop who had an unwitting hand in her trauma. Manuela finds herself reconnecting with old acquaintances and befriending new and singular strangers as she copes with her grief. The people around her include a transgender prostitute, an aged lesbian actress in a troubled relationship with her young and drug-addicted co-star, a pregnant nun, and several other colorful characters. A more dynamic set of figures would be difficult to find, and what makes them fascinating goes well beyond the ways which they fall outside of mainstream ideas of identity.

Although there is a deep tragedy at the heart of the story, the general tone is relatively light-hearted and even a tad zany at times. The characters, while acting and speaking in ways which come to feel quite natural for each them, are often unpredictably funny and amusingly singular. Anyone who has spent a little time around artists can understand the extemporaneous and dramatic actions of several characters in the film, and when several of them share scenes together, the energy is palpable.

Nearly every scene bursts with color and careful arrangement, not unlike what
you might see in a Cohen brothers or Wes Anderson film.
While not one of his earliest films, All About My Mother was clearly one made on a relatively limited budget. Despite this, the visuals are stunning. The costumes and set designs are distinctive and vibrant, and the cinematography is masterful. These are traits which are even more obvious in the later Talk to Her, but I was drawn in by what seems to be an Almodovar staple of highly attractive visual style.

I don't know that All About My Mother is exactly for everyone. Those who like clear, logical storylines which follow traditional patterns regarding love and loss are bound to be confused at best and frustrated at worst. For my part, I found the movie to have its own clear, if quirky, sense of logic, to go along with its genuine heart and humor. I would gladly watch this one again, and I am now looking forward to watching more of Almodovar's films.

So that's now 571 films down; only 606 to go before I can die. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Supernatural Series Review

Don't be fooled by the Tiger Beat good looks of the two lead
actors. This show has some actual teeth, and the Winchesters
are tougher, deeper, and more compelling characters than 
you are likely to assume.
We all have our guilty, or at least semi-guilty, pleasures. When it comes to TV and movies, there are always those shows or genres that hold a personal appeal that exceeds their artistic merit. In my case, one of those shows is the long-running CW series, Supernatural. The back-story on my introduction and gradual attraction to the show may offer some explanation for my fandom, and it may even convince a few of you to give the show a chance.

Basically, the show follows Dean and Sam Winchester, a pair of brothers who hunt monsters throughout the United States. Vampires, werewolves, djinn, demons, and all other forms of nasty creatures are their prey. Their fights with the supernatural, with each other, and their brotherly bonding are the root of nearly every story in the show's ongoing run of 11 seasons.

In October of 2008, one of my roommates had been going on an on about the show, which she had been watching for its first three seasons. She was always sure to be home when every new episode aired. One of those October nights, I happened to be idle and watched the episode "Monster Movie" with her. It was hilarious. It showed a cheeky self-awareness and refusal to take itself too seriously, along with plenty of great little nods to classic monster movies of the past. Sure, the star actors and most of the supporting cast were impossibly attractive people, but there was a savvy to the writing and tone that stuck with me.

I continued to watch the rest of that fourth season, and I soon became hooked. Once I got past the glamorous facades of the actors, I saw a show that had really put in considerable thought and creative work. The world of the Winchesters has a wonderful mythology constructed from much of the great lore on supernatural creatures, weaving them together in creative and compelling ways. The writers clearly wanted to go beyond the common tropes of most monsters and their origins, while retaining the appealing elements of the horror genre. This became even clearer once I went back and watched the first three seasons. Taken as a whole, the first five seasons of the show comprise a fantastic story arc with great arch villains, amazingly strong supporting characters, and a masterful blend of tense horror and levity. I've watched those first, wildly entertaining 100-or-so episodes twice now, and I'll certainly do so again in the near future.

Seasons 1 through 5 (2005-2010)

The entire Winchester saga begins when Sam and Dean's mother is killed by a mysterious, yellow-eyed man with strange powers when Sam is a baby and Dean is a mere four-year-old. Their father, a former marine, then dedicates his entire life to tracking down the thing that destroyed their lives. He raises his two boys to track and kill all forms of evil creatures that roam the earth. The pursuit of "Yellow Eyes" continues for another two decades, until Sam and Dean are in their mid-twenties and their father is almost completely off the grid. When Yellow Eyes's trail becomes warm again, the series truly begins.
The frighteningly powerful demon Azazel serves as a great
nemesis for the first few seasons. His machinations pave the
way for none other than Lucifer himself.

The succeeding five seasons build amazingly well. While many episodes are given over to the Winchester boys hunting down baddies taken from urban legend, popular folktales, and various other dark places in world mythology, the greater story for the first three seasons is the pursuit of Yellow Eyes, whose true identity is eventually revealed as the demon Azazel. As the chase grows more intense, the mythology of the Supernatural universe deepens and expands to include demons, angels, and more than a few figures from Judeo-Christian mythology. The fourth and fifth season build perfectly towards a grand confrontation with none other than Lucifer himself, though not exactly in the way that you may expect.

One great strength of these initial seasons was the supporting cast of characters. Aside from Sam and Dean, we have their father John, who is a fascinating enigma of intensity and grit. Companions like Bobby, Jo and her mother Ellen, and Rufus are all extremely tough and welcome additions. The standout for me was Gordon, the intense hunter who derives a disturbing amount of pleasure from dispatching monsters. Gordon is one of many well-rounded characters whose appearances are strong enough and rare enough that their presence is always a treat during these early seasons.

The main story-line is the stuff of strong, fun, fantasy adventure writing. It borrows a bit from the irreverent sensibilities of British and Irish comic book writers like Neil Gaiman and Garth Ennis (creator of Preacher), while adding welcome doses of goofy humor. The more comedic moments would often come in the form of two or three episodes each season in which the Winchesters were confronted with a particularly ridiculous adversary. Amazingly, co-star Jensen Ackles proves to be an excellent all-around actor, including comedically.

Whatever other missteps the series may have taken after these first five seasons, this initial run was outstanding television.

Seasons 6 through 9 (2010-2014)

When I learned that the show's creator and runner, Eric Kripke, had originally planned for the series to only run for 5 seasons, I was skeptical when a sixth was announced. Kripke had essentially left the show as its runner after the fifth season, so its heart and soul was elsewhere. The four seasons following were a mixed bag:

Sam, Dean, and a few other Winchesters. This little crew and
their pursuit of "Alpha" monsters helped make the 6th season
a better one that I had expected.
Season 6 was actually surprisingly strong. The focus on angels intensifies, which I've never found the most engaging facet to the Supernatural world. Still, the primary story is that of Sam's return from Lucifer's prison, and is certainly compelling. In order not to go insane from the experience, a wall has been put into Sam's mind which has also cut him off from his soul. This sets up a dynamic with Dean that keeps their evolution as brothers an intriguing part of the season. The angel Castiel and the demon Crowley become larger presences, which is still very welcome at this point. The season finale is on an epic scale, with Castiel absorbing obscene amounts of power from Purgatory, resulting in his believing that he is now God. This certainly kept my attention heading into...

The hacker Charlie, played by geek-goddess Felicia Day. She
was one of several characters who appeared in season 7 who
seemed to illustrate a lame attempt to appeal to the 
Big Bang
Theory fan-base of nerds.
Season 7 was, in my opinion, easily the weakest season to date. The main story is that of the Leviathan, a pack of horribly ravenous and tremendously powerful monsters accidentally set loose from Purgatory onto Earth. The setup was fairly interesting, but the story unfolds in the form of the rather silly premise of the Leviathan fattening up the populace with fast food into order to devour it. It works on a social satire level, but it doesn't mesh with the tone of previous, stronger seasons. The supporting cast takes an obvious step back at this point. Wonderfully strong characters like Joe, Ellen, and Gordon are dead, only to be replaced by the goofy Garth, the geeky hacker Charlie, and the paperweight high school nerd Kevin. All of these are almost purely comical and relatively thin characters whom I found more annoying than interesting. While there were certainly some strong and funny episodes, this was the only season which I had to convince myself to see through to the end. I wasn't terribly hopeful for season 8.

However, season 8 rebounded fairly well, thanks mostly to strong main plots. One is Dean's initial escape from Purgatory, where he was stranded at the end of season 7. He managed it only with the help of a vampire named Benny, who escaped with Dean. Benny was a strong enough character to carry much of the first half of this season. The second half was built upon the Winchesters' attempt to permanently seal the gates of Hell via an ancient ritual. Helping them is knowledge they gain from finding a headquarters of a secret society known as the Men of Letters - scholars and fighters who were equal parts occult librarians and monster hunters. Sam is tagged to endure three trials, in order to enact the ritual. However, the plan is turned on its head when a new player in the game - God's scribe, Metatron - usurps the spell and uses it to kick all of the angels out of heaven, as revenge for his being exiled millenia prior. This season still had a few too many appearances by Garth, Charlie, and other characters who I find too light and goofy. Despite this, it was very nice to see that the show-runners could rediscover some of the intensity and epic plotting that marked the earliest seasons.

The scribe of God, Metatron. Like Crowley, he is a character
who is interesting and amusing in his first season or so, but
whose "sinister but funny" act I find a bit tired from overuse.
The ninth season of Supernatural is on par with seasons 6 and 8 - solid, but not quite reaching the heights of the series' peak in seasons 3 through 5. The two main villains are considerable - Metatron, who has become the de facto ruler of heaven after expelling all angels; and Abaddon, a "Knight of Hell," who is an immensely powerful demon with her sights set on destroying Crowley and usurping his place as King of Hell. Abaddon is a great villain with a vicious streak on the level of Lilith and Eve in earlier seasons. This season also adds the Biblical Cain to the mix, played with imposing intesity by Timothy Omundson. By the end of this season, I had grown weary of Castiel and Crowley. The two have been a great part of this show, but their acts are a tad tired, and neither one has progressed much in the last several seasons. Neither one is particularly frightening or endearing anymore, despite the fact that actors Misha Collins and Mark A. Sheppard bring their A-games every time.

At this point, I hadn't been going out of my way to watch episodes as they originally aired. In fact, for seasons 9 and 10, I simply waited for them to show up on Netflix. Which is how I watched last season, the 10th...

Season 10 (2014-2015)

Much to my surprise, this was the best season of the series since its "Golden Age" of seasons 2 through 5.

It was almost as if someone looked over the previous four uneven seasons and made a point of retaining the strengths, scrapping the weaknesses, and even undoing a past mistake or two. The result was a season that gives me very good reason to dive into the current season, the show's eleventh.

Briefly introduced in season 9, Cain (seen here, helping Dean 
with his collar) is a welcome returning character. His 
presence as a villain is one of the strongest and most menacing 
since the seasons featuring Azazel and Lucifer. I actually 
felt he was underutilized.
The season starts with Dean gallivanting around with King of Hell, Crowley. Dean has been made a demon, in order to counteract the Mark of Cain inflicted upon him. Dean's struggle against the Mark's will towards violence is a major conflict in this season, and it allows some further evolution and exploration of Dean and Sam's relationships with each other and those close to them. There is also a solid plot-line involving the powerful and shadowy Stein family, who emerges around the midway point in the season. These lines converge in a strong finale which sees the return of one of the best and most awesomely powerful entities in the show's history.

As with the best seasons of Supernatural, the show takes the characters to some very dark places within their own minds and souls. Whereas they have taken some safe routes in more recent seasons, season 10 allows some rather awful things happen to the Winchesters and some regular supporting characters. The most redeeming story-line for me was the return of Charlie, the cutesy hacker character whom I had previously found a nuisance. In this season, however, she returns with a "dark" doppelganger in a solid story. Even more, she meets a surprisingly brutal fate at the hands of the Stein family towards the season's end. This all hearkened back to earlier, better seasons in the show's history, when the stakes felt higher.

My only semi-major issue with this season is with one of its primary villains, the witch Rowena. Her strident, sing-song voice often oversells her ridiculously obvious attempts at cunning manipulation. While her scene-chewing approach makes for some comedic camp, it undercuts any possibility of her ever seeming truly and completely as sly or dangerous as we are meant to believe her to be.

Season 10 reinvigorated my interest in the Supernatural series. I have begun catching up on the latest season - the show's eleventh - and it started strong. I don't know if it will ever recapture the magic of its earliest seasons, but I still enjoy the ride.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Gangster Flick One-Two Punch: The Petrified Forest (1936); The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984)

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Director: Archie Mayo

An interesting old gangster flick with an novel arc and a few thoughtfully-crafted characters, but one which suffered from the trappings of many of its contemporaries.

The story begins with a drifter wandering through the Arizona desert and happening upon an isolated gas station. The drifter, Alan (Leslie Howard), is an Englishman who has left behind a life of ease and luxury in order to find something profound in the expanse of the American Southwest. At the gas station, he finds Gaby (Bette Davis), the daughter of the station manager and a young woman who seeks to escape the desolation and confinement of the family business. Alan and Gaby quickly find somewhat kindred spirits in each other, and a spark of passion is ignited. While the older Alan eventually leaves Gaby, things are thrown into chaos when a fugutive criminal, Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart), arrives in the area with his small crew of bank robbers and killers on the run. Once they take over the gas station and the threat of death becomes palpable, the tone becomes rather existential for several of the captives.

The main story is very solid, and the primary characters are deep enough to be compelling through their interactions. However, the execution is heavily rooted in standard screenwriting of the time. The dialogue can be a bit cliche, especially with the gangsters. A bigger problem for me, though, is the pacing, which seemed very rushed, making the plot points feel more forced and quite implausible. When we consider that the setting is the middle of nowhere, it becomes ridiculous to think that a lone drifter, a quartet of fugitive thugs, and a wealthy couple and their driver all end up at the same spot at the same time. In fact, the wealthy couple hardly seemed essential to the true heart of the plot, and I felt that the movie could have been stronger without them. The movie had a very similar feeling to another Bogart movie - Key Largo - which bore several of the same strengths and weaknesses. Both movies also had the feel of a tale meant for the stage rather than the silver screen (as they both were).

Fortunuately, The Petrified Forest clocks in at a very modest 82 minutes, making it an easy watch. Because of its brevity, it is well worth watching for fans of old-time gangster movies or just Humphrey Bogart. This was an earlier, non-starring role for Bogie, but he could pull off a rather menacing bad guy just as well as anybody ever has.

The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984)

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

I realize that this movie is highly admired by plenty of people, both casual movie-viewers and a fair number of critics. And while it has some clear merit, it really didn't come very close to living up to its reputation for me.

The tale follows Charlie (Mickey Rourke) and his cousin Paulie (Eric Roberts), a pair of local Italian-American boys in Greenwich Village, New York City. Both work in a restaurant but aspire to greater wealth, and neither is above illegal means to obtain it. Their approaches towards life could hardly be more different, though. Charlie, while not exactly a master criminal or life winner, at least has some style and a sense of patience and propriety. Paulie, though, is a complete mess of a human being. Painfully loud and boorishly obnoxious, he can hardly sit still for a second without trying to con someone or get some kind of get-rich-quick scheme underway. His latest is to rob a safe which houses tens of thousands of dollars. He ropes in Charlie and a neighborhood safe-cracker to pull off the job, hoping to split the take. Running along with this scam is Paulie's ill-advised investment in a racehorse.

There are the makings of a good crime tale in the movie. There is a somewhat suspenseful little heist that goes wrong. There are several looming mafiosi. There is the dynamic between the woefully immature Paulie and the less-immature Charlie as they try to navigate some extremely treacherous waters. Still, the movie came off as a patchwork of sometimes-compelling scenes rather than a cohesive whole that had anything particularly interesting to say. While there is some character study involved, it ultimately feels downplayed by the time the final credits roll.

Paulie (left), trying yet again to convince his relatively more
mature cousin Charlie to take a ridiculous risk. I wonder if,
deep down, Mickey Rourke was as irked by Eric Roberts's
performance as I was. 
When I guess about the movie's popularity, I must concede that many of the performances are strong and the fascination with "authentic" New Yorkers can compel. Mickey Rourke was just hitting his early peak at this time, and his turn as Charlie was another example of why he impressed so many viewers at the time. And most of the secondary roles are solid, including the likes of Burt Young, Daryl Hannah, and several other experienced character actors. Eric Roberts, on the other hand, I found almost insufferable. While the Paulie character is supposed to be the kind of twitchy, irresponsible street guy whom we're not meant to like, Roberts went way over the top in many of the scenes. His performance shifts so often and so drastically that the character becomes almost a caricature, or at the very least someone who is far too dumb and far too unstable to function. It didn't help that Roberts's New York accent was spotty at best, which stood out all the more among so many other native New Yorkers. Also stacked against Roberts is the fact that the character type of a fast-talking, irresponsible, selfish, and greedy sleaze has been done too well by others. Robert DeNiro's performance as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and even Edward Norton's as Worm in Rounders make Roberts's acting look strained.

It also not hard to see why many people have found the movie entertaining. Not unlike The Godfather before it and Goodfellas after, The Pope of Greenwich village gives us more than few amusing verbal exchanges of the distinctly New York Italian-American variety. Plenty of balls are busted and many hands are waved around as the several none-too-bright characters baffle each other with their ineptitude. For those moments, the movie can be fun.

As he did so many times with other movies, Roger Ebert articulated what I felt about this movie far better than I could. He generally liked the movie, but he felt that it was far more about the performances than about any story or message. It is what he dubbed a "Behavior Movie". When I read this, I realized just how right he was. I also realized that, despite many strong performances, I was disappointed in this movie, and I feel no need to see it again. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Before I Die #573*: Mad Max (1979)

This is the 573nd film I've watched out of the 1,177 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. *I just jumped from #568 to #573 after some editing of the full list to add a few more titles, 4 of which I had already seen. 

Director: George Miller

A marvel of its day, if not exactly a movie that first-time viewers are likely to love.

When taken in the context of when it was released, the original Mad Max is quite something. While the idea of setting a movie amidst a massive social breakdown was nothing new for the late 1970s, George Miller's vision was remarkably unique. In a style that embraced and even preceded the gritty punk aesthetic that we would see in movies like Repo Man, Mad Max gave us a dirty world infested with maniac gangs who terrorize the roadways. The tone of the film often has a B-movie quality to it, with the gang members completely hamming it up as they act like psychopaths hopped up on crystal meth and lighter fluid. And it is fairly clear from the sets and costumes that the filmmakers did not have much of a budget to work with.

But good lord, what George Miller and the crew managed to do with that budget.

With amazing efficiency and minimalism, they created a realized and horrifying fantasy world. We quickly see that the only defense the sparse region has against the gangs is a small band of dedicated highway patrolmen. These officers have few resources to work with and almost no support from a legal system which, based on our few glimpses of it, is all but useless. Among the police is a young and highly capable officer, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson). Max is a very steady hand behind the wheel, and he is one of the few officers who has not become warped or jaded by their arduous job. That is, until one of the more ferocious motorcycle gangs and their leader, Toecutter, target Max and his family for killing one of their members.

The movie was advertised as a revenge tale, and there is that element. However, the revenge part of the story doesn't kick in until the last ten minutes or so. Most of the movie is dedicated to showing just how dilapidated the world is becoming, with several high speed chases thrown in. When Max does go seeking vengeance, though, there is enough emotional buildup that his rage is palpable and the conclusion powerful.

It might not have the budget or insane feats of a Fast and
Furious movie, but Mad Max features more than a few
intense pursuits on the roadways. 
When you realize that George Miller had a minuscule budget to work with, it is clear what a brilliant director he is. The cinematography is excellent, and the action scenes are extremely well done for the few resources at their disposal.

Having seen Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior several times before this, I was surprised that the original movie actually takes place before the world wars and nuclear devastation that create the mutated insanity that we see in in the sequels The Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome, and Fury Road. This makes the original feel even more stripped down and simplified. If I had been a viewer when the original was released, it probably would have blown my mind the same way that it did with so many people back then. I didn't realize it until I did a bit of research, but Mad Max long held the record for most profitable film, as it grossed over $100 million worldwide, while being made on a budget of a relatively paltry $350,000. This little B-movie-that-could clearly struck a chord with audiences, and the critics even saw Miller's impressive skill.

All of that said, Mad Max is tough to recommend to just anyone. People looking for a "fun" movie are likely to be disappointed. The movie is disturbing vision of the gritter, nastier sides of humanity and society. While there is some decent acting in it, particularly the understated turn by Mel Gibson, many of the performances are over-the-top. Anyone who enjoyed 2015's amazing Fury Road and wants to know more about the backstory of Max and his twisted world if likely to appreciate some parts of Mad Max; otherwise, only those who enjoy dusty dystopian settings and themes should go out of their way to catch up on this classic underdog.

That's 573 movies down, only 604 to go before I can die. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

New(ish) Release: Carol (2015)

Carol (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

Extremely well-done drama that subtly looks at the quieter ways in which social misfits can anguish.

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, far better known for her "Ripley" crime novels, Carol was one of her few works of almost pure drama. It tells the tale of a romance between the title character Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and a 20-something store clerk, Therese (pronounced "Ter-rez" and played by Rooney Mara). The time period is the U.S. in the 1950s, and Carol is a woman with a husband and daughter. The couple, however, are in the process of divorcing due to a homosexual love affair which Carol had with a family friend several years earlier. This is where Carol's life is when the main story begins, and it is then that Carol meets Therese at the department store at which she works. Therese is an aspiring photographer with real talent, and she becomes rather taken by the mature, sophisticated, and beautiful Carol.

What follows is a slow, thoughtful, and subtly heartbreaking romance made virtually impossible by a close-minded society. While the story of repression of homosexuality is hardly a new idea in drama, Carol presents it as well as nearly any film could. The characters are extremely well-rounded. Both Therese and Carol, while generally likable and sometimes even admirable, are hardly without their faults. Therese exhibits plenty of the inarticulate angst that nearly all of us exhibited when we were her age. Carol can be more than a little haughty at times, and she shows poor judgement more than once in the tale. But these faults, rather than make the characters unappealing, merely lend an authenticity to them. They are neither heroes nor villains, but they are clearly human beings with desires and feelings which get battered by the small-mindedness of others.

The film is stunningly shot. Nearly any serious review you read will mention how visually impressive it is, and I am in no position to refute that. The warm colors, brilliant costumes, and set pieces all help to create many shots which could be hung on a museum wall. It put me in mind of another film drama, also released in 2015 and also set in the 1950s, Brooklyn. While Carol is more tragic than Brooklyn, they are two films that could not be any easier on the eyes.

I won't ever feel the need to see this movie again, but its praise and Oscar Best Picture nomination were well-earned. I recommend it to those who are in the mood for an extremely well-crafted drama with more than a touch of despair.