Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Idiot Boxing, HBO Edition: Silicon Valley season 3; Veep season 5; Game of Thrones season 6

It's semi-ridiculous how many great shows HBO has running these days. Just a few weeks ago marked the end of arguably their strongest set of concurrently running programs. These are some of the only shows that I make a point to watch as quickly as I am able, including trying to catch at least one during its initial airing (a rarity for me these days).

Here are the three primary shows of the channel's Spring offerings (and I'm not even including Last Week Tonight, which is equally brilliant).

The fellas, walking into their swank new offices after their
new CEO rolls out his opulent approach to work amenities.
Silicon Valley, season 3

The second season left us with the bittersweet victory that Richard and Pied Piper experience by winning their arbitration case against Gavin Belson. Richard, however, is removed as CEO of his own company, leaving the head chair empty.

The third season sees plenty of twists and turns through the treacherous roadways towards commercial success for a budding tech startup company. Pied Piper gets a new, highly experience and successful CEO, Jack Barker, who seems more interested in pure profit rather than Richard's more idealistic views of the possibilities of his compression program. The conflict between Barker and Richard makes up the first third of the season, with the remaining two-thirds comprising the fallout and attempts by the Pied Piper team to stay financially afloat long enough to get the platform completed and out to the public before Hooli or other programmers beat them to it.

This season lived right up to the standard set by the first two seasons. It's hilarious, with just enough drama to keep the larger story interesting. I did find Ehrlich a bit more annoying than usual. In a few episodes, they really exaggerated just how obnoxious and self-involved he is, to the point that I no longer found him amusing as much I just wanted someone to punch his lights out.

My annoyance with Ehrlich aside, there was still plenty of the great trademark lampooning and satirical takes of tech world, corporate entities, and the personalities who run them. Gavin Belson's megalomania reaches new heights, even as his numerous poor decisions and underhanded tactics start coming to light. Jack Barker's one-percenter distractions like his horse's mating while his genius CTO is pleading a compelling case about marketing strategy are fantastic. And of course, the back and forth between Dinesh and Gilfoyle are always gold.

I have every confidence that, as long as the primary creators like Mike Judge are involved with this show, it will be consistently excellent. It only remains to be seen whether they avoid having the show drag on too long, or if they show the good sense to complete the story arc they set out on from the beginning and call it a day at the right time.

The Commander-in-Chief, non-elect, with her none-too-bright
staff (except for VP Tom James, on the left - the show-
runners probably weren't going to have Hugh Laurie play
a doorknob).
Veep, season 5

Things got a bit darker this season, and the story arc was structured a bit differently, but season 5 of Veep still delivered, even if I didn't find it quite as consistently funny as previous seasons.

This season tells the painfully protracted story of an election recount and political maneuvering following the virtual tie for the presidential seat at the end of season 4. The main arc follows Selena Meyers's inept team pulling out every trick they can devise to ensure that she is voted in as president. The typically vicious insults still fly in abundance, with plenty of them hitting their comedic marks, as the Meyers team bungles its way from one misstep to another. Probably the best sub-plot is the attempt to get the ever-arrogant and ever-oblivious Jonah elected as a Congressman so that he can place a vote for Selena that will put her over the top in a House election. Watching Jonah's crew run damage control after his many ridiculous gaffs is arguably the best part of this season.

Things did take an unusually dark turn in episode 4, when Selena's mother dies. While still presented in a comic light, much of the humor in this episode was far darker than anything seen previously in this series. Perhaps it was this episode and my familiarity with the entire series, but I did feel that there weren't quite as many solid laughs in this season. I still greatly enjoyed it, and I'll gladly tune in for the next season, but I wonder if Veep is coming close to running its course.

Think Cersei was cowed after her walk of shame at the end of
season 5? Think again.
Game of Thrones, season 6 

Arguably the best season since the third.

At the point, the show has surpassed events described in author George R.R. Martin's series of novels. While frustrating to many fans, this is actually a boon for the show-runners, who have free rein to continue telling the story as they see fit. This season proved that they are making the most of that freedom.

There are likely some readers here who are yet to watch any or all of the episodes, so I will leave out specific details. Suffice it to say that, for the first time in several seasons, the story progresses with an urgency that we haven't seen in a few seasons. Various forces begin to converge, several prominent characters are killed (shocking, I know), and we start to get a clearer picture of exactly where things are heading when it comes to who will eventually win the Iron Throne. This season has more than a few of the stunning turns and surprises which have been hallmarks of the best episodes, and the episode The Door ended with one of the most powerful emotional impacts of anything I've ever seen in a movie or TV show (I'm actually getting choked up writing about it right now, two months after the episode aired).

Not that the prior three seasons weren't strong, but I grew weary of the graphic sadism which had become a regular feature of the show. Whether due to fan reaction similar to mine or some other inspiration, this season's writers chose to do without the semi-regular rapes, tortures, and other brutally violent scenes which had become nothing short of torture-porn. I was glad to see the change, which allowed me to enjoy this season all the more.

In a show this massive, there will always be a nit or two to pick. In my case, the Sand Snakes in Dorne still come off as awkward in terms of dialogue and acting; fortunately, they are not a large part of this season. And one or two other characters and minor plot-lines can be quibbled over. But in a story this epic in scale, having only a few minor gripes are the very best that one can hope for. I'm very much excited for next season, and this season actually inspired my mostly non-fantasy reader wife to go back and re-read Martin's novels. That's as strong an endorsement a I can deliver. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Gangster Flick Binge Overview: 30 Years in the Making

If you've happened across this blog much over the last couple of years, you've probably noticed a few of those "Gangster Flick 3-Pack"s posted. While I do appreciate a good gangster movie, I wasn't watching so many of them out of random compulsion. Instead, I was working my way through the book which my in-laws gave me for Christmas - The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by crime flick enthusiasts George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Before getting this fun little gift, I thought I had seen a lot of gangster films, so imagine my surprise when I looked over the authors' list and found that I hadn't seen over half of the movies listed. It even included several which I had never even heard of. Not one to back down from such a list, especially in a genre which I enjoy, I started to work my way through.

Now that I have watched every movie on their list, I feel the need for a recap. The authors did actually rank all of their selections in the following order (I've provided links to any of the movies which I have reviewed at some point):

7. The Departed
8. Donnie Brasco
9. The Usual Suspects
10. Casino
12. Once Upon a Time in America
13. Leon: The Professional
15. Reservoir Dogs
16. Scarface
20. Carlito's Way
22. Gangs of New York
24. Sexy Beast
25. Road to Perdition
26. Get Shorty
27. Rififi
28. The Untouchables
29. Eastern Promises
30. The French Connection
35. In Bruges
39. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels
43. True Romance
45. M
46. Angels with Dirty Faces
51. Mesrine
53. Snatch
58. Jackie Brown
59. Heat
60. Bugsy
64. Bullets Over Broadway
72. American Me
75. The Godfather, Part III
80. Mafioso
86. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
90. The Killer
91. Gloria
92. El Mariachi
94. New Jack City
95. Bound
98. Made

Rather than get into a hyper-detailed rundown of how I might reorder their rankings, I'll just cluster these 100 films into a handful of groups, inspired by the greatest gangster movie of all time (I put Anastasia and Macnow's original rankings in parentheses):

"Don Vito Corleone" Group:

The top of the pyramid. These are the ones that I feel are incredible. They are films which I have already seen multiple times or will happily watch again in the future. Even if I may not feel the need to watch them again, their greatness and influence simply cannot be refuted:

The Godfather (1); The Godfather, Part II (2); Goodfellas (3); On the Waterfront (4); Pulp Fiction (5); Donnie Brasco (8); Casino (10); Leon: The Professional (13); Reservoir Dogs (15); Bonnie and Clyde (19); Road to Perdition (25); The French Connection (30); City of God (32); The Long Good Friday (34); Pepe le Moko (36); A History of Violence (37); Miller's Crossing (40); True Romance (43); A Prophet (44); Get Carter (48); The Big Heat (49); Jackie Brown (58); Heat (59); The Killers (71)

"Always a Capo, Never a Don" Group:

The Clemenzas and Tessios of the gangster movie world. These are the ones that do a lot of things well but have an annoying flaw or two which I can't completely ignore. I also include movies that may have once been great but have suffered the misfortune of being slightly worn down by time. They're solid, reliable movies that I either have or likely would watch again, but they are a bit short of being among the very best:

Little Caesar (6); The Departed (7); The Usual Suspects (9); Once Upon a Time in America (12); Mean Streets (14); White Heat (17); A Bronx Tale (18); Carlito's Way (20); The Public Enemy (23); Sexy Beast (24); Get Shorty (26); Rififi (27); The Untouchables (28); Eastern Promises (29); American Gangster (33); In Bruges (35); Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (39); Infernal Affairs (41); Underworld, U.S.A. (42); M (45); Dinner Rush (47); Midnight Run (50); Mesrine (51); Snatch (53); Animal Kingdom (55); Drunken Angel (56); Kill the Irishman (57); Layer Cake (62); The Asphalt Jungle (63); Bullets Over Broadway (64); Salvatore Giuliano (65); State of Grace (66); Atlantic City (68); Let Him Have It (69); American Me (72); The Roaring Twenties (74); Al Capone (76); King of New York (77); Mafioso (80); Sonatine (82); Dillinger (83); Little Odessa (84); At Close Range (85); Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (86); Lucky Number Slevin (88); The Killer (90); Bound (95); We Own the Night (96); The Yakuza (97); Brother [Brat] (99); The Freshman (100)

"Luca Brasi" Group:

The movies that can serve a simpler appetite for some gangster cinema, but are somewhat limited in their scope and what you can expect from them. It may be due to poor aging or a few misguided choices by the creators, but these ones' merits are almost overshadowed by their flaws:

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (11); The Pope of Greenwich Village (21); Gangs of New York (22); The Petrified Forest (31); The Friends of Eddie Coyle (38); Angels With Dirty Faces (46); High Sierra (52); The Killing (54); Bugsy (60); Key Largo (67); The Valachi Papers (70); Analyze This (73); Charley Varrick (78); Federal Hill (79); Point Blank (81); The Joker is Wild (87); El Mariachi (92); Year of the Dragon (93); New Jack City (94)

"Fredo" Group:

Sure, Fredo might have ostensibly been a "gangster", but he was clearly far, far out of his depth. The movies in this group are those which I found very difficult to make it through, even once. If there was a redeeming quality or two, I had to work especially hard to find them. Whether due to age, shifting tastes, or the authors' completely different sensibilities from my own, I'm not even sure why these ones were considered among the "100 greatest" by Anastasia and Macnow:

Things Change (61); The Godfather, Part III (75); Prizzi's Honor (89); Gloria (91); Made (98)

All told, Anastasia and Macnow put together a good list. While I suspect that there are some foreign gangster movies which the writers may not know of, they did include a decent amount of crime movies from abroad. Whenever I go through a list like this, my goal is always to try and find a few gems which I had never seen or heard of. Such was the case here. There were seven  standout discoveries for me: Pepe le Moko, A Prophet, The Big Heat, The Killers, Mesrine, At Close Range, and The Yakuza. Sure, I had to sit through a fair number of mediocre or downright unpleasant movies, but finding those seven were worth it.

That wraps up this little obsessive compulsive movie-watching task. On to the next ones...

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Before I Die #577: Little Caesar (1931)

This is the 577th movie I've now seen from the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Another bona fide classic that, while clearly tremendously influential, has lost quite a bit over time.

Little Caesar was and is, by all accounts, the earliest morality play gangster movie. Preceding The Public Enemy by a mere four months and 1932's Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, it featured a star-making turn by Edward G. Robinson as Rico, power-hungry, eminently violent thug who uses his cunning, brutality, and willpower to quickly carve out a sizable portion of the criminal underworld in an unnamed big city. With one exception that ultimately leads to his downfall, Rico shows no mercy to anyone who gets between him and his grab power and respect through fear.

Like Tom Powers and Tony in the other two aforementioned films, Rico was modeled after Al Capone, the most infamous organized criminal in the United States at the time. The fictional arch villains in these movies were used to illustrate the film-makers belief that such crime lords were to be seen as a cancer on society - a cancer which the public had a responsibility to root out and destroy. To the end of delivering this message, any trace of glamour and attraction is stripped away from Rico. Yes, he eventually acquires flashy material goods, but his methods of obtaining them are so cruel and repugnant that all but the most immature and superficial of viewers would mistake Rico for some sort of role model. And by the end, Rico is meant to be a lamentable, appalling , and almost pathetic figure.

One might be briefly blinded by the slick clothes and
powerful figure that Rico cuts, but one doesn't have to try
very hard to see that it is merely window dressing on a
deranged, power-obsessed psychopath.
Beyond its clear message about violent crime, the movie holds up only so well, these 85 years later. Robinson really is an acting force. Like James Cagney in The Public Enemy, he unintentionally puts to shame all of the many weaker performances around him. Perhaps it is because this iconic movie has been parodied and comically evoked so many times since its release, but it is difficult to take seriously all of the tough-guy slang that gets bandied about. I imagine that it was fresh and riveting back in the 1930s and '40s, but I couldn't stifle laughter at much of the dialogue. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the unusual performance by Thomas E. Jackson as Sergeant Flaherty. Jackson played the part with an odd, slow drawl and a self-assured calm which really stood out. I found it one of the stronger, more memorable supporting performances in any movie from that era.

There can be no doubt about this movie's influence on film, regardless of genre, but particularly the gangster/crime movie. In hindsight, I wish I had watched this one before The Public Enemy and Scarface, as it clearly influenced these latter two. Like those movies, it is an easy, entertaining watch that shows the best, earliest examples of a type of movie that is distinctly American and still very much alive to this very day.

***An interesting note that the trio of early anti-gangster movies seemed to rely solely on death at a young age as the major deterrent to taking up a life of crime. Those movies and their creators never reckoned on the notion of living fast, taking what you can get, and dying young would become a credo embraced by alpha types in impoverished neighborhoods, where a short life is often assumed. For individuals with this "get rich or die tryin'" mentality, this type of movie has become not a cautionary tale but almost a guide for living. One need look no further than the modern reverence that many young aspiring and hardened criminals have for De Palma's 1983 remake of Scarface. The ultimate message in that movie is no different from its inspirations from the early 1930s, but for many it has had the polar opposite effect than what the original film-makers intended.

That's 577 movies down. Only 600 to go before I can die. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Before I Die #576: Planet of the Apes (1968)

This is the 576th movie I've watched from the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

A "classic" that lived down to my modest expectations.

The original Planet of the Apes is a great example of why most "good" science fiction movies just don't hold up well over time. There are some solid ideas for speculative fiction and even the well-known plot twist at the end, but an awful lot of this movie is simply hard to watch now.

The basic plot is probably familiar to even the young and most casual fans of sci-fi movies. A spacecraft begins its final return approach to Earth, having lifted off in the early 1970s. Following rules of astrophysical spacetime, the crew will be returning many centuries after they departed. To be exact, they expect to be landing on their home planet in the 27th century. The four cosmonauts employ the autopilot and all enter hibernation chambers, where they will rest for the final years of their return journey.

When they awake, however, they find themselves crashed on an unknown planet. Not only that, but far more time has elapsed than they had planned. Instead of waking up 800 Earth years later, they find that nearly two-thousand years have passed. To make matters worse, one of their crew has died due to her hibernation chamber malfunctioning. When the remaining three members disembark and begin to explore the planet, they are soon met by a band of wild, inarticulate humans who are hunted down and either captured or killed by intelligent, sophisticated humanoids resembling highly evolved chimpanzees, orangutans, and other primates. The captain, George Taylor (Charlton Heston), is taken captive and put in a zoo to be studied. Taylor desperately tries to convince his ape captors that he is an intelligent creature, as opposed to the simple beast which they see him as. After a few attempts, he manages to escape and help some of the apes to understand that humans are more than mindless animals, thanks to some archaeological evidence. After being granted his freedom, Taylor soon comes across a horrifying discovery - the battered remnants of the fallen Statue of Liberty. This reveals to Taylor that, rather than having been on some distant planet this entire time, he has been on his home planet of Earth.

The basic ideas and general framework of Planet of the Apes are solid science fiction. So much so that I would be interested in reading the original novel. The movie even uses some then-novel theories about spacetime to allow accelerated time rates to play a major role in the plot. The mystery behind the ascension of the apes at the expense of humans also carries a certain curious suspense to it. And the use of the ape/human dynamic to explore racism, social injustice, and dogmatic belief systems is commendable as a creative tool.

Taylor (right, obviously), with two of the apes sympathetic
and understanding that he is an intelligent creature. Roddy
McDowall, on the far left, ironically and unsurprisingly
outperforms the bombastic Chuck Heston.
However, like many science-fiction movies and TV shows, the creators did not mind enough of the details or avoid the trappings of speculative aesthetic. The costumes simply reek of late-1960s and early 1970s fashion sensibilities. And the sets, probably through budget constraints, are on par with the cheap environments seen on the original Star Trek TV series. But these are merely shallow visuals. For me the deeper issues lie in what makes a good film, regardless of genre. Planet of the Apes simply does not address enough of the specific details in the plot, or it addresses them in laughably cursory fashion. Taylor is literally shot in the neck for the convenience of robbing him of speech but without killing him. This is supposed to be the reason that he can't prove himself a cogent, intelligent being rather than a savage animal. Yet days and days go by in the plot before he thinks to try writing as a method of communication. Related to that is the entire use of the English language. Even if it is still Taylor's Earth, there is simply no way that the apes speak exactly the same language that Taylor spoke when he left the planet nearly two-thousand years previously. These are just two of many examples of weak plotting and details littered throughout the movie. Even the best sci-fi movies ask us to look the other way on a few occasions, but I couldn't watch Planet of the Apes
for more than five minutes straight without spotting something that spoke to weak writing.

Yes, this scene is as uncomfortable to watch as I assume it was
for Heston and Kim Hunter to shoot it.
When it comes to the arguments surrounding what makes a living creature worthy of dignity and respect, the movie approaches the mark at times, but falls short of a full analysis that the subject requires. In the courtroom scene, there is a heated back-and-forth between Taylor's advocates and the tribunal of judges. While these scenes do touch on some worthy social commentary, there are once again many unanswered questions and unexplored arguments. The movie uses an admittedly funny but ultimately hokey cop-out visual of having the tribunal of apes displaying the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" image, but simply leaves it at that. I felt that there was probably an even more clever and intellectually satisfying method of addressing such refusal of new ideas on the parts of fundamentalists. In what is meant to be the grand revelation at the archaeology site, a talking human doll is presented to the apes and us as the ultimate argument against humans as primal animals. It is hardly the most convincing piece of evidence possible, and yet it seems to completely alter the opinion of Taylor's strong-willed nemesis, Doctor Zaius. At nearly every turn in this movie, when a critical point is raised and examined, I was unsatisfied with the analysis and conclusions - two things that put the "science" in science fiction.

And then there's Charles Heston. Oh boy. Ol' Chuck is a legendary figure as a classic leading man and a notorious over-actor. His performance in Planet of the Apes might serve as exhibit A in the case for the latter. His bombastic, teeth-gritting, bare-chested turn as the misanthropic Taylor is astoundingly over-the-top. I find it ironic that the performance itself shows all of the forceful brutality that his character is trying to prove that he does not represent. Even when the script had some decent lines for him, he often spoiled it with his strange and distinctively heavy intonation. This was yet another distraction.

I can certainly understand why this movie garnered so much attention and acclaim back in 1968. It was a novel story that tackled serious social issues that were even more relevent then than now (and they are relevant now). But sci-fi movie-making has evolved far too much in so many aspects that Planet of the Apes has aged as poorly as any "classic" movie I've seen.

That's 576 movies down, only 601 to go before I can die. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Before I Die #575: The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

This is the 575th movie that I've now seen from the 1,177 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through. It is also part of a little Bourne marathon that I did over a couple of weeks. A review of the other films is forthcoming. 

Director: Paul Greengrass

While it is often the most acclaimed of the Bourne movies, this is actually the one that I had never seen. I can now definitively say that Paul Greengrass is not for me. Ultimatum hits its marks extremely well, but this type of film only holds so much interest for me.

Picking up shortly after the events of The Bourne Supremacy, this third film in the original trilogy has Jason Bourne tracing his own history in an effort to discover everything about his past. The movie relies heavily on the revelations about Bourne's true identity and the breakneck action that takes place between those revelations.

The plot is not the most creative one a viewer will find. We do get some answers about who Bourne was before being molded into a lethal assassin, but it is not the stuff of grand revelation. Also, it is no great leap to suggest that the U.S. government has a super-secret stash of soldier assassins. Nor is it a great leap to think that those who control these assassins might be at least a little corrupt or of questionable ethics. And yet the movie presents these to us as if we are still meant to be shocked by them. The pacing of the narrative is skilled, and the actors all play their parts well, but the drama seemed stale to me. This, despite the ever-moving, ever-panning camera and edgy music score. The movie felt to me like Aaron Sorkin telling a grim espionage thriller, but without his trademark snappy dialogue.

Blurry, frenetic fights and action are a hallmark of the
Greengrass Bourne movies. They can be very impressive at
times, but my tolerance for them is limited.
Let's face it, though - the Bourne series became popular due to its action, not a particularly intelligent plot or brilliant insights. Even I must admit that Greengrass and his camera and editing crew are exceptional at what they do. Choreographing and filming the fight and chase scenes must take an immense amount of planning and work. And being able to have such a dizzying amount of quick cuts, while still communicating the overall visual story, is no mean feat. There are several sequences that are very impressive, even to a non-fan like me. The proximity of the cameras to the intense hand-to-hand combat and inside cars that are speeding, crashing, and careening all over the road do create a sense of excitement at times. However, I can't help but get bored with them after a minute or two. And when such scenes extend more than a few minutes and take up around half of a film, as Greengrass's Bourne movies do, then my attention wanes. I will admit that this style is far superior to the overuse of slow motion (I'm looking at you, Michael Bay), but it is just not my cup of tea.

I completely understand why these movies are popular, and it is easy to admit that they are very well done, for what they are. They really are, though, a case of slightly more style over substance. This is fine when the style suits you, but this is not a style that suits me.

That's 575 movies down. Only 602 to go before I can die. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Gangster Flick Home Stretch: A Bronx Tale (1993)

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Director: Robert De Niro

A strong and unique gangster movie that overcomes some noticeably weaker aspects.

Based on a stage play by Chazz Palminteri written from his own experience growing up in the Bronx, the movie looks at two key periods in the life of Calogero as he struggles between the lessons taught by his father and a local mafia figure. In 1960, a 10-year-old Calogero is enamored by the swagger and presence of Sonny (Chazz Palmenteri), a neighborhood guy who is the most powerful crime figure. Despite the warnings of his parents, the impressionable Calogero can't help but be mesmerized by the sharp dress and image of strength found in Sonny. Sonny takes no notice of the fawning young Calogero until the boy publicly refuses to tell the police that he witnessed Sonny kill a man in broad daylight. From that point, Sonny tries to take Calogero under his wing and introduce him to the criminal lifestyle. When Calogero is caught spending time in Sonny's bar by his father Lorenzo (Robert De Niro), a tense standoff occurs between Sonny and Lorenzo. While no violence occurs, a quiet but severe tension arises between the earnest, hard-working Lorenzo and the lethal Sonny.

The story flashes forward eight years to 1968, when we learn that the now-18-year-old Calogero has been managing to toe the delicate line between doing what his father wants while also maintaining ties with his wastrel friends as well as the still-powerful Sonny. Calogero dresses the part of a would-be hoodlum and even does some low-level loan sharking, but always stops short of committing any serious acts of violence or criminality. Things eventually come to a head when Calogero develops a crush on an African-American girl, Jane, from a nearby neighborhood, something which could potentially make him a pariah among his intensely racist friends.

One of the more intense confrontations between Sonny and
Lorenzo. The battle over Calogero's life and upbringing is
one of the most human dramas you'll see in a gangster movie.
The movie bears many aspects familiar to those who have seen the New York gangster movies of Martin Scorsese, but Palminteri tells a story that is far more personal and presents several unique elements. For one, the character of Sonny is splendidly well-rounded. Yes, he is a brutal criminal who garners respect through fear. At the same time, he is more than a mere thug. He displays an intelligence and wisdom with Calogero that is unusual in such a character but authentic in this story. It is Sonny who repeatedly tells Calogero to get away from his small-minded friends, who Sonny says will eventually bring him down. It is Sonny who urges Calogero to stay in school and create opportunities for himself. It is also Sonny who tells the young man to follow his heart and start seeing Jane, regardless of what his ignorant peers think. At the same time, Sonny still runs a criminal operation through violence and intimidation, which is why Calogero's father is continually fighting for his son to turn away from Sonny as any sort of mentor. The specific dilemmas are often wonderfully subtle, such as when Lorenzo takes his son to a boxing match, where Sonny offers to bring the two down to their ring-side seats. Lorenzo, trying to maintain his integrity, refuses the offer but has to watch his son fight the urge to join Sonny. Simpler moments like these are rare for gangster movies, and A Bronx Tale includes several very well-executed sequences like it.

The movie isn't flawless. Some of the performances are rather weak, most notably Taral Hicks as Jane and even Lillo Brancato as the older Calogero at times. Part of this is due to a script that is occasionally tepid, but it also doesn't help that the performances by Palminteri and De Niro are typically phenomenal. I suppose this can always be a risk when using such amazingly talented actors - that the shortcomings of any other actors become much more obvious. The weaker performances hardly undermine the movie, but I did find them occasionally distracting.

I really enjoyed this movie, and I wish that I had seen it earlier. I would recommend that anyone watch A Bronx Tale, and then follow it up with a viewing of Scorsese's Mean Streets - two movies very different in general theme and tone but which take place at very similar times and within similar settings. They are two of the very best New York gangster movies that one could possibly watch, although for different reasons. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Before I Die #574: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

This is the 574th movie I've now seen from the 1,177 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through. 

Yes, you're reading that right - Boris
Karloff of Frankenstein fame was in
this movie. 
Director: Howard Hawks

One of three films in the 1930s that marked a major historical turning point for gangster movies, and one that shows no small amount of technical skill. Still, the outdated elements and styles are impossible to ignore.

One of several films in the 1930s which used the infamous (and then still-living) Al Capone as its subject, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation was billed as a criticism of the gangster lifestyle and of society's glamorization of it. For the most part, the movie lives up to that claim. Similar to the the previous year's The Public Enemy, the movie even starts with a disclaimer and admonition of the "celebrity criminal", and states that the movie's protagonist, Tony, represents a type of disease in American society which must be wiped out. Even more than The Public Enemy, Scarface makes sure that it strips much of the glamour away from the oft-exploited cool gangster characters long popularized in U.S. culture.

Like James Cagney's Tom Powers character in The Public Enemy, the fictional Tony is inspired by the most infamous criminal of that time - Al Capone. From the first moments, it is clear that Tony is a cold-blooded killer, assassinating a rival gang boss while idly whistling a cheery tune. His vicious and power-hungry disposition is never in question at any moment. In his dealings with rival gang members, fellow gang members, or even friends and relatives, Tony makes no bones about how he will let nothing come between him and his acquisition of money and power. While he does show a mild dash of charm and subtlety when attempting to woo his boss's girlfriend, this is still a maneuver motivated by his own lust and recklessness. While the message is effectively delivered, it does become a bit of a one-note tone. There is a moment at the end when he shows a distorted form of affection for his sister, but for the most part, we are not meant to empathize with or admire him in any way. For these things, the movie was fairly unique for its time.

The technical aspects of the movie are a mixed bag. The movie still looks great, with brilliant uses of camera angles, visual storytelling, and shadows which evoke what the great noir movies would begin doing several years later. The pacing is also steady, clocking in at a brisk 93 minutes, during which there are almost no wasted scenes. However, the movie does suffer from the typical weaknesses of films from the era. Namely, occasionally-uninspired dialogue that is now silly from constant parody, and more than a few hammed-up performances. The legendary Paul Muni is often fiercely magnetic as Tony, but even he seemed to have trouble locking into the Italian-American accent that he was attempting to maintain. Many of the other actors are stuck in the exaggerated methods of the time, when movies were still only a few years removed from the advent of sound.

Tony (middle) puts on his sleazy charm to his boss's woman.
Handing his hat to his boss is a more subtle power move. 
It is interesting to note that there were two endings shot for the movie - the intended one which was actually shown in theaters, and one which was shot in an attempt to appease censors in states like New York, where the boards were threatening to boycott the film. The latter ending was actually still rejected by censors, leading the film producers to simply release the film only in states which had no censorship boards. It's a curious thing to watch both endings, for while Tony's ultimate fate is essentially unchanged, the way that it plays out sends two rather different messages to the audience.

One other curiosity is that this 1932 film is, as its name suggests, the original version of Brian De Palma's well-known 1983 remake starring Al Pacino as a Cuban-born immigrant who moves to take over the cocaine trade in Miami. It was rather fascinating to see just how many elements De Palma took from the original, despite its having been over 50 years old at the time. While I am often of two minds about De Palma, I think he did a masterful job of adapting the 1932 version for modern audiences, maintaining the spirit of the original while updating most of the aspects to which time had been rather unkind.

The movie is certainly worth checking out for anyone who appreciates the history of gangster movies, even if it hasn't completely stood the test of time.