Category: 1997


FunnyGames1

In the age of torture porn, extreme gore, and fresh off the assembly line horror, it’s easy to become desensitized to the violence and brutality of horror movies. With the exception of the best modern horror (The Descent, Let the Right One In, American Psycho), audiences come in expecting personality-free, nubile youth to be murdered in increasingly “clever” and fresh ways to sate some primal blood lust. And while I love the original Scream as much as any body who grew up in the 90s, there’s something ethically repugnant about taking pleasure in the suffering of others, even if said others are obnoxious, fictional constructs. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) shares those misgivings, and his 1997 psychological anti-horror masterpiece, Funny Games, is a scathing middle finger at anyone who thinks abuse can pass for entertainment.

With all of the dangers of Poe’s Law in full effect, Funny Games is satire played brutally, viscerally straight. When it made its premiere at Cannes, many critics mistook Haneke’s intentions and thought Funny Games was a vile, reprehensible extension of the increasingly raw horror films of the 90s. And it was all those things, but that was intentional. Funny Games is nothing short of Michael Haneke’s attempts to play the soul-crushing terror, violence, and cruelty of modern horror without any of the titillating entertainment/escapism/power fantasy that often seeps into the genre. And while the film may be unwatchable to many, that was what Haneke wanted and I suspect the way I watch horror from now on will be colored by my experience with this film.

FunnyGames2

Anna (Susanna Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) are two upper-class Austrian vacationers on holiday with their son, Georg II (Stefan Clapczynski), at their large summer home. Before their world is turned upside down, Anna and Georg’s life is one of luxury and ease, and they entertain themselves by challenging the other to name increasingly obscure classical compositions. But as soon as they arrive at the lake where their summer home resides, things seem subtly off, and their usually friendly neighbors are oddly distant. But the real horror doesn’t arrive until Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep.

Pretending to be friends of their neighbors (who they’ve already killed), Paul and Peter are grade-A psychopaths quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the cinema before. Although they attempt to appear to be nothing more than slightly rude  youths at first, it doesn’t take long for Paul and Peter to reveal their true colors by murdering the family dog and breaking Georg’s leg with a golf club. And from there on, Paul and Peter submit the family to a series of increasingly cruel mind games, centered around a bet that the family won’t leave til 9 AM the next day. And, needless to say, the deck is stacked against Anna and Georg.

FunnyGames3

Funny Games utilizes a modernist disrespect for the fourth wall to help hammer in its points. On several different occasions, Paul turns directly towards the camera and addresses the viewer. He talks to the viewer like they’re a typical horror fan and they’re there to relish in the carnage that’s about to occur (which mostly happens off-screen which enhances the horror because you can’t even get off on the gorn of it all). If Paul’s little asides don’t make you feel like a prick, you’ll never understand what makes this film special. And when the movie has one moment where it seems maybe things may go the heroes’ way, well… let’s just say that Haneke isn’t afraid to remind viewers that this is a movie that he has control over.

And that leads into the most important part of Funny Games and what makes it such a powerful and important film. Funny Games is horror without any of the catharsis that comes with horror as entertainment. In most horror, the majority of the cast will die, but at least one person will live. That figure becomes the audience surrogate. For fear of spoiling the film, you don’t get that release in Funny Games. Some films (even the best like American Psycho) will turn the supreme violence into comedy. There are occasional moments of pitch-black comedy in Funny Games, but it is mostly “hands over your mouth” brutality. Some horror films allow you to get off on the violence by making the ones being killed insufferable pricks. Anna and her family may be minimally characterized, but you’re given no reason to dislike them. And you feel every stab of dread and pain that shoots into their lives.

FunnyGames4

Funny Games should have been the last word on home invasion horror films. But the litany of Scream sequels, The Strangers, and the two The Purge films show that Hollywood has failed to grasp this film’s message (that said, I actually think The Strangers is a surprisingly scary horror film). Haneke himself seems to have forgotten the point he made with the original Funny Games considering he would do a shot-for-shot remake 10 years later with American actors. If you make a film that is a harrowing condemnation of the kind of person who would watch this movie in the first place, why would you remake it and invite those who sat through the first one to see that same horrifying tale again? It comes off as vaguely hypocritical.

Funny Games isn’t easy to sit through. It’s as intentionally transgressive and challenging a film as I’ve watched for this blog, and it would have fit right in with the films of the French New Extremity of the early 2000s if they’d been half as philosophically challenging as Haneke’s masterwork. I feel comfortable calling Funny Games the best straight horror film I’ve ever seen (particularly if one counts American Psycho as more cultural satire than horror). But many of you will sit down and be either utterly disgusted by it (which you should) but not understand why, or you’ll find it to be an utter bore. For those that can appreciate the subtext and criticism Haneke lays out, you’re in for one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the 1990s.

Final Score: A+

 

Advertisements

Liar Liar

LiarLiar1

It’s hard to review films that I enjoyed from my childhood. Unless I’ve grown to find them blatantly offensive and pandering like Forrest Gump, that sense of nostalgia and of a specific time and place in my life overwhelms my critical senses. Would I still enjoy Hook so much (a critical disaster when it was first released) if I hadn’t loved it as much as a kid? I don’t know, and deep down, that bothers me. I don’t want that sort of sentiment warping my writing. When I was in elementary school, Jim Carrey was probably one of my favorite comedic actors on the planet (I know. I was a dumb kid.), and along with The Mask, his 1997 vehicle Liar Liar was a personal favorite. But, Carrey’s career (excepting Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has been a joke the last thirteen years, and I was actively dreading putting Liar Liar in for fear that it would ruin a cherished childhood memory.

I worried too much. I’m not sure if any one on the planet could actually characterize Liar Liar as a good film, but Jim Carrey’s specific brand of physical and slapstick humor is on total display for every second of this film’s hour and a half running time, and whenever the movie’s hit-or-miss writing fails to score a joke, Carrey returns to save the day. That’s a problem; it’s a fairly major problem. But when you have a physical performer like Carrey who is at the top of his game, his presence alone is enough to make the film enjoyable, highly enjoyable at times. And though my inner Alexander Payne/Woody Allen fan wants to chide me for laughing as hard as I did at many of the more lowbrow jokes in Liar Liar, I would be the liar if I didn’t say that despite the film’s legion of flaws, Liar Liar can be both hilarious and entertaining. Still not sure if it’s a “good” film though.

LiarLiar2

Jim Carrey plays Fletcher Reede, a smooth-talking, womanizing litigator who can’t find time in his packed schedule to spend time with his five year old son Max (Justin Cooper). Even though Fletcher’s ex-wife Audrey (Maura Tierney) is getting closer to bland hospital administrator Jerry (Cary Elwes) who may be moving soon to Boston, Fletcher is unable to make his son a priority in his life, and Max has lived through a spell of broken promises. After Fletcher misses Max’s birthday party in order to sleep with his boss because he hopes it will help him make partner at his law firm, Max wishes that his dad couldn’t tell a lie for a whole day. And Max’s wish comes true. On the worst possible day for Fletcher as Max has a  high-profile case to try that he can only hope to win through lying and Audrey decides to marry Jerry and move to Boston and Fletcher has one last chance to keep his son in his life.

The plot is as simple and juvenile as that. But, for what it’s worth, the movie manages to score some great laughs out of such a simple set-up. From the first moment that Fletcher begins uncontrollably telling the truth (where he tells his boss that he’s had better sex) through the following hour of classic Carey antics, Jim Carrey (and mostly Jim Carrey alone) is able to wring laugh after laugh out of mediocre at best writing. There’s a truly inspired sequence early in the film where Carrey is suddenly aware of his inability to lie and he attempts to write that a blue pencil is red. A physical comedy routine that the Stooges would have been proud of ensues. Similarly, at one point, Carrey tries to get out of having to continue trying a case he knows he can’t win by beating the holy hell out of himself in the court bathroom. It’s manic brilliance.

LiarLiar3

Sadly, as I’ve said, the film’s writing is all over the place. Sometimes, it works great. There’s a scene later in the film where Fletcher’s boss realizes he can’t lie so she forces him to tell all of the members of the firm’s partnership board how he really feels about them, but they think it’s a comedic roast (though even some of those jokes are lazy). Others are less than successful. Early on in the film, Fletcher gets in an elevator with a busty woman and the whole scene reeks of misogyny (there’s a difference between pointing misogyny out for laughs and still actually being misogynistic despite that). Similarly, by the film’s end, Liar Liar tries so hard for a treacly sweet and almost disgustingly happy ending that it ruined whatever more subversive humor Carrey had put on display earlier in the film.

If you can’t tell, I have kind of absurdly complicated feelings about Liar Liar. Yes, it is funny. I would be a pretentious liar and the worst kind of hipster if I tried to lie and say I didn’t enjoy sitting down and watching this movie again. And to go back to the point I was making in my opening paragraph, I honestly think the pleasure I derived from this film was more than a lasting memory of my childhood. Physical comedy is great when done well, and Jim Carrey used to be a master of the form. But, Liar Liar is a Jim Carrey vehicle in every sense of the word, and when the film strays even the slightest from his strengths as a comedian, it not only stops being funny; it becomes actively bad. So, perhaps a good film can not exist based solely on the strength of one component, but Jim Carrey’s madcap antics surely made Liar Liar a mostly enjoyable experience.

Final Score: B-

 

GoodWillHunting1

(A quick aside before my actual review. So, some context for long-time readers about why I haven’t done any other blogging this week. As some of you may know, I work at a bar where there are slot machines. Generally, they’re fairly safe, but every once in a while, they get robbed. I was robbed Tuesday at knife point by a dude on heroin. He put a big-ass butcher knife against my ribcage and made me give him all the money in the bar. Anyways, for obvious reasons, my mind hasn’t been on blogging and so I apologize for that and for the possibility that this review is going to be a mess)

The 90s were the true hey-day of independent cinema. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still an extraordinary amount of great independent film-making being done today (Margaret, The Master, Winter’s Bone to name a few). But, the birth of modern indie cinema as we know it in the early 90s was a pure feat of wonder that was only multiplied ten fold when visionaries like the Weinsteins (over at Miramax) realized that there was a mainstream audience for these independently developed films. One of the most popular (and well made) indie dramas of the 90s, which was overwhelmed at the 1997 Academy Awards by a certain movie about a ship and an iceberg, was the Gus Van Sant directed Good Will Hunting. And while age has worn a tiny amount of the luster off this still wonderful film, nothing can take away from the superb performances from Matt Damon (The Departed) and Robin Williams (Hook).

GoodWillHunting2

As a film on the topic of undiscovered genius, Good Will Hunting is slightly hit-or-miss. But, as a film on the idea of social alienation and the long-term psychic costs of abuse and abandonment, Good Will Hunting remains one of the most emotionally powerful films of the 1990s. I bring up the aspect of undiscovered genius because though the film makes clear, time and time again, how absurdly smart Will is, those moments aren’t nearly as interesting as the time he spends with Robin Williams and Minnie Driver. Perhaps, there’s a slight coldness to the Stellan Skarsgaard (Thor) sections of the film, but mostly, the Oscar-winning script from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Argo) shines so bright when we’re confronting the emotional problems of one of the most psychologically complex characters of the 90s that everything else just pales in comparison.

Unbeknownst to anyone but his circle of friends, a lonely, angry MIT janitor, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), is a genius of nearly Einsteinian proportions. When a Fields medal winning MIT Professor (Stellan Skarsgaard) puts a complex mathematical proof on a chalkboard at the beginning of a new semester, none of his students are able to solve the proof, but Will is. But, Will, an orphan with an angry streak a mile wide, doesn’t want to be the genius the world wants him to be. But, after punching a police officer, Will is given the choice between going to jail or going to math lessons with the professor as well as weekly therapy sessions. After pissing off every therapist who comes his way, Will finally meets his match in Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) whose brand of tough love reaches the emotionally damaged young man. But, when a bubbling romance with a Harvard girl (Minnie Driver) revs up Will’s abandoonment issues, it threatens to undo all of the work he’s accomplished with Sean.

GoodWillHunting3

First and foremost, I feel relatively certain in my proclamation that this is the best performance of Matt Damon’s career. The only reason I can’t say the same thing for Robin Williams is that Dead Poet’s Society exists. Will Hunting is the type of meaty, complex role that any young actor would kill for, and perhaps because he wrote the script with co-star Ben Affleck, Damon is acutely aware of the psychological pathology on display in his character (an abused child with a genius intellect with crippling abandonment and intimacy issues). Throw in the heart-wrenching vulnerability and emotional nakedness that he displays as his walls are slowly torn down, and it’s easy to see why Damon’s performance and the Will Hunting character have become an archetype in cinema for the troubled genius.

But, the best performance of the film is Robin William’s Sean Maguire. It speaks directly to Robin William’s immense talents as a performer that though he is most famous for comedic roles like Aladdin‘s Genie or the DJ in Good Morning Vietnam that he is also capable of producing jaw-dropping feats of dramatic acting. Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 1997 Academy Awards, and looking at the list of the other nominees, I can’t imagine anyone else winning. Once again, the role and the performance have become so iconic that the tough and troubled mentor has become its own archetype. Sean helps Will work through Will’s issues, but Will is just as instrumental in helping Sean work through his own problems. And William’s beautifully understated performance (which still allows him to utilize deadpan humor to great effect) is a wrenching and haunting portrait of despair and mourning.

GoodWillHunting4

In fact, my only substantive complaint about the film is Gus van Sant’s direction which leans a little too far into 90s indie cliches that we’ve thankfully gotten rid of since then. It’s not that his direction is bad. There are inspired shots, but often the film feels leading. Where the screenplay is showing subtlety or restraint, the film’s visual composition (and particularly the score when it’s not Elliott Smith songs) are too obvious. It’s a similar complaint that I have with Forrest Gump, but clearly, Good Will Hunting is leagues better than that film. And, though I appreciate how Will’s romance with Skylar is used as a way to examine Will’s abandonment issues, Skylar’s characterization is fairly paper-thin. She is more of a plot device than a character in her own right, and in the face of the richness of Will and Sean, it’s a shame that such a major character seems so flatly drawn.

If by some stroke of poor luck, you’ve yet to see Good Will Hunting, you need to remedy that situation immediately. It is one of those rare defining films of a decade that is completely deserving of the praise heaped upon it. It’s not quite perfect. I think when I sat down to watch it the other night that I was likely to give it one of my rare “A+”s and it didn’t quite cross that threshold, but it’s still an absolutely superb film. It actually makes me sort of sad to think that Matt Damon’s early career dedication to subversive and complex roles like this and Rounders has disappeared as he’s took on the task of less complex, blockbuster roles (The Departed a major exception). I wish he would go back to the indies that helped turn him into the star he is now. And Good Will Hunting is 100% responsible for that.

Final Score: A

 

Squeeze1

Among many people of my generation, what I’m about to say may not sound particularly controversial, but for older readers, it may shock. I consider the greatest piece of popular fiction ever made to be the fourth season of The Wire. By examining the myriad ways that bureaucratic institutions (but, specifically, the schools and city hall) fail our most at-risk children, The Wire crafted one of the most tragic, heartbreaking, and painfully honest stories ever told, not just on television but in all of fiction. Honestly, The Wire begins to transcend fiction and becomes a sociological survey of the dying American city but that’s an essay for another day. 1997’s indie drama Squeeze traverses some of the same thematic territory as The Wire, by focusing on young children on the verge of manhood trying to survive urban poverty and urban decay. Obviously, it isn’t half as good as The Wire, but, what is?

Squeeze‘s political ambitions aren’t nearly as broad and far-reaching as The Wire or even a John Singleton film, but by narrowing the focus to the external pressures bearing down on three teenage boys, Squeeze makes a statement of its own. The film doesn’t comment on why urban poverty exists or the moral failings of political institutions that have allowed the drug trade to destroy the inner cities or the cyclical nature that turns our nation’s inner city youth into “criminals.” Instead, Squeeze is content to let those phenomena simply exist without showing why they do. And, instead, it shows how the nature of violence and crime tear apart the lives of people at individual levels and that while there may be hope for people to escape that senseless cycle, seemingly insurmountable obstacles must be overcome to make it happen.

Squeeze2

Squeeze is the story of three young friends who have tried to stay out of the crime tearing their neighborhood apart. African-American Tyson (Tyrone Burton), Puerto Rican Hector (Eddie Cutanda), and Vietnamese Bao (Phuong Duong) work at a gas station begging for change to pump someone’s gas until a local gang intimidates them and runs them out of their job for no other reason than spite. In a moment of frustration with their lot in life, the boys attack a lone member of the gang and rob him, permanently earning them the ire of the gang and the knowledge that at any moment, the gang could kill them for revenge. The boys get a job working with a local youth group as an attempt at protection but when they far it isn’t enough, they seek the help of a Boston drug dealer who will offer them protection in exchange for them becoming dealers.

The performances of the three leads are a mixed bag. Phuong Duong can’t act, and the most consistently grating aspect of the film is having to listen to him laugh. Thankfully, then, he has less screen time than the others. Eddie Cutanda’s performance varies from surprisingly effective to emotionally wooden, often within the course of the same scene. A perfect example would be a moment shared between Tyson and Hector right after Hector’s mother shoots herself. At first, Hector seemed so sad it hurt, but then Eddie Cutanda lost his groove half-way through the scene. Thankfully then, Tyrone Burton’s performance was mostly fantastic for a child actor from beginning to end. He had some missteps as well, here and there, but mostly, it was a fierce and haunting performance from a kid’s debut film performance.

Squeeze3

I’ll keep this review short. It’s my day off and I want to actually enjoy as much of it as I can. I just started playing Max Payne 3 last night, and I can already tell that I’m going to love that game, and I want to play more of it tonight. So, here’s the low-down on Squeeze. It’s ending is a little too upbeat, to the point that it borders on disingenuous. And not every sequence in the film hits the right marks, but when the movie taps into something raw and powerful, it can be very difficult to watch. And that’s the sign of of realistic urban cinema. It presents truths that you would rather not face. Squeeze has those moments (though it takes a while to get there). It’s not as masterfully pulled off as a Spike Lee film or a John Singleton movie, and clearly, it isn’t The Wire. But if you have an interest in independent urban cinema, you should give Squeeze a chance.

Final Score: B+

 

TheBoxer1

Along with the Cold War (which officially ended the year I was born, 1989), one of the defining historical conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century that I have virtually no recollection of is the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. With the seemingly endless sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics over whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of Ireland, I can remember reading about it after the violence mostly ended, but I have almost no recollection over any of the events while they lasted. I was nine when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, but that means I was too young to be an American kid and understand what was happening overseas. And, perhaps it’s because this is my first cinematic exposure to the violence that consumed Northern Ireland, I found The Boxer to be a truly fascinating examination of The Troubles as well as a gripping character study of one man who wants out.

Nominally, The Boxer is a sports movie, but it makes every other boxing movie I’ve watched for this blog seem trite in comparison. Whether you’re talking Rocky or the more recent The Fighter, it seems obvious that The Boxer has more to say about violence, politics, and the human condition than most other sports movies could ever hope to achieve (except maybe the terribly underrated, This Sporting Life). If The Boxer charts one pugilist’s course to redemption, it lays out this man’s path in stark and brutally realistic terms in a world where centuries old hate and violence constantly threatens to undermine any positive steps one man can hope to take. Though the romance at the heart of the film doesn’t carry as much weight as the tale of redemption and political strife, even it cements the senseless and tragic back-and-forth of revenge and violence.

TheBoxer2

After serving fourteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, former Irish Republican Army member Danny Flynn (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison and wants nothing more to do with the men who let him rot in prison for something he didn’t do. But nothing is ever that simple. As Danny is released from jail, Joe Hammill (Adaptation.‘s Brian Cox) is negotiating a peace treaty with the British government on the grounds that the IRA prisoners of war are released, but Joe’s desire for peace in Northern Ireland isn’t shared by all of his subordinates, particularly the revenge hungry Harry (Gerard McSorley). And to make matters worse, Danny’s old girlfriend Maggie (Synecdoche, New York‘s Emily Watson) is now the wife of an IRA prisoner, and in the minds of the IRA, there’s almost nothing lower than a man who consorts with the wife of a prisoner.

When Danny is released from prison, he meets up with his old boxing trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), whose become a pathetic and homeless alcoholic with nothing to do with his life when Danny wasn’t around to keep him going. Together they pair re-open their old gym, and in direct defiance with the wishes of the most militant members of the IRA, Danny and Ike make the gym non-sectarian, which means both Catholic and Protestant kids can train there. And, if Danny weren’t already hell-bent on pissing off the IRA, he begins to rekindle his friendship and eventually romance with Maggie. As Joe desperately tries to keep the fragile peace that he’s brokered with the Brits, all of the sectarian tensions and violence threaten to erupt again as Danny prepares for a highly publicized fight with a Protestant championship boxer.

TheBoxer3

This probably isn’t a controversial stance to take but Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest screen actor that’s ever lived. I’ve reviewed a decent number of films with Daniel Day-Lewis in them, and whether it’s The Age of Innocence or A Room with a View or Lincoln or Gangs of New York, I’ve become convinced that there isn’t any type of role that Day-Lewis can’t play. His range as an actor borders on ludicrous. His performance in The Boxer may not be as iconic as There Will Be Blood, but it’s still one hell of a turn, and Day-Lewis finds all of the rage and resentment and, most importantly, world-weariness that is eating away at Danny’s soul and then forces the audience to recognize the insanity of the world Danny finds himself in. There’s a scene later in the film where Danny is boxing a Nigerian boxer, and it’s one of the most remarkable scenes of Day-Lewis’s career.

And, thankfully, Day-Lewis isn’t the only one with a great performance in this film. Emily Watson is a big name in her native United Kingdom, but she should be a huge star everywhere. She may not have the most conventional leading lady looks, but she’s a hell of a performer. And, similarly to Day-Lewis, the character of Maggie helps to emphasize the film’s themes of weariness with the insanity of the Troubles and how the stubborness and obstinacy of those who can’t let grudges go destroys the lives of everyone around them. And Emily Watson captures how the Troubles have eroded what’s left of Maggie’s soul until Danny steps back into her life. Brian Cox, Ken Stott, and Gerard McSorley all also shine in their supporting roles. Ken Stott’s performance as the alcoholic Ike is one of the more heart-wrenchingly realistic portrayals of alcoholism this side of Leaving Las Vegas.

TheBoxer4

The film has some minor structural problems, but they’re marginal complaints in a film this excellent and thought-provoking. Similar to The Return of the King, there were nearly three or four different moments when I thought this film was about to end, but then it kept on trucking on. Every sequence after these false endings worked and enriched the story, but it certainly made me antsy as the film continued. But, as I said, when a film has this much to say about the nature of violence, hatred, and the senseless cycle of revenge, I’ll forgive it for ignoring basic laws of cinematic story structure. Both as a historical document of the last breaths of the Troubles as well as an intimate portrait of one man trying to recapture his soul, The Boxer  is an indisputable triumph of character driven and political storytelling.

If you enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis, there is no excuse for not watching this film. I have seen exactly one film where he played the lead that I did not enjoy (the abysmal musical Nine, and it’s not his fault it was bad. You can’t make a fucking musical adaptation of 8 1/2 and not expect it to be fucking terrible). Daniel Day-Lewis’s insane dedication to craft and character is usually worth the price of admission alone (it’s what made Lincoln a very good if not a great film), and thankfully The Boxer has more than just another superb Daniel Day-Lewis film in its favor. My only word of warning for this film is that if you struggle understand foreign accents, you will have a hard time with the almost indecipherable thick Irish accents that all of the characters employ. And there are no subtitles on the DVD or Netflix versions of this film. Other than that, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent film.

Final Score: A-

 

DonnieBrasco1

Before I went on my extended hiatus for this blog (as I was writing Aftertaste through the six or so drafts that I’ve written of my first screenplay), one of the things that I was doing with this blog was taking fairly extensive notes on a tiny little notepad so that my reviews on here could be more detailed and specific. It was a trick I had learned as a music journalist because during Bonnaroo, I realized that after seeing twenty or so bands, I’d hardly be able to remember which songs the bands had played if I didn’t take notes about it let alone awesome specific moments from any given concert. And that translated well to movies. For whatever reason, I’ve stopped doing that after I decided to go back to this blog and start reviewing movies again (though I haven’t abandoned my screenwriting. I finished screenplay #2, Thursdays, about three weeks ago, and I started screenplay #3 last night). And after sitting through the good but mildly forgettable Donnie Brasco last night (as well as my recent string of finding myself getting hazy on the details of films I really enjoyed because I had to wait so long to review them), I know I need to get the notepad out again.

Perhaps my disappointment with Donnie Brasco lies with the simple fact that I can name two films that do the two main themes of the film so much better than this film does. The film is both a crime procedural as well as a study of how undercover cops often face the peril of “becoming the mask” they wear to stop crime. Of course, the modern film that has more or less set the non-The Wire standard for crime procedurals was Zodiac and there were simply times where Donnie Brasco felt like it was playing hard and loose with the actual facts of the case (and apparently, the ending definitely stretched the truth), and Leonardo Dicaprio set the gold standard for undercover cop performances in The Departed (which I’ll be watching in a week or so for my film studies class. and this week, I should be watching the film it’s based on, Infernal Affairs). Thank god that Lefty Ruggiero was such a compelling figure that could carry the film on his shoulders.

DonnieBrasco2

Donnie Brasco is a loose adaptation of the real life story of Joseph Pistone (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘s Johnny Depp), an undercover FBI Agent tasked with infiltrating the Bonanno crime family in the 1970s. Working under the alias of Donnie “the jeweler” Brasco, Joe befriends the low-level and all-around loser mafia hit man Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (The Godfather: Part II‘s Al Pacino). Lefty wants to believe he’s a big shot, but he isn’t. He’s barely an earner, and it’s heavily implied that he might not even be a “made man.” But after Donnie earns Lefty’s trust by telling Lefty that a diamond Lefty scored is a fake, Lefty takes Donnie in as his mentor and quickly begins to personally “vouch” for him with the other mafiosi. And thus begins a years long deep cover operation that will ultimately lead to convictions against over 100 members of the Bonanno crime family.

However, Joe/Donnie’s life is more complicated than just trying to infiltrate the mob and to climb up the ranks in order take down as many mobsters as he can (though the film shows many moments where Donnie’s cover gets a hair-breadth away from being blown). Joe begins to lose himself in the identity of Donnie Brasco, and the constant demands of his job requires him to spend months at a time away from his wife (Cedar Rapids‘ Anne Heche) and kids. Donnie also knows that when he’s finally pulled out of the case and his identity as an FBI informant is revealed, it will surely mean the death of Lefty who Donnie has begun to legitimately care about almost as a father figure. Although Donnie loathes the violence and crime that these men live in, after spending so much time with them, he has begun to identify almost as much with his alter-ego and his “partners in crime” as he does anyone in the real, legal world.

DonnieBrasco3

This was one of Johnny Depp’s first real “grown-up” roles, and, you know what, it’s really nice to see Depp in a non-crazy person role every now and then. It reminds you what a hell of a talented actor he is even when he isn’t playing a Jack Sparrow type or any of his other famous crazy person roles. Although it’s not as great as Dicaprio in The Departed, Johnny Depp really loses himself as a man that’s being torn apart by the competing forces in his life. And he (and the writers) aren’t afraid to paint Joe/Donnie in an increasingly unsympathetic life as the violence and madness of the mafia world begins to seep in to his home life. Depp has to go to some really dark places in this role, and when the role calls for shocking moments of brutality or for Depp to snap out against his wife, he re-inforces just how how far gone Joe has gotten lost as Donnie.

However, Pacino makes this movie. It isn’t just the fact that Lefty is the most interesting part of the film (although more on that later); it’s how deflated and pathetic Pacino can make Lefty and then shift on a dime to show the false swagger Lefty wants to have. This particular 50 film block for my blog has been really Pacino heavy (to wit: Donnie Brasco, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Godfather: Part 1 & 2 ) and when I give away my superlatives for this set, there’s a really good chance that Al Pacino is going to be making around three or so appearances. It’s kind of crazy. He wasn’t in a single movie that I reviewed for the 300 films before this set, and now he’s just dominating the field. And while Lefty isn’t as great as Ricky Roma or Michael Corleone, he is such a massive subversion of the glamorous mafioso type (and against the sort of cocky psychos Pacino began to play) that it proves yet again that Pacino is simply one of the greatest actors of all time.

DonnieBrasco4

There were other great supporting performances in the film. Anne Heche shined as Joe’s abandoned and long-suffering wife. Michael Madsen was sufficiently menacing as Sonny Black, one of Lefty’s capos whose whirlpool of violence continues to suck in Joe/Donnie. And Zeljko Ivanek brought his patented brand of slime and bureaucratic sleaziness as an FBI field manager who didn’t seem to care too much about Donnie’s safety. I’ve reached the 1000 word mark so I’ll draw this review to a close so maybe I can do a little screenwriting of my own this evening. If you like crime and ganster movies, Donnie Brasco is very good if not especially great. Other than the tragic and doomed Lefty, I never generated a real emotional connection to any of the action on screen. It just sort of washed over me. Maybe that’s just me though, and everybody should definitely give this movie a try.

Final Score: B+

 

TheMightyMightyBosstones1

So, long time readers know that I work at a music store. And at the store, whichever manager is running the shift is allowed to play whatever music he wants to over the store loudspeakers (as long as the music is store appropriate so most hip-hop is out of bounds). When I still worked in Morgantown, one of my managers would play a lot of 90s alt rock which, as you should know, is always a good thing. And one of the songs that played quite a bit was 90s alt rock classic that I had more or less forgotten even existed. The song was “The  Impression That I Get” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It probably doesn’t help that I had thought the song’s title  was just “Knock on Wood” for the longest time so much like “Baba O’Riley” by the Who, it’s chorus has led a lot of people to think it has a different name than it really does. Anyways, I never really got into the whole 90s ska explosion when it was happening, but about 15 years later, I can say that it was a cool time. It’s a shame that No Doubt’s last record wasn’t as good as their older stuff.

(Quick aside before review and I promise it’s not talking about me being on a hot streak. Though I still am. I think this might be the first Robert De Niro movie I’ve reviewed. We’re nearing the 300 movie mark here and I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been in a single film so far. That seems crazy to me. Glad to finally bring him around)

Usually the role of accidentally forecasting the future is in the hands of science fiction. Go back and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey where people are teleconferencing with video. Boom, you have a 1960s idea of what would ultimately become Skype. In 1902’s A Trip to the Moon by legendary French innovator George Melies, he predicted space flight and a lunar landing 60 years before it would happen. I could go on all day. Generally, you don’t see that happen in satire. Well, we can thank David Mamet and Barry Levinson for breaking that rule with their ground-breaking 1997 political satire, Wag the Dog, which is now an eerie presage to the many events to come after the film was made. Christine O’Donnel might not be a witch (sorry that meme never got old to me), but someone needs to see if screenwriter David Mamet has an honest-to-god magic crystal ball lying around.

When the unseen President of the United States is caught in a sex scandal involving an underage Firefly Girl (read: Girl Scout), professional spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is brought in to contain the situation. With the help of White House Liaison Ames (Cedar Rapids‘ Anne Heche) and Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman), they construct a fake war with Albania to keep the media from paying attention the President’s real sexual misconduct. Gathering some of the best (and ultimately slimiest) minds that Hollywood has to offer, the spin team comes up with reasons why we would go to war with Albania (a suitcase nuke at the Canadian border), haunting and fake images of the civilians punished by Albanian terrorism, and even phony stories of a war hero trapped behind enemy lines hoping to last the two weeks til election day without anyone discovering their fraud.

I really can’t imagine any scenario where Bill Clinton finds this film even slightly amusing. Although I don’t think we went into the military situation in Kosovo to distract from the Monica Lewinski sex scandal and impeachment hearings, a lot of Republicans thought that was the case. How many times did liberals like myself think that President Bush was faking imagined terrorist threats to distract from other, more important issues? The answer is all of the damn time especially when he would raise the terrorist threat levels for seemingly arbitrary reasons. I’m not sure if it’s as easy to trick the media as this film makes it out to be, but it’s a point of fact that people in power will exploit the ignorance and fear of the masses to keep themselves in office and distract from bigger issues. Also, the film managed to completely define what war has looked like in the 21st century with a terrifying foresight.

When a film has Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman as its leads, you have to know that magic is gonna happen. It won’t rank as one of the great roles of either actor’s career, but they were superb as always. De Niro turns Conrad Brean into a menacing creature that can smile as he cooks up the tiny (but most important) details of a fake war with Albania while flashing a colder smile as he threatens to kill a teenage girl if she ever tells anyone about the fake video she just shot. Dustin Hoffman is better as the smooth and fast-talking Stanley Motts. I don’t want to belittle the performance by saying this (even though it’s true), but it’s the sort of Hoffman role you expect where he bursts with nervous energy and his method skittishness. Yet, his gung-ho belief in selling America this fake war is the tie that holds the film together as is his ultimate disappointment when he realizes no one can ever know he made this all happen.

I’m not sure how much credit to give to Barry Levinson here and how much to give to screenwriter David Mamet. The film flows with the rhythm of a great Aaron Sorkin script or a Robert Altman film thanks to a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue so my money’s on Mamet. Although where Sorkin liked to show politics at its most idealistic and hopeful (I contend that he is Hollywood’s last great Romantic), this film certainly falls on the bitter and cynical end of the spectrum and leaves you wondering if anything you hear about from our nation’s leaders is true? I’m not quite as skeptical as Mamet apparently is, but the film’s ability to make you think and laugh at the same time is certainly commendable.

I’ve got a headache and an exam tomorrow (my second of three exams this week. Welcome back to college Don) so I’ll keep this short. If you like satire and politics, this film is as biting as they come and scarily predicted where the world would be heading over the next 15 years. Anne Heche is reminding me of why I’ve grown to love her body of work so much these last couple of years, and Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are simply two of the greatest actors of all time. With a spot on and quotable script, Wag the Dog is the full package although those without a stomach for the seedier side of American politics may not be able to handle the film. This joins The American President and Primary Colors as one of the great political films of the 90s.

Final Score: B+

What’s up with the way that we listen to sad music when we’re feeling down? It’s like we intentionally create this feedback loop that makes us even more morose. After every break up or any time that I am rejected by a girl that I really like, there’s a 100% chance that I’ll start listening to a shit ton of the Cure and Brand New. It’s not a helpful or productive habit in the slightest, but without fail, I do it. And every person I know has their own selection of sad music to see them through sad times whether it’s High Violet era-The National or early Mountain Goats records. I’m not sad today. I’m just fucking miserable. I’m sick and since it just started today out of nowhere, I feel like there’s a healthy chance that this is only going to get worse. I have a promise to myself (and my dad) to actually go to class this year, and it’s not easy when you have to walk two miles to campus with a massive sinus headache. So, for some reason, when I got home from class today, I was jonesing for the melancholic indie folk of Elliott Smith. So, without further ado, his Academy Award nominated song (from Good Will Hunting), “Miss Misery.”

Radiohead. The most important band since the Beatles. The band responsible for what I consider to easily be the greatest album of all time (Kid A). A band who seeing them live constituted a major entry on my bucket list. A band whose presence at Bonnaroo was the primary god damn reason that I bought a ticket in the first place. So, I’m sad to say that their set was one of the most miserable experiences of my entire life. It wasn’t because of their performance (although I was disappointed with the number of songs from the mediocre [by Radiohead standards] The King of Limbs). They sounded as phenomenal as ever and their sound translated great live. However, I waited two and a half hours to get into the pit for their show. In NYC if you’re more than half an hour early for a concert (unless we’re talking about Madison Square Garden), you’re going to most likely be in the front row but at the minimum, even at Terminal 5, you’ll be in the first four or five. I waited two and a half hours to get into the pit but because of the ass holes who were cutting in the line like mad men, I didn’t make it in. Not only did I not get in, I was the person at the rail when they stopped letting people in the pit (which meant I was watching the show from an absolutely miserable angle where I could almost never see the band). I had to watch dozens of people jump the fence while I sat there and tried to follow the rules like a good little citizen. However, they did play many of the songs I wanted to hear (“Idioteque,” “Everything in Its Right Place,” “Reckoner,” “Lotus Flower”), and they finally let me into the pit for the final two songs. The best song of the evening was saved for last (when I finally had a good view) and Radiohead just melted my brain with their live version of “Paranoid Android.” It was just crazy good. Hopefully, the next time I see Radiohead, it won’t be in a festival environment, and I’ll have paid, nice, guaranteed seats near the stage (first world problems. I know).