Tag Archive: Al Pacino


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I harped on this issue for one of the other websites I write for, but we live in the age of the anti-hero. It’s easy to understand why. Morally ambiguous leading men fit our fractured, cynical age. But, at the same time, the world still needs heroes, and we don’t have nearly enough well-written ones today. When heroes do arrive, they are products of trite, melodramatic sentimentality with no grounding in the real world even when they’re based off of real figures. But, when a true story comes of a regular man fighting a monumental fight simply because it’s the right thing to do, and the film is devoid of cliche or obvious manipulation, you must stand up and applaud. And Serpico is one of those films.

Sidney Lumet’s Serpico is one of the rare films that has it all. It has a thrilling story about one cop’s stand against the entrenched corruption of the NYPD. It has an important message about how easy it is for corruption to become institutionalized and how difficult it is to cleanse corruption from major institutions once it gains a foothold. It has a magnetic and charming hero who has more dimensions than you’d expect. You have a firebrand performance from Al Pacino at the prime of his career. And, you have the marvelously understated direction of Sidney Lumet. There is no audience this film isn’t right for.

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Serpico is the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino), an honest man in a police department where practically every other cop is on the take. Frank has a college education, listens to opera, speaks Spanish, and takes ballet lessons to impress a girl. He has a long beard and dresses like a hippie and that alone would be enough to garner the ire of everyone else in the department. But, when Frank is placed in the NYPD plainclothesman division, he quickly learns that his fellow cops are as crooked and dirty as the criminals they put behind bars, and the Italian organized crime syndicates have most of his coworkers in their pockets.

And, Serpico’s life becomes a series of intimidations and harassments from his fellow officers. On his first day in the plainsclothes division, another office slips him an envelope full of money which Serpico gives to his commanding officer, and nobody looks into the bribery. Serpico refuses to take money beyond his salary, and every day he feels his life is in danger because his fellow cops think he’s going to get them arrested and that they can’t trust him. Serpico is bounced from unit to unit as no department in the NYPD knows what to do with him, and the corruption is a cancer eating away at one of the largest police departments in the world. And it isn’t until a few of his fellow officers decide to make a stand with him that Serpico is able to make any change, but his life is far from a happy ending.

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Young Al Pacino is as good an actor as any other man that ever lived. Although his 90s/2000s output is a caricature of his early roles, there has never been another actor with such a coiled physical presence. Pacino in this or (a rare excellent later role) Glengarry Glen Ross or The Godfather: Part II has the ability to switch from boiler-plate tension to a controlled explosion. And Serpico’s entire arc is built around feeling his world closing in around him and not being able to trust anyone, and nobody besides Pacino could play that man and make it feel so documentary real.

And, that element of documentary realism is critical to what makes Serpico work. If Serpico weren’t a true story, it would probably border on unbelievable (I want to read the non-fiction book it’s based on to see how closely it hews to the truth). But, Sidney Lumet shoots the film almost like a documentary with a dash of the stylistic touches of the political thrillers of the 1970s (think All the President’s Men). Though there are obvious elements of the film that are spiced up to create a movie, unlike virtually every crime thriller ever made, Serpico feels completely grounded in reality.

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Also, Serpico is clearly a hero, but he is also clearly a man. Serpico doesn’t do what he does because he dreams of glory or being the greatest cop; he just wants to do what he thinks is right. And no one else in the police department wants him to be a good man because it represents the antithesis of how they lives their lives. And that’s what makes a hero. Serpico is doing what’s right with no expectation of a reward, and Serpico refuses to romanticize Serpico’s actions. They just contextualize it as him not knowing any other way to live his life, and that allows the film to make a moral statement without turning Serpico into a Messianic figure (although his hippie beard gives him a visual allegory for Jesus).

I’m at work right now, and I’m training a new hire so I’m going to bring this review to an early close. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Serpico joins End of Watch and Training Day as being one of the greatest cop movies I’ve ever seen. It works as an entertaining tale of one man battling insurmountable odds, but it works on so many other levels, and like Lumet’s best works, it’s a technical marvel. For anyone that loves cop films and the vein of classic cinema that allowed excursions away from the main plot so that characters can breathe, Serpico is a can’t miss classic film with Al Pacino at the height of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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(a side note before my actual review. My streak of reviewing a disproportionately large number of great films continues. I am not complaining)

When I first saw Oliver Stone’s football epic, Any Given Sunday, back when it was released in 1999, I was unprepared for the complexity and maturity of this masterful film’s storytelling. I enjoyed the movie even then (it broke the mold of your typical sports story that I was tired of even at the age of 10), but it was a film with so much going on underneath the surface that it’s sort of a miracle that a blockbuster like this was even allowed to be made in the first place. It’s weird, in retrospect, that this was the first Oliver Stone film I ever watched considering the man’s large and diverse body of work (and it’s sad that this was probably Stone’s last great film). Though Any Given Sunday may not have the grand political ambitions of Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July, it’s still a powerful and multi-layered film that achieves the rare Stone feat of also being highly accessible.

I call the film accessible because at the end of the day, if you don’t have the patience for the film’s darker subtexts, it’s still a rousing and hard-hitting football drama (which subverts many sports film stereotypes at every turn). But, the power and enduring strength of the film comes from it’s almost apocalyptic outlook on the world of professional football. The film is so dark and unyielding that it still sort of blows my mind that I didn’t pick up on it even as a kid. A man pushes himself to the brink of paralysis for a chance at a signing bonus. A player gets his eye knocked out of the back of his head during a particularly brutal hit. The coach visits hookers. The typical “back up quarterback called into the spotlight” turns into an egocentric gloryhound. A young owner is ruthless in her quest for the almighty dollar but she’s right in her criticism of the old-fashioned nature of the more “morally grounded” coach. The film is harsh in its realistic portrayal of the game.

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In an alternate universe where a second professional football league doesn’t quite rival the NFL but still generates plenty of money, the Miami Sharks have fallen far from their halcyon glory days. Coach Tony D’amato (The Godfather‘s Al Pacino) has lost the fire in his belly, and his old-fashioned dedication to a running game and the basics of football is being torn apart in the face of modern high-powered offenses. To make matters worse, his aging star quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) gets injured during the middle of a four game losing streak at the end of the season while the ruthless young coach, Christina Pagniacci (Being John Malkovich‘s Cameron Diaz), is breathing down his neck looking for any excuse to fire him. When his second string quarterback gets injured in the same game, Tony is forced to rely on untested third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Django Unchained‘s Jamie Foxx) which brings a whole ‘nother set of complications.

It turns out that Willie is a exceptional quarterback. A natural athlete, Willie is as much a threat running as he is passing, and he can read defenses well enough to change plays to shock the other team well enough to get a sneak score. But, Willie’s quick rise to fame goes to his head in the worst way possible, and his own arrogance in his talents begins to alienate him from his teammates even as he’s leading his team to victory. All the while, a slimy team physician (Salvador‘s James Woods) is over-prescribing pain medication and letting injured players stay in the game even though their very lives are at risk because it might be the difference between a loss and victory. As Tony tries to keep his team apart (as Willie’s newfound arrogance starts to tear it apart), the Miami Sharks have a realistic shot at a playoffs berth that may do more damage to the team than if they had simply lost the rest of their games.

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One of the strengths of the film is the bordering on unbelievable depth of its cast. This is easily one of the best performances of the the late period of Pacino’s career and the only one that seems to top it off the top of my head is Glengarry Glen Ross. Tony is world-weary and beaten down and a loser despite the great man people claim he used to be. But, on those rare occasions, we see sparks of the man he could be, and Pacino makes the transitions between those two different Tony’s a magical thing to behold. This was the first performance from Jamie Foxx that gave us a hint that maybe he could be a great actor. And while this isn’t his turn in Collateral or Ray, it was still a hell of a performance from an actor mostly known for light comedic roles at the time. Hell, Oliver Stone manages to even coax a great performance from Cameron Diaz who is a second-rate actress at best.

And, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Alongside his performance in Salvador, I think James Woods part as the unethical team physician is one of the best of his entire career. And it works because it’s clear that Harvey isn’t entirely evil. He honestly believes he’s doing what these players want and what is best for the team even though it violates the Hippocratic oath. Dennis Quaid, another actor that I’m not otherwise overly fond of, shines as the football star who’s over the hill and then some but pushes himself to the breaking point because he doesn’t have any other options in life. And, one of the unsung performances of the film is from real life football legend Lawrence Taylor who more or less plays a fictionalized version of himself in the movie as a football pro with one too many concussions.

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Oliver Stone’s direction has always been peerless (even when his storytelling can be hamfisted and decidedly unsubtle), and Any Given Sunday is no exception. The only other football film I can think of that captures the excitement and energy of football better than Any Given Sunday is the football documentary Undefeated. Utilizing the combination of traditional cinematography and found footage that he pioneered in JFK (an Oliver Stone film I’m still yet to see), Any Given Sunday is a dynamic experience that both places the audience in the glitz and glamor of professional football but it also captures the brutal reality of getting hit by three different 280 pound men at once. I’m actually not sure if football has ever been portrayed this brutally from the perspective of the sheer hell the game puts its players through.

If one can make any complaints about the film, they’d have to be relegated towards its pacing and length. Any Given Sunday is a great film, but it would probably be a better film if it were about twenty minutes shorter. I’m not sure where those cuts could be made. Any Given Sunday is like a house of cards where removing one piece would weaken the whole structure, but I’m sure there’s a way that this tale could have been told more efficiently. By the two and a half hour mark, my patience began to wear slightly thin (so thank god then that the final playoff game climax was so exciting). Also, one bit of the ending seemed at least partially disingenuous because one character’s transformation seemed too neat and upbeat. Although, the final stinger of the film subverts that one last time so maybe I’m over-reacting.

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I’ll draw this review to a close. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until like 4:30 PM and I hadn’t gone to bed until like 7 AM), and I want to finish the second season of Star Trek. I also need to watch Eve’s Bayou before it leaves my Netflix Instant queue. So, I’ll leave you with these parting thoughts. I’m not sure if I can think of a non-documentary football film that’s better than Any Given Sunday (that specification rules out Go Tigers! and Undefeated). It was Oliver Stone’s last great film and arguably his last good film, period. If you have even a passing interest in the game, Any Given Sunday is a must-see film for its condemnation of the infiltration of money and greed into professional sports. As a scathing indictment of the narcissism that sadly rules the pros today, Any Given Sunday is an unqualified success story.

Final Score: A-

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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+

 

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We’re going to start out with a quick discussion of Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari grading protocol before this review because it bears on my opinion of this film and how it strays slightly from my usual behavior. The Godfather: Part II marks my 317th movie review for this blog. Out of those 317 films, 16 films will have received the illusive score of “A+” (The Godfather: Part II is about to become movie #16 in that list). Generally, the films that receive this score either leave my intellectually breathless (Synecdoche, New York, 8 1/2, Persona) or they leave me emotionally devastated (The Tree of Life, Winter’s Bone, Glengarry Glen Ross). Occasionally though, films will come along that just such perfect, flawless, and thrilling demonstrations of masterful cinematic technique that there is no other score you could possibly hope to give them. Chinatown or Ran are clear examples. The Godfather: Part II is one of the most technically superb films ever made and one of the true masterpieces of the 1970s (and all of American cinema) and simply superior to its predecessor.

Expanding on every theme of The Godfather: Part I while upping the ante in the tragedy department tenfold as well as shoveling more dramatic irony than one would think humanly possible into a film (though at three and a half hours, I guess you have plenty of time to put as much in there as you want), I think it might be fair to say that The Godfather: Part II could be the greatest American epic of all time. Throw in the fact that these films (particularly this entry) are much lighter on actual violence than people seem to remember and that becomes all the more impressive. Yet, in all of American cinema, the exploration of the destruction of one man’s soul, integrity, basic human decency, whatever you want to call that last shred of “goodness” in our hearts, has never been put on more fuller display than in The Godfather: Part II.

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Set a few years after the end of the original film, Part II finds the Corleone family migrated to Nevada where Michael’s (Al Pacino) plans to get an early foothold in the Las Vegas casino business have borne marvelous fruit. Alongside strong-arming a U.S. Senator who wants to squeeze the Corleones for a gaming license, Michael’s life is complicated by the arrival of Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), a Corleone family capo who is feuding with the New York based Rosato brothers. The problem is that the Rosato’s are allied with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and Johnny Ola (The Sopranos Dominic Chianese), Miami gangsters who are involved in a lucrative business deal in Cuba with Michael. When a botched assassination attempt on Michael in his own well-guarded compound awakens Michael’s vengeful side, Michael will stop at nothing to get revenge on those who could have harmed his family even if it ultimately means he destroys his family in the process.

Alongside the story presented in the late 1950s about Michael’s attempts to root out the rat in his family and protect his interests at all costs, the film also flashes back to the turn of the 20th century where you see the humble origins of Michael’s father Vito (Wag the Dog‘s Robert De Niro) from an exiled Sicilian boy to one of the most powerful gangsters in America. Born Vito Andolini, Vito has to flee his hometown of Corleone where a local mafia Don has a price on his head. He takes a boat to America (where he takes the name of his hometown) and after a run in with a local racketeer heavy, Fanucci, Vito quickly amasses power and respect in his community. In fact, there’s almost a victorious, triumphant feeling to the tale of Vito (although with the ultimate price his criminal activities cost his family weighing over every second) but I’ll have more to say about that important bit of ironic dichotomy later.

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As stated before, The Godfather: Part II (particularly when taken in conjunction with the first film) is a classical tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. Michael Corleone is a tragic hero to rival Hamlet or Macbeth. Here is a man who over the course of these two films starts out with at least somewhat noble intentions (and ultimately this film answers my concerns about the flimsiness of Michael’s transformation in the first film). He wants to protect his family. He wants to avenge the attempted murder of his father. He wants to provide for his screw-up siblings. But, by being so excellent at the business he was born into (but didn’t want anything to do with), Michael ultimately tears his family apart (and spoiler alert), he even orders the cold-blooded murder of one of his own siblings because the sibling betrayed him. He loses his wife Kay (Manhattan‘s Diane Keaton) and everyone is terrified of him. Yet, Michael rarely acts out of a place of pure selfishness (though he certainly ceased to be a good guy a long time ago) and he always thinks he’s doing the right thing, and it’s what makes Michael one of the greatest characters in movie history.

And compare that to the path Vito travels over the course of two films. Michael ultimately proves to be more effective as the head of the family. He makes the Corleones more wealthy than Vito could have ever imagined. But Vito achieved a modest success without alienating and ruining his family. The only casualty that Vito’s family ever suffers (besides his own near death at the hands of Solazzo in the first film) is Sonny (James Caan) but that was also about half Sonny’s fault. Yet, his sons (and daughter Connie [Rocky‘s Talia Shire]) wind up so disconnected from each other as a family that an avalanche of tragedy faces the family once Vito finally dies of a heart attack. Vito doesn’t have the same ice in his vein as his son that Michael thinks he needs to keep the family safe, but ultimately Vito proved to be a more moral man (in his own odd way) than his son transformed himself into being.

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It’s hard for me to name a way in which this film isn’t vastly superior to The Godfather: Part I, but let’s start with the performances. Al Pacino’s Michael in this film is not just the best performance of Pacino’s career (managing to even eclipse Glengarry Glen Ross for me) but arguably one of the most important of all time. This film was only made two years after the first film, but Pacino makes Michael seem decades older and more world-weary. Part of it is the excellent make-up he wears (you see what he usually looks like in the flashback that closes out the film), but you see just how dead inside Michael becomes over the course of the film. It’s one of those performances that can’t really be appreciated without seeing the other film, but Pacino is so great at losing himself in Michael’s emotional turmoil and decay, but he still finds the right moments to explode when he needs to, like when he discovers that Fredo (Jon Cazale) has betrayed him or that Kay has had an abortion.

De Niro so totally nails the mannerisms and vocal affectations of Brando’s Vito that it’s one of the all-time great cinematic impersonations although you also just have to savor the chance to see De Niro when he was so young and untested really exploring the palette of emotions and styles that would go on to define his legendary career. But like Joseph Gordon-Levitt simply became Bruce Willis in Looper, De Niro becomes Brando and it’s a sight to behold. Other stand-out performances from the film include Jon Cazale’s timid and naive Fredo, Diane Keaton’s abandoned Kay, Lee Strasburg’s scheming Hyman Roth, and, of course, the drunken and put-upon Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli.

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There’s a moment late in the film that to me sums up not just the story strengths of the film or the acting strengths (though it contains some of the best moments of both) but just the attention to visual detail and the exceptionally strong direction that Francis Ford Coppola lends to the crown jewel in his career as one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. Michael has brought Fredo back to his estate after discovering in Cuba (after a drunken Fredo lets slip that he knows Johnny Ola) that Fredo was the one to betray him. Although he initially wanted to forgive Fredo, Fredo’s unwillingness to take responsibility for what he did (by trying to blame Michael for treating him like a child) has finally pushed Michael over the deep edge. Michael essentially tells Fredo that he is now nothing to him. And it is so cold, that ice literally comes out of Michael’s mouth as he’s giving this speech. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for how cold and uncaring he’s becoming and it’s one of the defining moments of the film and Coppola’s career.

I could write 2000 more words about everything I love about this film, but I’d like to actually watch a movie today (or maybe get started on my third screenplay so I can rack up a hat trick of unpublished works) so I’ll draw this to a close before this becomes an academic essay on the cinematic import of this film. The Godfather: Part II won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1974 Academy Awards. It shouldn’t have. Chinatown and Roman Polanski should have, but if any film was going to beat Chinatown, I’m okay if it’s this one. Whereas the first film falters under the weights of its own ambitions, The Godfather: Part II not only meets those high standards, it exceeds them in every way. That a film that is three and a half hours long was able to carry my attention for every second of its running time should speak volumes to why this is one of the greatest films ever made.

Final Score: A+

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It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a film that is almost without fail always counted among the top ten films ever made. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever reviewed a film this universally acclaimed. 8 1/2 is probably the closest contender if we throw foreign films into the mix. Chinatown is probably pretty high up there but only among more serious movie types (although you could say the same thing about 8 1/2). I just looked at the list of every single movie I’ve reviewed for this blog (I keep one along with the scores I gave them for my own clerical purposes), and absolutely no film I’ve reviewed is as much of a cultural touchstone as 1972’s Francis Ford Coppola opus, The Godfather. It’s the #2 highest ranked film on IMBD.com (narrowly behind The Shawshank Redemption). It is one of the most celebrated and beloved films ever made. It’s influence is immeasurable. But, it’s not quite perfect.

Thankfully, it is about as close to perfect as you could wish while still recognizing the film has one troubling flaw which distracted me for the film’s entire second half. Perhaps, it’s because the film is so well-loved and so highly considered that I was extra attentive to any flaws that I could find in the film. I’d like to believe I wasn’t going out of my way to look for things that I disliked in this movie, but there’s always a chance that I was doing it subconsciously. But I had so much trouble believing a fundamental transformation of the film that I was drawn out of the technical wizardry that Francis Ford Coppola (and cinematographer Gordon Willis) were using to wow me. Perhaps, I’m ill-suited to analyze the motivations and competing urges that seemed week and artificial to me, but the spiritual downfall of Michael Corleone still seems poorly developed.

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A generations-sprawling epic (particularly when the later two films are taken into consideration), The Godfather is ultimately the tale of the Corleone crime family. Starting on the day of his daughter’s (Rocky‘s Talia Shire) wedding in the mid 1940s, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is presented as the head of his powerful crime family. With the help of his sons, the hot-tempered Sonny (James Caan), the incompetent Fredo (John Cazale), and the adopted Tommy (Robert Duvall), Vito runs gambling and prostitution circuits in the New York area. Vito’s son Michael (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino) is a war hero that wants nothing to do with the family business, but when a rival family nearly murders his father, Michael takes it upon himself to run the Corleone family even if it means losing his soul in the process.

At nearly three hours long, The Godfather is a multi-layered, complex epic in every sense of the word so I fear to spoil too much about the plot. Although at the same time, this movie is 40 years old now. It’s not like there’s anybody reading this blog who is still yet to see this movie. Or at least I hope not. What I was trying to get at before though is that there is a sweeping grandeur to the film which is based off of Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name (Puzo also helped to write the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola). The film falters on occasion but you can’t fault it’s ambition. The Godfather is as much about the price of family and how familial loyalty can undo us as it is a detailed look at the mafiosi in the 1940s. The attention to rich characterization and a bird’s eye view of the most intimate secrets of this family is what made The Godfather such a revelation upon its release.

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Much like Glengarry Glen Ross, this is truly an actors’ film. The ensemble casting is pretty superb (if not quite as seamlessly fluid as Glengarry) and it ranks among the best-cast films in cinema history. Brando won the Best Actor Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards (though he declined it because of how Hollywood was treating Native Americans… long fucking story), and while I don’t actually consider Vito to the be the male lead of the film (that’s clearly Michael), it’s still a stunning performance. And it was probably Brando’s last great role. This was one of Pacino’s first big roles, and it was obviously what catapulted him to become the film legend he is today. And this is pre-crazy Pacino. It is a wonderful, restrained, subtle performance that helps makes Michael’s self-destruction far more believable than the script which rushes it despite the movie already being three hours long. The film didn’t nab three Best Supporting Actor nominations for nothing.

It’s also an incredibly directed and indelibly shot film. The film was shot by the “Prince of Darkness” himself, Gordon Willis. He earned the nickname because of how he flaunted the then conventional rules of how much light needed to be in any given scene. But it’s the same dark, moody atmosphere and half-lit room and deals that makes so much of The Godfather‘s visual appeal. This is a film where the mood of any given shot or scene is nearly as important as the actual on-screen dialogue and action. In fact, The Godfather is full to the brim of semi-lengthy sequences without dialogue (or without pertinent dialogue) and Coppola and Gordon Willis are able to evoke so much emotion just from the visual composition of a shot.

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And as far as direction goes, is there a better example of cross-cutting in the history of the medium than the famous baptism scene? Michael has finally taken over as the head of the Corleone family and intercut with images of the baptism of his sister’s newly born child, we see Michael’s associates brutally eliminating in one fell swoop anyone who had the temerity to cross or betray Michael’s family. That mixture of the sacred and profane is one of many things that made Coppola such an accomplished director. That moment has become a bit of American iconography. So much so that when it’s played with in The Godfather: Part III, you’re reminded why that film is so f***ing awful compared to the first two entries.

My only significant complaint about The Godfather (which is why I’ve ultimately always considered The Godfather: Part II to be a better film) is sadly, as I’ve said, tied straight to the major character arc that Michael undergoes. His steady transformation from the good-natured, straight and narrow son who doesn’t want to be involved in his family’s criminal underside into a ruthless and merciless crime boss is a shift that I just can’t buy. Much like Anakin becoming Darth Vader in Star Wars, the leap here seems hard to grasp. Although the film plays it out as Michael’s steady descent into hell because he’s trying to protect his family, Michael seemed so pure at the film’s beginning that the movie doesn’t do enough justice showing him being torn about the terrible things he does. He simply does them and there seems to be no psychological afterthoughts as to the terrible things he proceeds to commit.

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If the rest of the film weren’t so masterfully constructed, acted, and conceived, that flaw would be much more detrimental. Thankfully then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a masterpiece in virtually every other respect and it remains an important hallmark of American cinema. My inability to connect with the transformation of Michael Corleone ultimately keeps this film from perfection (and therefore from receiving my illusive top score of an “A+”), but it takes a special kind of movie to keep me engaged for three hours and The Godfather never loses the audience’s focus for a second. I ultimately don’t consider this film to be in my Top 10 Greatest Films of all time, but if you even have a passing interest in movies, The Godfather is simply one you can’t miss.

Final Score: A

 

Glengarry Glen Ross

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More than any other aspect of screen writing, dialogue is the trickiest to nail (at least for me). To find the perfect balance between propelling the story forward without inundating the audience with flat exposition is one of the toughest high wire acts of all. Some writers have a natural gift for it. You could almost just simply listen to an Aaron Sorkin film with the visuals turned off and not miss a beat of what was happening or lose a second of enjoyment. It’s snappy, witty, and fast. Woody Allen is the same way, and though this may seem hyperbolic, I’ve long believed that Deadwood scribe David Milch is the best writer of poetic (yet astonishingly crude) dialogue since William Shakespeare. Playwright David Mamet deserves to rank among these men.

It is often under the leanest conditions that writers deliver the most precise and captivating material. Conversations with Other Women is more or less a man and a woman reminiscing on their past love and their current entanglements for an hour and a half, but it’s romantic drama perfection. You Can Count on Me is on its face a simple story of brothers and sisters who can’t be what the other needs, but a truer depiction of the modern family has yet to be made. Based off Mamet’s own stage play, 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross could be reduced to its base story of four men competing in a sales contest, but beneath that, it’s a stark condemnation of human greed and the perils of ambition. It is a warning of the lengths that men will sink when their careers depend on it, and it is one of the most finely acted films I’ve ever seen.

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Endearingly referred to as “Death of a Fuckin’ Salesman,” Glengarry Glen Ross charts a fateful twenty four hour period at a flailing Chicago real estate firm. When a tough-talking and foul-mouthed representative (Alec Baldwin) from the home offices drops an atomic ultimatum into the mix of a heated sales contest, the four salesmen working at the company and their manager (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil‘s Kevin Spacey) find their world’s turned upside down. The top salesman at the end of the week wins a Cadillac El Dorado. The second best gets a set of steak knives. And the bottom two performers get shit canned.

Every man in the office spirals into his own turmoils and base instincts. Shelly “the Machine Levine (Jack Lemmon) has a sick daughter and is riding a month of bad luck and shitty leads. The oldest man in the office, Levine works harder than nearly everyone else, but the customers haven’t been calling. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) is an angry schemer with dreams of stealing and selling the valuable “Glengarry leads” to a rival agency and wants his coworker George Aaranow (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin) to do his dirty work. Smooth-talking Rick Roma (Scarface‘s Al Pacino) is the only guy in the office closing any sales but even he finds himself tested when a big deal threatens to fall apart even after the paperwork has been signed.

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We are 306 movies into this blog, and Glengarry Glen Ross has without question the best ensemble cast of any film yet. It won that race and then lapped everybody around it for good measure. The performance from Alec Baldwin perhaps sums this film’s strengths up better than any other performance (although trust me, we’ll get to Pacino and Jack Lemmon in a second). He’s in the film for all of 7 minutes but by the time his seven minutes are up, you may find yourself exhausted from the gushing fountain of vitriol, greed, and obscenities that spews from his mouth (and person). The man is capitalistic excess and evil incarnate and Baldwin turns the small role into one of the greatest one-scene performances in all of cinema.

Baldwin appears early in the film and disappears quickly, but after his monologue, I thought it would be impossible for any one to top him in the film. Apparently, I’d forgotten how great Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon are. Jack Lemmon is primarily known for his comedic roles. With Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon is responsible for some of Hollywood’s most beloved comedies. But he turns Shelley Levine into such a broken, sniveling, desperate man that you forget you’re even watching Jack Lemmon. You just see a man who has fallen to the lowest nadir of any man’s life, and Lemmon makes you feel every last bit of pressure as money and greed and the futility of life suck his very essence away. It was a masterful performance.

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And Al Pacino! After his hammy, overwrought turn in Scarface earlier this week, I’d nearly forgotten how terrific he is when he controls himself and lets the explosions come with precision. Ricky Roma has a silver tongue and we see him ply it over a customer as he tries to make a sale and later have to weave even more intricate lies and run-arounds as he tries to keep that client in the company’s fold. But, as fate and the incompetence of others threatens to unfurl Roma’s machinations, Roma unleashes his not-so-righteous fury on those that threaten to impede him. And watching Pacino flip that switch from cool to terrible is one of the most delightful experiences in all of film-making.

The whole cast is wonderful from Arkin’s spineless Aaronow to Ed Harris’s manipulative Moss to Kevin Spacey’s bureaucratic Williamson. It would be too easy to spend this entire review raving about how wonderful and nuanced each performance is. These actors gel with the type of coordination and rhythm that you only seem to find on television programs where the same actors have been performing together for years. Mamet’s world feels lived in and the intimacy each performer brings to the table makes you feel each stab and wound as these men betray and assault one another to survive.

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As much as Glengarry Glen Ross brutally savages the spiritually decayed men that inhabit its walls and sell their souls for real estate and fleeting success, the film’s true indictment rings against the system and culture that forces Ricky Roma an Shelley Levine to be the kind of men they become. These men are forced to fight tooth and nail for useless leads. They have to degrade their own ethics and morals to close on these worthless leads and only then will the company let them touch the real leads that might lead them to fruitful deals. The original stage play was one of the first major indictments of Reagan-era greed and ennui, and it rings even truer today as a haunting prediction of the spiritual state of our nation.

Glengarry Glen Ross is one of those films that has it all. It has a monumentally important story. It’s characters are as fleshed-out and developed as any that have hit the big screen. The performances are universally sublime. There isn’t wasted second in a story that is the definition of efficient. And the dialogue is as sumptuous a feast as you’re likely to ever find. It has been six months (Margaret in August) since a film received the honors I’m about to bestow upon this film, but nothing has come close to deserving it in a while. Glengarry Glen Ross is cinematic perfection and, simply put, one of the best films I’ve reviewed so far.

Final Score: A+

 

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After two movies in as many weeks, it might be too early to say that Brian De Palma is a hack of a director, but that’s where my heart is beginning to lean. In my film studies class, just one week after watching the 1932 Scarface, we watched the De Palma helmed remake (which was itself only a week or so after I happened to watch De Palma’s later film The Untouchables). Regular readers know how much I disliked the Howard Hawks Scarface, and as my gut memory was telling me, Brian De Palma’s version isn’t much better. A gory and expletive filled ride into the cocaine crime glory days of the 1980s, 1983’s Scarface is as hollow as Tony Montana’s heart.

Take Tony Camonte, make him Cuban, and have his business be cocaine instead of booze, and you get an idea of the kind of man that Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is. Fresh off the boat from Cuba, Montana is a career criminal that has his eyes set on capturing his slice of the American dream, even if it means killing scores of men to get to the top. With his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), Tony works his way up the cocaine business, first under the tutelage of Frank Lopez (Big‘s Robert Loggia).  Tony’s take-no-shit attitude and almost psychopathic fury make him a natural player in the cut-throat world of the booming cocaine explosion.

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But it’s the same qualities that make Tony such a natural as an enforcer and paid tough that prove to be what propels him to the top of the business and then cause his ignominious downfall. Tony quickly falls for Frank Lopez’s beautiful wife Elvira (The Age of Innocence‘s Michelle Pfeiffer), and when he sees the chance to stake out on his own with the help of a true Bolivian drug lord, Tony plants the seeds of a massive drug empire that Frank Lopez could barely imagine. But his insane jealousy surrounding his sister Gina (The Color of Moneys Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and his own perverse code of ethics prove to be his undoing.

I’m a big Al Pacino. Along with Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, he’s easily one of the greatest actors of his generation. And it pains me to say that Scarface is one of the worst performances of his entire career. Maybe it’s the god-awful Cuban accent (which sounds so unnatural coming from his mouth) or the way that Pacino’s usual explosive intensity seems so artificial. Nothing about Tony Montana, from the performance to the writing, feels natural or realistic. There are small moments here and there where Pacino is able to remind you why he’s one of the greatest actors of all time, but he spends too much of Scarface chewing up the scenery without revealing any of Tony’s depth.

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And the supporting performances are equally atrocious. Robert Loggia has proven himself time and time again to be one of Hollywood’s most capable intimidators (just watch Lost Highway if you need proof of that), but his Frank Lopez seems to be a soft balloon and not always in the intentional sense. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio wowed so much in The Color of Money which makes Gina’s vacuity in this film that much more disappointing. Steven Bauer finds the cocksure swagger that makes Manny such a ladies man, but much like Pacino, he ultimately reduces the character to a tired racial stereotype.

The film’s best aspect is the killer score and a sense for the fashion and visual dynamics of the early 1980s which it managed to both represent as well as ultimately shape because of the film’s huge influence on how the 1980s are perceived. The period songs that are used in the soundtrack are in fact so great that Grand Theft Auto 3 had a 1980s station that played nothing but songs from this movie’s soundtrack and Giorgio Moroder’s score was a beautiful evocation of the sun-soaked Miami that became Tony’s cocaine playground. Throw in the bright colors and pastels of the film’s costumes and sets, and the movie just feels like an archetype of the 1980s.

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Much like The Untouchables, Brian De Palma just over-directs virtually every sequence of the film with unnecessary frills and flourishes that don’t enhance the viewer’s interaction with Scarface but rather remind you that you’re watching a nearly three-hour bloated bit of cinematic artifice. Although I distinctly remember enjoying De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie, both Scarface and The Untouchables paint De Palma as a man who is unwilling to put even the most basic of trust in to his script and his storytelling and that he must instead beat the audience over the head with over-the-top visual stimulus.

De Palma’s Scarface is at times a nearly scene-for-scene remake of the original. Oliver Stone wrote the script for the film (I can only imagine how much better this film would have been had he directed it) and so it will occasionally contain a bit of the political commentary that Stone later became known for, but De Palma sucked the life out of any intelligence the script might have originally had by shooting it with such a blunt and merciless style that is devoid of either cinematic poetry or cinematic truth. The movie tends to be shockingly violent and crude almost only for the sake of being shockingly violent and crude without any message to back it up.

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All of those major complaints aside, Scarface is still visceral and stimulating enough to keep you engaged for its nearly three hour long running time. Had a more capable director been at the helm and had the excess fat been cut, this could have been a great film. As it is, Scarface is a fun reminder of the excess of the 1980s and perhaps the shallow soullessness that defined a decade when Ronald Reagan was president and cocaine was king. This is not a film that deserves to rank aside the all-time great crime classics, but if you don’t find yourself roused by its explosive finish, you should probably get your adrenal gland checked.

Final Score: B-