Tag Archive: Crime


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Plus or minus 5 movies (I think I might have forgotten to put a handful on my big list of all of my review scores), this will be my 448th review. That’s a lot of movies in the last three years. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned having reviewed nearly 450 films, it’s that there’s a depressing homogeneity to the vast majority of movies. The stories are nothing more than a variation on a theme, the details never vary too far, and years of watching movies have trained you to guess every twist and turn. Silver Linings Playbook was one of my favorite films of 2012, but even it is a conventionally structured romantic comedy that just happens to change up all of the details to beautiful effect.

But, occasionally, movies come along that are truly their one. There are few coming-of-age films as beautiful and insightful as Life of Pi. There are few American comedies as riotous and “screw-the-rules” as Wet Hot American Summer. Charlie Kauffman’s entire ouevre is one-of-a-kind, but when Being John Malkovich came out, it was one of the most revolutionary films of the already revolutionary 90s. 1990’s King of New York is far from a great film, but it’s dedication to pure style and its glorious subversion of the 80s crime picture make it one of the most memorable and unique crime films of the 90s.

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After serving years in prison, powerful New York City drug lord Frank White (The Dead Zone‘s Christopher Walken) is released into his beloved city and his only goal is to make up for lost time. With a primarily African-American gang, Frank White isn’t your tpical 80s/90s crime boss. He’s a committed community activist that is willing to spend $16 million of his own cash to build a children’s hospital, and (mostly) he only resorts to violence when people aren’t willing to play ball with him in a civilized and cooperative manner. But, if you’ve pissed off Frank White, prepare to die in a hail of bullets that would make John Woo jealous.

Frank doesn’t have much trouble consolidating power back under the umbrella of his organization upon his release from prison. When tasked with violence, his men (including a young Laurence Fishburne who was still calling himself Larry at the time) are more than up to the task. Frank’s troubles come from a group of overzealous cops who are willing to get their hands as dirty as Frank in order to bring him back under the heel of the law. And when Frank’s men walk away clean from a clear murder conviction, the cops decide vigilante justice is the only answer.

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The number of great character actors in this film besides the always mesmerizing Christopher Walken is ridiculous. King of New York predates Boyz N the Hood by just one year, and it’s astounding to see Laurence Fishburne in a role that is less Furious Styles and more Ice Cube’s Doughboy on PCP. Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito has one of his more recognizable non-Do the Right Thing roles as another of Frank’s henchmen, and although he isn’t in the film very long, it blew my mind to see such a young Steve Buscemi as a technology-minded henchman.

And, the cops are another Who’s Who. David Caruso (Session 9) steals the show as Dennis Gilley, one of the cops who is most hellbent on bringing Frank in by any means necessary. Between this and Session 9, I was reminded how great he can be in eclectic character roles, and it was a shame he had to waste years of his life on a network crime procedural. Wesley Snipes isn’t given much to work with as another of the rage-fueled cops, but there’s a scene where he’s arresting Laurence Fishburne where Fishburne threatens to “slap the black off” him and Snipes’s reaction is priceless.

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Christopher Walken is absolutely transfixing as Frank White. There are many things that make King of New York such a unique and “different” film, and Walken’s take on Frank White is chief among them. Moving beyond Walken’s unique diction and the phrasing of his sentences with the deep, pregnant pauses, Walken’s Cheshire cat grin and electric magnetism make it clear why all these gangsters would want to work for him. But when the role calls for it, Walken flips the switch and White becomes an explosive outlet for violence. Frank White is like “What if Tony Montana were actually an interesting character?”

King of New York is “urban” to its core. The hip-hop soundtrack is always spot-on; there’s a scene where Schooly D’s “Am I Black Enough For Ya?” is played where the Public Enemy-esque political lyrics and hard-pounding beat perfectly fit the bloodbath that’s about to arrive. And while there are moments where Fishburne’s Jimmy Jump seems like a Run DMC stereotype, the movie’s urban sensibility is always played with tongue slightly in cheek. And in a decade where crime movies were either white mobster films or black “gangsta” movies, it’s so god damned refreshing to find a film that is both.

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King of New York‘s cinematography is also neo-noir perfection. Whether it’s capturing the neon-streaked lights of late 80s/early 90s New York or following Frank and his crew through their criminal enterprises, King of New York is a beauty to behold. On the other hand though, the film also knows not to take itself too seriously. Too many “crime epics” think they’re high art (*cough* Scarface *cough*); King of New York knows it isn’t and plays its hand accordingly. There’s a moment in the film where Frank backs down a group of thugs on the subway that exists just to show what a bad-ass Frank is, and the film is better for it.

If you’re wanting deep characterization or a serious commentary on urban crime, look elsewhere; Baby Boy this ain’t. When King of New York first came out, it was a critical disaster because of its over-the-top “glorification” of crime (that’s not really what the film does though), and if you like your films centered in reality, King of New York is going to disappoint. But for those with a taste for films with the touch of a true auteur’s style, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is one of the most memorable and entertaining crime dramas of the 90s.

Final Score: B+

 

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There’s an hour and fifteen minutes section of Django Unchained that is arguably the greatest thing Quentin Tarantino has ever done. As someone who used to worship the man’s stylistics talents, that should say something. When Django and Schultz arrive at Calvin Candie’s plantation, the film becomes an examination of the spiritual costs of Django’s revenge and how he turns his back on his own people in order to save his wife. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is cartoon, bordering on slapstick. Had Tarantino kept the tone of the Candie plantation section up the whole film, Django would have easily been his best work yet. That same tonal inconsistency is the biggest misstep of 1991’s Thelma & Louise.

Hailed as a radical feminist parable when it was first released (a reputation that seems somewhat silly 23 years later), Ridley Scott’s (Black Rain) Thelma & Louise is a frustrating exercise in inconsistency. There are moments of intense, lyrical beauty in this beloved buddy road crime drama and unexpected insights into restless female desperation. But, most of the film operates in the world of cheesy B-movie pulp tropes, and it distracts from the message of the film. I spent most of the last half of the film wondering what a serious treatment of this material would look like and wishing I was watching that instead.

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I’d be hard-pressed to imagine anyone stumbling upon my blog who isn’t familiar with the basic premise of Thelma & Louise, though considering I only watched the film for the first time this week, I suppose anything’s possible. Repressed housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) is convinced by her liberated best friend Louise (That’s My Boy‘s Susan Sarandon) to go out for a weekend in the mountains. Thelma needs to get away from her controlling husband, Darryl (The Iron Giant‘s Christopher McDonald), and Louise needs a weekend away after a bad fight with her boyfriend, Jimmy (Kill Bill‘s Michael Madsen). Unfortunately, they’re never making it to that cabin.

Thelma, who hasn’t had a night of fun in decades, convinces Louise to stop at a roadside honky-tonk so the girls have a couple drinks. Thelma gets very drunk and starts dancing with a man who takes her outside and then tries to rape her. Thelma is saved at the last second by Louise sporting a large gun Thelma had packed for no apparent reason. Thelma and Louise are prepared to leave when the man can’t help but insult them as they’re walking away and Louise murders him in the parking lot. And, thus, the pair embark on a cross-country quest to escape the law as they are now wanted for murder (and eventually other crimes).

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There are elements of Thelma & Louise that are astoundingly wonderful for a film from 1991. Though I think aspects of the film’s gender politics aren’t nearly as radical as they’re remembered, for 1991, Thelma and Louise might as well have been Emma Goldman and Louise Bryant. When the film is focused enough to not be pulpy melodrama, there are quiet moments of Thelma and Louise on the road where you can feel the weight of not just the lawmen that are chasing after them but their whole tired lives and the limited opportunities afforded women of certain backgrounds. But, then the film will shatter that quiet power with gunplay and explosions.

The film’s cinematography from Adrian Biddle is stunning, arguably the best work of his career and some of the best camera work in any Ridley Scott film (Blade Runner seems like the most obvious competition). I disagree with most of the film’s Oscar nominations and consider it’s Best Original Screenplay win to be particularly puzzling, but it’s Best Cinematography nod was well-deserved, and maybe it should have won. Like the best road movies, Thelma & Louise captures the haunting beauty of the American country-side and the restless lives of the women racing through it.

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Unfortunately, Thelma & Louise can’t decide if it wants to be a serious movie or a fun movie, and it never manages to successfully be both. Films can be smart and fun (The Big Lebowski, Annie Hall, American Psycho, The Social Network, etc.). Thelma & Louise will go from being painfully smart and powerful one second to overwhelmingly dumb and pulpy the next. The scenes that are meant to be moments of female empowerment have their heart in the right place, but they come off as ridiculously cheesy when they occur. The most notable example being Thelma & Louise pulling over an obnoxious truck driver and then blowing up his semi.

I like pulp. Justified is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and though the series got more cerebral in the later seasons, even at the end, Breaking Bad worked within the conventions of pulp storytelling. But those programs do it with internal consistency, and so I’m not brought in and out of two different versions of the same story. That’s where Thelma & Louise falls apart. Had it been all pulp, it would have likely been a riotous, feminist powered-action ride. Had it been all serious, it could have been the 90s response to Badlands. As it is, I felt like I was watching Ridley Scott struggle to decide what kind of movie he really wanted to make.

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None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy Thelma & Louise. It had its moments of astonishing power, and the “fun” moments weren’t so much bad as they were “out of place.” But, this film is considered one of the true classics of 90s cinema and a definitive classic of feminist cinema and I don’t see how it’s really either. Give me Rachel, Rachel any day. Thelma & Louise simply concerns my belief that Ridley Scott is a good director on his best days, but almost never a great one.

Final Score: B

 

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Can a movie predicated on an endless series of twists and turns still carry any dramatic or emotional weight even if you can predict every turn before it happens? 90% of the time I would say no it can’t, and that would be the end of the story. Predictability should be the death-knell of any noir or thriller worth its weight in salt, but leave it to playwright auteur David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) to be the exception to that rule. The psychological gamesmanship on display in House of Games is blindingly forecasted almost from the start, and when all is said and done, if you can’t guess what’s going to happen, you’re likely a little dense. But, despite the fact that House of Games is a psychological crime thriller/neo-noir on its surface, it is really a character study into man’s attraction into our darkest impulses, and in that regard, it’s a typical Mamet success.

My rather immense enjoyment of House of Games was unexpected (despite how much I worship Glengarry Glen Ross and mostly enjoyed Wag the Dog) because at the beginning of the film, the movie radiates a sense of theatrical artificiality. House of Games was Mamet’s directorial debut, and considering his background as a stage director, I had initially assumed that he was simply struggling to adjust to the big screen. I realized that was all intentional because House of Games is all about the masks we wear when we interact with others and how virtually all human interactions involve the exploitation of others to fulfill our own needs. And so as the leads of the film slowly start to shed their masks (or are simply better at hiding their mask than others), the lens of theatricality slowly begins to slip away from the film and it is revealed for the stunning psychological insight it is.

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Margaret Ford (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Lindsay Crouse) is a best-selling author and psychiatrist specializing in addiction and compulsive behavior. But, Maggie’s life is empty and she feels that much of her work is meaningless and that her most vulnerable patients are beyond her help. And when a young, troubled gambling addict walks into her office fearful that a $25,000 debt he owes to a bookie may mean his life, Maggie attempts to truly help someone for maybe the first time in her life. But even then, Maggie’s motivations aren’t quite what they appear. At the back room poker game, Maggie meets Mike (Joe Mantegna), the bookie that the gambler says he owes money to. But, in the first of many of the film’s twist, the debt isn’t $25,000. It’s only $800, and soon after, Maggie finds herself seduced into a world of fast-talking con-men and dangerous liars.

Though the film finds itself falling down a somewhat predictable path, I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t seen it (and maybe don’t have my perceptive sense for how noir and crime thrillers work). But, House of Games starts out as what you think may be one woman’s attempt to redeem herself and instead chronicles her descent into a world of crime, easy money, and constant deception. And in that regard, House of Games hits on that classic Mamet theme: a cynical perspective on human nature. In Mike’s world (which quickly becomes Lindsay’s world), there are two types of people: suckers and those with the gumption to part the suckers from their money when given the opportunity. And Mamet extends that dynamic to our entire life where we either suffer or we exploit someone else to alleviate our own suffering. He isn’t saying that’s right. He just observes that’s how it is.

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I have complex feelings towards the performances in this film because of the sense of artificiality that I mentioned at the beginning of the movie. Early dialogue is either delivered in bored monotone or from a place of theatrical bombast. But, they’re doing that intentionally so part of me can’t fault them for this. And, in fact, I suspect that on a future second viewing, I might appreciate this more at the beginning when I understand what’s meant to be done. Because as the film progresses, both Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse (particularly Crouse) deliver hidden layers and unexpected complexities. Crouse finds herself finally free to be herself for the first time in her entire life and without wanting to spoil the film, let it be said that Mantegna proves to be overwhelmingly excellent as a con man and reader of human nature.

I also have somewhat complicated feelings towards the film’s direction. Glengarry Glen Ross worked so well as a movie because the director gave the film a suffocating visual atmosphere that wasn’t even possible in the stage play. And while there are some inspired shots in House of Games, it was also clear that it was Mamet’s first directorial feature and thus the film comes of as slightly stale from time to time. Also, understanding his intentions to make the film seem artificial at times (it draws attention to itself so we, the audience, recognize the hollowness of the characters’ lives), that doesn’t mean there weren’t times where it all felt too forced and it drew me too much out of the action of the film. What happened at moments was that Mamet appeared supremely proud (and rightfully so of his dialogue) and by putting so much theatrical emphasis on words, we were forced to recognize his (admitted) genius. It entered the realm of literary pretense.

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Thankfully, the script more than outweighs any concerns I may have about direction or acting. Mamet is, along with Kenneth Lonergan, one of the great writers of our day. And through his obsession with the darkest impulses of human nature (how capitalism and ambition turn us into monsters in Glengarry or how the pursuit of power can only lead to corruption in Wag the Dog), Mamet fashions tale after tale of men and women at the brink of morality. House of Games shows how the allure of depravity and dishonesty can seduce even the most seemingly upright members of the community. And though House of Games appears to limp out of the gates, once it picks up a head of steam, it flies onward full-stop to a satisfying (if not unexpected) finale and for all fans of Mamet’s work and great neo-noir, it is a must-see film.

Final Score: A-

 

Drive (2011)

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Where do we draw the lines between films that aestheticize violence for its own sake and those that aestheticize violence in the purpose of a higher calling? No one would deny the aesthetic nature of the violence in Luc Besson films such as The Professional or La Femme Nikita but you could also make the argument that those films subverted the violence whenever possible alongside their emphasis on character development. But,  then there are films like Django Unchained which on one hand use violence for clearly stated thematic goals (any thing doing with slavery) but also for cartoonish revenge fantasy. 2011’s Drive from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn seems, on an honest assessment, to be pretty much all style and aesthetics with little to no substance. But, when the style is this good, I sort of don’t want to complain.

The lack of an actual substantive theme or rich character development in this film is absolutely baffling because Drive is very much a European art-house film at its core. It’s just an arthouse film that doesn’t mean anything beyond its plot. This was the first of Refn’s films that I’ve seen but if his technical talents to visually evoke a mood and sense of time and place (in this film’s case, the 1980s even though it takes place in modern times I assumed) are like this in the rest of his works, Refn is a visualist of the highest order. I mean, he’s not a Mallick or a Fellini, but he can join the ranks of the Gaspar Noé‘s of the world. This movie is very popular among young film types (who tend to prefer style over substance), but I found it almost shocking because it isn’t until nearly halfway through the film that the ultra-violent (and boy is it ultra-violent) action of the film began to take over.

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Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl) plays the unnamed Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who also makes a living as a getaway driver in his part time. The Driver is a man of few words and almost immaculate professionalism, and the film opens with him leading the LAPD on a cat-and-mouse chase through the city and then losing them at the Staples centers after a Lakers game. In addition to being a stuntman and a getaway driver, the Driver also works as a mechanic in a classic/retro car garage with his only friend in LA, a crippled wanna be gangster named Shannon (Argo‘s Bryan Cranston). When the Driver moves into a new apartment, he begins making googly-eyes at one of the building’s tenants, kind single-mother Irene (Doctor Who‘s Carey Mulligan), but when her ex-con husband is released from prison, the Driver’s carefully maintained world is thrown into chaos.

I want to say as little about the plot developments of later on in the film as possible to stop from spoiling a relatively new indie film for those who haven’t had the chance to watch it yet. Needless to say though, twists abound (albeit predictable ones) and the body count stacks higher than an early Tarantino picture. Drive was very much a Ryan Gosling vehicle (pun half intended), and though Gosling’s performance in this doesn’t match his lovably eccentric (and simultaneously heartbreaking) turn in Lars and the Real Girl, it continues his transformation, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, into one of Hollywood’s thinking man action stars and leading men (and for women, his transformation into the thinking woman’s [or any woman with a pulse] sex symbol). Gosling speaks very little in the film and he has to do much of his acting just with his facial expressions which he thankfully succeeds in.

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However, the best aspects of the film (aside from Refn’s remarkable skills as a director) are the performances of Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston. Bryan Cranston has proven himself week in and week out to be the greatest lead performer in the history of television on Breaking Bad so its no surprise that he is more or less perfect as the half-crippled and scheming Shannon, but Albert Brooks’s terrifying performance as ruthless but affably evil gangster Bernie is the real treat of the film. I mostly know (more accurately, entirely know) Albert Brooks as a comedic actor. Comedy is the bread and butter of his career, but his take on Bernie is just exceptional. There isn’t a second he’s on screen (but his power is even more pronounced once he drops the nice guy schtick) where he isn’t controlling the whole scene. He should have gotten a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 2011.

I just wish that the movie had more to say or that the characters were at least more clearly drawn. There isn’t much in the way of a character arc for the Driver. Yes, he goes from a lonely man to someone who loves another man’s husband, but he himself seems to be more or less the exact same man from the beginning to the end of the film. The extreme acts of violence we see him commit later in the film (i.e. smashing a man’s hands to bit with a hammer and then threatening to drive a bullet with a hammer through said man’s skull) are things he was capable of earlier in the film. He just hadn’t been given an excuse to engage in them yet. And though the film has its share of eccentric characters, they’re mostly defined by one or two eccentricities. They almost uniformly lack depth. Irene herself is nothing more than a cipher for inspiring the Driver to an act of altruism. And Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks has a small part in the film but she’s on screen for like all of five minutes.

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You have to understand that my complaints about the undeniably shallow nature of this film need to be taken with a grain of salt. Because from an aesthetic standpoint, Drive is almost designed to appeal to all of my different weird, niche pleasure principles from its super-80s soundtrack (even though they’re modern bands like Chromatics) to its gorgeous, European style cinematography to its absolutely unflinching display of violence in order to achieve some semblance of cinematic truth. I just wish that the movie could have married all of those aesthetic qualities I love to a Luc Besson level of depth. For fans of stylistic crime thrillers, Drive is about as easy a recommendation as they come. It’s not perfect, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a more fun way to spend an hour and forty minutes.

Final Score: B+

 

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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.

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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.

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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+

 

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When you sit down to watch a Coen Brothers film, you know you’re in for a cinematic experience unlike anything else other contemporary artists are making. Whether it was the gritty and stylistic re-imagining of True Grit, the political satire via film noir via stoner comedy The Big Lebowski, or one of the true modern crime epics in No Country for Old Men, the Coens pack a potent punch of visual delights matched with a consistently dark and offbeat sense of humor. When the pantheon of great Coen films is brought up (Fargo, Lebowski, No Country, Raising Arizona), 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is rarely, if ever brought up. It should be. Because although the film fails to meet the absurd level of perfection of Fargo or The Big Lebowski, this played straight film noir is an often breathtakingly philosophical look into the modern man and it’s nihilistic bent provides one of the most emotional Coen films this side of A Serious Man.

It’s ironic that the film proved to be such a harrowing emotional experience for me because of how emotionally dead and almost comically stoic the male lead is (but more on that in a second). But, not since my viewing of Synecdoche, New York has a piece of American cinema so convincingly reminded me of my own mortality and the potential meaningless of my own existence. On it surface, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a classic film noir (Billy Wilder would have been proud) mixed with elements of screwball comedy (in terms of the sheer avalanche of poor coincidences that haunt our hero), but at its core, the film is a terrifying peek at the price of ambition, the cruel whims of fate, and the essential fact that we will all some day die. That it manages to include all of these heady intellectual elements while still retaining the black humor normally associated with the Coens is all the more a testament to the film’s strengths.

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In the 1950s, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber, and he doesn’t talk too much. Ruled by his cheating wife, Doris (Almost Famous‘s Frances McDormand), Ed’s life is an endless haze of haircuts and cigarettes. His life is going nowhere, and, honestly, Ed’s alright with that. But, as fate would have it, a man walks into Ed’s barber shop and tells Ed about a crazy new scheme, dry cleaning. And the man just needs $10,000 to get off the ground. Ed sees his opportunity to finally do something with his life and decides to anonymously blackmail his wife’s boss (Killing Them Softly‘s James Gandolfini) over the affair he’s having with Ed’s wife to make the money for the investment. And, I’ll stop now for fear of spoiling any of the endless twists and turns that the film’s plot takes as Ed’s one small act of rebellion avalanches into a catastrophe.

All of the hallmarks, both visually and thematically, of the film noir genre are present in The Man Who Wasn’t There. If you’ve ever watched classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, you will be bowled over by how well this film nails the genre conventions. And for fans of later, more mature neo-noir like Chinatown, the Coens give this film the character depth and philosophical bent lacking in some of the older noir films. From the deep shadows to the soft focus to the shifting/morphing cigarette smoke (even to some of the strange touches of Cold War paranoia that seep into the film, I’m now realizing intentionally), the film is a visual stunner, and it’s Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography was well deserved. In fact (and this is coming from a Lord of the Rings fan boy), it should have beat The Felllowship of the Ring for Best Cinematography for 2001.

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Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is kind of complicated to assess in a traditional sense. Because, he doesn’t exactly show the full spectrum of human emotions. Ed is more or less an emotionally dead man who’s living life  at a robotic pace. And throughout the film, we only get brief glimpses into the kind of man Ed might have been if he hadn’t crossed paths with his domineering wife. But, if you want to talk about a performance that defines showing exactly what you need in a character through a extraordinarily restrained performance, Billy Bob Thornton gets the job done. Some might complain that much of his state of mind is gained through expository inner monologue (which is fair although mostly those moments revealed Thornton’s classic acerbic sense of humor), it appeared that Thornton was able to show Ed to be a man who has lived life always under complete control and who can’t even break loose of his self-imposed cage even though his life is falling apart around him.

Although Billy Bob defies critical assessment, the film is overflowing with superb supporting performances. Frances McDormand (who is married to one of the Coens) reminds us why she is one of the most under-appreciated talents of her generation. Through her commanding performance, we see exactly why a man like Ed would find himself unable to muster a defense to her sheer domination. James Gandolfini isn’t on the screen that long, but his Big Dave Brewster is such a dynamic and constantly shifting turn that it made me sad all over again that The Sopranos is off the air (though I have the whole series on DVD and should rewatch it soon). Gandolfini’s big climactic scene alone was enough to catapult him onto my short list for Best Supporting Actor for the 50 film block I’m working on right now. And Tony Shalhoub also makes an appearance as a fast-talking, rich lawyer whose legal gamesmanship is a sight to behold.

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I’m going to draw this review to a close because it’s getting late (and I’ve become stupidly addicted to Saints Row: The Third). So, let me just say this. If you are a fan of film noir or the Coen Brothers, you owe it to yourself and to this movie to watch The Man Who Wasn’t There as soon as possible. Neo-nor remains one of modern cinema’s most consistently rewarding genres, and while this film tends to play the tropes of the 1950s almost painstakingly straight (though the Coens add their own little touches [one late twist seems a little too bizarre for me but you can judge for yourself. You’ll know what I’m talking about]), it is a hidden gem of the 2000s that has clearly slipped by too many movie lovers because it didn’t get the attention it deserved upon its initial release.

Final Score: A

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2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford remains one of the most under-appreciated Westerns of the last decade, and were it not for it’s semi-bloated final act, it could have been one of the true masterpieces of the decade (visually, it remains a work of genius despite its narrative missteps). With just that film (I’m yet to see 2000’s Chopper),  director Andrew Dominik asserted himself as one of the true artistic visionaries working in the modern cinema field, and his visually resplendent work harkens back to other celebrated filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick. Combining slower-paced epic crime yarns with cinematography that is simply stunning, Andrew Dominik  is making movies unlike anything else being created right now, and while 2012’s Killing Them Softly ends on a too obvious note, it is an incendiary work from one of Hollywood’s most promising talents.

Born out of what can only be described as unchecked fury with the American psyche and cultural/economic/social institutions that allowed the 2008 economic crisis to occur, Killing Them Softly is Andrew Dominik’s fiery reaction to greed, capitalism, and our culture of cruelty and exploitation. While some were bothered by the “anvilicious” nature of the films political message (click on that link, if you need the phrase explained to you), I applaud a modern director actually trying to make a political statement when ironic indifference seems to be the critical vogue these days. Taking place in the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Killing Them Softly mixes in a large amount of speeches and news reports from the financial crisis during the more quiet moments of the film, and by the film’s end, the criminals, robbers, and murderers at the heart of the film become inseparable from the robber barons who wrecked our nation’s economy.

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After being egged on by his boss, Johnny Amato (The Sopranos‘ Vincent Curatola), small-time hood Frankie (Argo‘s Scoot McNairy) teams up with his heroin-addicted friend Russell (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a mob-ran poker game organized by pathetic criminal Trattman (Smokin’ Aces‘s Ray Liotta). They think they can get away with the crime because Trattman robbed his own game years earlier and drunkenly admitted to it without any consequences. Though the robbery goes right according to plan, Russell’s big mouth eventually draws attention to their exploits and mafia hitman Jackie (Moneyball‘s Brad Pitt) is called in to take care of the problem. With the “assistance” of depressed, whore-chasing fellow hitman Mickey (The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini), Jackie does what he does best. Clean up messes.

Just like The Assassination of Jesse James, this is a very “talk”-y movie. Probably even more so than Jesse James. But, unlike your average crime film (even some of the better ones), you actually feel like you know the people driving the action of the film. When Russell inevitably fucks up and blabs about the crime, it doesn’t seem unexpected (while the reveal of the situation avoids predictability through how well-shot the scenario was). While the entire film carries an air of tragic inevitability, it works within the context of Dominik’s work. As our nation’s economy is crumbling around these men, it makes perfect sense that the once mythologized criminal underworld would lose its sheen and glamour. In fact, much how Jesse James deconstructed the classical American Western, Andrew Dominik takes a bazooka to the tropes and mythic stature of the American crime film.

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Brad Pitt continues his remarkable transition into one of the most respected acted talents of his generation. It was obvious as far back as 12 Monkeys and Fight Club just how talented he was, but in recent years, the man has undergone a career renaissance (thanks in no small part to mostly consistently excellent career choices, though I am nervous about The War Z), and more than almost anyone else, he is a massive A-List star who seems to spend as much time in indie-ville as he does more mainstream affairs. His Jackie is a terrifying creation of greed, professionalism, and absolutely no remorse. Yet, thanks to the strong writing and Pitt’s subtle performance, he is a fully-dimensional create and more than just a commentary on the cultural forces that would produce a man like him.

I’m going to keep this review short. I’m going to see Aziz Ansari tonight (!!!) at the Creative Arts Center here in Morgantown. He’s doing a stand-up show. My sister got tickets for free, and I drove her around town when she needed something, so she’s giving one of her free tickets to me. It should be a good night since I like Aziz’s stand-up and I also love Parks and Recreation (a show I began watching after this blog stopped reviewing television). If I have one major complaint about Killing Them Softly, it’s Brad Pitt’s final speech which I understand sums up all of the themes and anger of the film. But it’s also so mind-numbingly obvious and apparent that it’s an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Otherwise, the film continues to paint Andrew Dominik as one of the most intriguing and rising talents in the industry.

Final Score: A-

 

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It is rare for an American remake of a film to be remotely as good as the foreign film it’s based on, let alone be better. Let Me In is one of the only ones I can think of off the top of my head and it still isn’t the instant classic that Let the Right One In has become in my mind. Usually, American remakes dial down any sexual or disturbing content (barring violence) that made the original stand out, and because they almost never improve upon the original piece in any way, they are simply redundant at best and bastardizations at worst. With that said, am I a terrible person for thinking that The Departed is vastly superior to Infernal Affairs, the 2004 Hong Kong film it is based on?

I watched Infernal Affairs for my film studies class (where we’re watching nothing but gangster movies) and we’ll be watching The Departed next week (although I watched that film last semester during that several month hiatus where I wasn’t reviewing movies to work on my screenplays). And other than the film’s ending (no, I won’t spoil it for anyone. don’t worry), I’m not sure if I can name a single area where Martin Scorsese’s remake isn’t simply a much better product than this film. From the script, to the characters, to the direction, to the editing, to the cinematography, Infernal Affairs has now become in my mind the go to example of how a good story can become a great film when given to the right hands.

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I will give the film credit for coming up with the clever story that is at both the heart of it and The Departed (although the latter so greatly expands on the themes and the characters that this film almost just seems like a sketch in comparison). Two different men are chosen to go deep undercover into the organizations of their boss’s biggest enemies. Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) is hired by the Triad to infiltrated the Hong Kong Police Department while police cadet Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) infiltrates the Triad. And as each goes deeper and higher into their undercover ops, their job becomes to find out who the mole is in their ranks.

And that’s really it. I’m going to keep on bleating on about how much better The Departed is than this film, but I’ve always thought of The Departed as one of Scorsese’s slightest films. It’s one of his films that relies the most on style over substance, but if The Departed is slight, Infernal Affairs is just anorexic. Although the film is a terrific example of non-stop intelligent pacing (the film really manages to ratchet the tension up and never let up right out of the gates), the characters are paper-thin, and you are given absolutely no reason to care about anyone involved. And when characters die or are betrayed or reveal shocking allegiances, none of it matters because you don’t feel any emotional attachment to the individuals involved.

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The direction and editing of the film though are what lead me to think of this film as being so amateurish (although I suppose any movie would pale in comparison to something Martin Scorsese touched). The opening sequences of the film are an endless stream of cross-cuts which lend no sense of direction or meaning to the story and it took me far too long to even realize what was happening and who was good and who was bad. And the film employs so many cheesy scene transitions and unnecessary expository flashbacks (not to unseen events in the film but things that have already happened once already) that you begin to feel like the director doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to keep up with the action on scren.

I’m going to keep this review short and sweet. I enjoyed Infernal Affairs, and maybe, if I hadn’t seen The Departed first, I would have liked it a lot more. As it stands, Infernal Affairs is a good movie with a great concept, and it took a more talented creative team to really bring fruit to the story. If you like foreign cinema, it’s certainly a must see, and if you’re a big fan of its American successor, it’s interesting to see just how many of the scenes were lifted straight from this film. But ultimately, it’s just a serviceable action thriller.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick aside before I actually begin this review. I’m on something of a hot streak right now. Long time readers know that they come and go [and occasionally I am forced to watch several awful films in a row] but those times where the blog gods align to increase my cinematic fortunes is always a  delight. This is one of those moments because, counting this review, my last four films have all been either “A”s or “A+”s. It doesn’t get much better than that)

It’s hard to make a good cop movie/show. Ignoring for a second that the greatest television program of all time (and arguably the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced) is the cop drama The Wire (although obviously that show is much more than just a cop show), just think about how many terribly mediocre procedural crime dramas fill up the time between advertisements on TV. The CSIs, the NCISs, the endless Law & Order spin-offs. And for every Training Day or Rampart, you get thirty lame Steven Segal films or something with Michael Bay attached to them. So, when I say that 2012’s sleeper hit, End of Watch, is the best cop movie I’ve seen since Training Day, it should mean something.

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End of Watch is reminiscent of the similarly “bro-mance” heavy and intimate military indie, The Messenger, although rather than focusing on the day to day lives of two soldiers whose job is to inform family members of the deaths of their loved ones, End of Watch peeks into the lives of  two cops in the LAPD serving in some of the roughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Brian Taylor (Brokeback Mountain‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are both shining examples and stark subversions of the “Cowboy Cop” trope. Brian is a pre-law college student who is filming his daily shifts (and regular life) with his partner Mike. Mike is happily married with his first child on the way while Brian is just starting to date Janet (Anna Kendrick) as the film begins. And Brian and Mike’s lives take a turn for the worse when their cop heroics put them on the bad side of a powerful Mexican cartel that will stop at nothing to get revenge.

A common complaint people have had about the film is that it is sort of formless and “plot”-less, but honestly that was one of the most appealing parts of the film for me. It’s not meant to be a story intensive film (at least not until it’s shocking and explosive finale), and it’s rather meant to be a serious (though often intentionally comic) character drama, and in that regard, the film is a resounding success. My dad turned to me half way through the film (which he enjoyed although not as much as I did) and said “Son, you’re probably enjoying this a lot more than me cause of the dialogue.” And he was right. As Brian and Mike bond through car rides, quincineras, shoot-outs, and other turns in their personal life, you feel like you really get to know these two, and writer/director David Ayer paints a fully-realized and sympathetic (but also honest) portrayal of two men just serving their duty in the LAPD.

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Anyone who’s seen Brokeback Mountain knows that Jake Gyllenhaal is more than just a pretty face (can I say that as a straight man? who gives a sh*t). He is a talented actor that is able to delve into depths of sensitivity that few of his male compatriots his age can (Heath Ledger was an early peer obviously but he’s gone now). And while End of Watch certainly isn’t one of his most challenging roles, Gyllenhaal certainly rises to the occasion. Michael Peña was the film’s pleasant acting surprise. He’s gotten a ton of smaller (and occasionally larger) parts throughout the years ever since exploding in Crash, and End of Watch reminds me why this man should get more roles. He had better comedic chops than Gyllenhaal and was able to keep pace during the dramatic moments. In fact, Peña’s very expressive face captured possibly more of the inner turmoil yet iron courage that defined these two men than Gyllenhaal could. Here is a man that needs to be a bigger star.

I usually think of the found footage genre as being something primarily used for horror movies (Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism, etc) not something that you see in serious dramas, but David Ayer makes it work. The film is told almost entirely either through the cameras that Brian and Mike have placed on their chests, a handheld camera that Brian uses, their squad car’s official camera, as well as cameras held by other characters such as antagonists. It really places you right into the heart of the film’s action and you feel like you’re riding along with these two knuckleheads on one of their patrols and when the film swithces into a first-person mode, it really ups the tension to nearly unbearable levels. My only complaint about the film are the moments that seem to violate the pattern of only using footage that someone else is filming. It draws you out of End of Watch‘s universe.

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I watched this movie Friday night and I haven’t had a chance to review it til now. I just went to the doctor today after my health more or less disintegrated over the weekend at work. I developed a terrible cough and I completely lost my voice. Turns out that I have bronchitis and a sinus infection. A real double whammy that has been a lot of fun. So, when I haven’t been working these last couple of days, I’ve been resting. I’m going to keep this review short just because I waited too long to do the review, and I don’t feel like I can do it proper justice. Hopefully, I’ll be getting better over the next week or so and my blogging can stop suffering. What you need to take from this review then is that this is an excellent movie. It joins Perks of Being a Wallflower and Liberal Arts as being one of the best films that I watched from 2012, and I’m not sure if a film has a had a more shocking and brutal ending in recent years than this excellent crime drama/thriller.

Final Score: A

 

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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+