Saturday, September 26, 2015
The great irony of To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) is that our hero, a Secret Service agent, looks more like a criminal than our villain, a counterfeiter who is strangely the most authentic human being in the movie. In a narrative where there are so many double crosses, undercover sting operations, setups, reversals of fortune, attorneys playing both sides of the law, and surprises, it is the villain, Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) who is the reliable, steady fulcrum we can measure everything against.
"My reputation speaks for itself," Masters tells our undercover agents when they try to set up a sting to nab him. "Everybody knows Rick Masters won't go near a job without front money. You should know that I never fucked a customer out of his front money." That Masters, a painter who applies the same level of care and craft to his counterfeit money as he does to his art, also kills people and flagrantly breaks the law goes with the turf.
Meanwhile, our hero, Richard Chance (William Peterson) is the type of loose cannon cop who gives loose cannon cops a bad name. Sure his longtime partner is murdered by Masters, and he wants to bring down a notorious criminal, but his methods leave a lot to be desired. He violates agency procedure, loses a key witness (after insulting the judge into signing custody over to him), and threatens suspects. "I'm gonna bag Masters, and I don't give a shit how I do it," he declares.
Chance's personality is never more questionable than after he forces his new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow), to go along with a scheme to get the money to set up Masters. See, partly due to policy, partly to Chance's low standing with the agency, the two can't get the $30,000 they need to make a deal with Masters so they can catch him in the act. Using a tip from Ruth, the two decide to rob an Asian gangster of $50,000. Things go wrong, the gangster is killed, and a chase ensues through freeway traffic that the agents are lucky to get away from alive. Chance is exhilarated while Vukovich is a mess, barely holding it together (that shot below of him peering through the cracked, shot-out window mirrors his fragile psyche). It gets worse when they learn the Asian gangster was really an undercover FBI agent on a sting. Chance doesn't really care while Vukovich is guilt-ridden.
Which brings us to the climax. Again, I emphasize spoilers, but this deserves mention. With the money in hand, Chance and Vukovich meet with Masters, and once the deal is made, they try to arrest him. In the process, Chance is killed by a shotgun blast to the head, and Masters gets away in a shocking, unpredictable development. Chance lived recklessly, and he died recklessly. Very fitting, but talk about a ballsy move on the part of the filmmakers to kill off the hero at that point. Vukovich ends up tracking and killing Masters in his art studio as the place burns to the ground. Later, he visits Ruth, who says she plans to leave the city, but he won't let her because she works for him now. The decent, by-the-book, honest agent now carries on his brash partner's legacy. What a perfect ending.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Based on a true story, Brian's Song is the story of two running backs who join the Chicago Bears in 1965: the black Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and the white Brian Piccolo (James Caan). Sayers is quiet and shy but has tremendous talent; Piccolo, while not as skilled, has an excess of personality and is an overachiever. After being assigned to room together, the two become great friends. When Sayers hurts his leg, Piccolo remains at his side and helps him regain his form. But then fate deals a cruel blow when Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer, dying at age 26. When he is awarded the George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award, Sayers says Piccolo is the one who deserves it, saying he has the "heart of a giant and that rare form of courage ... I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too."
It's easy to see where Brian's Song could have gone off the rails. Those same story elements could have made for a mawkish, soap opera-level melodrama, but this made-for-TV movie is restrained, content to tell the story in simple, direct terms without trying to pump it up with phony contrivances or distractions. It sticks with the story of the friendship between Sayers and Piccolo, and really, that's all the movie needs.
As a made-for-TV movie, Brian's Song isn't as flashy or as cinematic as it could have been, but it's effective and gets the job done visually. While most of the football games seem to be stock footage, we do get some variety in locations so the film doesn't feel static or sterile. For the most part, director Buzz Kulik doesn't try to get cute or distracting; he's content to give room for the performances, which are uniformly outstanding.
If you still question whether Brian's Song is worth a watch, remember this: it was referenced on Archer. Come on, that is a pretty high vote of confidence. Even if you're not a football fan, it's almost impossible to not be moved by this story of friendship, and even though it ends with the death of one its lead, it's an uplifting, inspirational piece.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
There was a time when Depp was one of the most daring and unique actors in Hollywood. Back in the 90s, he played a wide array of quirky characters in a number of off-beat productions: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Donnie Brasco. I can go on. But then the Mouse came calling; a few too many Pirates of the Caribbean movies, lackluster Tim Burton reunions, and lame titles like The Lone Ranger and Mortdecai occurred, and frankly, I started cringing every time I saw a new trailer for a Johnny Depp film. He just seemed to be coasting.
Then I saw a preview for Black Mass (2015) and thought, this looks interesting. Depp wasn't playing a goofy pirate or pale weirdo in some cookie cutter remake. He looked unrecognizable and was playing a character who was completely ruthless, violent, and nasty. I decided to check it out, and you know what, Black Mass is the best thing Depp has done in at least ten years and a welcome return to form for him.
In this based on a true story movie, Depp plays James "Whitey" Bulger, a violent and notorious leader of an Irish-American gang on the south side of Boston. He's approached by a childhood friend turned FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Egerton), with an offer: become an informant to help bring down the north-side Italian mobsters, and the FBI will look away from Bulger's criminal activities. The deal is made, and with the FBI protection, Whitey ruthlessly expands his criminal enterprise.
That's what makes Whitey so interesting: his unpredictability. At one point, Whitey bails out the stepdaughter (Juno Temple) of an underling, Stephen Flemmi, (Rory Cochrane) who got arrested for hooking. Whitey and Stephen take her to an apartment where he tells her they'll be putting her up for a while. She's thankful, eternally grateful, and she swears she didn't tell the police anything about the gang. Whitey is all polite and smiles until he strangles her; the murder occurs mostly off frame, the camera mostly focused on Stephen's face as it happens, the fear and shame we see on it saying it all.
Whitey can explode at anytime, so it's best to remain on his good side. While there's plenty of shootings and murders, Black Mass is not an action movie, but it is bloody and graphic. Whitey and a new recruit beat an associate to death, and it's not pretty. Later, Whitey and his gang lead someone out by the river, and the guy apologizes to Whitey for drunkenly antagonizing him previously; Whitey tells him it's all right, and then the guy is shot in the back of the head and dumped in the river. I've never been to Boston, but the city shown here is one of cold grays, squalor, and rather hopeless looking, a fitting world for these characters.
Likewise, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Whitey's brother Billy, a prominent state politician, but his screen time is so limited, it feels incomplete, more like a cameo. Also, the Italian mobsters who are set up as the initial antagonists are barely seen before they're taken down. Other parts are bit confusing, such as the businessman Whitey has killed after he buys the company the gang was embezzling from; it's not easy to keep track of everyone and what they're doing or why so much time is spent on something that doesn't seem so important in the grand scheme of things.
But my misgivings aside, Black Mass is worth checking out if only for Depp's performance, which is one of the best of his career. It's vastly different from just about anything he's done before, and it's intense and adult. I'll be stunned if come Oscar time he's not nominated for Best Actor.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
I have not read Nabokov's book, so I don't know how closely the film adheres to it. The movie follows Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) who marries Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) to be close to her nymphet daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon), whom he comes to be obsessed with. On the fringes of this perverse triangle is TV writer Claire Quilty (Peter Sellers), who has his own designs on the girl. The movie opens in Quilty's opulent, messy mansion where Humbert murders Quility (shooting him through a portrait of Lolita), and then the film flashes back four years to show what lead to this encounter.
That Lolita is exquisitely crafted and filmed goes without saying. We wouldn't expect anything less from a master like Kubrick. Few people could move a camera and find images as memorable as he could. Early on in the picture, Humbert takes Charlotte and Lolita to a Hammer Horror film at a drive-in, and the nature of the relationship is staged perfectly with Humbert positioned between the two of them; when a scary moment occurs, both mother and daughter clasp Humbert's hands on his lap, but he brushes off Charlotte to pat Lolita's grip.
Let's not mince words: Humbert is a pedophile, but aside from some hugs, gentle kisses on the cheek, double entendres, and suggestive staging, his relationship with Lolita comes off as muted, as if the movie is afraid to depict what's really going on between those two. As a result, the movie feels incomplete with character changes occurring off-screen, and the tone of the film, instead of being twisted and darkly funny, comes off as more cutesy and coy.
I can't say Lolita is an uninteresting movie. As always, Kubrick's craft is impeccable, but unlike his other work, this is not a movie I have much desire to revisit.