Saturday, September 26, 2015

To Live and Die in L.A.

Spoilers ensue, so be warned.

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.

But is Chance so noble? More than anything else, he comes off as an adrenaline junkie than anything else. Early on, we see him base jump off a bridge, and during a car chase, he seems to really enjoy the thrill of it all. He blackmails an informant, Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), for information and sex, threatening to have her parole revoked if she stops helping him, and then doesn't pay her for what help she does give him.

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.

That chase deserves more discussion. The movie is directed by William Friedkin, who also did The French Connection. This chase belongs in the same league as the famed chase in that earlier movie. Not only is it effective from a character standpoint (Chance is in his element, Vukovich is having a panic attack in the back seat), but it's filmed as well as any chase can be. Friedkin utilizes a number of  first-person perspective shots, so it feels like we're riding out in front of the car as it barrels headlong through oncoming traffic, and it is exhilarating and intense. At one point, the agents drive the wrong way on the highway, facing off against dozens of cars, and Friedkin uses long, wide shots to show off the scope of the road and the number of vehicles. It is a tremendous technical accomplishment.

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.

To Live and Die in L.A. is up there with Friedkin's finest work. Parts of it don't hold so well because they've become so stock (like the partner killed two days to retirement and who actually says "I'm getting too old for this shit" long before Danny Glover made it famous), and the prologue, which features Chance foiling a terrorist bomber, is completely extraneous. Still, the film remains a first-class crime drama. While it lacks a sympathetic protagonist, it does not lack a compelling one.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Brian's Song

Now how about this? Brian's Song (1971) is a football movie that's not really about football. Oh, sure the main characters are players, there's the grizzled old coach, and there's footage of the gridiron, but the real theme of the movie is friendship and facing life's adversities. I don't think it's sexist to point out that men have a more difficult time expressing their emotions, but Brian's Song is one movie most men don't have a problem admitting made them cry.

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.

For example, the easy dramatic choice for the film would have been to make Piccolo a racist who learns to see the error of his ways through an evolving relationship with Sayers and to initially resent a black man competing for his spot on the team. That would have been the obvious, predictable arc. Instead, he seems to take a liking to Sayers right away, and Sayers' initial uncertainty toward him is based on differences in personality, not race. They quickly become friends, and in fact, the one time Piccolo directs at a racial slur at Sayers, it's not out of anger or prejudice but a desire to motivate him while rehabbing his leg, and both men end up cracking up because of it.

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.

For Caan, this is another great performance in a career filled with them, and for Williams, he was never better; Sayers is such 180 degree difference from his other most famous role, Lando Calrissian, that it's hard to believe both characters were played by the same actor. They are supported by an able cast, including Jack Warden as Coach Halas and Bernie Casey as team captain J.C. Caroline (would anyone be brave enough to try to run the ball past him?).

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

Black Mass

A couple of Christmases ago, my sister gave me a movie list book, a book in which you writes lists around certain categories such as your favorite movies and characters you wish you could be friends with. One of the categories was least favorite actors, and it pained me to do it, but one of the names I put was Johnny Depp.

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.

Black Mass charts the rise and fall of Bulger, and it is packed with characters and events, so it feels less like a tragedy and more like a chronology. How accurate to the facts of the real-life Bulger and his associates it is, I don't know, but the movie makes for fascinating viewing. Say what you will about the cinematic Bulger, but he is hard to look away from. Depp practically disappears into the part, both because the makeup is uncanny (his eyes are so cold and dead, they're practically vampiric) and the performance is that good. Bulger will beat someone to death with his bare hands or shoot a traitor shot in the head, and he'll dote on his young son, help an elderly neighbor with her groceries, and play cards with his mother.

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.

The film has a running length of two hours and is never boring, but it does feel like more could have been done to enrich the narrative. Director Scott Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (going off a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neil) sometimes resort to telling rather than showing, most notably in the increasingly corrupt and indulgent behavior of Connolly. Egerton plays the part perfectly, and the details about his clothes and other lifestyle perks reflect the characterization perfectly, but while it's understandable his too close for comfort relationship with Whitey would strain his marriage, we don't need his wife to spell it all out for us. Similarly, the scenes of the gang members individually testifying against Whitey throughout the film after the events of the narrative are completely unnecessary.

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

Lolita

I first saw Lolita (1962), Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the novel by Vladimir Nabokov (who contributes the screenplay here), many years ago and did not know what to think of it. Watching it again for this review, I'm still at a loss to describe my reaction to it. Baffled is probably the best place to start.

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.

But watching the movie, I don't feel invested in it. Given the subject matter, I suppose it's damn near impossible to find any of the characters sympathetic, and while I occasionally find some elements, dialogue, and moments funny or interesting, I'm just overall cold toward the whole enterprise. Kubrick was never a filmmaker to shy away from controversial subject matter or to resist pushing envelopes, but here, apart from the setup, he seems curiously restrained, impeded by the ratings board and censors of the time from being able to depict the true nature of the story.

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.

Humbert comes off a little too bumbling and befuddled to be a dynamic center while Sellers seems like he's in a completely different movie all together. At one point, he disguises himself as a German high school psychologist, and it feels more like an outtake from Dr. Strangelove than anything else. Lolita herself is kind of interesting because she at times acts like a child and a sexually mature woman, but she feels mostly absent from the movie, someone who occasionally wonders in, and we're not sure what the big deal about her is that makes adult men fall in love with her.

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.