(Second Viewing, In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) Back in 1990, Hollywood really wanted audiences to go see Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. After the success of Batman in 1989, it had been designated as the most likely contender for the Summer Box-Office crown. I remember the overwhelming marketing push. It didn’t quite work out that way: While Dick Tracy did decent business, movies such as Ghost and Die Hard 2 did much better. Still, the film had its qualities (it did get nominated for seven Academy Awards) and even today it does remain a bit of a curio. Much of its interest comes from a conscious intention to replicate the primary colours of the film’s 1930s comic-book pulp origins: the atmosphere of the film is gorgeous and equally steeped in Depression-era gangster movies and comic-book excess. A tremendous amount of often-grotesque prosthetics were used to transform a surprising ensemble cast of known names (Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan … geez) into the caricatures of Tracy’s world. Beatty himself shows up as Tracy, square-jawed and willing to give his best to a film he also directed and produced. Madonna also shows up, but she ends up being more adequate than anything else. Dick Tracy’s big twist is very easy to guess, but this isn’t a film that you watch for the overarching plot: it’s far more interesting when it lingers in the nooks and corner of its heightened vision of 1930s cops-vs-gangsters cartoons. Visually, the film holds its own by virtue of being one of the last big-budget productions without CGI: the matte paintings are spectacular, and you can feel the effort that went into physically creating the film’s off-kilter reality. The question here remains whether the film would have been better had it focused either on a more realistic gangster film, or an even more cartoonish film. Considering the original inspiration, there was probably no other option than an uncomfortable middle ground. In some ways, I’m more impressed by Dick Tracy now than I was when I saw it in 1990 (at the drive-in!)—I wasn’t expecting as much, and I’m now more thankful than ever that it lives on as how big budget 1990 Hollywood rendered the gangster 1930s.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2018) As I watch more and more movies from the sixties and seventies, it seems to me that the characteristic grittiness of the seventies was as much of a reaction to the breakdown of the Hayes Code (and associated social conventions) as anything else. Suddenly free to show the world is as much unpleasant detail and harsh language as they wanted, filmmakers went far overboard and the result speaks for itself. (The tendency corrected itself in the late seventies with the rise of the audience-friendly blockbuster, but that’s a thesis best discussed elsewhere.) Serpico clearly redrew the classic template for most undercover-cop movies, delving deep into matters of police corruption through the eyes of an idealistic young police officer played by the explosive Al Pacino. (Sadly, the worst consequence of catching the film on a French channel is losing Pacino’s distinctive voice.) The film feels grimy and ugly, set during New York’s increasingly desperate period and reflecting the exploitative atmosphere of the time’s films. It’s still rather good, but some of the atmosphere can feel overdone at times. Pacino himself is very likable, which helps in navigating the bleak moral landscape of a police force thoroughly corrupted by a culture of graft and payouts. It’s not quite as violent as expected, but the atmosphere does help in creating an atmosphere in which the worst can always be expected. Sidney Lumet’s direction is solid enough that the film only feels a bit too long today—and much of that length is due to sequences that have been redone so often that they feel like clichés today. It may not pleasant, but there is an undeniable atmosphere to Serpico that still resonates.
(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I distinctly recall seeing Heat on video in the late nineties, but couldn’t find any review of it anywhere in my archives. Oh well—it’s a good excuse to revisit one of the best crime movies of its decade. As it turns out, I had forgotten a lot about the film and had the pleasure of rediscovering it again. Sure, I remembered the dinner conversation between de Niro and Pacino. Of course, I remembered the downtown LA shootout. But it turns out I didn’t remember half of it, and nearly nothing of the rest of the movie. Long but impressively dense, Heat compares well to the best of Hong Kong crime cinema in showing policemen and criminals as two sides of a similar coin, and finding humanity in stock characters. It’s a sprawling story with roughly a dozen subplots, and I have a feeling that it would best be presented today as a Netflix miniseries rather than a movie. Still, what we see on-screen in slightly less than three hours is mesmerizing enough: A convincing take on mid-nineties Los Angeles, featuring a variety of characters with rich lives. The script has moments of street poetry, and the action sequences hit hard. It surely helps that the casting of the film is amazing. Beyond having Robert de Niro and Al Pacino as co-leads, the cast is rich down to small roles played by then-obscure Danny Trejo and Natalie Portman. Take a look at the cast list and see Val Kilmer, Jon Voigt, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichner, Tom Noonan, Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, Jeremy Piven … it just doesn’t stop. Still, Pacino and de Niro get most of the glory here, with roles seemingly tailor-made for them—their dinner face-off is crackling good, and still exceeds the entirety of their movie-long reunion in Righteous Kill. Pacino is particularly in his element here, and his verbal excesses match the script. (Fans of TMZ will recognize that the “GREAT ASS!!!” meme/clip comes from here.) Otherwise, it’s Michael Mann’s show. While I’ve found many of his more recent movies to be pretentious, overlong and underwhelming, Heat is where nearly everything he’s got is used at its best advantage. Los Angeles looks brilliant, the direction is weighty in a way that matches the film and the actors all do their utmost best. I can quibble about a few lengths (especially late in the film, with a drawn-out final face-off), but I find that my first-viewing appreciation of the film has been replaced by a much more positive assessment after this re-watch.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) For a movie that’s nearly forty years old, And Justice for All still works remarkably well. It’s recognizably from the late seventies, but it tackles evergreen notions of idealism versus cynicism, as exemplified by an impetuous lawyer (Al Pacino, in a career-establishing performance) stuck between his ideals and the realities of the judicial system. It’s very darkly humorous (call it a courtroom drama with a body count) but it doesn’t make the mistake of being nihilistic: throughout, we can cheer for our protagonist as obstacles pop up. Pacino is terrific, director Norman Jewison keeps everything at a slow boil, old-school veteran John Forsythe makes for a loathsome villain, Christine Lahti is good in her big-screen debut and Jeffrey Tambor also pops up as an unhinged lawyer. (Almost all of the characters are unhinged in their own way, but that’s the film.) While the script is riddled with contrivances and satirical moments, it’s that bigger-than-life quality that gives And Justice For All it peculiar charm and timeless appeal.
(On DVD, April 2017) Forty years later, there is still something remarkable about Dog Day Afternoon’s off-beat crime thriller. Based on a true story in a way that sets it apart from most formulaic fiction, this is a bank robber/hostage thriller with enough unusual moments to feel fresh even after four decades of imitators. The closest equivalent I can think of remains 2006’s Inside Man—down to the very New York feel of the story. Watching the film is a reminder of Al Pacino’s early explosive screen persona—there’s a good reason why the “Attica!” sequence will forever be part of his highlight reel. Otherwise, the stars here are the quirky screenplay (in which the lead hostage taker has numerous scenes outside the bank and a complicated personal life) and Sidney Lumet’s matter-of-fact direction. Dog Day Afternoon is a film of moments—not necessarily the predictable ending, but the way it still twists and turns familiar genre convention into something that feels real and credible. Witness, for instance, the incredible over-reaction to a single gunshot midway through the movie—a welcome change of pace after movies in which entire magazines of ammunition get emptied without as much as a shrug. It is, in other words, still a remarkably enjoyable film. It has become a great period piece, and little of its impact has been blunted by the usual Hollywood formula.
(On DVD, February 2017) While I gather than Carlito’s Way was only a middling financial and critical success back in 1993, it’s one of those films that grow even better with time. I have a few theories as to why the decades have been kind to the movie. For one thing, I think it’s the kind of top-class crime thriller that were omnipresent for a while, and then not so much. So what if it’s similar to Scarface and The Untouchables? Those movies were awesome! In 2017, Carlito’s Way is a quasi-refreshing throwback to muscular crime cinema back when it was synonymous with A-class budgets rather than straight-to-video releases. It features Al Pacino in terrific younger form (sporting a glorious beard), which is best appreciated now rather than at a time when he was almost over-exposed. It benefits immensely from director Brian de Palma’ kinetic camera work, swooping and gliding into scenes, cackling as it prepares straight-up suspense sequences and delivers all of the cheap thrills that we can expect from a crime thriller. Carlito’s Way may not measure up to Scorcese, but it has strong thrills to deliver in an endearing exploitative way. David Koepp’s script cleverly packs a lot in a decent time, taking a look at a killer trying to get out of the business but predictably failing to do so. Sean Penn is almost unrecognizable (yet iconic, as per GTA: Vice City) as a completely crooked lawyer, while Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo and Luis Guzman turn in good supporting performances. (Pre-stardom Viggo Mortensen even shows up in a non-glamorous role as a disabled ex-gangster) It all adds up to a slick, enjoyable crime drama the likes of which we don’t see enough these days. Carlito’s Way has grown in stature over the past quarter-decade and a fresh look at it today only confirms that it’s a strong film.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) The reason to watch Scent of a Woman isn’t as much the well-worn mentor/prodigy plot (which is structurally similar to Finding Forrester, which I coincidentally saw just a week ago) than with its memorable lead character as portrayed by one of Al Pacino’s career-best performance. Colonel Frank Slade is a piece of work: old, blind but intensely charismatic despite his abrasive personality, he has a secret plan and drags a young man through a wild weekend in New York, at the end of which he intends to kill himself. Meanwhile, the student protagonist wrestles with matters of integrity and future prospects. Their interaction makes up most of Scent of a Woman, considerably enlivened by Pacino’s “Hoo-ah!” and his propensity for straight talk. (I suspect that most men who aspire to elderly crankiness can try to emulate his character, but don’t have what it takes to achieve it.) The movie is successful at what it wants to be, although (like many of director Martin Brest’s films) it’s far too long for its own good: At more than two hours and a quarter, Scent of a Woman doesn’t have the plot complexity required to sustain its duration. (Unfortunately, it’s tough to decide what should be cut, and if some of the film’s greatest character moments would be gone along the way.) Chris O’Donnell is OK as the young audience stand-in whose mission is to be amazed by Slade’s behaviour, while Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up in his big-screen debut. The ending is a bit cheap and conventional, but it’s the journey alongside an impressive character that makes Scent of a Woman worth seeing.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Given how little TV-as-TV I watch, I never expected to mark an entire Emmy category as “complete”, but in-between HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Parade’s End, The Girl and now Phil Spector, I’m all caught-up with the 2013 “Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie” category even before it’s awarded. There’s certainly no finer reason to watch Phil Spector than to see good acting from Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, facing each other down as, respectively, a powerful music industry executive accused of murder and one of his defense lawyer. It’s based the true story of Spector’s first trial (although not really, as the opening disclaimer sort-of-clarifies), but it’s perhaps best appreciated as a standalone court drama, featuring a pair of highly unusual characters. Al Pacino is his usual intense self as Spector; he even gets a change to indulge in his signature rants late in the film. Meanwhile, Mirren is in a class of her own as a hypochondriac but steel-nerved lawyer with an uncanny ability to defend her client no matter the circumstances. (Phil Spector’s look at a high-priced defense, with war room and expert-driven strategies, is worth a look by itself.) The film may indulge in showing the most eccentric aspect of Spector’s personality, but it’s also somewhat sympathetic to him, creating reasonable doubt that he may not have actually committed the murder for which he was accused. Phil Spector remains a made-for-TV movie, but with David Mamet writing and directing for HBO, it features high-quality dialogue and decent production values: if nothing else, it’s a good way to enjoy good actors playing interesting people. Al Pacino as Phil Spector? That’s always worth watching.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) Getting old isn’t easy, and that goes for actors as much as for criminals. Stand Up Guys has the merit of addressing both by featuring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken as a pair of aging gangsters trying to figure out the rest of their lives during one particularly event-worthy night. Pacino’s character is freshly out of prison, while Walken’s character has orders to kill him before the night is over. What happens next is a blend of good screenwriting, decent directing and capable veteran actors: Stand Up Guys becomes a breezy way to pass an hour and a half, coupled with a few things to say about aging and how people can break free from their past. Some of the humor is extremely easy (much of the bordello scenes read like wish-fulfillment for older men) but some of the rest feels on-target as a reflection of older-tired characters that can’t wait for the end to come. After a slow start, Stand Up Guys improves midway through as Alan Alda joins the proceedings for a few faster minutes. While the episodic structure of the film can’t patch over a few unfortunate narrative choices (such as the avenging sequence), the ending is strong enough to satisfy in a somewhat-predictable fashion. Fans of Pacino and Walken will get plenty to like, although Walken’s conflicted arc is more compelling than Pacino outright bombast. While this isn’t a classic-in-the-making, it’s not a waste of time either, and it joins a small “aging superstar thriller” sub-genre alongside now-franchises such as Red and The Expendables.
(On DVD, December 2009) This “Part III” has a bad reputation only when it’s compared to its two classic predecessors. While it’s pretty good filmmaking, it’s just not up to the standards set by its prequels. It’s not bad when considered as a straight-up epilogue, but then it runs into the vexing issue of being nearly three hours long, which really isn’t appropriate for the type of story it tries to be in the Godfather universe. Part of the problem is that by going to Italy and spending a lot of time dealing in Vatican business, The Godfather III gets farther and farther away from the all-American core that made the success of the first two films: The issues get more abstract and diffuse, and the plot seems to over-complexify itself. There is a noticeable lull near the middle of the film, and all of it contributes to the feeling of an overlong experience. Acting-wise, it’s Al Pacino and Andy Garcia’s show: Sofia Coppola may be the most attractive performer in the entire trilogy, but her much-derided performance, all mushy-mouthed and indifferent, is another of the reasons why she’s become a far better director than actress. More happily, though, the film works more often than it doesn’t, and while some elements that made the first film now feel familiar (the opening celebration/introduction scene; the final operatic barrage of violence), it’s handled with a lot of lavish skill by director Francis Ford Coppola. Conventional wisdom is correct: Not a bad film, but a let-down compared to its lineage.
(On DVD, December 2009) I may not entirely agree with assessments that this sequel is superior to the first film (which seems just a bit more focused that the follow-up), but there’s no denying that the two Godfather films feel inseparable: The first flows into the second one with fewer differences than one would expect, and the second one actually makes the first one feel even better when taken together. Once again, a really young Al Pacino runs the show, although he’s joined (in entirely separate sequences) by an equally-young Robert de Niro. Acting both as a prequel and sequel to the original, this “Part II” creaks at more than 200 minutes: the entire prequel alone could have been spun off in its own film. The Godfather II itself has the feel of a vast epic, with multiple plot lines, grand lavish scenes (including another lengthy party sequence that acts as essential scene-setting), multiple locations, a bit of historical drama and a large cast of characters all headed for destruction. Even then, there’s a lot that simply isn’t shown, and when the film ends, it feels as if it does so a few scenes too soon. It’s the nature of the charm of the films that betrayal and violent death is always somewhere in the assumed background of the character’s action: one wrong answer and goodbye! What may be The Godfather II’s most astonishing achievement is that it actually makes its predecessor even better, by presenting a story with even-bigger implications, digging into the characters and tying off a few grander arcs. This is big, big-scale filmmaking by Francis Ford Coppola, and it’s a bit of a shame we don’t get such movies anymore.
(On DVD, December 2009) It’s easy to think that you know The Godfather without having actually seen The Godfather: Few movies have become as integral to American pop culture as this one: You have seen the parodies, heard the references, watched the rip-offs, caught bits and pieces of the TV broadcasts, maybe even played the video game. But nothing replaces a good lengthy sit-down with the film from beginning to end: Clocking in at slightly less than three hours, The Godfather is a sumptuous piece of work. Finely mastered, superbly written and featuring a cast of characters that directors would kill for (most notably an impossibly young Al Pacino), it remains an impressive piece of work even after nearly forty years of cultural impact. Although the innovation of presenting gangster protagonists can’t be properly felt now compared to 1972, The Godfather keeps making an impact through sheer film artistry: All the pieces selected by director Francis Ford Coppola click together in a satisfying fashion, and the much-quoted segments only add to the film. With a large cast of character and a story that sprawls over a decade following WW2, the script makes few concessions to inattentive viewers. (It also takes risks that would doom other films, such as setting much of its first half-hour at a wedding reception.) Most curiously, it’s also a film that feels more rounded by its equally masterful sequel. Why is it that they don’t make movies like that anymore?