(On Cable TV, December 2018) Well huh. Turns out that Marlon Brando was a trend setter on his way up, playing characters with raw honesty in the 1950s, and also on his way down, anticipating the whole self-parody of people such as Robert de Niro with 1990’s The Freshman. The references are not accidental—The Freshman features Brando as a mob boss in a film that has characters (including a film teacher) obsessing over The Godfather. It’s intentional, and it does work relatively well at times: Brando doesn’t look as if he’s having any fun whatsoever, but the characters grimacing around him look as if they do. Matthew Broderick stars as a hapless Midwesterner going to NYC to study film, and is immediately robbed upon arrival. We later discover it’s all a big scheme, but never mind the details. The Freshman is merely fine as a comedy: It doesn’t have big laughs, it does’nt build to an amazing climax, but it does the job of entertaining and that’s that. Director Andrew Bergman keeps things moving in the same direction, Penelope Ann Miller makes for a cute love interest and the focus on animals means some visual comedy as well. I don’t think that The Freshman has any staying power beyond seeing Brando poking fun at himself, even in a very restrained way. But it’ll do if you haven’t seen it yet.
(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 2013) This quasi-sequel to 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell brings us back to an alternate 1950s Los Angeles suddenly awash in magic, but nearly everything else has changed: The noir aesthetics have given their place to bright Hollywood glam, the lead Private Investigator role is now played by Dennis Hopper and the tone of the film shifts from criminal horror to social commentary. Recasting McCarthyism as literal persecution of witches, Witch Hunt does get to be a bit too obvious at times. Still, there are a few things to like here and there despite the limited budget, including the background details and emphasis on a glamorous era for Hollywood. Hopper isn’t too bad as the lead, while Julian Sands is arresting as an evil magician and Penelope Ann Miller has an eye-catching role as a threatened starlet. The ending is a bit weak and obvious in its hurry to denounce witch-hunting for political gains, but the real fun of the film comes before then.