Film Review: The Basketball Diaries (dir by Scott Kalvert)


When exactly did Leonardo DiCaprio become a good actor?

That may seem like a strange question because, today, Leonardo DiCaprio is often and rightfully described as being one of the greatest actors around.  He regularly works with the best directors in Hollywood, including Martin Scorsese.  His performances in The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Revenant should be viewed by any aspiring actor.

And yet, it’s easy to forget that Leonardo DiCaprio has been around forever.  Long before he was Martin Scorsese’s go-to actor, he was appearing in movies like Critters 3.  He started his career when he was 14 years old and spent a few years appearing in commercials and sitcoms before making his film debut in 1991.  (He was 17 when he made his first movie but, as anyone who has seen any of his early movies can attest, he looked much younger.)  When you watch those early DiCaprio films, you’re left with the impression of an actor who had some talent but who definitely needed a strong director to guide him.  Watching those early DiCaprio films, it’s always somewhat amazing to see both how good and how bad DiCaprio could be, often in the same movie.  If a scene called for DiCaprio to be quiet and introspective, he was a wonder to behold.  But whenever a scene called for big dramatic moment or gesture, DiCaprio would often become that shrill kid who made you cringe in your high school drama class.  I think that part of the problem is that the young DiCaprio was often cast as a passionate artist and, when you’re a certain age, you tend to assume that being a passionate artist means that you spend a lot of time yelling.

Take a film like 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, for instance.  In this film, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a real-life poet named Jim Carroll.  The film deals with Carroll’s teenage years, which were basically made up of going to Catholic school, writing poetry, playing basketball, committing petty crimes, and eventually getting hooked on heroin.  It’s pretty dramatic stuff and, with his face that’s somehow angelic and sardonic at the same time, the young DiCaprio certainly looks the part of a teenager who split his time between private school and the streets.  Though the young DiCaprio was way too scrawny to be believable as a star basketball player, he’s convincing in the scenes where he’s writing out his thoughts and his poems.

But then, Jim’s best friend (played by Michael Imperioli) dies of leukemia and a despondent Jim goes from pills and inhalants to heroin and both the film and DiCaprio’s performance quickly goes downhill.  Playing drug addiction (and, even worse, drug withdrawal) tends to bring out the worst instincts in even the best actors and that’s certainly the case with DiCaprio’s performance in The Basketball Diaries.  Suddenly, Leo is shaking and yelling in that shrill way that he used to do and, when he has gets emotional, he overplays the emotions to the extent that you can actually hear the snot being sorted back up his nostrils and you, as the viewer, start to get embarrassed for him.  As soon as Jim starts screaming at his mother (played by Lorraine Bracco), you really wish that the director or the writer or maybe the other actors had stepped in and said, “Leo …. dial it down a little.”  If you need proof that DiCaprio’s a far better actor today than he was in 1995, just compare Leo on drugs in The Basketball Diaries to Leo on drugs in The Wolf of Wall Street.

When The Basketball Diaries does work, it’s usually because of the actors around DiCaprio.  In one of his earliest roles, Mark Wahlberg has such an authentic presence that you kinda wish he and DiCaprio had switched roles.  (Yes, there was a time when Mark Wahlberg was a better actor than Leonardo DiCaprio.)  Bruno Kirby is chilling in a few cringey scenes as Jim’s basketball coach.  Ernie Hudson bring some welcome gravitas to the role of an ex-junkie who tries to help Jim straight out.  And then there’s poor Lorraine Bracco, bringing far more to the role of Jim’s underappreciated mother than was probably present in the script.

The Basketball Diaries is one of those films that seems profound when you’re like 15 and you come across it playing on TBS at like 2 in the morning.  Otherwise, it’s mostly interesting as evidence that, over the past 20 years, Leonardo DiCaprio has certainly grown as an actor.

The Conquering Hero: Baby Blue Marine (1976, directed by John D. Hancock)


The year is 1943 and America is at war.  All young men are expected to join the Marines and fight for their country but the Corps is not willing to accept just anyone.  Marion (Jan-Michael Vincent) wants to continue a family tradition of service but, as his drill sergeant (Michael Conrad) puts it, Marion just is not pissed off enough to be a Marine.  Marion is kicked out basic training and told to go home.  He is given a blue uniform to wear on his jury so that anyone who sees him will know that he couldn’t cut it.

Ashamed of his failure and in no hurry to confront his family, Marion takes the long route home.   While having a drink in California, he meets a Marine (Richard Gere) who did not get kicked out of basic training.  Though not yet 30, this shell-shocked Marine already has a head of gray hair, which he says he got from the horrors of war.  The Marine is due to return to the fighting in Europe but, upon meeting Marion, he sees a way out. When Marion gets drunk, the Marine knocks him out, switches uniforms with him, and goes AWOL.

When Marion comes to, he discovers that everyone that he meets now judges him by his new uniform.  Strangers buy him drinks.  Other servicemen try to pick fights with him.  When he stops off in a small Colorado town, a local waitress (Glynnis O’Connor) falls in love with him and nearly everyone that he meets assumes that he must be a hero.  Marion doesn’t exactly lie about his past.  Instead, he simply allows people to believe whatever they want to believe about him.  It seems like an idyllic situation until three prisoners from a nearby Japanese internment camp escape and the towns people expect Marion to help capture them.

Loosely plotted and sentimental, Baby Blue Marine is a dramatic version of Preston Sturges’s Hail The Conquering Hero.  Though the film has a gentle anti-war message, it’s actually more about nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time.  If the film had been made at height of the Vietnam War, it might have been more angrier and more cynical.  But, instead, this is one of the many post-Watergate films that wistfully looked back upon the past.  When Marion settles into the town, he finds what appears to be a perfect and friendly home.  Only the nearby internment camp and the town’s hysteria over the escape prisoners serve as reminders that things are never as ideal as they seem.  Jan-Michael Vincent gives one of his best performances as the well-meaning Marion and actors like Richard Gere, Bert Remsen, Katherine Helmond, Dana Elcar, Michael Conrad, Bruno Kirby, and Art Lund all make strong impressions in small roles.

One of the few films to be produced by television mogul Aaron Spelling, Baby Blue Marine is not easy to find but worth the search.

Insomnia File #35: Donnie Brasco (dir by Mike Newell)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you happened to be awake at 2:30 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1997 film, Donnie Brasco.

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) has spent his entire life as a loyal Mafia soldier.  It’s the only life that he knows and he can tell you some stories.  He remembers the early days, back when men like Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky were in charge of things.  Lefty is proud to say that, over the years, he’s successfully carried out over 20 hits.  Lefty is lucky enough to be an associate of an up-and-comer nicknamed Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).  While Sonny was in prison, Lefty kept an eye on Sonny’s family.  Lefty feels that Sonny owes him.  Whether Sonny feels the same way isn’t always quite clear.

Lefty’s problem is that everyone loves him but few people respect him.  The aging Lefty is viewed as being a relic and, at most, they merely tolerate his constant bragging.  Lefty may fantasize about the big bosses knowing who he is but, when he tries to greet one of them at a party, it becomes clear that he doesn’t have the slightest idea who Lefty is.  Lefty spends his time worrying that he’s dying and dreaming of one last opportunity to make a name for himself.

In fact, perhaps the only really good thing that Lefty has going for him is his friendship with Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp).  Donnie is a jewel thief, a tough and volatile orphan who Lefty introduces to Sonny.  Sonny is immediately impressed with Donnie.  In fact, Sonny thinks so highly of Donnie that he assigns Donnie to look over his operations in Florida.  Lefty can only watch as his protegé’s star starts to eclipse his own.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  As Lefty explains it, Donnie’s success is also Lefty’s success because Lefty is the one who brought Donnie into the crew.  Of course, if Donnie ever fails, the failure will be on Lefty as well.

As for Donnie … well, his name isn’t actually Donnie.  His real name is Joe Pistone and he’s a FBI agent.  When he first agreed to work undercover, he was told that the assignment would only last for a few months.  Instead, the months turn into years and, piece by piece, Joe vanishes as he transforms into Donnie.  The formerly soft-spoken college graduate is soon beating up waiters and chopping up bodies in basements.  His wife (Anne Heche) fears that her husband may no longer exist.  “I  am not becoming like them,” Joe/Donnie says at one point, “I am them.”

Donnie Brasco is hardly the first film to examine life in the Mafia.  It’s not even the first movie about an undercover FBI agent who manages to worm his way into the mob’s hierarchy.  What sets Donnie Brasco apart are the performances of Pacino, Depp, Heche, Madsen, and, as a talkative mob associate, Bruno Kirby.  As played by Pacino, Lefty may be a hardened killer but he’s also just a working class guy who wishes that his boss would just show him a little appreciation.  Lefty may be capable of casually shooting a guy in the back of the head but, at the same time, there’s something heartbreakingly sad about the sight of him tearing up a greeting card that he hoped to personally deliver to the big boss.  As for Johnny Depp, he gives a surprisingly restrained performance, rarely raising his voice except when he’s yelling at his family.  Donnie may appear outwardly calm but the stress of losing his identity is always present in his eyes.

Interestingly, for a mob movie, there’s little violence to be found in Donnie Brasco.  It’s not until 90 minutes in that we get the expected scene of rival mobsters getting ambushed and gunned down.  Donnie Brasco isn’t about violence.  Instead, the film’s heart is to be found in the  story of Lefty and Donnie’s odd friendship.  Instead of being about who is going to kill who, this film is about Lefty’s desire to be something more than he is and Joe’s struggle to remember who he used to be before he became Donnie.  It’s a touching and effective gangster film and one to keep an eye out for.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man

A Movie A Day #55: Where The Buffalo Roam (1980, directed by Art Linson)


where_the_buffalo_roam_ver3At his Colorado ranch, journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Bill Murray) is up against a deadline.  He has to finish his story about his friendship with the radical lawyer and activist, Carlo Lazlo (Peter Boyle).  Thompson flashes back to the time that he covered a trial in which Lazlo defended a group of young men charged with possession of marijuana.  When the men are sent to prison, Lazlo snaps and physically attacks the prosecutor.  Later, Lazlo resurfaces during the Super Bowl and tries to convince Thompson to join him in fighting a revolution in Latin America.  And finally, in 1972, Lazlo tracks Thompson down while Thompson is traveling with the Nixon campaign.

Bill Murray as the legendary gonzo journalist, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson?

It sounds like a great idea, it’s just too bad that the movie’s not any good.  Where The Buffalo Roam may be based on three of Thompson’s best known articles but it never feels gonzo.  It never comes close to capturing Thompson’s anarchistic spirit.  The real Thompson did drugs by the handful, was fascinated by guns, and always seemed to be on the verge of plunging into the abyss.  Where The Buffalo Roam’s Thompson is a mild prankster and an ironically detached hipster, the type who the real Dr. Thompson probably would have kicked out of a moving car.  As for Carlo Lazlo, the character is based on Oscar Zeta Acosta, the infamous “Samoan attorney” that Thompson renamed “Dr. Gonzo” in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.  The movie never figures out what to do with the character or Peter Boyle.

While preparing for the role, Bill Murray spent months hanging out with Thompson and, according to the book, Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Weingard and Jeff Hill, literally became Hunter Thompson for not only the duration of the filming but for several months afterward:

“In a classic case of the role overtaking the actor, Billy returned that fall to Saturday Night so immersed in playing Hunter Thompson he had virtually become Hunter Thompson, complete with long black cigarette holder, dark glasses, and nasty habits. ‘Billy,’ said one of the writers, echoing several others, ‘was not Bill Murray, he was Hunter Thompson. You couldn’t talk to him without talking to Hunter Thompson.'”

Neither Thompson nor Bill Murray were happy with Where The Buffalo Roam‘s neutered version of gonzo and the film is really for Murray completists only.  The closest that Hollywood had gotten to getting Thompson right remains Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


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Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

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Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)

 

Back to School #9: The Young Graduates (dir by Robert Anderson)


I have to admit that, as someone who watches a lot of movies that were made before she was even born and who is just fascinated by history in general, I have often wondered what the 60s and the 70s were really like.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I know what everyone says they were like — hippies, disco, cocaine, Watergate, Jimmy Carter, Viet Nam, and all the rest.  But people’s memories usually fade with the passage of time and it’s always hard not to feel that whatever I’m hearing is either an idealization or an exaggeration.  That’s one reason why I like watching the often critically reviled, low-budget films of that period.  Since these films were usually made by people who didn’t really care what judgmental viewers like me would think 20 years in the future, they are usually far more accurate when it comes to portraying the world from which they came than a film that was by a big studio whose main concern was to present an idealized portrait of existence that would not alienate any potential ticket buyers.  Crown International Pictures may never have been an acclaimed film studio but, as one of the more prolific producers of 70s exploitation fare, their films now serve as a valuable historical record of the time in which they were made.

If I want to know what it was like to be young and perhaps stupid in the 70s, I go to Crown International Pictures.

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Take The Young Graduates for example.  First released all the way back in 1971, The Young Graduates was advertised as being “a report card on the love generation.”  The Young Graduates gives us a clue as to what it was like to be a teenager in 1971.  Judging from the film, it really sucked.

The Young Graduates tells the story of Mindy (Patricia Wymar), who is on the verge of graduating from high school.  She has a boyfriend named Bill (Gary Rist) but wow, is he boring!  All he wants to do is compete in drag races and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s incapable of expressing his emotions.  (Assuming that he has any.  The film is a bit ambiguous on this point.)  So, Mindy gets bored and has an affair with one of her teachers, the very married Jack Thompson (Steven Stewart).  Soon after realizing that Mr. Thompson will never leave his wife for her, Mindy suspects that she might be pregnant.  So, she and her friend Sandy (Marly Holliday) decided to take a road trip to Big Sur.  Along the way, they meet a sweet hippie (Dennis Christopher), a bunch of bad hippies, and some really bad bikers.  During their entire journey, they are pursued by Bill, Mr. Thompson, and Sandy’s boyfriend, Les (Bruno Kirby).

Though you wouldn’t know it from the film’s peppy soundtrack or Wymar’s cheerful performance as the continually put upon Mindy, The Young Graduates is actually a pretty dark movie.  With the exception of Pan, everyone that Mindy meets outside of high school is not to be trusted.  Essentially, she’s exploited by everyone that she meets and what makes it all the more disturbing is that Mindy smiles throughout the whole ordeal, almost as if Candide had been reincarnated in the form of a teenage girl.

So, The Young Graduates is really not much of a film.  Subsequent Crown International films would revisit high school and almost all of them would feature better acting and a far more interesting plot than the The Young Graduates.  No, the film does not work as a drama.  But as a documentary and as a time capsule, there’s a lot to enjoy about The Young Graduates.  The fashion, the haircuts, the music, and just the film’s general attitude are such relics of the late 60s and early 70s that the film is the next best thing to owning a working time machine.

That said, if The Young Graduates was an accurate picture of that time — well, I might not be asking for a time machine this Christmas after all!

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