Film Review: Fingers (dir by James Toback)


Welcome to method actor Hell!

The 1978 film, Fingers, tell the story of Jimmy “Fingers” Angelilli (Harvey Keitel).  Jimmy is a creep who works as a debt collector for his father, a small-time loan shark named Ben (Michael V. Gazzo).  Jimmy is violent and brutal and often wanders around with a disturbingly blank-look on his face but we’re supposed to like him because he’s a talented pianist and he’s got a recital interview coming up at Carnegie Hall.  Jimmy carries a radio with him wherever he goes and he’s obsessed with the song Summertime.  He’s the type who will sit in a crowded restaurant and play the song and then get upset when someone tells him to turn off his radio.  By the end of the movie, I was really hoping that someone would take Jimmy’s radio and smash into a hundred pieces.

Jimmy is in love with Carol (Tisa Farrow, who was a far better actress than her sister Mia and who would later appear in Lucio Fulci’s classic, Zombi 2), who doesn’t really seem to all that into him.  Despite being in love with Carol, Jimmy still hits on every woman that he meets and, because this is a 70s films, he’s constantly getting laid despite being kind of a charmless putz.

Jimmy meets a former boxer named Dreems (Jim Brown).  Carol is apparently one of Dreems’s mistresses.  Jimmy silently watched while Dreems knocks two women’s heads together.  Jimmy stands there with his little radio and a blank expression on his face.  Is anything going on inside of Jimmy’s head?  It’s hard to say.

Eventually, Jimmy finds out that a gangster (Tony Sirico) owes his father money but is refusing to pay.  It all leads to violence.

As a film, Fingers is pretty much full of shit but that shouldn’t come as a surprise because it was the directorial debut of James Toback and there’s no American filmmaker who has been as consistently full of shit as James Toback.  Fingers has all of Toback’s trademarks — gambling, crime, guilt, classical music, and a juvenile view of sexuality that suggests that James Toback’s personal development came to a halt when he was 16 years old.  It’s a pretentious film that really doesn’t add up too much.  Again, you know what you’re getting into when James Toback directs a film.  Don’t forget, this is the same director who made a documentary where he was apparently shocked to discover that no one wanted to finance a politically-charged remake of Last Tango in Paris starring Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell.

Fingers is a bit of an annoying film and yet it’s not a total loss.  For one thing, if you’re a history nerd like I am, there’s no way that you can’t appreciate the fact that the film was shot on location in some of New York’s grimiest neighborhoods in the 70s.  While I imagine it was more of a happy accident than anything intentional on Toback’s part (because, trust me, I’ve seen Harvard Man), Fingers does do a good job of creating an off-center, dream-like atmosphere where the world constantly seems to be closing in on its lead character.  Jimmy is trying to balance his life as violent mobster with being a sensitive artist and the world around him is saying, “No, don’t count on it, you schmuck.”

As well, Harvey Keitel gives a …. well, I don’t know if I would necessarily say that it’s a good performance.  In fact, it’s a fairly annoying performance and that’s a problem when a film is trying to make you feel sympathy for a character who is pretty unsympathetic.  That said, there’s never a moment in the film where Keitel is boring.  In Fingers, Keitel takes the method to its logical end point and, as a result, you actually get anxious just watching him simply look out of a window or sit in a corner.  Even though Jimmy eyes rarely shows a hint of emotion, his fingers are always moving and, just watching the way that he’s constantly twitching and fidgeting, you get the feeling that Jimmy’s always on the verge of giving out a howl of pain and fury.  It doesn’t really make Jimmy someone who you would want to hang out with.  In fact, I spent the entire movie hoping someone would just totally kick his ass and put him in the hospital for a few weeks.  But it’s still a performance that you simply cannot look away from.  Watching Keitel’s performance, you come to realize that Fingers is essentially a personal invitation to visit a Hell that is exclusively populated by method actors who have gone too far.

Anyway, my feelings about Fingers were mixed.  Can you tell?  It’s an interesting movie.  I’ll probably never watch it again.

Horror Film Review: Jacob’s Ladder (dir by Adrian Lyne)


The 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder asks the question, “Who is Jacob Singer?”

Is Jacob (played by Tim Robbins), a soldier serving in Vietnam who has just been severely wounded in an enemy attack and who is now barely clinging to life in a helicopter?

Is Jacob a withdrawn postal worker who lives in 1970s New York with his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena), and who is haunted by horrifying visions of faceless, vibrating figures and viscous demons?  This Jacob is haunted by ill-defined past incidents.  Whenever he gets depressed, Jezzie is quick to demand that he snap out of it and that he stop thinking about anything other than the present day.  This Jacob can only watch as all of his old friends either sink into paranoia or die.  He hears rumors that they all may have been part of some sort of experiment involving LSD.  He’s sure that he served in the army but when he attempts to hire an attorney, he’s informed that the army has no record of him ever having served in combat and that they say he was discharged for psychological reasons.

Or is Jacob the husband of Sarah (Patricia Kalember) and the father of Gabe (Macaulay Culkin — yes, that Culkin)?  This is the Jacob who occasionally wakes up in bed with his wife and tells her that he’s been having the weirdest dream, one where he was living with “that crazy woman” from the post office, Jezebel?

Which one of these three realities is the truth for Jacob?  At times, Jacob himself doesn’t even seem to be sure.  Perhaps the one thing that you can be sure about in this movie is that whenever Jacob closes his eyes, he’s going to reopen them and discover that he’s in a different time and place.  Jacob spends almost the entire film trying to work out what’s happening in the present, what’s happening in the past, and what’s just happening in his head.

And, to be honest, it all gets a bit pretentious at times.  The film’s script has a lot on its mind.  In fact, it might have a little bit too much going on.  No sooner have you soaked in what the film has to say about denial and acceptance than you’re suddenly getting a crash course in MK-ULTRA and other mind-control conspiracy theories.  Whenever Jacob isn’t seeing demons and faceless apparitions, he’s being kidnapped by government agents.  There’s so much going on that this film can get a bit exhausting.

Fortunately, the film itself is such a triumph of style that it doesn’t matter that the script is a bit of a mess.  Director Adrian Lyne does a great job bringing Jacob’s nightmarish world to life.  Jacob seems to live in a world where the skies are permanently overcast and the streets are always wet after a recent storm.  When Jacob makes the mistake of walking down a subway tunnel, Lyne frames it as if Jacob is literally following a tunnel into Hell.  When a subway train rushes by Jacob, we catch disturbing glimpses of featureless faces facing the windows.  When Jacob sees a demon at a party, Lynne films the moment so that, just like Jacob, it takes us a few minutes to realize what we’re seeing.  And when Jacob is kidnapped and taken to a Hellish hospital, the scene is nightmarish in its intensity.

Tim Robbins gives a great performance as the emotionally withdrawn and haunted Jacob.  (In fact, he’s so good that it makes it all the more sad that he really hasn’t had a decent role since he won an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River.)  He’s matched by Elizabeth Pena, who constantly keeps you wondering if Jezzie truly cares about Jacob or if she’s just another part of the conspiracy that seems to have taken over his life.

Jacob’s Ladder is an intensely effective, if somewhat messy, horror film.  Apparently, like almost every other horror film released in the 20th century, it’s currently being remade, with the remake due to released on February 9th.  Just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Weekly Trailer Round-Up: Mary Queen of Scots, Colette, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Favourite, Goosebumps 2, A Simple Favor, The Extinction, The Package, Life Itself, Along Came The Devil, Little Italy, Unfriended: Dark Web, Wonder Park, Castle Rock


It’s time for the weekly trailer round-up!  We’ve got fourteen today so let’s get down to business:

First off, we have the trailer for one of the most anticipated films of the year: Mary, Queen of Scots.  This movie brings together two of last year’s nominees for best actress, with Saoirse Ronan playing the title character and Margot Robbie playing Queen Elizabeth I.  It is set to be released in December for Oscar consideration.

Also getting early Oscar buzz is Keira Knightley for her performance in Colette.  Colette premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and will be released on September 21st.

Another film that generated buzz at Sundance was The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which stars Chloe Grace Moretz as a teenage girl forced into gay conversation therapy.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be released into theaters on August 3rd.

Following the arthouse success of The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos returns with The Favourite.  Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play cousins who compete to be the favorite of Queen Anne.  The Favourite will be released on November 23rd.

The books and the monsters are back but Jack Black is nowhere to be seen in the trailer for Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween.  This film will be released on October 12th.

When Blake Lively disappears, her new best friend, Anna Kendrick, teams up with Lively’s husband to find her.  Directed by Paul Feig of Ghostbusters and Bridesmaids fame, A Simple Favor will be released on September 14th.

Everyone’s favorite sidekick, Michael Pena, finally gets the leading role in The Extinction, a sci-fi thriller that will be premiering on Netflix on July 27th.

Also coming to Netflix is The Package, a teen comedy from the creators of Workaholics.  The Package will be delivered on August 10th.

The second film to be directed by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Life Itself will be released on September 21st.

According to this trailer, Along Came The Devil is “an exorcism film for a new generation.”  This film will be released on August 10th.

Have you ever wondered what happened to Danny Aiello?  He’s in Little Italy, with Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen.  Little Italy will be released in August.

The internet is still the most dangerous place on Earth in the second trailer for Unfriended: Dark Web.  See for yourself on July 20th.

After a long and troubled production that saw original director Dylan Brown fired for “inappropriate conduct,” the animated film Wonder Park will finally be released on March 15th, 2019.

Finally, here is the long-awaited official trailer for Castle Rock, the new Hulu series from J.J. Abrams and Stephen King.  Castle Rock premieres on July 25th.

 

Sundance Film Review: Old Enough (dir by Marisa Silver)


(As I sit here writing this, the Sundance Film Festival is currently in full swing in Utah.  Starting last Thursday with Blood Simple, I have been reviewing films that originally made a splash at Sundance.)

As I mentioned in my review of Circle of Power, the Sundance Film Festival was not always the Sundance Film Festival.  For the first few years of its existence, it was known as the US Film Festival.  It wasn’t until 1984 that the US Film Festival became the Sundance Film Festival.  (And let’s be honest — as far as names go, Sundance is a huge improvement over its generic predecessor.)  That year, the inaugural Sundance Grand Jury Prize was awarded to a coming-of-age story called Old Enough.

Old Enough is a New York movie, one that follows Lonnie (Sarah Boyd) and Karen (Rainbow Harvest) over one eventful summer.  Lonnie is 12 years old.  She lives in a nice apartment and she attends an exclusive private school.  She has a close relationship with her mother (Susan Kingsley) while her father is a stuffy snob.  From the minute that Lonnie first sees Karen, she wants to be her best friend.  Karen is a year or two older and her family is definitely not rich.  Karen is uninhibited and, on the outside at least, totally confident.  Lonnie is envious of Karen’s freedom.  Karen is envious of Lonnie’s stability.  From that, an unlikely friendship is born.

At first, the film focuses on how much Lonnie looks up to Karen.  Karen wears makeup so Lonnie starts to wear makeup.  Karen is Catholic so Lonnie decides to be Catholic as well.  Karen shoplifts so Lonnie gives it a try.  Karen tries to dress like Lonnie and she even tries to navigate the streets of New York with the same confidence.  It’s only later in the film, when Lonnie attempts to introduce Karen to her friends from school, that it becomes clear that Karen is as out of place in Lonnie’s world as Lonnie is in Karen’s.

The film is at its best when it concentrates on the friendship between Karen and Lonnie.  There’s a wonderful scene where Karen and Lonnie go up to the roof of Karen’s apartment building and take in the beautiful view of New York City at night.  It’s a scene that perfectly captures what it’s like to be young and to know that there’s an amazing world out there, waiting for you to discover it.  And then there’s an extended shoplifting scene, one that I absolutely loved even if it did bring back enough memories to make me cringe just a bit.

Old Enough struggles during it second half, when the focus shifts from Karen and Lonnie’s friendship to Lonnie’s crush on Karen’s older brother, Johnny (Neil Barry).  Johnny, however, is obsessed with the new neighbor (Roxanne Hart), who may be having an affair with Karen’s father (Danny Aiello).  Those scenes feel a bit forced, as if Robert McKee suddenly popped up and said, “Time for Act III!”

No, the heart of the film is in Karen and Lonnie’s friendship.  Both Sarah Boyd and Rainbow Harvest gave very naturalistic and believable performances as the two unlikely friends.  By the end of the movie, you’re happy they got to spend a summer together even though you know they probably won’t still be friends in another five years.  It’s a sweet movie, one that provides a very realistic portrait of growing up.

If you’ve never heard of Old Enough, you’re not alone.  Until I started doing research for these reviews, I had never heard of it, either.  Some times good movies are forgotten.  That’s why it’s important to always keep looking.

As of this writing, Old Enough can be viewed on YouTube.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power

A Movie A Day #91: Ruby (1992, directed by John Mackenzie)


Of all the stars to come out of Twin Peaks, Sherilyn Fenn’s star briefly shined the brightest and sadly, she was the most misused by Hollywood.  While it is true that Fenn has worked regularly since Twin Peaks went off the air, she has rarely gotten the great roles that someone with her talent deserves.  Instead, her performances have far too often been the best thing about an otherwise mediocre film.

For example, Ruby.

In this very speculative biopic about the strip club owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald and whose organized crime background has put him at the center of a thousand conspiracy theories, Danny Aiello plays Jack Ruby and Sherilyn Fenn plays his only friend, Sheryl Ann Dujean (or, when she’s stripping in the Carousel Club, Candy Cane).  The film portrays Jack Ruby as being a low-level mobster who is never as valuable or as important to his superiors as he thinks he is.  In this movie, Ruby is always on the outside looking in on the conspiracy and, when he kills Oswald, it is because he wants to prove that he is more than just a small time hood.  Candy, who was a composite of several Carousel Club dancers, maintains a strong platonic friendship with Jack and is always there for him to talk to, except for when she goes to Vegas to perform for and sleep with the President.

Ruby came out as the same time as JFK and it often seems like a fanfic based on Stone’s film.  Low budget and overwritten, Ruby never works as a movie but Danny Aiello is perfectly cast as the bombastic but insecure Jack Ruby.  Unfortunately, Ruby‘s screenplay often does not seem to know what it wants to say about its main character.  As Candy, Fenn is not given nearly enough to do but she still manages to show the same natural spark that made her a star on Twin Peaks.

Sherilyn Fenn is not the only Twin Peaks cast member to have a role in Ruby.  Keep an eye out for a post-Twin Peaks, pre-X-Files David Duchovny, playing the role of J.D. Tippit.

In Praise of Alan Rickman: The January Man (1989, directed by Pat O’Connor)


JanuarymanposterLast week, when the world first learned of the death of the actor Alan Rickman, it was shocking to realize just how many great roles he had played.  He made his feature film debut as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.  He played Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Hilly Kristal in CGBG and Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  He even played Leonard Nimoy Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest.  But the first time I ever saw Alan Rickman, he was playing Ed the Painter in The January Man.

As The January Man begins, the new year is barely a day old and already Manhattan is in a panic.  Over the past 11 months, a serial killer has terrorized the city, killing one woman per month.  His latest victim, Allison Hawkins (Faye Grant) was murdered on New Year’s Eve.  Now, it’s January and everyone in New York City is waiting for the killer to strike again.

Mayor Flynn (Rod Steiger, bellowing his lines as only an Oscar-winning “great” actor can) is upset because Allison was a friend of his daughter, Bernadette (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).  Flynn orders the police commissioner, Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel), to put his brother on the case.  Nick Starky (Kevin Kline) was the best detective in New York but Frank framed him on corruption charges.  Now, Nick is working as a fireman and does not want to return to police work.  However, Nick tells Frank that he will investigate the murders on one condition: Nick wants to make dinner for Frank’s wife (and Nick’s former lover), Christine (Susan Sarandon).

After cooking an octopus for Christine, Nick works the case.  His unorthodox methods get on the nerves of Capt. Alcoa (Danny Aiello, bellowing almost as much as Rod Steiger) but also wins him the heart of Bernadette.  Helping him investigate the case (and repainting his office) is his neighbor, Ed (Alan Rickman).  Ed is not only a painter but he’s also a computer expert who figures out exactly where the killer is going to strike next.

The January Man was Alan Rickman’s second film and followed his debut in Die Hard.  Other than sharing a similarly sarcastic sense of humor, Ed the Painter is the exact opposite of Hans Gruber.  Gruber was a murderer who would do anything for money.  Ed is an artist who wants only to paint and hang out with Nick Starkey.

When I first saw The January Man, I was seven years old and I was on an airplane flying to London.  I was too young to really understand what was happening in the movie but I knew that Ed was my favorite character because he was the one who got all the funny lines and he spoke with a British accent.  When he told one of his models “Don’t molest anything,” I thought it was hilarious even though I did not really understand what he was talking about.  (Years later, I would watch The January Man on HBO and I would discover that Ed made his living painting nudes and that Bernadette and Nick were having sex, all information that was edited out of the airplane version.)

After I heard that Rickman had died, I rewatched The January Man for the first time in years.  I discovered that The January Man is a terrible movie that tries to unsuccessfully to mix slapstick comedy with brutal serial killer action but Alan Rickman still gives a really good performance, the best in the film.  (A close second would be Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose smile lights up every scene in which she appears.  She married the movie’s director so at least she got something good out of appearing in The January Man.)  That Alan Rickman is one of the film’s few bright spots is a testament to his talent as an actor.  Alan Rickman was such a great actor that he even made The January Man watchable.

Alan Rickman

RIP, Alan Rickman.

Shattered Politics #58: City Hall (dir by Harold Becker)


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Interestingly enough, New York City may be the center of wealth and politics in the United States but being Mayor of New York rarely leads to any sort of greater office.  Though the Americans Elect people tried to unsuccessfully recruit Michael Bloomberg in 2012 and there’s a few deluded souls who seem to think that Bill de Blasio could run and win in 2016, only three NYC mayors have taken the plunge and actually run for President.  Of the three of them, DeWitt Clinton was the most successful.  He not only won the Federalist nomination but he came close to beating James Madison in the election of 1812.  However, both John V. Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani were forced to end their campaigns when their electoral success in New York failed to translate into votes outside of the Northeast.

And that’s the thing really.  Everyone in America knows that New York is an important city, perhaps the most important city in the United States.  And they resent the Hell out of it.  It’s kinda like how the rest of country hates my home state of Texas because they need our oil more than we need … well, whatever the Hell it is that the rest of the country brings to the table.

I mean, let’s face it.  There’s a lot of resentment out there.  And that resentment will probably keep anyone from going from Gracie Mansion to the White House.

That’s one of the problems that I had with the 1996 film City Hall.  In order for City Hall to work, you have to believe that Mayor John Pappas has a legitimate chance to not only be nominated for President but to win the election as well.  At the start of the film, we’re informed by Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack, speaking in one of the worst attempts at a Louisiana accent that I’ve ever heard) that Pappas is the greatest mayor that New York City has ever had.  I guess that might be true, even though we really don’t see any evidence of that fact.  (Pappas does get to deliver a few monologues about how much he loves New York but if love is all it took, I’d be a really kick ass Prime Minister of Canada.)  However, it’s because Mayor Pappas is such a product of New York City that he’d probably never be able to actually win a primary in Vermont and capture Iowa’s electoral votes.  That’s one reason why it’s difficult to buy Mayor Pappas as a future President.

The other reason is that Mayor Pappas is played by Al Pacino.  And we’re not talking about Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon Al Pacino here.  Instead, we’re talking about raspy voiced, constantly bellowing, thousand-yard state Al Pacino.  As played by Al Pancino, it takes only one look at Mayor Pappas to imagine thousands a middle American voters running in terror away from the voting booths.

(One gets the feeling that if a large group of police officers ever turned their back on Mayor Pappas, he would immediately start jumping up and down while yelling, “YOU ARE TURNIN’ YOUR BACKS ON DA MAYOR HERE!  WHAT DA FUCK IS GOIN’ ON WITH THIS SHIT HERE!?”)

That said, there’s another reason why Mayor Pappas may never be President.  There’s been a shooting.  An undercover cop and a drug dealer shot each other.  A little boy was hit by a stray bullet.  The little boy is black but, oddly enough, nobody in the film ever suggests that there was any sort of racial element involved.  Instead, Mayor Pappas goes to the boy’s funeral and is enthusiastically applauded by the entirely African-American congregation.

It turns out that the drug dealer is the nephew of a mafia don.  He should have been in prison at the time of the shooting but instead, he was given an early release by a seemingly incompetent judge (Martin Landau).  As Calhoun and a lawyer named Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda, giving a good performance in a generically written role) investigate how the dealer came to be released, they discover that local politician Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello) may have had something to do with it.  Calhoun also discovers that his idol, Mayor Pappas, may know more than he’s saying as well…

If you do happen to watch City Hall, be sure to compare Danny Aiello’s performance with Al Pacino’s.  Both Aiello and Pacino are playing larger-than-life characters.  And both Aiello and Pacino have a tendency to bellow and to play big.  But, whereas Pacino’s performance feels forced and oddly empty, Aiello’s performance feels totally natural.  You actually believe that Aiello could be elected to a citywide office whereas Pacino — or at least the version of Al Pacino that shows up for City Hall — seems like he’d have a hard time getting elected to a student council, much less Mayor of America’s largest city.

Anyway, City Hall is currently making the rounds on cable, which is how I saw it.  It had the potential to be an interesting look at urban politics but, ultimately, it just doesn’t work.  To a certain extent, I hate to be negative about any film that, like City Hall, has its heart in the right place but the movie just doesn’t work.

 

Shattered Politics #50: Once Upon A Time In America (dir by Sergio Leone)


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Before I start this review of Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic, Once Upon A Time In America, I want to issue two warnings.

First off, this review is going to have spoilers.  I’ve thought long and hard about it.  Usually, I try to avoid giving out spoilers but, in this case, there’s no way I can write about this movie without giving away a few very important plot points.  So, for those of you who don’t want to deal with spoilers, I’ll just say now that Once Upon A Time In America is a great film and it’s one that anyone who is serious about film must see.

Secondly, I’m not going to be able to do justice to this film.  There’s too much to praise and too much going on in the film for one simple blog post to tell you everything that you need to know.  Once Upon A Time In America is the type of film that books should be written about, not just mere blog posts.  Any words that I type are not going to be able to match the experience of watching this film.

For instance, I can tell you that, much as he did with his classic Spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone uses the conventions of a familiar genre to tell an epic story about what it means to be poor and to be rich in America.  But you’ll never truly understand just how good a job Leone does until you actually see the film, with its haunting images of the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in 1920s New York and it’s surreal climax outside the mansion of a very rich and very corrupt man.

I can tell you that Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his best but you won’t truly know that until you hear it while gazing at Robert De Niro’s blissfully stoned face while the final credits roll up the screen.

I can tell you that the film’s cast is amazing but you probably already guessed that when you saw that it featured Robert De Niro, James Woods, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jennifer Connelly.  But, again, it’s only after you’ve seen the film that you truly understand just how perfectly cast it actually is.  Given the politics of Hollywood and the fact that he’s unapologetically critical of Barack Obama, it’s entirely possible that James Woods might never appear in another major motion picture.  A film like Once Upon A Time in America makes you realize what a loss that truly is.

So, if you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to see it.  Order it off of Amazon.  Do the one day shipping thing.  Pay the extra money, the film is worth it.

Much like The Godfather, Part II (and Cloud Atlas, for that matter), Once Upon A Time In America tells several different stories at once, jumping back and forth from the past to the present and onto to the future.

The film’s “past” is 1920.  Noodles (Scott Tiler) is a street kid who lives in New York’s ghetto.  He makes a living by doing small jobs for a local gangster and occasionally mugging a drunk.  He’s also the head of his own gang, made up of Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curry), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi).  Despite his rough edges, Noodles has a crush on Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), a refined girl who practices ballet in the back of her family’s store.  When Nooldes meets Max (Rusty Jacobs), the two of them become quick friends.  However, their criminal activities are noticed by the demonic Bugsy (James Russo), who demands any money that they make.

The film’s “present” is 1932.  Noodles (Robert De Niro) has spent twelve years in prison and, when he’s released, he discovers that some things have changed but some have remained the same.  Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) are still criminals but they’ve prospered as bootleggers.  Occasionally, they do jobs for a local gangster named Frankie (Joe Pesci) and sometimes, they just rob banks on their own.  During one such robbery, they meet a sado-masochistic woman named Carol (Tuesday Weld), who quickly becomes Max’s girlfriend.

As for Noodles, he continues to love Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). But, when he discovers that she’s leaving New York to pursue a career as an actress, he reveals his true nature and rapes her.  It’s a devastating scene — both because all rape scenes are (or, at the very least, should be) devastating but also because it forces us to ask why we expected Noodles to somehow be better than the men who surround him.  After spending nearly two hours telling ourselves that Noodles is somehow better than his friends and his activities, the movie shows us that he’s even worse.  And, when we look back, we see that there was no reason for us to believe that Noodles was a good man.  It’s just what we, as an audience, wanted to believe.  After all, we all love the idea of the romanticized gangster, the dangerous man with a good heart who has been forced into a life of crime by his circumstances and who can be saved by love.  In that scene, Once Upon A Time In America asks us why audiences continue to romanticize men like Noodles and Max.

As for the gang, they’re hired to serve as unofficial bodyguards for labor leader Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams) and, in their way, help to found the modern American labor movement.  (“I shed some blood for the cause,” Patsy says while showing off a huge bandage on his neck.) When fascistic police chief Aiello (Danny Aiello) needs to be taken down a notch, they kidnap his newborn son and hold him for ransom.  (While pulling off this crime, they also manages to switch around all the babies and, as a result, poor babies go home with rich families and vice versa, neatly highlighting both the power of class and the randomness of fate.)  However, the good times can’t last forever and, when prohibition is repealed, the increasingly unstable Max has to find a new way to make some money.

Finally, the film’s third storyline (the “future” storyline) takes place in 1967.  Noodles has spent decades living under a false identity in Buffalo.  When he gets a letter addressed to his real name, Noodles realizes that someone knows who he is.  He returns to a much changed New York.  Carol now lives in a retirement home.  Deborah is an acclaimed Broadway actress.  Jimmy O’Donnell is the most powerful union boss in America.  Fat Moe’s Speakeasy is now Fat Moe’s Restaurant.

Once Noodles is back in town, he receives a briefcase full of money and a note that tells him that it’s an advanced payment for his next job.  He also receives an invitation to a party that’s being held at the home of Christopher Bailey, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Who is Secretary Bailey?  He’s a shadowy and powerful figure and he’s also a man who is at the center of a political scandal that has turned violent.  And, when Noodles eventually arrives at the party, he also discovers that Secretary Bailey is none other than his old friend Max.

How did a very Jewish gangster named Max transform himself into being the very WASPy U.S. Secretary of Commerce?  That’s a story that the film declines to answer and it’s all the better for it.  What doesn’t matter is how Max became Bailey.  All that matters is that he did.  And now, he has one final favor to ask Noodles.

(There’s a very popular theory that all of the 1967 scenes are actually meant to be a hallucination on Noodles’s part.  And the 1967 scenes are surreal enough that they very well could be.  Though you do have to wonder how Noodles in 1932 could hallucinate the Beatles song that is heard when he returns to New York in 1967.)

Once Upon A Time In America is an amazing film, an epic look at crime, business, and politics in America.  It’s a film that left me with tears in my eyes and questions in my mind.  The greatness of the film can not necessarily be put into words.  Instead, it’s a film that everyone needs to see.

onceuponatimeinamerica1

 

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


Godfather_part_ii

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.

Clemenza_and_Vito

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.)