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 #331: The Soldier (1982, directed by James Glickenhaus)


The Soldier is really only remembered for one scene.  The Soldier (Ken Wahl) is being chased, on skis, across the Austrian Alps by two KGB agents, who are also on skis.  The Soldier is in Austria to track down a KGB agent named Dracha (Klaus Kinski, who only has a few minutes of screen time and who is rumored to have turned down a role in Raiders of the Lost Ark so he could appear in this movie).  The Russians want the Soldier dead because they’re evil commies.  While being chased, the Soldier goes over a ski slope and, while in the air, executes a perfect 360° turn while firing a machine gun at the men behind him.  It’s pretty fucking cool.

The Soldier, who name is never revealed, works for the CIA.  He leads a team of special agents.  None of them get a name either, though one of them is played by the great Steve James.  When a shipment of Plutonium is hijacked so that it can be used it to contaminate half of the world’s supply of oil, The Soldier is assigned to figure out who is behind it.  Because terrorists are demanding that Israel withdraw from the West Bank, Mossad assigns an agent (Alberta Watson) to help out The Soldier.  She gets a name, Susan Goodman.  She sleeps with The Soldier because, she puts it, the world is about to end anyway.

The Soldier was obviously meant to be an American James Bond but Ken Wahl did not really have the screen charisma necessary to launch a franchise.  He is convincing in the action scenes but when he has to deliver his lines, he is as stiff as a board.  Fortunately, the majority of the movie is made up of action scenes.  From the minute this briskly paced movie starts, people are either getting shot or blown up.  Imagine a James Bond film where, instead of tricking the bad guys into explaining their plan, Bond just shot anyone who looked at him funny.  That’s The Soldier, a film that is mindless but entertaining.

Ken Wahl may have been stiff and Klaus Kinski may have been wasted but there are still some interesting faces in the cast.  Keep an eye out for William Prince as the President, Ron Harper as the director of the CIA, Zeljko Ivanek as a bombmaker, Jeffrey Jones as the assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense, and George Straight performing in a redneck bar.  Best of all, one of the Soldier’s men is played by Steve James, who will be recognized by any Cannon Films aficionado.

Surprisingly, The Solider is not a Cannon film.  It certainly feels like one.

Back to School #47: School Ties (dir by Robert Mandel)


School Ties

For the past two and a half weeks, we’ve been reviewing 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable high school films ever made.    We’ve been going in chronological order, starting with two films from 1946 and then working our way through the years that followed.  After 46 reviews, we are now ready to enter the 1990s.

And what better way to kick off the 90s than by taking a look at a film from 1992 that very few people seem to have ever heard of?

School Ties takes place in the 1950s, which of course means that everyone dresses like either James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Troy Donaue in A Summer Place.  It also means that the soundtrack is full of the same songs that tend to turn up in every film about the 1950s.  David Greene (Brendan Fraser) is a working-class teen from Pennsylvania* who wins a football scholarship to attend an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  At first, David struggles to fit in.  Not only are all of his classmates rich but they’re also extremely anti-Semitic.  However, David wins them over by playing hard on the football field and hiding the fact that he’s Jewish.  However, when the jealous Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon) discovers that David is a Jew, he reveals his secret and David is forced to confront his prejudiced classmates.

School Ties is one of those extremely well-intentioned films that’s never quite as good as you might hope.  With the exception of David and Charlie, the characters are all pretty thinly drawn and there’s more than a few subplots that really don’t really work.  For instance, Zeljko Ivanek shows up playing a sadistic French teacher who harasses one of Fraser’s friends (played by Andrew Lowery) and, as I watched Ivanek drive Lowery to the point of a nervous breakdown over proper verb conjugation, it occurred to me that I knew Ivanek was evil as soon as he showed up wearing his little bow tie and his beret.  (It’s also interesting how French teachers are always evil in films like this.)

That said, the message of School Ties is still a timely one.  On the surface, the message of “Don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick,” might seem pretty simplistic and self-explanatory.  However, every day we’re confronted with evidence that there are still people out there who don’t understand this simple concept.  As such, it’s a message that can stand being repeated a few times.

(Seriously, don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick.)

When seen today, School Ties is mostly interesting for who appears in it.  For instance, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Cole Hauser all show up here, 5 years before they would all co-star in Good Will Hunting.  One of the anti-Semitic students is played by Anthony Rapp who, a year later, would appear with Affleck and Hauser in Dazed and Confused.  Fraser’s sympathetic roommate is played by Chris O’Donnell.  As for Brendan Fraser himself, it’s a bit odd to see him playing such a dramatic role but he’s convincing and believable as a football player. It’s a good-looking cast and yes, you better believe that there’s a fight scene that takes place in a shower.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon wrestling each other while naked — well, this is the film to see.

school_ties—-

* Interestingly enough, David’s family lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania so I guess David could very well have gone to elementary school with Joe Biden and he may have family working at Dunder-Mifflin.

 

Trailer: The Bourne Legacy


When Paul Greengrass completed The Bourne Ultimatum it looked like a perfect ending to the Bourne Series. Despite an ending that could be seen as a way to leave the door open to continue the series most people were content with the series ending as trilogy. That sort of thinking never enters the mind of studio executives who saw the success of this particular trilogy as still bankable even if it meant the filmmaker (Greengrass) and the series’ lead star (Matt Damon) weren’t going to participate.

What we ended up getting was a new lead in Jeremy Renner as another Treadstone-like agent, but one who didn’t have all the glitches that Jason Bourne had. Let’s just say that Renner’s character Aaron Cross would be Jason Bourne 2.0. I wasn’t convinced that a Bourne film minus Greengrass and Damon would work, but after seeing this latest official trailer from Universal Pictures I’m quite excited about this latest film.

With the success of The Avengers and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol where Renner had substantial roles in it looks like this latest film in the series could get a nice uptick in the amount of interest it gets from the public. The sort of action Renner’s character goes through in this film one could easily call this Hawkeye: The Early Years. All his character would need would be a nice hi-tech bow.

The Bourne Legacy is set for an August 17, 2012 release date.