Tag Archives: mafia

Live by Night – Review

26 Jan

When it comes to movies he’s written and directed, Ben Affleck’s track record is one of the strongest in recent years. Movies like The TownGone Baby Gone, and Argo have enough intensity and depth to be remembered a hundred times over. When I saw his next project, Live by Night, was going to be a Prohibition era gangster movie, I was good to go. I’ve been looking forward to this movie after seeing the very first trailer for it months ago, and I felt even more hopeful when I saw that it was based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novel Gone Baby Gone. Now, while there are plenty of really great things in this movie that are worth mentioning and getting excited about, Live by Night is probably the weakest entry in Affleck’s directing filmography.

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Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a World War I veteran who makes his small living through crime as a thief. He’s also madly in love with a woman named Emma (Sienna Miller), the wife of his boss and and head of the Irish Gang of Boston, Albert White (Robert Glenister). After this affair almost gets him killed and results in him losing Emma, Joe joins forces with Italian mafia boss and enemy of White Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Pescatore sends Joe to the Ybor City in Florida to help run his rum importing business that is being threatened by White. While in Florida, Joe falls in love and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana), who is a major component of the importing business. Not everything goes smoothly however as rival factions, a tragic run in with the local sheriff and his daughter (Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning), and the looming danger of the Ku Klux Klan threaten this entire business, which forces Joe to become the violent man he never wanted to be again.

I have really mixed feelings about this movie that came up as I was writing the summary. It reminded me the biggest flaw that this movie has, and that is that there is so much crammed into a run time that barely has the ability to hold it all. There is around 3 and a half hours worth of material here that’s forced to fit in a movie that’s only a little bit over 2 hours. This makes for some weird pacing, plot lines that don’t get enough attention, and some characters that unfortunately lack enough development. Let’s start with the pacing of the movie. A lot of times when someone’s talking about the pace of a movie, they’re going to say how slow it felt. On the flip side of that, I felt like Live by Night went way too fast. There was a part in the middle where it slowed down to a crawl, but then picked up so fast I thought it was going to break my neck. This is what happens when there are at least five different main plots happening in a movie.

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Let’s look at the positives for a bit because this movie does have very cool elements. Affleck has shown us time and again that he is capable of filming a beautiful looking movie, and Live by Night holds up to that standard. The color pallets and sweeping camera work got the better of me at times and I just had to watch in awe at how amazing everything looked. This also a movie with incredible sound design. Every gunshot felt authentic and blasted through the theater’s sound system for optimal escapist effect. Speaking of sounds, Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is absolutely fantastic. Finally, this movie handles violence in a very interesting way that I’ve been seeing more in movies as of late. The violence is strong but the scenes of it are few and far between. Instead of making the violence look cinematic and fake, there’s this realism to it that really hit me as I was watching it, and reminded me a lot of how Affleck handled it in The Town.

While that’s all well and good and does make the movie memorable in its own right, I still can’t help shake the fact that as time has gone on I’ve become less and less impressed by this movie. A big reason is because of the characterization and how the people in the movie develop. My biggest example of this is the relationship between Joe and Graciela. It has the potential to be a great cinematic romance, but it unfortunately isn’t explored enough and the events of their life jut kind of happen and then time moves on because there is so much left to cover. The same can be said about Joe’s partner in the movie. We briefly see him in the first third, then he’s reintroduced, but their relationship doesn’t really have a chance to go anywhere either.

I’ve been so excited for Live by Night, it kinda hurts to say that it disappointed me. It’s a beautiful looking movie with a great score and sound design. There’s also plenty of great actors giving quality performances. The problem is that so much is crammed into the movie that some plots are wasted and characters fail to develop fully which lessens the dramatic impacts of some scenes. I really wanted Live by Night to be great, but it’s a movie that fails to live to its fullest potential and I’m not sure I have any reason to see it again.

Final Grade: C+

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Find Me Guilty – Review

9 Jun

Between the years of 1986 and 1988, the largest mafia indictment and trial occurred with 20 defendants, who were all members of the Lucchese crime family, in the hot seat. One of these defendants was a low level gangster named Frankie DiNorscio, who was already facing 30 years and decided the best thing he could do is defend himself during this enormous trial. Needless to say, it was a circus and this brings us to Find Me Guilty, one of the great Sidney Lumet’s last films. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard anyone talk about this movie… like ever. I find this weird since it is a very entertaining court room film, but also features, far and away, Vin Diesel’s best performance.

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After almost being killed by his cousin and then arrested during a huge drug bust, Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) is looking down the barrel of 30 long years in prison. As if his luck hasn’t been bad enough recently, DiNorscio is then included in a massive indictment, led by district attorney Sean Kierney (Linus Roache), of over 20 members of the Lucchese crime family, including the boss, Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco). Much to the chagrin of the lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage), Jackie decides it would be in his best interest to defend himself in the case. As days turn to months, Jackie stands up for himself throughout the trial and causes all sorts of havoc in the courtroom, but he also is forced to use this trial as a reflection on how he’s lived his life up until this point, affected the people he’s surrounded by, and what the family really thinks of him.

I love me a good courtroom drama, and it’s disappointing that there aren’t really a lot of them being made as of recent. I may be just missing them, but I can’t think of one that really stands out in recent years. While I love the drama of a trial, movies like My Cousin Vinny and even A Few Good Men have shown that there can still be plenty of humor in a story like this. This is something that makes Find Me Guilty really stand out for me. Not only was I intrigued by the human drama and criminal element, DiNorscio’s antics and people’s responses made for some really funny scenes. Make no mistake, though. The third of this movie hit me where it hurts. The combination of Jackie sticking up for himself in court and also coming to terms with his place in the crime family and his own family makes for some really deep scenes. I can’t say it reaches the intensity of Lumet’s classic 12 Angry Men, but it certainly is affective.

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The main reason I decided to give this movie a watch is the chance to see Vin Diesel in a dramatic role. Diesel is best known for his action roles in the Fast and the Furious series and XXX. He’s recently stepped into the super hero territory as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, but repeating the line “I am Groot” doesn’t really constitute as an acting showcase. Find Me Guilty has given me a new level of respect for Mr. Diesel. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Diesel actually completely embodies the role of Jackie DiNorscio to the point where I believe I’m no longer watching an actor, but footage from the actual trials. Of course I realize it’s a movie, but I really buy every line and action Diesel does, and saying I’m impressed is a bit of an understatement. We also have Peter Dinklage in a supporting role as a defense attorney that befriends DiNorscio. Dinklage also does a great job here, but that’s not really a surprise. This really is Vin Diesel’s show.

I want to get back to the point I made before about how part of this movie is about Jackie looking back at the things he’s done and said, and how the trial is the catalyst for all this soul searching he does. This is not the first time Lumet has done this with a court room scenario. Just look at 12 Angry Men. While it is a movie about a group of jurors deciding the fate of a young man, it’s also a movie about racism and bigotry and how they affect judicial proceedings. Find Me Guilty is also deeper than the intriguing scenes in the court room. It’s a movie about coming to terms with who you are and finding ways to better yourself before it’s too late. Movies with depth are certainly a plus, and Find Me Guilty succeeds very well at exploring its deeper thematic material.

I really can’t understand why no one ever seems to talk about this movie. It may not be Lumet’s crowning achievement, but it really is a damn good movie. Vin Diesel absolutely kills it as what may be one of the most sympathetic gangsters to grace the silver screen, and it makes me wish that he would take more jobs like this. It also helps that the dialogue is based off of actual courtroom testimony of the most absurd case the mafia has ever faced, while also exploring some deeper thematic elements. I liked Find Me Guilty quite a bit and can easily recommend it.

The Client – Review

5 May

Even if you’ve never read one of his books, chances are you still know the name John Grisham. Many of his stories have been turned into feature films, with my favorite being the 1996 courtroom drama, A Time to Kill. While that’s my own personal opinion, there are a lot of people who say that the best adaptation of a Grisham novel is the 1994 film, The Client. I remember watching this movie on t.v. when I was really young, and something about it really struck a cord in my brain making me remember it to this day. It’s finally time I revisited it and see if it’s held up after all these years.

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Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his little brother Ricky (David Speck) live a simple life in a trailer park by the woods. After sneaking in there to have cigarettes behind their mother’s (Mary-Louise Parker) back, the two boys witness the suicide by a mafia lawyer named Jerome “Romey” Clifford (Walter Olkewicz), but not before spilling the beans about his murderous client, Barry “The Blade” Muldanno (Anthony LaPaglia). This information makes the fame hungry federal attorney Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) anxious to get his hands on what the kid knows and lock Muldanno up for life, even if it means putting Sway in the sights of numerous mafia hitmen. This prompts him to get a lawyer of his own, the inexperienced Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), who treats Sway’s case with a special kind of attention and won’t stop until he is protected from both Foltrigg and Muldanno.

This movie really has a recipe for success. Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon are enough of an acting force to push any story forward, but it also helps having a Grisham story and Joel Schumacher backing them up. Before anyone says anything, I realize Schumacher is responsible for Batman and Robin, but he’s also responsible for some great films like Phonebooth and Falling Down. This is a very well constructed and acted movie from everyone involved. Sarandon was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, but Tommy Lee Jones also has a lot of great scenes that showcases how smarmy his character really is. This is also the debut of Brad Renfro who stands up very well to his acting superiors, which makes it more unfortunate his career was cut short when he died at the age of 28.

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With all of these talents mixing together, I’m quite surprised that The Client isn’t as exciting or thrilling as it should have been. I went into this wanting to see a lot more of the legal procedures and the mafia getting involved, but there’s only one court room scene and the mafia villains are completely laughable. For someone nick named “The Blade,” I was surprised to see how much of a cartoon character he was. It got to the point where it was hard to be threatened by these Looney Toon mafiosos. One of the reasons I love A Time to Kill so much is because there are great courtroom scenes. The one in The Client works fine, but there just isn’t enough there to make it really exciting. The film instead seems to want to focus on the relationship between Reggie Love and Mark Sway.

Since the attention is put on Brad Renfro’s and Susan Sarandon’s character, it’s important that they succeed in making their relationship interesting. At times, I feel like that’s the real crux of the movie. Sarandon’s character wants to have a connection with her estranged kids and Brad Renfro’s character wants to have a parent that can actually protect him. That’s where these two characters meet and find a special bond that makes their relationship interesting. There are times where this theme of needing some sort of connection is beat over the head, but it still works well enough and adds an extra layer to the movie.

I had a bit of a hard time writing this review because I don’t really have a whole lot to say about The Client. The opening scene is one of the most intense and memorable intros to a movie I’ve ever seen, but from there it gets a little less than thrilling. What holds the movie up is the unique characters and an especially unique murder mystery that a child has now gotten mixed up in. If more attention was spent to actually making an exciting court drama with a touch of gangsters that weren’t cartoons, The Client would have certainly been a better movie. As it is, it’s a hard movie to talk about because it really is just ok.

GoodFellas – Review

11 Oct

Here we go, ladies and gentlemen. This review is a doozy since I will be looking at one of the most acclaimed, praised, and altogether adored American films of all time. This, of course, is Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster epic GoodFellas. I don’t really know if I have any new opinions to add to table that haven’t already been said, so this review might just be a reiteration of many other critics and fans. What can I do, though? This film truly is a classic and I really had to review it eventually. Many people say that this is the best mob movie ever made, but I have to go with The Godfather: Part II. Even so, GoodFellas is an incredible movie and the landmark film of Scorsese’s illustrious career.

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For as long as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) could remember, he wanted to be a gangster. He gets his wish at a fairly young age when local mobster Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) takes an interest in him and starts him off with a couple of jobs. As the years progress, Hill becomes a more respected member of the family along with his two best friend Jimmy Conway (Robert Di Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). The three have become accomplished professional criminals and enjoy living the luxurious life of a gangster. As time goes on, however, the three friends soon find out that this idea of mob life was just fantasy, especially when their friends begin dying at a much more rapid rate, drugs begin taking their money, and their family lives begin to crumble around them.

I felt like I said the word “epic” too much in my previous review for The Martian, and this is another one of those times where that word is going to be thrown all over the place. GoodFellas is an epic crime story that, to me, almost seems impossible to pull off. I think it would’ve been if it were in any other hands other than Martin Scorsese. The biggest feat that Scorsese accomplished with this movie was cramming thirty years into two and a half hours. All of the important times of these people’s lives are shown, but I never felt like I missed out on anything else because of the intelligent uses of montage to skim over more unimportant parts, but still give the audience the full story.

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Of course none of this epic storytelling would have worked if there wasn’t an excellent cast backing everything up. At the forefront, GoodFellas has Ray Liotta, Robert Di Niro, and Joe Pecsi. Ray Liotta gives the best performance of his career as Henry Hill. It’s interesting watching Liotta here because it shows a range that I haven’t really seen in his acting anywhere else. Di Niro works great as always, but Pesci really steals the show as the sadistic Tommy DeVito. Pesci took home the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as well. Other than the three leading roles, I have to also give a lot of credit to Lorraine Bracco, who plays Henry Hill’s wife. The arc her character goes through is great, and she remains consistently on point with her character as the years stretch on in the film.

GoodFellas, believe it or not, is actually based off of a true crime book called Wiseguy written by Nicolas Pileggi in 1986. Scorsese got into contact with Pileggi, and both of them excitedly began working on the screenplay. What I’m getting at is the brilliance with which they handle the writing. Scenes were written with action and dialogue, but they knew that they had to let the actors act as naturally as the possibly could. The actors that were assembled were so talented and the writing was so real, that a lot of improvisation and natural reacting took place, which makes everything really seem to jump from the screen. This isn’t a glamorized version of mob life, and that’s exactly what the intention was. The writing combined with the acting makes it seem real, gritty, and altogether miserable in the end.

GoodFellas may not be my favorite mob movie ever, but it’s certainly up there with my favorites. Looking back on this movie, there really is nothing to complain about. Everything is so spot on from the cinematography, to the writing, and the acting. Still, the most impressive thing is how much material is squeezed into this movie, all while keeping the pacing fast and exciting. GoodFellas isn’t just the high point in Martin Scorsese’s career, it also marks a high point for American film as a whole.

The Untouchables – Review

5 Oct

The 1930s was an interesting time in American history. The Great Depression hit in 1929 which forced many people to make money to provide for themselves by any means necessary. Since this was happening during the time of Prohibition, a lot of these people used the demand of alcohol to their advantage. One of the biggest names was Al Capone, who built an entire empire and was one of the forerunners of organized crime in the United States. This leads me into Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables, based on a book of the same name and a television show from the 1950s. With source material like this, it’s no surprise that this film has become one of the most respected gangster movies of all time and, I think, Brian De Palma’s best film.

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In the early 1930s, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) practically runs the city of Chicago and makes millions of dollars through the illegal distribution of alcohol. He’s also a dangerous and violent criminal who uses intimidation and murder to force people into doing business with him. This causes the Bureau of Prohibition to create a task force just to bring him down and choose Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) to be the head of this group. Ness finds working with a whole task force to be dangerous and nearly impossible, so he makes up a team all his own. They are beat cop Malone (Sean Connery), new recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia), and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). The group is soon nicknamed “The Untouchables,” but they soon realize that’s not true as the pressure they put on Capone force him to put the pressure back on them.

I hate it when critics use the word “captivating” to describe a movie. It’s such a cheesy adjective and I simply don’t like it, but allow me to be a hypocrite just this once. The Untouchables is a captivating movie. Everything just comes together so well to make a movie that reminds me why I love movies so much in the first place. Normally I hate when a movie is based off true events and is completely inaccurate, but David Mamet’s screenplay makes me forget all that and just enjoy the story that he put together. With Mamet’s screenplay, Brian De Palma’s expert hand at directing, the cast, and Ennio Morricone’s note perfect and unique score, The Untouchables was practically sculpted by the gods.

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There’s a lot of great actors attached to this movie like Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Andy Garcia. While everyone does a fine job, there are a few stand out performances that exceed great and wind up in the territory of excellence. These exceptions are Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. Now, De Niro isn’t really surprising, but I never really looked at Connery as a great actor. He can act fine, but his performance in The Untouchables is the highlight of his talent. He brings humor and the right amount of sincerity and drama to the role of Malone, which makes this movie worth watching just to see him act. D Niro, on the other hand, while not being in the movie all that much, makes every scene that he’s in memorable. He plays Al Capone with viciousness, slime, and makes him a very entertaining person to watch.

Like I said before, this movie is pretty far from being accurate. For example, Eliot Ness and Al Capone never actually met face to face during the whole ordeal, and Capone never actually violently attacked back. Also, Frank Nitti wasn’t involved in things like he was in this movie. But, this movie presents a stylized version of reality that makes it so hard to look away. Brian De Palma is known for making highly stylized, but not over the top films. There are scenes in this movie that will be remembered until the day I die, like the shootout on the bridge and the slow motion gunfight in the train station. These scenes combined with Morricone’s score just get to me in ways that movies should.

Brian De Palma’s filmography has had some rough patches, but also some that define film making perfectly. I love Scarface just as much as the next guy, but when it comes to mob movies that De Palma has done, my favorite has to be The Untouchables. It tells a story so perfectly with characters and their arcs so defined, that it’s easy to care about what happens to all of them. It also is reality through a stylish looking glass that shows a world like our own, but somehow just a little different. That’s the magic of the movies, and that’s why this film is a must see.

Safe – Review

26 Oct

I know that I just reviewed a Jason Statham movie a couple of weeks ago, but I just watched Safe in its entirety, so it’s only fair that I give it a review. By this point in time, we all know what to expect going into a Statham movie. There’s going to be a lot of ass kicking, gun shooting, car chasing action from beginning to end. Can that be tedious? Absolutely. Especially since we have seen it a hundred times before. Safe is very familiar, but there are just enough properly executed elements that saved this film from falling into the realm of mediocrity.

Luke Wright (Jason Statham) is about as down on his luck as one can possibly get. He lost his wife, job, and practically his entire life, forcing him to spend his nights at homeless shelters. He’s about to end it all when he see a little girl, Mei (Catherine Chan), being chased by Russian gangsters. He saves her, and makes it his mission to protect her from not only the Russians, but the Chinese mafia and the police who all want the number that she has memorized.

Pretty straightforward stuff here. Statham is a good guy who has to protect an innocent person from a lot of bad guys. What I love here is that there are SO many people to worry about. Three different factions blocking these two characters in the city and closing in on them, all while at war against each other, makes for some high octane action that doesn’t let up. Once the ass kicking starts, it doesn’t quickly end. Not only is there a lot of action, but it’s memorable and, thankfully, not so shaky that I have no idea what’s happening. It has enough aesthetic effects to make it intense and still watchable.

 

Another star of this movie was the outstanding sound design. The gun shots, the car chases, and the fight scenes all had a “pop” that really made them more immersive. Sound is a very important aspect of an action film. Are you really going to have a good time with muted gunfire and punches that don’t even sound like they’re landing? Of course not. Action is meant to thrill, and sound is part of the equation. In this, Safe, easily blows a lot of other films in this genre out of the water.

Pretty much what I’m saying is that this film had a lot of surprises. Statham’s performance goes beyond what he usually gives with scenes of genuine emotion that actually do tug at the heart strings. Catherine Chan unfortunately doesn’t hold up too well all of the time, but that’s pretty understandable considering she’s a young girl in an off the wall crazy action movie. One more surprise is the excellent implementation of zooms and camera tricks. It isn’t too often that a movie of this kind properly uses these techniques without going overboard (ahem, Bad Boys II). There were times where I would think to myself, “Wow, this  scene looks fantastic.”

 

Safe is one of those movies where you don’t really expect much, but end up getting a lot more. It isn’t derivative, stupid, or unoriginal. Sure, we may have seen some of these plot points before, but this film pushed to make them into something new. Thankfully, it succeeds. I want to like every Statham movie that I watch, but this isn’t always the case. I can say that Safe is one of his best films to date.