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Serpico – Review

21 Oct

There are certain movies that I’m really surprised I haven’t seen yet. These aren’t movies that stay under the radar or anything, but movies that are well known and loved by audiences. Some of them are even considered classics. What can I say? Nobody’s perfect. I just got around to seeing one of these films that I’d list in these “movies I should have seen already” categories. That film is the 1973 classic by Sidney Lumet, Serpico. I can’t even say I knew what the film was really about. All I knew was that this movie helped form Al Pacino’s career, which is kind of a big deal if I say so myself. After seeing Serpico, I have to say that I didn’t love it. I liked it and it’s certainly a movie I’m not going to forget, but it had major issues that rubbed me the wrong way. Let’s get right into it.

All his life, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) has wanted to be a police officer. When that day finally comes around, it’s a dream come true. Starting out as just a uniformed officer walking the beat, he begins to see signs that life on the force may not be what he expected, especially after seeing a suspect get roughed up in an interrogation room. As time goes on and he begins to adjust, he is bumped up to a plainclothes officer working more dangerous and criminal cases. What he sees is corruption on a massive scale with his coworkers shaking down drug dealers, pimps, and other criminals. Serpico looks everywhere for help, even going so far as to bring his grievances to the mayor. When no one is able to help, the biggest danger for Serpico isn’t the criminals he busts on a day to day basis, but his fellow police officers who feel he can’t be trusted.

Many people consider this movie a classic, and I believe that because of its impact on the genre. You won’t see any argument from me because my complaints are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. I want to get the positives out of the way first because they truly do outweigh the negatives. This was a very early film in Al Pacino’s long and praised career, and if it wasn’t for Serpico, he may not have made it as big as he did. Let’s not forget that he was Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies, but this was just another notch in making his career. Pacino is excellent as Serpico. After having spent a lot of time with the real guy, it’s no surprise that he has his voice completely altered and a lot of these mannerisms you don’t really see in other roles that he’s done. This is a complete transformation and a performance that really helped define the times in terms of acting with it being the early 1970s, one of the largest times of change in film since sound was first introduced.

The story of Serpico is also incredibly engaging. As the narrative moves forward and Frank’s plight becomes more dire, I actually felt myself getting stressed out. It’s not terribly hard for a movie to have me guessing as to what’s going to happen or feeling some sort of suspense, but this movie made me physically feel stressed. Everywhere Serpico turns, he’s met with a brick wall, and we see that over the span of over two hours. Pacino’s performance and the writing really brings this character to life onscreen, so we as an audience truly want to see him succeed and finally be able to live the life that he’s wanted. Sidney Lumet is a very talented director who is able to turn characters’ environments into characters themselves. Just think of that one room in 12 Angry Men. What Lumet does for New York City in Serpico is something on a whole new scale. Having filmed this movie in mostly all of the boroughs of New York City, I saw different aspects of life clash and combine making the city live and breathe. It’s essential to this film’s story and Lumet pulled it off flawlessly.

Speaking of flawless, this movie as a whole is not. As I was watching the story play out, I could tell that time was passing. Serpico’s apartment changed furniture, his different friends come and go, and his hair, beard, and clothes change. I figured this was probably a 3 year period. Boy, was I wrong. Serpico‘s story starts in 1960 and spans to 1971! WHAT?! I never got the sense that that was how much time was passing until after the movie was over and I was doing some research on it. If I had known how long all of this was going on, that would’ve added a whole new layer of dread to the stress I was already feeling for our hero. That being said, how smooth can you turn 11 years into a 2 hour movie? There are elements to Serpico’s life that do feel glazed over, forgotten, or rushed in favor of other interests. This kind of muddles the overall story for me, and I can’t help thinking this may have been better as a miniseries on HBO.

Serpico is a very good movie that is full of great elements that is ultimately bogged down by an overabundance of information. Al Pacino’s performance is outstanding and the overall emotional and physical response this film got from me says a lot about the story. Sidney Lumet also films New York City perfectly which brought a whole new sense of realism to the crime drama film. I just wish the story was told a bit more cohesively and smoothly, but instead I felt like I was jumping all over the place without knowing exactly where I landed. Still, Serpico has earned its right to be called a classic, and I’m not going to dispute that.

Final Grade: B+

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La Vie en Rose – Review

6 Oct

If someone were to make a list of iconic singers from around the world, I can guarantee that Édith Piaf would be close to the top. Piaf’s unique voice and graceful stage presence made her an international success until her untimely death at the age of just 47. Even today, her music can be found in movies, television, and commercials which shows that even though she’s no longer with us, her musical legacy is still strong. Something that reinforced this was the 2007 film by Olivier Dahan, La Vie en Rose. This film tells the life story of Édith Piaf, which includes incredible joy and overwhelming tragedy. It’s definitely a story that had to be told.

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The film begins with a sick looking Édith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) taking the stage for a concert, and quickly fainting during a song in front of a large audience. The film then cuts back to 1918 when Piaf was just a young child who is left by her parents to live with her grandmother in a brothel in Normandy. As the years go on, Piaf makes a meager living singing on the street, but is soon found by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and invited to sing at his club where she quickly becomes something of a local celebrity. As time goes on, her fame increases and travels around the world, including New York City, where tragedy hits hard when she loses the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), in a plane crash. Finally, back in France towards the end of her life, it’s clear that Piaf’s abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol have taken a huge toll on her health, and the devastating realization that soon she will no longer be able to sing anymore.

This is a hard movie to summarize because it tells so much of a person’s life. This is a pretty long movie, clocking in with a run time of almost two and a half hours, but even then I feel like there may have been more to be told. That works to the film’s credit since I was intrigued by the subject and the handling of Piaf by making the icon into exactly what she was: a human being. While I love the way Piaf is depicted in this movie, I wasn’t really a huge fan of how the story was told. The film starts towards the end and then jumps back to the beginning for a while, and naturally progresses from there. That’s all fine, but as the movie goes on it jumps back and forth and then introduces an even later timeline, and then starts jumping around even more rapidly. Towards the end of the movie, I jumped around so much that I was sometimes confused with where and when I was in the story. I understand that this was a way for the film makers to get in as much of the story as they could, and I’m ok with a cut up timeline, but this was just way overdone.

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It’s impossible to talk about La Vie en Rose and not talk about Marion Cotillard. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest screen performances of all time. When you’re watching the movie and getting more engaged in the story, you forget that you’re watching Cotillard playing Édith Piaf and are actually watching Piaf herself. I know that’s how I felt. It’s a complete transformation from one person into another, and it’s truly incredible. Not only does she nail Piaf’s voice (although the singing was dubbed), but also the way she stood, small mannerisms that she had, and even small changes to her face that made all the difference. With a movie like this where the character was a real person whose life was filled with such success and tragedy, it’s important to believe what’s happening. Cotillard’s performances made this a very easy film to believe and get lost in. She is a marvel to watch, and earned the Academy Award for her performance, which is one of the few times someone has won this award for an entire foreign language role.

La Vie en Rose also is just a beautiful looking movie, even in the beginning when a young Piaf is living a life on the streets in Belleville to the more upscale life that she led in New York. The set design is all fantastic and the costumes work great with the different decades that Piaf lived through. There’s just so much wonderful stuff to look at, and I have to give a lot of credit to Olivier Dahan and his direction for adding something more to the design. At first, I thought the directing was nothing special, but that’s not the case. It’s understated and controlled and never takes the style too far. One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens during a devastating moment in Piaf’s life, and instead of cutting, the scene follows Piaf through her entire apartment and catches the entire range of emotion in her performance and the atmosphere surrounding the incident.

La Vie en Rose is not without it’s faults, but it’s a movie that truly captures the tumultuous life of an icon of music. This is a frustrating movie to sit through, at times, because how the story keeps jumping from the past to the present to the future to the past then who knows where. If that was just toned down a bit, the movie would have been improved. Still, Cotillard’s performance, the production design, and Dahan’s skilled directing make this an above average biopic.

Final Grade: B+

Inside Llewyn Davis – Review

31 Mar

I recently reviewed the Coen Brothers’ newest film, Hail Caesar! last month, and now I’m right back at it, but this time with their 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis. I really wanted to see this movie when it first came out, but a combination of laziness and more laziness prevented me from actually making it to the theaters. It’s been quite some time since its release, and I have just now gotten around to seeing it. Let me just say, that it was worth the wait and I feel it is one of the Coen Brothers’ best. Inside Llewyn Davis was one of the movies that really hit me, and not only made me want to evaluate the movie and its different themes and artistic stylings, but also made me want evaluate some parts of myself. That’s a sign of a great movie right there.

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The year is 1961 and the folk scene of New York is a melting pot of different ideals, lyrical storytelling, and melodies that were made to hum to. For Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), music has become something of a burden, despite his overwhelming passion to express himself through song and not be forced to sell out to some giant music industry monstrosity. As Davis navigates his way through the different basket houses and venues of New York trying to find a gig and make some sort of income, he is also confronted by demons from the past that are only making it more difficult for his life to fully come together. On a whim, Llewyn Davis decides to make the trip to Chicago to hopefully gig at one of the most important venues of the city, and also get the appreciation and income he feels he deserves. What Davis doesn’t understand, is that all of his misfortune can be followed back to his own poor life choices and decisions made out of haste.

The first thing I think anyone has to talk about after seeing Inside Llewyn Davis is the outstanding usage and performance of music. The Coen Brothers have always seemed to use music in the best ways possible to enhance their movie, and before this one the primary example would have to be O Brother, Where Art Thou?. A lot of the success of the music in both of those movies is probably due to the fact that songwriting and producing titan T. Bone Burnett was the main creative force behind the song production, composition, and performance. What makes it all even more impressive is all the music in the movie is performed live and not added in in post production. That really says a lot for the musical talent of the actors. Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake all sound excellent in the movie.davis12e_zps7d455a27Another thing the Coen Brothers are known for are the memorable, and sometimes even iconic, characters they create. Wether it’s Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, Barton Fink, or Marge Gunderson, the people that inhabit the strange world of these movies never fail to leave an impression. Now I can add Llewyn Davis to the list of Coen characters that really hit me hard. In fact, he might be one of the best characters they’ve ever created. Llewyn Davis is quite an unlikable guy who uses his friends, condescends to people with what he thinks is his unmatchable passion for music, and treats all the people who help in like garbage. At the same time, however, there are reasons as to why he has ended up like this, which makes him something of a tragic character and one that, despite all of his faults, can be understood. I wanted to see Llewyn Davis succeed, but I more so really wanted him to realize it was time to change. He’s such a great character, and certainly one that I won’t stop talking about for a long time.

I’ve seen some people compare Inside Llewyn Davis to the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man. Both movies share a similar theme of a life slowly being destroyed as if it’s part of some rotten cosmic joke. A Serious Man presents this in a darkly funny way where it’s hard not to laugh the entire way through. Inside Llewyn Davis has a lot of funny moments in it, but I can’t consider this a comedy. This movie is far from being a straight up comedy. The humor that is in this movie is the same kind of dark, absurd comedy you see in many Coen Brothers films, but all the laughs really can’t outweigh the overwhelming sadness I felt at the end. This is definitely the Coen Brothers’ saddest film, and maybe part of it is because there’s nothing too hyperbolic about any of the scenarios in the movie. John Goodman certainly has the most outlandish part, but it’s really not hard to imagine that character being a real person. Just don’t expect to feel in a joking mood once the credits begin rolling.

I don’t know how many people agree with me on this, but I believe that Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen Brothers’ strongest films. Not only do they create a believable version of the New York folk scene in the 1960s, which seems to live and breath all on its own, but they also have created a tragic, yet sometimes funny tale about a deadbeat with more potential than he may realize. Everyone in this movie is great, and the music that is performed for the movie sounds amazing. It’s a certainty that you will be thinking about this movie long after it ends, and even though it left me with a rain cloud over my head, it also offers some great lessons and works as an expressive work of cinematic art.

 

Dead Man Down – Review

19 Mar

There’s a lot of unique ways to take a story that’s been told a dozen times before and tweak it to make it something resembling an original idea. Danish film director Niels Arden Oplev is no stranger to tackling stories that are painfully unusual since his biggest claim to fame is helming the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This brings us to his first primarily American release, Dead Man Down from 2013. This is a pretty interesting movie since you can see a lot of European techniques being used to tell a story set in the gritty streets of New York, but there’s also a lot dragging the movie down like poor pacing and a handful of unnecessary scenes.

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Victor (Colin Farrell) is a small time criminal working for a mob boss named Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard). Through his time working with Hoyt, he has earned a strong reputation for trust and respect and has also befriended an associate, Darcy (Dominic Cooper). Victor soon comes into contact with his disfigured neighbor, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who takes him out to dinner one night only to show that she has evidence that Victor murdered a man in his apartment. She won’t go to the police with this if he agrees to kill the man who drunkenly hit her car and disfigured her. As Victor works with and forms a relationship with Beatrice, his true obsessive intentions with Alphonse become all too clear, which puts Beatrice and himself in the line of fire from all directions.

This is one of those hard review to write, because I really don’t have too much to say about Dead Man Down. Niels Anders Oplev and screenwriter J.H. Wyman have created a gangster/crime drama that sails the seas of mediocrity. Alright, that may be a little harsh because there are some really fantastic parts of this movie. Some of the scenes are executed in such an intense and sometimes over the top way that it sucked me right into the action. I guess that’s one really good thing I can say about this movie. The action was phenomenal. There’s one great scene where a guy is thrown out a window and is hanged by a rope around his neck while dangling in front of a gym window. There’s another great scene that’s pretty much a siege on a well fortified mansion. Those are the real stand out scenes. Everything else is kinda filler.

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While the action scenes are wonderfully constructed and memorable in their own rights, they don’t quite sync up with the rest of the movie all that well. Other than a couple of the larger action set pieces, the rest of the film is set up as a very realistic and down to earth crime drama. Then, when violence suddenly erupts, all of a sudden the world turns into a comic book where one man can take on an entire army of men. Look, I love over the top movies as much as the next guy and I can appreciate that I am only watching a movie, but Dead Man Down doesn’t really play by its own set of rules which makes it seem like it was made by a couple different people.

There’s not really much else to talk about in terms of story so it’s over to the performances we go. Everyone in this movie is pretty serviceable. Colin Farrell and Terrence Howard do their jobs just fine but it’s nothing really worth talking too much about. The only people who seem to be completely involved with their roles are Noomi Rapace and Dominic Cooper. While Rapace’s character has some major flaws in terms of how she’s written, her performance almost makes up for all of that. Cooper also just seems like he’s having the time of his life playing his part, which in turn gives his character more life than it could’ve had.

Dead Man Down was a pretty fun movie to watch, but once it’s over t left me feeling like I didn’t really watch anything of consequence. It certainly isn’t an awful movie, but it’s not one that I’m going to remember either, despite some really excellent action scenes sprinkled throughout it. This was kind of a hard review to write because I don’t have a whole lot to say on Dead Man Down other than it’s a mediocre gangster flick that sailed under the radar when it was released and will continue to do so.

Killer’s Kiss – Review

29 Nov

Without a shadow of a doubt, Stanley Kubrick is my favorite film maker of all time. In fact, the very first thing I wrote about on this blog was a rundown of all of the movies I’ve seen of his at the time. Now, finally getting around to watching one of his movies I’ve never seen before is really, really exciting. This film is Killer’s Kiss from 1955. After a disappointing start with his first feature, Fear and Desire, Kubrick was determined to really make a name for himself and show what kind of artistic flourishes he had to offer to the film world. For being a very short and totally independently produced film, Killer’s Kiss affectively foreshadowed masterworks that were to come.

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Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a down on his luck welterweight boxer who’s goal is to finally achieve some sort of recognition or success, but his prime has long since passed. He also has eyes for his neighbor, a taxi dancer named Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who is employed by the sexually frustrated and alcoholic gangster, Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). After rescuing her from one of his drunken fits, the two quickly fall in love and decide to leave town together. What Davey and Irene don’t plan on is Vincent soon catching on to their plan, and how he’ll go so far as murder in order to guarantee his favorite dancer will stay in town and make all of his fantasies come true.

Kubrick’s early works sort of form a mixed bag of films. While it’s mainly established that The Killing is a film noir classic, many people aren’t very fond of Fear and Desire. Right in between those two is Killer’s Kiss, a film that I don’t hear discussed or reviewed as much as the other two. In my opinion, Killer’s Kiss is visually ahead of its time and beautiful and a seedy sort of way, but the story and the characters are poorly developed. I’d like to take a step away from the plot development and the characters and marvel at this movie for its visuals, but that wouldn’t be a very accurate review, would it? Still even with its faults, it’s Kubrick’s first real punch to the film industry.

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From the picture above, it’s pretty obvious that Kubrick takes the cinematic styles of film noir and utilizes them to their fullest. Even though the characters are pretty uninteresting and underdeveloped, they still are archetypical of the noir genre and fit in perfectly with the seedy New York underbelly that is fully explored throughout the film. Not only does Kubrick use style that was already seen in films of this kind, but also adds some stuff of his own that wasn’t quite the common place. There’s more tracking shots than there normally were in 1955, a boxing scenes shows some real brutal violence, and there’s an excellent long take of Davey running along a rooftop. Not to mention some of the compositions, like when Davey’s face is stretched out as the camera looks at him through a fish tank.

Killer’s Kiss, as lost in the background it may be, was truly a passion project for the 26 year old Stanley Kubrick. The only way he got funding for this film was by borrowing $40,000 from his uncle and shooting without any permits. That may not seem like a problem, but it certainly is when you’re filming on Broadway during the busiest time of the evening. In order to get some shots, Kubrick had to be filming from the inside of a car so he wouldn’t be noticed and if he had to make a quick getaway. He also had to negotiate with a group of homeless people at one point so he could use their alley for a scene.

Killer’s Kiss may not be the best written film noir or entry into Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, but it does mark the real beginning of his film career. Visually, this movie is excellent foreshadowed what was to come. The archetypes and genre tropes are all present, but Kubrick really injects the film with his surreal style that left me with many memorable scenes. Fans of Kubrick, film history, and the film noir genre should definitely make this one a priority.

Mean Streets – Review

24 Mar

I’m about to bust a myth for you right now. Martin Scorsese actually hasn’t been around since the beginning of time, weaving stories that are being passed down from generation to generation. I remember hearing in school that his 1973 film Mean Streets was his debut, but Scorsese actually had two other movies already made: Who’s That Knocking at My Door? from 1967 and Boxcar Bertha from 1972. Many people do say, however, that Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s first important film and the movie that put him, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel on the map.

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Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small time New York gangster moving up the ranks of the local Italian Mafia in Little Italy. He’s a tough, but fair kind of person with a soul that’s aflame with personal guilt that his Catholic beliefs can’t extinguish. Instead, Charlie looks to the streets for some kind of penance and finds it in his childhood friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), who is throwing his life away with his devil may care attitude and outrageous gambling debts. Meanwhile, Charlie is also trying to maintain a relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), and working to run his own restaurant. Charlie soon begins to realize that what he truly wants may be an impossible dream as an aggravated loan shark, Michael (Richard Romanus), gets increasingly violent towards Johnny Boy, and eventually threatening his life.

So not only is Mean Streets Scorsese’s first important film, it’s also one that feels extremely close and personal to the film maker, as it should considering it’s a semi-autobiographical story of Scorsese growing up in Little Italy. Still, this kind of closeness with his films can be seen in a lot of his other work with Hugo coming to mind as an excellent example. While this isn’t as violent or graphic as his later work, it’s one that seems to be paving the way for films like Casino and Goodfellas amongst others. This is still a much smaller movie that takes a lot of inspiration from the New Wave movements going on in Europe and Japan but combining them with the kind of gangster story that Scorsese tells so well.

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One of the most fun parts of watching this movie is seeing a really young Harvey Keitel and a really young Robert De Niro, who of course went on to be a regular in Martin Scorsese’s movies. Before there was Taxi DriverRaging Bull, or Cape Fear there was Mean Streets. Keitel actually worked with Scorsese before on Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, but this was his star making performance, and the same can be said about De Niro. Their performances in this movie are just as great as you would expect and then some. Some of the scenes with the two actors sharing some personal dialogue were actually improvised, which makes their performances all the more impressive. Even if you don’t like crime or gangster movies, the acting alone is enough to see the movie.

So while this movie is fantastic, it may not really be for everyone. The movie’s plot is kind of weird because for a while it doesn’t seem to really be going anywhere. Like many movies inspired by and included in the New Wave movement in other countries, movies focused on characters moving from place to place, going about their business, and interactions with other people. That’s the fuel for the story rather than situations pushing the movie forward. That’s how Mean Streets is. It’s all about interactions with other people and being immersed in the urban environment. It’s a different way to tell a story, but it’s the only way that this story could be told.

Mean Streets pretty much set the tone for the urban crime films that Scorsese made throughout the 80’s and 90’s that are now considered classics. It also marks the start of his career as a respected film maker, but also the starts of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. It’s clear in some moments that Scorsese was still experimenting with some things that don’t always translate too well, but as a whole this is a small personal masterpiece of his. It isn’t his best film, but it stands up very well to his best films and that in and of itself makes it worth multiple viewings.