Monthly Archives: January 2016

Casino (1995)

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*. Some people see this as the third part of a trilogy of gangster movies Scorsese made, the first two parts being Mean Streets and Goodfellas. Scorsese himself refers to it as at least being a sequel to Goodfellas, taking us into a world of even greater excess: more money, more colour, more drugs, more music, and just more. It’s a slick and glitzy movie about slick and glitzy lifestyles, but also a movie with a bloated running time. Few directors can rip through three hours as quickly as Scorsese, but it’s still a lot.
*. I think this is part of a larger evolution (I won’t say advance) in his career: from Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street. His later movies are tragedies, meaning stories of spectacular rise and fall, but are less indebted to classical models or Shakespeare than they are to Marlowe. For Marlowe the tragic hero is undone through his desire to do whatever he wants to do, to live a life without limits, and this has increasingly become Scorsese’s theme. It’s the same tragic arc that he found in the story of Howard Hughes in The Aviator, and which Scorsese poses as the question of “what happens to you when you have no limits?” Sam, Nicky, and Ginger all want so much.
*. Well, to some extent that’s the gangster ethos. They want the world and everything in it. It’s a story with universal appeal, no matter how pathological it is at heart.
*. To some extent it’s a grandiose way of thinking that applies to the movie business as well. Scorsese saw Vegas as a metaphor for Hollywood: an industry obsessed with a blockbuster mentality, making bigger and flashier pictures until cinema will eventually be forced to reinvent itself. Which he frankly doubts it will be able to do. Like the old Vegas, the glory days of ’70s cinema “are long gone never to come back.”
*. We may feel like we’ve been here before. Sam Rothstein is the cool, calculating boss. Nicky is the brutal, sadistic thug (just a reprise of his role in Goodfellas really). Ginger is the moll.

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*. There are, however, some subtle variations. De Niro’s Ace is too soft and Pesci’s Nicky too hard. Those are their tragic flaws. And with De Niro as a more than slightly effeminate gangster it’s playing against type. Nicky complains that Ace looks like John Barrymore in his pink lounging robe and cigarette holder, and he seems incapable of taking care of business.

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*. Ginger is also a complicated twist on the gold-digging tramp, self-destructively drawn to the caricature pimp Lester Diamond (James Wood). It’s odd though that she seems to know herself so well (she warns Ace about marrying her), but can’t seem to do anything about it.
*. I wonder how significant it is that Ginger isn’t give any voiceover duties. Even Frankie gets a few lines. Is there nothing she can explain? Is there nothing more to her to reveal?
*. Speaking of Frankie’s few lines of voiceover duty, it’s done in exactly the same way as the shot in Goodfellas I hate so much where we freeze frame on Henry Hill as he explains something that we are already aware of and might want to enjoy without having it underlined and printed in bold.

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*. After a first viewing I was hard pressed to remember if Don Rickles had any lines at all. He does, but they are few. He’s mostly in here for his face, which sort of floats in the background, over Sam’s shoulder.
*. The main characters are paradoxically both representative of Las Vegas and foreign to it (something that L. Q. Jones’s cowboy county commissioner, if he isn’t just making an anti-Semitic swipe, tries to explain to Ace). The titles identify the mid-West as “back home.”

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*. Scorsese saw them all as “lost,” and after a while you’re just watching “the pageantry of their demise” alongside the death of the old town. As with the death of the now-old New Hollywood, Scorsese is wistful about this, and indeed it’s probably that sense of the New Hollywood having “blown it” that sits somewhere behind all of his wistful reveries of semi-magical lost worlds, through Age of Innocence and Kundun to Hugo.

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*. The “spotlight” style of lighting strikes me as very artificial. It also draws attention to itself, in so far as it leaves you wondering what source there could possibly be for these brilliant, random beams that make people glow like they’re radioactive. But then, this is Vegas. Shouldn’t everything look artificial and draw attention to itself as much as Sam’s pastel suits and Nicky’s hair?
*. Having said that much in its defence, I don’t like the lighting. It looks cheap and small. Look at the overhead shots in the warehouse scene (the one with the head-in-the-vise business), or all the characters with flaring coronas coming out of their hair like platinum solar storms. Doesn’t it seem a bit ridiculous?
*. Scorsese really likes those shots that follow behind a character as they enter a building or room, doesn’t he? When you see a motif recurring like that in any artist’s work, especially over several decades, it usually has some personal meaning, but I don’t know enough about Scorsese to say what this might be. I suspect though that it has something to do with wanting to be a made man.

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*. The ending is deliberately anticlimactic. Ginger drops dead from a hot dose in some flophouse corridor. Pesci is belaboured amid the alien corn. And Ace, half his face concealed behind comic sunglasses, has gone to play the numbers in his retirement in San Diego. They all blew it. Vegas, meanwhile, opens its doors to a flood of America’s well-fed bourgeoisie: more zombie losers for the cane mill. Disney has taken over both the slots and the movie biz. It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas in heaven. Every single day.

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La Scorta (1993)

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*. Well, this one was nothing at all like what I was expecting.
*. What I was expecting was Euro-Hollywood, the Untouchables go to Sicily: gunfights, action sequences, car chases, things blowing up.
*. Here there is one car blowing up. We see the aftermath of shootings, but no gun fights. There are lots of people brandishing machine guns and pistols but I don’t think we ever see one being fired outside of the target range. There are tense scenes on the road where we think something might happen (like with the parked car, or outside the locked gate), but nothing ever does.
*. The goal was to make a suspenseful movie without action scenes. It’s a movie firmly grounded in reality, inspired by true events, which renders those events in an almost documentary style befitting a team of men just going about their professional duties.
*. Tognazzi thought of the movie as a coming-of-age story, with the judge as a father figure and his bodyguards as his sons. I don’t see this, and think such an interpretation diminishes the escort considerably. They are the judge’s guardians, not the other way around.
*. Score by Ennio Morricone. Just how many has he done? Does anyone know? I wonder if it’s even possible to come to an exact count.
*. I’ve watched it several times now and I’ll confess I still don’t understand the plot: what case the judge was working on and who was scheming against him. This is another weird thing about the movie. Usually in a police procedural like this the plot is something you have fun unpacking. Here it’s almost beside the point.

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*. Even the bad guys are left out. We only see and hear the mafia at a remove: photographed from a distance or listening to their conversations over a wiretap. We don’t really know who they are or what they’re up to, just that they represent a threat.
*. I wonder how many different Argyle sweaters Enrico Lo Verso wore in this movie. There must have been half a dozen. Which is fine, but he should never have tucked the one into his jeans. That’s a bad look on anyone.
*. It was filmed mostly on location in Sicily, which is a place I’ve never been. Is the light there so harsh? At times here it seems to almost have a bleaching effect.
*. Is it because it’s an Italian movie that we spend so much time seeing people buying food, preparing meals and eating? Whether it’s an Italian thing or not, it’s a way of using domestic detail to ground us even more in the real lives of these people.

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*. I quite like this one, but I’m not entirely sure why. It’s a snapshot of some characters who work very well together, going about their business. As noted earlier, the plot is a throwaway and doesn’t lead to any sort of resolution other than the rather downbeat dispersal of the team to new, utterly meaningless postings and none of the bad guys brought to justice.
*. But maybe that’s the quiet point that’s being made. There’s a realism here not just in how the film was made but in its quiet, almost indirect message about the power of systemic corruption. It’s not just that the good guys don’t win, but that they are defeated in a way that effectively erases them, exiting not with a bang but a whimper.

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Killing Zoe (1993)

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*. This is a movie that I have a conflicted response to, or a conflicted response to the responses there have been to it. What I mean is that people tend to either love or hate it, and they love or hate it for (what seem to me to be) all the wrong reasons.
*. It’s most often damned as being Tarantino-lite. You can understand where this is coming from: writer-director Roger Avary had been, and was at the time, a close collaborator with Tarantino. They broke into the business together with very similar genre interests and backgrounds. If the New Hollywood was all about European art house meets American genre films, the emphasis the new New Hollywood would take would be, in Avary’s words, art house meets exploitation.
*. Aside from this, however, and aside from the odd tic in the script (the discussion of obscure pop cultural references like The Prisoner, or the lengthy telling of an obscene joke), Avary and Tarantino have very different sensibilities and I don’t think it makes much sense to compare them.
*. Take two essential differences. Tarantino is all about rhythm, and his movies often set a manic pace. Avary is far more relaxed and sedate, with no interest in the verbal pyrotechnics of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. One can prefer one approach to the other, but it’s arguing over taste and those who complain that this movie is dull are judging it by a standard it doesn’t aspire to.
*. Then there are the characters we meet. Here, I’m afraid, we have to recognize a falling off. If Reservoir Dogs showed us professional gangsters affecting the personae of slackers, Killing Zoe gives us a group of slackers only pretending to be gangsters.

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*. The reason this doesn’t work is because we just can’t believe that any of the losers in Eric’s gang, with the exception of Zed, has a clue what they’re doing. The actual plan seems preposterous. How were they going to get all that gold out of the building?, and is it remotely credible that they thought nobody in the bank would have a chance to hit a silent alarm while they were barging in with their guns? Of course we later learn that Eric wasn’t thinking this far ahead, but I’m still surprised that none of his flunkies was either.
*. Then when they are inside the bank the pace works against Avary as everyone seems to just dawdle along wasting time, seemingly in no rush to get cracking on a job that even under ideal circumstances was going to take far, far too long to pull off.
*. There are other problems as well, suggesting a gap (not surprising given this was Avary’s first work, and done on a tight budget) between concept and reality. I’ll point out three examples.
*. First, there is the link to Vikings. Apparently Avary, quite unironically, thought of the gang as modern-day Vikings on a pillaging expedition for booty. Indeed, he even gave cast members copies of Beowulf to read. But . . . really? This bunch of drugged-out losers are Vikings?
*. Second, there is the painting at the bank, which is from Jacques Louis-David’s Oath of the Horatii. About this Avary says “When I was in Paris, I used to go to the Louvre and stare at David’s ‘Oath of the Horatii’ because it meant so much to me. David was like the Steven Spielberg of his time, a popular painter who entertained the masses. I love his work.” Which is fine but . . . what is it doing here? What does it mean? I can’t think of any connection between the subject of the painting (which has to do with a bunch of brothers avenging the honour of their sisters) and the plot of Killing Zoe. As with the Viking references, one suspects Avary just threw in something he thought was cool.
*. Third, there is the title. This was meant to suggest that Eric’s AIDS-infected blood had been transmitted to either Zed or Zoe or both at the end. I suppose this is a possibility, but it remains nothing more than that. I don’t have anything against being merely suggestive, but as with the Vikings and the David painting, one gets the sense from interviews (and, in this final case, from the fact that it’s the film’s title) that Avary meant it to be something more.

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*. The bright red bank vaults don’t strike me as credible, but the point was to suggest, in a lurid way, a descent into hell/Eric’s tortured mind. But why Eric‘s mind? I like Jean-Hugues Anglade here, but it shouldn’t be his movie, should it? Alas, Stoltz and Delpy aren’t that interesting.
*. I suppose we’re supposed to laught at the loudmouth American braggart getting shot, though I find him such a caricature the joke backfires. He’s even wearing shorts and a baseball cap, something I’m told you just didn’t do in Paris at the time unless you were an American tourist.
*. I don’t mind the slow pace, though I do resent some of the wasted time. This begins with the opening credits, that take us on a drive through Paris, presumably in the cab taking us to the airport to pick up Zed. I didn’t see it as necessary or as an effective way of setting any kind of tone.
*. Like the red vaults or the loud American, the intercutting between clips from Nosferatu (shown out of order, I believe) and Zed and Zoe having sex strikes me as too obvious and too obscure at the same time. We can be sure some point is being made, but not what it might be. That Zoe is a succubus? But that can’t be right.
*. What this adds up to is a decent little movie that is too ambitious, and perhaps even too smart, for its own good. It has all sorts of interesting little elements that don’t cohere or that seem superfluous. I mean, take an obvious question like Why is this movie set in Paris? It wasn’t even shot in Paris. Did having half the movie in subtitles add to its “art house” feel?
*. Anglade’s Eric is fun to watch, and it’s an interesting twist having the gang leader be someone who is, as I understand it, on a suicide mission. I love how he looks at that big pile of gold and we realize that this was his goal, to simply become rich for a moment and then die. The confidence such a figure has is magnetically charismatic. Nothing can touch him. His death is serene.

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Hard-Boiled (1992)

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*. I watched quite a lot of brainless action films in the 1980s. They were the kind of movies young men rented to watch with their buddies at the time.
*. A typical example of the genre was the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando (1985). There was a basic plot involving Arnold rescuing his kidnapped daughter by taking out a criminal organization led by some general with a private army. It was all just an excuse to show off the big guy’s muscles and have endless fight scenes.
*. The way the gunfight scenes played out was always the same. The hero would blaze away, rarely if ever bothering to reload. Everything he fired at, even while shooting from the hip or jumping through the air, he hit. And whatever he hit suffered maximum damage: bullets blowing up any oil drum or vehicle they came anywhere near, and riddling every mook with squibs while knocking them flying into the air. Meanwhile, only one or two of the thousands of rounds shot at the hero would sometimes graze his arm, bringing forth a bit of blood.
*. I bring this up here only because John Woo is often credited with being a ground-breaking director of shoot-’em-up action movies. I think he does gunfights very well (and gunplay is basically all Woo does), but his movies are really not much different from what Hollywood was doing throughout the ’80s. There are signature elements, like the incongruous birds and the Mexican standoffs (which he seems never to have tired of), but otherwise he’s not doing anything distinctly new. Even the slow-motion ballet-of-death came from Peckinpah.
*. The long take in the hospital in this film is impressive, with the set having to be cleaned up and restaged while the two leads were in the elevator. The explosions are ridiculous but also impressive, as the hospital at the end just turns into one gigantic serial fireball. And finally the painting with blood in a couple of shots is clever. But to look at all this and say, as Barbara Scharres does in her Criterion essay, that “the film is unparalleled in its fiery invention and technical virtuosity” is going much too far. The endless gunfights and explosions are clichéd, repetitive, and numbing.

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*. In my notes on The Killer I mentioned how Woo had a good ten-year run as a leading action director. Ten years was a long time given his inability to innovate. Coming to America (which he did after this film) probably lengthened his career somewhat, as he could keep doing the same stuff for a new mass audience.
*. OK, so how does Tequila find that book in the library with the gun hidden in it? Simply by noticing the outline it leaves in the pool of blood on the table? He just wanders through the stacks until he finds a book that’s approximately the same size?
*. I’m one of those people who always looks at what books people have on their shelves. So I couldn’t help glancing at the titles in that library. And what an odd library it is. Arranged next to each other we find the Complete Works of Shakespeare, a volume of the Collected Writings of Thomas Hardy, Essays, Articles and Reviews by Evelyn Waugh, a biography of Beatrix Potter, Dickens and Women, Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics, The Private World of Georgette Heyer, and Hemingway: The Critical Heritage. Aside from all being related to literature in English, what do any of these books have to do with each other?

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*. The entire final third of the movie is chaotic nonsense. I didn’t understand any part of what was going on. The bad guy actually had an entire James Bond-style lair in the basement of a hospital? That would have been absurd even in a Bond film. Weren’t Alan and Tequila being gassed? What happened to that? How was that business with telling Teresa to wait for the signal to evacuate the hospital and then slipping the signal (a white rose) in her pocket supposed to work? How did Tequila know when/if she was going to find it? Why didn’t he just tell her to wait fifteen minutes? How was he going to send her a flower anyway? Then they really went around putting cotton balls in all the babies’ ears to stop them from crying? And it worked?

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*. All of the baby stuff was just too silly for words. I have to admit, I was hoping to see one of the bassinets get hit and explode in blood but that was not to be.
*. There was a better movie waiting to be made out of the Tony Leung character, and they made it ten years later as Infernal Affairs (with Leung reprising the part). So this movie wasn’t a complete waste. But aside from that, I think this movie is almost total garbage, and I’m baffled at its reputation. Nobody takes Commando seriously today. What do they see in this?

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Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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*. Enter Tarantino. Enter Tarantino talking. Just a voice, his voice, against a black screen. Talking about chicks who dig guys with big dicks.
*. And in those very first lines a lot — not everything, but a lot — had changed. A meeting of gangsters, dangerous men getting together just before a heist of a jewelery story, and what are they doing? Sitting around a table at a diner, talking. Talking about what? Nothing really. The meaning of pop songs. Whether or not they should leave a tip. Is it any coincidence that Seinfeld, a show about nothing, often introduced by a small group of people sitting around a table in a diner talking, had debuted in 1989? It was the spirit of the age.
*. Put another way, the hoods in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) spend a lot of time hanging out at diners talking too, but could you imagine Robert Mitchum and Steven Keats mouthing any of these lines? It’s like Eddie and Jackie aren’t just creatures from another time but another dimension.
*. But is the dialogue here any less realistic than that in Eddie Coyle? I don’t think so. Tarantino had the rhythm of natural speech down pat, as well as its locker-room mix of obscenity and banality. The dialogue was shocking (a pussy compared to Bubble Yum, a non-tipper being accused of being worse than a Jew, an ex-con accused of having so much “nigger” or “jungle bunny” semen shot up his ass it’s poisoned his brain), but you were meant to laugh at it. It wasn’t politically correct, and indeed offended a lot of people, but it was true to life.
*. In any event, you had no time to think about it because the talking didn’t stop. This wasn’t just an isolated scene of dialogue, but the beginning of a flood. Tarantino’s characters rarely just talk to one another. They perform practised monologues, bicker, squabble, debate, and constantly try to score points. They argue over the meaning of song lyrics, what actress appeared in what ’70s television show, or what colour alias they get to have for their secret gang name. Though they’re quick to draw their guns they don’t actually spend a lot of time fighting or shooting at each other. They prefer to engage in rhetorical combat.

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*. A final element to note about the Tarantino voice is that everyone sounds like they’re about fifteen years old. In saying this I don’t want to dump on Tarantino for not being able to write adult dialogue (a limitation that he has expressed some awareness of). The fact is, 1992 was also the dawn of the man child, of “kidult” culture, and such immaturity was entirely believable. In 1992 you could expect to hear a lot of grown men talking like this. Again, it’s what Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza — two boy-men if ever there were — sounded like, albeit without all the f-bombs.
*. We are in a cultural matrix. This is a make-believe world, a simulacrum, a stage, a Hollywood back lot. Reality can only be described by way of obscure cultural references. What does Joe look like? Like the Thing from the Fantastic Four. And why is that funny? Because he does look like the Thing, and because everybody gets the reference. Here’s a guy, Tarantino, who is speaking our language, and it’s hilarious.
*. Everything is borrowed. Everyone is quoting or playing someone else, and they know it. Mr. Orange is told by his handler that “to do this job you got to be a great actor,” and is advised to go for a combination of Marlon Brando and Don Rickles (he later psyches himself up just before showtime by channeling Baretta). Mr. Blonde thinks Mr. White must be a fan of Lee Marvin. Everyone is a comedian with a joke or a funny story to tell. And there’s even a soundtrack of Super Sounds of the Seventies on the radio.

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*. Amy Taubin: “everyone in the movie is an actor playing a gangster.” They don’t just want to rob a jewellery store, they want to look good doing it. Notice how many times we see characters checking themselves out in mirrors or combing their hair. We even see Mr. White combing Mr. Orange’s hair, for no reason at all.
*. But as with the matter of immaturity the question is whether this makes the proceedings any less real. And again I don’t think so. This too was the spirit of the age, a zeitgeist that Neal Gabler described in his book Life: The Movie. MTV and VHS were the programmers or the collective consciousness, and we all felt like we were playing the part of our lives to our own inner theme songs.
*. The presentation of people as performers and all their world a stage combines with the spare warehouse set (often shot from a below-grade, “audience” angle) to give the movie a definite Little Theatre vibe. This is reinforced as Joe, the director, calls the cast together to give them all their names (that is, their parts), and when we see Roth practising his lines in various settings.

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*. I don’t understand Mr. Blonde. Sure he’s a sadistic thug, but why does he kidnap the policeman if he was only going to bring him back to the warehouse and kill him? The original plan seems to have been to interrogate him about the rat, but after Mr. White and Mr. Pink whale on him for a bit they just drop that idea entirely and when Nice Guy Eddie arrives he informs them that the idea makes no sense anyway. Left on his own, Mr. Blonde doesn’t even try to get any information out of him but just tortures him briefly for amusement before deciding to burn him alive. Flame on.

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*. The torture scene made quite an impact at the time, but today’s theatre of cruelty has left its pan-away discretion far behind. What I still like is the way Mr. Blonde wipes his hand on the cop’s shirt. Psychopaths are often quite fastidious.
*. I know none of the gang are doctors, but none of them know enough to wrap some kind of bandage around the wound in Roth’s gut and get some pressure on it so he doesn’t just bleed out? That’s basic first aid.
*. The colour code names are a smart borrowing from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three but . . . in that movie it made sense and worked because nobody knew who the boss, Robert Shaw (Mr. Blue), really was. Here everybody knows Joe and his son Nice Guy Eddie. So if any one of them gets caught the jig is up for all of them anyway because they’re all just one step removed from the mastermind. I’ve never heard this mentioned anywhere but it seems like a major flaw in their plan.

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*. I’m not sure why, but I do love those elephant tusks behind Joe’s desk. Is he the reincarnation of Conrad’s Kurtz, come to California?
*. Aside from the voice, the other big game changer was the rearranging of the narrative. This was something very simple (the literary precedents were nearly a century old) but it wasn’t done much at the time in mainstream movies. And yet it’s indispensable to the film. Try and imagine this story told in a linear way and you’ve got just another heist picture with some hip dialogue. But Tarantino knew the rhythm of the composition of his story as well as the rhythm of its speech. It’s what the music is there for too, and if you want to think of Tarantino as a product of MTV as much as of the video store you wouldn’t be wrong.
*. It would set a standard for cool. Our heroes were well dressed men of action and violence — what used to be known as “macho.” They are older, but not so old as to not be hip to popular culture. They may be representative of a “white underclass” (Emanuel Levy) but in their own world they are, or at least aspire to be, successful professionals. It’s only under pressure that their cool breaks down.

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*. And yet at the same time, who are these guys? As Levy observes, they are largely without psychological motivation. We don’t know anything about their personal histories. They talk a lot, but not about themselves (a reticence they hold on to even when not operating under alias). Like the characters in the novels of Cormac McCarthy, they are defined by their actions and the way they talk. (And why hasn’t Tarantino filmed Blood Meridian?) There is nothing to be “revealed” about any of them. Is Mr. Orange married? Why does he put a wedding ring on before the heist? Does it mean something, or is it only part of his disguise? The movie just isn’t interested in matters like this. If we’re only watching a bunch of people play gangsters then it’s not important who the actors are so much as how they read their lines.
*. Does Mr. Pink get away? I can’t help thinking of the end of Saw (2004) and the escape of Cary Elwes from a similar morbid set. Such endings are a kind of alienation device, drawing attention to the artificial nature of the story’s boundaries. Once a character gets outside the frame of the film, exits the rear of the stage for places unknown, we can’t follow him any more. He is literally off script.

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*. I find the ending with its parody Pietà a bit overwrought. Poor Mr. Orange clearly became too invested in his role, believing himself to really be one of the gang and so bound by their code of honour, with fatal results. But then we get Harry Nilsson singing about putting the lime in the coconut and we’re reminded not to take any of it too seriously.
*. It seems smaller now than I remember. Part of this is due to the fact that it is a small movie, the Little Theatre effect I mentioned earlier. Part of it might also have something to do with how quickly Tarantino was adopted into the mainstream and how imitated his style became. Only a few years later it seemed everyone was making movies like this. Including Tarantino himself.
*. That’s not Tarantino’s fault — if anything it’s a tribute to his success — and he would go on to bigger, better things. Though not for long. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown I like much more than this film, but I don’t care for anything he has done since Jackie Brown. Unlike Mr. Pink, Tarantino never got out of this warehouse cluttered with the props of the undertaker’s trade. There’s something medieval about all those bodies strewn about the stage at the end, the coffins waiting to be filled and the bag of treasure carried off. There must be a skull, or a film canister, lying in a corner somewhere with a label on it saying “I too live in Hollywood.”

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Bugsy (1991)

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*. Wait a second. Did somebody, somewhere, at some point in time, actually think this was a good movie?
*. I guess so. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (it won two). My DVD has a pull quote from Time Magazine calling it “the best picture of the year,” and another from David Denby saying it’s “the most entertaining and exciting American movie of the year.” So I guess there were some people who took it seriously.
*. I take it seriously too, because it asks me too. It’s a prestige picture, a historical biopic with A-list talent, and every bit as bad as that sounds.
*. I don’t know if Beatty’s performance is that bad or if it’s just a case of him being miscast. He isn’t convincing at all as Bugsy Siegel. He doesn’t have any sense of danger or threat about him, which means that when he breaks into violence he just seems like he’s throwing a tantrum.
*. I’m not putting him down, but Beatty does have a funny face and a funny voice and delivery. This worked in Bonnie and Clyde because that was a movie with a strong comic cast to it. Here he just seems too light for the part.
*. As with most historical biopics, the story is told in a way that is numbingly conventional. Having Siegel and Virginia kiss for the first time in silhouette is hokey as hell. Then to cut to a slow pan over their discarded clothes lying on the floor until we see them lying together in bed take the cliché up (or down) to another level.
*. There doesn’t seem to be any originality, or indeed any sign of life in the movie. You would think Siegel’s epiphany in the desert would be rendered in some particularly memorable way, but instead it’s just him in (another) silhouette against a pretty sunset.

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*. Or take the scene where Beatty beats the hell out of a fellow gangster in a room adjoining a dance hall, with the music ramped up to play over the violence and the violence intercut with scenes of people on the dance floor. How many times has that been done?
*. Or take the ending, with bullets symbolically tearing off the Flamingo sign from the model of the hotel, and then shattering the glass over the framed picture of Virginia. Do you get it? Do you get it? Those are all of Bugsy’s dreams being destroyed!
*. All of the other “big” scenes are similarly uninspired. They just go through the motions in a contrived and obvious way and the audience is a mile ahead of where everything is going. Two examples: (1) The birthday scene, which is just used to show how Siegel’s business is interfering with his family life. It’s all very obvious, and yet this scene takes forever to play out. (2) The scene where Siegel takes Greenberg for “a little drive.” Meaning he’s going to kill him. We even go through an argument between Siegel and Virginia about how Siegel doesn’t want her to go with them. Do you understand, Greenberg? Do you? Apparently he’s the only one who doesn’t, and again the scene plays out just as expected.

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*. Why would Annette Bening have even wanted the role of Virginia Hill? Hill is a selfish, slutty nag, flying into violent tantrums over nothing at all every chance she gets. Aside from the fact that she actually cooks and serves a delicious meal to her man, which is not something I thought most mistresses were up for, I can’t see what the attraction is.
*. No, her reversal at the end, with that Casablanca moment by the plane, doesn’t change my mind. Not that I believed in it anyway.
*. Historical accuracy. Is it important? Yes and no.
*. I think the matter of accuracy is important here because what the movie changes goes to the very heart of its romanticized vision of Siegel. In brief, the real Flamingo Hotel was the brainchild of William Wilkerson, “the man who built Las Vegas.” As far as I can tell, Wilkerson isn’t even mentioned in the film. This allows the movie to present Siegel not as a mobster (we hear nothing of his rise through the ranks of Murder, Inc.) but as dreamer, a Hollywood impresario building his fantasy oasis in the desert, totally oblivious to mundane matters like money. As Lansky puts it in the film, Siegel doesn’t respect money, deriding it as “dirty paper.”
*. This is all done to make Siegel a more attractive character, but it’s a total whitewash. As Beatty has observed, Hollywood has always loved gangsters and gangsters have always loved Hollywood, and this is a movie about that romance. But in this case love is not only blind but profoundly dishonest.
*. Gangsters have also always been fashionable. I think it may be an Italian thing. But here they’re only fashionable. Everyone looks like they’re just playing, or auditioning for, the part of boss. The point seems to be that none of it is real: Vegas was always just a movie. So how can you accuse a movie like this for being a lie? The simulacrum, that ersatz oasis rising like a mirage out of the desert, is all.

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Miller’s Crossing (1990)

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*. We open with an homage to The Godfather: the same office, or at least one with the same colour and lighting, the same pleading request (denied) for a hit, the same appeal to honour. Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar even looks like the undertaker Bonasera.
*. It makes you wonder at what point such borrowing becomes a distraction, counterproductive. It’s not a big deal here, but listen to Gabriel Byrne talking about the film: “I think one of the problems for reviewers is because it was so different, it was so unique and so original, that they found it very difficult to place . . . on almost every aspect of this movie you cannot put a label or a tag.” Why do people keep having to say this? Especially for a movie so thickly rooted in genre conventions? A number of key plot elements here are taken from Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (made into a movie in 1942), and other borrowings, like the nod to The Godfather at the beginning, are pretty thick on the ground.
*. Here’s another perspective on perhaps the same thing I’m getting at. Roger Ebert: “This doesn’t look like a gangster movie, it looks like a commercial intended to look like a gangster movie. Everything is too designed. That goes for the plot and the dialogue, too. The dialogue is well-written, but it is indeed written. We admire the prose rather than the message. People make threats, and we think about how elegantly the threats are worded.”
*. What niggled at Ebert was Leo’s office, which he thought looked too lavish. I felt the same way. Before you even get to the matter of their design, what strikes you is that the sets here are huge. Look at the size of Leo’s office, Tommy’s apartment, the ladies’ powder room, or, most surreal of all, Caspar’s headquarters, which seems to be a desk and a couch set in the middle of an empty warehouse. Characters have to make long walks just to exit these sets, and indeed this is a shot that is repeated several times, as though drawing our attention to the vast distances being covered.
*. It may be these oversize sets that add to a comic-book impression I get from the film. The city stuff was mainly shot in New Orleans, but the location is left unspecified and it feels like it might be Batman’s Gotham, Dick Tracy’s metropolis, or Frank Miller’s Sin City. The scene where Caspar kicks the mayor out of his office and sits behind his desk is pure comic book, and the hit on Leo that ends with him firing an inexhaustible Tommy gun at a car before it absurdly bursts into a fireball is part of the same aesthetic.

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*. Apparently the impetus for the movie was a vision of the hat lying on the ground and then blowing away. I really distrust movies that are born out of such simple visions. It makes me think of Campion’s The Piano and the ridiculous (if pretty) shot of the girl dancing to the piano on the beach. Here the image has no real relevance to the rest of the movie and has to be connected by way of Byrne’s forced “I had a dream . . .”  speech. As for what the hat means, that’s anybody’s guess. I’ve never heard a compelling explanation.

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*. And how does that hat blow away without any of the leaves around it being disturbed? It can’t be the wind.
*. Just a sec. The job of shooting Bernie is given to Tom as a test … and then nobody checks to see if he actually does it? And he knew they wouldn’t?
*. Barry Sonnenfeld wanted a movie that looked “handsome and muted” and got it. Muted photography to match the muted performances. And therein lies a big problem.
*. Is Gabriel Byrne asleep throughout this movie, his eyes falling shut behind the lowered brim of his fedora? Even when he’s supposed to be angry, or is in a fight, he seems to be almost ready to nod off. No doubt he’s a cool customer, but we have to need that there’s something going on between him and Verna and they just never ignite. Indeed at the end of the movie it isn’t clear if he’s been more motivated by loyalty to Leo than any feelings toward her. Or even if he has any feeling toward her.
*. Marcia Gay Harden is almost a match for Byrne’s fire-retardant façade. David Thomson thought her so sexy that Byrne’s falling for her was a “testament to Harden’s ass” but I don’t see the falling or the ass. Unless we’re talking about another one of Thomson’s film crushes.
*. Albert Finney is fine, but how interesting a character is Leo? Not very. Just an older man trying to prove that he’s still got it by kicking ass and cutting grass. Entirely believable, but dull.
*. It is interesting that both Leo and Verna, at different points, invite Tommy to join them not so much in a ménage but more as a third wheel. Verna thinks she can leave town and live together with Tommy and her brother, while Leo thinks he can marry Verna and still have Tommy as a business partner. Alas, Tommy is the superfluous man in both reckonings.
*. The supporting cast is great, with John Turturro as the repellent Bernie being a real stand out. Who can forget his pleading for his life in the forest? The first time I saw the film I was genuinely unsure of whether or not Tommy was going to shoot him. What’s more, I wasn’t sure what if that’s what I wanted him to do.
*. Is Bernie something more than the sleazy creep he seems? In Nightmare Movies Kim Newman points out that he only appears in scenes where he’s alone with Tommy, suggesting that this makes him a secret Satan figure. I’m not sure that follows, but it is an interesting point and we may well wonder at some deeper psychological link between the two.
*. In The Godfather Coppola wanted Pacino made up with a puffy cheek so he looked like he’d taken a hit. Here, Byrne doesn’t get as much as a bruise after the consecutive beatings he takes. He only gets a bit of a cut on his lip, which later disappears, when Bernie kicks him in the head.
*. This is a movie that has grown in reputation. It was a disaster at the box office, and actually received quite mixed reviews when it came out. Now it’s seen as something of a classic. Did we just not “get it” in 1990?
*. I didn’t then, and I don’t really now. It’s a movie I really want to like more than I do. It’s nicely shot and has a tight little gangster-noir script, but it seems like a minor film that too much effort has been put into. In addition, the leads are underplayed and the plot takes several silly and unnecessary detours into comic-book action sequences. There are great parts, but they don’t add up.

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The Killer (1989)

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*. The star of John Woo burned brightly through the 1990s. He even successfully made the jump from Hong Kong to Hollywood at this time. Today I wonder how many younger action-movie fans even know his name.
*. I’d like to say he’s a great action director, but I might limit this even more and say he’s great at directing gunfights. Of which this movie has many spectacular instances.
*. Spectacular and ridiculous. And clichéd. As in good guys who can’t miss, even firing pistols in both hands while flying through the air, while the bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn with automatic weapons from point-blank range. Or the way bad guys are knocked off their feet and blown backward when they get hit while the good guys only get flesh wounds that can be dressed up later with a bit of battlefield surgery and teeth clenching.
*. I guess this is all a debt to Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, complete with the slow-motion overkill and a seemingly inexhaustible number of squibs. I did, however, wonder why, if Ah Jong is such a pro, he had to keep emptying his guns into people, firing them a dozen times at people who are already dead. That seemed unnecessary.
*. What makes Woo’s gunfights so good is how they’re set up visually. An action film, like any genre film really, is like a still life: it’s all just a matter of arranging the various familiar elements on the table in an interesting and attractive way.
*. Of course the classic scene here is the “Mexican standoff” between the two leads in Jennie’s apartment. They don’t even have to fire their guns for it to work, in a way both funny and suspenseful. Though it’s also obvious that the two men like each other so much they won’t shoot to kill.

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*. Also very good is the showdown in the hospital, which makes good use of the curtains and the doctors trying to save the child’s life without being distracted by what’s going on behind them.
*. Does Woo go to the well too often with the gunplay however? The Mexican standoff occurs three different times. And has there ever been a movie with so many scenes of guns being pointed at people? I like how in the church battle at the end the Mexican standoff is reversed and Inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee) and Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat) stand back-to-back, but overall a pointed gun is an easy way to ratchet up the tension and you really can overdo it.

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*. I don’t care for the church setting at the end. Is Ah Jong religious at all, or is it just a convenient place to hide out? How realistic is it that there are so many candles? And what’s with the pigeons? Who let them in? Wouldn’t the church be filled with pigeon shit? I suppose they’re symbolic of something, but as with the gun play it seems a lazy way of getting such an effect.
*. It struck me as weird that Jennie was going to have to go to America to get her cornea transplant. I thought you could pretty much get anything you wanted in Hong Kong if you had the money, whereas America actually has some rules and regulations concerning such things.
*. The ending is quite downbeat, isn’t it? Not only do Ah Jong and Jennie crawl past each other but Li Ying is presumably about to be arrested for killing the mob boss and Jennie is now permanently blind.
*. Of course hell hath no fury like a gangster double-crossed. We know that from the endless string of Parker-style films (Point Blank and its progeny). An even more pervasive theme in the genre, however, is that of the changing of the guard. “The world has changed,” Ah Jong says to his old friend. Gone is the ethical code of honour, trust, and respect. All that’s left is that angry nephew and his army of mooks. They don’t believe in anything.
*. This is a universal theme — the conservative view that everything is going to hell and young people today have no respect for their elders and the way things used to be done — but I’m not sure why it has adhered for so long to gangster films. It’s there from the beginning and the gangster films of the ’30s, through The Godfather, and well after. It’s the moral behind gangsterism: that it always involves a downward spiral of violence, of revenge and one-upmanship, as the next generation struggles to take and hold power. The charisma of the leader is inextricably linked to his cruelty and ruthlessness, his humanity only a weakness to be exploited. Of course Ah Jong shouldn’t have bothered himself with poor Jennie’s case. It is for this he must be punished in rather obvious fashion (that is, blinded himself).
*. As with the superficial invocation of religion, however, I don’t think this means a lot to Woo. He’s mainly interested in having waves of people being torn apart in prolonged gun battles. There are some great set-piece scenes here — the apartment, the hospital, the airport — and a pair of likeable leads. Today it seems mostly unremarkable, but that may be due to imitation and saturation, or the prominence it gives to its noisiest but least interesting parts.

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The Untouchables (1987)

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*. You can’t get back to the “real” story of Al Capone from here. Eliot Ness was an agent with the Bureau of Prohibition who wrote a self-aggrandizing account of his crime-fighting days that was hyped up by a ghostwriter, made into a television series and then into this movie.
*. In fact, Ness had little to do with catching Capone. He wasn’t involved in the investigation of the tax evasion charges that brought Capone down at all. This is a very Hollywood version of history. Take the trial. It has some basis in fact in that the jury was switched, but this occurred before the start of the trial. The idea that the jury could be switched mid-trial is ridiculous. What would the new jury know of the case, having heard none of the evidence thus far?
*. Robert De Niro at least bears some resemblance to a younger Al Capone. But Billy Drago as Frank Nitti? Not even close.
*. The real Frank Nitti, by the way, took over from Capone briefly and later committed suicide.
*. Was this movie a dry-run for JFK or what? There’s our sterling, humourless hero (Kevin Costner, who was not a star at the time) fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. His wife and children are threatened even in their home, but he perseveres over the corruption of the system and enjoys his day in court. I wonder how influenced Stone was by this.
*. Things begin with an impressive credit roll. Even the wardrobes by Armani. You think this has to add up to something good. Or at least expensive.
*. But most of the talent, outside of the wardrobe, disappoints. In particular let’s look at the writing, by David Mamet, and Brian De Palma’s direction.
*. Mamet’s a good writer of dialogue, but none of it worked for me here. I thought the script seemed put together out of spare parts, with no twists in the plot or interesting lines.
*. Poor Robert De Niro. He wasn’t applauded for his turn as Capone, but I don’t think it was his fault. The script gives him absolutely nothing to say or do. His Capone has no depth, but only a childish petulance that explodes into tantrums of humdrum violence. That this is probably close to how the real Capone behaved doesn’t salvage lines like “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna piss on his ashes!”

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*. Roger Ebert: “The script is by David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but it could have been by anybody. It doesn’t have the Mamet touch, the conversational rhythms that carry a meaning beyond words. It also lacks any particular point of view about the material and, in fact, lacks the dynamic tension of many gangster movies written by less talented writers. Everything seems cut and dried, twice-told, preordained.”
*. Then there’s De Palma’s direction. As usual he builds the movie around a lot of set-piece scenes or sequences. The problem here is that the two big ones don’t really add anything to the movie and come across as forced and contrived.
*. The cowboys vs. gangsters shootout at the bridge on the Canadian border seems to me totally superfluous. Apparently De Palma just wanted to get out of Chicago and invoke a kind of John Ford morality (as if that was necessary given Costner’s presence). And the whole thing seems more silly than suspenseful.

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*. The same can be said of the Battleship Potemkin homage at the Chicago train station. This wasn’t in Mamet’s script but was instead made up by De Palma on the fly. It’s well executed but again seems contrived and rather funny (especially with those sailors getting caught in the crossfire). It’s also not a real homage to Eisenstein as the use of slow motion isn’t in the spirit of the original. And what is the point of it thematically? It’s just showing off.

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*. Aside from that, there’s also a penchant here for very high (indeed, directly overhead) or low angle camera shots. They are often quite pretty, but don’t mean much and after a while you start to feel De Palma just likes composing this way, flattening out the screen.
*. How many times does Connery’s Jimmy Malone get hit with bullets before being killed? Come on. Try and keep it real.
*. Or was keeping it real not the point? Is it a comic book? Are the Untouchables a proto-Fantastic Four? The stereotypes — the hero lead, the gruff old dog, the nerd, the ethnic — certainly suggest that analogy. And I get the impression Pauline Kael thought so too (“the slight unbelievability of it all makes it more enjoyable”). You just have to keep in mind when reading her review that Kael was writing before the comic book aesthetic became so dominant (see my notes on King Kong).
*. It’s pop entertainment, but too much so for me. I can’t help but think when watching it that more could have been done with the talent involved. Lack of historical accuracy I can take. Unbelievability too, up to a point. But anything more and you’re just being silly.

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Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

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*. I have to begin with some preliminary notes on the versions of this film that exist. It was drastically edited for its American release, cut down to 139 minutes and rearranged so it ran in chronological order. I’ve never seen this version — which bombed both critically and commercially — and don’t want to. The version I’ve seen, and which I’m discussing here, is the 229-minute European release. Later, a 251-minute version surfaced, an abridgement of a “director’s cut” that ran 269 minutes, which was itself a condensement of Leone’s original intention of presenting the whole thing as two three-hour films. As of this writing, a restoration of the 269-minute version is still in the works. I do not want to see the 269-minute version. I think the movie is too long at 229 minutes.
*. Now, with all that out of the way . . .
*. I really don’t like this film at all. Just as we all have favourite movies and movies that we think are the best or greatest ever, and these are categories that don’t always overlap, so we have all seen terrible/worst-ever movies and movies that may not be as bad but that we nevertheless hate with a passion. That’s where I stand with this one. I can’t stand Once Upon a Time in America.
*. Not that I don’t think it’s a bad movie too. It’s just that for some reason it bothers me more than most bad movies.
*. Having tipped my hand to being a hater, let me count the ways.

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*. I hate the phone ringing throughout the introduction. It’s an idea that might have seemed good on paper, and I do like the fake-out where you think De Niro is answering the phone when he’s really picking it up to drop the dime on his friends, but it goes on forever. I wonder if Leone was aware of just how irritating this is. It’s like having to listen to someone knocking on a door for several minutes without stopping. Or a baby crying. I’m told a baby crying is the most irritating noise known to human ears.
*. I don’t like the score. Ennio Morricone is a genius, but then so is Sergio Leone, and neither of them were at the height of their powers here. I find the raspy flute music inappropriate and the “Amapola” theme schmaltzy rather than soaring.
*. I hate the song “Yesterday.”
*. I don’t understand how Noodles has managed to “read all about Secretary Bailey” (a prominent public figure) but never seen a picture of him. Even during the news story about Bailey that plays on the television at Moe’s they never bother to flash up a picture of the man everyone is talking about. Of course for dramatic reasons they have to keep it all a secret till the end (though most people will have figured it out long before), but this is incredible.
*. I hate the kids. They are a pack of snotty, sneering bullies, and I don’t understand how Leone thought audiences were going to relate to them or find them in some way endearing, as though they’re about to break into “Gee, Officer Krupke” at any minute.
*. David Thomson raises two points worth underlining: “[The film’s] would-be Jewish gangsters seemed very Italian; the attitude to women was horrendous — the two rape scenes are among the screen’s nastiest.”
*. It is indeed a very Italian film. It was based on a novel about Jewish gangsters, Hoods by Harry Grey, but I wonder what Leone saw in it. I think he probably thought he was going to have a chance to make another Godfather. The screenplay was an Italian team effort, though the dialogue had to all be done by someone who knew English. Leone and Morricone and most of the crew were Italian, and indeed in the Leone documentary included with the DVD one of the actors remembers nobody on the set even speaking English. The leads aren’t Jewish. Really, aside from a few Yiddish expressions thrown in to the mix there’s nothing in here at all that suggests anyone being Jewish.
*. I’m not a prude about these things, but Thomson’s second point is also right. This movie really doesn’t like women. Or at least only likes them in a very degrading sort of way.

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*. I hate the pace, which moves like sap rising. I guess you could think of it as a last gasp of filmmaking in a grand old style, but it seems very dated here. And this is not helped by some of the performances. De Niro in particular seems narcotized most of the time, even as a young Noodles in the 1930s. But none of the actors seems to be trying very hard.
*. The old people don’t look old. They look like young people with powder on their face and in their hair. Also their main method for portraying older characters is to walk and speak slowly, which doesn’t help move things along.
*. Is it all a dream? As with almost every movie where this sort of thing is in play, you have to wonder what difference it makes. Here: none. The film doesn’t mean anything different to me either way.
*. To the question of whether or not it’s a dream you can add the question of what happens to Max at the end: if that’s him disappearing behind the garbage truck, and if so what becomes of him. My own feeling is that he’s just pulled another disappearing trick, as the garbage truck has clearly been arranged to pick him up. But as with the dream-or-not-a-dream question I have to wonder how meaningful such ambiguity is. Or whether it just dilutes any strong sense of what the movie is about.
*. This is a movie that gets a lot of love today. In part this is recompense for what was done to it on its American release. In part it may be due to its being Leone’s last film. I think it is wildly overrated. It has a great eye for detail, but no ear. None of the performances stand out as being very good, with the possible exception of Jennifer Connelly as the young Deborah. The story is just an overweight retread of a lot of gangster conventions. Pauline Kael observed that almost everything in it is an echo of earlier Hollywood gangster movies but Leone “inflates them, slows them down, and gives them a dreamy obsessiveness.” I don’t think any of that is a good thing. Put another way, you can point to parts that are done well, but nothing that is new.
*. Some movies grow on me, but I’m as unimpressed with this one as I was the first time I saw it. I can’t help thinking there is a lot less going on than there seems to be, and that aside from the lush evocation of its period there is nothing else worth attending to.

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