Archive for October, 2010

The Hobbit starts production in Feb!

WB and MGM gave Peter Jackson the green-light to begin as soon as next February! The Hobbit tells the story before Lord of the Rings, of how Bilbo Baggins comes into possession of the one ring.

Read the full story off


From Caution to Anti-hero

One of my favorite lines from any movie is in the opening scene of Goodfellas. Ray Liotta’s character, Henry, slams the trunk on a body that his two “wiseguy” friends had just shot and stabbed dozens of times. It freeze frames on a look of pure complicity. The voice-over kicks in. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”

The gangster genre is hands down my most beloved movie genre. I took the time to watch both The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) as a sample of the “classical” period and even developmental stage of the genre. And then watched again all three Godfather films, On the Waterfront, Pulp Fiction, and, as I write, I’ve got Goodfellas going in the background.

As much as I could ramble about my love for this particular style of anti-hero, I know the purpose of a genre study is to understand that particular genre’s development. To understand what defines it, what makes it work, why it has lasted, who likes it and most of all what it means. So I will try not to be melodramatic.

The gangster genre is an old genre. However, it didn’t have distinctness until the introduction of sound. Criminal based films of the silent era couldn’t personalize the crooks enough for us to like them. It was simply too difficult to get an audience behind a “bad” character as the hero of the story without being able to hear that persons voice. But once our gangsters could talk they proved to be the most charming baddies imaginable.

This is something that is very characteristic of the genre, even from the ‘30s. Dialogue. Gangster films are characterized by their language. Gangsters, at least the cool ones we all like, are often (but not always) flippant, over-confident, hot-heads. They say things that sound really fun to say. Like: “Say, hello to my lil’ friend!” (Scarface 1983) or “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” (The Godfather 1972) or “Hamburgers. The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast,” (Pulp Fiction 1994). Without this dialogue Gangster films wouldn’t be what they are. The language is vital. Which is why I disagree with the Langford’s argument that silent era films “used a different, rather than simply an inadequate, ‘language’ to articulate the experience of urban modernity.” (Langford 2005, pg. 137) I would agree you could call The Great Train Robbery (1903) a crime film, but it certainly is not a gangster film!

The language (and even the sounds of inner-cities and guns firing) helps to set up this world of the gangster. I do appreciate how Langford begins his approach to the genre by explaining that we as film-goers have been trained to know when we see “gangster shit,” (term courtesy of Quentin Tarantino). We learned how to recognize the rules to the gangster’s world.

We understand that police and the judicial system are incompetent or nonexistent. We don’t expect consequences from outside the mob or mafia. We recognize, without being told, that we will have to adopt certain slang to understand the characters’ speech. We tolerate that they have sick senses of humor, and if all of these things work the right way, we even participate.

Both The Public Enemy and Scarface (’31/’32) begin with an indictment to the audience. It is an explanation, and sort of a roundabout way of saying “don’t buy into it.” The messages from the studios say things like: “this is not meant to glorify crime, but to depict it accurately and condemn it.” Glorify crime? It seems so backward. How could crime accidentally be glorified?

Langford wrote something that struck me personally. He wrote: “…the genre has influentially been read as an allegory of both the allure and the potentially catastrophic consequences of untrammeled individualism.” Wow. I felt like he was pointing a finger. As a young man who watches many movies (probably too many) I found myself taken aback, that I had missed this ruse.

Because when I read it, I instantly recognized it as truth. All of my favorite gangsters Henry from Goodfellas or Michael from The Godfather or even Tony from Scarface are all perfect examples. As Warshow’s argument (1975) states: “to the American audience the gangster is an exemplary and admonitory figure of fatally overreaching ambition.” But I had missed it.

I understand now that in their pursuit of power and control they lose everything. But how misleading that exciting journey could be I never quite pinned down. I find it strangely amusing that Hollywood went from caution to apology but then back straight to anti-hero. In the early stages of the genre we were warned about and even detested the characters and their crimes. But the detestable characters still had fans.

The lifestyle appeal of this extreme individualism is what has kept it alive through every phase of economic and social change in the US. Everyone in our country has bought into the idea that things can get better for them if they… You fill in the blank. It’s the American dream to be successful and powerful. But as I said the gangsters were presented as cautionary figures.

Quickly, to be ethical we almost entirely stopped making gangster films in the late thirties after their great success. What did we do instead? We made them undercover police, spies, double-agents, tough-guy detectives. They did all the same things except we labeled it as “good”. Movies like G-Men (1935) or Bullets or Ballots (1936).

But that was short lived. And soon we turned back to gangsters with a stronger emphasis on the mob, beginning in the late ‘40s–the more organized the better.

Movies like On the Waterfront combined that sense of lavished individualism with the surrounding organized crime necessities. Creating an irony that is what our greatest gangster film, The Godfather, explains beautifully. Langford says it well: “Typically, the gang itself is both indispensible and a burden, even a threat, to the gangster: he needs the support of his soldiers, and it is by his ascent from the ranks that his self-assertion is measured; yet the gangster knows only too well how dangerous it is to rely on any ties, even those of blood.” And later: “The gangster film implicitly ironises its subject inasmuch as it stresses the self-sufficient individual the gangster desires to be and insists he is, yet—precisely because he is a gangster—he can never become.” (Langford 2005, pg. 142)

Langford calls film gangsters a “contradiction of radical autonomy and dependency.” I’d like to use the metaphor of a peacock here. Don’t laugh yet, hear me out. Peacocks are the only loose animal (bird or otherwise) in the zoo. But they are still in the zoo. They have this incredible freedom that the other animals don’t have to walk around where they please. Yet they are completely dependent on the system for protection from those other animals and people.

Gangsters are like this. They believe in this fake autonomy, this false sense of power and control which will ultimately betray even the greatest and most powerful gangsters. Even Don Michael Corleone is fooled by this. So why does Hollywood love so much this disillusionment of the American dream?

Gangster movies are often retro-fitted. They’re set decades before they are made. They talk about “the good old days,” the days when getting away with crime was easy. I think of last years’ Public Enemies (2009) with Johnny Depp. I don’t remember the exact line, but it was something like: “That’s why they won’t catch me. They have to be at every bank at all times, I can be at any bank, at any time, and anywhere.” And that’s the same fraud of omnipotence and omniscience that tricks all our anti-hero gangster favorites. It’s the ease of becoming a criminal and doing it successfully that generates the appeal for such a wicked route to the American dream’s fulfillment.

The moral value in early gangster films was that eventually these full-steam ahead bad guys, would be convicted and change. That first started with The Public Enemy character Tom Powers who nears redemption at the end of the film, continuing in movies like The Godfather: Part II and III, and Blow (2001) also Johnny Depp. But more often than not, our gangsters die alone, powerless, and as violently as their vicious rise to power often deserved. For every one redeemed character there are dozens of examples of to-the-teeth gangsters who go down blazing.

Gangster films are precious to me. They are some of the most intricate and most stylized films ever made. I have grown accustomed to the dark humor, the language (both verbal and metaphorical) of the environments these people dwell, and have been both shocked by their audacity and moved by their weaknesses. And I occasionally see in myself and in many of my friends that enjoy similar films and characters, many of the same habits of individualism and self-centeredness that the gangsters unwittingly and foolishly pride themselves on.

Thankfully the police in my neighborhood are very good at their job. I only kid, but the fast-talking, quick-way-up fast-way-out lifestyle is what I believe makes the genre so watchable. It’s what makes the characters so lovable, when they don’t deserve it all. It’s like Langford said: “It’s the only genre that’s named after its protagonist.”

The Godfather: Part III (2 of 4)


Eleven years after part II, Coppola finished his Godfather films with the last chapter in Michael Corleone’s life. Nominated for seven Oscars without a win, the third and final installment of the Godfather saga is substantially weaker. For many familiar with the lore of the Godfather films, or simply those with movie-geek friends, you’ve probably heard something like: “Just don’t watch the third one.” I don’t think the third movie is a bad movie, it’s just unnecessary, and really it leaves our character Michael in the same state he was at the end of film two.

In further attempts to legitimize the family business, Michael, now old and gray, makes an incredible donation to a charity he has created in the name of his father The Vito Corleone Foundation. He officially opens the foundation with a generous deposit of $100 million. The money garnered from his life-time of ambitious underworld activities. The casinos and illegal business sold or handed off and his debts paid,  Michael considers himself semi-retired and out of the gangster world.

But his violent past is not easily concealed or forgotten. So when Michael makes a deal with the Vatican. He will eliminate the 700 million dollar deficit in their budget, and in exchange become the leader and large share holder of the Vatican’s eight billion dollar world-wide real estate company, Immobiliare.

Holding back his retirement and retribution from his past is his nephew Vincent (a bastard son of Santino), played by an excellent Andy Garcia. Vincent wants to “preserve the family”, and achieve the power that Vito, his grandfather, once had. In a mix of care, necessity and sadness Michael takes Vincent under his wing as his protegé.

When all of Michael’s old criminal friends are massacred at a dinner, via a helicopter-machine-gun surprise attack (the third film got classier what can I say…) Vincent takes the initiative and “hits back”. On the person responsible, Joey Zasa. As both his uncle and his grandfather did, Vincent begins his rise to power with a murder, a single violent and vengeful murder. The cycle begins again.

Michael, devastated by his past sins, especially what has happened to his family, immediate and extended, finally confesses his wrongs and repents, vowing to redeem himself if the Lord would only give him the chance.

Michael ultimately gives over power as Godfather to his nephew making him Don Vincent Corleone. Under the singular condition that Vincent give up his love and not pursue Michael’s daughter Mary (Yes, his first cousin. Michael thought it was wrong too).

The greatest moment is a close up of Michael. Everything he has done has earned him only death and suffering for his entire family and everyone he loves. Searing, crying and screaming do nothing–he is completely muted.

The problem with Part III is not the acting, or the pace, or the editing, or the lighting, or the landscapes (which are incredible!), or even the inclusion of far more profanity than the other films combined (it was the ’90s). The problem with Part III is it’s mind-numbing over explication. If you understood nothing from the first two films (and you’d best give up movies altogether if you sat through 6 hours of the story and it breezed over you) the third film will explain everything. The characters literally sit and dialogue through their feelings of the last 30 years of their lives. It’s atrocious. It is an absolute horror. These actors who delivered passion and emotion and excellence in two masterfully scripted and directed and cast pieces of cinematic history are forced to patronize the viewers.

This is the epitome of my frustration and it is a trend becoming more common in Hollywood today. I end here with a small redemption of Part III, by saying that the last half hour of the film does encroach on the same menacing and unpredictable magic that drove the first two films toward their pinnacles. It is the end of a saga and as the end of every film, or film series, we love–it is bittersweet.

Is the third installment in the saga forgivable? Could Sohpia Coppola be any worse? Is Andy Garcia more intimidating than his uncle and grandfather? Comment in the sidebar!

<——    Over and Up


The Godfather: Part II (4 of 4)

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” –Michael Corleone

Almost as quickly as The Godfather was recognized as a masterpiece, Paramount wanted more from Coppola. An amazing change of mind on Paramount’s part after much real-life drama with Coppola during the filming of the first movie. Coppola had put so much effort into the first film, that he needed complete control over the sequel. So Paramount gave him that–complete artistic power (and large percentages of the profits). It was the offer he couldn’t refuse, if you will. The result? Part II won even more Oscars than its predecessor bagging six including Best Picture and Best Director, and even challenged a masterpiece in its achievements.

The movie actually tells parallel stories. One, a prequel, the story of Don Vito Corleone’s rise to power upon first coming to America. The other a continuation of Michael’s descent into destruction caused by the organized crime world.

Robert De Niro, who won the Oscar for his supporting role, plays the young Don Vito. The film tracks him quickly from  his boyhood through the birth of his youngest son Michael before trailing off. The two time-lines are inter-cut through specifically identified defining moments in both the father, Vito, and the son, Michael, as they grow their power. Killings and deals are viewed back and forth–an obvious allusion to the similarities in their lives.

As promised to Kay, Michael is attempting to make the family business legitimate. But the five years have passed, in fact it’s been seven, and the “family” is still criminal and driven by violence. Michael’s casinos and hotels are doing well, but the FBI and state governments are tightening their grip. Through an old business connection to his father Michael joins forces with a Jewish hotel and casino/club owner, Roth, in Havana, Cuba.

While dodging assassination attempts and stepping further into the control of even more profitable enterprises, Michael gets caught in an investigation by a federal committee to expose him as the head of the Corleone crime organization. His freedom protected only by the brother of an old Italian gangster formerly employed by his father.

Back home, his family life dwindles quickly as he suffers a betrayal from his older brother Fredo, a divorce from his wife and the loss of a child from an abortion. The movie ends as he keeps his unspoken promise to Fredo and makes the call necessary for his own brother’s murder.

The Godfather: Part II is every bit as good as the first film. Its detail is truly remarkable. Characters that were vivid and fleshed out in The Godfather are real in comparison. The greatest agony of the power gained by Michael and the flashbacks to his father’s early days are cyclical displays of evil. The paths the father and son choose ultimately lead to death, and maybe not physical death. But the death of relationships, of marriages, of brothers, of friendships and of families entirely. The loyalty that Michael and his father so strongly desired is the one thing they can’t gain, even among their own bloodline.

The same praises could be sung of all the technical achievements of the first film. The tone and consistency in the color-schemes, sets and costumes is unsurpassed. There are as many, if not more, memorable scenes as the first film: the New Year’s party in Havana, the lake where Fredo is killed, and the towel-wrapped pistol of Vito’s first merciless assassination and seizing of power all the way through his roof-top disposal of the gun smashed into pieces.

The movie’s greatest mark of accomplishment is that in all that happens, all the twists and betrayals and murders and dysfunctional family dynamics, it never looses sight of its application. Every sculpted scene in this gangster movie landmark is a working illustration towards the absolute and terminal depiction of the loneliness profited from greed. Maybe Matthew 16:26 could have given insight to the Corleone family had their religious spurts been more than a façade. “For what does a man profit, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

Which do you think is better, The Godfather or The Godfather: Part II (and why)? Who is the better Don Vito, Brando or De Niro? Which was the better era for organized crime Vito’s or Michael’s? Comment in the sidebar!

<—–Over and Up


The Godfather (4 of 4)

“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 American masterpiece of crime The Godfather is one of the most acclaimed movies of all time. Winner of three Academy Awards including Best Picture  (nominated for 11) and landing at the #2 spot for AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies, this movie is truly an epic above the rest. Staring Marlon Brando, Al Pachino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton among others, the cast is an essential who’s who of now notorious gangster movie actors. With exceptional performances come unforgettable scenes and The Godfather is simply full of them.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Godfather is about an Italian-mob family, the Corleone family, who is struggling to maintain power as the world changes around them. The head of the family is Don Vito Corleone, played by Brando. His sons Sonny (Caan), Fredo (John Cazale) and adopted son Tom (Duvall) are all in the business with their father. Vito’s youngest son, Michael, has just returned from WWII and wants nothing to do with the family “business”–at least initially.

Don Vito Corleone is an old-fashioned man, he is fine dealing with booze, women and gambling, but doesn’t want his crime syndicate to turn to drugs. So, when another Italian-mob family head asks for his political influence to protect a new drug cartel along the east-coast, Don Vito turns him down. In response, the angered Sollozzo, working for the Tattaglia family, puts a hit out for Don Vito.

The failed attempt on his father’s life pushes Michael too far, and as revenge for his father’s attempted murder he insists to his older brothers that killing Sollozzo (along with a crooked police chief) is the only way to ensure his father’s safety. The murderous act officially brings him into the underworld of the Italian mob.

After the killings, Michael is exiled to Italy where he waits two years before returning to his aging father and accepting the role of Don for the Corleone family, promising to make the family business legitimate in five years. Ultimately Michael seizes power back for the family by knocking off every other Italian mob-boss in New York and a casino owner in Vegas.  

The Godfather, by combining an incredibly involved plot and masterful production technique, became the new perfection of cinema. It has story, heart, conflict, relevance and above all family.

My favorite scene is when Michael shoots Sollozzo in the diner. I know what’s going to happen and every time I watch it I’m still tense. It is a perfectly acted scene with coverage most directors can’t imagine getting.

When most people think of gangster films, this movie or at least characters like these are the very first thing anyone thinks of. The irony of the gangster life is perfectly depicted in this film. The gangster is a dynamic and persuasive character, the climax of individualism, yet ultimately he must rely on others (the family or the gang) for his power. What makes the gangster so strong initially, his selfish individualism, always begins his undoing.

Full of memorable and conflicting characters and presented in a style now definitive of the genre, The Godfather is an absolute must see.  But this, although wonderful, is not a movie everyone will love. It’s long and violent and brooding and forces empathy from the viewer onto despicable characters. It is also the best gangster film ever made and arguably one of the best movies in history. So, it’s more than worth trying to stomach for those unsure.

We all know deep down crime doesn’t pay, but doesn’t this family make it look appealing? What’s your favorite Godfather moment or quote? Comment in the sidebar!

<—— Over and Up


The Public Enemy (1 of 4)

Well, I found it. I found a gangster “classic” I didn’t like. Allow me to introduce you to The Public Enemy a 1931 Warner Brother’s movie directed by William A. Wellman (who I will attempt to avoid from here on out). Staring James Cagney, Jean Harlow and Edward Woods it’s too bad none of these could help it.

The Public Enemy is a melodramatic, ham-handed and over-acted snore. Its plot is weak, its purpose completely void and there is no heart. The story is the typical “rough-childhood” experience turned a boy into a criminal (maybe that’s why they call this a classic? It may have started that terrible trend?). But without a moral (besides for the foreword from WB) and without any sympathetic characters the movie becomes laughable and boring.

Tom Powers is a bad boy, not the cool bad-boy attitude that we love our gangsters to have, but that twerpy kind that you just want to backhand constantly. The movie begins in 1909, pre-teen years of Tom, he steals some pocket watches and gets them to his “boss” Putty Nose (What the what kind of name is that anyway?), Putty Nose hires him as a full-time little crook. Cut to 1915 (Yes, exactly 1915. I know because of the big bold numbers flashed across the entire screen this is the most effective way of showing time has passed). Tom Powers is in his late teens (6 years later) but he looks twenty-five. Putty calls in a favor that will make Tom and buddy Matt “big timers!” Oo boy. How exciting. He gives them guns, they blow the job and are forced into hiding.


Years later they work for another guy, Paddy Ryan (who is naming these guys!?). Paddy is a bootlegger and gets them rich. Of course they don’t know what to do with the money and since they are uneducated muscles, and nothing more really, their quick rise to power proves once again that “those who live by the gun die by the gun”. Or something like that. (Matthew 26:52).

See those expression? That is great acting.

When another gangster dies an accidental death, a war breaks out and Paddy’s bootlegging days are over. The first to go must be his muscles. So Tom Powers must die, but don’t worry you’re not involved in him as a character anyway. You’ll just be glad it’s almost over.

Also mixed in is some terrible acting from the cast playing Tom Power’s entire family. His mother and brother are especially horrendous. Even Cagney is nothing spectacular, playing too far into the gangster attitude he turns it into a caricature. And Jean Harlow should have never appeared in movies. Yuck. Reminded me of that Eye of the Beholder Twilight Zone episode…

How is this woman supposed to be the “babe”!?

Avoid this “classic” at all costs. If you’re watching a gangster film from the ’30s spend your time on Scarface, not this diaper of half-brained performance slaughterings. In fact, watch the first five minutes of Tom’s early years and you’ll get a taste for the entire film. Wellman letting these children “act” the way they did, proves his inadequacy as a director, and the fact is only supported by the 78 minutes of excruciating evidence afterward.

The Public Enemy is only avoiding my half-point review score because of Cagney’s influence on gangster performances. Even if future actors had to tone it way down to be taken seriously.

Just one question for anyone reading: does this movie deserve any of the credit it receives? Comment in the sidebar!

<—— Over and Up



On the Waterfront (4 of 4)

Netflix Instant Play spoilers*

In 1954 Elia Kazan, the infamous Hollywood director who turned rat during the McC arthy trials, made On the Waterfront. And there are certainly similarities between Kazan, who named names, and his most successful character Terry Malloy who would also name names. Many film historians think of On the Waterfront as Kazan’s apology (or at least justification) of his testimony in the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Of course supposed Hollywood communists are different from real-life gangsters, but Kazan may not have ever seen that.  Staring Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly,  Karl Malden as Father Barry and Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle, the film won 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor and Actress, and Cinematography (Black and White). It was a new form of dramatized social commentary in the depiction of organized crime, and changed movies forever.

On the Waterfront tells the story of the overturning of a mob-controlled  labor union where the waterfront dock workers are getting scraps for hard work while the boss, Johnny Friendly, uses violence and his power as supervisor to steal the earnings of his union employees. And for a while, things are going well for Friendly. He’s living it up with all the money and power he could want.

But when Friendly tricks Malloy, his favorite young kid on the dock, into assisting in the murder of local dock-boy Joey Doyle he learns that he has gone too far, and that Terry Malloy has a conscience with an unbreakable will. A two direction storyline also invests in a priest Father Barry, who comes along side Eva Marie Saint’s character Edie Doyle to help her find her brother Joey’s killer.

Father Barry becomes the fire under the union. He holds a meeting at the church to challenge the dock workers to expose their mob-boss Friendly as the killer. But Friendly shows how truly shameful he can be as he sends his goons to raid the church with led-pipes and wooden clubs.

Father Barry takes things to the police and convinces one brave dock-worker to testify in trial against Friendly. The next day Friendly arranges for him to be killed in a loading accident. And just when it seems all hope of overcoming the mob is lost, Father Barry releases a speech, that I think I will say is one of the greatest Christian moments in movie history. I’m calling it the “Crucifixion Speech.”

Terry Malloy, the uneducated amateur boxer and all around tough-guy, is moved. Absolutely shaken to the core by the public divulgence of the evil on the waterfront. Malloy is pressured from both sides as he slowly begins to see the evil of his long time boss and the good of Father Barry.

Friendly makes a mistake by asking Terry’s brother Charley to either “talk some sense into the boy” or kill him. Charley picks him up with all intention to do as Friendly said, but Terry shames him into staying his hand with one of cinema’s most famous speeches ending with: “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.” Once you see the movie you will always be able to hear Brando delivering these lines.

But Charley’s disobedience angers Friendly, and Charley winds up murdered as well. In a crazy-faced only Marlon Brando could ever pull-it-off rage Terry grabs a pistol and heads to the bar to avenge his brother. Father Barry is there to stop him and convince him to confess his involvement in Joey’s murder and indict Friendly as the killer he is.

After the trial, Terry can’t get work on the docks. And being the strong-willed (and now principled) man he is, he marches straight to Friendly’s front door and demands a confrontation. Then things get climactic as the union workers and the mafia stand face to face on opposing docks as Terry and Friendly box it out.

Saying On the Waterfront is a great film is an understatement. Its 8 Academy Awards are a testament but not a just one. This movie is perfect. The gangster is redeemed through Christian ethics and the powerful conviction of a righteous man. One of the best examples in movies of change and empowerment, and proof there is always hope. It is a beautifully captured, impeccably acted and scripted masterpiece and one of my very favorite films, gangster films or otherwise.

Whose famous speech is better, Father Barry or Terry’s? Is Brando a better gangster here or in The Godfather? Would you have stood up to Friendly? Comment in the sidebar!

<——Over and Up