The Godfather Part II


A picture of corruption.

A picture of corruption.

(1974) Drama (Paramount) Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Gaston Moschin, Tom Rosqui, Bruno Kirby, Frank Sivero, Morgana King, Francesca de Sapio, Mariana Hill, Dominic Chianese, Troy Donahue, James Caan, Abe Vigoda. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

It is rare enough that a movie with the quality and the impact of The Godfather gets made. It is rarer still that a movie that prestigious has a sequel made. And for that sequel to be as good if not better than the precursor, well that’s a very lonely group.

But that’s exactly what Francis Ford Coppola did when he made the second installment of what would turn out to be a trilogy. The story is told in two distinct segments that are alternated in the original cut of the film between young Vito Corleone fleeing from Sicily from a corrupt Mafia don who’d murdered his father over an imagined slight. Young Vito (De Niro) marries and tries a life of the straight and narrow but poverty and corruption conspire to draw him into a life of crime at which he excels. The other segment is that of Michael, now head of the family, brokering a deal with Jewish gangster Hymen Roth (Strasberg) in Cuba while dealing with betrayal from a source unexpectedly close to him.

Coppola deftly weaves the two stories together and although they are essentially unrelated, the flow of the movie is never interrupted. It’s a masterful job of directing and editing and a tribute that we as the audience are never disappointed when one segment ends and the next one begins. We are equally drawn to young Vito and the older Michael.

Pacino, reprising his role as Michael Corleone and without Marlon Brando to upstage him, turns in what is largely considered the defining performance of his career. The corruption of Michael is growing as his desire for power and to retain it at all costs slowly warps his soul. It’s absolutely masterful as we see Michael turn from soft-spoken war hero to cold, calculating monster in the course of two films.

There are some powerful scenes, such as one before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime in which one of Michael’s capos are due to testify against him. The mute confrontation between Frankie Pentangeli (Gazzo) and his brother is as powerful a moment as has ever been recorded in cinema.

The question of whether the sequel is better than the original is one that rages fairly passionately within the film buff community. There are plenty who argue that the first is the best; there are just as many who argue just as vehemently that the sequel outdoes the original. For my own part, I think that both movies are nearly equal in cinematic excellence. My own personal preference leans towards the first Godfather however – by just a hair.

So do you need both of these films? Absolutely. Separately they are both magnificent films that should be in every film lover’s collection. Together they constitute one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the movies. They remain today as they were 40 years ago enormously influential not only on the gangster genre but on cinema in general. This, like the first film, is one you’ll want to see many, many times and will pick up something new that you didn’t notice before each time you see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Another must-see for everyone who loves movies. A rare sequel that is as good as the original.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  More than its share of violence (some of it bloody) and foul language. There is also some sensuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first sequel to win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.0M on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Out of the Furnace

Advertisements

The Godfather


Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

(1972) Drama (Paramount) Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, Al Martino, Ruby Bond, Morgana King, Lenny Montana, Simonetta Stefanelli, Alex Rocco, John Martino. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

There are a number of film buffs in the world who would say that The Godfather is the greatest motion picture ever made and they’d have a pretty compelling defense of their assertion to offer. There’s no doubt that the movie is a cinematic classic, if not the very best then for sure among them. This movie which had a good deal of trouble getting made and saw production nearly shut down at least twice had to overcome incredible odds just to make it in front of the camera at all.

The Godfather is cinematic opera, passionate and full of tragedy and triumph. Certainly it had its share of controversy – there are Italian-Americans even today who feel the movie reinforced negative stereotypes about the Italians as Mafiosi, largely violent and criminal minded with all of the women being tramps or mamas. It’s not exactly a fair complaint but there is some merit to it.

That there were (and maybe still are) families like this is certain. However, the Corleone family has influenced nearly every crime family depicted on the big screen and small ever since – there would be no Sopranos without them. However not every Italian family has interests in illegal gambling, black market sales and prostitution. It is only a small number that do but there is something fascinating about them. Perhaps it’s that fierce devotion to their families which in their cases comes with a healthy “up yours” to everyone else’s family. As Don Vito himself explains, their family is merely providing a service. Things people want and maybe even need. In a just world, these things would not be illegal. However, they are and so it falls to the bold and the strong to provide them. At least, that’s how I think he justifies what he does.

This is a cast that comes together only once in a lifetime; Brando as the wily and powerful Vito Corleone who plays him with an odd vulnerability that shows through unexpectedly; Caan as the hotheaded Sonny who is as ruthless as he is fiercely devoted. Pacino as the coldly logical Michael, a war hero who didn’t want to be part of the family business until circumstances dictated otherwise. Keaton as Michael’s WASP girlfriend who acts as the audience surrogate, an outsider allowed access to a dangerous and fiercely private world. Cazale as Fredo, the oldest brother and the weakest. Duvall as the consigliere, the legal arm of the Corleone family and often the voice of reason. Castellano and Vigoda as the underlings, genteel and sweet old men on the outside but killers on the inside. Martino as the Hollywood star who the Don owns. Rocco as Moe Green, the Vegas casino owner who discovers he’s not as powerful as he thinks he is. Montana as the fearsome Luca Brazzi.

There are so many memorable moments in this movie that it’s impossible to even list them all. Murder and mayhem discussed at the family dinner table. Scenes of incredible violence and incredible tenderness. Tragedy on an operatic scale and triumph on a lavish scale. The montage of murder during the christening of Michael’s godson and nephew is perhaps the best scene in any movie ever. It’s so well-choreographed and so well-directed that you can only sit back breathlessly and admire it. There have been numerous attempts to duplicate it but none have ever even come close.

If you haven’t seen this movie – and chances are you have – this should be the next one you make a point of renting or streaming. If you love movies, I’m officially giving you the excuse you need to revisit it. Either way, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with the Corleone family. Pass the marinara.

WHY RENT THIS: A must-see for everyone who loves movies. One of the best (if not the best) of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of bloody violence, foul language, sexuality and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is actually a town in Sicily called Corleone and Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents actually emigrated from there. However by the 1970s the town was too developed to be used in a 1940s period so filming set in Corleone was actually done in the village of Savoca, outside of Taormina.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.1M on a $6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Kane

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Homefront

The Act of Killing


A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

(2012) Documentary (Drafthouse) Anwars Congo, Herman Koto, Safit Pardede, Adi Zulkadry, Haji Anif, Jusuf Kalla, Ibrahim Sinik, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sakhyan Asmara, Soaduon Siregar, Syamsul Arfin, Yapto Soerjosoemano. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment, a means of forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours. This isn’t one of those. THIS is a movie that isn’t meant to be enjoyed so much as experienced, one that will leave you struggling with the powerful emotions and concepts it brings out in you when the movie’s over.

Starting in 1965, assassinations of Indonesian generals in an attempt to destabilize the government led to General Suharto taking control of the government. This in turn led to almost a year of unbridled mass murder ostensibly to rid the country of communists who were blamed for the assassinations. In reality, the job was given to a large extent to members of organized crime and the definition of “communists” was broadened a bit to include those who in general disagreed with the military junta and all ethnic Chinese. Later it was essentially expanded to “anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One of the more revered of the death squad leaders is Anwars Congo. Now a white-haired grandfatherly sort, he is one of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, or Pancasila Youth.  He, like the other death squad leaders, have never answered for their crimes of murdering civilians in cold blood. In fact, they are thought to be heroes and boast openly about being able to do whatever they wanted, including wanton rape and looting.

Congo tells us that the stink from the blood of the victims had grown so great that he chose to start using a wire garrote to kill his victims which required less cleaning up after. In an extraordinary move, director Oppenheimer gives Congo and a few of his cronies the opportunity to re-enact their atrocities on film in whatever style they liked.

Why would they want to, you may ask? Well, these were men heavily influenced by American b-movies (Congo had gotten his start scalping cinema tickets) and during those terrible months of late 1965 and early 1966, often used westerns and gangster movies as inspiration to carry out their heinous acts. So they do just that, filming in the style of noir, gangster movies and yes, even a musical number which concludes with the spirit of one of the victims thanking Congo for murdering him and sending him to heaven, after which he shakes the mass murderer’s hand and raises it in triumph like a prize fighter.

The cognitive dissonance depicted in this film is mind-blowing.  Gangsters are looked upon with admiration. They claim that the term gangster means “free men” (a misconception that is repeated often by the ex-criminals) and reveled in the complete freedom to do whatever they chose without regard to law or morality. The bullying and terrifying tactics are looked upon as national symbols of pride.

While most of the perpetrators have no outward remorse or guilt over their acts, cracks begin to show in Congo’s facade. He complains of nightmares that plague him nightly. Things begin to unravel when he portrays a victim being strangled in a police office. He wonders aloud if his victims felt what he did (the experience so unnerved him that he was unable to continue). Off-camera, Oppenheimer says gently but firmly that they felt much worse; they knew they were going to die while Congo knew that in his case, it was just a movie.

This leads to the denouement when Congo returns to the rooftop where he committed many of the savage acts. His growing realization over what he had done leads to one of the most compelling and literally gut-wrenching scenes in modern cinematic history.

In the viewer, there is an immediate instinct to go and comfort the grandfatherly Congo, but then we reach an epiphany of our own – does this man who committed so many monstrous acts (he claims to have killed about a thousand people personally) deserve comfort? Is there no forgiveness for him? That is a question I’m still wrestling with. How does one redeem oneself for mass murder? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. I don’t think anybody does.

Leaving the Enzian afterwards, there was so much swirling around in my head and in my heart (as was occurring with my wife as well) that the normal discussion about the film was a bit muted. I can’t say that this movie is enjoyable – but I can say that it’s important. Given our own propensity for mass shootings these days and the genocidal events that occur to this day, it’s sometimes hard to accept that there is any goodness inside the human race at all and it makes one wonder if the universe wouldn’t be a better place if the entire planet were wiped out by a convenient meteor strike. However, watching he change that occurs in someone who was such a monster at one time gives me hope that there might actually be some humanity in the human race after all.

REASONS TO GO: Makes you think and feel. One of the most powerful and moving climaxes in recent cinematic history.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems stagnant and redundant in a few places although the film’s climax brings all the parts together.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language. The themes are extremely adult (dealing with mass murder) and there are some intimations of children endangered. Also, lots and lots of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians, were so moved by this film that they came aboard as executive producers.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Year of Living Dangerously

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Family

J. Edgar


J. Edgar

Armie Hammer and Leonardo di Caprio get a look at the critics who complained about their make-up.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Ken Howard, Geoff Pierson, Dermot Mulroney, Zach Grenier, Denis O’Hare, Damon Herriman, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, Christopher Shyer. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Like the subject of yesterday’s documentary review, J. Edgar Hoover is a polarizing figure. There are those who believe he was the nation’s greatest lawman, a tremendous organizer and meticulous planner who built the Federal Bureau of Investigation from a powerless joke to perhaps the most elite law enforcement group in the world.

However, there are many who look at him as more of a cautionary tale, proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. His confidential files on many prominent Americans destroyed lives and created a climate of fear that lasted for half a century. Eastwood, a prominent Libertarian, takes on a figure who remains enigmatic more than thirty years after his death, one whose private life was a source of great speculation but of which little is truly known.

Hoover (di Caprio) is embroiled in a feud with Martin Luther King, whom he considers to be a dangerous subversive. He also finds that his legacy is being tarnished and he feels that it is time to remind America just what an important part he played in keeping the country safe, deciding to dictate his memoirs to a parade of agents over the course of several years.

Starting with the Palmer Raids in 1919 when as a lawyer for the Department of Justice, he instituted a task force of Bureau of Investigation agents who would arrest anarchists after a series of bombs (including one at the home of then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Pierson) who eventually appointed Hoover to his post).

Hoover’s bureau is at first toothless; not allowed by law to make arrests or carry firearms, they function mainly in an advisory capacity and aren’t taken too seriously in the law enforcement community. Hoover recruits men he feels will be above reproach both morally and professionally, including Clyde Tolson (Hammer), a young man that Hoover fancies. However, homosexuality is completely taboo back then and if Hoover has feelings for Tolson, he must hide them well.

Not only from the bureau but from his mother (Dench) who tells him she would rather have a dead son than a live daffodil, referring  to the nickname of a gay acquaintance of the family who killed himself after being outted. Hoover lives with his overbearing mother even though he is the chief of an important bureau in Washington.

Once prohibition begins, the age of the gangster commences. Hoover turns his attention from anarchists and communists to gangsters who are not only running around lawless (and escaping justice by crossing state lines) but have captured the popular imagination. Hoover demands and gets legislation that allows his FBI officers broader powers, including the power to make arrests and carry firearms. When Hoover is criticized for not having personally arrested anyone, he stages arrests to make it look like he was the agent in charge when in reality he was just showing up for the press cameras after the dangerous work was done.

The kidnapping of the son of Charles Lindbergh (Lucas) becomes a game changer. Hoover endures the ridicule of supercilious cops (Mulroney) and watches them bungle the investigation, refusing to use the modern investigative techniques that Hoover (to his credit) was instituting at the FBI. Of course, history records the fate of the Lindbergh baby but it was the FBI who arrested Bruno Hauptmann (Herriman) for the crime.

Eastwood makes clear that Hoover used the tragedy to further his own agenda, which in particular allowed the FBI to be in charge of a central repository of fingerprints . He also used it as publicity to establish the FBI as an organization to be admired; a series of comic books came out portraying Hoover as an action hero, taking down criminals himself (when in fact he did not).

It was about this time that Hoover began keeping private files on public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, which he used as potential sources of blackmail to get what he wanted but also to keep an eye on people he considered subversive. Those files would cover figures from politicians to Presidents, actors to musicians, writers to journalists and go well into the 1970s.

The movie deals with Hoover’s private life gingerly, including the rumors of cross-dressing and homosexuality, both of which are disputed to this day. Eastwood intimates that both were in the background but never really acted upon.

The movie is long (but then again it deals with a 50 year career in the public eye) and it drags a bit towards the end. Some critics have complained that Eastwood doesn’t give Hoover an excoriation for his abuses of power (which I think was unnecessary – there have been plenty of calling to accounts for Hoover to render another one unnecessary) and that the old age make-up used by Hammer and di Caprio were distracting (which I found untrue).

After a subpar effort with Hereafter Eastwood returns to form with a potential Oscar contender. Di Caprio delivers a powerful performance that has to be considered an early entry into the Best Actor race. He makes Hoover relatable and human in some ways, while enigmatic and unapproachable in others. He never demystifies Hoover but never makes him a demagogue either. He is a man with an agenda, one which mostly involved cementing his own power, authority and position. He was also a man who yearned for acceptance and admiration.

Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, is the glue that holds the movie together. He is the conscience of the king in many ways, and his Clyde witnesses some egregious violations of civil liberties and common decency but he is above all else loyal both to the bureau but more to the man.  It is at times heartbreaking to watch.

Less has been said about Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s executive assistant and in most ways the keeper of his secrets. She was a formidable woman in her own right and according to the movie anyway, rejected a proposal of marriage from Hoover. Watts gives her that inner strength as well as making her easy on the eyes. It’s a very strong performance that may well get some Oscar consideration of its own, although I’m less sure of that it will personally.

Is this the definitive film biography of the former FBI director? It certainly is for now but I’m not 100% sure that there isn’t a better movie on his life out there to be made. For my money, this is a very good movie that works not only as a biography but a look at the trappings of power and how seductive they can be. It truly is a cautionary tale and one which I sadly suspect we haven’t learned from as a species yet.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-caliber performances from di Caprio and Hammer. A return to form for Eastwood.

REASONS TO STAY: The bouncing around of timelines sometimes gets confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language here and there and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Armie Hammer’s great-grandfather was oil tycoon Armand Hammer who was suspected by Hoover of having communist ties; Hoover was said to have had a confidential file on him.

HOME OR THEATER: This would probably look just as good at home as it would in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Creation (2009)

The Dark Knight


The Dark Knight

Batman heads towards Sturgis, not realizing he's about to have the crap kicked out of him by 100,000 bikers.

(2008) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonel, Cillian Murphy, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, William Fichtner, Ng Chin Han.  Directed by Christopher Nolan

Most of us have light and darkness within our souls in equal or near-equal measures. There are few of us who are truly evil or completely good. In many ways, those sorts of personalities are aberrations, mutants that deviate from the norm. For most of us, that darkness and light are constantly at war as we strive to do the right thing…or the easy thing. For some of us that war ends in victory; for others, crashing defeat.

A bank robbery of a bank that launders money for the mob sets a chain of events in motion. The gangs, once completely in control of Gotham City are on the defensive after Batman (Bale) has largely cleaned up crime. They are approached by The Joker (Ledger), who offers to kill their nemesis for half of their funds, which their Chinese accountant Lau (Han) has transported to Hong Kong for safekeeping. The crime lords turn down the Joker’s generous offer, with one of them, Gambol (White) putting a bounty on the Joker’s head. That doesn’t end so well for Gambol and his gang is taken over by the Joker.

Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Oldman) and Batman decide to bring in the new crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) on board their attempts to bring down the mob once and for all. Dent is dating assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal), who was the childhood sweetheart of Bruce Wayne, Batman’s civilian alter ego. While that raises Batman’s hackles somewhat, he realizes that Dent is the city’s great white hope and the best chance for him to retire the Batman cowl and live a normal life.

Batman captures Lau in a spectacular and daring raid in Hong Kong, allowing Gordon and Dent to arrest the mob en masse. The Joker announces that until Batman reveals his true identity, he is going to kill somebody in Gotham and he makes good on it, murdering the police commissioner and the judge presiding over the mobster’s trial. An attempt to murder the mayor is foiled by Gordon who is apparently killed in the process. Wayne decides to reveal his secret identity and is about to do so when Dent announces that he is the Batman, prompting Dent to be put into protective custody. The Joker goes after him and Batman rushes to the rescue. The Joker is captured with the help of Gordon, who had faked his death.

It turns out however that Dent was captured after all as was Rachel. The two of them have been taken to buildings on opposite ends of town, and are set to blow up at the same time. While the police and Batman race to rescue both Dent and Rachel, events are set in motion that will change the lives of Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent forever, transmute friend into foe and change Batman’s image in Gotham City from Dark Knight to something far more sinister.

This was the movie that owned 2008 and to a large extent the ripples of its success still rumble through Hollywood and influence the way movies are made. For many, this is not only the best comic book movie ever made; it’s the best movie period. I can certainly see their point.

Nolan made a movie that is all about choices and that war between good and evil in all of us. The best of us can be pushed towards darkness under the right circumstances. Nolan seems interested in seeing how far the breaking point is for a good man and his interest in this is seen through the eyes of the Joker. It’s hard to even comprehend, but our avatar in the movie is the villain and most of us don’t even recognize. That is an act of filmmaking genius in my book.

What helps pull it off is a performance for the ages by the late Heath Ledger. By now most everybody knows that Ledger died shortly after filming completed of an accidental overdose of prescription medicines and would win nearly every acting award posthumously for his work here. There are those who felt that it might well have been a sympathy vote but even had Ledger not passed away he would have deserved every accolade. His Joker is complex, insane yes but not a caricature – this is a real flesh and blood madman who is equal parts brilliant to equal parts insane. He is the center of the movie even if he’s not onscreen for much of it. His presence is felt in every moment of the film and when he is onscreen, there is no doubt that Ledger is the center of audience attention.

It also helps that nearly every other performance in this movie is outstanding. Eckhart’s craggy good looks make him the all-American hero, from dimpled chin to brilliant smile making his fall all the more wrenching. Gyllenhaal, who replaced Kate Holmes in the role (she inexplicably gave up the part to work in Mad Money with Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah…huh?) is much sweeter and more down-to-earth, making her a better fit than the fidgety Holmes. Freeman and Caine are also terrific, playing both ends of Batman’s moral compass. Oldman gets to play the hero, something he rarely gets to do (although his Sirius Black performance in the Harry Potter film might bring more of those roles his way).

Bale is the lead role here but to be quite honest he isn’t the focus. It takes a generous performer to allow his cast mates to shine, particularly when you are the de facto lead but Bale did that here, stepping out of the spotlight (or the Bat-Signal more appropriately) to become a part of an ensemble more than the heroic lead. It’s a gutsy move by both director and star and it pays off in spades.

The movie has an epic sense to it as well as a sense of tragedy which elevate this above the usual popcorn fare. The excellent script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is almost Shakespearean in its scope. Those who denigrate comic books and the movies based on them as childish and one-dimensional would do well to watch this movie. These are characters you care about that have problems you can relate to in a setting that’s grand and larger than life.

The Dark Knight proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a big popcorn movie can be intelligent and daring as well, and still make box office bucks. It establishes Nolan as one of the great directors working today. A sequel is currently being filmed as of this writing for release in July of 2012 and barring a complete meltdown will likely be the Big Kahuna in terms of box office next year. If it’s half as good as this movie was, it will earn that title proudly.

WHY RENT THIS: Ledger’s performance is one of the greatest ever on film. Tremendous action and a great story make this one of the best comic book movies ever made.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many characters create too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the violence is awfully intense and the Joker can be extremely disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Batman movie that features none of the following elements – Bruce Wayne in a tuxedo, Wayne manor or live/CGI bats. It is also the fourth movie to bring in a billion dollars in worldwide box office, and the first comic book-based movie to win an acting Oscar (Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-Disc DVD set includes some promotional viral videos of various cast members in characters being interviewed on a faux news program about the notorious Batman. There are also some featurettes on the Blu-Ray that cover the gadgets Batman uses as well as examining the psychology of Bruce Wayne.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1B on a $185M production budget; the movie was a ginormous blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Mammoth

The Air I Breathe


The Air I Breathe

Forest Whitaker ponders how much simpler his life would be if he were a butterfly.

(THINKfilm) Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Bacon, Emile Hirsch, Julie Delpy, Clark Gregg, Kelly Hu. Directed by Jieho Lee

An ancient Chinese proverb breaks life down to four core emotions – Happiness, Sorrow, Pleasure and Love. These are as essential to life as the air we breathe (clever, no?) and without a balance of these things, we are unable to live our lives properly.

Each of the four vignettes in this film is centered around one of these emotions, or at least so we’re told. The first, “Happiness,” presents Whitaker as a timid banker who overhears a conversation at work in which a snide young man with “connections” tells some friends that they need to bet heavily on a race in which the outcome has been fixed. Whitaker goes to the same underground and illegal betting parlor and puts everything on his credit cards on the horse, going so far as to take a $50K line of credit out from the house. This is an extraordinarily unwise thing to do when you don’t have the ability to pay that kind of money back, especially from this kind of house.

The horse that was supposed to win stumbles and falls and the banker is on the hook for fifty grand to the notorious Fingers (Garcia), who came by his nickname honestly albeit gruesomely. At first, the banker resolves to skip town but a visit from Fingers’ menacing right-hand man (Fraser) dissuades the banker, who in a knuckleheaded move then decides to rob a bank to get the cash. For a vignette that is supposed to be about happiness, things sure don’t end happily.

The second vignette, “Pleasure,” is about Fingers’ man Friday, who has a special gift – he is able to foresee the future, only not his own. Fingers orders him to take his nephew Tony (Hirsch) on his rounds and show him what’s what. As the clairvoyant flunky complies, he discovers that he has lost his gift – which has been both a blessing and a curse. It certainly hasn’t been much of a pleasure.

The third vignette, “Sorrow,” concerns Trysta (Gellar), a pop singer who is on the verge of breaking out. Her manager gives Fingers her contract to pay off a gambling debt, which makes Trysta uneasy. The direction she wants her career to go isn’t necessarily the one that Fingers wants her to go to; when she attempts to flee, Fingers sends his clairvoyant assassin after her. This was the first segment that is aptly named.

Finally, there’s love in which an MD (Bacon) who is in love with his best friend’s wife (Delpy) is horrified to discover that she requires a transfusion in order to survive a bite from a rare snake (don’t ask) and her blood type is impossibly rare – unless you write for the movies, in which case it so happens that a certain pop star serendipitously has the same blood type.

Lee is a first-time director, so it is impressive that he put together a cast the caliber of this one together, which includes the Oscar-winning Whitaker and A-listers like Fraser and Bacon, as well as the up and coming Hirsch who may yet turn out to be the next Leonardo di Caprio.

In terms of performance, he gets what he pays for here as nearly the entire cast delivers, with outstanding grades to Fraser in particular, who plays the grim and rough clairvoyant with enough heart to make him sympathetic, but with a reptilian cold shell. Garcia plays Fingers with the same oily menace that made his performance as Terry Benedict in the Oceans movies so delicious.

What submarines this movie is the same thing that torpedoes most independent anthology movies; the unevenness of the vignettes. While the Fraser bit is the best of the bunch, the tone and flow are jarring when put next to the Bacon bit (I always wanted to say that – groan if you must) so in other words, the ride gets bumpy.

Also, the thematic conceit of linking each vignette to one of the Chinese core emotions doesn’t work for me as well; perhaps the point is to illustrate the lack of those emotions in order to play up their importance. If so, then the filmmakers are being unnecessarily indirect and sly; if not, then they probably could have used a steadier hand on the rewrites.

The main problem is you wind up wondering if you haven’t seen this all before and better, and the truth is that you have. With the success of Crash and Babel, indie filmmakers were anxious to channel their inner Robert Altmans and there consequently has been a rash of these sorts of movies that were released with varying degrees of success – including another one in which Whitaker stars that was previously reviewed here entitled Powder Blue.

I like a movie that takes chances and this one takes a few, but if you’re going to take chances you need to have your act together first and this movie isn’t quite there. It has enough moments that make it worthy of a mild recommendation, but understand that this isn’t a movie that’s going to give you a case of the “oh wows” by any stretch of the imagination.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some interesting moments and performances, particularly from Fraser, Whitaker, Garcia and Hirsch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overall pretty disjointed and as most independent anthology movies are, uneven in terms of quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and foul language and a fair share of sexuality and a smidgen of nudity; add it all together and it spells out “mature.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pop songs supposedly sung by Gellar’s character Trysta are in reality sung by Kim Wayman.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Summer Hours

Public Enemies


Public Enemies

Johnny Depp, unphased that they didn't spring for a convertible, finds another means of open-air driving.

(Universal) Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, James Russo, Bill Camp. Directed by Michael Mann.

The difference between a hero and a folk hero is often vast. Folk heroes are often regarded as villains in their time, becoming favorites long after their deaths. Sometimes, they are terribly misunderstood by their contemporaries.

John Dillinger (Depp) qualifies as a folk hero more than a traditional hero. He robs banks yes, but he has a certain ethical code; the movie starts out with the jailed Dillinger being broken out of prison by his gang members. When the brutality of one of the men leads to the death of Dillinger’s mentor Walter Dietrich (Russo), an enraged Dillinger kicks the offender out of the escape car.

G-man Melvin Purvis (Bale) receives notoriety by gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum). FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) promotes him to a task force with one directive: capture Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. The ambitious Purvis immediately heads to Chicago to do just that.

Dillinger, relaxing at a restaurant between train robberies, meets coat check girl Billy Frechette (Cotillard) and immediately falls for her. He woos her by buying fur coats and expensive gifts. Even after he tells her who he is, she decides to stay with him.

A failed ambush at a hotel that leads to the death of an agent at the hands of the brutal Baby Face Nelson (Dorff) leads to Purvis calling in seasoned professional lawmen, Texas Rangers led by the dour Charles Winstead (Lang) despite the objections of Hoover. Shortly afterwards, Dillinger is actually captured after a hotel fire in Tucson and extradited to Indiana. He boldly escapes from the “escape-proof” prison there by ingeniously whittling a fake gun out of wood.

Dillinger returns to Chicago and finds himself unwelcome there. The heat the manhunt for him is bringing down on the city is interfering with the mob’s lucrative bookmaking operation, and Mafioso Frank Nitti (Camp) has hung out the get out of town sign personally. Dillinger is short on funds and reluctantly takes a squirrelly bank job, despite the presence of the twitchy Nelson. Predictably, Nelson opens fire on a cop outside the bank, leading to a shoot-out.

The G-Men capture a wounded gang member who is tortured until he reveals the location of the gang, the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. The feds surround the lodge and would seem to have the element of surprise, but trigger happy G-Men open fire on civilians mistaken for gangsters and a gun battle ensues. All of Dillinger’s gang, including Nelson die in the gunfire as does Purvis’ partner Carter Baum (Cochrane). Dillinger barely escapes with his best friend, Red Hamilton (Clarke) who is mortally wounded. Dillinger, alone, buries his friend.

Things are spiraling towards the inevitable for Dillinger. Frechette is captured by the G-Men after Dillinger drops her off at what he thought was a safe location. She refuses to divulge the location of her lover, even after being beaten by a brutal agent, although Purvis and Winstead stop the assault before it gets out of hand.

In the meantime, Purvis is pointed at Madam Anna Sage (Katic) by a crooked cop. He threatens her with deportation unless she co-operates. The stage is set for the denouement that even Dillinger knew was inevitable given his lifestyle.

One has to admire the look of the film. Michael Mann went to great lengths to insure historical accuracy in the set design, costumes and vehicles (going so far to use a car that Dillinger actually drove). Unfortunately, he wasn’t a stickler for it in his script. Glaring inaccuracies – for example, Baby Face Nelson did not die in the Little Bohemia gunfight as depicted here, but several months later and not in the presence of Purvis. In fact, none of Dillinger’s gang perished in the battle.

This is meant to be a vehicle for stars Depp and Bale, but turns out a bit disappointing. Depp is so low-key as to be nearly comatose, and Bale, so good in The Dark Knight, seems unsure of what to do with his character. Mann has successfully directed two stars in the same film before (Collateral) but for some reason their performances fall a little flat here.

The gun battles are impressive and exceptionally LOUD. Throughout, the film looks impressive and I really wanted to like it more than I wound up doing. Maybe I wasn’t in the best of moods at the time, or maybe I missed the point. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really connect with the movie. I found myself feeling like I didn’t know either Dillinger or Purvis any better after the credits ran than before I walked in. I also found the liberties taken with the facts disquieting; especially in light of how hard Mann worked to make the look and sound of the film more authentic (Crudup perfectly catches the Cagney-like staccato of Hoover’s voice). In fact, some of the supporting performances make this worth seeking out.

In the end, it compares unfavorably with other gangster action movies such as The Untouchables. It re-creates the Midwest of the Depression era near-perfectly, but doesn’t really make you want to spend any time there. Now there’s a crime even Dillinger would never have committed.

REASONS TO GO: A near-perfect re-creation of Depression-era Chicago and the Midwest. There are some superb supporting performances, particularly from Crudup, Clarke and Lang.

REASONS TO STAY: Oddly enough, the leads are almost un-interesting. Sticklers for historical accuracy will be dismayed at the sometimes unnecessary gaffes that permeate the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a heavy serving of violence and graphic carnage, including scenes of torture and brutality. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was shot in locations where the events depicted actually happened, such as the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin (site of the famous shoot-out) and the Lake County Jail in Indiana, where Dillinger’s daring “wooden gun” escape took place.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The standard DVD edition includes a featurette called “Larger Than Life: Adversaries” which discusses the rivalry between Purvis and Dillinger, featuring newsreel footage, interviews with Purvis’ son as well as the actors from the film. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD featrues a featurette entitled “Last of the Legendary Outlaws,” a feature on the real-life Dillinger with some wonderful newsreel footage. Finally, the Blu-Ray has an interactive historical timeline as well as a gangster movie trivia game in addition to the featurettes previously mentioned.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine