Friday, August 28, 2020

Donnie Brasco: Why I Can’t Fuhgeddaboudit

It’s not 100% correct to say that Donnie Brasco, the 1997 crime thriller I saw last night, haunts my dreams. Still, I woke up this morning realizing that the central strand of the film, which stars Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, had woven its way into my subconscious. I’ve long since come to recognize my basic need to keep writing, no matter what: hence the longevity of this nine-year-old blog. And, especially of late, my dreams have been full of moments in which I’m doing archival research, wrestling with words, and otherwise  making like a writer.

 Donnie Brasco, though, is not about writing at all, except perhaps when we see cryptic messages being tapped out on an old-fashioned typewriter keyboard. Instead, it’s about a murderous Mafia gang, based on the real-life Bonnano crime family that helped to rule New York’s mean streets in the 1970s. Donnie Brasco was real too, sort of. His was the actual nom de guerre of an undercover FBI agent whose mandate was to infiltrate the gang and take it down. As played by Depp, he’s a solemn young fellow who scowls often and has a wicked right hook. He knows the local goombah lingo like a pro, and he seems capable of intense  personal loyalty. All of which helps him to connect with Lefty (Al Pacino), an ageing hitman who’s chafing under the realization that he’ll never be “upped” to a position of power. Lefty takes Donnie, posing as a jewel thief, into his confidence and introduces him to the big boys. Soon Donnie is being pressured on all sides: by the organization, by his FBI bosses, by the suburban wife and kids he keeps carefully hidden. But his personal affection for Lefty and for the thrills of the loud, crude lifestyle that Lefty represents exert a powerful tug.

 So how does this fit into my nocturnal cogitations? Well, in my dream I am (much as I am in real life) a biographer, researching a behind-the-scenes Hollywood personality. I know this guy slightly, and so I hang around, trying to pick up tidbits that will someday be of use. I also take advantage of a passing acquaintance with his ex-wife, all in the service of trying to probe his secrets. Like, for instance, the fact that at a low point in his life he survived by selling genocide insurance (say what?) to elderly Jews fearful of another Holocaust. As a would-be biographer of this man, I am his secret shadow, much as Donnie creates and sustains a deep friendship with Lefty that justifies his covert professional role, but also at times transcends it.

 For the truth of the matter is that Donnie not only likes Lefty; he likes being a Wise Guy. And the Wise Guy persona – pugnacious, brutal, quick on the trigger – is one he comes to adopt more and more in his personal life. So, ultimately, something has to give.

 We’ve all seen our share of Mafia movies: it sometimes seems that every major filmmaker out there tries to put his stamp on the genre. This one, surprisingly, is the work of a British director, Mike Newell, who’s best known for delightful froth like Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s done nicely here: Donnie Brasco is a darkly elegant piece of work. But the heart of the film is doubtless the interplay between Depp and Pacino. Depp’s usual tightly clenched wariness is effective, but it may be Pacino I’ll remember most fondly. Once he was the up-and-coming junior godfather Michael Corleone; now he’s world-weary and unforgettable. Fuhgeddaboudit!




Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Boys on Top: “Top Gun” Revisited

 A year from now (at least we can hope!), Top Gun: Maverick will come roaring into movie theatres across the nation. That’s right: we’ll see Tom Cruise as Maverick and Val Kilmer as his frenemy Iceman return three decades later as U.S. Navy flyboys who still feel a need for speed. This news sent me back to the 1986 original, which sealed Tom Cruise’s legacy as the action hero with the most agreeably cocky grin in Hollywood.

 Top Gun was, I’ve learned, the Navy’s best recruiting tool of all time. After seeing it, young men flocked to recruitment offices, eager to sign up to wear pristine white uniforms and soar like eagles in defense of their country. (Who needs video games when you can do the real thing?) It’s hardly clear whether a next-gen Top Gun will have the same appeal, in an era where wars seem to be getting hotter all the time, but the romantic spirit of the original is what has stayed with me. That and the fact that Top Gun is essentially an ode to masculinity. The message: boys just gotta be boys, and ain’t it grand?

 What makes Top Gun such a testosterone flick? Well, it’s crammed full of young guys with cool codenames like Cougar and Wolfman and Merlin. They share a blood-brother camaraderie, as well as a boyish sense of adventure that would be right at home on a Cub Scout sleepaway.  A self-confident swagger is something they prize, even if it’s softened by the secret sorrows they do their best to conceal. (Maverick is dealing with a mysteriously lost father, and his evolving relationship with flight instructor “Viper” – played by Tom Skerritt – has all the complexity of a father/son bond.) These men are easy on the eyes too: as they shed their shirts to play beach volleyball, the camera shamelessly ogles their glistening pecs.

 Are there women in this man’s world? Of course, although the feminine gets short shrift here. Cruise’s leading lady, Kelly McGillis, is undeniably gorgeous, and yet part of her charm in this film is that she can hold her own in a man’s world. Not only is she beautiful and brainy and good at a quip: she’s an aviation expert who lives to talk knowledgeably about fighter jets. She looks fully comfortable astride a motorcycle, and even her nickname – “Charlie” – is tomboyish. The film’s second important female character, played by a very youthful Meg Ryan, is more traditionally feminine: she’s the cutie-pie wife of Maverick’s best pal and mother of a young son. Still, she comes across as a male fantasy figure when she shouts to her spouse across a crowded barroom, “You big stud . . . take me to bed or lose me forever.” Later in the film, while dealing with her own fresh bereavement, she takes it upon herself to console Maverick. Yes, she’s lost her husband and the father of her child, but in this movie he’s the one who’s really suffering after his buddy bites the big one on his watch.

 The death of Goose is a sad moment, needless to say, but it only serves to shore up the idea that pain must be accepted as one component of pride and accomplishment. There’s no room in a man’s world for sorrow to serve as a stumbling block. Instead, like the knights of old, Maverick and his buddies must bury their grief and move on. Because, of course, a boy-man’s gotta do what a boy-man’s gotta do. It will be interesting to see if the  near-geriatric 2021 Maverick still follows that code.



Friday, August 21, 2020

Talking ‘Bout “The Conversation”

 In early 1974, between the release of The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed a small film that had big implications for life in these United States. The Conversation—which hinges on the covert taping of private speech—has a clear, though subtle, tie-in to the presidency of Richard Nixon, who would resign from office in August 1974, partly due to the secret tape recordings he made in the Oval Office. The events of  Watergate, of course, came to a head 46 years ago, but The Conversation still feels fresh, even if the technology used within the story now seems dated. In focusing on secret surveillance and the bugging of private conversations by electronic means, the film suggests how vulnerable we are to outside tinkering with our lives. At a time when we’re all watching out for identity theft and bemoaning the way social media has robbed us of our privacy, The Conversation has a lot to say. It’s a paranoia classic wholly fit for our current age of anxiety.

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul is the film’s ostensible everyman hero. But it’s not that the good guys and bad guys are clearly distinguished. That’s something else that seems all too modern: the ambiguity of the moral choices made in the course of the action. Harry is, by trade, a professional security guy, which means he’s an expert wiretapper and someone who knows how to delicately separate incriminating speech from background noise. Unfortunately for him, his one stab at taking a moral stand basically ends up making things worse. That nice young couple in the park: what are they really up to? And how can he, basically a loner who doesn’t have much use for other people, square his job  description with the prickings of his conscience?

I’ve heard that Coppola was inspired by Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in which a British photographer (David Hemmings) finds what he thinks might be evidence of a crime hidden within a casual snapshot he took in a local park. Coppola’s film is less exotic and less existential than Blow-Up (yes, a mime is briefly present in his park too, but that mime is not playing tennis with an imaginary ball). Yet, for all of that, it’s fascinating how in these films two masters of cinema both look at the tools of their trade—whether photography or sound recording—afresh, recognizing that these have the potential to lead less to truth than to confusion and even  danger.   

Along with Hackman (coming off his Oscar for The French Connection), Coppola has cast such pros as Teri Garr (just prior to her breakout role in Young Frankenstein), John Cazale, Frederick Forrest, Cindy Williams, and (in a small, sinister part) the young Harrison Ford. I have to particularly mention the fine character actor Allen Garfield, who plays a hustling surveillance pro: this past April, he died of COVID-19 at the age of 80. And yes! that’s an uncredited Robert Duvall, stepping away from his Tom Hagen identity in the Godfather films, in the shadowy but essential role of a business tycoon known only as “The Director.”

Though The Conversation never attracted Godfather-sized box office, it was not overlooked by the members of the Academy. It was nominated for three Oscars: for best picture, best original screenplay, and (appropriately) best sound design. Alas, it received no statuettes. The big winner that year: Coppola’s other project, The Godfather, Part II. Amazing that two of the five best picture nominees for 1975 were directed by the same not-yet-forty-year-old man.


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Capering through West Virginia: “Logan Lucky”

 Sometimes, especially in the midst of pandemics, girls just wanna have fun. And there’s nothing more fun than a heist movie done right. Logan Lucky falls into that venerable genre of crime capers in which an unlikely team of misfits gathers to pull off – or not quite pull off – an intricate and lucrative job. One of my very favorites is 1964’s Topkapi, directed by American ex-pat Jules Dassin, who had previously helmed the much darker French heist film from 1955, Rififi. The exuberant Topkapi benefits from Technicolor, exotic locales, and a starry international cast (Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Morley, and the wonderful Peter Ustinov, who won an Oscar for his role as a nebbishy fallguy.) The action involves an elaborate plan to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. Do the crooks get away with it? Well, a little bird has told me what happens next.

Two years after Topkapi, I fell hard for a delectable trifle called How to Steal a Million. It’s got Paris, Audrey Hepburn at her most winsome, and Peter O’Toole as his most dashing, so how could I not be charmed? Here’s one caper film where we don’t have to worry at all about suspending moral judgment, because the object being stolen – a small sculpture known as the Cellini Venus – is actually something that belongs to the thieves in the first place. (Don’t ask!) It’s a romantic comedy with a twist of lemon, and what could be more fun than that?

 I’m also a fan of an L.A.-centric heist film, 2003’s The Italian Job, in which a large contingent of Hollywood names (Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Donald Sutherland) co-star with a valiant little Mini-Cooper. The underground, underappreciated Los Angeles Metro shows up in a supporting role, and a good time is had by all. (From all reports, this is a much better film than the 1969 British original.) Speaking of updates, the original 1960 Ocean’s Eleven, featuring hijinks by Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, was far eclipsed by Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 version, starring George Clooney and a host of other A-listers (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, the late Carl Reiner). This Las Vegas casino-heist film proved so popular that it spawned two sequels and then a female spin-off, Ocean’s 8, with Sandra Bullock as Clooney’s sister and the new leader of the pack. 

 Though Soderbergh claimed in 2013 to have retired from Hollywood, he returned in 2017 with Logan Lucky, about a  blue-collar caper which has been called (even within the script itself) Ocean’s 7-Eleven. (The wholly unknown screenwriter may in fact be Soderbergh’s wife, Jules Asner, writing under a pseudonym.) Here the milieu is far from Las Vegas glitz: we’re in West Virginia, a place of beauty (see John Denver’s “Country Roads,” which plays a key role in the plot), but also a land of poverty and desperation. Also, of course, NASCAR. A motley crew played by Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, a slumming Daniel Craig, and two other doofuses figure out an audacious, sometimes downright hilarious, way of ripping off the proceeds of the local race track in order to re-make their down-at-the-heels lives. Also figuring into the plot: cockroaches, gummy bears, a children’s beauty pageant, and a prosthetic arm. The very indie film was shot in a mere 36 days (which puts it nearly in Roger Corman territory): perhaps that’s why hillbilly accents are every which way and some plot elements never quite gel. But if Logan Lucky lacks logic, it certainly has heart—and good cheer. So I’ll cheer: Hooray!


Friday, August 14, 2020

"Dolmedes is My Name": Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee

 Last year, when the world was still young and full of possibility, Eddie Murphy starred in a flashy but unlikely comedy called Dolemite is My Name. Who knew? I’m hardly in the demographic that remembered the real-life Rudy Ray Moore: the film taught me that he was a comedy and rap pioneer who in the 1970s used the persona of a folk hero loved by the Black community to entertain audiences tickled by outrageous language and even more outrageous behavior.

 The part of the film I adored shows Moore, turned down by every major studio, making his own Dolemite movie on his own dime, with a little help from his friends. These include a minor-league Black actor (D’urville Martin) coming aboard on the promise that he can  direct, as well as a gaggle of UCLA film students thrilled to be working on a real-life commercial production. It’s supposed to be a Blaxploitation flick with plenty of sex and kung-fu action: the fact that none of the cast and crew know what they’re doing makes for plenty of laughs. I laughed too: after all, I’ve been there.

  In the early 1970s, during my New World Pictures days, I worked on such vintage Blaxploitation staples as TNT Jackson. And I remember the excitement when my boss Roger Corman’s brother Gene was shooting a local production called Darktown Strutters. It was the talk of the office when a bank robbery scene was staged on the streets of Hollywood. In the interest of saving money (always a high priority in low-budget filmmaking), no rent-a-cops had been engaged to block off the city streets. So when the robbers emerged from the bank and jumped into their waiting get-away car, passersby naturally assumed that this was the real thing.  Other drivers panicked leading to a for-real car crash. Needless to say, the cameras kept on rolling, providing lots of useful action footage. Such is life when filmmaking newbies shoot on a down-&-dirty Roger Corman-type budget.

 A Dolemite-inspired character shows up in one of Spike Lee’s more recent endeavors, the loud and outrageous Chi-Raq (2015). Here Lee, in his usual eclectic fashion, addresses the issue of Black-on-Black street crime by taking a page from Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy, Lysistrata. In Aristophanes’ audacious 5th century BC play, women put a stop to the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands sex until the bloodshed ends. Lee borrows something of the Greek comic master’s plot as well as his audacious spirit: his tale of modern-day Chicago (known by some as Chi-Raq in recognition of its bloody streets) includes a spate of bawdy talk, unlikely musical interludes, and high-decibel rap battles. Our guide through this netherworld is the ultra-cool Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes, who functions as the story’s narrator or (in the ancient Greek sense) chorus. Like the rest of the characters, he tends to speak in rhyme, and his language is hardly PG-13.

 Lee, never shy about taking on artistic challenges, balances the tomfoolery with moments of genuine poignancy, encompassing the fate of children killed by stray bullets in the Chicago streets. (Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson nicely take on the role of bereaved mothers.) There’s also (surprising in a film by Lee) a good-guy white Catholic priest played by John Cusack. The wildly disparate elements of the story, and its radical tonal shifts, hardly help viewers like me. I grant I’m not the target audience, but I’m not sure just who is. It’s gutsy to use an ancient comedy to address a contemporary problem, but Lee’s experiment can be described by a classical Greek word: Chaos.


Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Lying at the Feet of a Good Liar

 I don’t mean to brag (yeah, right!), but I once shared the stage with Sir Ian McKellen. Touring the world in a one-man show, McKellen stopped off in L.A. for a stint at the Westwood Playhouse. The evening was called Acting Shakespeare, and he alternately emoted and conversed with the audience, discoursing on how he prepared himself for the great Shakespearean roles that crowned his brilliant stage career. At one point, he announced that he needed volunteers from the audience, the more the better. As we all turned shy, he reminded us that this was probably our only chance to serve as his acting partners. Surely the bragging rights were worth a little embarrassment? That broke the ice: about twenty of us slowly got to our feet and came down the aisles to mount the stage. 

McKellen proceeded to have the curtain lowered, cutting off the view of those still in their seats, and then privately told us what this was all about. He was going to do one of Shakespeare’s great battlefield orations, in which a king (was it a Richard or a Henry?) laments the death and destruction he’s just witnessed We, his newly minted entourage, would stand quietly behind him.  A certain line would be our cue. When it came, we were all to slump to the floor, dead. And there we’d lie, not moving, not breathing if we could help it, until his powerful oration came to an end.

 Though McKellen is renowned for his stage work, he’s also done his share of films. And what an eclectic lot they are! He’s played classical roles, of course, and nabbed a well-deserved Oscar nomination for portraying openly-gay Hollywood director James Whale in 1998’s Gods and Monsters. (McKellen has long been an “out” actor who takes pride in his activism on behalf of gender equality.)  Another Oscar nod honored his portrayal of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. He was featured as Magneto in the X-Men films, played the alarm clock, Cogsworth, in Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, and was Gus the Theatre Cat in the much-lambasted film version of the stage perennial, Cats.

 Last year, at the impressive age of 80, he took a major role that didn’t require fancy makeup. The film was The Good Liar, a thriller based on a popular novel, in which he played opposite the redoubtable Helen Mirren. Though McKellen’s character, Roy Courtnay, does not resort to screen-worthy disguises to hide his true identity, he’s in fact a nefarious con man masquerading as a pleasant but feeble old codger. Feigning a bad leg, he insinuates himself into the home (and apparently the heart) of a retired college professor named Betty. She seems surprisingly naïve, but is she? His goal is to siphon off all of her money. Her goal – well, it’s complicated, but we sense from the start that any character played by Mirren is no pushover. Best-known by moviegoers for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen, she gravitates toward parts that suggest a gracious but steely intelligence.

 The Good Liar’s big reveal, which follows an apparently light-hearted trip à deux to Berlin, might read well on the page. But the long flashback that explains a previously concealed past history comes off on screen as highly unlikely, leaving viewers like me to feel manipulated. Which is perhaps why this film, despite its starry pedigree, did not wow ticket-buyers. Still, watching two of England’s greatest thespians battle for supremacy is definitely a treat. And if acting is simply an elaborate form of lying, play on! 



Friday, August 7, 2020

Soaring and Crashing with The Great Santini

War is hell, but perhaps there are some for whom peace is worse. One such is Lt Colonel Wilbur “Bull” Meechum of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pat Conroy novel that became a 1978 film. Meechum, who thrives on being in command (of his fighter jet, his men, all the members of his family) enjoys dubbing himself The Great Santini when he’s pulled off some flashy stunt. He’s played with panache by the always impressive Robert Duvall, who was Oscar-nominated for this role three years before he took home the statuette for Tender Mercies. A supporting actor nomination went to young Michael O’Keefe, for playing Meechum’s oldest son.

 O’Keefe, whose role is that of a sensitive high school senior with a talent for basketball, is in fact the eldest of seven children from a devout Irish Catholic household. Which made him an ideal choice to play Ben, the eldest of four kids reined in by their mother’s gentle devotion as well as their father’s strict, elaborate codes of conduct. The Great Santini treats his wife and children like members of his squadron, issuing commands, barking out reprimands, sometimes engaging in horseplay but always with the sense that he’s the one in charge. In an especially dramatic segment, a friendly one-on-one backyard basketball game between father and son turns into a violent confrontation when Meechum can’t bear being defeated by his own kid. The ramifications of this moment are huge, resulting in a disaster when Ben takes the court for real as part of his high school team.

 Though the film has other plot strands, its heart is in these fraught father/son clashes. That’s doubtless because Pat Conroy, the author of the original novel, was writing close to the bone, about his own memories as the eldest son of a Marine flyboy father whose commitment to military discipline, as well as military hijinks, threatened to tear a family apart. The word is that when the novel was published in 1976, other Conroys took umbrage at this spilling of family secrets, like Donald Conroy’s violent streak and his excessive drinking. Some in the family apparently picketed book signings, passing out leaflets urging would-be patrons to avoid buying Pat’s novel. Conroy has said that in later years his father would, with apparent good humor, autograph copies as follows: "That boy of mine sure has a vivid imagination. Ol' lovable, likable Col. Don Conroy, USMC (Ret.), the Great Santini." Happily, I’ve heard that in later years—partly as a response to the novel—the elder Conroy became a kinder and gentler man.

I was delighted to spot in the cast of The Great Santini (along with the always luminous Blythe Danner as Meechum’s Southern-born wife) an old Roger Corman chum of mine, Stan Shaw. Stan began his film career in 1974 with Corman blaxploitation flicks like Truck Turner and TNT Jackson. I knew him from the latter, in which—as the male lead--he enjoys both torrid sex scenes and violent kung fu clashes with the bodacious Jeanne Bell. When we worked together on publicity releases, I was impressed at Stan’s far-ranging artistic ambitions. Not content simply to be the hero or the bad guy, he aspired to do it all, even if this meant playing a baby, playing a dog. Still working, he’s had a long and varied career, mostly in television, small roles, and small films. In The Great Santini he plays Ben’s unlikely buddy, a sweet and simple soul who loves nature but falls prey to a white bully in one of the pivotal moments of Ben’s impressionable young life.