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Life Itself (2014)
I've watched Life Itself twice, and I've cried both times. Not because the film depicts a man dying; people die all the time in movies, and we don't cry every time. I cried because it shows a man who has lived a full lifeeven if it was a life focused on watching and commenting on depictions of life itselfa man who waited fifty years to get married, and a strong, beautiful, poetic, vibrant woman gripping life, while the man who has become the love of hers actively watches as the movie reel winds down. I cried because the film reminded me of my father and the fact of his mortality. I didn't know Roger Ebert personally, but I feel as if I had. He did what all great artists do: he put himself completely into his work, so that when you read his reviews, when you witness his entertainingly passionate arguments with Gene Siskel, when you watch Life Itselfyou get a great sense of the contradiction that Roger Ebert was. He loved movies, but not all movies. The same could probably be said about his attitude toward people. He was the "people's film critic"but that is not to say that he wasn't critical. He stubbornly maintained standards of artistry, value, and decorum, and when one of those boundaries was violated, he didn't hesitate to call it out. My connection with Roger Ebert began as a connection with my father. Dad and I have disagreed on many topics: from school to religion, from politics to the meaning and purpose of life itself. But there has always been one area where we found common ground: we both love movies. My earliest memories connected to movies did not take place in movie theatres, especially before I was old enough to attend R-rated ones, but in our family room, in front of the television set, watching Siskel & Ebert with my dadwitnessing arguments about movies I hadn't even seen. I enjoyed the banter, even if I didn't yet understand the topic. I was engaged in an activity that was, by my count, four times removed from life itselfwatching my father react almost triumphantly to two film critics opining vehemently about a product of human creativity that was trying to hold a mirror up to lifeand I was loving every minute of it. Watching Life Itself added one to that degree of removedness, as it took me back, I think subconsciously, to those memories of connecting with my father, and, I guess, writing this review adds one more layer. It's amazing how a work of art or commentarythat isn't itself the phenomenon or experience being representedcan, if done well, bring the audience close to an event that they weren't directly involved in. After watching Life Itself the first time, the first thing I did was call my father. "Dad, there is a documentary about Roger Ebert that you have to see." I don't think he has gotten to it yet, but I really look forward to discussing it with him, with the realization that talking about lifeabout art, sports, politics, religion, or even deathis, itself, a big part of life.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Do the Right Thing
The ensemble cast of Do the Right Thing, which includes Spike Lee playing the main character, Mookie, is one of the best you'll see in any movie, and yet the star of the show is Lee as writer and director. The strength of the script is not in the plot, which is fairly straightforward: it is the hottest day of the Summer in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Mookie's friends Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and a boom-box-toting philosopher named Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) stage a boycott of Sal's Famous Pizzeria, which is run by an Italian-American family (Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and Richard Edson) for which Mookie delivers pizzas. Racial tensions rise with the temperature, culminating in a tragic and destructive street riot. This story spine serves as the backbone from which hangs the real meat of the film: mood, characterization, and social commentary. Mookie's job as delivery man allows Lee to follow himself through the neighborhood, and allows us to help ourselves to a daily slice of the lives of its inhabitants. That slice of life has several delicious toppings: humor, romance, and an undeniable street vibe, aided in large part by raps from Public Enemy and a misdirecting jazz score featuring Branford Marsalis on tenor sax playing original music by Bill Lee. Especially entertaining is the love-hate-love relationship between Da Mayor, beautifully played by Ossie Davis, and Mother Sister, just as beautifully played by Ruby Dee. The "chorus" of this modern-day Greek tragedya trio of beer guzzling men perched across the street from a successful Korean-owned shopis the source of poignant observations, as well as huge belly laughs. Also like a Greek tragedy, fear and sadness invade the proceedings, as we witness the inevitable acts of destruction unfold. Except, in this case, the destruction results from a tragic flaw collectively held by the neighborhood, rather than a single protagonist. There is also catharsis, starting with a montage in the middle of the film, in which several of the characters spew racial slurs directly at the camera, as if Lenny Bruce was right when he suggested that maybe we could say these words enough that they would eventually lose their meaning. Of course, the effect is ephemeral, and the true catharsis is yet to come, following a sequence of actions in which each actor does the wrong thing, from the 20/20 perspective of an outsider's view of the outcome, but the right thing from the narrow perspective of an individual's situation and personal experience of the world. The argument that spurs Buggin Out's futile boycottwhich culminates in an after-hours confrontation with Radio Raheem by his side, blasting his music in Sal's facehas merit. Since all of Sal's customers are African American, and they spend "much money" at his pizzeria, in a sense they are part owners and should have some say in the decor. At the same time, Sal's earlier refusal to comply with Buggin Out's insistence that Sal post pictures of famous African Americans alongside the Italian Americans on his Wall of Fame seems justified. Sal is the boss; it's his establishment, and he reserves the right to decorate his place to his liking. In a sense, they are both right. Sal's attack on Radio Raheem's radio can be justified with a similar rationale: Sal is the owner, and Radio and Buggin Out are misbehaving. On the surface, Radio's reaction to Sal's destruction of his radio seems difficult to justify, but we know that Radio's boom box is much more than an inanimate object; an attack on his music is like an attack on his soul. Mookie's precipitation of the riotous devastation of Sal's pizzeria is righteous retaliation for his friend's wrongful death, especially since retaliation against the cops is not viable. The only indictment Lee seems to make is against the copsbut they, too, are given the benefit of the doubt; Radio's death from excessive force seems accidental, at the hands of a police force that has lost control of the neighborhood. In the companion volume to the film (a book that includes the script, as well as Lee's production journal), there is a still of Radio Raheem's lifeless body, with a caption beneath the photograph that reads, "Murdered by hate." In the world of the movie, this hatred emanates in both directionsin all directions. It's as if the gods have randomly pulled disenfranchised people from all four corners of the globe, crammed them into a single inner-city block, and left them there with neither the social tools nor the understanding to deal with their differences. This is the melting pot melting down, where it is as difficult to choose between integration and segregation as it is to determine the right thing to do.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey
Kubrick and Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science fiction film of all time, not because it is based entirely on sound scientific premises, or because it works completely as a movie within the science fiction realm, but because it includes elements from nearly all scientific areas of inquiryfrom archaeology to astronomy, artificial intelligence to exobiologyand becausemore importantlylike science itself, it strives to explain that which has come to pass and to predict that which is yet to come, in a story that spans the far reaches of space and time, told from a cosmological perspective that characterizes the scientific pursuit of ultimate truths about man's existence and man's place in the universe. The film proceeds in four parts, the third of which, titled "Jupiter Mission," takes up nearly half of the film's total running time and operates as a mini-movie within the larger work. This third part most resembles a traditional movie in form and feel, and, accordingly, it is the most humorous and dramatic segment. My endorsement of 2001 is based sufficiently on this entertaining third segment, which sets astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole on a course for Jupiter, guided by one of the most memorable nonhuman characters in movie history: the on-board mission-control computer, HAL. The purpose of the mission is not known to the human crew of the spaceship, which includes a number of members in hibernation. The human characters in 2001 speak in a perfunctory tone, while HAL's voice, although meant to be artificial, draws our empathy. Bowman's patronizing dismissal of HAL after HAL erroneously detects a fault in a communication device is the closest a human character comes to sounding human. The implication is that, among other human faculties like motion and calculation, man has delegated his humanity to his machines, which include physical machines, as well as the machinery of bureaucracya recurring theme in Kubrick's work. When HAL gets "confused" after discovering Bowman and Poole's plans to disconnect him, another recurring theme of Kubrick surfaces: a mistrust of the machines and institutions man has invented to compensate for human nature. "It can only be attributable to human error," the puzzled HAL 9000 responds when asked about his discrepancy with the twin 9000. For how can man blame something manmade when things go awry? Unless we are to believe that HAL has been programmed to prioritize the needs of the mission over the lives of the crewand to view his role as indispensable to the mission's successthen HAL's decision to terminate the crew is a sign of insanity (yet another recurring topic of interest found in Kubrick's work). Whatever the cause or nature of HAL's behavior, he is a product of human creativity, and human creations are imperfect. The message of this third segment is one against complacency, driven home by the sharp contrast with the showboating technological calisthenics done during the "Moon Mission" of the second segment. The surrounding first and last segments deliver the film's larger, more problematic messages, as they feature the strange effects of the only "characters" common to all four segments: the alien monoliths. Contact with a monolith, when accompanied by Richard Strauss's Thus Spoke Zarathustra can apparently induce evolution. These evolutionary developments happen in the first and last segments; it is later revealed that the high-pitch tone emitted by the monolith found on the moon is indicative of its communications with the monolith in Jupiter space. But what type of evolution takes place in the first segment, titled "Dawn of Man"? If it's biological, then it happens in the wrong way, at the wrong time. This ape-man we are presented with, who learns to use an animal bone to acquire food and to defend territoryif he is a new, improved species, would be a product of an advantageous genetic mutation that would have happened to his mother. If the evolution is cultural, then every major insight, invention, or industrious feat commonly credited to human beings and/or their ancestorsfrom tool usage to the construction of the pyramids, from the generation of fire to the splitting of the atomwould have required the presence of, and would owe credit to, an alien monolith. The second evolutionary encounterand the "corrections" it achievessymbolizes an even more fatalistic view of humankind, despite the disconcertingly triumphant musical theme that accompanies it. For this one is meant to be a biological evolution; the "star child" is a new species, descendant from man, that doesn't need man's inventions to exist in space. The implication here is that man in space is like a fish out of water. But why go as far as space to find an environment in which human beings, in their natural form, lack necessary equipment? Even on Earth, we require fire to soften our food, clothing and shelter to protect us from the elements, schools to fill our heads with useful thoughts that wouldn't be there otherwise, courts to settle disputes, and machines to do work that we're not built for. Every invention, whether social, physical, or otherwise, compensates for a deficiency. And yet, the ability to create, through intellect and opposable thumbs, an environment in which human beings thrive, rather than adapting to an environment, is what sets us apart from other animals. The film celebrates this unique ability at the same time that it downplays it; the match cut between the end of the "Dawn of Man" and the beginning of the "Moon Mission"in which the ape-man's rudimentary instrument becomes a space vehicle with roughly the same shapeimplies that the only progress we are making is acquiring an ability to toss more and more sophisticated tools into the air, when all we really have to do is wait to be converted intoto be replaced bya better species. Not a comforting thought. But then again, who says that good science fictionor good science for that matterneeds to be comforting?
When Harry Met Sally... (1989)
When Harry Met Sally...
The quintessential romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally
lives up to the twofold promise of its genre; it is as genuinely funny as it is romantic. Credit its writer, Nora Ephron, its director, Rob Reiner, and its four leadsBilly Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, and Bruno Kirbyfor the film's steady stream of well-earned laughs. The movie properly centers around well-read, well-bred, well-dressed, well-mannered urbanites who have good looks, good jobs, and good futures. The question of suitability need not consider intelligence, physical attractiveness, or the ability to provide. That leaves compatibility of character to determine who ends up with whom. This keeps the romantic conflict light, which opens a void for the comedyand possibly some truths about relationshipsto fill. Filling that void is where most romantic comedies fall shortleaving them shallow and hollow, and not very funnyand where When Harry Met Sally
succeeds. Billy Crystal plays Harry Burns, who "meets" Sally Albright, played by Meg Ryan, multiple times throughout the film. Each time they meet, time has changed them, so it's as if they are meeting each other for the first time. The true first time they meet, Harry is a self-inflicted cynic who always flips to the last page of a book before he reads it so that he'll know how it ends in case he dies before finishing it. His eyes seem perpetually half-closed, and his tone reflects a young man who thinks he knows it all. He plants the seed that germinates into the main thematic question of the film by positing to Sally that men and women can never be friends because "the sex part always gets in the way." Sally is a wide-eyed, prim-and-proper optimist, who admits that she has a positive outlook on life, as if she knows there's something wrong with that. Each time they meet again, their eyes change disposition in opposite directionshis becoming more open as life throws him curveballs, and hers becoming less perky as experience wears down her naivety. Eventually, their eyes meet in the middle, and the third meeting, which takes place roughly ten years after the first, turns Harry and Sally into friends. About a year goes by, and we find the title characters dancing together at a New Year's Eve party. This scene clinches our suspicion that Crystal and Ryan aren't just fine comic performers; they're fine actors. They act this scene with their eyes. Throughout the film, both actors prove their ability to adapt to their characters' changing ages and attitudes. Ryan's performance is chameleonic, her character subtly adjusting to each costume change. This scene also demonstrates the film's exceptional use of music; as Harry and Sally realize what is developing between them, we realize that the song they are dancing to is Harry Connick Jr.'s rendition of "I Could Write A Book," which finds the appropriate lyrics, "how to make two lovers of friends." Still, the couple does not consummate. Time passes. They try to set each other up with their best friends through a double blind dateanother scene in which Crystal and Ryan tell the story with their eyes. And we recognize Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher as the perfect players of the "other couple." Finally, Harry and Sally have sex, and we learn the real reason why men and women can never remain "just friends." It's not because the man will always want to have sex with the woman; it's because, once they have sex, the woman will attach more meaning to the act than the man. This answer raises another question: when does, or why should, sex mean something, and when does, or why should, it mean everything? The film doesn't really answer this question, but at least it asks it. Instead, it ends in textbook romantic fashion, with Sally standing alone at midnight on another New Year's Eve, and Harry running through the streets to meet her once again, this time forever, as Frank Sinatra serenades them with "It Had To Be You," instrumental variations of which have accompanied moments throughout the movie. We may be tempted to view the final scene as the only unoriginal one, but I like to appreciate it as a dual realizationpart Harry's, and part oursthat he, and the movie he lives in, really do, after all, believe in true love.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
This Is Spinal Tap
In This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer not only created one of the funniest films of all time, but they also assembled a fictional rock band with a believable back story spanning several decades and a collection of rock songs covering the full spectrum of heavy metal topics (sex, religion, mythology, self-aggrandizement) and styles (glam rock, arena rock, folk rock, hard rock) with such fidelity to the musical genre of the period, that if you ignored the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, you wouldn't know they were parodies. This Is Spinal Tap is spoof as well as satire; it mocks the "rockumentary" film which almost always takes its subject way more seriously than its import warrants, and it pokes loving fun at rock music, the rockers who spend their creative talents making it, and the fans who love it. The non-stop humor originates equally from scripted scenes and apparently ad-libbed bits, from situation and characterization, from dialogue and sight gags, and from back-stage shenanigans and musical performances. But perhaps the largest part of the ensuing hilarity stems from the various tactics that the aging band employs to overcome its main obstacle (its waning popularity). The fall from the top is long and demeaning, especially for a band as great as Spinal Tap. And while some men find Greatness, and others have Greatness thrust upon them, these guys grab Greatness by the armadillo in its trousers, and bash its head against an 18-inch replica of Stonehenge. "Do a good show, alright?"
The Untouchables (1987)
The music under the opening titles of The Untouchables, from Ennio Morricone's Oscar-nominated score, sets the tone of what is to come; the quick-tempo beat suggests hard-hitting action, and the stealthy horns promise something sinister. The movement over and around the title itself indicates other qualities of the approaching feature: shadowy, stylish, and artful. These movements, however, do not foretell the entire story. Triumphant fanfare will later signal legendary deeds, and somber winds will mourn fallen heroes. We open with a view from the ceiling (a favorite perspective of director Brian De Palma) of an opulent parlor where Alphonse Capone (Robert De Niro) takes a shave. De Niro looks larger than usual, having ostensibly gained the weight appropriate for the role, and his portrayal of Capone is appropriately larger than life. Screenwriter David Mamet's signature brand of stylized, naturalistic dialogue becomes immediately recognizable as Al fields questions from pandering members of the press, who hang onto every one of his words and laugh at every one of his jokes. Despite Capone's claim to the contrary, violence comes quick, as the next scene follows a little girl into a shop where a salesman unsuccessfully attempts to peddle beer to the owner. The owner and the little girl both pay for the owner's refusal to buy with their lives. In a later scene, the mother of that little girl thanks Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner, in one of his first and finest feature performances) for taking on the dangerous task of bringing the murderous gangster to justice. To do that, Ness needs to recruit some help, and he starts, quite accidentally, with a beat cop named Jim Malone. This is Sean Connery at his best. His portrayal of Malone rightfully earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and this performance is worth more than all of his earlier turns as James Bond put together. Sporting an Irish brogue, Malone bestows wit and wisdom onto his fellow Untouchables, which come to include sharpshooting Italian-American George Stone/Giuseppe Petri (Andy Garcia) and FBI accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). This terrific team of four covers a nice range of maturity and street smarts. Stone, aside from protecting the property and citizenry of the city of Chicago, also shields the film from ethnicism, and his recruiting scene is one of the funniest in the movie. Wallace also provides some comic relief, as he moves from pencil-pushing bean counter to heat-packing avenger. More importantly, he provides Ness with the idea of bringing Capone in on income tax evasion. Ness finds strange irony in the idea of trying a murderer for not paying his taxes, but is trying him for running liquor any less insidious, especially when it is apparent that Ness is merely following the letter of Prohibition law by enforcing the Falstead Act? Malone fuels the whole operation by blackmailing information on Capone's movements out of an old acquaintance from the police force, George (Brad Sullivan), who is obviously playing both sides for profit. Why this fact escapes Malone is not clear. In a movie so packed with violent, bloody conflict, it is notable that the father-son relationship that develops between Malone and Ness provides the film its heartbeat. When Malone falls, Ness's pursuit acquires an aspect of revenge, and although the real Eliot Ness never took down Capone's top enforcer (Nitti actually committed suicide), fictional Eliot Ness's discovery and chase of Malone's killer, played to slimy perfection by Billy Drago, constitutes one of the greatest scenes in a movie characterized by one great scene after another. When he finally catches up with Nitti, Ness has an opportunity to take him out, but decides instead to do the legal thing and arrest him. "I'm gonna come see you burn, you son of a bitch," he tells Nitti as he cuffs him, "because you killed my friend." Nitti decides not to let well enough alone: "Your friend died screaming like a stuck Irish pig. Now you think about that when I beat the rap." Morricone's violins screech as we see in Ness's face the snapping of the strings that had been keeping his mental instrument together, and he sends Nitti over the edge of the rooftop, screaming all the way down, Ness taunting him from above, "Did he sound anything like that?" Mamet and De Palma don't stop there. Back inside the courtroom, Stone asks Ness where Nitti is. Ness responds, "He's in the car." We creep up behind the car through which Nitti's body met with its bloody demise, as Morricone's violently insistent strings continue. A tad much, perhaps, but isn't the essence of overindulgence to linger too long on something that's too good to let alone?
The Sting (1973)
The Sting is a gem of a movie. Set in 1930's Chicago, this well-told yarn about confidence men at the historical height of the con game features Paul Newman and Robert Redford at the pinnacle of their on screen chemistry. Redford plays Johnny Hooker, the younger, wider-eyed half of the duo, while Newman is Henry Gondorff, the grizzled, worldly mentor. The first con we see Hooker pull off is with his long-time guide and friend, Luther Coleman (played nicely by Robert Earl Jones). The victim of their con turns out to be an employee of Irish mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who has Luther killed. By Luther's former recommendation, Hooker hooks up with Gondorff to learn the "big con" so that he can take his revenge on Lonnegan for Luther's murder. We are enticed into identifying with these gentler forms of organized criminals, who are pitted against a richer, more connected organized criminal of the vicious, violent kind: "a guy who'd kill a grifter over a chunk of money wouldn't support him for two days." The third segment of this three-part society contains the accomplished, legitimate members, to which the mobsters have closer ties, it would seem, than the less egregiously illegitimate grifters. When Hooker attempts to woo a local bartender, he uses their common outsider status as an inducement: "I'm just like you. It's two in the morning, and I don't know nobody." At first, much of the enjoyment of The Sting comes from being included in the setup of Lonnegan, so dryly played by Shaw that we can't help but root for the colorful cast of con artists to take him down. Eventually, the filmmakers start withholding information about just how the final con is supposed to go down, and it becomes apparent that we have only partly been let in on the full expanse of the big sting. In a sense, we are as much of a mark as Doyle Lonnegan. The film earns our confidence just as Hooker and Gondorff earn Lonnegan's, and the trick is on both of us. When the big event finally comes off, we are as surprised as we are relieved, and the combined effect is extremely satisfying.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
The Remains of the Day
Unrequited love finds multiple reasons to remain unrequited in The Remains of the Day, a film as beautifully written, acted, and shot (interiors and exteriors), as it is frustrating in its unrepressed examination of repression. Anthony Hopkins plays James Stevens, head butler of Darlington Hall, the residence of Lord Darlington (James Fox), an English aristocrat who hosts interwar dinners and conferences for world politicians, including the prime minister and foreign ambassadors. Darlington wishes to appease Nazi Germany, whom he feels was too harshly treated by the Treaty of Versailles. Christopher Reeve plays Jack Lewis, the American delegate, who invades the proceedings to call the attendees "amateurs." Hugh Grant, in one of his better roles, plays Darlington's godson, Reginald Cardinal, a "news hound" who eventually agrees with Lewis and detects the abuse of Darlington's "good, noble intentions" by the Germans, the intentions of whose leader are not fully comprehended by Darlington, who will later recognize his own gullibility. It is within this context of large-scale moral and political conflict and international affairs that super-butler Stevens toils to keep a good house. Not only does he try, with every fiber of his being, to remain detached from the world-shaking decisions being made around him (he seems more concerned with the return of a chair to its proper place), but he also maintains an ostensible detachment from his feelings (he shows more emotion over the breaking of a wine bottle than over the death of his father). Stevens extends this detachment to his feelings for the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), who, compared with Mr. Stevens, wears her emotions on her sleeve. Stevens justifies his detachment by the unwavering "dignity" required of a great butler, especially one in the service of a house carrying the importance of Darlington Hall. Emma Thompson's Oscar-nominated performance is earnest and superb. Her character, who is considered old by the underservants and young by Mr. Stevens, passes through a range of emotions and tactics: she offers matronly advice to a younger maidservant rushing into marriage, plays provocative detective in bringing to light the errors committed by Stevens' father, tenderly comforts Stevens when his father falls ill, chastises Stevens for his moral inertness in the face of his master's racist turn, criticizes herself for placing her needs above her convictions, and, in one of the most brilliant scenes of the film, encroaches upon Stevens' "private time" to pry into the subject matter of his reading material, while walking a fine line between playful mockery and seductive cajoling. The supporting cast, which includes Peter Vaughan in a wonderful performance as Stevens' father, William, is also superb. Richard Robbins' whimsical, enchanting, hypnotic music is like a good wine: somberly intoxicating. The centerpiece of the film is Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-nominated performance as Stevens, a role which requires tremendous inner energy, as we must always see that he is, in fact, affected by events, while the emotional hollowness of his verbal interactions with the other characters belies his concern. The continual bombardment of his stoicism by personal challenges seems almost humorously intentional on the part of the filmmakers, like tourists trying to make a member of the Royal Guard laugh. Stevens, who cracks a nervous smile now and again, never has a real laugh, and never pursues his love for Miss Kenton, until it is too late. Honor, duty, and dignity are the reasons given for his failure to launch, but it seems as though Stevens comes from a long line of married people, including his father, who also worked as a butler and still managed to have a family of his own. There is a fair share of upstairs-downstairs going on in the world of the film, most pronounced in an uncomfortable scene in which Stevens' ignorance of world affairs is used to prove a point against democracy, but it doesn't seem completely antagonistic; when Mr. Stevens, Sr. trips and falls, dropping a full tray of items, the "men of stature" he is waiting on come to his aid quickly and treat him humanely. The cause of Stevens' reluctance to accept love when it presents itself appears to be more personal than societal. Stevens, deserving of the benefit of the doubt, is more a workaholic than a sociopath, although there is a faint, remote comparison drawn between Stevens' blind obedience and that of the Nazi soldiers whom Stevens' master is accused of throwing in with. Whatever the reasona reason that seems to escape Stevens himselfthe unrequited love between Ms. Kenton and Mr. Stevens is a source of heartbreaking regret and sadness for this long-time admirer of the filma feeling that lingers after the final, symbolic scene in which Mr. Stevens, after having assisted Mr. Lewis in releasing a temporarily trapped bird, closes forever the window of opportunity on a chance at love, at unchaining his heart, at escaping Darlington Hall to pursue a life of his own.
The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola's mafia masterpiece is a three-hour family portraita brilliantly and beautifully rendered oil painting in motion. As impressive as his direction of scene and mise-en-scene is Coppola's direction of the actors. The director's authenticity filter was apparently tuned to a heightened level of sensitivity; not a moment of film goes by that makes you question its reality. The acting performances are at their most engaging during the quiet momentsthe calms before and after the storms: Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen holding back tears, trying to remain interested in the demands of Sollozzo after he tells him of his adoptive father's demise; Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, as he musters up the courage and opportunity to take out Sollozzo and McCluskey; Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, losing all hopes of the life he had wished for his favored son when he learns of his acts of murder. The Godfather is so well-acted, so well-directed, and, from the perspective of character detail and human interest, so well-written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, that we ignore (or forgive) the fact that the dramatic structure is disproportionatethat well over a third of the film has come and gone before the true hero decides to accept his journey, and that shortly after he does so, he is forced into temporary exileonto a vacation of sortsinto a "B" plot that stars the now central character. This foray seems misplacedeven disruptivefrom a dramatic standpoint, but it enriches the experience from a historical-interest perspective, and the contrast between the modest quality of life of the Old World and the opulence of the New World adds justification to the emigrated family's strong dedication to business success. This mild sagging in the second act points up the merits of the film as an experience. Indeed, there are multiple stretches where the film nearly lets the air out of the balloon to pursue character or relationship development as various constituents align themselves with or against the family. By fending off the tension escalation of a traditional thriller, The Godfather assumes the feel of real life, so that the ultimate showdownthe final dismissal of the "bad" guys, though dramatic in and of itselfset against the rising organ notes of the baptism of Michael's nephewis somehow anti-climactic. The real climax happens at the very end, when Michael officially becomes what he swore at the beginning he was not, and would never become. Exactly what that is the film cleverly obscures: the head of an extended household, the president of a company, the king of an empire, or, least suggested, the leader of a gang of common criminals. This is the "organized" side of organized crime. These guys raise families, conduct business, and wage wars; the crimes they commit only appear as such to the larger community within which they move and influence. Until the final murder montage, and with the exception of Jack Woltz's unfortunate prize-winning race horse, the violence initiated by the Corleone family seems like justifiable revenge or preemptive self-defense; no one who gets it is innocent. And the brother we are led to identify with is presented as a war hero, a reluctant protector of his family, and the happy medium between two ineffective extremes: the quick-drawing, hot-headed Santino, and the calculating, ascetic lawyer, Tom Hagen. Through Michael, The Godfather assumes a coming-of-age flavor that is as thrilling in its adventurous exoticism, as it is frightening in its familiarity. Whether or not its analogies hold, the film offers, for the price of a view and a few hours of leisure time, the opportunity to become a patriarch, a CEO, an emperor, and a bossall from the comfort and safety of your spectator's seat. Now that's an offer you can't refuse.
The Firm (1993)
The Firm is too good to be true: starring Tom Cruise at the top of his acting game (before he became an action-hero, cartoon version of himself), Gene Hackman at his wry, lecherous best (in a "Letch Luthor" role, a categorization my father likes to give this type of role Hackman seems to attract), Jeanne Tripplehorn, Holly Hunter, Hal Holbrook, Ed Harris, David Strathairn, Gary Busey, Paul Sorvino, and others; based on one of the best and most screen-worthy of John Grisham's legal thrillers; adapted by Tony Award-winning writer David Rabe, Academy Award-winning writer Robert Towne (Chinatown), and Edgar Award-winning writer David Rayfiel; directed by the late, great, prolific Sydney Pollack, who seemed to have a knack for the genre (ref: Three Days of the Condor). Cruise plays Mitchell McDeere, a Harvard law student who chooses as his first post-graduate employer a small, Memphis firm with a family appeal ("we keep each other's secrets"), spacious accommodations inlaid with mahogany and marble, country club membership, and a six figure offer (in New York dollars). Bendini, Lambert and Locke seems too good to be true. The firm sets up Mitch and his wife Abby (Tripplehorn) with a low-interest mortgage and a brand new Mercedes, sends Mitch to client meetings in the company jet, and pays off all of his student loans. But there are ghosts painted on the walls: portraits of attorneys who met with untimely, "accidental" deaths. Both Abby and Mitch detect weirdness, but Mitch is more reluctant to assume foul play. When he does find out who the firm's real clients are, he still can't believe it. "Nothing is real until I tell it to Abby," he says to his incarcerated brother, Ray (Strathairn)a line that always hits home with me, since my wife's name is Abbey. To reach his objectives of getting out without getting offed, and, more importantly, to get his life back, Mitch employs, more than once, an interesting tactic: telling the truth (or some form of it). He buys some time and trustworthiness by immediately reporting his "run-in with the FBI" to the partners of the firm. He mutes potential blackmail leverage by confessing his infidelity to Abby. He allays the mob's suspicion by divulging the firm's overbilling scheme. Dave Grusin's piano-driven, initially upbeat, jazzy score takes on an edgy, suspenseful pulse as the action culminates in a heart-pounding chase over Mud Island. The firm within The Firm seemed too good to be true, and it wasa fictional front for criminal activity, but the only crime committed by The Firma fabulous work of movie fictionis that it's simply too good.