Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Maybe it sounds odd to call a movie "great" if by the end it makes you feel like your soul was taken away, but Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is such a work. With an amazing ensemble cast and a non-linear script that reveals new facts about the characters all the way until the final shot--this is a film that reminds you how powerful dramatic fiction is supposed to work.
Through the different character's perspectives, the film is about the build-up and aftermath of a botched jewelry store robbery in the suburbs. Opening with the violent event, we soon find out afterwards that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) planned the robbery together as a victimless crime in response to some urgent needs for money. But these aren't your typical, slick movie heist-men whatsoever. Andy is a somewhat well-off business accountant seeking escape for a more fulfilling life, while Hank is a single father who's desperately behind on child support. Part of what makes the film work so well is how the script gradually unfolds and clues the audience into new details as it plays, so the only other plot point worth mentioning here is that the store they rip off happens to be owned by the men's parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Martha (Amy Ryan).Continue Reading
One of the lost near-great films of the '80s by a major director and writer remains mostly buried, but is due for a major reconsideration. Daniel, directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) based on his own novel, The Book of Daniel, got no love in its day and has received only a compulsory bare bones DVD release since. An easy description would be what happened to the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the real life Jewish couple who were railroaded by the US government and executed for being Soviet spies: a case that reeked of paranoia and anti-Semitism. Doctorow has created a story from pure imagination with the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson sitting in for the Rosenbergs, who had two sons in real life. Doctorow's couple instead have a girl and a boy, Susan and Daniel, played by the fascinating Amanda Plummer and Timothy Hutton (a few years from his Oscar-winning, star-making performance in Ordinary People.) But instead of just being a character study, it’s also a history lesson in post WWII American radicalism, as Daniel, now a young man tries to understand what happened to his parents. As the 1980s were not a great decade for liberalism on film or in real life, spiritually and timeline-wise Daniel sits perfectly between Warren Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, and Lumet’s own Running On Empty.
The Isaacsons were the classic NY liberal family, children of immigrants, with generations all living under one roof. Paul (Mandy Patinkin), a proud WWII vet and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are naïve in their trust of the “American way,” taking part in causes, meetings and marches that usually involve their children, including free Paul Robeson concerts. (His deep voice fills most of the film's soundtrack). The film knocks back and forth from the '40s to the '50s as the couple grows more radical and eventually are arrested (for something having to do with atomic secrets, but clearly more to do with their outspokenness), and then to the late '60s as the orphaned but now adult Daniel and Susan adjust to life. Susan has become a hippie rebel open to any cause and eager to use her family’s street cred to advance it; a few years later, all that passion leads to a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Daniel, in the mean time, has grown into a coolly bearded and intensely angry young man with a wife (a young and adorable Ellen Barkin) and eventually his own kids whom he seems to ignore. Susan’s mental health issues lead him to finally begin exploring the mysteries of why his parents were punished so extremely.Continue Reading
Dog Day Afternoon
Known for his New York street realism, director Sidney Lumet opens Dog Day Afternoon with sunny shots of the streets of Brooklyn while Elton John's "Amoreena" plays on the soundtrack. Creating a documentary-like feeling under the fluorescent lights of an urban bank, Lumet creates a tense "you are there" feeling. Doing so, Lumet has made one of the great bank robbery films, as well as a powerful character study and a taut drama. Apparently based on a true story, it marks career peaks for Lumet and the young Al Pacino, in maybe his most likable performance.
Trying to raise money for his boyfriend's sex-change operation, Sonny (Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) rob a bank (there is a third cohort who gets cold feet and walks away at the start). After wasting time letting the bank employees use the bathroom, the police get involved and turn a simple robbery into a hostage situation. With news crews hovering, this was the beginning of instant news turning criminals into stars. Sonny plays to the crowds who have gathered to gawk outside the bank by yelling at the cops and shouting Attica (a prison riot that turned into a massacre by a trigger happy state trooper, that was still hot in the day, another reason for folks to question the authority of "the man."). The working class Sonny also has a big fat shrew of a wife (whom he abuses) and a ton of kids, as well as a pushy, emotional mother - you can see why this Vietnam vet is so tightly wound.Continue Reading
Network has cemented its place as one of the finest and most enduring examples of American cinema. A satirical look into the media industry and its effect on the human condition, a film that unflinchingly makes points and claims that, in 1976, may have seemed like comedic exaggeration, yet today are accepted norms. Prophetic and eloquent, a film whose undying relevance seems to resonate with growing intensity as time moves on...
"This story is about Howard Beale, who was the network news anchorman on UBS-TV." This is the narrated introduction to the film. Beale, played by Peter Finch, has recently learned of his imminent firing from the station and announces his plan to commit suicide in a future broadcast, live on television. This creates a huge uproar at the corporate level and, soon after Frank Hackett, the Executive Senior Vice President of the network, appears (played by Robert Duvall) to fire Beale on the spot.Continue Reading
Al Pacino played his first cop in Serpico and, by my count, would go on to do it six more times in Cruising, Sea of Love, Heat, Insomnia, Righteous Kill, and something called The Son of No One. (He’s played a criminal in twice as many films.) It’s fair to say that at the time Serpico was released there had never been an on screen cop like this one. It was Pacino’s most Dustin Hoffman-like performance (back in those days they were compared to each other, for good reason). In Serpico, Pacino seemed shorter than usual, his back was humped, his voice more nasally, and his Elliott Gould mustache early in the film grows into a full on scraggily beard. Serpico was an oddball cop who liked ballet, lived with the freaks in the Village, had a dog instead of a baby, and most weird of all, wouldn’t take a payoff. In New York that was enough to almost get you killed.
Serpico’s story take place in the '60s, which was a time of unprecedented police brutality. In the South civil rights workers were being abused by cops. In the North racist big city cops were continually harassing black citizens which led to many major uprisings (or riots). Vietnam protesters in Chicago were faced with Gestapo tactics on national television. The film was an unflinching look at the underbelly of a police force that differed so much from the propaganda Hollywood had given us about cops on TV and films for decades. The film was based on the hard-hitting, best-selling biography of Detective Frank Serpico by Peter Maas (King of the Gypsies), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever). The great New York director Sidney Lumet (Network) took over production after John G. Avildsen (Rocky) was fired. Lumet brought his signature grit to the look and, as usual, elicited truthful performances from the cast.Continue Reading
The all-time great director Sidney Lumet is often associated with his ear for the New York streets (The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Prince of The City). He's also acclaimed for his skill at balancing his films’ often loud histrionics (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). So, ironically, he hit a home run late in his career with a legal drama that actually gets its power through silence.
The film is written by a master of gritty verbal sparring, David Mamet. Upon its release in ’82, The Verdict instantly joined the ranks of the all-time great courtroom dramas — an elite company, with flicks like Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution. And the role of alcoholic lawyer Frank Gavin gave Paul Newman his best role in 15 years (at least since Cool Hand Luke in ’67).Continue Reading
Witness for the Prosecution
Almost forty years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still the queen of the mystery novel. Her characters, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are seemingly just as popular and prolific today (mostly on television now) as they were when she first invented them. Though many of her stories have been adapted for film, only two--by my recollection--have lasted the test of time. In '74 Sidney Lumet made a solid Poirot story, Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to a great cast led most memorably by Albert Finney. But even better was back in ’57 when Witness for the Prosecution was directed by the superstar director Billy Wilder. First appearing as a short story, Christie later turned it into a play. But Wilder and his two co-screenwriters, Larry Marcus (who would go on to co-write the brilliant screenplay for The Stunt Man) and Harry Kurnitz (the play A Shot in the Dark) would open it up for the screen and add the wonderful role of Miss Plimsoll for actress Elsa Lanchester, giving her an opportunity to share the screen with her husband Charles Laughton. Ironically, a TV remake and most stage adaptions of the play since have included the role, a Wilder invention, not a Christie one.
In England, big-time defense attorney (barrister) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is on the verge of forced retirement due to health issues. He has a full-time nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), on his case, nagging him to rest and give up his vices. But when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) appears at his door, about to be indicted on murder charges, Sir Wilfrid is too intrigued to pass the case up. Vole, a handsome and married playboy (and American, though that is never acknowledged), is accused of murdering a much older woman who took a shine to his charms and conveniently had just changed her will, making him the beneficiary to her fortune. Vole reasonably explains his side, and it does appear to be circumstantial evidence stacked up against him. Vole's passionate German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story. But when the trial comes along, strangely Christine is called by the prosecution, claiming Vole admitted to killing the old lady and painting a terrible picture of both herself and her husband. The great Wilfrid looks to be defeated until a greedy Cockney woman sells him some current love letters exchanged between Christine and her secret lover. The new evidence shows that the wife lied and it is enough to prove Vole’s innocence and end the trail. But Sir Wilfrid knows it was all too easy and there is something amiss. And here we get the great, shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that Agatha Christie and her ilk specialized in.Continue Reading