ALWAYS KEEPING AN EYE ON HOLLYWOOD!!!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

JER'S TURN: FILM RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK- THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS

JER: This week's attention focuses on a film I recently re-visited, one that I can arguably consider one of my TOP 25 Favorite Films of All Time: Michael Mann’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. A sweeping epic mixing the beauty and danger of the wild frontier, dramatic adventure, unnerving battles and a heartfelt love story to tie it all up with.
Click to view the original 1992 LAST OF THE MOHICANS trailer in HD

The year is 1757 and we are brought into the French and Indian War, battling for land within the North American territory. The audience is quickly introduced to two natives of the land and their adopted ‘white’ counterpart (Daniel Day- Lewis) as they live the life on the land they call home. British armies are enlisting the assistance of the locales to join the militia to help protect their lands against the French, who are allying the local native Huron tribes as trackers.

A crossing story finds two daughters as they travel the terrain to visit their father, Colonel Munro housed at Fort William Henry. In an ambushed attack, both daughters are rescued by our native heroes and escorted to their father’s Fort safely.

As matters get worst and tensions escalate, a developing relationship ensues between ‘white’ native Hawkeye and British daughter Cora (Madeline Stowe) all the while cautiously fending for their lives and well- being…but sacrifices will be made throughout the journey.

Director Michael Mann with cast
I would like to talk about director Michael Mann for a moment. As a huge fan of his work, Michael Mann began his career primarily in television executive producing such classic shows as MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY. He would later move into major film projects, directing such noted titles like THEIF, MANHUNTER, HEAT, THE INSIDER, ALI, COLLATERTAL, MIAMI VICE: THE MOVIE and PUBLIC ENEMIES. In review of all titles mentioned, Mann has a certain style and draw to man in peril, defying the odds and the struggle for survival. Mixed in with a visual sense borrowed from his earlier works as a commercial director and an ear for music expanding from various backgrounds, Mann combines visual with sound to create his works.

The first thing that I fell in love with when I saw this film in late 1992 was the sweeping soundtrack co- written by Trevor Jones, who had also written soundtracks for EXCALIBUR and LABYRINTH, to name a few. A blend of classic orchestration pieces combined with Celtic woodwinds and percussions create a stirring and emotional backdrop to the telling of this romantic and tragic tale.
Click to enjoy the sights and sounds of a medly to Trevor Jones' amazing soundtrack! Thank you 'glossybutton'

Italian Cinematographer Dante Spinotti has worked on several Michael Mann films including HEAT, MANHUNTER, THE INSIDER, and PUBLIC ENEMIES. Spinotti captures a spectacular and breathtaking view of the North Carolina landscapes, to which the film was primarily shot in. Classic in appearance and gripping in its action sequences, the photography is first class and undeniable in recognition.

A noted sequence that combines great direction, photography and soundtrack composition to its greatest degree has to be the distinctive chase between Hawkeye, father and brother as they follow behind the heels of native tracker Magua and his two captives, the Colonel’s daughters. This is a truly marvelous piece of filmmaking mixed with tension with a wonderful piece of written music that lends to the beat of the pursuit. Fantastic!
Click and enjoy this exciting sequence mentioned

JOHNNY CHAZZ: When you have a director such as Michael Mann, the first thing I wonder is if he should be doing films or sticking to TV. Now, as you are well aware Jer, I am a giant "Crime Story" fan and a small "Miami Vice" fan. To add, I am extremely intrigued by the post-production TV series "LUCK" starring Dustin Hoffman that should be hitting the tube sometime soon. Oh, and Michael Mann really does do TV the right way - dramatic, sexy, great sets, a real sense of dark mood, sharp and resilient characters plus just the right amount of tension and edginess to keep the audience tuning-in every week. His films? "Ali"? No way. I did enjoy "Heat" however.

“Mohicans” is probably a film that History students in high school should watch. And, if I was 17 and in high school again I would probably re-visit it. Why? Because all a high school kid in 1993 (heck, still today) really needs is a little music, some sex, continual action, gummi fish, a Jolt cola - and lo and behold.....THERE-IN lies a great movie. As a history teacher it would also give me a reason to leave those kids for an hour and retreat to my office to relish el silencio.

Now, there is some good action present, and the cinematography is quite impressive. That is always how I have viewed this film - and even with the sodden musical tastes of youth these days, how could one not enjoy the soundtrack here? Just outstanding.

Yet, in a year (1993) where "Schindler's List" pretty much dominated all other films - and rightfully so, it is hard to focus on “Mohicans.” It was frankly overshadowed by the brilliance of “Schindler's List.” Here is a prime example of how one film really had it all - and the other ('Mohicans) reminds me of pieces of a beautiful landscape puzzle with 4 of the pieces missing from the set.

Additionally, I have to care about the characters intertwined with the essence of the story - more so, caring about the genre. The character development? Very questionable here - and that is probably where the film loses me......entirely.

Then again, maybe it was the time period. I really don't "do" the 1700's and never found that time period to be one that holds my interest. Is there a 1940's version of 'Mohicans” set in Chicago starring Paul Newman and Eileen Brennan perhaps? Let's research that for fun.

All right - on a serious note: For those interested in this genre, this time period, and in a vibrant soundtrack - I would likely recommend this film. I know that many consider this to be one of their top 100 films of all time - and it probably even makes a top-10 list for others. As for Daniel Day Lewis fans, I would probably guide them in the direction of films like "My Left Foot" and "A Room with a View" (two more period pieces) as they are written and carried out with a far more impressive and stylish aura, and prove far superior from a pure performance angle.

I guess it comes down to style in the end - what is it that the film-goer prefers? Maybe a film only has to be interesting - and somewhat compelling for it to work. Maybe it has to make a statement. Maybe it only needs to be kind of pretty to watch. Maybe it has to have big Hollywood stars. Maybe it only needs a sense of something real and genuine. It is, beyond a doubt, the entire package however which makes a production one of high caliber - and I am not sure that 'Mohicans, as a film, really satisfies that. ** Rating: 6.5/10

JER: JC, I am going to go on the defense because I believe you are missing some vital points with this film as it should be recognized and highlighted for its own ability to stand alone. Granted, this was the year of SCHINDLER'S LIST, but ...we have also seen some films of equal power and magnitude stand on its own two feet well over the course of time. Should we forget RAGING BULL, E.T. or even THE COLOR PURPLE not winning the Best Picture award and yet still be recognized by its own sense of credibility?

MOHICANS absolutely sets up the characters and the roles they play early in the film. This allows the audience their moment to care for them and emotionally feel their fates, whatever they may be. This film rides on emotions as is constructed on that very platform... emotions for the times they live in, the struggle to survive and stay alive, the emotional bonds created between father and daughters, father and sons, man and woman and good versus evil.

There are clearly some technical 'emotions' that make this film work: cinematography, musical score and costuming are all key elements that must be designed and executed accurately or else fail in the attempt.

Now, let's talk Michael Mann. Television- wise, a master in all degrees. It works equally for me for CRIME STORY as it did for MIAMI VICE... however, you bring up ALI as questionable in the film department?.. or that there would be an argument as to why he should not cross-over to film? Well, allow me to bring up his most recent disappointment, PUBLIC ENEMIES then. Now that’s out of the way, let's talk about HEAT, MANHUNTER, THIEF or THE INSIDER... arguably containing, what you said is how 'Michael Mann really does do TV the right way - dramatic, sexy, great sets, a real sense of dark mood, sharp and resilient characters plus just the right amount of tension and edginess' ... these films contain the same ingredients as well.
With that said; MOHICANS contains, in my opinion, the right stuff to not be overshadowed, but rather to stand in its own ray of light to bask!
Click and enjoy this small tribute highlighting the works of director Michael Mann

JOHNNY CHAZZ: I agree that we must recognize all the films that can stand on their own two feet - and “Mohicans” may be one of those. However, as you know, there are good films... and there are outstanding films --- such as “Schindler's List” in 1993. The "good" films can never receive a rating from me higher than a 7 and that is a given fact. It's sad - and we can all have a cry, but it is what it is. So, I feel that my 6.5 was justified here since “Mohicans,” for me is a good film, but in now way a great one.

The weakness in the character development is precisely "that" which you stated. It is only set-up and focused-upon during the early portions of the film. And although we learn to care for them, I also learned to care for little Keisha in the "Whale Rider" early in that film, but I really was praying the film would wrap itself up in 45 minutes. Why? There was nothing complex about her which basically ends our interest in that character after 20 minutes.

Once again - you list all the factors here (cinematography, score, emotional factors) - but where's the strength in the writing Jer? The dialogue is stilted. I almost feel that the story could belong in a comic book - it is sort of pulpish in that sense - as well as in the sense that it is trying to throw everything at us including the kitchen sink just to satisfy us as an audience. I do not want things thrown at me in multitudes. We see too much of this today and can see the great weakness that lies inside. No sir - no way....too much. I rest on my 6.5 grading for this film - c'est finale.

As for Michael Mann - I can see your point there. Still, there is not much "sexy" (to me at least) about this film compared to what we saw in his TV work. Also, if I want romance, then I will re-visit "Never Been Kissed" or "Working Girl" or anything else disastrous with the likes of Kate Hudson or Jennifer Anniston. Ok, now where is the bathroom? I am urging to throw-up now - and I mean in a bloody way.

With respect to his (Mann's) films - I did not see "Public Enemies" and really never wanted to. I liked "Heat" as I mentioned and as for the rest of his films - it's a crapshoot really. I guess I just miss the days of “Crime Story” and “Miami Vice”.....

So, maybe I am the odd man out on this one. I highly respect and appreciate your response here as you know I tend to fire on all cylinders. But isn't it precisely this type of discussion that you are trying to generate here? If I love a film, I will tell you - and if I detest it, I will also share that joy with you. Yet, if we were back in 1993 and this film was playing at a theater where “Schindler's List” was NOT playing.......then I guess.....well......I would have to go see....."Remains of the Day.”

JER: Well, some you win and some you lose…my opinion remains strong and intact that THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS is worth a re-watch or a visit for the first time. The DVD offers a special extended Director’s cut, different than the original theatrical release. On the other hand, the newly released blu- ray offers yet another extended cut that differs from the DVD release. Whichever you select, I know that you are in with a beautifully shot and executed piece of contemporary filmmaking long before the days of green screens and CGI photshopping!

With that said, it’s time to close up the page welcoming your comments and thoughts. Thank you as always for your kind support and encouragements as Johnny Chaz takes the wheel on our next ride…so, until then, we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!

Have you visited the official CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT page on YOUTUBE? Check out classic and contemporary trailers, scenes and other great trips down memory lane! Just click the link and check out the "Favorites" on our site! Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

JOHNNY CHAZZ' TURN: THE KUNG FU / MARTIAL ARTS MASTERS- WHO ARE YOURS?

JOHNNY CHAZZ: This week we spin on our axis a bit and dive into the world of the martial arts. A discussion of whom I consider to be the top-five martial artists in cinema history is offered here in hopes to create a response from both Jer and our audience.

Perhaps the five (5) names that immediately come to mind are: Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Steven Segal and Zhang Ziyi. Keep in mind that I am focusing on the most impacting “film” kung-fu artists for the purpose of the screen, not necessarily in terms of whether they are considered actually “martial artists” or not. The truth is that they all constitute true artists through the work that they have painted on screen through their magnificent efforts.


Zhang Ziyi is the first topic of choice. Perhaps not a true “martial artist”, but her passion, energy and dramatic talents propel her skills to another level. Ziyi first caught my eye in Ang Lee's “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Stunningly convincing despite her lack of martial arts skills, Zhang's dramatic talents were equally impressive earning her the best supporting actress role that year. It was her dancing skills that she had learned in Beijing, China that assisted her in learning the basics of martial arts on the screen. Ang Lee even stated that Zhang Ziyi had to learn "Not only martial arts, but disposition, classic movement, calligraphy, etiquette, and voice.”

Tremendous martial-art films would follow in Ziyi’s career such as “Rush Hour 2”, “House of Flying Daggers” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” To sum her career up is to say that she is not only a terrific actress who is looking for deeper and more meaningful roles, but also one where she is constantly showing us that she is a magnificent dancer who fights at the same time. On a final note, she has been considered by many to be one of the most beautifully stunning women in the world.


Steven Segal may seem like a surprising nomination for this category and there are those of you out there that might feel as though he does not belong on this list.
Highly trained in both Aikido and karate and has a 7th degree black belt, Steven Segal really carried martial arts films though the 80’s and 90’s in an exciting fashion. It worked so well since Steven Segal really is about ‘pure action.’ His early works were amazing for movie-goers. What we saw on the screen didn’t exactly remind us of kung fu per-se, but it was called Aikido. His subtle, yet quicker than lighting movements on screen are what hold our attention and curiosity.

“Under Siege” may have been my favorite of all Segal films and perhaps part of that is due to the similarities with the classic film “Die Hard”. Here we have the hero on the loose in a close-set and limited locale trying to save a military ship that has been hijacked.

Films such as “Hard to Kill”, “Marked for Death” and “Above the Law” also must be noted and are must-sees. A true Hollywood movie star and hero, Segal has fans worldwide and has fueled the fire for the action and martial arts genre over the years.
Now, it’s hard to talk about this genre (kung fu and martial arts) without incorporating some of the contemporary artists. I now pay homage to the work of Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

With films to his credit such as “Legend of Drunken Master” (some of his best fight and action scenes), “Shanghai Noon” and “Rush Hour” among many, many others in his repertoire, Chan has entertained audiences worldwide for the past 20 years with his cinematic and martial art techniques. The only argument rests with whether his films are improving with time (recent works such as “The Karate Kid” remake or “Kung Fu Panda” or if his style and films were more to people’s liking when they were less Americanized. Jackie Chan is seen today as a writer, director, actor and stuntman as well as an amazing martial artist. His unique blending of raw talent, creative acting and performance style as well as his element of humor make him a tremendous asset to the world of kung fu and martial arts. Chan performs all of his own stunts as well and that is what makes him so unique. Many audiences have tasked him with being the next Bruce Lee, but Chan is Chan – especially from an acting point of view.

Jet Li continues to amaze me. Audiences worldwide would likely testify to that as well considering how successful and dynamic his movies have been through the recent years. What is so fundamental to his performances is his ability to use various styles and forms of kung-fu and aikido while maintaining that necessary space at all times between himself and his competitor. It is that spacing that I just love in his films – a kind of patience which is truly virtuous and admirable. Being a champion fighter in China on a National level also lends credence and realism to his performances.

Three films immediately come to mind with one being a re-make of a Bruce Lee Classic – “Fist of Legend”. Although many changes were made from the original film with Lee, Jet Li’s performance in “Fist of Legend” in 1994 was spectacular. His fight scenes in the first portion of the film with the Japanese school during World War II and his final fight scene in the mountains were simply spectacular. “Hero” is another film Jet Li starred in (Zhang Ziyi as well) that immediately reminds you of the Japanese classic story “Rashomon”. Here we see Jet Li display master swordsmanship similar to the samurai style. “Once Upon A Time in China” must also be mentioned as some of Jet Li’s best work with a multitude of scenes that were beautifully built-up and filled with emotion creating that necessary tension prior to battle.

In the 1940’s a young child named Bruce Lee came running home to his mother complaining that he had just been beaten up in a street fight. So, he decided to learn martial arts. He would go on to perform for audiences in person and on film displaying his skill of balance and that tremendous one-inch punch and 2-finger push ups (we saw an homage to this Jet Li’s performance in the courtyard in “Fist of Legend”).

"Enter the Dragon" was the 1st time a U.S and Hong Kong film company had come together to make a film. This was the movie that not only made Lee world famous, but made him the first Asian movie star. He would go on to make numerous films including the original “Fist of Fury”, “The Big Boss” and “Game of Death” (parts I and II).

Lee developed a style of fighting for the screen known as: “jeet koon do” which was a new style of combat for martial artists. Translated, it relays that a fighter must stop, stem and intercept. Lee quoted “Any technique, however worthy and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it.” Therefore, to Lee, fighting style was always a process of continual growth while abiding and dissolving by principles.

So many actors, performers and martial artists have tried to replicate and imitate the work and the style of Bruce Lee. It’s hard to see that there will ever be another like him.
Click and enjoy this Bruce Lee tribute!
Herein ends my segment and analysis of the most entertaining and visually impacting screen or film martial artists in history. I realize, Jer, that your selections and nominees will likely differ, but I must imagine that a few of these names will also pop-up on your list. What is important is that our audience chime in to tell us their thoughts and to give us their opinions as to who their favorites are. The martial-arts genre is real and still very much alive today. Cinema Counterpoint aims to keep it alive and kicking!

JER: The subject makes me want to inhibit the body of Christian Slater’s character from TRUE ROMANCE and look deep into the love he had for Sonny Sheba and martial arts films…but I am not an expert of such genre. I can, however, talk about what I know and what I have seen. On that note, let me make something perfectly clear… I am a MOVIE/ FILM FAN and pretty proud of it and the knowledge I have gathered within a period of roughly 30 years. I don’t know ALL films or claim to…so, because of that, I do not bullshit about things I know nothing about!

I will begin with an actor that made an impact on me at a very early age, he is Tomisaburo Wakayama. For the cult, action or deep Asian film fans, Mr. Wakayama will always be recognized as Ogami Itto in the popular Japanese film series “Lone Wolf and Cub” in the early 1970’s. In America, however, my discovery came in the way of a mashed version of a few of these movies with a renamed title of SHOGUN ASSASSIN released in 1980.
Click and enjoy the 1980 American trailer for SHOGUN ASSASSIN!
      
                   
The “Lone Wolf” character was a man of few words, like Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Man With No Name’ he was more action and a wanderer who stood for whatever he felt was needed in order to survive. For a big man, he moved swiftly and could be compared to the slower pace and technique of Steven Seagal, as pointed out by JC. Hands, feet, swords, grappling hooks and poles were just a few of the weapons used to take down legions of anyone who dared cross his path. Because the films have centered during the times of the shogun, we are taken back to a time and culture where honor and respect meant everything. Revenge for the wrongful death of his wife, Ogami roams the streets aimlessly with his toddler son (‘Cub’) in tow, in search of assignment to shelter and feed the two while hunting those that have done him wrong. If you are not familiar with the underground popularity of these films, may I recommend SHOGUN ASSASSIN as an entrée before diving into the six original Japanese films, to which the entire series is now available on DVD.

The film’s opening in the States didn’t cause much stir or recognition for Tomisaburo Wakayama by way of box office dollars, but attention was definitely focused on the extreme and graphic violence portrayed! So much so that in it’s early VHS video release, the film was banned in the States and were removed from the shelves quickly thereafter! It wasn’t until 2006 that the film earned its rightful place with a beautiful high-definition transfer and surround sound release. It is also now available on blu- ray as well.

Mr. Wakayama would also appear in some American films. The two sides of the spectrum include his role as Coach Shimizu in 1978’s THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN and as Sugai in Ridley Scott’s 1989 film BLACK RAIN.
Looking at the list submitted by JC, I must agree with the choices made as some of these actors making their individual and respective marks in the world of martial arts entertainment...

I will always remember the first time I saw Jet Li and that was as the evil Ku in LETHAL WEAPON 4! We had seen Detective martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) go through many personal demons as well as fight off some real bad-asses in the previous films within the series…but no one had come close to really cleaning his clock as Jet Li did with his lightning- fast and precise counterpoints and martial arts techniques! I became an instant fan and looked to seeing more of his work in the years to come. As mentioned previously by JC, one of the most impactful and highly impressive roles to date would be (yet another nameless character) the role he portrayed in 2002’s HERO. The suspended and high-flying techniques we had seen in CROUTCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON had already made a huge impact in both Eastern and Western film making, but HERO would take full advantage of the new expressionist method of taking martial arts to a whole new level! Jet Li is able to use his body as well as weapons to defend and protect in times of need. His skills and timing is quick and accurate…often times blurring to the naked eye!

I could go on and on with recognizing the works of Steven Segal and Jackie Chan, respectfully, but it would simply be redundant to what JC has already spoken of. Well said!
I will highlight one person in particular who started it all…Mr. Bruce Lee. I had already been a fan of Mr. Lee’s work including my personal favorite, FISTS OF FURY…but something happened in 1993 after seeing the biographical telling of his life in the film DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY. As I sat in the theatre watching this larger-than-life story unfold before me, I couldn’t help but shake my head in bewilderment questioning what was fact or fiction. Had Hollywood yet again taken a story line and injected it with its own bloated magical tricks to make this man some kind of super hero living a life as grandiose as the characters he played in his own films? About a year or two later, I had the pleasure of meeting actress Lauren Holly, who portrayed Linda Lee (Bruce’s wife) in the film. In doing so, my burning question needed to be asked… was the film accurate, it seemed very ‘comic book-like’ and was very hard to accept as a true biography telling of this man’s life! Ms. Holly confirmed that she worked very closely with Linda Lee, in both the accurateness of the story telling and in the character development of the Lees and laid my worries to rest by comforting me with the news that the film represented his life story as close as possible onto the silver screen. With my new found discovery of the truth, I relished at the idea of how amazing Bruce Lee was in real life as well as a martial artist, visionary and actor.
Here is the official trailer from the biographic film DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY

With that said, thank you Mr. Bruce Lee for opening the door to your culture and allowing a whole new world of entertainment and knowledge into our western world!

Thank you to all of the artists named and not mentioned for your continued efforts of bringing a variety of different techniques, styles and methods into our culture! It is obvious that we wouldn’t have the UFC or even the WWF as other levels of entertainment if it weren’t for what we have been offered. Let’s not forget the many different classes available throughout the nation teaching generations how to defend themselves …who knows, the next Bruce Lee might be earning his White Belt at this time even as we speak!
Until next time, when it will be Jer’s turn behind the wheel…we say always feel free to comment and give us your thoughts and ideas and we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!
Have you visited the official CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT page on YOUTUBE? Check out classic and contemporary trailers, scenes and other great trips down memory lane! Just click the link and check out the "Favorites" on our site! Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

JER'S TURN: THE CINEMA TAKEDOWN- WHAT IS THE BEST "ORGANIZED CRIME" FILM?

JER: I feel the need to kick up some dirt…to get the blood pumping a little bit. I am calling this brand new segment I am introducing: THE CINEMA TAKE-DOWN! The object is to pick a category and pit one item against the other. This is a UFC No-Holds-Barred fight to the finish…who or what will reign supreme? We will soon find out…The card: BEST ‘ORGANIZED CRIME’ FILM.

In my corner, weighing in from 1990, born and raised in Brooklyn: director Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award winner- GOODFELLAS!

In Johnny Chazz’ corner, weighing in from 1972, born and raised in New York City: director Francis Ford Coppola’s Best Picture Academy Award winner- THE GODFATHER!

“Let the Take-Dooooooown….begin!”

JER: The fight will be tough because I am going against the very- respected and personal favorite, THE GODFATHER! It’s an untouchable film and how does one talk against it? I won’t! Instead, I will talk about GOODFELLAS and the key points needing to be made mentioned to try to make a valid case from my end.

Based on the book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi, the story follows the true life events of Henry Hill, covering a near 30 years of both the rise and fall of his involvement with an organized crime family in New York.
Director Martin Scorsese
How much is actually “true” is never clearly defined, however, who would really care with the development and building of this fantastic film. Helmed by Martin Scorsese (TAXI DRIVER, MEAN STREETS, RAGING BULL) this is yet another East- side telling of how real life violence, childhood friendships and every day living ruled the lower- class streets in the boroughs of New York…scenes all too familiar in Scorsese’s life as well.
Young Henry Hill

Like THE GODFATHER, our story begins in the 1950’s…1955, to be exact, as we are introduced to a young Henry Hill, a kid still in high school, taking a part-time ‘job’ with a local cab stand in Brooklyn…owned and operated by Paulie Cicero. We quickly pick up that the cab stand is merely a front for middle-time hustling and truck-hauling merchandise moving. Paulie’s brother, Tuddy, is the ‘manager’ of the operation. What makes this ‘crime family’ so unique and very different from THE GODFATHER’s Corleone family is that this outfit is made up by a bunch of guys that grew up together from the neighborhood. They are not family by blood, but rather by what part of Italy (preferably Sicilian) your ancestors came from and the struggle to live and survive once arriving in the USA.

Liotta, DeNiro and Pesci
The story moves on with Ray Liotta now playing a grown up Henry, along with a fellow ‘family assistant’ Tommy DeVito, played by Joe Pesci (a role he won Best Supporting Actor for) both young men being raised in the ways of ‘family’ by elder Jimmy Conway, played by Robert DeNiro.

The film, in my opinion, is a musical! Hear me out. After a dramatic brief but graphic intro, the film almost never stops from a constant background of decade- specific radio tunes. The songs, like a soundtrack to the lives of our characters, change as the decades change. Beginning with the 1950’s, we are propelled with tunes like Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” right down to the 70’s with Sid Vicious’ rendition of “My Way.” In true Italian- American stereotyping, wise guys love the songs by artists like Bobby Darin and Dean Martin… all well represented in the early settings of the film, glamorizing the golden age of mob life. The music quickly changes as the mob ‘family’ begins to move into the unfamiliar…now raising the steaks to big-time theft and even illegal drugs… the mood dramatically switches to tracks by The Who and Eric Clapton, depicting the fall of society in the 60’s and 70’s as well as the eventual crumbling of the ‘mob family’ we have come to know.

Does the film take itself seriously? You bet, even though there are some unintentional (or maybe intentional) moments in which you cannot help but laugh at. It is truly humorous if not intriguing to see these street-wise goofs talk. Their takes on life, love, marriage, sex, religion, mistresses, money, expenses, family and justice are all dissected and spat out by misinterpretation of low- class education by a bunch of, well, good fellas!

The photography is a contradiction of sorts…there is room for slow- motion sequences allowing us to clearly see what the audience needs to see…to quick and quirky cuts making dramatic exclamation points about events and characters. A wonderful sequence takes place when Henry takes girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Brocco) out to the Copacabana nightclub. A long tracking shot follows our couple from their car parked across the street from the club, continuously moving across the street into the backdoor of the club, teleologically moving and avoiding cooks and waiters in the kitchen, right out to the club’s floor where a table is brought out and placed for our couple to sit down and enjoy the evening’s entertainment by comedian Henny Youngman…all on cue and all shot in one sequence. No cuts, no edits… magnificent!

Who can ever forget the ‘improvised’ story being told by Pesci’s Tommy one evening at the club afterhours with a few of the wise guys hanging out and boozing it up? In attendance, Liotta’s Henry is thoroughly entertained by Tommy’s delivery and dry humor, making him comment on how funny he is. Tommy, being a short-tempered and highly violent firecracker, almost immediately takes his comment as a demeaning brush of character…”Funny, how? I mean funny like a clown? Do I amuse you?” The tension is felt by both the audience and the actors…since only Pesci knew where he was going with this…Liotta was caught by surprise with the turn of events that led to awkwardness and possible bloodshed…after allowing a brief and suffocating moment of silence, Liotta’s Henry could only nervously laugh the reply…”Get the fuck out of here!” The tension breaks with a relief of laughter by all at the table!

The film begins to rot away at the high- life and the feeling of ‘untouchable’ loses its definition when the law begins a crackdown and is drawn into clues left behind by a series of sloppiness from the mob’s crimes. Loose lips and sudden big spendings eventually spells doom for our anti- heroes… leading to wire- tappings and bugged telephones capturing Henry and Karen Hill. Growing from a plea bargain and a life in the witness protection plan, Henry rats out his ‘family.’ Once a high-roller and big spender, he now trades in his three piece suits and club life for a bathrobe and slippers…flying under the radar of just another average middle- class American living the life dealt to him… whether he likes it or not.

JOHNNY CHAZ: “The Godfather” earns my full attention in this passage. It is a film that takes itself very seriously and deservingly so with a tremendous ensemble cast. So, allow me to make you an offer you “can’t refuse” and let’s delve into this film and why it is so deserving of such stature.

It is very hard to imagine any other film that defined its’ genre much better than 1972’s “The Godfather” did for mob films. The key here is to remember that this was just at the beginning of the seventies and the ‘Age of Aquarius’ was just ending. Thus, films like “Scarface”, “Once Upon a Time in America”, “Goodfellas”, “A Bronx Tale” and the amazing “Casino” were all inspired by this unique, bittersweet, detailed and passionate film.

Director Francis Coppola
It remains a cliché, but “The Godfather” really contains everything you could ask for in a classic film: The performances, the screenplay, the romantic and prominent score, the period-reflecting costumes, the romance, the low-key lighting of the genre, the camera work, the framing and cinematography, and of course – the violence. As a side note, we must mention that at the time of its’ release, Coppola was not exactly setting Hollywood or the film world on fire. That would change…overnight.

“The Godfather”, which is novel-based, had a screenplay that was co-written between Mario Puzo (author) and director Francis Ford Coppola. Marlon Brando would play the role of Vito Corleone – hence ‘The Godfather’ in the film. The leader or “Don,” runs the family in the same way someone would run a business. There is give and take – but reciprocity is always king especially in the family-business of organized crime.


Caan, Brando, Pacino and Cazale
Heir to the throne we find James Caan playing the role of the fiery and hot-tempered older son of the Corleone family, Sonny. Siblings would include youngest son, Michael, played by Al Pacino and middle son, Fredo, played by John Cazale. Robert Duvall also surfaces in the film playing the role of the family attorney since – well, there was certainly a need for one justifying his role in the film and in the family.

What is so terrific about the film and is so well carried out is the fact that it is set in the 1950’s. The film really centers on the feud or continuing struggle amongst mob families. Two primary characters develop themselves in the film early-on as Sonny focuses on contempt and vengeance while Michael moves from being a sort-of “follower” and good-son to a the head of the family – thus, the Mafia Don. What is so ironic yet gripping for the audience is the premise that “family” is the ultimate commodity to the Italian mafia, but at the same time it is the family that eventually collapses from the tyranny and self-destruction within. There is a need for respect – a dire need. There lies a corruption of power, which is self-inflicted and almost just. The elements of lust, rage, contempt and jealousy are other descriptors of what cause the fall of any mafia family – and especially is the case with the infamous Corleone family. Maybe this is what makes the film work on so many levels. It is a mob-film, but it focuses on ‘family.’

What lines in the film as well. “Women and children can be careless, but not men” as spoken by Don Corleone himself simply putting the men on a pedestal and the women in the kitchen. Another line comes in the film, which many audience members remember to this day: “Hold your friends close and your enemies closer”. It is a dance of family and culture. This was also the way it was going to be if you were to succeed in the Corleone family.
Scenes that immediately come to mind must include the opening 30-minute segment, which always parallels itself to the opening of “The Deer Hunter” in some ways. We have music, family, friends and a wedding shot in panoramic style with depth of shot and exquisite framing placing the audience in the moment.

“The Godfather” highlighted a style of film-making which was dark. This is not to refer to the film as being “noir” in a sense because it was certainly not that. However, it is the cinematography that we must keep coming back to over and over again. The close-ups (the horrific bedroom scene with the horse-head) which pan-out revealing the terror or surprise that awaits us. Some of these techniques could be found in the films of Godard, Fellini and especially Antonioni, but was taken to another level by Coppola. Still, the shooting of “The Godfather” was a technique that advanced cinema into new realms, but also held onto the classic uses of the camera as the audience’s eye into this private world. Tracking shots are rarely used, and quick cutting – rather over-cutting is never used which keeps the film in flow with the actors, the score and the sets.

The tragedy at the end of the film is the violation of a code of honor – not ethics. It is the cross between political and moral decisions the characters are put to the ultimate test. “The Godfather” gives us the firm message that honor is found in the way you do business and in the way you deal with your family. As promptly quoted in the film, “A man that does not spend time with his family can never be a real man”.

What is so amazing in hindsight is to think about the fact that “The Godfather” only won three (3) Academy Awards. Still, it did take two outstanding awards including Best Picture, Actor and Screenplay of which it was completely deserving. How Nino Rota was not nominated for Best Picture Score is beyond comprehension since it was a perfect fit for the on-screen visuals.

“The Godfather” (original of course) set the bar so high that was, is and possibly always will be the measure by which all mob and gangster films should be critiqued. Simply put, it clearly defined and beautifully characterized the genre.


Composer Nino Rota
JER: JC, to touch and correct your closing statement, Nino Rota was nominated and in fact, won the Award for Original Score. However, the Academy soon came to realize that Nino Rota had actually borrowed the music from a previous score he had written for a far- lesser known Italian film a few years prior. The Academy couldn’t allow Mr. Rota to keep the award based on the soundtrack not being “original” and was asked to return the coveted award. Sad, but true.

I cannot argue or go against what your points say about THE GODFATHER…it is difficult. What I can say is that both films make for an interesting take on two different styles of what is defined as the “family.” One is blood; the other is from code of honor amongst those you respect.

Counterpoint, JC…

JC: The belief here is that “The Godfather” was a throwback to the classic time of Hollywood filmmaking and a true glimpse into the more prolific and extravagant times of the mob.

GOODFELLAS
“Goodfellas” didn’t work nearly as well as a mob / gangster film and plays second fiddle for a few reasons. First, let’s understand that there is a “maturity” level about the classic mafia family that made the entire operation work. Mafia dons were not young kids – they were men who had lived and learned and thus were asserted into the coveted position. Secondly, “Goodfellas” seems as though it is strictly about entertainment whereas “The Godfather” almost has a real-life, documentary feel about it. Simply put, it is much more nostalgic and pays homage to long-standing family traditions and the way organized crime was developed. Perhaps both films romanticize the truth a bit as Hollywood has landed the “mob” role to an iconic one. Finally, it is the entire scope of the film in terms of the lighting, the sets and the cinematography which amplified character and mood in the film to a level that far surpasses Goodfellas.

Now Jer, you talked about “Goodfellas” as being a "musical", but I don't see the music really being that artistic in the way that it worked for “The Godfather.” Let's face the music here (no pun intended) and recognize that albeit “Goodfellas” had a soundtrack that worked, it no more made that film a musical than “The Godfather’s score did... thus, was “The Godfather” a musical via the wedding scene, the baptism, the death of Don Corleone and the finale?

JER: I beg to differ on this and will offer a rebuttal. GOODFELLAS does not offer an original score. The music is draw by the surrounding eras of the decades presented throughout the film. The idea was, I believe, to capture a sense of what Brooklyn’s middle- class mob scene felt like. The lyrics work as an assistant narrator, presented primarily, by Ray Liotta.

THE GODFATHER
THE GODFATHER, however, offers a classic (but not an original) soundtrack…as previously mentioned by Mr. Rota’s decision of choice…but, the music does work well for the style of film making it took. No one can argue with the highly- recognized ‘Godfather Waltz’ when heard anywhere…it is both iconic and nostalgic, to say the least.

JC: “Goodfellas,” is fun to watch but is really no more noteworthy as a subject or as a film than any other Cosa Nostra film. The score fits the film, but cannot ever compare to what we heard in “The Godfather” in the classic sense. “Goodfellas” offers us little in the way of romance or traditional family and business values. To add, Joe Pesci’s “funny man” scene is certainly a classic, but it seems as though this is one of the only scenes that people continually talk about in respect to the film. As for “The Godfather,” there are countless scenes, visuals and framings that make it a complete work of art.

JER: I will interject by saying that GOODFELLAS has many memorable scenes to mention, other than the confrontational scene between Pesci and Liotta. Other highlights that come to mind is manhandling of the postman early on in the film when told to no longer deliver truant notices to Henry’s parents to avoid further lashings by his Irish father! There is also the scene in which Henry confronts some of Karen’s neighborhood boys and pistol-whips one of them with a warning to stay away from her. Who can also forget Pesci shooting the foot of the young boy the family has hired to help serve drinks! I think that there are plenty of memorable moments for GOODFELLAS to stand on!

A wonderful tribute video for GOODFELLAS

JC: Does ‘Goodfellas” take itself seriously as you stated? At times, yes - but for the most part it only feels like entertainment. Every single moment of “The Godfather” is bold and deliberate while adding to the narrative in a stylistic and pensive fusion. “Goodfellas” could never compare on this level.

Just the title itself "Goodfellas" says enough about the broad gap between the characters in both films we are looking at today Jer. As you mentioned, there seems to be a "misinterpretation of low- class education by a bunch of, well, good fellas.” Actually that is it in a nutshell. The characters were sloppy, careless and could never become vicious enough to earn the role of "Don" in a mob-family. We are talking night and day here - there is truly no comparison.


Give me Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino any day over the likes of Ray Liotta. It may sound harsh, but I find Ray Liotta (Henry Hill) to be one of the most ridiculous sounding mob-members I have ever seen on screen and from the first moment I saw "Goodfellas", his own character (not the character he was playing), but his acting style in no way, shape or form appealed to me. His actions are predictable and like most of the characters in "Goodfellas", I really didn't care what happened to the. Liotta comes off as a smart-alec type of wise-guy similar to the Joe Pesci type - an attitude that would easily be disposed of in the Classic Cosa Nostra world.

Enjoy this classic 1972 trailer from THE GODFATHER

Perhaps I have been (or we have been) spoiled by Scorsese with the likes of ‘Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull” and “Casino” to the point where "Goodfellas" really does not rank that high on my list of Scorsese films - let alone "mob" films. “The Godfather” was in a league of its own and set the bar - very, very high that it would be a daunting task to find anything that could leap it.

JER: Aside from a few characters like Paulie and Jimmy, to mention a few, GOODFELLAS Is about sloppy characters trying to act like big- time mob boys! I think that was point, JC.

Understood that the likes of Liotta and Pesci do not hold a candle to Brando and Pacino, but I still have to argue that GOODFELLAS was well casted…for the type of film it was meant to represent. It wasn’t meant to be another “Godfather” film by any means. GOODFELLAS worked on a different level because it misses the poetic beauty that Puzo placed on THE GODFATHER…Pileggi’s GOODFELLAS was based on truth, not fiction! Enough said!

And so, the gauntlet falls! We ask you, our faithful readers, to chime in with your opinions as well! What made a better ‘organized crime’ film? Help us decide!

We hope you enjoyed this banter and let us know if you would be interested in others in the future along with what subjects to touch upon! Until next time, when JC gets his turn, we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

JOHNNY CHAZZ' TURN- FILM RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK: FARGO

JOHNNY CHAZZ: A lot really can happen in the middle of nowhere – and thus is the premise of so many terrific films over the years. This week, I turn my attention to one film in particular from 1996 which was a pioneer in taking the audience into the middle of nowhere and with a terrific blend of screenwriting, suspense and casting – “Fargo” becomes our topic and film recommendation this week.

Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen have become household names today – but such was not the case prior to the release of the magnificent “Fargo”. The ‘two-headed director’ gave us the wonderful “Miller’s Crossing” in the late 1980’s followed by the period piece “Barton Fink”. In 1994, the anti-corporate based “Hudsucker Proxy” would then hit the screen establishing the Coen’s as screenplay and genre masters.
Fargo” was really no different in terms of the quality of screenplay, which I continually stress on this blog. Receiving the Academy award for Best Screenplay as well as Best Actress, “Fargo” only propelled the career of these two directors into a new era. The directors were not sure if the film should be titled “Fargo” or “Brainerd”, but “Fargo” just seemed to roll of the tongue a bit better so thus was the choice for title. “Fargo” was not only refreshing, but also original as well immediately placing it in my top 100 list of all-time.

Set primarily in Minnesota and partially in North Dakota (Fargo) Jerry Lundegaard (played by Willam H. Macy) is an executive car salesman who has tremendous financial issues. Deciding to rid himself of these problems, he makes a ploy to have his wife kidnapped so that his well-to-do father-in-law will feel pressured and resigned to pay a heavy ransom thus relieving Jerry Lundegaard from debt. However, things go awry – terribly really as the quiet, yet shrewd and witty local police sergeant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) arrives at the crime scene and tails the case all the way to the brutal yet timely climax.

The film works on so many levels and it was so amazing how a number of film-goers found the film, well – bare, bleak and dull. There are no special effects in the film which immediately turns-off 25% of audiences out there today and yesteryear. Secondly, the dialect used in the film was another character all-together but some audiences found it not only annoying, but distracting from the film. Audiences also felt that the film plodded along with a number of scenes which failed to drive the plot (examples might include the scene at the Radisson Hotel where Marge has a cocktail with an old college friend).

Fargo” was both a suspense thriller as well as a work of art. The barren surroundings work as a character within itself. The music is another character. The dialect (as mentioned previously) also works as a character relaying to audiences from the moment we hear "ya" – well, it places us in middle-America in an instant and there is no way out. We also hear terms such as “heck", "darn", and "yer darn tootins’". This type of dialogue is not only authentic to the region, but adds a touch of eccentricity and humor as we fall into the film’s comfort zone.

What makes “Fargo” work so well is the very fact that the narrative is always an issue, but at the same time it is never rushed. The scene at the cafeteria really does not move the plot, but what it does is something that great “films” do – that is to say – gives the audience a glimpse into the everyday idiosyncrasies of character so that we may gain a better understanding of their motivation. The scenes with the parking attendant and kidnapper Steve Buscemi’s character are another example of this. Finally, (other than the Radisson scene) the breakfast scene between Marge and her husband is so well carried out as we have a wonderful camera shot (a two-shot) peering in on an early morning couple while also having a view of the exterior climate through the front door. Pure genius.

Fargo” is a complex, honest and extremely well written and performed piece of work that works on numerous levels. It is classic film-noir and there are hints of so many films which precede and influence it. These might include: “Chinatown”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Odds Against Tomorrow”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and perhaps even “Sunset Boulevard” in many ways. As for humor in “Fargo?” Yes. Suspense? Indeed. Character motivation? Undoubtedly. Set design and attention to details? Flawless. Thus, the key to “Fargo” is what is key to any great film – and that is what carries the story and the narrative…thus, the vehicle. In this case, it is the plot, the screenplay and dialogue, the set design, the attention to detail, the casting, and the score. I guess that sums it up- ***PICTURE POINTS: 9/10

JER: JC, you definitely gave this film a high-grade! Especially with how chintzy you can be with the higher numbers on your board. Now, let it be understood that I loved this film and I love the Coen Brothers and all that their repertoire has to offer… however, I don’t know if I could give FARGO such a high- grade as you did! I will tell you what I mean...

As well written as the “story” line is, I don’t know if I could say the same for the actual “screen” play itself. Sure, the dialog is quirky and well presented while offering an informative view point and allowing it to take on a character life all its own…but, one thing that truly stands out is the language coming through. I am not a prude, by any means! I love a good R- rated filled with sex, foul words and violence! But, somehow, there is a distinct counter-balance between Buscemi’s ‘f’ bombs and McDormand’s kind and polite manner of investigation. That may be intentional, as to show the audience what happens when two worlds collide! Buscemi is great…but he plays the same character in RESEVOIR DOGS, ARMAGEDDON and even DESPERADO! McDormand plays an entirely different and iconic character that we just haven’t seen before and there after since. One great ‘gag’ that the Coen brothers pulled in the making of this film, is the opening message about how this film is based on an actual true story. The event itself did actually occur, but all of the characters were a fabricated collective creation by Joel and Ethan Coen as well as working with each actor as to the portrayal of their individual character. So, in summary…excellent storyline and great screenplay!

Coen's pal: director Sam Raimi
There is a certain style of unique representation of film making that can be expected of any Coen brothers’ film…over-the-top every-day characters falling victim to their own devices, sharp and witty dialog, excellent cinematography and stylized and character-based distinct soundtracks! FARGO is very well represented in all accounts. It is so hard to focus on FARGO alone when BARTON FINK, HUDSUCKER PROXY, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and even RAISING ARIZONA are tailing so closely behind! It ain’t fair, I tell ya! A little back history here: the Coen brothers are from the same side of Detroit as fellow film-maker Sam Raimi (EVIL DEAD, SPIDERMAN) and actor Bruce Campbell (ARMY OF DARKNESS). All of them grew up loving “The Three Stooges” and understood the mechanics of pratfalls and slapstick! The Coens’ and Raimi worked on a few projects together including Raimi’s appearance as an actor in the Coen brothers’ THE HUDSUCKER PROXY and MILLER’S CROSSING.

But, it is FARGO that we are recognizing and highlighting by JC’s recommendation. Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, FARGO won two: Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay. FARGO would go on to win 52 different awards from various agencies recognizing achievements in film making.
As I revisited FARGO the other night, I couldn’t help compare similarities to the TWIN PEAKS television series presented by director David Lynch in 1990. Both films introduce us to odd, yet intriguing characters, authentic representations of the towns and states that both take place in and a balance of dark humor blended with violence. Both also involve such heinous crimes that it rocks the sleepy towns they take place in.

A great recommendation with lots of Coen competition to choose from!

JOHNNY CHAZZ: It was anticipated that your "grading" of this film would be a tad lower and I can definitely see your justification in that. Also, yes - I am a bit "chintzy" with my grading of movies especially on the high-end of the scale, but those films fitting in my top 100 are usually in the 8.5-9.5 range with a couple of 10's at the top.

I cannot agree however that “Raising Arizona” or “The Hudsucker Proxy” (as good as they were) are tailing close behind. Both of those films receive about a 7 on my scale at best, but are certainly worth watching. “Fargo” in my opinion was far, far superior to either of those and as a matter of fact, “Fargo” seems to me to be the best work of art that the Coen's ever put on screen. “Fargo” also received 7 Academy Award nominations including the ever-important Best Screenplay award of which it was well, well deserving.

Now as for the Lynch / “Twin Peaks” analogy - I completely agree - and I mean 100% with the mood, the "odd" and off-center characters, the sets, the language and the tonalities of the film combined with the score (albeit Badalamenti scores always get the nod) and the small-town feel. Great insight there, Jer - didn't really make that connection as I always look at TV and film differently (Not counting "TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME.").

That being said, “Fargo” remains a top-100 film for me and albeit not exactly a film-lover's secret, for those who have not seen it or simply did not care for it the first time-round....it is definitely worth a re-visit. This is a dark, witty suspense thriller that was so well casted and carried out on all levels. It is the type of film that I just love to re-watch at least a couple times a year always having a profound impact. I am just glad that even though we may not agree on the "rating" for this film, which we can both recommend it to our Cinema: Counterpoint audience with confidence.

Ya, ok then, enjoy this fancy type trailer thing then, ok?

Well, that ends this week's segment and let's prepare ourselves for what lies over the rainbow with Jer's topic next week. Remember to chime in with your thoughts, opinions and suggestions...as always, we'll SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!