The Day of Reckoning: An Interview with Andrew David Barker by Kent Hill

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Andrew David Barker was born in Derby, England in 1975. He grew up with a love of films and writing. I suppose this is a common thread among those of us who seek to express ourselves through these mediums. Hoping against hope that it will be either one or the other that strikes first – one or the other that shall propel us out of obscurity and into the stratosphere in which we are allowed to create for a living.

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It was horror films (the Video Nasties), but also the bombastic, high concept and blockbuster works of the 80’s that further fueled the young Barker to carry on his quest. Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese, but also Romero and Raimi fed him with images and blasted on the big screen the seemingly endless possibilities which lay in wait, destined to be unearthed by the daring dreamer.

Like all those that had come before, young Barker cut his teeth making short films and writing books and short stories – at times with friends. Then the time came – the time which calls to the fledgling auteurs and beckons them into the fray – time to put all accumulated knowledge to the test, and make that first film.

Thus A Reckoning was born. But through no fault of his own, young Barker was forced to sit by and see his film languish in obscurity. So, he took up the pen, and began to tell his stories on the printed page. Soon, he produced two fine works (see pictured above) and interest from the film industry power brokers soon came knocking.

Andrew is an eclectic storyteller whose visions are at once personal and profound. To talk to him about his journey, his influences and aspirations was a thrill. He is definitely a talent to watch, and, I for one, will be watching with great anticipation as to where his journey will take him next.

Alan Parker’s Angel Heart 


No other film has the seething elemental power of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, a detective story propelled by a murder mystery, all the while cradled in the sweaty, unnerving blanket of a satanic horror story. Get the extended unrated cut if you can, as it cheerfully amps up both the queasy gore and kinky sex in spades. The time is postwar 1940’s, the setting New York, or at first anyways. Shabby private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by sinister clandestine gentleman Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a missing lounge crooner named Johnny Favourite, for nasty reasons shrouded in thinly veiled threats. Harry is stalled at every turn, kept just out of the loop on every plot twist and soon seems to be a magnet for violence, troubling hallucinations and all the eerie hallmarks of a case he should have stayed far away from. The grisly clues lead him from Brooklyn to the smoky ghettos of Harlem, then south to voodoo soaked swamps of Louisiana and beyond, chasing illusory information and feeling more like the hunted than the hunter with each step. The film feels at times like a shrinking steel cage of unease and dread, a trap that closes in on both Harry and the viewer until the soul crushing revelations of the final act have been laid bare. This is hands down the best work Rourke has ever done, and it’s priceless listening to him try and to downplay it on the DVD commentary, classic ice cool Mickey. De Niro is the kind of quietly dangerous that leaves a deadly vacuum in the air of each scene, underplaying evil expertly and laying down more mystic mood by simply peeling a boiled egg than most actors could with a twenty page monologue. Ex Cosby Show darling Lisa Bonet sauces up her image here as a Bayou voodoo princess with ties to the mystery, and the steamy, no holds barred sex romp she has with Rourke has since become the stuff of legend, a feverish cascade of blood and other bodily fluid that almost gave the MPAA a coronary. The one area this film excels at most is atmosphere; there’s something intangibly wild about everything we see, hear and feel on Harry’s journey, from the supernatural tinged, noirish hues of Michael Seresin’s cinematography to the haunted, hollow tones of Trevor Jones’s baroque, restless original score, everything contributes to forging a world in which we feel enveloped in and can’t quite shake after, like a bad dream that creeps out into waking life for a while after the night. Angel Heart is a horror classic, a blood red gem amongst genre fare and one in an elite group of films that are pretty much as close to perfect as can be. 

-Nate Hill

It’s good to be the King: An interview with Larry Cohen by Kent Hill

There is a quote attributed to Robert Rodriguez (another independent maverick filmmaker) that states:

“If you are doing it because you love it you can succeed because you will work harder than anyone else around you, take on challenges no one else would dare take, and come up with methods no one else would discover, especially when their prime drive is fame and fortune. All that will follow later if you really love what you do. Because the work will speak for itself.”

It is the always interesting, ever-changing, always inventive, ever professional life and work of Larry Cohen that really personifies the above quotation. King Cohen has been out there in one form or another in an impressive career spanning multiple decades. He has been the director of cult classics; he has been the writer of hot scripts that have incited Hollywood bidding wars. His work has been remade, imitated, venerated.

These are the hallmarks of a man and his movies whose personal voice rings out loud and clear, high above the commercial ocean of mainstream cinema that carries, beneath its shiny surface, schools of biodegradable blockbusters that are usually forgotten about only moments after having left the cinema.

This is not true of the films of Larry Cohen. For his work is the stuff (pardon the pun) that came before, the stuff the imitators latch on to, the stuff from which remakes and re-imaginations are conceived. This is the fate of the masters. The innovators come and bring forth art through trial and error. They are followed by the masters who take the lessons learned from the innovators and make them, shape them by sheer force of will. But, then there comes the imitators who stand on the shoulders of these giants and take home the glory.

Still, when there is an artist that is in equal parts innovator and master; this causes the imitators to stand baffled.

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Rather than accepting my humble oration, I urge you to seek out Steve Mitchell’s most excellent documentary KING COHEN. Watch it, marvel, rejoice, and remember that there are great filmmakers out there. They may not be coming soon to a theatre near you, but they did once, and their work still stands, silently, waiting to be discovered.

Until you get to see KING COHEN please, feel free to bask in my little chat with the king himself, Larry Cohen, a gentleman of many parts, many stories and of course . . . many movies.

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Larry Cohen.

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Alan Parker’s ANGEL HEART – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

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A nightmarish fever dream of despair, discovery, and darkness is what makes Alan Parker’s ANGEL HEART one of the very best films of the 1980’s. Featuring a greasy and tobacco stained Mickey Rourke, a fresh and innocent Lisa Bonet, and Robert De Niro in one of his most underrated and undervalued performances.

The brutal violence and horrifying imagery of Rourke’s downward spiral are made up of this harmoniously tranquil aesthetic that makes the film even more terrifying and unnerving. At times, the film almost challenges its viewer to look away from the screen, but it knows you cannot because you’ve become so enamored with the richly lathered story that quickly unfolds.

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Rourke gives one of his finest, if not best performance as the amoral and skeevy private investigator who doesn’t have any limitations of what he’ll do for a paycheck. As his story arc comes to a close, Rourke transforms his character into a man who’s conflict gains nothing but sympathy from the viewer.

De Niro gives a brilliant and subtle turn as a man who is so powerful and dangerous his very presence in the film leaves you feeling violated. De Niro has often been hailed for his award-winning performances, but this role deserves as much attention and acclaim if not more.

Director Alan Parker is almost an unsung hero as a filmmaker. He’s made countless films throughout an array of genres, never allowing himself to become beholden to any of them. His films are topical, emotional, and more times than not unique pictures that find their way into your consciousness and are rarely forgotten. ANGEL HEART is a film that few have seen but no one will ever forget.

MACHETE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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When he made his half of the Grindhouse double bill (2007), Robert Rodriguez also put together a trailer for a film he would like to see. And so, Machete (2010) was born – a Mexploitation action film about an ex-federale who is set-up, double-crossed and left for dead. However, the origins for this project go back even further to 1995 when Rodriguez made Desperado, the second film in his El Mariachi trilogy. It would be the first time (but certainly not the last) he worked with veteran character actor and professional badass Danny Trejo. He’s someone you’ve probably not heard of but have definitely seen. If you need a tough-looking tattooed henchman, he’s your man. While working on Desperado, Rodriguez envisioned Trejo starring in a series of action films as Machete but at that time the director did not have the clout to get someone to bankroll a Latino action film that didn’t feature someone with movie star looks like Antonio Banderas.

Rodriguez never forgot about his pet project and over the years cast Trejo in several of his films. Even though the Grindhouse films were a commercial failure, audiences loved the faux trailer for Machete. Rodriguez managed to convince a Hollywood studio to finance it with a modest budget and used his connections to assemble an impressive cast that included the likes of Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, and “introducing” Don Johnson. However, what worked as a movie trailer be too much of a good thing as a feature film?

The prologue sets up everything we need to know about Machete (Trejo) – he’s a badass Mexican federale set-up by his corrupt superior and left for dead by local druglord Torrez (Seagal). It also sets just the right tone as we see Machete hacking and slashing his way through a house of bad guys with bloody abandon. Meanwhile, in the United States, a corrupt, ultra-conservative Texan senator named John McLaughlin (De Niro), campaigns on a platform of preventing illegal immigrants from crossing the border. He even employs a border vigilante group, led by the brutal Von Jackson (Johnson), to enforce his policies.

Sartana Rivera (Alba) is an upstanding Immigrations enforcement officer investigating the problem through legal channels and ends up crossing paths with Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a no-nonsense taco stand operator who moonlights as a revolutionary operating an underground railroad of sorts for her Mexican brothers and sisters. Machete, now a day laborer (or, at least that’s his cover), is hired by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), a local businessman, to kill the Senator for $150,000. Machete is set up, shot and forced to go into hiding. With the help of Rivera and Luz, he plots revenge on the men that betrayed him.

It’s awesome to see Danny Trejo finally get to carry a film for once and play a character that doesn’t get killed off. He brings his customary intensity as the strong, silent man of action and in many respects the film is Rodriguez’s present to the actor as he has him take down tons of bad guys, look cool doing it, and hook up with many of the film’s lovely ladies, including Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan! Robert De Niro is a lot of fun to watch playing a John McCain meets George W. Bush-esque xenophobic politician. It’s also great to see Steven Seagal as a powerful criminal and Machete’s arch-nemesis, not to mention appearing in a mainstream film that didn’t go straight-to-home video.

Michelle Rodriguez adds another tough chick role to her resume as she portrays the female Mexican equivalent of Che Guevara but with a dash of Snake Plissken. Another fun bit of casting is Lindsay Lohan playing the messed up celebutante child of Booth. She and Rodriguez have some fun riffing on her public persona and kudos to the director for not bowing to peer and public pressure about her party girl reputation and showing that regardless, she still has the acting chops. Rodriguez regulars Tom Savini and Cheech Marin show up in memorable bit parts as a deadly assassin and Machete’s ex-federale now-priest brother.

It’s no secret that Rodriguez is a filmmaker that wears his influences on his sleeve. For example, Desperado was an homage to the Hong Kong action films of John Woo and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Planet Terror (2007) evoked the films of John Carpenter and George Romero. Growing up in the 1980s, Machete is Rodriguez’s love letter to the films produced by Cannon Films during that decade. They were responsible for cranking out an endless stream of generic action films starring the likes of Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff. In these films, the action stars were often a one-man army capable of wiping out the fighting force of a small country seemingly single-handedly. The same goes for Machete who is an unstoppable killing machine bent on revenge.

Machete is full of outrageous, over-the-top violence and inventively staged action sequences, like one scene where Machete bungee-jumps from one floor of a hospital to another with the aid of an evil henchman’s large intestine. In this respect, the film has the same gonzo, go-for-broke action that Rodriguez orchestrated in the underrated Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). Living up to his namesake, Machete finds all sorts of ways to kill the bad guys with a vast assortment of sharp weapons. Machete is a lot of fun and never outstays its welcome as Rodriguez knows how to keep things moving so that things never get boring.

michelle-rodriguez-as-luzMachete not only features all kinds of wild action sequences but also has something on its mind, commenting on the rampant immigration problems that continue to plague the states along the United States/Mexico border. Along the way, Rodriguez plays up and makes fun of Latino stereotypes (they are all day laborers and love tricked out cars) only to twist them into a rallying cry, a call for revolution that takes full bloom by the film’s exciting conclusion in a way that has to be seen to be believed. Best of all, Rodriguez has created yet another awesome Latino action hero. Forget Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010), Machete is the real deal and a no-holds-barred love letter to ‘80s action films. As great as it was to see many of the beloved action stars from the ‘80s and 1990s, I felt that Stallone’s film never went far enough. Rodriguez’s film doesn’t have that problem as it gleefully goes all the way with its cartoonish violence.

Tony Scott’s The Fan: A Review By Nate Hill

  
  

Tony Scott’s the fan is a wild ride with an off the hook turn from Robert De Niro. It’s ranked and regarded as a pretty low notch on Scott’s belt, but it’s hard to compete with his best work. It’s still a sleazy blast and pure Scott, his characters always let, lurid and delightfully pulpy. Sure it falls apart near the end, but until then it’s nasty, delicious fun. De Niro plays Gil, a die hard baseball fan and devout follower of Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), star player for his favourite team. Gil wants Bobby to succeed so badly that he becomes violent, unstable and pretty bonkers. At first it’s obnoxious and amusing, but soon he gets dodgy and dangerous and eventually just out of control. It’s great fun seeing De Niro go bug nuts bit by bit, and he’s always had a wild menace that he like to take down from the shelf and dust off for the occasional performance. Benicio Del Toro does one of his puzzling, indecipherable vocal riffs as a rival player, adding to the weird factor. Ellen Barkin is a sexy sass bomb as Jewal Stern, a mouthy talk show host who sniffs out the controversy in high style. John Leguizamo is always sterling, and classes his scenes up like a pro. Watch for speckled cameos from M.C. Gainey, Brad William Henke, Don S. Davis, Tuesday Knight, Wayne Duvall, Richard Rhiele, John Carrol Lynch, Michael P. Byrne and Chris Mulkey as well, all excellent. Not Scott’s best for sure, but a nicely mean spirited little romp through the psycho stalker fields. Fun stuff. 

MIDNIGHT RUN – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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One of the most popular trends in the 1980s cinema was the buddy-action film. The best ones to come out of this period were 48 HRS. (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), and Midnight Run (1988), which spawned numerous imitators and sequels. Along with Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run is arguably the genre’s last gasp before slipping into formulaic predictability and self-parody (see Rush Hour, Blue Streak, et al). What makes Midnight Run so good, even after all these years, is the unbeatable combination of an excellent cast, a witty script and solid direction.

Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter hired by his bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) to find and transport to Los Angeles, one Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) — a.k.a. “The Duke,” an accountant who stole $15 million from Las Vegas gangster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). What is initially a simple “midnight run” from New York City to Los Angeles, turns into the road trip from hell as Walsh and Mardukas are pursued across the country via plane, train, and automobile by dim-witted gangsters, frustrated FBI agents led by Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), and a rival bounty hunter named Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton).

While this film may be a comedy, Brest lets us know right from the get-go that it’s going to have a slightly unpredictable edge to it as Walsh is almost killed by a deadbeat he’s supposed to bring in. If that wasn’t bad enough, his guy is almost snatched away from him by Dorfler. I like that Brest takes the time to show Walsh doing his job and that he’s good at it. The bounty hunter is able to track down and find Mardukas where the Feds and the Mob were unable.

Brest wastes no time introducing the film’s various antagonists starting with Mosely who approaches Walsh on the street. The bounty hunter quickly finds himself surrounded by four FBI agents. Walsh knows what they want and gives them nothing but smartass replies to their questions. Yaphet Kotto doesn’t play Mosely as an inept bumbler but instead brings an impressive intensity to the role that makes his character something of an intimidating figure which, of course, makes his kind of incompetent lackeys that much funnier the more frustrated he gets when they are repeatedly unable to catch Walsh and Markdukas. For example, there’s the withering glare Mosely gives one of his flunkies when he states the painfully obvious – that Walsh has his identification.

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adheres to the basic formula of the buddy-action film with two diametrically opposed characters teaming up to fight the bad guys. Inevitably, humorous situations arise from constant bickering while the duo shoots, punches, and fights their way out of action-packed set pieces. Ultimately, what makes Midnight Run work so well is how it messes around with the formula. Instead of having one funny guy and one straight man, you have two straight men with De Niro and Grodin. And yet it works, due in large part to the skill of the two leads who complement each other perfectly — De Niro plays Walsh as a gruff, foul-mouthed guy constantly annoyed by Grodin’s clean-cut accountant, armed with a seemingly endless supply of personal questions to ask his traveling companion. Their scenes together seem very spontaneous and real as they annoy the hell out of each other.

Fresh from his scene-stealing appearance in The Untouchables (1987), Robert De Niro was eager to try something different. He wanted to do a comedy and to this end, pursued the lead role in Penny Marshall’s film, Big (1988). Marshall was interested but the studio was not and thankfully the role went to Tom Hanks. Martin Brest, who directed Beverly Hills Cop, had found another script by George Gallo in the same vein — one that blended elements of comedy and action. He sent it to De Niro and was very up front with the actor: Midnight Run was a commercial film, not an in-depth character study. Regardless, De Niro researched his role by working with real-life bounty hunters and police officers.

Paramount was originally interested in backing Midnight Run but they wanted a big name star opposite De Niro in order to improve the film’s chances at the box office. Their production executives suggested that the Mardukas character be changed to a woman and wanted Cher for the role in the hopes that she would provide some “sexual overtones.” Brest wisely rejected the idea and so Paramount suggested teaming De Niro up with Robin Williams. Williams was a big star in his own right and eager to get the role. He even offered to do an audition for Brest — a rarity for the comedian whose name alone could green light projects. However, Brest was impressed by Charles Grodin’s audition with De Niro. The director felt that there was a real chemistry between the two actors. As a result, Paramount backed out and the studio’s president Ned Tanen claimed that the budget became too high and decided that “it wasn’t worth it.” Universal Pictures became interested in the project. It is to Brest’s credit that he supported Grodin down the line and refused to change his decision despite studio pressure.

Brest brought Grodin aboard with the understanding that the actor would have the opportunity to improvise. Grodin was very much open to De Niro’s improvisational technique. He remembered that De Niro “was all about ‘work,’ plain and simple, and being with him felt like breathing pure oxygen.” Some of their best scenes feel like the screenplay was just thrown out and that they simply riffed off one another. For example, the night boxcar scene where Walsh and Mardukas bond, after illegally stowing away on a train, was improvised entirely.

Much of Midnight Run’s humor comes from these moments as they constantly antagonize each other. This relationship is believable because the film takes the time to develop it with many scenes where the two men just talk, and this allows us to get to know them. Most buddy films spend only the bare minimum amount of time on character development and instead cram as many action set pieces and explosions in as possible. As a result, we do not become attached to the characters. Midnight Run does not fall into this trap.

For all of its commercial elements, George Gallo’s script has very strong, three-dimensional characters that transcend their stereotypes. It was the script that first drew Grodin to the project. He said in an interview that “the script had dimension beyond what I’m used to seeing. The dimension of character. It looked like a good action-adventure genre picture with strong character evolution.” De Niro, being the consummate actor that he is, still manages to inject little touches and details, like a habit of constantly checking his faulty watch, or the nice bit of comedy when he checks out Mosely’s identification that he pickpocketed during their first meeting. De Niro walks away from the camera only to quickly turn around and flash the stolen ID in an amusing parody of an FBI agent. It is these little bits of business that provide insights into his character. Brest commented in an interview that, “sometimes I’d let the camera run after finishing a scene to see if he did any bits, and invariably he did.”

From the two leads to the rest of the supporting cast, each character is given a moment or two to say or do something that makes them distinctive and funny. For example, there is John Ashton as Dorfler, a rival bounty hunter who falls for the same stupid trick every time. Dorfler is not just some generic bounty hunter. Ashton transforms him into a self-absorbed idiot who is completely oblivious to the big picture. Even though Dorfler is always on the receiving end of many jokes, he gets his chances to prevail. However, you know that, ultimately, he is destined to fail. Dorfler has a distinctive personality instead of being merely a cardboard cutout.

Joe Pantoliano is so good as the increasingly exasperated bail bondsman. His opening exchange with De Niro early on in the film is so well played. In a matter of moments De Niro and Pantoliano suggest a long history between their two characters in the way they act towards each other. Eddie is a consummate bullshit artist but Walsh sees right through that. I like the nice little detail that Brest throws into this scene where Eddie pays Walsh by taking out a wad of cash stashed in his pink and white socks. It is details like this that say so much about a character. Eddie cares only about money and his reputation. These characters could have been presented as clichéd stereotypes but Brest wisely casts veteran character actors like Ashton and Pantoliano in these roles.

Many of the supporting characters appear constantly throughout the film in a series of recurring gags, like Mosely running into people who’ve encountered Walsh posing as him, or Mardukas’ never-ending questions about Walsh’s personal life (“Why were you so unpopular with the Chicago Police Department?”), or Dorfler getting fooled by the same trick time and time again. Then there’s Joey (Robert Miranda) and Tony (Richard Foronjy), two dumb Vegas wiseguys that work for Serrano. Tony’s the slightly smarter one but not by much. The give and take between these two minor characters is really funny and the script gives them a moment of actual competency which makes them more than just one-dimensional thugs. It helps that the two actors playing them do such a good job bringing these characters to life.

Much like Yaphet Kotto does with Agent Mosely, Dennis Farina plays his character as if he were in a drama and not a comedy. Unlike his goofier mobsters in Get Shorty (1995) and Snatch (2000), the actor transforms Jimmy Serrano into an imposing figure best illustrated in the scene where he confronts Mardukas and tells him that he’s going to die. For a brief moment, Midnight Run stops being a comedy and there’s a real sense of danger thanks to Farina’s chilling presence in this scene. He’s also quite funny in the scenes where he threatens his underlings with all sorts over-the-top violent acts if they don’t do his bidding.

Nowadays, it’s hard to remember when De Niro doing a comedy was something of an anomaly. Sure, he had done The King of Comedy (1983) but by and large he was known at the time as a dramatic actor. So, teaming him up with veteran comedic actor Charles Grodin in an action comedy must’ve seemed like a risky prospect to the studio. But this would be tempered with director Brest behind the camera. This was years before Gigli (2003) when he was still enjoying the good will from the smash hit Beverly Hills Cop. If anybody could make De Niro funny while still retaining his trademark intensity, it was Brest.

Now, there is a whole generation of filmgoers that only knows De Niro from comedies like Meet the Parents (2000) and Analyze That (2002). Charles Grodin has, for the most part, shunned the limelight. He had a short-lived talk show but has, unfortunately, not done anything on par with his work in Midnight Run. In fact, he hasn’t acted much since 1994 and said in a recent interview that he has quit acting altogether. By the late 1980s, early 1990s, the buddy-action film had become a tired and hackneyed cliché. Screenwriter Shane Black offered a brief breath of fresh air with Lethal Weapon (1987) and The Last Boy Scout (1991) but generic time-wasters, like De Niro’s own Showtime (2002), Serving Sara (2002), which blatantly rips off Midnight Run, or the more recent The Bounty Hunter (2010), are still cranked out with predictable regularity by the studios. Back in 1988, Brest delivered the goods in a big way, serving up an R-rated film that mixed exciting car chases and shoot-outs with hilarious recurring gags and assortment of colorful characters.

Barry Levinson’s Sleepers: A Review by Nate Hill

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Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is a deliberately paced, downbeat look at revenge, and is one of the most brilliant yet seemingly overlooked dramas of the 90’s. Part of it could have been marketing; The cover suggests blistering violence, confrontation and courtroom intrigue. While there are such moments within the narrative, they live to serve the story, which Levinson and his dream cast are doggedly intent on telling. It’s a sombre affair to be sure, slow and methodical as well, but never to be confused with boring. It’s just such a great story, one that unfolds exactly as it needs to. It starts in the 1950’s, where four young rapscallions run wild on the streets of Manhatten. It kicks the story off with a sort of urban Stand By Me vibe, and if you thought that film went to some heavy placed, stick around through Sleepers. When an innocent prank ends in tragedy, the four are sent to an austere children’s correctional facility, where they run afoul of some sadistic and abusive guards, led by Kevin Bacon, who is scummier than scum itself. They endure months of ritual abuse at the hands of these sickos, until their eventual release. Life goes on, as it must, the four boys grow up and follow very different paths from one another. Michael (Brad Pitt) becomes an esteemed lawyer. Shakes (Jason Patric) lives a quiet life, while Tommy (Billy Crudup, wonderfully cast against type) and John (Ron Eldard) take a darker road to drugs and crime. Eventually their past rears it’s head, and they are presented with an opportunity for much delayed revenge. It doesn’t all play out the way you may think though, and half the fun of this one is being surprised by geniunly lifelike plot turns and characters who behave as real humans would. Pitt is the highlight in a performance of quiet torment. Dustin Hoffman is fun as a washed up lawyer who gets involved, Minnie Driver shows up as a tough NYC gal who gets involved with Patric, Robert De Niro has a nice bit as a kindly priest who counsels the boys even until adulthood, and there’s further supporting work from Jonathan Tucker, Bruno Kirby, Frank Medrano, Brad Renfro, Terry Kinney and more. Levinson usually takes on bright, chipper comedies and razor sharp political satire. With Sleepers he deviates into tragic dramatic material, and shows his versitility excellently. This one gets grim, no doubt about it. However, it’s a story not only worth the telling, but worth the watching for us.

THE UNTOUCHABLES – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) is a film that asks the burning question: is police brutality ever justified? It is when you’re dealing with the likes of Al Capone and Frank Nitti – gangsters that had no problem blowing up children and killing nebbish accountants to get what they wanted. The film doesn’t exactly adhere to historical fact opting instead to go with John Ford’s famous credo of printing the legend and in doing so raising the characters and their exploits to mythic status. De Palma’s adaptation of Eliot Ness’ 1957 memoir of the same name had all the makings of a powerhouse production destined for greatness. It featured a screenplay written by legendary playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), expert cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Rumble Fish) was behind the camera, master composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad & the Ugly) was scoring the film, and Robert De Niro and Sean Connery were signed on to play larger-than-life characters. The result was an exciting, action-packed epic that helped revitalize De Palma’s struggling career (after the critical and commercial failure of Wise Guys) and earned Connery his first Academy Award.

It is 1930 and gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) controls most of the illegal business in Chicago with a ruthless, iron fist. After a ten-year old girl is killed in a gang-related incident, Federal Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is brought in to clean up the city. His first attempt is an embarrassing failure so he tries a different approach. He decides to form his own task force of three men to help him take down Capone and his empire. He picks a veteran beat cop named Malone (Sean Connery), who knows the city and becomes Ness’ mentor. He also selects Stone (Andy Garcia), a cop fresh out of the academy and ace shot with a pistol. Rounding out the group is Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a bookish FBI accountant who figures out a way to nail Capone. Together, they form an incorruptible group determined to bring Capone to justice.

De Palma and Mamet make it clear right from the get-go that The Untouchables isn’t going to be some half-assed, sanitized gangster film as they proceed to have Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) blow up a bar with a little girl in it. This shocking sequence, juxtaposed with Capone lying about not using violence to enforce his will, sets an all-bets-are-off tone as we get an idea of just how brutal life is in Chicago and how far Capone is willing to go to make a point. This is then contrasted with Eliot Ness’ blandy-McPlainWrap home life with a loving and dutiful wife (Patricia Clarkson) and cute-as-a-button child. We see just how far removed from Chicago Ness’ home life is and what a rude wake-up call he will get when he starts working in the city.

Kevin Costner is wisely cast as the stiff, idealistic Ness. He’s the least interesting character and plays the role straight, trying not to go the obvious heroic route. His all-American looks and Gary Cooper-esque style are ideally suited for the role of the last honest man in the corrupt town (which Oliver Stone would also utilize in JFK). His Ness is as straight an arrow as they come, which makes the character’s arc over the course of the film an interesting one. He goes from staunch upholder of the law to someone who has adopted Malone’s by-any-means-necessary philosophy.

This allows Connery to rightfully shine as the aging cop torn between riding out his remaining time and retire alive or making a difference with Ness and his crew. Unlike Ness, Malone has grown up on and worked the mean streets of Chicago. He understands that they are at war with Capone and must do whatever it takes to bust him and break up his empire because he will be just as ruthless. Upon the first meeting, Malone imparts a valuable lesson to Ness: “Make sure when you shift is over you go home alive.” It seems obvious but is an important one to know. It is also the reason why Malone initially turns down Ness’ offer to form the Untouchables. Connery shows what a once great actor can do with the right material and this results in a truly inspired performance — arguably the veteran actor’s last great one.

Rounding out his trilogy of memorable cameos in the 1980s (including Brazil and Angel Heart), Robert De Niro put on the pounds again (which he first and most famously did for Raging Bull) and transformed himself into Al Capone. Like Tony Montana in De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Capone is surrounded by luxury and opulence but is still just a cruel thug at heart. In the few scenes that he has, De Niro makes them count and it is a thrill to hear a great actor say Mamet’s tough-guy dialogue (listen to how he says the word, “enthusiasms,” in a scene). The actor clearly relishes the role and treats the dialogue like he’s enjoying a rich meal and each word is a juicy morsel that he savors.

The supporting roles feature some fantastic actors, chief among them Billy Drago who exudes just the right amount of oily menace as Nitti. For example, there is a scene where he cordially threatens Ness and his family. On the surface there is the appearance of civility but we know what his true intentions are and it doesn’t take Ness much time to figure it out but by then Nitti is speeding off in his car. He’s made his point. Drago doesn’t get many lines or a lot of screen time but makes the most of what he’s given, making a fine addition to De Palma’s roster of cinematic sociopaths.

Speaking of Mamet’s dialogue, it crackles and pops with intensity and provides many of the film’s classic scenes, perhaps none more memorable than Malone’s famous speech to Ness where he tells him how to get Capone. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” Sean Connery delivers this speech with the passion and conviction that rightfully earned him an Oscar. The other scene of classic Mamet dialogue is Capone’s infamous dinner table monologue where he talks about teamwork before braining a hapless flunky with a baseball bat for not being a part of the “team.”

Brian De Palma’s stylish direction is perfect for this epic story: long, uninterrupted takes, slow motion and excellent compositions within the widescreen format. He may well be one of the greatest practioners of this aspect ratio. Just look at a simple set-up in the scene where Malone takes Ness to a church and lays it all out for how they’re going to get Capone. Both men take up most of the foreground occupying either side of the screen. The camera is low looking up at them so that we also see part of the beautifully ornate church ceiling. It is this kind of shot that would be totally destroyed when shown pan and scanned on television. Then there is the much-celebrated train station shoot-out, which was a shameless homage to a famous sequence in the legendary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s a bravura sequence that is beautifully orchestrated by De Palma as he builds the tension leading up to the shoot-up for what seems like an unbearable eternity. The entire sequence is a brilliant lesson in editing and camerawork.

Although, De Palma does go a little over-the-top (even for him) with the Ness-Nitti show down at the end, which features the director’s obligatory homage to Alfred Hitchcock. There is also a silly bit of business where we see two old cops duking it in a rainy alleyway as Connery and veteran character actor Richard Bradford laughably beat each other up in a scene that I could’ve done without. Also, Malone’s prolonged death scene drags on for what feels like an eternity but these are really minor flaws in an otherwise unimpeachable stone cold classic as De Palma does his best to distract us from these histrionics with giallo lighting in the Connery fight scene and suspenseful point-of-view steadicam work in the death scene.

In 1984, producer Art Linson met with Paramount Studio’s president Ned Tanen about adapting The Untouchables television series into a film. Tanen liked the idea but Linson did not want to do a sequel, a remake or a parody. He wanted “to create a big-scale movie about mythical American heroes.” Linson needed a screenwriter and thought of David Mamet, fresh from just having won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway play Glengarry Glen Ross. He met with Mamet and the writer agreed to do the film. The screenwriter was a native of Chicago and something of a gangster history buff. He envisioned a story about “the old gunfighter and the young gunfighter … It occurred to me, what happens if this young innocent, who’s charged with defending the law but only understands that in an abstract way, meets an old disenchanted veteran, the caretaker of the law, soured at the end of his career because of the corruption in the city?”

Mamet asked Paramount to show him two episodes of the original series and he liked them but felt that “there was nothing I could use in the movie.” Mamet wrote an original story after realizing that the real events – Capone being caught for tax evasion – were not that dramatic. Mamet created the character of Malone and gave Ness a family (he did not have one in real life). After eight months, Brian De Palma was approached to direct by Linson after Mamet wrote the third draft of the script. The director liked that the script was more about the characters and did not see it as a gangster film but more like The Magnificent Seven (1960). He felt that the project was “different from anything I’ve done in the past, because it’s a traditional Americana picture, like a John Ford picture.” He, Linson and Mamet worked together on it with De Palma emphasizing the Capone character more. According to De Palma, the film “reflects upon the incredible pressure we place on our police by not equipping them to adequately fight criminals. Why are we surprised that some of them go overboard?”

For the role of Eliot Ness, Linson and De Palma initially considered William Hurt and Harrison Ford, but, according to Linson, they wanted “someone with the right combination of naiveté, earnestness and strength.” They ended up casting Kevin Costner who wanted to do the film because it was so different from the television series and Ness “has to ask for help. It’s the more modern notion that a smart man takes a step back sometimes – that to be a hero you don’t have to be Rambo.” For Jimmy Malone, the filmmakers wanted Sean Connery but assumed that he would not want to play a supporting role and take a pay cut. However, Connery was drawn to the project because of Mamet’s script and the chance to work with Robert De Niro. He ended up signing on for a percentage of the profits. For the role of Al Capone, De Palma wanted De Niro. Paramount initially balked at the actor’s asking price of $1.5 million but relented.

The principal actors rehearsed together for a full week and Connery tried to remain in character even when the cast was relaxing. By the time principal photography began, whole scenes had been blocked and unworkable ideas rejected. A rapport between the actors playing the Untouchables had also been established, which definitely shows in the film. In preparation for the film, De Niro put on 30 pounds between the end of his Broadway run in Cuba and His Teddy Bear and his days of filming scheduled at the end of the 70-day production schedule. He analyzed old Movietone newsreels in order to get Capone’s voice, movements and mannerisms. On an interesting note, the famous scene in the church between Ness and Malone as originally written, took place on a street, but Connery suggested it take place in a church – the only place left in the city where they could speak freely.

Principal photography started in mid-August 1986 and utilized over 25 separate locations in Chicago with the border raid sequence shot on the Old Hardy Bridge spanning the Missouri River because of its period look. The train station shoot-out cost $200,000 to light because extra light was needed to shoot the sequence in slow motion. It took six days to shoot the scene, which cost an additional $100,000. Not surprisingly, staging this sequence like the one in Battleship Potemkin was De Palma’s idea. The budget escalated from $17 million to $24 million thanks to the cost of production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein transforming an entire block of LaSalle Street in Chicago into the 1930s complete with 125 costumed extras and 60 period cars.

The production design for The Untouchables is fantastic, especially the opulence of Capone’s headquarters, with Morricone’s score resembling a 1930s riff on the music from De Palma’s Scarface. This film is one of those rare big-budget, star-studded blockbusters that actually works. All of the right elements came together at just the right time and place and resulted in an incredibly entertaining motion picture. The Untouchables shows what a master filmmaker like De Palma can do with a director-for-hire paycheck movie. He may not be making a personal statement with this film but he still gives it his all in terms of style and virtuoso camerawork. This film certainly set a high standard for period gangster films, casting a long shadow over future endeavors like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) and the HBO T.V. series Boardwalk Empire.

MEAN STREETS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

Mean Streetts 4

Martin Scorsese’s truly great films have all had a personal touch to them. One only has to look at films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) to see a real vitality and energy to the action on-screen. It is these early films that convey a real sense of someone intensely in love with film — which may be due in part to the fact that Scorsese and his cast and crew were just starting out. Mean Streets, in particular, is a visceral, intimate experience that is just potent today as it was when it first came out.

Mean Streets
takes the notion of the American success story and reduces it to almost nothing. The characters that inhabit this film are small-time hustlers and punks with no real direction in life and no future. Set in the “Little Italy” neighborhood of New York City, we are introduced to most of the main characters in the opening moments of the film. Each one is given his own little scene in order to showcase his distinct character-defining obsession. We first meet Tony (David Proval), the order-obsessed owner of a local bar, as he throws out a junkie and then chastises his bouncer for his lack of initiative. Next, is Michael (Richard Romanus), a serious looking loan shark who ineptly tries to sell a man a shipment of German lenses only to be told by the customer that they are actually Japanese adapters. This is followed by the explosive Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a happy-go-lucky punk who gleefully blows up a mailbox and then runs off. Finally, we meet the film’s protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an ambitious young man who is embroiled in conflict — both personal and external.

Charlie is torn between two worlds: the static isolation of his uncle’s environment and the constricting chaos of Johnny Boy’s lifestyle. He must make a choice between the two, while trying to exist in both. Conflict occurs when these two worlds inevitably collide and Charlie is left to pick up the pieces. This revisionist approach is in stark contrast to the traditional gangster film which almost always follows a curve that traces the criminal’s rise and eventual fall. However, Scorsese disrupts this notion by having no rise and leaving the fall unresolved. The only thing that is truly alive and vital in the film is Scorsese’s camera which dollies and tracks all over the place with incredible energy and enthusiasm which is truly infectious.

The source of this intensity stems from Scorsese’s personal identification with the material. At the time, the young filmmaker was writing the screenplay for Mean Streets (then known as Season of the Witch) and he had just finished wrapping up Boxcar Bertha (1972) for B-Movie guru, Roger Corman. Scorsese showed the rough cut of the latter to famous actor/director John Cassavetes who told him, “you just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit. You’re better than that stuff, you don’t do that again.” Cassavetes asked Scorsese if he was working on something that he really wanted to do. He showed him the Season of the Witch script and Cassavetes urged Scorsese to work on his own material and not on others.

So, the aspiring auteur began to seek financial backing for his script which initially began as a continuation of the characters in his first film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1968). Scorsese changed the title to Mean Streets, a reference to famous pulp writer Raymond Chandler, and sent the script to Corman who agreed to back the film if all the characters were black. Scorsese was so anxious to make the film that he actually considered this option, but fortunately actress Verna Bloom arranged a meeting with potential financial backer, Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for the musical group, The Band. Taplin liked the script and was willing to raise the $300,000 budget that Scorsese wanted if Corman promised, in writing, to distribute the film.

According to Scorsese, the first draft of Mean Streets focused on the religious conflict within Charlie and how it affected his worldview. “See, the whole idea was to make a story of a modern saint, a saint in his own society, but his society happens to be gangsters.” Along with fellow writer Mardik Martin, Scorsese wrote the whole script while driving around “Little Italy” in Martin’s car. They would find a spot in the neighborhood to park and begin writing, all the while immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of what would eventually appear on-screen. Mean Streets, for them, was a response to the epic grandeur of The Godfather novel. “To us, it was bullshit,” Martin remembers, “It didn’t seem to be about the gangsters we knew, the petty ones you see around. We wanted to tell the story about real gangsters.” It is this rejection of the often pretentious and operatic approach of The Godfather films that really makes Mean Streets distinctive. It was one of the few gangster films, at the time, to use a personal, almost home-movie view of its subjects. The settings and situations are so intimate and personal that you almost feel embarrassed, as if you are intruding on someone’s actual life.

Once the financing was in place, Scorsese began to recruit his cast. Robert De Niro had met the director in 1972 and liked what he had seen in Who’s That Knocking. De Niro was impressed with how the film had so accurately captured life in “Little Italy” where he had also grown up. Scorsese offered the actor four different roles, but he could not decide which one he wanted to portray — they all had interesting aspects to them. After another actor dropped out of the project, Scorsese cast Harvey Keitel in the pivotal role of Charlie. Keitel’s first film was also Scorsese’s debut with Who’s That Knocking and as a result, the two already had a rapport. This may explain why the director ignored the fact that the actor had little experience, and instead opted for a certain amount of rawness and a familiarity with the subject matter that Keitel possessed. Scorsese’s gamble paid off and Keitel’s strong performance is one of the many highlights of Mean Streets. He manages to convey the inner turmoil that threatens to consume Charlie’s character as he struggles to save everyone around him and ends up saving no one.

Keitel was also responsible for convincing De Niro to play Johnny Boy. “I didn’t see myself as Johnny Boy as written, but we improvised in rehearsal and the part evolved.” This improvisation also resulted in some of the most memorable scenes in the film, including the back room conversation between their two characters where Johnny Boy explains to Charlie, in a rather humorous fashion, why he has no money to pay off his debt to Michael. It is also incredible to see how much energy De Niro instills in Johnny Boy — the embodiment of the film’s frenetic force. He is the unpredictable element in Charlie’s otherwise, structured world. Whenever Johnny Boy is on-screen the camera mimics his furious pace that absolutely bristles with intensity. Scorsese reinforces this energy in an early scene where Johnny Boy enters Tony’s bar to the strains of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones. Even though the entrance is captured in a slow motion tracking shot, De Niro’s character is so energetic that not even this technique can slow him down.

The whole cast was prone to improvising dialogue and Scorsese only encouraged them more by creating a very collaborative atmosphere to the whole shoot. This provided actors like Keitel room to grow and learn their craft. “Mine was a gut, root, raw experience of trying to express myself, and express the character of Charlie in Mean Streets, and trying to discover what it meant to express yourself in a character. I was learning my technique, learning how to apply it. Marty and I always discussed a scene, and usually he trusted me to do what I had in my mind to do.” This trust resulted in a great performance from not only Keitel but the whole cast who transformed into their characters effortlessly.

Keitel was not the only actor who felt like he could make his character his own, the whole cast was encouraged to personalize their roles. Richard Romanus, who played Michael in the film, remembers that Scorsese “allowed you to flesh out the character. Even if you were in the middle of a scene and something came up that was organic, he wouldn’t dismiss it. He would respond to it, and he would probably include it. To me, that is his great gift. He’s an actor’s director.” This approach created a fun environment for the cast and crew to work in and allowed them more opportunity to be creative. As a result, Scorsese, as he put it, “kept pushing the limits of the budget and drove everybody crazy. But that was the only thing we could do because the more we got down there, the more fun we had and the more we realized the atmosphere we wanted to get.” To his credit, Scorsese and his crew achieve this effect with smoky, dimly-lit bars for his characters to inhabit and an amazing classic rock soundtrack to compliment the proceedings. There are several moments in the film where the actors are laughing at something and it seems like they are genuinely enjoying the moment and the experience of making this film which only enhances the enjoyment of watching it.

One of the real joys of Mean Streets is the way Scorsese’s camera captures the action. The camera is restless and frantic as it moves in tight, narrow spaces that lead to dead ends. This is done to convey the destiny of the characters. They are full of energy, but are going nowhere in life. In Mean Streets, Scorsese also used a hand-held camera to create a jerky, off-balance effect that conveys the sensation of disorientation. There is no center of power. No other scene demonstrates this effect more than the famous pool hall brawl where Johnny Boy, Charlie, and Tony go to collect some money from the owner. A fight breaks out when Johnny Boy’s bravado insults the owner. Scorsese uses a hand-held camera to convey the constant confusion of the fight. The camera darts and weaves all over the place, following one fight for a while before shifting to another brawl in an indiscriminate fashion. This effect raises the fight to a frightening level as the audience is drawn right into the middle of the pool hall melee.

We are in as much danger as the characters and this adds an element of realism not seen in traditional gangster films. The combatants in Mean Streets are not easily identified and separated, but instead everything is mixed up and obscured to duplicate the spontaneity of the ensuing chaos that constitutes a real brawl. The violence has no meaning or nobility and no one becomes a hero or succeeds as a result of using excessive force. After the pool hall fight is broken up, the conversation continues as if it never happened. The fight served no purpose and achieved no real end, except to enliven the characters’ mundane existence for a few minutes. Mean Streets excels in its realistic portrayal of violence that goes so far as to implicate the viewer in the spectacle, as the pool hall fight scene illustrates. The camera, and by extension, the viewer enters the fracas, which creates a sense of danger not only for the characters but for the audience as well.

Mean Streets
opened at the New York Film Festival to good reviews and good business. It did so well that Scorsese wanted to show it in Los Angeles where, despite favorable reviews, it promptly flopped. However, it began to gradually find an audience and has since become an influential and much imitated film amongst up-and-coming independent filmmakers who identify with the low-budget exuberance of Scorsese’s film. Even Scorsese himself returned to the same neighborhood, only with greater command of his craft and on a bigger scale with Goodfellas (1990). One only has to look at indie films like Laws of Gravity (1992), A Bronx Tale (1993), and Federal Hill (1995) to see that Mean Streets still continues to inspire filmmakers more than twenty years after its release.