Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Dog Day Afternoon

Posted: September 11, 2011 in Drama

Has American director Sidney Lumet had any missteps in his long and prolific career?  You bet, but Dog Day Afternoon is not one of them.

Starring Al Pacino and his Godfather co-star John Cazale, the film is based on a true story in which two men, John (called Sonny) Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile robbed a bank in order to pay for Sonny’s partner’s sex reassignment surgery.  The police and the media arrived on the scene before the two criminals could escape, and they were forced to take hostages.

There are no heroes in Dog Day Afternoon, nor are there any villains.  Lumet’s direction is objective, with the camera capturing solely the events and characters involved rather than interpreting and analyzing the characters’ moral justifications.  The police are simply doing their job, and Sonny and Sal are doing theirs.  It’s a unique perspective, and one that helps the audience to sympathize with those, who, in a more conventional film, would have been the bad guys.

Sonny  is eminently likable, displaying a desperate charisma that brings him into favor with the spectators and his captives.  In fact, the robbery imbues Sonny with celebrity status, creating a contrasting, often humorous dichotomy between the events taking place inside and outside; it’s a crime scene in the bank, and the red carpet outside.  One scene, in which the head teller, after urged by the police to escape, responds by saying that her place is with her coworkers, before shyly smiling at the cameras and walking back inside with Sonny, illustrates how much of a show the crime has become; the head teller is enjoying the attention.

I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my…Oh, wait…Wrong movie!

Sal is a more difficult character to understand.  He’s quiet, uneducated, and certainly more dangerous than Sonny (although he seems to be entirely in Sonny’s thrall).  He is the one who seems most committed to killing the hostages, and, while Sonny is busy making friends, Sal often seems distant, detached. Still, there are scenes in which he’s shown interacting, being even friendly, with his victims, and it’s clear that the hostages are enjoying his company (at least as much as they can enjoy it, considering the circumstances).

Sal’s motives for joining his friend in the crime are never revealed, and, with less knowledge about the character, it’s harder to predict how he’ll act. However, withholding information, something the film does often, unexpectedly helps the audience sympathize with the two perps.  The audience is fed tidbits of Sonny and Sal’s pasts (mostly Sonny’s), but the little pieces we are given are never explored further.  What we do find out though, serves to illustrate the two as fairly normal people.  Ok, so it’s true that Sonny is married to a woman and a man at the same time, which, let’s face it, is pretty out-of-the-ordinary, but we also discover that Sonny used to be bank teller and that both he and Sal served in Vietnam.  Sonny has two children with his wife.  Sal is scared of flying.  These facts may be superficial, not revealing any deep-set character flaws or past emotional traumas, but they articulate and support an important point: these two men are average, everyday men, not coldblooded criminals, and their ineptitude, relatively congenial personalities, and motive seems to lessen, but not diminish, the threat they pose.

With unique characters and perfect direction, Dog Day Afternoon is an absolute must-see from one of the greats of American cinema.

Stars *****

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Memorable Lines:  “You think you got problems? I’m with a guy who don’t know Wyoming ain’t a country.”

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Recommended Films: Badlands 

Next Weekend

Movie #13

British Director Nicolas Roeg’s works, which include Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, are often meandering and esoteric, movies that are difficult to unravel and demand repeat viewings.  The Man who Fell to Earth, his 1976 adaptation of author Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, is no exception.  It’s difficult to watch, although not in the same way a film like, say, Sex in the City 2, is.  It requires the viewer’s undivided attention, and, even then, it’s likely that many will be left scratching their heads (I’ll admit to being one of those people).  Maybe though, The Man who Fell to Earth isn’t meant to be immediately understood.  Instead of giving to the audience, like so many summer blockbusters, it asks of them, and its effectiveness as a film is reliant on the amount of thought dedicated to interpreting it.

David Bowie plays a humanoid alien who comes to Earth seeking water for his drought-stricken planet.  Once arrived, he begins to build a corporate empire, using the advanced technology of his own world to develop and patent hundreds of new inventions.  With the money amassed by his business venture, he, under the pseudonym Thomas Jerome Newton, begins construction on a spaceship, intending to bring water to his family and his own world.  Shortly after his success as a business man, he meets Mary-Lou, a young, simple girl working as a maid at a hotel.  They eventually marry, but Newton’s alien origins cause the relationship to sour.

Newton comes to Earth with a mission, a sole desire to ensure the survival of his race.  While his planet dies, the alien begins as quickly as he can to construct the ship that will bring him back home.  Roeg brilliantly employs editing in order to both trivialize and emphasize the importance of time.  There is never any indication when, or how much, time has passed.  Frequently, five or ten years will go by between scenes with little or no indication.  Newton himself never ages, so these quick, subtle jumps simply represent the insignificance of time to him.  It passes, and he works towards his goal, and at first, the only thing that matters is water.  But as the film progresses, Bowie’s quest is sidetracked by gin and the encroachment of his own developing humanity.  The film returns to Newton’s desert planet to reveal the plight of the family he’s left behind and to remind the viewer that time, which passes so quickly, is running out.  Perhaps the “temporal” cuts also serve to imply that Bowie’s alien has simply lost track of his goal, of who he truly is.

There's a starman/waiting in the sky/He'd like to come and meet us/but he thinks he'd blow our mindsI think Ben Stein needs to introduce him to Clear Eyes

Thomas’ disguise is just that: a disguise.  It allows him to “go through the motions,” maintain the illusion of humanity.  He is like the television programs he becomes so enraptured with:  “The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t *tell* you everything,” Newton says.  “It *shows* you everything about life for nothing, but the true mysteries remain.”  He is, for all intents and purposes, only the image of a man.  On an emotional level, on the level which gives meaning to human existence, he is isolated, incapable of hatred, as he tells Mary-Lou after he reveals his true form to her, and, as is implied later during one of his last meetings with his former wife, incapable of love.  “I don’t love you, anymore,” Mary-Lou whispers.  “I don’t love you,” replies Thomas.  There is no adverb indicating past affection.  His is a statement which encompasses all time, past, present, and future.  For Thomas, there is, supposedly, only pretense.  Yet changes occur in his behavior throughout the movie, changes which lead him down a precarious road, one which he seems unable to stray from.  The switch from water as his preferred drink of choice, to liquor, is perhaps the first and best indication that he is losing his identity.  This culminates in a bizarre sex scene between himself and Mary-Lou, one which is so primal, yet so dispassionate – the clash of two separate beings, struggling for dominance.

***1/2

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 Fascinating Fact: Nicolas Roeg initially wanted author Michael Crichton, who was 6’10”, to play Thomas Jerome Newton.

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Recommended Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Don’t Look Now

Next Weekend

Movie #11

Romper Stomper Stomps

Posted: June 20, 2011 in Drama

Romper Stomper kicked my ass.  My apologies for the crassness, but there’s simply no other way to put it.  I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been expecting a minor emotional flogging – any film about the skinhead subculture is bound to be brutal and intense and unrelenting and all-up-in-the-audience’s-face – but there were times when I just had to put the movie on pause and take a break.  I’m not saying it’s a bad film – from a technical stand point, it’s well-crafted.  There’s some interesting cinematography and Daniel Pollock’s nuanced performance in juxtaposition to Russell Crowe’s psychotic one, is excellent.  It borrows heavily from A Clockwork Orange, and that’s never a bad thing.  The emotionally compromising elements instead are derived from the simple fact that, in a film about Neo-Nazis, it’s difficult to clearly identify the antagonist.

The plot revolves around several skinheads who suddenly find themselves on the defensive after a group of Vietnamese men seek revenge for the brutal beating of their fellow countrymen.  The tightly-knit gang plans their retaliation, but the group dynamic is threatened when one of the Nazis falls in love with a beautiful, seizure-prone drifter.

After some deliberation, Sears decided not to use their family portait as picture frame fill-ins.

When going to see a movie with Nazis in it, original or otherwise, it’s generally apparent who the bad guys are going to be.  They are the quintessential villains, the embodiment of evil; it’s easy to direct all one’s hatred towards them and their fictional representations.  Romper Stomper doesn’t take sides in the racewar between the Vietnamese and the skinheads, and, at times, even attempts to evoke sympathy for some of the characters.  It’s shocking. The film does not, at least, glorify the lifestyle.  These men are uncouth, violent and uneducated squatters whose soul purpose is the preservation of racial purity.  It’s hard though, to feel compassion for someone who, forty-five minutes ago, was committing hate crimes.  Yet this is exactly what Romper Stomper asks the viewer to do.  As the movie progresses and the love interest is introduced, Davey,  who eventually leaves the group altogether in order to pursue a relationship, begins to fall for her.  Suddenly, the movie has a hero, someone to root for.  The change is not believable…a sensitive skinhead is still a skinhead.

The Vietnamese are not portrayed favorably, either.  It’s true that they’re initially reluctant to retaliate; no action is taken after the first vicious attack against them.  It’s not until the second attack that they are forced to respond, and what a terrifying response it is.  As the Vietnamese citizens descend upon the warehouse in which the Neo-Nazis are residing, Romper Stomper becomes less like a drama and more like a horror movie.  The assailants claw and at the doors and siding of the building like a hoard of hungry, mindless zombies.  They become animals (the director even mixes in some animal roars here, as well as in other violent scenes), consumed by rage and driven only by the desire to do harm.  To be fair, they were unjustly provoked into such a state, but the total transformation, and the vast number of attackers (which is indicative of just how strong the foreign population has grown), seems to almost verify the Nazis’ concerns.

I’m not trying to accuse anyone involved in the making of Romper Stomper of being a racist.  There’s a very clear message here that violence fuels only more violence. However, in not taking a definite stand against such a hot-button and important topic as racism, the film becomes a little hard to swallow.

Stars: ***

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Best Quotes:

Sonny Jim: We came to wreck everything and ruin your life.  God sent us.

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Recommended Films: American History X, A Clockwork Orange

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Movie #10