Saturday, May 15, 2010
I don't know what to tell you if you don't like Abbott & Costello; while the Marx Brothers are (and always have been) my very favorite of the old-time comedy teams, there's a purity and grace to a good A&C routine that makes me grin from ear to ear. This compilation, "The Best of Abbott & Costello Live", is comprised of clips from their wonderful TV show, and, well, there's worse ways to spend an hour.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Robin Hood: I don't mean to keep pounding the same note all week here, but you guys, I know some of you are gonna go see it, and I'm just trying to save you from wasting an ungodly amount of money on a dull, grim, unlikable movie that has astonishingly little to do with, you know, Robin Hood. But don't just take my word for it: Take Jamie Rich's. Or Drew McWeeny's. Or Todd McCarthy's. Or Roger Ebert's. Or Joe Morgenstern's. Or...
Thursday, May 13, 2010
There is exactly one swordfight in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood; it comes in the last scene, and it’s a brief, perfunctory number. There’s exactly one scene in which Robin Hood robs from the rich to give to the poor, and it’s done quickly and forgotten, as if an obligation. Scott is an undeniably skilled filmmaker, but he’s all wrong to tell the tale of Robin Hood—at this point in his career, he couldn’t make a swashbuckler if his very life depended on it. But when he so steadfastly ignores what we expect when we go to see a movie called Robin Hood, it seems as though he had no interest in making a Robin Hood movie at all; based on what he came up with, he wanted to do a warmed-over retread of other films he’d made (Gladiator , Kingdom of Heaven) or wishes he’d made (Braveheart)—a grim bruiser in chainmail, and nothing more.The film marks Scott’s fifth collaboration with star Russell Crowe, but the Gladiator angle is the one the ads are pushing, and for good reason: they appear to have set out to do to previous Robin Hood films what they did to gladiator movies, i.e. to drain all the life and pleasure out of them. Yes, yes, Jesus, I know, they’re “demystifying” it and doing an “origin story” and all that bullshit, but is that any excuse to make a picture as dreary and dull and lifeless as this one? The eschewing of the expected iconography isn’t the issue. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, for example, dropped the deerstalker cap and the “Elementary, my dear Watson” business and it still worked—the difference being that its creators went ahead and created something engaging and entertaining anyway. Scott (and screenwriter Brian Helgeland) act as though their audience should be punished for coming to their film and expecting something resembling a good time.
Helgeland’s take on the tale begins in England at the turn of the 12th century, as Richard the Lionheart is returning from the Crusades. Sir Robin Longstride (Crowe) is but a humble archer in Richard’s army. When Richard is killed en route, Robin and his fellow archers return the crown to England—with Robin masquerading as Sir Robert Loxley in order to fulfill that soldier’s dying wish that he return the man’s sword to his father (Max von Sydow, pontificating despondently). He soon discovers that the dying fellow left a widow, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett, doing her best); he embarks upon some kind of an arranged/pretend marriage with her. Meanwhile, there is various political wrangling for the monarchy, which should logically go to Prince John (Oscar Isaac), but his villainous advisor, the murderous Godfrey (Mark Strong, from Holmes), is taking the opportunity to pillage the countryside in the name of the crown. When John finally listens to ousted advisor William Marshal (William Hurt) and Godfrey’s intentions are revealed, a bone-crunching battle ensues.
The little bits of thievery aren’t even subtle; Prince John is played as sniveling, weak brat, in order to serve the exact same function as Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Gladiator, while Robin’s big pep talk to the troops wants to be the “they’ll never take OUR FREEDOM!” speech from Braveheart so badly, you’re a little embarrassed for them. Strong’s steely-eyed villainy is well-used, and it’s nice to see William Hurt working, though who knows why they hired such a skilled actor for such a nowhere role. Blanchett is the best thing in the movie, and her initial flirtations with the somber Crowe have a bit of a kick, even if their relationship is ultimately a dud. But he’s a terrible choice to play Robin Hood—his brooding intensity is not a “one size fits all” for any role. Were it not for the fact that he comes with an accent, he’d be no better for the part than Kevin Costner was. There’s a sliding scale of expectations, really—as the film begins, you hope it might hit the level of the Curtiz-Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood, but by the end, you’re comparing it unfavorably to the nadir of the legend, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (from which it steals about its only crowd-pleasing device, the POV-arrow shot; they trot that out twice). Sure, that was a lousy movie, but at least it had Alan Rickman bitch-queening it up, providing a mild diversion.
Scott’s film offers nothing of the sort. From the opening title shot (a slow-mo archery image accompanied by funeral dirge music) through the soggy body (every landscape is foggy, every sky overcast) through the bloodless brutality (one sequence crosscuts between Marian’s attempted rape and a building of villagers being burned down), it’s the one thing a Robin Hood movie shouldn’t be: depressing. When Robin comes to save the day, there’s nothing spirited about it—he’s just riding his horse around, stabbing and clobbering people gloomily, as if he’s whacking weeds.
As the climactic battle rages, we’re completely passive; it’s the fight of a character we don’t recognize, played by an impenetrable actor. Why should we care? Scott’s technical mastery and compositions are as striking as ever—it’s a film made with precision and skill, but no fire. There’s not a second of joy in Robin Hood—not from the characters, not from the filmmakers, and, ultimately, not for the audience. There’s one great moment in it, one that makes the audience cheer, and it’s at the very end: the Sheriff of Nottingham (basically a nonentity in the film) is posting up the proclamation that Robin is an outlaw, and calls for a hammer and nail as he holds it up to a tree. An arrow whizzes by him, posting up the notice. The crowd I saw it with went insane, and for good reason. This is what they came to see. What was all that other shit?
We spend the first few minutes of Best Worst Movie wondering exactly what’s going on. It begins as a gentle portrait of a middle-aged guy from Alexander City, Alabama; the town dentist, he’s a good-natured, likable fellow, a pillar of his community. We watch him running his errands and hear testimonials from his neighbors—good and well, but who is this guy? And then we find out: his name is George Hardy, and twenty years ago, he starred in Troll 2.Troll 2, if you’re unaware of it (as I was), was shot in Utah over three weeks in the summer of 1989. Originally called Goblins, it was retitled to pass as a sequel to the 1986 movie Troll, even though it has no connection whatsoever to the previous film and, in fact, contains no trolls. It went straight to video and pay cable, but a funny thing happened on its way to obscurity—it began to build a cult audience, wowed by its awesome awfulness. Like Manos the Hands of Fate, it isn’t just bad on one level—it’s bad on every level. The film rated, for a time, as the worst film ever made on imdb, and it sits at 0% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But there’s a goofy, cheerful lack of self-awareness to the film, and the people who love it, watch it repeatedly, and quote from it have latched on to that element of the enterprise.
Best Worst Movie is the story of the film’s long strange trip from VHS doldrums to bona fide cult phenomenon, as told by writer/director Michael Stephenson, once the child actor who played the leading role of “Joshua Waits”. He tracks down his co-stars (including Hardy, his on-screen sister Connie Young, and supporting players Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman, and Jason Wright); all of them seem to have about the same awareness of what an embarrassment the film is (“I was in a crappy movie, and I’m a crappy actor… who wants to put Troll 2 on their resume?”) Many of them attended the screenings that began popping up in comedy and cult movie venues like the UCB and Landmark Sunshine theaters in New York, the Castro theater in San Francisco, and the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, where they were treated like rock stars (that tour is seen in a fast-paced, exciting montage). It goes international, with screenings in Toronto, fan-made films in Austria, and even informal showings in the green zone in Iraq.
But not everyone involved seems to understand the nature of the cult following. The film travels to Italy to visit the film’s writer, director, editor, and composer (there was a bit of a language barrier on set, which might help explain both the wildly uneven acting and the stilted, awkward dialogue). Director Claudio Fragasso is a real piece of work; the delusional auteur proclaims it “an important film… in Italy we call it a parable.” The editor proclaims that Troll 2 inspired the Harry Potter universe. Margo Prey, who played the mother (and is, clearly, at least a little bit “off”) makes a mind-blowing comparison to Casablanca.
Fragasso’s trip to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City screenings are a bit of an eye-opener for him—it genuinely appears as though it has never previously occurred to him that it’s a terrible film. When in Italy, he clings to the notion that his masterpiece is merely misunderstood—he claims the movie is now “saying ‘Fuck you’ to the critics” who derided it, not understanding that it is popular because it’s badness is so bold-faced, it allows everyone to be a critic. But in spite of his pompous nature and pretentious pronouncements, it’s easy to sympathize with poor Fragasso—this is the fear of anyone who’s ever made a film (and I can say this having made a few of my own). As is stated more than once in Best Worst Movie, nobody sets out to make a bad film. Sometimes someone will pour their heart and soul into a picture, and that’s just not enough, and it’s terrible anyway. Now imagine working very hard on a film and having it only receive recognition because everyone agrees that it’s just a terrible piece of shit. That can hurt—and it can make one bitter and angry and petty, as it does in an ugly scene between the panel of actors onstage and the vindictive director heckling from the audience at a reunion event late in the film.
It’s easier to feel warmly toward good ol’ George Hardy, always smiling, always excited, always so willing to reenact a bad scene or notorious line for just about anyone who asks. In fact, early in the film, we wonder if there’s a cruelty towards George that he’s not picking up on. But he’s in on the joke, happily telling anyone who’ll listen about the terrible movie he made twenty years ago. He hosts a screening in Alexander City, and the excitement of the smallish town movie premiere (where you know pretty much everyone in the audience) is perfectly captured, and as the film rides its wave of pseudo-success, it takes him back to his youth, when he wanted nothing more than to be an actor. His story becomes surprisingly involving and touching; there are so many of these stories, of dreams dashed and put aside. George’s earnestness and warmth gives the film some pathos, even when their little run of fame starts to lose steam, landing George and Michael at sparsely attended memorabilia shows and indifferent autograph signings at horror conventions. Come to find out, when he’s no longer the center of attention, George still has it in him to be a little bit of a diva. Actors.
Best Worst Movie is an affectionate, enjoyable movie, and it’s more than just a look at this particular film and the oddballs who love it. It’s about shared experiences—the motley crew of would-be actors and oddball Italian filmmakers who made this weird, inexplicable film, and the fans who cottoned to it, passed it around, watched it in groups, communicated in quoted lines, shared elaborate inside jokes about it. Like The Achievers: The Story of Lebowski Fans, it sees fandom as a way that outsiders form bonds and make connections. In Best Worst Movie, we see that it also gives creative people (talented or not) a glimpse of the fame they once yearned for—however unfortunate the reasons for that fame might be.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
When the great John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, it was his first sound western—he’d done some silent oaters, but hadn’t touched the genre in over a dozen years. It was also his first picture with John Wayne; their collaborative relationship would produce some of the great films of the 1940s and 1950s. And it was the first Ford film shot in Monument Valley, Utah, the beautiful setting for several of his subsequent westerns, including My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It’s appropriate that the film inaugurated so many noteworthy elements of Ford’s filmography, as Stagecoach is, for all intents and purposes, the archetypal western. Ford may have later explored the genre with greater sociological and psychological sophistication (in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or The Searchers), and contemporaries like Hawks took the western to greater emotional and visceral heights (in films like Red River and Rio Bravo), but it all started here. Everything that we think of when we think of the western came from Stagecoach, which distilled the genre conventions and made the damned thing respectable.Wayne has the star-maker role of the Ringo Kid, but wasn’t even top-billed; though he had some 80 films to his credit, most were “Povery Row” westerns (many of them now available wherever public domain $1 DVDs are sold), and his only previous big picture of note was Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail back in 1930. But Ford fought hard to get “Duke” for the role, even parting ways with producer David O. Selznick—who wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich for the leads—and making the film for independent producer Walter Wanger (at half the budget). Wayne is billed under future film noir queen Claire Trevor, who appears here as Dallas, a woman of ill repute being driven out of the Arizona town of Tonto by the bluenoses in the local “law and order league.” They’ve also cast out drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell); the duo joins whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), crooked banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), cavalry wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), and her self-appointed protector, Southern gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) on the crowded stage.
The driver of the stagecoach is Buck (Andy Devine); riding shotgun is Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft), who is on the lookout for the Ringo Kid (Wayne). The stagecoach’s destination is Lordsburg, and Curly’s come along because Buck brought word that Luke Plummer has been spotted there. Curly knows that means Ringo’s headed in the same direction—he’s seeking revenge against Plummer, who murdered Ringo’s brother and father. All that background makes for one beautifully prepared entrance, and Ford pays it off with the most famous introductory shot that side of The Third Man—a slick push in to tight close-up on the Duke as the stagecoach comes upon him off the trail.
Ringo’s an outlaw, sure, but with good cause—and Curly primarily wants to put him behind bars for his own protection. His crimes (past and future) are honorable, and more than that, he’s a man’s man and a gentleman to women; in other words, he’s the prototypical Wayne antihero. Wayne had reportedly wanted to work with Ford for years, but the director kept pushing him off, wanting to wait until Wayne was a stronger actor, and until he had the right role for him. The Ringo Kid is the right role, and Wayne is terrific in it—not just in his man-of-action scenes, not just playing the beats that we came to identify with him, but in his quieter moments, like his understated hallway scene at Apache Wells, strategizing with station master Chris (Chris Pin Martin). Wayne may have been a “movie star” first and an actor second, but that’s not to say he wasn’t capable of some damned fine acting.
The picture is kept humming by the wit and intelligence of the screenplay, by Dudley Nichols and an uncredited Ben Hecht (from Ernest Haycox’s story); our interest is sustained by the rich comic byplay inside that packed stagecoach, much of it supplied by the drunken but wise doc, memorably played by Mitchell (best remembered these days as loveable “Uncle Billy” in It’s a Wonderful Life). His gags are verbal as well as visual—he bids the town barkeep, with whom he’s run up an unpaid tab, a fond farewell by noting, “Economically, I haven’t been of much value to you,” and when Doc goes to “wave” goodbye to the killjoy women who’ve given him the boot, the cutaway to the shocked ladies tells us all we need to know about his parting gesture. Devine’s Buck, a fundamentally frightened fellow with a hoarse, cracking voice, also provides able comic support, and the running jokes—like how everyone keeps mistaking Peacock for a man of the cloth—are brought off well. But there are more serious themes at work here as well; the shunning of Dallas in Arizona carries right over onto the stagecoach, and the communal table social dynamics of their stop for “grub” at Dry Fork is simultaneously high-school immature and absolutely heartbreaking. It’s almost funny, how Ringo and Dallas end up running off together without so much as sharing a kiss, but they’re bound together by their outcast status—they fall in with each other partly because no one else will have them.
Ford’s direction isn’t flawless—that musical interlude slows things down considerably, and your attention meanders away from the picture—and the film suffers from the casual sexism and racism we’ve come to expect but still wince at (as with that unfortunate bit about whether Chris will more miss the whipping and working of his wife or the horse that she stole). But the filmmaking is smoothly professional (Orson Welles reportedly screened Stagecoach upwards of 40 times during his pre-production period for Citizen Kane). There’s a stodgy insert or two—most noticeably those too-obvious shots of stodgy Gatewood in the opening scenes—but Ford’s compositions and shot combinations are, for the most part, inspired and thrillingly alive. The stagecoach’s river crossing is inventively photographed from atop the jostling vehicle, in a pseudo-handheld style that gives the scene a real rise. The centerpiece sequence is the Apache attack, a thrilling, fast-paced set piece that starts with a startling shock moment and blasts forward from there. As Wayne hops from horse to horse, Ford’s camera glides around the galloping stage in a breathless long take; cinematographer Bert Glennon also utilizes some astonishing low-angle photography, as the stagecoach and attacking Apaches hop right over his low-slung lens.
As the film draws to a close, Ford makes a bold choice: he does the full build-up to the big showdown between Ringo and Luke Plummer, then cuts away at the last second to Dallas hearing the shots ring out across town. It’s a suspense device, sure, meant to draw out the winner of the duel, but it also hints at Ford’s capability for thwarting expectations and taking unexpected turns. Those inclinations would be more fully explored and exploited in the years to come. But in Stagecoach, he crafted the template that he and his contemporaries would work from for decades.
So much of what Ford did in Stagecoach became part and parcel for the western genre, it may be hard to appreciate how important the film was; like Psycho and Halloween in the horror genre or Annie Hall in romantic comedy, we’ve seen it duplicated so many times that, through no fault of its own, the original loses a bit of its punch. But it hasn’t lost its considerable power to entertain and invigorate, and there is still nothing quite like watching an actor become a star in front of your very eyes.
"Stagecoach" is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection on Tuesday, May 25. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
So are we about done with all the vampire shit already? Between the Twilight movies and the Underworld movies and Rise: Blood Hunter and Cirque Du Freak and The Vampire Diaries, I’ve just about had my fill; maybe some inventive filmmaker is going to come along with a fresh take on this very stale fad, though it’s dubious. But even if we weren’t in the midst of a tiring glut of vampire action, the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers would still be a lousy movie.It’s the kind of picture whose badness is right out front, from its very first scene, a pre-title sequence in which a young vampire girl leaves a suicide note and then goes out to burn up in the rising sun, via an astonishingly shoddy special effect. The scene doesn’t have much of anything to do with the rest of the narrative; in retrospect, it seems to primarily exist for the purpose of its giant close-up of her desk calendar, which helpfully informs us that it is April, 2019.
On to the main story. It is, indeed, 2019, a bleak future world (is there any other kind?) in which the vampires have taken over, and humans are hunted and farmed for blood, which is running dangerously low. Scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) works for a pharmaceutical company, run by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), whose evilness is inferred by the presence of his giant cigar. Dalton is attempting to create a synthetic blood substitute, though his trials aren’t going well, based on the number of heads exploding at them (okay, it’s just one, but still…).
Edward’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) is an army vampire hunter, but they’ve got all kind of issues, which are spilled out clumsily in their first shared scene; it’s the worst kind of overwrought melodrama and obvious exposition imaginable, interrupted only by a seemingly random attack from a horrifyingly mutated vampire (it’s an out-of-nowhere end to the scene, but certainly better than more of that turgid dialogue).
Plot, plot, plot. Edward encounters a group of renegade humans, led by Willem Dafoe, whose presence in a film like this is basically a foregone conclusion (“Lionel Cormac,” he announces, jutting out his hand, “my friends call me Elvis”). Come to find out, Lionel—sorry, Elvis—was a vampire who turned back into a human after a bizarre accident, which Edward attempts to replicate. His one shot at this experiment is intercut with the approach of the army in an attempt to create tension, but since we’ve got no bearings of the environment, no sense of where things are happening in relation to each other, it basically kills the suspense.
The picture is full of novice screw-ups like that, which we’re presumably supposed to not notice since we’re so overwhelmed by the snazzy aesthetics. Granted, the film does have a distinctive look—provided you haven’t seen Dark City. Otherwise, the self-conscious attempts at stylization and cool are mostly ridiculous, made worse because the film is taking itself so very, very seriously. One ridiculous scene after another is played absolutely straight, with the only desperate stabs at humor coming from groaner lines like “Life’s a bitch, and then you don’t die” and “Being human is about as safe as bare-backin’ a five-dollar whore!” Paging George S. Kaufman.
The special effects are mostly laughable and the acting is similarly unimpressive; Hawke’s primary direction appears to have been to widen his eyes for a better view of his colored contact lenses. The film’s two-plus year journey to the screen caused its central premise to be badly undercut by HBO’s True Blood; both utilize some of the same concepts (open vampirism, synthetic blood), but Daybreakers is sorely missing that show’s eroticism and/or its clever social satire.
The film does have a couple of good gross-out scares, and the occasional flash of inspiration (like the army devouring itself, or the business with the shaft of daylight in Edward’s car during the chase scene). But it’s all basically slick and stupid. When it arrives at its clunky climax, the filmmakers trot out the full battery of clichés—cars smashing through plate glass windows, the kidnapping of the heroine, and a last-minute save by a supporting character, revealed in a manner so trite and ludicrous, someone at my screening laughed out loud. Okay, it was me.
Monday, May 10, 2010
According to N'Dour, when it comes to music, he has it in his blood--his ancestors were griot singers, "the keepers of stories." He always wanted to be a musician, and director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi delves into his early experiments and influences with a wealth of archival material, tracking with the artist as he finds his unique voice and style. He eventually found success, and connections with his fellow artists; he appeared alongside artists such as Gabriel, Springsteen, Sting, and Tracy Chapman on Amnesty International's Human Rights Now tour (there's a wonderful clip of him performing "In Your Eyes" with Gabriel), and recorded the duet "7 Seconds" with Neneh Cherry, which became Africa's first platinum record.
But the primary focus of the documentary is his 2004 Egypt album, which he originally envisioned as a melding of his music and his faith (he is a practitioner of Sufism, a mystical interpretation of Islam). The album was to have been released much earlier, but he postponed it in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He ultimately decided its message needed to be heard, and planned not only a wide release, but a worldwide tour.
The film's drama comes from the reaction that follows. While on tour, N'Dour experiences the difficulties of fusing the liturgical with the commercial, the music with the message--some object to the group playing during Ramadan, while the strict faith of some of the musicians prohibits them from performing in a room where alcohol is being consumed (a club manager is seen on stage, awkwardly explaining why the bar is closed). N'Dour finds that he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't; he gets the blessing of important religious leaders, but when he takes the pilgrimage to the sacred city of Touba, rumors spread that he has been "profaning sacred sites" with his heathen show. Back home, record sales are a bust--in no uncertain terms, the artist and his representatives are told that he cannot sing pop songs about their religion.
Oddly, the album had a much more positive reception in America, where it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album. His popularity in the States has only risen; the film ends with N'dour in New York City, preparing for a Carnegie Hall performance. There is a moving moment backstage, as he stops to remember his recently-deceased grandmother, who put the love of music into him; the film dissolves back to one of his final meetings with the elderly woman. It's a touching bit of personal filmmaking, but it also reveals what the film has been missing--the kind of emotion that the artist pours out on stage. Vasarhelyi utilizes a direct-cinema style, observational rather than involved, but that hands-off technique is a bit limiting; we understand why he does what he does, but not a sense of his real passion, of what makes him tick as a human being (we're shocked, over an hour in, to discover how many children he has--he appears to have no personal life at all). It's a decently-made documentary, but keeps its distance more than we might like.
There's joy in the music, and the performance of it, in Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love, and that music is the film's best feature--even when we don't quite understand the lyrics, the feeling is infectious. In documentary terms, it's not quite as successful; we feel as though we've grown to understand the artist, but to know very little of the man.
"Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love" is available now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Based upon a pair of books by Edwin Torres (though drawn much more from the second book, After Hours, then the first novel that it takes its name from), Carlito's Way is the story of Carlito Brigante (Pacino), a "reputed assassin and purveyor of narcotics" who has, when we meet him in 1975 New York City, just been sprung from a 30-year prison sentence after a mere five years, thanks to the legal wrangling of his attorney David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). He's not just Dave's client, he's his friend (there's a great sequence where the pair hits the town on his first night out, and keep excluding their dates so they can drink and laugh together), so Carlito divulges his humble dream: to buy into his buddy's car rental business in the Bahamas and live the good life. Kleinfeld laughs, but Carlito is serious. "Car rental guys don't get killed that much," he reasons.
He gets a job managing a nightclub and vows to go straight until he can put together the scratch to make his escape to paradise. Things start to go his way when he reconnects with Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), a classical dancer turned go-go girl who he loved and lost when he went into the joint. But, as one of Pacino's other characters would say, just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in. In this story, "they" is Kleinfeld, who has spent so much time defending criminals that he's begun to fancy himself one, carrying a gun and talking tough. When Kleinfeld's sketchy associations start to get serious, Carlito realizes he's getting in deep with his friend and starts to feel "them old reflexes coming back again." He's torn between doing the loyal thing and doing the right thing, but by the time he makes his choice, it may be too late.
The Torres novels were written mostly in the voice of Carlito, and screenwriter David Koepp makes the mostly-wise decision to use narration in order to maintain the character's distinctive voice. The film begins with black-and-white footage of Carlito being shot, and rolled on a gurney as Partrick Doyle's baroque score accompanies his opening voice-over. "My Puerto Rican ass ain't supposed to have made it this far," Carlito says, and proceeds to tell his story up to this point. His narration helps motor the movie along (most of his voice-overs begin with him placing us into the story--"So here's me at the club," "So here's me back with Gail") and allow for a bit of street-existentialist angst, as when he despairs "I don't invite this shit, it just comes to me," or the realizes that if "you get old enough, you remember a reason why everybody wants to whack you." Pacino's performance, though indisputably powerful, is a bit unsteady; his opening speech, a flat attempt at a courtroom barn-burner, is infected by the cadences (and even, in spots, the accent) of his similar closing speech in Scent of a Woman. But he's got some good moments, like the resignation in his voice and his face when he tells Dave, "You killed us," or the entire unspoken history we get from the way he and the often-underrated Miller look at each other when they reconnect, or the way he smiles at her (this remains the only film I've ever seen that gets a visceral, erotic thrill out of a hug).
Several up-and-coming actors populate the supporting cast--including Viggo Mortensen, John Leguizamo, and Luis Guzman--but the best performance in the film is Sean Penn's. Nearly unrecognizable in his granny glasses and receded red permed hair, he's a comic batshit dynamo as the pistol-packing, coke-snorting, high-strung Jewish lawyer who's in way over his head; whether he's desperate, murderous, or kvetchy (as an afternoon party goes out of control at his summer house, he implores a frisky pair to go to a bedroom--"I've got guests!"), you can't stop watching him. But it's never a caricature--we see his attraction to the danger, and why he can't handle what he's got himself into.
Carlito's Way found director DePalma at a crossroads; he'd helmed the 40-megaton bomb The Bonfire of the Vanities three years earlier, and though he won back some doubters with the previous year with Raising Cain (a clear attempt at the "classic DePalma" style of his 1970s pictures), he still had something to prove. But his direction here is stylish and impressive, full of inventive framing--he's tinkering with the Dutch angles he used so well in his next film, Mission: Impossible, and having fun with mirror play, as in Carlito and Gail's big fight or Carlito's interrogation of Sasso--and evocative imagery (late in the film, he uses low angles and hot light to show Carlito's world closing in on him). The fluidity of his camera movement is also eye-catching; the impossibly long opening-credits shot of Bonfire was overshadowed by Scorsese's similar "Copa" scene in Goodfellas that same fall, but he's still experimenting with those extended, unbroken shots, gliding through the sleek nightclub with his protagonist. His primary skill remains in his ability to create tension and suspense, often out of nothing but spry camerawork and well-placed music, as in the unbearable sequence where Kleinfeld is waiting for an elevator, or the film's first big set piece, when Carlito accompanies his cousin to a bar for some "business." The camera placement and smooth movement of the sequence is flawless, as is the hilariously (but clearly purposefully) overwrought score by Patrick Doyle. The music pounds and pushes; when Carlito waits in the bathroom, checking his pistol and shouting out taunts ("You think you big time? You gonna fuckin' die, big time!"), the music is complimenting and encouraging him--it's a duet for piano and Pacino.
And then there's the climactic Grand Central Station chase, one of the all-time great DePalma set pieces (right up there with the prom scene in Carrie and the train station sequence in The Untouchables). It's beautifully prepared, first with a hospital visit to Kleinfeld capped off by a delicious pay-off, then a quick drop-in at the nightclub to collect his nest egg, interrupted by a visit from some very angry gangsters. Pacino is at his fast-thinking best, letting us see his clever character improvising his way to the exit. After the tensest subway chase this side of The French Connection, Carlito evades the hoods and slips through Grand Central in a virtuoso sequence that juices up on the filmmaker's slick, relentless energy. It's a tight, terrific scene. DePalma fumbles the film a few times previous--he can't find a way to pitch the conflicts with Gail above the soap-opera level of Koepp's writing, and can't decide whether he's using Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" legitimately or ironically--but, as in the Thomas Crown Affair remake, when you end that strong, you forgive and/or forget some of the stumbles.
It may not have the cult following of its creators' previous collaboration, the iconography of Pacino's Godfather films, or the pulpy, kinky kick of DePalma's best work. But Carlito's Way is an enjoyable B-movie, slick and zippy, given extra thrills by the shoot-the-works pizzazz of its cast and the stylistic flourishes of its skilled director.
"Carlito's Way" hits Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 18. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.