Friday, April 22, 2011


Happy 74th Jack!

The most important thing that I can say about this movie: I was thinking about the events, how and why they happened, as if I was the lead character. Chinatown pulls you in and makes you feel like a part of the story. Writer Robert Towne, who won an Academy Award for his script, does a superb job of involving the viewer. Throughout the movie I was wondering what each clue might mean, what would be the next step and how could everything be linked. To me, that is the sign of a fantastic script. Towne has done terrific scripts like 'The Parallax View' (see my blog), 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Tequila Sunrise', but this is his best work. The script would make Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett proud.

Chinatown tells the story of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). He is a private detective in 1930's Los Angeles. He is hired by a wife to investigate the activities of her husband. She is suspicious of infidelity. He finds what he believes to be proof of the cheating. But he has been used and lied to and everything blows up in his face. This is insulting to our lead detective and he is off on a chase for "the truth". The search for evidence leads him to the halls of power within LA. He becomes involved with what he believes to be a vast conspiracy. But, as we all know, when you mess with those in power they mess back. Things don't always work out for Jake. But, in true film noir tradition, nothing will stop our lead from pursuing the facts. No matter where they lead and no matter the consequences.

The most famous scene is when Jake gets his nose sliced. The man with the knife is played by director Roman Polanski. This is the first film Polanski made in the U.S. after the terrible tragedy of Sharon Tate. Producer Robert Evans wanted a European to direct this film. He wanted the look and feel to be that of someone who did not grow up in America. Polanski did a fantastic job and received an Oscar nomination. The film is gritty and very intriguing. I especially liked the few moments of introspection that Polanski allows detective Jake Gittes. Those small pauses give us, the viewers, the chance to contemplate events while the lead does as well. It is an excellent touch. Sometimes directors are in such a hurry for the next "exciting effect" that they don't give us time to enjoy what is going on. Thankfully Polanski does not fall into that trap.

This film is a slight twist on classic film noir. It is set in the 30's, but has some modern twists to traditional noir. It is more in the modern style and provided the springboard for the resurgence of noir. This movie provided much of the basis for films like 'L.A. Confidential', 'Memento' and 'The Grifters'. Faye Dunaway, portraying Evelyn Mulwray, is a fantastic Femme Fatale. She entices Nicholson into moving over to the "dark side". The viewers can never be sure when she is honest and manipulative or dishonest and manipulative. But like all noir femmes she is manipulative. Both Dunaway and Nicholson received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their work. I believe that this is the film that established Jack Nicholson as a leading man. He had been a character actor, but his fine work here propelled him to super stardom.

Chinatown has an unexpected ending and shockers of details along the way. It is intelligent, well-acted, directed and written and is most entertaining. Be sure to netflix, download, rent or buy this great movie!

Filmed in 1974, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston and John Hillerman. For further ruminations upon film noir see my blog about 'Double Indemnity'. This is the last film that Polanski shot in the United States. He chose to flee to avoid jail time.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sidney Lumet

With his passing today I thought we should look at 2 of Sidney Lumet's finest films.


"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" For everyone who has seen Network that line comes quickly to mind. Peter Finch's portrayal of mad prophet Howard Beale was amazing. His representation of a television news anchor gone over the edge earned him an Academy Award. The range of emotion from angst to anger to disillusionment was fantastic. He was awarded the Best Actor Award posthumously.

But, for me, the most amazing thing happens when you view it today. When it came out (1976) Network struck a chord with Americans. We were in the middle of an oil crisis, still reeling from Watergate and Nixon, and Vietnam was fresh on our minds. And the film gave voice to those insecurities and angers. But now, almost 35 years later, the portrayal of television is the most poignant part of Paddy Chayefsky's script. In the film, anchorman Howard Beale uses the news broadcast to opine upon his opinions and personal feelings. He reminds me of current anchors like Keith Olberman or Bill O'Reilly. They seem more interested in convincing the viewer that they are right than in providing accurate information. That wasn't true when this movie was released. But Chayefsky was sure that ratings and personality would take over and they have. Instead of Walter Cronkite we have Katie Couric. The likes of FOX, MSNBC and others use their "bully pulpit" to ferment a fever that keeps the viewers coming back.

From an entertainment viewpoint this film is outstanding. Network won 4 Oscars including Best Actor, Actress and Supporting Actress. This was only the second time that one film won 3 of the 4 acting Oscars, joining 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky also won for Best Screenplay. It was his third Oscar. While the acting is top-notch it is the script that carries this film to its great heights. The points that Chayefsky makes about the power of media and the lack of accountability within television are more important today than ever. His "prediction" of a network that appeals to a different audience looks eerie in retrospect with the later success of Fox.

This film tells the story of a failing television network. William Holden is the head of the money-losing news division. Robert Duvall comes in to take over the network and make it profitable. He hires Faye Dunaway. She decides to "program" the news and make it more exciting and entertaining. This leads to anchorman Peter Finch becoming the superstar of the UBS network. Ratings go ever higher as the network sinks lower into the muck. Stay through to the end. When ratings begin to slip Duvall and Dunaway hatch the most amazing event in television history to inspire ratings!

Network is powerful. Strong directing, a great script and terrific performances make this an important and entertaining film. Netflix it today!

Filmed in 1976, directed by Sydney Lumet, written by Paddy Chayefsky (see my earlier blog about 'The Americanization of Emily'), starring Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight and Ned Beatty.


I love caper films. If you have read my earlier blogs this comes as no surprise. I have previously reviewed 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three', 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot', 'Charlie Varrick' and others. Director Sidney Lumet turns master crime writer Lawrence Sander's novel into a fast-paced caper film extraordinaire. Sean Connery stars as 'Duke Anderson'. Just released after 10 years in prison, Anderson decides to rob an entire upscale apartment building. He brings in a crew of specialists that is headed by Martin Balsam and Christopher Walken. Balsam is an antiques expert that scouts the apartments for paintings, jewels and other valuables. Walken, in his film debut, is a pal of Connery's from prison who works with phone lines and other electronics. Anderson uses various contacts to plan and orchestrate this robbery deluxe.

Little does he know that almost every action he takes is being taped. Either the IRS, FBI, CIA or other government agency is following many of the people with whom he meets. These are the tapes referenced in the title. Even his long-lost girlfriend, played by the very attractive Dyan Cannon, is being watched. Since there are many parties to such a robbery it is complex and time-consuming. Can the crew pull off such a mighty feat of crime? Will one or more of the agencies taping Anderson realize what is going on and prevent the robbery?

Sander's novel and the screenplay by Frank Pierson provide many unique twists and turns. I can not think of another caper film that has the feel of The Anderson Tapes. Lumet's direction, as always, is first-rate. He moves the setting of the film back and forth from pre-to-post robbery throughout. This makes it both easier and more difficult to predict the outcome. I found it to be a master stroke of direction. But it is the always attention-grabbing Sean Connery that carries the film. He is likable enough to root for the criminals, but dark enough to be believable. Balsam is also good. His slightly over-the-top portrayal of the antiques dealer is quite endearing. And Walken shows some of the brilliance that we will see later in his long career.

Whether it is for the intelligent caper, the fine script and direction or the terrific cast, The Anderson Tapes should keep you entertained. There is also the Quincy Jones soundtrack. It is an intriguing combination of early disco with electronic music. Everyone either loves it or hates it. Personally, I think it's great.

Filmed in 1971, directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Frank Pierson, starring Sean Connery, Martin Balsam, Christopher Walken, Dyan Cannon and Alan King. For all the Saturday Night Live fans, look for original cast member Garrett Morris as one of the police officers.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Leon - The Professional

Now that Ms. Portman has won the Academy Award, let's take a look at her first film.

This is a most unique film. It has elements that I found captivating and others that made me quite uncomfortable. But, overall, Leon-The Professional is well worth a look.

In 1994 French director Luc Besson had a break in his schedule. He was about to start 'The Fifth Element' starring Bruce Willis. However, Willis was delayed working on his current project. Besson did not want to lose the crew and decided to make a feature film about a character from an earlier work. This film focuses upon the Jean Reno character from Besson's 'La Femme Nikita'. In 'Nikita' Reno stars as Victor the Cleaner, a professional hit man. Here he becomes Leon-The Professional.

Leon is a slow individual who has come to America and become a professional thug. He has become a master at his craft by refusing to become involved with anyone or anything. Natalie Portman, in her debut, portrays Mathilda. Mathilda is 12 and lives in the apartment next door. Her father is involved in transporting drugs and her entire family is killed when her father tries to steal some drugs. Leon saves Mathilda and she vows revenge. Gary Oldman, at his creepiest best, plays Stansfield. He is the head of the drug gang. Mathilda convinces Leon to teach her to be a "cleaner" so that she can avenge her father and brother's deaths. He reluctantly agrees and they develop a camaraderie. I will leave the story of their success or failure for you to view unspoiled.

Reno, Portman and Oldman are all fantastic. Director Besson, who also wrote the script, gets great work from all three. Oldman's ability to petrify and disturb the viewer is put to full value. He is over-the-top and under-control at the same time. But the bond between Reno and Portman makes the film, somehow, touching. Leon comes to realize that his life has been entirely empty while Mathilda needs his guidance and protection. They become important to one and another. That special relationship propels Leon-The Professional from typical action/assassin flick into something much more. However, that relationship is also a little creepy. There is an underlying tone of sexuality. Remember, Mathilda is 12. In France that may be standard, but in the US it is uncomfortable. I found myself squirming, just a little, at a few moments of their interaction. As did American audiences. The film was edited, to remove much of this content, for American release. Pick-up either the international version or US version depending upon your preference.

But Besson has made one of his best films. He may be better known for 'The Fifth Element' and 'The Transporter', but this film and 'Le Dernier Combat' represent his finest achievements. For a film about drug deals gone bad, professional hitmen and the murder of a young girl's family, Leon-The Professional is somehow warm and sweet. I hope you enjoy.

Filmed in 1994, directed and written by Luc Besson, starring Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman and Danny Aiello. For more info on 'Le Dernier Combat' you can read my earlier article here.