Carlito’s Way (1993)

CARLITO'S WAY

Brian De Palma and Al Pacino reunite on the ten year anniversary of their iconic crime film Scarface to bring us a similar but very different sort of mobster film. Carlito’s Way is a film about a man attempting to rid himself of the life he grew up in, was formed by, and the subsequent mechanisms that won’t allow him to. This is a much better film, in my opinion, than Scarface, mostly because Carlito is a much more likable character than Tony Montana, although both are hotheaded and prone to violence. Carlito, however, is a man determined to wade his way out of the life of crime, and in doing so causes himself more trouble than he ever had when he was actively engaged in the life.

We meet Carlito as he is getting out of jail after five years on what was supposed to be a thirty year stint. His exuberant proclamations to the judge and courtroom make him seem a self righteous lunatic, but we quickly learn that maybe it isn’t all bluster. He exclaims that he’s ready to get out of the life and that the law would never have any trouble from him again. And that turns out true. But what is tragic about his decision to make a change in his life is that it’s doomed to fail. Carlito was born into this life, raised by it, nurtured from his young years by it. The people he knows, the attitudes he has, the code he lives by are bred by the streets. And they are what kill him

Filling out the rest of the cast are some excellent actors including Sean Penn, Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo and plenty more. Each character is well fleshed out and believable. Sean Penn deserves special credit for his turn as the smarmy, impetuous lawyer Kleinfeld, who’s obsession with money and drugs, along with a penchant for aggressive behavior towards made men turn him into a gross, despicable caricature of a wannabe mobster who is quickly found squirming for his life. Carlito owes Kleinfeld a great debt, and his moral code prescribes undying loyalty to those that do right by him, even if those people ultimately do not return the same respect. This leads Carlito into making bad decisions for the sake of helping his friends, moves that will destroy him.

The film is a true tragedy. We come to really like Carlito, sympathize with his quest. Although clearly self righteous and overly exuberant, we want him to get out and keep his life. De Palma makes the decision to show Carlito getting gunned down at the start of the film, so we are aware from the start just how doomed his mission is.

We watch it unfold in a couple different ways. He can’t help but show disrespect to a young up and coming gangster, Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo), who he finds ardently rash and more than a little rude. Carlito spurns him because he sees Blanco as beneath him, street trash not deserving of the status he attained by being respectful and polite. This may have been fine, had Carlito been willing to follow through and actually kill Benny, but this is a new Carlito. He lets him live. The old Carlito leads him to engage with this young gangster and make an enemy, but the new Carlito won’t allow him to finish him off for good, thus sealing his death. This is the crux of the film. Carlito tries to get out but his very nature is tuned towards the street life than bore him. It is simply a dooomed mission.

Carlito’s inability to let go of the instincts that he gained through his life of crime are what destroys him. There’s a saying I’ve heard numerous times that I think sums of the film quite well: “You can take the nigga out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the nigga”.

Body Double (1984)

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Brian De Palma’s return to his Hitchcockian routes after the brief detour of Scarface. Body Double contains the most well though through of his stories yet: a plot without holes, unlike some of his other works within the thriller genre. Although the characters are not as likable as in Blow Out, the plot unfolds at his most measured pace yet. And like Blow Out and Dressed to Kill, we are treated to some excellent wordless sequences of flawless direction as De Palma’s camera movements perfectly convey the mindsets of the characters he depicts.

This film also pays homage to Hitchcock in more obvious ways than some of his previous films. The most obvious are references to Rear Window and Vertigo. Our hero, Jake Scully (Craig Wassan), spies upon his neighbors with a telescope, treating himself to the private erotic dances of the woman who lives down the hill. Jake also suffers from acute claustrophobia, which De Palma depicts in photography not entirely dissimilar from that which Hitchcock used to portray Jimmy Stewart’s vertigo from the film of the same name. The burial sequence in particular, which must have utilized different sets at different times, was particularly effective at conveying Scully’s asphyxiation at the tight spaces he was placed into.

Scully’s voyeuristic habits quickly make him witness to a grizzly murder, but not all is as it seems. The plot unfolds at such a pace that we are always in tune with the current mindset of our protagonist, never one step ahead or behind him. The revelations occur to him at the same time as they occur to us. This is particularly spectacular in that most of these revelations are conveyed wordlessly. De Palma’s mastery of direction allows ideas to float into the audience’s mind whereas a lesser director would need the characters to explain these thoughts out loud. De Palma trusts his audience to decipher the clues he provides them and the film is so much better for it.

Again included in this film much like the other De Palma thrillers I’ve seen are wordless sequences of flawless direction. Much like Blow Out’s scene where Travolta pieces together photography into a film and Dressed to Kill’s scene where the lead does a sort of dance with a potential lover, Body Double includes a lengthy sequence where Scully follows around the target of his voyeurism. The audience is left to wonder whether it’s actually to keep her safe as he seems to tell himself, or if it’s really his infatuation and lust that leads him to stalk her around a mall. The truth is that it’s both, but De Palma’s direction conveys this feeling far better than any length of dialogue might have.

Brian De Palma is a true master of his craft. He is able to utilize the medium of moving pictures as well as any of his contemporaries and better than most. His stories work only as movies, and one must appreciate these kinds of films that work only within the medium, however indulgent or pulpy the material may be.

Books: Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)

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So I’d like to write something about this insane novel I just read.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a staggering literary achievement of a stature of brutality that is unparalleled among any book I’ve ever read. It’s descriptions of violence and hellish landscapes stand uniquely and unobstructed by what most writers, myself included, would describe as an obstacle to the presentation of their ideas: the English language. His prose conjures up ideas of images that are unimaginable in terms of visual imagery. They can never be recreated as a literal picture; they exist solely as a set of words on a page.

The point, I believe, of this novel is to dig into the warring nature of man. The most important moment in the novel comes when Judge Holden, McCarthy’s Satan like figure or a shepherd for man’s brutal proclivities, describes man’s never ending lust for blood and disaster. The entropy of human civilization is a mere fact of life that all must grapple with. The kid, our protagonist though it’s difficult to describe him that way, is McCarthy’s metaphor for man turning away from his violent nature. He engages in violence from a young age, spared totally of innocence and placed into the hell of the western desert, which I believe is a metaphor for true human nature.

By the end of the book the kid, now a man, is a penitent. He grapples with the judge in a final conversation that will take multiple readings to fully understand, but I take it to be the Judge cluing in the kid to his real destiny and that he can never ignore it. The Judge seems to have murdered the kid at the end, showing that he rejects the kid’s repentance and will force his vision upon him.

Another important moment comes when the band of scalpers ride into town to claim their reward for their bloodshed. This money lauded upon them is why they engaged in such crimes against humanity and it should satiate their thirst, were we to believe that man was truly good. But instead they blow their money in one night, engage in more drunken inhuman violence, and ride out again at dawn. Their mission is never ending and ceases to end, much like the forever warring nature of humanity.

What an incredible book. The ultimate American Classic because it so strips bare the true nature of the psyche that is uniquely american. Our glorification of violence, our obsession with guns, our neverending wars of ideology. Will we never be satisfied, much like the outlaws central to Blood Meridian?

This novel will take much more than one simple read through to fully grasp all the meanings, but I wanted to get my takeaways from it down immediately after I’d finished it so I can look back when I read again.

 

The Last Stand (2013)

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Johnny Knoxville’s face in the above picture perfectly captures my feelings towards the climax of this movie. Exuberant happiness.

Kim Jee-Woon’s The Last Stand is one of the most enjoyable high octane action movies I’ve ever seen. The scope is gigantic. Most directors would falter in an attempt to create an action sequence with the same breadth as the one depicted at the end of this movie, but Kim succeeds in spades. This is done by allowing giving the audience a good feel for the geography of the town where the action is set, and excellent pacing of the action itself. The sequence goes on for quite a while, but intermediate slowdowns and interactions between the characters ensure that it never gets stale or overdone. This is how you do an action movie.

It really is too bad that the first thirty to forty minutes of the film are so lackluster. It seems that the screenwriter started with the idea for a final showdown, where a small town sheriff and his misfit band of deputies make a last stand against an army of cartel men using massive weaponry and countless rounds of ammunition, and worked backwards. The film is too obsessed with making this scenario believable and gets bogged down in introductory scenes of the FBI losing track of their fugitive and failing to recapture him. The small sheriff’s department the film follows is populated with likable characters and charismatic actors, and the film would have done better to spend more time with them at the beginning.

But when the action scenes get going, it really gets going. A sixty-five year old Arnold Schwarzenegger still looks natural in gun fights and his Austrian accent remains as charming as ever. Johnny Knoxville provides the comedic relief of the film and Kim uses him sparingly but effectively. The titular last stand is one of true excitement, and the fact that you already like all these characters when it happens makes it all the more interesting.

Beyond that there’s not much else to say about the film, which is in a way a bit disappointing, considering Kim Jee-woon’s penchant for making great action movies with interesting storylines and themes. All we get are some loose themes about honor and local values serving the country better than beuracratic bullshit. A better script would have done wonders to elevate this into the upper echelon of action films. Still, this is a great, fun, exciting film that is sure to leave you breathless by the end.

Blow Out (1981)

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Brian De Palma’s masterpiece of homage, Blow Out, is a stylish and intelligent thrill ride that sets itself apart from other thrillers both classic and contemporary by populating its story with plausible three-dimensional characters. Characters are given realistic flaws, interests, and backstories that allow the audience deeper insight into these people’s personalities and motivations. It also helps that De Palma’s direction is fantastically slick. Because the characters are so believable he can present wordless scenes of stylistic direction that hypnotizes the audience because we are as devoted to the character’s mission as the character himself.

Put simply, Blow Out concerns a sound man, Jack Terry (John Travolta), who does the sound effects for low rent horror flicks. When out late in a park recording ambient noises, he happens to record a car flying off the bridge below him and plunging into a pond. Initially it seems like a simple accident, but as Travolta listens back to his recording he becomes convinced that this was no mere mishap.

In the hands of an inferior director or screen writer this type of set up could have gone the easy route of a simple conspiracy and uncovering that we’ve seen so much of. However, this film takes its time setting up the characters and allowing the audience to grow attached. Sally (Nancy Allen), the working girl Terry pulls from the car, is show to have a good eye for make-up and one day aspires to be a make-up artist, claiming she could do it better than they do in the movies. Terry is also given an interesting backstory. He once worked with the Philadelphia police department, rigging undercover officers with wires so as to catch criminals on tape. One of his operations goes wrong and he blames himself for it. Out of this comes a blustering paranoia about his current situation, which gives his character a much appreciated depth.

And as mentioned above, the depth that these characters are given does wonders for De Palma’s direction style. Because we are so in tune with Terry’s psyche and mindset, we are on the edge of our seats when De Palma spends five minutes showing him cutting together a series of photographs into a makeshift movie and setting it to the sound he recorded. We as the audience are just as interested to see the completed project as Terry himself is, and this allows De Palma to draw out the excitement while treating us to shots of Terry working with a variety of, now vintage, sound and movie equipment. This sequence may have been interesting to me just to see this equipment in use, but its made so much more interesting by its antecedents.

John Lithgow is also phenomenal as the cold, psychotic Mr. Burke, who cynically murders a series of women in order to disguise his eventual murder of Sally as a simple serial killing case. This kind of intelligence of crime is rarely seen in thrillers and makes the film utterly refreshing . The nihilistic twist ending is also fantastic and brings the story full circle in a satisfying style. I’d recommend this film to anyone interested in crime or thriller films.

I Saw The Devil (2010)

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Jesus fucking christ. This was a movie that left me in utter awe. It took me through so many emotions that I didn’t know how I felt by the end. The whole story made me uncomfortable. It unmistakably took shock and gore to their ugliest extremes. And at one moment I was rooting for more, excited by the protagonist’s conquest of revenge, and in the next I felt ashamed. This film put me in the protagonist’s shoes more than most others. And in doing so it provided emotions that have never been evoked by a film.

In essence this is a revenge movie, but like another film I looked at recently, Oldboy, it eschews the romantic view of revenge. Instead it creates horror and madness. Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) is a special agent who’s wife is kidnapped, raped, brutally murdered, chopped up, and scattered over a swamp. This sets into motion Kim’s quest for revenge, and begins his transformation into a monster hardly better than the murderer, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik)

Choi Min-sik gives a brilliant performance as the bloodthirsty psychopathic devil. Every shot of his face sent chills up my spine. You could look into those eyes and see the depths of his evil and the joy and sick pleasure he derived from causing horrific pain and misery. The excellent cinematography and direction (by Kim Jee-woon) does wonders to show the brutality for how furiously disgusting it is. I particularly enjoyed the shots of Kyung-chul’s hole in the wall murder shack, which when shot from outside looking in exudes the feeling of some terrible masochistic cave the likes of which may have spawned Satan himself and could possibly be the source for some grand evil of which we have no concept.

Violence is shown directly and it caused gut reactions in the viewer. My stomach churned at the images of Kyung-chul handling his victim’s bodies or beginning to assault some innocent school girl as he ran his gnarled hands over her skin. But the violence also inspired feelings of excitement when Soo-hyeon tortured Kyung-chul into believably terrifying screams. It felt unmistakably good to see such pain inflicted upon someone so clearly awful and evil that I didn’t think twice about the consequences of such actions. To me Kyung-chul was deserved of these torturous actions and it was only proper that Soo-hyeon reciprocate the feelings inflicted upon him to Kyung-chul.

The film takes a turn for the horrible when Kyung-chul exacts his revenge. My gut wrenched, as feelings of guilt and shame wrapped my psyche into a twisted image of its prior self. It seemed obvious that the film was shooting for the theme of the feeling of revenge transforming normally good individuals into monstrous figures capable of unimaginably terrible violence, but in my excitement at Kyung-chul’s pain I ignored this theme, much like Soo-hyeon did. And he paid a severe price for his mistakes.

At the end of the film we are left wondering who the titular devil is. On the surface it seems to be Kyung-chul, a sociopathic entity devoid entirely of remorse or emotion. But in the end it seems that the devil is instead Soo-hyeon, who’s quest to satisfy his thirst for vengeance caused far more pain that was deserved.

Excellent film, and a new favorite of mine for sure.

Deep Red (1975)

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Deep Red was a confusing film. It wasn’t that the plot was difficult to follow, or the motivations of the characters murky, but tonally the film surges from one end of the spectrum to the other. There are many instances of slapstick comedy inserted into a film that seems to want to be a horror. For instance, there is a running gag where the two lead characters, Marcus (David Hemmings) and Gianna (Daria Nicoladi) have to climb out through the roof of Gianna’s mini car, which I have to guess is attempting to elicit a laugh? Gianna’s character constantly and desperately attempts to sleep with Marcus, something that I think is played for yucks but falls completely flat.

Now besides these strange instances, this is a fun, atmospheric horror flick. Any time the killer seems to lurk around the corner the viewer is spellbound to the screen. Director Dario Argento makes magnificent use of lighting and color to create some very memorable imagery. Marcus’s walks through the dilapidated old mansion, for example, oozed tension and creepy ambiance.

Another scene has Marcus’s friend Giordani (Glauco Mauri) moving about his flat suspiciously. The audience isn’t shown a direct threat, but the way Argento films Giordani by having the camera follow him and peer at him from obscured spaces, we are well aware something is stalking him. Instead of resorting to a cheap jump scare, like many contemporary horror filmmakers would, Giordani  simply hears his name whispered aloud. This is when Argento’s masterful score kicks in setting the mood for a truly bizarre encounter.

The music is worth mentioning more of. The score of this film, along with other of Argento’s works, is truly unique. It would be easy to see how someone like John Carpenter would have been influenced by the use of twinkling synthesizer in repetitive ascending and descending riffs played over images of darkly lit corridors. The mood set is extraordinarily distinctive.

The plot of this film, while easily followed, makes little real sense.  The final reveal is totally stupid and the circumstances too extraordinary. The film would do better to ease away from the mystery element and lean into the horror more. Instead of pulling the viewer along with threads of mystery it could have cut maybe twenty to thirty minutes of trivial character interactions and gone for straight surreal horror, which would work far better for a film like this.

The problem with this film, as with the only other Argento film I’ve seen, Suspiria, was that the dialogue and characters fell enormously flat. Any instance of dialogue had me rolling my eyes, whereas any instance of tension had me on the edge of my seat.

This is not a perfect film, but as a horror flick, you could do significantly worse. Watch for the moody atmosphere and gory encounters, but pay little attention to the details of the plot or the individual character traits. Little depth is found there.

Oldboy (2003)

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SPOILER ALERT

I’m going to start this off by being totally honest. I knew the twist going into this movie. And I thought it was dumb. It seemed exploitative to have a man unknowing bang his daughter. The shock elicited from such an act would be too easy and too gross. Having not seen the film (or not the whole film) I was under the impression that it was most likely the sole reason for its cult status. But having seen a couple other of director Park Chan-wook’s films (The Handmaiden, Thirst, Mr. Vengeance) I decided to give it a go.

How wrong I was.

Oldboy is an excellent story, relying thematically on the classic motif of vengeance. But instead of going down the well tread path of countless other revenge flicks, Park chooses to follow the motto “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”: essentially that revenge will never quench the pain that you’ve been inflicted, and seeking it will only leave you feeling more empty and more despicable. This takes form in two of our characters, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) and Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae). As they seek vengeance with one another for wrongs committed, we can’t help but wonder why. Oh has been released from captivity and has found love and Lee is clearly very wealthy. Why can’t they allow bygones to be bygones?

We cannot know the depth of their rage for the deeds done upon them and the size of the hole this tears in their hearts without experiencing their lives firsthand. And Park’s telling of this tale combined with some first rate acting nearly accomplishes this feat. Park’s direction of the sequence where Oh is locked away brilliantly showcases the madness that Oh must be experiencing. Surrealism combined with some self inflicted violence allows us to feel Oh’s anguish as he is locked away, never allowed to feel the sun on his skin or the breeze in his face. And the violence later on in the film, while typically brutal and graphic for a Park film, serves to showcase the extremity of Oh’s anger and desperation to deal with the 15 years that have been stolen from him. These sequences simultaneously deliver exciting action set-pieces and deep character insights.

The nature of Lee’s desire for revenge is the mystery that the film unravels at a steady pace, finally ending upon the reveal that Oh had began a rumor (is it still a rumor if it’s true? I don’t know) about Lee’s sister, Soo-ah, being overly promiscuous after catching the Lee siblings engaging in sexual acts unbecoming of a brother and sister. The grain of sand that Oh drops eventually turns into a massive rock that crushes her eventually causing her to commit suicide. This is the hole that lives in Lee’s heart, one that he tries to fill by starting an insanely complex conspiracy to exact revenge upon Oh in a plot that spans 15 years. And at the end, when his vengeance is complete, he says himself that he has nothing left to live for. This scheme has perhaps enlarged the hole that already existed. Instead of moving on from his adversities, Lee has stewed on them for years and years, and in that ultimate moment he’d been waiting for since his sister died, his satisfaction was fleeting. He kills himself moments later.

It’s with these ideas in mind that I realized how wrong I was to think that Park’s film was solely successful due to the exploitative nature of the twist ending.

There is a line heard towards the beginning of the film that takes on brand new meaning at its conclusion. And this line kind of encapsulates the theme of the movie generally well. “Even though I’m worse than a beast, don’t I still deserve to live?” This can be applied to Oh’s newfound incestuous relationship, or it can be applied to the idea of allowing revenge to rest. Perhaps those less-than-beasts that did you wrong deserve to live, and perhaps seeking revenge will only bring about more unnecessary pain.