“Carlito’s Way” seems like a stereotyped Mafia movie in today’s world; great shoot-out scene at end

Carlito’s Way” (1993) is a big-budget gangster movie from Brian de Palma.  But it’s not quite as engaging as the “Godfather” epics of the 1970s or maybe either some of de Palma’s earlier films (like “Dressed to Kill” (1980) or some comparable films by Scorsese (“Scarface”).  It’s long and bloated at 144 minutes.

The film is based on novels by former judge Edwin Torres, who says he wrote out his novels in longhand.  (So did J. K. Rowling when she began writing as a welfare mom.) The first screenplay was supposedly a “turkey”. The final adaptation is by David Koeep.

Carlito Brigante is played by a younger and mustachioed Al Pacino.  From Puerto Rico, he’d like to have the suave whiteness and social acceptability of a Geraldo Rivera or maybe (in today’s world) Josh Garcia.  His rather evil lawyer Dave Kleinfeld, a younger Sean Penn (who shaved back his hairline for the part) gets him out of prison on a technicality before a doubting judge in an opening scene, and Carlito promises to go straight (not literally). Fat chance.

Gradually his associates and girlfriends and Kleinfeld drag him back into the Mafia, with many scenes in the bay around Rikers Island.  Kleinfeld is a cokehead, with one scene where be nearly vomits in the bay, as if to invoke Roman Polanski.

Other characters in line are Benny (John Leguizamo) and Gail (Penelope Ann Miller).

When the revengeful elements of the plot send Kleinfeld to the hospital, Carliot pays him a sympathy visit and gives him a lesson in self-defense.  It doesn’t do any good.  (Torres says that Kleinfeld, murdered by a police imposter in the hospital, survives in the novels.)

The film has a famous shootout in Grand Central station (rather like the bank shootout in the 1996 film “Heat”, also with Pacino)  One problem is that I think that the Amtrak train south leaves from Penn Station, which I have been in enough times.

The metaphor at the end, for slipping into Paradise (based on entering a billboard) is a nice rendering of how the afterlife might start.

The movie starts in black-and-white with the final shooting, and returns in color.  There is an alternative universe ending where Carlito wore a bullet proof vest.

The script has lots of topical references, like to “Walk on the Wild Side” and in being “Watergated” (maybe now that’s “Russiagated”).

The Mahler-esque score was composed by Patrick Doyle.

Name:  “Carlito’s Way”
Director, writer:  Brian de Palma
Released:  1993
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD, 34 min “making of” included
Length:  144
Rating:  R
Companies:  Universal
Link:  Blu-Ray

(Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT)

Jeffrey Toobin’s “American Heiress” explores the confrontational idea of political kidnapping in his detailed biography of Patty Hearst

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Author: Jeffrey Toobin
Title, Subtitle: “American Heiress”
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-0-3855-3671-4
Publication: Doubleday, 372 pages, hardcover, five parts, 27 chapters
Link: author

When news about Patty Hearst’s  being kidnapped by a ragtag “Symbionese Liberation Army”  in early February 1974 hit the papers, I was traveling on a benchmark for Univac, working long hours in Eagan MN, and very much wanting to get back “home” to the New York area for my own new lifestyle.  This was a time of gasoline shortages and economic difficulties after the Arab oil embargo.

Before my “second coming” (as gay, in early 1973), I had been spying (while living in northern New Jersey) on “the People’s Party of New Jersey”, partly because I “liked” its male candidate for Congress.  One Saturday night in December, after skiing, I sat in on a planning meeting in a drafty tenement in Newark, NJ.  I became shocked when I heard talk of potential violence and expropriation.

Jeffrey Toobin’s long opus “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst” starts out by reminding us that violent left-wing-based terrorism was the norm in the late 60s and early 70s, in large part in reaction to Richard Nixon’s continued pursuit of the Vietnam War. Bombings were common, and getting directions on how to make them really was not difficult even in pre-Internet days.  With a conventional professional job, I was somewhat sheltered from all of this (despite the Newark spy session)  Maybe I should have felt less sheltered.  Having made myself public in the Internet age, I’m perfectly well aware that someone could go after me as a “pig” or “infidel” or some other kind of sinner.

The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is shocking specifically as it was a political kidnapping (the term Toobin uses), intended to exact retribution on a family for unearned wealth and “oppressive” media influence.  In the days before the Internet, the “4th Estate” was considered more powerful than now.  In fact, one of my first “tricks” as a gay man in NYC in 1976 talked about “the abuse of the media” all the time.  He also hinted possible knowledge of a small bombing that had happened at La Guarida airport (in a storage locker).  He showed up one more time and invited me to watch “Deep Throat” with him at Times Square, and then thankfully disappeared from my life.

The SLA made a great spectacle of the Hearst’s forced food give-away to PIN (“people in need”) in Oakland.  Toobin covers the complicated narrative of the first shootout that eliminated six SLA members, and then of Patty’s life on the run (with a new lover, part of it back East in Pennsylvania).  Interesting is the SLA’s view that’s sexuality should be communal (and that others had a right to your body in a commune).  Patty could parrot the self-righteousness of the radical Left (which I got a piece of with the People’s Party) aswell as anyone.  The trial (with F. Lee Bailey) of course focused on whether she was coerced (to very specific threats on her life) or actually believed the ideology.  I believe both are true.  It is a simple fact that lives can be hijacked (or carjacked) by the aggression of others.  Then, “it is what it is.”

Particularly interesting, too, is Patty’s coming to see her first boyfriend, Steven Weed, as a physical “coward” who want to exploit the incident for his own publicity.

The Patty Hearst narrative is an extreme, outlier example of what can happen if someone perceived to benefit from “unearned privileged” at the indirect expense to others, is targeted.  On the other hand, when you hear the SLA communist (frankly Maoist) rants about “the people”, you wonder who “the people” really are.  Some individuals in the People’s Party back in the 1970s frankly admired Mao’s ideas.

(Published: Wednesday, November 9, 2016 at 11:45 AM EST)

“Hostage” turns a conventional and possibly political thriller into pure “gothic” horror

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Name: Hostage
Director, writer:  Florent Emilio Siri, novel by Robert Crais
Released:  2005
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix (limited availability), can buy from Amazon
Length 118
Rating R
Companies: Miramax, Stratus
Link: site

The crime film “Hostage” (2005), directed by (French) Florent Emilio Siri, based on the novel by Robert Crais, gets a curious commentary toward the end of Dean Hannote’s book “Century of Growth”, which I reviewed yesterday.  I checked Netflix and found it would be available there (from distributor Miramax) only through Sept. 1, 2016.  I don’t get the point of studios doing this;  the film is available for rent on Amazon cheaply.

Actually, it’s the villain “Mars” Marshall Krupcheck (Ben Foster) who gets the attention in the aforementioned book.  As the thriller proceeds from what starts as a political film, he indeed becomes a monster, who needs to burn, and he indeed does.

The story builds in layers, with a structure like that of some 1980s and 1990s crime films (“A Kiss Before Dying” and “Body Heat” come to my own mind immediately), with complexity that seems totally improbable.  Hero Bruce Willis plays hostage negotiator and Police Chief Jeff Tally.  After a traumatic event in Los Angeles where, in a domestic disturbance, a man takes his family hostage and kills them and himself, Tally moves to a quiet suburb in Ventura county.

It happens that a mob accountant and money launderer Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak) raises his family in a gated castle in the mountains, which sets up the setting for the rest of the movie, giving it an opportunity to turn into a mess of genres, ranging from Hitchcock (or even Truffaut) to horror.  Mars has enlisted two white trash punks (brothers) to assist him in raiding the castle;  the punks think it is an ordinary car theft and joyride, and their stupidity is actually a major part of the plot.  When Mars shoots a female police officer, Tally “resigns” from the case and wants to let the sheriff (and then FBI-ATF) handle everything.   But it turns out that mob elements really want an encrypted DVD in Smith’s castle, and invent an elaborate and somewhat preposterous plan to kidnap Tally’s own family, to get him back into the case.

While the movie (not terribly successful financially) builds according to conventions of formulaic screenwriting. It rather sidesteps the idea that being taken hostage is one of the gravest, most existential physical threats one can experience.  I’ve weighed in at other spots like here.

Actually, I could mention a couple other comparable movies: “Ransom” (1996, directed by Ron Howard, with Mel Gibson), the NBC series “Kidnapped” (by Jason Smilovic), and even Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel “Kidnapped”, which I read in junior high.  Also, recall Dennis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” (2013) with Jake Gyllenhaal (the best of these). And there is also “Room” (2015) and “Captive” (2015). And most of all, “Rapt” (2009), by Lucas Belvaux about a business executive abduction in France.

(Published: Monday, April 29, 2016 at 3:15 PM EDT)

“12”: Russian adaptation of “12 Angry Men” is mostly stage play, with disturbing war backdrop, and a subtle warning at the end

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Name: 12” (remake of “12 Angry Men”
Director, writer:  Nikita Mikhalov
Released:  2007
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD (also available on Amazon instant)
Length 160
Rating R
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics, MGM, United Artists
Link; languages no site available; in Russian with subtitles

The 2007 Russian film “12”, by Nikita Mikhalov is indeed based on Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic “12 Angry Men”, based on the play by Reginald Rose. It’s long, 160 minutes, but quite riveting if someone is ready to serious drama.  Subtitles help, but this is probably even more interesting for Russian-fluent speakers because the obvious idioms and social and particularly Russian political context in the script.

The plot centers around the jury deliberations on the trial of a boy accused of murdering his stepfather in Moscow, after he had been taken from Chechnya when his parents had been killed in the civil war.  The film seems timely in retrospect because of the history of the Tsarnaev family in the Boston Marathon attack in 2013.

Much of the deliberation occurs in a school gymnasium, set up as an arena stage, giving the look of a Lars van Trier film (like “Dogville”).  The jurors perform a lot of antics, and in a “New Wave” maneuver, a wild songbird (canary) flies around the room.

The film is punctuated with the back story of urban guerilla war in Chechnya, with scenes that are quite graphic and brutal, as well as some black and white background rural footage (the film is shot in full wide screen).

In the beginning, only one juror (Sergei Makovetsky) wants to acquit.  Deliberations bring out the life stories of the other men (why no women) from various walks of Russian (post-Communist) life.  Included are a racist taxi driver, a television producer, a musician, and a Holocaust survivor.  Slowly, the jurors come to realize the boy was framed by organized crime.  But the foreman also realizes that if the acquit him, he will likely be targeted;  he may be safer in prison (a hidden protective custody) until the real criminals are caught.  This reminds me of other existential problems that can happen to people, like when they enter witness protection (the Lifetime film “Family in Hiding” or even the 1985 film “Witness” set in the Amish community) or even the Seattle-based cartoonist Molly Norris matter (when she had to change her identity after sponsoring a Mohammed-drawing contest in 2010 at FBI advice).  In the end, the foreman (who was an intelligence official) votes for acquittal anyway.  Some people see the denouement of the film as “pro-Putin”.

When I lived in Dallas, I got called for jury duty once every two years, since Texas has a one-day, one-trial system.  I was foreman on a weapons trial (misdemeanor, six jurors) in 1982, and we came around to conviction toward the end.

The film won awards at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008.  The film carries the brand MGM was well as Sony Pictures Classics because MGM (and United Artists) owns the original film.

By Natalia Medvedeva – http://exhibition.ipvnews.org/photo_001.php, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7003114

(Published: Friday, June 24, 2016 at 12 noon EDT)