Midnight Run: The Art of Buddy Comedy

What happens when you get an award-winning method actor in De Niro, a timid comedian in Charles Grodin, a young up-and-coming director in Martin Brest and tell them, Go out there and make a really good comedy about a bounty hunter going through a mid-life crisis while chasing a white collar criminal? Well, what happens is you get one of the most entertaining, bombastic and heartfelt buddy comedies to come out of the 1980s, an era known for fueling the concept of buddy comedy with movies like 48 Hrs., Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Twins leading the way. Midnight Run has grown to become a cult classic of the genre and looking back on it, the film has stood the test of time beautifully.
If there ever was a recipe for the perfect buddy comedy – Midnight Run would be it. So today, I want to talk about what makes Brest’s collaboration with De Niro and Grodin stand out in a decade packed with similar efforts and what this film teaches us about buddy comedy in general, a genre that has more or less faded away in recent years with movies like The Nice Guys failing at box office, and thus further discouraging Hollywood from committing to such screwball ideas.

Meet Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) and his dirtbag bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano).

The first thing that we notice about a lot of buddy comedies is that they can come off as vanity or vacation projects, with big time actors cashing in easy paychecks and in exchange, giving their minimum effort. After all, if the movie isn’t serious and the subject isn’t too heavy then why should you bust your balls from 9 to 5 if you’re an Academy Award Winner? Midnight Run never takes itself seriously, but it also never dismisses the importance of emotional beats and the overarching themes of its story.
On the surface, this surely could have been another easy cash grab for De Niro, especially coming off a run of incredible yet creatively exhausting movies that included Once Upon a Time in America and The Mission. The latter especially saw De Niro put himself through enormous physical and psychological strain. It would have been only reasonable of him to accept making Midnight Run just to see him sleepwalk through the entire runtime. And yet… no sir. One of the first things that you immediately notice about Midnight Run is the commitment of everyone involved. This seemingly simple screwball comedy sees major actors like De Niro, Farina and Kotto work their asses to deliver something truly fresh and passionate, while never losing sight of the ultimate objective – fun. The movie is pure, unfiltered fun.

De Niro’s bounty hunter must track down and deliver Grodin’s white collar criminal to LA before others get to him.

Buddy comedy always works best when it’s about two polar opposites having to get along. Whether it’s the broad-shouldered, street-smart cop played by Nick Nolte having to collaborate with small-time crook played by Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs., or the physically towering yet innocent and good-hearted Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to reconcile with his long-lost twin brother Danny DeVito in Twins, buddy comedy is at its best when the main protagonists have conflicting personalities and interests. Midnight Run, however, does not make this distinction too apparent. Indeed, De Niro is the more impatient, more violent of the two, and wears his emotions on his sleeve, while Grodin’s poker-faced accountant for the mafia goes about life as if it was one big walk in the park. Yet, underneath these glaring differences there is something much more subtle: a burning pain of some kind, whether it is lodged in the past or present, both men have hurt themselves and others around them. Both share the desire to start from scratch, and try to recapture the same thirst for life they felt when they were young.
De Niro’s former Chicago policeman turned bounty hunter dreams of owning a coffeeshop. Perhaps it’s only a dream, but his character shows all the signs of a man who’s come to realize that all this running around, chasing criminals, with or without a badge, has got in the way of real, palpable happiness. Same goes for Grodin’s white collar criminal, whose act of stealing and giving mafia money away to charities is in itself a cry for help, a last shot at redemption for a man who’s walked through life by helping the rich grow richer. One could argue that this movie is about men going through a mid-life crisis, and there is truth to that. De Niro and Grodin are only now starting to realize that there is more to life than just fun, money and a career. But only through this sentimental, dramatic lens does Midnight Run‘s humor become all the more effective. Without these backstories, the punchlines wouldn’t land the same.

The two eventually learn about each other through thick and thin.

And it’s here that the importance of a strong, committed supporting cast becomes most apparent. Movies nowadays seem to have forgotten what it means to have recognizable non-movie star faces to help the story move along. Character actors, upon of the sight of whom you go, That guy! I know him! I’ve seen him before! Well, Midnight Run is full of them and knows the extent to which it can rely on their personas.
You have a pre-Sopranos Joe Pantoliano who plays the double-crossing bail bondsman trying to screw De Niro out of a well-earned pay-day. You have Dennis Farina playing the explosive mafia boss with the ever-stoic veteran actor Philip Baker Hall as his loyal consigliere. Add to that list the late Yaphet Kotto as the ominous yet always-too-late-on-the-scene FBI agent Alonzo Mosley, and John Ashton as De Niro’s hilarious bounty-hunting rival and you got yourself a cast of perfectly lived-in characters that, when called upon, offer their very best.
The world of buddy comedies like Midnight Run navigate in always risks of becoming a caricature, a cartoon filled with cliché’s something that The Naked Gun would go on to spoof that same year and later on in 90s with its over-the-top sequels. However, Martin Brest’s film never goes to that extent. The motivations of the supporting characters are just as real as the motivations of the two protagonists, whether it’s the FBI agent’s undying pride and call of duty, or the mafia boss’ palpable fear of having his dirty secrets exposed to the world, Midnight Run never loses sight of the qualities of these characters while pumping the story with thrilling action sequences.

The great late Yaphet Kotto as the intimidating FBI agent Mosley.

Let’s face it: this wouldn’t be an 80s movie if De Niro’s character didn’t get into a shoot-out with a helicopter in a canyon, or if the mafia’s botched hit on Grodin’s character didn’t turn into a full-on, guns-blazing shoot-out between cops and gangsters in the middle of broad daylight. 80s action was always over the top, but it was up to filmmakers to capture the ridiculousness of typical Hollywood action and make it an element of the story, like James Cameron did with True Lies.
Midnight Run is never action-oriented as it focuses more on character study, but that’s why the action sequences that occur in the movie never feel out of place. The repetitive outbursts of violence become part of the story, with De Niro repeatedly telling Ashton to look the other way, ”Marvin, look out!” and knocking him out with a punch to the face, until the one time that he really means it in the climatic finale and Marvin doesn’t buy it anymore. Or when Grodin baits De Niro into believing he’s afraid of flying, to later on maneuver a plane on his own with De Niro hanging onto the wing, screaming his heart out. It’s all so wonderfully over the top, yet it never feels borrowed from another movie. It all falls into the same melting pot, and the outcome is a delicious character study mixed with ridiculous bits of action.

The exact moment when De Niro finds out Grodin is indeed not afraid of flying.

Finally, I want to point out the one scene that best explains why Midnight Run is the perfect buddy comedy.
Halfway through the film, after having been identified by the FBI and ratted out by his own bail bondsman, De Niro’s character takes Grodin’s to where he used to live back when he was a policeman in Chicago, as he intends to borrow some money from his ex-wife. Grodin and De Niro are just starting to get to know each other, and De Niro’s character hasn’t yet revealed the full truth regarding his past, neither to us nor Grodin. In-between light sequences filled with jokes and witty dialogue, Martin Brest stages this very emotional scene, with De Niro confronting the woman he loved, but lost to another man. With his hot-temper, De Niro doesn’t take too much time to get into it with wife, and as a result, the two start bickering, with Grodin, hand-cuffed, standing on the side trying to mediate this heated exchange.
All of a sudden, a little girl emerges. It turns out it’s De Niro’s daughter. As soon as she enters the frame, the bickering stops and De Niro freezes. He hasn’t seen this child in nine years, and now she’s all grown up. He can barely say, ”What grade are you in now?” and when she replies that she is in eighth grade, all he can blurt out is, ”Eighth grade, huh…” Grodin smiles at the sight of this, and the two actors beautifully capture the fragility of this scene. In the midst of a storm, there is a sudden glimmer of light and calm. This little girl, De Niro’s daughter, stands with her eyes doing all the talking for her. You used to be part of my life, she thinks. How come you’re not anymore?
What’s disarming and so brutally honest about the way this scene unfolds is that De Niro can’t bring himself to say anything more. He timidly hugs her, tries to savor her smell, and imagine all the things they could have experienced together as a father and daughter over the course of the last nine years. In a world of bounty hunters, gangsters and cops this little ray of sunlight in the form of a blond-haired child is a tragic reminder of what we can miss out on in life. Yet, despite these two people being practically strangers to each other, the daughter never expresses any resentment. She just hopes to see him again.

What could have been.
But never was.

Boyz n The Hood: Black on Black

When the late John Singleton, who passed away a week ago after battling a series of strokes, directed his first feature film, Boyz n the Hood, thus becoming the first African-American director to be nominated for an Oscar and the youngest nominee (24 years old – 22 at the time the film was shot!) in that category in the history of the prestigious awards ceremony, the public was caught off guard. It was 1991. Los Angeles was soon to become a dystopian war-zone following the 1992 Rodney King riots. LA was in the spotlight, for the wrong reasons, and here he was, a young, black film director from the streets, making a voice for himself and giving voice to those that had not had the right to have one up to that point.
It is important to keep in mind, that almost 3000 miles away, in the far away city of New York, there already was a young, black film student turned director shaking things up. His name was Spike Lee, but Spike, unlike Singleton, was interested in many things simultaneously, and often his work was filled with rage, stereotypes, regret, and most importantly, thematically it was all over the place, thus making it difficult for most everyday audiences to really grasp the world Spike was presenting to them. Do the Right Thing was Spike’s major hit, but its ferociousness, its in-your-face attitude made it somewhat inaccessible for its time. On the other hand, Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s entry ticket to Hollywood, was easier to digest, like a personal diary made available to everyone. And that is what I want to focus on: how John Singleton made the black experience of growing up in South Central Los Angeles accessible to audiences.

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Young black men out to change the world. From left to right: John Singleton, Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut.

The black experience in the East Coast had been covered in great detail in crime dramas often disguised as blaxploitation films going all the way back to the 70s, when all of a sudden films that would normally be told from a white perspective were taken apart and reconstructed from the angle of a minority. Films like Coffy or Shaft introduced to worldwide audiences proud members of the black film community such as Pam Grier, Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree that went on to become cult figures in the genre. But, unfortunately, that’s all it was – a genre. And as fun and enjoyable as they were, such films, neatly wrapped in style and action, often failed to convey a larger message about the actual circumstances these characters found themselves in.
Thus, by the end of the 80s, when producers started to take more chances on cheaper, independent films over blockbusters, younger talent emerged – film students from a minority, a marginalized community, like John Singleton that had stories to tell, who insisted on these stories to be told truthfully, were finally offered a chance. This meant only John Singleton could direct Boyz n the Hood, a hood film about a group of young men growing up in South Central LA, a territory infested with drugs, violence, police brutality and street gangs. It was time to shine a light on the black experience in the West Coast, where slowly but surely, black culture was starting to emerge from the ashes mostly through rap music with artists such as NWA and Tupac leading the way.
In one of the first scenes of the movie, Singleton makes the perfect introduction as a black filmmaker; Tre Styles, our protagonist, at this point an 11-year-old boy, after showing boredom and making unnecessary remarks in class, is challenged by his teacher, a pretty white redhead, to stand up in front of the classroom and conduct his own lecture. Young Tre without a second thought rises to his feet and proceeds to walk up to a big world map. He points to the African continent and says ”This is where y’all are from. Where everybody’s from.” The class is in shock. What is this kid talking about? We’re not from Africa, we’re from South Central. Singleton immediately turns the tables around and proves to be in the driver’s seat. This scene is his announcement that the movie that you’re watching is not meant to be watched while munching on popcorn – it is meant to be seen with an understanding, because you might learn something new, something challenging that you, just like the teacher and the rest of the classroom, did not see coming.

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Kids confronted with a bloody reality.

Another aspect that makes Boyz n the Hood accessible is its simplicity in storytelling and the way Singleton uses as a clear reference point Rob Reiner’s hit movie from 1986, Stand by Me, only this time, the director turns the story of four socially-marginalized kids from white-washed Oregon into the story of four black boys from South Central. In Stand by Me the turning point takes place when one of the boys asks, ”You guys wanna go see a dead body?” and the frightened gang follows the friend to the where the body is hidden. In this case, the dead body represents a secret, and a deadly one too, as it is not supposed to be revealed to anyone because then the killer might come out of hiding.
In Boyz, however, when one of the boys, Dooky, asks ”Y’all wanna see a dead body?” the others casually reply ”Yeah. Okay.” When the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked body is revealed to them, they impassively look at it, with the only remark being that it stinks. Here, a victim of a gang shooting is a trivial object, like a souvenir taken from the local context of South Central. The sight of it, even for boys aged 11 or 12, is nothing remarkable. It doesn’t evoke any feelings besides physical disgust. A dead body, unlike in Stand by Me, is no mystery, and this is the first sign of Singleton taking matters into his own hands; he introduces a brand new way of seeing things, as if to say, ”I’m supposed to feel sorry for a bullet-riddled corpse? I’ve seen worse.”

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Out to conquer the world.

After its opening act where the characters are introduced at a young age, the film skips to seven years later, when the boys are in their late teens, and by that time, in South Central you’re expected to be a man, have a family, put bread on the table and act like a grown up. And while a director like Spike Lee is more interested in the flavor and oddity of each character, Singleton’s priority as a director is to tell a story. Most of the characters that are in Boyz resemble each other in many ways; they all have similar backgrounds, fears, regrets, but above all, they all have one goal in common – to get out of there.
Because while Spike’s Brooklyn is a place where the characters feel at home despite many threatening factors such as neighboring gangs and ”nigger-hating” police officers roaming the streets, Singleton’s LA (ranging from South Central to Compton) is a hellhole that everyone wants to run away from. Even the most basic, primitive characters such as Doughboy (wonderfully played by a young Ice Cube) have as their dream neither gangbanging, nor drinking ’till late, nor screwing the most beautiful girls in the area; their dream is to be better, to the point that they can fly out of a place where, as the opening line to the movie states ONE OUT OF EVERY TWENTY-ONE BLACK AMERICAN MALES WILL BE MURDERED IN THEIR LIFETIME. MOST WILL DIE AT HE HANDS OF ANOTHER BLACK MALE. Singleton’s characters are simple and easy to understand, driven by the same thirst to elevate themselves above life-threatening mediocrity.

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Danger around the corner.

Finally, Singleton’s real secret in telling this personal journey of growing up in a tough environment is his understanding of what a general audience wants in a way that will allow him to keep their attention all the way through. In other words, Singleton, unlike Spike Lee (who, lets be honest, loved to light firecrackers in people’s faces with his thought-provoking, twisted and controversial films) at the age of 22, knew exactly how to make a conventional movie, one that despite its difficult subject matter would not stir controversy but welcome viewers with open arms, broadening their vision of what it meant to really struggle in marginalized working class America.
Singleton many times argued that to him Boyz was structured like a Western, meaning it was structured like the oldest tale in the book – a tale filled with moral dilemmas, life lessons and dramatic turns that will lead to an inevitable end. Boyz does just that, with the bandits being the gangbangers that go looking for trouble as they cruise down the street and police officers making death threats to common citizens, the cowboys being the young protagonists desperately trying to take care of their loved ones and protect them from the bandits, and the wise sheriff, who in this case is represented by Tre’s father, Furious (a fantastic Laurence Fishburne), a man who watches over the neighborhood and has come to accept one absolute truth: that African-Americans need to stick together and be aware of their strength as a unit, rather than their strength as individuals.

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Under a father’s supervision.

In most Westerns, the cowboys eventually have to accept their darker survival instincts if they want to defeat the bandits, yet in Boyz Singleton desperately fights this convention, ultimately making his characters suffer and choose different approaches in dealing with the same nagging problem, which is the burden of life in the neighborhood. The question whether a cowboy will become a bandit depends on many factors, and Singleton makes sure to highlight each one of them: love and supervision from relatives, education, a balanced sense of justice, one’s own values and priorities. Like any good director, or artist for that matter, Singleton does not try to put all of his eggs in one basket; instead he makes sure to truthfully depict the many faces of South Central and the many ways one can go about living one’s life in such awful circumstances. This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but numerous movies that thematically tackle street life, street crime and the margins of any society prefer to take the easy way out and put the blame on the system, on a higher power, on the evil eye that watches over us. In Boyz, the 22-year-old film director doesn’t follow suit: he furiously rows up against the stream because the story deserves to be told the right way.
After the movie’s incredible financial and critical success, Singleton’s career did not take off the way everyone imagined. The films he went on to make, from the likes of street melodramas like Poetic Justice to mindless blockbusters like 2 Fast 2 Furious, did not reflect his incredible skill as a director and storyteller, but that is even more of a reason to celebrate the nature of Boyz n the Hood, a hood film that allowed audiences from all over the world to truly grasp a (small) part of the black experience in modern-day America.

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At the end of the day, we’re all looking for the same thing.

Real Lonely: Michael Mann’s relationships

Last time around I talked about Michael Mann (here) I focused on the Chicago native’s ability to entertain audiences with the sheer brilliance of his visual style. What I didn’t do, and what I plan on doing now, upon concluding a marathon of his entire filmography (starting from his 1981 directorial debut, Thief, and ending with his recent misfire about the hacking underworld, Blackhat), is to have a look at what really lies at the core of the director’s body of work. We all know and love him for his memorable camerawork, his hyper realistic shootouts resulting in some of the best sound design to ever grace the silver screen, his ability to capture the beauty of big cities at night, be it Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago, and his overall rediscovery of the crime genre. Yet, oddly enough, when asked about this idea of his films belonging to the crime genre, Mann answered coldly ”I don’t make genre films, I make dramas,” which is a valid response considering his films, if studied closely, are all about relationships and love. That’s it.

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A filmmaker who is definitely not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Relationships are hard to define, and most of the time cinema, especially Hollywood productions, have a hard time creating convincing, realistic portrayals of two people interacting with each other in an intimate way. How many times do we hear an audience member walk out of a film saying ”Yeah, I just didn’t buy that whole love story” or ”That was okay, I just wish there was more to A and B’s relationship, you know?” Better yet, how many times have we seen in the last decade or so, films that made us truly care about characters’ relationships? Very few, I’d say. And that’s why Mann is a fascinating director to watch; most of his films are considered macho features, male-oriented with male protagonists that are either on the good or the bad side of the law, cops and robbers, vigilantes and crooks, honest workers and corrupt yes-men. At first sight, female characters are few and their screen time is considerably limited compared to their male counterparts. However, their importance is priceless. One could even go as far as to say Mann’s male characters depend on women. Without these women, Mann’s protagonists have nothing going for them.
Let’s start with Thief, the story about a jewel thief who gets into trouble with a mob boss, where Frank (a post Godfather Jimmy Caan) is desperately trying to make sense of his own life. Amidst all the violence, all the robbing, all the swearing and drinking, there is a very tender story about a man who, raised as an orphan, uneducated, an ex-convict, wants to have something to show for his own existence. When he’s not stealing diamonds, he’s busy chasing Jessie, a young, timid restaurant clerk. Soon, Frank builds his whole life around his wife and child and they become the focal point of the movie itself. In other words, what initially set out to be a stone-cold crime flick about a man who finds himself in a tight spot slowly turns into a story about a man and his family, his everything, who must escape the violent reality they live in. Jessie is Frank’s ticket to safety, proof that there is something truly worth fighting for.

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Frank desperately fighting the system for the sake of his family.

Skip to Manhunter, 1986, where the protagonist is a straight arrow, a former FBI man, Will Graham, whose life has been a mess ever since he caught the most dangerous criminal in recent history – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Here, Mann places his protagonist in a spot where he is forced to walk a fine line between being the antagonist, as his method of investigation is based on getting inside the mind of psychopaths and serial killers (which eventually resulted in him ending up in the psych ward for some time), and that of a hero, hailed by newspapers as the man who stopped Lecktor and looked upon by his son as this imposing, admirable father figure. Manhunter is thriller 101, the precursor to every other major bloody Hollywood flick (think Silence of the LambsSe7en or even Gone Girl), mainly due to the fact it is very much aware of what makes tragedy worth caring about; Will’s job is likely to put his family at risk, as his wife keeps telling him to back off and to not get involved with another serial killer case; he eventually soon becomes responsible for the fate of his loved ones. In other words, his family and his relationship with his wife is the only link that separates the investigator from total insanity, resulting in the following tagline ”Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.”  It is not a coincidence that at the start of the film we see Graham, along with his son, build a wire fence around a spot on the beach where turtle eggs have been laid; the film is more about the constant anxiety of protecting our dear ones than it is about catching some psycho killer as one would deduce by reading the movie’s premise.

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At the end of the day, it is all about coming back home.

In 1995 Mann made arguably his greatest film to date, his magnum opus, Heat, where the lives of a bank robber and a cop chasing him get intertwined.  What follows is a legendary game of cat and mouse, of shootouts, action and violence, but at the core of it there’s the element of relationships all over again. Love as the ultimate downfall and salvation. It is difficult to talk about this movie as every time I rewatch it I notice something different, things seem to align in a new, fresh way each time I press play. The premise to Heat is the famous quote ”Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” with most of the characters ultimately fighting off this strict mantra, their feelings clashing with their profession, be it that of the criminal whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the cops start chasing you, or the policeman whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the chase is on.  After all, when I think of love in Michael Mann’s Heat, I think of two relationships; Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s and Al Pacino’s and Diane Venora’s. Both relationships are troubled for different reasons. Val Kilmer’s character is a bank robber who ends up losing all the money he makes gambling in Las Vegas and Reno, while Ashley Judd’s character is an ex-call girl turned housewife who wants some stability in her young, newly wed life. There is a tragic disconnect between the two, with Kilmer admitting to De Niro’s character ”The sun rises and sets with her, man,” when asked if he’d be able to cut off ties with her if the situation required it. The two want to make things work, at all costs, but they don’t have the right ingredients. They want to be better, but they can’t. Or simply don’t know how.

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Two young lovers trying to make it work…

On the other side of the spectrum, there is an entirely different level of disconnect. Al Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, is at his third marriage, and this one is going bad too because again, he cannot seem to get through to his wife. His work absorbs him, sucks him dry, and his wife does not accept this. The two of them, unlike Kilmer and Judd’s young couple, are both starting to face the fact that things will most likely never work out; both are moving on in years, both are unable to function like normal human beings (she’s high on prescription drugs all the time, while he’s addicted to the sound of his work beeper) and both seem reluctant to face this problem together, as a couple. Incompetent when it comes to family matters, Al Pacino’s Hanna is convinced that relationships are nothing more but a burden in a man’s life and yet, at the same time, he keeps coming back to them. In the celebrated diner scene where Hanna and Neil (De Niro) meet for the first time, Pacino admits ”My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” Once again, like in Mann’s previous works, what is at stake is not money, fame, success or anything of the sort; it’s the relationship. Each character seems to do everything for the sake of saving/maintaining a relationship. if you get killed running out of a bank, you won’t see your wife again. Same thing happens if a bad guy puts one in your brain. Love, once again, is a man’s downfall and simultaneously, his only salvation.

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…two older lovers failing to make it work.

The final two movies I want to mention are Mann’s ode to machismo and action cinema, namely his remake of the original television series, Miami Vice and his quite recent venture into gangster territory, Public Enemies. In the formal we witness as Crockett, an undercover police detective, flirts with a woman from the other side of the fence, an accountant for the number one drug kingpin of Miami that Crockett happens to be investigating. In the latter film, John Dillinger, America’s most notorious bank robber of the 30s, afraid of getting killed with nothing to show for his own life (just like Frank in Thief) gets involved with a young desk clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Both films, although dealing with opposite sides of the law, show two desperate men trying to find comfort in love. One objective. Whether it is because the world has gotten too violent (as Crockett witnesses one killing too many)…

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Toying with the enemy.

…or too modern (as Dillinger is faced with a new reality where robbing banks is a thing from the past), love, and relationships yet again come into play and slowly but surely become the focal points and the dramatic anchors of both films. Both relationships are daring,  life and death situations but somehow, our protagonists, one being a smart, perhaps the smartest undercover cop in all of Florida, and the other being the smartest bank robber at the time, are willing to take a huge risk by potentially compromising their ‘business’ with something as fragile as a relationship with someone they barely know anything about. And yet… and yet somehow it all makes sense, because Mann knows how to sell it; love becomes an indispensable element of each protagonist’s arch, as it can lead to many things; failure, exposure, damaged reputation or even, as in Dillinger’s case, death. It all comes to full circle, and at the end of the day, the sun rises and sets with her.

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Bye, bye, blackbird.

Untouchable

Movies have different ways of communicating with the audience, some prefer to stick to heavy loaded dialogue, others rely mostly on poetry and metaphors, others use music and physical gags, others are founded on story and plot, and finally, there are those that target the audience with only one single element: visuals. Movies are motion pictures, they are an art form that specializes in capturing movement on camera, they are known for manipulating reality and cramming it into a digital screen that projects the image to the audience, be it in a theater or someone’s living room. However, if one were to look back at most mainstream films that have come out in the last decade or so, one will start to notice a pattern: most films focus on what is being said rather than what is being done. Directors and producers feel a lot safer when the script is the focal point of the project rather than a story, or even worse, an abstract idea because what’s written on paper will always guide in some way, some direction, be it a description of an object, tone of voice, a look, a character’s line or even a setting, as in INTERIOR – JOE’S OFFICE – NIGHT. Today’s major studios want safe options, blockbusters  that are easy to make and follow a set narrative formula which means there is an entire generation of directors who spend their time jumping from one franchise to another, from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to Jurassic World and The Avengers,  without ever being able to clearly reveal their true identities as artists, storytellers. That is now, but what about forty, thirty, even twenty years ago? Back then  studio influence was just as powerful in some cases if not more (re: Apocalypse NowHeaven’s Gate), but there were certain filmmakers who were allowed to do whatever they felt like doing, and who were always able to make the most out of any source material. One of these talented dudes was a man named Brian De Palma, a director who based his entire career on chasing the ghost of Alfred Hitchock, and by doing so, he learned how to seduce his audiences with the simple help of visuals and nothing else.

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You will not dare to look away.

When it comes to watching a De Palma movie forget plot, forget dialogue and character, simply focus on what is on screen. The first thing one will notice is De Palma’s immediate need to drag you into his world. He often does this by opening his movies with a 5-10 minute long tracking shot, like in Bonfire of the Vanities or Snake Eyes, during which the main characters are introduced and set within one specific world. In Snake Eyes, for example, we follow Nicholas Cage as Detective Rick Santoro walking around a boxing arena, waiting for a big fight to take place. Through De Palma’s eyes we’re quickly thrown into the world that Santoro is immersed in, a world of scumbags, dealers, call girls and gangsters, who all happen to know him. Considering the traditional structure of a screenplay I doubt such an opening was written specifically for De Palma to follow. The director, instead of introducing his protagonist through various conversations and interactions, decided simply to use the camera to track the protagonist’s movements, way of walking, capturing the energy around him, the excitement in the arena building and slowly but surely building tension within the viewer’s mind, preparing him for something significant to happen in the following minutes.

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The opening to Bonfire of the Vanities sweeps you for 5 entire minutes with the sizzling energy of upper class New York.

Another example of De Palma using mostly camera movements and angles to grab the viewer’s attention can be found in his systematic use of long tracking shots (6-12 minutes) at the movie’s midpoint in order to build the stage on which the climatic midpoint event (a fight, a chase scene, a murder) will eventually take place. This is mostly used to full effect in Dressed to Kill (the museum scene) and Body Double (the shopping mall). In both scenes a character is spying on another character and the single take is used for two purposes: 1) to build an elaborate map of the setting, be it a museum or a shopping mall, so that the viewer can easily follow the character’s movements and predict certain scenarios (for example, a dead end that prevents the character from escaping, or a wrong turn that will lead the character into the other character’s path); 2) to force the viewer into assuming a character’s point of view, be it the one being spied on/chased (Angie Dickinson’s character in Dressed to Kill) or the one spying/chasing (Craig Wasson’s character in Body Double). This way, De Palma has the artistic freedom to exploit one single location to its fullest potential instead of shooting multiple scenes, switching settings and time of day, distorting the viewer’s attention and awareness, following a formulaic development. In The Untouchables this method is even clearer in the scene where a gangster is trying to break into Malone’s (Sean Connery’s) home and follows him from the street, onto the window into the apartment. Had it been filmed any other way, this scene would have lost its energy and the quality of a ticking bomb, yet De Palma perfectly uses the limited space of a cop’s apartment to turn this scene into a real nail-biter.

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De Palma’s art lies in making something ordinary stand out.

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, De Palma is well known for his fixation with Hitchcock. Some might even call him a cheap copy of Hitchcock, but that would absolutely be a false claim. De Palma’s style is unique precisely because he follows certain patterns and uses certain elements that were previously introduced by none other than the man behind PsychoVertigoNorth by Northwest and Birds. Most De Palma movies use Hitchcock’s teachings to make the most out of nothing, for example, by foreshadowing a dramatic, bloody resolution like in Dressed to Kill to make the actual finale even more shocking. In Dressed to Kill the audience is bombarded with violent images showing the gruesome slaying of a middle-aged woman (Angie Dickinson) at different moments of the movie, finally culminating within the one hour mark with the full depiction of the murder as witnessed by the prostitute played by Melanie Griffith. Certain lighting patterns, like in the first minutes of Carlito’s Way, will foreshadow the character’s end but also give a sense of what is about to follow. By using different shades of purple, gray and blue, De Palma paints Carlito’s Way‘s introduction with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of accomplishment even though the movie has just started. We realize the character is dying not because Carlito says it in his voice over narration but because of the way he is introduced on screen, eyes wide open, staring upwards, right into the camera, his body being slowly pushed in a stretcher by a group of nurses, the world around him fading out, leaving him alone with his story that he’s about to tell the audience.

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A dying man staring right at us, this is Carlito’s story.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key to De Palma’s visual seduction of the viewer lies in his untamed love for genre. You will often find yourself wondering what you’ve just watched when the credits to a De Palma film start to roll, was that a thriller (Blow Out) ? A horror (Body Double)? A black comedy (Scarface)? Or a Western (The Untouchables)? These questions are extremely valid since the director is always trying to mask his films with multiple layers of genres in order to make the most accurate representation of his own intricate vision. The scene in The Untouchables where the group of policemen lead by Elliot Ness and Malone (Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, respectively) charge a column of vehicles driven by mafia members on horseback wielding shotguns and pistols is something one would expect to see in a Western by John Ford, not a gangster movie written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, and yet that’s what makes the entire scene, and not a minute of it feels silly or unnecessary, it simply is a De Palma moment, something so unique, original and full of life that you, as an audience member, cannot help but appreciate the sheer passion that went into the production of that particular scene.

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And what about The Untouchables railway station sequence? A mix of Eisenstein and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

De Palma will keep making many people shake their heads in dissatisfaction, be it with his ‘male gaze’ (re: Femme Fatale from 2002 where the character played by Antonio Banderas is literally taking pictures of women from his balcony) or simply with his fixation of turning every moment into a big, loud celebration (the fireworks in Blow Out ‘s ending). This, however, should not be held against him as De Palma is one of the very few directors who is capable of making movies by using a ton of style and a grain of substance, something other fellow filmmakers (yes, I’m looking at you, Nicolas Winding Refn) are simply not up to, or at least, not on De Palma’s level. Having watched a lot of his movies lately, some with repeated viewings, it is safe to say that sometimes studying a cheap copy of Hitchcock might even be more beneficial and worthwhile than studying the real thing. Bet on it.

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Sometimes too much is exactly what a film needs.

The Big Chill

The title of this post is the title of the film I want to write a few words about. Why come up with a better post title if this one is so damn cool? The Big Chill is a movie made in 1983. Yeah, it’s a long time ago. Deal with it because this movie is something really special. It takes the viewer back to a time and place where relationships are real. Where everyone feels something. Where being together, as a unit, is the most important thing in the world. It is a film about life and second chances with the suicide death of a close friend as the main running theme of the movie.

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Look closer and you’ll see something more than just a dramedy.

The 80s were real, man. You can feel it. You can see it. Yes, this movie has it all. Stylish running shoes, weird dresses, tight shorts, multiple wigs, boots, sweaters, thick glasses. It’s a real throwback. We follow a group of old friends from college come together after the funeral of an old friend who died by his own hand. These guys, the main characters, they’re real. They are the real deal. Each one of them tries to escape the thought of expressing feelings regarding the death of Alex, the friend from college. They are clearly afraid of death, and maybe a bit selfish and self involved as well. That’s why they have each other, for support. They go way back and Lawrence Kasdan, writer and director, and his phenomenal cast know how to deliver this sense of familiarity and authentic friendship. Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, William Hurt. These are only some of the big names of this beautiful group of actors, who are in complete control of this story. You see, some movies are meant to be visual, and others are character driven. This one is the latter. Sometimes it’s not even about words but rather the looks these people give each other, the movements, the laughs they share. The past is the main actor. We don’t need to know anything. We only know that these friends have been there for each other for years. Some have grown up, others haven’t. Some have had terrible relationships, others have their loved ones right in their arms. It’s life. And it hits you right from the start.

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Friends from way back.

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Tight shorts on a cold Monday morning.

A friend dies but life goes on. Death can spark another life. It can stimulate someone to catch another breath. It can make someone stronger. In this case, Alex’s death helps the remaining characters reflect on their own decisions, their own past and their own future. Start a family. Own a club. Write a book. Get married. Lay off the drugs. All of these characters have their own weaknesses, and their friend’s suicide helps mend and heal all the wounds they’ve suffered since the college days. Embrace death and look for the light. Kasdan writes honestly and directs it with a slight sense of melodrama. His protagonists don’t act as individuals but rather as a group. They reinforce each other and make each other better. That’s what friends are for.

That’s what The Big Chill does. It gives you strength and makes you believe in the power of movies.

”I haven’t met that many happy people in my life. How do they act?”

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Who says you can’t be friends without sex?