Rapid Response: New York Stories

“New York Stories” is three interesting, if flawed vanity projects from some of the best directors living, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola.

How come filmmakers don’t make love letters to Chicago? That’s the movie I want to see. There are already enough odes to New York, and even in 1989 when Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen together made “New York Stories,” a collection of three short films taking place in the city, the three of them had already made movies in which the Big Apple was a vital player. None of these are as good as “Taxi Driver,” “Mean Streets” or “Manhattan,” and yet all three are at least interesting, if flawed vanity projects for some of the greatest directors living today.

New York Stories Life Lessons

“Life Lessons”

“Life Lessons” is so clearly a Scorsese film before the title credits even roll because of the stylization that dominates the film. Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” is blared at us as the camera lunges away from an abstract painting and swivels and edits with alacrity. It strongly asserts the magnetic, but strange relationship between the artist Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) and his young assistant Paulette (Rosanne Arquette). She’s returned to New York from a vacation in Florida even though she’s assured Lionel she is leaving and never coming back to him, a sure sign of how people may be reluctant to return to New York, but it always seems to call them back. Continue reading “Rapid Response: New York Stories”

Rampart

After the 1992 Rodney King beating was caught on tape, everyone had questions about the victim we were seeing. “Rampart” looks at the other side of the police brutality video, profiling a bad, racist cop who deserves all the pain that comes to him but recognizes he’s human all the same.

Oren Moverman’s (“The Messenger”) film takes place in 1999 Los Angeles, when the LAPD was notorious for corruption. For Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), racism is a part of his daily routine. He’s got the mentality that we know to be stereotypical and wrong, and yet he’s been around so much that he displays a logic and understanding that can be hard to fully disagree with.

When a Mexican gangbanger collides with Dave’s cop car, the man shoves his car door into Dave and tries to make his escape, only for Dave to chase him down and beat him senseless. The violence is caught on video, and the DA’s office feels Dave is the perfect scapegoat to throw to the press as they juggle their own corruption allegations.

As he tries to escape his punishment and remain on the police force, “Rampart” follows Dave’s descent to rock bottom. Before long he’s pulled all of his strings with a former colleague (Ned Beatty), his on the street contact (Ben Foster) and the defense attorney who is his current lover (Robin Wright), and he’s got no one left to turn to in support of his reckless ways.

Less of a crime procedural and more of an emotionally poignant character drama, “Rampart’s” effort to make us feel empathy for this evil man is built on the fiery performance by Woody Harrelson. Blackmail, framing, adultery, brutality and racism; this guy does it all, but Harrelson is careful never to let Dave take sadistic pleasure out of all his hatred.

We see him as a nuanced man, powerless amidst his own family. He was married to two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) and fathered a daughter with each. His oldest, Helen (Brie Larson), is now a man-hating lesbian and holds his dad responsible after Dave earned a reputation as “Date-Rape Dave” for allegedly murdering a man trying to rape a woman. He had his reasons for doing what he did to that guy, and they may have even been noble, but what matters is that his family doesn’t feel the same. You wonder then where Dave’s external hatred comes from.

Moverman shoots from canted angles and behind grated bars and windows to show just how skewed a perception Dave has on life. It gets over-stylized at times, and you beg for the simple gritty realism to be found in his previous film “The Messenger.” That movie contained more raw emotion in one, motionless shot that lasted for nearly nine minutes than “Rampart” does in its portrait of a much more emotionally intense character.

Still, “Rampart” is a powerful film. The movie’s cryptic screenplay and open-ended climax has left many audiences frustrated, but the ending doesn’t matter so much as the hard truth that for even the worst guy in the world, we wouldn’t wish upon him the pain of having nothing left.

3 ½ stars

Rapid Response: Reservoir Dogs

As far as debuts from notable directors go, Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” is up there with the finest. For other famous American directors today, Scorsese, the Coens, Coppola, Malick, Nolan, Spielberg and many more, may have had good if not great first films, but “Reservoir Dogs” is so dripping in the style that would govern all of Tarantino’s future films that is impossible to forget “Reservoir Dogs” in a discussion of them.

From his opening scene of an ultimately mundane and irrelevant conversation about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and the merits of tipping, we still get a good sense of the kind of dialogue Tarantino is keen on, but more importantly a sense for the characters. Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) is a very good example of this in the opening scene. He doesn’t throw in a buck. He has principles that go against the norm. But let someone tougher, like Joe (Lawrence Tierney), pressure him a bit, and he’ll bend his position and hide.

If you knew ahead of time that “Reservoir Dogs” was a sort of gangster Shakespearean drama, you probably could’ve guessed Mr. Pink would be the one to survive at the end. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Reservoir Dogs”

Rapid Response: Barton Fink

It’s a bit hard to imagine a time when the Coens were not living legends and instead were precocious young filmmakers imagining any film they could. “Barton Fink” was their fourth film, and it’s tough to say which film really put them on the map.

This one won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. But it didn’t just win; it was selected unanimously. Seems like it would be a big stepping stone, but their debut “Blood Simple” was so riveting and classically good in its Americana thriller way that they already captured the attention of critics, and “Raising Arizona” became a cult comedy long before “The Big Lebowski” did. Then of course they made “Fargo” in ’96 and struck Oscar gold, and ever since they won their Oscar for “No Country for Old Men,” they’ve had the freedom to do whatever they want as bona-fide auteurs.

But “Barton Fink” is a pivotal film for them. It pairs them with legacy character actors of theirs, including John Turturro, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. It depicts one of the best films about writing a screenplay since “Sunset Boulevard” by following the neurotic Jewish writer Barton Fink (Turturro) after the massive success of his first play on Broadway. He thinks he can radically change Broadway to be a place for the common man, and from these humble beginnings it evolves into a psychological thriller/dark comedy of sorts. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Barton Fink”