Saturday, November 28, 2009


East of Eden was released in 1955 and directed by legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan. Kazan was responsible for “finding” Marlon Brando, and casting him in some of the most successful films of the 1950s, A Streetcar Named Desire, and On the Waterfront. A few years later, once Kazan had enough clout to pick and choose whatever project he felt like, he decided to adapt John Steinbeck’s epic novel East of Eden in 1955. However, due to the enormity of the novel, Kazan decided only to focus on the last part of the book. Initially wanting his go-to guy Brando to play the lead role of Cal, a confused and frustrated teenager growing up on a farm in 1917 California, Kazan eventually realized that Brando was a tad bit old to play the role of a teenager. Instead he chose to cast a relative unknown in the role, after seeing some of his stage performances and being impressed by his talent. The young man in question? None other than James Byron Dean.

You all might have heard of this fella’ named James Dean. He was supposed to be the next great actor to come out of the 50s. The next Brando. He worked with the top directors of the 1950s-Elia Kazan, Nic Ray, George Stevens. And that actually was it. Most of you know the tragic story of Dean. A good lookin’ kid from the Midwest, a stage actor in his early 20s, an overnight movie superstar in his mid 20s, and then, it all came crashing down. Literally. On September 30th, 1955, James Dean died in a motor vehicle accident. He had completed three films at the time of his death, but only one, East of Eden, did he manage to live to see on the big screen. The others, Rebel Without a Cause, perhaps the film he’s best known for, released a month after his death, and Giant, which was released a year later, in 1956. He would be nominated posthumously for two Academy Awards, one for Eden, and one for Giant, becoming the only actor to receive multiple Oscar nods posthumously. Although he lost both awards, his legacy was secured the night he died. That baby faced, 20-something kid who walked around, just oozing with cool, would become an immortal.

Dean’s first film, East of Eden, was loosely based on Steinbeck’s own family upbringing deals with two families, the Hamiltons and the Trask’s. However, the film separates itself from the novel by dealing with only the end of the book, in which the Trask’s are in the spotlight, particularly the relationship between father Adam and his two sons Caleb, Cal for short, and Aron, a variation on the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. Dean is magnificent and probably brings home the best performance of his short film career. The tension between Dean and the actor who played his father off-screen is visible in the film and was exploited by the director to get better performances out of the actors.

Dean always had the talent to play lost, and confused youths, troubled, misunderstood young rebels, and tragic heroes. You could say that Dean was a misunderstood rebel in real life. Known as a snotty, young, up and coming actor, he was warned by Alec Guinness (he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) on the set of a film a week before Dean’s fatal car accident that unless he gets rid of his new Porsche, he’d be dead within a week. Sadly, Guinness’ quasi-joke came true. Dean will always be remembered as that ultra-cool rebel from several 1950s classics. No matter how old we get, he’ll always be that 20-something kid from the movies. It is a shame that he passed away so young. Several of his contemporaries such as Paul Newman went on to great fame and long careers. Dean, on the other hand, came into the movie world and departed the real world in less than a year’s time. It brings to mind that old quote by Jean Paul Richter - “Death gives us sleep, eternal youth, and immortality”. Dean was able to accomplish all three in one instant.

Dean nonetheless leaves behind a great legacy of work. His debut film, East of Eden might be his best. And perhaps if he had lived, the extraordinary performance he gives in the film might have granted him a similar legacy, one that was based on his talents as an actor, rather than one that was overshadowed by infamy and tragedy.

Monday, November 23, 2009


The next film I’d like to talk about is Martin Scorsese’s throwback musical film, “New York, New York”.

“New York, New York” has the great distinction of being the one film that Scorsese directed in between what now seems to be his two most acclaimed and perhaps the two best films of his illustrious career. Released in 1977, right in between 1976’s “Taxi Driver” which made Scorsese one of the top directors in the movie biz, and 1980’s “Raging Bull”, “New York, New York” was Scorsese’s attempt at making an old-school style musical starring his frequent collaborator at the time, Robert De Niro and the always lovely Liza Minnelli.

The film works on a very slow level. The story unfolds in a leisurely yet thoughtful manner. I’m not a fan of musicals, but the music in this film was divine. Liza, with the exception of her Oscar winning turn in 1972’s “Cabaret” has never been better. Scorsese’s pace in the film is a slow one, as mentioned before, and it is quite a long film, clocking in at 163 minutes, but the film stands out as Scorsese’s “lost film”, the least-known of his during his peak of the 1970s which also included his break-out film “Mean Streets in 1973 and the Ellen Burstyn-starrer “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, for which she won the academy award for best actress, in 1974.

De Niro excels as usual. In “New York, New York”, he portrays a jazz musician who pursues a strong-willed and independent singer, played by Minnelli, and the film chronicles their rocky relationship that unwinds over the course of several years during post-World War II.

The story takes them from small nightclubs to large arenas, as they tour the country together, meanwhile they fall in love and get married. Of course, this all sounds so pretty on paper. But Scorsese deals with the characters and story in a dark manner. De Niro’s character, while deeply in love with Minelli, also harbors a wild temper and bold ambition as he tries to take the reins of the orchestra band they are a part of.

The music and staging, is of course, spectacular. In fact, and call me ignorant on this, but I never knew that Sinatra’s famous “New York, New York” rendition is actually a cover of the song that Minnelli originally sang for this movie. The reason this film has flown under the radar for so many years might be a result of the failure of the film in its initial release. Perhaps this is due to the fact that at the time, in 1977, people were simply not interested in a dramatic musical, even if it was directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. Instead film-goers spent their money on “Star Wars”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and “Saturday Night Fever”.

It is not a perfect film, however. One giant flaw in the movie is the poor set design. Every set looks artificial and like something out of a cheap B-movie. Also, the film runs too long, and easily could have been edited down at least 15 or 20 minutes. But in his introduction to the 2005 DVD edition of the film, Scorsese explained that he intended the film to be a break from the gritty realism that he had become famous for, and saw the film as an homage to the musicals of classic Hollywood, which would explain the cheesy set designs.

Despite the flaws, the performances are top notch and the musical climax was extraordinarily filmed and performed. De Niro reportedly even learned how to play the saxophone to get into character, and his portrayal of an egotistical, self-centered and manipulative jerk is nothing short of amazing.

The film, however, was doomed from the get-go, as it ran over budget, and was fueled by drugs, egotism and infidelities. In an insightful 2004 London Times article on the making of the film, it mentioned how Scorsese had become depressed and turned into a cocaine addict, and Minnelli whose father-fixation led her to have an affair with Scorsese while both were still married to other people. After the film was finally released and flopped, Scorsese went deeper into depression and drugs. It was De Niro who approached Scorsese in the hospital, with a book he thought Marty would like to read and perhaps even make into a new film. It was called “Raging Bull”, by Jake La Motta.

Despite the infamy of the production and back story of “New York, New York”, and despite it being the oddity among Scorsese’s extensive career and better known films, it is definitely still worthy of a look.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I begin this blog with a small preface. I am not one to start a blog. I am not one to post any sort of opinion on the internet. There are too many people and too many opinions circulating around the internet for my ideas and thoughts to count for anything. However, seeing as I am a lover of all sorts of films, I cannot help but bring attention to certain movies that have been neglected over the years. Some of the movies I will review are relatively old. They are perhaps from another country, in another language. Some of them might be from recent years, and widely available for rental or purchase. But each and every one of these films has a special quality to it, and each of them is not as well known and popular as it deservedly should be. My only hope is that just one person reads just one review and rents just one movie and enjoys it. Then, my goal will be accomplished. Perhaps these reviews will not be read by anyone any time soon. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Now on to our first film. "Prince of the City" was directed by the great Sidney Lumet in 1981. At this point in his career, he had already directed numerous classic films including his marvelous debut "12 Angry Men" in 1957, "Serpico" in 1973 with Al Pacino, and "Network", which would go on to win 4 Academy Awards, in 1976. Prince of the City stars Treat Williams as a corrupt cop who attempts to go straight by snitching on fellow police officers. Based on a true story which was the template for Robert Daley's 1978 book of the same name, Williams perfectly portrays the transition the main character experiences throughout the story. At the beginning, he is a confident and tough cop who has love for his family and his partners in the precinct. However, after becoming an accomplice with the district attorneys whose aim is to bring these corrupt officers and lawyers to justice, his life becomes a living hell. His attempts at remaining a shadow on the wall fail. He is outed as the snitch and all of his familial and friendly relationships die out. The epic multi-layer film chronicles the rough consequences for a man who was simply trying to make up for his mistakes.

Expertly directed by Lumet, it was familiar territory for him when he made this film nearly 30 years ago. Having directed Al Pacino in a tour-de-force performance as Frank Serpico, an honest man who wouldn't abide to the rules that came with being a street wise cop, Lumet was revisiting past settings with this gritty, New York cop drama. Although, as Lumet stated in an interview back in 1981, he felt guilty about the two-dimensional way he treated police officers in "Serpico" and said that Prince of the City was his way to rectify this depiction.

Treat Williams, still early in his career, was never better, and hasn’t been better since. The performance is something to marvel at. He might not have the reputation that Pacino has accumulated since working with Lumet in the 70s on “Serpico” and his notable follow-up “Dog Day Afternoon”, but Williams still manages to keep our attention and command the screen for its nearly 3-hour length. It is particularly heartbreaking to watch as Williams’ tries to plead with the DA’s not to force him to snitch on his closest friends and partners. As he explains it “I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners!”

The question that the movie had me wondering since the opening scenes was why? Why would a cop who has a good, loving family, and loyal friends and partners, want to ruin all of that by revealing his own transgressions from the past as well as those of other cops and lawyers he knew did and were doing wrong? And while it takes the film nearly its entire length to attempt to answer that question, it never really does. But that is not even the point of the story. The point of this film, as well as Lumet’s previous, more well-known “Serpico”, was that things are not what they seem to be on the surface. We might look at our police department as the good guys, but in the end, they might be the exact opposite. Because cops are people too. They get greedy, just like any human being does at some point in their life. Except these cops have less to fight through when confronted with this greed. A regular person doesn’t come across drug dealers, drug addicts, hookers, junkies, criminals, and million dollar exchanges for large quantities of contraband in their everyday lives. But police officers do, particularly the unit portrayed in the film, the Special Investigative Unit, otherwise known as the SIU.

“Prince of the City” went pretty much under the radar during its initial release in 1981. Budgeted at a robust $10 million, it opened at just three theaters during the summer of ’81 and never made the same impact that other work by Lumet made. Since the film, Lumet’s career has been somewhat on a downward spiral. He directed a few clunkers along the way, including “Gloria” in 1999, a remake of the old Cassavetes film as well as 2006’s “Find Me Guilty” which only grossed $2.6 million worldwide. He did, however experience a resurgence of popularity in 2007 after his critically acclaimed “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” won praise for its stylish direction and great performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.

“Prince of the City” still remains one of the finest American movies of the early-1980s and I’d suggest adding it to your must-see list as soon as possible.