July 5, 2014

The Cinematography of Casino (1995)

Lately I've been going through some of the Martin Scorsese films (or crime films in general) I haven't seen for one reason or another. Casino was one of those 'you haven't seen that yet' films and I finally had some time to sit down and watch it.

I thought the film was a little more typical of late-Scorsese: loses its way at the end, overlong and far more style over substance. To some this is blasphemy, and while the film was never boring, it didn't resonant with me on any emotional level (just like how I felt in Scorsese's The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street, other true-story epics Scorsese tackled).

The production value was phenomenal so I thought I'd dedicate a Cinematography Of ... post to it.

I rounded these up from all over the web but most specifically from Screen Musings. Check them out.


Director: Martin Scorsese
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson

*click on the images for a larger view

July 3, 2014

The Winding Moral Road of 'Dirty' Harry Callahan

When you sit down to watch the Dirty Harry film series, the oft-iconic five film series starring
the universal man's man Clint Eastwood, you are not treated to anything resembling continuity.

When it comes to the more physical universe, for example, you'll see many familiar faces. For example, please meet:

Main Bank Robber Involved in Classic Scene

and Evil Pimp

and Ambiguous Black Militant Leader

and goofy, dog-giving never-before-seen best friend.

Hell, you'll meet entirely different characters from entirely different movies with the same names. I introduce to you: 

Lieutenant Briggs

and Captain Briggs

Wait. Didn't I see Captain Briggs from Sudden Impact in The Enforcer too?

Oops. That's Captain McKay. Wait ... what was I talking about?

Oh, right: continuity. Yes, in a physical/universe sense, the Dirty Harry Quintology really doesn't have a sense of keeping things tight (except, apparently, every side character's need for a mustache). In the first three films, there are a few recurring characters but they hardly factor into the stories. Inspector Harry Callahan seemingly meets best friends and lovers in each movie and loses them in a kind of less attentive Bondian fashion. 

It should be noted, however, that all of Harry's partners, without fail, are cruelly killed or maimed in some fashion ... or are victims of racial/gender stereotypes of some sort.

This is Al Quan, Harry's partner in The Dead Pool. He takes down bad guys with kung fu without irony. Incidentally, he is impaled by blown up car parts thanks to a deadly remote control car. Not a joke. I think he lives ... but he isn't important enough to check on.

Okay, so despite that one exception, you won't find the kind of continuity you'd find in something like the Lethal Weapon and its three sequels (which featured all the same background extras and rebuilt sets with attention to details like character tattoos and referencing past events).

And while it is fun to point out the many character/universal differences in the series, in a more serious way, it is fun to examine the various worldviews and morals of the title character. Not only does each Dirty Harry movie seem stand alone, its one connecting thread Clint Eastwood playing a character named Harry Callahan, but it contains drastic shifts in tone.

The tonal shifts are so drastic in fact that when each film tries to establish itself as a franchise and diverts from the main plot to cut to 'Dirty Harry Moments' (similar to James Bond moments but with more mustaches and really poorly located diners ...seriously, is every restaurant in this film series in the most crime riddled areas of San Francisco?), it can seem kind of jarring.

We'll go into more detail later but let's take the Clint Eastwood directed Sudden Impact. While far from the best film in the series, Eastwood throws a number of themes at us. For one, you have the iconic diner scene in which a very famous line is uttered:

This was a scene typical of the Dirty Harry sequels. Don't worry about the main story or plot. That grinds to a halt because, well, Harry is thirsty. Just like in the first film, Harry has to find himself in a situation in which he must rescue people whilst dealing out physical punishment and causing as much mayhem as humanly possible.

One liners? Check. Cocky, taking-Harry-totally-for-granted bad guys? Check. Bizarre gun physics and complete disregard for civilian safety? Check. Entertainment? Hell yeah! It's all light and fluffy and no one gets hurt.

Except the major problem is that Sudden Impact's main story, which Eastwood likes to take us away from for goofy ultra violence, is about a woman who, along with her sister, were brutally raped by a gang of local drunkards and maniacs and goes throughout San Francisco and San Pedro wiping them out by first shooting their dicks off and then blowing their heads away (I'd find clips for this to go with the above craziness but I'm kind of scared to type, in any combination, the words 'impact' and 'rape' into YouTube).

Phew, I don't know about you, but in-between vivid flashbacks showing the rape and visceral depictions of men's genitalia being blown away, I love a little wisecracking, tongue in cheek action sequence to liven things up. Don't you?

But this is just one example of the film series' unevenness. With the exception of the first film, each sequel debates with itself on what it should be: a franchise action piece or a serious look at the world's problems. Sadly, most of the sequels try to have both and sometimes fail at both. But these are all isolated to one film each.

When looking at the entire film series, the biggest inconsistencies are with Harry Callahan's moral code. They drastically change from film to film. What he thinks is slightly acceptable in film one and deplorable in film two is totally cool in film four. He'll use his gut in film one and three but will actually investigate, using the resources around him, in films two and five. His approach to women and minorities ebbs and flows. His ability to follow rules is non-existent in films one and four but essential to his actions in films two and five.

All Clint Eastwood really gives the part, in terms of continuity from film to film, is, as I said above, the name Harry Callahan. While this seems like a slight on the actor, it isn't. This was just the case of stories and ideas being born first and the character of Dirty Harry being added on later.

In the end, Harry Callahan is a new man each and every go around. This crude, unscientific picture guide will tell you the Harry Callahan that appears in each film:


For better or worse, HELL YEAH! THE SYSTEM!

The system is pretty good AND is equal opportunity!

Fuck the system???

HARPOON GUN! Oh, and the system will be televised.
Let's look at the first, second and third films of the series primarily. In the first Dirty Harry, Harry Callahan is the loose cannon we all know and love. But do we really love him? Harry is insensitive, lacking any emotion or affect, is cruel, borderline racist and is not against torturing suspects and harassing them when they seemingly beat the system. His biggest moment is at the end, after dispatching the Scorpio killer, when he throws his badge in a lake, disgusted that the system couldn't stop Scorpio but he could. Why need a system when your gut and bullets can take care of the bad guys alone?

Makes sense for the character of Harry as introduced in the first film. So, then we go to Magnum Force.

In Magnum Force, Harry Callahan is a mildly temperamental police officer who participates in authorized skill competitions (would you see the Harry from the first film doing this?), using forensics to aid in his investigation (as opposed to his gut) and is completely disgusted with a gang (or 'death squad') of motorcycle cops who are wiping out the worst criminals in the city without due process.

Wait, what? Is this the same Dirty Harry? Wasn't he basically dying for the chance to have a death squad of his own so he could take care of bad guys? Well, Harry changed a lot between films, I guess. He says he doesn't like the system but accepts it until a better one comes along but, wasn't he trying to invent his own system in the first film?

And that brings us to Sudden Impact. In that film, Harry's love interest Jennifer (Sondra Locke) also happens to be the killer going around shooting balls and heads off as revenge for the rapes she endured that left her tortured (and artistic, apparently) and her sister comatose.

Harry, at first, tries to stop her because, well, he is against premeditated, non-thug related murder, but he eventually sides with her when he sees how scummy the rapists are. In the end, thanks to happenstance, he is able to place the murders on the now-deceased head bad-guy and let's Jennifer go free.

Wait, what? Wasn't Harry railing against vigilante justice in Magnum Force? But wait, wasn't he kind of sort of advocating it in Dirty Harry? I'm confused.

System schmystem
So, I guess I've taken a lot of time and typed a lot of words simply to say that while the Dirty Harry films all share Clint Eastwood, a .44 Magnum and crazy action sequences, they certainly don't share philosophies. And that can make for some confused viewing when watching the films in order.

In some cases, you side with bad good guys. In others, good bad guys. Etc. Etc. Etc. It makes me wonder about the planning stages of the films and Eastwood's involvement in them. Was he interested in just 'good' stories (I use 'good' loosely because I watched The Dead Pool and good does not exist there) or was Eastwood (and the writers) trying to say something about society, conveniently wrapping around fantastical sequences of mayhem?

I almost view it as alternate universes. The Harry from Dirty Harry wouldn't function in the world of Magnum Force. However, you could see him getting by in Sudden Impact. It seems each film offers a different perspective on what is good and what is bad. Harry himself goes from anti-hero to hero from film to film.

In the end, it is a fascinating approach to a film series that has never felt organized or planned. Instead of writing the characters into corners by keeping them true to form, growing only from point A and thus only moving forward to a limited B and C, the producers, writers and actors basically take a clean slate and start over each time, telling the story they want to tell, regardless of character history.

So, in actuality, these aren't Dirty Harry films in the sense that they are movies with Harry Callahan and his reaction to an ever changing world. No, these are films in which a man named 'Dirty' Harry just happens to appear and, interspersed throughout gun fights and ironic mutterings such as 'swell' and 'marvelous', ends up being involved in a kaleidoscope of human emotion.

In each film, you can pick a side. Hell, Harry picks all of them. But it wouldn't be a unique film series, through the classic, good films and the horribly bad ones, if in its attempt to remain utterly inconsistent they actually become consistent on accident. These films are social essays whether they wanted them to be or not and Harry is simply our ever-evolving psyche, tackling new ideas.

I'm not complaining. In fact, I feel lucky. Punk.

June 21, 2014

The List: The Godfather Edition, Part IV

Concluding The List: The Godfather Edition with Part IV. In this four part column, we've been looking at my Top 20 favorite scenes from The Godfather Trilogy, with commentary. Here is #4-#1:

#4. Brother vs. Brother (The Godfather, Part II)

*I couldn't find the complete portion of this scene, but the majority is intact.

Why It's Cool:
 The most powerful brother, with the smallest of emotions vs. the smallest brother with too many emotions; Michael had to go up against his own family when Fredo betrayed Michael. Though the betrayal may not have been premeditated or motivated by anger, it certainly was eased along by jealousy. Sonny got himself killed with his rage and Fredo sealed his fate with his need to feel wanted. In the end, Fredo got the bullet ... but despite it being 'justified', it would haunt Michael for the rest of his days.

Best Line: "I can handle things ... I'm smart. Not like everybody says ... " -- Fredo

#3. The Abortion (The Godfather, Part II)

Why It's Cool: What a brutal, brutal scene. In many of Michael's moments, especially in Part II, Michael is very cold and calculating; he hardly ever shows his true feelings. However, his wife Kay seems to bring out those hidden emotions and it is usually never a good thing.

In a culture that thrives on family and finding a successor, the loss of a child is damaging not just for the heart but for the soul of the family business. Though Michael has one son and one daughter by this point, any addition is helpful. Just look at Vito's brood: puny Fredo, adopted Tom, angry Sonny and future king Michael. Michael worked out but heirs are no guarantee. So when Kay says she aborted Michael's son, he loses that cold-as-ice composure and lashes out, which makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Hats off to Diane Keaton and, of course, Pacino, for acting the hell out of this scene.

Best Line: "I wouldn't bring another one of your sons into this world". -- Kay

#2. The Business (The Godfather)

*start at 00:46

Why It's Cool: Kay sees first hand how cold and horrible Michael can be ... but, giving the benefit of the doubt, believes his lies. And thus, a world of 'dread' begins for Kay. I love this scene mainly because the two most important women in Michael's life, Kay and Connie, see what Michael has become and both deal with it in different ways (Connie becomes a tramp, traversing the world on Michael's dime before becoming the defacto head of the family; Kay eventually leaves and moves on). While Connie eventually forgives, Kay can only suspect and slowly realize the continuing horrors of being Michael's bride.

My favorite part of the whole scene is when Pacino slaps the table. It is one of the only times Michael ever raises his voice in the entire film ... one of the only times he cracks that newly formed emotional shield ... and it is telling. Kay represents the potential disruption in his plans and he quickly seals the crack. However, and the scene has become iconic, Kay realizes at the very end of the movie, that lies are just part of the business.

Best Line: "Don't ask me about my business". -- Michael

#1. The Confession (The Godfather, Part III)

Why It's Cool: I know, I know. I picked a scene from the least popular Godfather film as my all-time favorite scene. I can't help it: this ties everything together for Michael. It took decades but Michael finally breaks down and reveals his greatest sins. Slowly, his body has been punishing him, it seems, for his crimes. Now, he has to punish himself ... by letting it all go. It is a powerful scene, acted with sincerity and heart breaking emotion by Pacino. It isn't the Michael we have come to know, but that might be the point.

Best Line: "I killed my father's son" -- Michael

June 11, 2014

The List: The Godfather Edition, Part III

Continuing with The List, The Godfather Edition, Part III. In this four part column, we've been looking at my Top 20 favorite scenes from The Godfather Trilogy, with commentary. Here is #9-#5:

#9. The Scream (The Godfather, Part III)

Why It's Cool: There is a lot to NOT like in The Godfather, Part III ... but there is a lot TO like as well. In the end, all three films are basically the same thing: they open with a party and end with an assassination tango. Godfather III's assassination ending isn't quite as iconic as I or II's but it contains some amazing moments: Connie putting out her own hit, an Italian assassin laying waste to all of Michael's bodyguards, an intense opera nearly mimicking the action ... and the scene above.

A lot of The Godfather is emotional but Parts I and II hardly ever go for the tear jerk. This ending scene, though terribly acted by Sofia Coppola, is the first moment in the entire trilogy where I cried from the intense emotions swirling around me. The temporary silent scream from Pacino is just ... soul crushing.

Best Line: It's all in Michael's scream. It seems like it takes decades to come out. Powerful.

#8. Horse Head (The Godfather)

Why It's Cool: Does this even need an explanation? It's a fucking horse head in a bed.

Best Line: "Ahhhhh. Ahhhhhhhhhhh. Ahhhh. Ahhh. Ahhh. Ahhh". -- Jack Woltz

#7. The Birth of the Godfather, Part 3 (The Godfather)

Why It's Cool: This is when Michael goes from 'civilian' to made guy, a lot more than a soldier; a prince on his way to the throne.

What really sticks out about this scene is its naked brutality. For a movie released in 1972, this assassination scene is pretty graphic: full on head-blood spray and a dude choking on a bullet (literally) ... this is not just impactful on a character level but also on a visceral one.

Best Line: Why did I even put an option for 'Best Line'? I'm realizing most of the best moments in the trilogy involve something NOT being said. The blood says it all in this scene.

#6. Sick Mind, Sick Body (The Godfather, Part III)

Why It's Cool: Another great moment from the much maligned film. You get iconic lines and some of Pacino's most intense acting. The Godfather, Part III does an excellent job of showing Michael's guilt and how it becomes a large factor in his body breaking down.

Best Line: It's easy to say the now classic line, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in", but to me, the reason this scene is so powerful (and why it displays some of Pacino's most under appreciated acting in his career) is his loose mind letting his emotions just spray out. When he screams, 'FREDO! FREDO!', it sends shivers down my spine.

#5. Father and Son (The Godfather)

Why It's Cool: Another quiet, but important, scene in the trilogy. In a world where men can't seem to say exactly what they want (thanks to those pesky, unmanly emotions), Vito Corleone can't decide if he wants to be biological father or mob mentor. I think Marlon Brando's wide range of emotions here is what won him the Oscar.

Best Line: "Whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting ... he's the traitor". -- Vito