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Al Pacino

Review: Scarecrow

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Scarecrow, the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg (Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Panic in Needle Park), is a warmly authentic and unselfconscious examination of a highly unlikely friendship between two misfits whose respective stances vis-à-vis life seem, at first glance, totally incompatible. Al Pacino turns in an understated performance, mannered yet unpretentious, as Lion, a diminutive dropout from the school of hard knocks—hard knocks being what you get if you stand still, allow people to get too close, get serious; in short, if you grow up. Instead, Lion chooses to stay on the move: five years at sea to dodge the scary stasis of matrimony and fatherhood, a current trip as a constantly clowning naïf whose jokes block blows and caresses with a desperate lack of discrimination. On his way back to claim his son, Lion picks up a father of sorts, an unpredictable bear of a man named Max (Gene Hackman). Max, unlike the cowardly Lion, gets in the way of hard knocks—as well as less hostile strokes—as often as he can, indeed more often than he should, since he frequently ends up in jail after one of his enthusiastic rough-and-tumbles. He is a man willing to mark and be marked by the men and women whom his life touches in his peregrinations about the country. Though at first Max comes off as much the less “practical” or survival-minded of the two friends, it soon becomes clear that the reverse is true. Lion’s comic camouflage and strategic withdrawals ultimately result in the loss of his son (and by implication his own adulthood) and, ironically, all contact with the world he tried too hard, too successfully, to keep at bay.

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Review: Serpico

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

A recent article in The New York Times described a seminar on Serpico that convened at the serious-sounding New School for Social Research. Tony Roberts was there, and the cop he portrayed in the film was there, and not surprisingly they had vastly differing notions regarding the authenticity and worth of Sidney Lumet’s latest movie. Sgt. David Durk (on whom the well-meaning but generally impotent character of Bob Blair—Serpico’s politicking ally—was based) criticized Serpico for catering to the already rampant contempt for and distrust of police, and warned his liberal audience that “the message … that no decent man can stand up against our system” would produce just the kind of disillusioned impotence that precludes involvement, ethical behavior—that is, the whole Serpico shtick. In response, Roberts allowed as how he didn’t want “to get into legal, moralistic, philosophic questions … they’re too complex for me.” This, right after he had just waxed melancholy about Sidney Lumet, “an honest artist, greatly concerned with truth,” whose creative integrity had been done in by “the money men.”

What a tangled web of doublethink! For indeed Serpico cries a considerable caveat to anyone contemplating bucking the system. And Roberts implies that even the creator of the film played Serpico to movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis and lost. But somehow Durk’s demurs are put off as abstract, hopelessly complex. I mean, what’s a cop’s integrity count against that of an Artist? What kind of film would Lumet, creatively unfettered, have produced? Is the implication here that “the money men” now consider cop-contempt and ethical despair eminently saleable commodities at the box office? I mention this tragicomedy of the absurd because it seems a fitting backdrop to the schizoid quality of Serpico itself. Whatever “great truth” Lumet was after and missed, whatever producer de Laurentiis did to thwart the Artist and rake in the shekels, is really irrelevant. Serpico doesn’t really come off as a triumph of nihilism, a relentless indictment of police corruption, the “system,” and all that. It’s ultimately just what’s happening while Al Pacino runs away with the show.

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Blu-ray: Criterion’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘Honeymoon Killers’ and ‘A Dog Day’ anniversary

MoonriseMoonrise Kingdom (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Wes Anderson has made a career exploring the childhood neuroses that keep adult characters in an arrested state of adolescence and stasis. It’s been a lively career with creatively energetic high points like Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums but an approach with diminishing returns. Until Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film that refracted his portraits of dysfunctional families and modern anxieties through a storybook world.

In Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Anderson finally builds a film around the troubled kids themselves. Kara Hayward’s Suzy, a book-loving loner with anger issues, and Jared Gilman’s Sam, an eccentric orphan out of step with his fellow Khaki Scouts, are two misfit adolescents who instantly recognize the other as a kindred soul and run away together into the wilds of a small New England island. Which, admittedly, makes escape a little difficult, what with a small army of Khaki scout trackers and a storm on the way.

It’s funny, it’s playful, it’s full of nostalgic blasts and period trappings, but most of all it is loving: accepting of the headstrong kids determined to find their place in the world, forgiving of the oblivious adults around them, affectionate in its storybook imagery and narrative playfulness.

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Film Review: ‘Danny Collins’

Al Pacino

“The following is kind of based on a true story a little bit.” There is a germ of truth to the opening disclaimer to this simultaneously hackneyed and likable rock-’n’-roll redemption tale. There really was a guy who, 40 years after the fact, discovered that John Lennon had written him a letter telling him to stay true to his art. Danny Collins simply replaces English folk singer Steve Tilston, who never found fame or riches but did remain true to the music, with a fictional American folk-rock sellout with plenty of regrets.

Al Pacino plays Danny as a music celebrity living high on his legacy, doing what looks like a lounge-act version of Mick Jagger on the casino circuit. He’s on showbiz autopilot, performing his greatest hits for the AARP demo with a voice like gravel, numbing the monotony with lines of blow and fifths of booze

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Review: Dog Day Afternoon

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The montage with which Sidney Lumet begins Dog Day Afternoon is at pains to get across to us just what things were like in Brooklyn at 2:57 p.m., August 22, 1972, right before a minor bank robbery became a major Event. The montage—shot and assembled as if nothing had changed in film since 1967—emphasizes people, their clothing, their attitudes, their activities on a hot afternoon. But one shot doesn’t quite belong; it draws our eyes away from the peopled street to a theater marquee, held at top-center-screen, announcing A STAR IS BORN. That wasn’t a new movie in town in ’72; and its revival at the time has no bearing on the events of Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet is really interested in the four words on the marquee only because they summarize his attitude toward the subject of his film, a sexually eccentric neurotic who attracted national attention that afternoon when he held up a bank, took hostages, and demanded a jet airliner to fly him out of the country. Never one to trust an audience, Lumet holds the shot about three times as long as necessary for us to get the point. It’s a mistake he has made frequently throughout his career, bloating many otherwise promising films. Hold too many shots too long, even by just a couple seconds, and before you know it your movie’s an hour too long. Like Dog Day Afternoon.

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Review: Bobby Deerfield

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Sydney Pollack has carted the same thematic luggage down the road so consistently that running a standard, connect-the-dots literary tracer through his feature works is relatively easy. Pollack has concerned himself not so much with issues of death as with things that are dead, or so close to death that there is no appreciable difference. His films imply that rigor mortis set in long before the scenario began, and will spread after the last reel. To his credit, the repackaging of the principal components of this tragic vision has always been fresh. We’ve had the opportunity to see Pollack’s marked men and women slowly die while slavishly and knowingly dressing up the cancer of a metaphorical promise (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), through the ultimate victimization of human relationships by virtue of living in vulgar, extremist times (The Way We Were) or by a contagion of paranoiac losses (Three Days of the Condor).

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