Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pacino in
the '90s:
Part One

One of my
actors in
the 1970s
(The God-
father, Dog
Day After-
noon), Al Pacino started to slip in the '80s (Author! Author!, Revolution), but then regained his footing in the '90s (Glengarry Glen Ross, Heat), only to
lose it again in the '00s (88 Minutes, Righteous Kill). Here's a look back at two of his finest '90s performances, one widely celebrated, the oth-
er unjustly maligned. This review has been slightly revised from
the original 1997 text and was never previously published.

(Mike Newell, US, 1997, 127 mins.)

After directing one of the most successful British films of all time,
Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell could've coasted on
his success with another rom-com set in the English countryside.
Instead he entered the seemingly alien terrain of the New York-
based Italian-American Mob with this gritty, yet heartfelt drama.

Comparisons to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas are inevitable, and
original UK helmer Stephen Frears (The Grifters) was well aware
of that fact when he showed the script, written by Paul Attanasio
in 1989, to Newell. Although Scorsese saw more differences than
similarities ("Mine's about the life, and yours is about relation-
ships" he said, according to the 2/97 issue of Sight & Sound), the
team decided to wait awhile before putting their project together.

In the meantime, the prolific Mr. Newell directed five pic-
tures, including Four Weddings, and stepped in when Frears
stepped out (voluntarily, I would presume). Attanasio went on
to create Homicide: Life on the Streets with producer Barry
Levinson, received an Oscar nomination for Quiz Show, and
scripted Levinson's Disclosure, but the relationship doesn't
end there since Levinson also produced Donnie Brasco.

The burnished look of the film even resembles Sleepers, his lat-
est directorial effort (lensed by Goodfellas cinematographer Mi-
chael Ballhaus), although it's set in a different era. Peter Sova, who
worked on Levinson's Diner, served as Brasco's cinematographer.

Further connections to Levinson can be evidenced through the
casting of Bruno Kirby, Shakes' abusive father in Sleepers, in the
"Joe Pesci role"—a mobster with a funny haircut—and Homi-
cide's Zeljko Ivanek (attorney Ed Danvers) as an FBI agent.

In terms of the disco music
and wide lapels, the 1978-
set Brasco more closely re-
sembles Brian De Palma's
Carlito's Way, which also
takes place in the '70s
and stars Al Pacino.

Like Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco draws inspiration from the experiences of a Mob in-
former, but although it taps into the same milieu, it doesn't feel
like a Scorsese film. It's more economical and less flashy in terms
of camera angles and editing, and plays more like a cross between
Sidney Lumet's taut Serpico (also based on a true story and top-
lined by Pacino) and Quentin Tarantino's stylish Reservoir Dogs.

Once the hulking Michael Madsen, Dogs' sadistic Mr. Blonde,
hits the scene as Lefty's boss, Sonny Black, it's hard to suppress
a brief flashback to Tarantino's first feature. Further, Johnny
Depp's part as Joe Pistone, AKA Donnie Brasco, has more in
common with Tim Roth's police informant Freddy, AKA Mr.
Orange, than Ray Liotta's mobster-turned-informer Henry Hill.

These comparisons to previous crime films aren't meant to
suggest that Newell has manufactured a mere pastiche, but to
place it in its proper context. The movie stands on its own mer-
its, but serves inescapably as part of a well defined tradition.

Maybe I'm na├»ve, or maybe I've seen too many crime films—
more likely a combination of the two—but it's impossible to craft
a completely original crime film, particularly a Mob film, in 1997.
Donnie Brasco is hardly sui generis, but it does have a heart;
more than those that get the details right about "the life", but
neglect to invest the scenario with any genuine emotion.

As usual, Depp is very good, but Pacino, an increasingly mer-
curial talent, steals the show. This isn't Depp's fault; there's a
coldness to his character and a warmth to Pacino's. As the ten-
sion increases, and events hurtle towards their inevitable con-
clusion, Brasco grows chillier towards his neglected wife (Ann
Heche), while Lefty grows more vulnerable and sympathetic.

To some extent, Depp has the more difficult task since he's
essentially playing two parts. As the lead, he also puts in great-
er screen time, but Pacino makes you care more deeply about
the fates of this two-faced son and his surrogate father as their
personal lives become dangerously entwined and the line be-
tween their two seemingly opposing career paths blurs.

Chances are, you already know what happens. While watching
Quiz Show, which also drew from actual events, I knew how it
was going to end, but got sucked in anyway. Donnie Brasco is
similar in that the foreshadowing begins immediately and, even
if you can predict what's about to transpire, you may not know
how; consequently, you're compelled to stick around to find out.

On first viewing, the film's
biggest fault is that it builds
and builds in tension, but
never fully releases it. This
curious momentum also re-
calls Attanasio's script for and, by extension, Robert Redford's direction of Quiz Show, which never took off at the
box office the way I thought it would. I suspect that Donnie
Brasco may disappoint some viewers for the same reason.

Although I respect Attanasio and Newell for taking the higher
ground, as it were, I left the theater feeling slightly unsatisfied,
while still convinced that they had produced a mostly-terrific
picture. Basically, Newell turns away from a crucial, fate-seal-
ing act of violence. Had he handled the scene ineffectively or
melodramatically, it would've marred the movie in a big way.

By not showing the act at all, though—just alluding to it—it
felt as if Newell were chickening out. The sense of closure is
insufficiently complete. Still, the thoughtful, yet cynical way
he ends the film caused me to think about it more afterwards
than I would have otherwise, so I've made my peace with it.

Paul Giamatti alert!

Sensitive ears should be forewarned that there's as much pro-
fanity in Donnie Brasco as in Lumet's Network, Scorsese's
Raging Bull, and any film with the Tarantino imprimatur.

Further, the violence—two scenes in particular—is brutal in the
extreme, but doesn't last as long as in the average Scorsese Mob
movie. And it's in no way played for laughs, as is sometimes the
case in Tarantino's work, particularly Pulp Fiction. There's also
just enough humor to prevent the atmosphere from growing un-
bearably heavy or depressing, but Donnie Brasco is still one
of the more straightforward crime films I've seen in some time.

And lest it seem too straightforward, Newell isn't afraid to be as
tacky as he wants to be. Unlike the hip, tasteful soundtracks of
Scorsese, Tarantino, De Palma, et al, there's some pretty exec-
rable stuff here, notably Neil Diamond's schmaltzy "Love on the
Rocks," but then, these aren't slick mobsters like the young Pa-
cino's Michael Corleone. These guys are low-rent—just wait till
you get a gander at Lefty's velour tracksuit and gold chains.

The Academy is notorious
for ignoring films released
from January through
March come Oscar time,
but they should make an
exception for Pacino's Lefty
Ruggiero. Depp is likely to
be overlooked regardless,
because he gives the kind
of low-key performance
that allows his co-stars to
shine even while he carries
the film, as was the case
with Leonardo Di Caprio in
What's Eating Gilbert
Grape? and Martin Landau
in Ed Wood. But Pacino's
tendency towards exaggerated gestures and verbal ejaculations is not in evidence here: Donnie Brasco shows he's back on track.

At the very least, Mike Newell deserves a best director nod for
defying expectations in a truly admirable way. Just as Taiwanese
director Ang Lee segued so surprisingly successfully from films
like The Wedding Banquet to Jane Austen's England in Sense and
Sensibility, Newell has segued from a series of films that felt like
the height of Englishness—Enchanted April, An Awfully Big Ad-
venture, etc.—to a truly American one. For better or for worse. Which is to say that the Mob is far from the best America has to offer the world, but it continues to afford talented filmmakers some of the most dramatically compelling material around.

Click here for Part Two: The Devil's Advocate

Endnote: Now available on DVD, the extended cut clocks in at
147 minutes; this review refers to the theatrical version. Also,
though Attanasio received Academy Award consideration for his
screenplay, Pacino went home nomination-less. Images from Ain-
, Screaming Blue Reviews, and Twenty One and Quiz Show.


poker rakeback said...

Al Pacino has produced some of the best acting performances in movie history. The Godfather movies were carried by Pacino, and Scent of a Woman, Scarface, and Carlito's Way were all Oscar caliber. I consider him the greatest actor ever, and Im not sure anyone else is even in the discussion.

kathy fennessy said...

I appreciate your comment. Pacino has long been one of my favorite actors. The movies he made in the 1970s shaped the way I look at cinema (especially the crime-oriented variant). I still need to catch up on some of his later efforts, like Cruising, Looking for Richard, and The Merchant of Venice. Fascinating filmography.