Category Archives: Mystery

Cop Land (1997, James Mangold)

Cop Land either has a lot of story going on and not enough content or a lot of content going on and not enough story. Also you could do variations of those statements with “plot.” Writer and director Mangold toggles Cop Land between two plot lines. First is lead Sylvester Stallone. Second is this big police corruption and cover-up story with Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Robert Patrick, and Michael Rapaport. And some other guys. It’s the bigger story. Ray Liotta floats between, on his own thing. Almost everyone in Cop Land has their own story going and Mangold’s just checking in on it as background every once in a while. It creates this feeling of depth, even though there hasn’t actually been any plot development. The actors help.

But Mangold doesn’t have the same approach to narrative between the plot lines. Stallone’s in this character study, De Niro and Keitel are in this detached procedural. Stallone’s story could be a procedural, it would make sense for it to be a procedural–even De Niro tells him it ought to be a procedural–but Mangold keeps it a character study. All the way to the problematic ending.

Because as impressive as Mangold gets in Cop Land–and the film’s superbly acted, directed, written, photographed–but Mangold can’t bring it all together. He starts showing his inability to commingle his plot lines with Annabella Sciorra’s increased presence in the film. She’s good and she should have a good part. As teenagers, Stallone saved her, going partially deaf in the process. He could never become a cop (his dream) and Sciorra ends up marrying a shitbag cop (Peter Berg–who’s so good playing a shitbag) who’s terrible to her. Mangold’s plot presents him with some opportunity for Sciorra’s character to have a good arc, but he skips it. It’s a distraction and he wants to stay focused on something else.

That problematic finish? Lead Stallone becomes a distraction and Mangold wants to focus on something else. It’s a painful misstep too, with Mangold just coming off the third act action sequence–the only real action sequence in the film–and it’s awesome. So Mangold’s done drama, procedural, character study, action, and he’s perfectly segued between the different tones while simultaneously cohering them. Cop Land is building. Then all of a sudden Mangold loses the ability to segue. And to cohere. Maybe because Mangold reveal Liotta as his own major subplot somewhere near the end of second act (after doing everything he could to reduce Liotta from his first act presence). It’s a narrative pothole.

Though, given the film opens with De Niro narrating the ground situation, it’s impressive Mangold’s able to get the film through ninety plus minutes without the seams showing. The opening narration is compelling and the Howard Shore music for it is great, but it’s completely different from everything else in the picture.

Even when De Niro returns to the narration.

Maybe Mangold’s just bad at the summary storytelling though audio device. He also botches using newsradio commentary to move things along or set them up.

Cop Land is a little story in a big world. Mangold has got a great handle on the little story but not the big world. Though the Stallone arrives in New York City scene is kind of great. Stallone, Mangold, cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, Shore. It just works. Because Stallone lumbers.

The film’s full of flashy performances. De Niro, Liotta, Berg, Patrick, Rapaport, they all get to be flashy. Dynamic. Mangold gives them great scenes and the actors deliver. All of them consistently except Berg. Berg’s too absent in the first act for all the subplots he gets to affect in the second.

But Keitel and Stallone are never flashy. Stallone because it’s his character. His character is anti-flash. His character is a drunken sheriff who goes around town in his flipflops opening parking meters for quarters to play pinball. Keitel it’s a combination of performance and part. Keitel only gets a couple moments to himself in the film and they’re real short. Mangold juxtaposes Stallone and Keitel in the story but not how he tells that story. It’s a weird thing to avoid, but Mangold avoids a lot.

For example, Mangold strongly implies no one in this town of cops (and cops’ wives, and cops’ children) respects the local law enforcement. It gives Stallone this Will Kane moment, but Mangold’s never established how it’s possible. How the town could truly function. And then Cop Land has all this toxic masculinity, racism, and complicity swirling around the plot and Mangold keeps eyes fixed forward. When a subplot or character starts going too much in those directions… bye bye subplot, bye bye character. Even though Mangold makes sure to write a good scene or get a great performance out of it.

Mangold fumbles Cop Land’s finish. He doesn’t know how to scale the narrative distance. Even if he did, there are some other significant pitfalls. But it’s almost great. Cop Land is almost great.

The acting is all good. De Niro is able to handle the Pacino-esque ranges in volume. Stallone self-effaces well. Maybe too much since Keitel’s a tad detached. Liotta takes an overly complicated role with too little development and gets some great material.

Much of Howard Shore’s score is excellent. When it’s not excellent, even when it’s predictable, it’s competent. Excellent photography from Edwards. Lester Cohen’s production design is good, even better than Mangold’s shots of it.

Cop Land comes real close; real, real close.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Mangold; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Lester Cohen; produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad and Ezra Swerdlow; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Freddy Heflin), Ray Liotta (Gary Figgis), Harvey Keitel (Ray Donlan), Robert De Niro (Moe Tilden), Michael Rapaport (Murray Babitch), Annabella Sciorra (Liz Randone), Robert Patrick (Jack Rucker), Arthur J. Nascarella (Frank Lagonda), Peter Berg (Joey Randone), Janeane Garofalo (Deputy Cindy Betts), Noah Emmerich (Deputy Bill Geisler), Malik Yoba (Detective Carson), Cathy Moriarty (Rose Donlan), John Spencer (Leo Crasky), and Frank Vincent (PDA President Lassaro).


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Dressed to Kill (1980, Brian De Palma)

Dressed to Kill has oodles of style. It doesn’t have a lot else going for it–a lot of the acting, sure, but the acting never pays off for anyone–but it does have style. Director De Palma and cinematographer Ralf D. Bode create an ethereal New York for the action to play out in.

The film opens with sexually dissatisfied housewife Angie Dickinson fantasizing about, well, something more satisfying. De Palma’s got Pino Donaggio music and Donaggio music can get away with a lot but even it can make a smutty shower scene play. The film then introduces Keith Gordon as Dickinson’s technology nerd teenage son before bringing in top-billed Michael Caine. He’s Dickinson’s therapist. She goes to therapy before she goes to the museum to pick up a man.

After picking up the man, which isn’t a good pickup sequence at all, but is a fantastically executed bit of filmmaking. Dickinson’s walking around the museum, everything’s silent, and it’s just great. Bode, De Palma, editor Gerald B. Greenberg, it’s awesome.

When she wakes up at the man’s apartment, Dickinson finds herself involved in a bloody homicide. Nancy Allen comes into the film at this point to also witness the murder, setting off Allen’s story line. The killer is after her, it turns out, eventually leading to her teaming up with Gordon.

Caine’s in it because he’s pretty sure the killer is another one of his patients, though he doesn’t want to give that information to cop Dennis Franz. Franz, meanwhile, is trying to get Allen to help on the case. She’s a sex worker and he’s sort of blackmailing her? Franz is a creep. When De Palma tries to do a denouement redemption of Franz, it’s one of Dressed’s worst moments. De Palma’s script is occasionally jaw-dropping in its pure stupidity, but the redemption of Franz is something else. Especially given it comes through the big “explanation” scene (out of Psycho, natch, with that museum pickup being out of Vertigo) where De Palma manages to be–at least what appears to be–unintentionally transphobic.

One of Dressed’s big plot twists–it’s got at least two, maybe three depending on how you want to count the minor ones (because then there are plenty of minor “twists”)–involves a transsexual person. Dressed to Kill is exploitation. It’s gorgeous, it’s got sometimes A list stars, but it’s exploitation. Yet when De Palma brings in gender dysphoria, it doesn’t seem like he’s using it as a punchline. Because he butchers what he’s doing with it, bringing in multiple personalities and whatnot. The script is really, really stupid. It’s hard to explain how unintentionally stupid Dressed to Kill can get.

And not when De Palma’s intending it either. He has quite a few split screen shots in the film, which works in maybe two cases, but never with Dickinson. Dickinson has the split screen shots to remember something sexual or somehow related to sex. Given how little material De Palma actually gives Dickinson to work with in the script, her performance is incredibly impressive.

But De Palma doesn’t direct the actors poorly. He often directs them quite well. Everyone gets good direction. Even Dennis Franz. It’s just Franz is one step too far. Dressed to Kill’s fairytale New York City clashes with Franz’s lounge lizard detective.

Allen’s decent throughout, occasionally downright excellent. Dickinson’s good. The script does her no favors and neither does Greenberg’s editing (everything else he can edit, but not Dickinson’s reaction and pensive close-ups), but she’s good. Caine’s fine. De Palma doesn’t really give him a lot to do. He meanders through the film.

Gordon’s good. He’s really likable. The likable part is more important. Once he and Allen are hanging out, there’s this strange lack of sexual energy, like only the adults in De Palma movies get to be sex-crazed. And they’re mostly all sex-crazed and De Palma wants to talk about it. A De Palma scripted interchange between a sex worker and a therapist is simultaneously cringe-inducing and mesmerizing.

Dressed to Kill is, overall, cringe-inducing and mesmerizing. It looks beautiful. It sounds beautiful. It’s just vapid. Sometime in the second act, it seems like it might get a little less vapid.

It doesn’t. But it still moves pretty well. There’s an unfortunate false ending, coming after some of the biggest third act problems, but the quality of the filmmaking–and Allen’s performance–gets it through. And brings up the film a bit.

A bit is a lot for Dressed to Kill.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Ralf D. Bode; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by George Litto; released by Filmways Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Doctor Robert Elliott), Angie Dickinson (Kate Miller), Nancy Allen (Liz Blake), Keith Gordon (Peter Miller), Dennis Franz (Detective Marino), and David Margulies (Dr. Levy).


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Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, Carl Franklin)

Devil in a Blue Dress is almost so much better. Director Franklin gets easily distracted and follows tangents, both in the script and the directing. The latter makes sense–he’s always too enthuastic about the (excellent) production design, recreating late 1940s Black Los Angeles. With Tak Fujimoto’s warm but vibrant photography, the “regular life” part of the film is breathtaking. Sadly, Franklin’s too loose on the mystery side and he can’t bind the two.

The script’s the same way. Franklin has devices for lead Denzel Washington, including the narration, but also just how Franklin directs the scene. How he visualizes the space Washington occupies with the people he comes across. Washington’s a Black WWII vet turned amateur P.I. tracking down missing rich white guy’s white girlfriend Jennifer Beals. Franklin and Washington pay a lot of attention to personal space and what it reveals about character relationships, race relationships. But when they get the most ambitious, the narration fails. Or just isn’t present.

And Washington’s biggest character development arc is out of nowhere, introduced over halfway into the movie, with Don Cheadle’s arrival. Franklin desperately tries to forecast Cheadle through dialogue, narration, even one of the film’s ill-implied flashbacks. Yet when it comes time for Cheadle to get called up, Franklin botches the narration. Franklin sets up Devil in a Blue Dress to need narration–even though he and Washington could easily get away without it, Washington’s great and Franklin’s great with his actors–but he sets it up as an essential, then botches it.

It’s really unfortunate.

There are stops and starts throughout the film–scenes transitions are usually awkward, either too heavy or too light. Fujimoto’s photography on the investigation stuff is bad, which is an additional problem given the first act visual tone doesn’t match the rest of the film. But Franklin doesn’t know what to do with those scenes either. Devil in a Blue Dress tries to avoid film noir tropes so bad it ends up putting its back out.

The acting is either good or great. Washington is great. His performance has a sadness Franklin the director focus on, but Franklin the screenwriter ignores. Cheadle’s phenomenal as Washington’s loyal, unrepentent murderer sidekick. Tom Sizemore’s good as Washington’s mysterious client turned nemesis. Mel Winkler and Jernard Burks are real good in smaller parts. Lisa Nicole Carson’s good.

But then there’s Beals, who’s just okay. Some of it is Franklin’s direction; she’s supposed to be a femme fatale, but Devil in a Blue Dress doesn’t believe in femme fatales and she’s written as one. She’s another victim to Franklin’s indecision.

And Maury Chaykin is just bad. He’s only in a couple scenes, but they’re important ones, and he’s just too much. Same thing. Written as a noir villain, but Franklin doesn’t want to engage it.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is oddly half on, half off. Either way, it lacks personality, which is a no-no for Devil in a Blue Dress; everything else about it exudes personality. Except, obviously, Fujimoto’s “noir” shots.

Devil in a Blue Dress features some wonderful possibilities, some great photography, some great direction, some great performances. It should be amazing. It’s sad it isn’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Franklin; screenplay by Franklin, based on the novel by Walter Mosley; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Carole Kravetz Aykanian; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Jesse Beaton and Gary Goetzman; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Easy Rawlins), Jennifer Beals (Daphne Monet), Don Cheadle (Mouse Alexander), Tom Sizemore (Dewitt Albright), Terry Kinney (Todd Carter), Mel Winkler (Joppy), Jernard Burks (Dupree Brouchard), Lisa Nicole Carson (Coretta James), and Maury Chaykin (Matthew Terell).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE COLOURS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


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The Mean Season (1985, Phillip Borsos)

Somewhere in the second act of The Mean Season, the film just starts slipping and it never corrects. The opening titles, set against stormy Miami weather and a vicious (though not graphic) murder, establish the film’s momentum. Everything moves fast, whether it’s establishing unsatisfied reporter Kurt Russell and his newsroom sidekicks, his girlfriend Mariel Hemingway, even when the serial killer starts calling Russell–director Borsos and screenwriter Leon Piedmont keep things moving. Frank Tidy’s photography, the Florida locations, and Lalo Schifrin’s gentle but intense score help a lot.

There’s also Andy Garcia and Richard Bradford as the cops investigating the case. Garcia likes Russell, Bradford doesn’t. Like almost everything else in the movie, Borsos seems to think implying character motivation is the same as having character motivation. But Borsos and Piedmont aren’t particularly good at subtlety and Borsos isn’t great at directing his actors. He apparently gets Bradford’s world-weary, slightly fascist cop is the best character in the picture, since Bradford’s the only actor who gets any material to chew on. Though maybe it’s Bradford stepping up and chewing on his otherwise pointless role.

Getting a little ahead of myself–the salad days of Mean Season are the first half. The newspaper stuff is interesting, Borsos is good at the investigation, Russell and Hemingway are appealing. Then the movie gets into this whole juxtaposition of Russell’s media ambitions and the killer’s media ambitions and the stumbling starts. Russell and Hemingway try, but neither brings much weight to their roles. Once Borsos is done doing jump scares involving them, he and then Piedmont have nothing more for Hemingway. She’s just around to argue with Russell. Then Russell apologizes and scene.

There’s no character development, particularly for Russell. Piedmont’s script relies on thriller more than drama. Borsos’s direction eventually veers to action, which is a big mistake because he’s exceptionally inept at it. The second half of the film, as Russell finds himself in danger and not just from manipulative jump scares, is ragged and somewhat unpleasant. Russell burns through the charm and likability he’s built up and Borsos isn’t there with anything else for him. He ends the picture a husk.

Mean Season also skips the opportunity to look at the reporter becoming news, even though there are occasional details suggesting someone thought it might be a good idea to focus on that angle.

Hemingway gets a lot of help from Schifrin’s score. It’s problematic–she’s the damsel so she needs good damsel music–but also effective. And she’s trying. And her character does try to talk some sense, building up her likability. So she’s slight, but gets a pass.

Russell’s pass is a little different, almost more of an incomplete. It’s not his fault though. It’d be hard to make the last third silliness of Mean Season work. The film’s desperately in need of a better resolution to the mystery of the serial killer. Borsos overestimates where’s gotten the film in terms of suspension of disbelief as well as general interest.

The supporting cast is solid. Besides the awesome Bradford performance, Garcia is fine with little to do as a too young police lieutenant. Richard Masur, Joe Pantoliano, and Rose Portillo all ably staff the newsroom scenes. They eventually disappear from the A plot, reduced to background as Piedmont’s script loses focus. At least Borsos kept them around.

Richard Jordan and William Smith are good as witnesses who prove essential to the case. Borsos fails Jordan after a while, but he’s still got some fine moments.

The Mean Season wraps up with an unsatisfying, hurried, manipulative conclusion. By the end, the whole movie is on Hemingway, Russell, Schifrin, Tidy, and Florida’s collective shoulders. They manage to keep it afloat, but only just.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Borsos; screenplay by Leon Piedmont, based on a novel by John Katzenbach; director of photography, Frank Tidy; edited by Duwayne Dunham; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Philip M. Jeffries; produced by David Foster and Lawrence Turman; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (Malcolm Anderson), Mariel Hemingway (Christine Connelly), Andy Garcia (Ray Martinez), Richard Bradford (Phil Wilson), Richard Masur (Bill Nolan), Joe Pantoliano (Andy Porter), Rose Portillo (Kathy Vasquez), William Smith (Albert O’Shaughnessy), and Richard Jordan (Mike Hilson).


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