Tag Archives: Harvey Keitel

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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Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)

The least violent part of Reservoir Dogs is the bloodiest. One of the characters is in a pool of blood, slipping on it as he delivers his dialogue. Director Tarantino finds a moment of Shakespearian tragedy and builds a film to it. He uses stylish ultra-violence, Dogs is visceral with the blood, but the action itself implies a far more frugal production. He uses seventies music, but not the trendy stuff. His somewhat fractured narrative, which owes something to classic film noir, wants to be an updated version of seventies crime. And he succeeds with it. Tarantino would never be able to get away with Dogs having actual tragedy if he weren’t able to sell everything else he packages with that tragedy.

Dogs acknowledges the idea of being outlandish exploitation but the film’s so tightly constructed, Tarantino never lets anything get wild. The film’s most “uncontrolled” sequence, as Michael Madsen does a freestyle torture dance to “Stuck in the Middle with You,” turns out to be Tarantino’s most controlled sequence in the film’s primary location, where everything is controlled. But with Madsen’s dance, Tarantino takes the time to acknowledge the various realities of the situation. He breaks the movie magic, not because he wants to offer commentary or deconstruct genre, but because the film needs reality. The tragedy doesn’t work with reality. Without the reality, Dogs wouldn’t be difficult. It’d be amusing, sure, but it wouldn’t require the viewer to mentally engage with the film.

And Tarantino starts with those demands on the viewer right off. The first scene of the film demands the viewer make some value judgements on the cast. Harvey Keitel has to be likable, same goes for Tim Roth, even Lawrence Tierney a little. Certain actors just get to be actors, certain actors have to do a bit of a feint, but the scene has a whole bunch to do. It’s the hook. And it’s not in Tarantino’s monologues, it’s how the characters talk to one another, how they react to one another. The rhythm isn’t in one actor’s voice, but in how the banter works.

Many of the actors do get great scenes, some even get great monologues–Harvey Keitel, for instance, just gets tons of great stuff to do in the film. Right from the start, he gets the hardest work opposite Tim Roth and then Steve Buscemi. When Keitel and Madsen finally get around to facing off, there’s so much built up energy, anything seems possible. Of course, anything is not possible, because Tarantino is trying to get things somewhere specific.

Most of the film’s runtime takes place in a warehouse. Most of the film’s present action, once the flashback structure establishes, takes place in various locations. Tarantino takes forever to open up the film. It takes Dogs forever to get to a daytime scene without violence. Tarantino puts off letting the viewer identify with any of the characters. Because Dogs, for the viewer and for the characters, is about sympathy with the devil, taking responsibility for that sympathy and even requesting for that sympathy. It’s really, really good.

Andrzej Sekula’s photography is fine. Sally Menke’s editing is phenomenal. The sets are the real star. David Wasco’s production design. Tarantino shoots on cheap but Dogs never looks it. Wasco and Tarantino make it look like there’s no other way to see this film, no other angles. Tarantino holds his shots, making the hanging clothes or the wash basins extremely important–they burn into the viewer’s mind. Especially in the first act. The film implies a larger world outside itself, in no small part thanks to the set design and decoration; Tarantino asks a lot of the viewer.

And he does reward it. He promises it right off with the actors. Keitel, Buscemi, Chris Penn. They’re doing dynamic, sensational work. Even though the introduction of these characters and their development throughout the film might make them less sympathetic characters, the performances are magnificent. Especially Keitel and Buscemi. And Michael Madsen’s really good. Everyone’s really good. Except Tarantino. He’s really bad at acting. He gives himself a bad part, which is kind of good. Kind of. He’s still bad.

Tim Roth’s great.

Nice support from Randy Brooks and Kirk Baltz. Stephen Wright’s unseen DJ is almost an essential compenent.

Reservoir Dogs is never startling. Tarantino isn’t trying to exploit his viewer, he’s trying to tell a story. It’s not a big story. It’s not a grand story. It’s something of a tragic anecdote. Something tragic that happened to these guys when they were doing a job.

It’s an outstanding film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Harvey Keitel (Mr. White), Tim Roth (Mr. Orange), Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde), Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink), Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie), Lawrence Tierney (Joe Cabot), Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue), Quentin Tarantino (Mr. Brown), Randy Brooks (Holdaway), Kirk Baltz (Marvin) and Steven Wright (K-Billy DJ).


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The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)

The Last Temptation of Christ opens with a passage presumably from the introduction to the novel, as it’s the novel’s writer talking about his own feelings. It’s an odd choice, since it somehow removes the drive for the picture from the filmmakers and puts it on someone else.

It’s a very intentional move from Scorsese; Last Temptation is full of very intentional moves. While the film did have a relatively low budget, it still has an amazing crew–Michael Ballhaus’s photography is masterful and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is sublime (particularly for the first half).

Scorsese and Ballhaus open with muted colors. Willem Dafoe’s narration has to carry the fantastical elements until the journey of self-discovery picks up and color finally leaks in. The supporting cast–Harvey Keitel in particular–also lend to the mundane feeling. Keitel might be playing Judas, but he’s also the stand-in for the viewer. The approach works.

The film has two major transitions. First is when Dafoe and company get to Jerusalem the first time. Instead of journeying about, Last Temptation becomes all about getting to the crucifixion. That change probably isn’t anyone’s fault… at some point it has to be about getting to the cross. Still, Scorsese could have paced it better.

Then the cross itself, when Scorsese respectfully apes 2001. The end does save the picture, but there’s definite rough road.

Great music from Peter Gabriel, excellent lead performance from Dafoe, strong supporting turns.

Even with its problems, Last Temptation’s mostly magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Peter Gabriel; production designer, John Beard; produced by Barbara De Fina; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Willem Dafoe (Jesus), Harvey Keitel (Judas), Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Verna Bloom (Mary, Mother of Jesus), Andre Gregory (John The Baptist), Gary Basaraba (Andrew, Apostle), Victor Argo (Peter, Apostle), Michael Been (John, Apostle), Paul Herman (Phillip, Apostle), John Lurie (James, Apostle), Alan Rosenberg (Thomas, Apostle), Leo Burmester (Nathaniel, Apostle), Peggy Gormley (Martha, Sister of Lazarus), Randy Danson (Mary, Sister of Lazarus), Tomas Arana (Lazarus), Roberts Blossom (Aged Master), Barry Miller (Jeroboam), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul), David Bowie (Pontius Pilate) and Juliette Caton (The Angel).

Clockers (1995, Spike Lee)

Clockers opens with actual crime scene photos juxtaposed against filmed sequences of a crowd gathering to watch as the police arrive. Lee is dealing with a lot in the film and opening with that startling sequence—against a beautiful song—at least shocks the viewer into paying attention. Though the film is too apolitical to be “about” anything, it does require undivided attention.

What Lee does do, very carefully and very clearly, is dismiss notions of simple characters. At times, the cops—with the exception of Harvey Keitel—appear the simplest, only to eventually reveal their internal strife in conversational asides. Keitel, top-billed, acts on that strife, though he does not describe it.

The film’s protagonist, a young drug dealer played by Mekhi Phifer (who’s amazing in his first performance), very clearly shows contradictions. But even Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s vicious, heroin-addled psychopath has these moments where he’s showing real concern, just unable to express it. Delroy Lindo’s similarly vicious drug lord has them too, but even Phifer’s gang of subordinate dealers are full of the contradictions. Lee never draws attention to it, instead just presenting reality.

Of course, with Malik Hassan Sayeed’s high contrast photography and Terence Blanchard’s emotive score, the Brooklyn projects become as lush and green as a tropical paradise.

All of the performances are amazing—there’s not a good one or a mediocre one. Keith David, Isaiah Washington, Regina Taylor… everyone’s spectacular.

Instead of simplifying a novel adaptation, Lee furthered complicated it, creating something remarkable.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Richard Price and Lee, based on the novel by Price; director of photography, Malik Hassan Sayeed; edited by Samuel D. Pollard; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Jon Kilik, Lee and Martin Scorsese; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Mekhi Phifer (Ronald ‘Strike’ Dunham), Harvey Keitel (Det. Rocco Klein), Delroy Lindo (Rodney Little), Isaiah Washington (Victor Dunham), John Turturro (Det. Larry Mazilli), Keith David (André the Giant), Peewee Love (Tyrone ‘Shorty’ Jeeter), Regina Taylor (Iris Jeeter), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Errol Barnes), Sticky Fingaz (Scientific), Fredro Starr (Go), Elvis Nolasco (Horace), Lawrence B. Adisa (Stan), Hassan Johnson (Skills), Frances Foster (Gloria) and Michael Imperioli (Detective Jo-Jo).


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