Movie Night With Urbaniak: The King of Comedy


  and I are watching Melville’s late, uneven gangster movie Un Flic last week, and Alain Delon keeps reminding us of people, specifically actors in Martin Scorsese pictures. His face looks kind of like Ray Liotta, his haircut looks like DeNiro’s in King of Comedy, and at one point he puts on what appear to be Jerry Lewis‘s glasses. And Urbaniak finally just blurts out “All right, that’s it — next we have to watch King of Comedy.” He then predicts that us watching King of Comedy will consist mostly of the two of us sitting in the dark exclaiming brilliance for two hours. Which turns out to be pretty much true.

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Wag the Dog

An example of what great actors, well-directed, can do with a first-class Mamet script.  His dialogue, which so often sounds hollow, brittle and soulless, even when he directs it himself (especially so), here sounds spontaneous, startling, razor-sharp and jaw-droppingly funny.  De Niro and Hoffman are shockingly alive and present, and all the ensemble scenes crackle with intensity and humor.

The world the script describes, which was goosed with the reality of the Lewinsky/Kosovo thing back when it came out, hasn’t aged a bit and, if anything, has become less of a satire.

The script  takes a sharp left in the third act, as many of Mamet’s scripts do, going all the way back to The Verdict, but the impact of the movie is still undeniable.
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Mean Streets

Know what I hate?

Woman comes home from the grocery store. Bag full of groceries. Has a conversation on the steps. There’s a bit of action involving the bag of groceries.

The grocery bag looks like it’s six weeks old. Looks like it’s been through a dozen rehearsals and takes. It’s all worn and torn and crumpled. Doesn’t look like she came in from the store, looks like she’s a crazy lady who carries the same bag of groceries around for months.

Otherwise, pretty good movie.
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Or, Heat goes Continental.

More tough guys who don’t talk much, Men who Do what they Gotta Do.

There’s this case, see, this silver case, and De Niro and gang are After the Case. And because this script is by Mamet instead of Mann, the Tough Guys don’t spend the whole movie blabbing about themselves and slobbering over their girlfriends. De Niro gets in a couple of kisses with Natasha McElhone, but otherwise there’s no mushy stuff.

More aphorisms. Ain’t that the thing? It is what it is. That’s the first thing they teach ya.

What’s in the case? What’s in the case? Big mystery. Because the script is by Mamet, We Never Find Out. Why? Because it Doesn’t Matter. Mamet is relishing the chance to write a pure Maguffin.

Whatever it is, the Russians want it, the IRA wants it, De Niro wants it, the CIA wants it.

Turns out? Ice skates.

I don’t get it, but international intrigue often eludes me. I guess they were really nice ice skates.

A veritable who’s who of espionage players. A Mission Impossible guy, a Hunt for Red October guy, a Munich guy (well, many years later) and no fewer than two Bond villains. Just so you know what De Niro is up against. It’s kind of like European Espionage All-Stars vs. De Niro.

I would have thought that De Niro would have already done an espionage picture before this, but no, just gangsters and psychos. Which adds a nice American touch to the picture. “Hey, all you fancy European spy guys! Get a load of Travis Bickle!

Great car chases. Wow. Impressive use of crowds. Hugely sophisticated action sequences. The chase through Paris is quite amazing.

SPOILER ALERT: The sad thing is, they go to all this trouble to get the skates, and then they shoot the skater. Katerina Witt, no less. Man oh man, Nancy Kerrigan thought she faced a desperate opponent.
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Pacino understands that this is an opera, about Men who Do What They Gotta Do and the Women who Love Them.

The script has a lot of plot, even for a three-hour movie, so there isn’t a lot of time for irony. Tough guys announce who they are, what they stand for and what they’re feeling at any given moment. Seems a little counterintuitive for tough guys, but the director is looking to humanize them, to make them accessible to an audience, especially women.

De Niro plays against the poetry of the script, holding back, holding back, holding back. Even when he’s announcing who he is and what he stands for, he makes it seem like he’s not telling you anything. He gets that Dispeptic De Niro look on his face, as if revealing himself makes him literally sick to his stomach. Pacino, on the other hand, goes in the other direction, blowing some lines up to absurd, laugh-inducing proportions. He carries the same sickness inside him, but he directs it outward, even when he’s announcing how he keeps everything inside (because it “Keeps me sharp. (snap) On the edge. (snap) Where I gotta be.”).

The story is preposterous, so the direction is crisp and efficient without drawing attention to itself. That makes the action scenes seem matter-of-fact and human somehow, exciting in a way a “slicker” directing style would not be. Another director might have employed a hundred different devices to “jazz up” the action sequences, but Mann keeps it simple and lets the mayhem of the moment speak for itself.

In a cast full of present and future stars (Dennis Haysbert! Natalie Portman! Wes Studi! Tone Loc! Hank Azaria! Jeremy Piven! Xander Berkeley! Mykelti Williamson! William Fichtner! Jon Voight! Henry Rollins! Danny Trejo [playing the role of “Trejo,” no less]!), Diane Venora has the job of being Pacino’s long-suffering wife. She is given some of the densest, most purple lines in the script (“I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you,” a moment of sober clarity unheard of in any of my messy breakup scenes) and somehow holds her own.
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Cape Fear

Back when this movie came out in 1991, I was rehearsing a play with an actor who was a fellow cineaste. I came to rehearsal one afternoon and mentioned that I had just gone to see Cape Fear, and my cineaste friend gave me a look like I had just spent the day at a Three Stooges festival. He felt like Scorsese had not just betrayed his gift, but had made a movie that was boring, silly and unimportant.

Since then, I’ve seen Cape Fear at least ten times and never fail to get more out of it.

Last night I went to see the new remake of Slither. I liked it okay, but then I came home and put on Cape Fear. It’s silly and counterproductive to compare the work of a master operating at the height of his powers with the biggest budget of his career to the first film by a guy who wants nothing more than to gross us out, but Scorsese’s direction in Cape Fear, like Kubrick’s in The Shining, serves as a reminder of how gripping and transcendent genre filmmaking can be. There is barely an ordinary shot in the entire movie. Scorsese charges common shots with jolting electricity. A door closes, a car drives away, a man walks into a room, Scorsese finds ways to make all of these rote pieces of expository action crackle with intensity.

Both Cape Fear and The Shining feature, shall we say, larger-than-life lead performances. Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is so peculiar and over-the-top, I went back and forth on it for years before accepting it as an integral part of the film. But De Niro in Cape Fear got to me immediately. His Max Cady is a palpable entity, monstrous yet still human. On the surface, with his loud, ugly clothes and ridiculous cigar, he’s nothing but an inbred yahoo. But when you get to know him, he’s got all kinds of hidden resources and powers.

That’s important, because one of the themes of Cape Fear is: who is “better,” the successful family man with the suburban mansion, or the lowlife scumbag rapist/murderer? That sounds like a stupid question, and yet Cape Fear brings it vividly to life. As De Niro slowly but surely gets the better of Nick Nolte and his family, we begin to feel our self-righteousness slip away until we don’t know what’s right or wrong any more, we just know that we don’t want to be raped and murdered.

After De Niro attempts to seduce Juliette Lewis, she defends him to Nolte by saying that he was just “trying to make a connection with me.” That sends Nolte into a rage, shouting “There will never be any connection between you and Max Cady!” Nolte (and the rest of affluent society) has spent his whole life building up walls of protection between himself and people whom he considers “lesser” than him.

Max Cady has spent a lot of time improving himself in prison. He’s lost weight, built up his muscles, learned to read and has ultimately gotten a law degree. So we could say that Sam Bowden “saved” him, gave him the motive to improve his condition. But Max wouldn’t have been in prison in the first place if Bowden hadn’t “done the right thing” by putting him there. And what is he doing, now that his condition is improved? He’s using all his new-found powers to destroy Sam Bowden.

It’s not about how Max brings Sam “down to his level,” it’s about how Sam was always on Max’s level, but had convinced himself otherwise. That’s why the film begins with hair-splitting legal niceties, but ends with two guys hitting each other with rocks on a muddy shore.

I don’t know why this theme fascinates me, but it does. The idea of the “good man” locked in combat with the “bad man” until we don’t know which is which any more. Or the “bad man” wearing the “good man” down until the “good man” isn’t “good” any more. Mamet’s Oleanna has a similar effect: a student calls her teacher a monster, seemingly out of nowhere, and he gets angrier and angrier until he finally becomes the thing he keeps insisting he is not.

Max Cady says at one point that he’s going to force Sam Bowden to make a commitment, just as Sam forced Max to make a commitment by putting him in prison. This line stuck out at me today, because Max isn’t saying that he’s going to kill Sam. He’s saying that Sam is going to kill him. Max is telling Sam that this isn’t going to end until Sam has lost his family and is put in prison. Why will Sam be put in prison? For killing Max Cady. Sam will kill Max because Max will rape and murder Sam’s wife and daughter. In his way, Max is offering himself up as a sacrifice. He’s made it his life’s work to put Sam Bowden in prison, and he’s got every single step in the plan worked out from the very beginning.

One of the reasons the theme of this movie appeals to me is that a friend of mine is currently involved in a lawsuit with a man who, for reasons best understood by himself, has decided to make my friend’s life a living hell. He’s got money and resources and a very large axe to grind, and he’s not going to stop until my friend’s life is ruined. In normal life, I’m sure this man goes about his life, charms his friends and takes care of whatever family he may have, and would never merit more than a passing glance from a passer-by. It’s only when one examines him closely, or is the victim of one of his electronic missives, that one realizes what a dangerous, unstable psychopath the man is. Just as Max Cady is an ordinary, even faintly ridiculous figure on the outside but seethes and roils with hatred, jealousy and rage on the inside, this man uses his intelligence and resources to do nothing but destroy and spread hatred in the world. Like Max Cady, he knows how the law works and how to use it to his advantage. He has an incredible talent for getting under people’s skin and drawing out parts of themselves they would prefer never see.

I guess one could say that lawsuits, like the phone company and the internet, are there to bring people together.
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