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Category Archives: 90's movies

Ten Word or Less Review – Eh.  Only needed one word.

“The Ninth Gate” is a mildly paced, occult thriller by acclaimed and controversial director Roman Polanski.  Whatever you think of Polanski’s purported classics, either works of brilliance or overrated bores, there’s no mistaking “Ninth Gate” as little more than a minor effort.  Whatever drew the director to the material is an enigma, while his presence behind the camera likely accounts for the casting of Johnny Depp.  Depp is in rote form here.  His character’s only amusing attribute being his ability to chain smoke around priceless books.  This is a case of two heavyweight names coming together for a largely forgettable experience.  It’s worst parts lapse into silly but fleeting sequences of amateruishness.  The rest is just mechanical thriller routines which lead to familiar places and sequences.  The last scene is notably weird.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Old fashioned Mamet with a harsh ending.

“Homicide” is David Mamet’s 1991 effort about a police officer, Joe Mantenga, having a crisis of conscience which brings his loyalties as a police officer into conflict with his long unacknowledged Jewish faith.  While on his way to a important bust, he gets sidetracked by the murder of an old Jewish lady in her convenience store by shotgun.  Before he can pass the buck onto another officer he gets wrangled into taking the case and finds accusations of conspiracy from her powerful family.  He begins to feel a strange awakening of belonging to these people he has long marginalized in his own mind and begins to wonder if his allegiances in life have all been folly.

“Homicide” is full of Mamet’s trademark, straight in your face dialogue.  His characters don’t so much talk as bark at each other like hardnosed pit bulls.  It’s this style that always draws viewers into his peculiar stories.  Characters with such straight ahead determination and clear view always mesmerize.  Mamet always collects great actors for his ventures who rarely disappoint.  Mantegna once again rises to the occasion under Mamet’s direction.  William H. Macy begins to emerge as a strong character actor here while as yet untapped Ving Rhames gets a memorable scene at story’s end.  And while the performances are universally admirable, Mamet makes a strange decision at tales end.

What surprises more than anything about “Homicide” is its finale, which in a way is foreseeable, but is amazingly cynical.  “Homicide’s” final scene renders our protagonist journey a useless endeavor, his efforts squandered on a exploration which dead ends in a series of revealed contrivances and simple resolutions.  With his focus in doubt and determination wavering, Mantenga becomes the anti-Mamet character.  We take away from his conundrum that we shouldn’t let pangs of religious fulfillment cloud our judgment as to who’s trust worthy and who’s not.  His cop blindly throws himself into this underworld of Jewishness out of misguided sense of belonging, never stopping once to think about who these people really are, what their agenda is and what they might want of him.  He forgets where his loyalties lie, he makes mistakes and in the end he destroys himself.  It’s an odd and emotionally cruel way to wrap up a story.  I can appreciate the guts it took to end “Homicide” on this note, but I can’t shake the sensation that Mamet made his otherwise compelling police drama pointless by doing this.

Ten Words or Less Review: Harvey Keitel does drugs.  Lots and lots of drugs.

 Sipping on a bottle of booze, snorting some coke, freebasing heroin, shooting heroin, smoking crack, spending time with hookers and it’s only lunch time.  This is the average day of the unnamed Lieutenant.  1992’s independent shocker “Bad Lieutenant” features Harvey Keitel as a rampant New York officer of the law whose sole purpose is to recklessly flaunt his power and consume as many narcotics as humanly possible.  He’s an officer on a singular but enigmatic course of unrivaled self destruction.

 With its constant grimness and low side of life point-of-view, “Bad Lieutenant” was seen as an icon of early 90’s independent cinema.  The movie has an unrepentant attitude towards Keitel’s loathsome cop.  Directed almost gorilla style Abel Ferrara, “Lieutenant” is as opposite to typical Hollywood fair as one can achieve.  Nothing about any of this is romanticized or made upbeat for the sake of appeasing an audience.  The movie’s insistence on exploring this depraved individual defines it, but at the same time its unwillingness to see anything besides Keitel’s corrupt acts makes it a largely one dimensional experience.  Keitel’s performance may be a fearless piece of work, but the story spends a great deal of time requiring very little of him besides doing lots of drugs.

By the 9th time we watch Keitel snort blow or pound down a bottle of hooch hidden in his pocket, we’re left wondering if any point to all this will emerge.  Keitel’s character more than lacks a name, he lacks a life outside of his wicked acts.  We know he has kids and a family, but rarely does the movie, or even the character, acknowledge them or explore what has brought him to this vile crossroads.  Only in the last movements of the movie does a deeper, repentant character begin to emerge.  Struggling, ignoring, his work with the case of a raped nun, Keitel’s Lieutenant reaches rock bottom and begs the nun for the names of her attackers so he can dispatch them.  But she’s forgiven them.  She has no desire to see them punished.  No sense of retribution is contained within her.  In her ultimate act of forgiveness she’s rendered him powerless, his desire to do something vengeful and seemingly right in his eyes is taken away.  Stripped of ability to do anything, he has a religious epiphany and begs a materialized Christ to forgive him for his weakness and depravity.  He’s shown the way to the nun’s rapist, but he follows the nun’s example and sets them free.  This finale is the one place in the movie that feels like a revelation of something more than just shock.  “Lieutenant” may lapse into heavy handed symbolism in these scenes, but they wake the character, and the film, out of a drug fueled stupor from which it rarely fails to escape. 

 The final conclusion of “Bad Lieutenant” will be clear to any well versed viewer of films like this, but as more time passes the more I feel endings such as these, once seen as fierce, are in their own independent minded way, lazy.  If Hollywood productions must always end with a forced sense of uplift, movies like “Bad Lieutenant” must always end with a sense of downbeat finality.  It’s as pre-ordained by its style and setting as the foregone conclusions which entail heroes and heroines running off into the sunset.  An uplifting ending isn’t necessary, or even appropriate, but what’s here lacks imagination.  What passed for hard hitting in 1992 has now become commonplace.

Beyond its conclusion “Bad Lieutenant” hasn’t aged well for several reasons.  So many troubled, wicked and more interesting cops have come to populate TV and movies in the subsequent years.  The once daring nature of this production has gotten a little lost.  Ferrara and Keitel deserve credit for being uncompromising in their presentation of a wretched soul, but the movie feels handicapped by its limited view and structure.  While it may cling onto its pioneering reputation in certain circles, other storytellers have moved past this once strong achievement, going on to create deeper tales of cops lost in the wilderness of their impossible and destructive lives.