Serpico: Observations and Thoughts

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“I’m not denying for a minute that I’m attracted to the radical…I’m attracted to the questioner. I don’t know if life is possible without it.”- Quote from the documentary By Sidney Lumet (2016, Nancy Buirski).

It’s incredibly apt that each poster of this film that I find has a different shading to the face of Al Pacino, who plays the titular character, police officer Frank Serpico. A man who inhabited many different disguises, both metaphorically and literally, the real truth laying in his story is that he had to spend most of his time acting to reveal the truth, and the truth was so powerful that they had to act it out.

Serpico (1973) was directed by one of my all time favourites, Sidney Lumet, known best for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976), which are all up in my pantheon of classics. Honestly, each film has its own aspects which empower it, Paddy Chayefsky script in Network is brilliant and shining, while Al Pacino absolute tears into the roles in both of his collaborations with Sidney Lumet, plus John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon is fantastic. 12 Angry Men too has a legendary status, being one of the most brilliant chamber pieces ever put on-screen, as Henry Fonda maneuvers throughout the ethics of 11 other jurors to challenge prejudices.

Naturally then, Lumet’s work in Serpico follows the similar human elements his work informally trademarked, as Frank Serpico presented to us at the beginning bleeding out in a car in the dark, navigates his way through a corrupt police system as an idealistic crusader hellbent on bringing to light the dirty underbelly of the New York Police Department. Al Pacino’s face is seared into cinema history, mainly for his roles where he presents the hidden depths of anger and violence which come bursting out, The Godfather saga and Scarface mainly, but Lumet plumbs a different sort of depth in Serpico, as the haze of darkness hanging over Al Pacino’s usual roles is surprisingly absent. Frank Serpico is a happy guy, at least to begin with. He works hard, plays hard, and loves and believes with his soul in what he does. It’s through the grinding bureaucracy, the infectious and slimy corruption of good men doing nothing and bad men exploiting their power, that Serpico enters into a world of frustration, danger and pain, but mostly on that side of pain more than anger (although when he gets angry, its electrifying). He is a man pushed to the extreme, while all he wants to do is his job. He doesn’t want to die for his cause, he’s a crusader not a martyr and ultimately he just wants to be a police officer without having to be a corrupt one. I’m sure the screenplay has been praised to high heaven, but the work of Norman Wexler and Waldo Salt on this script is iconic, and Al Pacino’s performance combined with Lumet’s direction makes this a true gold piece of cinema history.

What can I say that is new about Serpico? It certainly shares the same thematic pains of another film I saw recently although I did not address it on the blog, Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, another iconic film from the Italian Neo-Realist movement. The real frustrations of even the smallest social actions, the true horror that lays exposed behind our shallow stories of evil gangsters and heroic cops is the cowardice and collective guilt carried by those in all levels of society, the protectors and attackers, the constant passing of the buck of responsibility around. Talking of Italian Neo-Realism, the producer of this film Dino Laurentiis not only produced classics such as Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi) and Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim), but he also produced two earlier reviewed Fellini films, La Strada and Nights Of Cabiria. Funny how things sometimes work.

The cinematography, that pure deep focus deep staged cinematography is a faded technique now, the glossy TV cinematography which we’re all accustomed to was nowhere to be seen at the time, and as a result the close-ups in the film feel immense in weight, as we study Serpico’s face for the signs of his feelings, his emotions. Honestly it’s that gorgeously subtle cinematography which allows the screen to breathe, wide and comfortable and only pulling us in tight for times of great intensity. There’s so much going on with the story, that I find it hard to focus on the more grounded elements, but without a doubt the score by Mikos Theodorakis, is lush and elegant and beautifully underscores the action of the film. He also created the score for Zorba The Greek (1969, Michael Cacoyannis), one of my favourite stories and one of my favourite scores of all time.

I’ve spent a lot of words referencing other films in this Observations and Thoughts post, but that’s because its cinematic history is so rich that I find it hard not to dive into. Of course the real power behind what makes Serpico great besides its cinematic presence, its real presence. The story of Frank Serpico’s fight against corruption was true, the front page story was published three years before the film was released. It exists as a testament and an incendiary indictment of a culture it was still very close to in time. Sidney Lumet’s commitment to the truth of the story, embellishing and re-moulding the real narrative as any film project will do to condense years of time and people into a couple of hours, means he never loses sight of the soul of Frank’s story, ending the film as Al Pacino reads Frank Serpico’s real speech before the Knapp Commission.

This interview shows a man still haunted by the pain of an unjust band of brothers whose main aim should be to serve and protect. This half interview half manifesto is a call by Frank Serpico to help really tackle with an incredibly nuanced and complex issue. The demonisation of communities and/or the police is in part a driving force of the degradation and the high standards he expects the police to maintain. It’s the power of Serpico himself, a reluctant demoralised hero who had courage and standards, and the excellence behind the team who created the film which mythologised him and disseminated his story, which keeps it relevant. Serpico works as a film, because of the questions it poses, and it works as an inspirational myth of reality because of the answers it gives. The conflict of police versus “x” runs deeps in today’s society, and the continued lack of accountability of those in positions of power continues to be a crucible for anger and violence in the world today. The world can still take a page from Serpico’s handbook.

In a world where ideologies are collapsing faster than a house of cards, its important that the lamps he lit stay lit, because if we only look down at the mud, we won’t see the stars

-Alex

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Serpico: Observations and Thoughts

Magic in the Air: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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“For all the fantastic beasts disrupting the city, the most dangerous one exists within. ‘A beast that has been created in ways which feel sadly familiar’.” – David Yates (Director) in Inside the Magic: The Making of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Christmas brings a sense of magic with it, so it is only appropriate that a film primarily concerned with magic would be released at this time. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) is directed by David Yates, known for his work on the Harry Potter film series and The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and written and produced by J.K Rowling, who wrote the original book of this film, and the original Harry Potter books. If anyone could have thought of a more appropriate pair to helm this film, I’d be surprised.

The film mostly orbits around one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne),  a magical beast enthusiast and magizoologist (their term, not mine) who comes to New York in the 1920s, a time rife with inner magical conflicts of dangerous wizards and pseudo-racial conflict between non-magics and magics.In the mix then are thrown Tina (played by one of my favourites, Katherine Waterston), a low-level admin person in the American Ministry of Magic, MACUSA, her sister who can read minds called Queenie (Alison Sudol),  a “No-Maj” (short for no-magic) who wants to open a bakery called Jacob (Dan Fogler), and they race across the city recovering many escaped “Fantastic Beasts” and much more, meanwhile machinations inside the MACUSA from Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a higher up and a bunch of odd cult members who seem to invoke the Salem witch hunts but also the KKK, headed by the adoptive mother, Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and the kids, Credence (Ezra Miller) and Modesty (Faith-Wood Blaregrove). Also Jon Voight is in it in a political side plot which is just there.

If that was slightly complex and difficult to wrap your head around, then you experienced some of the similar plot induced disorientation I found watching this. The film whips up a series of spinning plates, and it took me a hell of a lot of concentration to keep up with it, mainly due to its penchant for introducing brand new magic elements almost every five minutes, new beasts or potions or elements, honestly it was a dizzying array of fireworks at points which flew by so fast that key elements were completely forgotten by the time of their eventual use and reveal. The world building to this planned five film franchise was obviously key here, and it’s almost overwhelming amount of information certainly stretched me, so I’m not sure whether my brain is just getting rusty or whether the kid’s watching it are all completely confused. Perhaps both.

The film largely manages to pull off the plate spinning act due to its charm. A lot of children’s films now seem more geared towards a teenage market, and for all the obsession over superheroes, the general lack of magic surrounding these impossible superhumans has never been more apparent when held up against this film. The film certainly gets a lot of mileage out of the beautifully rendered magical beasts, but credit goes to the cast as well who manage to become inhabitants in the world, all with varying degrees of success. The core squad of Newt and co. really complement each other and the world around them, whereas Colin Farrell comes out of this more than a little clunky.  It really does exhibit that same spirit which managed to capture the entire globe in the Harry Potter series, which definitely surprised me.

However the film also becomes tonally wild during various points, themes of child abuse and segregation and environmentalism just all emerge and then retreat very quickly, only enhancing the already burgeoning disorientation. It’s not necessarily a giant failing, but the focus on world building forces the direction of the film to jump erratically around, from different themes and tones to such an extent that to this point I still can’t really tell you what the film is about. It’s just a chocolate box, filled to the brim with different treats and different choices, but without presenting anything particularly coherent. It’s texture is so rich and dense, but there are times where its hard to see what’s really important and what’s just set dressing. And the more complex ethical issues certainly become a little more morally confusing (wiping the memories of hundreds of thousands of people as a great thing which doesn’t get questioned at all doesn’t exactly sit well) as the film progresses. Just a kid’s film they will cry, but kids think about things, and kids become adults who think about things. Do we need to look any further than this?

I can’t really give it a hard time for simply having too much going on though, especially when it exhibits a Guillermo Del-Toro level of attention to detail in every aspect of its mise-en-scene. The costumes are extravagant and expertly designed, the sets ooze with atmosphere and an incredibly stylised art deco aesthetic that places it in the realm of the magical, because its far too gorgeous to be the real New York of the 1920s, but nevertheless it becomes a gorgeous visual feast.And its core lays a lot of heart and a clear driving psychological core. Nothing is vague or misunderstood, there’s just so much packed in that it’s difficult to take in one viewing.

Honestly I just have a lot of respect for it, even though it creaks and falls apart in places. They really brought the world to life, and its a great ride, a real creation of magic.It’s just brimming with life, with the power of cinema, strong performances in non-cliched and human characters, gorgeous scenery and a strong emotionally rooted story. It won’t ever put time into the pantheon of CINEMA, but I definitely got wrapped up in the magic in a way only cinema can pull off.

It aspires to a hell of a lot, and while it may not hit every part it wants to, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still be amongst the stars.

-Alex

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Magic in the Air: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Not Another New Hope

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We’re back at it again with the films, after a temporary and unannounced hiatus. I’m a little rusty, so you’ll just have to bear with me.

Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story (2016), directed by Gareth Edwards (who depending on your familiarity with cinema, is either famous for making Monsters or for making Godzilla) was not a film I was in any way acquainted with before watching it.I did not like Godzilla (2014), although I appreciated a lot of its aspects. So with my expectations vague and largely absent, and from my previous experience with the over-hyped, under-baked Episode VII (see thoughts here),  I went to a midnight screening on the 14th of December, in IMAX with company.

And in a truly ironic fashion, it was the Star Wars film I had been (mostly) hoping for since last year. A piece which actually told a story that wasn’t just a rehashing of what had come before. Instead of a recycled New Hope, what we got was a film which did as much as it could and possibly more inside the restraints it was under, namely the baggage of being part of the Disney monolith. It manages to carve itself just enough of a niche to feel fresh and distinct, both from the Star Wars saga, and as a film in general.

Spoilers.

Based off of a few lines in the original 1977 film, the story of Rogue One explains how the rebels got ahold of the plans to the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) plays the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial scientist who designs the flaw in the superweapon which is exploited at the crux of the original film. Familiarity with the original Star Wars is needed to really understand the weight of Rogue One, but at this point its difficult to scour the Western world to find people not already familiar in some way with George Lucas’ original space opera.

So Jyn plays out her story, that of the abandoned daughter looking for her father, and the grand story, that of her teaming up with a rag-tag crew of rebels to steal the plans from the Death Star. The characters are honestly very strong, each one (or more often duo), is genuinely well-rounded and three-dimensional, and the very real interactions between them all makes for a film about camaraderie, even if Jyn is our anchor that everything else orbits around. Unlike Episode VII, which wanted to put the focus on the three key individuals, Finn, Rey and Kylo, this film is more than content to allow everyone their own piece of the pie. The characters in this really feel like soldiers in a war, and it has to be the case, since a large part of it involves the darkness of being expendable warriors in a galactic battle. How do you make a story that’s so small in the grand scheme of things feel so big? By creating characters who you care for. And I’m not usually one to go on about British actors, but seeing Riz Ahmed up there, such a world away from Four Lions (2010) really made me happy in a film nerd way. Also Simon Farnaby from Horrible Histories and The Mighty Boosh had the tiniest cameo and I loved it. But enough about British people.

On the other side of this, lays the machinations of Director Krennic (played by one of my favourites, Ben Mendelsohn) and him against both the rebels and the dangers of his higher-ups, a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (since Peter Cushing is dead which I did not know going into this and so did not realise his entire performance was CGI) and of course, Lord Vader.  While some dialogue on both sides sometimes veers towards the cringe and on-the-nose,  most of the films’ characters manage to chart a course between the stereotypes of action movies and the dangers of just being compared to the gigantic toybox of previous Star Wars characters..

It’s difficult to talk about some of its good aspects, because with a production this expensive and no doubt highly scrutinised, they’re all to be expected. The production and sets are incredibly elaborate, no expense spared and as a result the world just looks gorgeous, half of it digitised to such a high watermark that it really does look beautiful. The cinematography as well, follows in the District 9 (2009) vein, pushing us close into the action, right smack bang in the middle of the conflicts, and as result the battle sequences take on an incredibly powerful and taught tension. The ending sequence in particular, a battle on an idyllic beach world reminiscent of WWII Japanese beach warfare and the jungles of Vietnam is the best example of this, but there’s another absolutely brilliant scene of a rebel ground attack on some stormtroopers, and our heroes stuck in-between which really nails you into the fight. The sound design must rightfully take credit for that too, since its dense, very well layered texture weaves the world into being, especially with a movie saga with such a distinct audio aesthetic.

If anything, what I really want to talk about is how impressed I am with this film’s ability to mine the Star Wars of old, without just giving it a new coat of paint as Episode VII fell victim to. It’s fan service is weaved into the film so that if you don’t follow the canon in-depth, you can still follow the film. Subtle (and not so subtle) nods are jacked into the film, allowing those with the knowledge to perk up and recognise them (a great replication of the rebel sitting in the little tower at the rebel base made me smile), while those who aren’t as familiar will just ingest it as world detail. For all those reviews talking about it being a Star Wars film for the fans (well the one I found) ,  it simply just provides its fan service more organically and subtly than the previous carnival show.

So if the film isn’t another New Hope as the title suggests, well what is it? Well its a lot of things, elements of comedy, heist, personal revenge, family drama, corporate drama, I could go on. I think at its heart its a film about what causes us to sacrifice for our ideals beyond ourselves. It’s also a film which is broaching the technical forefront of the world we live in (resurrecting actors from the dead only continues to blur the boundaries of life and death) and the VFX in the film is extensive, as CGI only continues to get ever more realistic and grandiose in scope. In 10 years we can look back on Rogue One and see how far we’ve come. It’s cast as well, draws from all sides of the human spectrum, and the inclusion of Asian actors in a time when the cinematic market is shifting to a more global revenue shouldn’t be ignored, especially when they are made to be an integral part of the film, rather than a tacky add-on to shamelessly appeal to what the West would deem ‘foreign markets’.

Again, it’s that same core of humanity which drives this film, the humanity of relationships and power and friend and foe. The reason Star Wars is so powerful is that it taps into those great myths and stories we’ve been telling ourselves throughout the centuries, and when done right, a story which felt small in the original Star Wars, only given a few lines of exposition to explain how Luke could triumph, can feel gigantic and monumental in its importance. And that’s what I loved about this movie, is that it made the story on the ground feel big. It acts a memorial to their fictional sacrifice, and the wellspring that it draws that from is embedded in the millions of souls who have fought in battles across history.

Also there’s a bit in it where a ship crashes into another ship which causes it to crash into another ship which then breaks the magic gate which is preventing them from succeeding and its fantastic. And there’s a bit with a blind monk which draws on all those old Japanese movie clichés and it just was great. Go see it.

-Alex

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Not Another New Hope