Thursday, September 20, 2018

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: CITY HALL

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who lives by the rule of Menschkeit.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: (Takes a deep breath) City Hall might be the most complicated movie of the 1990s. Where do I begin? Ok, the story is set in motion when, during a secret meeting, a police officer and a mobster exchange gunfire, killing each other and an innocent little boy passing by. With aspirations of one day getting to the White House, Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) asks his Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) to make sense of the situation so it doesn’t become a scandal for the Mayor’s Office. As Calhoun dives into the details, he learns that the system bent the rules for the mobster, which allowed him to be on the street when he should have been in prison. He wonders why an esteemed judge (Martin Landau), a probation officer (Richard Schiff), and others seemed to turn a blind eye to the mobster’s record. Calhoun believes it to be corruption. Enter Frank Anselmo (played by Danny Aiello), a local political fixer who loves Rodgers & Hammerstein and has ties to mob kingpin Paul Zapatti (Tony Franciosa). Anselmo plays a major role encompassing not only the scandal but also New York City land development. Meanwhile, Calhoun and Pappas are trying to convince a Senator to have the next Democratic National Convention in New York City to give Pappas a platform that will later on lead him to Washington D.C. City Hall also stars David Paymer as a Pappas staffer, Harry Bugin as a singing waiter (this movie has a lot of stuff going on), and Bridget Fonda as a lawyer for policemen’s pension (I think I have that right) who's really just there so John Cusack’s character has someone to talk to while he’s playing detective. Did I mention the little boy who gets shot is named James Bone? The four screenwriters (Ken Lipper, Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi and Bo Goldman) didn’t want to take another pass on that name?

This movie is exhausting but not bad. City Hall’s biggest crime is it aims for greatness (it feels like it’s shooting for Best Picture Ever Made #WatchTheTrailer) and it’s 3 out of 4 stars at most. I think it works well in individual scenes and the performances are mostly good, but it’s so all over the place that there’s no way it can come together into a satisfying whole as a feature. City Hall would have been better suited as an HBO limited series. This movie also has a climax very similar to The Devil’s Advocate, Insomnia, The Recruit, Two for the Money, Hangman and Righteous Kill (I can’t wait for that review). Pacino proteges SPOILER are constantly disenfranchised with their mentor END SPOILER.
Doesn’t this movie just make you want to talk like an asshole? Ever since I watched it I just want to invent florid nonsense things to say like “This email is not Kosher,” “You can tell everything you need to know about a man by how he orders his oatmeal,” or “I believe Socrates once said a city’s future isn’t about the elevator working but WHO’S WORKING THE ELEVATOR!” What did you think of City Hall, Rob?

Rob: I was warned not to come here, Adam. I think we should limit this review to the space between a handshake. Try the lemon pudding! Hang on, I have to get the gumbo out of my Yiddish.

Seriously, though. I like what you said about this working better as an HBO limited series. Outside of the Cusack/Pacino story, City Hall is made up of three or four subplots featuring very good character actors (including personal favorites of mine like The West Wing’s Richard Schiff and Mad Men’s John Slattery) that never really coalesce in any interesting or challenging way. Each of them trucks along at a reasonable pace and resolves exactly where you expect it to. About halfway through City Hall, I dubbed it The Wire for Grandma. It’s a very safe, very PG, very kosher examination of political corruption that features powerful men atoning for past mistakes in the most honorable way possible. Someone calls them on an error they made, they admit it, and they take steps to correct it. There’s very little gamesmanship or intrigue. There are very few twists or turns. The violence is mild. I didn’t hate this movie, but I didn’t especially like it, either.

As for Al, Mayor John Pappas sits at an odd intersection between The Insider Pacino and Two for the Money Pacino, I think. He’s at a kind of medium simmer. He’s fine, but this performance feels a bit like an afterthought, as if the movie kept interrupting him enough as he went about his normal day that he finally decided to put on a suit and throw us a few lines. Cusack does his thing in an acceptable way that doesn’t really shake anything up. He’s mostly fine, too. I don’t know. City Hall is one of only a handful of Al Pacino movies I haven’t/hadn’t seen before we cover/ed them, and I have to say it made very little impression at all. You joked before that it should have been called For Your Consideration, and I think I agree. It seems to want to hit all the right awards bait beats without upsetting anyone. As a result, it ends up just kind of sitting there.
Adam: If only they just made the whole movie about Danny Aiello’s character. His is my favorite performance in the movie by far. I was almost annoyed at times when we’d shift back to Cusack (who is decent in the movie but the accent and his southern upbringing are more a distraction than a value-add). I agree with you about Al Pacino’s performance. He’s good, but not in a way that makes you sit up and take notice like so many other films we’ve covered. He seems tired throughout even though he’s not supposed to get there until his final bizarre scene with Cusack. That whole sequence is oddly muted for what should be a big emotional moment between a mentor and a protegee. It just ends and then we get a nonsense coda to let us go home happy, but it rings false and the bookend closing narration about luck and its role in thriving and surviving New York City is gobbledygook baloney.

I think I liked the movie more overall than you did. I grew on me as it went along a tad, but that’s entirely because there will be a great scene peppered in between three or four that are okay to decent. If only they condensed this film so that it wasn’t about everything, it could be something more memorable. I’d love to know what each of the screenwriters brought to the final script. I’m guessing the Aiello stuff came mostly from Pileggi, but I don’t know that for certain. There are so many elements (like the DNC nomination, Bridget Fonda’s character) that could be excised from the final product. It’s so overstuffed that Pacino’s mayor (whose story this is at least supposed to be) is missing for long stretches after the first act. It’s also not him missing in a way where he still hangs over the movie. He’s just not there.

Rob: At one point after a long absence, Cusack walks into the mayor’s office and Al goes, “Where have you been!?” and I was like, “I was about to ask you the same thing!” The more we talk about it, the more I really do wish this had been developed as a series. Not to bring up The Wire again, but there was originally supposed to be a spin-off series called The Hall that followed Aidan Gillen’s upstart politico-turned Mayor of Baltimore Tommy Carcetti as he negotiated the various ups and downs of his office. That ended up getting folded into season four of The Wire, but City Hall might have benefited from that approach. It could have expanded on Landau’s judge character’s ethical challenges and Aiello’s struggles to keep his position AND the trust of his superiors without losing his head (literally). It could really have built up Cusack’s disillusion before inspiring him to regain his optimism and belief in the system. Most of all, it could have given Pacino and Fonda something real to do. They could spar over Cusack’s soul. Man, there’s some Sopranos in this idea, too, isn’t there? Where the hell is HBO?
Still, I don’t want to put off the vibe that I don’t like this movie. There’s something to the tone of certain ‘90s dramas that has always fascinated me. I haven’t been able to put a label on it, but let me see if I can explain it: Cusack’s journey is an example of the kind of movie that carries over the ‘80s theme of an individual within a giant, ever-expanding system (‘80s corporate “excess meets opportunity” like Wall Street, etc.), but also incorporates the lack of trust and security we felt in the new, globalized ‘90s. The world was getting bigger, but we were still holding onto Reagan’s America. We weren’t yet connected to the internet hive mind; professional success and personal fulfillment were still very much determined by your individual ethos, but we could sense that it was all falling apart. Does that make sense? I don’t think so, but I tried. Anyway.

Adam: I understand as much as someone who was a kid during both of these decades could understand it. Joking aside, I think you touch on something interesting. These guys are the handshake deal era (era) and that old guard is shifting. You mentioned ‘90s dramas being movies that fascinate you and I wholeheartedly agree. One thing I love my parents for is they let me watch R-rated dramas at a very young age. I didn’t always understand them, but by exposure I was able to figure quite a bit out for myself. City Hall’s director, Harold Becker, is one of the really good journeymen filmmakers for this type of movie. In addition to City Hall, he directed Sea of Love, Malice and Vision Quest, all of which are really good. I think the next film of his I’m going to seek out is Taps. His only clunkers (that I’ve seen) are Mercury Rising and Domestic Disturbance, but I would totally watch either if they showed up on cable.

In true Adam Riske form, I want to close my portion of this review out with a couple of random observations that caught my interest while I watched City Hall. The first is how much I would love to see this film as a full season of HBO’s Project Greenlight. I want to sit in the room with the screenwriters as they decide on the name James Bone. I want to be with the casting director when she landed Al Pacino to play the lead. I want to see the filmmakers watch the first edit and realize that for all the Oscar ingredients they put into this film, they just have an okay movie. Second, I want an entire cut that is just about the friendship between Danny Aiello and Morty the Waiter. Let’s see the first time where they check in with each other as if to say “Are we really doing this?” and then they belt out their first showtune together. I want to see Morty at Anselmo’s funeral singing one last sad number from Carousel to memorialize his departed friend.

Anywho, I’m giving a slight Mark Ahn for City Hall.
Rob: I’d just like to add that I’d be down for The Continuing Adventures of That Train Station Diner That Serves the Pudding. I was really leaning toward Marking this Off, but it stars so many people I like and has so much potential to be something more (and so little of it offended me) that I’m also going with a soft Mark Ahn. That’s another one coming from my heart, not my head.

Adam: Reviews from your heart are more interesting. Our readers can get head anywhere.

Rob: Zing! I honestly can’t imagine how I’d feel about some of these movies if we weren’t watching them together, bud. Reserved Seating really is something special. What are we watching next week?

Adam: One of my most anticipated movies of the year (unironically): Little Italy, a VOD romantic comedy starring Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen in a Romeo & Juliet style story of a man and woman from warring pizzeria families who find love. Do you think the director, Donald Petrie of Mystic Pizza fame, went back to the kitchen because he kneaded the dough? I’m very sorry.

Rob: All these puns and more, next week on Reserved Seating. Until then…

Adam: Bank exchange!

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