Thursday, March 28, 2019

Reserved Seating: March Discoveries

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who have recommendations for the teams that didn’t make the Sweet Sixteen.

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

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our “Discoveries of the Month” series continues into March with some of our favorite first-time watches! Be sure to list some of your own in the comments.

My first pick is the 1991 lunatic action-drama Mobsters, directed by Michael Karbelnikoff. I’ve been wanting to see this movie for decades and finally did. I’m very, very, very happy I made the time, because it exceeded my expectations and then some. Mobsters has more entertainment value (of the camp variety) per second than possibly any movie ever made. So many people get mowed down in Mobsters that I’m convinced people are coming back to life just to be snuffed out a second time. This is a gangster movie in the same vein as Young Guns or Gotti (but much more slickly made), where the entire thing is a cartoon and jerking off to the iconography of Lucky Luciano (Christian Slater), Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Bugsy Siegel (Richard Grieco), and Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor). The thesis of every scene is “...and these guys were awesome!”

The movie is loaded with fun, over-the-top performances, especially Anthony Quinn as one of the two mob kingpins. SPOILER for Mobsters: Quinn’s entire character is basically just him shouting how much he loves food and vaginas and he dies face down in a plate of pasta from a hail of gunfire. That’s this movie in a nutshell. It’s the R-rated Dick Tracy I always knew I always wanted. I really loved Mobsters. It’s so...special. I read that Christian Slater was disappointed how this movie turned out. He expected it to be more serious and complained that different countries received different versions so there was basically no real movie. I disagree. The version we have (released in the U.S. at least) is absolutely perfect and improving it would have ruined this beautiful piece of chaos.
Rob: Why haven’t I seen this? This will be an April discovery, for sure. My first March discovery, however, is Martin Scorsese’s 1999 existential drama Bringing Out the Dead, written by Paul Schrader and starring Nicolas Cage as a night shift paramedic being slowly overtaken by the grief, violence, and trauma of his unforgiving profession. Co-starring Patricia Arquette, Ving Rhames (not playing Ving Rhames, for once!), Tom Sizemore, and John Goodman, the film may be most casually described as “Taxi Driver through a Mandy filter.” While that’s not altogether inaccurate (it’s another one of Schrader’s “lonely crusader” plots coupled with some pretty captivating psychedelic imagery), that’s not exactly the whole story. Cage’s Frank Pierce is a hopeful warrior cursed by empathy. He cleans the streets just to watch them get dirty again, and each of his three partner pairings (with Goodman, Rhames, and Sizemore) drives him toward a different spiritual conclusion about the inevitable tragedy of his work. Only Arquette’s Mary (and the lost soul inside of her) can rekindle his faith in the future.

Bringing Out the Dead is a tough sit, but in a good way. It’s claustrophobic and needy. Desperate. It made me want to take a shower. But it could be a important middle chapter in a trilogy including the aforementioned Taxi Driver and Schrader’s own First Reformed. Travis Bickle is a young man trying to understand the world, Frank Pierce is an adult man trying to cure what ails it, and Ernst Toller is a middle-aged man trying to save its soul. All three find their efforts stymied by corruption and apathy, by violence and anger. All three come to recognize those same instincts inside of themselves and make sacred pacts to find peace with them. I’d be curious to watch the three films together. Based on the novel by Joe Connelly, this one also features Scorsese and Queen Latifah as the voices of ambulance dispatchers. You’ll recognize them both right away.
Adam: I’m so happy you saw this. I think it’s great and one of Martin Scorsese’s most underseen movies. Even though the subject matter is depressing, I find myself coming back to Bringing Out the Dead once every couple of years. Nicolas Cage breaks my heart in that movie in the best kind of way and I love his last scene with Patricia Arquette.

My next pick is a 2019 movie that really caught me by surprise: Triple Frontier, directed by J.C. Chandor (he made Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, both good) starring Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal (who 100 percent looks like Marvel de-aged Burt Reynolds). It’s a clever heist movie about five former soldiers turned mercenaries who decide to rip off millions of dollars in cash from a drug lord. What I liked most about the movie is that this part is only half of the film and the rest of it has more to do with how difficult it is to get away carrying heavy freight in hostile territory. Everyone in the film is good, especially Affleck playing the most desperate and cold-blooded of the squad. This is definitely Macho Cinema. but not in a douchey way. The action is terrific, the film is always tense and it feels like a real action movie (scale/production-wise) and not some VOD throwaway where you have to give it certain allowances. It’s J.C. Chandor’s Joe Carnahan movie and I’m all about it.
Rob: Oscar Isaac and Ben Affleck had my curiosity, but the Joe Carnahan comparison has my attention. I’ll check it out! They all look so macho on the Netflix screencap. It’s like Hunktober.

Anyway, my next pick is ALSO a Martin Scorsese Picture (look, that Pure Cinema episode got to me), 1972’s Boxcar Bertha, the Roger Corman-produced exploitation film starring Barbara Hershey as a fugitive at the edge of the law and David Carradine as her railroad-working, corporation-damning, and generally rabble-rousing lover. Shot on the $600,000 worth of confidence Scorsese bought from Corman after Who’s That Knocking At My Door? and Woodstock, the film stars Bernie Casey and Barry Primus as the other members of the gang and David’s father, John Carradine, as railroad magnate H. Buckram Sartoris. It’s the usual American International blend of sex and violence coupled with some Depression-era (era) anti-industrialist messaging and a shot of Christian imagery.

I don’t know if I can necessarily recommend Boxcar Bertha as a good film, but it’s notable as an artifact in Scorsese’s filmography and a strong example of what an exploitation film can do when it has characters and emotions to work with. This isn’t to disparage the exploitation genre (and certainly not so close to #Junespolitation), but Scorsese clearly had more on his mind than churning out another Bonnie & Clyde ripoff. Hershey stands out as the titular Bertha not just for her beauty, but for projecting a calm resilience that carries her character though the feast and famine of life on the road in a believable way. Maybe her off-screen relationship with Carradine (the younger) made the shoot more casual? Maybe she’s just that awesome? Either way, all the gratuitous nudity in the world can’t stop her from making a strong emotional stamp, nor can the film’s scrappy construction stop us from seeing what a human and creative filmmaker Scorsese would develop into.
Adam: Glad to hear you’re recommending this one. It’s been on my list of Scorsese movies I still need to watch for years. It’s tough with him, because I always want to revisit his classics over his earlier works pre-Mean Streets.

The third pick I want to highlight for March is The Animatrix. I went on a bit of an Anime kick early in March, between the 68-minute music video film Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (based on Daft Punk’s “Discovery” album) and The Animatrix. The Animatrix was a pleasant surprise since I expected it to be a fan-film anthology made solely as a tie-in to hype The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Instead, it’s probably the best film in the series after the original. There’s a real mastery of mood in The Animatrix and it’s much more harrowing than I expected. I was drained by the end of the film, but in a good way -- like if I watched a movie about Vietnam. My favorite segments of the nine were the “The Second Renaissance Part I and II,” directed by Mahiro Maeda, which tells the story of the World War between man and machine that led up to The Matrix, and Shinichiro Watanabe’s “A Detective Story,” which is a stunningly animated noir short about a private investigator on the search to find Trinity from The Matrix films. The Animatrix holds together as a great anthology experience and -- even better -- enhances the other Matrix movies. You really feel the tragic history of this universe by having The Animatrix as a prologue.
A few honorable mentions: Something Wild by Jonathan Demme, which we both geeked out over during F This Movie Fest 2019 week; the cheeseball and surprisingly entertaining early 2000s bro-flick Knockaround GuysHappy Death Day 2U, which proved to me that this story works much better as a sci-fi comedy than as a slasher movie; Captain Marvel, which took me a second viewing to like but now I find charming and low-key; Jordan Peele’s Us, which I enjoyed for the acting and filmmaking enough to overlook my issues with the story and over-abundance of subtext, and finally S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete, which is a movie I really liked when I didn’t actively hate it.

Rob: My last pick is David Mamet’s directorial debut, 1987’s House of Games. Lindsay Crouse (whom I recognized as Professor Walsh from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) stars as Margaret Ford, a popular psychiatrist looking for a subject for her next bestseller. In an effort to protect a suicidal patient drowning in gambling debt to Mike (Joe Mantegna), Ford heads to Mike’s pool hall and quickly finds herself captivated by his life as a confidence man and eager to learn more under the pretense of academic research. Ford isn’t content to sit on the sidelines, though, and the more she feeds that urge to break the rules, the deeper she finds herself wrapped up in Mike’s illicit dealings. As you’d expect from both Mamet and the heist genre, House of Games plays things fast and loose with its characters AND its audience, crafting a legitimately intriguing mystery with its own debts to the best of Hitchcock and film noir.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to make unfavorable comparisons to Mamet’s later work when discussing House of Games. It’s a little stilted and stagy, and I have to admit that I find both Crouse and Mantegna to be generally cold and distancing actors. Trouble is, that’s kind of their jobs in House of Games; we’re never quite sure what to make of either of them — their motivations, their intentions — and that makes the whole thing purr. It’s got that Old Hollywood feel to it. Mamet throws around words like “score” and “broad” and “meat wagon” (that last one might not be in there, but it should be), and we have to respect his commitment to the bit. It’s something I’ll appreciate as a genre exercise more than a film I’ll eagerly revisit, in truth. But that’s okay. Like Boxcar Bertha, it’s cool to see a writer/director’s roots — what they learn, what they grow out of, what they double-down on in their next project. Plus, House of Games has Ricky Jay! Check out his wardrobe, if you get a chance. The man knows how to wear a bolo tie.

Not too much in the way of honorable mentions this month, as 1986 Week and #FThisMovieFest took up a lot of movie time, but I will say that I revisited The Favourite and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and both should have been on my best of 2018 list. What are we doing next week?

Adam: That’s good to hear about The Favourite and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I’m planning on watching the latter again tonight, actually. I revisited Larry Crowne earlier this month and had fun with it, which I’m pretty sure is confirmation I’ve lost any critical capacity I had left. It made me want to sign up for continuing education at my nearby community college to make Gen Z friends who will dress me better and improve my Feng shui.

Next week we’re taking a look ahead at the 2019 Summer Movie Season: what we’re eagerly awaiting and what we’re dreading. Summer Movie Season always seems like the best idea in April, so let’s talk about it while we’re still excited and optimistic.

Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

1 comment:

  1. My main problems with Triple Frontier is there was no villain & I just didn't care about any of the main actors. I just didn't connect with it.

    I did just finish watching Mobsters and it's a whole lot of fun. I never heard of it before! Thanks for recommending it.