1974 Academy Awards – An Introduction

The 47th Academy Awards had a very masculine, mafia-based tone, what with hosts including Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Sammy Davis Jr, and The Godfather II and Chinatown picking up several nominations and wins. You can expect both of those movies to lead the way in my personal picks, with hopefully a few surprises along the way.

Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, and Arthur B Krim were the honorary winners this year, while other categories were presented by Lauren Bacall, OJ Simpson, Goldie Hawn, Warren Beatty, and many more. The four hosts performed music, along with Aretha Franklin and Frankie Laine.

Join us over the next few weeks to see where my wins go, and feel free to share your own picks!

Triangle: Hark Tsui/Ringo Lam

Triangle

Amazon’s blurb, and indeed the dvd case itself, state that three masters of Hong Kong Cinema come together to create a masterpiece. 3 Masters yes, but what they have created is hardly a masterpiece. It is a complex but messy film following three storylines, each with three characters, intertwined by the main plot involving the three central characters. From the outset this is difficult to follow, with relationships between all three groups overlapping at different points until the final section where everything comes together. The ending is exciting enough, but ultimately is not satisfying and i expected more action throughout. However it is not an action movie, more a drama and the packaging seems a little misleading.

Triangle follows three ‘almost friends’, losers who want a big break to escape their respective lives. One works for the mafia and owes money- they are threatening to kill him and his mother. Another owns an antique shop, but wants a big score, and the final is married to a semi-psychotic woman who is having an affair, torn by memories of a past love. One dark night, while they discuss get rich quick schemes, a mysterious old man appears and tells them about a box which may solve all their problems. With no other option, the three men attempt to claim the box for themselves, but hot on their heels are the cops and the mafia.

The central characters could have been more interesting if the story had been told in a less haphazard way. Perhaps this was intentional, to reflect the chaos of their lives, but it menas we have less sympathy for them and cannot relate as well as we might. There are lots of funny moments, the usual quirky moments and offbeat minor characters to spice things up, but sometimes these do not work and only complicate things further. The acting is all sound from the ensamble cast- with lesser actors this would have collapsed. The final twenty minutes is the highlight, with all factions coming together and the chaos, comedy and action reaching a peak, meaning we don’t know who to trust, who will get out alive, or who will get out with what they came for. One for fans of the directors, or those curious to expand their asian collection

Donnie Brasco

Donnie Brasco

At times more like Heat in style rather than Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco is a mix of many gangster films that have gone before, drawing parallels between mob life, and the real family life of each character, and showing the blurring of boundaries which can often occur. The style, the dialogue, the wit, the violence, everything we would expect to see is here, but there are enough good moments to keep the movie unique, and there are some good performances from typically very good actors. The film does not dwell on the scenes of murder, but rather focuses on characterisation, and the relationship between Donnie Brasco, the undercover agent who succumbs to the mafia way, and Lefty, an aging mobster who, in spite of his dedication and respected work has little to show for it, and never seems to rise through the ranks.

Johnny Depp plays Joe, an FBI agent, married with kids. He goes undercover as Donnie Brasco, an orphan from Florida to try and infiltrate the New York mafia. When Lefty, a member of the mob takes interest in him, Donnie becomes part of the gang. Lefty teaches him everything and acts like a father, and they become close as Donnie sees how Lefty wishes he could get away with his family, and hates the fact that he is always ‘passed over’. Madsen plays Sonny Black, a member who is rising ahead of Lefty even though he is younger and has done less. They move to Florida as Black tries to set up on his own, but the FBI raid his new club. They believe there is a rat, and kill one of their own thinking it was him. Lefty and Donnie know he was not a rat though. Black decides to kill Sonny Red and the other bosses so that he can have New York, and by this time Donnie is respected in the group and may one day become a ‘made man’. His family have been deserted, and the FBI do not know what he is doing. Brasco says he is trying to get Lefty out of the group before he is killed, as when Brasco is uncovered, Lefty will undoubtedly die. Brasco is becoming just like the men he was supposed to be putting away, and getting deeper into trouble with each day.

Overall it is the acting which keeps the film running at a steady, watchable pace. Depp is very good as Brasco, convincing in his dual roles and in his portrayal of how easy it can be to be seduced by power. Pacino is on familiar territory, and again is intense and thoughtful when he needs to be, giving another strong performance. Madsen is also good as the short-fused Sonny Black, and everyone else does what they have to do. The script is nothing we haven’t seen before, and although it sometimes seems like it is trying to too easily explain the ways and words of the mob, it still has a few refreshing moments. The life seems less glitzy than in other gangster films, and there are few shows of extravagance. These men seem to be low on the ladder, and not as good at what they do as other characters from other movies. We are left feeling great sympathy towards Lefty, even though he has been in the game for so long, he seems naive and in need of a real son or someone to connect with. He never gets a break, and is always the man given the smaller jobs. He has been in the business for so long that he knows little else though, and we sense from the start that he will never get away. Even though Joe completes his job, he knows blood will be forever on his hands and after having a taste of the high life, it will be difficult for him to return to normality.

The DVD has a short making of and trailer. The skant extras should not sway you from picking up this great film.

As always, feel free to leave any comments on the movie- how does this rank against the other Mafia/mob movies? Would you like to see Depp take on more ‘serious’ roles like he does here?

Brother

Kitano comes to America and again shows he is one of the best, most versatile and underrated (in the West) directors. Brother has a lot of action, violence, humour, and style but Kitano still finds time for his usual existential ponderings and quiet, contemplative scenes. It is a film about comradeship, about overcoming racial (amongst others) boundaries to gain respect and friendship.

Kitano stars, with shades, as Aniki Yamamoto a Japanese Yakuza member famed for his abilities, loyalty, and strengths. He is forced to leave the country and goes to America in search of a younger brother he has not seen in years. There he realises that his brother is a small-time gangster, and that he can help his gang to become the most powerful in the city. Soon he sparks up an unlikely friendship between himself and his brother’s gang and earns their respect by his coolness under pressure and knowledge of the trade. His plan works well, but soon other local gangsters decide to team up against him leading to death, revenge, and honour.

Again there is more said in a single glance than by five minutes of dialogue, though Kitano realises the difference between West and East in this regard, and the Americans are shouty from the start. There is the usual sadness throughout the film which permeates most of Kitano’s work, but there is plenty of humour too. Kitano gives another cool performance, Epps is good as Denny, as is Maki as Kitano’s brother Ken who has become Americanised. The violence is not as shocking as in his other films, but is just as sudden, fast, and meaningful. There are few directors around at the moment with this style- emotionally strong, character driven stories with stylish violence, and Kitano is one of the even fewer who can repeatedly pull it off.

The DVD has a couple of interesting extras which add to the value and viewing experience. At under a tenner, it’s a worthy addition to fans of Asian and World cinema

Brother

As always, please comment on the movie and the review- Is this amongst Kitano’s best or do you feel he watered things down for a Western audience?