A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #65: Dog Day Afternoon

It is a truth universally acknowledged that at least some of us here at A Damn Fine Cup of Culture have a general aversion to films that are based on a true story – but it is just as true that some of the greatest films of all time took their inspiration from real events. One such film is Sidney Lumet’s 1975 crime drama Dog Day Afternoon, which tells the story of a failed, fateful armed bank robbery in ’70s New York. The film, which stars Al Pacino and John Cazale, was nominated for six Oscars at the 48th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Editing, and it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (written by Frank Pierson of Cool Hand Luke fame). Join Julie, a big fan of the film, as she talks to Sam, who watched it for the first time for this episode, as they discuss Lumet’s classic and its sensitive, nuanced and empathetic handling of its characters and themes

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #33: Donnie Brasco

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

It has been a little forgotten, hasn’t it, that little gangster flick called Donnie Brasco (1997)? It hasn’t anything as iconic to offer as The Godfather‘s ascent to power or The Godfather: Part II‘s empty shell of a mob boss, although it does have Al Pacino at its center, too. It’s not a Scorsese-style hellride that could make us like or at least weirdly admire the hard men of organized crime we are supposed to condemn outside of a movie theater.

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Dazzled by the mob: The Godfather Part II

In cinematic terms, I sometimes wish I’d already been around during the 1970s. It’s the big films of that decade that I most regret seeing at the cinema. Thank god for good repertory cinemas, though: thanks to my favourite rep cinema, I’ve been able to see the likes of Apocalypse Now on the big screen – and the theatrical experience definitely makes a difference in terms of how potent these classics are.

Last week, as part of a series on migrants (which includes such different fare as Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9), I was finally able to see Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II on the big screen. The film is gorgeous to look at, with Gordon Willis’ Rembrandtesque cinematography an absolute triumph, and it’s a joy to see Pacino and De Niro in peak form, their acting specific and nuanced and entirely unlike the personas we’ve seen them embrace all too often since. The way I watch the film has changed in other ways as well, though, and these have nothing to do with the big-screen format. That difference is due to me having watched the entirety of The Sopranos in he meantime.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Godfather (1972)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

You could easily forget how reluctant Michael Corleone initially is to take over the family business. There are many reluctant heroes in the movies or in literature; reluctant villains are much rarer and often don’t see themselves as villains. They are set to do what seems necessary, blaming the times or the circumstances, acting for the greater good – and it’s their definition of ‘necessary’ that movies like Coppola’s The Godfather are really about.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Nobody understands the confidence game better than David Mamet. His movies, most of all his debut House of Games (1989), show you in great detail how his con men entrap, use and manipulate their victims for money, influence, sex, or all of the above. His take on the long con is so simple that he is a playwright first and a moviemaker second; his games only need a stage and a few props. He often enlisted the late Ricky Jay, who was a magician first and an actor second. It’s also proof that more complex things are going on than meet the eye, but the con very often happens in plain sight. The point of any confidence game is this: “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” It’s the perpetrator’s choice, and the victim is hopelessly trapped. Some characters know what is happening to them, but can’t do anything about it. Others simply have no clue. There is a cruel purity to such a concept.

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A rabbi, a Mormon and an angel walk into a bar

I’m not a big fan of Meryl Streep. Obviously she’s a good actress and has done some very fine work – but I find it difficult to watch many of her performances without thinking that they are too visible, too clearly acted for my tastes. Streep is too much of an institution to vanish behind her roles, something that I also feel with respect to many of Robert de Niro’s performances in the last ten years or so.

Having said that, though, I very much liked Streep’s performance in the HBO miniseries Angels in America – or should I say, her performances? As was the case in the original stage play by Tony Kushner, most of the roles were doubled, with actors playing two or three different parts. It’s something I enjoy in stage plays, but it rarely works in film, which tends to be too caught up in presenting a realistic surface while sneaking the most outrageously unrealistic plot elements by us. Angels in America, Part I: “Millennium Approaches” starts with a funeral sermon delivered by an ancient, doddering rabbi, played by Ms. Streep. Yes, it’s showy – we can make up one of the preeminent American actresses so she looks like nothing like herself! – but it works.

There’s a lot about “Millennium Approaches” that works. The cast is pretty much perfect, my favourites probably being Patrick Wilson’s Joe (I’ve liked him in every role I’ve seen him in so far), Mary Louise Parker’s Harper and Jeffrey Wright’s Belize. Under Mike Nichols’ direction the play translates very well to the small screen; the humour and the pathos are all there and highly effective. After watching the first part, I was all geared up for part II, “Perestroika”.

I’d read both plays years ago; I did an amateur production of “Millennium Approaches” in 2000, and afterwards we did a reading of “Perestroika”. Back then I thought it was the weaker of the two, failing to do a satisfying pay-off to the cliffhanger ending of the first play. However, I didn’t expect “Perestroika” to fall on its face with quite as resounding a thud. Yes, there were elements of camp melodrama in the first three hours of Angels in America, but they were pulled off well. Part II, however, descends into scenes that would have made Ken Russell embarrassed. The actors try their best, but some scenes – especially the ones featuring the angel whose appearance “Millennium Approaches” leads up to – are cringeworthy. There may be some way to make lines such as “The blood-pump of creation! Holy estrus! Holy orifice!” and groin-bumping scenes between Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson work, but if there is, Nichols hasn’t found it.

It’s not just the HBO production, mind you; Kushner’s original play falters badly in the second part. There are still some strong scenes (especially the ones that eschew operatic metaphysics), but the script becomes prone to hamfisted speechifying.

I’ve rarely seen a play, film or series that does so well in the first part and fails so badly in the second part. And based on what I’ve seen, I am very glad that we decided to leave it at the evocative cliffhanger at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. The thought of making people I like deliver those lines… Nothing angelic about that.

P.S.: One thing I liked from beginning to end, though: Thomas Newman’s score.

It’s a Mann’s world

Yesterday we watched The Insider, Michael Mann’s 1999 film about whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, 60 Minutes and the evil machinations of big US tobbaco. I like Mann’s cool jazz style, the calm rhythm of his movies. Watching The Insider for the fourth or fifth time, though, I was struck at how much the director’s cinematic world is a male one.

Insiders inside a car (duh…)

Like in several of Mann’s movies, it’s not so much that there isn’t any sympathy for the women (in this case especially Wigand’s wife Liane, played by Diane Venora), but that the film’s focus always remains with the man, and as a result the women are seen in terms of whether they remain loyal to their men or not. It’s really weird – if I write it like that, it makes Mann sound like the worst misogynist ever. However, I don’t think that’s quite fair. Venora’s character in Heat (this time she’s together with the Pacino character) also decides to walk out on her man because his job is more important than his family. It’s not that he doesn’t love her, but he’s obsessed with what he does. Perhaps that’s why the films aren’t straightforward exercises in sexism – Mann’s men are obsessive-compulsive, they choose their duties like lonesome cowboys. There’s something glamorous and admirable to the male protagonists, but at the same time they’re stuck in adolescence and in the belief that they don’t need anyone else, except the other boys they play their lethal games with.

By comparison, the women live in the real world much more than the men. Things aren’t as clear cut for them. Venora’s Justine Hanna in Heat realises that she will always come second to her husband. Her Liane Wigand knows that Jeffrey (fantastically acted by Russell Crowe, by the way) will not give up his quixotic quest against big tobacco, not even for the sake of his family. She comes off worse, perhaps, than other women in Mann, because Jeffrey Wigand is so clearly doing the right thing. But there is understanding in the film for her plight.

In the hands of a lesser director and actress, Liane and Justine would simply be shrews who screw over their good-guy husbands. It’s difficult to completely shake the feeling that they are disloyal and selfish. But they have a strength and a dignity that makes us look and think twice.

But it doesn’t change that, at its heart, Michael Mann’s world is a man’s world indeed.

Tom and Jamie,/Sitting in a Car…