‘The Many Saints of Newark’ – ‘The Sopranos’ Prequel Drags When it Should Entertain

I guess it was inevitable that David Chase would eventually revisit the world he created with “The Sopranos,” one of the greatest television shows ever. Vince Gilligan did the same with “El Camino,” the sequel to his acclaimed series “Breaking Bad,” and now Chase gives us “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to “The Sopranos.” But while “El Camino” proved to be excellent, this prequel ends up being nowhere as enthralling as even the average “Sopranos” episode. As much as I wanted to like it, I came out of it feeling rather disappointed.

“The Many Saints of Newark” comes with the tagline “Who Made Tony Soprano?” But while Tony is a major character, this movie focuses more on a violent gang war which takes place during the 1960’s and 1970’s in Newark, New Jersey. The main character of this piece is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a soldier in the DiMeo crime family who is also Tony’s uncle. As the story begins, Dickie and Tony are welcoming Dickie’s father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) who has just arrived back in America with his new Italian wife, Giuseppina. On the surface, everything and anything seems possible to all the characters, but we know eventually that everything will come crashing down upon them before they know it.

A pivotal moment occurs for Dickie at one point (you’ll know it when it comes), and he ends up visiting his dad’s twin brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti (also played by Liotta), in the hopes of doing some good deeds which will absolve his soul. It is during these conversations where Salvatore tells Dickie, “Pain comes from always wanting things.” This reminds me of what Mr. Spock once said on the original “Star Trek” series:

“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Salvatore comes to discover this the hard way. While he is serious about doing good deeds, some of us may remember how the road to hell is paved with them, and this is certainly the case here.

The screenplay, which Chase wrote with Lawrence Konner, paints a rich canvas for everyone to work with as it confronts the racial strife in Newark back in the 60’s and 70’s. We watch as African Americans riot against the racist police who abused a black taxi driver just because he was black, and it serves as a depressing reminder of how many still will not learn from history as America remains engulfed all these years later.

At the same time, Chase, Konner and director Alan Taylor, who directed many of the best “Sopranos” episodes, have given themselves too much to work with. While they have vividly captured a turbulent past, the screenplay lacks a center for which to hang everything on, and the movie ends up dragging far too often. As a result, I found my attention wandering in a way I never would have during any “Sopranos” episode.

There is a subplot involving Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) who has returned to Newark to start his own black-led crime operation. The actions of his gang lead to some moments of truly shocking violence which “The Sopranos” was known for, but this does little to alleviate the times where this prequel drags as no one seems to be able to balance out this subplot with all the other varying storylines.

I also got to say there are far too many obvious odes to “Goodfellas” throughout. Maybe I am a little biased because Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime classic remains my all-time favorite movie, but seeing Ray Liotta getting his head smashed into a steering wheel several times over just takes me out of the story for no good reason.

For me, I was hoping “The Many Saints of Newark” would focus more on Tony Soprano as he is presented here as a young adult, and it was fascinating to see how intelligent he was even when he does not apply himself at school. A lot of this has to do with the performance of Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini who originated this iconic role. It is tempting to say Michael got cast because of resemblance to his father, but he did in fact had to audition which was smart. From start to finish, he does a tremendous job of showing Tony to be a confused kid who struggles to find meaning in his life as he is forced to deal with an absent father and an ineffectual mother. As a result, it is no wonder he looks up to his Uncle Dickie, the only one adult who seems to be looking out for him. Michael is terrific and, more importantly, he makes this role his own.

It feels like it has been far too long since I have seen Alessandro Nivola in anything. I still remember him best for being Nicolas Cage’s brother in “Face/Off” and for playing the guy dumb enough to steal some velociraptor eggs in “Jurassic Park III.” But he is excellent here as Dickie Moltisanti, a man who wants to do some good deeds after having performed a number of heinous ones. Still, Dickie is a man whose passions typically get the best of him, and Nivola is great at showing the constant struggles he endures while struggling with a lifestyle which could see him get killed at any moment.

Indeed, there are many great performances throughout. While some have no choice but to inhabit younger versions of “Sopranos” characters to where they offer mere impersonations of them, others are a bit luckier. Vera Farmiga is tremendous as Livia Soprano, the same role made famous by the late great Nancy Marchand, to where if she decided to utter “I wish the lord would take me,” I would have been perfectly fine with that. In addition, John Bernthal makes for a very tough Johnny Soprano, Corey Stoll is excellent as Junior Soprano, and it is fascinating to watch Michela De Rossi as she makes Giuseppina Moltisanti evolve effortlessly from one scene to the next.

I do have some reservations, however, when it comes to Liotta, or half of Liotta anyway. As “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, he overacts to a painful degree as he tries to look and sound older than he really is. Watching him as this character was a bit unnerving, and thankfully this character disappears from the proceedings early on.  

But as the incarcerated Salvatore Moltisanti, Liotta brings an understated menace, the same kind he utilized in “Unlawful Entry,” which makes his performance one of the most compelling here as he dispenses advice which everyone around him would do best to take seriously. Plus, I love how the actor does not have to do much to show how serious Salvatore is about jazz. Seeing him stare at a Miles Davis vinyl record shows the kind of heaven this character seeks in life, and that’s even if it doesn’t bring a smile to his face.

And in a series where the dead characters are still hovering the lives of the living, I liked how Michael Imperioli returns to narrate this movie as Christopher Moltisanti as the character attempts to illustrate how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano. There’s even a scene when Tony first meets Christopher as a baby, and it proves to be ahaunting sign of things to come.

Look, if you are a fan of “The Sopranos,” you are bound to see “The Many Saints of Newark” at some point. What we got here is not a bad movie, and I am thankful that it is not the kind of prequel which hurriedly tries to tie everything together to match up with the events of the show. Still, despite some strong writing and performances, this movie is unbalanced and is nowhere as enthralling as a “Sopranos” episode should be. It sucks to call this a missed opportunity, but it is what it is. There is a lot to admire, but not enough to enjoy.

And if you are interested, yes, Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” is featured here. It would be blasphemy for any “Sopranos” episode or movie to be absent of it.

* * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: “The Many Saints of Newark” is the latest film to be released theatrically while simultaneously being given a month-long streaming release on HBO Max. I have long since found this form of release to be counter-productive as, while it may benefit HBO Max, it completely devalues the theatrical experience. While the COVID pandemic is still a big thing, I truly believe this type of release is one of the main reasons as to why “The Suicide Squad,” “Cry Macho,” “Malignant” and this prequel are dying quickly at the box office. I shudder to think what this will do to “Dune” and “The Matrix Resurrections” as they are being released in the same way, and these two movies demand to be seen on the silver screen. The sooner this simultaneous release pattern ends, the better.  

Music Review: ‘Houses of the Holy’ by Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy album cover

With “Houses of the Holy“, Led Zeppelin gave the world one of its greatest albums. Filled with a variety of unforgettable songs, it takes you on a musical journey which very few albums are able to do these days. It’s also the first album which they did not name after themselves, a curious habit Peter Gabriel picked up on when it came to naming his first three solo albums. It also captures the band at a key turning point where they began experimenting with sound designs which they used to great effect here and on future releases.

This sound experimentation is immediately apparent on the album’s first track “The Song Remains the Same”. Listening to it, you might think Jimmy Page was playing three guitars at once and using his toes to play at least one of them. Either that or he’s riffing off on his double-necked Gibson guitar. The song’s title is indeed ironic because even if this one does remain the same, nothing the band has done previously can easily compare. You can feel Page’s excitement as he layers one of his guitar licks on top of another as he creates rapturous dimensions which surround Robert Plant’s passionate vocals.

The other great thing about “Houses of the Holy” is it has the band exploring a variety of musical styles. Most of their albums up to this point were inspired by blues music, and with this one they almost leave that genre completely in the dust.

The second track, “The Rain Song,” has them playing one of their many great love ballads. Then there’s “The Crunge” which has them grooving obsessively to the funkiest beat imaginable, and it’s one of their most entertaining tracks as well as the kind you never want to end even if Plant never finds “that confounded bridge”. Along with the band exploring reggae music with “D’yer Mak’er” and even experimenting with doo-wop on the last track, “The Ocean”, you can tell every band member had the greatest time recording this album.

Some of the best Led Zeppelin songs have the listener feeling like they are on a journey, and this is definitely the case with “Over the Hills and Far Away” which makes you want to run through the fields. Plant is at his most beautiful here vocally as Page eases us in with his acoustic guitar before throttling into gear with an electric one. This is one of the musical numbers you feel like you are flying high in the sky more than anything else.

But the great thing about “Houses of the Holy” is how each band member make their unique contributions really stand out. When people think of the band, Page and Plant are the first people who come to mind. But then there’s the late great John Bonham who remains unrivaled as the greatest drummer ever, and I still cannot think of another who can match his genius. John Paul Jones never seems to get the same amount of respect as everyone else, and this is a shame as his bass playing here is what really drives the power of these songs, and the riffs he pulls off are truly thrilling.

With “The Crunge” and “The Ocean”, you can feel each band member coming together as one. No single person steals the show from the other on “Houses of the Holy,” and realizing this makes this album all the more enjoyable. Everyone here is on the same page (no pun intended) when it comes to their individual contributions, and you can feel the band’s joy as they perform the music.

Years after its release, “Houses of the Holy” continues to find new generations of listeners who love the music as much as we do, and Led Zeppelin continues to outlast the musical fads Beck sang about in “The New Pollution.” As much as fans want to see the surviving members reunite for another world tour, they don’t need to as their music remains as popular as ever. With this particular classic album, Led Zeppelin expresses an eagerness to stretch beyond their safety zone and explore avenues of creativity they had not previously tapped. It remains one of their best efforts, and there is no doubt future generations will come to love it as much as we do.

William H. Macy Talks with Jason Reitman about ‘Boogie Nights’

Boogie Nights William H Macy photo

Jason Reitman proudly said he saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” long before everyone in attendance at the New Beverly Cinema on February 21, 2010 had. This was the fourth movie he showed as part of his guest programming at the still standing Los Angeles revival movie theater. It was at a test screening shown at the Beverly Center where he first witnessed this movie which proved to be the breakthrough for Anderson whose previous cinematic effort was the acclaimed but little seen “Hard Eight.” With “Boogie Nights,” Reitman said he saw a filmmaker who knew how to handle all the elements while dealing with twenty characters.

Reitman’s special guest for this screening of “Boogie Nights” was William H. Macy who played Little Bill, the assistant director to Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) who is married to a porn star (played by Nina Hartley) who sleeps with everyone but him. In many ways, Little Bill is the most empathetic character in this movie even though we keep waiting for him to stand up for himself.

Boogie Nights poster

Reitman, who had previously worked with Macy on “Thank You for Smoking,” first asked him how he came upon the script for “Boogie Nights:”

“I got the script through the normal channels,” Macy said. “I think I was still with CAA then, and the script was even more outrageous. I said, ‘Is this a porn film?’ There was actual shtüpping in it! Then I met with Paul and, the actors in the room will love this, I decided I wanted to do it and met with him at the Formosa Café, and it was about ten minutes in when I realized he was selling me. I wasn’t there to audition for him, he was trying to convince me to do it, and it was one of the great moments of my career.”

Reitman replied to this by saying, “I remember having a similar meeting when I was trying to get you to do ‘Thank You for Smoking,’”

 From there, Reitman talked about all the great long shots Anderson has used in his movies. Specifically, he talked about the one where Little Bill was at the New Year’s Eve party and found his wife once again sleeping with another guy. It’s a long tracking shot which goes from Little Bill looking for his wife, finding her, and then going back to his car to get a gun after which he goes back inside and shoots his wife and the other guy dead. Watching it years after “Boogie Nights” was first released, it is still amazing Anderson pulled such a shot off. Macy described how this scene was put together.

“Paul does a couple of his gazunga shots in this one and they are not as hard as you would think,” Macy said. “It took forever to set up, but then after three and a half to four hours of setting it up, the shot’s done. No coverage, no nothing and you move on. Four pages just bit the dust.”

Macy then talked about how much he loved Nina Hartley. The first time he met her was when he went into the makeup room, and she had her legs up on the counter and was shaving herself. At the end of the shoot, Hartley had started this series entitled “Nina Hartley’s Guide to Swinging” as well as one on anal intercourse. Macy then added, “In the end, she gave these films as wrap gifts! It was great to see (the reactions); anal intercourse? THANK YOU NINA!”

There was a number of actual adult film actors involved in the making of “Boogie Nights.” One of the girls who had a small scene in the movie came to Macy’s attention while he was having lunch one day with Anderson. She came down and sat between the two of them and asked Paul a career question, “Should I go legit or should I go anal?”

Reitman went back to the long shot which ended when Little Bill puts the gun in his mouth and blows his brains out. What made this shot particularly dangerous was Macy had to wear a squib on the side of his head. With squibs, the crew doesn’t want you to move around at all for your own good, and Macy went into detail over why it was so dangerous.

“What was dangerous about it was they let me do it,” Macy said. “I found out since then that they no longer let actors use that kind of squib. It’s a little explosive device and it’s called a gore gun. So I had this little backpack with all this blood and brains that would come shooting out the back, and it was wired to the pistol so that when I fired the pistol, that’s what set off the ‘gore gun’ and that’s not allowed anymore. A stunt guy sets off the gore gun now, but there is a cut because we couldn’t figure out how to do the whole thing with a loaded gun and the gore pack. So there is a cut.”

The conversation then went to the tone of a movie and what a director actually does. It’s nowhere as simple as Burt Reynolds’ character of Jack Horner makes it look in “Boogie Nights.” Reitman took the time to explain what he thinks tone is.

“Tone is like this inexplicable thing that, if you ask what a director actually does, it’s not like setting up shots or telling actors what to do,” Reitman said. “Really, what a director does is set tone. It’s not about the words; it’s about the feeling that carries through the scenes, and P.T. A’s movies have a very specific tone to them.”

Reitman then asked Macy if this is something he feels on set or if it was something he didn’t realize until he saw the finished product. Macy said he wasn’t aware of how special “Boogie Nights” was until he saw the final cut, and he was understandably very impressed with it. This led him to talk about when he made “The Cooler” (the mention of it got a strong applause from the audience) which contains one of his very best performances.

“The director kept telling me, ‘Wait until you hear the score!’ To where I finally said, ‘Dude, if you think the music is going to save this then you’re in trouble!’ I was wrong, and when he put that lush score over the film it was a different sort of film, and he had that in his head the whole time,” Macy said.

Macy went on to say the tone of the set bleeds onto the film and the way you comport yourself, or how your first assistant director comports his or herself.

“To my mind, it’s always like going to war then making art,” Macy said. “You need a good general. I’ve been known to call in first time directors and I say to them, ‘If I catch you making art on my time, then we’re going to have trouble.’ You better know what you want because it’s more like going to war.”

One of the best moments of the evening came when Macy talked about the extras who were brought in when Anderson shot the scenes at the adult movie awards. They were all told to bring their best 70’s clothes and that they were working on a Burt Reynolds movie. Then there was that moment where actress Melora Waters is about to give an award to Mark Wahlberg, and it was worded a little differently than what we saw in the theatrical version.

“I’ve seen all his movies and I can’t wait to get his cock inside my pussy, MR. DIRK DIGGLER!”

Macy said the whole crowd just sat there in utter silence, completely unprepared for what they heard. It certainly wasn’t your average everyday Burt Reynolds movie.

All in all, it was another fun evening which provided an in depth look into one of the best movies of the 1990’s, and “Boogie Nights” made clear to the world Paul Thomas Anderson was a born filmmaker.

 

 

 

 

Blue Collar

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Even though it was made back in 1978, “Blue Collar” doesn’t feel at all dated thematically. Dealing with crooked unions and frustrations with a job that never pays you enough is something many of us still deal with in this day and age. Watching it more than 30 years after its initial release makes me wonder how much, if any, progress has been made for any American workers.

Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto star as a trio of Detroit auto workers who work hard at their jobs but never get much respect for what they do. They get crap thrown at them by their superiors, and the union doesn’t seem all that interested in helping them. The divisions between the blue and white collar workers are heavily pronounced, and tensions and bitterness are always at an all-time high.

Pryor’s character of Zeke Brown feels especially disrespected and is never afraid to hide his frustrations from the union or anyone else who pisses him off. Even worse, Zeke gets a visit from the IRS informing him of back taxes he can’t even afford to pay. Keitel’s character of Jerry Bartowski works at a gas station as well as the auto factory, but barely make ends meet and can’t even afford braces for his daughter who desperately needs them. Then there’s Kotto’s character of Smokey James, a man who served time in prison and is well aware of how the class structure is designed to keep everyone where they are so the powerful people can stay powerful. But even he has his breaking point, and he’s finally reaching it after all this time.

Fed up with the union’s incompetence, the three men rob the union of the money they keep in their not very well hidden vault. The robbery is sloppily handled, but they make out with the safe which has only a few hundred dollars, but it also contains a ledger which shows how seriously corrupt the union is. On top of being involved in an illegal loan lending operation, the ledger also shows their ties with organized crime syndicates. With this information, they decide to blackmail the crooked union into giving them tons of cash which will take care of all their financial problems. Their plan, however, soon exposes their naïve nature as the union quickly resorts to methods which can never be mistaken as legal.

What will happen from there will tear friendships apart and leave them paranoid of one another and of those they can’t trust. “Blue Collar” works as a critique of those unions which poorly represent their workers, and it is also a brilliant character piece and a thriller where lives hang in the balance as the powers that be aren’t about to be comprised by anyone, especially those in the lower class.

“Blue Collar” was Schrader’s directorial debut, and it’s a remarkably impressive one. He vividly captures the hard-working atmosphere these men inhabit and is aided by a tough as nails blues song for the movie’s main title which was performed by the late Captain Beefheart. There are moments in the “Hard Workin’ Man” song where all the other instruments disappear except for a deep thundering metal boom which hints at the anger and frustration slowly boiling to the surface for these characters. The environment they work in is harsh and unforgiving, and while they value what they do, no one above them seems to as they are considered to be easily disposable.

This was one of Pryor’s few dramatic roles, but it’s not bereft of his humor. Considering his work as a comedian and a social satirist, he is perfectly cast here and infuses the Zeke with humor and a wounded soul which will never fully be mended. Pryor really shows an acting range most dramatic actors only dream of having.

In fact, that’s the sad thing about watching Pryor in this film; he really was one of the lost dramatic actors of our time as he never got to play many serious roles which were deserving of his talent. We all know him to be one of the best comedians ever, and he did star in some very funny movies. Still, he got stuck in a lot of crappy ones which never utilized his talents fully, and it is an enormous loss he never got to do more dramatic work.

Keitel gives another great performance in a career filled with them, and he always inhabits his characters more than play them. Jerry Bartowski is a strong guy on the surface, but seeing him become completely unraveled after the robbery allows Keitel to expose the character’s vulnerabilities of which there are plenty. There are moments where he doesn’t utter a word and yet you can see on his face what is racing through his anxiety-ridden mind. Bartowski may see himself as his own man who answers to no one, but he soon finds there is a limit to the choices he has when it comes to keeping his head above water.

Kotto, who has since become one of the most undervalued actors working today, has constantly been cast as an unforgettable imposing presence in every film he has appeared in. Whether it’s as Parker in “Alien,” Special Agent Mosley in “Midnight Run” or as Al Giardello on the brilliant “Homicide: Life on the Street,” he never fails in giving us a character who feels larger than life. “Blue Collar” is no exception as he portrays someone wise about the world around him, but not wise enough to know when he and his pals are digging a hole too deep for them to climb out of. His character’s fate feels the most tragic as a result, and the last scene he has is amazing in its power.

With Schrader’s movies, a common theme runs through them of the emasculated male wanting to make a difference in a society he sees as corrupt and in need of saving. Be it Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in “Light Sleeper” or even Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse from “Affliction,” Schrader deals fearlessly with characters whose hold on sanity we see constantly erode. Now with the three leads in “Blue Collar,” each of them are pushed to the limit as they slowly realize the trouble they have brought upon themselves. Watching it destroy their friendship, which brings about a strong mistrust between them, is as fascinating as it is painful to witness.

I’m not sure how many people out there are aware of “Blue Collar,” but it is one of those movies from the 70’s deserving of a big audience from one generation to the next. Watching it today is even more bittersweet as those auto factories in Michigan where the movie was shot no longer exist. It was tough for the people who worked there back then, but imagine what it must be like for them now. The movie ends in a freeze frame which brilliantly encapsulates how the union and those in power continue to stay on top of the working man. After all these years, it doesn’t feel like much has changed, but anyone and everyone out there is welcome to prove me wrong.

* * * * out of * * * *

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

halloween-1978-poster

What is there to say about “Halloween” which hasn’t already been said? It has been discussed ad nauseam, and even Carpenter must be sick of talking about it all the time. Granted, he did take the time to record a new commentary track with Jamie Lee Curtis for Anchor Bay’s 35th anniversary edition, but when the 25th anniversary edition came out it just had the same commentary track from the Criterion Collection laserdisc.

We all know the story, and this is in large part due to the countless imitators who rushed to create their own psychotic killer following “Halloween’s” astonishing success. At the time of its release, it was the most successful independent movie ever made. Made for about $300,000, it ended up grossing over $50 million. “Friday The 13th” would never have existed without “Halloween,” and that franchise is far more responsible for those clichés horror movies exploit to infinity.

What I love about “Halloween” is how down to earth it is. All of these characters come across as very relatable. The way the script is written and how the actors played their roles, they easily reminded us of people from our own lives we grew up with. The only character in the whole movie who is NOT down to earth is Michael Meyers as he is a killer who has no real motive for why he heads back home to kill. As the movie goes on, we eventually stop seeing him as a person and instead as a force of evil which cannot be easily stopped.

We have all lived in a town like Haddonfield, a small town where families can raise their children in peace, or so it would seem, and the problems they face there end up paling in comparison to those they were forced to endure in the city. The parents see small town life as a home away from reality, but for the children it is reality. It is all they know. So when multiple murders occur there, it threatens to define the town more than anything else. Was there anything interesting about Haddonfield before young Michael Meyers took a knife to his sister when he was only a boy?

I also love how “Halloween” was shot. Working with Director of Photography Dean Cundey, Carpenter creates truly unnerving visuals of a killer lurking in the shadows. One moment Michael appears in the frame, and in the next he is gone. Michael could be anywhere and there is no escape from him. How does one escape from evil anyway? One of Carpenter’s main themes with “Halloween” is how evil never dies. It is a force which is with us whether we like it or not, and it is always just around the corner…

One of my favorite shots is when little Tommy is fooling around with Lindsay as they watch Howard Hawks’ version of “The Thing.” But when Tommy turns around and looks out the window, he sees a man carrying a lifeless body from the garage to the front door. The bullies at school kept warning him about the boogeyman coming, and it is an unfortunate and infuriating coincidence that they are correct. It is one of the creepiest images from “Halloween,” and it is one which always stays with me. Don’t you wonder what your neighbors are up as you look at their houses across the street?

The other brilliant thing about “Halloween” is how it was edited in such a way where you cannot be sure when or where Michael will appear next. The best example of this is when Laurie Strode is running away from Michael. Carpenter puts us right in her shoes as she desperately tries to escape the madman who wears an altered William Shatner mask. The editing plays with your emotions beautifully. You want her to escape, but you soon feel as helpless as her as she yells at Tommy to wake the hell up.

The moment where Laurie is at the front door of Tommy’s house, screaming for him to let her in, is one of the scariest scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It intercuts with her banging on the door while the Shape approaches her, and Carpenter succeeds brilliantly in leaving us stuck in a place we are desperate to escape from. Like her, we are begging for Tommy to unlock the door to where we want to yell at the movie screen, TV set or whatever device you are watching this movie on.

And who could ever forget the music? Carpenter’s score for “Halloween” ranks among the greatest horror movie scores ever composed to where I would put it up alongside Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho.” Carpenter’s musical work has been done mostly in a minimalist style, very much unlike the bombastic orchestral scores from every other Hollywood composer. After all these years, the main title for “Halloween” is a piece of music I never get sick of listening to. The music succeeds in heightening the ever growing tension which never lets up even after the movie is ovr.

The final shot is unnerving and utterly perfect in the way Carpenter shows how evil never dies. We see images we have become familiar with throughout the movie, and they now have the stain of evil on them. The point is point he could be anywhere at this point.

This is definitely one of my all-time favorite movies, and the recent 35th anniversary edition Blu-ray reminded me of how I never get tired of watching it. Jamie Lee Curtis is great here as Laurie Strode, the only one who is the least bit observant about what’s going on around her. Then you have P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis as Laurie’s so-called friends who frolic around, completely unaware of the killer stalking them from a distance. And you have Donald Pleasance, and his Dr. Loomis is a character which pretty much came to define the latter half of the franchise.

Many say “Halloween” originated the undying cliché of how teenagers who have premarital sex and do drugs are the first ones to be killed off. In the Criterion commentary, both Carpenter and the late Debra Hill make it abundantly clear they were not trying to lay any sort of judgment on these characters. Religion was not intended to shoved down our throats by anyone involved with this movie. These characters don’t get murdered because they are sinners, but because they aren’t paying attention to what is going on around them. Laurie Strode, on the other hand, is always very suspicious of her surroundings.

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” will always remain the best of all the so-called slasher movies in my humble opinion. There is no way anyone can top what he did with the 1978 classic, and this is even though Rob Zombie’s take on Michael Meyers was better than people gave his “Halloween” movies credit for. It has reached such a high level of praise in the ever growing pantheon of cinema to where duplicating its power is extremely difficult to pull off. The fact it still has the power to unsettle generations of audiences is a testament to Carpenter’s brilliance as a director, and its amazing success led him to make many other great films which continue to stay with us long after the end credits have finished.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys poster 1

After exploring the superhero genre with “Iron Man 3,” writer and director Shane Black returns to the one he mastered years ago: the buddy cop movie. Black is the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” which he also directed. Now he gives us “The Nice Guys” which takes us back to the 1970’s and teams up Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as men involved in a murder mystery only they can solve.

“The Nice Guys” takes us back to 1977 and even features the “Big W” Warner Brothers logo Ben Affleck used to great effect in “Argo.” We even get some nice retro credits presented to the tune of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” so it doesn’t take Black long to transport us back to a time where laws against smoking were nowhere as strict as they are today. Black gives us some wonderful introductions to enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and down-on-his-luck private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling), men who are not at their peak of their lives and are looking for reasons to justify their existence.

Like Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans in “The Last Boy Scout,” Jackson and Holland do not get off to the best start, and this is especially the case after Jackson breaks Holland’s arm with what seems like little ease. But the both of them come to see they need each other to discover the whereabouts of Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), a missing girl who may be connected to the death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Actually, describing the plot of this movie is a bit complicated as it is a little hard to follow, but perhaps a second viewing will help to answer questions viewers had the first time around.

Black, along with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi, still knows how to create potent dialogue with a kick to it, and it makes the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe all the more palpable. After all these years, Black can still deliver a number of zingers few other screenwriters could pull off with as much success. As a director, he captures the mood of the 1970’s with a lot of flair and panache, and he makes the audience feel all the kicks and punches which come at them with fierce brutality.

Gosling nails the vulnerabilities and complications of Holland with a fearlessness, and he renders certain moments like when he suddenly discovers a dead body with an originality which makes them all the more memorable. As for Crowe, he has never had much success with comedy judging from his failed turn as a romantic comedy leading man in “A Good Year.” But here he fares much better as Jackson as this role plays on his strengths as a tough guy while at the same time playing around with this image of his. When he stares down a suspect he’s about to give a serious beating to, it makes you wonder why he even bothers wearing brass knuckles. His demeanor should be more than enough to intimidate anybody foolish enough to cross his path.

I also have to single out Angourie Rice’s performance as Holland’s daughter, Holly, as she more than holds her own opposite Gosling and Crowe. She also reminds us of how the younger generation is quick to call out their parents on the baloney they feed them on a regular basis. Rice makes Holy into a young girl wise beyond her years as a result of watching her dad fumble about much too often in life. She also reminds us of how we eventually become too benumbed by the unfairness of life as she holds a high moral standard that we have long since given up on out of hopelessness, and it makes for some powerful scenes in which she reminds the adults of why they are flat out wrong on certain issues.

“The Nice Guys” provides audiences with the opportunity to seek out a movie not populated with superheroes, and it is unafraid to brush political correctness aside without a second look. It’s giddy fun as it doesn’t conform to the cinematic norm which is overly influenced by corporations and needless test screenings. This one is its own beast, and taming it does it no justice. Either enjoy for what it is or see something else.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * ½ out of * * * *