Untouchables, The (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assigned to work with cops in Chicago to deal with the flow of illegal liquor and violence during the Prohibition. Everybody knows that Alphonse “Al” Capone (Robert De Niro) is ultimately in charge of importing and distributing alcohol to and around the country, but the police and others in power are either too afraid to stop him or are being paid to keep quiet. Agent Ness, therefore, thinks it is necessary to form his own team (Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia), men of the law with whom he can trust, to bring down the head gangster.
Based on the screenplay by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, “The Untouchables” is a good-looking action-thriller with a number of memorable set pieces that are certain to entertain. What the picture lacks, however, is complexity in terms of characterization. Though the demarcation between the good and the bad guys are well-defined, there is little cross-over in terms of how they think and the decisions they must make to achieve a goal. Thus, when a supposedly dramatic moment in which a character must choose between upholding the law versus personal vengeance, the dramatic gravity appears slight.
More than a few may argue that Costner is robotic in playing the lead—but I disagree. I enjoyed that it is difficult to read him at times, Costner playing Agent Ness almost guarded. After all, he is a stranger in the city and he has been assigned an important task of taking down one of the most visible criminals in the country at the time. I did not see his performance as robotic or wall-like; rather, the character has a lot to accomplish but he does not quite know where to start and so he covers it up by looking composed and professional. He wants to gain the respect of those who doubt what he can do.
De Niro’s performance is good but the character is not well-written. I found this Capone to be cartoonish—with only one really good scene involving a baseball bat. Mamet does not allow the character to do very much other than to look polished and sound sinister every time he must make a speech. The more interesting villain is Frank Nitti (chillingly played by Billy Drago), one of the henchmen who we cannot wait to get his comeuppance.
The action scenes make an imprint because they unfold like a thriller. Particular standouts include the station and the baby stroller, a rooftop chase, the raid at the border between the U.S. and Canada. De Palma employs uncomfortable pauses during critical moments. Just when we are ready to take the punch, he delays just a bit to catch us slightly off-guard. He does this time and again but it does not get old because there is almost always a bit of variation to keep the approach fresh.
The clothes, the sets, the hairstyles, and other elements designed to summon the 1930s are carefully picked out. Though they are easy on the eyes, they are never distracting. Couple the images of the past with a modern action-thriller score, one creates an interesting dichotomy. Although some may disapprove of the background music, I found it fitting considering the off-beat use of camera angles and pacing of action scenes.
“The Untouchables” would have been a more complete experience if we had gotten to know Agent Ness’ partners beyond what they can do superficially or their expertise. They are, however, given some memorable lines, particularly of Connery’s character giving advice to the federal agent in terms of what he should be willing to do or cross to capture the seemingly untouchable Al Capone.
Winslow Boy, The (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
Just when the Winslow clan were about to make a toast for Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon) and John’s (Aden Gillett) marriage, Ronnie (Guy Edwards), the youngest member of the family, arrived from The Royal Naval Academy. It turned out Ronnie had been expelled because the academy deemed him to be a thief. Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne), the patriarch, sacrificed the family fortune, his health, and relationship with his wife (Gemma Jones), Catherine, and elder son (Matthew Pidgeon) in pursuit of clearing the Winslow name. This film delighted me because it delivered the unexpected. The source of tension wasn’t in the courtroom scenes but in the way the family members and their friends (Colin Stinton, Sarah Flind) responded the great changes in their lives as the case gained popularity. Arthur was a proud man but he was aware that his quest for justice might not always be the right thing to do. He had to make very difficult decisions as he saw his daughter’s prospect of marriage vanish, embraced the possibility that his son might be telling a lie, and took his eldest son out of school because money was becoming an issue. The film was also about the partnership between a father and his only daughter. Catherine had clear political leanings and, like Jane Austen’s most fun and interesting female characters, she wasn’t afraid to express her opinions in a direct and honest way. There were a number of times when Arthur asked Catherine if he was being foolish and perhaps he ought to stop his crusade. Despite the fact that it was important for Catherine to get married soon, especially since she was almost thirty, she was worthy of admiration because putting her family ahead of herself was never in question. I thought Catherine was one of the most fascinating figures in the film because she was a feminist yet she willingly took the role of the obedient woman. By taking that role, she showed us that being a woman was not a handicap, that women could be as strong, intelligent, and dedicated as the men in charge of the courtroom. The addition of Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), the Winslow’s cunning defense lawyer, challenged and, despite the difference in their political alignment, attracted her. Pidgeon’s nuanced acting made the film believable and relevant. Based on a play by Terence Rattigan, “The Winslow Boy,” directed by David Mamet,” was beautifully shot. Each movement of the camera had a sense of urgency. Most importantly, it was full of passionate dialogue and it underlined the complexity between justice and doing what is right.
House of Games (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite her many successes in her career, a psychiatrist named Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) felt like something was missing in her life. She had her routine at work but at the end of the day she wondered if she was even alive. A void was inside her was increasing in size and she didn’t know how to fill it up. When a patient with a gambling problem confessed to her that he’d be killed if he didn’t come up with the money the next day, she went to a bar and met Mike (Joe Mantegna), the man who supposedly would murder her patient. Being next to him, she felt instant attraction. And when she found out about his occupation, she felt excitement–something that helped to cure the emptiness inside her. The film’s greatest weapon was its script. Every time the characters would speak, I was drawn to them because they were intelligent but ultimately wounded. The camera would move with jurisdiction whenever there was a subtle change in tone so I was always curious with what was about to transpire. After many twists involving several cons, I tried to stay one step ahead of the material just as the characters eventually tried to outsmart each other. The filmmakers had fun with the material because there were times when I thought a twist would occur but it simply didn’t. There were other times when my hypotheses were correct. Furthermore, I was surprised how exciting it was even though it lacked car chases and explosions, elements that are easily found in movies like this one. Instead, the picture focused on the characters and how the dynamics between them changed drastically with a slight of hand. As much as I liked the heist scenes, I found Dr. Ford’s compulsions to be most disturbing and haunting. The way the darkness in her moved from her thoughts to her actions made me feel very uncomfortable. The scary thing is that I found a bit of myself in her. I’m a perfectionist and I love my routine. I love being around people and working with them but sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth it. Like her, there are times when I feel the need to do something completely out of character because constantly trying to have everything just right had become trite and painfully boring. In other words, sometimes I feel like the law doesn’t apply to me because I’ve been a model citizen. Written and directed by David Mamet, “House of Games” was a psychological thriller that worked in multiple levels. Its subject matter directly and astutely commented on human nature and how our behavior could sometimes define us.