Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Abel Ferrara films

Director Profile: Abel Ferrara, part I

Over the last few months, I have seen Abel Ferrara's name mentioned quite a bit both on film magazines and Internet film sites. A big reason for that has been around Ferrara's latest film Go Go Tales which premiered at Cannes and garnered a lot of attention. I must admit that when I first saw his name, I could not pin-point which films he had directed. But after a quick search, I found that I was familiar with a few of his films. I had seen Body Snatchers and knew about Bad Lieutenant. However, one film title stood out -- Crime Story. When I was a young kid, I used to love watching the TV series Crime Story. In fact, I used to stay up late (way past my bedtime) to watch the show. Even though I was too young to understand the plot intricacies, I knew enough to be able to identify Dennis Farina playing the good cop and the character Ray Luca (played by Anthony Denison) as the bad guy. And ofcourse, the opening credits song was burned into my head. Almost two decades later, I can still remember the lyrics clearly:

"And I wonder
I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder
Ah-why-why-why-why-why she ran away
And I wonder where she will stay
My little runaway , run-run-run-run-runaway"

So it was appropriate that I should start my Abel Ferrara spotlight with the pilot movie that started the series that I loved so much....

Crime Story (1986): Rating 7.5/10

The title song comes on. Memories gush in and a few seconds later, Dennis Farina appears on screen playing the tough no-nonsense cop, Lt. Mike Torello. The countdown starts until the smooth talking manipulative mobster Ray Luca appears. But after my happy memories fade away, I find myself faced with a film that was typical of what I remember about 80's TV -- tough macho men, cheesy dialogues and average production values. Ofcourse, it is unfair comparing TV of the past with the slick productions that exist today. Still, it was worth watching this film to know how the rivalry between Lt. Mike Torello and Ray Luca started.

In the film, I was surprized to find the presence of a younger David Caruso playing a punk gangster who is eager to make it big. Ofcourse, back then David Caruso was at the start of his TV career and his famous roles in NYPD Blue and CSI were still about 7 and 16 years away respectively.

Now onto some Ferrara films that I never saw before....

New Rose Hotel (1998): Rating 6/10

Based on a short story by William Gibson, New Rose Hotel is a story about corporate espionage. I can see what Ferrara was intending to do with this film but the end result is a dull hazy dream. Fox (Christopher Walken) and X (Willem Dafoe) have spent a year trying to hatch a plan to trap a Japanese genius, Hiroshi. But nothing they have come with is a good idea until Fox spots Sandii (Asia Argento) in a club. He offers her a million dollars to woe Hiroshi. She eventually agrees despite X not liking the idea because of his love towards her. How she manages to crawl into bed with Hiroshi is kept off-screen. This is a good strategy on Ferrara's part as it forces us to see the movie from X's point of view. X is in the dark regarding Sandii and what is going on with her after she leaves for Marrakesh with Hiroshi. And the lack of information coupled with a few tidbits of rumours tears him apart. The movie's grainy video footage adds to the nightmarish trip that X is going through. As he is trying to rehash the past, the same scenes are repeated over and over without any variation. While X maybe be thinking the same things over and over, having the audience see the repeated scenes adds nothing to the movie. As a result, the film loses any freshness and slowly grinds towards the end.

The Funeral (1996): Rating 8.5/10

"You know what your problem is? You read too many books. F***ing up your brain."

Johnny: "That's the American tragedy -- we need something to distract us. That's all we got is books[sic]. Maybe radios and movies. Keeps us alive."

Not exactly the words you would expect in a gangster movie, but this is not an ordinary mobster film. It is Ferrara's take on a mafia story seen through the eyes of the three Tempio brothers and the women around them.

Johnny (Vincent Gallo) is the youngest of the three brothers (22 years) and the only one capable of speaking the above words. Yes he is reckless but he does think every now and then. Chez (Chris Penn in an electrifying role) is a highly emotional person -- one minute he is calm and considerate, followed by a sudden burst of violent anger and a few moments later in tears and in a suicidal state. Ray (Christopher Walken) is the eldest and is almost a fatherly presence to both. He knows when to kill and when to not pull the trigger. Ray evaluates all his actions from a moral point of view and is not afraid to use religion to reason things out.

The movie starts with a funeral and has a few flashback sequences which are not entirely related but shed some light on each of the brother's personalities. For a change, we also get to see things from the women's point of view with Jean (Annabella Sciorra) being given the most interesting part as Ray's wife. As Jean mentions, the women can only stand on the sidelines and watch the Tempio men throw their lives away.

The film is raw and provides emotional scenes that other mobster movies wouldn't bother having -- family arguments over trivial matter, mobs discussing the merits of taking revenge or not, etc. Best to watch without knowing the story as Ferrara is not afraid to throw in a complete surprize or two just when we least expect it.

Next up: 5 more Ferrara features along with some early shorts.........

Parts II & III of the spotlight.

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