Movie Reviews

by Mark Leeper

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

Donnie Brasco -- Kolya
Sling Blade -- Private Parts
Devil's Own

Donnie Brasco

A hit man for the Mob brings in a new
recruit and treats him like a father little
suspecting that the young man is really an
undercover FBI agent. Al Pacino turns in a
memorable performance as sort of a Willy Loman of
crime, for once playing a low-level hood. Johnny
Depp turns in a just-okay performance in the title
role and is far outclassed. Much of this film
seems realistic and the film works surprisingly
well considering that the director is Mike Newell
who directed sedate British films like
Four Weddings and aFuneral.
Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4)

The setting is New York City, 1978. Lefty Ruggiero (played by Al Pacino) is one of this country's countless semi-failures, able to get by just acceptably in a dead end job, but he is never really going be successful. Lefty's job is working for the crime syndicate and especially killing people now and then when the need arises. He knows he is well into the second half of his life, has a moderately okay home life though his son is a drug addict and that bothers him. His path crosses that of Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), a young kid who seems to have the horse sense that would make him do well in the Syndicate. Lefty takes Donnie under his wing and helps him to make a name for himself in the local mob. Perhaps he sees in Donnie the son he does not really feel he has at home. What Lefty does not know is that Donnie Brasco is really FBI agent Joe Pistone on assignment to go undercover to collect information about the Organized Crime. The two men become close friends and in spite Lefty's having been a murderer many times over, Donnie learns to like the older man. Brasco knows that if he is ever discovered, both he and Lefty will be killed. At the same time being Brasco is a full-time job and that means that his Joe Pistone side must spend most of his life away from his family. This puts a real strain on his marriage. There just is not enough of Joe Pistone to be two people. The story, which is based on truth, gives us an inside view of the workings of organized crime and at the time shows how Joe handles his life that often calls for him to be away from his family for months at a time. There are signs that Joe will be the same sort of failure working for the FBI that Lefty is for the Mob. On the other hand, Donnie begins to discover that he could have been fairly successful if he had sincerely gone in for organized crime. Donnie's feigned drive seems to sell better than Lefty's more sincere loyalty.

DONNIE BRASCO is something of a departure for director Mike Newell. Newell directed ENCHANTED APRIL, INTO THE WEST, and FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL. Making a film in GOODFELLAS territory is one of the last things that would have been expected of him. He gets the dialog and the feel of the film just about right. Part of how he does this is filming on the streets of New York City. The mentor/student relationship between Lefty and Brasco and between Joe and the other agents of the FBI allows the script to explain things reasonably comfortably and allows the viewer to pick up nuances in the conversation that would not otherwise be obvious. Among other things we learn is about six different, often contradictory, meanings for the phrase "forget about it." Under Newell's direction we learn just about everything that there is to know about the voluble Lefty. Pacino rarely stops talking and when he does talk he uses low-class profanity and candid vocabulary. On the other hand, Johnny Depp plays his character as quiet and unemotional so that we are rarely sure what his is thinking and feeling--at least not from his performance. It is Pacino who holds our attention. But the longer the two men are together the more of Lefty's behavior and mannerisms Joe seems to pick up and use even in his personal life.

This film does give in to some prosaic touches. Any film about Italian gangsters seems to need a scene of cooking. At least if you are Italian, what crime does not pay in money it pays in dividends that show up on your waistline. That is part of the genre and it has come to an expected feature of Italian gangster films. More irritating, however, are the number of product placements that Newell has put into his film. It is not even particularly subtly done. In the middle of a dark warehouse neighborhood there will be a big company logo very obviously placed in the picture. Deep focus is used in a kitchen scene so that the viewer can pick up the name on a cereal box. Later much the same is done with a scene at an airport in which the camera focus lets us read clearly the company name on a plane. If Newell has so little respect for his own movie that he sells advertising space in it, it is a lot harder for me as a viewer to respect it.

The script seems to have been written with the emphasis on Brasco balancing two very different lives, but in fact Pacino pulls our attention toward his character and make him more of interest than Depp's. Overall I rate DONNIE BRASCO a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info about Donnie Brasco at the Internet Movie Database


Kolya has a safe-bet plot: a fifty-five-year-old bachelor suddenly reluctantly
inheriting a son. After he stops fighting it, he finds parenthood fulfilling an
emptiness in his life. The familiar plot is made somewhat more
interesting by being set in a Czechoslovakia while Soviet rule is crumbling.
If the plot is unambiguous, at least the film is well-photographed and has a good
score and the screenplay by Zdenek Sverak (who also stars) is frequently touching.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4).
New York Critics: positive: 7, negative: 0, mixed 0

Frantisek Louka (played by Zdenek Sverak) is a fifty-five-year-old Bohemian--both figuratively and literally. He plays the cello for the Czech Philharmonic when he can, plays for funerals when he must to make ends meet, and supplements his meager income by performing cosmetic maintenance on gravestones. He still retains some of his good looks so that he can still womanize. His only responsibility in life is occasionally taking care of his mother. But times are hard in 1988 Prague and he has to look for money where he can. That was how he learned of Nadezda (Irena Livanova) an attractive Russian woman looking for a technical husband so that she can establish Czech citizenship. She is willing to pay well and reluctantly Frantisek agrees to marry her for one night. Then she disappears into the night, escaping to West Germany and leaving her son Kolya (Andrej Chalimon) with his grandmother. Frantisek is pleased that the incident is over when suddenly the grandmother suffers a stroke and Kolya has to come live with him.

This year's nominee for Best Foreign Language film from the Czech Republic is a nice amiable movie that has been done many times before in several different languages. A bachelor finds he has inherited a five- year-old. At first the child is a monumental inconvenience and the man wants to see the boy gone. But of course they learn to love each other and then have to struggle to stay together. . The old man and the boy go through much the sort of relationship that has been shown so often before. We have the scenes of the father's sex life being interrupted by the presence of the child. There is the requisite sequence of the child getting sick and the father worrying over him. It would be nice to accept this film as a creative entry from Eastern Europe, but so much of the film is predictable and taken up with sequences that have become hackneyed that one has to start faulting the film for this lack of originality. KOLYA is too much like THREE MEN AND A CRADLE/BABY, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, BABY BOOM or LITTLE MISS MARKER- -with minor variations in each case. The plot has an irresponsible adult reluctantly forced into a parental role discovering what he (or she) has been missing all these years. It is at heart an affirmation of parenthood that pretty much cannot fail to win the favor of the audience.

Where this film gets much of its novelty is in the political climate of Czechoslovakia in 1988. Nearly everyone in Eastern Europe had an intense hatred of anything Russian. Frantisek has to hide the fact that Kolya is Russian. Even Frantisek's mother does not want the boy in her house when she discovers that he is Russian. Frantisek in talking to the boy compares his inability to get rid of the boy with his country's inability to rid itself of the Russian occupiers. We get some idea of why the Russians are so hated by seeing the Soviet Police and their interrogation of Frantisek when they believe he has married Nadezda to get around the law. Our last scene with the two policemen makes the single most striking irony of the film.

KOLYA was directed and co-produced by thirty-one-year-old Jan Sverak. He is the son of Zdenek Sverak, who plays Frantisek. Zdenek co-authored the screenplay. He is well-cast as Frantisek, still having much of the verve of his youth but matching it with distinguished good looks. One could believe that at fifty-five this man could still fascinate a string of lovers. Andrej Chalimon is, of course, an adorable child with a round face and big eyes. He perhaps cries a little, understandably, but he never seems to have the sort of bad- behavior days that real children seem to have. He is just a bit too perfect. Such children do exist, of course, but after what this child has been through it seems unlikely that Kolya would still be one. There are a number of attractive paramours for Frantisek, but the sex is never explicit.

In general this film is a bit too likable and neat. This is good entertainment rather than good art. Overall I would rate it a high +1 on the - 4 to +4 scale.

More info about Kolya at the Internet Movie Database

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