When Pacino Met De Niro

Heat finally brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together. The Godfather Part II doesn’t count since it was impossible for them to share screen time. Pacino and De Niro have been gangster royalty for decades, but it wasn’t until 1995 that they finally found the perfect project to star in. Heat was technically written by expert crime director Michael Mann as early as 1979. It was based on a real life crime story before being developed as a failed 1989 pilot turned TV movie titled L.A. Takedown. Although I (like most people) was drawn to the A-list cast, Heat is really one of the most influential crime dramas ever made. Shocking that it didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. It’s a nearly 3 hour epic that delves into the everyday life of an L.A. police lieutenant and a career criminal. Heat is a game of cat and mouse between Pacino’s Lieutenant Vincent Hanna and De Niro’s Neil McCauley.

Pacino goes big with a loud performance of Hanna who dedicates his life to the heat. An improvised scene involving Hank Azaria is unexpectedly funny, but Hanna feels most human in a scene where he comforts a grieving mother. Hanna’s job has a negative affect on his marriage to Justine played by a despondent Diane Venora. Though she doesn’t appear much, a young Natalie Portman leaves an impression as Hanna’s troubled stepdaughter. McCauley is not so different with De Niro taking a more subtle approach to a lonely criminal. His only attachment is Amy Brenneman as the innocent Eady. McCauley’s crew gets just as much development as he does. Val Kilmer is Chris Shiherlis, who has a wife and child that he takes for granted. Ashley Judd brings unexpected layers to their relationship as his wife Charlene. Tom Sizemore is Michael Cheritto, the second most trusted member of their operation.

Jon Voight stays out of the action as McCauley’s fence, but William Fichtner ends up crossing him as a money laundering client. Danny Trejo and Dennis Haysbert are getaway drivers with surprising arcs, but it’s Kevin Gage as a psychotic serial killer who cuts the deepest. They aren’t given the same amount of attention as McCauley’s crew, but Hanna’s fellow officers include dedicated performances from Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, and Ted Levine. Heat was most influential for action scenes like an armored car robbery with hockey masks or an extended shootout after a bank heist. The final confrontation at an airport is great, but nothing beats Hanna and McCauley having a mutual discussion about their lives over coffee. Although they share less than 10 minutes of screen time, Heat goes to show just how alike a hero and villain can be if they only take time to talk things out.


Lieutenant Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley meet for coffee

A Good Thing for a Bad Man

A Bronx Tale is a tale of two fathers. It was a personal story that Robert De Niro dedicated to his own father who past away the same year. A Bronx Tale originated from a one-man show based on the life of Italian American actor Chazz Palminteri. De Niro was so captivated by the performance that he immediately decided it would be his directorial debut. A Bronx Tale is a gangster story, but De Niro doesn’t play the gangster this time around. Palminteri got his big break as the feared mob boss Sonny, and De Niro goes against type as working class bus driver Lorenzo. In the middle is Lorenzo’s son Calogero based on Palminteri’s own childhood growing up in The Bronx during the 1960’s. The doo-wap soundtrack is a nice reflection of the time.

Calogero finds himself drawn to the local mob despite warnings from his father and conflicted mother played by Kathrine Narducci in her first acting role. We learn all about Calogero’s life and everything he knows about members in the mob. Even Joe Pesci shows up when we’d least expect it. Similar to Palminteri, everything changes when Calogero witnesses a murder perpetrated by Sonny. When he refuses to rat him out, Sonny takes him under his wing and gives him the nickname “C.” Think Goodfellas if more focus was on growing up. Francis Capra is perfect as a young naive Calogero, but it’s the older Lillo Brancato who really feels like a young De Niro. It’s a shame he was a victim of wasted talent.

A Bronx Tale is far more complex than simple good guy v.s. bad guy. Sonny seems like a ruthless gangster, but he does care enough about Calogero to keep him away from the violent aspect of his life. Lorenzo means well, but even he can have wrong viewpoints. A Bronx Tale does a good job of portraying racial tension between African Americans and Italian Americans. Most of it is tough to watch, but there is hope when Calogero falls for his classy black classmate Jane. Although young actress Taral Hicks is inexperienced, they have a cute relationship complicated by Calogero’s racist idiot wannabe gangster friends. A Bronx Tale deals with heavy themes, but it balances things out with a sneaky sense of humor. I’m so glad one of my closest co-workers suggested I watch it. A Bronx Tale is one of the most underappreciated gangster films I’ve ever seen.


Calogero rides the bus with his father

I’m Glad it’s You

Road to Perdition is an unconventional father-son story. After the Oscar winning success of American Beauty, Sam Mendes chose to direct a period piece that’s surprisingly based on a graphic novel from the DC comics imprint Paradox Press. Though the story centers around the Irish Mob in Depression era Chicago 1931. Since the quality is just as good as American Beauty, Road to Perdition became the most Oscar nominated comic book movie at the time. Despite the graphic novel being published in 1998, producers immediately saw its potential as a film and even Steven Spielberg considered directing. Road to Perdition was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Original Score, Sound, and Sound Editing. Conrad Hall won a posthumous Academy Award for Best Cinematography thanks to evocative shots of mobsters in the pouring rain.

Mendas uses a lot of motifs that he learned from American Beauty like family, water, and windows. I recognized the entire impressive cast consisting of Tom Hanks as the noble, but officiant mob enforcer Michael Sullivan. Before he was Superman, a very young Tyler Hoechlin played Sullivan’s son Michael Jr. who experiences violence for the first time after discovering what his father really does for a living. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Liam Aiken briefly play Sullivan’s wife and youngest son who are murdered by his bosses jealous son. Screen legend Paul Newman more than earned his Oscar nomination for playing the ruthless, but caring mob boss John Rooney in his last live action theatrical movie role. Since Rooney shows more affection towards Sullivan, Daniel Craig channels Fredo Corleone as his biological son Connor.

The biggest theme is the difficult relationship between fathers and their sons and the struggle to save an innocent from the violent world. Sullivan and his son hit the road to Perdition where they grow closer. The former seeks revenge by robbing the bank accounts of mobsters and teaching his son to be the getaway driver. Stanley Tucci plays real life bodyguard Frank Nitti who hides Connor, but Al Capone was left out of the final cut. Ciarán Hinds and Dylan Baker play subordinates who are killed along the way in quick fashion. Jude Law stands out as the cold, but charismatic hitman Maguire. The fact that he casually photographs dead bodies is another similarity to American Beauty, but it’s mostly the ending. I expected the fate of each father, but the hopeful scenes are the most effective part of the movie. Road to Perdition is a road best traveled.

Road to Perdition

Michael Sullivan confronts the mob

I Am a Revolutionary!

Judas and the Black Messiah is the second best Black Panther film I’ve seen with Daniel Kaluuya. I originally wrote it off as another angry race relations movie, but my mom explained its significance. Fred Hampton was a young civil rights activist who was chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. Since my mom grew up in Chicago during the 60’s, she vaguely remembers key events and my uncles actually met Hampton before he was assassinated. Like most outspoken black leaders, Hampton became a target, but this time it was the FBI who felt he was too radical. Judas and Black Messiah captures how the Black Panthers were armed and ready to fight oppression. What made Hampton different is how he recruited underprivileged whites and Hispanics to a Rainbow Coalition. There was also community outreach, but that’s not what they’ll be remembered for.

The Judas in the title refers to black FBI informant William O’Neal who sold out Hampton in exchange for a plea bargain. Despite being released in early 2021, Judas and the Black Messiah was the only non-2020 movie nominated for Best Picture. The Pandemic also meant a simultaneous release on HBO Max. More unusual was Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield both being nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It barely made sense since either of them could be the lead. Ironically, both actors were also in Get Out. Stanfield brings multiple layers to the conflicted O’Neal, but Kaluuya made Hampton such a powerful speaker that he ended up winning. H.E.R. won Best Original Song for “Fight for You,” but I tend to forget the song.

Judas and the Black Messiah has Ryan Coogler as a producer, confidant direction from the lesser known Shaka King, and a dedicated cast of up and coming actors. Jesse Plemons plays O’Neal’s close FBI handler who isn’t just a racist cop. Martin Sheen is both unrecognizable and unlikable as J. Edgar Hoover. Dominique Fishback and Dominique Thorne both make an impression as Hampton’s educated girlfriend Deborah Johnson and a proud sister respectively. Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Jermaine Fowler make up the rest of Hampton’s closest Black Panthers. Even Lil Rel Howery makes a cameo, but he’s a lot less helpful than he was in Get Out. I didn’t know how Hampton was assassinated, but it’s even more intense than I was expecting. Judas and the Black Messiah is revolutionary in its own right.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Fred Hampton speaks out

Infiltrate Hate

BlacKkKlansman is the most provocative Spike Lee Joint in years. It was enough to earn Lee his first Best Director nomination and first Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay. BlacKkKlansman was one of three black films nominated for Best Picture in 2018. Black Panther was a celebratory black film, BlacKkKlansman was an intense black film, and Green Book was the safe black film that ultimately won. Lee stormed out of the Academy Awards since it was practically a repeat of Driving Miss Daisy winning and Do the Right Thing not being nominated. I wasn’t surprised since BlacKkKlansman takes an angry approach that not everyone will be comfortable with. Though the ugliness of racism can be scary, BlacKkKlansman isn’t a horror movie despite having Jordan Peele and Jason Blum as producers. At this point I was getting tired of the constant message movies, but BlacKkKlansman is also a satire.

The real life Black Klansman story is exaggerated to show how absurd the Klu Klux Klan is. Detective Ron Stallworth was the first black cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department who infiltrated the KKK through phone calls. After working with his father, Lee gave John David Washington his big break as the stalwart Stallworth. Washington is great over the phone, but it’s really Adam Driver who gives the best performance as Detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman who impersonates the white Stallworth for in person meetings. Driver is funny, but he also shows Flip reconciling his Jewish faith while posing as a hateful white supremacist. Corey Hawkins and Laura Harrier represent the outspoken black civil rights leader Kwame Ture and Ron’s proud afro sporting Black Student Union girlfriend Patrice. Thanks to his experience in the 70’s and unfortunate likeness, Topher Grace successfully captures KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.

The duality of the white power KKK and black power Black Panthers is shown when the former enjoy The Birth of the Nation while the latter shows Harry Belafonte recounting the lynching of Jesse Washington. Stallworth gets close enough to take a picture, but in the end he deals with racist cops and Duke’s more reckless followers Ivanhoe, Felix, and his annoying wife. The bombing or Stallworth’s reveal may not have happened, but I expected dramatization. What I didn’t expect was the cross burning ending that leads to actual footage of the 2017 Charlottesville rally and fatal protest. I know Lee is a soapbox filmmaker, but this scene feels manipulative. Let’s just say having Alec Baldwin host a propaganda film in the beginning wasn’t an accident. I won’t get into any political discussions, but BlacKkKlansman is better when it doesn’t resort to accusations.


Ron Stallworth in the bar with Patrice

Dressed Up Back Up

Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son is double the drag, double the stupidity. After 11 years (and 5 years since the last Big Momma’s House), you’d think the same old comedy routine would get old. The 5% Rotten Tomatoes score is exactly the same as the sequel. I was 15 when Like Father, Like Son came out and I knew they were getting desperate at this point. Martin Lawrence took a pay cut just to reprise his role as Malcolm Turner/Big Momma, but none of the original cast is that commited. Nia Long is written out with an excuse that Sherry is at a retreat.

Jascha Washington refused to return, so he was replaced by Brandon T. Jackson who doesn’t even feel like Trent. Sherry and Malcolm’s baby is never mentioned. Instead Trent is an aspiring rapper at odds with his stepdad who wants him to go to college. The tone is a lot more inconsistent with a murder that Trent witnesses and no build up to the both of them disguising themselves as women. Malcolm steals Hattie Mae Pierce’s identity for the third and hopefully final time. The Big Momma act is seriously worn out at this point. We see Big Momma posing for a nude art class, playing Twister, and helping a school for girls.

The clueless headmistress hires him for a house mother position where they investigate a missing flash drive. Big Momma is one thing, but Charmaine is a far more annoying persona. Portia Doubleday and Michelle Ang are a few of the many attractive girls at the school, but Trent falls for and lies to Jessica Lucas as the artistic Haley. Like Father, Like Son rips-off Some Like it Hot worse than White Chicks. Big Momma meanwhile is constantly pursued by an uncredited Faizon Love. The villain is even more forgettable than the last movie. Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son drops the house and the quality of an already tired trilogy.

Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

Big Momma and her niece Charmaine

Preceded by: Big Momma’s House 2

You Must Be Stuck on Stupid

Big Momma’s House 2 is bigger, fatter, and dumber than the original. Big Momma’s House wasn’t comedy gold, but at least the cross-dressing premise works well enough the first time. Although I was 10 when the sequel came out, I remember thinking it looked unnecessary. Big Momma’s House 2 has a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason. Martin Lawrence slides back into the fatsuit after accepting more family friendly roles. It’s still PG-13, but Big Momma’s House 2 is clearly a kids movie. Malcolm Turner is now a PR mascot for the FBI married to Sherry and a stepdad to Trent.

Aside from embarrassment, Jascha Washington is barely in the movie. Nia Long is pregnant the entire time and suspicious of her husband. The real Hattie Mae Pierce is absent, but Malcolm assumes her identity once again as a nanny. Mark Moses is the absentee father and Emily Procter is the stressed mother. This time the forgettable threat is a computer virus that the father is involved with. Marisol Nichols is the head agent and Zachary Levi surprisingly makes his film debut as a more bumbling agent. Despite the case, Big Momma puts most of his energy into helping the Fuller kids.

As if Big Momma’s House wasn’t already a rip-off of Mrs. Doubtfire. Kat Dennings is rebellious teenager Molly who ends up kidnapped by the real villains. A very young Chloë Grace Moretz learns uncomfortable dances moves as the middle child ironically named Carrie. The youngest child Andrew doesn’t talk and jumps off of things. Aside from giving the family dog alcohol, Big Momma continues to be put in cringy situations. There’s a spa scene where he’s surrounded by supermodels and the disturbing visual of Big Momma at the beach in a one piece. The final cheerleading routine feels like a rip-off of Bring it On. Big Momma’s House 2 is even less original the second time around.

Big Momma's House 2

Big Momma in the changing room

Preceded by: Big Momma’s House & Followed by: Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

Grandma Knows She Got Game

Big Momma’s House is basically the black Mrs. Doubtfire. Which makes sense considering Greg Cannom did the makeup for both comedies. Although I was 5 when the movie came out, I never had any interest in Big Momma’s House. The most I ever saw was a Fox DVD video promo on my X-Men VHS tape. Although directed by Raja Gosnell, Big Momma’s House isn’t entirely kid friendly. Martin Lawrence goes undercover once again, but this time he’s FBI agent Malcolm Turner. Paul Giamatti is his bumbling partner John who helps him track down an escaped convict.

I never knew why he needed to wear his infamous fatsuit, blonde wig, and red floral dress, but he isn’t the original Big Momma. Singer Ella Mitchell is Southern grandma Hattie Mae Pierce who goes out of town. Don’t let the bathroom scene fool you, Big Momma’s House is funnier than it sounds. Although most of the jokes are just Lawrence pretending to be a fat black lady. He cooks with too much Crisco, delivers a baby, fights off a gentleman caller, and testifies at church. Using self defense at the community center and playing basketball get him caught by Anthony Anderson as a security guard, but everyone else is clueless.

Including Big Momma’s fine granddaughter Sherry played by Nia Long and her son Trent played by Jascha Washington. Although Sherry is a suspected accomplice of the convict, Malcolm ends up falling for her and bonding with Trent. Making any scene where he flirts with her as Big Momma awkward. Big Momma’s House has several small parts for Tichina Arnold, Carl Wright, Cedric the Entertainer, Octavia Spencer, and even a young Aldis Hodge. Things only get serious when Terrence Howard arrives as Sherry’s criminal ex-boyfriend. Although the final confrontation is cliché when everyone including Hattie Mae is brought together to discover the truth. Big Momma’s House makes the most out of a tired premise.

Big Momma's House

Big Momma cooks

Followed by: Big Momma’s House 2

They’re Up to Something Big

Harlem Nights is the first and only movie directed by famous comedian Eddie Murphy. It wasn’t a very fun experience, so he never did it again. I certainly didn’t know about Harlem Nights until one of my co-workers recommended it. For whatever reason, Murphy really wanted to write, direct, and star in a period piece. Harlem Nights is sort of a gangster movie set during late Prohibition era 1918 Harlem, New York. Murphy plays Quick, the adoptive son of nightclub owner Sugar Ray. Harlem Nights was also an excuse for Murphy to finally work with his stand-up comedy idol Richard Pryor.

Although they didn’t collaborate as much as he’d hoped, the cast includes several respected black comedians like the late Redd Foxx, Coming to America collaborator Arsenio Hall, Robin Harris, and his own brother Charlie Murphy. You also have singer Della Reese as a loudmouth pimp and Jasmine Guy as a sultry femme fatale. All of whom are given little to work with. Harlem Nights was just as financially successful as other Murphy comedies, but it sparked violence in theaters, was torn apart by critics, and won a Razzie for Worst Screenplay.

The biggest problem with Harlem Nights is tone. Murphy can’t decide whether to make a silly R rated comedy or a serious gangster drama. I wasn’t always sure when to laugh, if at all. Quick and Sugar Ray deal with gangster Bugsy Calhoun played by an intense Michael Learner who wants to shut their place down. The same year he did Do the Right Thing, Danny Aiello was a crooked cop trying to close someone else’s establishment. Several attempts are made on Quick’s life until they figure out a scheme where they escape with a ton of money gambling on a boxing match. Harlem Nights is a failed passion project, but it can still be enjoyed as a cult film.

Harlem Nights

Quick, Sugar Ray, and Snake Eyes in Harlem

And Still No Arrests?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri draws considerable attention. I hadn’t heard of the movie until it started gaining momentum. Although Three Billboards was a top contender to win Best Picture, The Shape of Water overshadowed it. Three Billboards is the more straightforward dramatic Oscar nominee with plenty of great performances. It’s extremely profane like writer/director Martin McDonagh’s previous films. McDonagh was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, though the story was loosely inspired by a real life woman who put up accusatory billboards. The titular three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri are put up by Mildred Hayes when her deceased daughter’s case goes unsolved for 7 months. The billboards read: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?,” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?

Three Billboards is as emotional as it sounds, but there are lighter moments. Frances McDormand more than earned her second Best Actress win as the determined mother on a mission. After his success in Manchester by the Sea, Lucas Hedges played another son from a dysfunctional family. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s abusive ex-husband and Samara Weaving plays the dimwitted 19 year old he’s dating. Kathryn Newton only briefly appears as the deceased Angela Hayes. Mildred faces scrutiny from the public, but mostly the incompetent police department. Woody Harrelson was nominated for playing the misunderstood Chief Willoughby who’s dying of cancer. Abbie Cornish doesn’t drop her Australian accent to play his wife.

Harrelson’s part is a quick, but memorable role that was outshined by his co-star. Character actor Sam Rockwell won Best Supporting Actor for playing the racist officer Dixon who goes through an unexpected transformation. Dixon is at first a complicated character who lives with his mother and is the most outspoken critic of the billboards that Red Welby is in charge of. This was actually one of two Caleb Landry Jones movies nominated for Best Picture in 2017. The other being Get Out. Even Peter Dinklage took a break from Game of Thrones to appear in the movie. Dixon and Mildred eventually end up on the same page, but whether or not justice is served is left ambiguous. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is more about the impact that three simple billboards can make.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mildred Hayes promotes her three billboards