Friday, November 23, 2012

Film #90: Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Initial Release Country: United States

Timed Previously Seen: probably around eight or nine. Maybe more. 

Rapid-Fire Summary

Goodfellas is a rather epic movie, spanning several centuries. I’ll keep my summary short, but if you want many more of the details, you can check out the synopsis here at imdb’s website. Here’s my version:

In the late 1950s in Queens, New York, young teenager Henry Hill has big dreams. He dreams of becoming a gangster, like the fellows that he sees regularly on the streets of his neighborhood. Though his parents completely disapprove, Henry gets more and more involved with the crime circuit in the area – starting with simple errand-running for book-makers, progressing to orchestrated property destruction, and advancing to the sale of stolen goods. The more he gets entrenched in the life of a criminal, the more he feels welcomed by his fellow criminals, and the more normal it all becomes for him.

This normalized life of larceny follows Henry into adult life (played by Ray Liotta), when he regularly partners with two other noted crooks – the thief and hitman, Irishman Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the volatile yet charismatic Sicilian mobster Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). These three, along with many other local hoods, spend the next few decades of their adult lives robbing, and occasionally killing, their way to lives of luxury for themselves, their wives, children, and mistresses. Though their methods of attaining wealth are highly illegal, all of them keep up the appearances of being responsible family men who are “providers” for their friends and families. This is all in keeping with the Italian mafia tenets of organized crime, to which all of these three men pay homage.

Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy taking a look at on of their many stashes of ill-gotten money.

Eventually, however, things start to crumble. Starting in the later 1970s and into the early 1980s, Henry starts to get involved in selling cocaine. Despite clear warnings from the mafia father-figure, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Henry continues to sell the highly illegal substance. His mistakes catch up to him, and he is caught by the police. Now facing the very likely prospect that he will be killed by any one of his criminal associates, in order to prevent him from informing on them, Henry and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) decide that their only recourse is to join the witness protection program. Henry testifies against all of his former friends and criminal associates, thus escaping jail time. However, he lives out the rest of his days in a sterilized suburban neighborhood, far removed from the action, money, and excitement of his former life of crime.

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing)

Goodfellas is an absolute classic, and it may be the only English-language mafia movie that can hold a candle to The Godfather, in terms of scope, technique, and revolutionizing the genre.

I first saw this movie in the theater when my mother brought me to see it. I was only fourteen or fifteen at the time, and I remember the language blowing me away. The characters drop the f-bomb like most people blink, and violence is as normal as getting a haircut. About an hour into the movie, my mother, who grew up in Queens right at the time that this movie’s events were taking place, leans over to me and says “I think I grew up with these guys.” Now, she didn’t mean that she literally grew up with Henry Hill and the gang; she just meant that she grew up with guys eerily like them. She always said that the dialogue and attitudes depicted in Goodfellas were spot-on, in terms of how the guys from those neighborhoods spoke and acted.

This authenticity has been a hallmark of Scorsece’s New York pictures right from the very beginning. While he’s certainly done other excellent movies that are not based in New York (The Departed, Kundun, et al), his street-level stories have always been his signature ones. The verbal exchanges in Goodfellas, like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, feel completely organic. Despite being so deeply rooted in a particular region, even people who have never been within a thousand miles of Long Island can sense and be hypnotized and amused by it.

Just another night of booze and poker. This is one of the many scenes in which the dialog and interactions between the New York tough guys are at their most realistic. 

But the dialogue is simply one of several triumphs of this movie. If The Godfather was the ultimate American criminal take on a classical Greek tragedy, Goodfellas is the ultimate deconstruction of the gangster myth. Based on the real story of Henry Hill, the movie depicts the ground-level thugs who made the mob go. There are no honorable Vito Corleones here. Henry Hill and his cohorts were unapologetic thieves and murderers who reveled in their power over others. One line that sums them up fairly well is when Henry Hill is describing Jimmy: “The one thing Jimmy loved to do was to steal. I mean, he actually liked it. Jimmy was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in the movies.” These guys knew they were bad, embraced it, and pummeled anyone who had a problem with it.

Tied to this is probably the element that truly sets the movie apart from other classic gangster movies. Through Henry Hill’s life story, we see the complete and utter sham that the “honor” of the mafia is. All of the seeming friendships that Henry makes are only authentic as long as they don’t threaten any of his fellow thieves’ illicit livelihoods. The moment any one of the crew is suspected of threatening others’ freedom and fortunes, that crew member is not long for this world. The camaraderie is revealed as shallow in the face of real adversity, as evidenced by the protagonist himself. After decades of thinking of his criminal associates as family, he turns on them to protect himself and sends them all to prison. Goodfellas may have been the first film to so carefully and stylishly deconstruct the myth of honor among mobster thieves.

Normally, much of the above would make for thoroughly repugnant, unwatchable characters. Yet herein lies one of the most brilliant part of this movie – at times, you forget what they are and get completely caught up with who they are. Whether it’s Tommy cracking up his fellow mobsters with hilarious stories, Jimmy railing against the stupidity of his partners in crime, or Henry trying to juggle his passionately crazy wife and mistresses, it’s simply fun to watch. Most of the time, you laugh at them, but some of the time you actually laugh with them. There are even times when you feel a twinge of sympathy, as when Henry learns that Karen has flushed their bags of cocaine, their only remaining source of revenue, down the toilet, effectively flushing his entire life down the toilet. His desperation and fear are so palpable that you might be tempted to forget, just for a few seconds, that it’s all his selfish own doing.

Karen visits Henry while he serves time. At this point, it almost seems as normal for us the viewers as it does for the troubled couple and their kids.

All of these moments come through in large part due to the acting. While De Niro rightfully got top billing for this movie and did an outstanding job as Jimmy, it was Pesci, Liotta, and the entire ensemble crew that fully rounds out the picture and makes it come to life. By using that rare combination of world-class actors with lesser known, fully capable New York regionals, not one moment of Goodfellas rings untrue. For the full two-and-a-half hours, they pull you right into a completely different world.

It goes without saying that Scorsese was arguably at his finest with this movie. The cinematography, editing, and music are all blended into a fast-paced story that hums along without missing a single beat. Of his great films (of which there are many), this one is arguably his very best, and one would be hard-pressed to find much fault with it. At this point, anyone who is into crime movies has seen and loves this film. If, by chance, you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor. As long as you are not put off by rough language and graphic violence (none of which is gratuitous, by the way – we need to see how visceral these thugs can be, lest we start to glamorize them), you need to watch this true modern masterpiece.

Henry takes one last look at us from his quaint little house, courtesy of the Witness Protection Program. While he survives, he would hardly call it a "life," as he came to know it on the streets of New York.

A side-note: Any fan of Goodfellas should watch Casino. It’s sometimes called “Goodfellas 2” with good reason. It’s certainly not a sequel, but so much of the tone and feel of it is the same, that one might feel like they’re watching the companion piece to the earlier film. Casino is a bit more sprawling, and some say bloated (I disagree), but it’s another excellent film in the same vein.

That’s a wrap. 90 shows down. 15 to go.

Coming Soon: Unforgiven (1992)

From the movie that deconstructed mafia gangsterism to the movie that deconstructed the American Western film. This is another of my absolute, hands-down, all-time favorites. I’m looking forward to watching it again and writing out my thoughts on the dark tale of Will Munny. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Film # 89: Miller's Crossing (1990)

Director: Joel Coen

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: five or six

Rapid-Fire Summary

*The plot of Miller’s Crossing is complex, indeed. I’ll keep it streamlined, but if you want a full blow-by-blow, you can check it out here at imdb.

In a Prohibition Era city (name unknown), Irish mobster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) serves as the right-hand man and consultant to mob boss, Leo (Albert Finney). Tom is highly loyal to Leo, except for the fact that he is sleeping with Leo’s special lady, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Verna is known as a con woman of highly questionably morals who is sleeping with both Leo and Tom, possibly in order to protect her brother, Bernie (John Turturro). Bernie is a fellow con artist and bookmaker who has put himself in the crosshairs of Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) by undercutting his fixed boxing matches.

Even in the tightest of situations, Tom Reagan is as cool and unflappable as they come. 

Over the course of a few days, Tom gets mixed up with Bernie and has to navigate his way between the rival mob bosses Leo and Caspar, seeming to double-cross one after the other. He uses Bernie, Verna, and whoever else he can in order to keep himself alive. After tensions rise to point of several beatings, murders, and raids on speakeasies, Tom manipulates Bernie into killing Caspar. Tom then kills Bernie, either as a final cover up or a final act of revenge. This leaves Verna, who Tom may secretly love, free to marry Leo, who is finally returned to his place of power atop the criminal underworld. At Bernie’s funeral, Tom refuses Leo’s plea to have him back as his chief lieutenant, but Tom stoically refuses. Tom then watches Leo and Verna walk away.

My Take on the Film

I didn’t even know about this movie until about seven or eight years after its big screen release. Once I did see it, though, it instantly became one of my favorites.

Even after seeing it about a half dozen times now, I still love it. There is so much skill put into how this movie is crafted that I still marvel at it. I’m an enormous fan of the Coen brothers, and I appreciate their studied approach to film making. Miller’s Crossing exhibits so many of the things that they clearly love about movies, and they blended them into a gangster tale like none other.

The story itself is actually pure noir. The plot twists, the seedier elements, the femme fatale, and the gallows humor is exactly what one can find in noir classics like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. Tom Reagan is as fatalistic and deadpan as the protagonists of the best James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammett novels. As he carefully plots his course through the maze of the deadly forces around him, he might seem devoid of any real emotion. But if you look carefully past his cold words, and you look closely enough at his actions, you can see that there is indeed a soul. The character Verna even points it out in the film when she says, “…you have a heart, Tom. Even though it’s small and feeble, and you can’t remember the last time you used it.”

Despite Tom's apathetic demeanor and biting insults, Verna sees the glimmer of a man who cares. These two corrupted souls dance with and around each other in fantastic exchanges of dialogue.

Actually, the notion of Tom’s heart is really at the center of the movie, as symbolized by his slick Fedora hat. Many of the characters are motivated by pure greed. Leo the mob boss does actually have empathy for others, and Verna seems to care for Tom, but Tom himself is an enigma in many ways. It is only during the few calm, quiet moments in the film that we can see that Tom is not purely a selfish pragmatist. The truth is that he’s clearly smarter than Leo and, if he wanted, could easily manipulate his way to usurping and eliminating Leo to take his position as the top crime lord in the city. The reason he doesn’t is loyalty. We the viewers can’t be sure until the very end, but once you know what has been guiding Tom throughout his ordeals, we can see just how steadfast and intelligent he is.

Maybe the most singular element in the film is the presence of homosexuality. It's not overt, but it is heavily implied that Bernie, Mink, and even the hard-case Eddie Dane are gay lovers. It still seems mildly out of place in what is otherwise a pure compound of the noir and gangster genres. Miller's Crossing is an unusual mob movie in many ways, but perhaps no more so than in this.

True to noir cinematic storytelling, Tom Reagan is in virtually every scene, with very few exceptions. While he certainly holds the screen, the supporting characters are equally engaging (something that is a hallmark of Coen brothers movies). From Leo to Verna, from Bernie to Johnny Caspar and Eddie Dane, and even very minor cameos like Mink (played in staccato by Steve Buscemi) or “Drop” Johnson, the characters indelibly etch themselves into your minds. A lot of this has to do with the dialogue, which has always been a Coen brothers strength. This is where they show their ability to write dialogue that can be tough, poignant, hilarious, or revealing. And in Miller’s Crossing it’s always delivered in a rapid-fire style usually reserved for screwball comedies (which I hate, but the style works brilliantly in this film).

Of course, strong dialogue alone does not a classic movie make. The acting has to be spot-on, and it certainly is in Miller’s Crossing. Gabriel Byrne is absolutely perfect as the ever-stoic, ever-cunning, morally ambiguous Irish mobster Tom Reagan. The other characters all nail their roles perfectly, and there are too many for me to give a role call. However, I will say that an often-overlooked performance is J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, the dark counterpart to Tom Reagan. Every interaction between these two arch-nemeses has a great amount of tension, as the two try to out-cool, out-stare, and out-intimidate each other.

Johnny Caspar's right-hand man, the brutal and heartless Eddie Dane. Where Tom uses his wits and tongue to maneuver in their criminal underworld, "The Dane" uses fear and raw force.

Finally, the cinematography itself. This should also come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Coen brothers’ movies, but this movie looks incredible. It’s easy to see that the sets and costumes were carefully selected to create frame compositions that are simply a pleasure to look at. On top of that, this movie features several great examples of the nearly lost art of visual storytelling, yet another film technique that the Coens have always shown affinity for. In fact, the scene in which Leo dispatches several would-be assassins with a Thompson machine gun is one of my favorite pieces of visual storytelling in any film. No dialogue for about five minutes – just “Danny Boy” playing in the background and some sound effects. I love that stuff, and very few directors have the guts or the skill to do it well.

Miller’s Crossing might not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you’re expecting a more traditional gangster movie in the vein of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The Coens imbue their pictures with more “only in the movies” style than those other, more naturalistic films do. Still, if you appreciate superb film making and a novel approach to a time-honored genre, you should give it a try. Anyone who likes the Coen brothers but has not seen this one needs to run to the video store right now and watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

That’s a wrap. 89 shows down. 16 to go.

Coming Soon: Goodfellas (1990)

This will be quite the contrast in gangster films. Miller’s Crossing uses old-school gangsterism as a backdrop for a slick noir tale. Goodfellas was really the quantum leap forward for realism in mafia films. Come on back to see how I enjoy my next viewing yet another of Scorcese’s masterworks (and enjoy it, I certainly will).