Sunday, December 13, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Analyze This (1999); Federal Hill (1994); The Valachi Papers (1972)

Analyze This (1999)

Director: Harold Ramis

Worth a watch, but mostly underwhelming.

Amazingly, I had never seen Analyze This before now. Perhaps I would have found it more amusing shortly after its release in 1999. As a first-time viewer in 2015, though, the movie did only so much to recommend itself.

The movie focuses on Doctor Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal), a Manhanttan psychiatrist with a rather run-of-the-mill clientele. That is, until he accidentally runs across Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro), a mafia don of legendary proportions and with an infamous violent streak. Vitti enlists the unwilling Sobel to cure him of his panic attacks and general stress levels. The more Sobel seems to protest wanting anything to do with the notorious Vitti, the more Vitti demands Sobel's help.

The movie does, as you might imagine, have some solid comedic moments. The best are the wry, sarcastic dialogue between Sobel and Vitti, often the result of Sobel's passive aggression or Vitti's matter-of-fact way of speaking on the horrifying brutality in his business. This is when the writing was at its sharpest, and it is also when Crystal and De Niro are at their best. However, I found much of the humor to wander much to deeply into the realms of farce and caricature. Far too often does Vitti seem too idiotic to run a shoe-shine stand, much less a major crime syndicate. There are also a few times, especially towards the end, that director Harold Ramis allows Billy Crystal to get overly clownish, breaking out a few of his sillier impersonations, in essence being "Billy Crystal." Such moments break up any consistency of characters or tone.

As full-disclosure, I should mention that I am not much of a Billy Crystal fan. There are times when I've found him funny, but not often and never consistently. I must also confess that, as amazing an actor as Robert De Niro is, he has long since crossed over the line into self-parody, and his late-phase career is a pale comparison to the first few decades of his acting life. In retrospect, Analyze This was one of, if not the, first step into this less impressive territory. If you don't mind Crystal or haven't been put off my De Niro's goofier roles of the last decade, you probably won't take exception to the movie the ways that I did.

Analyze This had enough laughs to make it a worthwhile one-time viewing. However, in the wake of better mafia comedies and The Sopranos, it now seems a bit out of date. I have no intention of watching the follow-up, the less-well received Analyze That.

Federal Hill (1994)

Director: Michael Corrente

A somewhat rough exterior, but what's underneath is actually impressive.

Federal Hill follows five friends who are natives of the Federal Hill area of Privdence, Rhode Island: the connected mobster Frank, the wild but gifted cat burglar Ralph, the low-level mafia soldier Joey, the romantic and handsom Nicky, and the foolish and irresponsible Bobby. These five young men's lives reach some very serious crossroads when Bobby gets $30,000 into debt to a counterfeiter, setting off a chain reaction that affects his four friends.

It takes some patience to get past the amateurish and unispired surface features of this movie. While some of the actors are fine, others are lackluster in their stiffness. The dialogue is rather dull much of the time, and it is sometimes flat-out awkward. Once I got beyond these things, though, the story itself was pleasantly complex and surprising. Just when it seems that the five friends all fit into neat and boring stereotypes, nearly every one eventually shows an added dimension. The loud-mouthed and xenophobic Ralph unexpectedly shows some compassion for a few friends. The seemingly sex-driven ladies' man Nicky shows true love and dedication to the "out of his league" blue blood Wendy.

The plot itself is actually very solid. In contrast to the large-scale, epic crime stories we see set in the New York Cities and Las Vegases of the world, and involving criminals of legendary status, Federal Hill gives us a more authentic-feeling , blue-collar type of crime story that has ramifications for the criminals and non-criminals alike. The pace and rhythm of the tale are measured and executed well, with nary a wasted, rushed, or belabored scene. This was clearly director Michael Corrente's strength.

If Federal Hill had had a more talented cast and dialogue-writer, this would probably be an absolute classic. As it is, it's a strong movie that simply requires viewers to see beyond the lackluster facade.

The Valachi Papers (1972)

Director: Terence Young

The potential was there, but this film suffers from questionable execution and extremely poor timing.

The Valachi Papers was one of the bolder attempts to tell the "real" story of the most infamous, real mafia figures in the United States in the 20th century. The was constructed based on the testimony and autobiography of Jospeh Valachi, a mafia soldier who had, between 1928 and the 1960s, worked with and for some of the most powerful Italian organized crime figures in the country. Valachi was eventually captured and offered one of the very first testimonies to air some of the esoteric inner-working of the Sicilian mafia, or la cosa nostra - the self-styled term which Valachi revealed to the public.

A simple synopsis of the movie seems familiar and very intriguing - a low-end criminal meets members of the mafia in prison in the late 1920s, and he eventually works his way into a job as a trusted member of the organized crime syndicate. He is present for many of the violent power plays and machinations which have since become of the stuff of American mafia lore. However, when the times change and the good times start to go bad, dirty laundry is aired and heads roll, literally and figuratively.

If this all sounds a bit like The Godfather series, this is because it is. Many of the facts revealed through Valachi's story were source material for Mario Puzo's novel and Francis Ford Coppolla's movie. Whereas The Valachi Papers has far more of the facts on its side, the fictitious Coppolla movie had brilliant screenwriting, a world-class cast of actors, and a phenomenal director. The Valachi Papers had none of those things, and it results in a vastly inferior film.

The movie does have a few things going for it. The time periods and intrigue of the functioning of shadowy mafia are the clear strengths. Gaining an understanding of how such a large, long-standing criminal syndicate is usually engaging, and this is true with The Valachi Papers. Unfortunately, I felt forced to suffer through some incoherent transitions between eras, often having more questions raised than the film could possibly answer, and the wooden acting of the star, Charles Bronson.

This film is probably one that is a "must" for nearly any aficionado of mafia movies, but it's also one that any such aficiondo would say pales in comparison to many of its ilk.