GoodFellas

As it reaches its 30th anniversary, it is time to proclaim that there are few movies as good as GoodFellas. The 1990 Martin Scorsese mobster movie is the very definition of classic, and was probably the best film of the entire decade. Others can argue whether it is Scorsese’s best — there are, after all, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ to deal with — but as far as I am concerned, it is his most consistently and effortlessly entertaining. To put on this movie is to be whisked into another world for almost three hours and never feel anything but exhilarated.

Yes, it is a violent movie about violent human beings — and I hesitate to even call some of the people in this movie human. It is profane and sometimes horrifying, and you wouldn’t want to know any of the people in GoodFellas personally — if you did, there would be something very, very wrong in your life. It is not even particularly original — after all, The Godfather did a great job of depicting this bloody, double-dealing, moral-free world and still stands as a great film. But whereas The Godfather is, first and foremost, a film about a family business, GoodFellas is about a way of life — it is about the Mafia with a capital M, and less about a family or even individual characters. Michael Corleone experiences a horrifying change of heart , one that changes the entire trajectory of the Corleone family. GoodFellas isn’t about that, not at all. It is about a bunch of guys with no heart. It’s about money — my money, and who’s got my fuckin’ money, and when I can expect to get my fuckin’ money — oh, and fuck you, pay me.

Scorsese has always made movies that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but GoodFellas is such a purely poetic film, that is so brisk and entertaining, that you forget to be offended. It is, above all else, a great black comedy — a Mafia movie that gets as many laughs as anything by the Farrelly Brothers. And they are great, earned laughs, punctuated by horror when someone gets stabbed, shot, or beaten. Scorsese knows this world so well — like the back of his fuckin’ hand — that he’s not afraid to let the humor come out. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are, I kid you not, as effective a comedy team as the guys on “Seinfeld.” You could substitute Jerry, Kramer and George here and not miss a beat. (Throw in Lorraine Bracco and you got Elaine.) I don’t mean to make light of the movie’s message — that the Mafia is a pack of dogs unfit to walk this Earth — Scorsese by no means endorses criminal behavior — but the actors and their dialogue are just, well, funny. Despite all the shootings, etc., it is impossible to dislike these horrible people.

Let me reiterate that Scorsese is not holding up mobsters and saying, “Will you look at these wonderful, misunderstood people?” No — he’s saying that, from inside this world, it all looks perfectly normal. Henry Hill, the main character played by Liotta, is an outsider who spent his whole life wanting to get in. “All my life, I wanted to be a gangster,” he says, in his first line of narration, and the movie is about how Henry not only became one (true story) but how his dream ended up — with him and his estranged wife under Witness Protection. Hardly an endorsement of crime as a wholesome way of life.

But with the money flowing and the laughs ringing (and the bodies piling up), why would you ever want to live any other way? For Henry, crime is an easy, fun way of making a buck — emphasis on fun. He gets special treatment in ways Scorsese describes at length, from girls and booze to the best seats in the finest restaurants. (He doesn’t even have to wait in line!) No, he can never be a “made guy,” because he’s half-Irish — the mob won’t admit anyone who isn’t full-blooded Italian, the lineage traceable to “the Old Country.” But that doesn’t keep Henry from getting his hands plenty dirty.

His partners in crime are Jimmy Conway (De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci), lifelong mobsters who will rob or kill anyone to make a buck. They answer to Paulie (Paul Sorvino), the local neighborhood boss who runs his crew with an iron fist. Cross Paulie and you got life-threatening problems, make him his friend, and you can get anything you want — for awhile, and at a price.

The movie has no particular plotline but rather follows Henry through his days in the mob, beating up guys, bribing cops, etc. This never feels like anything but a natural, unforced narration — Scorsese never plays a note wrong. Liotta is totally believable as Henry, and De Niro and Pesci have never been better. Everyone is in their environment, completely at ease. We believe these people in this world, and understand how they could all feel so comfortable. This was, in essence, “The Sopranos” 10 years before the Sopranos came along.

When violence erupts, it is without warning. Witness the scene where Tommy — insane, unpredictable, completely unhinged — shoots a kid named Spider for being late with a drink. The dialogue that follows is classic mob tough-guy (“You’re gonna dig the fuckin’ hole!”) and outrageously funny. Yet somehow Scorsese also communicates that this is wrong — that there is something deeply fucked- up about these guys, who would kill a person over so very little. You could say that Scorsese has his cake and eats it too … but so what? The horror is beside the point. The point is that these guys exist in this world and this world has always existed — it is part and parcel of the American story.

The acting is genius-level simply because it is so hard to notice. You don’t catch De Niro acting the way you did (and were intended to) in Raging Bull. He’s quieter here, but somehow more menacing. He lets Pesci handle all the fireworks. Pesci turns in one of the great, original, terrifying, unforgettable performances, winning an Oscar for his work. This is his definitive role (forget those Home Alone flicks!) and he makes the movie his own. He gets the great “why am I funny?” scene (mostly improvised) but also so many other great scenes, like his berating of Spider or his “borrowing” of the butcher knife. Pesci somewhat recreated the performance five years later in Casino, another great Scorsese-De Niro pairing, but this one is still the best.

If Pesci and De Niro form one type of couple in GoodFellas, Liotta and Bracco form another, in Henry and Karen Hill. That neither of them won an Oscar is a travesty. They are the “heart” of the film, though they are both utterly heartless (or maybe soulless). Though they profess to love each other and their kids, it’s really all about money for Henry and Karen. Though the ultimate outsider — a Jewish girl, no less! — Karen is as deep into “the life” as Henry. He implicates her in his activities the day he beats up her old boyfriend and then thrusts his bloody pistol in her hand, telling her to “hide this.” From that moment on, she is on the hook. Later in the film, Karen is doing cocaine and helping Henry with his drug deals. Yet she also wants to pretend to be innocent — in fact, that’s what she tries telling the FBI when Henry finally runs out of money and turns himself in. These are disgusting people, finally wallowing in their own despair, but that doesn’t make them less fascinating to watch.

Scorsese shows us the whole world of the Mafia, from the nightclubs to the crime scenes to the family Christmases. We get to know literally dozens of minor characters, their funny names and habits, and see a lot of them die horribly. Yet that’s what they have coming. When you join the Mob — and Henry does so, willingly and with great glee — you throw your life down a rabbit hole. The threat of death or incarceration constantly hangs over you, and the chance that your best friend will betray you stands at 100 percent. Scorsese shows us how much fun this all is — the cinematography is whiz-bang, and the soundtrack is loaded with period hits from the Sixties and Seventies — but ends the ride with a shocker: Henry turned rat. He finked on his pals in court. It might be fun being in the Mob, at least for a while, but things don’t turn out OK. You eventually catch a knife in the back or a bullet in the head, and fellas, that’s no kinda life.

 

 

Get lost, Shorty

In the mid-90s, I had a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) love of what I thought of as “tough-guy” movies. No doubt inspired by Reservoir Dogs, I sat through as many films of guys talking tough to each other as I could find. This was a brand-new genre (or new to me), and in the Nineties, a ton of these movies were made. Tarantino was the king of this kind of cinema, with his charismatic bad guys rattling off profanities before shooting each other. But there were dozens of lesser writers and directors out there churning out pure schlock.

I would add Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers to that short list of filmmakers capable of making excellent tough-guy crime fiction. GoodFellas and Casino are the height of the genre, while Fargo and The Big Lebowski represent a more domesticated take on “Tarantinoland.” (The bad guys are dumber and the good guys a bit more reliable.)

Into the uncomfortable center of this period stepped Get Shorty, a flyweight genre caper based on a book by the late-great crime writer Elmore Leonard. Leonard, who primarily wrote Westerns, was always a bit of an acquired taste for me — though he could apply nifty phrases and whip-smart dialogue to a wisp of a plot, I never felt any of his books represented a good investment of time.

That can certainly be said of Get Shorty the movie, which, 25 years after its release, is a complete waste of time. It was a box office hit for John Travolta, whose career had been revived a year earlier by Tarantino and Pulp Fiction. His performance is the only reason to see it, and not much of one, at that. Travolta is all tough-guy manner and surface, but he’s no Robert De Niro in Heat, or Michael Madsen in Dogs. He’s essentially a nice guy who wants to break into show business, even if it means breaking a few necks.

Travolta, as “shylock” Chili Palmer, struts through his scenes finding all kinds of wacky, self-conscious ways of holding a cigarette. He’s a smooth talker, charming, funny and deceptively calm — he’ll kick the kneecaps out from under you in a heartbeat. The plot sends him from Miami to Los Angeles to find a schlub who absconded with a lot of money that someone else wants (schlub played by the squirrely David Paymer, back when movies cast him). But Chili isn’t really interested in the film’s main plot, as the movie itself is not. No, he’s more interested in a completely boring character played by that most unappealing of actors, Danny DeVito. The title refers to the fact that DeVito’s movie-star character is, in fact, short. That’s it. Get Shorty. Ha.

The film also stars Rene Russo in a vaguely amusing turn as a seen-it-all fading star, and Gene Hackman in a somewhat comedic turn as a hapless movie producer. There are nominal bad guys out for someone else’s money, played variously by Dennis Farina and Delroy Lindo. Oh, Bette Midler turns up in an uncredited cameo.

None of this sticks. It’s directed by a mediocre special effects hack named Barry Sonnenfeld who also directed Men in Black and the career-killing Wild Wild West. This is depressing, unfunny, Tarantino-lite schtick that wishes it had a fraction of Scorsese’s savage humor or the Coen Brothers’ technical skill. It’s too profane to be taken lightly and too frivolous to rank anywhere near the greats.

****

Oddly enough, Tarantino, who made a name for himself writing genuine tough-guy dialogue in his first two films, adapted a Leonard novel for his third feature film. The result was, unsurprisingly, much better than Get Shorty.

Jackie Brown (1997) was known as Rum Punch under Leonard’s byline, but Tarantino does what Kubrick did with The Shining by making the whole thing his own enterprise. I suppose the bones of the Leonard novel are still there, but Tarantino made the lead character a female — played with spectacular gravitas by Pam Grier — and gave it his own time-hopping spin a’la Pulp Fiction. By casting other heavyweights like Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson and Oscar-nominated Robert Forster, Tarantino made a film that is infinitely more hard-hitting than Get Shorty. Jackie Brown is a hangout movie in much the same way Leonard’s books spend leisurely amounts of time getting to know the characters. They talk and talk and talk and talk, usually in profane sentences, their dialogue spelling out who they are and why they are the way they are. Thing is, Jackie Brown has aged so well that I would make it a Top 5 Tarantino film, while Get Shorty now plays like weak sauce.

On Return of the Jedi

The problem with Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, is an insurmountable one, and that is the Ewoks.

I remember going to see Jedi in a theater when I was 13. It was opening day and the crowd was huge. Everyone loved the movie. Hell, I loved it. They (we) especially loved the Ewoks. We’d never seen anything like them. They were cute, cuddly, living teddy bears — everything we’d ever wanted to see in a Star Wars movie, delivered, finally, after six long years.

This was exactly George Lucas’ idea behind the Ewoks: make toys that will sell big at Christmas. Lucas had originally planned to populate the planet of Endor with Wookies, so that Chewbacca could have a kind of homecoming, but no, he decided to create smaller, woodsier versions of Wookies that would make excellent (if inevitable) Christmas presents. He got them, and we, in turn, got the single worst thing to happen to Star Wars.

Yes, I mean to say that the Ewoks are worse, dumber, and more insulting than Jar Jar Binks from Episode I. Look, I don’t hate Jar Jar the way the rest of the known universe does, and, as I say, I was raised on the Original Trilogy. I don’t have time or space to defend Jar Jar, but I can say that, as a character, he is nowhere near as despicable as the Ewoks.

For one thing, there isn’t as much Jar Jar in Episode I as there is of the Ewoks in Jedi. They dominate roughly the last two acts of Jedi, so much so that you can’t shut them out or ignore them the way you sorta can ignore Jar Jar. There are also hundreds of Ewoks, portrayed by “little people” dressed in cute bear suits, and there is only one Jar Jar. (Well, okay, there’s that whole Gungan city thing, but … why split hairs.) Simply said, we’re forced to endure the Ewoks in larger numbers. They’re nothing but toys speaking unintelligible gibberish left over from the Jawas in A New Hope. There’s simply no there there.

I am revisiting Jedi ahead of the release of The Rise of Skywalker, and there are parts of the sixth episode that I enjoy. I will ignore any scene in which the Ewoks appear, but I come back to any scene having to do with the real meat of the story: Luke and Darth. My understanding is that a good portion of Skywalker will revolve around the physical aftermath of the climactic events in Jedi, with a trip to the remains of Death Star II in an ocean on Endor, and so forth. There’s even a hint of the Emperor’s heavily-damaged Throne Room, the site of the third and final lightsaber battle in Jedi. I can’t wait to see all this stuff on the big screen.

One thing the Sequel Trilogy has done well is incorporate scenic elements of the Original Trilogy into its ongoing story. It looks like Skywalker will continue that tradition. I’m rather pumped by the idea that Episode IX will revisit parts of Jedi — but without the Ewoks. There simply is no redeeming them.

Unfortunately, large swaths of Jedi are consumed with Ewoks. There isn’t enough of what counts: the interplay between Luke, Darth and the Emperor. Perhaps that’s to increase the dramatic value of their scenes, which are among the best in all of Star Wars. There are enough dangling plot threads among Darth, et al, to fuel the sequels and perhaps more. But Lucas and director Richard Marquand keep intercutting between the exciting stuff having to do with Skywalker family business, and the battle on Endor, which tragically requires us to sit through far more Ewok-ian antics than most adult stomachs can handle.

What Lucas has done is to turn the final film in his landmark science fiction trilogy into a movie for children — real little children. I laughed along with the Ewoks when I was 13, but even then I was more interested in what was happening on the Death Star. I think that if Jedi were rebooted, it would wisely do away with the Ewoks and focus more heavily on Luke and Darth. It would also explore the love triangle involving Luke, Han and Leia, which gets humorously short-changed by Marquand. The one scene dealing with their exceedingly fucked-up relationship is over-acted and then abandoned before any sense of resolution is reached.

Speaking of acting, it’s pretty bad in this film. Mark Hamill would go on to give an astonishing performance in 2017’s The Last Jedi; here, he’s given lead-footed direction by Marquand, who simply requires him to goggle his eyes and over-react to all the aliens and so forth. Harrison Ford goes way over the top as annoying good-guy Han, and Carrie Fisher is given little to do as Leia. However, Ian McDiarmid gives a sinister performance as the cackling, lightning-spouting Emperor. He’s great across the entire spectrum of Star Wars films.

As uneven as Jedi is, there’s still plenty to enjoy — chiefly, the spectacular outer space battles. Jedi concludes with the biggest and best starship fight in the entire Original Trilogy, with seemingly thousands of Rebel and Imperial ships engaging in combat. The film actually feels most at home in space, with the special effects crew creating all kinds of dazzling new sights. The battle above (and inside) the Death Star is tremendously exciting and even stands up well alongside anything in the Sequel Trilogy. (It’s actually better than a similar battle at the end of The Force Awakens.)

Also, the final showdown between Luke and Darth, and its famous resolution, is reason enough to sit through all the garbage involving the Ewoks. And, John Williams’ score is magnificent, topping even his work for the original film. I haven’t said anything about the opening half-hour in which Luke, et al, rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt. It isn’t very exciting, nor is it very interesting — it adds nothing but Leia’s bathing suit to the lore of the series.

Overall, Jedi is a good Star Wars movie, but not a great one. Lucas was more worried about selling millions of dollars worth of toys than honoring the darkness that came before in The Empire Strikes Back. Whole parts of the movie play like a joke, which is unfortunate, because there’s enough good dramatic juice here to enjoy. Of all the Star Wars movies I’d like to see remade — and rest assured, it will not be — this is it.

Pulp Fiction at 25

One thing that is most striking about Pulp Fictionon its 25thanniversary is its mundaneness. Quentin Tarantino de-emphasizes everything but the dialogue, which is the entire focus of this, his biggest and most popular film. This is not necessarily a flaw, but a tactic. We go to Tarantino’s movies to hear them, not just watch them. Pulp Fictionis all about the words coming from the characters’ mouths.

Take, for example, the way Tarantino portrays, or doesn’t portray, Los Angeles. Other crime pictures make stars, or at least supporting characters, out of their locations. In Michael Mann’s Heat,L.A. is draped in stylish nighttime glory. In Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese portrays Times Square as a skeevy, scuzzy sin pot. You want to take a bath after watching it. Even the Coen Brothers manage to turn L.A. into one of the main characters in The Big Lebowski. Who can forget The Dude’s ill-fated trip to In-n-Out, or the Ralph’s supermarket, where he writes a check for 75 cents?

Tarantino would go on to make important L.A. pictures with Jackie Brownand Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but not so, Pulp Fiction. He makes the city as drab and visually unappealing as possible. This is not a bad-looking movie, but it’s clear that he spent very little money on art direction and sent his location scouts to find the most dismal pockets of L.A.

The movie has scenes set in vacant lots, seamy alleys, sun-blasted parking lots, dimly-lit corridors, bland diners and humdrum bedrooms. You can see a roll of toilet tissue on the toilet tank in the bathroom where the Jerry Seinfeld assassin hides from Vincent and Jules. There are green trash cans overturned by the chain-link fence behind Butch’s seedy motel. The streets are wide and empty, void of bystanders who might witness the criminal doings of the characters. (I discount, of course, the scene where Butch runs over Marcellus with his car – plenty of bystanders standing around to catch bullets.) We see no freeways, no sports venues, not a hint of traffic. There is no movie-premiere glamor, nothing to suggest a Beverly Hills or Rodeo Drive. This is the blandest and most boring L.A. has ever looked.

The biggest scene in the movie is set in Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a nightclub that Vincent calls “a wax museum with a pulse.” Here we finally get to see some colorful production design. The scene also plays up the artificiality of Pulp Fiction; the extras all come across like movie extras, not like real people out for a night on the town. They seem every bit as “dressed up” as the faux-actors (yes) portraying Marilyn Monroe, Zorro and Ed Sullivan. One clever joke has Steve Buscemi – Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs– turning up as a Buddy Holly-styled waiter. Why? Because Mr. Pink bitched about waitresses in Reservoir Dogs. The whole movie, from start to finish, is a meta-commentary on other movies, including Tarantino’s own.

The drab production design, flat lighting and understated photography (lots of widescreen interior shots) heighten the unreality of the film and emphasize the true action, which is the dialogue. As Tarantino recently said, he’s paying actors to show up and say his lines – he does not encourage improv. Pulp Fictionis a dialogue-delivery device – every motherfucker stands out, every FUCK is underlined, bold-faced and in all-caps. And really, this is some of the best dialogue ever written. I haven’t sat through this long, meandering, sometimes stilted and unnecessarily padded, crime epic in probably 20 years – start to finish, anyway – but I can still quote right along with whole scenes. There is a poetry to Tarantino’s dialogue, a flow, a rhythm, that makes it easy to memorize.

The interesting thing is that Tarantino managed to grow as a director from here, even though his scripts produced less memorable dialogue. I can’t recall a single line fromOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that film is better-directed than Pulp Fiction, and is much more visually impressive. Same goes for Inglourious Basterds– I can’t quote it word-for-word, but Tarantino directed the shit out of that movie. For the first time this year, I fully expect him to win Best Director IN ADDITION to having a lock on Best Original Screenplay. He’s gotten that good.

As for Pulp Fiction… it’s not my favorite film. As I say, it’s long, and in love with its own voice. Everybody in 1994 portrayed it as this ultra-violent, Scorsese-level gangster picture, but the truth is, it’s sweet and nostalgic and just a teensy bit immature, a teenager dropping F-bombs and N-words hoping to get attention. I still like it – the acting is sublime, and the structure of Tarantino’s script is still a neat time-traveling trick. I just think it was telling us all along that Tarantino was meant to direct bigger, better things, and he is indeed doing so.

 

 

The Godfather trilogy

An undertaker arrives at the wedding party for Don Corleone’s daughter, Connie. Because he is the Godfather, the Don agrees to hear a request from the undertaker, an Italian-American with a heavy Italian accent. Because it is his daughter’s wedding day, the Don cannot turn down any request that is made. He will be fielding a number of requests this day, all of them for special favors that only a Mafia chieftain — Don Corleone — can provide.

The undertaker has a serious request. He wants the Corleone family to deliver justice that was denied by the courts. His own lovely daughter was brutalized by two young punks, who received a suspended sentence as “punishment” for their crime. Incensed and humiliated, the outraged undertaker demands the Don murder them. “That I cannot do,” the Don reasonably replies. “Your daughter is still alive.”

This is a crucial sentence, spoken early in the first Godfather film, and it explains a lot. It suggests that, at the heart of it all, Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) has a line, and he will not cross it. He is, in the end, a moral man. Yes, he has killers at his disposal; no, he is not afraid to issue fatal commands. But he is not willing to just jump in and kill willy-nilly, for any old reason. “That is not justice,” he informs the undertaker, as he calmly strokes a very playful cat.

This explanation is crucial because Don Vito is a much different man — and a better don — than his youngest son, Michael, would go on to become. Don Vito is old-school Mafia, direct from Sicily; he never knew any other kind of life. He was, perhaps, destined, to lead a Mafia family, to hold matters of life and death in his hand. There is a purity to the old Don that Michael never achieved. Don Vito led the kinder, gentler version of the mob. He would do favors based on relationships. As he explains to the undertaker, it’s important for him to feel respected by those who would take advantage of him. “You never wanted my friendship, I can’t remember the last time you invited me over for a cup of coffee,” Don Vito replies. Sure, he makes decisions on a transactional basis, but hey, if you’re going to commit murder for someone, it’s nice to at least feel appreciated.

The entire Godfather series is predicated on the tragic differences between Don Vito’s reign and son Michael’s. The films are massive, epic, sweeping examinations of both a family and the socio-economic conditions in which the Mafia was allowed to flourish in the first half of the 20th century. It traces bloodlines — and vendettas — all the way back to their origins in Europe, and we understand how certain characteristics and business ventures are handed down across generations. There is nothing else like the Godfather or its sequels, and all three constitute one film for me, hands down my favorite.

I came to The Godfather fairly late in life, at age 27, 10 years before the death of my father. The Godfather and its first sequel were dad’s favorite films, but I never watched either of them with him, something I now consider a sad oversight. I decided to simply sit down and watch them one day, having rented the VHS tapes, and what I saw mesmerized me. I had never seen anything quite like them. I was moved by the first Godfather and devastated by the second one. I had some reservations about the third film, which had received some bad reviews, but it, too, earns distinction as one of the finest movies I’ve ever seen. Sit down and watch it today and you will realize just how much it dwarfs pretty much anything on the big screen today.

So, The Godfather. I watched it again on Blu Ray recently, and was reminded of how much I loved it all those years ago. It’s everything I thing is great in a film, in that it shows me how a certain kind of people live their lives, how they conduct business, how they look at the world. Yes, this is the Mafia, but no other movie goes into the Mafia in as much realistic (or romantic) detail as this one. The characters are all disgusting criminals eating away at the heart of the American Dream … and yet we come to love, understand and empathize with each and every one of them. That’s the genius of the movie. We care so much about these repellant thugs.

The movie teaches us what it’s like to be in the Mob. It shows us the feasts, the secret conversations, the bitter disagreements, the confusion, the fear, the double-dealing, at the heart of each piece of Mafia business. It shows us the economic as well as the emotional concerns that drive the Don. Yes, there is violence, lots of it, but that’s the price of doing business with the Mob. And, most of the victims are other mobsters. The Corleones operate in a sealed environment. For the typical American to even get a glimpse of a mobster would be like getting struck by lightning.

We are drawn into this conspiratorial world — the darkest and most detailed ever put on screen — and identify closely with the characters. They are perfectly cast — Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Al Letieri, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Richard Castellano, and, of course, Al Pacino — have never been better. They embody their characters. They are also perfectly written. The dialogue is perfect, much of it unforgettable, almost all of it quotable. You don’t watch The Godfather for the cinematography, the music, the direction, or the action — although all those things are top-notch. No, you watch it for the characters, to learn from them, to suffer with them, and to feel triumph with them, even as they commit heinous acts.

The acting — Jesus Christ, there’s no better acting in any other film or set of films. Brando is impeccable as the Don. He creates a character so believable that we forget we are watching a performance! Yet there is nothing “credible” about Don Corleone, he is all artifice, all pretense. Everything Brando does in the film is for noticeable effect. He stuffed his cheeks with cotton wads to fill out his face and slur his words. He pets a cat, sniffs a carnation, blows up, tells jokes, whispers, cries, waits patiently. He finds the thin line between ham and fine acting and stays on the correct side. The performance is legendary, one of the greatest of all time, and for good reason.

There is also Pacino, who sneaks up on us as Michael. He’s all coiled concentration and silent hatred. Michael is introduced as a war hero, but he’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He decries his father’s business, telling WASPy girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton!!!!) that “that’s my father, not me.” But it IS him. Michael is 100 percent bloody Mafia don, far bloodier than Don Vito ever thought about being. Michael lacks his father’s purity of heart. He went overseas and fought for America, learned how to kill in the Army. Killing is Michael’s way of dealing with problems. He could give a shit about having a cup of coffee with you. His policy is to slay all enemies — and therein marks the downfall of the Family.

Michael rises to power in The Godfather, seizing his opportunities in a handful of classic moments that suggest his quiet ascension to the throne. In Part II, Michael takes the Family down a bad road, murdering family members as well as allies as he tracks down conspirators. Part II is a classic — the greatest sequel EVER — but I will admit that the scenes with Michael, Fredo, et al, are the best in the film. Director Francis Ford Coppola also, in the same film, shows us the rise of young Don Vito, played here by Robert De Niro. The idea is to compare and contrast Don Vito’s world view (and way of doing business) with Michael’s. While this is an interesting and noble experiment, it’s a bit like interspersing the downfall of Anakin Skywalker with the heroic exploits of Luke Skywalker, both in the same Star Wars film. It makes things a little long and disjointed.

No matter — the salient moments in Part II vastly outweigh any structural deficiencies in the way Coppola cuts back and forth between the two storylines. (And De Niro is great in the role of Don Vito, definitely worth seeing.) The conclusion of the film, with Michael silently overseeing the assassination of a crucial Corleone family member, is sad, tragic, haunting. The final shot, of Michael sitting by himself, contemplating his sins, is just as effective as the final shot of the previous film, with him slamming the door on a hurt and betrayed Kay. Michael is an evil, miserable man, doomed to isolation, an insect in the shadow of a greater don.

Part III might seem unnecessary, coming 16 years after Michael’s silent contemplation of hellfire, and indeed, I could live without it. But Coppola felt compelled to make it, and having watched it again recently, I can report that it, too, is a great film, despite its many flaws. Pacino plays Michael as a gregarious old man hoping to absolve his sins by using his ill-gotten gains to purchase a powerful company within the Catholic Church. Coppola originally intended to call this film The Death of Michael Corleone, which is a little too on-the-button. It’s more about the slow demise of Michael’s integrity. He wants to go legitimate, to use his children as a front to convert the old “family business” into something respectable, but his Mafia past catches up with him, and the film ends on a strikingly horrific note. Michael gets his just-desserts, but long after the rest of his surviving family members have paid for his dark deeds with blood. It’s a sad, desolate fate, the exact opposite of the old Don’s peaceful expiration in a vegetable garden, playing with his grandson. The gulf between father and son seems unbridgeable.

I won’t go into Part III’s numerous flaws, except to say that, of the three films, it is definitely the least impressive. But I was carried away by the story, the acting, the thrill of being involved in dark conspiracies, and the detail that Coppola again brings to the screen. Here we get to see not only the inner-workings of Mafia-as-American-corporation, but the darker side of the Catholic Church, depicted here as a failing multinational business in need of a quick infusion of cash. The weakest part of the film is, unquestionably, the performance of Sofia Coppola as Mary, Michael’s daughter. She’s a deer in the headlights, an example of egregious miscasting. But the best part of the film, once again, is Al Pacino, who gets a lot of big emotional moments here and makes them all work. He should have won Oscars for all three films.

So, we have an epic trilogy that makes us sympathize with mobsters. There’s nothing else like it. Martin Scorsese came close with GoodFellas, but honestly, as good as that film is, it can’t begin to compare with the sweep and scope of The Godfather. Nothing else can.

 

 

 

 

My Ten Favorite Films of all time (there’s more than ten)

I keep a fairly rigorous and unchanging list of Top 10 films, which I’ve never bothered quantifying, but which bears describing in some form or fashion, if only as a means of keeping score. We all keep Top 10 lists — books, bands, albums, abstract artists, portrait photographers, US presidents, favorite restaurants (or, more fun, least favorite restaurants) — and I have others in addition to movies. But movies are perhaps the most interesting to analyze, and I KNOW that everyone has ten favorite films.

There’s no real standard that these movies had to satisfy in order to score a place in my Top Ten, nor am I able to rationalize, explain, or justify my criteria. A good movie must first of all do its primary task of entertaining, and these ten are nothing if not entertaining. They must also be well-written and well-acted — in so far as the acting satisfies the requirements of the story. I also require a movie to be visually appealing and not just tell a good-to-great story. Finally, it must be about something larger than itself — it must speak to some essential truth or contribute something to society or the greater conversation about film. It must stake something out, take a stand, be brave, change the form, point out new possibilities. It must also withstand the test of time. There’s nothing more depressing than a 10-year-old movie that might as well have come out sometime in the early 1950s.

There shouldn’t be any surprises on here. These are not esoteric films that no one can find. Most of them met with insane popular success, but for a reason — they are good films that people wanted to see. If no one wants to see your movie, I probably won’t want to, either. Obscurity is not, in and of itself, reason for reward. And so, in alphabetical order, because trying to figure out a No. 1 is too damn hard:

American Beauty (1999): This came out in the greatest year for film ever and remains my favorite, and never mind the fact that it won Best Picture — that’s just a coincidence. The movie knows a lot about growing up in the suburbs in the late 1990s, and what it is like at all times to be father to a teenaged daughter. Kevin Spacey might be a real-life piece of shit, but there are so many other beautiful performances here — from everyone in the whole movie. The music is hauntingly engaging, and the cinematography is peerless. But it’s the dialogue that makes this movie so great, and the mournful tone of it all. You feel like something is ending, and in a way, it is: The Nineties.

Blade Runner (1982): The greatest science fiction movie ever made, asking hard questions about the differences (if any) between artificial and human life — questions that will come to bear in our own immediate future. It’s also the most stunningly beautiful film ever shot. There are several different versions out there with different endings. I prefer the original, 1982 release, complete with Harrison Ford’s characteristically bored but somehow-just-right V.O. narration. As to the sequel, Blade Runner 2049? It’s nice fan fiction, but that’s about it.

The Godfather and The Godfather II (1972, 1974): I’m not going to burn a lot of space extoling the virtues of these great films. To leave them off a list like this would be to devalue the list. Suffice to say, they belong here, and share equal ranking — one is just as good (or great) as the other.

GoodFellas (1990): Martin Scorsese’s best film is a hilarious black comedy about what it’s like to be a gangster. The movie itself is gangster, with all-time-career-best performances from Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta (was he ever in anything else?), and enough great scenes and scorching dialogue (all involving the F-bomb) to put Tarantino to shame. Sure, Scorsese made other great films, but this one tops them all.

James Bond 2006-2020. Or, in other words, the Craig years. Yes, this listing constitutes five different films, but given Daniel Craig’s magnificently masculine portrayal of 007, I’m including them all, as I wouldn’t want to be without one of them. (Okay, Quantum of Solace isn’t great, but it benefits from the other four.) Oh, and, yes, I’m aware that neither I nor anyone else has seen Bond 23, which doesn’t come out until April 2020 — but I’m willing to tuck it in here. As to my rationale? Come on! These are the greatest action movies of the last 15 years, and Craig is absolutely in command of the legendary role.

Saving Private Ryan (1998): The greatest war movie I’ve ever seen; no Top Ten list of my design would be without it. Yes, Spielberg brilliantly recreated the Normandy landing, and Tom Hanks effortlessly embodies American goodness as an ordinary soldier, but this movie did something else. It changed the way I look at pictures of the war. For example, I recently tried watching The Great Escape for the first time. I thought the Germans came across as a joke and the good guys as well-dressed, well-fed funsters — in a POW camp setting. It didn’t work for me (in spite of my admiration for Steve McQueen). SPR was like the scales falling from my eyes. War would never be fun, or convenient, or clean, or Hollywood-ized again. War is an apocalypse, and Spielberg drives that point home with blood and tears.

Schindler’s List (1993): Spielberg again, and I shouldn’t have to justify the inclusion of this one. It’s his best film, which speaks volumes. It’s also an angry, unflinching look at human depravity. I can’t watch this one unless I’m in the mood for it, which is just as it should be.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): This was probably the most influential movie of the 1990s, in that it ushered in a slew of FBI dramas, police procedurals, criminal genius flicks, rookie-cops-in-distress novels, and gruesome serial-killer thrillers that focused on blood while missing out on soul. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are endlessly watchable, and the movie has a calm humanity about it that makes the people-eating scenes more horrifying than the average slasher. Also great dialogue.

The Star Wars series (all 9 episodes): Yes, I’m including all nine Star Wars movies as a single listing, as there is no other way of thinking about them. Some are better than others; the prequels have poor acting and some genuinely bad dialogue; and I can’t get a handle on the overall story arc of the sequel trilogy. Nor have I seen The Rise of Skywalker. No matter. Everything begins and ends, for me, with Star Wars.

Taxi Driver (1976): Here is a true horror film, viewed through the eyes of a lost soul. Robert de Niro’s best performance and Scorsese’s other best film. Grimy, gritty, harsh, ultra-realistic, and ageless, there will never be another movie like this one.

Honorable mentions:

Heat; Patton; Jaws; The Godfather III; Dances With Wolves; Rio Bravo; Toy Story; Batman (1989); Thief; the Mission: Impossible series; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011); Citizen Kane; Apocalypse Now; Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; The French Connection; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining; Magnolia; The Blair Witch Project; Alien; Pulp Fiction; Unforgiven; Zodiac; Platoon; El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story; Jackie Brown; Gladiator; No Country for Old Men; The Right Stuff; Goldfinger; Fargo; Sling Blade.

 

 

 

 

 

Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver has been viewed a couple of times in my house in the past few days, and I’ll admit what by now should be painfully obvious: it just keeps getting better. Indeed, Taxi Driver is a film that is both solidly of its time and place (New York City, 1976) but still powerfully relevant today. I don’t think it’ll ever “get old.” It’s one of those movies you can watch a dozen times in your lifetime and interpret differently each time. It remains fascinating on every gritty, grimy level and is probably Scorsese’s best film.

For some, Scorsese has always been an acquired taste. His films are personal, New York-centric, violent, operatic, and hard to like. I once knew a film fanatic who, for whatever reason, never got all that deeply into Scorsese’s work, though he admired it, I guess, on an abstract level. Parts of Scorsese’s resume, in my opinion, are overrated, and he won the Oscar for entirely the wrong film, The Departed, which is more or less unwatchable. But the good parts of his resume are resoundingly great. GoodFellas will remain one of my 10 favorite films, and The King of Comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island, Raging Bull, Casino, The Aviator, and Taxi Driver, for sure, are equally unforgettable.

The movie might not be so well-regarded without Robert De Niro’s incredible portrayal of Travis Bickle. It’s one of the great screen performances, for a host of reasons other than just “you talking to me?” He burrows deep into the sick, feverish, twisted mind of Bickle, who stares out of his cab every night to see a bleak vision of New York City. The place is a hell, a depraved prison in which pimps, whores, junkies, muggers, robbers, adulterers, lunatics, and other assorted street trash act out their daily dramas without regard for the rest of humanity. Travis is sickened by them, while others in the city – the so-called normal people – seem immune. Bickle, who seemingly has no defenses against the moral rot of New York, descends deeper into madness.

It’s hard to think of another movie that portrays loneliness and isolation with more detail or sympathy. Travis is alone and knows he is alone; detached, wandering, he forgets how to interact with other people. He sees only what he wants to see – the street trash – and indulges this fetish by driving a cab at night. He pulls in decent tips but lives in a classic New York City coldwater flat, which is barely large enough to accommodate one man. He tries striking up friendly conversations with people, but he’s awkward, weird, and hard to like. Also, there seem to be multiple versions of Travis; it’s almost as if he’s trying on different personas to see which one works. There’s gregarious Travis (awkward), standoffish Travis (more awkward) and obnoxious Travis (even more awkward). Nothing sticks; he has no social skills whatsoever. His inability to connect with others makes life a prison of its own.

De Niro suggests Travis’ desperation by making him quiet and still; when Travis breaks out into a grin, you know there’s a screw loose somewhere, but De Niro keeps everything internalized, so that we can’t quite comprehend the nature of the problem. Travis himself is barely able to articulate his complaint. In an affecting scene, he tries talking it out with Wizard (Peter Boyle), but can only communicate a few meaningless syllables. “I feel like … I don’t know, I feel like doing something,” he mumbles, clearly aware that he’s capable of something terrible, but unable to explain it.

Two women stand out in Travis’ waking nightmare: Betsy, a political operative played by Cybill Shepherd, and Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster. Both are blonde and blue-eyed; both, in Travis’ twisted view, require saving from exploitative systems. Unfortunately, Travis fails to communicate effectively with either woman. He takes Betsy on an abortive date to a porno, and annoys Iris with his moralizing lectures. Unable to get through to Betsy, he plots to assassinate her boss, a powerful politician, and in order to save Iris, he gears up to murder her pimp, Sport (played by Harvey Keitel). His personal failures trigger him to go on a mission to fulfill his darkest fantasies.

Travis spirals through a hell of missed opportunities, garbled communications, and walking hallucinations. He desperately needs sleep – or some time in a mental ward – but like so many other crazies, he’s loose on the street, engaged in destructive fantasies with little or no bearing on the real world. His craziness seeps out of his pores; he is unable to hide it. Betsy knows there’s something “off” with Travis, but dates him, anyway, perhaps out of sadistic curiosity. Travis’ fellow cabbies know he’s sliding over the edge, but are powerless (or unwilling) to help. Only the Secret Service agent who Travis unwisely engages in conversation realizes he is unstable, but by then, the situation cannot be reversed.

Travis reaches a turning point (even admitting as much on the soundtrack) when he purchases a bunch of handguns off an amoral street dealer dressed like a banker. This is my favorite moment in the movie, as the dealer lays out his wares and describes each pistol in loving detail. Travis fondles the guns, sighting down their barrels, zeroing in on people on the street. He asks good questions and gets solid, reliable answers. Clearly, he’s going to kill people with these guns, but the dealer doesn’t care.

Another favorite moment comes when Travis confronts Sport for the first time. Sport sees something dangerous in Travis but can’t put his finger on it, marking him, incorrectly, as an undercover cop. This offends Travis – you can see it in De Niro’s eyes. “Hey, I’m no cop,” he insists, but Sport, who is nothing if not street smart, still smells a rat. Later, when Travis comes back with guns and a Mohawk, Sport finds out exactly who he is.

The final shootout in which Travis kills a number of ostensibly bad guys in the name of “saving” Iris is straight out of a horror movie – gory, frightening, realistic. Why does Travis do it? Because that was the road he was going down the entire time. His whole life has built to this moment. He tells us early on that “a real rain” is going to wash away the scum, and the men he kills fit that description.

The closing moments are puzzling, and it is possible that we shouldn’t take them literally. I think they are Travis’ dying fantasy, and Scorsese suggests as much by showing Travis’ eyes in the rearview mirror, glancing at something, fleetingly, that isn’t there. The movie is a night terror, an insomniac’s hallucination.

Remove the toddler

We are headed into dangerous, uncharted waters with Trump.

He is lashing out at any and everyone in sight, blaming all comers but himself for his predicament, and attempting to foment revolt by using the coarsest language aimed at 1) demonizing Schiff, Pelosi, et al, and 2) portraying himself as the victim.

The one thing he isn’t doing is taking into account the future of the United States, its position in the world, or his own reputation, which he himself is flushing down the toilet (although it can reasonably argued that his reputation never left there). Just today, the idiot held a press conference in which he PUBLICLY asked ONCE AGAIN for foreign assistance in investigating his perceived 2020 election rivals. THIS IS IMPEACHABLE.

Make no mistake: Trump is blatantly violating the Constitution in front of the television cameras, willfully inviting the aid of such countries as CHINA (which just celebrated its 70th year as a communist nation), just as he did three years ago when, in full view of the public, he asked Russia to help him check into Hillary’s emails. “Russia, if you’re listening …” Turns out, Russia was not only listening, but doing things to help their willful fool win.

Today, of course, Putin finds the whole situation so amusing, and the U.S. so ineffectual, as to joke about Russian meddling. All because of Trump, mind you. If Hillary were in office, none of this shit would be happening, and Donald would be selling steak knives on the Food Network.

We’re often fooled into thinking there are two sides to every story. FOX News tricked people into believing that line with its “fair and balanced” moniker, which everyone knows hid the truth: that FOX parrots only one line, and that is the far-right wing. There are not two sides to Trump. There is Trump himself — who I don’t even consider a Republican — and everybody else, by which I mean the United States of America. He stands alone. There is no “other side.” Anybody demanding “equal time” in this impeachment argument is either a fool or a Russian stooge. There is nothing else to consider. Trump is willfully, gleefully breaking the law, in public. He is lawless. He needs to be taken down. There is nothing else to consider. It is time for adults to act accordingly and remove the toddler from the room where the nuclear weapons are stored.

 

Casino

I don’t know what it is, but there is something insidious about Martin Scorsese’s 1995 Casino. Maybe it’s the incessant use of the F-word; maybe it’s the frenetic editing; maybe it’s Robert De Niro’s stoic, humorless performance juxtaposed against Joe Pesci’s foul-mouthed antics; maybe it’s the epic violence, or the threat of violence; maybe it’s the colors, the incessant 1950s and ’60s-era pop romantic tunes on the soundtrack; maybe it’s all of the above, but Casino, after about the first hour, starts to make a psychological impact on the viewer.

This wasn’t my favorite movie in the Nineties, but I am now having a re-evaluation of it, and I’ve come to realize there is almost nothing more entertaining than Pesci ranting in De Niro’s face. Casino has lots of that — most of its best scenes involve Pesci ranting in the legendary Bob’s face — and more, lots more. It’s a three-plus-hour epic about the mob in Vegas, and while it might require the specialization of a few taste buds, it’s worth the effort.

This is a Scorsese movie through and through, boasting all of the director’s signatures: the pop-rock soundtrack, the chatty narrator, the intricate knowledge of mob politics, a detailed analysis of organized crime, a compromised anti-hero, a vicious hoodlum, strong women, black humor, random violence, and an operatic sense of grandeur. The more you watch it, the more you get caught up in it. You endure long stretches where nothing much happens, only to see characters get beaten with hammers or baseball bats, or shot or stabbed, or clubbed with telephones. This is a movie about implied violence; it either comes, or it passes like a rain shower that never falls. We’re relieved, but we know there’s always another chance of rain in our forecast.

The movie reminds us of GoodFellas, and probably got snubbed at the Academy Awards because it is so very similar to Scorsese’s earlier, equally-Oscar-challenged, mob classic. After all, it stars De Niro and Pesci in roles reminiscent to those they played in GoodFellas, and both films describe, in loving detail, how the Mafia makes its money, kills people, etc. But Casino is still its own thing and Scorsese directs it with just as much passion. This movie should have had Oscars falling out of its pocket, but that year, the Academy went with Mel Gibson and Braveheart. Oh, well.

Mob movies by Scorsese probably aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that. The characters are selfish, self-obsessed, broken, addicted, controlling, scheming, violent and profane. The screenplay drifts from event to event, rather telling a cohesive story. We are neither asked nor expected to admire the characters. But like most of the best Scorsese films (and there are a lot of great ones), it hypnotizes; you can’t look away. I would rank this one with GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, and yep, The Wolf of Wall Street, as one of his best. You can’t look away.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑