Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Killing Never Seemed So Cool

#94 -- Goodfellas directed by Martin Scorsese

As Henny Youngman says, "Take Liotta out of this film...please!"

It took Martin Scorsese five attempts to finally secure an Oscar for best director. Although I liked the film he eventually won with (2007's The Departed -- it's pretty sweet), I'd argue it may be the weakest of the Scorsese films (OK, it was better than The Aviator) and may not have even been the best in contention that year (Blood Diamond and Babel were both very deserving). My point being that Scorsese was rewarded for a lifetime of awesome films. One of which being the next on the AFI list -- Goodfellas.

Just when everyone thought mob movies had been done to death (especially mob movies with Robert DeNiro), Scorsese roared into 1990 and released a overtly honest, cleverly scripted and gruesomely gory flick that soldifies the genre, once again, as bankable and capable of new ideas.

Ray Liotta -- in the only thing I ever could stand him as, ever -- portrays Henry Hill, a half-Irish, half-Italian mobster turned eventually stool pigeon. The film, based on the book Wise Guy, runs throw the glamorous life of Hill and his New York-based croonies. DeNiro and Joe Pesci co-star in masterful roles as his two best goombas and really steal the show from Liotta.

Pesce and DeNiro are everything to this film. Their characters have so much depth and both excel in comedic and dramatic scenes alike. Pesce's portrayal of Tommy DeVito is iconic. His indecisiveness and self-consciousness makes him a frightening character to encounter. The oft-quoted "What do you mean I'm funny?" scene far exceeded my expectations. Duplicators lack the fear Pesce creates with the character; throughout the entire scene -- and film in general -- you feel Pesce has the potential to kill everyone in sight for no reason.

DeNiro is at the height of cool in this movie. Also playing a half-Irishman, Jimmy Conway, DeNiro commands the scene like his character commands a room -- through subtle demands. By snapping his fingers, whispering in a colleague's ear or nodding in the direction of what he wants, DeNiro dominates. Not as outwardly dangerous as Pesce's character, DeNiro does not refrain from inflicting violence or defending his turf. When Conway feels his wishes are not met, the results are startlingly deadly. One thing that I learned from Goodfellas is that if DeNiro tells me not to spend my recently-stolen money for awhile, I sure as hell will listen.

In fact, after talking about how awesome Pesci and DeNiro are, fuck Liotta: he severely detracts from this film. When DeNiro yells, it's purposeful, it's poetic; when Liotta mouthes off, it seems as if that's the only card he has in his deck. The climatic scene detailing a paranoid Liotta running errands on the day of his arrest is a symbolic for his acting in the movie. It's like he is always looking over his shoulder to see how much better Pesce and DeNiro are than he. Sadly, it's as hopeless for Hill as it is for Liotta.

There are other noteworthy elements that I feel at least deserve mention. Like in any good mob movie, food plays an important role. Often humor comes from the inclusion of food. At one point, hot-headed DeVito kills a made man; therefore, Conway and Hill have to aid DeVito in burying the man upstate. Instead of getting things done ASAP, the trio stops at DeVito's mom's house and eats dinner -- some good gravy there. Later in the film, during Hill's paranoid drug-dealing spree, he continually bases his movements on a crucial element -- the making of tomato sauce. Liotta, all coked-up and strung out, stirs the sauce and worries about its consistency mere moments before being ambushed by the feds.

Also great secondary character work throughout the film. Lorrainne Bracco (the future Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos) excels as Hill's battered, cuckolded wife. Paul Sorvino's role as the mob boss exudes a Brando-esque dominance. And, for me, Chuck Low is the film's most unappreciated actor. Playing the annoying, clingy, dependent, oh-god-shut-up!, Jewish Morrie Kessler, Low hangs with the big boys and somehow becomes an endearing character. On top of all that, cool cameos by Samuel L. Jackson, comedian Henny Youngman ("Take my wife...please!), and Michael Imperioli (Christopher from The Sopranos) advances the idea that no character is too small.

So despite having a leading man who takes away from the film, Goodfellas is the most tasteful and artistic mob movie outside of The Godfather series. Although Scorsese should have won for this one, I'm glad he finally got what he deserved (just like so many poor, dead gangsters in this film).


(#93) - The Apartment directed by Billy Wilder

No comments: