Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tommy DeVito

OK, so I know I promised no more De Niro for awhile...but I just went out and rented "Goodfellas" from the video store, and I simply couldn't leave it alone. Not for one minute. I will say, in my defense, that De Niro is not the focus of the film; no, he is rather a backdrop to two younger men whose lives the film tends to follow. With its genuine, real-world style dialog and blatant disregard for human squeamishness, "Goodfellas" is often remembered as one of the most crass, vulgar and violent mobster flicks ever made. Directed by the great Marty Scorsese and acted by two (and I do mean two, Ray Liotta) of the greatest mafia actors ever to appear on screen, "Goodfellas" follows the story of the young, Irish-Italian gangster wanna-be Henry Hill, growing up in East Brooklyn in the 1950s. The opening line of the film kind of sets the tone..."Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a gangster". The story follows Henry Hill's rise through the ranks of the New York mafia during its golden age, from the time when he was 15 up to what I would assume to be his mid-20s (the film isn't specific). As a teenager, he gets work at a cab stand run by the local mafia, particularly a fella named Tutti and his big brother, Paulie (brilliantly played by Paul Sorvino). After getting a taste of mafia life, Henry quits school and starts working full time for the cab service. Most of his childhood years are left pretty vague and open to interpretation, but at one point during his service he meets another up-and-coming gangster by the name of Tommy DeVito. Tommy is played by Joe Pesci, and is one of the funniest psychopaths ever to appear on screen. Basically, the two grow up together and end up getting a huge job for an unspeakable amount of money, and the storyline moves along from there.

DISCLAIMER: There may or not be some spoiler information in the next few paragraphs, so read at your own risk.

So, let's talk about the direction of this film. Martin Scorsese has always been one of my very favorite directors (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets), and "Goodfellas" is another Scorsese gem. The film is not particularly 'artful' in its shots like many of Scorsese's pictures are, but one of the things that stands out, I think, is the screenplay. "Goodfellas" was based on a novel by Nicholas Pileggi, and adapted for the screen over the course of 12 drafts by Scorsese and Pileggi. I think that the dialog in "Goodfellas" is done really, really well. The conversations between characters seem more like real life than any film I've ever seen, and the mobster terminology is well taken to by De Niro and Pesci especially, as well as other characters. Speaking of Pesci's This film is 9th on Wikipedia's list of films that use the word "fuck" the most. "Goodfellas" has a whopping 300 fucks, thanks almost entirely to Pesci. Incidentally, number 4 on the list is another Scorsese/Pesci/De Niro picture. Another mobster flick, "Casino" has 398 fucks in it, almost 100 more than the seemingly insurmountable "Goodfellas" number. This makes "Goodfellas" almost funny to watch. Pesci's New York accent and quick, sharp way of speaking makes for a good fuckin' time.

Then there is the issue of Mr. Tommy DeVito; arguably one of Joe Pesci's greatest roles, Tommy DeVito is a completely psychopathic mobster who doesn't give two hoots whether he kills someone for ratting him out or for bringing his drink too slow. Tommy is an interesting character; he is undoubtedly an antihero, one of the craziest bastards ever to show up in a Scorsese film, and rooting for him as a viewer would seem absurd because of his unrivaled insanity, especially compared to the other seemingly mellower characters in the film. But, despite the opening scene in which he brutally stabs an already-bloodied victim in the trunk of his car, and a later scene in which he shoots and kills a waiter at a card game for not getting his order right, you find yourself laughing at his antics and feeling sad when you learn of his fate.

"Goodfellas" is probably the best mobster flick I've ever seen outside of the first two Godfather films. It's action-packed, historically accurate, funny, dramatic and acted really well by everyone on set. Lorraine Bracco also deserves an honorable mention as Karen Hill, Henry's cheated-on and neglected coke-snorting wife. She does a great job as a Long Island broad who knows exactly what's up in the lives of her husband and her friends. This film was put out in 1990 by Marty Scorsese, and lives on today as one of the top crime dramas of (roughly) our generation. Also, I've heard tell of a film to come out within the next year or two, directed by Scorsese and starring De Niro, Pesci, and the great Al be on the look out for that. There will definitely be a review of that film if and when it comes out, despite how recent a film it is. That's all for today...see you!


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Let's Watch a Comedy!

Considered one of the classic cult films of the younger generation, the witty and spot-on portrayal of cramped cubicle life, "Office Space", hits every comedic mark, in my humble opinion. The story follows 9 to 5 white collar everyman Pete Gibbons, who works at the dreary Initech Corporation where his job is to go through column after column of code and make tiny little edits to prepare for Y2K (as you can tell, this film was made in 1999). Pete, along with his two pals Samir and Michael (full name Michael Bolton, a nice touch), are absolutely fed up with the dreariness of the office, with the endless filing, paperwork, printer jams, office parties and TPS reports. And though both Samir and Michael are agitated, it is Pete who has an epiphany after an overweight psychotherapist keels over and dies in an attempt to hypnotize him. Pete's life is changed and, following the firing of Michael and Samir and Pete's unlikely promotion for missing days and days of work, the trio puts into action one of the greatest computer hacker schemes ever concocted to bring down Initech once and for all.

"Office Space", sadly for everyone involved, was not a particularly successful film in the box office. Audiences didn't quite grasp the dry, "humorless" humor, and the indie-feel of the picture, I think, threw a lot of people off. However, today the film is worshiped by many, both as a cult classic and a testament to the stick-it-to-the-man attitude of the common white collar worker. As I watch the film, though, I can't seem to grasp why it wasn't an immediate success. Besides what I already pointed out, (the style of the film and the humor) I think that "Office Space" should have been one of the big comedies of '99. I feel like, back in the days of "Office Space", anti-punchline humor was largely obsolete. That kind of humor was of course pioneered by British comedian Ricky Gervais, whose similarly titled series "The Office", and more importantly its wildly successful American remake, has become one of the staples of modern comedy. "Office Space" would have faired well, I believe, in today's wild world of comedy. Much better than it did in '99.

One of the things that makes "Office Space" such a joy to watch is the portrayal of Pete Gibbons by actor Ron Livingston. Now, Ron Livingston is usually pretty high up there on my list of actors I don't care about and don't care for, but in this film, he is just perfect. He's funny, quirky, smart and witty. Throughout the film, even though Pete is an enormous slacker and a bit of a loser, I found myself unable not to feel sympathetic towards him. His life is so sad, and he takes it all lying down until a certain point, and Livingston does a wonderful job of bringing out the humor in the script and drawing the audience into his character's mind. His two sidekicks, Samir and Michael, are also integral parts of the film. Samir is an Arabic guy who moved to America from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is one of the funniest characters in the film, and his obsession with sex ("In conjugal visits you get to have sex with women?") is less creepy than it sounds, and more simply silly. Michael really steals the show as Pete and Samir's cocky, big-mouthed programmer friend who listens and sings along to extremely loud rap music, but feels the need to turn it down when a black cop walks by his car in the street. Michael is straightforward and bitterly funny. His ongoing fight with the office printer makes for one of the greatest scenes in movie history, a scene you will just have to wait and see for yourself. Oh, by the way...Michael's response to how conjugal visits work? "Shit, I'm a free man and I haven't had a conjugal visit in six months!" Comic gold.

And, funny, saddening and pathetic enough to get his own paragraph, we have Milton. Milton is a stuttering, red-faced, round-waisted data analyst who loves his red Swingline stapler and swears on his life that if his desk is moved just once more, he'll set the whole building on fire. His desk has been moved six times. That should give you a taste of Milton's resolve. If there are no other reasons to watch this film, Milton is the one. Hilariously played by Stephen Root, Milton putters around the office trying to get things to go his way, though everyone around him seems uninterested in anything he has to say. He is by far one of the funniest characters ever to grace the silver screen, and he steals almost every scene he is in.

Now I'm sure all of you drama-types out there would rather hear about the kind of films I generally write about, but from time to time I will crack open a nice jar of comedy jam (ouch, bad metaphor, forget I said that) and spread it on your eager minds. Now it's a creepy metaphor, too. Oh well. Point is: "Office Space" isn't like some of the other movies I've reviewed where you have to go out and rent/buy it this very moment. Someday, when you want a nice, relaxing evening at home with a hysterically funny movie on the television, pick "Office Space". It'll be worth your while.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Raging Bull

If you have read either of my first two posts, you will have by now figured out that Robert De Niro is one of my very favorite actors. I believe he has the talent, skill, drive and determination of any actor of his generation or any generation before or after. Now, I also imagine that some of you are thinking "wow, another De Niro film? This guy's got a one track mind". But I promise, after the following review, I will steer clear of ol' "Bobby Milk" for awhile. First, however, I would love to review one of my very favorite films, definitely in the top 10, and one of 4 De Niro films that sit in that top 10. Today I want to review "Raging Bull".

"Raging Bull" is a story of success. It is arguably the greatest film about boxing ever made, second only, perhaps, to the glorious "Rocky". This film gives the viewer an inside look on the broken life and inner struggles of middleweight boxer Jake Lamotta, and is based on a true story. Let me tell you right now that, in the following paragraphs, the Jake Lamotta to whom I am referring is the Lamotta of the film, not that of real life. Lamotta is a rising star in the boxing world, and, after losing his first professional fight, buckles down and climbs the ladder of middleweight boxing. The film takes place largely in the late 40s, though gradually moves into the 50s, and even shows bits and pieces of the 1960s. Lamotta (played, of course, by De Niro) has got a pretty tough home life; a brother mixed up in the mafia, (brilliantly played by Joe Pesci) a wife whose antics enrage him to the point of physical violence towards her, and a 15-year old vixen who has drawn his forbidden attraction. Lamotta's personal life and professional career clash fairly early in the film. Because of his quick ascension to being one of the toughest boxers around, other fighters are afraid to face him. As a result, Lamotta has little chance at even a shot at the middleweight championship. His brother, who, like I said, is seriously involved with the mafia, gets his goombah pals to give Lamotta a bit of a nudge in the right direction by acting behind the scenes, if you get my drift.

This film is perfectly cast, and wonderfully acted. De Niro, right in his element as a thoughtful, lonely, slightly insane tough guy, plays the role of Jake Lamotta perfectly. Not to mention he looks almost identical to the real Lamotta (look up a photograph and compare it--it's uncanny). Cathy Moriarty plays the achingly sexual Vickie, a young woman of 15 who has taken to hanging around with the mobsters in the Bronx, one of whom being Joey, Jake's brother. Joey is played by Joe Pesci, the quintessential mobster. But what's different about this role is Pesci's demeanor. Generally, when Pesci plays a mobster, he's loud, violent and obnoxious twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In this role, there is only one terribly violent scene, (outside of all the boxing, obviously) and it does involve Pesci, but, that being said, his character Joey is sweet, quiet and thoughtful when conversing with Jake. He tends to curse a lot around his friends but, per request of Jake, he doesn't curse around him. The relationship between the two men is very intimate, and this has to be the result of some fantastic acting because "Raging Bull" was the first film in which this dynamic duo was cast. This has to say something about both actors, talent-wise; that they could play such a subtly emotional pair so early in their personal relationship. Fantastic.

In conclusion, I want to make a correction. I think that "Raging Bull" would definitely go into my top 5 list, rather than top 10. It is a brilliantly acted, directed, and written film. Which actually brings me to my last point, one I forgot to add earlier. The screenplay for "Raging Bull" was written by Paul Schrader, the man who was also responsible for the script of "Taxi Driver" and "American Gigolo". Writers are often overlooked by viewers, (myself included) but Schrader deserves a more than honorable mention for being one of the most prominent screenwriters of his time. He has written some really fantastic characters, all of whom have been a little bit twisted in the head, but fantastic none the less. A big thanks to Mr. Schrader. So, that being said, I can't recommend this film highly enough. Has to be one of the best films ever made, definitely one of Martin Scorsese's best pictures, and undoubtedly Robert De Niro's finest performance, with the exception of the omnipresent "Taxi Driver". Go out and rent this movie right's at Videoport AND Jet Video, you lazy Deering neighborhood readers, so you have no excuse not to take a quick stroll and pick it up. That's all for today!

P.S. In case any of you are top 5 list reads as follows:
1. Taxi Driver
2. The Godfather
3. Raging Bull
4. The Godfather Part II
5. Dog Day Afternoon

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My Favorite Film, part 1

A lot of times, when I tell folks what my favorite film is, I get strange looks, lots of surprised faces, and the general sense that people are mentally questioning my mental stability. Some people think that movies about absolutely psychotic war veterans, pimps and 12-year old prostitutes are sick, and should not be shown in theaters. Of course, this is partly true; the concept is rather disturbing, and the violence is overwhelming at times. But I have heard people express such disgust with my favorite film that they would rather it come off the shelves entirely than trying to get around the violence of that epic final scene. I am, if you haven't noticed by now, talking about Martin Scorsese's disturbing portrayal of a man driven to the edge by insanity, sexual depravity and loneliness. I am talking about Robert De Niro's brilliant performance as Travis Bickle, a deeply disturbed Vietnam War veteran-turned-taxicab driver who wants nothing but to be able to control his life, and perhaps the lives of those around him. I am, of course, talking about "Taxi Driver", and when I am talking about "Taxi Driver", I am talking about my favorite film.

There is not one person on this planet that can claim to know anything about film without having seen "Taxi Driver". I'm not saying you have to like it to be a true film buff, but you have to at least see it, and at least try and comprehend the thing. Most film buffs will tell you that "Taxi Driver" is a great film, but, for the all-time greatest, they will go with, say, "Casablanca", or "Schindler's List" or, my personal #2, "The Godfather". The thing about "Taxi Driver", I think, is that there is a pretty common misconception that if you can watch that film without being scarred for life, you have got some pretty psychopathic blood running through your veins. This is simply not true, but because of this, I think that "Taxi Driver" has been condemned in many circles, and has often been tossed aside when someone is considering their top movies list. For instance, the American Film Institute ranks "Taxi Driver" at number 47 out of the top 100 movies in the past 100 years. Forty-seven. Now, this, to me, is absolutely absurd. I don't mean to say that any of the movies that succeed "Taxi Driver" on the list are less than their current rank on the list, (except maybe "West Side Story", at number 41, a film I never really cared for) I just feel like the film delves so deeply into the human spirit that it is sometimes hard for those viewing to understand the mood of the film. All they can see is the the teenage prostitutes, the gory violence, and that one scene, with Marty Scorsese himself, where a cuckolded passenger in Bickle's cab tells him all about how he's going to shoot his cheating wife with a .44 pistol, in two places where no one wants to be shot.

Just to let you folks know, if you have not seen the picture, and intend to see it, it's quite possible that I ruin a lot of the plot for you, seeing as this is not so much a review but an opinion. You've been warned.

"Taxi Driver" tells the story of Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran who, after being honorably discharged with no proper education and no prospects, is forced to hack in 1970s New York City. De Niro has always been good at playing sort of a washed-up bum or a loser; a guy who is trying to get his act together but can't seem to manage. From "Taxi Driver", his first dramatic role as a fella who's down and out, to "Raging Bull", where he plays Jake Lamotta, a boxer in the 1940s struggling to get a shot at the middleweight championship, to his buddy-buddy comedy with Charles Grodin, "Midnight Run", as an ex-cop working as a bounty hunter for a bail bondsman. Bickle is struggling to find meaning in his life, struggling to find a friend in the lonely bowels of Manhattan. He has nothing to hold on to in life when, all of a sudden, he catches site of Betsy, a campaign worker for Charles Palantine, who is running for president of the United States. He promptly walks up and asks her out on a date. The date goes well, but when the second date goes terribly, (Bickle attempts to take Betsy to see an adult film, and she is not impressed) she dumps him on the spot. This, of course, sets Bickle off on a rage when he storms the Palantine office and curses Betsy out. This marks the beginning of Bickle's slow downward spiral into depression and insanity.

In one particular scene, it is obvious that Bickle has become almost a full-blown psychopath. One of the leading signs of psychopathy is amorality, or complete lack of remorse or sorrow. In one scene, Bickle makes his way into a bodega around the corner from his apartment, presumably to pick up some groceries or something of the like. While he is in the back of the store, another man comes in and holds up the clerk at the front desk. Bickle slowly walks up behind the man and draws his gun. "Hey", he says, and, when the man turns, Bickle shoots him point blank in the chest. As he is on his way out, he mentions to the clerk that he doesn't have a license for his gun. This, to me, was the first point where Bickle had clearly become psychopathic, as he showed no remorse for killing somebody, just worry that he might not be able to save his own ass because of a permit. This is also the realization that, even though you may be cheering for him, as the main character, Bickle is an antihero; a man who, even though the film revolves around him, the audience must realize is sick, a man who no one in the audience should want to be friends with in the real world. But, even as we watch Bickle fall into the deep abyss of violence and self-hatred, we are glued to the screen, anxious to see what becomes of a man whom we have grown to care about, despite his extreme insanity and many, many faults. This is what is so compelling about "Taxi Driver", and this is why it is my favorite film.

There will be another part to this, another day. I definitely have more to say, but not now. Thanks.


L'homme Sans Nom

Throughout the history of film, there have been very few actors who have been able to continue their careers through the tumult and tribulations of old age. Many incredibly successful actors have lost their vibe past the age of 60 or so; there is Al Pacino, who immortalized mobster films in roles like Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II", and as Tony Montana in "Scarface". There is the once great Marlon Brando, whose success alongside Pacino in "The Godfather" and in earlier films such as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On The Waterfront" came to a screeching halt in the last 20 years of his life ("Apocalypse Now" was arguably his last memorable film). Even Robert De Niro, another actor who became famous largely because of Coppola's mafia masterpiece and enjoyed success well into the 1980s, lost his touch past the year 2000. Pacino, De Niro and Brando were three of the most skilled actors of their generations, but the ever-present beast that is old age swallowed up all three of these talents. Of course, there are those who will argue that Pacino has had mildly successful stints in both film and television in the past 10 years or so, but there's really been nothing substantial. All this being said, there is one man who took on old age and emerged victorious. That man was Clint Eastwood, and his 2008 picture "Gran Torino" is what I'll be talking about today.

"Gran Torino" follows Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a puttering, 80-something Korean War vet with a lot of pent up anger and some serious racial prejudices. He is the sole white guy living in an entirely Asian neighborhood in a working class Michigan town dominated by inter-Asian gang violence. His next door neighbors, a family of Hmong Chinese immigrants, have a young teenage son, Thao, and his older sister Sue. Walt is also constantly bothered by his son, who is a world-class jerk-off, and the reverend from his local church who will not leave him alone for a confession. After Thao's reluctant attempt to steal Walt's prized possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino, as part of his initiation into the local Hmong gang, he begins working for Walt in exchange for his not pressing charges. As you can imagine, much "old guy meets shy young kid and softens up" begins to ensue, and the two become pals of sorts. I won't ruin the plot of the film for you, that is if you haven't already seen it, but eventually Walt gets involved in the local gang violence and must take charge in protecting himself and the family next door.

The film is directed and produced by Eastwood, who also stars as Walt, the politically incorrect yet hilariously racist protagonist. Eastwood started acting way back in 1957...his career has spanned five decades of film, and he remains one of the most hard-hitting and totally badass actors around. I was not surprised to hear that this would be Eastwood's final role as an actor, because, to me, "Gran Torino" was a swan song for him. He wonderfully portrayed the pain that a man goes through when he loses his wife, but, more importantly, he did it very realistically. That is to say that, even when he wasn't speaking, or the camera wasn't on him, you could feel the anger radiating from his character, the eternal anger that he feels against the world around him and the people in it. I feel like if Eastwood were to go back into acting in a lead role, he might not be able to top his performance in "Gran Torino", which is why stopping, I think, was a good choice for him.

The movie, though laced with brutal violence, cursing and blatant racism, (Walt's favorite word seems to be the all-encompassing Asian slur 'gook') is touching, and also pretty damn funny, in its portrayal of the relationship between Walt and Thao. For Walt, getting past his blind hatred for all Asian people wasn't easy, but he softened up and gave Thao and Sue a chance. He even taught Thao how to "be a real man" in a scene that is worth the price of admission alone. Sue was the one who really reached out to him, and deserves an honorable mention (though the acting on the part of Sue was not the best I've ever seen, to be frank). Sue and Walt connected on another level, after Walt's totally "Dirty Harry" rescue of Sue from some local thugs ("Ever notice how you come across somebody once in awhile you shouldn't have fucked with? That's me"). Which brings me to another point: Clint's ongoing ability to come off as the baddest M.F.-er you'll ever meet. My favorite scene from the movie takes place when the local Hmong gang is fighting on Walt's lawn. He comes outside and the following takes place:

Hmong gangster: "Go on back inside, old man!"

Walt: "How about I blow a hole in your fuckin' face, then I go inside and sleep like a baby!"

This is something that, if anyone else (with the exception of Joe Pesci) said it, I would find it vulgar and overly violent. But the way Clint did it...perfect.

Anyway, after this extensive review, (they aren't usually this long, not to worry) I would give "Gran Torino" 9 stars out of 10, and recommend it immediately to anyone remotely interested in film or remotely interested in Eastwood. The storyline is compelling, the characters are deep, and Clint gives a fantastic performance as a tortured soul who, in all honesty, just wants to be left in peace. Easily on my Clint Top 5 List. Enjoy!