February 21, 2010

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At some point you could argue that Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood started making movies to get Oscars. This is reductive and not fair to their body of work, but when you look at much of the 21st century for both artists there’s a sense of making Oscar pictures that perhaps have other merits, but definitely with an eye toward that goal. The rebirth of Scorsese as Oscar contender came in 1990, when Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves and engendered years of vitriol. Mystic River lost in the year of Return of the King, but it kicked off Eastwood’s current run of Oscar-bait pictures that have done well in terms of nominations until recently. The Scorsese film stars Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in one of the greatest mob films ever made, while Mystic River is a literary adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel of wrongful death and suspicious behavior. My review of both after the jump.

At this point Goodfellas is seminal, but it’s always a worthwhile watch – it’s one of those films that if it comes on cable you get sucked in (as Jon Favreau says in the supplements). The film is narrated by Henry Hill (played by Liotta) as someone who is a part of the mob, but also to the side a little bit. He chronicles those who are most influential around him. Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) is the mob boss he starts under, and through him meets Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Both are much more violent than him. And through Tommy he meets Karen (Lorraine Bracco) the Jewish woman who eventually becomes his wife. His life is filled with money and acts of crime, but he and his crew enjoy themselves, have great times, and live well. But there are ups and down, and Henry goes to jail partly because he goes to run an errand in Florida because he can’t keep his dick in his pants. It’s in jail that he makes some drug connections, which becomes super profitable. The problem is that Cicero knows that drugs get them unwanted federal attention, and warns Henry off. Henry is just making too much money to stop. After a huge Lufthansa heist that Hill helped with, Jimmy gets all paranoid and starts killing members of the crew that pulled the crime. There’s also Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) a Goodfella, a made man, a member of the inner circle of the crime business that Tommy killed because Batts shit-talks him. This is a mafia film, so it is about a rise and fall, but with this film, for the first tiem, Scorsese looked at the soldiers, not the up and ups, and not just the killers.

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Watching Goodfellas is like a course in the language of cinema. Scorsese uses all that he had learned at this point in his career, and puts them in service of the narrative. One of my favorite shots is of a depressed Cadillac that rises a number of inches after its fat patron leaves the car. The film, much like Silence of the Lambs, and Full Metal Jacket, is endlessly quotable, especially all the cursing. I think the main reason why the film works so well is that Scorsese is interested in the real details of these people, so you feel like everything is layered and authentic. When you see films that have attempted to riff on this, films like Boogie Nights or Blow, they suffer in comparison if only because this is a perfect film.  It’s also informed so much of the last twenty years of cinema. As much as people may have liked The Departed, The Aviator or Gangs of New York, there’s so much here that people can quote without thinking about it. “I’m going to get the papers, get the papers.” “Tuddy,” etc.

Goodfellas_movie_image (5).jpgWarner Brother’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 TrueHD. This is the same transfer as the previous version, and looks great. There’s a cast and crew commentary with Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Frank Vincent, Paul Sorvino, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s a cut and paste track, which works better than a group commentary, so it’s a lot more focused, and features stronger anecdotes. The second commentary features Henry Hill and former FBI agent Edward McDonald, and they talk about the verite of the project, while Hill will go off on some of the more outlandish aspects of his life. “Getting Made” (30 min.) covers the shooting with a mixture of period and then-current interviews, where “Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy” (14 min.) gets filmmakers like Jon Favreau, Joe Carnahan, the Hughes Brothers, Richard Linklater, Frank Darabont, and others talking about the movie. “Paper is Cheaper than Film” (4 min.) shows storyboards, wile “The Workaday Gangster” (8 min.) talks to the realities of gangster life. There’s also the film’s theatrical trailer. New to this set is a 32 page booklet, and the DVD of the documentary “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film” (106 min.) which speaks to the Gangster genre, its inception, and evolution to the string of classic (mostly) Warner Brothers films, and rounds up the usually suspects like Sir Christopher Frayling, Kim Newman, Martin Scorsese, and Leonard Maltin among others to talk about films like Scarface, The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, Public Enemy and White Heat. It also contains four cartoons (31 min.), one a Merry Melody, the rest Looney Tunes that feature parodies of cinema’s most famous gangsters.

Mystic River movie image Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn (1).jpgMystic River is not a classic, even if it won two Oscars for its leads Tim Robbins and Sean Penn. The films starts on three boys in their youth. One is kidnapped by pedophiles and taken to a special place in the woods. He escapes, and it ruins his friendships. The molested child grows into Dave Boyle (Robbins) as an average Joe, while the two others go in complete opposite directions. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is a low level hood, but has his neighborhood on lock, while Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a cop with a ruined marriage. And when Jimmy’s daughter turns up dead, Dave becomes a prime suspect because of his suspicious behavior. Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) doesn’t trust him when his story for the night of the girl’s death is hinky, and such amplifies the suspicious.

On second viewing the film seems a little stronger because the narrative is more than the sum of its parts, but on first pass the doomed angel that is Dave Boyle was self-evident. Otherwise you don’t have that opening. The main strength is that the performers are strong with the material, and it all comes across well enough (I mean when is Sean Penn bad?), and there is the fun of watching Clint Eastwood direct Eli Wallach (his old Tuco), and Laura Linney has an excellent turn as Jimmy’s wife Annabeth. But there is a plodding inevitability to the movie that doesn’t totally reek of a fatalistic drumbeat. It’s not the grand tragedy it’s hoping to be, but it is more honest and far more interesting than Million Dolar Baby or The Changeling. I don’t know how much the film is meant to surprise, but it also feels like a film about grief porn as it stacks child rape on top of child murder. At the end it doesn’t amount to much less than the sum of its parts.

Warner’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD. The transfer is excellent, as to be expected for a modern film. “Mystic River: Beneath the Surface” (23 min.) is the making of and gets all the main players to talk about the movie, while “From Page to Screen” (12 min.) continues more of this EPK-ness, though it’s nice to see people like Sean Penn sitting down talking about the film. There’s also Charlie Rose interviews with Eastwood, Robbins and Bacon (111 min.) Rose is a solid Hollywood interviewer, so this is great stuff. The film’s theatrical trailer and teaser trailer are also included.

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