April 15, 2011
Crime, Drama, Film
Casino, Corleone, Dances With Wolves, Film, film music, Forrest Gump, Francis Ford Coppola, gangster, Goodfellas, Henry Hill, Joe Pesci, Kevin Costner, Lorraine Bracco, Martin Scorsese, Michael Ballhaus, movies, Nicholas Pileggi, Oscars, Paul Sorvino, picture, poster, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino, Ray Liotta, review, Robert De Niro, score, Shutter Island, soundtrack, Wiseguy
Gangster films truly inhabit a world of their own. With the possible exception of good science fiction, no other genre has assembled such a loyal following nor indeed witnessed such an incredible amassing of cinematic talent. As if any confirmation of the latter was necessary, 1990 became the year in which the “don crown” passed hands once and for all. Francis Ford Coppola, long awaiting a return to glory failed to hit bars he himself set twenty years earlier, his third and final entry to the Corleone saga desperately lacking in innovation. Into this breach leapt an eager Martin Scorsese with perhaps his greatest contribution to cinema. Amongst all of the Italian’s well-remembered films (and there are many indeed), “Goodfellas” is by some distance his most popular among fans and critics alike. And though not exactly robbed of an Oscar – “Dances With Wolves” is after all a very fine film – it was most deserving of the Best Picture and Director nods that year. Maybe Kevin Costner made the Academy an offer they couldn’t refuse. Nevertheless, as an exercise in narrative and storytelling the Scorsese is by all mean exemplary.
The film is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy,” the true story of three gangsters’ lives. Beginning in the 1950s, the film tells three decades of life in the mafia, the people, the jobs, the lifestyle and the drama. Growing up in Brooklyn, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) begins his mafioso career at the age of twelve simply because he’s always wanted to be a gangster. Initially running jobs for local mob man Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Henry soon climbs up into bigger schemes, those of the highly paranoid Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and the highly aggressive Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Together they lift money from just about everywhere, constantly playing cat-and-mouse with the law while living it up in an endless chain of nightclubs and bars. Initially captivated by Henry’s charms is Karen (Lorraine Bracco) but the marriage soon turns for the worse as she is drawn ever further in, yet ultimately left behind.
Everything gangster-aficionados will expect (and more), “Goodfellas” is high on it’s own substance, containing excessive violence, black humour and an absolute overload of the f-word (over 300 times, in all its extraordinary variations). And though “Goodfellas” is a roller-coaster of extreme proportions, its incredible how much of the action happens off-screen: What many a film would pride as a central showpiece, the infamous robberies fall by the wayside, Scorsese making it clear that he is less interested in the plot as opposed to exploring the world of organised crime these characters inhabit. The essence, the real flesh and blood of their mindset is drawn out in countless conversations, sometimes relaxed, more often tense and unpredictable, something many minor characters learn the hard way. It’s a fine line between the jokes and threats and often with horrific consequences as immortalised by Joe Pesci with “What do you mean I’m funny?” The screenplay, co-written by Scorsese and Pileggi is expert in turning 180 degrees when the audience least expect it in a style later translated by Quentin Tarantino for his own “Pulp Fiction,” playing with seemingly casual exposition that has the potential to ignite the situation at any moment.
Remarkable at all times is Martin Scorsese’s unparalleled style, though that superlative does not describe it sufficiently. An education in filmmaking would be a more fitting title for the way he directs Michael Ballhaus’ camera swoops, the sometimes slow, sometimes quick edits, the freeze-frames around every setting. Repeat viewings will be necessary to fully appreciate his talent for telling a narrative in such a free-flowing and entertaining manner. Yet again, the genius lies in the details – take the completely irrelevant preparation of a meal during that fateful day: On page it might seem daft but on film it’s a brilliant tool for cranking up the suspense and pressure in Henry’s cocaine-fuelled life one notch further. Lastly, yet by no means least, several large kudos must go the simply excellent cast, both the leads and bit-parts all appropriately cast. De Niro and Pesci are outstanding in almost everything they do but these are roles that help define careers. The very important core of the film however lies with Ray Liotta. Superb firstly as the young “apprentice” criminal and then later as organiser. His performance is much more restrained than either De Niro or Pesci, his reactions and emotions a little more measured to those of audience members to particular scenes. Sadly this role has so far proven Liotta’s only truly great one as he has since been typecast to a certain extent though never again by Scorsese.
“Goodfellas” does not contain a single note of original film music. Scorsese was one of the very first to experiment with pure source music in his films and would do so again with “Casino” and “Shutter Island.” All of the director’s personal choices, including period hits by Tony Bennet, Aretha Franklin and many more fit the film like a glove however. They perfectly evoke both time and place for every scene though never in a manner that could be considered flashy or drawing attention to itself. While a “Godfather” style score would doubtlessly have worked as well, the songs lend the film a uniques atmosphere and it would be futile to deny their effect. On the other hand, an extremely measly album presentation leaves much to be desired: Of almost fifty songs, the album features a mere twelve. A “Forrest Gump” like double-CD treatment would resolve the issue but until that arrives, the album for “Goodfellas” remains a significant disappointment for fans.
“Goodfellas” remains one of the defining movies within and without the gangster genre. It’s a masterpiece and a landmark in cinema that elevates Scorsese and his ensemble higher and higher as your appreciation will grow every time you watch it.
Songs on album
In the likely event that you liked this film, please take a minute to rate it or to leave me a comment. I’d love to hear all your thoughts and declarations of love for Scorsese’s masterpiece. Thank you all for reading!
December 5, 2010
Action, Adventure, Epic/Historical, Film
Alan Rickman, Bryan Adams, Christian Slater, Errol Flynn, Everything I do, Extended Edition, Film, film music, I do it For You, Kevin Costner, Kevin Reynolds, Maid Marian, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Kamen, Morgan Freeman, movies, Nottingham, picture, poster, Prince of Thieves, review, Ridley Scott, Robin Hood, score, Sean Connery, Sheriff, soundtrack, The Adventures of Robin Hood
Film history has shown little kindness to the legend of Robin Hood. With the exception of that loveable 1938 Errol Flynn caper, Hollywood has tried and failed again and again to create a truly great celluloid version of the man in lincoln-green tights. So too, this big-budget attempt of the 90s ultimately fails to hit the bullseye, no matter how hard it tries. It may be possible to enjoy “Prince of Thieves” simply as a fun adventure romp in its own right but, riddled as it is with a slew of continuity as well as factual errors and some truly awful casting, even the most liberal of fans will scratch their heads at many a turn, wondering just how so much great potential and opportunity was wasted.
Having escaped captivity in the crusades, Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) along with new-found companion Azeem (Morgan Freeman), returns home to England to find things have changed: His home has been ransacked and his father brutally murdered by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) and his minions who have seized power in King Richard’s absence. Forced to hide in a certain Sherwood Forest, Robin joins with a band of outlaws and plots to overthrow the Sheriff in revenge. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Maid Marian is there somewhere, waiting to be wooed and there’s family trouble brewing with Christian Slater’s Will Scarlet. It’s an altogether darker version of the tale than Errol Flynn could ever have imagined, introducing a more serious atmosphere that would also prevail in Ridley Scott’s 2010 version “Robin Hood.” Director Kevin Reynolds seems unsure how to proceed with this however and tries to find a balance with humour – stemming largely from the ever brilliant Morgan Freeman – and some of the more brutal images. There’s nothing wrong with trying to create an adult version of the tale but its execution is often so poor that it is laughable. Critics and historians often snort at the amount of historical inaccuracies and continuity like the fact that the Chinese invented gunpowder or that printing was still a few hundred years away. But really, those are the least of the film’s problems.
What really kills the action is the lead: Kevin Costner, who was truly riding the high wave of success and popularity at the time, fails to ignite any spark whatsoever. Dubiously sporting blonde highlights and a Californian accent (Costner apparently tried to learn a British accent but found it, em, too difficult), we don’t believe his Robin for a single minute. Not only does he rob the role of all sense of fun, his attempts at making his Locksley into a troubled man fall completely flat. Mastrantonio is also one of the poorest Marians we’ve seen for a long, long time. Acting this bad should be made illegal, especially when as handsomely paid as Costner. Also well paid was Sean Connery who turns up at the end for a very pointless cameo. Indeed with a main duo this lifeless and dull, this film would probably have sunk into the dark ages a long time ago, were it not for the performance of one Alan Rickman. His performance as the Sheriff is wonderfully sleazy and furiously demented. What Costner fails to muster in terms of fun, the British veteran can almost recover through chewing scenery and calling off Christmas, this is really the campest of camp. Along with Hans Gruber and Severus Snape, this truly belongs in the gallery of great Rickman baddies. Taking the Sheriff into account, the film remains watchable but we will always lament for what might have been a real action and adventure matinee flick paying homage to the Hoods of yesteryear.
Another aspect of the film’s enduring popularity is its end-credits song “(Everything I do) I do it for You” sung by Brian Adams. This power-ballad was written by Adams and composer Michael Kamen who also provided the rest of the film’s score. And unlike the film, his music conjures the swashbuckling spirit as it should have been. The opening title is of particular note, a rousing fanfare seamlessly incorporating the theme song. This combination is handled well by Kamen throughout although some listeners have complained of long, nondescript sound design passages which found their way onto the soundtrack. All in all however, the music can muster enough power to remain memorable. Sadly, the orchestra’s performance leaves some things to be desired. So if any work is in desperate need of a rerecording to really bring out its quality, this is your score. Let’s hope the day will come.
An extended cut with 12 minutes extra footage was released on DVD but these scenes don’t really help shore up the film. Thanks to performance by Rickman and Freeman, the film just about manages to stay afloat. But definitely not Kevin Costner’s best work.
What’s your own opinion of this particular Robin of the Hood? Please do let me know by leaving a comment with your thoughts and feedback. Also please feel free to follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks and all the best!
May 16, 2010
Action, Adventure, Epic/Historical, Film
1492, Cary Elwes, Conquest of Paradise, Errol Flynn, Film, film music, Gladiator, Hans Zimmer, Iron Man, Kevin Costner, Kingdom of Heaven, Léa Seydoux, Marc Streitenfeld, Marion, Mark Strong, Max Von Sydow, Media Ventures, Morgan Freeman, movies, Oscar Isaac, picture, Prince of Thieves, review, Ridley Scott, Robin Hood, Russell Crowe, Saving Private Ryan, score, Sean Connery, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark Knight, William Hurt
There have been countless adaptions of the tale of English medieval anti-hero in Lincoln green, from the classic 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler via the shcottish Sean Connery in “Robin and Marian,” the, er, Californian with blonde highlights Kevin Costner for the 90s “Prince of Thieves” and its subsequent rip-off at the hands of Cary Elwes. Why there’s even been an animated Disney version with a fox playing the title role! So what could a new interpretation of the legend possibly have to offer? However when Ridley Scott decides to make a film (much like when Morgan Freeman talks) you sit up and take notice! Sir Ridley Scott as he’s rightly known is the undisputed master of the historical drama genre (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven) and with this latest entry I can gladly confirm those are two titles he can keep.
If what you expect is Russell Crowe running around Sherwood Forest at the helm of a bunch of loutish brutes charging to the rescue of the dashing maid Marian from the clutches of the evil Sheriff, be warned. Scott and his actor of choice have chosen here to explore and flesh out the back story before Robin Longstride became the man of legend. We therefore spend time with our hero on his return from the crusades with King Richard the Lionheart, besieging French castles and on the King’s untimely death battling against a scheming King John (Oscar Isaac – in wonderfully slimy mood), his taxes and politics. Returning to Nottingham he begins to learn about his past through Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow) who appoints him guardian of his house and husband to Marion played by Cate Blanchett – great as ever. Soon however it falls to him to unite a torn country in order to prevent a French invasion in the form of King Philip and bald and scarred baddie Mark Strong (Whom you may recognise from Sherlock Holmes). It all culminates at Dover with a French beach landing à la “Saving Private Ryan” and a fairly awesome cavalry charge. Needless to say the story plays havoc with history.
Whether or not you actually like this new Robin Hood or whether, critically, we can call it a good film depends I think on what the filmmakers set out to do. If Ridley Scott wanted to challenge our perceptions of the age-old myth and reinvent it for the 21st Century as it were then the film will most likely fall at the first hurdle. If however his sole aim was to make an entertaining action movie that is somewhat above the fodder summer blockbusters we’ve seen over the last few years (ie the kind that features rebooted superheroes or pale blood-sucking vampires with an average audience age of thirteen and a half), it’s easily the best thing since “The Dark Knight” two years back and so much more than the Gladiator-with-bows-and-arrows many were predicting. Because entertain the film certainly does: The battles are well staged, there’s at least some political intrigue to keep adults interested and medieval England looks fantastically grimy and a place full to the brim with adventure. There’s even a generous dose of humour in the form of the merry men, here reduced to the number of three, mainly Russell Crowe’s musical pals.
The characters too are generally quite three dimensional. While Robin certainly isn’t another Maximus and his goals are much more clear cut, Crowe plays it straight, not always the action hero yet not getting overly troubled or bogged down by having to sow some grain for Marion (in the field of course, it’s only 12A…) and her troubled homestead. Blanchett too does well as a woman who has had to become hard against the elements, her husband having disappeared to war two weeks after they were married. William Hurt and Max Von Sydow add the necessary gravitas which is a joy to watch but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is it’s villains. As mentioned the Sheriff of Nottingham is sidelined – although he makes an appearance and bears a little resemblance to Alan Rickman’s camp character! Instead Mark Strong rides around England falsely collecting taxes, creating unrest among the Britons and preparing for the French invasion.
The film is not without its problems of course. Comparisons with “Gladiator” are redundant as these are, to coin a phrase, two very different kettle of Ridley but there are some things that could have been done differently. It would have been nice to develop the character of King John’s lover, the French Isabella (Léa Seydoux) a little more and the same goes for Eileen Atkins’ Elanor of Aquitaine, the woman in whose hands the country would be a lot better off. Also disappointing was the marginalisation of a group of children that live as outlaws around Nottingham. Their role would have been interesting as this is what Robin himself will ultimately become.
To the score then. Marc Streitenfeld is a relative newcomer from Hans Zimmer’s cloning factory otherwise known as Media Ventures. This however is more than a little unfair as the music he has written is firstly, right for the period and secondly it definitely adds to the onscreen spectacle. A female voice floats above the carnage and some more traditional tunes are also heard from time to time. What struck me most was a sequence of repeating notes as a sort of danger-motif used usually when Strong’s character was riding onscreen. It is by far the most effective score of Streitenfeld’s career though some might criticize his relatively minimal approach, this composer does have future promise.
Robin Hood has flaws but when viewed as a piece of action entertainment it’s a pretty good movie. I’ve already thrown the word sequel around with my friends and this is certainly one of those rare instances were a sequel would be merited to explore the actual legend. But maybe that was never the idea behind Scott’s thinking and even standing alone I cannot but be impressed by the awesome visuals on screen. And although it has so far lost out to Iron Man 2 at the box office this is summer blockbuster filmmaking as it should be.
As you know this will be my last review until July. However please feel free to leave a comment with your feedback and thoughts, to share or subscribe to my blog. Thanks and au revoir!
May 2, 2010
Adventure, Drama, Epic/Historical, Film, Western
Avatar, Bull durham, Clint Eastwood, Dances With Wolves, Field of Dreams, Film, film music, Graham Greene, Indians, James Bond, John Barry, John Wayne, Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Michael Blake, movies, Open Range, Oscars, picture, review, Rodney A. Grant, score, Sioux, The Last Samurai, Untouchables, Western
Actors turning into directors is always a tricky subject, much like singers turned actors. This is because for every true master like Clint Eastwood who has brought us some wonderful films, there’s always someone who just isn’t built for the job. It is understandable then that Kevin Costner’s decision to both star in and direct “Dances With Wolves” was met with some apprehension. Furthermore there was the subject matter: A western. Didn’t that genre die with John Wayne? The project, it seemed, was destined to fail. However Costner was riding on a wave of successes in the late 80s (“The Untouchables”, “Bull Durham”, “Field of Dreams”) and it soon became apparent that his directorial skills were on par with his onscreen ones.
This was clearly a western of a different type. The screenplay was adapted from his own novel by Michael Blake and tells the story of Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who, after an apparent act of heroism chooses to be reassigned to the western frontier of America, in search of himself as much as anything else. Finding his post deserted, Dunbar soon comes into contact with a wolf and the local Sioux tribe. However he soon realises that the Indians are far from the thieves many make them out to be but a people of laughter, harmony and peace. Friendships are formed and as Dunbar learns more and more about them and earns their respect he gradually becomes disillusioned with his white kinsmen. The Indians name him Dances With Wolves and as he finds love he decides to shake off the Union soldier altogether. The tale of shedding one’s own values in favour of a culture more spiritually advanced is by no means a new one and has indeed been copied many times since (“The Last Samurai”, “Avatar”).
However what makes this “Dances With Wolves” stand out is in it’s sheer beauty, scale and ultimately its message. Costner has a keen eye for detail, a style some may call simplistic but here it works wonders. The spirit of adventure and the unknown is captured perfectly in the vast spaces of the prairies, a land as of yet undefined by white settlers. It is clear that the nomad culture of the Indians is drawing to a close as ‘civilisation’ encroaches and this gives the picture an idyllic if mournful beauty rarely seen in previous efforts to highlight their struggle for survival. Costner and Blake can do so much more than stage action sequences. But when action is called for boy do they let rip: From the opening firefight emerging from tense waiting to the thrilling Pawnee attack and climatic rescue, the action is every bit on par with the matinee serials of the 50s. The highlight is the spectacular buffalo hunt in the middle of the film. Amazingly (as one of the special features on the DVD reveals) this was done for real with Costner and stuntmen riding among a herd within an enclosure.
It is important to mention however that this isn’t only Costner’s show. With a running time of over three hours – and an even longer directors cut – it is possible for all the characters to be properly fleshed out. It is a joy to encounter the different Indians and their reaction to a white man in their presence from the wild Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) and the wise chief Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) to the inexperienced youngster Smiles A Lot, Mary McDonnell’s Stands With A Fist and perhaps the most significantly Kicking Bird played by Graham Greene. He is a thinker keen to understand the white man, eager to learn and becomes Dunbar’s most valuable friend. The fact that much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota Sioux with subtitles lends the actors an authenticity few other portrayals can match and the inevitably tragic outcome will leave many viewers heartbroken and hopefully reconsidering their stance in relation to present day Indians still living on reservation in the U.S.
Who better to score a tale of romantic adventure than John Barry? Apart from his escapades into the world of James Bond (which launched his career) Barry has become a master of the style and “Dances With Wolves” is in many ways a culmination of all his talents. The sweeping score perfectly captures the expanses of the landscape and the main John Dunbar theme soars whether played as a militaristic trumpet call of as a softer representation of the character. Added to this are two beautiful flute themes “The Wolf Theme” and “Love Theme” and wild percussion and horns to portray the Indians (mainly Pawnee but sometimes Sioux) at their more warlike. On the soundtrack album the best cue is arguably “Journey to Fort Sedgewick.” In any case this is most likely the best score of John Barry’s long career.
Far from being a failure “Dances With Wolves” turned out to be one of the best things about 1990 (OK, I was also born then…) and walked away with seven Oscars, two for Costner (Best Picture and Best Director, although he was also nominated for Best Actor) and one for Barry. If you seek a western that truly explores the meaning of the ‘West’ then this is the one you need to see. Although Costner has taken on other projects (“The Postman” and “Open Range”) he has not yet managed to top this. It’s an absolute masterpiece!
That’s it for another week. Please leave a comment and any feedback is appreciated. Feel free to subscribe to the blog or follow me on Twitter. Until next time.