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!
January 24, 2011
Crime, Drama, Film
Berlin State Opera, Bob Gunton, Clancy Brown, Coen brothers, Film, film music, Forrest Gump, Frank Darabont, Gil Bellows, Hank Williams, IMDb, James Whitmore, Marriage of Figaro, Morgan Freeman, movies, Mozart, Oscars, picture, poster, Pulp Fiction, review, Rita Hayworth, Roger Deakins, score, Shawshank Redemption, soundtrack, Stephen King, The Green Mile, Thomas Newman, Tim Robbins, Titanic, William Sadler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
What began as a Stephen King short story outside of his usual horror genre, completely passed over at the box-office and by the Academy, “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of film history’s most improbable success stories. Eventually finding audiences on the home-video market, the film has since continually climbed up the ranks on the lists of both viewers and critics and, sitting on top of IMDb’s top 250, it continues to enthral and inspire the world over. Yet despite its almost supernatural and untouchable status Frank Darabont’s picture remains a very humble masterpiece, proving like “Titanic” did again three years later, that interest in old-fashioned stories will never wane.
Given two life-sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) arrives at Shawshank state prison in 1947. Over the space of twenty years he befriends Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, one of the prison’s “getters” who for a small price can smuggle anything, including a rock-hammer and even Rita Hayworth in through the bars. Life on the inside isn’t always kind to Andy who attracts both assault from a prison gang and the attention of cruel guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) and the warden Norton (Bob Gunton). The latter use his financial skills as the accounting end of money laundering deals that would see them becoming millionaires. The arrival of young convict Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) with proof of Andy’s possible innocence complicates events further, driving Andy towards the edge. The watershed we always expect yet it sleeps below the movie’s surface and still manages to surprise us when it bursts onto the scene. Far more than a classic prison movie however, the eventual redemption makes Shawshank a touching statement about dreams, hope, freedom and humanity. Its genius in this regard rests largely with Darabont’s masterful screenplay and superior directorial style, creating expansive brush strokes of plot and character development that only few others have matched.
In Morgan Freeman Darabont has found the film’s perfect anchor-point. Providing the calming and witty narration, the part of Red has proven the main source of the actor’s godlike standing that continues to the present day. Tim Robbins in the main role meanwhile is quietly brilliant, Andy remains to the last mysterious yet incredibly likeable as he unites the prison inmates with beers on the roof, expands the prison library and, in one of cinema’s most memorable and moving musical scenes plays Mozart through the speaker system, leaving every condemned man speechless in wonder and flashing light into even the darkest corners. They are roles that have defined the careers of both actors. Every other aspect of “The Shawshank Redemption’s” production are equally noteworthy, from the period-correct production and costume design to the wonderful cinematography by Roger Deakins (who regularly works with the Coen brothers) and the no less impressive supporting cast including the great James Whitmore as the ageing Brooks, and William Sadler as Heywood. The film’s extended denouement could well be accused of being overly sentimental, however to Darabont’s credit he leaves (literally) no stone unturned when setting out to tell the tale of endurance and hope to the very end. Thus the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in a true ending is all the greater for the audience who have patiently waited for it.
Composer Thomas Newman who was enjoying a high time in his career throughout the early 90s, approaches the scoring of “The Shawshank Redemption” like most of his other scores. That is with extended piano meandering and string plucking that bores many listeners. The difference between Shawshank and his later scores for “The Green Mile” and others is Newman’s writing of a gorgeously haunting and beautiful main theme that encompasses the spirit of the tale perfectly. Heard in “Stoic Theme,” and “Suds on the Roof” the theme is based on sweeping strings and the signature piano. The penultimate cue “So was Red” sums up the idea with an oboe performance and leading into “End Title” that mirrors a sense of accomplishment. And then of course there’s the Mozart: The duet from “The Marriage of Figaro” performed by members of the Berlin State Opera is rightly placed on the album as it is in the film. Similarly, several period songs including Hank Williams strewn across the album do not detract from the listening experience but complete the period setting musically. The score is Newman’s crowning achievement of that period and earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, an award he has yet to win.
Perhaps it was unfortunate that it was released almost concurrently with both “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994, two films that captured audience imagination and the prison epic was ignored, but “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of the few films that has the power to move viewers to tears no matter how many times they have watched it. Its place near or even at the very top of great films is well deserved and is unlikely to have its position challenged. Even for film illiterates, this is not something you can afford to miss. If six stars could be given, that’s what it would get.
Does Shawshank have its place on your top 10? Please leave a comment and tell me your reaction to the film. Also, if you liked the review, please share the link for your friends on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks and all the best to you!
April 1, 2010
Crime, Drama, Film
Carter Burwell, Coen brothers, crime, Ethan Coen, Fargo, Film, Frances McDormand, Joel Coen, movies, Pulp Fiction, review, score, Tarantino, William H. Macy
Of course I’ve heard of the Coen brothers! Who hasn’t? Certainly since their hits of “Burn after Reading” and “No Country for Old Men” the two brothers who have spent over twenty years churning some of Hollywood’s finest have finally entered the mainstream. As part of my ever on-going great film marathon I finally got around to seeing this, quite possibly their greatest film “Fargo” (thank you Mr. Podge for the loan of the DVD!). Safe to say, I was blown away by the sheer awesomeness of the movie! For any who haven’t seen this I’d strongly recommend it.
The story takes place in Brainerd, North Dakota and examines how even the best planned crime can quickly get out of control. Jerry Lundegaard (an excellently paranoid William H. Macy) is steeped in debt and so hires two gangsters to kidnap his wife and hold her to ransom. Her rich father would then pay this ransom and Lundegaard himself would walk away with $40,000. However things begin to go wrong from the out and what was intended to be a quick, clean crime turns bloody when a State Trooper and two innocent civilians are killed by one of the psychopathic criminals thus involving the highly pregnant Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).
While this is certainly not a story for the faint hearted, the film rarely descends into sentimentality and indeed only once, towards the end do the Coen’s shove the message in the face of the audience as McDormand’s character points out “there’s more to life than a little bit of money.” Quite surprisingly the majority of the film is highly humerous, the story littered with the character’s banter and chit-chat as they go through their daily lives. And not for a moment is it dull. In a way it is similar to the “Royale with Cheese” sequence in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” as the dialogue is populated with irrelevant material but this makes the whole thing infinitely more enjoyable. This talk about nothing is an intelligent way for the Coens to highlight the gap between people: Lundegaard’s inability to communicate with his son and Marge’s reunion with an old pal are excellent examples of this, yet these issues never cut deep. Instead they only graze the surface, perhaps a little stronger from time to time, reminding us just how important life is. The great plot is accompanied throughout by some beautifully haunting cinematography by Roger Deakins of the snowy wastes of Fargo. Near the opening of the film there is a shot of a giant white expanse and along the bottom, a tiny dot of a car makes its way along. It’s like saying “In North Dakota no one can hear you scream…”
As a film music fan I cannot go without commenting on the film’s score composed by Carter Burwell. While I am not generally a huge fan of Burwell’s work I am in awe of the beautiful main theme he wrote for the film. Curiously this theme accompanies both the characters of William H. Macy and Frances McDormand and serves more as an overarching tune for the film rather than a character leitmotif. If you are new to Burwell this is a great place to start and a much easier listen than many of his other scores.
Fargo comes with an 18s certificate due to language and some bloody violence and certainly doesn’t make for easy viewing even for a mature audience. However it is easily one of the best films of 1996 and of all time, completely deserving it’s place in the 1001 movie book. If you’re a fan of the Coen Brothers or not this is highly recommendable.
That’s it for another week. Please let me know what you think and what other movies and scores you would like me to blog about in upcoming posts. All the best!