Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

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There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.

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Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!

GoodFellas (1990)

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As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.

Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1968)

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Martin Scorsese’s debut is pretty amateurish but nonetheless interesting for the array of influences integrated into a familiar story utilising those tropes that became enmeshed in his narratives – Little Italy, immature men on the make, guilt. An absurdly young looking Harvey Keitel is JR who falls for the arty Girl (Zina Bethune) but can’t deal with her after she tells him she was raped. The visual and verbal cues to Anger, Ford, Godard and Hawks are clear and the film’s centerpiece is more student than expert – a sex dream choreographed to The End by The Doors. But the final images are more clearly Catholic than anything else you’ll see in his work and kudos to his NYU film school professor Haig Manoogian who pretty much financed this. Read The Film Maker’s Art if you get a chance – published in 1966, it’s still a fine piece of work. His wife Betzi contributed to the dialogue, Mama S made calzone, while Thelma Schoonmaker edited – not for the last time. And Mean Streets was yet to come…