Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Film Review: GoodFellas

"GoodFellas"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The movie starts off with a bloody body inside the trunk of a car. The man is still alive though. As the trunk is opened, one man stabs the body repeatedly and then another man shoots him. A voice over tells us "as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster."

And that's one of the interesting things about Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990). So often in the movie the narration doesn't match the images we see on screen. The narration and the images represent a different reality. Why would a man witness someone being stabbed and shot say they've always wanted to be a gangster? Through this one shot Scorsese immediately establishes the twisted world view of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his regret in leaving organized crime.

Another interesting combination of voice over and images occurs when we hear Henry talking about his early beginnings with the mob and the "respect" his family received when people in the neighborhood knew he had associations with the mob. While this voice over about respect is going on the image is of a young Henry setting cars on fire. You are talking about respect while you are destroying other people's property.

All of these little touches are important in "GoodFellas" because it instantly brings the audience into Henry Hill's mind, which is what the best Scorsese films do, take us inside the head of bizarre men. We try to understand his logic. He and other members of the mob live by a different set of standards. At one point we hear Henry talk about the appeal of joining the mob because "it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies." And then you contrast those words with the actions it took to achieve his goals.

To a young child the lifestyle is alluring because they run the neighborhood. They have freedom to do what they want. Henry even says, how could I go back to school and pledge allegiance to the flag when he is experiencing a different world. Here is a world where you make the rules. You follow your own laws, a different code of ethnics.

"GoodFellas" is based on a 1986 novel called "Wise Guy" written by Nicholas Pileggi, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Martin Scorsese. The book is based on the life of Henry Hill and his time with the mob between 1955 - 1980. He later left the mob and joined the witness protection program.

Much like "Mean Streets" (1973) the characters in the "GoodFellas" to me are small potatoes. The insignificant stuff impresses them. They place importance on the unimportant. To the Harvey Keitel character in "Mean Streets" owning a restaurant means everything. Making good in the neighborhood is important. To the characters in "GoodFellas" everything is also about the neighborhood and getting the respect of the neighborhood is important. So, they can walk into a busy restaurant and quickly get a table. Big deal. Outside of their small world, where they only associate with one another, they mean nothing to the rest of the world.

Still there are times when "GoodFellas" makes the lifestyle tempting. When the lifestyle is almost glamorized. Henry has a closet full of beautiful suits, walks around with a wad of cash, drives a new car, lives in a nice house. We all admire the material things. We would all like to possess these things. The question is, is the lifestyle worth it to achieve it?

We feel this way watching the picture because Henry is our narrator. He finds the lifestyle exciting, so he tells his story with enthusiasm. He is trying to make us excited about this world. He is trying to make us understand its appeal and benefits. All the killing and murder is nothing more than business. It is part of a routine. You don't think twice about it.

When "GoodFellas" was first released there was some comparisons being made to "The Godfather" (1972) because both films showed life in the mob. Some prefer "GoodFellas" because they say this is a more realistic look at the life of these people. Coppola takes the characters in "The Godfather" and turns them into tragic figures like in a Shakespeare play. That may be true but it is also why I prefer "The Godfather". As far as a movie goes, trying to humanize these people and showing their gradual downfall in a more dramatic, yes, tragic terms makes for better drama. It is more cinematic.

"GoodFellas" also portrays these characters as if they are in a family too. Henry has two brother figures in Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). There is father figure too, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) who runs things. And this makes everything seem normal. They all have the same ethnics so no one will challenge their world view.

The movie switches from the mob, a little bit to tell us about how Henry met his wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), an attractibe Jewish, whose mother would go crazy if she found out Henry wasn't Jewish.

What I find interesting, all these years later, watching the movie is, both of them are outsiders. Henry isn't pure Italian. His mother's family comes from Sicily, which allows him to enter their world, but his father is Irish. For as long as Henry is with these people he can never become a "made man", a boss of his own family, because he is not "pure". It is a coincidence Henry should then marry someone who also is not "pure", a Jewish girl. He certainly meets enough Italian women he could have married, but no.

"GoodFellas" came around at a good time for Scorsese. Today we think of Martin Scorsese as one of the greatest American filmmakers we have today but during the 1980s believe it or not Scorsese struggled. True, he started the decade off with "Raging Bull" (1980), a film many consider one of, if not the best film of the 80s but he followed that movie up with box-office flops; "The King of Comedy" (1982), "After Hours" (1985) and the wrongly condemned "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). Thrown in between was "The Color of Money" (1986) but Paul Newman mostly got all the attention for that movie and won an Academy Award for his performance. But "GoodFellas" was in a way a "comeback" picture and does recall his earlier efforts such as "Mean Streets". "GoodFellas" is told with that same amount of energy. It makes its camera dance with excitement. Visually this is a very entertaining picture.

One of the things which makes "GoodFellas" so interesting to watch is the "insider" feel you get as you watch it. Nothing feels phony. The movie understands its characters. It understands how they talk and how they think. It really establishes a sense of community but then it also shows the downside. It shows how this world is not always glamorous. You may spend time in jail. You may get involved with drugs. There is a fear of what if you are next. What if someone kills you.

I also noticed there really isn't a singular narrative story in "GoodFellas". It feels like a bunch of incidents thrown together. It is an over view of life in the mob. Here is what happened one day, here is something else that happened afterwards. It does all the things any other movie does. It does have three acts. It has a lead character we follow. But, if you ask me what "GoodFellas" is about, there is no single plot line I can tell you. It is a look at life in the mob is the best I can tell you. That is also what makes the movie so interesting. It is difficult to write this kind of movie. You have to juggle so much. Keep track of a lot of characters. Keep events moving along while not having a strong narrative to completely follow through on.

The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture and best director. It won one award for best supporting actor (Pesci). A lot of people feel it was a huge mistake when it lost to "Dances with Wolves" (1990) for best picture. It was also nominated for five Golden Globe nominations including best picture and best director but again lost to "Dances with Wolves". Now "GoodFellas" is largely considered to be one of the best films of the 90s.

Scorsese made another film about the mob after this, "Casino" (1995) which I feel some wrongly criticized. That movie is equally entertaining. "GoodFellas" though is a classic and has become a quintessential Scorsese picture. Definitely among his all time best.