Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Goodfellas”

The Drop

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 23rd November 2014

Right from the opening voiceover, which explains the film’s central premise, The Drop promises all the tropes of a solid crime drama. The tale of an unassuming bartender who gets caught up a gangland robbery is based on a short story by Mystic River’s author Dennis Lehane, and stars James “Soprano” Gandolfini in his last film role. Dragon Tattoo’s original femme fatale, Noomi Rapace, makes a convincing move from Sweden to the grim wintry suburbs of New York. There’s even a cameo by James Frecheville, the ingénue who was at the centre of superb Australian crime movie Animal Kingdom.

The leader of the pack, however, seals the “Should I watch it?” deal. Brit Tom Hardy (Locke, Inception, Lawless) has been honing his craft for 14 years, and has recently seen his stock soar. As gentle Bob Saginowski his squeaky-voiced Brooklyn accent is spot-on, his demeanour credibly engaging as the wide-eyed innocent who gives away free drinks to keep peace with the neighbourhood’s unsavoury types. Even the adage “Never work with children or animals” can be ignored if you’re Hardy, who carries a chocolate brown boxer pup through much of the movie, melting hearts on and off-screen.

Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam has done well with only his second feature film, taking an old-school premise that is refreshingly drug-free for a contemporary crime story (although the thematic conventions of money and Catholicism inevitably recur) and crafting a crisply edited tale from sharp casting and great photography. Bolstering the commendable performances, Roskam has taken the opportunity to cast his compatriot Matthias Schoenarts (the pair broke out with Bullhead) as a subtly shifty villain, Schoenarts’ native accent effectively banished.

Occasionally the characters slip into (albeit amusing) Tarantinian unlikeliness as thugs correct each other’s geographical ignorance, and the film never quite reaches the ecstatic heights of its ancestor Goodfellas or even The Town. But mainly thanks to Hardy’s intensity and tireless commitment, The Drop still fulfils its promise.

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The Fighter

All fun and games till someone loses an eye

Boxing seems to be the perfect sport for the movies.  Whilst football in its variations has provided the dramatic backdrop for films from Jerry Maguire to The Damned United to (ahem) The Blind Side,  nothing encapsulates the rise of the underdog quite like a spot of pugilism.  This isn’t team sport – this is one man against poverty/circumstance/prejudice.  A woman who pushes him/supports him/begs him to give it up. And a fight to end all fights in the final reel.  The majority of boxing movies seem to be based on true stories, thus giving even more pathos to the inevitable challenges our hero (or heroine – let’s not forget the excellent Million Dollar Baby) must overcome in the face of adversity.  Add to this fascinating documentaries like the recent Tyson, where the misunderstood “monster” speaks softly and (mostly) articulately about all manner of subjects, and it’s little wonder there is a whole industry within an industry.

At first glance, The Fighter risked being an also-ran in this oeuvre, just another rise-to-the-top tale about someone most of us have never heard of: Micky Ward, a fighter in the mid-80s whose brother Dickie Eklund once knocked-out Sugar Ray Leonard, before descending into a white trash life of crack addiction.  Micky has many obstacles to face if he is to reach the heights he aspires to, with his big brother/trainer in prison, an overbearing mother/manager (the brilliant Melissa Leo from Frozen River and soon to be seen in Conviction) and conflict with his family over his burgeoning relationship with barmaid/college-dropout Charlene (Amy Adams – prettier than Micky’s 6 ugly sisters, but eschewing Hollywood glamour for a healthy dose of social realism). 

However, while the trajectory proves to be familiar, there are several things that make this movie a stand-out in its genre.  Director David O. Russell (from the wonderful Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees) concentrates on the terrific characters bequeathed by the dysfunctional Ward-Eklund family, and gives his actors the roles of their lives.  Mark Wahlberg is fine as Micky, a likeable, decent sort of fellow, but Christian Bale steals every scene as the off-the-rails Dickie.  When you see footage during the end credits of the two brothers in recent times, you realise Bale’s performance is horrifying real and not at all hyperbolised.  Adams is good, Leo is superb, and the supporting cast adds colour to every interaction. 

Russell adds panache by shooting the documentary scenes and boxing bouts on grainy video, conjuring up an authenticity which mostly matches the occasional use of genuine footage.  There are a few nice swirling shots à la Goodfellas, and despite my being a huge boxing fan, the fight scenes were mercifully minimal, serving only to advance the story rather than simply set the character up in a “this is what he does” way.  That said, the fights are well-shot such that there were genuine edge-of-seat moments for me, and the audience knows enough by then to watch out for the “head-body-head-body” shot that we know might win our hero his title.

The Fighter marks itself out as focusing on good acting, the moral dilemmas inherent in family dynamics, and a well-told story, without hitting you between the eyes to make you appreciate it.

The Criminal Family – an enthralling species

Animal Kingdom

This debut feature film by Australian filmmaker David Michôd is pure, unadulterated, exhilarating brilliance. With hints of Scorsese (to my mind Goodfellas and Casino) and Michael Mann (evoking Heat and The Insider), he had me at Hello.  Well, in this instance, the understated opening scene of a suburban heroin overdose in front of “Deal or No Deal”.

A crime drama which centres around a dysfunctionally engaging (or should that be engagingly dysfunctional?) family, we are swiftly brought into the cocoon of a matriarch and her three sons (to different, absent fathers) and orphaned grandson, Josh (J).  As he moves in with his doting grandmother, he is instantly sucked into the vortex of a family constantly on the run from the Armed Robbery Division of Melbourne’s police force.  As the police draw in, tensions are heightened and loyalties are tested.  (Gosh, with those clichés I could have written the press notes.)

Except that the film is anything but clichéd, and the rewards are manifold.  Every character is well-rounded (if a little, ahem,  morally stunted) and there is great pleasure to be had from watching the four brothers’ very different personalities.  The acting is universally superb, nuanced and naturalistic – from timid, silent Darren, to warm charismatic family-man Barry, to agitated tattooed Craig who cries in his mother’s arms when one of his brothers is shot.  However, Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as the multi-layered Uncle Andrew, known as “Pope”, who is introduced as a furtive, somewhat weasly character, and whose slight speech impediment and nerdy checked shirts belie a sociopath who will do anything it takes to stay out of jail.  Similarly, newcomer James Frecheville deserves special praise for his incredibly subtle performance, managing to convey the teenager’s conflicting feelings with scarcely the raise of an eyebrow.  Add to this Jacki Weaver as “Mama Smurf” and a gaunt Guy Pearce as the gentle but determined cop, and you have everything you need for a superb gangster flick.

As director and writer,  Michôd has tackled a major genre, the complexities of representing true crime stories as drama, and handled the realism of a contemporary setting with aplomb.  But it’s the style of his film that has you sitting on the edge of your seat – fantastic photography, a perfectly pitched soundtrack (echoing Lisa Gerrard’s work on The Insider, herself Michôd’s original choice for composer), and extraordinarily gripping dramatic tension marks every single scene, right from the opening titles.  I was particularly thrilled with a Goodfellas-esque sequence blasting Air Supply’s ’80s hit “I’m All Out of Love” while the camera circles to finally focus on Pope, setting up perfectly the sense of just what this man is capable of.  I could watch this scene again and again, but nothing will be like the first time.

The phrase “white-knuckle ride” comes to mind, and in fact few films actually manage to keep the tension going for two hours.  But Animal Kingdom leads us like the best of dance partners, not allowing us to tire but keeping us riveted and on our toes the whole time, before ending with the ultimate lift.  I won’t fall out of love with this film for a long time.

Some Must-Sees – movies boys will like, and girls ought to

Some excellent choices for a Saturday Night In

Heat – absolutely Top 10.  De Niro and Pacino play cat and mouse/cop and robber, with a brilliant supporting cast including Val Kilmer (the only thing I’ve ever liked him in), Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Natalie Portman et al. It’s simply exhilarating – Michael Mann brings us the greatest bank robbery scene since Dog Day Afternoon, but not until he’s laid out a story so engaging and characters so multi-dimensional that I never wanted the film to end. So he made it 3 hours long! I’ve never been so ecstatic in all my movie-going life.

Goodfellas – one of Scorsese’s best. A gangster flick with the perfect voiceover; star turns from Ray Liotta, Robert De  Niro and a frightening Joe Pesci; the wonderful Lorraine Bracco (later playing the ultimate in-joke as Dr Melfi in The Sopranos) and cameos from Scorsese’s own mamma and papa. Also one of the longest and most accomplished tracking shots in film history. Right from the opening scene, it has you by the throat and you don’t even want it to let you go.

Children of Men – from a filmmaker’s point of view, this is just incredible. The photography is notable for its ability to drag you into the action and carry you along, and to elicit a “how the heck did they do that??” response on several occasions. Clive Owen carries the story of a dystopian future where no children have been born for several years, and the planet is clearly in a crisis of gradual extinction. Amazing, exciting, wonderful stuff.

The Insider – more Michael Mann. This time it’s Russell Crowe who stacks on the weight and goes grey to deliver a superlative performance as a tobacco scientist who turns whistleblower.  Al Pacino spars with him as the journalist who takes up his story.  It’s beautifully shot, scripted, acted and completely gripping to the end.

Casino – another Scorsese masterpiece, more De Niro and Pesci. But this time they share the screen with a luminous Sharon Stone, giving the performance of her career as the manipulative, drug-addled wife of a casino boss (De Niro) who’s trying to go straight, but can’t leave the gangster life behind. Another amazing soundtrack, too.

Carlito’s Way – Brian De Palma follows up Scarface with Pacino playing a different character with similar leanings. Sean Penn and Penelope Ann Miller provide excellent support to Pacino’s Carlito Brigante, an ex-con trying to go good, who gets entangled in the dubious business of his lawyer, friend and ex-colleagues. It’s violent and exciting, and romantic too.

Infernal Affairs – the original Hong Kong police thriller that Scorsese made into the Oscar-winning The Departed.  The original is better though – and stars the stunning Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a cop undercover in a criminal gang, and a gangster who has infiltrated the police. Let the games begin.

(Needless to say this list could go on and on, but this will do for now.)

Films that are too good to miss

A friend has asked me to compile a list of films he “simply must see”.   And he’s a filmmaker, too! he ought to know already…

Well, there’s nothing like being asked for a list to get a FanGirl going, but I admit to feeling quite knackered just thinking about it. The perils of list-making are manifold: You don’t want the list to be taken as a ranking – how could you possibly say that Singin’ In The Rain is better (or worse) than Heat?? What if you forget to include your absolute favourite? Will the list make you look like a pleb? (or worse, a film-snob??) What if it’s too contemporary?

To that end, we thought I should try and categorise some great movies according to what a viewer might be wanting in any given video store visit.  So – try this on for size…

Films to watch when you wish you lived in another life

The Talented Mr Ripley – Italy! The 1950s! Scooters, yachts and cute swimsuits! Intriguing characters with more money than morals! and several of the best performances you’ll get out of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman et al.

Amelie – France! (more precisely, Montmarte in Paris); living in a beautiful apartment on a paltry wage;  having the cutest darn haircut and clompy black lace-ups you ever saw on a beautiful girl; romantic yet quirky – and good deeds are done along the way. Formidable!

Goodfellas – wanna be rich? successful? intimidating and powerful? Actually, I’d recommend Casino for the same reasons. It’s all going so well, until it isn’t… still, I enjoy the life this film evokes until it (the life) unravels. Needless to say Goodfellas pops up on several lists, it’s just that good.

Sense and Sensibility – just because life seemed simpler back then (OK, so it was harder too, but the men were so much more chivalrous!) and the frocks are all empire-line, and they drank a lot of tea and did peaceful recreational activities like needlework while gossiping. I’m sure the novelty would wear off eventually, but…

Atonement – despite its showing the good and bad sides of 1930s/1940s Britain (well, WWII for starters), this film is a wonderful evocation of a time gone by, perfect for losing yourself in for a couple of hours. And some of the scenes (including the lengthy steadi-cam shot on the beach at Dunkirk) are literally breathtaking.

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