2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Picture

The nominees for Best Picture, 2011:

127 Hours: Hyperactive yet engaging true story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who hacked off his own arm to save his life after being trapped in a Utah canyon for days.

Black Swan: Trippy tale of a dancer’s decent into madness as she gives it all for her art.

Inception: Ultimately, an action movie set in a sort of Jungian dreamscape, where new age thieves not only steal dreams, but cause trouble by leaving behind counterfeit ones.

The Fighter: Real-life story of a working class stiff who overcomes long odds and a family straight out of Jerry Springer to become a contender.

The Kids Are All Right: Lesbian moms struggle to maintain a long-term relationship, raise two teenagers, and fend off the hunky sperm donor who’s interested in meeting his progeny…and one of the moms.

The King’s Speech: The Duke of York overcomes a debilitating speech impediment, a host of neuroses, and class prejudice to rise to the throne and rally England against Hitler.

The Social Network: The pyrrhic triumph of a maniacally driven nerd over his maniacally driven jock rivals.

Toy Story 3: A franchise is brought to a close with Andy all grown up and Woody and the gang coping with what comes next.

True Grit: A Protestant wet dream of a western, jam-packed with violence, vengeance, good and bad counter-balanced with a devil’s dose of laughter.

Winter’s Bone:  A hillbilly teenager, stuck looking after her mom and raising her younger siblings, goes off in search of her meth-cooking father in order to save the family farm in a kind of Ozark Odyssey.

The King's Speech

For this year’s Best Picture race, let’s start off by eliminating 127 Hours, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone.  That leaves us with five movies.

Black Swan and The Fighter are long shots to win, which cuts the field to three.

My criteria, when looking at this award, is which movie will people still be talking about in 20 or 50 years?  Which movie is so good or so entertaining or so…special that it will stand the test of time, and not become some dated joke, like “Oliver” or “Dances With Wolves”?

Of the three movies that remain, there is The King’s Speech, the kind of movie that Hollywood loves to bestow honors upon – dignified, historical, and important-seeming; The Social Network, a very “now” kind of story that has captured a watershed event in our culture; and finally, True Grit, an earnest and old fashioned western that doesn’t appear to be couching some political message in its entertainment.  It’s a throw back, really.

True Grit

If I had a vote, it would go to True Grit.  It’s great story telling, blending humor, adventure, and solemnity.  The cast is pitch-perfect, with Jeff Bridges, perhaps the finest actor of his generation, still at the top of his game; Hailee Steinfeld not a bit stilted in her 1800’s diction; Matt Damon unselfconsciously pompous; and Josh Brolin with the difficult task of playing dumb and doing it brilliantly.  The Coens have conquered another genre, and in the process, they’ve created an instant classic.

The Social Network

This is all highly subjective, of course, but when you look at things like story, direction, acting, sets, and music, you see that True Grit matches The King’s Speech and The Social Network in every category.  That said, I don’t think the Academy will agree with my take, as westerns are usually given short shrift this time of year.

Even though it will go down as one of the very best of the Coen brothers’ films, True Grit will lose out to The Social Network on February 27th.


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2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Gasland

In 2006, a guy named Josh Fox received a letter from a company wanting to lease his land for the purpose of drilling for natural gas.  Fox lives in eastern Pennsylvania on a tributary of the Delaware River.  His parents bought the land, and with the help of some friends, they constructed the house that he calls home.

The letter described the Marcellus Shale deposit, that his house sat above, as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, extending from New York to Tennessee.  The company offered nearly $100,000 for the drilling rights, and piqued the curiosity of Fox, a banjo playing writer/director.  Gasland is the result of his curiosity.

Fox starts off by referring to his parents and their friends as hippies and playing an old black-and-white clip of Pete Seeger singing “This Land is Your Land,” which is fitting because Gasland is structured like a folk song along the lines of Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.”  These references can be seen as a warning of where he’s going.

Gasland begins with a question, and leaves the tranquil woods of Fox’s home on a quest for answers, and like a good folk song, it tells the stories of common people – who look a lot like you and I – victimized by faceless companies with generic names like Encana, Chesapeake, and Williams.

Fox does a masterful job of finding and filming people so sympathetic that you never think to question their stories.  A couple are able to catch their tap water on fire with a lighter – as it comes out of the faucet.  Others have chronic illnesses that arose once drilling began.  They are as American as apple pie.  Fox also uses an effective Do-It-Yourself aesthetic that is both beautiful and deceptively amateurish, which underscores the underdog tone of the film.

As Fox travels further west, the density of the drilling increases to a point where he enters a geographical region known as the red zone.  This refers to red dots on a map, so thick they bleed together like a stain.  Remote places like Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas are portrayed not as idyllic escapes from the stresses of city life, but as polluted as a place like Los Angeles.

The cause of all this pollution?  Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking as it’s called.  It’s a process where huge quantities of water, sand, and chemicals are shot thousands of feet down into the ground to loosen the shale deposits and free the natural gas.  It’s a process that’s been in practice for decades, but the 2005 Energy Bill enacted regulations that, according to Fox, exempted natural gas drillers from safe drinking water laws, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and just about all environmental regulation.  At the center of this regulatory laisez faire was Vice President Dick Cheney and Halliburton, the company he once ran.

Along with the tales from ordinary folk, Fox brings out respected scientists, among them a MacArthur “genius grand” recipient, who voice dire warnings of polluted drinking water and air fouled by neurotoxins that cause a host of ailments such as sterility, loss of smell, loss of taste, and a variety of cancers.

It wasn’t until hours after I’d finished Gasland that I wondered about the accuracy of Fox’s claims.  I Googled the film and found many rebuttals to the film, from natural gas industry spokesmen as well as a few journalists, and the comments weren’t your run-of-the-mill polite disagreements.  Hardly.  Judging from the venom of the insults, Fox has touched a raw nerve made worse by the nomination of his film for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Rent Gasland then read the statements from the industry people and independent labs, and then decide for yourself whether we have anything to fear.  Even if Gasland is full of hot air, Josh Fox will have gotten you to think, if not act.  And that’s no small feat.


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2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating peek into the world of what most folks would call graffiti, but others call street art.  The film, a surprise nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, has become a magnet for controversy, speculation, and curiosity seekers.

At the heart of the controversy is the film’s director, Banksy, the Garbo of the street art world.  I have no idea where Banksy ranks among street artists, but one thing is certain, he’s the shrewdest of the bunch at manipulating his image, much like Madonna when she was still relevant.  He’s shot like a whistle-blower or mob informant on the six o’clock news with an omnipresent hoodie pulled up and his voice lowered a few octaves.  Of course, this only adds to the mystery.

The controversies have to do with the authenticity of the film.  Some say it’s a hoax.  Others say that it’s not.  Many see the film as a commentary on the relationship between artist, audience, and commerce. There’s been a claim of plagiarism that could end up being part of an elaborate PR campaign to drum up interest in the film.  Whatever the truth of the controversies, one thing’s for certain – the movie is great.

Banksy opens the film by being interviewed, and he quickly introduces the co-protagonist of the story, Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles.

Guetta is a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Ambrose Burnside, a voluble speaker with a goofy charm and infectious enthusiasm.  Guetta owns a thrift store in a bohemian neighborhood in LA, but an aimless obsession with videotaping almost every facet of his life led him to a cousin in Paris – known as Space Invader – who was part of the emerging street art phenomenon.  Guetta accompanied Space Invader on missions into the Paris night to bomb walls with his installations of mosaic recreations of Space Invader characters.

Meeting Space Invader and his friends was a turning point for Guetta, and a new obsession was born.  Back in LA, Guetta soon met Shepard Fairey, an American street artist who would become as famous for his iconic Obama poster (think the Obama-ize feature that was popular on Facebook for a while) as he was for his Obey campaign.  Fairey was a jumping off point for meeting and collecting other street artists, who didn’t mind having the friendly Frenchman along to document work that might take months of planning, hours of sometimes dangerous application, only to have it ripped down or painted over in a fraction of the time.

Artists are like trophies to Guetta, and the relationship between him and them is like observing a mutually beneficial relationship between parasite and host.  The bombing forays that Guetta documents are exciting and sometimes perilous, and that he shared in the danger earned him a place in their circle.  Over time he set his sights on Banksy, the elusive Englishman with the nerve of a cat burglar.  As Guetta pursued Banksy on his own, Shepard Fairey brought Banksy to Guetta’s backyard when Banksy visited LA and asked for a guide to help him find good walls to bomb.

It was a dream come true that led to an unlikely friendship, like Jimmy Olson and Superman becoming drinking buddies, and as the relationship is detailed, we also see the rise of Banksy as an international art commodity, having shows and being fawned over by the art world’s intelligentsia.

Guetta’s entre into the world of the street artists was that he was a filmmaker.  The funny thing is, no one ever called his bluff until Banksy finally asked him to put together the long-promised street art documentary, in part to show critics that he hadn’t sold out and that street art was about more than hype.

Guetta never planned on turning his thousands of hours of film into an actual movie.  The cassettes were merely boxed, stored, and forgot about.  Guetta’s movie, Life Remote Control, convinced Banksy that his friend was no filmmaker.  Banksy convinced Guetta to return to LA and pursue art and have a show so that he could take over the project and make a proper film.  What he made was the story about what happened when an eccentric Frenchman tried to make a documentary about Banksy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is part shaggy dog story, part buddy film, part quixotic adventure, and finally, a snapshot of the various talents who prowl the streets of the world’s cities, leaving their mark on the walls of those cities, if only for a short while.

Thierry Guetta is as fascinating a figure as Banksy in that they are complete opposites.  It’s a shrewd move by Banksy to frame his story this way.  As secretive as he is, Guetta is like a negative image, all open and forthcoming.  Where Banksy is cool, Guetta is a dopey tag-along, a sort of kid brother to the artists he adores.

There’s one final surprise in Exit Through the Gift Shop, where Banksy seems to be making a statement about the art world that amounts to biting the hand that feeds him.  Perhaps it’s an attempt to buy back some of his street cred.  Or maybe it’s just good entertainment.  Either way, after seeing this movie you’ll never look at graffiti the same way again.

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2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Restrepo

Sports announcers often use military analogies to describe the athletes and action they cover.  Players are referred to as warriors and heroes, and games as battles and campaigns.  I never served in the military, so the silliness of such comparisons slip past me, most of the time, unnoticed.  Restrepo, a documentary covering a year in the life of a platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley reminds me of how ridiculous it is to compare pampered athletes to soldiers serving anywhere and underscores how far removed we are, as Americans, from the hardships faced by our fighting troops.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastion Junger, the film’s directors, were embedded with the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, during their 14 month deployment in one of the most hotly contested pieces of ground in our current war in the Middle East.  The footage they captured, both on their own and from the soldiers themselves, is stunning in its intimacy with the day-to-day details of soldiering in the 21st century.

The style of the film is similar to D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, which covered Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  There is no talking head narration.  The only framing comes from interviews done with about a half-dozen of the soldiers after the tour was completed.  And so it is that we are dropped into the midst of these men and witness camp life, from the horsing around that breaks up the monotony of repetitive chores, to the chaos of the frequent ambushes that take place when squads are out on patrol.  It doesn’t get any more compelling than this.

As censorship in feature films has grown more lax and special effects have gotten more sophisticated, film makers have made movies that seem to get it right, but after seeing the real-time reactions of soldier in the midst of an ambush, without the aid of slow-motion and jump-cuts, I begin to see just how big a gap there is between the Hollywood version of war and the real thing.

The most intense scenes in Restrepo deal with an operation called Rock Avalanche, a multi-day foray into Taliban controlled territory.  Interview footage with the surviving soldiers is intercut with footage shot during the various engagements with locals and an ambush where the Taliban seemed to come at the soldiers from every angle.

One Sergeant – Rice – is shot twice, once by a rocket propelled grenade launcher, which leaves him covered in shrapnel wounds.  His descriptions of the scene and how he figured he was living his last moments are humbling to witness.

Not long after Rice is hit, another Sergeant – Rougle – is killed in action.  Witnessing the reaction of one soldier to the news of his death, I felt like I shouldn’t be seeing this – that it was too personal and none of my business.  That said, Hetherington and Junger treat the situation with respect, all the while letting us see how each of a few gathered soldiers responds to the knowledge of this loss then regroups to deal with the situation at hand.

By cutting out the familiar sounding generals, commentators, and Afghani apologists, we are left with only the accounts of the soldiers who fought in the Korengal valley – from their captain down to the specialists who followed his orders.  It’s as intimate a portrait of military life as we’re apt to get, and over the course of the film, as we hear from about a half-dozen of them as they try to process the intense fighting they’ve just experienced, it’s impossible not to care for these guys, to hope and pray that they make it back home and are able to get on with their lives and enjoy the freedom they’ve purchased for us.

Hetherington and Junger leave the spin to us, and for that we should be grateful, for the images and insights that are passed on to us would be shamefully cheapened by politics.

My rating: 9 of 10

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2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Foreign Film – Dogtooth

Doogtooth, the official Greek entry to the 2011 Academy Awards, is nominated for Best Foreign Film.  Released in 2009, and directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth is a strikingly original film that captures a world that is at once like nothing you’ve ever seen, but oddly familiar at the same time.

The story is about a family of five who live in a beautiful walled villa in Greece.  It’s more like a compound because the patriarch (Christos Stergioglou) is the only one who ever gets to venture into the world beyond the tall fences that surround the property.  His wife (Michele Valley) and three teenaged children live in a world that at first seems oddly Edenic.

The film opens with the children listening to an instructional cassette.  They learn that the word “sea” means a leather armchair, “motorway” means a strong wind, and “excursion” means a strong, resilient material.  Anything that hints at the world outside the walls of their home is obscured.  Even the airplanes that fly in the air are construed to be toys, and when one is spotted, one of the parents will run into the house and through a toy plane out into the garden so the children will believe the lie.

The only outsider allowed into the compound is a woman named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard at the father’s place of employment who moonlights as a kind of private prostitute whom the father hires to satisfy his son’s budding sexual urges.  Christina is brought to the compound blindfolded, but on the rides to and from the family home, the father tries to engage her in small talk, which amounts to questions about her hygiene, and whether she wears the perfume he has bought her as a gift.

Much time is devoted to daily routine of the family.

We see the father at work, where he has created yet another elaborate ruse to get out of having his boss over for dinner (he says that his wife, a former handball champion, is confined to a wheel chair – the result of a tragic accident).  He’s such a cipher of a man that the boss, along with the children, buys into the lie without a hint of suspicion.

Life at home, though, is where the film really shines.  We see the kids at play.  The eldest child is the son (Hristos Passalis), who looks to be 18 or 19.  Two sisters (Angelika Papoulia and Mary Toni) look to be 18 and 17.  Though they are on the verge of adulthood, the behavior of the children is more pre-adolescent.  There is an innocence about them that is both sad and endearing.  The actors playing the kids beautifully capture the behavior and mental territory of young kids that comes through in the games they play and the way they bicker with one another and depend on their parents for all their information about the world – a world they will only be ready to experience when either their left or right dogtooth falls out.

What is a dogtooth?  Exactly.

When the son asks the mother what a zombie is, she asks where he heard the word.  He lies and says that he thinks he heard the father say the word.  The mother pauses, then tells him a zombie is a small yellow flower.  Later, the joke is paid off when the son stops in the middle of his play in the garden and yells for the mother to come and see two zombies he’s found.

Tricking children is one thing, but as they grow, certain fantasies and myths that parents create are found out to be lies.  Of course, this often happens when our kids come home with conflicting information from the outside world, which is what happens to make the artificial world of the father begin to unravel.

Christina, the prostitute, wants oral sex, which the son doesn’t like, so she bribes the oldest daughter into satisfying her by bringing videos, like Rocky and Flashdance, that give the daughter a notion of what goes on in the world her father has taught her to fear.

These videos are like the bite from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and even though the father finds out about them and banishes both them and Christina from their lives, the damage has been done.  Things will never be the same again.

The acting in Dogtooth is beautifully realized.

Stergioglou doesn’t play the father as a tyrant, but as a kind, loving, but firm parent, with only the best interests of his family – as he sees them – in mind.  This father, despite what happens in the movie, never comes across as a villain, which is to Stergioglou’s great credit.

The children, especially Papoulia and Tsoni, capture a prolonged innocence that doesn’t rely on tricks or costuming, but on finely observed performances.  What’s weird is that these are very damaged people, but until they are told so or try to live in the outside world, they’re just kids.

Because of how perfectly Lanthimos sets up this alternate world, I never once questioned anything that went on there.  It all made sense.  Dogtooth is a well constructed escape that takes a long, hard look at family and parenting and the choices we sometimes make as parents to both lock out the world and lock in our kids – and the toll those decisions sometimes take.  Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, Dogtooth is a film deserving of its nomination – and your attention.

My rating: 8 out of 10

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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #6 Goodfellas

#6. Goodfellas (1990)  What is it about gangster movies that we can’t get enough of them?  Since the days of D.W. Griffith, stories about mobsters have persisted to the point where the gangster genre has long since overtaken the western as the archetypal American metaphor, and like the western, it’s a malleable framework on which to hang just about any kind of story.

Martin Scorsese’s trilogy of gangster films, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino, rank among the best ever made, with Goodfellas as good as anything Howard Hawks, William Wellman, or even Francis Ford Coppola ever did.

Goodfellas is the true story of the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a foot soldier in a New York crime family.  But it’s also much more than that.  It’s about men and power and codes of honor and how people will abandon those codes to save their own skin.  It’s about consequences, and how we’re more often than not the author of our own ruin.  It’s a story that could have come from Shakespeare or Wall Street, so universal are the themes.

Goodfellas gets its ideas across through the actions of a rich cast of characters.  One of Scorsese’s great gifts is a knack to find the right actor for every role in his pictures.  Goodfellas has a large number of speaking roles, and even though the story belongs to the principle characters, who could ever forget the scene with Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) and Tommy (Joe Pesci)?  “Go home and get your f*#@ing shinebox!”  Or Morrie (Chuck Low), the toupee salesman with the cheesey commercials who’s always busting Jimmy Conway’s (Robert DeNiro) chops about one thing or the other.  And then there’s Scorsese’s very own mother, Catherine, who plays Tommy’s mother and the straight man in a very funny dinner scene that takes place in the wee hours of the morning while a half-dead body bangs around in the trunk of Henry’s (Ray Liotta) car. Watching Scorsese’s movies, I get the sense that he worries over these minor characters with the same obsessive attention to detail that he does his stars, a move that pays off in richly textured stories that give the illusion of depth to what are actually two-dimensional characters on paper.

As memorable as the minor characters are, they never upstage the stars.  At least not for long.  Ray Liotta, who’d recently broken through as Melanie Griffith’s crazy, ex-con husband in Something Wild, holds his own against Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci.  He wasn’t a popular choice to play the Henry Hill, the central character, but the sense of a barely contained intensity that became his trademark, was perfect for the character.  I saw an interview where the real Henry Hill described his life in terms of not knowing when you woke up in the morning if you’d live to see nightfall.  As the years begin to take their toll on Hill, Liotta perfectly captures that sense of living on the edge and about to explode – either from an assassin’s bullet or a stroke.

Hill’s last day in the mob is especially fun – and nerve-wracking – to watch.  Scorsese orchestrates a jittery sequence of events where Hill attemps to make a homemade Italian meal for his disabled brother, prepare his flaky drug mule for a flight across the country, sell some hand guns to Jimmy Conway, prepare a shipment of coke, and finally, to convince his wife that a helicopter has been following him all day.  The cuts, the music, the acting all add up to Mulligan’s Stew of paranoia and suspicion that something bad is about to happen.

Robert DeNiro towers over the movie like King Kong, but when you stop to consider his performance, it’s easy to underestimate it.  By that I mean that DeNiro has become so synonymous with a string of memorable New York characters, from Vito Corleone to Jake LaMotta to Jimmy Conway, that it’s easy to mistake him for those characters and thus underrate the job he does as an actor.  It’s a common judgment from those not in the know, to brush aside a performance by deciding that the person in question wasn’t acting but merely being himself.

DeNiro’s Jimmy Conway oozes charisma, something that DeNiro, judging by his clumsy acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Gold Globe Awards, sorely lacks (so much for the actor just being himself).  His Conway is one of those guys who seduces you into thinking that it would be cool to be a mobster.  He’s a big tipper, a sharp dresser, and has a reputation for being as deadly as a cobra.  DeNiro’s performance captures the essence of a self-assured manliness that most guys wish they possessed.

My favorite DeNiro moment in the movie is one where he doesn’t say a word.  It’s late in the movie and Conway has had enough of Morrie’s ball-busting.  He’s also paranoid about the Lufthansa job, the biggest heist of all-time, which he put together.  DeNiro’s at a familiar haunt. He steps up to the bar and the action goes to slow-motion as Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” plays.  It’s a vintage Scorsese moment that calls back to Raging Bull and Mean Streets.  DeNiro is dressed in a suit.  His graying hair is brushed straight back.  He’s at the height of his power.  He takes a drag on a cigarette and turns a quarter-turn to stare at Morrie, who’s leaving the bar.  At first, there’s no expression on his face, but a slight smile pulls his mouth taut.  He looks down, perhaps to tap-off a cigarette ash, then looks back to consider the man he’s thinking of killing.  His eyes narrow as he takes a last pull off the cigarette.  There’s no dialogue.  No narration.  Just music and behavior.  And yet, DeNiro conveys what Hill describes a few seconds later – “That’s when I knew Jimmy was gonna whack Morrie.  That’s how it happens.  That’s how fast it takes for a guy to get whacked.”  That’s what DeNiro brings to the table.  He so inhabits his characters that he’s always being the character, and so it is that within a few seconds of silence we are witness to an internal dialogue that results in the condemnation of another character.  DeNiro’s work is so complete that it render’s Henry’s narration, a few moments later, superfluous.

I think that’s why you don’t see DeNiro on stage.  Where Al Pacino, a fine actor prone to fits of flamboyance and volume, thrives in the theatre, whether he’s doing Mamet or Shakespeare, DeNiro is an actor who lives in small, quiet moments that don’t translate to a darkened theatre with no closeups and certainly no slow motion.  That’s not to say that Pacino is a better actor than DeNiro, but that Pacino has greater range.

Speaking of flamboyance and volume, the most memorable performance in Goodfellas belongs to Joe Pesci who landed the role of a liftetime as Tommy DeVito, Henry Hill’s partner in crime and Jimmy Conway’s protégé.  Tommy is one of those roles that actors love, but often screw up by playing it too over-the-top, but Pesci maintains control of Tommy throughout the movie, taking him to the edge of caricature.  Tommy is a despicable human being – murderously brutish, loud, and sociopathic.  Pesci plays the biggest Napoleon complex ever captured on film, and Scorsese slyly tones down the horror of this animal by playing his psychosis mostly for laughs.  It’s a shrewd move, and I’m sure that’s the way it was played in real life by the guys close to the real Tommy.  How else do you deal with such a guy except to shrug off his craziness as just that – craziness.

An example of Tommy’s friends shrugging off Tommy’s behavior comes in two scenes dealing with a minor character named Spider, played by Michael Imperioli.  Spider is kind of an apprentice mobster.  He waits on the older guys just like Henry did when he was coming up.  One night, the guys are playing cards and Tommy feels disrespected by Spider’s lack of servitude towards him.  Tommy motivates Spider to move more quickly by pulling a hand gun out of his waistband and firing it at Spider’s feet.  Tommy shoots Spider in the foot, but shows no remorse.  In his mind it was Spider’s fault for not respecting him more.  Later, with Spider’s foot in a cast, the guys are playing cards in the same basement.  When Tommy teases Spider about moving slowly, Spider tells him where he can go.  The guys all laugh and turn to Tommy and ask if he’s going to tolerate such disrespect.  Feeling cornered and challenged, Tommy quickly draws his gun and shoots Spyder many times, killing him of course.  And once again, Tommy returns to his chair and refuses to take any blame for the incident.

Perhaps the most famous scene in Goodfellas is the “funny” scene, where Henry compliments Tommy on a story by telling him he’s a funny guy.  Tommy turns on Henry and ruins a lighthearted moment, with all their friends around, by boring in on him to find out what he meant by “funny.”  It’s a scary moment that establishes much of what happens later in the film.  It’s also a beautiful piece of acting and filmmaking.

The scene begins with the funny story that Tommy tells.  Scorsese shoots it with two cameras and no close ups.  This brings the gang into the action, and we get to see how things go from light and funny to tense and scary through their reactions to what is going on.  These are hardened criminals, and even they are freaked out by Tommy’s unpredictability.  The tension is ratcheted up with every re-phrasing of Tommy’s question –“What do you mean I’m funny?”  Henry backpedals, groping for traction against the pressure from his psychotic interlocutor until at last he stands his ground and calls Tommy’s bluff.  It’s an elegant set piece, but it’s also so much more.

Scorsese himself is like an actor in the story because of what he brings to the table as director.  His bag of tricks adds up to what is arguably the finest technique in American cinema.  In addition to directing a fine cast of actors, Scorsese employs many other elements that add layers of texture to Goodfellas.

The period detail is spot-on.  We go to movies in part to escape, and what sucks is when you’ve bought into the fiction of a movie set in 1964, say, and then a ’72 Dodge Charger pulls into the frame and essentially pours a bucket of cold water over your suspension of disbelief.  Goodfellas takes us from the late 40’s/early 50’s to the1980’s without a single hiccup.  From the vintage tractor trailers that Henry and Tommy rob to the flashy clothes the mobsters wear to the vintage Cadillacs that Henry parks as a boy for local wiseguys, it all looks real.

Music conveys much in a Scorsese movie – time, mood, pacing – and no one is better than Scorsese at finding the right song for the right moment, like the way “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by The Crystals adds a sense of drama, nostalgia, and irony to the Billy Batts bar scene.

The Billy Batts scene, along the with the “funny” scene, is emblematic of the way Scorsese uses humor in his movies.  The heaviest scenes in the movie are also accompanied by some of the funniest moments.  One function is to lessen the shock of what these men do.  It’s a device that injects some humanity into these guys so we can still care about them.  It’s also, by many accounts, the way these guys were and are.  Nicholas Peleggi, in the commentary track that accompanies the dvd, says that the guys depicted in the movie were descended from a part of Italy with a strong oral storytelling tradition, and what we have are a bunch of men who are hardwired for stories like the one Tommy tells before he turns on Henry and scares the hell out of him.  It’s to Scorsese’s credit that he masterfully takes a real life trait and uses it as a tool, a trick to seduce us into liking these guys, if only for a while.

Thelma Schoonmaker has edited movies for Scorsese going back to Raging Bull and Who’s That Knocking on My Door.  I mention her because of the editing that she, and I presume Scorsese, did to heighten the storytelling in Goodfellas.  The camera moves all over the place in this movie, and it’s all put together beautifully.

Scorsese is a bit of a showy director, and Goodfellas is full of flourishes that are as nervy as they are breath-taking.  In addition to the camera work, he employs many freezes in the action, usually to introduce a bit of narration by Henry.  They are like Robert Capa war photos, often blurry or dramatic in some way.  Similarly, he uses slow motion, as described in my favorite DeNiro moment, to spend more time filling in a character.  The same technique is used to great affect in Mean Streets, when we DeNiro enters the bar to the open notes of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.”

There are many long SteadyCam takes in Goodfellas, like the introduction of the gangsters at the Bamboo Lounge where the camera becomes Henry Hill as the guys greet him in turn as he walks through the restaurant.  But the most famously complicated shot in the movie has to be Copacabana scene.  The camera follows Henry and Karen as they leave his car with a valet on the street and descend a flight of stairs to the basement of the building and enter a maze of halls that take them through a bustling kitchen and finally to the show floor, where the captain greets them and has a table set up beside the stage.  It’s all done in one take, and is amazing to watch.

The funny thing about Goodfellas is that not one of these guys has any real depth.  None of them change, other than they get caught or killed.  Even Henry Hill, in the closing moments of the movie, laments the loss of the life he enjoyed as a gangster.  He’s completely unrepentant, and only changes because it’s forced on him by the Feds.  Despite what would be a deadly flaw in the hands of most directors, Goodfellas is a truly great film.

This brings us back to the question of what the movie is really about.  On the surface, it’s about the inner-workings of the mob, but the real story goes deeper, of course.  Scorsese’s movies have a morality to them, and even though these men are lawless, they operate by a strict code.  And when these guys run afoul of the code, there are consequences, which lead to Scorcese’s trademark violence.

Real life is much the same.  There are rules we’re required to follow in our various spheres, and as long as we follow those rules, we mostly get along.  But when our appetites get the best of us, we expose ourselves to the consequences of violating those rules.  Most of the time, we just get called out, but sometimes it results in getting fired or maybe divorced – which to many people would be as bad as getting busted by the Feds or whacked.

And so it is that Goodfellas has transcended its genre roots and become a classic of American cinema.  Movies can only do that when they go deep and speak to something basic in those who see it, and I challenge anyone to watch Goodfellas and tell me that it’s nothing more than a good gangster flick.

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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #7 Radio Days

#7.  Radio Days (1987) In compiling a list of my favorite movies, I could have typed out Woody Allen’s filmography from Take the Money and Run up to Crimes and Misdemeanors and called it a day.  His movies have been with me as long as I can remember, and have been a major influence on what I like and don’t like.

As a kid, I cut my teeth on Allen’s early comedies, and could quote my favorite gags from Take the Money and Run or Bananas or Sleeper as easily as I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, they also made me feel smart when I got some of the more subtle gags, like I’d figured out a secret handshake.  It was the same feeling I got as I started to pick up on the adult humor in the Warner Brothers cartoons.

When I was in college, I watched Annie Hall and Manhattan over-and-over again, feasting on the layers of comedy, philosophizing, references to foreign films, Allen’s horniness, and, in Annie Hall, the glimpses of his childhood in Brooklyn.  The bits of Annie Hall that included the young Alvy Singer/Woody Allen were brief but impactful for how accurately they captured a kid’s perspective, even though the scenes were highly stylized.  Part of the charm and genius of these scenes is in the casting.

Later, just before I dropped out of college, a wonderfully sour old English professor spent an entire class expounding on the pleasures to be had by feasting on Hannah and Her Sisters, which had just opened.  He compared it to a Hemmingway novel or the poetry of ee cummings, which is quoted in the movie.  Dr. Hagerman was right, of course, but my favorite moments were the dinner sequences where old standards played over a camera that moved through Hannah and Elliot’s apartment during holiday celebrations like one of the guests, capturing little moments, the way I do when I pay attention.  Those sequences demonstrated a great feel and affection for complex family dynamics.  With only pictures and mood music, Allen takes us on these brief detours that add layers of depth to an already great movie.

And so it is that Radio Days showcases these elements – the smartest writing you’ll find most years, laugh out loud moments, a story about kids and growing up and family – and woven together, they add up to a movie that is sweet and nostalgic, without giving way to sappy sentimentality.

Radio Days is a love letter to the New York of Allen’s youth (it starts in the late 30’s and ends on New Year’s Eve 1943), and he narrates the story himself, as a grown-up Joe, reflecting back on a slightly altered childhood spent in the Rockaways in Queens (rather than the Midwood section of Brooklyn where he actually grew up) with a large extended family living under one roof.  Allen introduces his family, then the songs and shows and celebrities from the era and connects them to moments from his and his family’s lives that they remind him of.  There was only one radio in the house and but a few channels, which forced a more communal experience than today, with so many devices and so much fragmentation.

The writing in Radio Days is economical and densely layered, with some gags set-up thirty minutes or more before they’re paid off.  For example, one of the minor characters, a teenaged cousin named Ruthie, is introduced as spending an inordinate amount of time listening in on the neighbors’ calls on the party-line.  She whispers to the family that the next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Waldbaum, is having an ovary removed.  Cut to the neighbors at the fence, yelling at Ruthie to get off the phone.  There’s a funny exchange, where half the family comes out on the porch to deny the snooping of Ruthie, with one of them finally saying, “What do we care if your wife has her ovary removed.”  Later, during a scene with some other family members, Ruthie interrupts the scene, much like the teenager she is, by popping into the room with her hand over the phone’s receiver and announcing that Mrs. Waldbaum has found a pocketbook on the subway…and doesn’t know if she’s going to turn it in.  She disappears and the scene continues.  It’s a throwaway moment, but the repetition of them adds up to greater texture and a deepening of the characters, as well as contributing a running gag-stream based on their quirks – Ruthie’s voyeurism, Uncle Abe’s obsession with fish, and more significantly, Aunt Bea’s rotten luck with men.

The real strength in the movie lies not with the stories of the glamorous celebrities, but in those of Joe’s family.  Though I was born in the 60’s, I come away from Radio Days feeling like I have a good picture of what it was like for families to band together, out of necessity, and cram three households into one modest home.  We feel the tensions of not having enough space, but mostly we see how the family makes it work – through a combination of humor and escapism, courtesy of the omnipresent radio.

One of the most touching scenes has no dialogue at all, but is a recollection of the Mills Brothers song “Paper Doll” and how it reminds Joe of an anniversary party for his parents – the only time he saw his parents kiss.  As the song plays, the camera moves through the house, like a stranger not wanting to interrupt.  There is no sound, just moving images, shot in a nostalgic amber light.  Everyone in the family is there, a glass of wine in hand, toasting Joe’s parents – a wedding cake in the middle of the table.  It’s a frozen moment in time, burnished by the passing of years to the point where all is pure and idealized, the way we often do with our own memories.

Of all the things I like about Radio Days, it’s Allen’s depiction of Joe and his friends that I like best.  Seth Green is wonderful as Woody Allen’s alter ego, a kid obsessed with the radio, especially “The Masked Avenger,” his favorite show.  Joe’s peers are a textbook example of how Woody Allen creates memorable characters, though they only have a line or two.  It seems there are two things he has his casting people look for – quirky looks and speech impediments.  Early on, we are introduced to Joe’s obsession with the Masked Avenger by way of a show-and-tell presentation by one of Joe’s classmates, a kid with sleepy, hound dog eyes, and a lispy impediment that is both funny and sweet.  He shows off his Masked Avenger Secret Compartment ring.

Joe’s buddies drive the point home even further.  We get snippets of them doing classic boy things, like swarming in the front door of Joe’s house, then swarming out the back door moments later, loaded down with food.

Another moment finds the boys on the beach, one-upping each other with their takes on the most beautiful women in the world.  Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable are thrown out.  These are ten year old voices, squeaky like mice.  Finally, one of them tosses out another name – Dana Andrews.  The others pounce and tell him Dana Andrews is a man.

“She is?” he asks, confused.

“Yeah.  Didn’t you see Crash Dive?”

“With a name like Dana?”  Dana is squeaked out with extra emphasis.

It’s a classic kid conversation.

Perhaps the funniest bit in the movie happens when Joe gets an idea for how he and his buddies can get the money to buy them each a Masked Avenger Secret Compartment Ring.  It involves stealing money from collection boxes they are given, in order to panhandle people on the streets of their neighborhood for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  They are caught, of course, and the scene with Joe, his parents, and the Rabbi is priceless.  The Rabbi is aghast at the scheme to use this money for something so frivolous, and as he finishes his lecture, Joe pipes in, “You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion,” a line from “The Lone Ranger.”  This sends the Rabbi and Joe’s parents into a comic fit of spanking, with each adult trying to outdo the others.

Instead of a tight plotline, Radio Days imitates life, surprising us with moments of love and grace and humor, found in the midst of the most mundane things.

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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #8 Nashville

#8. Nashville (1975)  There are two movies I remember from when I was a kid that I was too young to see at the time but wanted to because of the fuss that the grown-ups made about them – Chinatown and Nashville.

The fascination with Chinatown had to do with the weirdness of hearing about a guy getting his nose slit open.  Nashville was something else all together.  My mom and her friends from the neighborhood were scandalized by the movie – by the sex, of course, but more so, I think, by the assassination of one of the stars, a woman who was shot on-stage.  Years later, when we got our first VCR and the Video Vault opened on Dixie Highway, these were two of the first movies I rented with my own money.

Robert Altman is one of my heroes, and Nashville is my favorite of his movies – bold and joyful, like its creator – a cross between Evel Knievel and Jackson Pollock.

Though it was released in 1975, Nashville was shot a year earlier, as Nixon was resigning from office because of the Watergate debacle.  In the decade prior to that, there was Viet Nam, political assassinations, and the emergence of groups like the Weather Underground and the John Birch Society.  And so, Altman’s Nashville is his take on our country’s collective nervous breakdown in the wake of those unprecedented events, characterized by  the chaotic interweaving of about two-dozen lives over the course of a few days in Nashville during a heated presidential campaign.

The movie itself is a wild ride of stops and starts and intersecting characters that are in or on the fringes of the country music business.  To try and describe the plot is impossible because there really isn’t one, at least in the conventional sense.  Nashville opens with a white van pulling out of a garage.  It’s painted up with campaign slogans for third-party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker and outfitted with a loudspeaker system that plays a continuous loop of his campaign rhetoric.  The van shows up throughout the movie, like a mechanical Greek chorus, serving as what Altman called connective tissue, connecting the many strands of the story and giving them a sense of unity.  A few of the characters serve the same purpose, like Jeff Goldblum, as a hippie chopper riding magician or sorts, who never utters a line of dialogue, but interacts with a few of the characters nonetheless.  There’s also Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a reporter from the BBC, who stalks, badgers, or sleeps with just about every character in the story.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is the king of country music, a kind of Roy Acuff in a Nudie suit, who is being heavily recruited by a political front-man (Michael Murphy) to headline a benefit concert for Hal Phillip Walker, of the Replacement Party, a populist candidate who wants to change the National Anthem and ban lawyers from serving in congress, among other things.  Think Ross Perot on quaaludes.

Haven is pre-occupied with his protege Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who has recently recuperated from a freak accident.  She’s also on the verge of nervous collapse, but is pressured by her husband/manager to perform at numerous local engagements, including the Walker campaign rally.  Does that sound a little like Loretta Lynn?  In addition to the Coal Miner’s Daughter, we get alternate versions of Charlie Pride and Lynn Anderson, and a song out of the Merle Haggard songbook.

Lilly Tomlin is a local gospel singer who goes astray with Keith Carradine, who is one-third of a popular folk trio, a narcissistic womanizer who also beds Opal and Mary (Christina Raines), the second-third of his trio, who also happens to be married to Bill (Allan Nicholls), the third-third of the trio.

Ned Beatty is Lilly Tomlins husband.  He’s also Haven Hamilton’s lawyer, and is being used by Michael Murphy to recruit Hamilton,  as well as other musical acts and even some strippers for a fund-raising event.

Suelleen Gay (Gwen Welles), is an aspiring singer who couldn’t sing her way out of a wet paper bags shot full of holes, but she plugs away, willing to do anything to be like Barbara Jean – even some stripping for the local Rotarians/Lions/Mooses at a “political meeting.”

Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) is a local elderly man with a sick wife in the same hospital where Barbara Jean ends up.  His neice Martha (Shelley Duvall) flies in from LA looking like a cross between David Bowie and Olive Oyl, but never has time to see her sick aunt – she’s too busy running off with whatever guy catchers her attention.  Mr. Green also rents out rooms in his old house to young people who are often aspiring musicians.

David Hayward, Barbara Harris, and Scott Glenn all play visitors to Nashville, who have their own relationship with or desire for celebrity.

All the actors sing their own songs, and most wrote them as well.  In fact, Keith Carradine won an Oscar for “I’m Easy.” It was a ballsy move, and the results are mixed.  Lilly Tomlin, whose acting performance was wonderfully textured, gave an equally poor showing with her gospel number.  She’s no singer.  But that was beside the point, really.  Nashville is not a documentary about the country music scene, though it looks like one at various points.

All of these characters gather at the Parthenon for a concert/political rally where candidate Walker is due to give a speech that will never be delivered.  A violent act will shatter the frenzied tension of these lives, as well as the movie.  It’s a jarring conclusion that was shocking in 1975.  Today, it’s an eerie precursor to John Lennon’s murder – a bit of prophecy we could have done without.

In the wake of this act, one loser becomes a winner, if for only 15 minutes, when she seizes her opportunity to sing for the stunned crowd.  The remnants of the crowd come together as the song – an omnipresent top-40 hit – progresses.  Tomlin’s gospel choir assembles on stage and sings backup.  It’s a moment not too unlike the images of the crowds that gathered outside the Dakota on the night that Lennon was shot, seeking community to cope with a senseless tragedy.  With a ragged Pied Piper leading them, they all sing the chorus “it don’t worry me” over and over.

As they do this, Altman shows us images of children in the crowd, one after the other, clueless and innocent.  Rather than taking this as a sign of hope, I see it as a cause for alarm.  These little ones will inherit a world we’ve prepared for them – a world of violence, compromise, and shallowness.  It should worry us.  A lot.

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Life at Thorntons

Every weekday morning I stop at Thorntons, a local gas station/convenience store, to get a Diet Coke and the occasional pack of Extra Polar Ice gum.

There’s this crusty old lady who works there and fascinates me.  She’s in her own world, working her own game-plan.  For example she’ll ignore the fact that there are no 44 oz. cups while adding another sleeve of 32 ouncers to an already full dispenser.  Or she’ll cram another box of straws into an already over-stuffed straw holder when there isn’t a clean napkin in sight.  The best is when she cluelessly gabs with the regulars while one girl has a line at her register stretching out the door and half-way to the street corner.

So.  Today, she’s at a register, with the “closed” sign on the counter, watching the line I’m at the head of.  She’s chewing on something.  We make eye contact, but she says nothing.  She just chews and watches, like a lazy house cat.  Just as the customer in front of me is wrapping up, the old lady says next and I walk up to her register and put my Diet Coke on the counter…and wait while she picks a handful of coconuts out of a pile of trail mix that she’s poured out on the counter.  Nice.

While I wait and watch – as she pops a handful of coconut into her mouth – two people pay for their stuff in the next line and leave while I try not to have an aneurism.

Is it any wonder that this same store has been out of Extra Polar Ice gum for two months?  TWO MONTHS!


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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #9 Breaking Away

#9. Breaking Away (1979)  Breaking Away will always have a spot on my top 10 favorites list because of the influence it had on my life.  I saw it with my family when it came out in ’79, and it sparked a passion for cycling that has never burned out.

The story, set in Bloomington, Indiana, is about a group of four townies who are stuck in the no-man’s land between high school and adulthood.  They are referred to by the college kids as Cutters, a derogatory reference to their blue-collar fathers who work in the nearby quarries.  And so, in addition to being a coming-of-age story, it’s also a story about class, and more specifically, identity.

Dave Stoller is a Cutter.  He’s a dreamy, goofy kid with only one noticeable talent – cycling.  His backstory involves some undisclosed illness in which a bicycle aided in his recovery.  The bike has become an extension of his identity, and to his friends and family, he’s a harmless eccentric.  But he’s got real talent.  His obsession with cycling is manifested in his devotion to all things Italian.  His room is filled with posters.  He listens only to Italian opera.  He even speaks broken Italian with an exaggerated accent.  Did I say he was a bit goofy?

His friends include: Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley, who also played Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears movies), a dirty, sweaty, dog-loyal redneck with a heart of gold, Cyril (Daniel Stern, from Diner and The Wonder Years), a lovable loser, and Mike (Dennis Quaid).

Mike is the former quarterback/captain of the football team who can’t come to grips with the fact that he no longer has a real team to lead.  He desperately tries to keep the four guys together, even insulting and badgering them as they start to feel out new directions in their lives.  He becomes the archetypal ex-jock – soon to be the old guy with the beer gut who was once the muscle-bound hero for the local team.

And so all of these boys struggle with identity as they grope their way into the next phase of their lives.

As a kid, I identified completely with Dave.  Untouched by the harsh realities of life – in contrast to his cynical, hard-working father (brilliantly played by Paul Dooley) – Dave lives in a dream world where he passes himself off as an Italian exchange student in order to escape his drab existence and possibly win the love of a beautiful coed at Indiana University.

This carefree, head-in-the-clouds existence is galling to Dave’s father, who resents his son’s optimism and worries about his future.  And there to mediate this generation gap is Evelyn/wife/mom (Barbara Barrie, in an Oscar nominated performance), who knows how to encourage her son’s dreams while soothing her husband’s frustration.  She’s a cross between June Cleaver and Henry Kissinger.

Dave gets his dose of real-life soon enough when two events come together at once.  First, he has a hand in his father’s heart attack in a comic scene where used-car salesman dad argues with a dissatisfied customer who tries to return a lemon.  The second, and perhaps more damaging, incident occurs when Dave finally gets to race against his heroes from Italy’s Team Cinzano, who are touring America in exhibition races.  When the Italian’s can’t out-ride pesky Dave, they resort to dirty tricks and cause him to wreck.  In the process, they rob him of his innocence.

From there, things start to unravel for Dave.  He confesses his true identity to his coed girlfriend, who rejects him.  In turn, Mike loses confidence in himself and just about gives up his struggle against the smug college boys.  Moocher threatens to break up the team by secretly getting married.  Cyril is…Cyril.

Potential redemption comes in the form of yet another bike race.  Because of the bickering between the college boys and the Cutters, the school decides to open their annual bike race – The Little 500 – to a team from the town, which sets the stage for either cathartic revenge or crushing humiliation.

If the story sounds conventional, well, it is.  But it’s in the telling of the story – Steve Tesich’s writing, the acting, Peter Yates’ directing – that it rises above cliche and becomes something special.  Breaking Away has lost none of its resonance or charm.  Even after 31 years.

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