ALWAYS KEEPING AN EYE ON HOLLYWOOD!!!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

JER'S TURN: THE CINEMA TAKEDOWN- WHAT IS THE BEST "ORGANIZED CRIME" FILM?

JER: I feel the need to kick up some dirt…to get the blood pumping a little bit. I am calling this brand new segment I am introducing: THE CINEMA TAKE-DOWN! The object is to pick a category and pit one item against the other. This is a UFC No-Holds-Barred fight to the finish…who or what will reign supreme? We will soon find out…The card: BEST ‘ORGANIZED CRIME’ FILM.

In my corner, weighing in from 1990, born and raised in Brooklyn: director Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award winner- GOODFELLAS!

In Johnny Chazz’ corner, weighing in from 1972, born and raised in New York City: director Francis Ford Coppola’s Best Picture Academy Award winner- THE GODFATHER!

“Let the Take-Dooooooown….begin!”

JER: The fight will be tough because I am going against the very- respected and personal favorite, THE GODFATHER! It’s an untouchable film and how does one talk against it? I won’t! Instead, I will talk about GOODFELLAS and the key points needing to be made mentioned to try to make a valid case from my end.

Based on the book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi, the story follows the true life events of Henry Hill, covering a near 30 years of both the rise and fall of his involvement with an organized crime family in New York.
Director Martin Scorsese
How much is actually “true” is never clearly defined, however, who would really care with the development and building of this fantastic film. Helmed by Martin Scorsese (TAXI DRIVER, MEAN STREETS, RAGING BULL) this is yet another East- side telling of how real life violence, childhood friendships and every day living ruled the lower- class streets in the boroughs of New York…scenes all too familiar in Scorsese’s life as well.
Young Henry Hill

Like THE GODFATHER, our story begins in the 1950’s…1955, to be exact, as we are introduced to a young Henry Hill, a kid still in high school, taking a part-time ‘job’ with a local cab stand in Brooklyn…owned and operated by Paulie Cicero. We quickly pick up that the cab stand is merely a front for middle-time hustling and truck-hauling merchandise moving. Paulie’s brother, Tuddy, is the ‘manager’ of the operation. What makes this ‘crime family’ so unique and very different from THE GODFATHER’s Corleone family is that this outfit is made up by a bunch of guys that grew up together from the neighborhood. They are not family by blood, but rather by what part of Italy (preferably Sicilian) your ancestors came from and the struggle to live and survive once arriving in the USA.

Liotta, DeNiro and Pesci
The story moves on with Ray Liotta now playing a grown up Henry, along with a fellow ‘family assistant’ Tommy DeVito, played by Joe Pesci (a role he won Best Supporting Actor for) both young men being raised in the ways of ‘family’ by elder Jimmy Conway, played by Robert DeNiro.

The film, in my opinion, is a musical! Hear me out. After a dramatic brief but graphic intro, the film almost never stops from a constant background of decade- specific radio tunes. The songs, like a soundtrack to the lives of our characters, change as the decades change. Beginning with the 1950’s, we are propelled with tunes like Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” right down to the 70’s with Sid Vicious’ rendition of “My Way.” In true Italian- American stereotyping, wise guys love the songs by artists like Bobby Darin and Dean Martin… all well represented in the early settings of the film, glamorizing the golden age of mob life. The music quickly changes as the mob ‘family’ begins to move into the unfamiliar…now raising the steaks to big-time theft and even illegal drugs… the mood dramatically switches to tracks by The Who and Eric Clapton, depicting the fall of society in the 60’s and 70’s as well as the eventual crumbling of the ‘mob family’ we have come to know.

Does the film take itself seriously? You bet, even though there are some unintentional (or maybe intentional) moments in which you cannot help but laugh at. It is truly humorous if not intriguing to see these street-wise goofs talk. Their takes on life, love, marriage, sex, religion, mistresses, money, expenses, family and justice are all dissected and spat out by misinterpretation of low- class education by a bunch of, well, good fellas!

The photography is a contradiction of sorts…there is room for slow- motion sequences allowing us to clearly see what the audience needs to see…to quick and quirky cuts making dramatic exclamation points about events and characters. A wonderful sequence takes place when Henry takes girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Brocco) out to the Copacabana nightclub. A long tracking shot follows our couple from their car parked across the street from the club, continuously moving across the street into the backdoor of the club, teleologically moving and avoiding cooks and waiters in the kitchen, right out to the club’s floor where a table is brought out and placed for our couple to sit down and enjoy the evening’s entertainment by comedian Henny Youngman…all on cue and all shot in one sequence. No cuts, no edits… magnificent!

Who can ever forget the ‘improvised’ story being told by Pesci’s Tommy one evening at the club afterhours with a few of the wise guys hanging out and boozing it up? In attendance, Liotta’s Henry is thoroughly entertained by Tommy’s delivery and dry humor, making him comment on how funny he is. Tommy, being a short-tempered and highly violent firecracker, almost immediately takes his comment as a demeaning brush of character…”Funny, how? I mean funny like a clown? Do I amuse you?” The tension is felt by both the audience and the actors…since only Pesci knew where he was going with this…Liotta was caught by surprise with the turn of events that led to awkwardness and possible bloodshed…after allowing a brief and suffocating moment of silence, Liotta’s Henry could only nervously laugh the reply…”Get the fuck out of here!” The tension breaks with a relief of laughter by all at the table!

The film begins to rot away at the high- life and the feeling of ‘untouchable’ loses its definition when the law begins a crackdown and is drawn into clues left behind by a series of sloppiness from the mob’s crimes. Loose lips and sudden big spendings eventually spells doom for our anti- heroes… leading to wire- tappings and bugged telephones capturing Henry and Karen Hill. Growing from a plea bargain and a life in the witness protection plan, Henry rats out his ‘family.’ Once a high-roller and big spender, he now trades in his three piece suits and club life for a bathrobe and slippers…flying under the radar of just another average middle- class American living the life dealt to him… whether he likes it or not.

JOHNNY CHAZ: “The Godfather” earns my full attention in this passage. It is a film that takes itself very seriously and deservingly so with a tremendous ensemble cast. So, allow me to make you an offer you “can’t refuse” and let’s delve into this film and why it is so deserving of such stature.

It is very hard to imagine any other film that defined its’ genre much better than 1972’s “The Godfather” did for mob films. The key here is to remember that this was just at the beginning of the seventies and the ‘Age of Aquarius’ was just ending. Thus, films like “Scarface”, “Once Upon a Time in America”, “Goodfellas”, “A Bronx Tale” and the amazing “Casino” were all inspired by this unique, bittersweet, detailed and passionate film.

Director Francis Coppola
It remains a cliché, but “The Godfather” really contains everything you could ask for in a classic film: The performances, the screenplay, the romantic and prominent score, the period-reflecting costumes, the romance, the low-key lighting of the genre, the camera work, the framing and cinematography, and of course – the violence. As a side note, we must mention that at the time of its’ release, Coppola was not exactly setting Hollywood or the film world on fire. That would change…overnight.

“The Godfather”, which is novel-based, had a screenplay that was co-written between Mario Puzo (author) and director Francis Ford Coppola. Marlon Brando would play the role of Vito Corleone – hence ‘The Godfather’ in the film. The leader or “Don,” runs the family in the same way someone would run a business. There is give and take – but reciprocity is always king especially in the family-business of organized crime.


Caan, Brando, Pacino and Cazale
Heir to the throne we find James Caan playing the role of the fiery and hot-tempered older son of the Corleone family, Sonny. Siblings would include youngest son, Michael, played by Al Pacino and middle son, Fredo, played by John Cazale. Robert Duvall also surfaces in the film playing the role of the family attorney since – well, there was certainly a need for one justifying his role in the film and in the family.

What is so terrific about the film and is so well carried out is the fact that it is set in the 1950’s. The film really centers on the feud or continuing struggle amongst mob families. Two primary characters develop themselves in the film early-on as Sonny focuses on contempt and vengeance while Michael moves from being a sort-of “follower” and good-son to a the head of the family – thus, the Mafia Don. What is so ironic yet gripping for the audience is the premise that “family” is the ultimate commodity to the Italian mafia, but at the same time it is the family that eventually collapses from the tyranny and self-destruction within. There is a need for respect – a dire need. There lies a corruption of power, which is self-inflicted and almost just. The elements of lust, rage, contempt and jealousy are other descriptors of what cause the fall of any mafia family – and especially is the case with the infamous Corleone family. Maybe this is what makes the film work on so many levels. It is a mob-film, but it focuses on ‘family.’

What lines in the film as well. “Women and children can be careless, but not men” as spoken by Don Corleone himself simply putting the men on a pedestal and the women in the kitchen. Another line comes in the film, which many audience members remember to this day: “Hold your friends close and your enemies closer”. It is a dance of family and culture. This was also the way it was going to be if you were to succeed in the Corleone family.
Scenes that immediately come to mind must include the opening 30-minute segment, which always parallels itself to the opening of “The Deer Hunter” in some ways. We have music, family, friends and a wedding shot in panoramic style with depth of shot and exquisite framing placing the audience in the moment.

“The Godfather” highlighted a style of film-making which was dark. This is not to refer to the film as being “noir” in a sense because it was certainly not that. However, it is the cinematography that we must keep coming back to over and over again. The close-ups (the horrific bedroom scene with the horse-head) which pan-out revealing the terror or surprise that awaits us. Some of these techniques could be found in the films of Godard, Fellini and especially Antonioni, but was taken to another level by Coppola. Still, the shooting of “The Godfather” was a technique that advanced cinema into new realms, but also held onto the classic uses of the camera as the audience’s eye into this private world. Tracking shots are rarely used, and quick cutting – rather over-cutting is never used which keeps the film in flow with the actors, the score and the sets.

The tragedy at the end of the film is the violation of a code of honor – not ethics. It is the cross between political and moral decisions the characters are put to the ultimate test. “The Godfather” gives us the firm message that honor is found in the way you do business and in the way you deal with your family. As promptly quoted in the film, “A man that does not spend time with his family can never be a real man”.

What is so amazing in hindsight is to think about the fact that “The Godfather” only won three (3) Academy Awards. Still, it did take two outstanding awards including Best Picture, Actor and Screenplay of which it was completely deserving. How Nino Rota was not nominated for Best Picture Score is beyond comprehension since it was a perfect fit for the on-screen visuals.

“The Godfather” (original of course) set the bar so high that was, is and possibly always will be the measure by which all mob and gangster films should be critiqued. Simply put, it clearly defined and beautifully characterized the genre.


Composer Nino Rota
JER: JC, to touch and correct your closing statement, Nino Rota was nominated and in fact, won the Award for Original Score. However, the Academy soon came to realize that Nino Rota had actually borrowed the music from a previous score he had written for a far- lesser known Italian film a few years prior. The Academy couldn’t allow Mr. Rota to keep the award based on the soundtrack not being “original” and was asked to return the coveted award. Sad, but true.

I cannot argue or go against what your points say about THE GODFATHER…it is difficult. What I can say is that both films make for an interesting take on two different styles of what is defined as the “family.” One is blood; the other is from code of honor amongst those you respect.

Counterpoint, JC…

JC: The belief here is that “The Godfather” was a throwback to the classic time of Hollywood filmmaking and a true glimpse into the more prolific and extravagant times of the mob.

GOODFELLAS
“Goodfellas” didn’t work nearly as well as a mob / gangster film and plays second fiddle for a few reasons. First, let’s understand that there is a “maturity” level about the classic mafia family that made the entire operation work. Mafia dons were not young kids – they were men who had lived and learned and thus were asserted into the coveted position. Secondly, “Goodfellas” seems as though it is strictly about entertainment whereas “The Godfather” almost has a real-life, documentary feel about it. Simply put, it is much more nostalgic and pays homage to long-standing family traditions and the way organized crime was developed. Perhaps both films romanticize the truth a bit as Hollywood has landed the “mob” role to an iconic one. Finally, it is the entire scope of the film in terms of the lighting, the sets and the cinematography which amplified character and mood in the film to a level that far surpasses Goodfellas.

Now Jer, you talked about “Goodfellas” as being a "musical", but I don't see the music really being that artistic in the way that it worked for “The Godfather.” Let's face the music here (no pun intended) and recognize that albeit “Goodfellas” had a soundtrack that worked, it no more made that film a musical than “The Godfather’s score did... thus, was “The Godfather” a musical via the wedding scene, the baptism, the death of Don Corleone and the finale?

JER: I beg to differ on this and will offer a rebuttal. GOODFELLAS does not offer an original score. The music is draw by the surrounding eras of the decades presented throughout the film. The idea was, I believe, to capture a sense of what Brooklyn’s middle- class mob scene felt like. The lyrics work as an assistant narrator, presented primarily, by Ray Liotta.

THE GODFATHER
THE GODFATHER, however, offers a classic (but not an original) soundtrack…as previously mentioned by Mr. Rota’s decision of choice…but, the music does work well for the style of film making it took. No one can argue with the highly- recognized ‘Godfather Waltz’ when heard anywhere…it is both iconic and nostalgic, to say the least.

JC: “Goodfellas,” is fun to watch but is really no more noteworthy as a subject or as a film than any other Cosa Nostra film. The score fits the film, but cannot ever compare to what we heard in “The Godfather” in the classic sense. “Goodfellas” offers us little in the way of romance or traditional family and business values. To add, Joe Pesci’s “funny man” scene is certainly a classic, but it seems as though this is one of the only scenes that people continually talk about in respect to the film. As for “The Godfather,” there are countless scenes, visuals and framings that make it a complete work of art.

JER: I will interject by saying that GOODFELLAS has many memorable scenes to mention, other than the confrontational scene between Pesci and Liotta. Other highlights that come to mind is manhandling of the postman early on in the film when told to no longer deliver truant notices to Henry’s parents to avoid further lashings by his Irish father! There is also the scene in which Henry confronts some of Karen’s neighborhood boys and pistol-whips one of them with a warning to stay away from her. Who can also forget Pesci shooting the foot of the young boy the family has hired to help serve drinks! I think that there are plenty of memorable moments for GOODFELLAS to stand on!

A wonderful tribute video for GOODFELLAS

JC: Does ‘Goodfellas” take itself seriously as you stated? At times, yes - but for the most part it only feels like entertainment. Every single moment of “The Godfather” is bold and deliberate while adding to the narrative in a stylistic and pensive fusion. “Goodfellas” could never compare on this level.

Just the title itself "Goodfellas" says enough about the broad gap between the characters in both films we are looking at today Jer. As you mentioned, there seems to be a "misinterpretation of low- class education by a bunch of, well, good fellas.” Actually that is it in a nutshell. The characters were sloppy, careless and could never become vicious enough to earn the role of "Don" in a mob-family. We are talking night and day here - there is truly no comparison.


Give me Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino any day over the likes of Ray Liotta. It may sound harsh, but I find Ray Liotta (Henry Hill) to be one of the most ridiculous sounding mob-members I have ever seen on screen and from the first moment I saw "Goodfellas", his own character (not the character he was playing), but his acting style in no way, shape or form appealed to me. His actions are predictable and like most of the characters in "Goodfellas", I really didn't care what happened to the. Liotta comes off as a smart-alec type of wise-guy similar to the Joe Pesci type - an attitude that would easily be disposed of in the Classic Cosa Nostra world.

Enjoy this classic 1972 trailer from THE GODFATHER

Perhaps I have been (or we have been) spoiled by Scorsese with the likes of ‘Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull” and “Casino” to the point where "Goodfellas" really does not rank that high on my list of Scorsese films - let alone "mob" films. “The Godfather” was in a league of its own and set the bar - very, very high that it would be a daunting task to find anything that could leap it.

JER: Aside from a few characters like Paulie and Jimmy, to mention a few, GOODFELLAS Is about sloppy characters trying to act like big- time mob boys! I think that was point, JC.

Understood that the likes of Liotta and Pesci do not hold a candle to Brando and Pacino, but I still have to argue that GOODFELLAS was well casted…for the type of film it was meant to represent. It wasn’t meant to be another “Godfather” film by any means. GOODFELLAS worked on a different level because it misses the poetic beauty that Puzo placed on THE GODFATHER…Pileggi’s GOODFELLAS was based on truth, not fiction! Enough said!

And so, the gauntlet falls! We ask you, our faithful readers, to chime in with your opinions as well! What made a better ‘organized crime’ film? Help us decide!

We hope you enjoyed this banter and let us know if you would be interested in others in the future along with what subjects to touch upon! Until next time, when JC gets his turn, we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!

8 comments:

  1. Loved both mob flicks and u guys are really going at it this week. Chazz makes some good points about Goodfellas musical score being supreme and the cast being a bit stronger. But- Jer also says that Goodfellas was about the middle-class mob and the music and characters reflected that era. Good job guys and enjoyed the topic! STEVE from Bishop, CA

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  2. Thanks for chiming in Steve! Yeah, we can throw down when we have to..all in the name of film! This was difficult for me (Jer) because I love and respect THE GODFATHER, so I didn't have anything negative to say about it. I was merely defending GOODFELLAS for what it is!

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  3. noooo way godfathers or goodiefellas are the best gangter movies. SCAAARFACE all the way!!!! ...Ricardo - port hueneme, CA.

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  4. Hi - I posted with your blog a while ago and liked this weeks'; topic. I actually prefered the Godfather to Goodfellas. Goodfellas was a little too violent and angry kinda and Godfather was more about respect. My family has an Italian background and my grandfather told me a lot about growing up around the mob in New York City in the 1940's. The mafia families were about family and self-respect. thanks. Alicia, FLINT MI.

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  5. Great films you recommended this week! Really liked both of these organized crime movies but always looked at Gooodfellas as a better movie and Godfather as a better film. Both were really top-notch tho.*Alan, North Bend, OR*

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  6. I don't think I would ever rate any film higher than The Godfather. The film is captivating and so much is appreciated no matter how times I watch it. The work behind the scenese by Coppola and his movie crew made it a life-long masterpiece only to be followed by a great sequel, The Godfather II. Goodfellas was pretty good for what it was, but I do not think it was really on the level of The Godfather or as memorable. Thanks - (Robert- Mission Viejo, CA)

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  7. Hello Robert and thank you for your comments...I agree with you, however, GOODFELLAS was never intended to be an equal to the THE GODFATHER in any way, shape or form.
    And speaking of sequals, Robert, let's remember that THE GODFATHER also spawned the unmentioned THE GODFATHER III. I rest my case! :)

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  8. WOW! Thanks to all who chimed in during the weekend! It was a hard fight and no one comes out a loser at the end! I (Jer) have the utmost respect for both films and couldn't ever choose between the two...and yes, SCARFACE kicks ass as well! :)

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