Thursday, 7 October 2010

GOODFELLAS (1990) ****(1/2)

"In a world that's powered by violence, on the streets where the violent have power, a new generation carries on an old tradition"

Gangster films have played a big role in changing the way I look at film through how dark and edgy they are, THE GODFATHER trilogy and SCARFACE (1983) certainly proved that factor with some great characters and infamous moments. I was then recommended Martin Scorsese's gangster epic GOODFELLAS (1990), at the time I hadn't come across Scorsese much though I was to watch THE DEPARTED (2006) shortly after watching this. However I came to appreciate this masterpiece of a film which set the boundaries for violent cinema and since then, no gangster film has really been as well acclaimed as this was. The idea of this film teaches us that gangsters are all around us, everyone knows it, but not everyone wants to accept it which is suggested throughout as one man's chronicles in the mafia became a horrific but fascinating true story.

We see a flashback involving a trio of gangsters stopping their car to find their victim still alive, and decide to finally finish him off. One of the gangsters named Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) recollects how 'as far back as he could remember he always wanted to be a gangster' which sets up the story of how Henry became part of the mafia which traces back to 1955. As a teenage boy, he ditched school to work for a group of gangsters led by fussy yet reserved boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and ended up building his reputation as a young man with bright ideas to get involved in the mob. Paulie would introduce him to fellow gangster Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and his henchman Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and together the trio would become involved in mob dealings such as robbery, drug dealing and even murder. After escaping prison for illegally selling cigarettes Henry learns to never rat out his friends and keep his mouth shut, a lesson that he is willing to accept which leads to him being regarded as one of their own. The film however focuses on Henry's gangster involvement also affecting his personal life, as the years pass in which he gets involved with Jewish woman Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and the pair end up getting together and marrying. Despite his profession though, Karen supports him throughout enjoying the thrill of being involved with a wiseguy.

But clearly the reputation for Henry becomes daunting for him with Tommy showing psychopathic motives towards those who ridicule him which is confirmed when former client Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) who is a 'made guy' ends up being murdered by Tommy in revenge for teasing him about his past. Jimmy is also someone not to mess with, as different time periods take place, the gang get involved in pulling off a major heist which goes successfully well. Unfortunately more bloodshed happens as Jimmy and Tommy try to ensure that anyone involved in the heist who gives themselves away to the cops will suffer the consequences which in typical gangster film fashion does happen. Henry tries to keep together his mob profession and his home life, but the sleaziness of the profession sees him cheat on Karen with other women but also become associated with cocaine which affects his state of paranoia. Ultimately prison does happen to Henry after he and Jimmy attack a client in another state, but the case of surviving whether it be inside or outside, affects his judgement. This is made more apparent with the shock death of one of the major characters and another major incident with the authorities which leaves Henry to consider whether he and his family can survive the connections with the mob or also face being bumped off, leading to him taking a stand....

The movie is based on the true-crime memoirs of the real-life Henry Hill, whose novel from Nicholas Pileggi; "Wiseguy" was adapted into a screenplay by Pileggi and Scorsese. The book itself is insightful; but the screenplay for the film is even better. The dialogue is incredible. The story works on two levels, both as an expose of how the gangster world and the gangsters themselves actually have very similar ambitions and worries as normal 9-5 people with regards to families and staying on top. Ray Liotta is perfect as the title gangster Henry Hill as he captures a sense of innocence yet at the same time a feeling of violence. One scene that proves that is his confrontation with a guy who tries to touch up Karen, leading to him being composed when confronting the guy, and after the incident having a big horrid look of revenge that is just terrific acting. Though not in the film as much as the poster shows De Niro's portrayal of Jimmy Conway is solid. The character's persona is that of a calm and reasonable nature, but really he is a paranoid killer who would kill even his closest associates for money behind the forced smiles. Joe Pesci however steals the film whenever he's on screen playing a short, deranged, loud-mouthed man with something wrong in his head. Someone makes an insult toward him and he shoots them, and then laughs. It's quite disturbing. Paul Sorvino gives great screen presence as Paulie and does a good job in the scenes he's in. Future Sopranos actress Lorraine Bracco has such a fiery attitude but a sparkling personality which translates well on camera and is very good alongside Liotta. Other Sopranos characters including Christopher Moltisanti, Paulie and Phil Leotardo also figure as well as a brief but ill-fated appearance from Samuel L Jackson. The reason the whole ensemble shines in their performances comes from the fact that they aren't acting like their characters; they are behaving like them.

There is drama but the humourous moments help the film including the famous tensioned "Am I funny" scene between Henry and Tommy which ends with the popular hysterical laughter of Henry adding to the hilarity of the film and showing great chemistry between the main characters. Technically too the film is fabulous with the time period focusing well between the 50's and 80's, arty costumes and a loud but energetic soundtrack including songs from Tony Bennett, Sex Pistols and of course The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter (used in future Scorsese films). The camerawork though deserves credit too with the long, tracking shots, especially the much-copied entrance through the kitchen. One flaw though to this film maybe Henry's narration throughout the film which paces well at the start but towards the end drags out and looks too much into the mafia aspect, while the final five-ten minutes feel rushed for the whole point of the story about what Henry and the family were forced to do. As much as the true events of Henry's life have been glamorized to a certain extent, the focus of the film is more a damning portrayal of the characters and lifestyle of mobsters and is done to perfection. Goodfellas makes you feel like you are watching guys that you know or knew. It all paints us a perfect picture of what mob life must be like.


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