Category Archives: Mob Films

The Grifters-1990

The Grifters-1990

Director-Stephen Frears

Starring-John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening

Scott’s Review #597

Reviewed January 9, 2017

Grade: B-

The Grifters is a film that has witty writing and has an overall appeal to it- the film is very unique and quirky and is in the style of a charismatic film noir from one of the golden ages of film, the 1930’s and the 1940’s. Additionally, the film has a very sharp, clean look to it.

The performances, especially Anjelica Houston, are excellent. In fact, all three principles, (John Cusack and Annette Bening) give fantastic performances and furthermore, feed off each other so well that the chemistry works quite well.

Cusack plays a small time crook named Roy Dillon, inept in ways, and estranged from his mother (Huston). When she returns to town, she along with his girlfriend (Bening), all attempt to con and outmaneuver each other for their own personal gain. The film is set in sunny Los Angeles.

As compelling as the film sounds on paper, I did not find myself completely captured by it. It took me awhile to get into the film and by the time I finally did, it had ended. Overall, well made, and respectable, and I can see how some people would love it, but for me there remained something missing.

The Godfather: Part III-1990

The Godfather: Part III-1990

Director-Francis Ford Coppola

Starring-Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia

Scott’s Review #533

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Reviewed December 3, 2016

Grade: B+

The Godfather: Part III, released in 1990, has traditionally been met with unwavering criticisms for not being as great as the two preceding epics. Sofia Coppola, who plays Mary- daughter of Michael Corleone, in particular, has bared the brunt of the attacks. No, The Godfather: Part III is not on the level of the others, but is actually pretty damned good based on its own merits and is a capable mob epic to conclude the franchise in a satisfying fashion. The central theme is Michael’s continued desire to leave the mafia and religion, and the Catholic Church are central themes of the film.

Some backstory to the making of the film; Coppola had a non-expiring offer to create a third installment to the saga ever since 1974, when Part II was released. Having had a financial crisis, 1990 was the time Coppola agreed to do the follow-up. The ever crucial role of Mary (now a coming of age young lady) was to be played by Julia Roberts, who dropped out. Winona Ryder was then cast and bailed at the very last minute. Out of necessity, Coppola daughter Sofia was cast and had little time to prepare or much acting experience (she would later become an acclaimed director, which better suited her talents).

In similar fashion to the other epics, a big event launches the film, as Michael (Pacino) is named Commander of the Order of Saint Sebastian in a lavish ceremony at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. It is revealed that Michael is approaching age sixty and semi-retired, leaving his business dealings mainly to Joey Zasa in New York, who has ravaged what the Corleone family had once built. Many characters- Kay, Mary, Tony, and Connie, are re-introduced, and new characters such as Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) and Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) are introduced, in a flurry of new story lines. It is like a big, grand, soap opera, with wonderful, rich, writing.

I was immediately impressed by the neat cinematography- the camera captures wind-swept leaves and an artistic introduction to the film, as well as either mentioned or appearing in cameo roles, small characters from the first two films- a great touch in continuity and history. Coppola does a fantastic job of providing little updates of these characters during a party. For example, we learn that Vincent is the deceased, illegitimate son of Sonny, his mother being Lucy Mancini, who appears in a scene. (Clever viewers will remember Sonny and Lucy’s torrent affair in the bathroom during The Godfather-it is suggested that this produced Vincent). It is mentioned that Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) has died, though his wife and son appear, and Coppola treats us to a myriad of flashbacks (Apollonia, a young Michael and Kaye). These nuances make The Godfather: Part III filled with cool little aspects that fill the loyal viewer with warmth.

The main story- Michael takes Vincent under his wing- and strives to steer the family clear of criminal ties- is interesting, if not spectacular. Connie rises from battered mafia wife, raising kids, to a major player in the family, just as women progressed from the 1940’s to the 1980’s, when the story takes place. She even feeds her godfather a poisoned cannoli! Michael, Vincent, and Connie involve themselves with the Catholic Church, bailing them out (the real-life Papal banking scandal is linked to the story) and making a deal with them for major shares of a real-estate company, Immobiliare. In-fighting between the major crime mob bosses lead to several bloody massacres throughout the film, on the streets, in Atlantic City, and finally, in the Sicilian Opera house.

The pairing of cousins and lovers, Vincent and Mary, never really works, nor does Bridget Fonda’s one or two scene appearance as Grace Hamilton, a brief dalliance for Vincent. Also, the exclusion of the character of loyal family attorney Tom is a glaring omission. So the film does contain a few negatives.

In a nutshell, The Godfather: Part III is a very good, epic, crime drama even without the Godfather name. To measure up to the glory of Parts I and II is impossible. With the added bonus of having the rich Corleone family history and the intricate relationships between the characters, this makes for a treat for fans. There has not been a Part IV, nor should there ever need to be as the conclusion of the film is a satisfying wrap-up to the saga.

Animal Kingdom-2010

Animal Kingdom-2010

Director-David Michod

Starring-Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton

Scott’s Review #519

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Reviewed November 15, 2016

Grade: A-

Animal Kingdom is an excellent Australian crime drama movie that is in the same vein as Goodfellas, The Godfather, or a myriad of other mafia/mob type films- only Aussie style, which in itself piques interest.

The film has an indie feel to it-is raw and not slickly produced- and is not over dramatized with explosions, CGI effects, and various other bells and whistles, making it character driven.

It is simply a well made drama about a seventeen year old boy named Joshua, who is taken in by his extended family of criminals. Staring out as an innocent, he slowly becomes entangled in the families web of corruption- similar to Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone from The Godfather. Making the plot even more compelling, is the arrival of a goodhearted detective (Guy Pearce) who tries to steer Joshua on the straight and narrow.

The acting is topnotch (Jacki Weaver in particular is amazing as the diabolical leader of the family), shocking events happen out of the blue, and operatic music mixed in with dramatic events is well done.

Animal Kingdom is a diamond in the rough.

Legend-2015

Legend-2015

Director-Brian Helgeland

Starring-Tom Hardy

Scott’s Review #405

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Reviewed May 24, 2016

Grade: B+

Tom Hardy is one of my favorite modern film actors (he should have won the 2015 Oscar for his riveting performance in The Revenant, in my humble opinion) and in Legend fans are treated to a dual role by the handsome Brit. Hardy portrays Reggie and Ronald Kray, two of London’s most feared and brutal gangsters. The film absolutely belongs to Hardy in every way, shape, and form, the locales of London are fantastic, and more than one scene is jaw-dropping violent, but the film meanders quite a bit and the vocals of Ron Kray are quite difficult to understand. Still, an impressive effort as a whole.

The time period is the late 1950’s London. Reggie Kray, the more mainstream of the Kray brothers, is a feared member of the organized crime community.  He is coddled by his mother and can do no wrong in her mind. This makes any relationships difficult as his mum disapproves of his mates. He falls in love with Frances Shea, a young woman who narrates most of the film, so it is told from an outsiders perspective. Reggie’s brother Ron, has recently been released from a mental hospital and, if off of his medications, is certifiably crazy, and very volatile. He is also gay and makes no bones about it.

Ron and Reggie have a love/hate relationship to say the least and this dynamic is the most interesting aspect of the film. Thanks to Hardy, as the writing is not Legend’s strongest suit, we see two very different characters, despite the fact that they obviously look alike. In the myriad of scenes shared between the brothers, it appears as though two different actors are playing the roles and that is to Hardy’s credit.

An important scene emphasizes the relationship between the two. When a rival dares to mention Reggie’s wife’s name in a disparaging fashion, he points a gun and fires at the man’s head. Fortunately, the gun is not loaded, so the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Yet, a worse fate awaits the victim. After the deed is done, Reggie whispers in Ron’s ear that he killed the man “because I can’t kill you”. This clearly means that Reggie would kill Ron if he could- shocking since they are brothers. To add to this, it is implied that he would kill his brother with the same savageness as his victim. This makes the audience ponder.

Impressive is the sexuality of Ron, and especially since he is not written in a stereotypical way. He is brutal, masculine, and hardcore. The fact that Ron Kray was a real figure is important to note. His entourage of boyfriends follow him around in dedication. Who can blame them as his charisma oozes- think an unstable James Bond.

The twins relationship is the best part of the film, but as a mob film, Legend really meanders quite a bit, so much so that it becomes tough to identify what the point of the film is, if not for Hardy. Save for Frances, none of the supporting characters are written with any interest and they are all rather forgettable. The wonderful Chazz Palminteri is wasted in the role of Angelo Bruno, head of a Philadelphia crime family and friend of the Krays. There is little of meaning or interest to his role.

A mediocre story, but with leading characters with depth, make Legend an interesting film that flies under the radar and received little notice. Hopefully, if nothing else, it continues the success that Tom Hardy is currently achieving in modern film.

Miller’s Crossing-1990

Miller’s Crossing-1990

Director-Joel Coen

Starring-Ethan Coen, Gabriel Byrne

Scott’s Review #394

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Reviewed April 13, 2016

Grade: B+

Containing a mixture of The Godfather Part III, Goodfellas, and The Grifters- ironically all released in the same year-1990- Miller’s Crossing is an old-fashioned gangster film made fresh thanks to the direction of  Joel Coen, who bring a quirky edge to the film, throwing in a blend of film noir, black humor, and edgy characters, that make the films story-line feel fresh and alive in present time, though it has a definite late 1980’s era cinematic look (not a compliment). I could immediately tell in which decade it was made. Miller’s Crossing begins slowly, but during the second act gains steam and is the best part of the film.

The film is set somewhere in New York during the 1920’s Prohibition period- it is assumed New York City, but this is never stated. The general story involves Tom Reagan, a handsome Irish gangster, and right hand man of Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), who becomes involved in conflict with Leo, his lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), and her brother Bernie (John Turturro), who is wanted dead by rival Italian mobster, Johnny Caspar. Johnny’s right hand man “Dane” comes into play, as does another gangster, Mink, played by Steve Buscemi. Tom changes allegiances and plays one mob boss against the other as a web of deceit, tested loyalty, and murder ensues.

As the first half concluded I was not completely sold on the film. How many times have I seen a gangster film with all the stereotypical elements, the tough-guy shtick, and the contrivances? I was afraid I was watching a retread of similar films. I wondered what the point of the film really was- the relationship between Tom and Leo’s struggle for power and control? A triangle between Tom, Verna, and Leo? I noticed little chemistry among any of them and could not help but wonder if a female presence was required in the film, but really not all that necessary. Regardless, I was quickly bored with the character of Verna. But then the elements of the film started to come together and some rather left of center nuances presented themselves leaving me more engrossed.

A homosexual triangle (almost never seen in traditional, crime/mob films) took shape between Mink, Dane, and Bernie. Certainly all vicious killers, they had no stereotypes often seen in film, which is refreshing. Dane was even arguably the most brutal of all the characters, and the bloodletting was plenty. I found this reveal completely refreshing not to mention unexpected. However, the intricacies of the triangle were left unexplored. They simply bedded each other.

A pivotal scene set in the woods (Miller’s Crossing) is as gorgeous as it is character-driven. Tom must choose between killing Bernie and proving his loyalty to mobsters awaiting, or secretly let him live, fake his death, all in the name of his love of Verna. But will his decision come back to haunt him?  Is Tom, at his core, a good man or a bad man? The calm of the forest mixed with the brutality of the film is perfect. I was reminded of the 1970 Italian masterpiece The Conformist as I viewed this beautiful scene. Tom’s  conflict between good and evil and his earlier premonition of a tumbling hat come into play. His characters conflict reminded me of Michael Corleone in The Godfather films.

Look quickly and you will see Frances McDormand, soon to be a fixture in Coen films, as a slinky, well dressed secretary. We are reminded of great things to come by this then unknown talent.

A nice thing that I always look forward to in Coen films are the quirky, weird, fun, minor characters, and Miller’s Crossing is no different- Johnny Caspar’s overweight wife and son- an Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory lookalike- give comedy to the potentially too dark film. From Bryan to Tic-Tac, to the fat lady with the purse, all give amusing and meaningful turns that give the film a richness with an unusual cast of characters.

Miller’s Crossing proves to be a nice little film once it picks up steam  and the intertwining of stories, characters, and a bit of classic film noir mixed in, makes it a refreshing take on an age old genre of film.

Goodfellas-1990

Goodfellas-1990

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci

Top 100 Films-#89

Scott’s Review #349

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Reviewed January 9, 2016

Grade: A

Director Martin Scorsese adapts Goodfellas, a crime-mob film, from the 1986 non-fiction book written by Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi helped Scorsese write the screenplay. The film is a more matter-of-fact telling than the purely dramatic The Godfather, with more wit and humor thrown in and great editing. Featuring powerful acting by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, it is a classic mob film that is memorable and can be enjoyed via repeated viewings.  Largely ad-libbed, the film is rich in good dialogue and holds the distinction of containing one of the highest totals of curse words in film history.

The film is told from the first person narrative of the lead character, Henry Hill. Henry, now in the Witness Protection Program, recounts his years affiliated with the mob, spanning the years 1955-1980. We meet Henry as a youngster in Brooklyn, New York, half-Italian, half-Sicilian, he idolizes the “wise guys” on the streets and has every intention of one day joining their ranks. From there, the film describes the trials and tribulations of Henry’s group of miscreants. Henry meets and falls in love with Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and their tumultuous love story is explored, through tender moments and affairs.

What I love most about Goodfellas is the love of the characters and the sense that you are part of the action. The film is really a highly stylized family drama- gritty nonetheless, but the viewer feels like they are part of things and a member of the family- milestones are celebrated and meals are shared. We see Henry grow from a teenaged gullible boy- idolizing the neighborhood men, to actually being part of the group. The other characters, such as vicious and volatile Tommy DeVito (Pesci) and Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (De Niro), age and mature.

Bracco’s character is an interesting one- she, unlike most of the female characters in The Godfather films, is not content to merely sit on the sidelines and look past her husbands shenanigans and torrid affairs with floozies. She is a more modern, determined woman and Bracco plays her with intelligent and a calm demeanor. She wants to be Henry’s equal instead of just some trophy wife.

Pesci, who deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, is brutal and filthy, but so mesmerizing a character. During a memorable scene, his character of Tommy jokingly teases Henry, but when Henry responds in a way that displeases Tommy, the scene grows tense and Tommy becomes increasingly disturbing. His famous line “What am I a clown- do I amuse you?” is both clever and haunting in its repercussions.

I adore the soundtrack that Scorsese chooses for the film- spanning decades, he chooses songs true to the times such as “Layla” (1970) or “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” (1964) are just perfect. Worth noting is when a scene plays, sometimes the song is mixed in with the narrative so that it actually enhances the scene altogether- becoming a part of it rather than simply background music.

If one is looking for the perfect mob film, that contains music, wit, charm, and fantastic writing, Goodfellas is among the best that there is. My preference is for The Godfather and The Godfather II, but while Goodfellas has similarities to these films it is also completely different and stands on its own merits.

Sexy Beast-2001

Sexy Beast-2001

Director-Jonathan Glazer

Starring-Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley

Scott’s Review #286

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Reviewed November 13, 2015

Grade: B+

Sexy Beast is an interesting little indie gem that has garnered quite  a cult following, deservedly so,  since the year of its release- 2001 and that I have recently viewed for the first time. In large part, the film belongs to Ben Kingsley as he gives a bravura, and frightening,  performance as a crime lord attempting to convince a retired hit man, now sworn to the straight and narrow, to resurrect his career for one last heist. The other principle characters are wonderful in their own right, as the film successfully mixes elements of Quentin Tarantino with Ocean’s Eleven- bank heist meets quirkiness, with smart and witty dialogue sprinkled in.

Gary Dove is happily retired and living a life of contentment with his ex-porn star wife, Deedee, and best friends Aitch and Jackie.  Having all been involved in “the biz”, they are long since removed from their respective careers. They now enjoy evening parties of wine and martinis, and days relaxing by the pool in their Spanish villas.  One day, a former criminal associate, Don Logan (Kingsley), who is also a sociopath, arrives to disrupt their peaceful lives and coordinate a bank heist in London, in hopes of luring Gary into the game once again.

As Gary and company nervously decide to decline Don Logan’s offer to participate in his sinister plan, a wonderful and important scene occurs early in the film. The quartet sits around the dinner table at a swanky Spanish restaurant anticipating a scrumptious meal. Jackie reveals the news that Don has contacted her and the tone of the scene immediately changes to one of dread. It is evident that all of them both fear and despise Logan. They agonize over this sudden disruption to their lives and we, the audience, fear Don Logan before he ever appears on-screen. What fantastic story-telling.

Kingsley portrays a menacing character and brilliantly so. The character contains a frightening brutality bubbling beneath his normally calm demeanor, that it makes the viewer shudder when he appears on-screen. Lest we forget, Ian McShane also gives a nuanced performance as Teddy Bass, Logan’s right-hand man, and wise business man. The cat and mouse scene towards the end as Teddy and Gary have an important discussion in a car is both chilling and important to the plot of the film. As Teddy slowly figures out certain events I was left intensely anticipating his reactions.

The film introduces  an intriguing  sub-plot involving Don’s long ago fling with Jackie and subsequent love for her which adds layers to the plot and the dynamic and tension between Don and Gary.

Upon finishing the film, I loved the effect of foreshadowing that the film contains. I found myself rewinding the events in my mind, pleasurably so.  From the pool, to the young Hispanic kid, to the thunderous boulder- all of these elements were crucial to the conclusion and fit like a puzzle.

A dark comedy of sorts, I chuckled at the conclusion of the film as the final reveal involving a double-heart insignia and a pool that gives comeuppance to the villain and pleases the viewer.

Having alluded viewing Sexy Beast over the years, I am glad that I finally found the time to witness a darkly comical gem that, admittedly, may take repeated viewings to absorb and therefore fully “get”, and I look forward to doing just that.

Point Blank-1967

Point Blank-1967

Director-John Boorman

Starring-Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson

Scott’s Review #263

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Reviewed August 8, 2015

Grade: B+

Directed by John Boorman, (later made famous for the masterpiece Deliverance in 1974), and based on the novel The Hunter, by Donald E. Westlake, Point Blank is a tense crime drama starring Lee Marvin as a man seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. A criminal himself, and involved in the mob world of deals and drugs, he is double-crossed by his partner, who takes off with his wife. A rather obscure film, Point Blank, made in 1967, features obvious influences to classics it preceded (The Getaway, Chinatown, The French Connection, and Dirty Harry immediately spring to mind) and contains some dynamic camera work and art direction. In its day it must have been quite a groundbreaking film.

The film begins in a muddled, confusing way and catches the viewer off guard. We know nothing about any of the characters, who are suddenly introduced via flashbacks, interlaced with present and future scenes, so that immediately chaos and tension fills the story. We know that someone has stabbed someone in the back, but we do not know why or who the players are. The film is set partially at the deserted Alcatraz island (the meeting point for a money drop we later learn) and then moves to Los Angeles. Early on we realize that Marvin’s character (Walker) has been tricked, shot, and left for dead by his partner Mal (John Vernon), who takes off with Walker’s share of cash…and his troubled wife Lynne.

Hell-bent on seeking revenge (and his money) on Mal and his wife (Lynne), he attempts to track the duo down using any means necessary, leading to the introduction of pivotal and mysterious characters such as Lynne’s sister Chris (played by Angie Dickinson), and Crime Organization leaders Carter and Brewster (played by Lloyd Bochner and Carroll O’Connor, respectively).

With little blood or covert violence, the film instead uses tense action scenes, a great style, and is told in a non-linear way. One favorite scene involves Walker taking a new car for a test drive as a way of interrogating the salesman for information. As he terrorizes the salesman he repeatedly slams the car into a pole using the cars reverse and drive gears, increasing in intensity with each attempt by the salesman to avoid answering Walker’s questions.

Two other scenes that stand out to me and deserve mention are as follows- when a naked villain is non-chalantly tossed from a penthouse apartment to his death on the street and subsequently becomes wedges under a passing car the scene is as much startling as is well shot especially considering the year was only 1967. In another scene, Lynne is at the beauty salon having her makeup and hair done by a stylist. Her face is captured in the mirror and the camera allows the viewer to see a dozen or so images of the mirror layered on top of one another. This looks great, inventive, and is a good example of some superlative camera shots that occur throughout the film.

A few interesting tidbits that I pondered following the film. Was the elevator scene containing Angie Dickinson (almost meaningless to Point Blank) the inspiration for the very famous elevator scene from 1980’s Dressed to Kill? Only Dressed to Kill’s director, Brian De Palma, would know the answer to that question. How interesting to see Carroll O’Connor (later universally famous for portraying TV’s “Archie Bunker”) as a crime lord. Even though Point Blank was made before All in the Family premiered, it was tough to find him believable in this role. Finally, I loved the scenes set high atop Los Angeles, in a gorgeous high-rise apartment- the sophisticated living room furniture arrangement and colors are great visual treats.

Taut, intense, and interesting, though admittedly a plot not always made crystal clear nor easy to follow, the film came along at a time in film when edgier, more experimental films were beginning to be released, which makes Point Blank a groundbreaking and influential film that undoubtedly helped bring about other crime dramas to follow.

A Most Violent Year-2014

A Most Violent Year-2014

Director-J.C. Chandor

Starring-Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #239

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Reviewed May 1, 2015

Grade: B

Taking place in New York City, throughout the notoriously violent year of 1981 and clearly influenced, at least in part, by The Godfather and, in my opinion, similar in texture to the elite HBO series The Sopranos, A Most Violent Year is an attempt at weaving a tale of a “good guy” mixed up with the mafia and attempting to remain upstanding throughout the adversity and corruption that he encounters.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain portray Abel and Anna Morales, who own Standard Oil, an upstart business that they are attempting to successfully launch. Due to the violent nature of the times, several trucks are hijacked, resulting in robberies and severe beatings. In desperate need of funds to expand their business and stay ahead of competitors, Abel and Anna are forced to take out loans, leading them into a world where crime and violence run rampant. In the midst of all of this, they are under investigation for apparent price fixing and tax evasion activity by the Assistant District Attorney.

The main theme to this film is the conflict and guilt that Abel feels towards violence and the constant temptation to join the ranks of the crime world to protect his business ventures. Abel faces pressure from Anna, who herself has mob ties (her father is an influential mafia boss known around town) and is all for fighting fire with fire. Abel refuses and is determined to lead a straight and narrow life. When circumstances spin out of control, his morals are questioned.

A Most Violent Year is an interesting film yet I think I was expecting a bit more than I was given. For starters, it certainly is not in the same league as the aforementioned works of art that I compared it to. It is tough to put my finger what exactly is the issue, but there is a certain quality that is missing from the film making it lack a compelling edge. The plot moves slowly, for sure, but the film is successful as the character study that it is, however, I was left wanting more depth to the characters and a broader vision to the film itself. I did not find myself truly vested in either characters of Abel or Anna.

Chastain received heaps of praise for her performance, which I found to be adequate, but hardly a marvel. Nominated for several awards, but deemed “snubbed” for not receiving an Oscar nomination, I find this to be untrue. Her performance is not brilliant and, in fact, Oscar Isaac’s is superior.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy the film overall. It takes some risks, has a rich character complexity, and is shot very well, and looks great. It has a smooth look and I completely bought the 1981 time period, rather than it appearing to be dressed up for the era. There is certainly an authenticity to it.

A mob film not on the level of The Godfather or Goodfellas, A Most Violent Year is a decent contribution to the crime-thriller era. It just does not live up to the critical acclaim heaped upon it.

Once Upon a Time in America-1984

Once Upon a Time in America-1984

Director-Sergio Leone

Starring-Robert De Niro, James Woods

Scott’s Review #218

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Reviewed January 19, 2015

Grade: A

An epic film, the extended directors cut at more than four hours in length, 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America is a film directed by Sergio Leone, who also directed the 1968 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West and numerous other westerns starring Clint Eastwood. This particular film is in a different vein and not to be confused as any sort of sequel or related to the aforementioned film- this time Leone explores the crime drama genre rather than the western and does so in remarkable fashion.

The film tells the story of a group of Jewish friends who become involved in organized crime during the 1920’s in New York City. The main story is told via flashbacks as the central character, Noodles, played by Robert De Niro, returns to Brooklyn thirty years later to reunite with his former mobster friends. In this way the film is sectioned- the group of youngsters and kids and the same characters as adults.

Once Upon a Time in America has been met with much controversy since it was made. At the time of its release the film was butchered as over an hour of footage was cut by the studio heads making the film largely uneven. Fortunately, the restored version, at over three hours in length, is available for viewing. Furthermorethe directors cut clocks in at well over four hours and is the best version to watch. Due to so many cuts, other versions appear shoddy and out of order making the viewing experience difficult.

Once Upon a Time in America is largely underappreciated except for the die-hard cinema lovers most patient with the film, and deserves mention as an excellent crime epic drama. The film contains many similarities to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II and the role De Niro plays is not too different from Vito Corleone in Part II. However, the greatest contrast is that Once Upon a Time in America is more visually artistic than The Godfather films.

The film centers mainly on Noodles perspective as he enjoys youth in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he meets his group of lifelong friends. The focal point is his friendship with Max, the adult character played by James Woods, and his undying love for Deborah, played by Elizabeth McGovern as an adult. As kids they are worry free, but gradually fall in with a group of older mobsters, first doing their dirty work, followed by venturing out on their own.

The themes of the film are loyalty, childhood friendship, betrayal, and greed as all of the characters change (or die) in the time span that the film takes place. When a mysterious letter forces Noodles to resurface in Brooklyn, we begin to understand the back story and the history between the friends as layers are slowly peeled back.

The film drags slightly in the middle section, but the first part and last part are very well made and absorbing. Leone has a way of pacing the film that really works- it is methodical, nuanced, with wonderful set pieces and each period of time explored- 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1960’s seem equally as authentic as the next one does. I especially enjoyed the 1920’s art direction- it revealed such a state of genuineness and felt like truly being there in that time period.

The relationship between Noodles and Deborah is an interesting one worth mentioning. Falling in love as youngsters (when Deborah was played by a very young Jennifer Connelly) they had an innocent, puppy love relationship. As adults, due to a violent, disgraceful act, their tender relationship is subsequently ruined and one might argue one of the characters turns quite unsympathetic.

Once Upon a Time in America is a sprawling epic film sure to be enjoyed by intelligent fans of the crime epic drama genre and specifically Sergio Leone fans- an under appreciated gem.

Eastern Promises-2007

Eastern Promises-2007

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts

Scott’s Review #205

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Reviewed December 15, 2014

Grade: B

Eastern Promises is a 2007 Russian mafia thriller directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence) that stars Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, and Vincent Cassel. The film is an uneven experience, seemingly meshing two stories together- one fascinating, one unnecessary.

Watts plays a British-Russian mid-wife named Anna, who works at a London hospital. She attempts to find the family of Tatiana, a 14 year old girl who dies during childbirth leaving a diary written in Russian along with her newborn. Anna struggles to unravel the mystery surrounding the girl which ends up involving the mafia. Mortensen plays Nikolai, mysterious chauffer to crime lord Semyon, and Cassel plays Kirill, disturbed, alcoholic son of Semyon. The plot segues into a story of a somewhat relationship between Nikolai and Anna that is not quite romantic and also a much more intriguing relationship between Nikolai and Kirill as a brotherhood of sorts develops between them. In fact, this relationship is complex- Kirill wants Nikolai to prove he is a straight male by having sex with one of several female prisoners he and his father keep as part of a sex trafficking group. During this scene, and a few others, the two men seem close, almost too close, given the sexual nature of what is happening during the scene, so this relationship is left vague, but intrigues nonetheless. The latter story holds more interest to me, whereas the former seems contrived and rather uninteresting. Was the intention of the film to imply a romantic interest between Anna and Nikolai? I found zero chemistry between the two and wondered if the audience was supposed to root for them as a couple or not.

The four principal characters in Eastern Promises are interesting to unravel. I found the characters of Nikolai and Kirill complex and interesting. Not so much with the character of Anna. Why did I not find her so compelling? Besides a skimmed over mention of how she lost a baby what vested interest did she have of mixing with the Russian mafia and putting her mother and uncle in harm’s way? Sure, anyone would want to find an orphaned babies family, but why not just call the police? This seems a large plot hole. Conversely, Nikolai is a fascinating, layered character played wonderfully by Mortensen. What are his true motivations? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? His attempts at being accepted by Semyon and the family in order to join the mob family makes him seem dangerous- but his kindness towards one of the Ukraine prostitutes is sweet. Kirill is a despicable character, but what is his sexuality? Does that make him get so drunk and angry? How does one explain his confliction over the baby shifting his character to sympathetic? Ultimately, Nikolai and Kirill are complicated- Anna and Semyon more one note.

I would have preferred the story solely revolve around the mafia family and the Godfather-type scenes, specifically the two throat slashing scenes violently done, and perhaps leave out Watts’s character and story altogether.

A gritty scene that takes place in a steam room pits Nikolai against two rival mafia men. The scene is long and intense. Mortensen performs the scene completely naked, which adds to the rawness and the brutality of the fight. It is one of the most masculine scenes I can remember watching.

At times compelling, but riddled with plot holes and requiring some suspension of disbelief, Eastern Promises is an entertaining Russian mafia film that is a decent watch.

The Godfather: Part II-1974

The Godfather: Part II-1974

Director-Frances Ford Coppola

Starring-Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro

Top 100 Films-#3

Scott’s Review #197

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Reviewed: November 25, 2014

Grade: A

Frances Ford Coppola’s sequel (and technically also a prequel) to the highly regarded and successful The Godfather is one of the rare sequels to equal and even surpass the original in its greatness, creativity and structure. The Godfather Part II feels deeper, more complex, and ultimately richer than The Godfather- and that film itself is a masterpiece. Part II is much darker in tone. Ford Coppola had complete freedom to write and direct as he saw fit with no studio interference. The results are immeasurable in creating a film masterpiece.

The film is sectioned into two parts, which is a highly interesting and effective decision. The story alternates between the early twentieth century following Don Corleone’s life, now played by Robert DeNiro, as his story is explained- left without a family and on the run from a crime lord, Don escapes to the United States as a young boy and struggles to survive in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City. He obtains a modest job as a grocery stock boy and finally celebrates his eventual rise to power in the mafia. The other part of the film is set in 1958 as Michael Corleone is faced with a crumbling empire, through both rivals and the FBI- investigating him and holding Senate committee hearings in Washington D.C., and a failing marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton). Betrayal is a common theme of the film from Michael’s wife, brother, and mobster allies revealed to be cagey enemies. Michael grows uncertain and mistrustful of almost everyone surrounding him. Is Kay a friend or foe? Is Fredo plotting against him? He even begins lashing out at Tom Hagen on occasion.
What makes The Godfather Part II so brilliant, and in my opinion richer than The Godfather, is that it is tougher to watch- and that is to its credit. Now, instead of being a warm, respected member of a powerful family, Michael is questioned, analyzed, and betrayed. New, interesting characters are introduced- Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasburg, a former ally of Don’s, and Frankie Pentangeli, played by Michael V. Gazzo are intriguing characters and their allegiances are unknown throughout most of the film- are they loyal to the Corleone’s or deadly enemies?

The character of Michael goes from conflicted to all-out revenge minded, including revenge sought on members of his own family. Michael is now a dark, angry character- gone is the nice, decorated war hero with his whole life ahead of him. He is much older and a changed man. Similar to the original Godfather, the opening scene is a large celebration- this time of Anthony Corleone’s first communion celebration. Also in comparison, the finale of the film involves major character deaths one after the other.

Unique to this film are the multiple location scenes- New York, Nevada, Italy, Florida, and Cuba are all featured making for an enjoyable segue throughout and a bigger budget. The blow-up confrontation between Michael and Kay is devastating and shocking in its climax. When Michael punches Kay in a sudden rage, the audience also feels punched. The wonderful scene at the end of the film with the entire family gathered around for Don’s fiftieth birthday in 1942 is a special treat for viewers; familiar faces make cameo appearances. I love these aspects of the film.

The rich history of Don is the greatest aspect of The Godfather Part II as simply known as “Godfather” and patriarch of the family, his life as a boy and young father are explained so we see how he became one of the most powerful men in the crime world. I love how he remains a decent man and helps the poor and the victims of ruthless Don Fanucci, his predecessor. He loves his wife and children, but also loves his neighbors, and helps them, believing in fairness. Ultimately, the characters of Don and Michael are worlds apart.

The Godfather Part II is one of the most complex and well-written films in movie history- studied in film school, discussed, imitated, and championed. It remains vital and should be viewed and analyzed again and again and again.

The Godfather-1972

The Godfather-1972

Director-Frances Ford Coppola

Starring-Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan

Top 100 Films-#10

Scott’s Review #196

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Reviewed November 24, 2014

Grade: A

The Godfather is one of the most identifiable and brilliant film masterpieces of all time. It is so ingrained in pop-culture and film history and was such a blueprint of 1970’s cinema that its legend deservedly lives on. The film has not aged poorly nor been soured by over-exposure. It is as much a marvel today as it must have been when originally released in theaters in 1972.

The film revolves around the Corleone family- a mob family living in New York. They are high powered, wealthy, and influential with politicians and law enforcement alike. They are the cream of the crop of the organized crime families. The patriarch of the family is known as “The Godfather”, real name Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. The eldest son is hot-headed Sonny, played by James Caan. Middle son Fredo, played by John Cazale, is dim-witted and immature and clearly the weak link of the family. Finally, the youngest son is the central character in the film. Michael, played by a very youthful Al Pacino, has just returned home from World War II, a decorated and Ivy League educated hero. Throughout the film Michael wrestles with either steering the Corleone family business towards the straight and narrow or continuing the death, blood, and corruption that currently encompasses the family. Rounding out the Corleone family is Tom Hagen, an Irish surrogate son of sorts, who serves as the family attorney. Connie- the temperamental and emotional sister, and Mama Corleone, the passive wife of Don’s complete the main family. The various supporting characters are immense, from family friends, relatives, corrupt mob figures, and characters introduced when Michael lives in Italy.

The brilliance of The Godfather is clearly the richness of the enormous amount of characters on the canvas and the structure and pacing of the film. Even small characters are vital to the film and every scene is important and effortlessly paced so that they neither seem rushed nor drag, and the film is immeasurably character driven. My favorite character is Michael Corleone as he is the most troubled and complex. Pacino plays him to the hilt as, initially, a nice guy trying to do the right thing, going against the grain, and non-traditional- he proposes to a waspy woman who has no Italian heritage. When events develop in a particular way, Michael suddenly becomes the leader of the family, despite being the youngest son, and the complexities of the character deepen from this point. Specifically, the revenge killing sequence is brilliant as the viewer is kept on the edge of their seat through a car ride, a meal in a restaurant, a men’s room scene, until finally, all hell breaks loose, all the while Michael is conflicted, unsure, and intense. Has he veered too far from being a nice guy? Can he salvage the family business without being ruthless? Michael faces a battle of good vs. evil. The scenes are brilliantly structured- the grand opening scene alone is beautiful as the audience is introduced to the entire family- cheerfully dancing and frolicking during a bright and sunny outdoor wedding (Connie’s) at the Corleone estate, while inside a dark interior study, a man begs Don Corleone to help avenge his raped and beaten daughter by having her attackers killed. Several scenes in The Godfather are my personal favorites- the aforementioned restaurant scene, where Michael is faced with a dilemma involving a corrupt policeman and a high powered figure, one can feel the tension in this extended scene. The scene in a Hollywood mansion where poor, innocent, horse Khartoum meets his fate in the most gruesome way imaginable. Later, Michael’s beautiful Italian wife, Apollonia, has an explosive send-off. Towards the end of the film, the improvised tomato garden scene with an elderly Don Corleone playing with his young grandson. Finally, the brutal scene involving Corleone son Sonny at the toll booth is mesmerizing, brutal, and flawlessly executed.

The lack of any strong female characters and the way in which women are treated (either beaten or passively following their husbands) is bothersome, but unfortunately, circa 1940’s mafia, this is the way things were. One could make the argument that Kay Adams, played by Diane Keaton, is the strongest female character as she questions the Corleone family’s motives and attempts to keep Michael honest and trustworthy. She has little in common with the other female characters. Lines such as “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “Don’t forget the cannolis” are unforgettable and quote-worthy.

The finale of the film is breathtaking- a combination of bloody kills mixed in with a peaceful scene of Michael accepting the honor of becoming his nephew’s godfather. As he pledges his devotion to God and denounces Satan, the murders he orchestrated are simultaneously being executed. The character, while complex, suddenly becomes a hypocrite. Some view Michael as strictly a hero whose choices should not be questioned or analyzed- other’s view Michael as not a hero, but rather a complex, tortured, bad guy. One simply must watch The Godfather and The Godfather Part II as companion pieces, as Part I is slightly more straightforward and easier to follow than the more complex and layered sequel.

The Godfather is storytelling and film making at its absolute best and continues to influence films to this day.

Scarface-1983

Scarface-1983

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Al Pacino

Scott’s Review #191

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Reviewed November 13, 2014

Grade: B

Scarface is a 1983 mob film directed by Brian De Palma and is certainly an atypical film for the acclaimed director of several stylistic thrillers such as Dressed to Kill, Sisters, and Carrie. In this film, the subject matter centers on the mob and the world of drug trafficking, in this case cocaine, a very popular, powerful drug that ran rampant throughout the 1980’s. Jealousy, greed, and deceit are common characteristics of Scarface and the story focuses on a temperamental, cocky, and arrogant Cuban refuge sent to Miami by Fidel Castro, as a way of banishing criminals from Cuba and shipping them off to the United States to survive on their own.

Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, goes from dishwasher to crime lord by selling drugs and creating an empire for himself. He manipulates, tricks, and makes enemies left and right including stealing his boss’s girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer) and eventually falling into a troubled marriage with her. He loves his financially struggling mother and sister, giving them money and opening a salon for his sister, but he also controls them, especially his sister, and is filled with rage whenever she attracts the affections of a potential suitor. In his mind nobody is good enough for her and he is filled with machismo and over-protectiveness. Tony eventually self-destructs due to jealousy, rage, and heavy drug use. I found the film overall quite compelling but kept thinking to myself how much it resembles a lite version of The Godfather I or II and Goodfellas. I am fully aware that Scarface preceded Goodfellas, but seeing it for the first time in 2014 this was my initial reaction. I was also kept aware of the fact that it must have been influential in the creation of the popular NBC television series Miami Vice, which debuted a year or two after Scarface was released. Similarities such as crime lords, Miami Beach, and drugs mirrored the slick feel of the hit television drama as well as the look, style, and fashions.

The performance of Al Pacino is problematic- in my view this is not at all his best work. For starters his accent keeps going in and out and I found him slightly unbelievable in the role. A phenomenal actor, something with his performance did not sit well. The musical score to the film is terribly cheesy- almost shockingly so. Granted this was 1983, but the silly dance beats sporadic throughout now seem completely dated.

Parts of Scarface dragged a bit, however a sudden dramatic scene (the dismembering of Tony’s friend by mobsters and Tony’s meltdown in a fancy restaurant) more than make up for the occasional lags in drama. Scarface is certainly not on the level of other contemporary violent mob films, but for fans of the genre, it will be enjoyed.