Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Essentials- "Goodfellas" (1990)

The Essentials-#51

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."

What is it about the gangster film that keeps us coming back for more? Is it to learn a moral lesson about good and evil and how crime does not pay? Is it because they have assembled themselves into our culture after many years of people believing that they were for the people? Is their lavish lifestyles and careless attitudes that most people shy away from? Do their stories take us on a thrill ride of crime, action, drama and sometimes humor? Whatever the reason, the gangster movie is apart of the American identity, as strong as the western genre. The American outlaw is here to stay, not going anywhere anytime soon. I like gangster films because of all the reasons I listed above, while I have often daydreamed of being a gangster, I always knew that it was a dead-end future, and I learned the value of life through these stories.

Many film lovers will call "The Godfather" the best gangster movie of all time. While I love all of "The Godfather" movies very much, the biggest complaint about the beloved trilogy is that it is romanticized quite a bit. There is no way Michael Corleone could have asserted his power for that long, and avoided the authorities like he does in those movies. Its okay though, sometimes we need an unrealistic escape in the form of cinema. What always drew me to "Goodfellas" was that it featured everything I loved about "The Godather" but there was a realistic zing to the story and characters. After all it was somewhat based on a true story. It was also directed by Martin Scorsese, who grew up in poor New York and watched a lot of gangster work go down from his front porch. Scorsese soaked up movies and gangsters the same way Michael Jordan soaked up basketball, and the result was a director who made some of the very best crime movies in history.

The film's opening very much highlights just how edgy life in organized crime really was. After a fast-paced opening credits scene, we see a groovy car moving down the interstate. We focus on three gangsters in a car, minding their own business, clearly tired. Then we begin to hear bumps from the car, and it rattles the three gangsters. Did the driver hit an animal? Did the driver receive a flat tire? The men pull over to see what happened. Immediately, there is something off about where the men pulled over; deep in the woods, far from the road. We soon realize that the bumping is coming from the trunk. Once we see the men open the trunk, we see a bloodied man in there, choking on his own blood. Two of the three men from the car brutally murder the man in the trunk. The scene is more vicious and more visceral than anything we saw in any gangster movie before. We knew we were watching something new.

"Goodfellas" outlines several decades of history within the Italian Mafia in New York City. We look through the eyes of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and we see how he was eager to become a gangster. We see how he relished the lifestyle. Then we see his fall from grace which led to him ratting out his friends in order to avoid jail time. Martin Scorsese always said that the best gangsters movies were like watching the rise and fall of a king, and its hard to ignore the parallels of his quote. 

The films three main stars were Robert De Niro; who played Jimmy Conway, Joe Pesci; who plays Tommy DeVito and Liotta as Hill. These three actors have always been the go-to guys for playing gangsters, something that hasn't changed in awhile. "Goodfellas" proves why this trio is so good at what they do. "Goodfellas" features the best work by each of these actors. None of the three leads were ever this alive in their other films, this energized by what Scorsese has given them to do. But it should be known that Ray Liotta is the rock of this movie, and he takes full advantage of the role. Like most Scorsese movies, the film is littered with memorable performances. Paul Sorvino's work as Paul Cicero is electrifying. He may not talk much through the film, but Sorvino creates a character based on looks, mannerisms and snares, its truly quite amazing.

Even though Martin Scorsese's gangster movies have revolved around a world of men, he has always written strong women in his gangster movies. The wives and girlfriends of all the gangsters throughout this movie are just as great as the gangsters. The actress who steals the show is easily Lorraine Bracco who plays Karen Hill; Henry's wife and partial narrator through the film. Bracco was given the most to do out of any actress in this film and she absolutely crushes it. Much like Henry Hill's character, Bracco's Karen goes through several transitions throughout the film and she handled them all well.

"Goodfellas" features some of the best editing in any of Scorsese's movies ever, thanks to Thelma Schoonmaker. The cinematography by Michael Ballhaus is absolutely exquisite. I also love how Martin Scorsese uses music to highlight metaphors and themes in his movie. As the film spans its decades, Scorsese plays tunes that were popular during that time. I also love how something upbeat plays during the early years, when everything was going good for Henry. Then as we move closer to the 1990's, he plays more heavy music to highlight Henry's struggles. The music is almost a character unto itself, and is a huge highlight of the movie.

"Goodfellas" is my favorite gangster movie of all time and you should check it out soon.

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