92: Goodfellas

pigeonGoodfellas, 1990

From Jon:

I would love to figure out a way to calculate the exact amount of people it takes to tell me, “you have to see this movie,” or, “you have to read this book,” or, “you have to go on this ride,” before I have absolutely no chance of actually liking that movie, or book, or ride. I know it exists, that tipping point where an enthusiastic suggestion raises my expectations to a point that no form of entertainment can reach or makes me want to hate the experience more than like it. Imagine how valuable it would be to know the exact comment that is going to ruin an entertainment experience for you. You could stop people from changing your disposition from, “I’d love to see that,” to “I want to hate this movie just because everyone won’t shut up about it.”  Whatever the number may be, I’m sure I reached that tipping point with Goodfellas five or 10 years ago. Is there anyone who finally sees a ICBYNS movie and actually enjoys it? I guess what I’m building up to saying is, in my mind, I was totally validated going the last 26 years without seeing Goodfellas.

Part of the problem of seeing an iconic (I use that term begrudgingly, but unfortunately I can’t deny the public zeitgeist) movie 20 years after it grabs the world’s attention is that, if you’re paying attention to pop culture at all, you have already seen large portions of the movie without having ever seen the movie.  I ran into this problem with The Godfather and Casablanca, and I imagine I’ll run into it again with The Shining. When a movie has been parodied and alluded to and ripped off a million times it becomes part of the pop culture conscience and you can’t help but avoid it.  I watched Animaniacs. I worshipped Swingers. I knew Goodfellas without seeing Goodfellas and it really isn’t the type of movie that can overcome that. I’ll never know what my response to the movie would have been without this influence, but I see why The Godfather is considered one of the greatest movies ever made, I get why Casablanca is one of the most quoted movies ever, I realize it’s blasphamey, but I don’t get the appeal of Goodfellas.

I feel like I’m missing something by being so critical of Martin Scorsese. He obviously knows a lot more about film than me, and people who know a lot about film love this movie, but I couldn’t click with what he was doing here. I found it very hard to take the movie seriously. Every character seemed to be a silly over-the-top caricature. Scorsese seemed to be making a serious portrayal of the gangster life but populated it with a bunch of ridiculous characters. Some might try to argue that they aren’t caricatures, but I would point to The Godfather movies or The Sopranos which were both able to take Italian gangster stereotypes and not make the characters seem silly. I also hated the voice overs, granted that could be in part because of my love of “The Goodfeathers” which spoofed that device to perfection. Jenny pointed out part way through the movie that it has no plot; it’s all about telling us how it was without telling us an actual story. The plot diagram that we all learn about in school is nowhere to be found, with the resolution coming so abruptly there is no sense of tension or fear for what the characters are going through.

I can’t help but feel that this movie is more in line with Scarface than The Godfather. This movie is about image and lifestyle. The people who love this movie like the way it glorifies the gangster lifestyle. That doesn’t make it a great movie.  Scarface is not on the AFI Top 100 list, yet every college dorm has at least one Scarface poster.  I really find it hard to argue that Goodfellas is that much different. There is an aspect of movie making that relies on the cool factor, but there needs to be other components there as well.  Goodfellas is full of cool, but has no plot or story or likable characters or a dozen other things a great movie needs. I can’t help but think that this movie will gone from the next AFI list that comes out.

On a side note, I couldn’t help but think of The Wolf of Wall Street as I was watching Goodfellas and how that movie was all about image and excess and then I realized it’s the same movie. Why didn’t more people mention this when The Wolf of Wall Street came out? Scorsese just remade Goodfellas in an updated setting. They are both about a criminal who steals money from people to live a life of excess. The main characters get wrapped up in money and drugs and womanizing. It even ends with them failing to feel any remorse for the life they lived. That’s more of a comment on The Wolf of Wall Street being a total rip off than Goodfellas not being a great movie, but I guess you can’t really rip off your own movie. What bothers me more is that in both instances I feel like Scorsese set up the characters to be tragic heroes but they both lack the self-awareness and self-realization of fault that comes with the tragic hero’s downfall. In my eyes, this is a major flaw in both films.

I give Goodfellas one out of five bowls of pistachio gelato. Other people keep telling me I have to try it but gelato just isn’t my thing.

From Jenny:

I really don’t have much to say about this movie other than I disagree with every accolade it’s ever received.  I saw it years ago, probably in college, and after becoming a huge fan of The Godfather movies, I thought Goodfellas would be an easy movie for me to enjoy. Wrong.


The structure of the movie starts out fine– a story is going to be told, I’m in– as far back as he can remember, Henry Hill wanted to be a gangster. The music and the scenes from his childhood totally drew me in. His family life being so different from what he wanted– what he put up on a pedestal, his icons, gangsters in 1950s New York. Henry’s transformation from spunky promising kid, being taken under Paulie’s wing to become a successful and deeply entrenched mobster happened quickly.

Where the movie goes awry for me is that the early days end quickly, and the parts of the movie that cover 1967 to when he gets out of jail in 1978 are awful. The guys hanging out at the Copacabana, living this supposedly glamorous criminal life– but way less classy than anything ever portrayed in The Godfather— just got old for me really fast. I feel like the movie is divided into three parts: 1) the early days full of hope while he’s looking up to his icons, something glamorous and promising about that time, then 2) a very long period of Scorsese just showing us that life– for way too long– not so much plot, just more scenes of the guys hijacking trucks, armed robbery, living it up at night, beating the crap out of people, taking what they want– but all of it falls short on my “cool” list- – there is nothing about all of it that is appealing in any way to me; it all just feels so empty, unlike other movies where the criminal activity is portrayed as worth it for all the riches and luxury that comes as a result. 3) The third and worst part of the movie reminds me of when Boogie Nights passed from 1979 to 1980 and all that was exciting and enticing and wild and unraveled into the shitter. (I love that movie, until New Year’s Day, 1980.) By the time Henry Hill gets out of jail in 1978 and begins trafficking drugs, I’m waiting for the movie to end. I am no longer interested in anything left resembling a plot, and he’s so messed up, his life is so messed up, everything is about to break and it’s just a matter of when. Watching the scenes just before he and his wife Karen enter the witness protection program are just awful and the feeling of desperation, dead end, and hopelessness take away any value of the movie for me.  

I think if I were better at this, I might explain that it’s because I was never given any cause to care about any of the characters. In fact, I hated all the characters.  I really have a hard time looking at Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci was so dumb and one-dimensional, and Jon’s influence on me has me realizing that Robert De Niro didn’t really do much for this movie at all, and he does seem to be the same character in many films.  

When we sat down to watch this again, I thought maybe I had been wrong the first time I saw this, and immature comparing it to The Godfather–it’s its own movie, and that was probably the reason I didn’t give it a chance, so I was prepared to do so this time. But I found the whole experience of watching it again taxing. I just wanted it to end, I felt bored or annoyed, or sad imagining that life. The experience of watching Goodfellas is a negative one for me. I don’t really have time to understand why every other human on Earth thinks this is an amazing movie. I don’t really care, and I’m just glad I don’t have to write about it again.

Oh and, like Jon, I will always prefer “The Goodfeathers.”

I give Goodfellas one out of five Drumsticks: looks like a good idea but hollow inside.

Up Next: Sophie’s Choice

Jon says: Good, I’m need something uplifting.

Jenny says: I hope the movie isn’t as long as the book.

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96: Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing, 1989

pizza2

It feels a little weird writing this for a movie that is 25 years old, but just to cover our butts… SPOILER ALERT!!

From Jon:

This week we came across a first in our journey through the AFI’s Top 100 list, a movie that was ranked lower than it should.  Watching Do the Right Thing for the first time in 15 years was an interesting experience.  It was a trip into the past, yet a reflection of the present.  It was an intriguing piece of artistic film and a deeply relevant piece of social commentary.  It kind of boggles my mind that this landmark film is so low on this list, but what is even more astounding is that it wasn’t anywhere to be found on the original 1998 list.  Lord of the Rings (oh man, I can’t wait to write about this film… again) somehow makes it to 50 six years after release but it took almost 20 years for a deeply significant cultural movie to crack 96.  Then I take a second, I remember who makes these lists, and my ire drops a bit.  Not because I’m okay with it, but because it unfortunately makes sense.  What do 80-year-old white guys know about the African-American story?  Why would they hold up and praise a movie special for reasons they worked hard to prevent for decades?

Do the Right Thing was a landmark piece of cinema because it was the first time we got to see the African-American experience from the point of view of an African-American.  The movie was written, directed and produced by an African-American.  It starred African-Americans.  The score and soundtrack were all African-American musicians playing music that is interracial to African-American culture.  The central point of the movie was to take on race issues… from the point of African-Americans.  This wasn’t Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night, both significant movies dealing with important and serious race issues, but written, directed, produced by white guys.  This wasn’t Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song either, it wasn’t about the scary angry black man and the seedy world he inhabits, it was a story about a normal African-American neighborhood.  Spike Lee accomplished something that had not been done before and was extremely successful in the process.  He paved the way for movies like Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City and Menace II Society.  Yes, they told very different stories, but they were African-American stories told by African-Americans.  Thanks to Spike Lee, big studios were finally giving them the chance to tell their own stories.

I also feel Do the Right Thing helped pave the way for the independent film movement that flourished in the 90’s.  Yes, I know, it wasn’t actually an independent film, but ask an average person and they will guess that it was.  It was basically an independent film that Universal just distributed.  Spike Lee created a piece of art that was his on every level.  He wrote, directed and starred, he had his father write and perform the score, he casted all his friends.  This was the mentality that independent film was centered around and even though it wasn’t an independent film, it showed film audiences that this style film could be both entertaining and thought provoking.  I find it hard to believe that movies like Pulp Fiction or Clerks or Swingers would have been as popular and recognized if it wasn’t for Lee.

The last point I feel I need to make about this movie has to do with its ending.  I don’t want to spoil it, but it was hard to sit and watch this movie and not think of the race issues that have been all over the news of late.  I find it both interesting and disturbing that a movie 25 years old can present a scenario that is taking up major time in current new cycles.  Lee tried to shine a light on inner city issues and, with all the acclaim and notoriety the movie got, nobody really paid attention.

Do the Right Thing is a great movie.  It needs to be much higher on this list because there are very few more important films that have been made and probably none more important in the last 30 years.  While the styles and settings scream late 80’s early 90’s, the story and the message are at timeless as can be expected.  The acting is spot on.  The cinematography tells as much of the story as the dialogue.  It has everything a movie needs to be considered great.  Add in its historical significance and it should be one of the Top 20 movies of all time.

I give Do the Right Thing 5 out of 5 bowls of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.  It took a while before someone was allowed to put a twist on ice cream, but now we can’t imagine living without it.

From Jenny:

Out of the movies we’ve watched so far on this journey, this has been the most challenging to write about. This is because Do the Right Thing is an important film everyone should see.

 If you saw it in 1989, I’d recommend seeing it again.  It’s not an easy one to watch, and stirs up lots of difficult topics, ones that I tend to shy away from in groups of people larger than two.  Why?  So I don’t say the wrong thing, speak about something when I don’t have all the facts, offend someone, ask a question I’m supposed to know.  All my own fears.    But I don’t feel hopeless after watching it.  I feel disturbed, appropriately so, but I also feel awakened, and maybe that part of writing this blog is me finally starting to say how I feel about things I’ve don’t often discuss.

 Spike Lee picked the hottest day of the year as the backdrop for four racial groups, trying to live in one neighborhood. They ignore each other, interact, clash, try to understand each other, but clash again, throw up their hands, and collide in total violent chaos.  Depending on who “you” are, it may cause you to feel everything on the spectrum from uneasy, to angry, to conflicted, wronged, validated. And in doing so, it will make you think, and maybe discuss. But I also found myself feeling weirdly comfortable about the setting.  I began to think of it as a play, with a few scene changes:  the neighborhood, including the brownstone stoops, the sidewalks, the red wall where “The Corner Men” hang out, the pizzeria, and the inside of Mookie’s and of Tina’s apartments. I don’t know Brooklyn. I’ve been there enough times to know how to get there.  I’m white, living in middle class CT.  I don’t really have a neighborhood.  The way Spike Lee portrayed the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood was just over the line into happy and comfortable…kind of like in the first season of LOST.  There was a brief time (and I mean brief) where everything seemed ok– I’m talking early on, like the 2nd part of the Pilot. In fact, the song I’m thinking of is “Wash Away” by Joe Purdy.  You could feel the fact that some awful things were going to happen in the near future.

 I found myself struck hard by many things in this film.  The anger. The fact that no one let up– no one offered anyone any mercy, ever.  I sometimes find myself in situations where there’s a clear choice to exacerbate something, or keep quiet / try to assuage a person or keep an event from exploding.  I feel compelled to dive into sentence fragment mode now as I tell you what I kept thinking about:

 The kindness and cluelessness and sensitivity and ignorance and misdirection of Sal.

The gentle nature, the care for people, the steady calculating anger of Mookie.

The reasonableness, the wanting peace of Jade.

The unyielding and unrelenting, one track perseverance of Buggin Out.

The fact that Vito could have been saved, convinced.

The symbolic act of justice performed by Smiley at the end.

The title alone.

 Does Do the Right Thing “hold up” to the test of time?  Yes.  Despite the off-putting opening several minutes of Rosie Perez dancing, the late 80s styles, the fact that Radio Raheem carried a boom box the size of my car, and no one had their necks bowed into their smartphones, (something I think about A LOT, feeling unable to grasp this change in our culture), so people still looked each other in the eye when they spoke. The fact of the matter is, I don’t think enough has changed since this movie was made.  I was afraid of coming to that conclusion even before I watched it.  What I didn’t consider was the timing of when Jon and I sat down to watch this movie, December 5th, 2014.  While thousands of people in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. marched in protest after the Staten Island grand jury decided to not indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death this past July.  As I sat there, watching the two cops on the screen choke Radio Raheem to death in front of the entire screaming, raging neighborhood, I felt sick and full of tears.  I wanted the movie to be fiction, but it wasn’t, it isn’t.

 I’m not sure what to do after seeing this movie.  It makes me profoundly aware of the fact that I have no answers. It makes me love and fear people.  It makes me make that face that causes people to ask if I’m mad (it’s called thinking, thanks). I guess there isn’t exactly something for me to do, at least tonight, but it’s caused me to look deeper into what’s going on in the world I don’t want to think about, and make connections.  There’s nothing so sad as seeing a person try in vain to reach out to another person, but go about it so badly, it causes more anger and resentment.  This movie was full of characters trying to live their lives, take a stand, make trouble, stay out of trouble, love someone, or destroy someone. The conflict and the depth of hatred and misunderstanding ran too deep to be untangled in two hours on screen.  And in under 24 hours in the story, a microcosmic house of cards came down like it was meant to be, like there was no way around it.

 I want to believe it’s cyclical, with a possibility of glacier-like progress towards peace. Mookie and Sal’s exchange in front of the destruction the morning after hinted at “just another day” in a way that almost gives false hope. In my experience, people don’t change willingly due to external forces.  But they do get the crap kicked out of them by external forces. And people get worn down, tired, and closed.

 This has not been my best piece of writing here. I want to say so much more, but I’m constrained by time and responsibilities to wrap it up.  The weight of this movie makes our scoops of ice cream rating system seem foolish.  But, sometimes you gotta stick with the plan.

I give Do the Right Thing four out of five shaved ices in paper cones, any flavor you want.

Up Next: The Last Picture Show

Jon: Black and white means good, right?

Jenny: I have a bad feeling this title is misleading.

98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

MovieCamera1gfhYankee Doodle Dandy, 1942

Jenny:

Ahh. Here we go.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  When the movies start getting…old and we’re all “wow, we’re actually watching all these?”

I love trivia.  Everyone who knows me knows that.  I love being tested on facts, or knowing things that are sort of useless to my life, like what countries border the Caspian Sea, or what the various kinds of peptide bonds are in amino acids, or did you know today in 1859 On the Origin of Species was published?  So fun. So, so fun…  But then there’s like, learning the history of the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and I’m not as excited for some reason.  The film version was written by a man named George M. Cohan in 1904 to go along with his musical, Little Johnny Jones.  Just in case you don’t sprint out and watch this movie after reading our post, I’ll fill you in a little: Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biographical musical about George M. Cohan, who wrote not only that song, but others I learned about when I was little, mostly due to piano lessons.  And some memory of my mom singing “Over There,” probably because I was reluctantly playing it in the other room. The Cohan family began performing during the Vaudeville era, dad, mom, and two kids, brother and sister. Before long, it was clear that brother George was the star, although he was really a pain in the ass too.  Jon and I disagreed about some of the details here, but it bothered me less that George was so arrogant and full of pride: he was a performer in every sense, and I see why the world, well, needs people like that.  I don’t really want to be around them, but they make sense, and like watching zoo animals, they can fascinate and even entertain me.

A historic note that left me a little confused: internet sources (and your elementary school education) will tell you that “Yankee Doodle,” the original song, actually dates back to the Seven Years’ War, it’s the state song of Connecticut, and it has FAR too many verses and parodies to get into there.  But what I find odd is that no where does a source mention both the original song and George M. Cohan’s adaptation.  It’s almost like there was some agreement to never mention the two together.  However, I’m happy to add to my trivia knowledge the difference between Yankee Doodle Dandy, “Yankee Doodle” and “Yankee Doodle Boy.”

Parts of Yankee Doodle Dandy were fun (generous I’m being) to watch, although which parts those were surprised me.  It was funny– not by today’s standards, but there were quite a few quick lines that made me chuckle.  Ok I don’t actually “chuckle,” but I do furrow my brow and say “that’s funny” sometimes when I’m mildly impressed and pleasingly caught off guard. And let me be clear on another point: I do not like musicals (I know I know, doesn’t like animation, musicals, what kind of monster am I?) but I think this movie helped me understand better why I don’t like musicals: I was never in them.  I’m fairly positive that, born under different circumstances or place or family, I could have gotten into the world of performing, whether it be singing or dancing or (especially) acting.  It’s still something I wonder about.  That said, because I never did enter that world, I don’t much enjoy watching it today.  Contrarians could argue that I haven’t seen enough of them, and that would fix me.  So when I watch an old movie like this, and it seems like they stop. Every. Six minutes to break out in song, the word “endure” comes to mind.  Like I start to engage in positive affirming self talk to help me get through the scene. Again, it’s not that I hate the songs, but it’s the kind of thing that, if I were participating, I’d be fine. but just like I HATE when someone sings TO me (Don’t just don’t just don’t do that) I don’t like just watching.  It’s kind of like playing “Song Pop”: only enjoyable for the player, not for the other person in the room.  See? Now everyone understands.

When James Cagney would burst into song, over and over and over, Jon and I started to say things like “isn’t this the same song? He just sang this one! Wait, no, it’s slightly different, oh how many VERSES are there for God’s sake?!” But I minded less the dancing, the big numbers with all the people in unison. There was even a part where they had treadmill-like portions of the stage. Neat-o! I mean, yes, it was not something I would have watched on my own at all, certainly I could never have made it through the whole movie (IN ONE SITTING mind you) without Boyfriend patiently enduring his own personal mini-tortures next to me.

Other than getting that damn song in my head, which it has been since Saturday night, I’m glad I watched this movie.  If for nothing else, to remind myself that I can appreciate a film that many other people loved, yet I’ll never truly feel what they felt in 1942 when it came out.  I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that strong of a sense of patriotism, although I respect people who do.  But it can also never be 1942 again, and I studied enough history to have that contextual awareness throughout the movie.  It’s always interesting to me to watch people in a movie that was filmed in war time living out a previous war in the script.

I do choose my words carefully here, though.  Appreciate does not always overlap with enjoy.  Often it does.  I give Yankee Doodle Dandy 3 Red, White and Blue Turbo rocket popsicles.  And I will give two away because they aren’t my favorite, but I could see how someone else might love them.

Jon:

I don’t get Yankee Doodle Dandy.  I mean, I get the plot, it’s the life story of entertainer George M.  Cohan, and I get what it’s trying to do, promote the idea of patriotism during the era the movie was made, the middle of World War II.  What I don’t get is why anyone would find this style of moving making entertaining.  It is basically a vaudeville show surrounded by a flimsy shell biographical story.  It’s a musical, but not a musical as we understand it today, being filled with song and dance numbers that have nothing whatsoever to do with storyline.  In fairness to AFI and their list, Yankee Doodle Dandy does represent an era of movie making, an era that was so popular it deserves to be represented in some way.  If this is the best movie of this type, then it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t belong, but I just don’t get it.

It’s always hard to watch something that so clearly represents an era in history and put it into some kind of modern perspective.  There is nothing about Yankee Doodle Dandy that rings true today other than a collection of songs that we remember from watching Looney Tunes.  The dance numbers, while sometimes impressive, are mostly silly.  I couldn’t help but turn to Jenny and ask, “People were entertained by this?”  The characters pranced and gyrated in ways that just didn’t make sense.  It made me want to laugh more than watch with awe.  And the singing wasn’t much better.  James Cagney was doing more spoken word than singing and the songs seemed to go on and on.  I’m not saying that the movie wasn’t filled with good performances, I’m just saying I don’t get it.  I’m sure if kids today sat down and watched an episode of In Living Color they would see the Fly Girls doing their thing and say “What the @#&*!”  Some forms of entertainment just aren’t timeless.  That statement goes for almost everything in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I said similar things about Ben-Hur and used it as an argument for why the movie didn’t belong on the list.  Why am I making allowances for this one?  To me there is a small distinction between the two movies.  As much as both films signify an era of filmmaking, Ben-Hur represents a type of film that we still see today and has been improved upon over the years.  The big budget blockbuster can be represented on AFI’s list by a number of other films that do big budget storytelling much better.  Yankee Doodle Dandy doesn’t fit that bill.  This style of vaudeville, song and dance style entertainment can’t be better represented (at least not that I know of).  This is the era.  It’s not an era that was built upon or that lasted, but it certainly showcases a way of making movies that was once popular and represents a moment in history.

All that being said, the biggest problem I had with the movie was its characters.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is the simple story of an everyman becoming a hero.  We are supposed to relate to George Cohan and root for him as he forces his way into the American conscience and helps define the country.  I found myself doing the opposite.  Everything about this depiction of Cohan made me hope and pray for his demise.  He is arrogant, obnoxious, and self-righteous.  He continually put his family’s and friends’ ability to earn a living in jeopardy with no regard for anything but his own interests.  I waited and waited for something to happen that would teach him a bit of humility, make him see that his hubris negatively affected others, but it never happened.  Even in old age he gets mad when a group of young kids didn’t know who he was.  Unable to have his ego feed properly in retirement, he heads back for one last role.  The movie ends on the most disingenuous moment of all, as Cohan sheds a tear marching with the troops after being given a medal of honor from FDR.  There was nothing presented in the two hour long movie to make the audience think Cohan was capable of the humility that tear suggested.

Did I like this movie?  Not at all.  Do I understand why it’s on the list?  Yes, just as long as it’s this far down.  Would I notice if it wasn’t here at all?  Of course not.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is a propaganda film made to help stoke American patriotism during World War II.  Cohan is supposed to represent the American spirit, a spirit that was once hailed but is now hated all over the world.  The movie is dated and presents a style of entertainment that is extinct.  It’s extinct for a reason, but I can’t argue with it getting one last nod of appreciation.

I give Yankee Doodle Dandy 2 out of 5 bowls of Neapolitan ice cream.  At one time it was the only type of ice cream in town, but no one wants to eat it anymore.

Up next: Blade Runner. 

Jon: One of the most genius sci-fi movies ever.

Jenny: Is this a movie about ice skating or knives? I don’t think you should run with either one.