> Volume 2 > Number 48

Volume 2, Number 48

This Week's Reviews:  The Yards, GoodFellas, Proof of Life, Two Family House.

This Week's Omissions:  Mercy Streets, Restless.

The Yards

(Dir: James Gray, Starring Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, Andrew Davoli, Steve Lawrence, Tony Musante, Victor Argo, Thomas Milian, Robert Montano, Victor Arnold, Louis Guss, Chad Aaron, David Zayas, Jack O' Connell, Domenick Lombardozzi, and Joe Lisi)



James Gray came into the film industry with one of those indie gems of the mid-90's. You know them, the films that came to the fore only after Miramax turned Pulp Fiction into a cross-over hit.  If it were not for Tarantino's film, a case could be made that there would be no career for names like Larry Clark, Don Roos, Noah Baumbach, and James Gray.  And, while most of the independent films that were made at this time were nothing like Pulp Fiction, they were made profitable because of it. Hence the reason that 1995 and 1996 was, more or less, the independent film Renaissance -- when any young filmmaker could get his vision produced and distributed easier than any other time in film history.

Just today I was musing on feelings on Clark's Kids (which I consider to be severely overrated) and remembered that time with some glee.   These young visionaries were getting their movies made and had something to show to all the people in their lives that had heard their rants on the visual style of Martin Scorsese or the human writings of John Cassavettes.  These were film scholars that once (and, in many cases, only once [where are you, David Salle?]) got to make a movie for a wider release than their heroes.  Which had a larger release, Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse or John Waters' Pink Flamingoes?

The most striking thing of this time was how everyone looked to make a film about life -- most every attempt was one of a personal kind.   And, as we all learned from these films, life can be tough.  Kids was an exposé of the declining morality of American inner-city youth, Welcome to the Dollhouse was a story of an ugly-duckling lost in a world that cannot and will not appreciate her, and Jeffrey looked and the problems that arise in the life of a gay man.  All of these films were from the diaries, journals, and memories of their filmmakers.

That was certainly the case with James Gray's Little Odessa, which stood as one of the better films of the time.  Looking at how a family crumbles in the face of crime and death, Odessa was as listless and depressing as an Ingmar Bergman.  There was no doubt in the mind of the casual viewer that James Gray knew something about what he was preaching.  It would later come as no surprise to learn that as a child Gray's father had been sent to prison.   Evidently Gray has not finished with that story premise -- his father was imprisoned for corruption involved in the subway system, which happens to be the lead story to his new film, The Yards

The film follows recently released car thief Leo Handler (Wahlberg), who served 16 months because he failed to name accomplices in his criminal dealings.  With a conviction on his record, finding a job becomes nearly impossible and his uncle Frank (Caan) gives him a job in sympathy of Leo's mother Val's (Burstyn) declining health.  His belief is that Leo would do well to take some mechanics training courses and work in his business, a contractor that fixes the subway cars.   But Leo is able to get out of Frank's plan and turn out working with Willie Gutierrez (Phoenix), who was one of the names Leo failed to give to the police.

Willie is the underhanded dealer for Frank's company.   He's the one that musses up the shoes of those doing wrong to the business and pays off everyone that might help get contracts given to them.  On top of that, he happens to be the boyfriend of Frank's adopted daughter -- and Leo's extremely close cousin -- Erica (Theron).

When a murder occurs on the subway yards where Willie and his crew are supposed to ruin the new work of the opposition, Leo finds himself in the middle thanks to a small run in with an on duty cop.  Before long, he begins to see who he can and cannot trust and Willie and Frank must try to save the business before the foreign opposition catches wind of their mistake.

This film is filled with interesting characters, especially Willie and Theron.  The two actors, Phoenix and Theron, and great performers that are in the middle of a fine stride in their career.  While each have had to work for their support, they are finally getting notice and giving great performances at every chance (as I have stated before, I was one of the biggest denouncers of Phoenix's acting ability before Gladiator).

Though Mark Wahlberg does little with his character besides brood (there's a huge difference between the thoughtful brooding of Michelle Rodriguez and the thoughtless less type that Wahlberg gives).  I seriously think that Wahlberg can act, as proven in Boogie Nights, but he does nothing here to show it.  His character is a fine one, someone that a great actor would relish doing, but he never keeps Leo worthy of the audience's time and attention.

In fact, nearly everyone here is interesting, but none of them ever do anything really interesting.  The film manipulates them in so many forms that there is nothing to really support and nothing ever done.  While many actions do occur, none of them push the characters to the dynamics that they deserve.  Rarely do films produce such engaging people without ever working with them.

The veterans of the film, especially Burstyn, do their best to work with what they have.  They all seem to know that they are working on great characters, but the screenplay and irregular editing give them nothing to do.   Burstyn's character is one to relish, much in the same way that she creates Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream, but she is barely in the film.  The only time she serves anything is to be a contrivance to move the story to something that needs to happen to get Wahlberg in the right place or touch people a certain way.  Her character and performance may be filled with intrigue, but her presence is like that of a table lamp.

Gray is still certainly an independent filmmaker, which allows him to be more open to things that studio directors rarely work on.  That is a great thing until you take into account how strictly indie directors often lose sight of where they are going.  I think that there is a great deal of heart put into this film, but Gray does not know how to bring to the screen.

There's an old belief in the sophomore slump for filmmakers.  You know it, the one that Tarantino supposedly blew out of the water only to come back the next year with Kevin Smith's Mallrats.  Even though Gray is lucky enough to have a sophomore film to speak of, that does not exclude him from having the attack of this slump.


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(Dir: Martin Scorsese, Starring Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent, Christopher Serrone, Chuck Low, Frank DiLeo, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Catherine Scorsese, Charles Scorsese, Suzanne Shepherd, Debi Mazar, Margo Winkler, Welker White, Julie Garfield, Clem Caserta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Imperioli)



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

That's what Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) tells the audience at the beginning of GoodFellas in a scene that will occur later in the film and will stand as the turning point of the entire Martin Scorsese masterpiece.  GoodFellas is a two tiered film based upon what happened to Henry Hill, a real wiseguy turned mafia rat.   The first half is meant as a look at how attractive the life of a gangster is -- the money, the power, the respect.  But it is the second half that makes this one of the finest films of all-time.

After enticing the audience with everything that Henry and his partners have, it is the wrecking ball Scorsese throws at us that sets this apart from all its rehashes.  As we see how quickly things can go wrong, and, in fact, how nothing was really ever truly secure in the first place, we begin to see exactly where Martin Scorsese was going with this film.  This is not necessarily a propaganda film for crime, but a condemnation of everything that makes it so mesmerizing.  The flash of the guns, the unending cash flow, everything s dependent on throwing your life into an oblivion that will, almost certainly, lead to your death.

GoodFellas does not stop in telling this because things are getting rough.  In one ten minute gap of the film, nearly a dozen dead bodies are found (to the closing riff of Eric Clapton's "Layla" of all things), and they are some of the least gruesome deaths in the film.  People are stabbed, shot, and bludgeoned to death in this film, and the aggressors, at least most of them, get their comeuppance.  One of the aspects of the wiseguy life that Scorsese pushes is just how quickly things change.  At one point in the film, a guy's execution teeters on how well he acts around people at a bar.  Needless to say, he is met with some wire later that night.

Michael Ballhaus, who worked with Scorsese on every film between After Hours and The Age of Innocence, takes on some of the finest camera set-ups ever put in a film.  His style (which he honed with Fassbinder on 15 of the director's 33 films in the 1970's) serves this film perfectly, giving every scene a tension and hold that's needed.  He and Scorsese have long been praised for their long tracking shots in the film, but little do people note the way he lit the digging scene that opens the film, using car taillights that make the characters' skin a blood red.  As I sat in a theatre recently at a repertory reissue, the first time I had seen it in the theatre (I mistakenly missed it at the Warner Bros. anniversary bash), I noticed the way he works the camera on some of the simplest conversations.  A late talk between De Niro and Liotta, one that changes the Liotta character's actions for the rest of the film, has the actors seemingly remain in the same part of the frame as the background slowly recedes.  Mesmerizing.

Martin Scorsese has the interesting ability to say that he has had a film top three decades worth of critics' best of the decade lists.  Taxi Driver took the seventies; Raging Bull took the eighties; and GoodFellas took the nineties.  Notice the correlation?  Without a doubt, no director/actor pairing has been as incredible as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.  On top of those three, they also created the incredible Mean Streets and Casino (even though it bares a great deal of resemblance GoodFellas, it is still a fine film) and broke a few genre barriers with relatively fine films (including the comedy The King of Comedy, the musical New York, New York, and the thriller Cape Fear).  Scorsese has a weird ability to bring out the best of De Niro, and that only makes Scorsese's work look even better.  There is a very subtle eye shift in this film -- one that De Niro sells like no other actor could -- that is remarkable on many levels, even though the framing is simple and the acting is little.

This film is one that gets under your skin and stays there forever.  I'll probably never forget Uncle Paulie (Sorvino) taking control of the prison he's sent to, or the questions of just how funny Tommy DeVito (Pesci), or Jimmy Conway (De Niro) sending Henry's wife Karen (Bracco) to get some free dresses, or Karen's meeting with all the other mob wives.  This is one film that relishes on heaping the audience with great quotes and memorable sequences.

Scorsese has long noted his own childhood, which often left him looking out at the streets of New York thanks to acute asthma.  He saw the Mean Streets that he brought to the screen, he knew the scum that Travis Bickle complains of in Taxi Driver, and he empathized with the GoodFellas (as in "he's alright, he's a good fella, he's one of us") that went around town with their cars and women.  He, like all of us, is a schmuck -- the person that Henry Hill yearns to never be.  He never practiced the gang life but watched it, and, thanks to that, survived to tell us about it.



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Proof of Life

(Dir: Taylor Hackford, Starring Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan, David Morse, David Caruso, Pamela Reed, Alan Armstrong, Daniel Lugo, Anthony Heald, Oscar Carrillo, Michael Kitchen, Pietro Sibille, Diego Trujillo, Mario Ernesto Sánchez, Vanessa Robbiano, Claudia Dammert, Vicky Hernández, Wolframio Benavides, and Aristóteles Picho)



Taylor Hackford is a fine director.  Without a doubt, he knows how to tinker with a film to bring it to its best.  Which is certainly the reason why Proof of Life will not be seen as a complete disappointment when it opens nationwide.  Despite all the problems that plague it, Hackford allows it to be much more than it really should be.  If you ask me, the story is destined to be a simple TV movie.

Remember Not Without My Daughter, the 1991 Sally Field melodrama about an American woman fighting to take her daughter home after being brought to Iran by her husband?  That film was pure TV fodder, and had no reason for being released in theatres besides to bolster the waning respectability of Sally Field.   That is how I felt about this film when it ended -- had Hackford not given it a pure cinematic feel, there would be nothing to keep this off the televisions screens with two lesser stars.  This just proves that studios will release anything as long as there is a profitable star in it.  Had the 1990 Jim Bakker/Jessica Hahn teleplay Fall from Grace been made today, it would have surely been released in a multiplex near you thanks to its then-unknown star Kevin Spacey.

Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan do bring the respectability of marquee names to the production but that is about all they bring.  Crowe and Ryan have both proven to be great actors over the years despite some early mistakes (i.e. Virtuosity and Joe Versus the Volcano, respectively), but they do little for this film, which calls for fine performances.  There is nearly no chemistry at all in the two -- it is astonishing that the two became a real couple during the filming.

Look at the ages, Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep, Kate and Spencer in Woman of the Year, Brad and Gwenie in Se7en, all are performances that sparked real relationships that remained believable on the screen.   No matter how good an actor may be, sometimes that cannot get beyond working with love interests that seem uninteresting.  Such is the case with Kate Winslett in Titanic and Talia Shire in Rocky, both of whom are terrific performers but had no real chemistry with their costars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Sylvester Stallone, respectively).  Had someone told me that Shire and Stallone really struck it off when they left the Rocky set, I would be astonished -- based upon what's on screen I would consider it impossible.  And Kate with Leo?  Let's just say that there was more attraction between Bill Murray and Lucy Lui in Charlie's Angels.

Crowe's character is supposed to be bolstering character, heaping his muscles and prowess over the unknowing wife of a recently kidnapped oil engineer.  This strong look did make him seem unbreakable to the powers that verse him on the battlefield, but it also seems to hold any love connection back even though the screenwriter so wants us to believe that there is something there.  I had more belief in Crowe loving his wife in Gladiator, who never shares a scene with him, than with old Meg Ryan.

His character, Terry Thorne, is a corporate kidnapping and ransom expert that has a heart.  When his company drops the claim of oiler Peter Bowman (Morse) by Ecuadorian rebels due to the closing of Bowman's employers, Terry feels that he should do the job on his own instead of taking a high paying job in the West.   Why does this man do so?  Well, for the love of a woman of course -- didn't you see the trailer?  The only problem is that the woman in question in Peter's wife Alice (Ryan).

As the plot thickens in the Bowman household, Peter is having to survive the world of these rebels, who kidnapped him because he was in the way and only later noticed how profitable he might be.  He is in the country to build a   waterway as a type of good will effort, but the rebels think that he is there to make another well, which certainly hurts their drug trade.  Since there is such a high price on his head, they do not want anything to happen to him, but do leave him to living a horrible life in their camps, where he befriends a half-crazy missionary with schemes of escape.

Hackford has a good grasp on where he's going with the film, making every detail in the landscapes work perfectly, especially in the film's more action laden third act, but he does not take enough time to make the characters' interaction worth the time they are allotted.  Half of the film is built around the age old male-female will-they/won't-they question.  This time is near worthless when it comes to an abrupt precipice that would make the people behind the X-Files' similar relationship cringe.  If I had once thought that these two worked in any fashion, the affair might not have been so lackluster, but as they are, there is little to go for.  I felt that each actor could work with someone else in a different situation, but they cannot do it there with each other.

Crowe does give a good performance, but not near his best.  I like it more when he plays the beaten Olympian, like in The Insider, L.A. Confidential, or Gladiator, but he is not quite as well capable at romantic heroes.  I like the comparisons of this film to Random Hearts, which certainly carried on with a great actor (Harrison Ford) overstepping (though, I certainly liked that film more than this one).

If there's anyone to blame for the lack of chemical appeal it is probably Meg Ryan, who is as miscast as can be here.  She almost always plays sweet characters, which really do work for her.  When she played a much more abrasive and less likable role in 1998's Hurlyburly, I praised her -- she was one of the best things about that underrated film.  But this role, a far cry from When Harry Met Sally's Sally, she has nowhere to go but down.  From the early moments of the film, in which she screams and bawls at her husband, it looked like a acting fight she could not win.  Not only was she beside a far superior actor, but she was in a character that she was not equip to work with.

Playing her husband, Morse puts everything into his role that is needed in the rest of the film.  Without a doubt, Taylor Hackford does a better job with Morse's scenes, which could be in part due to the fact that Morse knows exactly what he is doing.  This year looks to be the one that might finally bring him an Oscar nomination for his terrific performance in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark.  I have been angered ever since the Academy left him off the 1995 Best Supporting Actor short list for Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard and certainly hope, though undoubtedly in vain, that he'll be able to pop his in with Albert Finney and Willem Dafoe in the Best Supporting Actor short list this year.

Morse gives his all to a performance that could have easily been as campy as the one Anthony Hopkins gave in Instinct (though I'd swear the two films share a makeup artist).  No matter how listless the scenes in the South American city are, his scenes in the brush are far more interesting, like a freedom from the horrible attempts at manipulative romance happening on the other side of the film.

Perhaps I'm being way too harsh on this film for making a mistake with the romance, but that is how I felt about it in the end.  I did not really hate the rest of the film, just the Crowe/Ryan scenes which make for horrible cinema.  Hackford has successfully made two films: one a hackneyed crowd-controlling romantic drama, the other an intriguing look at the treatment of the political casualties of revolutionaries.  But really, did we ask to see a mixture of Casablanca and Four Days in September?


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Two Family House

(Dir: Raymond De Felitta, Starring Michael Rispoli, Kelly Macdonald, Katherine Narducci, Matt Servitto, Michele Santopietro, Louis Guss, Rosemary De Angelis, Anthony Arkin, Saul Stein, Vincent Pastore, Sharon Angela, Ivy Jones, Kevin Conway, and Frank Whaley)



Raymond De Felitta made Two Family House about his uncle, a kind Italian man named Buddy.  In 1954, he had a dream, a child of four previous dreams that had all come crashing down.  But this one was different, this time he really thought that he could take it all the way to success.  That dream was to open his own bar, a place where all his friends could sit around and drink, where his wife could help him run a fledging business, and where he could sing the night away.

You see Buddy once had a chance to sing for pay, getting a break from Arthur Godfrey who saw him singing during his tenure in the army.  But Buddy's fiancé Estelle would not hear of it, she could not believe that he would be able to make a living singing on television.  Buddy never went to audition for Godfrey.

Over the years, Buddy always made sure that Estelle remembered that she caused him to lose at his chance to sing, and she would always let him follow his dreams in return for her prior mistake.  Whether it be a limo business or a pizza delivery or a house painting service, he always failed and gave further credence to Estelle's complaints.  By the time that he works up the muster to buy a two family house to use half for a bar, she spends more time complaining than supporting.

The problem with this two family house is that there is another family there, and they are not about to leave.  They are Irish and very brutish.  He's drunk, she's pregnant -- sounds about par for Irish stereotypes.   When Buddy cannot get them to leave, he decides to become aggressive, but finds it easy the day of fighting when the Irish wife, Mary (Macdonald), gives birth to a half-black child.  The husband leaves.

Buddy has sympathy for the new mother, but Estelle has none and forces him to make her vacate the house.  Soon he sets up an home on the outskirts for Mary, a place for her to stay and for him to go to when he needs to talk to someone.  As the days go by, Estelle becomes more and more resistant to Buddy's actions and Mary becomes more and more open to them, leaving him lost in a world where he feels unappreciated with only one place to go.

The best thing about this film is Michael Rispoli who plays Buddy so well that it is almost a remarkable performance for the year.  I've seen him as Jackie Aprile on The Sopranos and always liked him but never really thought that he could throw out a great performance.  No matter how lackluster everyone else is in the film, he still comes out near perfect.

And there are many problems in the cast.  Though I liked her in her own appearances on The Sopranos, Katherine Narducci is far from notable playing Estelle.  She whines and whines and whines and never shows anything to make her like a real person.  It's like grabbing the most stereotypical annoying wives in film history and packing them into one person.  I was cringing with every appearance.

There is another fine Sopranos actor in this film, Vincent Pastore, who is given so little screen time that it nearly makes you cry.  I would have loved to have seen some more 'Big Pussy' Bompensiero in this film -- and even when he's on screen, he's given the most trite dialogue.

And the narration by Frank Whaley leaves you wondering what in the world is happening.  It is told in the birth sequence that the narrator is the half-black son, but De Felitta grabbed white-as-can-be Frank Whaley to do the voice.  Anyone who knows the actor can recognize him in an instant and wonder why he has been chosen to do this voice.  I, personally, would have much rather heard a narration from someone like Don Cheadle, who is still open to independent films.  I think.

Some of the directorial touches by De Felitta leave the audience wondering what is happening.  I was expecting the normal resigned directorial style that goes with this type of story, but when he moves the camera to the eyes of the baby, I began to wonder what was happening.  The choice of De Felitta and cinematographer Michael Mayers (Spanking the Monkey) to use a different type of film stock in these moments only forces the audience to stare at a sepia tinted screen.

But you can really feel how personal this film must be, and that is what makes this hard to hate.  It missteps at nearly every turn, but it is really hard be disgruntled by something that has been made with so much heart and care.   Raymond De Felitta was probably one of the few people in his family that did not shake a head at the stories of old Uncle Buddy.  He probably found him to be one of the most interesting adults he met in his youth.  I'd say he heard this story from Uncle Buddy constantly.


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Reviews by:
David Perry