Blind Spot 51: ‘Goodfellas’

When I set up my 2020 Blind Spot list I knew immediately I wanted to include something from director Martin Scorsese. He not only caused a lot of ruckus with his ridiculous and out of touch comments about superhero movies not being ‘cinema’ last year but then he achieved great critical acclaim with his film The Irishman.  I famously did not care for this Oscar nominated film, and I also hated his film before that Silence, so I began to wonder if maybe the famous director and I simply don’t mix very well (I did like Hugo and The Aviator so there’s that)?

Anyway, I knew I wanted to give his other mobster movie, Goodfellas, a shot this year to see what I thought. Now I have seen it, and I’m happy to say I liked it. It’s not a top-tier film for me but definitely entertaining and far better than The Irishman in every way. I still prefer the gravitas and messaging of The Godfather over this film but I can see why it has its ardent fans.

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Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill a real life mobster in 70s and 80s who works and serves the family despite not being a full-Italian ‘made’ member. We start out the film with Henry as a teenager dazzled by the lifestyle and family-connection of organized crime. He gets taken under the wing by a caporegime named Paulie played by Paul Servino. Joe Pesci plays a violent and erratic man named Tommy Devito and Robert De Niro plays a leader of the group named Jimmy Conway.

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The reason I liked this so much better than The Irishman is the characters are all more dynamic. My problem with Robert De Niro’s character in The Irishman is his come to Jesus moments come too late in the narrative. For 80% of the movie he is perfectly happy being a soldier for the mafia and someone who simply follows orders isn’t interesting for a film, especially a long film.

In contrast, Henry has many moments where he bucks against the system, especially in the 2nd half where it becomes more of a heist movie than a mafia film. He even challenges orders in his personal life with wife Karen and mistress Janice/Sandy. This makes him an interesting character. We want to root for him because he is our protagonist, but he’s such a sleazy guy that it becomes difficult. Such conflict is cinematic and entertaining. It also doesn’t hurt that Ray Liotta does a very good job playing Henry so you both want to hang out with and smack him at the same time.

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Unlike The Godfather, Goodfellas doesn’t attempt to teach us lessons through the insular society of the mob. It’s not an allegory to society at large or a treatise on group behavior and loyalty. It’s just Henry’s story- a biopic if you will, with all the highs and lows we expect from that genre. It is greatly aided by witty and engaging dialogue by screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. It clips along and stays free from both exposition or over-narration.

As far as flaws it still feels self-indulgent at times. Scenes are stretched out longer than they need to be and certain sequences are repeated that provide no real addition to the plot. For example, we see multiple scenes with them laughing it up at the comedy club in the beginning of the film. One scene is fine and establishes the juvenile nature of these men; however, I didn’t need to see it again and again. Same with scenes with the drug-trade later in the movie. We get the idea the first time. We don’t need scene after scene of them getting blow. It’s almost like Scorsese lacks confidence in his scenes so he has to repeat them again. (Come to think of it one of the things I hated in Silence was the repeated torture. He would literally show a scene of torture and show that exact same scene again in case we didn’t get it the first time. No thank you!).

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Goodfellas is also very well edited and the production values are all top rate. It doesn’t feel dated in any way. It could be released now and hold up (honestly better than The Irishman with its distracting special effects). I also enjoyed the cinematography and music choices throughout.

If you can handle a hard R rated film for violence and language I recommend giving Goodfellas a watch. If you do, you will find a well-told story about a complex character in the form of Henry Hill. It’s got a sharp script and good performances all around, which makes it very entertaining. I can definitely see why it is a favorite of those who love the gangster genre.

What do you think of Goodfellas? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section

7.5 out of 10

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On another note I can see why so many compared Hustlers to Goodfellas. They have a very similar structure especially in the last half of the film and have the same type of repetition and character beats.

 

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‘Hustlers’ REVIEW

Hustlers

When I was preparing for the Fall Movie Preview podcast I do with David Healy I kept getting the new film Hustlers confused with the recent film The Kitchen. The connection is understandable with both movies being about groups of women who turn the system on its head and commit crimes together. Frankly I wish both movies were stronger, but I definitely prefer Hustlers of the two. It at least has a consistent tone and characters with some depth to them.

Hustlers tells the true story of a group of exotic dancers who band together to steal from the Wall Street clients who frequent their establishment. Obviously this film has a lot of very sexy dancing so it will not be for everyone. However, most of the R rated content is confined to the club scenes and it is kept rather clinical in feel rather than erotic (because it is being told from the women’s perspective and it is not an erotic activity for them, just a job).

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Anyway, the first half of the movie sets up our characters particularly Constance Wu as Destiny and Jennifer Lopez as Ramona. At first things are going great with everyone helping everyone else to make a lot of money. Unfortunately the stock market crash happens in 2008 and the dancers become more desperate as the stock brokers have less money.

The first half of Hustlers looked impressive with some good performances from Wu and Lopez but it was very repetitive with not enough story. We didn’t need to see scene after scene of the way things were before 2008. I wish they had done more to flesh out the characters of both Ramona and Destiny away from the club. They both end up having daughters, but we hardly get to know anything about them as mothers or how they balance work with raising their children. Just anything other than party, dance, rinse, repeat.

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However, in the second half the plot to drug and swindle the Wall Street men starts and it can be quite compelling and funny. It’s the kind of movie that feels like it should have been a 44 minute television show instead of a feature film. Unfortunately, even in the more compelling sections it is very repetitive. Girl meets man in bar, take man to club, steal from him and then move on. There’s a Christmas scene, which is the best part of the movie, where we get to see their personalities and what actual joy means to them but so often the script is very repetitive.

While I don’t know about Oscar-worthy, Wu and Lopez are good in their roles (the Academy loves giving Oscars to actors who play strippers/prostitutes for some reason). They have a nice chemistry together and feel like a natural fit for their characters (with the exception of Wu’s terrible wig!). Some of the other characters are perhaps made to look more significant in the trailer than they actually are. Cardi B and Lizzo, for example, are really just glorified cameos. Still Destiny and Ramona are flawed interesting characters and there are some really great moments with the two of them.

A movie like Hustlers is where the rottentomatoes dichotomy fails me as a critic. It was ok. The performances are good and it looks nice. The story is interesting, but I wasn’t crazy about the narrative device of Julia Stiles’ interviewing Wu, and the script is very repetitive. It’s a real mixed bag, but I certainly didn’t hate it. If you are someone who thinks capitalism is evil than you will probably enjoy it as a revenge piece more than I did. But even so, I want more than just seeing Wall Street men getting drugged. I want more of these women’s story!!

Still I’d say it is worth seeing for the good performances but manage your expectations. It’s no disaster like The Kitchen but no masterpiece of female empowerment either.

5.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy (barely)

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