Posts Tagged gangster

Once Upon a Time in America

Year of release: 1984              Directed by Sergio Leone.                  Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Joe Pesci.

“I believe in America.” “America was born in the streets.” Wrong movies, admittedly, but that grand and tragic mythos is the focus of Sergio Leone’s beautifully sprawling epic Once Upon a Time in America. The title itself suggests that grandiose myth-making, which the characters write both for themselves and for their country.

The film opens with the shattering of that myth. David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has witnessed the murder of the three surviving members of his gang, and he is on the run from several hitmen. The world of gangs, deals with cops, and profits from the speakeasies of the Great Depression which he worked so hard to build for himself has turned on him. Not only that, but the funds which the gang had put aside for all of their use were stolen as well. Resigned to his fate, Noodles leaves Manhattan, intending to end the myth which he lived for so long.

Then, with a jump cut, we are no longer in the era of prohibition, opium dens, jazz, and ragtime, but that of Lennon and McCartney, television, and respectable businesses. However, this age is just as quintessential a slice of the American myth as the ’30’s, and Noodles’ memories of “Yesterday” continue to haunt him as he adjusts to the next chapter of America. The nonlinear editing between 1968, 1932, and 1920 connects past, present, and future as inseparable parts of the country America has become – born in the streets when the teenage Noodles and his gang stood up to rivals and blackmailed corrupt cops; growing up to side with unions, threaten corrupt businessmen, rob them, and rape their secretaries if need be; and reaching a maturity where anyone can achieve prosperity with enough hard work and determination, as long as they have some corrupt politicians in the palm of their hand.

It’s an unflattering picture, and it sounds crazy to think it will last (and in the 21st century, coupled with recent events, it seems more inevitable than ever that it will fail), but Noodles and especially his friend and partner Max (James Woods) are determined to get all they can from it as long as they believe in it. The crumbling of that belief occurs at ostensibly different points for both of them, and the subsequent rift between them that results is reflected not only in Max’s desire to pursue more dangerous work with ruthless gangsters like Frankie (Joe Pesci), but in Noodles’ waking up from the American Dream to replace it with an opium dream of a forgetful haze. As Max becomes intoxicated with his American dream, Noodles’ dream turns into a nightmare, at which point he wakes up to find a new dream.

However, is it possible to wake up? In the final confrontation, Noodles and Max recount strikingly different memories of the same incident that brought their belief in the America to a crashing end. Nonetheless, the dream and the myth they had elaborately written for themselves had become so widespread, so entrenched in the American mind that both characters were forced to become new characters in their own myth, which had grown well beyond their control and left them victims of fate, not dissimilar to the random fates they left for a next generation when they needed to scare a police chief.

As Noodles, De Niro is far less sympathetic than the young Sicilian gangster he played ten years prior to this, but his mission to control the streets of his New York neighborhood while turning against anything that offered him a more innocent life is not much different. As Noodles’ first 11 year old love says, she could love him, if he wouldn’t always be a two-bit punk. The culmination of their relationship may be the most tragic, and is certainly most horrifying scene in the movie for the microcosmic way that it shows how Noodles’ belief in his own desires above all else runs roughshod over not only institutions but other people as well.

Whereas The Godfather is primarily interested in the ramifications of corruption on its once moral protagonist, Once Upon a Time in America lacks that upright protagonist and is interested in how his participation in the American mythos makes him more corrupt. Instead of focusing on the moral fall of an individual and the dissolution of a family as Coppola did, Leone focuses on the dissolution of the American dream itself and the consequences for those who imbibe it. It’s debatable which tragedy is greater, but the far reaching consequences of greed, working to get ahead at any cost, and loyalty to ideas over human beings receives a more damning indictment here. And that is no more apparent than in the ironic use of “God Bless America” which frames the film.


Personal Recommendation: A

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment


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American Hustle

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by David O. Russell.      Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C. K., and Robert De Niro.

Goodfellas meets Silver Linings Playbook with influences from Raging Bull.  That is the most apt description I can think of to describe David O. Russell’s new ’70’s crime drama.  Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a smalltime con-artist who along with his mistress and business partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) steals $5,000 in the form of a business fee from any desperate individual looking for a loan, because sooner or later everyone hits bottom, and Irving and Sydney are waiting there to trap and exploit them.

After Sydney accidentally takes a check from undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), DiMaso agrees to drop the charges against them if they help him scam and expose four big criminals, starting with New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

The biggest irony in the film is that Polito, as played by Renner, is by far the least corrupt character of the entire ensemble.  He is a family man, who desperately wants to help the people of New Jersey, and occasionally might work with some mafia members to raise funds to create jobs.  To highlight that irony, the most corrupt character is Cooper’s overly zealous, power hungry FBI agent, who will stoop to any illicit means to nail the corrupt politicians he is after.  Those means include fraud, deception, blackmail, and physical violence, all the while trying to cheat on his fiancé and to force himself sexually onto Sydney.

There are many other instances of equally dark humor, such as Jennifer Lawrence’s phenomenal performance as Irving’s selfish, unstable, and not particularly bright wife Rosalyn who threatens to expose the entire operation and endangers the lives of Irving, herself, and her son.  But when confronted about her reckless behavior, she always manages to come up with an explanation that paints herself as the hero who averted some disaster.  The opening scene with Bale, as he meticulously glues his “elaborate comb over” to his bald head, is both funny and symbolic of the extreme lengths to which these characters will go to present themselves as glamorous and to hustle their victims.

Bale’s makeup, weight gain, and performance are all clearly reminiscent of De Niro in Raging Bull, and his performance is equally incredible. The rest of the cast is excellent, even Cooper in the role of the incredibly obnoxious FBI agent DiMaso.  Lawrence completely steals her few scenes as Rosalyn, especially her confrontation with Adams.  Adams portrays the several personas of Sydney very well, and the viewer is never completely sure whom she is hustling and double crossing.

I love how the second half of the film continuously escalates the danger and the elaborate scheming as the characters’ greed and ambitions spiral out of control, much like Goodfellas. However, Russell maintains a lighthearted satirical tone rather than Scorsese’s bleak depiction of criminal proceedings. Both approaches work in their respective films, but Russell’s optimism makes his characters more endearing, even if Scorsese’s pessimistic portrayal might be more accurate.

My only small complaint about Russell’s optimism is that he opts for a semi-predictable, happy ending, which thoroughly humiliates the villain while the protagonists achieve everything they wanted.  How that ending is achieved is a very clever surprise, but it is still obvious that that ending is somehow coming.  The ending is an almost forgivable flaw, because as the amusing opening title card tells the audience, “Some of this stuff actually happened,” and occasionally life does play out as depicted here.

The strongest asset of Russell’s optimism is that it clearly shows in his love for the characters and actors.  He lets his entire cast act and interact with one another with a script that highlights all of their talents.  And it is a pleasure to watch a cast this talented giving their best performances.

The last thing worth noting is that the frequent use of ’70’s pop songs makes for a delightful soundtrack, especially “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Live and Let Die,” both of which are used perfectly to emphasize the mood of their scenes.

If only David O. Russell could make films with completely satisfying endings rather than generic crowd pleasing endings that wrap things up too neatly, then this would be a masterpiece. (as would Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter)


Content Advisory: A non-graphic sexual encounter, brief nudity during an exotic dance sequence, some groping, frequent revealing necklines, a same-sex kiss, much profane and obscene language, and some violence.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Who’s That Knocking at My Door

Year of Release: 1967     Directed Martin Scorsese.  Starring Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune, Harry Northup, and Anne Collette.

With his debut film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Martin Scorsese laid the groundwork for nearly all of his future films.  Almost every theme that he explores in his later works is present here.  An individual isolating himself through his selfish choices, (Raging Bull, Shutter Island) the difficulties and dangers of coping with a toxic native environment, (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, The Departed) the importance of family and connections, (The Age of Innocence) and finally the importance of cinema in transforming our lives. (Hugo)  Scorsese’s integration of all these themes into a coherent, well crafted film is impressive, and his artistic talent was clearly apparent even in his earliest years as a filmmaker.

J.R. (Harvey Keitel) is a young Italian American living in inner city New York, frequenting bars, hanging out with gangsters, and trying to win the heart of a young girl (Zina Bethune) whom he finds attractive.  He fondly recalls first meeting her as they bonded while chatting about the movie magazine that she was reading.  When she expressed ignorance of the movie poster pictured in the magazine, J.R. incredulously and excitedly explained the importance of John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers, one of the “greatest films ever made.”  (Scorsese has said he would include The Searchers in his personal top ten list.)

The choice of John Wayne in The Searchers is significant.  In John Ford’s classic western, Wayne portrayed a character so immersed in his worldview and his prejudices that he was unable to break away from them.  When a woman he loved came into his life, Wayne was unable to adapt and see things from her perspective.  It is clear that this situation is also J. R.’s.  When he learns a tragic and challenging aspect of his girlfriend’s life, his own prejudices and misconceptions threaten his ability for reconciliation.

It is possible to interpret J. R.’s final actions as an attempt at repentance, or it could be him withdrawing into the culture that he knows and finds comforting, even though that culture is damaging his ability to interact in the actual world.  Either interpretation is plausible, although I am inclined to go with the latter.  That interpretation also introduces significant moral issues into the film, because J. R.’s known culture to which he turns at the film’s end is his Catholic upbringing.  Faith certainly is something that many people turn to after tragedy or personal crisis, and it is completely believable that J. R. would do so.  However, it is all too possible that the film is suggesting that reliance on faith is a weakness that ultimately makes life more difficult, which The Searchers reference would seem to reinforce.

Throughout the film J. R. is clearly conflicted about his choices and actions.  He refrains from having sex with his girlfriend because there is a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in his bedroom, but out on the streets he has no problem imagining lengthy scenes of intense sexual intercourse with attractive hookers.  He blesses himself before pummeling a guy over the head with a heavy stick.  Sitting in a bar filled with pornographic photos, he recalls the innocent and heartfelt first meeting with his girlfriend.

The film is composed with abrupt edits between J.R.’s dream sequences and reality.  This technique employed Thelma Schoonmaker, who would become by Scorsese’s longtime editor, heightens the sense of unease and guilt from which J. R. suffers; he is a character who is searching, and the film searches with him.

Unfortunately, restraint was not a virtue that Scorsese learned until several years later in his career.  Both Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door suffer from Scorsese’s decision to film his source material in a very raw manner with very little editing or caution in presenting the sordid material.  Taxi Driver was one of the first film in which he clearly understood the horrific events that he was depicting, and exercised discretion in selecting what he showed on film.  Also, unlike J. R., in Taxi Driver Robert De Niro’s protagonist was able to portray genuine isolation and inner conflict without relying on edits between fantasy and reality.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door did sow the seeds for the future career of Scorsese, but it took him several years to overcome his early weaknesses, to which he still occasionally reverts, and craft some true works of art.

Content Advisory: An extended and explicit sexual fantasy with gratuitous nudity, juxtaposition of Catholicism with morally questionable behavior, fleeting shots of nude photos, and occasional profanity and violence.                     MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: D+

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