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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Goodfellas

Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rated: R
RunTime: 148 Minutes
Release Date: September 1990
Genres: Crime, Action, Drama, Classic

*Also starring: Garry Pastore, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

I have made a promise to myself not to review Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" for one very good reason - it is the best film of the 1990's and I still stand by my opinion. I have dedicated a webpage to Mr. Scorsese in the last couple of years and have thoroughly and intensely studied many of his films. I still consider "Taxi Driver" the most phenomenally great American film ever made, and I stand by it. But back to "GoodFellas." How can a gruesomely violent, offputting portrait of the American mob be far superior to respected films of the 90's like "Schindler's List," "Dances With Wolves," "Unforgiven," "The Silence of the Lambs," "American Beauty," and, well, what is the point of belaboring the obvious? The film has its share of detractors as well as admirers, but in retrospect, there is simply nothing as influential or as alive and kicking as "GoodFellas."

The story is well known. It is all told from the point-of-view of an Irish kid, Henry Hill (the perfectly cast Ray Liotta) who joined the mob in his youth, skipping school to work in their places of business. Henry became fascinated by the way of life, not so much the violence and gangland hits that are often not the subject of crime films. By the time he is 21, he is married to the feisty Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco), is able to waltz into the Copacabana club without waiting in line, makes money in restaurant deals, steals money from airports, trucks, etc. Henry is at one point told by his mother that he looks like a gangster. He has the looks, the snazzy suits, the connections, the power and, just as easily, the ability to abuse it and lose it all. Yes, as indicated by the Tony Bennett song in the opening credits, it is a rags to riches story in the most ironic sense of the word. Scorsese has called this tale (based on a true crime book by the excellent writer/reporter Nicholas Pillegi "Wiseguy"), as well

as the subsequent "Casino," a story of the American Dream. Perhaps, but since when is it a dream of any kid to become a gangster? "It was better than becoming President of the United States," says Henry Hill during his narrative voice-over which succumbs the entire film. Maybe but the razzle-dazzle lifestyle of money, Cadillacs, drugs and scores of women also has its limits.

In "Casino," there were no limits to what powerful men could have and consume. In "GoodFellas," there are limits, mostly because we are dealing with lower-level gangsters, at least a little higher on the scale than the ones in "Mean Streets." To categorize in more facile terms, "Mean Streets" was about racketeering in the streets, "GoodFellas" is about the abuse of having access to anything in the Mob and finally, "Casino" is about how the Mob's involvement in casino operations can become a sickness.

In 2 and a half hours, Scorsese does an incredible job of detailing the inside life of organized crime, how it works and operates, how they behave, and manages to tell the story of one man whose desires outweigh his priorities and has to contend with having a family and working 24 hours a day. We see what it is like to be a gangster and how sudden bursts of violence can come out of nowhere and be totally unprovoked. A classic example is Joe Pesci's famous speech as Tommy, the itchy trigger-happy gangster, when he asks, "Do you think I am funny?" In the tension-filled scene, Tommy asks Henry why he thinks he is funny. Henry can't provide a straight answer, and Tommy's scary glare takes over. We are sure violence is about to erupt and it is amazing how Scorsese makes the audience nervous as well (the theatre I saw it in back in 1990 was filled with audience members who were silent, unsure what was going to happen next). Scorsese plays the audience like a piano, and the whole movie has that same tension running

at its core. Part of the tightly controlled tension comes from the notion that gangsters only care about money and if you screw with them, they can kill you. As written by Scorsese and Pileggi, the film never moralizes - it simply observes and shows us what these guys are made of. For the first time in cinema history, "GoodFellas" asserts that gangsters are nothing but scum - they are rotten criminals with little in the way of sympathy for anyone else except their boss. In this case, the boss is Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), a man of some integrity who wishes to get involved in any business except drugs - the reason is because drugs can make rats out of gangsters and he certainly doesn't want to end up in prison for being ratted out. But these men are generally not men of principle or morals - they have codes of conduct and their own morals within their circle. They have codes that must be heeded, namely "never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut." Wise advice given to Henry Hill as a young kid by celebrate

d thief and killer James Conway (Robert De Niro), but will Henry keep his word or will he violate the code?

"GoodFellas" segues from one sequence to another flawlessly and so seamlessly that we feel we are watching life unfold before our very eyes. It helps that the film is narrated by Henry Hill since he is knowledgable of the inner workings and anthropology of the mob. At times, "GoodFellas" is like a remarkable fusion of a documentary-like narrative mixed with the personal story of one man who sought to make more money than God. But things start to tumble. James Conway gets greedy when he initiates the famous Lufthansa heist. Tommy loses his cool and kills anyone who gets his temper rising (he even kills a made-man, normally an untouchable in the mob circuit). Henry becomes involved with drugs like cocaine and gets addicted himself, not to mention his wife, Karen. Everything falls apart and consequences begin to escalate. It is a world so dangerous and yet so alluring that we can't help but feel both sorry and angered by Henry's own lust for the life.

In terms of editing and sheer cinematographic skill and peerless performances, "GoodFellas" is sheer perfection. Its influence is clearly felt in all of the crime pictures of today, particularly Quentin Tarantino. It is a serious crime picture with offputting, realistic violence, unadored by the irony that has taken the edge off of crime pictures ever since "Pulp Fiction." In "GoodFellas," it is all about edge and a certain immorality in Henry Hill that becomes clearer in subsequent viewings. Scorsese's direction and Thelma Schoonmaker's faultless editing create a world so rich and explosive that it rivals any crime picture before or after it. There are endless tracking shots, freeze frames, zooms, but never anything to detract from the story Scorsese is telling - it all perfectly coincides with each scene. Consider the 2 and a half minute unbroken take inside the Copacabana. We see Henry and Karen on their first real date entering the club from a back entrance and watch as they scour from one room to the ne

xt, through hallways and corridors and finally entering the kitchen before getting to the restaurant where an extra table is brought just for them. It is essential to see it as one long take because it is primal in showing the allure and thrill of the life.

I've seen "GoodFellas" again and again and marvel at that fantastic sequence inside the Copacabana, the moment where Henry Hill feels he has gone too far but can't seem to get enough when snorting coke, Karen's crying fit when she feels her life is in danger, Henry beaten by his father with a belt, Jimmy Conway's quiet, understated scene where it is implied that he wants Henry killed, the situation with Henry's girl helper who has a thing for her hat, watching Henry make pasta sauce while watching the helicopters that may be watching him, and I could go on.

It is as perfect as any movie I've seen, and it is clearly Scorsese at the top of his game pulling one trick out of his hat after another. Sure, it is tough to watch, could be considered morally repugnant, and some of it is not meant for all tastes (like the grisly stabbing at the beginning of the picture). But it is about mob life, how easily that life can be taken away in the blink of an eye, and notably how alluring the life of a mobster can be. The allure is all that Henry Hill wanted, and it is a shame he did not see it any other way.

Copyright 2001 Jerry Saravia

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