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Why Feds are like mushrooms

Don't cross Frank, or he'll cap you and make fun of the way your corpse falls.

Knowing my affinity for all things Scorsese in general and “The Departed” in particular, Andrew of Encore’s World of Film fame asked me, Darren and Heather to shower praise — er, I mean objective commentary — on the many merits of the Oscar-approved best film of 2006. Click here or on the photo to read our reasons why “The Departed” is better for you than cranberry juice during that certain time of the month.
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No. 40: “GoodFellas” (1990)

“Fuck you, pay me.” ~~Henry Hill

People who rail about the evils of power are people who don’t have any. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) learned that honest from his father, a working-class schnook made furious by his own powerlessness. The fix for that problem appeared right outside the window of Henry’s Brooklyn bedroom: the Lucchese crime family. These gangsters, with their overstuffed wallets, fine-threaded suits and cowering errand boys, want for nothing because they take everything. That’s as close to omnipotence as a man can get and it’s right in front of Henry. He can’t resist a taste. Who could?

The frightening thing about Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” the definitive portrait of Mafia life, is how easily Henry slips into this society of free-flowing cash, limitless influence and tricky, uncrossable lines. There’s no pomp or circumstance — just a job opening that Henry pounces on. He doesn’t look like a hardened criminal because he isn’t one; he’s a kid who wants respect and pocket money. Although epic in terms of scope and talent, “GoodFellas” also feels intensely personal and matter-of-fact, thanks in part to Liotta’s narration and Scorsese’s direction. The director takes pains to demystify mafia life; he peels away the layers until we see what’s really there: a business, one with rules and consequences. For all the talk of respect and family, it’s the money and the power that matter most.

Each of the men Henry works for has a different approach to keeping business booming. Paul “Paulie” Cicero (Paul Sorvino, capable of leveling anyone with a stare) acts as a father figure to Henry, but he didn’t earn his status through kindheartedness. Paulie is a man who moves slowly because he “doesn’t have to move for anybody,” and this capo is straightforward in his dealings. Also in Paulie’s inner circle are his associates, the calculating Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), who steals for the thrill of it, and armed robber Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, comical and terrifying), whose explosive temper causes messes that don’t sit well with other wiseguys. Tommy’s anger makes him dangerous, but it’s Jimmy, so calm and mannered, who may be more treacherous. Drawn into this life through her marriage with Henry, Karen (a ferocious Lorraine Bracco) understands the dangers and looks past them. More than that, she gets a charge from them, particularly in the scene — a masterpiece of filmmaking — where Henry leads her into a restaurant through a series of maze-like back entrances and hallways, where the manager produces a primo table as if from thin air. That thrill of having everything at your fingertips is intoxicating.

Scenes like these indicate a director at the height of his creative powers (though he’s an artist who’s his own toughest competitor) and his eye for atypical shots. There’s an eerie close-up of Liotta, his face bathed in the red glow of brakelights, and an even more and artistic) shot of DeVito and De Niro digging up a body shrouded in the same ethereal, otherworldly light. Scorsese also doesn’t shy away from the violence; rather, he lets it blindside us, a precursor of even more shocking scenes to come in “The Departed.” In a particularly unnerving, now-infamous moment, Pesci renders a pen more lethal than a switchblade; in another, he empties his gun into a server who gives him lip. Despite his astonishing ability to underscore feelings with song (“GoodFellas” is aces in that respect), the brutality is usually stark and always unexpected.

Also responsible for netting the film six Oscar nominations is the acting, since the cast of “GoodFellas” remains one of the finest ensembles ever put together. Scorsese continues to bring out the best in De Niro, so quietly lethal as Jimmy, while Pesci rips into Tommy DeVito like a man possessed by the devil himself. Sorvino’s presence is towering enough that he needs little screen time. At the hub of it all is Liotta, who dials down the rage to make Henry the plainspoken storyteller “GoodFellas” needs. It’s his voice that stays with us at the end, when the truth finally blindsides him (and us): The trouble with power is it makes you want more power, and when you get it you’ll do anything to keep it. Consequences be damned.

Brain-bending “Shutter Island” a stunner despite faults

Cat, meet Mouse: DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley star in the imperfect but riveting "Shutter Island."

Dry land, no matter where it’s located, offers some measure of comfort — a feeling of solidity, a foundation for the feet. Water does not. Its mysteries are limitless. Martin Scorsese means to capitalize on this elemental human fear early. Does he succeed? Please. The combination of the gray sky, choppy waves, an ashen-faced detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the score — which pulsates with supernatural menace — is dynamite. In these opening scenes, Scorsese yanks us around like marionettes. We’re right where he wants us.

He keeps on yanking throughout this long-delayed, atmospheric Gothic thriller/film noir send-up, perhaps having a chuckle as we labor to wrap our minds around the gnarled plot — much of Dennis Lehane’s tightly drawn novel is retained — and reason out characters who are beyond reason. “Shutter Island” is one of those films where everyone is hiding something; each line of dialogue seems designed to reveal everything and nothing. Listen, in particular, for Deputy Warden McPherson’s (John Carroll Lynch) greeting to the two federal marshals just off the boat: “Welcome to Shutter Island.” His eyes are a little teasing, but his tone says without saying: “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” Scorsese structures “Shutter Island” so that we don’t, either.

Here comes the tough part. To reveal too much of the plot would be criminal, so restraint will be the name of this game. No doubt you’ve heard lots of murmurs (some disgusted) about a twist; do not let anyone reveal it. Two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio, proving again he’s grown to deserve leading-man status) and Chuck Aule (a meh Mark Ruffalo) hop a ferry to Boston’s Shutter Island, the grim site of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (Sublime character actors like the ever-creepy Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson get cameos.) It’s their first case together, and they’re an odd pair: Teddy’s a visibly haunted man while nothing sticks to the low-key Chuck. They believe they’ve come to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), locked away after drowning her three children. Though no one at Ashecliffe can or will explain her disappearance, chief psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) has a theory. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” he says. Kingsley’s slight smirk is cause for a few lost hours of sleep.

The investigation may be a sham. Patients and hospital staff may or may not have been coached. A recovering alcoholic, Teddy, still reeling from the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), may be a reliable or an unreliable protagonist. Rachel Solando may or may not have had help escaping her tiny, barred-in room. The only certainty is there is no certainty. So “Shutter Island,” essentially, is 138 minutes of known unknowns wrapped in a damn stylish package. Little Did He Know noir throwbacks rarely looked this good. The predominantly gray, chilly colors — of the island, the hospital itself — provide a terrific backdrop for such a twisted story about twisted people. Shots of Ward C, home to the most dangerous offenders, show a Gothic castle of untold horrors, where every corner is dark and puddled. Here “Shutter Island” very nearly swerves into horror territory. It comes closer with Scorsese’s envisioning of Teddy’s dreams, so bright they shatter the grimness. Not unlike Dario Argento in “Suspiria,” Scorsese uses the camera like a paintbrush, splashing rich reds and golds and greens against Ashecliffe’s walls and the island’s rocky shores. If despair is dingy, then horror is technicolor.

Sometimes the artistry goes too far at the expense of other elements. There are enough continuity errors as to be distracting (one stopped me cold during a white-knuckle scene). The music occasionally overpowers the characters — about whom, by the way, we learn virtually nothing. They are foreboding (Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring is downright spine-chilling), and yet their emotional impact is nil. Even Teddy, whose story we come to know and whom DiCaprio imbues with repressed grief and palpable heartbreak, only registers faintly. Then again, “Shutter Island” isn’t out to warm our hearts. The film means to play brains and emotions like piano keys, and it does. And in a psychological thriller? Sometimes that’s more than enough.

Grade: B+

Review: “Taxi Driver” (1976)

Although Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) has some “bad ideas” in his head, those thoughts aren’t half as frightening as the man who’s thinking them — not because he’s a monster, but because he isn’t. There’s nothing monstrous about him. With his rumpled shirt and friendly manner, he seems … average, just a regular working man who wants his life to have “a sense of someplace to go.” But rejection, isolation and fear do strange, scary things a man, so it doesn’t take long for Travis to construct another reality, one based on paranoia, a thirst for justice, a desire to be heard. And he means to make to make sorry every last person who didn’t care enough to listen. 

Doubtless this is where Martin Scorcese’s eerie, savage and deeply unsettling “Taxi Driver” hits the hardest: in showing just how close Travis, a well-meaning loner who wants desperately to connect with anyone, is to his breaking point, and just how close we are to ours. Scorcese and DeNiro are unflinching in their portrayal of Bickle’s slow but completely believable descent into a world of delusions and violence. Both director and actor are painstakingly deliberate in their work, with Scorcese’s every shot providing silent insights into Bickle and DeNiro’s every look and expression — his bizarre smiles are extraordinarily effective — suggesting this quiet man is coming apart at the seams. From the moment the opening credits roll, it’s merely a question of what happens when the last thread gets pulled.

The opening credits, with Michael Chapman’s cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score, do much to create the surreal atmosphere and tone of unease in “Taxi Driver.” Glimpsed through the smeary, rain-soaked windshield of a cab, New York City seems like a fresco painting, with all the grayness and the sharp angles blurred together. That togetherness, however, is merely an illusion for Bickle, a Vietnam veteran who takes the night shift as a taxi driver because he can’t sleep nights. “Might as well get paid,” he reasons, and attempts to joke with the personnel officer, who shoots him down. Bickle tries again with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde beauty working on a senator’s (Leonard Harris) presidential campaign. She seems interested until he takes her to a pornographic movie on their second date and the relationship comes to a screeching halt. Betsy brushes off every one of his inept but sweetly sincere apologies, and something deep in Bickle’s psyche snaps. 

Cleaning up his route — which takes him to the grimiest corners of the city, the ones he wishes he could “flush down the fuckin’ toilet” — becomes his new focus, and he hones in on Iris (Jody Foster), an prepubescent prostitute living under the thumb of Sport (Harvey Keitel), her slimy pimp. Bickle wants to liberate Iris from this life of drugs and smut; she doesn’t want to be rescued (“it saves me from myself,” she calmly explains), and her resistance sends him on a single-minded quest that ends in one of the bloodiest showdowns ever set to celluloid. Filmed in hazy slow motion with an almost tender attention to detail, the sequence is shocking in its brutality. Not once does Scorcese move the camera from the action; in doing this, he smashes down the barrier between audience and screen, forcing us into the gore, blood and gristle. It’s a remarkably effective method that also makes “Taxi Driver” seem like the director’s most personal film (indeed, he has said the movie was one he “had to make”).

The same seems true of DeNiro, who throws himself into Travis Bickle to such an alarming degree we fear for the actor’s safety. “Taxi Driver” is DeNiro’s film, and he owns every inch of it with his startlingly powerful performance. He’s convincing in Bickle’s quieter moments, when he visibly feels the sting of Betsy’s rejection and the degradation of the people he drives, and the later on, when his loneliness shapes into dangerous psychosis. But nowhere is he better than in the movie’s closing moments, where satisfaction and happiness seem within reach. With his eyes, DeNiro deals the final blow, and we know Bickle has made a trip he can’t come back from.

Grade: A