A BRONX TALE (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and Several Scenes of Violence

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Directed by: Robert De Niro

Written by: Chazz Palminteri

(based on the play A BRONX TALE by Chazz Palminteri)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, Francis Capra, Lillo Brancato Jr., Kathrine Narducci, Taral Hicks & Joe Pesci

A BRONX TALE is not your typical gangster tale. Instead of the usual rise through mob hierarchy story, Robert De Niro’s directorial debut (based on Chazz Palminteri’s play) focuses more on a coming-of-age plot that happens to include the allure of organized crime. The film/play is also autobiographical of Chazz (starring in the role of local mob boss Sonny), which adds another interesting layer to a solid crime-drama. BRONX TALE is far from perfect mainly due to a somewhat unfocused final act, but it’s worth the time of any self-respecting gangster aficionado.

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In 1960’s New York, Calogero is the young son of Lorenzo, a working man in a bad neighborhood. Calogero admires his father, but also looks up to the strong and silent Sonny. Sonny is a gangster who’s steadily rising to the top of their neighborhood. After a little incident (in which Calogero does a good thing for a bad man), Sonny befriends Calogero (now under the nickname of C) and mentors him much to the dismay of Lorenzo. As C grows into a budding teenager, he becomes torn between following his fathers old-fashioned life or succumbing to the glamor of the mafia.

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A BRONX TALE is driven by confident directing on De Niro’s part and solid writing from Palminteri. The blending of a coming-of-age tale and organized crime doesn’t seem like a much tapped formula. This unique combination is handled very well, but overly familiar/predictable plot elements still remain. These latter scenes almost feel like they’re from an entirely different movie and bring BRONX TALE down from total greatness. A romance between C and a taboo-breaking type of girl (for his neighborhood) is forced and I predicted one plot development surrounding it about 10 minutes before it actually happened. This subplot ultimately pushes important developments forward in the final third, but feels unconvincing nonetheless. The dialogue in the would-be romantic scenes is far too simple and clichéd. There could have been better ways of playing this out.

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Though Lillo Brancato Jr. (as teenage C) and Francis Capra (as prepubescent C) are blank slates, that’s sort of required for the story. This is primarily about a young Italian-American man trying to find his way through the harsh environment of the Bronx. The main appeal to crime-movie buffs will be seeing Palminteri and De Niro facing off in a gangster movie. Chazz Palminteri goes out of his way not to be a stereotypical mob boss and there’s a certain charm in watching him take young C under his wing, despite us fully well knowing what this well-dressed thug is capable of. Robert De Niro takes the interesting approach of being an honest working man who wants nothing to do with the world of violence that dwells a couple of houses down from his family’s apartment. The most interesting part about both characters is watching how they have good and bad qualities as individuals, even Sonny. In this way, the impressionable C is getting two educations as he puts it when struggling with balancing both father figures in his life.

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Though the last third becomes a bit of a hastily rushed climax in terms of execution, it has a powerful stand-out moment involving a quick cameo appearance of a regular De Niro associate. In directing the film, it also seems like De Niro took a lot of his influence from long-time director/friend Martin Scorsese. There’s a fantastic use of songs in the soundtrack that helps engross the viewer into the 60’s setting without feeling cheesy or overly forced. Great scenes litter the film, my favorite being a moment involving a showdown of Sonny’s power against a group of bar-wrecking bikers in his neighborhood.

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I’ve seen A BRONX TALE ranked among the best crime movies of all-time and the best mob movies of the 90’s (a great decade for this genre). While I wouldn’t go that far, it’s an interesting gangster film that’s unlike any other I’ve seen. The main focus is a coming-of-age tale that’s deeply personal to writer Chazz Palminteri in a lot of ways and it shows. Perhaps, his reach extends his actual grasp (mainly in the addition of C’s romance and a climax that rushes through some extraordinary plot points), but the film remains good as a whole. BRONX TALE is well worth watching if only to see Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro have an unconventional face-off in a gangster movie that’s primarily about family values vs. the allure of crime.

Grade: B

8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Tom Schulman

Written by: Tom Schulman

Starring: Joe Pesci, Andy Corneau, Kristy Swanson, George Hamilton, Dyan Cannon, David Spade, Todd Louiso, Anthony Mangano

Joe Pesci has already played the role of a gangster four times off the top of my head (two of which were in well-known Scorsese films). One might imagine that this type-casting would make him the ideal actor to portray as an older wiseguy in a dark comedy. Audiences didn’t buy it as 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG flopped at the box office (under 4 million in it’s domestic run) and it was panned by most critics. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check out this light-hearted mafia comedy. Turns out that was a bad move on my part and this entire film is a bland waste of time. It’s not even so stupid that it makes you wonder what the cast and crew were thinking. This is just plain vanilla all around. An unfunny would-be comedy that never takes advantage of any creative scenarios thrown its way and doesn’t fully grasp how solid dark comedy works.

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Tommy Spinelli (Pesci) is a bag man assigned with getting a duffel bag of the eight severed heads of some recently executed gangsters to his boss. After sitting next to Charlie Pritchett, a doofus on his way to vacation with his girlfriend’s family in Mexico, Tommy winds up with the wrong duffel bag in the luggage return and Charlie winds up with Tommy’s bag. Tommy frantically searches for clues to Charlie’s specific whereabouts, while Charlie is horrified to discover the grotesque contents of his luggage. Wacky antics ensue and plenty of bland humor follows.

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For a poster featuring Joe Pesci front and center, he only appears for about 10 minutes in the first half of the movie and then makes his way into far more screen time for the second half. For a majority of the film, the viewer is forced to follow at-the-time newcomer Andy Corneau. Andy hasn’t gone on to become a big name and judging from his debut performance in 8 HEADS, this should be no surprise at all. Corneau is as bland as bland can be in this even more bland comedy. He juggles being over-the-top with cracking bad jokes and even throwing in some forced pratfalls. It’s a mad-dash attempt at being funny that just doesn’t work on any level. Joe Pesci does wind up getting a few solid chuckles, despite the lame nature of the script he’s trapped in.

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The other cast members don’t fare much better. Everybody else, with one exception, aren’t recognizable and didn’t wind up doing anything remarkably funny or memorable. However, one name stands out that has since gone on to be successful and that’s David Spade. Again, he comes off as more annoying than funny in this film, but it was interesting seeing him act alongside Joe Pesci (kind of sad too). These characters are all as stupid as the screenplay needs them to be in some scenes and then unusually clever when the plot calls for moving forward (e.g. a character hot-wiring a car out of nowhere or a guy with an intricate plan who has only been a moron up to this point). Mexican stereotypes abound too and border on offensive in some cases.

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To add insult to the injury of this film not being funny to begin with, the screenplay never takes things as far as they should have gone. Plenty of opportunities were given for creative jokes, but the movie always takes the easy (predictable) route. Joe Pesci snuck in a few workable jokes, but seems like he’s tired and merely doing this movie for a paycheck. The music score is obnoxious as well. Mainly constructed of trumpets and cartoony music, it plays louder and louder as if to nudge the viewer into knowing they should to be cracking up at all the supposed hilarity happening on the screen. It’s a shame that not much of it is actually worth even a chuckle or even an amused grunt.

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The only redeemable things about the film are Joe Pesci, who winds up being underused for half the film, and a few moments that did make me chuckle. At that point, my standards might have been lowered enough to accept any halfway decent punchline. Nothing in 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG warrants a viewing. It’s a missed opportunity that chugs along with a very bland screenplay and equally as bland actors, Pesci excluded. The film is currently out-of-print and it needs to stay that way.

Grade: D+

GOODFELLAS (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi

(based on the book WISEGUY by Nicholas Pileggi)

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Frank Vincent, Samuel L. Jackson

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill (Liotta) reminisces in the opening of GOODFELLAS. The criminals Hill refers to are REAL gangsters as in organized crime, as in the mafia, as in pay them for protection or you get shot without a moment of regret from anybody in their inner circle. GOODFELLAS is a 2+ hour look at life inside the mafia as told by Henry Hill (who was a real person and most of this stuff really happened). It also happens to be the best piece of cinema that Scorsese has delivered in his entire career. The man makes phenomenal films, but unless something unexpected comes along, GOODFELLAS will remain his crowning achievement.

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The broad timeline of the film is 1955 to 1980. About 95% of the story is also narrated from Henry Hill. Starting off as a young worker for the higher-ups, Henry works his way into the mob from childhood and matures into adulthood surrounded by this corrupt lifestyle. He steals. He cheats. He commits some violent acts and finds love in a young woman named Karen. She acts as a secondary narrator for certain points (hence the other 5% narration of the film). This seems like it could have made for a mistake, but Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing from this decision. We see that Karen is a complex individual too and she damn well knows what her boyfriend/fiancé/husband does for a living. It’s just happens to be a turn on for her. Other memorable characters include Paul Cicero (Sorvino), the mob boss who acts as a sort of would-be father towards Henry, and the duo of Jimmy The Gent (De Niro) and Tommy (Pesci), Henry’s two best friends and partners in crime.

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Both De Niro and Pesci characters outshine Ray Liotta’s protagonist, which could be seen as a tad ironic. Their characters seem far more interesting for a variety of reasons. We never see Henry Hill kill anybody (though I have no doubt that he probably did off at least one person in real life and it wasn’t shown in this film), but De Niro and Pesci seem to flip at the drop of a hat. In fact, Pesci borders from being funny to frightening in a matter of seconds (one memorable scene is his reaction to being called “a funny guy”). Even though they’re violent criminals, Scorsese does an incredible job of bringing these people to life in an enjoyable way. They feel like old friends and Liotta’s narration makes them seem like great stand-up guys. This is especially impressive after a scene of Pesci shooting a guy for no good reason and De Niro going crazy. This is where the true genius of GOODFELLAS comes in…

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The story doesn’t glamorize life in organized crime, but the character of Henry Hill sure seems to. In fact, the viewer is seduced into his way of thinking right along with him. Even a few prison scenes seem like Henry is spending an extended vacation in a 5-star-hotel room. This all makes for a brutal wake-up call as his real downward spiral begins. People who were once his friends are now not be trusted at all, while past actions have severe consequences. The subject matter of the film is about the mafia and the camera doesn’t shy away from showing graphic violence, some of which is seen as it happens and others are after the fact (e.g. a haunting montage of many different corpses who bit the big one in horrific ways). The film never gets unpleasant to watch though, because Liotta’s narration accompanies most of it. This technique keeps the viewer at ease even if he is watching the Billy Batts scene (you’ll know it when you see it and for the record, it’s one of my favorite movie scenes ever).

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GOODFELLAS also has an amazing use of soundtrack. I can’t recall more than one piece of original music for the film, because songs set in the time period that each scene takes place in are used. This encompasses the entire film with a sort of realistic authenticity of being there. The compilation of songs is one of the all-time best soundtracks of its kind. The film never has time to drag, because there’s so much ground to cover. Some parts are more necessary than others, but every scene is enjoyable and important in its own way. As far as the running time itself is considered, I wish this film could have gone on for a GODFATHER length. I would still have been enthralled, because it’s so well-done and interesting.

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With GOODFELLAS, Scorsese works magic on many different layers. He lets Henry Hill seduce the viewer in loving this dangerous illegal lifestyle right along with him, but is sure to remind them that things don’t usually work out too well for these gangsters (as we see on many occasions throughout). He makes a mob boss and two hardened killers feel like a fatherly figure and two old friends, which makes them seem that much more dangerous when their “business” sides come out. The use of songs is absolutely phenomenal and there isn’t a single wasted minute. Scorsese has since gone on to tackle the mob in two of his later works (CASINO and THE DEPARTED). As amazing as those films are, I feel that GOODFELLAS is one that he left his mark with. This is the film I’ll remember Scorsese for!

Grade: A+

CASINO (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Pervasive Strong Language, Drug Use and Some Sexuality

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, Frank Vincent, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, James Woods

The problem with putting directors up on pedestals is that we automatically expect something great from them. Sometimes they will go above and beyond to deliver a film that ranks among their best work ever. If I had to pick three films by Martin Scorsese that I would call his best work ever, they would be GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, and HUGO. All three are different, but they all showcase the love this man has for filmmaking and just how brilliant he can be at it. Then something like CASINO comes along.

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This film came a mere five years after GOODFELLAS (which many hail as the number one gangster movie of all-time). CASINO came at a bad time. It was still on the heels of GOODFELLAS and some would probably consider it to be a bit of a sequel to that film. This would be a fair assumption, because a few of the actors from that film appear here and it rife with everything from the voice overs to the style. Even some of the soundtrack choices and the basic set-up of the movie are the same. It should also be mentioned that the same two writers who penned GOODFELLAS, also wrote CASINO and it shows. Does this make CASINO a bad movie? Absolutely not. It just makes it a poorly timed movie. It may be considered GOODFELLAS-Lite, but it’s still a phenomenal piece of work any way you slice it.

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Mostly based on a true story, CASINO takes place from the 70’s to the early 80’s, detailing events that took place in a mob controlled casino. Sam is a successful sports handicapper and has been somewhat awarded for his efforts by a head position at a luxurious casino. In the confines of this building, a huge scamming operation is taking place. The mob is paying off the cops to look the other way, while they skim a bit off the top of the casino’s earnings. It’s a bit of a foolproof plan, but in the world of crime, one should always know better. Things begin to get shaky when a mob enforcer (and childhood friend of Sam) named Nicky is sent to protect Sam’s casino. Nicky’s violent temper begins to earn some unwanted attention. From there on, Sam finds love, Nicky’s temper brings down a world of hurt upon both of their reputations, and the intricately executed plan begins to fall to pieces in front of their very eyes.

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If you were to watch CASINO in a double feature with GOODFELLAS, I’m willing to bet that the similarities would be uncanny. There are a few big differences in terms of the scale though. While GOODFELLAS was set over a period of decades, CASINO is placed within a space of about a single decade. Somehow, the film is packed with three full hours worth of material and GOODFELLAS was about 40 minutes less. Instead of two voice overs (much like in that other film), we are treated to not one, not two, but four different narrations that coincide with each other. Surprisingly, this technique pays off. We get both Sam and Nicky’s perspectives on the same situations, which makes for some slight laughs and steadily mounting tension as their friendship falls apart too.

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Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci have shown in the past that they could play off each other as gangsters and their roles here are pretty similar to their roles in GOODFELLAS (not to keep comparing the two). De Niro is a calm, collected guy, but can also turn violent in the right situation, while Pesci is a psycho with a bad temper. The real standout here is Sharon Stone though. She was so aggravating as a hooker turned love interest turned back into pretty much a hooker that I was actually grinding my teeth at one point. I wanted to jump into my TV screen and end her. That’s how well she played the part of her character. James Woods also shows up as a slimy ex-pimp of Stone’s character and is appropriately scummy.

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As far as the violence itself goes, the MPAA originally gave CASINO the dreaded NC-17 rating and some cuts were made to the gore. After watching this, I can safely say it’s very graphic and pretty disturbing throughout. I wasn’t expecting it to be as dark and gory as it wound up being, but this was a brutal movie (e.g. the final scenes with Pesci). The mark of a truly great film is that the viewer wants it to continue on, even after it’s done. This has happened to me on some occasions (namely THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) and it also happened with CASINO. I wanted the film to keep going, even as it neared the three-hour mark.

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One might say that Scorsese was ripping off himself with this film, but to hammer the point that the movies are similar and different entities is that both films are based on real events regarding the mafia in two different locations. It’s crazy how the fall from grace can be so alike, even though the time period and mobsters themselves are different. Scorsese may have also single-handedly turned me off of visiting Las Vegas ever again (for fear of running into the mafia, which realistically could still have a hold in certain operations there). CASINO isn’t up there on the same level as GOODFELLAS, but it comes very close.

Grade: A

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