Thursday, August 12, 2010

Johnny Two Times, because he said everything ad nauseum

That dumb-looking movie released this week, MIDDLE MEN (2010, above) is clearly--just from the preview which is all I ever want to see--modeled on the now-classic GOODFELLAS (1990), i.e. Rags to riches to rags with a male voiceover spoken in disaffected regular guy English ala "We were just a buncha regular guys, hustlin' to make a buck like everybody else." and "I mean we had 24/7 cocktail jet plane lunches, villas, private pools -- it was all there for the taking, and we f**ked it up." All this while period bling flies by in short overlapping crosscuts with slow-mo walking scored to rock or soul classics through nightclubs where everybody knows your name: "All Along the Watchtower" or "Superfly" depending on the race of the protagonist-- overlapped and smash-cut in one movie-length montage that indicates the editor considers this a crazy ass trip - but your mileage is bound to vary.

Off the top of my head, the Fella imitations include: BLOW (2001), LORD OF WAR (2004), to a lesser extent AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), even 2005's DOMINO, though the last basically gets it right, probably thanks to its real-life subject acting as advisor. I'm sure there are others I haven't seen, like CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, which I also saw the preview for, and remember its use of the now horribly cliche'd "Watchtower" playing over a slow mo walk around a red-lit club as Tom Hanks narrates in the "It was a time when anything could happen... and often did" vein, at least in the preview.

The main ingredient missing, which most director copycats don't understand, is drug culture accuracy. You either know the culture and the effects--and I mean beyond casual using--or you get the details second hand from other films, and any hep person can see the difference a mile off. You don't even have to do the drugs depicted to feel high watching, real detail always shines through: TRAINSPOTTING (1996)  with heroin and GOODFELLAS with coke --you feel that shit, whether you've ever done either -- but most of these imitations forget about the veracity of the culture depicted or the druggy elements inherent in that sort of momentum-based editing and instead just copy the format- becoming like those college campus-sponsored parties where you can't smoke and they don't serve alcohol, and everyone pretends like it doesn't matter and that the party's not lame and they're not losers just acting a role of party goer for each others' illusory benefit. They prefer to ignore the minutiae of the drug world they long to depict, beyond what they read in Rolling Stone.  But boy they long to depict it.

To narrow it down, lets focus on two GOODFELLA-wannabes that I have seen (not always by choice, but by being a second string film critic): LORD OF WAR is "fiction based on true events" which means it's not even based on a true story, the way, say, GOODFELLAS was based on real life mobster Henry Hill's actual memoir (and he acted as 'trip' advisor). BLOW--based on a dealer's memoir written in minimum security prison--lacks any connection with the cocaine and marijuana dealing world it longs to depict. Its director clearly loves GOODFELLAS and proves the point that if you're an L.A. phony who never stepped outside the movie set bubble, your details are going to ring false no matter how many coke parties you've been to. And both BLOW and LORD OF WAR ring as false as loudly GOODFELLAS rings perennially true.

What makes Marty Scorsese's lower rung Italian mob films work so well because, for one reason, he grew up watching wiseguys across the street from his house while he convalesced with a string of respiratory illnesses as a child. When he strays from working class Italian New York, however, he strikes out as often as he connects, i.e. his last four films with his new life partner, Leo DiCaprio (THE DEPARTED excepted, of course, your highness). If he partners with Nicholas Pileggi or Jake La Motta or some tru-baller like that, Marty can make a film so authentic you go into a kind of swooning trance, but with a thug-lite like Leo it's just the Hollywood bubble filming itself through a reflection. The film Marty needs to make would be about Leo: a drama about a once-great actor squandering his romantic lead gifts in order to ape De Niro in roles that he's just too purty fer.

LORD OF WAR on the other hand rests on the conceit that it's a dark political satire. It's important! 60 Minutes-style important. But I left the theater feeling ripped off. Even the little details--Cage laying out a line of coke on the leather car seat each time he drops brother Leto off at rehab; the Darfur-type arms dealer halving a payment of blood diamonds with a machete after conscience-stricken Leto blows up half the arms delivery; the hot models at the Chelsea Piers 'arms convention', winding up in bed with them--ring false and poorly thought out, like writer-director Andrew Nicol is 'trying' to come up with funny little details to mesh into his skeleton framework, like he's quietly sneaking peaks at Robert Mckee's Story while trying to be 'true' to half-remembered facts from some article in Time magazine story he read at the doctor's office. They could have filmed Brecht's Mother Courage and been much better off, or even used it as a reference! Compared to LORD, Mother Courage is a bedrock of gritty authenticity. I know, that's like saying Godard's re-enactment of Vietnam in PIERROT LE FOU is more gritty and authentic than PLATOON.

To lay out the LORD premise: Nic Cage is a Brooklyn Russian-American diner worker who decides he wants to get into arms-dealing. Knowing nothing about it, he goes to an armory convention with his better-looking younger brother (Jordan Catelano, above). The first thing they spy are two hot convention models posing by a big tank, wearing camouflage short shorts. Cage goes up and tries to worm his way into a conversation with someone he recognizes as a top flight arms dealer. Next scene - Cage and brother wake up sleeping next to the hot models in their hotel room. Ta-Daa! Not only does it seem Nicol knows nothing about arms dealing, he doesn't even know anything about conventions, or at any rate, being at a convention when you're just a working class Ukrainian-American shlub trying to break into the big time weapons dealing with no capital instead of just being the guy who made GATTACA (1997). Instead wasting all his money on what are assuredly very expensive ladies. It's important to Nicol that our two Latvian brothers wake up next to these broads to prove they are two wild and crazy guys... but we know the truth - the writer is incapable of penning believable seduction scene or even a prostitute monetary negotiation, let alone fathoming how some connection-less schlub might con his way into arms dealing.

What does it matter? Cage is now "officially" an arms dealer. Later he magically has a Ukraine military General uncle anxious to unload a bunch of discontinued Russian tanks and armaments. How fortunate! If this had been the first step to Cage's rise to power it would make sense. But even this opportunity is blown. Nowhere is there that kind of authentic "shop talk" you would find in, say, THE GODFATHER or THE FRENCH CONNECTION or THERE WILL BE BLOOD or any movie by Robert Altman, Howard Hawks, or Sam Peckinpah, where you soak up the strange lexicon of a particular lifestyle. Going in to see LORD you know just as much about the international arms trade as you do coming out. Hell, IRON MAN tells you more about the international arms trade.

In the end, the GOODFELLAS difference is that Marty knows the minutiae personally - he has a keen eye for authentic Italian detail: the thin slicing of garlic for the sauce while in jail; the way a coked-up Henry gets obsessive about stirring the sauce and breading the veal: "I'm gonna cook all this... I'm gonna cook all this meat!"; the slow peripheral way his own wife becomes a coke head; the snotty babysitter drug mule cutting vegetables; or how each of the mob cronies is a unique character unto himself, like "Johnny Two Times, because he said everything two times."

In Hollywood's GOODFELLA-ripoff cycle, it's now Johnny 20x, who says less each time, but with more money and a voiceover that doesn't even try to hide the fact that it's borrowing even the inflection of words from Ray Liotta. Any good writer would be smart enough to embed him or herself into the sleazy milieu they wish to write about, or interview--in depth--someone who lived through this kind of stuff. (Howard Hawks famously had real mobsters from Al Capone's gang on hand during the shooting of SCARFACE.) But any smug trust fund idiot who saw GOODFELLAS (200x!) thinks he can "do a movie like that" even if he doesn't have a mom like Tommy's, who makes paintings (at right), where "one dog's looking one way, one dog's looking the other way, and this guy's goin; "Whadda ya want from me?"

Another way you can always tell when the filmmakers aren't Marty Scorsese is because all the mobster's clothes look like they're fresh out of the costume department: pure black, ironed and empty of lived-in detail. Nobody smokes or drinks, unless it's 'crucial' for character development, and then it's just one scene, one cigarette, held onto like a kid holds onto the candy version, or one sip of a drink which is then left behind, half-full. A Scorsese character meanwhile smokes until his fucking fingers are yellowed, his curtains dingy, his ashtrays scratched by careless maids.

You can tell even in bar scenes: a guy in a bar in a Scorsese film orders a drink the way a real man orders a drink, "A Cutty and watta" = a Cutty Sark (a scotch) cut with water; "gimme a seven and seven" - that's a Seagram's Seven (blended whiskey) and 7-UP, on the rocks. A guy in a movie like LORD OF WAR says: "Gimme a drink," and the bartender magically knows what that means. In real life, even "Gimme a beer" is total bullshit. Dude, you can't just order 'a beer' at a bar. Be specific! Has anyone ever gotten away with being so vague? Do you want a pint or a half pint, a bottle or a draft? A Bud or a Heineken? We also have 150 microbrews on tap... and if you can't answer her because all you do is watch movies in a plastic bubble, well now you're looking like a grade-A idiot, the kind all the liquor ads pitch to, the young man of means stepping into the post-21 bar tourist class. And how come after drinking a whole drink of presumably straight liquor your face is not flushed, your voice not slurred? Where is the music on the jukebox that makes you have to shout to be heard by the person next to you? Scorsese wouldn't let details like that slide. Scorsese must have actually been to a bar at least once in his life. Imagine that.

As for BLOW (left, 2001), I don't remember hating it quite as much, but I still felt like I was watching someone try to tell the same story as GOODFELLAS without any of the skill, expertise, experience, or patience. I realized early on it would be too weird for my date to suggest we sneak out and duck into something else, so I just made the best of it and marveled that anyone as dumb as the protagonist played by Johnny Depp could even survive one drug run, let alone dozens, before getting busted. The only real part for me was when he's fighting with his bratty-hot Latina wife (Penelope Cruz) while being pulled over for speeding, and in a blind rage she tells the cops he's holding. I had a chill because I could have easily imagined my then-wife, a high-strung but very statuesque Argentine filmmaker, doing just that! Luckily by then I was safely embedded in AA and long since out of 'the biz.' Dude, they should hire me as a drunk/druggie technical advisor. I'd demand everyone finish their drinks and have to talk loud over the jukebox. And no one would get away with ordering "a drink." La putre madre forro! 

You can look all over these other films and you'll never find another moment that even approaches the giddy highs of GOODFELLAS. Even CASINO--Scorsese's own ripoff of GOODFELLAS--never really brought it home (though it's still compulsively re-watchable and hypnotic). So there it is, the way Hollywood steals the thunder but ignores the rain, then wonders why their version of the storm rings so false and no one goes home soaked. We asked for spaghetti and we got cold noodles and ketchup.

 Now you can't even smoke in bars. Or dance (in NYC). Next up, volume limits. Cops with decibel measurers, next a guy going around making sure the ice isn't too cold that it might hurt your widdow toof.

Perhaps part of this horrible sanitizing is the curse of the information age - computer screens take the place of night clubs and all conversations aren't at bars but on IMs. In short, as filmmakers struggle to make stories about the internet into films, we can relax and know that, at least in this decade, being stuck at home in witness protection may not be so bad. We didn't have the internet when GOODFELLAS came out --a lot has changed. Marty now has Leo and screenwriter William Monahan to steer him away from his Italian neighborhood and into the uncharted terrain of Boston accents and shadowy conspiracy, so he's out of "real" details himself. And Johnny Two Times will never get "the papez, the papez" because he hangs frozen on a hook in a meat truck for all our sins. Johnny Two Times! Thank god you never lived to see the papez replaced by the kindles... the kindles.

This post is dedicated to my dear buddy, David Maxwell, who introduced me to Goodfellas and thus changed my life forever - he tried to introduce me to Kindle, but I gots to hold out a little longer.


  1. None of these GOODFELLAS wannabes will ever reach the dizzying heights of the Henry Hill-coked-out-to-the-gills sequence that Scorsese nails so well through increasing frenetic editing both visually and sonically. It's like a tug of war between the images and the music over which one will prevail, each vying for your attention until everything comes unglued as Henry gets busted.

    I remember many years ago SPIN magazine interviewing various rock stars about their fave scenes in films and in a telling bit the Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder said the Henry Hill-coke scene was his fave because Scorsese captured authentically what it was like to be a paranoid coke fiend. And Ryder oughta know! Every time I watch that sequence from GOODFELLAS I think of Ryder's comments and smile.

  2. Can you hear me clapping all the way from NH? Or across the mists of time (one month and 3 days!). Sorry I just discovered this, but man is it fantastic.

    That said, I kinda like Blow, particularly the Manfred Mann's Earth Band Polaroid montage. Of course, that moment - like most of the film - is more about the glamour of drug-dealing than the scuzz so it can never really hope to reach the heights of Goodfellas or Scarface (talk about living the life, Stone went to interview Noriega - and was so coked out he thought he was gonna get hit!) in which even the glamor is scuzzy and all the more authentically glamorous for it...

    Anyway, not sure about the "non-experience" part as director Ted Demme of Blow died of cardiac arrest pretty young - just sayin'.

    And fuck Kindles. And Nooks and iPads...


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